>Just as Dr Ericsson took people with no discernible talent and
>turned them into champions, so, in a fashion, did a Hungarian,
>Laszlo Polgar. When he began training his daughters, it was widely
>believed that women could not play serious tournament chess. But
>through a deliberate (and still continuing) psychological
>experiment, Dr Polgar and his wife created a trio of world-class
>chess champions out of their own daughters, overturning this
>By 1992, all three had reached the women's top ten worldwide. The
>third, who presumably received the most refined training regimen,
>became the youngest grandmaster in the history of the game and is
>reckoned by her peers to have a good chance of becoming world
>champion one day. With remarkable, if not hubristic, prescience, Dr
>Polgar had written a detailed book on the subject of child rearing,
>entitled "Bring Up Genius!" before beginning the coaching of his
>children. But would any child reared by such a parent have become a
>Ellen Winner, a psychologist at Boston College who has been studying
>the relationship between exposure to the arts and subsequent
>academic achievement, believes not. She argues that only children
>with the "rage to master" a skill could make it through the
>gruelling years of training needed to achieve expert ability. The
>rage to master may be the point at which nature unequivocally makes
>its constraints felt. Even Dr Ericsson concedes that there might be
>a genetic component separating the child willing to persevere with a
>rigorous schedule from the child who would rather play videogames.
From the Devniad, Bob Devney: http://members.aol.com/~bobdevney/DEVAD27.html
> BC psychologist Ellen Winner and her book Gifted Children:: Myths
>and Realities (Basic Books, 1996).
>Here's a paragraph from the article that's sure to disappoint as
>many as 99.9% of us, not-quite-Leonardos all.
>"Gifted children have three telltale characteristics, Winner says.
>First, they begin to master an area of knowledge, or domain, such as
>math, drawing or chess, at an extremely early age, before starting
>school. Second, they need little help from adults in that domain,
>solving problems in often-novel ways, with each discovery fueling
>the next step. And third, they have what she describes as a rage to
>master their domain, working at it intensively and obsessively,
>often isolating themselves from others in order to pursue it. These
>children push themselves, achieve "flow states" in their work, and
>beg their parents for the books, musical instruments or art supplies
>they need to feed their passion. They need stimulating environments
>to develop their talents, Winner says of these children, but the
>demand comes from them, not the parents."
>Her examples include Michael Kearney, who read signs and labels out
>loud at the supermarket aged 10 months. (He's now the country's only
>12-year-old graduate student in anthropology.) Or KyLee, who divined
>the existence of prime numbers on his own at age 5.
>Sorry, friend. She's not talking here about when you begged Mom for
>books on horses or Tom Swift when you were eight.
>Or, sad to say, even about me.
>As Ellen Winner argues in Gifted Children (Basic Books, 1996),
>prodigies can be distinguished from an early age from their peers.
>Prodigies show a fascination (bordering on obsession) with a certain
>content (e.g., numbers, visual patterns, auditory musical patterns)
>and they have a rage to master the domains that deal with such
>specific content. While they may have parental support, this support
>is reactive rather than initiating. Moreover, prodigies - unlike the
>rest of us - do not simply follow the conventional educational
>pattern. They pose new questions, and they often solve domain issues
>wholly or largely on their own. Philosopher Saul Kripke conjectures
>that if algebra had not existed when he was in elementary school, he
>would have invented it; and this kind of comment (whatever its truth
>value in the specific case) captures quite accurately the mental
>attitudes and powers of prodigies.
>No one understands the origins of prodigies. We simply have to
>generate satisfying ways of thinking about them. I find it useful to
>think of prodigies as having the same strategies and parameters with
>reference to their chosen content domain that all normal individuals
>have with respect to the mastery of one natural language. (In other
>words, we are all linguistic prodigies, while prodigies in other
>domains are rare). The prodigy seems "pretuned" to discover patterns
>in the domain, including ones that have eluded others. Perhaps, if
>it is to result in achievements that are valued by the adult
>society, this gift has eventually to be wedded to strong motivation
>(to succeed, to master) and to be creative (to step out in new
>directions); and, if it is to be distinguished from the mechanistic
>ability of the savant, it has eventually to be linked to wider
>problems, including issues from other domains. Dean Keith Simonton
>has written interestingly about the possibility that genius involves
>the very occasional concatenation of these disparate human
>proclivities and talents.
