The Question of Genius
Sam Wang is an associate professor, Department of Molecular Biology and the Princeton Neuroscience Institute.
Wang grew up in California and studied physics at the California Institute of Technology. Seeking his Ph.D. at Stanford University, he switched to neuroscience. He has worked at Duke University as a postdoctoral fellow and aided political leaders as a Congressional Science Fellow. After completing his postdoctoral studies, he spent two years at Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, N.J., where he learned to use pulsed lasers to study brain signaling before coming to Princeton.
Wang, who has published more than 40 articles on the brain in leading scientific journals. His educational reach extends past the laboratory and classroom in his books, popular articles and efforts to convey neuroscience to interested nonscientists.
Question: Are all brains created equal?
Sam Wang: The question of nature and nurture is; I wouldn’t call it settled, but I will put it like this, we are all born with the genetic inheritance and that genetic inheritance sets boundaries on what we might become. They guide us in the sense of establishing about one quarter of the variation of what we might become and that, when it comes to intelligence or personality, it’s some minority of what we could become.
And then, against that genetic background, then our genetics and environment, the experiences that we have and the nutrition that we get interact with one another and that been shapes us over the course of childhood and a lifetime.
So most of the variation turns out to be believed to be environmentally induced or, you know, based on experience and so some interplay between the two that makes us who we are.
Question: How do brains develop?
Sam Wang: One thing that’s interesting about child development is that so much of it… There’re so many changes that take place in children’s brains, not only from birth to the age of 6, ‘cause this when people think of brain change, but also even through childhood into adolescence. So one thing that probably does not help is passive experiences for the child.
In the classic example, this is the Mozart myth. The idea that playing Mozart or the classical music to a baby will make the child smarter. What seems to be important is active engagement. So, for instance, learning to play a musical instrument is associated with improved spatial reasoning. And that seems to be something that really helps a lot. Another thing that helps is talking to children. It’s been shown that there’s a positive relationship between the number of words the child hears per day and IQ scores.
And this is true even when you crook for social economic status. And so, just simply speaking to a child, playing with her, talking with her, that kind of cognitive stimulation seems to have a lasting positive effect on the child’s development. And that’s something that I think any parent can and should do.
Question: Is genius overhyped?
Sam Wang: Well, it certainly the case that some people who are called geniuses have the ability to link unconnected ideas and ways that other people can’t see. But one important factor that sort of, I would call that isn’t so romantic, is this idea that Gladwell talks about, which is just the hard work of having all that information on hand and developing expertise to thousands and thousands of hours of practice.
We talked earlier about Google making us dumber. Well, look, if Google removes the need for us to have all that knowledge on hand, then that removes from us the ability to have these facts in our heads on hand. And so, I think that this is one area where we can think about something that maybe gets lost a little bit, right? Geniuses are people who, in many cases, are people who have a lot of information directly at their beck and call and they think about it and they start putting it together. So, you know, one component of genius is sticking together things in unexpected ways.
But another component is having those things to stick together, right? And I think that there’s an element of truth to this idea of thousands of hours of practice, making a creative scientist or artist or writer or whatever it is that we may care to call a genius.
Question: What environments are most conducive to learning?
Sam Wang: So one thing I’ve experienced at Princeton is that public spaces where my colleagues and I are likely to cross paths are excellent places to share ideas and to have discussions that rise up spontaneously. And at our campus, the Genomics Institute is a newish building that has an atrium where we run across one another, we have lunch or coffee or what have you. And that seems to be a place where there’s a lot of ferment both socially and also intellectually. I repeatedly have meetings there. And so, I think one principle that comes up in modern design, for instance, in scientific buildings is creating spaces where people can cross paths.
And I think that’s an incredibly important aspect of creating of spaces where creativity is fostered. And it’s a real live version of Facebook or Google. And as much as people like to talk about those social networking sites, personal networking between live people, face-to-face, is still far more effective than any kind of online interaction.
Recorded April 24, 2009.
Sam Wang debates genius vs. hard work.
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