My Brilliant Brain

my brilliant brain
accidental genius (3/3)

Exploring the incredible inner workings of the human brain, this series looks at some remarkable people and poses questions about the origins of genius: are these extraordinary abilities genetic, developed or acquired by accident? This final episode focuses on a rare group of people who have acquired incredible skills by accident – the savant. Among the stories featured are that of George Widener, an autistic man with a talent for numbers; and Tommy McHugh, a Liverpudlian builder who developed an insatiable appetite for art after suffering a brain injury.

Psychologist Darold Treffert of the University of Wisconsin has been studying savants for over 40 years. “A savant by definition,” he explains, “is somebody who has a mental handicap of some sort with… an island of genius.” The difference between a savant and a genius, therefore, is the disability. For George Widener, this disability is autism – a condition that leads to awkwardness and social isolation. At the age of seven, George spotted a calendar and was intrigued by “the magic of the rows of numbers.” Since then, he has found comfort in numbers, compiling lists of figures and calendars spanning centuries. He can now identify the day of the week from any given date.

The most remarkable thing about George’s skill is that nobody has taught him how to perform these calculations. In fact, George claims that there is no calculation involved at all. “I don’t have no formulas,” he explains. “It feels more like I’m lining things up.” Prodigious savants, like George, seem to come with a knowledge of music, maths or art already installed in their minds. So how is it that such people have these exceptional abilities?

Leading neurologist Joy Hirsch works with George to identify the areas of the brain he uses when performing his calculations. While scanning his brain to monitor activity, Hirsch presents her subject with a series of questions. Incredibly, she discovers that George’s brain, while structurally normal, is mysteriously ablaze with activity in unexpected areas. The professor’s results indicate that the brains of savants are wired differently to those of normal people, but such a discovery poses another question: how could a savant’s brain come to be wired differently?

In the case of Tommy McHugh, the rewiring seems to have occurred during a brain injury. Until five years ago, the Liverpudlian builder had never picked up an artist’s brush but, after a major brain haemorrhage nearly killed him, he awoke to a talent he never knew he had. Tommy is now consumed by a powerful compulsion to paint, and has covered the walls of his house with numerous pictures in a variety of styles.

Alice Flaherty, a neurologist at Harvard medical school, believes that Tommy’s injury caused an imbalance in activity in his brain. This imbalance led to an outpouring of creativity, normally associated with the right hemisphere of the brain, and a failure to suppress and control such creativity, a trait normally associated with the left hemisphere. Tommy, however, is unperturbed by the change he has seen in himself: “I’m glad it released art rather than negative waves,” he says. “This is beautiful!”

Professor Alan Snyder of the University of Sydney, also an expert in the field of the savant, suggests that as the human brain develops through learning sophisticated concepts like language and reasoning, it blocks out inherent abilities like art. “Our brain deliberately inhibits our access to the details that make up the big picture,” he theorises. In a undamaged brain, therefore, the left hemisphere naturally suppresses the right as it develops. His concept has far-reaching implications, since he believes that the inhibition of the left hemisphere of the brain in an adult – either by accidental means like illness or trauma, or by deliberate use of magnetic impulses – could result in the attainment of genius. “If we had an insight into how they do it,” he says of the talents of the savant, “we can get an insight into creativity.”

my brilliant brain
make me a genius (2/3)

Exploring the incredible inner workings of the human brain, this compelling three-part documentary series looks at a group of remarkable people and poses questions about the origins of genius: are these extraordinary abilities genetic, developed or acquired by accident? This episode focuses on Susan Polgar, the first female chess grandmaster, whose incredible story suggests that genius does not always have to be innate, but can be taught.

At 38 years old, Susan Polgar has reached heights that few women have ever equalled in the chess world. Despite the common assumption that men’s brains are better at understanding spatial relationships, giving them an advantage in games such as chess, Susan went on to become the world’s first grandmaster. Susan’s remarkable abilities have earned her the label of ‘genius’, but her psychologist father, László Polgar, believed that genius was “not born, but made”. Noting that even Mozart received tutelage from his father at a very early age, Polgar set about teaching chess to the five-year-old Susan after she happened upon a chess set in their home. “My father believed that the potential of children was not used optimally,” says Susan.

Throughout the rest of her childhood, Susan practised for hours, memorising thousands of moves and scenarios, and devouring books and stratagems. She took on the men in her local chess club at the age of five and began beating them. By the age of 15, she was the best female player in the world. A year later in 1985, she sensationally vanquished a male grandmaster for the first time. But Susan is not the only family member to achieve such incredible success – her younger sisters Judit and Zsófia are grandmaster and international master respectively, thanks to similar schooling from their father.

