Who Wants to Be a Genius


Who Wants to Be a Genius?

Everyone is a genius at least once a year.
The real geniuses simply have their bright ideas closer together.

- Georg C Lichtenberg

To sentence a man of true genius, to the drudgery of a school
is to put a racehorse on a treadmill.

- Samuel Taylor Coleridge

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 10 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, Riidiger Gamm, can calculate the fifth root of a 10-digit numeral within seconds, and as quickly raise a 2-digit number to its 9th 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 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 5 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-Ievel 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-Ievel 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 Poigar and his wife created a trio of world-class chess champions out of their own daughters, overtuming 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 chess prodigy?

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.

Source: The Economist 13 January 2001

Einstein's cat

See also:

bulletWay Out Research on Obscure Topics (the previous story in this section) - Three cases are presented of porcelain lavatory pans collapsing under body weight, producing wounds which required hospital treatment.  Excessive age of the toilets was implicated as a causative factor.  As many toilets get older, episodes of collapse may become more common, resulting in injuries...

The Key to Genius

Matt Savage is a jazz phenomenon.
He’s also a perseverative hyperlexic with pervasive developmental disorder.

by Steve Silberman

Matt Savage launched his jazz career by attempting to improve a Schubert sonata.  His piano teacher told him that the G-sharp he just played was supposed to be a G-natural.  "It sounds better my way," he protested.  She replied that only when he wrote his own music could he take liberties with a score.  Keen on taking liberties, he became a jazz composer.  He released his fifth album this year, making guest appearances on the Today show, 20/20, and NPR.  Recently, his trio booked two shows at the Blue Note in New York City.  Matt Savage is a jazz phenomenon.  He’s also a perseverative hyperlexic with pervasive developmental disorder.  In May, he will celebrate his 12th birthday.

Matt is a musical savant.  The term savant dates from the late 19th century, when a small number of people in European asylums classified as feebleminded "idiots" were discovered to have extraordinary, even uncanny skills.  One had memorised The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire after reading it a single time.  Others were able to multiply long columns of numbers instantly and factor cube roots in seconds, though they could barely speak.

When Matt was 3, he was diagnosed with a form of autism called pervasive developmental disorder.  Autism and savant syndrome overlap, but they are not the same thing.  Nine out of 10 autistic people have no savant abilities, and many savants suffer from some form of neurological impairment other than autism.  Savant syndrome itself is rare.  The rarest of the rare is the prodigious savant, like Rain Man's Raymond Babbitt, who could memorise phone books, count 246 toothpicks at a glance, and trump the house in Vegas.  Darold Treffert, the leading researcher in the study of savant syndrome, estimates that Matt is one of fewer than 50 prodigious savants alive today.

But Matt is even rarer than that.  While the IQs of most savants are below 70, he is highly intelligent.  And while the musical prowess of savants is often confined to playing thousands of songs from memory in a stiff and mechanical way, Matt is a prolific composer and skilled improviser.  With the precocious abilities of a savant and the melodic imagination of a seasoned musician, he has dual citizenship in two countries of the mind.

Until recently, much of what we knew about savants came from the observations of clinicians like Treffert and neurologist Oliver Sacks, author of An Anthropologist on Mars and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.  Now researchers are probing the savant mind from the inside, using tools like gene mapping and PET scans.  As these two paths of investigation converge, many of our long-held notions about the limits of human potential are being overturned.

By studying the minds of people like Matt, neuroscientists are discovering that savants are more like the rest of us than the medical world once believed.  We're learning that the extraordinary skills of savants tap into areas of the mind that function like supercomputers, compiling massive amounts of data from the senses to create a working model of the world.  The traditional conception of the brain - two hemispheres that are hardwired from birth - is yielding to an understanding of the ways the regions of the cortex learn to function together as a network.

"We used to have this idea that we were born with a magnificent piece of hardware in our heads and a blank disk called memory," says Treffert.  "Now we have to acknowledge that the disk comes with software, that we were wrong in many of our assumptions about intelligence, and that the brain is much more capable of healing itself than we thought.  By finding out how savants work, we learn how we work."

I meet Matt and his mother, Diane, both fresh from a tv appearance, for lunch at a hotel in midtown Manhattan.  Four and a half feet tall, with huge brown eyes that seem to devour whatever he focuses on, Matt is as restless physically as he is mentally.  He doesn't so much sit in a chair as climb around it.  The unusual timbre of his mind is immediately apparent.  Scanning the menu, he exclaims, "Soy sauce on salmon, that's triple s!"  After the salmon arrives, he asks me my birthday - 23 December 1957.  "Monday's child," he says, "fair of face."

