Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 September 2018

Neurotech could shed light on whether mercurial Musk really is a genius 

Neurotransmitters hint at certain chemicals in the brains of prodigies

Elon Musk speaking in Los Angeles, California, earlier this year. Lucy Nicholson / Reuters
Elon Musk speaking in Los Angeles, California, earlier this year. Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

In a recent interview with the New York Times, a tearful Elon Musk, the chief executive and chairman of Tesla, displayed the kind of vulnerability rarely shown by someone of his stature and fame. In the aftermath of his controversial declaration that he was considering taking Tesla private – then backtracking a week later – there has been much talk of his erratic behaviour and volatile state of mind.

His behaviour has triggered a wide spectrum of reactions ranging from empathy to concerns for his wellbeing right through to harsh criticism. Among the responses was a compassionate yet critical open letter penned by Arianna Huffington, the founder of Thrive Global, who acknowledged Mr Musk’s “big-picture vision” but said his 120-hour working weeks were unhealthy and exhausting. There are those who herald his genius but others who worry about his erraticism.

Certainly geniuses are unconventional individuals of exceptional intelligence and creativity, who are extremely productive. Aristotle once said: “No great mind has ever existed without a touch of madness”. Some schools of thought think the two are never far apart.

In her article entitled Positive Traits in the Bipolar Spectrum: The Space between Madness and Genius, published last year, Tiffany Greenwood from the department of psychiatry at the University of California San Diego wrote: “Creative people tend toward divergent thinking, the cognitive ability of associational network activation and creative ideation and an over-inclusive cognitive style, which involves remote associations and may facilitate originality”.

She said geniuses exhibit cognitive disinhibition, a form of eccentricity often associated with both a propensity towards psychosis and creativity.

Interestingly, for someone to be considered a genius, he or she has to be able to express his extraordinary abilities fully and society has to acknowledge them. Whether it was Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein or Marie Curie, they had to be in a position to freely exercise their abilities.

So is there a way to identify a genius in a systematic way? For nearly a century, those who promoted IQ tests have considered that anyone with an IQ score superior to 140 can be considered a genius. But being a genius cannot be reduced to a simplistic score provided by a flawed methodology such as an IQ test.

A natural place to investigate in order to better understand what makes someone a genius is the human brain. What does neuroscience tell us about geniuses? The first step would be to look at the brain of a genius - something that many people tried to do after Einstein’s death.

In 1951, shortly before his death, his brainwaves were recorded, thanks to a neurotechnology called electro-encephalography. After he died in 1955, his brain was cut open and analysed. Several scientific studies were published, including a recent one hinting at stronger connections between his cerebral hemispheres.

But there is a key issue: how could the scientists find study control brains to compare to Einstein’s? His age, gender and cause of death could be matched but not the richness of his life and of the interactions that fed his brain.

A non-invasive neurotechnology called magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) allowing scientists to gauge the concentration of brain metabolites might help shed new light on what makes the minds of geniuses special. In an article soon to appear in the journal Neuroscience, Beatrix Krause and colleagues from the department of experimental psychology at the University of Oxford and the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour compared the neurochemistry of a mathematical genius to other mathematicians.

Thanks to MRS, they measured the levels of two neurotransmitters at a frontal gyrus, or cleft in the cerebral surface of the brain, of particular interest to neuroscientists studying mathematical prodigies; a neurotransmitter called the glutamate, known to play a role in learning and memory; and the gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), known to inhibit the activity of brain cells used to focus. The researchers found lower glutamate and GABA in the prodigy compared to the other mathematicians, hinting at a possible neurochemical signature in the brain of the prodigy.

But a couple of neurotransmitters alone cannot explain what makes a genius. In his book Diary of Genius, published in 1964, Salvador Dali wrote: “If you refuse to study anatomy, the arts of drawing and perspective, the mathematics of aesthetics and the science of colour, let me tell you that this is more a sign of laziness than of genius”. And that might be a feature that is under-considered in geniuses: they are very often workaholics.

One thing is for sure: Mr Musk’s 120-hour weeks are anything but lazy. In fact, they could hint at him being a modern genius in addition to his disruptive thinking, his creativity and his mercurial behaviour.

Professor Olivier Oullier is the president of Emotiv, a neuroscientist and a DJ