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10 things we learned by Decoding Genius

December 28, 2016
Genius! A frequently used word, it’s a rare and precious anomaly in the scope of human ability. Throughout our known history individual geniuses have uncovered solutions, and illuminated possibilities for humanity that might otherwise have remained unrealised.
Today, technology offers the ability to multiply the genius effect by connecting far-flung genius minds, enabling them to collaborate. In coming decades genetic engineering will allow us to select for genius, and create superhumans. In the meantime, we barely understand or intentionally nurture the brilliance in our midst.

In the spirit of its genius founder, Thomas Edison, GE this year sought to explore what contributes to brilliant thinking, with the podcast series Decoding Genius. Here are 10 takeaways from the series that will inspire you to tune in for more!

Decoding Genius host Lily Serna with Kelsey Miller-Anderson, co-founder of MycoRemedy, a company that’s bringing a new approach to remediating toxic land sites.

1) Genius unleashed (or genetically engineered) could profoundly change the world

In Episode 2 of Decoding Genius, Professor Stephen Hsu, of Michigan State University posits that people with extraordinary mental abilities might influence global outcomes:

“If global warming is a giant IQ and collaboration test for the human race, we have to figure out that we’re damaging our planet, and we have to organise ourselves to stop damaging the planet. It’s very plausible to me that we’re going to fail that test. However, a group of humans with say, 30 points more IQ on average, would possibly figure it out, organise themselves and save themselves before destroying their environment.”

2) Humility is a genius trait

“These people are one in 10,000, some of them one in a million!” says host Lily Serna of the geniuses she interviewed for Decoding Genius. “They have reason to be big headed—if ever there was a reason. But they’re very humble, and as one of our experts pointed out, this is a great trait because they never assume that they’re right.”

3) The theoretical maximum IQ is 10 times what most of us have to play with

Professor Hsu, a polymath, and a card-carrying genius himself, let the genie out of the bottle when he identified a set of genes associated with genius. Then he asked: what if you switch all those genes on at once? Hsu has estimated the theoretical maximum of IQ to be around 1000 (most of us are pretty smart at around 100), and says that the coming era of genetically enhanced intelligence will enable humans to evolve into a new breed that leaves today’s intelligentsia in the dust.

What’s more, we are just 10 to 20 years away from having the ability to not just select embryos based on predicted intelligence, but to manipulate the genetic codes that will make them ultra geniuses.

4) Gifted kids can’t just write their own ticket

Serna notes in Decoding Genius, Episode 4, “There’s a widely held belief that gifted kids have it easy…”

In fact, their rare abilities and sense of social justice frequently make them the target of bullying at school, they often experience social exclusion, and the resulting stress can lead to a loss of ability to learn, explains Michele Juratowitch of Clearing Skies, who works as a counsellor, teacher and coach to nurture talent development in Australia’s gifted population.

5) Perspective is everything

“Most of the great discoveries come from little everyday observations and just from somebody taking the time to think about it a little deeper, a little differently,” says Kelsey Miller-Anderson, who, at 22, is co-technical founder of MycoRemedy, a company that’s bringing a new approach to remediating toxic land sites.

MycoRemedy is built on Miller-Anderson’s teenage research, which grew from her childhood observation of a dandelion growing in the pavement in the alley behind her house. She saw it, zeroed in and wondered: Why do dandelions grow in places that other plants can’t? If a weed can grow in a crack in the asphalt, which is full of toxic hydrocarbons, maybe we can harness that ability and make soil that’s polluted by the oil industry good for growing plants again. Revisit Episode 1 of Decoding Genius, for this and other inspirations.

Maya Burhanpurkar, who by the age of 10 had already designed a smart antibiotic and is now working on an autonomous robotic wheelchair for people with severe physical disabilities.

6) Do the polymath: more frames of reference offer out-of-the-square solutions

At the age of 10, Maya Burhanpurkar developed a smart antibiotic. Now 17, she has explored quantum cryptography, tracked asteroids, worked on a cure for Alzheimer’s and made an award-winning documentary on climate change. In the near future she hopes to develop an autonomous robotic wheelchair for people with severe disabilities and is working on a theoretical physics project mapping the 3D structure of the young universe. In Episode 2 of Decoding Genius, Serna asks Burhanpurkar whether there is an advantage in pursuing vastly divergent fields of endeavour?

Burhanpurkar: “Throughout history, most of the great innovators we know of have been incredible polymaths. People were poets and astronomers and mathematicians and engineers all at the same time; and they were able to draw inspiration from a variety of fields to be able to create innovations in their own field … That can only happen if you know about things that are going on in areas other than your own field, so I definitely think there’s huge value in being both a generalist and a specialist.”

7) Having a great memory is part of genius

That said, although anyone can develop and improve their memory function, honing your own accessible databank won’t turn you into a genius.

In Decoding Genius, Episode 6, Daniel Kilov, memory athlete and coach (listen and learn his technique), says, “Geniuses rely on their memories for their stock of ideas, for their knowledge, for the things that let them have insights about the world.”

8) Failure is an important component of success

“… And that’s what very bright students miss out on if they’re not intellectually challenged. They miss out on that experience to fail and to learn from that failure and recover,” says Otto Siegel of Genius Coaching in Scottsdale, Arizona, who spoke to Decoding Genius host Lily Serna in Episode 4 about the importance of challenging gifted students in their learning environment. He says: “One of the very most important things that happens when we bring these students together with their intellectual peers is they’re not the smartest in the room anymore, just by virtue of rolling out of bed… What’s exciting is to engage with others who might know a little bit more and different than you do, and that allows you to grow.”

9) The human race as a whole is getting smarter

Something to crow about! James Flynn, Emeritus Professor of the Joint Department of Politics at New Zealand’s Otago University researched IQ results of the past century or so, to discover that our IQ has been steadily increasing by up to 3 IQ points per decade—a pattern now known as the Flynn effect.

In Decoding Genius, episode 6, Lily Serna asked Alan Thompson, gifted children’s co-ordinator with Mensa Australia whether we can continue to improve the IQ level of each generation “through experience and external stimulus”.

“Absolutely,” says Thompson. “Let’s say in two generations’ time another 20 IQ points,” gained, he proposes, through “more focus on creativity and innovation, less focus on this 1950s education model that we’ve been pushing out … We’re really looking at a new way of living, a new way of doing business, a new way of showing up in the world.”

Brisbane maths genius Ivan Zelich co-published a mathematical theorem with an American teenager in 2015.

10) Technology enables genius collaborations

Ivan Zelich is a teenager with an IQ of 154 (close to that of his boyhood hero Albert Einstein, who had an estimated IQ of around 160) and a passion for pure mathematics, specifically in the area of geometry. At the age of 12, he started solving problems posed by online communities of mathematical heavy hitters—nobody knew his age, he simply became known as “the geometry person”. Zelich met fellow undercover teen, Xuming Liang, online. Liang is based in California, and the two geniuses formed a trans-Pacific partnership to work on and prove a new mathematical theorem—the Liang-Zelich Theorem—that they had individually pondered, but been unable to prove on their own.

Serna concludes,“Twenty years ago there was no way that two teenagers, on opposite sides of the earth would ever collaborate on a geometry problem. Modern technology—emails and chat forums—is what made it possible for them to meet and combine their brilliance.” Serna contends that this is the future of genius: the increased ability to share across continents and across disciplines means that, “The brightest people will be able to do more for the world than ever before.”