Between Nature and Nurture…. By Kelechi Deca

Last night, I was lucky to beat Lagos traffic, enough time to catch Stephen Shakur’s Hard Talk. I planned not to miss the episode because his guest was no other than Prof. Robert Plomin, Professor of Behavioural Genetics, and the subject was on the age-long debate of Nature and Nurture. It was such an enlightening interview.

My take out from the programme reminded me of an article I read last week on the Relationship Between Creativity and Mental Illness, by Maria Popova.Ms. Popova started by quoting the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Katherine Anne Porter who in a 1963 interview confessed; “I think I’ve only spent about ten percent of my energies on writing,the other ninety percent went to keeping my head above water.”

The article dwelt a lot on the life of Nancy Andreasen, author of The Creating Brain: The Neuroscience of Genius. Acording to Popova, when Nancy Andreasen took a standard IQ test in kindergarten, she was declared a “genius.” But she was born in the late 1930s, an era when her own mother admonished that no one would marry a woman with a Ph.D. Still, she became a psychiatrist and a neuroscientist, and made understanding the brain’s creative capacity her life’s work.

Having grown up steeped in ambivalence about her “diagnosis” of extraordinary intellectual and creative ability, Andreasen wondered about the social forces at work in the nature-nurture osmosis of genius, about how many people of natural genius were born throughout history whose genius was never manifested, suppressed by lack of nurture.

“Half of the human beings in history are women,” she noted, “but we have had so few women recognized for their genius. How many were held back by societal influences, similar to the ones I encountered and dared to ignore?” (One need only look at the case of Benjamin Franklin and his sister to see Andreasen’s point.)

Andreasen didn’t heed her mother’s warning and went on to become a pioneer of the neuroimaging revolution, setting out to understand how “genius” came to be and whether its manifestation could be actively nurtured — how we, as individuals and as a society, could put an end to wasting human gifts.

She did get a Ph.D., too, but in Renaissance English literature rather than biochemistry — a multidisciplinary angle that lends her approach a unique lens at that fertile intersection of science and the humanities.

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