PSYCH: Genius: Innate or Acquired?

From: Chris Rasch (
Date: Mon Feb 05 2001 - 13:44:04 MST

Excerpts from an interesting post on FoRK today:

Ellen Winner
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
creative solutions.

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
extremely gifted.

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
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.

Copyright © 1995-2001 The Economist Newspaper Group Ltd. All rights

Some interesting links:

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