My Brilliant Brain: Make Me a Genius

My Brilliant Brain: Make Me a Genius


In part 3 of My Brilliant Brain, the documentary features Hungarian-born Chess Grandmaster Susan Polgar – the first woman to break the gender barrier in a formerly male-dominated game.

At the age of 4, Susan was an ordinary child with no remarkable genius abilities. It was the educational journey she embarked upon with her father, László Polgár, that would ultimately shape her brilliant brain.

László Polgár was a man with a plan. He believed that any child, given the right environment from young, could grow up to become a genius. Mozart was his inspiration – he noted that Mozart was given a rich musical environment from an early age which helped to bring out his musical genius. Polgár set out to prove his theory – but first he needed a child. His intention was to carry out his experiment with his own progeny so he sold his idea to a Ukrainian foreign language teacher to get her on board. When his first daughter, Susan, was born, he began to shape her early environment. Polgár believed that the key to genius was early intensive specialisation in a specific subject and that was exactly what he did with Susan.

When she was 4, Susan stumbled upon a chess board while looking for toys to play with. Not knowing the rules of chess, her mother directed her to her father and promised that he would teach her how to play when he got back from work. From that day forwards, Polgár used chess as the subject for Susan’s early intensive specialisation. After 6 months of training, Polgár took little Susan to the local chess club where she played against aged men and beat them hands-down. She went on to dominate the girls’ under 11 chess tournament.

Polgár had two other girls after Susan. When they were old enough, Polgár allowed them into the room where Susan received her intensive chess training on condition that they, too, learned how to play. Having watched their older sister devoting hours, day after day, to the game of chess, they became eager and willing participants.

The interesting thing about Chess is that it is usually male-dominated. This is because the game of chess favours the abilities of the male brain – visual-spatial processing. By beginning their chess lessons early, the Polgár sisters were able to bridge this gap between the male and female brain by developing their visual-spatial processing centers.

The conclusion of this documentary is essentially what Malcolm Gladwell highlighted in his book “The Outliers” – what you need to become great is practice – lots and lots of it, like 10000 hours or so. After a while, the many hours of practice will level out the “talent”. They demonstrated this point by performing an experiment on Susan. While seated at a cafe, a truck drives past her. On the side of the truck is chess board of a game in progress. Susan has a 3-second view of the board before she is asked to reconstruct the chess board that she saw on the truck by placing the chess pieces on a board in the positions that they were shown on the truck. She does so – perfectly.

The human brain can only remember about 7 pieces of information at a time. So how is Susan able to remember where all the chess pieces were after glancing at the picture for 3 seconds? Because of the many hours Susan spent practicing, studying and playing chess, she had memorised tens of thousands of chess configurations. Instead of seeing a board with chess pieces placed randomly, she recognised patterns. She could break the board up into chunks so that all she had to remember were 5 chunks of information.

To prove the point, Susan is shown a second picture of a chess board with chess pieces placed randomly by a non-chess player. Because the chess pieces were now in positions they would never really appear in a real game, Susan has trouble remembering where each piece should be. She could no longer rely on her vast collection of chess board configurations to help her remember the placements of the pieces. Her amazing achievements in chess are the result of years and years of deliberate practice.

So what you need to raise a genius is:

  • focus on a specific subject
  • early exposure
  • practice, practice, practice

Another point I will add is personal interest – you need your child to be interested because he has to be the driver for his own practice. Without your child’s willingness to practice, it is impossible to achieve such success.


My Brilliant Brain: Accidental Genius

My Brilliant Brain: Accidental Genius


Accidental Genius

In part 2 of My Brilliant Brain, the documentary features two “accidental geniuses”:

  • George Widener – a prodigious savant with amazing skills in calendar calculating and art; and
  • Tommy McHugh – the victim of a stroke who recovered and discovered his hidden artistic talent.

They posed the questions:

  • Is there a genius present in all of us, unbeknownst because we are unable to tap into that potential?
  • Is there any way for us to bring out that genius without having to go through brain injury to awaken it?
  • Would we want to be able to bring out that genius?

Here’s what they shared in the documentary…

There are 3 types of savants:

  1. Splinter skills – obsessive preoccupation with, and memorization of, music and sports trivia, license plate numbers, maps, and historical facts.
  2. Talented savants – “cognitively impaired persons in whom the musical, artistic, or other special abilities are more prominent and highly honed, usually within an area of single expertise, and are very conspicuous when viewed in contrast to overall disability”.
  3. Prodigious savants – “extraordinarily rare individuals for whom the special skill is so outstanding that it would be spectacular even if it were to occur in a non-impaired person”.

