Genius: Born or Bred?

Eveline Gan meets a boy with an IQ of 160 and asks the experts if it’s possible to engineer giftedness.


Bleary­-eyed after his afternoon nap is disrupted, Victor Woo is not in a good mood.

"He becomes cranky when he doesn't get enough sleep," his mother, Patricia Koh, says apologetically, as she tries to settle her grumpy preschooler during the interview.

At first glance, Victor behaves like your typical four-­year-­old. But don't be fooled. While his peers struggle to make sense of their A­to­Zs, Victor is already a member of the Singapore chapter of Mensa. The high ­IQ (intelligence quotient) society admits only the top 2 per cent of the population on a standardised intelligence test.

With an IQ of at least 160, which puts him in the "profoundly gifted" range, Victor is the second­ youngest child to be accepted into Mensa Singapore at two years and nine months old.

The youngest member is one month younger than Victor, says the society's president, Patrick Khoo.

Patricia, 34, a private tutor and a flexi-­adjunct tutor at a local junior college, shares that she had an inkling that her little one might be special when he was only an infant. She recounts: "Most babies sleep through their full­month parties. But Victor was observing the visitors and imitating sounds."

As a baby, his physical milestones were average. He started walking only at 14 months, but his cognitive development was astonishing. At seven months, he could differentiate between a helicopter and an aeroplane, shares Patricia. When he turned two, the little genius shocked his parents by reading his first headline ­ "Women at Work" ­ from The Straits Times.

"He read that out to me while i was looking through the newspaper. I remember that well because i was so shocked, I almost fell off my seat," says Patricia.

A tell­tale sign of giftedness is when the child shows "unusually high abilities in one or more areas", in which they develop more quickly than their peers, says clinical psychologist Vyda S Chai of Think Psychological Services.

"For instance, a three­-year-­old gifted child might have a command of language that is comparable to a six­year­old, or a six-­year-­old that might read books targeted at eight­-year-­olds," Vyda explains.

At two years and seven months old, Victor was tested by a psychologist who found his IQ score to be way off the charts. The average person, in comparison, has an IQ of around 100. "We were happy, but also quite shocked (that his IQ is so high). Although we exposed Victor to different things after he was born, we certainly didn't hothouse or crash-­train him with many enrichment programmes," she says.

BORN OR MADE

So where did this brilliant spark of genius come from ­ was Victor born with it or did his parents do something right?

Looking back at her pregnancy, Patricia -­ who is expecting her second child this month - ­believes that "a person's nature can be nurtured" and that a large part of her son's giftedness was probably "stimulated and nurtured" from the time he was in her womb.

"When i was pregnant with him, I put in a lot effort in his development, and that stimulation in the womb became part of developing his nature," she says.

Back then, Patricia played Mozart, talked and read to her growing belly everyday. She was also extremely strict with her pregnancy diet, swapping caffeine and "brain­drainers" like deep­fried snacks for nutritious brain food like salmon, fish oils and milk.

Like Patricia, proponents of the "nurture" camp believe that giftedness can be shaped ­if only the kid is given that extra push. The Carolina Abecedarian Project, a 1972 experiment which followed over 100 disadvantaged children in North Carolina from their infancy, showed that the correct brain stimulation can improve a child's performance.

Those who were exposed to educational games performed better in language, maths and had higher overall IQ. Later, this group also did better in their education and careers.

Mensa Singapore's Patrick believes that both the environment and genes have crucial roles in giftedness. "People are born with a set value, but environmental factors can improve and increase it. If you're born with low ability, it doesn't mean that you can't improve. It could work the other way, too. A child could be born with the potential for great ability, but if it's never recognised, that gift simply lies dormant," he says.

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