enotalone logo

Brain - Genius and Superior Performance: Are We All Capable?

Excerpted from

The New Brain: How the Modern Age Is Rewiring Your Mind


People with extraordinary abilities, it's turning out, have learned to use their brains differently from the average person. Take chess grand masters, for instance.

Measurements of brain activity during a chess game reveal that grand masters activate their frontal and parietal cortices, two brain areas known to be involved in long-term memory. Skilled amateurs, on the other hand, activate their medial temporal lobes, areas involved in coding new information. This preferential activation of the frontal and parietal cortices by the grand masters-who have memorized thousands of moves over their lifetimes-suggests that they rely on long-term memory both to recognize positions and problems and to retrieve the solutions. Use of the medial temporal lobe by the amateurs, in contrast, suggests a less-effective strategy of analyzing on a case-by-case basis the best response to moves and positions not previously encountered.

The chess master's expertise, in other words, involves storage in the frontal lobes of vast amounts of chess information, a process that takes a long time and a lot of hard work. Grand masters typically spend a minimum of 10 years amassing in their brains an estimated 100,000 or more pieces of chess information (opening gambits, strategies, end-games, etc.). Thanks to this rich memory store, the grand master can quickly assess the advisability and potential consequences-many plays ahead-of a specific move. This ability is one of the reasons a grand master's performance against a good amateur always improves under time pressure, when moves must be made rapidly. "They don't have to think; they are recognizing patterns," according to Ognjen Amidzic, a researcher who has carried out studies of master chess players.

So, would simply learning more moves and deepening your knowledge of chess turn an amateur player like yourself into a grand master? Not necessarily. The genius of the grand master doesn't just depend on the amount of chess information stored in long-term memory, but also on the organization of those memories and how efficiently they can be retrieved. In essence, the grand master must put long-term memory to short-term use.

Geniuses in fields other than chess share a similar talent for storing vast amounts of information in long-term memory and then retrieving that information as circumstances demand. For instance, PET scan studies of geniuses and prodigies in varied pursuits reveal increased brain activity in areas known to be important in the formation of long-term memory. One study compared the PET scans of a German math prodigy, Rudiger Gamm, to scans of people with no special calculating skill.

When doing mental arithmetic, Gamm's brain-but not the brains of the controls-showed activity in areas involved in long-term memory. It's speculated that Gamm uses his long-term memory to store the working results that he needs to complete his calculations. Thus, when rapidly performing mental calculations, he is less likely to lose his place. And if memory is like a notepad-an analogy frequently employed by scientists who study geniuses-then the memory of a Rudiger Gamm is like a library of notepads. Yet this conclusion leaves unanswered a very important question: Is the formation of larger-than-normal long-term memories a genetic trait? Or does it depend on one's individual effort? Important implications ensue from the answer to this question.

Tags: Mental Health