When we think of brilliance we see Einstein, deep-eyed, woolly haired, a thinking machine with skin and mismatched socks. High achievers, we imagine, were wired for greatness from birth. But then you have to wonder why, over time, natural talent seems to ignite in some people and dim in others. This is where the marshmallows come in.
It turns out that a scientist can see the future by watching four-year-olds interact with a marshmallow. The researcher invites the children, one by one, into a plain room and begins the gentle torment. You can have this marshmallow right now, he says. But if you wait while I run an errand, you can have two marshmallows when I get back. And then he leaves.
Some children grab for the treat the minute he’s out the door. Some last a few minutes before they give in. But others are determined to wait. They cover their eyes; they put their heads down; they sing to themselves; they try to play games or even fall asleep. When the researcher returns, he gives these children their hard-earned marshmallows. And then, science waits for them to grow up.
By the time the children reach high school, something remarkable has happened. A survey of the children’s parents and teachers found that those who as four-year-olds had the fortitude to hold out for the second marshmallow generally grew up to be better adjusted, more popular, adventurous, confident and dependable teenagers. The children who gave in to temptation early on were more likely to be lonely, easily frustrated and stubborn. They buckled under stress and shied away from challenges. And when some of the students in the two groups took the Scholastic Aptitude Test, the kids who had held out longer scored an average of 210 points higher.
(The EQ Factor BY NANCY GIBBS at time.com)
To all outward appearances, Elliot is a perfectly normal middle-aged businessman. Despite an operation a decade ago for removal of a benign brain tumor the size of a small orange, he remains intelligent and seemingly rational, with a wry sense of humor. Yet his behavior makes it clear that there is something very wrong. After years of rock-solid competence, Elliot now has trouble keeping appointments and making decisions. He has squandered much of his life savings on a series of bad investments. And, strangest of all, the very fact that his behavior is self-destructive doesn’t seem to bother him-and he keeps on making the same mistakes.
Patient “X” is much more clearly ill. She has suffered a major stroke; her entire left side is paralyzed. It’s obvious to everyone that she’s severely impaired — everyone, that is, except her. Ask her how she feels, and she responds, “Just fine.” Point out her lifeless left arm, and she seems baffled. She can be convinced, through persistent effort that the arm doesn’t work. But a few minutes later, she has forgotten all about it.
Bill Noonan hasn’t suffered any obvious physical damage to his brain. Yet for more than two decades after his return from Vietnam, he has re-experienced the most terrifying event of his life several times a week as a waking dream. “It was a night ambush,” he remembers. “The first seven guys to my right were machine-gunned down. My gas mask was shot right off my hip. That was my first fire fight.” Bill knew his flashbacks weren’t real-but they seemed so real that it made no difference. “I didn’t know what was happening,” he says. “The biggest fear I had was that I was crazy.”
Nothing is more morbidly intriguing, more chillingly compelling than an account of a malfunctioning mind, as medical writers have learned to their great profit. The victims of mental disease or brain damage are fascinating, not simply as exhibits in a neurological sideshow but also as stark demonstrations of how fragile reality can be. Most people agree, within limits, on the objective character of the world around them. Yet while the victims of mental disorders are certainly conscious and aware, their worlds are profoundly different from those of most of us. What can it possibly feel like, we wonder, to live without emotion, to be crippled without realizing it, to re-experience an event from the distant past complete with the fears that originally surrounded it?
(Glimpses of the Mind BY MICHAEL D. LEMONICK at time.com)
“What?”, That was Nicole Davis’s standard reply, when she was six, to even the simplest question. Although seemingly bright, she lagged far behind her peers in speaking and reading and had a hard time making friends. Two years of private speech therapy had failed to bring her up to speed. So her mother Donna enrolled her in “Fast For Word,” a powerful video-game program developed by Scientific Learning Corp. of Berkeley, Calif., to aid children like her who cannot process the sounds of language fast enough to comprehend normal speech. Nicole spent six weeks of intense game playing at a speech clinic in New Jersey, emerging “like a different child,” Donna Davis says. Today the ebullient second-grader chatters away with classmates, gets good grades and has stellar reading skills. As Nicole puts it, “I like to write stories and poems, read books and play with my friends.”
