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Ask HN: How do geniuses think? How do you think?
24 points by oldmanstan 2529 days ago | hide | past | web | 39 comments | favorite
I've recently been engrossed by the question of how geniuses and highly intelligent people think. There's bits and pieces of information online. What I'd really like to see, though, is (a) geniuses describe their thought process and (b) a smart person voicing is interior monologue while attacking a problem.

1) Do you know of any information like this? Link?

2) Otherwise: do you think in a way that's different (better) than the average person?

Obsession is more valuable than genius. If you accept IQ testing at all they call people over 130 on the WAIS very superior because genius implies a social or intellectual impact many very superior individuals never achieve. Very superior scores correlate highly with success in a career. But other variables matter much more. I have met few accomplished people who work less than 60 hours a week.

Example: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2009/08/02/...

"Lewis Terman, the inventor of the Stanford-Binet IQ test, came to a similar conclusion. He spent decades following a large sample of “gifted” students, searching for evidence that his measurement of intelligence was linked to real world success. While the most accomplished men did have slightly higher scores, Terman also found that other traits, such as “perseverance,” were much more pertinent. Terman concluded that one of the most fundamental tasks of modern psychology was to figure out why intelligence is not a more important part of achievement: “Why this is so, and what circumstances affect the fruition of human talent, are questions of such transcendent importance that they should be investigated by every method that promises the slightest reduction of our present ignorance."

Kurt Vonnegut Quote:

"Novelists . . . have, on the average, about the same IQ as the cosmetic consultants at Bloomingdale's department store. Our power is patience. We have discovered that writing allows even a stupid person to seem halfway intelligent, if only that person will write the same thought over and over again, improving it just a little bit each time. It is a lot like inflating a blimp with a bicycle pump. Anybody can do it. All it takes is time."

Love the Vonnegut quote, thanks for introducing me to it.

1) There are some awesome Feynman interviews on the web.

2) My brain will refuse to learn anything unless I can understand it from first principles. I spend a long time trying to get an intuitive understanding of a problem before starting to try to solve it. When solving a problem, I talk out loud as if I'm trying to persuade another person of my argument, including responding to imagined objections or questions. Often I find myself thinking "wait, what exactly am I saying here? what do I mean by this?" I meta-think, estimating the probability of me misunderstanding something without being aware based on context (e.g. if I think something is easy when really smart people think it's hard, then I probably missed something).

Math is helpful for picking up good thinking habits.

There's different kinds of genius I think. You have "skill" genius where someone can play the piano, chess etc extremely well. You also have "creative" genius which is people like Einstein who makes creative new leaps. The first kind of genius seems to be genetical while the second can be learnt.

I can't claim to be any kind of genius myself but creative "breakthroughs" in my experience has mostly followed the same pattern: Immersion -> Gestation -> Creative Leap.

You start by immersing yourself into a problem, reading everything there's to read about the subject, getting all aspects of the problem down on paper, pondering it wherever you go etc. As you start this you will also start a subconcious gestation process where you're brain will start arranging itself to the problem space. This is why I think you see "obvious" solutions to problems after a certain period of time.

The "creative leap" or "aha!" moment can take different forms. I find they often pop into my head while doing something else like taking a walk or a bath and letting my mind drift. Exercise is also great to stimulate the brain. It can also come in the form on coming in contact with something in a different area and seeing how it relates to your problem.

I've found the more I know about a wide array of topics the easier it is to find creative solutions to stuff. Learning stuff like languages and playing instruments also creates new cross-connections in the brain. What you eat will also to some degree have an impact on your thought process so eat some nuts and fish :)

Some other good habit is to constantly re-examine and question "basic facts" and "certainties". Keep a text dump of your thoughts so you easier can arrange and go back to them. Play "pretend it's magic", "if it/you could anything, what would it do?". Assume there's a solution and speculate around it's properties instead of questioning whether one exists.

So immerse yourself, eat well, learn about lots of stuff, take long walks, exercise and don't be afraid to daydream :)

You have "skill" genius where someone can play the piano, chess etc extremely well. You also have "creative" genius which is people like Einstein who makes creative new leaps. The first kind of genius seems to be genetical while the second can be learnt.

I would think the opposite. People can get good at chess by playing a lot, but Einstein's ability seems innate.

Have you actually read anything on genius, or are you just stating what "feels" right to you? Because there are many studies on this exact thing -- the "skill" genius you're describing -- that show you are exactly wrong.