For savants, asking for a birth date is a common way of introducing themselves.  In every culture, the enhanced skills of savants cluster in the same narrow domains: numerical and calendar calculation, artistic and musical proficiency, mechanical aptitude, and feats of memorisation.  These tasks draw primarily on the strengths of the brain's right hemisphere, indicating that, in many savants, a healthy right hemisphere is overcompensating for damage to the left.  Many savants are left-handed, and most have deficits in language - additional clues that something is amiss in the left hemisphere.

In autistic savants, like Matt, the problems are more pervasive.  Autism rewires the brain's entire network, from the limbic system to the executive functions in the frontal lobes that enable us to absorb new experiences, prioritise tasks, set goals, and imagine the future.  When these are damaged, we're at the mercy of a flood of incoming sensory impressions and conflicting impulses.

I can see this in Matt as his eyes dart around the restaurant.  He's intensely awake to the world but perpetually distractible.  Being with him is exhilarating and exhausting.  While I scribble in my notebook, he slaps his hand on the table.  "This is not lunch, this is questions," he groans.  "Let's do something interesting like proportions at work!"  Then a torrent bursts out of him: Did you know that if you had the metabolism of a shrew you would have to eat 600 hamburgers a day?  Or that if you grew as fast as a snake you would be taller than mountaintops and heavier than two and a half million elephants in a month?  And if you could jump like a flea, you could leap over Lady Liberty's torch!  There's a mechanical quality to Matt's relentless enumerations, as if his brain copes with information overload by siphoning the river of his experience into streams of quantities and ratios.

For Matt, the constraints of harmony and rhythm must be comforting, while the freedom of improvisation offers him a kind of measured release.  Savants are drawn in particular to the piano, which neatly subdivides the universe of sound into a linear map with 88 keys.  Like the calendar, the piano orders the chaos of experience into a system of "proportions at work."

One night in 1991 when Diane was pregnant with Matt, she went to a blues club in SoHo.  The moment the band stopped playing, she felt the baby inside her "kicking for more," she says.  "I felt happy that he was so responsive to what was happening outside of his little world."  But soon after Matt was born, it became obvious that his acute sense of hearing was overwhelming him.  He would stop nursing if Diane spoke even a word while he was at her breast.  The din of windshield wipers, blenders, and vacuum cleaners was excruciating to him.  He seemed unusually bright - he started reading street signs and counting his Cheerios out loud before his first birthday.  But his speech was decidedly odd.  If Matt was thirsty, he would hold up a cup and say, "Do you want juice?"

When Diane and her husband, Larry, tried to socialise with other parents, Matt would run out of the house.  His preschool expelled him after two days for refusing to stay in his chair.  Diane loved to play piano, but once her son's hypersensitivities became the prevailing weather in the household, the upright in the family room sat silent.  If she settled down to play, Matt would yell, "No!" and snatch her hands off the keys.

Clearly, something was wrong.  Diane brought her son to Children's Hospital in Boston for a thorough neurological workup.  The doctor had to lie on the floor beside Matt to get him to focus on their conversation.  He looked at Diane gravely and said, "Your son has pervasive developmental disorder with hyperlexia.  He's perseverative and echolalic and speaks in a Gestalt manner."  Diane diligently took notes.  Finally she asked him, "What does this all mean?"  He replied, "It means it's something that will never go away."

After giving themselves a crash course in raising an autistic child, Larry and Diane put Matt through Auditory Integration Training, a form of music therapy that reduces the distress caused by ordinary sounds.  At the same time, the positive aspects of Matt's quirky brain began to emerge.  Unlike many autistic kids, he can read other people's feelings.  And his habit of counting Cheerios had ripened into a passion for numbers.  When Matt was 6, he confided to his mother, "My mind is made of math problems."  Diane started buying him math workbooks for kids twice his age.  He zipped through them so quickly, she learned to hide a few in a drawer so he'd have something to work on the following day.

Then one night, Diane and Larry heard a melody coming from downstairs.  It was their son, playing London Bridge on a toy keyboard.  Diane brought Matt into the family room and introduced him to the middle C on the piano.  Within a day, he was devouring music books as hungrily as he had math books.  Matt took classical lessons for a year, then Diane enrolled him in the jazz program at the New England Conservatory of Music.  Upon meeting his first jazz instructor there, a bearish Israeli whose last name is Katsenelenbogen,  Matt cried out, "Six syllables!"

Teaching Matt was a challenge - at first, he would strike a single note on the piano and run to the back of the room to stand on his head.  But Eyran Katsenelenbogen was an empathetic teacher.  "I have always performed and recorded solo," he says.  "There's something slightly autistic about that."

Matt progressed quickly.  Other students would learn two or three pieces in a lesson, while Matt would tear through a dozen.  Katsenelenbogen came to see a connection between Matt's hyperspeed number-crunching and his jazz mind: "Matt has an amazing ability to calculate relationships between chords and lines, which can all be expressed in numbers."