So how has Susan trained her brain to such a formidable degree? Chess is so complex a game that there are four billion choices for the first three moves alone. Susan has committed to memory tens of thousands of possible patterns and scenarios. Every time Susan sees a grouping of chess pieces on a board, she can browse through her back catalogue of memorised groupings, using instinct to tell her the right move. “We seem to heap a lot of praise on people’s calculating ability,” says former British champion William Hartston, “but we take for granted all sorts of mental abilities that are absolutely intuitive.”

Susan displays her skills as she takes on a friend at ‘Blitz’ – a form of chess in which players must complete their moves in just one minute. Susan uses her razor-sharp instinct to not only move her own pieces, but guess her opponent’s moves in milliseconds. “I have to trust my instincts, my recognition,” she explains. “It’s almost like guessing, but basing it on prior games and experience.”

In order to isolate the areas of her brain she uses when playing chess, Susan is given an MRI scan. There is an area at the front of the brain which deals with face recognition, allowing most people to remember a face in 100 milliseconds. Astonishingly, this is the very place where the experts find that Susan has moulded her recognition of 100,000 chess scenarios. Over years of childhood practice, Susan has hardwired these countless scenarios into her long-term memory and can recognise one in an instant – as quickly as someone might recognise the face of a friend or relative.

It is this lightning-quick instinct, coupled with a phenomenal memory and years of relentless practice, that have earned Susan the status of ‘genius’. Her story presents strong evidence to suggest that her father was right – genius may indeed be nurture over nature. “I really believe that if you put your mind to it,” reflects Susan, “you can achieve it, whatever it is”.

my brilliant brain
born genius (1/3)
monday, 21.00–22.00

Exploring the incredible inner workings of the human brain, this compelling new three-part documentary series looks at a group of remarkable people and poses questions about the origins of genius: are these extraordinary abilities genetic, developed or acquired by accident? Focusing on the case of young musician Marc Yu, the first episode in the series explores the development of child genius.

Marc Yu is a seven-year-old concert pianist with a repertoire of some 40 classical pieces. At the age of two, Marc heard a rendition of ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ at a birthday party, pulled himself up to a piano and played it back flawlessly. A year later, he was playing Beethoven from memory. But are his remarkable abilities based on hard work or was he simply born with a brilliant brain?

Developmental psychologist Professor Ellen Winner explains that people have always been fascinated with child geniuses because they are doing things at “the wrong age”. “They’re not supposed to be doing things so advanced,” she explains, “so they shock us.”

In order to play music, the brain must work at an incredible rate: concert pianists, for example, read notes, feel the keys, move their fingers and listen to sounds, all at the same time. Neuroscientist Gottfried Schlaug has scanned the brains of a number of professional musicians to see how they produce the extraordinary power that music demands. He has found that certain parts of the brain –the cerebellum and the corpus callosum –are larger in musicians than in other people. But are these physical distinctions born or created –does the brain shape music, or music the brain?

Schlaug has teamed up with Professor Winner to conduct a groundbreaking scientific study into natural genius. Tracing a group of 50 children learning music, the pair test the kids’ dexterity and intelligence, then scan their brains at various stages in their development. After only a year, it is clear that the children’s brains have changed, with the areas responsible for hearing and analysing music registering more activity. “The brain has a remarkable ability to adapt,” explains Schlaug. “Everybody born into the right environment with the right nurturing could potentially grow up to be a great musician.” But Winner does not believe that practice alone can create genius, suggesting that children with such potential have brains that are structurally different from birth.

To test the theory that children are born with exceptional abilities, it is necessary to locate the ‘genius gene’, but this requires a mammoth effort. Professor Robert Plomin of King’s College London is undertaking a project to find the genes that fuel intelligence. He has conducted a battery of tests to examine the differences in performance between identical and non-identical sets of twins. Using cutting-edge molecular biology, he compares DNA samples from twins with varying intelligence scores.

Though he calls the experiment “crude”, Plumin hopes that his work will answer the question of whether genetics is important in intelligence. “What’s clear is that we’re not dealing with one or two genes,” he explains. “We’re probably dealing with hundreds of genes of very small effect.” While he cannot settle the nature/nurture debate once and for all, Plumin does suggest something of a compromise: genetics could be responsible for various propensities in children’s brains, which must then be cultivated.

For Marc Yu, cultivation of skills is a huge part of his life: his whole world revolves around music, with piano practice taking up eight hours of every day. His mother, Chloe, is also committed to Marc’s growth, often losing sleep to prepare for his teaching. Whether created by his mother’s enthusiasm and devotion or his own genes, however, one thing is clear: Marc’s talent and thirst for development is staggering.

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