Weird Science: The Brain of a Genius

Far be it for me to come up with a definition for genius. As far as I’m concerned genius has as much to do with timing as it does with brain function. If your idea has traction, you’ll be hailed as a genius, otherwise just a crank.

Wikipedia goes on and on about Hildegard of Bingen. And rightly so; she was a genius. She was an 11th Century, uneducated nun, yet her entry is longer than that for Blaise Pascal. Proof, right? I mean if she was alive today, I’m sure her Klout score would be around 95. She was important.

Hildegard of Bingen was first and foremost a visionary in the literal sense. She had visions. Beyond that, she was a writer, composer, scientist and much more.

What Wikipedia doesn’t tell you, but the Internet History Sourcebook Project does, is that her genius, her visions stemmed from migraines.

I assume Wikipedia leaves that out because they don’t want anything to detract from her reputation as a unique thinker, a blaser of trails. As if she herself was not the genius but her affliction was. Or, maybe they don’t want anything to interfere with her canonization, scheduled for late 2012. They want no one questioning that direct line to her from God. Even if that was questioned, in my opinion, the fact that her extreme devotion and work that went into glorification of God and the church ought to get her sainthood. She left behind 100 letters, 72 songs, 70 poems, and 9 books, all dedicated to the Supreme One.

That’s a lot of hay.

But what was her genius? Was her art inspired by migrainous visions?

For anything to be considered genius it needs to have two things. The first is obvious: it must be unique. That’s harder than you think. David Klion says our culture has been frozen for the last twenty years. Even though more and more people find an outlet for creativity on line, we have less and less of it to show. We’re just regurgitating our past ideas. New ones are hard to come by.

Did Hildegard have a new idea? According to Wikipedia she was “creative in her interpretation of theology.” That blows me away. This was a nun. How much sway do nuns have today, let alone back then? It’s a miracle we even remember who she was. Women didn’t have voices back then. She’d have to be a genius with ideas radical and truthful enough to get noticed.

Which brings me to my second requirement for genius: the ability to recognize and sell an idea. You can’t just have one, you must realize its impressiveness and figure out how to convince others of its importance. Obviously Hildegard had that aspect of genius, that political talent.

At one point she was at odds with her local abbot, but they remained friends. And she was on speaking terms with higher ups, notably a couple of popes and Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa. She knew she had something to say and the ability to get it to the channels that would promote the work properly.

Do all geniuses have such brains? Do they all have a painful malady that leads to vision? Is there something in the average brain that precludes the ability to conjure something new? Something that is missing in the brain of a genius and therefore not in the way of visions?

Whatever is different is no matter. It’s the ability to recognize the unique, important, and beautiful that makes a genius.


Thanks for reading.

Sue Lange

This essay was first posted on December 23, 2011 at the Singularity Watch blog.




Weird Science: The Brain of a Genius — 7 Comments

  1. One of her near-contemporaries was Catherine of Siena (my patron saint). Catherine and Hildegard were part of a tradition of the era which held these holy virgins in high regard and took their visionary writings seriously–seriously enough that these women achieved a certain degree of power and respect to be negotiators in political disagreements. It’s an interesting study.

  2. I’m glad you’re talking about Hildegarde–she was one of the great personalities of the Middle Ages–but in order to keep my PhD Medievalist (Feminist History Division) card, I have to offer a few corrections.

    Hildegarde was not uneducated in any way, shape, or form. For the time, she was the equivalent of an Ivy-League graduate. She had a broad and deep education, and she was acquainted with and admired by some of the greatest minds of her age.