As we finish lunch, Matt asks me in his distinctively high-pitched voice, "Did you know that numbers can be friendly and amicable?"  He means friendly and amicable in the math-geek sense - numbers that can be factored into one another - but I also felt he was using those words in their ordinary sense.  Matt is intimate with numbers.  They come to him in dreams and inspire him to write songs.  One of his tunes on the album Groovin' on Mount Everest is called "Forty-Seven" - a number he feels is "lonely" because when he asks people to think up a random number, no one ever chooses it.

The philosopher-mathematician Gottfried Leibniz called music unconscious counting.  The music of Matt's consciousness is mathematics.

Geneticists are starting to pinpoint the DNA anomalies found in kids like Matt who are savants from birth.  Still, a single savant gene will probably never be found.  More than a dozen genes may contribute to autism.  Several other forms of mental impairment also produce islands of startling ability - known as splinter skills - as if fragments of savant code are scattered throughout the genetic database.

Last year, researchers at Vanderbilt University discovered a cluster of abnormalities on chromosome 15 in the families of autistic savants.  Another set of irregularities on the same chromosome produces learning-disabled kids who can solve jigsaw puzzles twice as fast as other children and have an insatiable desire to overeat - Prader-Willi syndrome.  A third chromosomal disorder, called Williams syndrome, results in mental retardation, poor coordination, and a different set of splinter skills.  Williams kids, who have distinctively elfin facial features, are naturally outgoing, love to schmooze, and have a propensity for florid verbal constructions (hyperlexia), similar to Matt's discourse on proportions.

Like savants, people with Williams syndrome have an unusual relationship with the audible world.  Some are terrified as children by the hum of household appliances, but others become connoisseurs of the rich drones of machines, like a boy described in the clinical literature who had a collection of 18 different vacuum cleaners.  Many people with Williams also excel at picking out the notes in a chord.  Some are so sensitive that they can identify the make and model of a car from the sound of its engine.  In tests conducted at a music camp in Massachusetts, psychologists found that the errors made by Williams kids were more musical than those made by a control group.  On a clapping test, those in the control group sometimes just dropped the beat, but the Williams kids made mistakes that elaborated on the rhythms.  They were jamming.  In the same way that Matt's mind is made of math problems, the minds of Williams syndrome kids are made of sound.  As one girl told a researcher, "Music is my favourite way of thinking."

In the 1980s, the search for a single cause underlying the various forms of savant syndrome led neurologists Norman Geschwind and Albert Galaburda to propose a bold theory that would account for autism, dyslexia, stuttering, and a number of other disorders that seem to have a basis in left-hemisphere dysfunction.  Male savants outnumber females 5 to 1.  The problem, hypothesised Geschwind and Galaburda, is testosterone.

The nerve cells in a fetal brain proliferate at an astonishing rate, with 250,000 neurons born every minute.  These cells are engaged in a fierce Darwinian contest.  The goal: interconnectedness.  In a fœtus that is developing normally, those neurons that do not form synaptic links with the other cells are killed off before birth.  After eight weeks of gestation, the testes in a male fœtus start pumping out nearly as much hormone as they will at puberty, and Geschwind and Galaburda theorised that in some brains, this flood of testosterone interferes with the assembly of the neural network, resulting in a tangle of miswired connections.

A breakthrough study published in July supports the notion that in autistic savants, something goes wrong in this cycle of growth and pruning.  Eric Courchesne at UC San Diego found that most autistic children are born with brains that are smaller than normal.  In the first year, however, their brains grow dramatically until they're larger than normal, reaching maximum size at age 4 or 5 - eight years earlier than the brains of most people.

The brains of typical children grow in response to lessons learned from the environment - that was one of the significant upgrades in the evolution of Homo sapiens.  As new stimuli are absorbed, the neurons in the cortex adapt gradually, and synaptic connections are forged or eliminated.  Our brains are cast in the image of our experience.  The overgrowth of the brain tissue of autistic kids, however, is random and automatic, a reaction to an unknown stimulus - perhaps testosterone or some toxic agent in the environment.  The result, says Courchesne, is an onslaught of neural noise that makes the infant lose the ability to make sense of its world.

The director of the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge University, Simon Baron-Cohen, makes the case in his new book The Essential Difference that autism represents an extreme manifestation of the "male brain."  In his view, male brains are hardwired for "extracting the underlying rules that govern a system."  (He carefully adds, "Your sex does not determine your brain type.")  While the jury is still out on testosterone, a set of clinical studies in the UK confirm that both male and female savants are better at extracting the rules that govern systems than normal people.

