“Leo is like a kid, he’s only playing… and the wonderful thing is that he changes his mind three times in one meter.” – Johan Cruyff on Lionel Messi

“For Uncle Al there was no wrong or right answer, there were only experiments.” – Benay Dara-Abrams on Albert Einstein

It was one of the hottest days I remember in Berlin. In a couple of hours, FC Barcelona were going to play the Champions League final and one of the radio stations that had made the trip to cover the event was looking for Berlin residents whom they could talk to about the game. And there I was, sharing a room and hot flashes with various euphoric journalists who wouldn’t stop gushing over the exceptional qualities of the blaugrana player named Leo Messi.

Then they asked me the following question: Where does Messi’s secret lie? What does science tell us? The first thing I could do was to think of the time I interviewed Einstein and tell them the following story.

Einstein’s stolen brain

In March 1954, Albert Einstein received a curious birthday gift: a parrot. Even if Einstein himself was starting to have serious medical problems, he seemed more worried about the mood of the parrot, which had been traumatized by the long trip to the US, than his own health. So he started talking to the bird every day, telling it jokes.

Some months later, the parrot had recovered. Probably thanks to some injections and not the jokes, but at this point Einstein was dying. A few hours after his death, the scientist was the victim of a theft. Without informing anyone, Doctor Thomas Harvey extracted Einstein’s brain to photograph it, slice it in thin sheets and store it in formaldehyde. The next day, a boy was proudly telling his friends: “My dad has Einstein’s brain.” He wasn’t lying. Doctor Harvey had Einstein’s brain for decades, until he allowed other scientists to study it in 1986.

Neuroscientist Marian Diamond (protagonist of the video above) was one of the scientists who received samples of Einstein’s brain in…mayonnaise jars. Diamond found a higher percentage of glial cells connected to the neurons in the parietal lobe of Einstein’s brain. This discovery made a lot of people happy: genius could have a biological base which you could see through a microscope!

Further studies of the brain or of pictures taken of the brain revealed that it had other distinct characteristics: it wasn’t spherical, its volume was bigger than the average human brain and the parietal lobes presented certain peculiarities.

But many scientists doubted these studies which didn’t seem entirely conclusive. More than that: were the peculiarities of Einstein’s brain the cause of his genius or a consequence of it?

Walter Isaacson, author of one of the most recent Einstein biographies, agrees with professor Michio Kaku (also seen in the video above): if you want to discover Einstein’s secret, the most reliable source is probably the words of Einstein himself.

When he was asked what made him different from other physicists, Einstein said: “I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious,” but he also said: “The common adult doesn’t entertain himself thinking about space-time… I’m the opposite: because I had such a slow development, I started asking these questions when I was already an adult.” So, according to Einstein himself, the secret to his success was thinking about a child’s dilemma with the intensity of an adult.

Isaacson seems sure of this: Einstein’s genius came from his creativity, not from his mathematical abilities. What does this have to do with Messi, you might ask. Let me tell you the story step by step.

Scientists and Messi’s secret

Like you already know, Leo Messi is capable of extraordinary things on a football pitch. With the ball stuck to his feet, he moves at great speed towards the opposing goal while one, two, three, even four defenders unsuccessfully try to take the ball away from him.

He is also able to decide the best option for the play in a fraction of a second: shot, pass, dribble. But what makes Messi different from the rest of the players?

When the journalists asked me, my answer was: “Messi’s secret might have to do with his cognitive abilities, decision-making and creativity.” The journalists’ eyes widened, especially when I explained to them how fascinating it could be to study his brain with an MRI or a PET scan. But do my statements on Messi have a solid scientific base?

Neuroscientist Facundo Manes explains that in cases of elite athletes like Lionel Messi, physical form matters, but mental form is fundamental: motivation, attention, concentration and control. And of course, intense training and observation ability.

However, even if for years neuroscientists have been offering to study Messi’s brain, none of them has been able to. So right now we can only base our ideas on indirect scientific studies to try to find out where the Argentine star’s genius might lie.

A study at Karolinska Institutet states that the higher the division in which the player finds himself in, the higher his cognitive abilities are. Specifically, these athletes have better executive functions, like the mental ability to solve immediate problems in a creative way. Does that sound familiar?

But where does Messi’s creativity come from? “Phrases like ‘lefties are more creative or are better athletes’ are somewhat based on facts, but mostly legends,” Manes claims.

Creativity, divergent thinking and children

Even though there are decades of work involving tests that could quantify creativity, scientists have realized that it’s easier to do it with something that is strictly related to it: divergent thinking.

While convergent thinking is based on finding the “right answer” to a problem, divergent thinking is based on generating many possibilities based on the problem. But science tells us that divergent thinking lessens with age.

According to Ken Robinson, expert in creativity, this diminution is especially affected by the education system. In other words: kids have a huge creative potential.

Convergent thinking/divergent thinking graph

Based on everything I’ve exposed so far and lacking scientific evidence that back other thesis, let me state a hypothesis to try and explain Messi and Einstein’s genius: assuming that both benefit from notable abilities to practice their respective disciplines, what makes them different from their contemporaries is their way of seeing the world, of focusing intensely on one thing and being incredibly creative in approaching it.

Benay Dara-Abrams, one of Einstein’s neighbors in Princeton, explains how she once went to the scientist’s house as a child and played with him. Even if Dara-Abrams wasn’t aware of the scientist’s fame at the time, that was an experience that marked her for life: for Uncle Al (that’s how she called him) “there were no right or wrong answers, there were just experiments.” According to her, playing with Einstein she was able to focus during long periods of time and find creative solutions, as opposed to trying to solve a problem with “full-frontal assault,” as she calls it.

Like you probably already know, Einstein and Messi developed, even if from different points of view, later than the children around them. So I ask the following question: can an important part of Messi and Einstein’s genius come from the fact that they keep seeing the world with the eyes, creativity and passion of a child?

Watching them talk, observing their smiles and how they enjoy the company of other children, seeing how they play, each in their own manner, I tend to think this is right.At the very least, until someone proves it otherwise.

Because, like Einstein said, maybe there are no wrong answers, only experiments. Incidentally, we wouldn’t need to steal Messi’s brain to examine it.

Anything wrong? Send your correction.

Article originally published at the Huffington Post in Spanish by Guillermo Orts-Gil.