Who You Are is an Interactive Process
The old notion of giftedness, the notion that we are born with a certain quantity of intelligence or a quantity of talent really isn’t there.
David Shenk is the national bestselling author of five previous books, including "The Forgetting," "Data Smog," and "The Immortal Game." He is a correspondent for TheAtlantic.com, and has contributed to National Geographic, Slate, The New York Times, Gourmet, Harper's, The New Yorker, NPR, and PBS. His new book, "The Genius in All of Us," will be published by Doubleday in March 2010.
We study savants - you know, Rainman and people like that - and we think there’s obviously evidence of innate gifts because these guys are obviously born with different sorts of brains. They’re born with these gifts that enable them to remember every calendar date going back to the year 1200 or whatever.
When you actually look at what is going on yes, these people are born with birth defects if that is what you want to call them. Their brains are certainly wired differently. There is no question about that, but it turns out that the actual skills that they acquire then come after that and that we can actually manipulate our own brains.
The word is plasticity. Everyone has heard the term plasticity. There is a difference in quantity between what these savants are born with and what we can do with our own brains. There isn’t really a qualitative difference. We can alter our own brains but we don’t actually develop the skills to do what the guy in Rainman did or these other amazing savants do. Those differences are already in place. It’s the process of developing these skills, not just being born with the skill or the gift.
I'm trying to help people understand that the old notion of innate, the old notion of giftedness, the notion that we are born with a certain quantity of intelligence or a quantity of talent really isn’t there. We’re all born with differences, no question about that. We have genetic differences, but how those genetic differences actually lead to differences in traits - that’s a dynamic process that we are all very much involved with on the family level, as parents, as kids ourselves, culturally, in terms of nutrition and the environment. Everything we do and everything we are is an ongoing interactive process, which affects how those genes are then going to be subsequently going to be turned into the traits that work for us and against us.
In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think's studio.
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