Psychologists Beate Hermelin, Neil O'Connor, and John Sloboda hosted a neuromusical battle of the bands between a 19-year-old musical savant and a professional pianist.  The researchers played Edvard Grieg's Melody and a selection from Béla Bartók's Mikrokosmos for both and asked them to reproduce the pieces from memory.  The savant recalled all 64 bars of Melody, striking wrong notes only 8% of the time.  (He played the piece equally well, without hearing it again, the following day.)  The professional pianist, however, remembered less than half the piece and hit 10 times as many wrong notes.  The professional pianist fared better on Mikrokosmos, making not nearly as many mistakes, though he still recalled far fewer notes than the savant.

By analysing all of the performances, the researchers concluded that the savant memorised Grieg's piece more easily than Bartók's because Melody obeys the rules of classical diatonic form - rules that he had already extracted in the normal course of listening to music.  But Bartók's music intentionally breaks those rules.  The professional pianist simply played back whatever notes he heard.  For the savant, trying to reconstruct Mikrokosmos was like trying to recall syntactic structures in a language he didn't speak.

Hermelin and her colleagues found that savants also use rule-based strategies for calendar calculating.  For a long time, the assumption was that they memorised tens of thousands of day-date pairings during months of obsessive practice.  But as in music, the researchers discovered that when figuring dates in the distant past or future, savants supplement their prodigious memories with algorithms they derive from the cycles of the calendar.

In The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Oliver Sacks wrote memorably about the calculating twins, George and Charles, who amused themselves for hours trading 6-digit prime numbers with what Sacks described as "holy intensity."  The twins were incapable of performing even simple multiplication.  They told Sacks that they saw prime numbers just appear in their minds.  In most savants, these processes are as invisible to them as our own cognitive strategies are to us.  Matt Savage, however, is able to watch his own autistic brain at work.  When I ask him to explain how he determined that I was born on a Monday, he patiently draws a grid in my notebook illustrating the algorithm he applied.

To understand how even profoundly retarded savants can do such complex calculations subconsciously, Darold Treffert says, requires an examination of one of the oldest, least-evolved regions of the brain: the primitive storehouse of memory.  Trim and soft-spoken at 70, Treffert met his first savants in 1962 at a Wisconsin state hospital where he was assigned to found a new children's unit.  One young patient named David had memorised the timetables for the entire Milwaukee bus system; given a route number, he could announce the scheduled location of a bus at any time of day.  Another boy, Tony, would rattle off an exhaustive list of historical events that occurred on that day.  He sounded "like the radio announcer on the morning show I listened to on the way to work - except that the announcer read it from an almanac.  Tony was an almanac," Treffert wrote in Extraordinary People: Understanding Savant Syndrome.

There is no single unified memory function in the brain.  Just as there are many types of remembering - retaining a phone number long enough to dial it, recollecting Proustian panoramas after a bite of madeleine - there is a diverse set of subsystems for imprinting experience in the mind.  The memories of savants run deep but narrow.  They can recite, forward or backward, the contents of a book they've read and tell you the number of steps they took to the store.  Their memories are high-fidelity - concrete, precise, and comprehensive - but there is little emotion in them.  Musical savants are frequently described as human tape recorders.

This oddly adhesive memory is what binds together every domain of savant skill.  In the brains of savants, Treffert believes, associative memory systems located in the higher regions of the cortex fail, and older parts of the brain - the ancient pathways in the basal ganglia known as habit memory - take over.  Habit memory is Pavlovian, an archive of involuntary stimulus/response loops - the memory that never forgets how to ride a bike.  To reproduce a Bach sonata with slavish accuracy requires an inner tape recorder and a book of rules.  But to play Bach with fire and originality requires Proustian memory, with its nuanced webs of association and metaphor.  This higher-order memory, like a living text, is constantly under revision.  It's not just that savants remember everything, says Treffert, it's that they are unable to forget anything, like the protagonist in Jorge Luis Borges' short story, Funes the Memorious.

Treffert is convinced that some savants don't have to learn the algorithms involved in tasks like calendar calculating.  The software comes preinstalled.  "You have to go beyond talking about traits," he says, "and start talking about the genetic transmission of knowledge."  The drawing abilities of most savant artists, for example, burst forth with no preparation, no training, and no practice - as if their skills were already there, fully fledged, needing only access to a pencil or a brush.  Children who seem to come into the world with profound artistic gifts have been objects of fascination for centuries, but recent discoveries suggest we may all carry a savant inside us waiting to be born.K

One of the first researchers to propose this radical notion was UC San Francisco neurologist Bruce Miller, who noticed that certain people diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia, or FTD, suddenly develop aptitudes for music and art when their language faculties are ravaged by the disease.  One patient of Miller's, a 78-year-old linguist, began composing classical music soon after the onset of dementia, though he had little musical training; he felt that his mind was being "taken over" by notes and intervals.  Another patient, an established landscape artist, turned toward abstraction and painted even more expressively as her verbal skills declined.  Brain scans of FTD patients confirm patterns of damage similar to those found in many savants.