    Lots of moderns make the mistake of assuming medieval = uneducated, and that goes double for medieval women. There were many educated women at the time, in some times and places as many as educated men. (There were even coed monasteries ruled by abbesses–highly educated, formidable and powerful women.) The story of Abelard and Heloise is notable not only for the gory sexual details but for the fact that this 17yo girl/young woman was studying philosophy with one of the megaminds of his day–and after the gory events, she kept right on with the study as well as the sexual obsession. She was a very bright girl who got herself into trouble with a man twenty years her senior (which was pretty normal actually in secular marriages–young girls married to mature men; he at 37 was considered young, which also runs counter to the modern view of life spans at the time), but it wasn’t considered terribly outre for her to be studying with him in the first place.

    Women of the Western Middle Ages had voices, oh my yes. There were concerted attempts to silence them as the Middle Ages went on–the thirteenth century was fairly horrendous for the slamming shut of doors and the repression of women’s rights and voices in the Church, which had a monopoly on education as well as political and social power at the time–but women’s response was to was step outside of the Church and found or join heretical sects. The Cathars were had this thing about equality of the sexes, and many of the great Cathar saints and martyrs were women. You could not keep a smart woman down, and they were many. They were reading and writing in multiple languages, at a time when the literacy rate overall, for both genders, was quite low.

    I wrote my doctoral dissertation on a tenth-century nun who apologized for writing original work (though based on a Classical Latin model–speaking of being educated). Originality was not a good thing at that time or at any time up to the late eighteenth century. It became an obsession with the Romantics and their groupies and is now seen as The Only Right Way. But for many centuries before that, one built with pride on the work of one’s predecessors; it was considered rather skeevy to make stuff up. Hildegarde was extremely well educated and very well aware of where she was coming from. What she did with it was remarkable, but while she was a rare talent and an amazing person by any measure, she did not come out of a vacuum.

    This has been a bit of a Thing elsewhere on the interwebs, as a pretext for writing sexist medievalist fantasy. “Women were voiceless, uneducated, and helpless. We’re just writing it the way it was!” Actually, no. Most of what moderns “know” about the era is filtered through the Renaissance, which had a vested interest in making the previous period look bad and itself look good, and then subsequent eras just piled it higher. Step over this wall and see it straight, through primary sources, and it’s a completely different time and place.

  3. Thank you, Judy (Dr. Tarr), first for the additional information here, but also, for delving so deeply into the time period for your doctorate. It’s amazing how much history I don’t know. It’s only with people like you bringing it out that people like me ever find out about it. Keep up the good work!

    • Thanks, Sue. Maybe there should be a few blog posts on this, picking up where the Magna Carta posts leave off.

      In My Abundant Free Time. 😛

  4. What Judy Said, indeed. And also, I’m really wary of this fad for retrospective diagnosis. What Hildegard described may indeed be mapped onto what we know about migraine, but that doesn’t make it a settled fact that she had migraines. With a living patient right there in the bed to be tested, diagnostic specialists can still be wrong and wrong and wrong again (see House for details: fiction, sure, but I understand that the medical details are based on real cases). With a thousand years between us and the inevitable degrees of interpretation between spiritual writings and medical reports, I’m deeply distrustful of that kind of bald “she had migraines” statement.

  5. A couple years ago I went to St. Hildegarde’s monastery, which she founded in the Rhine valley north of Heidelberg. (It is on the same side of the river as as the Lorelei rock.) It is a large handsome compound built of the local stone, the walls of which are now topped by handsome growths of stonecrop. The monastery is still in use by an order of nuns. They let you into the gift shop, the church, and various bits, but not into the enclosure. The nuns support themselves by growing grapes, which get turned into Rhine wine. I am not sure that they have their own label; they may just sell the grapes on to a larger vinyard. She had a fine view over the valley and the river, which you can nowadays enjoy from a cable car.

    • Ah, so that’s what that big structure was. We were barging up the Rhine from Cologne (stayed in Burg Rheinfels overnight), but I was researching Carolingians and only glanced at the later delights.

      Also, we were on a Twainian tour of grisly relics. “Is…is he dead?” My favorite: St. Munditia in Munich, the polished ivory skeleton in harem-girl pose in a glass case, covered with jewels. She had a lovely smile.