>I think that one is far more likely to understand Mozart, Bobby
>Fischer, or Ramanujun if one assumes that they differ in fundamental
>ways from the rest of the population than if one has to gerrymander
>an explanation that simply builds on the general abilities of the
>general public. Whether Ramanujun may have recalled an earlier feat
>of calculation, and whether the rest of us could also recognize the
>special features of the number 1729 is beside the point. Ramanujun
>is honored because he covered several hundred years of mathematics
>on his own in India and then made original contributions to number
>theory after he joined G. H. Hardy in Cambridge.
Dr. Winner's Nine Myths About the Gifted.
Myth #1: Giftedness, when it occurs, is generally global.
The Reality: More often than not, children are unevenly gifted,often
being especially gifted in one area. It's not uncommon to find them
quite gifted in a specific area, but average or learning-disabled in
another. (She gives the example of adult inventors with verbal IQ's
Myth 2: Talented children face different problems than gifted children.
The Reality: Specially talented children face the same problems as
the globally gifted.
Myth 3: An exceptionally high IQ is required for giftedness.
The Reality: Once the IQ exceeds 90, a high IQ is irrelevant in the
fields of music and art.
Myth 4: "Genius will out".
The Reality: Families play a far more important role in the
development of gifts than do schools, and are essential to the
development of the gifted or talents child. Genius must be nurtured.
Myth 5: Genius is entirely environmental.
The Reality: The brains of the gifted are atypical. Their heads tend
to be larger, their reflexes are faster, and their brains show
atypical brain scan patterns. Brain structure, brain size, brain
speed, brain efficiency, bilateral representation of language,
language-related problems, non-right-handedness, immune system
disorders. Programs such as the Japanese Suzuki Method of training
students to play the violin can elicit remarkable results in
children, but they don't produce musically gifted children. (Driven
from within, prodigies are their own taskmasters. If anything, these
programs testify to the biological basis of precocity.). Chinese
drawing instruction produces the same kinds of dramatic juvenile
output, but doesn't lead to true artistry, or to spontaneous learning
of artistic principles.
Myth 6: Prodigies are the result of parents that push their children.
The Reality: Prodigies usually push their parents.
Myth 7: Gifted children are glowing with psychological health.
The Reality: As with a disability, giftedness can lead to unhappiness
and social isolation. With adult minds in children's bodies,
profoundly gifted children tend to be persecuted by other children.
They tend to find little commonality with their age peers, relating
to older children or adults.
Myth 8: All children are gifted.
The Reality: Nobody doubts that some children are musical or athletic
prodigies. Nobody expects a small kid to become a tight end, or a
short child to become a Harlem Globetrotter. Gifted children are
biologically different. If you doubt it, try to raise someone's 90 IQ
to 150. Dr. Winner cites the intriguing case of Charles, versus Eitan
and Peter. All three boys were obsessed with drawing. However, Eitan
and Peter were far ahead of their years, whereas Charles, in spite of
all the drawing he did, never exceeded the norms for his age group.
Myth 9: Gifted children become eminent adults.
The Reality: Personality attributes more reliably predict what will
happen in adulthood than does the child's degree of giftedness.
Child prodigies are characterized by:
* Marching to their own drummers
* A rage to master
Dr. Winner cites two examples of global prodigies, "David" and
Michael Kearney. David began to speak at eight months, and by fifteen
months, knew 200 words. David learned to read at three, pushing his
mother to show him what the words meant. Then he began to read
voraciously, several books at a time. At five, he had reached a fifth
grade reading level. At fifteen months, he could count to ten. At
four, he could do simple two-digit additions in his head.
One way to describe David and other super-bright children with a
"rage to learn" is that they manipulate their environments in order
to render them intellectually stimulating.
Michael and Maeghan Kearney exemplify these characteristics.
