My Brilliant Brain – Born Genius

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My Brilliant Brain is a National Geographic documentary about geniuses – how they are born and how they are made (the DVD is still available on Amazon if you’re keen to watch it). I wanted to share the stories because I think there are a few lessons to be learned when nurturing our own children.

The documentary has three parts:

  1. Born Genius – which examines musical child prodigy Mark Yu.
  2. Accidental Genius – which examines stroke victim Tommy McHugh and savant George Widener.
  3. Make Me a Genius – which examines chess grandmaster Susan Polgar, the first woman to break the gender barrier in a formerly male dominated arena.

In the post, we will look at Part 1 – the natural born genius.

My Brilliant Brain: Born Genius

In My Brilliant Brain: Born Genius, Nat Geo examines the effects of nature and nurture on creating genius, particularly in relation to child prodigy Mark Yu. These are the take home messages:

  • Gifted children have something “extra” that cannot be nurtured.
  • Even gifted children need nurture to bring out their full potential.
  • The early years are critical and can make all the difference to a child’s progress in later years.
  • What you do in the early years can help your child even if your child is not “gifted”.

Mark Yu

At the age of 2, Mark Yu heard “Mary had a Little Lamb” and played it correctly on the piano without ever having played the piano before. At the age of 3, he told his mother he wanted to be a famous concert pianist. At the age of 11, he made his debut in Carnegie Hall. Mark Yu practices the piano for up to 8 hours a day and his mother does not have to force him to do so. He does it because he loves it.

According to Ellen Winner, Boston College Psychology Professor specialising in the development of gifted children, gifted children have a unique quality about them that makes them different from other children. They have what she calls the “rage to master”. It is this quality that enables a young child like Mark to dedicate 8 hours a day to practicing the piano. For any young child without the “rage to master”, 8 hours of piano practice a day is very hard to achieve. Mark’s mother Chloe states that she does not push Mark, she merely follows his lead. Sometimes, she has to intervene and tell him when to stop – for example, when he wakes up in the middle of the night to practice a piece that he has been working on, she has to chase him back to bed.

Gifted children have a natural talent for their area of interest. In Mark’s case, it was the ability to play Mary had a Little Lamb without having learned the piano before. However, despite their “innate talent”, even gifted children must put in the practice hours in order to excel. Talent alone does not manifest true genius.

Genie the Feral Child

Genie’s story is a tragic one. She was a 13 year old girl who was found tied to a potty chair in her home. Her parents had locked her away in a darkened room for most of her life. When she was found, she understood only a few words and could say even less. She could not walk properly, she had trouble chewing solid food, and she had difficulties swallowing. She was not toilet trained and had could not focus on objects more than 12 feet away.

Genie taught scientists about the growing brain’s brutal but effective method of streamlining the brain’s network – neural pruning. During development, the brain forms many connections. After a while, the connections that are not used are cut – in essence, “use it or lose it”. When she spent the first 13 years of her life locked away, Genie missed out on the critical period of language development. As a result, even though she went through numerous development programs to help her “catch up” to her peers, she was never able to master the rules of English grammar. This occurred despite the fact that the scientists noted she was a bright girl who simply did not have the opportunity to develop normally.

Genie’s story teaches us that every child needs the opportunity to develop. Even born geniuses without opportunity will never realise their full potential.

The Abecedarian Project

This project attempted to examine if early learning intervention could help children from disadvantaged neighbourhoods. The study took 100 babies born into deprived families and immersed them into numerous early learning games. These children were then followed through school and later life to see how well they faired compared to their peers who did not receive the early brain training programs they did. In school, they had improved performance in language, maths, overall IQ and social intelligence compared to their peers. They also went on to higher education and landed better jobs in later life. This project showed that early learning – when done appropriately – can give children an educational advantage that they will keep for life.

Genie’s story showed what happens if a child’s early years are neglected. In the Abecedarian Project, we see how the right early years enrichment can help children excel later in life.

The Natural Born Genius

If this topic has peaked your interest, you may also want to watch the following documentary about the Natural Born Genius:

How much of our intelligence are we born with and how much develops due to experience? Professor Plomin believes that the answers lie in our genetic make-up and that the ‘g’ – general cognitive ability – gene can be isolated in our DNA.

While there is clearly a little something extra going on in born geniuses, there is still a lot we can do even if our children are not born geniuses.

Other posts in this series (coming soon):


Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of (a website on parenting, education, child development) and (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

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