It really helps to actually study something before writing a sure-sounding opinion to the internet at large.

This is mainly my personal view and experience although I've done some research on the subject. Regarding "skill" genius: of course you can get extremely good at anything by practice, but getting into that very last percentile seems to demand some kind of innate talent.

Chess is a good example. The Polgar sisters was groomed from from childhood by their father to become grandmasters. Studies shows that chessplayers rewire their brains to use the part normally used to recognize faces to remember positions... so you can train your chess memory.

But even though the Polgar sisters are Grandmasters they're nowhere near the raw talent of Kasparov and lately Magnus Carlsen who've defeated Karpov and become Grand Master at the age of 13 and I think now is ranked #2 in the world.

I would argue that you stand a much better chance of training your brain for creative genius (in for instance science or IT) than beating Magnus :) The same probably applies for piano etc

Bonus url: Magnus Carlsen speaks of his talent... he doesn't seem to agree with me :) http://www.chessbase.com/newsdetail.asp?newsid=6187

Everybody thinks they're highly skilled and above average. A study on hubris in academia recently showed that 95% of all university professors think they are leading their field. (They are not.) Some of my coworkers constantly babble on how super-intelligent and gifted their children are. (I've seen their offspring, they are retarded and borderline autistic.)

Listening to self-declared or celebrated "geniuses" on how a decent thought process is supposed to work, that's a really bad idea unless you're a psychologist conducting studies on pseudocompetence and illusory superiority. Many of our contemporary heroes are really just only good at one thing: self marketing.

Along those lines, I'll be the first to admit: I'm below average, in almost every single aspect of physical and mental prowess. But even with my limited capabilities I can understand how individually different people's problem solving strategies are. Just watching them may be inspiring, but it's not gonna help you be any smarter.

While you are correct that almost everyone believes themselves to be "above average", the HN demographic likely is mostly above average individuals.

Also, not everyone claiming high intelligence is just arrogant or deluded. I'd estimate myself at high intelligence for fairly simple reasons - scoring in the 99th percentile on standardized tests, graduating summa cum laude, etc. I suspect a good number of HN posters have the same (or better) educational achievements I have to base our self-assessments on.

The problem is what is the correlation between intelligence and results in standardized tests?

I mean, why do you think having good results means that you are intelligent?

The smartest people I know have the following in common:

- They are the most knowledgeable person in the room in their topic of interest. That takes obsession.

- They surround themselves by other smart people constantly

- In large groups of smart people they are perfectly happy to ask questions even if they are wrong. E.g in a maths seminar will debate, and often get beaten by the subject expert.

I often wonder if the latter - asking "stupid" questions to experts in a field - is something that was there before they were at the top. Anyone else noticed this?

1) Read Genius, by James Gleick. It's a biography of Feynman which mostly concentrates on his life story (with just enough of his work thrown in to keep my inner physics geek happy) which happens to contain a couple of intriguing hints as to how he thought. Reading between the lines, I suspect he was (or had become) synaesthetic - he describes formulae as having colour, and combining them as entities rather than as series of symbols. He also mentions not understanding how his students comprehended equations if they could not see them this way, so he clearly understood that there was something different going on in his own head.

If that's true, it's a hint as to how he was such a formidable force, because somehow his sensory and proprioceptive apparatus had arranged to map directly to mathematical concepts such that intuitive manipulations which the brain is very, very good at doing anyway (because they are what's needed to drive the body and survive day-to-day) generated useful, valid, mathematical results. Or possibly, given descriptions of how he worked from other people, they generated many more options, whether valid or not, in a shorter time than anyone else, which meant he had a larger sample of possible ideas to pull the best one from.

Whether that translates to other geniuses or not, I don't know, but when people refer to "genius," they are referring to a qualitative difference in thought patterns. Where conventional thought might be verbal, symbolic manipulation, they are somehow using a higher level of abstraction. Finding a mapping between subject-specific concepts (like formulae, or chess positions) and something else your brain does "in the background" would seem to fit that.

2) No. I am not a genius. But I can do some things faster than other people.

This essay by CW Hamming may be of interest. http://www.dartmouth.edu/~matc/MathDrama/reading/Hamming.htm... Also, the work of James Austin, professor at Harvard Medical School on successful research. Marvin Minsky, legendary MIT professor, is also interested in the same subject but I don't have a reference. The "Random Walks of George Polya" is also related to the subject. Stanford math professor who specialized in techniques to solve advanced math problems.