(Please see also the Book Review "Accidental Genius" in the Premier
Issue of Ubiquity.) Michael began to talk at 4 months and to read at
10 months. He began high school at 5, and graduated from high school
at 6, promptly entering San Joaquin Junior College. At 10, he
graduated from the University of South Alabama with a 3.6 average in
anthropology, and graduated from Middle Tennessee State University at
14 with a degree in chemistry. (He holds four academic records in the
Guinness Book of World Records.) Maeghan is equally intelligent,
although not as far advanced scholastically as Michael. Both Michael
and Maeghan are globally gifted, and presumably, at the upper limit
of the human register. Both of them exhibited a "rage to learn" and a
need to stimulate their minds that was almost like a "magnificent
addiction". Both of them pushed their parents. Their parents devoted
all their resources to supporting their unique children, moving
around the country and making the sacrifices necessary to nurture
their children's gifts. The parents have gone all-out to ensure that
Michael and Maeghan are as well-rounded and emotionally healthy as
possible, and that they have had childhoods that are as normal as
children this precocious can have.
The Gifted Child:
* Is very alert
* Recognizes people at an early age
* Has a preference for novelty
* Is precocious in raising head, sitting up, walking, etc.
* Talks early and well
* Tends to be verreactive to noise, pain, frustration
* Learns with minimal instruction
* Is highly curious
* Exhibits persistence and concentration
* Possesses high energy
* Has a metacognitive awareness. Induces rules if reading and
math the way normal children induce the rules of syntax
* Has obsessive interests
* Tends to begin reading early and voraciously. Reading at
6th-grade level at 5 isn't unusual.
* Is adept with numbers. Mathematically giftedness: numerical,
spatial, and working memory tend to go tegether.
* Has a good memory
* Is proficient at abstract logical reasoning
* Tends to have poor handwriting
* Engages in solitary play (by default)
* Prefers to associate with older children or adults
* Exhibits philosophical and moral concerns
* Possesses a good sense of humor
* Experiences of awe
The highly gifted child:
* Occupies a special position within the family: often
first-born or only children.
* Grows up in "enriched" environments. Adam Konantovich.
* Typically has child-centered parents. Yehudi Menuhin
* Parents are driven.
* Has parents who grant considerable independence.
* Flourishes in an envrionment of high expectations and
stimulation, combined with nurturance and support.
When parents push too hard, the child may rebel or "burn out"
Examples of this phenomenon are John Stuart Mill and William Sidis.
Social and emotional problems
* Is characterized by autonomy, independence of thought and
values, will, and nonconformity.
* Engages in advanced moral reasoning.
* Tends toward introversion.
* Has heightened sensitivity.
* Lowered social self-Confidence
* Does the label "Gifted" cause problems?
* May underperform because they are underchallenged, and/or
because they want social acceptance.
* Enjoys a challenge
* Sets high standards
* Generally has academic self-esteem
Boys with SAT math scores above 700 were 13 times as prevalent as
girls. (However, the ratio is only 4:1 among Asian-Americans taking
The Terman-Cox Longitudinal (Lifetime) Study of Gifted Children
began in 1921-22 with a screening of ~250,000 schoolchildren in
California. Nominally, the top 1% were to be accepted into the study,
but in reality, only 1,526, or (0.6%) were accepted. To compound the
problem, the initial screening for the Terman Study was performed by
teachers. We know today what they didn't know in 1921: that the
brightest-seeming, best-behaved children may not be the brightest.
The brightest may be bored troublemakers or argumentative with the
teacher. In reality, the Terman Study selected much less than
half--perhaps, 20%- of the children who would later become gifted
adults. In particular, it missed the two children who would later
become Nobel Laureates in physics--Dr. William Shockley and Dr. Luis
Dr. Terman laid by the heels the adage, "Early to ripen, early to
rot". For the most part, his "Termites" went on to become successful
professionals. However, in his zeal to counter the pejorative notions
about prodigies that pervaded the public mind, Dr. Terman went a
little overboard. His data actually showed that the brighter the
child, the less well-adjusted he/she. was. There was a "sweet spot"
ranging from IQ 120 to, perhaps, IQ 150 where the individual is
smarter than the average bear, but not so smart that they have
problems adjusting to a lesser world--like the plight of a 6' 4" man
versus that of his 7' counterpart.
Special Problems for Gifted Children
* Because of their high energy levels and boredom with trivial
busywork, gifted children are often misdiagnosed with ADHD.
* Difficult to distinguish between boredom, disturbed, or
* 30% show a discrepency between MA and reading achievement.
