Popular science probably always needs to be taken with a pinch of salt (or, as we will see later, a weak saline solution), but Maurice du Sautoy’s Horizon programme last night, What Makes a Genius? (available on BBC iPlayer at time of writing), wasn’t entirely without valuable points for anyone interested in human development and maximising potential. Setting out to discover if genius – a troublesomely abstract concept – derives from genes, physical attributes of the brain, or from the range of diverse factors we might loosely bracket as ‘nurture’, du Sautoy was looking to see if we are yet able to answer his opening question: “Could anyone have a ‘Eureka’ moment?” While I reached the end of the programme without material improvement in my brain weight or IQ score, I did see valuable implications for my understanding of human potential for learning and the factors that can help to support it.

The first difficulty the programme identified – and seemed to wish not to unearth again too often – was how to define ‘genius’. At different times in reviewing our quest to identify how it arises and if we can ‘manufacture’ it (in what must be a knowing Spinal Tap reference, he frequently used the phrase ‘turning my brain up to 11’), alternative phrases were used: ‘supernormals’ (which hinted at a different film – The Incredibles), or ‘extreme talent’. There have been many attempts throughout recent centuries to identify what ‘creates’ heightened intelligence, although from an economist’s viewpoint this could be seen as a demand-led activity: the ability to create ‘super people’ would be a very valuable patent to hold, after all. But there was more than a hint of the story of alchemy about the programme: science seems to contain a long list of people and theories that have failed valiantly in the attempt to either sift for or turn ‘base metals’ into gold.

Brain power, for example, isn’t purely physical: size – or rather weight – isn’t everything: Charles Babbage, computing and mathematical pioneering, was lighter between the ears than Napoleon. One physical difference does seem to make a difference: the number, size and length of connections in the brain. By dissecting the brains of ‘supernormals’, we’ve discovered that they have more, smaller ‘mini-columns’ in the cortex area, but more noticeably an overabundance of short local connections. The implication in terms of functioning is an ability to focus very intensely on single tasks – which fits quite well with our stereotype of absent-minded professors who can find new planets or paradigms, but not their car keys. Unfortunately, it strikes me this doesn’t help those looking to identify capacity of immense talent in terms of workplace application outside rarefied fields – there can’t be many industries where a management team entirely composed of people with these kinds of ‘extreme talent’ would be an asset.

IQ appears to have a similarly chequered end-of-term report: in an on-going trial that followed the life paths of those identified young as having high IQs, one of those rejected from the ‘followed’ cohort was later awarded a Nobel Prize for inventing the resistor. (Without which I wouldn’t be word-processing this, and you wouldn’t be reading it – hopefully, we both consider this a loss at some very small level.)

Our genes possibly hold more promise: we share with mice a gene that scientists have been able to ‘turn off’ with the effect that ‘learning’ – at least in the Pavlovian sense of conditioned response – ceases. Having identified the seemingly responsible gene, there’s possible scope here for ‘turning our brains up to 11’ – although how we might feel about genetically modifying ourselves in this way wasn’t a question the programme chose to explore.

I was left with a similar worry by experiments that showed that injecting a weak saline solution into the brains of volunteers and then running mild electric currents through their heads not only increases short-term learning performance but – if applied for 24 hours or more – has permanent effects. As these permanent effects include brain structure, this left me with similar concerns about consent, ethics, and unforeseen side-effects – again, topics that were left unexplored. The implicit advice that those who find their ability to learn isn’t what it might be (and who determines acceptable progress towards genius is another interesting question left hanging in the ether) should electrocute themselves – albeit in the nicest possible way – felt rather uncomfortable.

When the role of ‘nurture-side’ influences was considered, we seemed at times to be on familiar ground from other disciplines or areas of research. As babies, our brains are very flexible. We saw that a six-month old girl exposed to large numbers of monkeys’ faces learns to distinguish each individual face as clearly as we do our fellow human beings – the monkeys no longer ‘all look the same’.  The connections in the brain that support this ability develop in response to her environment, much as a blind and autistic man was shown to have developed an extraordinary ability as a pianist: in both cases, the message seemed to be that extreme talent has arisen from an extreme environment.

The balance between scope and focus also re-emerges here: the pianist’s musical ability was vast, but his autism posed him other challenges that his musical ‘genius’ neither cured nor compensated for. While the image of the ‘savant’ has a certain cache, we should be careful not to equate autism with genius. (As an aside, Daniel Tammet  – diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome (you can read an overview on Wikipedia or read his blog) gives a truly compelling account of growing up and living as a ‘savant’ in his autobiographical Born on Blue Day, which is utterly fascinating but clear that the condition should not be considered as a ‘blessing’.) There was an unspoken implication that we have an overall finite capacity and that extreme talent in one area uses capacity from other areas – an implication that wasn’t pursued or explained, but seemed to me to be an important question. If we could create genius, but it would come ‘at a price’, would we still pursue it so eagerly and what would be the wider social implications?)

