Define: Genius

February 11, 2015

With spies, sex, secrets, explosions and death, at first glance The Imitation Game seems to tick all the boxes of a vapid Hollywood blockbuster.  The film follows Alan Turing as he attempts to crack the German WWII code, Enigma, and in the process builds the world’s first model of a general-purpose computer.

Machines were a hot topic at The Lab in 2013 and 2014 as we asked: what effect is the omnipresence of technology having on our lives?  Have we reached the next Industrial RevolutionCan machines think? Is creativity the final frontierThe Imitation Game addresses similar themes.  But what I have continued to ruminate on long after leaving the cinema, long after Benedict Cumberbatch’s captivating performance faded into memory, is the curse of genius.

Screenshot courtesy of The Weinstein Company & Studio Canal

"Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of, that do the things no one can imagine"

Genius presents us with a paradox.  From birth, we are encouraged to think differently, to be creative, to follow our emotions and act with conviction.  And yet there inevitably comes a point where we are shunned for thinking too differently, where our creativity may be deemed incorrect, where we are told to control our emotions, and where we’re conditioned to distrust our thoughts.  Society praises genius while, at the same time, it seems to inhibit genius.

Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Turing presents us with an awkward man whose inability to understand social cues in many ways enables his success.  For instance, [warning: spoiler!] when Turing’s sergeant refuses to fund the supplies for Turing’s machine, the sergeant sarcastically tells Turing to take it up with the sergeant’s boss; “Winston Churchill, 10 Downing Street, SW1, London.”  But of course, Turing does not catch the sarcasm: he sends a letter directly to Churchill and, lo and behold, the supplies arrive.  This is one small example of many scattered throughout the film.

Screenshot courtesy of The Weinstein Company & Studio Canal

Such social misunderstanding comes hand-in-hand with the genius persona, and not just in Hollywood.  Consider our broad stereotyping of academics, of scientists, mathematicians; it strikes us as a surprise when a highly intelligent person also displays charisma and an aptitude for decoding social interaction. Even thinking of Silicon Valley, all we have to do is imagine a conversation with the world’s most intelligent tech programmer, sitting in front of his computer typing in code all day, and ourselves.

Perhaps I’m making broad generalisations here, perhaps Hollywood has engendered these stereotypes rather than reflected them, but nevertheless the tenets still hit a chord: to be a recognised genius, one must battle with society.  One must navigate the negative perceptions that plague the genius image – whether through simply not understanding them or through fighting against them.

Why does genius spark such a negative first reaction?  Are geniuses ostracised purely for thinking differently?  Is radical thinking intimidating, no matter the aim?  Think of Galileo Galilei under house arrest or Nikola Tesla dubbed the archetypal “mad scientist”.

Justus Sustermans - Portrait of Galileo Galilei, 1636

I don’t have the answers of course, but it does make me think: if we were to embrace new ways of thinking in all areas of our lives, we would equip ourselves with the tools of a genius.  And with these tools, we could decode a world of enigmas.  So why do we so often reject it?