Monday, January 23, 2017

Brain Power

All human abilities, aptitudes, achievements, talents, and gifts are mediated by the human brain. The primary organ of the central nervous system, the brain is a command and control center and the source of our ability to function. Virtually all human ability and performance originates with activity of the brain. Even aptitude, a statement of what a person can do but has not yet done, is a product of our brain as is achievement—describing what a person has already done. Talent relates to a special skill level as we travel our road to achievement. At the edge of this spectrum of traits is the category of giftedness—an exceptional manifestation of talent. Finally, in the ultimate gifted category we have very rare young people considered to be prodigies. Perhaps best known prodigies are musicians, especially adept on the keyboard or stringed instruments.

When I was very young, my parents observed my ability to pick out melodies of hymn tunes with one finger on our old upright piano. This ability prompted them to enroll me in music lessons beginning in second grade. The lessons continued until eighth grade. The music theory course from Art Publication Society in St. Louis was geared for promising young musicians. I showed promise and was once pronounced to have “much talent” by a visiting professor from St. Louis. The truth was that I preferred to explore the brooks, fields, and barns on my grandfather’s farm just a few stone throws from my home rather than to practice on the piano. The visiting professor did not pronounce me “gifted.” He merely stated I had “much talent.” My brain’s activity produced a desire to devote only a modicum of practice time on the keyboard. Very young gifted or prodigy musicians generally possess an insatiable urge, even an obsession, to practice extensively. By this metric alone, my parents realized I was certainly no prodigy. Nevertheless, I acquired a good grasp of musical theory which served me throughout life.

Prodigies possess an “off the charts” memory. They need normal, age-appropriate socialization but most schools do not meet their intellectual needs. Sometimes socialization becomes difficult: Classmates often do not understand the advanced, unique workings of their prodigy friend’s mind. Parents of prodigies must be careful not to exploit such children since the child may be harmed. Their great challenge is to share the gifts of their prodigy children with the public without harm to the children.

This aforementioned challenge is significant. Prodigies sometimes cannot control the outworking of their prolific mental production. In raising a prodigy, parents and advisers must ask for God’s supernatural wisdom. We must remember that prodigies are an exceedingly rare phenomenon: less than one per million. Their achievements come early in life. Some are able to talk, read, or create exceedingly early. With respect to musical performance many achieve adult level in their first few years of life.

Special reporting caters to the public’s desire for the unique or unusual. Many volumes and articles have been published on the topic of prodigies. Much speculation relates to the “nature versus nurture” question of the cause of such magnificent talent. The brains of the highly musically talented manifest subtle differences from average or musically deficient individuals. Brain centers with their physical neural connections are more highly developed. Some of these differences are subtle and identifiable only by experts in brain physiology. Evidence is plentiful that genetics is undeniably important in the production of a musical prodigy or even in ordinary musical achievement. Likewise, parental and environmental influence, encouragement, and training has been shown to be crucial. Detailed study concerning prodigies helps us discover what occurs in the human brain whether they are prodigies or not.

The working memory of most prodigies is metaphorically “off the charts.” Their conscious thought processes, creative ability, and performance skills are related to trillions of electrical impulses generated in neural networks of the brain. Bioscientists have researched and discovered the essence of what occurs in the human brain, including the brains of typical individuals, the gifted, the genius, and the rare prodigy. We are deluged with television advertising for supplements touted to enhance bodily function of one sort or another. For instance, certain products are advertised as memory enhancers for older people. Chemical substances derived from jellyfish are credited with ability to help with “mild memory problems associated with aging.” Without commenting on the uncertain efficacy of such products, we call attention to an attractive graphic in some recent television advertising: diagrams of neurons in the brain are interesting representations of astonishing neural networks alive with electrical activity.

Educators tailor their offerings to promote the learning of a wide spectrum of students. The physical and social needs of their school population are accounted for, but our school districts primarily foster growth of intellectual skills. At the heart of human ability to progress intellectually is the working of the brain. The deep, mysterious human consciousness originates in brain centers. Researchers sometimes disconnect the explanation of consciousness—personal awareness of oneself and one’s surroundings—from the more easily described manifestations of intellectual achievement. 

We conclude our discussions of giftedness and prodigies with the reminder that human intellect is a divine gift to all men and women created in the image of God. We reiterate that “all life is a gift bestowed by the Creator of life.” We have described the “bell curve” of physical and intellectual talents which reveals that the vast majority of humanity is classified as non-prodigy or non-gifted with respect to their achievement. The question arises concerning physical differences among the brains of prodigies, the gifted, and the vast majority of our human population. Certain brains and specific brain areas with their neural networks are more highly developed in some persons in terms of individual achievement and production. 

Some may conclude that brains differ structurally from one subject to another. This conclusion is inaccurate, just as the gifted athlete’s physical body is not anatomically different from the bodies of non-athletes. The athlete’s body organs, however, are more highly developed. Muscle tissue, for example, is more massive, flexible, and highly conditioned in the athlete. More specifically, body build or musculature of the long distance runner may differ from the football lineman, the basketball point guard, or the baseball clean-up hitter. So also is the athlete’s intellectual familiarity and control of the diverse skills involved in his sport. Magnetic imaging of more active brain areas in mentally and physically gifted individuals is powerfully instructive. Our achievement potential is substantially dependent on personal mental control.

The human body and mind is a bequest of the Creator to mankind. We may state that the astonishing performance gifts of a young musical prodigy at the age of six or seven would be impossible without an initial supernatural gift of creativity from our Maker. That is true, but the creative prodigy must be receptive to encouragement and exercise diligent will and effort to practice and perfect his or her output. The nature vs nurture duality is ever present. Talent and motivation are an inseparable combination. We need teachers to help unlock the potential of both.

God is the Creator of All Things, even the diversity of talents and gifts bestowed on humanity. With respect to the physical and mental we cite several passages in scripture that point to physical well-being and conditioning as the responsibility of each individual (I Corinthians 9:24-27 and II Timothy 2:5). Likewise, we are responsible for our own healthy mental outlook (Romans 12:2 and Phillipians 4:8). God is pleased with the control WE exercise in the use of HIS gifts.