The skills of a savant usually fall within 5 categories (all right brain in nature):

  1. Music – playing in perfect pitch, being able to play multiple instruments (as many as 20).
  2. Art – usually in drawing, painting or sculpting.
  3. Calendar calculating – for instance being able to determine the day of the week any particular date falls on.
  4. Mathematics – for instance, lightning calculating.
  5. Mechanical or spatial skills – for instance, the ability to measure distances precisely without the use of measuring instruments, the ability to construct complex models with accuracy, the mastery or mapmaking and direction-finding.

There are other skills such as the polyglot ability (prodigious language capabilities), synesthesia, appreciation for time without a watch, and outstanding knowledge in particular fields of study. Regardless of the skills present in each individual, all savants have a prodigious memory.

Some prodigious savants:

  • Kim Peek – mentally and physically handicapped but able to read 500 pages a minute and has memorised 9000 books (at the time the documentary was created).
  • Leslie Lemke – blind and mentally disabled but able to play back a piece of music after only hearing it once even though he never learned music.

More prodigious savants.

Psychologist Darold Treffert states that prodigious savants are born with the knowledge they never learned. Neurologist Joy Hirsch scans the brain of George Widener to understand more about what’s different about a savant’s brain. Hirsch found that George’s brain was structurally the same as any other individual. What was different was the wiring. When performing certain tasks, the areas of activity were not where they were expected – areas that should have been active were not and areas that were not expected to be active were. In short, a savant’s brain has been mis-wired – but how?

Darold Treffert believes it begins in utero when the two hemispheres of the brain are forming. Each half is responsible for different functions – the left is the domain for language and logical thinking, while the right is the domain for art, math and music (the talents commonly observed in savants). In utero, the right hemisphere reaches completion first while the left hemisphere is susceptible to the flood of testosterone which interferes with the wiring of the brain. This results in a compromised left hemisphere leaving the right hemisphere free of its logical influence.

Professor Allan Snyder states that in order to access these savant abilities, what we need is not a better brain but a brain with less. He cites the example of a young autistic girl who demonstrated remarkable artistic abilities. She was late in the development of language but once she did, she lost her artistic ability. It is the presence of our higher brain functions that prevent access to these abilities. Only with the suppression of the higher brain functions – such as in autistic individuals or in individuals with brain injuries – can the potential be unlocked.

Snyder’s belief that we all possess these capabilities (but are merely unable to consciously access them) is supported by individuals like Tommy McHugh who discover their savant abilities later in life following some sort of brain injury. Tommy, who had never held a paintbrush before in his life, discovered his hidden artistic talents after suffering a stroke. I thought it was interesting that Tommy also developed a talent for writing in prose – something I noticed that went hand in hand with child prodigy Akiane‘s artistic talent for she, too, was not only an artist but a poet as well. Is there a link between the ability to paint and the creativity to write poetry? Food for thought…

Here’s another thought – is it possible to release the creativity of the right brain from the dominant logic of the left? Snyder created a “thinking cap” that utilises Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) to block the electrical impulses in the left hemisphere, thereby freeing the more creative right hemisphere for expression.

In the documentary, Snyder tests a subject before and after wearing the thinking cap on the following:

  1. Reading a well-known proverb deliberately printed with a grammatical error:

    A bird in the
    the hand is worth
    two in the bush.

  2. Drawing a horse.
  3. Estimating the number of dots on a screen (20 questions).

The test subject’s results before and after wearing the thinking cap:

  1. Before wearing the cap, he misses the grammatical error. After wearing the cap, he spots the grammatical error.
  2. Before wearing the cap, he draws a very basic and simple horse outline. After wearing the cap, his horse is more detailed and artistic.
  3. Before wearing the cap, he is hesitant in his estimates and gave round numbers, e.g. 160, 100, etc. Out of 20 questions, he got 2 correct. After wearing the cap, he was more confident and specific with his answers, e.g. 62, 103, etc. Out of 20 questions, he got 8 correct.

Unfortunately, the effects of the thinking cap were not permanent. The benefits were gone after an hour. You can watch the segment on Snyder’s thinking cap test in the following video:

The full documentary of My Brilliant Brain: Accidental Genius is available on Culture Unplugged.

You might be wondering about the availability of the “thinking cap” since this documentary was released in 2007. If you are, you should follow “Creativity Cap: Accessing the Mind’s Hidden Secrets“.


My Brilliant Brain: Born Genius

My Brilliant Brain: Born Genius


In a bid to understand more about giftedness, brain development, the role of nature and nurture, I bought the documentary from National Geographic: My Brilliant Brain – Unlocking Some of the Brain’s Biggest Mysteries.

The DVD set comes with two DVDs:

  • My Brilliant Brain
  • My Musical Brain

My Brilliant Brain talks about genius from three aspects:

  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 fomerly male dominated arena.