Types of Gifted Programs
* Ability grouping
* Home schooling is last resort. Can't be with their peers.
Dr. Winner has this to say about our current offerings for gifted students:
* American schools have low standards
* Low standards lead to underachievement
* School plays litle or no role in the nurturing of their gifts
* Gifted chidren from disadvantaged backgrounds suffer most.
* Private schools
* Magnet schools
* Gifted programs
In 1972, the Marland Report concluded that:
* Only 4% of gifted students were getting any kind of special services
* Half the superintendents said they had no gifted children in
* Gifted are the most "retarded" in their schools because of
discrepency between abilities and what schools could offer them.
* Only disabled children have a law mandating that they get
special educational treatment. Only about a fifth of our states
include the gifted as special education students covered by the law
for the handicapped.
The Riley Report, a Follow-Up Study to the Marland Report:
* Again deplored the state of gifted education in our country.
* Observed that we offer far more services to retarded children
than to gifted children.
* IQ's 2 s. d. below the mean (68) are given special help.
* IQ's 3 s. d. below the mean (52) are enrolled in partial or
* IQ's 4 s. d. below the mean (36) are given special
supervision and are in institutions.
Dr. Winner Concludes that:
* We should pull up all school standards.
* We are wasting what few gifted resources we have.
The Gifted Child Grows Up
Benjamin Bloom: Not one world-class performer in a variety of fields,
including math, art, music, and athletics ever achieved expertise
without a supportive and encouraging environment, including a long
and intensive period of training, first from loving and warm
teachers, and then from demanding and rigorous master teachers.
Anders Ericsson: Levels of achievement reached in piano, violin,
chess, bridge, and athletics correlate highly with hours of
(Shows necessity but not sufficiency.)
Childhood: 30% hereditary, 30% family environment, 40% other environmental.
Adolesence: 50% hereditary, 10% familial, with 40% environmental.
Adulthood: 75% heredity, 5% childhood background, 15% environmental,
Eitan lost his passion for art.
Out of 70 musical prodigies in San Francisco in the 20's and 30's,
only 6 (including Yehudi Menuhin and Leon Fischer) went on to become
well-known soloists. Norbert Wiener, Jean Piaget, and Pablo Picasso
went on to become highly successful adults. There are four classes of
* Gifted children who drop out. Wiener made it; Sidis didn't.
* Gifted children who become experts, but not creative geniuses.
* Gifted children who become adult geniuses. Not only early
ability but a rebellious disposition.
* Late bloomers. Bill Gates, Edwin Land, Buckminster Fuller
Terman subjects were too well-adjusted.
Adult geniuses stand out far more clearly in personality and
Above an IQ of 120, there is no relationshiip between IQ and genius.
Some inventors have verbal IQ's as low as 60. Shockley and Alvarez.
Marilyn vos Savant. IQ tests tell nothing about social skills,
intrapersonal skills, "practical" intelligence, and resilience.
(Quotation about high-IQ societies.)
Greatest classical composers tended to have been child prodigies.
Prodigies take about three fewer years to achieve greatness, and they
tend to achieve greater adult eminence. However, the majority are not
child prodigies. Writing and the visual arts, and law and medicine
don't lend themselves to prodigies. Of Feldman's and Goldsmith's six
prodigies, only one chose a career directly related to his or her
field of precocity. Violin prodigy became a world-class violinist.
Writing prodigy became a writer for a music magazine. Adam
Konantovich attended an ordinary college and had a spotty record. The
math prodigy who entered college at 13 went to work at Goddard. The
two chess prodigies quit by 10 or 11. One did poorly in school; the
other went to law school. Adult creativity requires more than
mechanical knowledge. Adolescebnt identity crisis when prodigy
realizes that it takes more than mere know-how.
Geniuses are hard-driving, focussed, dominant, independent
risk-takers. Drive and energy. Attention, interest, and flow.
Dominance, confidence, and tolerance of competition. Independence and
Risk taking and a desire to shake things up.
The news that I find perhaps the most disturbing is that most
child prodigies don't mature into adult leaders in their fields. Once
the IQ reaches or exceeds a level of 120, there is no correlation
between adult intellectual output and IQ(!).On the other hand,
(1) There is a tremendous change in capability going from IQ 80 to IQ 120,
(2) The average IQ of Ph. D.'s is 130;
(3) The average IQ of Ph. D. physicists is 140.