This subject would perhaps make a great forum or separate website.

I would highly recommend you read the Strategies of Genius series by Robert Dilts-


Also I would add a few incites (that was deliberate) of my own that get me labeled as that by some people, for example I-

1. do not buy into 'social reality' I look for a model of reality that works well enough to be useful even if the facts are contrary to what I am told by 'authorities'. This elicits responses from "You're crazy" to "Wow, you're a genius" to "But XYZ pundit/politician/personality doesn't agree'. The disadvantage to this is that most people do appear to be unquestioning sheep and you disturb them from their slumber at your peril.

2. think more in terms of processes than things, you'd be surprised how wedded most people are to particular concepts of objects (real world, not the programming paradigm)

3. am very self directed and when I want or need to understand a subject I immerse myself in it completely.

4. don't let my ego get in the way of a solution to a problem, and never let myself slip into the 'not invented here' mentality, I stand on the shoulders of generations of giants, and am thankful for it.

5. do not consider myself a genius, I'm just rather different from the norm.


Also 'genius' does not mean never wrong, a few examples-

1. Isaac Newton may have formulated the theory of gravity, but he also believed in alchemy.

2. Albert Einstein formulated the theories of Special and General Relativity but would not accept quantum mechanics, famously saying "God does not play dice with the universe".

People, genius or not, generally don't have any idea whatsoever how they think. This is one of the fundamental difficulties that has plagued the field of psychology since its inception. Just because you can do a thing doesn't mean that you really know anything at all about how it is that you do it. I beat my heart. I grow my hair. I stand upright on two feet without falling over. But, I don't have any first-hand experiential knowledge of how I do any of these things. I might have a little bit of insight into how I approach some limited forms of volitional thought, but I'm well aware that the overwhelming majority of thought isn't volitional. It just happens and I don't have any idea how it happens (and neither does anyone else for the most part).

What I want to know is: how many people on HN would publicly describe themselves as a "genius"?

More like how many legitimate geniuses would actually describe themselves as a "genius"? I would say close to none.

Is one close to none? cperciva is a legitimate genius and describes himself as a genius: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=228444

Why would you expect otherwise for other geniuses?

Because geniuses tend to be particularly averse to labelling themselves as something that has connotations of extreme superiority.

It's the reverse Dunning-Kruger effect - idiots are less aware of their limitations and thus are more likely to be baselessly confident. Legitimate geniuses are the most aware of their limitations of anyone, and thus are less likely to trumpet the 'genius' title.

Never seriously…

It would be to close to hubris? An early indication of loosing touch with reality? Perhaps indicating the onset of psychosis?

Maybe ironically, especially after a less-then-perfect performance ;)

Better to let others do the praising?

Q: How many people where (by others, not family/friends) publicly described as a "genius"?

I was being pretty rhetorical ;)

I was being aspergery about it.


First, I think one needs to define genius.

Do you equate people who have achieved great success/heights as geniuses? Do you think Tiger Woods is a genius golfer or that Warren Buffet is a genius investor?

Or do you equate the kind of people who for example, listen to a piece of music they have never heard before, once, and can play it flawlessly the next moment. I think these kind of people are more savant than genius.

If former is the case, then according to this article, genius is nothing but deliberate practice for periods of around 10 years. (http://money.cnn.com/magazines/fortune/fortune_archive/2006/...)

(Warning: I have hardly slept. A family member is dying. I will likely regret this post. It seemed like a good idea at the time -- or at least a better idea than wallowing in self pity.)

Do I think I am a genius? No. But I have been repeatedly told that I "stand out" from the crowd even when the crowd is pretty bright (which usually feels to me like I stick out like a sore thumb :-/ ). Do I think in a way that is different from the average person? Absolutely -- I think this is clear by the rampant degree to which I am routinely misunderstood and the fact that I and my son are getting well when doctors and most of the world say it cannot be done.

Is this 'miracle cure' due to genius? I don't happen to think so. It is mostly due to a unique set of circumstances and my ability to recognize the opportunity it represented, combined with a fairly high degree of social insight which allowed me to side step group-think and other social traps. I have a relatively mild form of a condition that is quite deadly, and so does my oldest son. I was diagnosed late in life, not long before the age at which most people die from the more traditionally recognized form of the condition. The late diagnosis meant that I had been thinking about my health issues and coping with them for a very long time before being given a label for it. So when that label came, I was reluctant to accept the definitions, assumptions, preconceived notions, psychological baggage and raft of general mental and emotional crapola that such labels typically come with.