The strongest evidence on the development of greater ability in adult life to date, it seems, is actually the rate of development. Our cortex thickens during childhood before thinning in adolescence. But it seems that those with thinner initial cortices where thickening happens more rapidly and at a later age (although later here means 11-12) will evolve into those with the highest IQ. (I’m quoting from du Sautoy’s Times article supporting the programme here, and wondering how the use of IQ as the yardstick supports or undermines the ‘evidence’ here.) This may retrospectively support arguments for streaming education (the timing of the 11 plus seems fortuitous with hindsight), although it equally undermine arguments for the ‘streaming’ that is applied in selecting ‘top talent’ in organisations: our future intelligence would seem to be substantially pre-determined by the time we reach the workplace is this evidence is to carry weight.)

The programme ended with two trains of thought – no pun intended – that seemed more promising in terms of both implication and application. The first highlighted the ability of the brain to ‘re-wire’ itself, re-activating dormant connections. I was already familiar from work in this area with stroke patients: abilities lost in the aftermath of a stroke can be regained with practice, even though the brain has suffered physical damage. (Any jazz fans among readers might be familiar with US guitarist Pat Martino, who regained his extraordinary technical grasp of the instrument after a brain aneurysm meant learning the play the instrument again from scratch – as he recalls in his online biography and in a fascinating interview about the recover process and his ‘re-learning’) The programme highlighted the example of a woman who had overcome blindness by learning to ‘see’ again using software that converts pictures – including live video feed – into sound. While she has had to ‘re-think’ concepts such as perspective, her learning has taken place at a faster pace than can be accounted for by the development of new connections in her (non-infant) brain. I was left wanting to know more about how we can tap this latent human potential – and how those of us not threatened by what we might call ‘the onset of mental disability’ might locate or harness the motivation to tap it.

A final sequence looked at another ‘patient’, a man whose brain haemorrhage had left him with an overwhelming urge to paint. This returned us to the problem of defining ‘genius’ – or whichever other word or phrase we wish to use – and its composition. Implicit reference was made to a quote from Einstein (who also once said ‘my mind is my laboratory’), which I looked up this morning:

Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

Here we returned to the opening sequence of the programme, which wondered aloud if genius is a mere ‘skill’ or something that can be defined mechanistically, or if genius must include creativity – the ability to make imaginative mental leaps. As the neuroscientist working with the man explained, we all have varying degrees of ‘latent inhibition’ – the ability to filter out our surroundings and ignore what is currently or temporarily irrelevant. The weaker our ability to do this is, the more creative we tend to be – explained in terms of ‘bringing down the walls’. And here we arrive at a paradox: the creative genius must balance and juggle a minimising of latent inhibition with a maximising of focus. (Again, implications spun of this for me – not least that the inspiration for imagination, and therefore creativity and ‘genius’, must be partly external. To see the world in new ways, we must see the world per se.)

The problem with conclusions in a debate this abstract is that they are impossible to draw, but the ‘nature vs nurture’ debate was far from concluded – both clearly have roles to play. (We should also acknowledge that those arguing either case also either occupy entrenched positions or have vested interests. The nature vs. nurture debate has been with us a long time, and is not likely to depart in a hurry.) Some of us may have a head start (in an almost literal sense) in some fields – certainly, it seems, some of us really don’t’ ‘get maths’ – but imagination, creativity, adaptability and practice all have vital roles to play in developing our talents.

For example, the autistic pianist’s thousands of hours of musical practice took us right back to Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers – the opportunities we receive, both in terms of exposure to sources of inspiration and opportunities to practice, are clearly an important factor: this should already be clearly known to those working in learning and development or in HR capacities.

But I was also left thinking about a comment made by Jonathan Wilson in response to an earlier post here – talent isn’t just a ‘gift’ that we have or don’t have. To quote one section of his comment:

Not everyone can be the world champion, because all world class performers do practice constantly, but nearly everyone can improve their performance many times over through learning and assiduous practice, but that takes time and hard work. It is easier and less demanding to wish you possessed the “gift” and thus exonerate yourself from the effort of developing real talent.”

Moreover, in considering ‘exceptional ability’ (or any other neo-synonym for genius) in an organisational context, there are many other factors to consider – attitudes and behaviours, sociability, interpersonal skills, organisational context. Simply identifying the ‘best contenders’ is not the end of the story, if it is even the beginning: even if nature can supply half the answer, we must work to enhance the nurture and support the adaptability and application that completes the equation.

We also need to recognise the roles of others in our own development and in achieving our potential. The total sum of human knowledge long since passed our individual ability to embrace it all: as a former colleague in the British Library’s R&D Division pointed out at a conference in the early 1980s, we had passed the point where the required skill was to know as much as possible. The new skill was the ability to know where to find the answer (although it should be pointed out that ‘librarian’ is increasing a profession that looks like we have scheduled it for archiving: foresight is no guarantee of shelf-life.)

Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky’s concept of the zone of proximal development (ZPD) – the difference between what a learner can do without help and what he or she can do with help – is also highly relevant. Whether we call them parents, teachers, coaches, trainers or mentors, they have a role to play, as Vygotsky’s definition of ZPD explains:

the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers

To conclude, three more quotes from Einstein. The only creativity I can claim in citing him is to arrange the quotes in a sequence that provides a positive note – but it’s a start …

If God has created the world, his primary worry was certainly not to make its understanding easy for us”

Intellectuals solve problems, geniuses prevent them.”

There’s a Genius in all of us.”

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