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Is a genius born or made?

VERY SO often, we hear of them - calculating prodigies. These are the people who can quickly and accurately solve complex mathematical calculations. Until recently, we had our own Lilavathi Devi who was famous for her arithmetical feats. Now, France is all-agog about a young man called Rudiger Gamm who has been wowing TV audiences there with his astounding ability to calculate the fifth root of a ten-digit number within a few seconds. Are these people geniuses? Or are they savants, meaning those who are profound and learned in one particular area or field but ordinary (or even unimpressive) in others? How did they get their abilities? How does one define a genius? Can any one attain such proficiency?

These questions are being addressed today in several laboratories of cognitive psychology around the world. Some are studying how so many taxi drivers of the greater London area are able to store and retrieve enormous amount of data about the route maps and locations of the lanes and bylanes of the sprawling city. (Incidentally this ability may not be limited to cabdrivers in London alone; look at some of the taxi or scooter rickshaw drivers of Delhi or Chennai). Some others are studying musical prodigies and whether listening to music expands the capabilities of our minds. Yet others look at chess players and have attempted to train people into becoming chess champions. A success story in this case is that of Miss Judith Polgar and her two sisters from Hungary, who were trained by their parents to become world-class champions. Their father Dr. Laszlo Polgar has written a book on this subject entitled Bring up Genius.

Such stories fly in the face of the conventional notion that a genius is born and not made. They suggest that deliberate practice can aid in making a genius.Thomas Alva Edison said it succinctly - "1 per cent inspiration and 99 per cent perspiration". So, is it that geniuses do not just spring from the womb but need to be made, prepared, processed? Put another way, can any one with appropriate talent be made into a genius?

Long-term and short-term memories

Laszlo Polgar thinks so, and so does Anders Ericsson of Florida State University. The January 13th issue of The Economist highlights his arguments with the title "Practice makes perfect". Ericsson does not subscribe to the idea that a genius is born so, nor that he is possessed with a special set of genes. Instead, he believes that a genius - be it Mozart, Gauss or Einstein- also works hard at it. He suggests that they have developed powerful memories for storing information about topics that they are good at. They seem to be able to keep important information in special areas of their brain, and access and use the data for working their genius act.

Neuroscientists distinguish between short-term or "working" memory and long-term or episodic or "storage" memory. We utilize our short-term memory for certain kinds of activities; these may involve immediate tasks such as recognizing our waiter in an unfamiliar restaurant in the restaurant we have gone for dinner, and waving to him to catch his attention for service. We forget about him after a few days. He is not stored in our long-term memory. But information about a topic of importance, say relating to our profession or our bank account, or our relatives, is stored in long-term memory for retrieval and reworking. Dr. Ericsson believes that it is this long-term memory that is crucial for the impressive performance of a prodigy be it in chess, music, mathematics or even typing. He further believes that any one can work on his long-term memory area and learn the trick to store information there for later retrieval. It needs practice, hard partice. But is that not what made M. S. Subbalakshmi, (the late) Madurai Mani Iyer, or Ravi Shankar what they are? They did not just dream up their swara chanchara out of nowhere. They learnt, practised and perfected their art, and this experience has helped them create new phrases, patterns and tunes. To be a creative individual is not a cake- walk. It requires effort, single-minded pursuit of the chosen area of activity, often at the cost of other tasks. The apocryphal story of the absent- minded professor boiling his pocket-watch in water while holding the egg for breakfast in his hand illustrates this. Einstein was not too particular about how he dressed or whether his hair was combed, it did not occur to him too often to do so! (Hence the dishevelled appearance of several contemporary Einstein wannabes!)

Looking into the brain at work

That wizards and geniuses need to work and work hard at it is accepted - hence the "perspiration". What they make out this effort is the interesting question. Some answers are coming forth from neuroscience laboratories, which support Dr. Ericsson to some extent. The mathematical wizard Rudiger Gamm agreed to participate in one such experiment conducted on him by Dr. Nathalie Tzourio-Mayozer of the University of Caen, France and her associates. They asked him to perform some of his mathematical feats, and as he was doing so, they monitored various regions of his brain using the technique called PET (positron emission tomography), which helps map regions of brain that are activated by the task. They found that he was continually switching between short-term, effort-requiring storage strategies and highly efficient long-term memory encoding and retrieval. In other words, he was using his long-term memory to "park" or store the working results he needed to complete his calculations. This strategy of storing using extra memory space is what high speed high-capacity digital computers do. Such "parking"lets him avoid the pitfall of losing crucial intermediate steps - something we non-experts constantly lose ourselves in. In essence then, Gamm uses different (additional) brain areas for his calculations, a strategy that we usually do not do. The title of the Tzourio-Mayozer paper (that appeared in the January issue of Nature Neuroscience) says it all: "Mental calculations in a prodigy's sustained by right prefrontal and medial temporal areas (of the brain)". These are areas in the brain connected with long-term memory. While prodigies like Gamm use them for their feats as additional areas, which we "normal" people do not.

Interestingly, Gamm is otherwise ordinary. Other than his superior ability in mathematics, he is as "normal" as you and me in other areas of activity. Furthermore, he was not always a math prodigy. He was not a born prodigy but developed this skill only 6 years ago, through daily practice of four hours of memorization (much the way musicians learn their art). This is interesting since many believe that prodigies display their prowesses already at a very tender age; one hears more of child prodigies, not an adult one! Gamm shows that it is possible to groom and bloom in later years too.