Obviously, you have a better chance of becoming a Ph. D.
physicist if your IQ is 160 than you do if it's 120.
This conclusion of flat performance once the IQ exceeds 120 flies
in the face of common sense. If this is true, what are we doing wrong?
Says only 2 or 3 in 100 have IQ's of 130 or above. Only one in a
hundred has an IQ of 140 or above. 1 in 10,000-to-30,000 will score
160 or higher, only 1 in a 1,000,000 will exceed 180. Highest Termite
score was 196; average was 150. Average Ph. D. is 130; average Ph. D.
physicist is 140.
Gifted Children: Myths and Realities
The term "gifted" is emotionally loaded. Throughout history, genius
has often been seen as one aspect of insanity. Aristotle's
observation "There was never a great genius without a tincture of
madness" continues to be believed as common folklore.
People also tend to believe that intellectualism and practicality are
incompatible. It is expressed in such sayings as "He (or she) is too
smart for his (her) own good" or "It's not smart to be too smart."
High intelligence is often assumed to be incompatible with happiness.
Gifted children too have inspired fascination and awe, as well as
intimidation and envy. They have been rejected as nerds. Their
parents have been derided as zealots who live through their children
and deprive them of their childhood.
Our schools have often been criticized for refusing to modify the
curriculum for the gifted, or for pulling the smart kids in from
other schools in order to fill a gifted program. Despite lip service
paid to the gifted our society ignores the problem of how to identify
and nurture children with exceptional abilities.
In her new book "Gifted Children: Myths and Realities," Boston
College psychologist Ellen Winner examines the issues associated with
gifted children. In the book Winner explores the myths about
giftedness and shows us what these children are really like.
Tischler: How did you become interested in the topic of gifted children?
Winner: I am a developmental psychologist, so I am interested in
normal development. I also have been particularly interested in
artistic development, and as soon as you are interested in artistic
and musical children you are exposed to issues of extreme ability and
I also became interested in this topic because psychologists seem to
know a good deal more about the negative aspects of development than
the positive. We know a lot more about retardation than we do about
giftedness. So I felt there was much research that needed to be done.
Tischler: I have often noticed a level of hostility and resentment
toward programs for the gifted. Why is that the case?
Winner: I think that they are threatening. I think people feel
envious also. There is also an anti-elitism strain and an
anti--intellectualism strain. It's interesting, because I don't think
that we feel as hostile towards children who are artistically or
musically gifted or athletically talented. We are perfectly willing
to accept that there are children at the high end in those areas. We
know that these children get extra and special lessons after school.
The academically gifted, however, seem to bother people. If there are
certain children who are the academic elite, it means there are
others who are not, and people do not want to think that.
Tischler: In your book you mention several traits that are associated
with gifted children. What are these traits?
Winner: I talk about three traits. The first is precocity. These
children are extremely precocious. They do things years ahead of
their peers. For example, in the academic area they may start to read
at age two or three. They will talk early. One gifted child started
to talk before he was six months old. He was reading before he was
twelve months old. That was the most extreme case, a child named
Michael Carney, who has been in the news often. He was the youngest
college graduate ever, graduating at age ten.
A second characteristic is what I call a rage to master. Gifted
children are internally driven. They are driven to master their area
of talent. You don't need to push these children. They are pushing
The third characteristic is that these children march to their own
drummer. They are not just faster, they are also different. One way
that they are different is that they are extremely independent. They
need almost no adult support in order to master their domain. In
fact, they are often resistant to adult interference. They are also
different in that they seem to solve problems in unusual ways. They
don't just solve problems faster, but they come up with intuitive and
Tischler: Is there a difference between the academically gifted and
the aesthetically gifted?
Winner: In my book I talk about academic, musical, and artistic
giftedness. In the academic area I distinguish between math and
linguistic abilities. I think each of these areas has its own
developmental history, its own early signs, and needs to be
considered separately. The art and music children have all three of
the criteria for giftedness that I just mentioned.