Born Genius

If you don’t know who Mark Yu is, the video below should help you get acquainted…

In My Brilliant Brain: Born Genius, Nat Geo examined the effects of nature and nurture on creating genius, particularly in relation to child prodigy Mark Yu. This was the gist of what I picked up:

  • Gifted children have something “extra” that cannot be nurtured.
  • But even gifted children need nurture to bring out their 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”.

Born Genius features three main stories:

1. 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”. For instance, it is the “rage to master” that enables a young child like Mark to dedicated 8 hours a day to practicing the piano. For any young child without that “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.

The other thing to note is that gifted children have a natural talent for their area of interest – for instance, Mark’s 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. In other words, talent alone won’t get you there.

2. A Girl called Genie

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.

3. 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.

Further Reading:


Educating Children for an Unknown Future

Educating Children for an Unknown Future

by Dr Shen Li Lee


There is a really interesting article I read recently by Mitchel Resnick promoting the idea that education should be one Lifelong Kindergarten. The logic for his argument goes like this…


Education Must Change to Prepare Children for an Unpredictable Future

The world is changing so rapidly that we cannot possibly imagine what it will be like when our children are grown. They will face issues and challenges in a future that we cannot possibly predict. What we believe is important for them to learn today is likely to be irrelevant by the time they are ready to make their way in the world. The only way we can adequately prepare them for this unknown future is to teach them how to think and act creatively. It is not enough to know things – they must be able to use their knowledge in creative ways.

The Kindergarten Education Model is the Key

The only model of education that currently promotes this kind of thinking and creativity is the Kindergarten Model. It’s the one where children are encouraged to physically create the ideas in their heads. When they have a physical model of their ideas, they can play with the ideas, test them out, get feedback from others – these allow them to review, modify and improve their ideas. And on and on it goes, feeding a positive feedback loop that opens the doors for more ideas and more creations.

What is the Kindergarten Education Model?

In one corner of the room, a group of children is building a series of towers with wooden blocks. In another corner, a group is creating a large mural with finger paint. In the process, children are exploring important ideas: What makes a tower stand up or fall down? How do colors mix together?

These activities encourage children to develop their creative thinking. As they work together, they learn about the creative process: how to imagine new ideas, try them out, test the boundaries, experiment with alternatives, get feedback from others, and generate new ideas based on their experiences.

At the heart of the kindergarten education model is the opportunity to create – and that’s the real key to education.

The Kindergarten Model for Older Students

The idea sounds great in theory but how do you apply it to older students? Blocks, crayons, and finger paints will only take you so far. That’s where technology comes in… Mitchel Resnick talks about educational products like LEGO Mindstorms that encourage students to create.

The rest of this article is based on my interpretation of Resnick’s article. The main point I took home is essentially this: encourage children to create. Therefore any tool that allows children to create and express their ideas in physical form should work for the Kindergarten model. Here are a couple more tools that the children can use to create with…

Little Bits

Little Bits have been dubbed LEGO for the iPad generation because they connect as easily as LEGO but they let you create a lot more. Here are just a few examples of what you can create with Little Bits Smart Home Kit – smart fridge, smart AC, wireless lamp, remote pet feeder, and more…

Raspberry Pi

The Raspberry Pi is a single-board computer developed in the UK by the Raspberry Pi Foundation. The Raspberry Pi is a credit-card sized computer that plugs into your TV and a keyboard. It’s a capable little PC which can be used for many of the things that your desktop PC does, like spreadsheets, word-processing and games. It also plays high-definition video.

The Raspberry Pi is probably the most interest “tech toys” I’ve come across. I was totally blown away by what this eleven year old girl created with it:

“Grandpa is getting pretty old. Out there all alone on that farm, he has no one to look in on him, just to see if he’s ok. He’ll use the landline, but he’s beyond of the range of mobile, and he’s never been really great with computers. No Skype or emails. Grandpa does have internet. So I built this for him.”

The girl points down to a small box with a few wires coming out.

“I can bring up a web browser, and take photos inside grandpa’s house. Has he moved his coffee cup today? Is the telly on? At least then we’ll know he’s okay. And I can even type messages” – she changes focus to a textbox inside a web form – “that show up on top. We used ImageMagick for that part… here, you can see it in our code.” – The Register

The Raspberry Pi Magic Mirror is also pretty cool – it can tell you the time, the weather, and the headlines for the day as you’re getting ready for work.

Image Source: PC World

Good Tools are not Enough

LEGO MindstormsLittle Bits, and Raspberry Pi may offer some terrific avenues for our kids to create some really amazing things but we must remember that, at the end of the day, that’s all they really are – just tools. Like all tools, they can be used well and they can be used poorly. Simply having access to them changes nothing if our kids aren’t using them to create.