As the disease progresses, these patients experience curious perceptual alterations, becoming more attentive to textural details, visual patterns, and sounds.  They become obsessed with their new creative pursuits just as savants do with their timetables, maps, and daily routines.  The landscape artist, a 57-year-old woman, stopped working alone in her studio and began sketching people in cafés and painting nudes.  Miller formulated a provocative hypothesis to explain the fact that as some FTD patients get worse, they also get better.  He posited that the dementia does not create artistic powers in these patients, it uncovers them.  The disorder switches off inhibitory signals from the left temporal lobes, enabling suppressed talents in the right hemisphere to flourish.

This ability of the brain to heal itself and compensate for loss of function is called neuroplasticity.  But the brain's ability to redraw its own cortical maps on the fly is not limited to routing around damage.  In Germany, a young man named Rüdiger Gamm, who is not autistic and did poorly at math in school, has trained himself to divide prime numbers to the 60th decimal point, calculate 5th roots, and raise numbers to the ninth power in his head - skills previously thought to be the lofty province of math geniuses and savants like the calculating twins.  People typically use short-term memory to solve math problems, but PET scans show that Gamm has recruited areas of his long-term episodic memory - the neurological archive of his life story - to perform his lightning calculations.  Brian Butterworth of the Institute for Cognitive Neuroscience in London compares what Gamm is doing to the way "computers extend the capacity of RAM by using swap space on the hard drive to create a larger 'virtual memory.'"

A decade ago, this kind of DIY cortical hacking would have been strictly Philip K Dick territory, but neuroscientists are discovering that the processing centres in our heads swap resources all the time.  When most people listen to a piece of music, they track melody with the right hemisphere and rhythm with the left.  But among professional musicians, both are tracked with the left, which handles behaviours that have become routine.  MRI scans show that skilled violinists have enlarged areas of tissue in the left planum temporale, an auditory crossroads that serves both music and language.  The left planum temporale is also home to one of the most enviable savant skills, called absolute pitch.  Mozart had it when he was 7 - a family friend wrote that "on hearing a bell toll or a clock, or even a pocket watch, strike, he was able at the same moment to name the note."  While relative pitch (the ability to judge that one note is A after being given another note, like C) is common, absolute pitch is considered rare even among professional musicians.  But many people with Williams syndrome have absolute pitch, as do nearly all musical savants.

Diana Deutsch, an expert in music cognition, discovered that, as children, we all may have had Mozart's ear for identifying notes but then lost it - unless we were lucky enough to grow up speaking tonal languages such as Mandarin, Cantonese, or Vietnamese.  It turns out that speakers of these languages use absolute pitch every day, but in conversation, rather than in the concert hall.  Deutsch digitally compared recordings of native speakers of Chinese and Vietnamese saying the same phrases on different days.  In Mandarin, ma can mean mother, horse, or hemp, with the rising or falling tones determining the meaning.  The tones employed on different days were remarkably consistent, varying as little as a quarter of a semitone, the smallest interval in Western music.  "It looks as though there's a critical period when every infant has the opportunity to learn absolute pitch, if they grow up in a culture where pitch is associated with meaning," Deutsch explains.  By starting music training early, every child might be able to preserve this inborn ability.

As new research reveals more areas of untapped potential in the brain, some neurologists are asking whether there might a way for the average person to switch on these hidden skills without having to suffer the kinds of brain trauma seen in Miller's dementia patients.  In a laboratory in Australia, one self-styled revolutionary has taken up the cause of liberating our inner savant from the benevolent tyranny of the left hemisphere.  Trained as a physicist, Allan Snyder helped usher in the modern fibre-optics era with his breakthroughs in optical waveguide transmission in the 1960s.  At the Centre for the Mind in Sydney, Snyder has built on the work of Treffert, Sacks, and others to suggest that autistic savants have "privileged access" to the mind's raw data before it's parsed and filtered by the brain's executive functions.  Musical savants, in his view, have absolute pitch because they tap directly into the discrete frequency receptors in the cortex without any left-hemisphere meddling.  Savant artists draw with exceptional accuracy, he says, because "they see the world as it really is.  Our knowledge and expertise blind us," Snyder told me last spring.  "If we could switch off our conceptual mind, we could have a momentary literal viewing of the world."

Where Snyder and his mentors part ways is on how to go about switching off the conceptual mind.  His method is to create a "virtual lesion" in the left temporal lobes by bombarding them with magnetic pulses, using transcranial magnetic stimulation.  Volunteers given TMS, Snyder says, draw more naturalistically, and their proofreading skills also improve, because they see what's in front of their eyes, rather than what their conceptual minds think they're seeing.  Profiled in The New York Times Magazine last summer in an article called "Savant For a Day," Snyder has captured the imagination of the press by predicting that someday, anyone will be able to don a TMS "thinking cap" and boost their creativity with a dose of savant-style cognition.