I am also a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. The journey of recovery for that issue prepared me for asking the hard, socially unacceptable questions that were needed for me to get well, first psychologically and later physically. (After spending years telling a couple of different therapists, who also happened to be ministers, every dirty thing ever done to me and every nasty thing I ever felt, the negative reactions that swirl around my shocking views of health issues are hardly worth raising an eyebrow over.) At the age of 45, I am at a place where I feel that this earlier psychological journey of healing was a gift to me -- a unique and highly valuable opportunity for thinking through problems which are "unthinkable" and "unspeakable" but which I had no choice but to think on and speak on in order to survive (I attempted suicide at age 17 and would likely have self-destructed in some manner if I had not dealt with these issues).

I was also a homemaker for a long time in an era and culture where that is very strange and I homeschooled my twice exceptional (gifted and learning disabled) sons. I think every single thing I have done has reinforced my ability to walk my own path and resist following the crowd in spite of often enormous pressure from one crowd or another. Not getting sucked into group-think is the most valuable skill I have and probably the most offensive thing I do, socially. Einstein said something like "You cannot solve a problem from the same level of consciousness that created it." It is clear to me that the definitions and view of the health problem I have are part of the problem. In some ways, I find it baffling that my attempts to share a different view are so shocking and offensive to other people -- people who clearly know that the status quo is not working yet cling to the thinking of the status quo like a security blanket. I don't know how to help such people and attempting to do so puts me in a position of being a target of ugliness. I don't believe martyring myself is any way to put more good into the world. I believe it only teaches people that "good" people must martyr themselves and anyone who doesn't is "bad", or something along those lines. The general tendency for people to force individuals into roles of "good" or "bad" is the root of many problems. I would rather walk away entirely than contribute to reinforcement of this paradigm. I often wonder if I should, in a sense, go into "hiding" -- stop posting under any names I am known by online and start some new website that no one would expect and go live the "normal life" I desperately wanted for so long and am now getting well enough to try to pursue.

I don't have an answer to that last conundrum, perhaps more proof positive that I am not a genius. Sometimes, knowing the right questions to ask is more important than having an answer. That approach has taken me pretty far, so I see no reason to abandon it at this late stage in the game.

"Be careful what you wish for". Had you asked this question on some other day, I likely would not have replied. :-P But there is a tiny piece of my own inner monologue, FWIW.

While all of your thoughts are insightful -- thank you for that -- this one particularly stuck out to me:

"Not getting sucked into group-think is the most valuable skill I have and probably the most offensive thing I do, socially."

I think a lot of the people on this site can relate to that. Thank you.

Perhaps that's why HN has yet to issue me a one way ticket to Cyberia. <wink>

(Cyberia: A cold, frozen wasteland of Cyberspace.)

Comments from a stranger probably can't offer much comfort when coping with a dying family member, but I just wanted to reply to thank you for sharing your experience.


I don't yhink I'm a genius but I actually recently realized that I have a different thought process than most people. Interestingly enough I recently wrote my first blog post about it. You can check it out here: http://Kulpreet.com

You might be interested in _What Kind of Genius Are You?_ http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/14.07/genius.html

I found it pretty interesting, and superficially it seems correct. (It was on HN a while ago)

My Kung Fu Grandmaster said: although some people can be gifted, we apply our diligence to overcome the differences.

10 000 hours of work(!) is a necessary(not sufficient though) condition, rather than "thinking".

How do average people think compared to dumb people? Extrapolate to geniuses.


You should take a look at Charlie munger.

video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L6Cy7UwsRPQ

a more detailed overview of what you are looking for:

http://www.focusinvestor.com/FocusSeriesPart3.pdf (from charlie munger wiki)

This article is superb in response to the question and also to helping non-business people understand how their disciplines apply to business/business decisionmaking

1)I don't know if this is true but I have found that people who are very intelligent talk fast (not faster than people who are nervous).

2) I cannot comment on better, but ya I do think different (I take special pride in it). One of the few things I cannot understand about myself is my obsession with "the problem space". People have this tendency to solve the problem immediately after they have encountered it (at least the people I study with, can't say for HN guys). But I cannot start working on the problem till I have fully understood all the parts of the problems (from the first principles) itself. This has helped me a lot, because I can formulate solutions which solve specific parts of the problem and as these are usually byte sized I reuse them a lot.

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