Play That Baby Some Mozart! the Barbican and Young Vic Are Devoting Four Months to the Phenomenon of Young Genius. Mark Lythgoe Explains Why a Scientific Analysis of Creative Brilliance Is So Hard

By Lythgoe, Mark | New Statesman (1996), October 3, 2005 | Go to article overview

Play That Baby Some Mozart! the Barbican and Young Vic Are Devoting Four Months to the Phenomenon of Young Genius. Mark Lythgoe Explains Why a Scientific Analysis of Creative Brilliance Is So Hard


Lythgoe, Mark, New Statesman (1996)


Ever since the first bright spark invented fire, the recipe for genius has been one of culture's most alluring quests. And yet, historically, our conception of genius has been surrounded by a de facto mystery. The idea that it could be explained would, under certain conceptions, appear to run counter to its essence.

In Roman times, genius was considered to be innate: a trait bestowed by the gods at birth. But with the dwindling of the gods who, from antiquity through to the Enlightenment and beyond, had been the notional source of creativity, it has fallen to others to do the explaining. Even modern science has been somewhat reluctant to take up the challenge of exploring the nature of creative genius. The gods have been replaced by unpredictability: it seems that genius eludes any singular systemic explanation. Part of the problem for science has been attempting to distil a working definition of genius that removes its more subjective historical and cultural associations. This is far from easy. One tenet of the term is that a genius must be recognised as such by the relevant experts in the field. By that reckoning, if Albert Einstein had never published his theories, he would be barred from the title. Scientists have tried to unpack genius into components as various as intelligence, structure and function of the brain, madness, levels of disinhibition, even our genetic inheritance.

Just after the First World War ended, the psychologist Lewis Terman tried to find out the developmental mainspring of genius. Are you born with it? If you've got it do you have to look after it? Does it guarantee deathless glory or can having it spell catastrophe down the line--"Early ripe, early rotten," as the saying used to go? He selected a group of boys and girls with high intellectual potential (IQ scores between 135 and 200) and for the next 70 years recorded everything about them, from their preference for certain types of food through to their professional status. The results run to six volumes. Perhaps surprisingly, these children--who came to be known as the Termites--did not turn out to be the scrawny geeks that we might expect. Rather, they bore many of the hallmarks of a master race: they were taller, physically healthier and more economically and socially successful than their averagely endowed counterparts. And yet, to Terman's dismay, not one Termite emerged as a creative genius. Only one, Robert Oppenheimer, generated an enduring cultural artefact--the US television sitcom I Love Lucy--and few would argue for that show's immortal sublimity.

So if IQ doesn't underpin our creativity--what does? And in the terms of neuroscience, what role might the maturation of the brain play in laying the foundations for genius? Brain development is on a hectic timetable, given that several trillion synaptic connections must be laid down for the brain to function at average levels. During early pregnancy, brain cells are fashioned at 250,000 per minute, and this continues at a ferocious rate for the first few years of infancy: connections form that allow you to crawl, walk, then talk. There are recognised critical periods when we must use our brain or risk losing faculties such as language. The process of constant organisation and reorganisation continues into early adult life and, some say, beyond.

During adolescence, the brain "prunes" millions of the now redundant branches it has established. The pruning is a process of adapting the organ to its environment that accomplishes, somewhat counter-intuitively, an increase in our cognitive capacity. Interestingly, a colleague of mine, Professor David Skuse, has highlighted a dip in teenagers' social intelligence, speculating that this is probably because their brains are being rewired at that time. The timetable of our cognitive development seems to preclude childhood genius--yet our experience suggests otherwise.

Einstein was 16 years old when he wrote his first scientific paper on the subject of magnetism and the aether. …

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