There's only one problem.  Researchers at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, couldn't replicate the results of Snyder's experiments.  Volunteers who received TMS showed no statistically significant improvement on tasks at which savants typically excel, except for a small increase in a test related to long-term memory.  Some skills actually declined slightly.

Treffert, who has been studying the minds of people like Matt for 40 years, is skeptical of Snyder's shortcut to accessing savantlike skills.  "The likelihood of significant savant abilities emerging in a 10- or 20-minute TMS session in normal volunteers is, in my view, zero."  Oliver Sacks, whose books inspired Snyder to enter the field, visited the Centre for the Mind last year.  Sacks' own session under the thinking cap, however - now immortalised in a photo on Snyder's website - lasted only a few minutes.  "It gave me a headache," he recalls, "or rather, a face ache."  But Sacks' conversations with Treffert and Snyder have led him to reconsider his statement in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat that autistic savants are "a strange species in our midst, odd, original, wholly inwardly directed, unlike others."  These days, Sacks is weighing the possibility that savants may be more like us than he thought.  "It's the isolation of powers in the savant that is so peculiar, but one might say the same about many people - particularly musicians.  I now think that the presentation of great musical powers may be rather similar in the savant and in the future composer."  The crucial difference, he adds, is that the musical gifts of savants "fail to develop in the same creative way" as the skills of future composers.

Sadly, in many cases, their gifts fail to develop at all.  The artistic powers of a celebrated savant named Nadia - a British girl who began drawing at age 3 with more accuracy and subtlety than many adult artists - ebbed at age 9, when she learned to speak.  The brilliant careers of many musical prodigies are cut short in adolescence, when innate talent must become a craft and a left-hemisphere routine.  Many savant life stories follow a difficult trajectory from an astonishing debut to an anonymous fate.

"When Matt was very young," his mother tells me, "it was difficult for me to imagine a future for him."  Matt's future as a musician will be determined by what is still a neurological mystery: creativity.

For most of the 20th century, intelligence was viewed as an all-purpose, monolithic power, christened g by psychologist Charles Spearman.  Creativity was believed to be a side effect of a high level of general intelligence - a mark of big g.  The father of the standardised-testing industry, Lewis Terman, created the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale to quantify this power.  He launched the longest scientific study in history, Genetic Studies of Genius, to track the accomplishments of highly gifted grade-school children through the course of their lives.  His hope that an impressive IQ score would augur groundbreaking accomplishments in science and art, however, didn't pan out.  His young Termites, as he affectionately called them, did end up earning slots at better universities and getting hired for executive positions, often with help from Terman.  They gave the world two memorable inventions: the K ration and I Love Lucy.  (Both Ancel Keys, who perfected single-meal pouches for the US Army, and Jess Oppenheimer, the creator of the popular TV show, were Termites.)

For the most part, however, real genius slipped through Terman's net.  None of his prodigies won major scientific prizes or became important artists, while two students excluded from the study for having insufficient test scores, William Shockley and Luis Alvarez, went on to earn Nobels.

Howard Gardner rallied the anti-Terman forces in 1983 with his influential book Frames of Mind.  In place of g, Gardner proposed 7 modular faculties in the brain, each with its own stronghold of competence.  Savants seemed to be the living proof of his theory: in the case of Nadia, while her linguistic intelligence was impaired, her spatial intelligence was highly developed.  Gardner compared these separate but equal modules of intelligence to highly tuned computational devices.  But, like Terman, Gardner missed something: the difference between computation and creativity.  If a bottomless literal memory and a set of algorithms were enough to make us significant artists and composers, our iPods and museums would chronicle a history of savant breakthroughs.  The computational abilities of savants may give them glimpses of the world as it really is, as Snyder says.  But creativity is also the ability to imagine the world as it is not - to make conceptual leaps and refine the raw data of experience into abstract ideas, meaning, and insight.  That is precisely the function of the most recently evolved areas of the brain - the regions of the prefrontal cortex that are damaged or impaired in many savants.

Sacks maintains a personal shrine to creative intelligence over his desk in Greenwich Village.  There, his friends smile from a collection of photographs: the chemists Roald Hoffman and Linus Pauling, the virologist D Carleton Gajdusek, the playwright Jonathan Miller, the neuroscientist Vernon Mountcastle, and a 19-year-old wunderkind, Nick Younes, whom Sacks calls Big Nick.  "These people are very unlike savants," he explains.  "They're people of great all-around g.  One feels it strongly in the size of someone's universe, its depth and spaciousness, in their intellectual agility, and in the power of generalising, which seems to cross all the particular modalities."

