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:


The Highly Sensitive Child: When Your Child Goes Crazy over Last Minute Changes

The Highly Sensitive Child: When Your Child Goes Crazy over Last Minute Changes

Lisa’s mom sighed. Today, the family was supposed to visit Lisa’s favourite cousins. Lisa had been looking forward to the trip very much. Unfortunately, Lisa’s grandmother was coming to visit today at the last minute. The issue was not the grandmother’s visit. Rather, it is the terrible meltdown Lisa would be having later that her mom was not looking forward to much at all. Lisa would spend the day screaming and yelling that the world was against her instead of seeing it as a minor setback.

Many parents would put down such ‘diva’-like behaviours to be spoilt-rotten. However, some bright children tend to add a moralistic interpretation of the situation. Somehow, these children will feel grossly unjustified and thus pull others down with their harsh words – which will likely invoke such defensive behaviours from others as well. Another factor is that these children tend to hype up themselves so much so that they may have difficulty settling down after too much stimulation. At such times, they need strategies to cope with their feelings before they get out of hand.

Strategies to aid Your Child to Recover from Emotional Outbursts

Acknowledge Your Child’s Feelings

When your child adopts the defence mode, they are likely to become agitated and very upset. No words seem to be able to penetrate their walls. At this point, you need to acknowledge your child’s feelings in order to help them to relax first before they are willing to listen to advice. Sentences such as :

“You’re disappointed that…”

“You feel frustrated because ….”

“You are angry as….”

Some parents have the urge to solve every issue that comes the child’s way. If the problems can be solved easily, acknowledging the feelings of your child will help them to relax before they can move on to solve the problems by themselves.

RELATED: When Every Constructive Feedback Feels like a Personal Attack

Setting Limits 

Some children seem to rule the household in some cases. This happens when parents pander to the child’s every whim in hopes of not making them upset. If your child is stepping over the line, it is necessary to put limits on their behaviour.

Stopping Strategy 

If you child has  tendency to act impulsively, it will be a good idea for them to adopt a stopping strategy where they can keep a good sense of control over their impulsiveness before it happens. For example, they can cross their arms and squeeze tightly  when they can feel themselves getting cross. They can also sit on their hands to prevent themselves from moving . It may be good to discuss with your child the importance of leaving the situation temporarily to cool off instead of avoiding the situation. 

“I was just being stupid”

If your child has a tendency to dismiss his/her actions as being ‘stupid’ when you review their feelings after the incident, let them know that it has nothing to do with being ‘stupid’ but rather, an ability to cope with one’s emotions. Your bright child may be able to pick up certain skills very easily but handling frustrations skills will a lot of effort and practice.

RELATED: When Your Child Feels Betrayed all the Time

Ask “Can this be Controlled?”

Most people tend to blame external factors when things do not go their way. It does not matter if they are able to control some of these factors – they just feel as if they are overwhelmed. When your child is calm, it may be necessary for you to sit down with your child to discuss what factors can be controlled. The importance in distinguishing between controllable and uncontrollable conditions is that they require different coping strategies. When things can be controlled, your child is able to try new strategies and actively change the situation or ask for help. However, when the problems involve uncontrollable conditions, your child may need to learn on how to tolerate and accept what cannot be changed.

The Highly Sensitive Child: Helping Our Children Thrive When the World Overwhelms Them by Elaine Aron
Raising Your Spirited Child: A Guide for Parents Whose Child Is More Intense, Sensitive, Perceptive, Persistent, and Energetic by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka
Freeing Your Child from Anxiety: Powerful, Practical Solutions to Overcome Your Child’s Fears, Worries, and Phobias by Tamar Chansky Ph.D.
Parenting the Highly Sensitive Child: A Guide for Parents & Caregivers of ADHD, Indigo and Highly Sensitive Children by Julie B. Rosenshein
The Highly Sensitive Child: When Every Constructive Feedback feels like a Personal Attack

The Highly Sensitive Child: When Every Constructive Feedback feels like a Personal Attack

“I thought you did well but I didn’t really understand what you meant by that sentence. Maybe you can elaborate on it?”

“What do you mean when you said you don’t understand it? I thought you can see that the teacher is against me. Isn’t it obvious? I am obviously one of the best in class and yet this teacher gave me a low score on purpose. Why? Isn’t it obvious he hates me?”

Jake’s father could see that Jake has completely shut down. He knows better that it is time to back off than to provide feedback. He sighs. It is always a struggle to provide feedback to Jake – who gets wounded too easily by any constructive feedback.

What has happened here?

Every Constructive Feedback reminds them that they are really a Failure

When your child takes any constructive feedback as a personal feedback, it can become very emotionally draining for both parents and child as they child tends to overreact to it. Children who are highly sensitive take criticism very personally even though the constructive feedback provided are really for their own good.

As a child who is very used to being praised, any negative feedback seems to shake them out of their comfort zone terribly. It serves as an unrealistic reminder to them that they are not performing up to expectations they perceive others have of them and that they are not all that they are cracked up to be. It is as if they are afraid that they are not really that intelligent which they have always been led to believe.

Furthermore, what may have aggravated the misunderstanding above is that the child tends to take criticism from parents more personally than from others. This is due that the child tends to place the highest emphasis on their parents’ feelings more than anyone’s else.

RELATED: How to help Your Child know that Mistakes are Okay

Strategies to Help Your Child Cope with Criticisms 

Lay the Options Clearly

Parents can be over-zealous in offering feedback. When dealing with a sensitive child, it is better to offer lesser feedback gently than going all out on a warpath.

As parents, things can be a little tricky when your child asks for your opinion on their work. Before you make any comments, you must ask the child if they would like your opinion to improve their work or are they just sharing it with you. This way, you can keep your thoughts to yourself if your child chooses the “Just Sharing” option and just state observations instead.

If your child asks for improvements, ask for specifics. For example, if your child asks to judge her essay, asks if they are looking for possible readers’ engagement or sentences structures or such. When you give vague statements, your child may feel frustrated as they may not know how to improve it.

Help the Teachers

When your child believes the teacher criticised their work, they may mistakenly assume that the teacher is just criticising them out of jealousy. Some may compare their work with weaker students and believe the teacher may have a personal grudge against them as they perceive themselves to be better than the rest.  That is when you need to explain to your child that it is the teacher’s job to ensure that every child is being stretched to their own potential and how another student’s progress is really irrelevant to their progress.

 RELATED: When Your Child Feels Betrayed All the Time

Responding to Criticisms 

One way to aid your child is to help them to identify the specific feedback required to improve. The steps are as shown below:

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If it is a younger child or there are only a few comments, you can start off with 2 questions:

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This encourages your child to self-talk and learn how to regulate their emotions from young.

If it is an older child, he/she may feel overwhelmed by the amount of feedback received from the teacher. Thus, they need to write down in order to have a clearer picture of what they should do next. The goal of this exercise is to ensure your child realises that no problem is too big if they break it down.

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The Highly Sensitive Child: Helping Our Children Thrive When the World Overwhelms Them by Elaine Aron
Raising Your Spirited Child: A Guide for Parents Whose Child Is More Intense, Sensitive, Perceptive, Persistent, and Energetic by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka
Freeing Your Child from Anxiety: Powerful, Practical Solutions to Overcome Your Child’s Fears, Worries, and Phobias by Tamar Chansky Ph.D.
Parenting the Highly Sensitive Child: A Guide for Parents & Caregivers of ADHD, Indigo and Highly Sensitive Children by Julie B. Rosenshein