Inside the mystery of genius


Jul 8, 2007

A genius is easier to recognise than to define. A new television series attempts to find out if they are born or made. Grace Hammond reports

Exploring the inner workings of the human brain, a compelling three-part documentary series on Five, looks at a group of remarkable people and poses questions about the origins of genius.

Are these extraordinary abilities genetic, developed or acquired by accident?

Focusing on the case of young musician, Marc Yu, the first episode in the series explores the development of child genius. Marc Yu is a seven-year-old concert pianist with a repertoire of some 40 classical pieces. At the age of two, Marc heard a rendition of Mary Had a Little Lamb at a birthday party, pulled himself up to a piano and played it back flawlessly. A year later, he was playing Beethoven from memory.
But are his remarkable abilities based on hard work or was he simply born with a brilliant brain?

Developmental psychologist Professor Ellen Winner explains that people have always been fascinated with child geniuses because they are doing things at "the wrong age".

"They're not supposed to be doing things so advanced," she explains, "so they shock us."

To play music, the brain must work at an incredible rate: concert pianists, for example, read notes, feel the keys, move their fingers and listen to sounds, all at the same time.

Neuroscientist Gottfried Schlaug has scanned the brains of a number of professional musicians to see how they produce the extraordinary power that music demands. He has found that certain parts of the brain – the cerebellum and the corpus callosum – are larger in musicians than in other people. But are these physical distinctions born or created – does the brain shape music, or music the brain?

Schlaug has teamed up with Professor Winner to conduct a ground-breaking scientific study into natural genius. Tracing a group of 50 children learning music, the pair test the children's dexterity and intelligence, then scan their brains at various stages in their development. After only a year, it is clear that the children's brains have changed, with the areas responsible for hearing and analysing music registering more activity. "The brain has a remarkable ability to adapt," explains Schlaug. "Everybody born into the right environment with the right nurturing could potentially grow up to be a great musician."

But Winner does not believe that practice alone can create genius, suggesting that children with such potential have brains that are structurally different from birth. To test the theory that children are born with exceptional abilities, it is necessary to locate the "genius gene", but this requires a mammoth effort.

Professor Robert Plomin of King's College London is undertaking a project to find the genes that fuelintelligence. He has conducted a battery of tests to examine the differences in performance between identical and non-identical sets of twins. Using cutting-edge molecular biology, he compares DNA samples from twins with varying intelligence scores.

Though he calls the experiment "crude", Plumin hopes that his work will answer the question of whether genetics is important in intelligence. "What's clear is that we're not dealing with one or two genes," he explains. "We're probably dealing with hundreds of genes of very small effect."

While he cannot settle the nature/nurture debate once and for all, Plumin does suggest something of a compromise. Genetics could be responsible for various propensities in children's brains, which must then be cultivated.

For Marc Yu, cultivation of skills is a huge part of his life: his whole world revolves around music, with piano practice taking up eight hours of every day. He also plays the cello. His mother, Chloe, is also committed to Marc's growth, often losing sleep to prepare for his teaching. Whether created by his mother's enthusiasm and devotion or his own genes, however, one thing is clear: Marc's talent and thirst for development is staggering.

No doubt many aspirational parents will be fantasising about a training programme that will turn their offspring into another Marc Yu before the television series ends. But do you really want a genius in the family?

This young man, born Marc Doldol Yu in Pasadena, California, already has his own web page where – at the age of eight – he is shown dressed for the concert platform in white bow tie and tails. He compares his daily workload at the keyboard with the struggles of Schubert and Brahms.

There is one redeeming flaw in the perfect image that is projected on the internet – Marc doesn't know how to spell "practising".

There was, of course, one other clever young fellow who was taken in hand by a pushy parent and at Marc's age was even further advanced in his career. Mozart composed his first symphony at the age of eight having already entertained an empress and many of the aristocratic households of central Europe, Paris, and London.

Music aside, from Mozart's story we all know what the problems of being a genuine, fully accredited genius can be.