The mark of real genius is that it leaves its own domain permanently changed.  After a century of dissecting the cortex into smaller and smaller bits, we're learning that the highest functions of the mind - creativity and imagination - are emergent properties of a brain working as a whole.  And a rare mind like Matt's is the product of something even larger than that: a social network.  His parents introduce him to other musicians, buy him CDs so he can learn from musical innovators of the past, and find teachers like Katsenelenbogen.  (I once asked Matt if he was familiar with Miles Davis' Kind of Blue.  "Every jazzman," he sniffed, "knows Kind of Blue.")  They also know when it's time to stop taking calls from talk-show bookers and just let him be a kid, at home among his melodies and his numbers again.

On a stage in Florida, Matt sits down at a piano in front of a sold-out audience to record an album called Chasing Your Tail.  His trio takes liberties with 7 original tunes and 3 standards - "Body and Soul," "Chelsea Bridge," and "My Favourite Things."  As he plays, he rocks from side to side because his arms are too short to span the keys.  The notes pour out of him, as if they had a mind of their own.

Greatness Diagnosed

Are certain forms of creativity enhanced by brain damage?  Do the same genetic traits that produce disorders like savant syndrome, autism, and Tourette's contribute to genius?  Hans Asperger, who in the early 1940s pioneered the study of autism, believed the answer was yes.  "For success in science and art," he wrote, "a dash of autism is essential."  The biographies of many innovative thinkers bear him out.

Thelonious Monk
Jazz composer and improviser
Possible diagnosis: Tourette's syndrome
The high priest of bebop spoke in a medley of grunts and cosmic aphorisms and danced around his piano - and his ticcish syncopations blasted jazz out of the swing era.
Carl Friedrich Gauss
Mathematician and astronomer
Possible diagnosis: prodigious savant
Gauss taught himself to read at age 3; by 10 he was considered a math prodigy.  His discoveries in number theory threw open the gates of post-Euclidian geometry.
Glenn Gould
Classical pianist
Possible diagnosis: Asperger's syndrome
Gould was a legendary control freak in the studio.  But when he sat down at the piano, he channeled Bach.  Like many savants, he had absolute pitch and a steel-trap memory.
Samuel Johnson
Writer and lexicographer
Possible diagnosis: Tourette's syndrome
Johnson, the author of the first English dictionary, was prone to ritualistic movements punctuated by outbursts of barnyard noises and fragments of the Lord's Prayer.
André-Marie Ampère
Physicist and mathematician
Possible diagnosis: prodigious savant
A pioneer in the study of electromagnetism, Ampère started calculating even before he could read numbers, working out complex formulae with stones and cookie crumbs.
Temple Grandin
Professor of animal science
Diagnosis: high-functioning autism
Grandin designs more efficient and humane livestock-handling facilities by taking a cow's-eye view, using an autistic mode of cognition that she calls "thinking in pictures."

Source: wired.com/wired 2003 photo credit Michael Elins; contributing editor Steve Silberman (digaman@wiredmag.com) wrote about the making of Matrix Reloaded in Wired 5 November

See also:

bulletDementia "Affects Musical Taste" - Dementia can bring out artistic talents in people who never had them before.  In one study, it was observed that patients developed artistic talents, including music and drawing, which flourished while the dementia worsened...
bulletNeurologically Atypical - A page about autism

World's Cleverest Woman Can't Find a Job

A Bulgarian woman rated the world's cleverest wants a British firm to give her a job after spending two years on the dole.  Bulgarian Daniela Simidchieva, a mother of 3, has 5 Masters Degrees and an IQ of almost 200.  She's listed by the country's Mensa office as the world's cleverest but despite sending off hundreds of applications she still hasn't found a job.  Her IQ is the same as that of chemist Marie Curie who was the first person to win the Nobel Prize twice but cannot even get a cleaning job.  Daniela said: "I love learning, but I also want to work.  In the last 44 years I have studied economics, education and sociology at universities in Bulgaria and Britain.  "I am qualified as an industrial engineer, as an English teacher and as an electrical engineer as well as having my five Masters degrees.  But in Bulgaria I have found that employers do not want clever employees.  Even when I had a job, the largest salary I ever managed was just £90 a month."

Source: ananova.com

Excuse me, but it took the smartest person in the world TWO YEARS to figure out she had a problem?  She's never really worked but instead became a career student?  And at whose expense?  Why not just keep studying, then?  There is no mention of research done or books written or accomplishments other than over-done preparation.  Perhaps its possible to be TOO smart, if you do it at the expense of living a full, well-rounded life.  And she feels pontential employers are jealous of her intelligence?  That says a lot.

How to Be a Genius

I never did a day’s work in my life.  It was all fun.

- Thomas Alva Edison

We don't know a millionth of one per cent about anything.

