My Brilliant Brain (Documentary)
Time - 21:00 - 22:00 (1 hour long)
When - Monday 16th July on five
The series of three programmes explores the brain power of exceptional people. A seven-year-old concert pianist already has 40 pieces in his memory. A chess grandmaster can beat her challengers blindfolded, remembering the whole board including all the moves. Although they are extraordinary, they can teach us more about how our own brains work.
Tonight's episode focuses on 38-year-old Susan Polgar, the first female chess grandmaster, whose incredible story suggests that genius does not always have to be innate, but can be taught. How has Susan trained her brain to such a formidable degree?
At 38 years old, Susan Polgar has reached heights that few women have ever equalled in the chess world. Despite the common assumption that men’s brains are better at understanding spatial relationships, giving them an advantage in games such as chess, Susan went on to become the world’s first grandmaster. Susan’s remarkable abilities have earned her the label of ‘genius’, but her psychologist father, László Polgar, believed that genius was “not born, but made”. Noting that even Mozart received tutelage from his father at a very early age, Polgar set about teaching chess to the five-year-old Susan after she happened upon a chess set in their home. “My father believed that the potential of children was not used optimally,” says Susan.
The making of Brilliant Brain – filming in Central Park
Close-up of the film crew at work with Susan Polgar
So how has Susan trained her brain to such a formidable degree? Chess is so complex a game that there are four billion choices for the first three moves alone. Susan has committed to memory tens of thousands of possible patterns and scenarios. Every time Susan sees a grouping of chess pieces on a board, she can browse through her back catalogue of memorised groupings, using instinct to tell her the right move. “We seem to heap a lot of praise on people’s calculating ability,” says former British champion William Hartston, “but we take for granted all sorts of mental abilities that are absolutely intuitive.”
Filming for the "five" documentary at Tompkins Square
A break in the filming
In order to isolate the areas of her brain she uses when playing chess, Susan is given an MRI scan. There is an area at the front of the brain which deals with face recognition, allowing most people to remember a face in 100 milliseconds. Astonishingly, this is the very place where the experts find that Susan has moulded her recognition of 100,000 chess scenarios. Over years of childhood practice, Susan has hardwired these countless scenarios into her long-term memory and can recognise one in an instant – as quickly as someone might recognise the face of a friend or relative.
At the famous Szechenyi thermal bath in Budapest
It is this lightning-quick instinct, coupled with a phenomenal memory and years of relentless practice, that have earned Susan the status of ‘genius’. Her story presents strong evidence to suggest that her father was right – genius may indeed be nurture over nature. “I really believe that if you put your mind to it,” reflects Susan, “you can achieve it, whatever it is”.