Millions of years of evolution have endowed Homo sapiens with remarkable intellect. But not all human brains are created equal.
From the great powers of memory seen in savants to the skills of chess grandmasters, unusual talents can offer a unique window on how the mind works. This exclusive online issue examines genius in some of its most intriguing forms.
Meet Kim Peek, whose abilities provided the inspiration for the character Raymond Babbit in the movie Rain Man. Peek’s severe developmental disabilities prevent him from managing the chores of daily life, but he has learned 9,000 books by heart so far, among other astonishing feats of memory. Other savants have musical or artistic talents.
Less well known than savant syndrome is Williams syndrome, a disorder in which affected individuals generally score below average on standard IQ tests, but often possess startling language and music skills, as another article in this issue describes. Mood disorders, too, have been linked to genius: it seems that manic-depressive illness and major depression can enhance creativity in some people.
Other articles focus on gifted children. These youngsters fascinate with their precocious intellect, but they often suffer ridicule and neglect. They also tend to be keenly aware of the potential risk of failure, which can prove emotionally paralyzing for them. Studies of such children have provided key insights into brain development—and revealed how best to nurture their extraordinary minds.
Our final article in the issue considers whether some geniuses are made, not born. Dissections of the mental processes of chess grandmasters have shown that their skills arise from years of “effortful study”—continually tackling challenges that lie just beyond their competence. Could comparable training turn any one of us into such an expert? Food for thought.--The Editors