The software that allowed Nicole to shine represents a promising application of recent and remarkable discoveries about the power of the brain to learn new tricks. Scientists are finding that the brain is “massively plastic”–not rigidly fixed like a computer chip–and can rewire itself throughout life with the help of rigorous training.
(Retraining Your Brain BY JOHN GREENWALD at time.com)
At birth a baby’s brain contains 100 billion neurons, roughly as many nerve cells as there are stars in the Milky Way. Also in place are a trillion glial cells, named after the Greek word for glue, which form a kind of honeycomb that protects and nourishes the neurons. But while the brain contains virtually all the nerve cells it will ever have, the pattern of wiring between them has yet to stabilize. Up to this point says neurobiologist Carla Shatz of the University of California, Berkeley, “what the brain has done is lay out circuits that are its best guess about what’s required for vision, for language, for whatever.” And now it is up to neural activity–no longer spontaneous, but driven by a flood of sensory experiences–to take this rough blueprint and progressively refine it.
During the first years of life, the brain undergoes a series of extraordinary changes. Starting shortly after birth, a baby’s brain, in a display of biological exuberance, produces trillions more connections between neurons than it can possibly use. Then, through a process that resembles Darwinian competition, the brain eliminates connections, or synapses, that are seldom or never used. The excess synapses in a child’s brain undergo a draconian pruning, starting around the age of 10 or earlier, leaving behind a mind whose patterns of emotion and thought are, for better or worse, unique.
In an age when mothers and fathers are increasingly pressed for time–and may already be feeling guilty about how many hours they spend away from their children are likely to increase concerns about leaving very young children in the care of others. For the data underscore the importance of hands-on parenting, of finding the time to cuddle a baby, talk with a toddler and provide infants with stimulating experiences.
Scientists have found that the brain during the first years of life is so malleable that very young children who suffer strokes or injuries that wipe out an entire hemisphere can still mature into highly functional adults. Moreover, it is becoming increasingly clear that well-designed preschool programs can help many children overcome glaring deficits in their home environment. With appropriate therapy, say researchers, even serious disorders like dyslexia may be treatable. While inherited problems may place certain children at greater risk than others, says Dr. Harry Chugani, a pediatric neurologist at Wayne State University in Detroit, which is no excuse for ignoring the environment’s power to remodel the brain. “We may not do much to change what happens before birth, but we can change what happens after a baby is born,” he observes.
Each time a baby tries to touch a tantalizing object or gazes intently at a face or listens to a lullaby, tiny bursts of electricity shoot through the brain, knitting neurons into circuits as well defined as those etched onto silicon chips. The results are those behavioral mileposts that never cease to delight and awe parents. Around the age of two months, for example, the motor-control centers of the brain develop to the point that infants can suddenly reach out and grab a nearby object. Around the age of four months, the cortex begins to refine the connections needed for depth perception and binocular vision. And around the age of 12 months, the speech centers of the brain are poised to produce what is perhaps the most magical moment of childhood: the first word that marks the flowering of language.
Parents are the brain’s first and most important teachers. Among other things, they appear to help babies learn by adopting the rhythmic, high-pitched speaking style known as Parentese. When speaking to babies, Stanford University psychologist Anne Fernald has found, mothers and fathers from many cultures change their speech patterns in the same peculiar ways. “They put their faces very close to the child,” she reports. “They use shorter utterances, and they speak in an unusually melodious fashion.” The heart rate of infants increases while listening to Parentese, even Parentese delivered in a foreign language. Moreover, Fernald says, Parentese appears to hasten the process of connecting words to the objects they denote. Twelve-month-olds, directed to “look at the ball” in Parentese, direct their eyes to the correct picture more frequently than when the instruction is delivered in normal English.
(Fertile Minds BY J. MADELEINE NASH at time.com)
It doesn’t take an Einstein to recognize that Albert Einstein’s brain was very different from yours and mine. The gray matter housed inside that shaggy head managed to revolutionize our concepts of time, space, motion–the very foundations of physical reality–not just once but several times during his astonishing career. Yet while there clearly had to be something remarkable about Einstein’s brain, the pathologist who removed it from the great physicist’s skull after his death reported that the organ was, to all appearances, well within the normal range–no bigger or heavier than anyone else’s.
(Was Einstein’s Brain Built for Brilliance? BY MICHAEL D. LEMONICK at time.com)


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