Science & Physics

The evolution of genius

We humans are limited only by our imaginations. Or are we? Lord Rees reckons limitations of human brain mean we may never understand the secrets of universe — human evolution may make fools of all of us…

We humans are limited only by our imaginations. Or are we? Lord Rees reckons limitations of human brain mean we may never understand the secrets of universe — human evolution may make fools of all of us…

There are those amongst us who are gifted with prodigious mental faculties that far exceed those of normal human beings. No, I’m not talking about childhood prodigies’ who waltz through university before the age of ten. No, I’m talking about an even smaller minority of people, those who often struggle or even find impossible the task of holding down a conversation, who are challenged and left vexed by simple numeracy and are often in long-term care — here, I’m talking about prodigious savants.

These are people, truly rare individuals, who have quite exceptional talents in mathematics, art and music. Such are their talents, they are often the subject of intense scrutiny by cognitive scientists and neurologists the world over. However, their condition is poorly understood.

Imagine, if either you will or even can, a person who can multiply huge prime numbers and recite Pi to tens of thousands of places, or a person who can listen to a single composition of music once and then play it back note perfectly, or a person who after but a single glimpse of a face, landscape or a building can sketch or paint a perfect likeness. However, often their gifts are enshrouded in a troubled in mind, not clear or free to express cogent thoughts or articulate questions of their own.

Quite aside from the oft-associated crippling mental (and subsequent behavioral) shortcomings, they hint at something truly phenomenal and beg the obvious question: what if a “normal” person had their abilities? This is not an unreasonable question, nor is it a question that will rest long without an answer. This I am sure of.

Lord Rees is not wrong, in so far as the present generation of the human race. As a species, we are on the cusp of something remarkable. Right now, we have about us the rules and laws of nature, but what we lack is not a further understanding of mathematics, but a deeper sense of intuition. We stare into the ink black of the universe and recoil at the sight of the monumental cosmological conundrums that we wrestle with and lament their complexity.

We have seen patterns of breathtaking simplicity emerge from numbers, such as the Mandelbrot set, the Fibonacci sequence and the golden ratio. We have marveled at our achievements yet still we do not fully understand. But someone will. The human brain is evolving.

They say there’s a fine line between genius and insanity. This may be more true than the oft-said phrase might hint at. Consider the greatest minds in the arts and sciences, many of them have been troubled, withdrawn and eccentric. Perhaps we’re seeing the faltering hand of mother nature as she attempts to extend our mental mechanisms, trying to balance social skills and towering intellect, with prodigious savants being the most extreme example.

Right now, our minds are subject to a sensorial torrent of information and our minds are being conditioned to manage that ebb and flow of information with greater proficiency and efficiency. Are our children not the answer to our problems? We should expect the human brain to adapt further. We should also expect soon that young person to ask questions of the impossibly complex firmament and then set about answering them.

Of the the more than six billion people alive right now, out there somewhere is that person waiting to happen. And when they do, they and those like them will usher in a new era in human evolution — their answers to our questions will change everything for everyone…

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By Wayne Smallman

Wayne is the man behind the Blah, Blah! Technology website, and the creator of the Under Cloud, a digital research assistant for journalists and academics.

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