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Well, Is There A Scientific Link Between "Genius" And "Shithead"?

Illustration for article titled Well, iIs/i There A Scientific Link Between Genius And Shithead?

We are all suckers for learning that something going on in our brains is linked to something else going on in our brains — the brain is sorta navelgazing that way — so when a new much-emailed New York Times story said a rare form of dementia had been credited as the source of late-onset waves of sudden creativity, we started headscratching. What other fun traits are linked? Eating disorders and addiction, check. ADD and scotch drinking, check. But what about genius and assholery? For all the linkages between intellect and nihilism and smartness and hedonism and creativity and narcissism and good books and bad manners the bullshitocracy has so kindly shoveled out over the years, surely junk science could weigh in here! Was V.S. Naipaul just too smart not to fuck around and beat his mistresses ? Could Spencer Pratt be a secret genius too? We asked our favorite neuroscientist who also happens to be maybe the only neuroscientist whose name we can think of off the bat, Sam Wang of the book Welcome To Your Brain and Princeton...


Inhumane behavior often comes from having damage to prefrontal cortex, leading to bad self-control and moral reasoning. But brain damage is not a mechanism for becoming a genius. Basically there is no reason for the two to be correlated.

Maybe you need counterexamples?

Darwin: Devoted family man, not known to be a perv. Went out of his way to give joint credit to Wallace for the theory of natural selection. An asshole wouldn't do that.

Einstein: big pacifist. Worried like hell about war. Generally thought to not be an asshole. However, he was said to cat around a bit in his youth.

Benjamin Franklin: definitely not an asshole. Came up with bifocals, showed that lightning was made of electricity, and thought of the ideas of positive and negative charge. Liked to cat around. Not a known perv, unless you somehow count the fur hat he wore when visiting France.

One of the problems is that it's easier to remember stories about geniuses who were assholes or freaks. Pablo Picasso (despite the song), Vincent Van Gogh, Isaac Newton. Maybe the myth comes from the fact that geniuses sometimes think that they don't have to follow other people's rules. Kind of like the very rich and very powerful.


Oh yes, ha ha, except! That nihilistic asshole you put up with until you realized he wasn't even actually smarter than you: neither rich nor powerful. Carry on!

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I'm pretty sure that ass holes come in all shapes and sizes, and that it's not that all geniuses are ass holes, but that most geniuses are in some way more prominent/outspoken members of society and thus when they are ass holes, their ass hole ways are more noteworthy. I think it stands to reason there are a ton of stupid ass holes, too, if not more stupid ass holes than genius ass holes, since there are far more stupid people in this world than there are geniuses.

As a side note, geniuses are also frequently misunderstood and subject to insecure lashing out from people who are less intellectually gifted, and therefore might seem like ass holes even when they're not trying to be ass holes.