If all our children are doing is taking these kits and copying ideas already in existence (i.e. following instruction manuals on how to create cool things), there is no creative element. Copying ideas and following instructions may initially be a way to learn how things work, but after that, we should be encouraging our kids to make changes to it – fix it, modify it, extend it, and come up with better ideas. How can we modify it to make it work better? How can we add to it to make it more useful? What else can we make with these tools? Give our kids real world problems to solve with these tools like the girl and her Raspberry Pi project for her grandfather.

I want to make this clear – following the instructions is not a bad thing as long as the kids are learning something from the process. If following instructions teaches a child how to use the tool in a new way that he’s never thought of then that’s great because he can borrow the idea and apply it to a completely new project of his own creation. That’s the real goal we are after – raising children who can take what they know, change it in some way, and come up with something new.

Skills for the Kindergarten Model

If the fundamental goal of the kindergarten model is to encourage children to create, then there are many other ways to promote this creative process. Encouraging our kids to pursue the arts is one way.

  • Music lessons can help children learn how to create their own music.
  • Art classes teach children artistic techniques they can employ as they create their own masterpieces.
  • Drama and musical theatre foster creative expression.

Teaching children the arts is akin to giving them skills that will enhance their creative process.

The Bottom Line

If the goal is to encourage children to create, then anything that encourages that creative process is a good thing. They can be tools that facilitate the creative process, like Raspberry Pi, or skills that enhance the creative process, like music. I’m sure if you think about it, you’ll discover that there are many ways we can encourage this.


The Sum of Success: IQ + Creativity + Practical Intelligence

The Sum of Success: IQ + Creativity + Practical Intelligence

by Dr Shen Li Lee


In Brain Rules for Baby, John Medina quoted The Journal of Happiness Studies which stated that “People who make more than $5 million a year are not appreciably happier than those who make $100,000 a year”. “Money only increases happiness only when it lifts people out of poverty to about the mid-five figures. Past $50,000 per year in income, wealth and happiness part ways.”

According to Outliers, it appears that the relationship between IQ and real world success is similar. “Once someone has reached an IQ of somewhere around 120, having additional IQ points doesn’t seem to translate into any measurable real-world advantage.” Once an individual is “smart enough”, that individual is just as likely to win a Nobel Prize as someone with an IQ of 180. Malcolm Gladwell tells us about Chris Langan, a man with an IQ of 195. With such a high IQ, you would think that Chris Langan would be a household name, but how many of us have ever heard of Chris Langan? Until I read the Outliers, I didn’t even know he existed. In comparison, Einstein’s IQ was only 150, yet most people have heard of Einstein.

A great quote from the Outliers highlights this point:

“Knowledge of a boy’s IQ is of little help if you are faced with a formful of clever boys.”

So beyond an IQ of 120, what differentiates individuals from being successful? To illustrate the difference, Malcolm Gladwell highlighted a couple of examples in Outliers. The first came in the form of a question from a divergence test:

Write down as many different uses that you can think of for the following objects:

  1. a brick
  2. a blanket

Here’s one answer from a student at a top British school:

(Brick). To use in smash-and-grab raids. To help hold a house together. To use in a game of Russian roulette if you want to keep fit at the same time (bricks at ten paces, turn and throw—no evasive action allowed). To hold the eiderdown on a bed tie a brick at each corner. As a breaker of empty Coca-Cola bottles.

(Blanket). To use on a bed. As a cover for illicit sex in the woods. As a tent. To make smoke signals with. As a sail for a boat, cart or sled. As a substitute for a towel. As a target for shooting practice for short-sighted people. As a thing to catch people jumping out of burning skyscrapers.

And this is the answer from a prodigy with one of the highest IQs in his school:

(Brick). Building things, throwing.

(Blanket). Keeping warm, smothering fire, tying to trees and sleeping in (as a hammock), improvised stretcher.

Clearly, the first answer shows a lot more creativity than the second. And if you were to place a bet on who would be more likely to win a Nobel Prize, I’m sure you would be betting on the person who wrote the first answer even though his IQ is lower. Just because an individual has a high IQ doesn’t mean he can come up with creative ideas.

The other differential highlighted by Gladwell is termed “practical intelligence”. He gives an excellent examples of practical intelligence displayed by Robert Oppenheimer who had a mind equally as sharp as Chris Langan but because of his practical intelligence, he was able to turn the most impossible of situations to his favour. Robert Oppenheimer knew “what to say to whom, when to say it, and how to say it for maximum effect”. These are two of the life skills that Ellen Galinsky talks about in her book Mind in the Making – perspective taking and communicating. These are life skills that must be taught. Given Chris Langan’s upbringing, it is understandable why he never had the opportunity to learn these skills.

How do you teach these skills to your child? Ellen Galinsky offers lots of practical advice in her book “Mind in the Making“.