05/18/2011 08:29 am ET Updated Jul 18, 2011

Genius: How Genetic Is It?

If I were to walk along the beach, I'd see sand, surf and sun -- and maybe build a sand castle. If I were Steven Spielberg, I'd envision a huge white shark attacking terrified people and go home to create an iconic film.

Hollywood has labeled Spielberg a "genius" at movie-making. But what exactly defines that genius?

Is it Spielberg's acumen or his large body of work, grossing more than $8.5 billion to date? Is it the creativity of films such as "E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial," or the emotive power of "Schindler's List"? Is the fact that in 2006, Premiere listed Spielberg at the most powerful and influential figure in the motion picture industry and Life named him the most influential person of his generation?

The answer is all of the above: talent, proliferation, creativity and influence combined.
The genius question has long tantalized scientists. Historically, they've shifted from defining genius by measures of intelligence or posterity, to genetics, to the most recent assertions articulated by New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell in "Outliers": genius arises from a modicum of talent, a heap of hard work and a tide singular advantages.

However, as parents have raced about trying to fashion exactly the right mix of advantages to nurture their "gifted" children's genius, researchers have gone on to -- again -- turn the notion of genius on its head.

New studies are defining genius as a more precise constellation of nature and nurture factors. For example, one expects geniuses to be off-the-charts smart. And it is true that geniuses must possess sufficient intelligence to master the obligatory knowledge and skills in their field. However, in his book "Genius 101," psychologist Dean Simonton describes another signature genius-making trait that must add to intelligence.

Simonton found that genius-level scientists who made the greatest impact scored highest on measures of a personality trait called "openness to experience," defined as broad-mindedness that prods an individual to explore outside the box. In fact, the higher the impact, the more a scientist was engaged in avocations outside of science.

And this would seem a paradox: scientists should be slaving at the bench, not playing the violin or perfecting metalworking on the side. But Simonton shows that genius is linked to a process called "blind-variation and selective retention." Simply, the mind receives input from all experiences, scientific or not. If left to percolate, those combine, blindly and at random, to fuel truly one-of-a-kind ideas that everyone wants to emulate.

And that gets to the core of Simonton's genius theory.

Geniuses, he says, generate products that are highly original, useful and exemplary. And that gift is born out of extraordinary creativity, the kind that revolutionizes the whole domain and inspires future generations. Creativity as a foundation for genius helps one understand how the same term "genius" places Steven Spielberg in the ranks of Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein and Napoleon. Outstanding creativity, born out of an "open mind," undergirds geniuses in disciplines as diverse as philosophy, politics, mathematics and music, Simonton says.

His arguments are bolstered by genetic findings. In 2009, psychiatrist Szaboles Keri discovered a genetic variation in the neuregulin 1 gene that was associated with creativity in people with extraordinary intellectual and academic performance. The gene affects neuronal development, synaptic plasticity and glial functioning. Keri suggests that the gene variation may spur reduced cognitive inhibition in the prefrontal cortex. The less inhibition, the more truly original the idea -- and the more the genetic seeding for genius.

Another, more obvious trait that breeds genius is "conscientiousness," being painstaking and careful in accord with one's conscience. Psychologist Angela Duckworth conducted a meta-analysis of the "Big Five" personality traits (those that blend to define any human being). Her conclusion: conscientiousness, more than any other, predicted genius.

She then teased apart exactly what aspects of the trait were key and came up with "sub-traits" of industriousness, perfectionism, tidiness, refrainment from procrastination, self-control, cautiousness, task planning and perseverance. Refining this analysis, Duckworth for the first time came up with a new and highly predictive personality trait that she labels "grit," defined as perseverance and passion for long-term goals. This defines genius. And this makes sense. Geniuses must be born with talent, but they also have to work at its mastery. Therefore, geniuses are also endowed with the traits that foster and maintain the ability to focus and practice for years, if not decades.

But even intelligence, openness to experience and grit are not enough for genius to emerge. Those traits must be placed together in a singular environment. One might expect that environment to be a stable household stocked with books, musical instruments and parents exemplary in role modeling of the domain of interest. And while studies do show that geniuses are more likely to come from homes that are intellectually or culturally stimulating, a 2010 meta-analysis details a host of developmental and social factors that also contribute. For example, disruptive events like orphanhood, parental abuse or stigmatizing disabilities can actually force an individual from a normal developmental path, breaking with convention and nurturing that originality component of genius.

The same is true for positive disrupters like constant travel during childhood and varied exposure to new cultures and languages. This input harkens back to Simonton's argument for blind variation. The more unorthodox or varied the upbringing, the more likely the fodder for truly original ideas. In fact, artists set in wild environments -- ones that effect blind variation -- achieve the highest levels of artistic genius.

But wildness can go too far. Even before discovering neuregulin 1's link to creative genius, Keri found that the gene was also linked to psychosis. In other words, one major root of genius is linked to madness. What might be the tipping point, genius or insanity, is environment. So, for example, someone born with the polymorphism and raised in more "stable" environment might learn to check the impulse for inhibition -- and stay sane. Another raised in chaos might not.

Another environmental influence toward nurturing genius, and perhaps the most intuitively clear, is what psychologist K. Anders Ericsson's group at Florida State University labels "deliberate practice" -- defined as activities specially designed to improve performance to attain world-mastery. The activities are intensive, regular and must continue for at least 10 years. And geniuses must not only have the ability to perform at this level, they must also perform.

Overall, a genius is an exquisite combination: consisting of the right genetic seeds to acquire the knowledge and skills to master a domain and spawn truly original and useful ideas and persevere through lots of practice. These seeds then must sprout in the right social and psychological setting at exactly the right time. It's almost a one-off, which true geniuses really are.

Perhaps that is why they inspire and drive the rest of us to try and build bigger and better castles in the sand.