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Epigenetics and Genius

When Santiago Ramón y Cajal was 11, he blew up the town gate with a cannon he made. He was irascible, combative, and possibly a genius — at 54, he shared the 1906 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with rival Camillo Golgi for piecing together an early understanding of the nervous system. Still, Golgi believed the nervous system was all one connected “net,” and Ramón y Cajal fought for the view that it’s made of millions of interacting but separate cells.

We’ve discovered several caveats, but Ramón y Cajal was pretty much right. He was right about a lot. So when Scientific American Mind asked its Twitter followers this week for geniuses its staff might’ve missed for a feature about the geniuses of history, I suggested pugnacious Santiago. (Other fun suggestions included Edward De Bono, Paul Ekman, Hermann von Helmholtz, and William James Sidis.)

Naturally, I started looking for any studies linking epigenetic factors to genius — if schizophrenia and other abnormal brain function has epigenetic factors, then why not? But no luck, and none with intelligence, creativity, memory, and so on. Mostly there’s a lot about meditation and such. Super-normal brain function is tricky to research, and even trickier to research ethically and honestly.

The Clinical Epigenetics paper Epigenetics and the Power of Art” promises a lot:

This review presents an epigenetic view on complex factors leading to development and perception of “genius.” There is increasing evidence which indicates that artistic creativity is influenced by epigenetic processes that act both as targets and mediators of neurotransmitters as well as steroid hormones. Thus, perception and production of art appear to be closely associated with epigenetic contributions to physical and mental health.

But from this side of what seems to be a translation from German, it’s mostly speculation:

Regarding neurotransmitters, recent data indicate an immediate impact of dopamine on artistic creativity (Kulisevsky et al. 2009). [...] Considering the close association between a high dopamine level and a happy emotional status, this could provide an explanation for the close interaction of genetic and epigenetic features on emotions stimulating artistic creativity.

But at least science writer David Shenk has tackled the general idea. I haven’t read it, but based on reviews and his talks, Shenk’s 2010 book The Genius in All of Us applies an understanding of epigenetics to individual capabilities. Genetic differences exist, but “most of us don’t really know what our true limits are,” as he puts it. Not until you’ve worked, sweated, and bled your way to your greatest potential.

It also appears that Shenk spends a lot of the book disavowing the immortal nature-versus-nurture strawman that the lay public erects as a representation of what it believes science is telling them. Again and again he explains that no one ever said that your genes dictate your life and your current capabilities.

So to sum up: there’s no magic pill for genius, no herbal supplement, no known collection of environmental factors, no lifestyle change other than real hard work. And the only way to be invincible is to be made of straw.

Still, I’d love to hear about any epigenetic connections to creativity, genius, and the lot! Let me know if you know anything.

(Special thanks to EpiExperts member Sarah Neumann for help with this post. Picture of a neon person and brain by Flickr user dierk schaefer, and used under a Creative Commons license.)

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One Response to Epigenetics and Genius

  1. Genes do not manipulate us, but cannot escape from being subjects of epigenetic manipulation, as does our brain. A recent publication depicts a structural region in the brain (medial orbito frontal cortex) which is specifically activated during the experience of musical and visual beauty, but there is no place for perception of “uglyness” (Ishuzu T and Zeki S, Toward a Brain-Based Theory of Beauty, Plos ONE Vol6, Issue7, July 2011).

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