How to make a genius

Does this mean enhanced long-term memory strategy is the key to prodigious performance? Dr. Ericsson would think so. Indeed he has taken "normal" people and trained them to prodigy level performance in number memory tasks through practice sessions that lasted a year or so. Come to think of it, is this not what great musicians and sportsmen do? Ustad Ali Akbar Khan has been known to practise on his sarod for hours each day; Pete Sampras and Michael Jordan practise tennis and basketball everyday. Such enormous practice and preparation (99 per cent perspiration) makes much of the technique and methodology second nature to them, allowing for leaps of imagination to hold sway (inspiration).

Granted that maestros need practice to stay at their extraordinary levels of creativity and accomplishment, is the reverse true? Can practice produce a genius? This is the debate that is raging the field now. Ericsson argues that given ten years of intense practice, anyone should be able to become a prodigy. Countering this is the "Mozart argument", advanced by many others who says that mere hard work does not produce a Mozart. It may produce a craftsman but not necessarily an artist, technical prowess but not talent. There might be a genetic component - a predisposition, a susceptibility or trait that is necessary to impart the "inspiration" or the creative leap component. You may well use long term memory to "park" data, material, connections, thought - but the availability of such parking space or memory bins may not suffice. What you put in there is important. Mr. Gamm is impressive in his prodigious arithmetic ability, but until he displays originality, creativity or a leap of thought that advances our knowledge, he will not be considered a genius. May we wish him a Mozartian future?

The Mozart effect: listening to genius music

The child prodigy and genius Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart has recently become an icon among neuroscientists and educators for another reason. It was in 1993 that the physicist Gordon Shaw of the University of California and the concer cellist and cognitive scientist Frances Rauscher studied the effect of listening to Mozart's music (Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major, K 448) on the problem solving abilities of over 50 college students. They reported seeing a temporary enhancement in spatio-temporal reasoning in the students upon listening to the music. Unfortunately, the report is still not clear of controversy, since apparently their results are not reproduced by others. Some are skeptical about the whole affair (see the Skeptics Dictionary,, on The Mozart Effect). There are others who are so enthusiastic about the effect of music on body and mind that they even claim that music cures diseases and heals injuries. One Don campbell, who has trademarked the expression The Mozart Effect, claims that music can cure just about anything that ails you. (Some have asked that if that be so, why was Mozart himself so frequently sick, and why aren't the world's smartest, most spiritual and most athletic people Mozart specialists).

We had discussed the effect of music on the mind earlier in these columns (May 2, 1993; July 4, 1996). As on date, there are no reproducible and scientifically rigorous studies that show music to heal diseases or physiological disorders. Studies reported to date on this topic are too casual, too selective and leave too many parameters open to make a sharp conclusion. Many of us would like to believe that music has beneficial effects. Surely it does, it soothes the mind, calms the nerves, relieves tension, makes you relaxed and even helps you think up an occasional new idea. But to assert that `plants grow better with music' or 'Raga Anandabhairavi relieves hypertension' is not acceptable for want of rigorous proof or reproducible results. To say that listening to Mozart Horn Concerto while applying shampoo to your hair cures baldness (as a Japanese firm did a few years ago) is even worse.

Which music affects the most

It is generally coming to be accepted that music enhances the mind of the listener. What type of music is the question- Mozart or Madonna, D. K. Pattammal or Daler Mehndi? What specific musical elements are required? Some studies by the Illinois neurologist John Hughes suggest that sequences repeating every 20 or 30 seconds may trigger the strongets response in the brain, because many functions of the cetral nervous system (such as brain wave patterns) occur at this rate. Mozart most often peaks at this rate. Some hospitals and care centres play the Gregorian Chants, which have a variable but soothing cadence. The rigorous science behind these instances needs to ne worked out before we accept them as truly beneficial.

The actual type of music that enhances our mind will most likely depend on the culture we are steeped in. While there may be common determinants, the actual music that affects the most may also vary from one individual to another. It would thus be interesting to hear from readers about Indian music compositions. Professor Lakshmithathachar of the Academy of Sanskrit Studies, Melkote, with whom I discussed this matter a few years ago, said that the chanting of the Medha Suktam from the Taitreya Upanishad, in the proper metre or chandas, is believed to enhance the mind. There must be similar passages or chants from the lofty books and psalms of Christianity, the Holy Koran, the Buddhist Pects, the Zend Avesta, the Granth Saheb and others. Lastly, the type and variety of music that appeals to and enhances the mind of an individual may also change or increase with time. My own list has grown over the last forty years- Madurai Mani Iyer's Shanmukapriya, Ali Akbar Khan's Marwa, Ravi Shankar's Jogeshwari, MS's Nadanamakriya, Schubert's Impromptus for the Piano, Mozart's Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra (Lodron, KV 242), and most recently the beautiful blend of Gregorian Chants and Karnataka Raga Alapana, between Dominique Vellard of France and Aruna Sairam of India, which is both mutually compatible and enhancing.

D. Balasubramanian

L.V.Prasad Eye Institute

Hyderabad, 500 034

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