I think it is a mistake to differentiate too strongly between the
aesthetically gifted and the academically gifted. We tend to call
academically gifted children "gifted," and musically and artistically
gifted "talented." We imply that there is some qualitative difference
between these two classes of children. I don't think they are
qualitatively different except for the domain in which they have
their talent. The musically and artistically talented are also
extremely precocious, they have this rage to master and they also
march to their own drummer.
Tischler: You also take issue with the statement that many teachers
make that all children are gifted and they all have talents that just
need to be nurtured and developed.
Winner: About twenty years the view was that no children were gifted.
Today the politically correct thing to say is that all children are
gifted. It also means that we do not need to do anything for these
children, because there are no special children and every child has a
gift. Of course every child has relative strengths and weaknesses,
but that is not the same as saying that every child has an extreme
area of ability. In my book I am talking about children who are
extremely gifted. It is certainly not the case that all children are
Tischler: How extensive are the programs for the gifted?
Winner: We really don't do that much, and it is particularly a
problem during the elementary school years. The most common form of
program for the gifted is an enrichment or pull-out program. That
means that the child is taken out of the classroom once or twice a
week for a forty minute session of a class that, it might involve
field trips, creative problem solving, projects, and just about
anything. These programs are not geared to any particular area of
giftedness and the way to get into these programs is to score 130 on
an IQ test or by a teacher recommendation. This means that these
programs are mostly populated by what I call moderately gifted
children, and they are in there with the extremely gifted. These are
minimal solutions to big problems. These kids then go back to the
regular classroom and are asked to spend the rest of the week
learning at a level for which they are much too advanced.
Parents of extremely gifted children need to find a school that is
specially set up for these children. If that is not possible, I would
recommend some moderate grade skipping, possibly one or two years. I
would also recommend a school that allows the child to advance at his
or her own pace. That might be the only solution parents can find
Who wants to be a genius?
Jan 13th 2001
From The Economist print edition
Psychologists are divided over whether genius is innate or acquired.
Nobody has yet been smart enough to figure it out
THOMAS EDISON gave his famous formula for genius as 1% inspiration
and 99% perspiration. Modern-day students of geniuses and prodigies,
though, argue over the relative contributions of more tangible
factors-of genetics, of physiology, of hours spent in training. Most
believe that geniuses have special genes. Almost nobody takes the
opposite stance: that prodigy performance, in any field, lies within
the grasp of anyone who cares to try hard enough.
Anders Ericsson, a psychologist at Florida State University, falls
into the minority camp. Given ten years of deliberate practice, Dr
Ericsson says, anyone should be able to attain prodigy-level
performance in his discipline of choice. The intuitive objection to
this idea is the "Mozart argument", as it is called by Brian
Butterworth, a neuroscientist at University College London who has
studied the psychological aspects of arithmetic for many years. This
argument is that not everyone can become a Mozart merely by dint of
hard work. Dr Ericsson wonders why not. After all, he argues, did not
Mozart become Mozart by dint of hard work?
This may seem to be easily refuted by popular legends about geniuses
such as Mozart, Paganini and Gauss, which report that they all showed
exceptional skills in early childhood before receiving a shred of
formal instruction. But Dr Ericsson points out that most of these
stories are, indeed, legends. Rather than rely on such myths, he
insists on studying those experts and prodigies who are living today.
Practice makes perfect
Dr Ericsson does not believe that the exceptional abilities of such
people are due to their innate talent. Rather, he explains their
performance by pointing out that they have developed powerful
memories for storing information about particular topics.
Psychologists recognise (and brain-science confirms) a distinction
between short-term "working" memory and long-term memory. Dr Ericsson
believes that prodigies get such impressive mileage out of their
working memories by placing important pieces of information into
their long-term memories in a way that makes them accessible to
working-memory processes. According to Dr Ericsson, this "long-term
working memory" is the essential ingredient for expert performance in
any field, from chess to typing to golf, and can be developed at will.
Recently, some neuroscientists tried to observe long-term working
memory in action. Nathalie Tzourio-Mazoyer at the University of Caen,
in France, and her colleagues, measured the brain activity of a maths
prodigy as he performed some feats of arithmetical acrobatics. Their
subject, Rüdiger Gamm, can calculate the fifth root of a ten-digit
numeral within seconds, and as quickly raise a two-digit number to
its ninth power. When asked to divide one integer by another, he
unhesitatingly recites the answer to 60 decimal places. Dr
Tzourio-Mazoyer's research, published in this month's Nature
Neuroscience, represents one of the first efforts to watch such a
performance as it unfolds in the brain.
