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The roots of superior intelligence

Magazine: Maclean's
Issue: August 29, 1994
Title: Smart beginnings. Probing the roots of superior intelligence.
Author: Mark Nichols

Spotting children with exceptionally superior intellectual abilities is not
all that difficult. They are the ones, educators say, who ask a lot of
questions and learn quickly. They often have a well-developed sense of humor
and a precocious interest in ethical issues. But figuring out what ingredients
go into the making of gifted children is not quite as easy. Most experts in
the field believe that two key elements are involved: genes, which determine
the brain's ability to process information, and the environment in which the
child grows up. Both factors are important. Every child is born with a unique
brain, and scientists have only recently begun to understand why some work
better than others_knowledge that may one day lead to chemically enhancing an
individual's intelligence. At the same time, says Max Cynader, a professor of
ophthalmology and a brain researcher at the University of British Columbia in
Vancouver, a child who receives a lot of attention in a stimulating
environment will almost certainly have a better chance of doing well. ``But if
your parents ignore you and there is no book in the whole house,'' adds
Cynader, ``you may not reach your potential.''

   Cynader and other experts believe that there are specific periods early in
a child's life during which environmental stimuli can critically affect the
brain's development. The scientist's own pioneering work in the field of
vision has shown how neural pathways in the brain can be influenced by events
in infancy. A minor injury that closes a child's eye for a few weeks during
the first year or two of life, says Cynader, can affect the eye's ability to
transmit information to the cortex_the brain's central processing system. The
potential result: permanently reduced vision. Other brain functions have
similar critical periods of growth. According to Cynader, the key period for
language development is between the ages of three and 10, while lifelong
social skills are fostered_or suffocated_by interpersonal experiences both in
childhood and adolescence. ``If a child does not get the right kind of
stimulus at the right age,'' adds Cynader, ``then the neurological circuits
will not develop properly.''

   Other researchers have uncovered evidence that demonstrates that some
children are born with brains that have a superior ability to process
information. Joseph Fagan, a professor of psychology at Cleveland's Case
Western Reserve University and an authority on infant intelligence, describes
a typical experiment in which a five-month-old baby is shown a picture of a
man. The picture is then shown to the baby again, paired with that of a woman.
A baby with normal or above-average intelligence will focus on the woman.
Others are slower to realize that they have already seen one of the faces, and
may be less interested in novelty. The Case Western professor has developed a
widely used test, called the Fagan Test of Infant Intelligence, that is based
on the way infants react to new things. ``You can predict later intelligence
from tests of novelty preference,'' says Fagan. ``If I measure a baby at five
or six months and he does well, and I come back and test him at four or five
years, the chances are he will score well then.''

   Although scientists are only beginning to understand exactly how the brain
works, Fagan thinks that it may eventually be possible to develop drugs that
will raise intelligence levels. Mental functions are the result of biochemical
processes in the brain, speculates Fagan ``and when we understand the
biochemical bases of intelligence, it could be changed by putting the right
chemicals in.''

   So far, most scientists admit that they have little understanding of the
factors that make for differences between the brains of individual babies.
``It may be that some brains are able to make stronger connections between
brain cells, or that they have greater elasticity, or that they are able to
produce more of the proteins used in the brain during critical learning
periods,'' says Cynader. ``I do not think anybody knows yet what an efficient
brain looks like.'' Still, he adds, intelligent parents do have increased odds
of producing a baby possessing a superior brain.

   Besides being an expert in the brain's development, Cynader has learned
about gifted children from his daughter Madeleine. The eldest of three
children, the eight-year-old is currently enrolled in a school for gifted
children where she is simultaneously in grades 6 and 7. ``She was reading when
she was 16 months old,'' recalls Cynader. ``Did I teach her? I think she
taught herself. But I spent a lot of time with her. I never talked down to
her. I concentrated on exercising her brain in any way I could, and providing
her with emotional security.'' As well, Cynader's experience appears to
support the belief that gifted children are usually the first born. His two
younger daughters are also gifted, but not to the extent that Madeleine is, he
says. Adds Cynader: ``I think it is just that you have more time for the first
one'' a suggestion that only serves to underline how genetic endowment and
childhood environment combine to make some children gifted.

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