Immanuel Kant, who coined the term genius in the 1700s, defined it as the rare capacity to independently understand concepts that would normally have to be taught by another person. Since then, the spectrum of abilities that we call genius has widened, but pivotal questions remain: What exactly is genius? Where do the remarkable abilities of genius come from? Is genius something that lives within all of us, or is it a categorically different way of seeing the world that is bestowed upon only a few? With the emergence of new imaging technologies and a fundamental shift in the understanding of how information is spread through our brains, we’re beginning to find some answers. We joined neuroscientists, psychologists, renowned thinkers, and special performers as they untangled the complicated nature of genius, creativity, and exceptionality.
This program was part of The Big Ideas Series, made possible with the support of the John Templeton Foundation.
R. Douglas Fields is a developmental neurobiologist and author of The Other Brain, a popular book about the discovery of brain cells (called glia) that communicate without using electricity. He is an authority on neuron-glia interactions, brain development, and the cellular mechanisms of memory. Fields serves on the editorial board of several neuroscience journals and also enjoys writing about science for the general public in Scientific American, Huffington Post, Psychology Today, Outside, Odyssey, BrainFacts.org, and others. He received advanced degrees from UC Berkeley, San Jose State University, and the University of California, San Diego. He held postdoctoral fellowships at Stanford, Yale, and the National Institutes of Health. He is currently chief of the section on nervous system development and plasticity at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development at the NIH. In addition to science, Fields enjoys building guitars, rock-climbing, and scuba diving.
Born in Baltimore, Maryland, Philip Glass is a graduate of the University of Chicago and the Juilliard School. In the early 1960s, Glass spent two years of intensive study in Paris with Nadia Boulanger and while there, earned money by transcribing Ravi Shankar’s Indian music into Western notation. By 1974, Glass had a number of innovative projects, creating a large collection of new music for The Philip Glass Ensemble, and for the Mabou Mines Theater Company. This period culminated in Music in Twelve Parts, and the landmark opera, Einstein on the Beach for which he collaborated with Robert Wilson. Since Einstein, Glass has expanded his repertoire to include music for opera, dance, theater, chamber ensemble, orchestra, and film. His scores have received Academy Award nominations (Kundun, The Hours, Notes on a Scandal) and a Golden Globe (The Truman Show). Symphony No. 7 and Symphony No. 8—Glass’ latest symphonies—along with Waiting for the Barbarians, an opera based on the book by J.M. Coetzee, premiered in 2005. In the past few years several new works were unveiled, including Book of Longing (Luminato Festival) and an opera about the end of the Civil War entitled Appomattox (San Francisco Opera). The English National Opera, in conjunction with the Metropolitan Opera, performed Glass’ Satyagraha in London, April 2007, and the Metropolitan Opera presented the work in April 2008. Glass’ latest opera Kepler premiered with the Landestheater Linz, Austria in September 2009 and is currently working on an opera about Walt Disney that premiered at the Teatro Real in Madrid in 2013. In 2010 he collaborated with Brian Greene, David Hwang, Al Holmes, and AL Taylor on Icarus at the Edge of Time.
His Symphony #9 was completed in 2011 and was premiered by the Bruckner Orchestra in Linz, Austria on January 1, 2012. The U.S. premiere took place in New York at Carnegie Hall on January 31, 2012 as part of the composer’s 75th birthday celebration.
Photo by Steve Pyke
Rex Jung is a leading scientist in the emerging field of positive neuroscience, the study of what the brain does well. His groundbreaking research led to the first model describing a network of brain regions critically linked in the service of intellectual pursuits, known as the Parieto-Frontal Integration Theory (or “P-FIT”). Over the last several years, he has turned his attention to the manifestation of creativity in the brain—a cognitive capacity perhaps critically dependent upon, yet distinctly different, from intelligence.
The author of over 40 scientific publications, Jung’s research has been widely featured in popular media outlets including CNN, BBC, Psychology Today, New Scientist, The New York Times, and Newsweek. A clinical neuropsychologist by training, Jung is an assistant professor in the Department of Neurosurgery at the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center.
Renowned for his groundbreaking contributions to the study of genius, Dean Keith Simonton has provided his expertise to over 400 publications on the topic, including a dozen books entitled Genius, Creativity, and Leadership; Scientific Genius; Greatness; Genius and Creativity; Origins of Genius; Great Psychologists and Their Times; Creativity in Science; and Genius 101.
The recipient of several awards, Simonton’s work has been recognized by the William James Book Award, the Sir Francis Galton Award for Outstanding Contributions to the Study of Creativity, the Rudolf Arnheim Award for Outstanding Achievement in Psychology and the Arts, the Theoretical Innovation Prize in Personality and Social Psychology, the George A. Miller Outstanding Article Award, the E. Paul Torrance Award from the National Association for Gifted Children, and the Robert S. Daniel Award for Four-Year College/University Teaching.
A fellow of several professional organizations—including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Psychological Society, and nine divisions of the American Psychological Association (APA)—Simonton has served as president of the International Association of Empirical Aesthetics and the Society for the Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts (APA, Division 10). Currently, he is the president-elect of the Society for General Psychology (APA, Division 1) and a distinguished professor of psychology at the University of California. Dean Simonton obtained his Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1975.
In 1998, Julie Taymor became the first woman to win the Tony® Award for Best Direction of a Musical, and also won a Tony® for Best Costumes, for her landmark production of The Lion King. The musical has won three Molière Awards including Best Musical and Best Costumes, garnered Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle and Drama League awards for Taymor’s direction, and myriad awards for her original costume, mask and puppet designs.
For her latest Broadway production, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, Taymor served as director and co-book writer. She made her Broadway debut in 1996 with Juan Darién: A Carnival Mass, nominated for five Tony® Awards. Other theatre work includes The Green Bird, Titus Andronicus, The Tempest, The Taming of the Shrew, The Transposed Heads and Liberty’s Taken. Taymor’s feature film directorial debut, Titus, starred Anthony Hopkins, Jessica Lange and Alan Cumming. In 2002, her biographical film Frida, starring Salma Hayek and Alfred Molina, earned six Academy Award® nominations, winning two. She took on the music of the Beatles, and earned a Golden Globe® nomination for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy, in Across the Universe. Julie’s most recent film, The Tempest, had its North American premiere at the 48th New York Film Festival in October 2010, following a world premiere at the 67th Venice International Film Festival. Taymor’s adaptation of the William Shakespeare play features an all-star cast including Helen Mirren, Russell Brand, Djimon Hounsou and Alfred Molina. Beyond the theatre and screen, Taymor has directed five operas internationally including Oedipus Rex with Jessye Norman, for which she earned the International Classical Music Award for Best Opera Production. A subsequent film version premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and won her an Emmy® award.
Taymor also directed Salome´, The Flying Dutchman, Die Zauberflöte (which has been in repertory at The Met for six years), The Magic Flute (the abridged English version of Die Zauberflöte, which inaugurated a new PBS series entitled “Great Performances at The Met”) and Elliot Goldenthal’s Grendel. Taymor is a 1991 recipient of the MacArthur “genius” Fellowship.