Through the use of positron-emission tomography (PET), an imaging
technique, Dr Tzourio-Mazoyer's team found that Mr Gamm was using
more of his brain than normal controls, with whom they compared him,
as he performed his mathematical tricks. Both Mr Gamm and the
controls showed activity in 12 parts of the brain, but in five
additional areas, Mr Gamm alone showed any activity. Three of these
areas have previously been linked with the formation of episodic
memories, which are a kind of long-term memory.
Mr Gamm appeared to be using his long-term memory to store the
working results that he needed to complete his calculations-for
example, all the dividends and remainders of a division sum. His use
of this extra memory space meant that he could circumvent that
perennial pitfall of mental arithmetic, losing one's place. In other
respects, Mr Gamm's brain does not appear notably unusual. Nor does
he perform with exceptional aptitude on tests of skills that lie
outside his area of expertise, such as verbal recall. Moreover, Mr
Gamm, who is now 26, was not born with this computing ability. He
developed his skills, through four hours of practising memorisation
daily, only after he had passed the ripe old age of 20.
As both the PET scan and his past experience bear out, enhanced
memory appears to be the key to Mr Gamm's ability. So this study
seems to provide some neurological evidence for Dr Ericsson's idea
that long-term working-memory function underpins prodigy-level
performance. So far, so plausible. But Dr Ericsson also maintains
that such memory function, and the superlative performance that goes
with it, can be attained by anyone-biology no bar-given enough
practice and perseverance.
This is a much more contentious point. Twenty years ago, Dr Ericsson
tried to prove it by training some ordinary laboratory volunteers up
to prodigy-level performance in a number-memory task. Average people
tend to have a "digit-span" of seven-in other words they can recall a
string of seven random digits after hearing it read out once. But
after a year's practice, two of his particularly dedicated subjects
were able to increase their digit-spans to lengths of 80 and 100.
Just as Dr Ericsson took people with no discernible talent and turned
them into champions, so, in a fashion, did a Hungarian, Laszlo
Polgar. When he began training his daughters, it was widely believed
that women could not play serious tournament chess. But through a
deliberate (and still continuing) psychological experiment, Dr Polgar
and his wife created a trio of world-class chess champions out of
their own daughters, overturning this prejudice.
By 1992, all three had reached the women's top ten worldwide. The
third, who presumably received the most refined training regimen,
became the youngest grandmaster in the history of the game and is
reckoned by her peers to have a good chance of becoming world
champion one day. With remarkable, if not hubristic, prescience, Dr
Polgar had written a detailed book on the subject of child rearing,
entitled "Bring Up Genius!" before beginning the coaching of his
children. But would any child reared by such a parent have become a
Ellen Winner, a psychologist at Boston College who has been studying
the relationship between exposure to the arts and subsequent academic
achievement, believes not. She argues that only children with the
"rage to master" a skill could make it through the gruelling years of
training needed to achieve expert ability. The rage to master may be
the point at which nature unequivocally makes its constraints felt.
Even Dr Ericsson concedes that there might be a genetic component
separating the child willing to persevere with a rigorous schedule
from the child who would rather play videogames.
Put it another way: even if there are no born mathematicians or
musicians, there may be "born achievers". The particular area in
which such people make their mark might be determined purely by the
kind of environment or skill to which they were exposed and how hard
they then applied themselves. But among many psychologists this
all-purpose view of genius is not a popular one. Dean Simonton of the
University of California, San Diego, dubbed it the "drudge theory" of
genius in a recent book review.
Dr Simonton considers genius to have more of a genetic component. Yet
this conviction has not stopped him from writing a book of profiles
of psychologists who were reckoned to be geniuses. The American
Psychological Association will publish this book later this year, so
that its members may learn from Dr Simonton's observations on the
great prodigies of psychology. And though Dr Ericsson is not on his
list this year, in ten years from now he doubtless will be-if he
wants it badly enough.
Copyright © 1995-2001 The Economist Newspaper Group Ltd. All rights reserved.
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