Genius: A Dr. Sanjay Gupta Primetime Special

“Genius,” observes Dr. Sanjay Gupta, “is hard to define.” We can all probably agree that Albert Einstein qualified as a genius, but should we reserve to term exclusively for individuals with a high IQ? What about exceptionally talented people like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart? Or Ernest Hemingway? Or Jay-Z? And what is “IQ”, anyway?

On this question of what constitutes genius, Genius: A Dr. Sanjay Gupta Primetime Special takes the broad view. It ranges impressively far afield in its investigation, seeking answers not only in known haunts of genius like schools for the gifted and research laboratories, but also in more surprising stomping grounds like Chicago’s IO Theater (the improv club where comedians like Mike Myers and Amy Poehler got their starts).

We are introduced to a dizzying array of personalities, from amazing young prodigies like the 14-year-old professional jazz pianist and composer Matt Savage to scientific experts like Dr. R. Keith Sawyer (author of Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation) and Dr. Darrell Treffert (the world’s leading expert on savant syndrome). We explore a variety of attempts to unlock the “mysteries behind genius”, including the “Nobel Prize sperm bank” founded by millionaire inventor Robert Graham (which offered sperm exclusively from high achievers) and the Davidson Academy founded by Jan and Bob Davidson (open to students with an IQ of 160 or above or the equivalent).

I appreciate this open-minded approach, this diversity of people and places. But in trying to cram a mini-series worth of information into a one-hour program I fear that Dr. Gupta and company largely undermine their project of challenging the public’s preconceptions about genius.

Sometimes the program almost negates its own points, as when Dr. Sawyer explains that in his opinion “even something exceptional like Einstein coming up with the Theory of Relativity is based in the same mental building blocks as you finding your way around a traffic jam.” This explanation follows close on the heels of Dr. Gupta saying that “in the popular imagination the genius is a loner standing head and shoulders above the crowd.”

It certainly seems like Sawyer’s argument is being offered as a corrective to the popular misconception described by Gupta. Here and elsewhere Genius: A Dr. Sanjay Gupta Primetime Special suggests that the brains of those we call geniuses work faster and more efficiently than the brains of the average person, and while all brains are not created equal, they are at least made of the same, basic stuff. It suggests that there is a spectrum that has Zarathustra on one end and the Common Man in the center.

But this suggestion is undermined by the program’s choice of subjects, by its insistence on remaining on the far end of this continuum. We meet two prodigious savants, two out of “only about 100 in the world.” We meet two students from the Davidson Academy, students “who score in the highest 1/10,000th on IQ tests.” I sympathize with the decision of who to portray: these exceptional people make for very compelling television. But their monopoly of the available screen time tacitly endorses the idea that the genius is a loner standing head and shoulders above the crowd, that these exceptional people are different from you and I.

Genius: A Dr. Sanjay Gupta Primetime Special also fails to deliver on another one of its promises entirely. At the beginning of the program Dr. Gupta explains that the program is in part “about how to make yourself and your kids smarter.” But unless you’re one of those lucky few with a child born with a 160 IQ or above and willing to move to Reno, Nevada to enroll at the Davidson Academy, the program doesn’t have much to say about education strategies for the average (or even merely gifted) child or adults.

Again, though, I think that these problems can largely be traced to an excess of enthusiasm — there’s so much information here that any message, any thesis is bound to become muddied. Genius: A Dr. Sanjay Gupta Primetime Special aims for the stars and tries to thoroughly explore the concept of genius in just one hour. It’s no surprise, then, when it turns out to be about something else. Perhaps Genius: A Dr. Sanjay Gupta Primetime Special is simply mistitled: perhaps it should be called “Geniuses”. Genius: A Dr. Sanjay Gupta Primetime Special is entertaining even if it’s not terribly enlightening, and if in the end “the secret of genius hangs tantalizingly out of reach” it’s not for want of trying.

RATING 6 / 10