Got genius?

By Anushia Kandasivam

A GENIUS is a person that possesses an exceptional ability. This is usually intellectual ability, together with creativity, originality and insight. Nowadays, the most common indicator of genius is a person's IQ - the intelligence quotient, or measure of intellect. But a person may very well be a genius in her own right without possessing an astoundingly high IQ.

There is no precise definition of genius, though there have been many theories over the years of what a genius is. Some researchers believed sensory acuity and reaction time were a measure of neurophysical efficiency, some saw it as a genetic trait - a larger number of close kin with `eminent' qualities may predict a genius.

There is also the theory of multiple intelligences, mostly put forth by Howard Gardner, a developmental psychologist. This model separates intelligence into eight abilities and argues that there are a wide variety of cognitive abilities that barely correlate to each other. These eight intelligences are spatial, linguistic, logical-mathematical, bodily-kinaesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal and naturalistic.

This theory suggests that children in general learn in different ways - a child with linguistic intelligence, for example learns easily from reading, listening and taking notes, while a child with bodily-kinaesthetic intelligence should learn the same lesson better if muscular movement such as getting up and walking around is incorporated into the learning experience.

Whatever the theory, history shows that genius comes in many forms. A child may be a musical genius, such as Mozart or Handel, a scientific genius like Albert Einstein or, like Leonardo da Vinci, a genius that seems capable of doing anything at all (known as a polymath, a person whose expertise spans a large number of different subjects).

Many parents have wondered, with much hope, if their child is `gifted'. A gifted child is one that masters a skill far beyond their level of maturity, and is also called a child prodigy.

Gifted children display certain traits: they are usually extremely curious, have an excellent memory, an attention span and reasoning skills that are beyond their age, powers of abstraction and conceptualisation, and the ability to quickly see relationships in facts or ideas. These children usually learn quickly and with less repetition than their peers, and may have intense interests. They may be very emotionally sensitive, and have particular concern about fairness and injustice.

A child that shows exceptional skill in a certain area is relatively easy to identify. They just need the right stimulus or opportunity; great musical ability, for example, will not be discovered unless the child is given the opportunity to interact with music. This does not mean parents should buy a piano as soon as their child can sit up. Simply exposing a child to music, allowing them to play with toy instruments, or even to bang on pots and pans will show particular enjoyment and the ability to remember the notes or the rhythm. More often than not, the child will tell the parents of her want to learn or do more.

Prodigious skill tends to arise out of the inherent talent of the child coupled with physical and emotional investment in it - studying and practicing the skill. There are, however, certain child prodigies, geniuses in their own right, who were raised to be so. For example, the Polgar sisters, Zsusza, Zsofia and Judit were taught chess by their father from a very young age. All three became world-class players and two are grandmasters.

While a gifted child is something to be proud of, parents should never push their child to achieve the impossible. Geniuses exist only because they are exceptional - if everyone were a genius, nobody would be. Nobody likes a stage mother.

Some children are late bloomers, though, whose talents may not manifest until later in life. Thomas Edison, for example, was thought to be `backward' and his mind `addled' as a child, and had only three months of official schooling before being home schooled by his mother. He went on to be one of history's greatest scientists and inventors.

Some researchers suggest that Edison may have shown signs of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a developmental disorder that manifests as inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity. Gifted children often display behavioural traits that are considered outside the norm or unsocial, ranging from hyperactivity to being extremely introverted.

Occasionally, a child with a developmental disorder will show brilliance in a certain area, in stark contrast with their disabilities. This is sometimes known as the savant syndrome or savantism, and some researchers suggest people with this syndrome are often on the autism spectrum. The best example comes from pulp fiction - the title character of Rain Man is the high-functioning autistic Raymond who has exceptional ability with mathematics and mental calculation. This character was actually based on the real life megasavant Laurence Kim Peek, who had developmental disorders (but not autism), an astounding memory, speed reading abilities and extraordinary skill at calculation.

Having a genius in the family can be an exciting adventure and an exhausting trial at the same time. A child genius may be able to put an adult in shadow (like Leonardo da Vinci, who as a young apprentice was allowed to collaborate with his master Verrocchio on his Baptism of Christ, painting the young angel holding Jesus' robe. da Vinci's painting was so far superior to his master's that Verrocchio took one look, put down his brush, and never painted again). Living in a sibling's shadow, then, can be very detrimental to a child.

Parents should teach a gifted child that merely possessing talent is nothing without hard work to develop that ability as far as it can go. A precocious child would certainly require a lot of time from the parents in terms of classes, activities, or even just attention. It is therefore very important to strike a good balance in the family - the other children should not be left out. All children should be given encouragement to the best of their abilities. And of course, a well-rounded individual would best be able to not just succeed, but excel in the bigger world.

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