The psychology and neuroscience of gifted children

The Boston Globe has an excellent article about the psychology of gifted children and how many of them have fared in adult life. It describes the difficulties some have in adjusting, and the importance of maintaining traditonal childhood activities.

Consider the contrasting fates of two prodigies from the early 20th century. Norbert Wiener entered Tufts University in 1906 at age 11 and went on to graduate studies at Harvard in 1909. That same year, a brilliant 11-year-old named William James Sidis also enrolled at Harvard. Wiener became the father of cybernetics. Sidis became a recluse who collected streetcar transfers. He died alone and disillusioned at the age of 46.

On a related note, neuropsychologist Brian Butterworth has studied brain activity in a ‘mathematical prodigy’, and found that compared to others, he used different brain areas to perform calculations.

Link to Boston Globe article (via Metafilter).
Link to paper (PDF) on Butterworth’s study of brain activity in a mathematical prodigy.

Are friends electric ?

The latest edition of the BBC Radio 4 programme In Our Time was a discussion on the mind-body problem.

This is a problem which has taxed thinkers for millenia, and concerns the relationship between our thoughts and experiences, and the biology of the brain. Thinkers have questioned whether mind and brain are distinct in any sense, or whether the we should ultimately reject all talk of the mind and purely describe experience and behaviour in terms of the biology.

Biology, of course, breaks down to physics, and if we believe that all physical outcomes are determined by the prior state of the world, where does free-will come from ? Perhaps it is only an illusion and thoughts are simply unable to cause any biological changes. Thoughts may be like the squeak of a bicycle wheel – certainly produced by the system – but playing no causal role in its function.

Needless to say, the mind-body problem has implications for the understanding of consciousness and other important applications in day-to-day neuroscience.

Link to In Our Time webpage, with realaudio stream and mp3 download of the programme.


A reader writes:

I’ve recently discovered that I can play a video game while listening to spoken word audio (podcasts).

The game, AntiGrav, uses the body (via a cam which is interpreted as movements). It’s physically demanding and demands quick visual recognition and response– ie. flailing arms about and generally looking like an idiot. Terrific game.

The podcasts on the other hand are fairly intellectually engaging. However, I find that I cannot just sit and listen to them… I need to be doing something else. I can’t do programming work or read blogs/web pages, because I get overwhelmed by the two language-based inputs.

So I’m able to turn off the game music / effects and listen, while playing and do as well as I would listening to the game soundtrack.

This seems a suprising result, and I gather that they use different parts of the brain. Care to comment?

Good question – it is a little suprising that you can do both at once. I think the answer is not so much that they involve different input modalities (one visual, one auditory), but that the two tasks involve different types of processing which do not require a change of the ‘representational code’ between input and output.

Continue reading “Multi-tasking”