- Thomas Alva Edison (again)

The American physicist and inventor Thomas Alva Edison (1847 - 1931) is the undisputed king of inventors, a modern Leonardo da Vinci.  As well as the electric light bulb, his Menlo Park and West Orange "invention factories" developed the first electric power station, the alkaline battery, the record player, the first mechanical duplicator and moving pictures.  He helped to make the telegraph, typewriter and telephone commercially viable.  He even designed concrete furniture.  He took out more patents* than any other inventor in history and, when he died in 1931, he left behind more than three million page of notebooks and letters.  Today, his light bulb is the internationally accepted symbol for a bright idea.

It didn’t start well.  "My father thought I was stupid", he wrote, "and almost decided I was a dunce."  Edison’s education consisted of 3 months schooling at the age of 7, after which he was expelled for being "retarded."  He was taught at home by his mother Nancy, where he became particularly fond of chemistry - labelling all his jars "Poison."  Modern psychologists believe that he was either dyslexic or suffered from Attention Deficit Disorder.  His first job was as a paperboy for a railroad company.  Then he was off.  He bought some second-hand printing equipment and became the first person ever to produce a newspaper from a train.

He did not invent the light bulb, but he was the first person to make it practical.  His bamboo filament was much more effective than the cotton or cardboard he had previously used.  One of his original bamboo bulbs is still in the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC.  (Oddly enough, Alexander Graham Bell also used bamboo for the first needle of his own version of the phonograph.)

The one invention that Edison can truly lay claim to is the phonograph, but he had terrible taste in music and a childhood illness had left him almost totally deaf.  His prototype phonograph still bears the tooth marks from where he wedged his mouth against it to "hear" the vibrations.  Despite this, he insisted on choosing all the music for the wax cylinders himself.  He had originally intended the machine to be used not for music at all, but to allow dolls to talk.

Edison was afraid of the dark, but found the most effective way to solve difficult problems was to sit in the cupboard under the stairs.  He cut his own hair and, as he got older, began to dress completely in black.  This led to him frequently being mistaken for a priest.  He believed that the human brain was operated by a series of "little people" that lived inside the head and that when he died his little people would depart and reassemble inside another person.  The French anatomist Paul Broca (1824 - 1880) had identified the quarter-inch filament of cortex in the left frontal lobe of the brain essential to speech and memory, known as "the convolution of Broca".  Edison commented: ‘Eighty-two remarkable operations on the brain have definitely proven that the meat of our personality lies in the part of the brain known as the fold of Broca...  This is where the little people live who keep our records for us.’  Edison planned to find a way of recording the sounds of them leaving a dying person, though, unusually for him, no patent was ever registered.

His patents often adapted the ideas of others and turned them into profitable businesses, but this is not to minimise his talent.  Whilst rival light-bulb makers obsessed about filaments, Edison was also busy on a range of vital accessories including parallel circuits, safety fuses, dynamos, insulators, conductors and light sockets with on-off switches.

When Edison was 67, his factory burned down, destroying much of his life’s work.  He commented: "Friends, there is great value in disaster.  Look, all of our mistakes have burned up.  Thank God we can start anew."

Born at 9 Edison Drive, Milan, Ohio, Thomas Alva Edison worked a 112 hour week for most of his life and died at the age of 83, an American legend.  As he was dying his son asked that the 8 empty test tubes by his bedside be corked and sealed with paraffin to preserve his fathers last breath.  One is still displayed in pride of place at the museum dedicated to his disciple Henry Ford in Dearborn Michigan.

The Invention of Hello

Edison used to shout "hello!" into telephone receivers at Menlo Park Labs where he worked on improving Alexander Graham Bell‘s designs.  His habit spread to the rest of his co-workers and then to telephone exchanges until it became common usage.  Before "hello" was used telephone operators used to say, "Are you there?" "Who are you?" or "Are you ready to talk?"

"Hullo" was used at the time purely to express surprise.  Charles Dickens used the word in 1850 - as did Hughes in Tom Brown’s School Days in 1857.  "Halloo" was used to call hounds and ferrymen and was a favourite word of Edison, when he first discovered how to record sound (18 July 1877), the first word he shouted into the machine (the strip phonograph) was "Halloo."

"I tried the experiment, first on a strip of telegraph paper, and found that the point made an alphabet.  I shouted the word 'Halloo!  Halloo!' into the mouthpiece, ran the paper back over the steel point and heard a faint ‘Halloo! Halloo!’ in return!  I determined to make a machine that would work accurately, and gave my assistants instructions, telling them what I had discovered."

The date of the first "Hello, my name is so-and-so" badge was 1880 at the first telephone operators convention in Niagara Falls.

*Edison took out over 1,000 patents - 1,093 is the generally agreed number, but he also took out many preliminary patents - known as "caveats" bringing the overall total up to 1691.  His first ever patent was for a voting machine.

Source: qi.com born of research for the QI show 5 November 2004

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