The boy who knew too much: a child prodigy

This is the true story of scientific child prodigy, and former baby genius, Ainan Celeste Cawley, written by his father. It is the true story, too, of his gifted brothers and of all the Cawley family. I write also of child prodigy and genius in general: what it is, and how it is so often neglected in the modern world. As a society, we so often fail those we should most hope to see succeed: our gifted children and the gifted adults they become. Site Copyright: Valentine Cawley, 2006 +

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Quality of memory: incidental knowledge

Ainan is very focussed on his scientific interests yet, surprisingly, he takes note of other things, too, in passing.

William James, the great 19th century American pioneer in the nascent science of Psychology made an interesting observation, on the types of memory people tend to have. He conceived of an understanding of great men: "When both memory and philosophy combine together in one person, then indeed we have the highest sort of intellectual efficiency. Your Walter Scotts, your Leibnitzes, your Gladstones, and your Goethes, all your folio copies of mankind, belong to this type."

Let me explain the background to this remark. This was given in his "Talk to Teachers" on memory. He observed that some people had the ability to recall random information that they were presented with. Their minds were "wax to receive, marble to retain". He further noted that, sometimes, such a great memory was found in a person otherwise ungifted in the "philosophic" department. By this he meant, yes, they have great memories - but they do not also possess high levels of intelligence. Today, we might call such individuals savants or the like - for he seems to be referring to such cases, as we would understand them, today.

However, he further noted that all combinations of types of mind were possible. Sometimes a person was both gifted in memory and in philosophical power of thinking. It is this type that he thinks of as great men - and used the geniuses above as examples of it. He further believed that such a combination was necessary for the highest accomplishment - the greatest of men (women not being afforded much opportunity in his day) tending to exhibit both faculties, to allow the necessary mental efficiency to accomplish their goals.

He clarified his understanding of memory by conceiving of the idea of "desultory memory" - this was the capacity to remember anything and everything without effort (his "wax to receive, marble to retain".) It is difficult for most of us to remember random information - but he noted that some people were adept at this, along with whatever other faculties they possessed.

Incidentally, "desultory" has a fascinating history as a word. It ultimately comes from the Latin, desultorius, the adjectival form of desultur, meaning "hasty, casual, superficial" but applied to mean "a rider in the circus who jumped from one horse to another while they are in gallop,". It therefore captures the ability of some people to be fluid in memory, too - to jump from one thing, to another, effortlessly.

So, in William James thinking, the most helpful memory, would be a desultory memory - one that allowed anything and everything to be learnt, incidentally, without really trying. Such a person would end up with a broad knowledge of just about everything, they encountered in life.

Now, back to Ainan.

This morning, Ainan was watching the Guiness Book of World Records on television, as I passed by. On the screen was a quiz about footballers and the question was: "Who is the highest paid footballer in the world?" There were three choices: David Beckham, Zinedine Zidane and a third that eludes me because, frankly, I wasn't paying much attention.

I noted something odd, however. As Ainan sat in front of the television, he pointed at the Zinedine Zidane and said: "Zidane". That, for me, was strange, because I knew, for certain, that Ainan had no interest whatsoever in football. We had taken him to try it once and he couldn't have been less enthused. I have never seen him watch a football match, either - so it was more than a little surprising that he should feel that he knew who was "the highest paid footballer in the world." I thought, to myself, that it must be David Beckham, so I paused in my journey about the house and waited for the television to answer the question.

At last the answer came: "Zinedine Zidane is the highest paid footballer in the world!" It then went onto to say that he had the not inconsiderable salary of $66 million US Dollars a year.

That really surprised me: Ainan had been right. This then called to mind, for me, the remark about desultory memory made by William James that I had first read of while reading irrelevantly at Cambridge University, two decades before, a text that would do me no good whatsoever in the exams ahead (they are the best texts to read, for then you might learn something new!)

It seems, if this example is any guide, that Ainan possesses that element of desultory memory that William James so prized. His sole true interests are scientific - and he has no interest in football - yet still he knew who the highest paid footballer in the world was.

The real surprise here is that, after 7 years of being his father, and observing him first hand, daily, that he is still able to surprise me. That points to something else: he is constantly evolving and growing. He is what he is - but he is also becoming. To be able to see that growth is one of the great pleasures of fatherhood (or indeed, parenthood).

(If you would like to learn more of Ainan Celeste Cawley, a scientific child prodigy, aged seven years and eight months, or his gifted brothers, Fintan, four years and one month, and Tiarnan, eighteen months, please go to: I also write of gifted education, IQ, intelligence, College, University, Chemistry, Science, genetics, left-handedness, child prodigy, child genius, baby genius, adult genius, gifted adults and gifted children in general. Thanks.)

Labels: , , , , , , , , , , ,

AddThis Social Bookmark Button
posted by Valentine Cawley @ 12:46 PM 


Post a Comment

<< Home

Page copy protected against web site content infringement by Copyscape