Friday, February 09, 2007

Midlife crisis at eleven

At three-years-old, Mikhail is the youngest ever member of Mensa. He can multiply five figure numbers before most kids can count to 10. Ten-year old Aimee is the youngest person ever to be admitted to the Royal College of Music. Michael was reading Shakespeare and learning Mandarin when he was five – he's now one of Britain's youngest published authors.


Channel 4’s documentary on child geniuses last night was an eye-opener. The most interesting cases were the four boys with all-round genius: maths, language, philosophical concepts, general knowledge – you name it.

Three of them scored 170 in the IQ tests, which seems to be the maximum. The other, Adam, was off the scale. He gave perfect answers to each question, and then over-answered them. Asked “What is a limpet?”, he replied: “It’s a crustacean that clings to rocks. And it lives off food that is brought in by the high tide.” He is six years old.

These were not just chess or music savants, over-developed in one area and infantile in all others. Nor were they just very bright children. They were clever adults in small bodies. Their parents had all given up trying to find schools for them: the system isn’t geared up for kids so far outside the defined sets.

Dante was the oldest at eleven. He is plagued by the struggle for perfection. He wanted to be perfect in the IQ test, so the professor asked him whether he thought perfection in anything was attainable. Why can’t something always be improved, and how would you know when to stop? He thought for a nanosecond and said: “I can give perfect answers to this test, but this can never be the perfect IQ test. So you can only attain perfection within a frame of imperfection.”

He spends his free time in confrontational talks with a philosophy don. The sad thing is that he’s probably already gone as far as anyone can go intellectually: he knows about death, about the limits of answerable questions, about the misery-making futility of trying to achieve perfection but at the same time that the realisation of this futility would not enable him to stop wanting it. His genius has manifested itself in reaching his midlife existential crisis freakishly early. By thirteen he will have passed it and will be officially ‘wise’. The rest of his life will probably just be spent in the accumulation of knowledge and in tutoring ordinary, slow people.

5 comments:

Duck said...

You never know how they might turn out. Just because they are capable of a lifetime of intellectual achievement by their 21st birthday doesn't mean they will define themselves by the intellect. William James Sidis was one of the most famous child prodigies and fit the mold that you described. But as long as parents and others don't force them into the limelight too early or put outrageous expectations on them, they have a chance at a well adjusted life.

Mike Beversluis said...

I was once discussing with a professor how many people with high IQ's had difficulties with socializing. He replied that his daughter has an IQ of 160. Awkward.

Oroborous said...

Yes, awkward, but it's demonstrably true that people with high IQs have difficulties with socializing, for reasons both within and outside of their control.

That any given high-IQ person is charming is meaningless, except for their personal and familial satisfaction.

Mike Beversluis said...

I totally stifled my initial "So then you know what I mean," response.

Staffordworks said...

I think the term 'differently abled' applies very well here. Not all people with high IQs have any particular deficit in social ability. However, being differently abled, they are often treated as being unintelligent because their understanding of a complex subject is 'different' than most. Over a lifetime this can become infuriating and cause some to retreat to the relative peace of dealing with other smart people.

Ironically they don't sit around and make math jokes with each other, quite often very simple pursuits are shared, hack and slash computer games, music, beachcombing etc... but with one twist, an underlying sense of respect for the abilities of the other people. A combination of reverence for someone else's elevated ability with a comfort of a sense of your own.

If you are a person of normal (importantly not average) intelligence, you live in a world filled mostly with people who share your ability to reason. Imagine living in a world where 99.3% of the people around you have a lower ability to reason. Imagine that 'most' people have an IQ that is 2/3rds of yours. If you have an average IQ, this would mean that the vast majority of the worlds population is, relative to you, at an IQ of less than 70, or, clinically retarded. Perhaps it would be useful for high-q people to be labeled in some way so that in the same way you wouldn't say to a mentally handicapped person "how do you feel about NAFTA?" you would not say to a high-q person "I just don't see how we came from monkeys!". I think its the unwavering righteousness that is intolerable. Smart people must get that Socratic idea of 'never be too sure of yourself' Perhaps that is, as the Oracle at Delphi decided, the most important sign of intelligence, always assuming that surely the person before you is smarter than you. In small circles of smart people, there's almost always someone smarter than you, things that are worthy of vigorous discussion to me are plain as day to the next guy, who invariably chimes in eventually to close the unnecessary discussion.

IQ is not all that a person is, however, it is also not insignificant. Like being tall or short, its not everything but it does have a daily impact on your life.

It is also something that should not be confused with knowledge, vocabulary, spelling, exactness, it is really only processing power. Some complex problems might simply take more time for a normal person to solve, others, forever, some problems require multiple ideas to 'run' concurrently to solve.

So what's to be done? my wife's IQ is three times mine in rarity, our young son is already showing signs of his inheritance, our solution? we let him solve cold fusion in the mud, he's average at best in scholastic stuff because we didn't take him away from being a kid to push those on him. This has had no negative impact on his 'special' abilities, those come naturally and thus far so does playing with other kids.