By Morgan Appel, director of UC San Diego Extension's Education Department
As avid consumers of programming chronicling the lives of those christened intellectually gifted, it may be high time to reflect on these noteworthy characters in a more meaningful way than, let us say, a gasp, a tear, or a chortle. Without question, writers create hyper-exaggerated versions of the gifted as means to elicit a response from the audience, be it the inability to comprehend the most rudimentary of social conventions or engaging in behavior more robotic than it is human. Let us not forget the lovable rogue so burdened by his innate abilities but still somehow compelled to skulk about the University hallways solving complex equations after nightfall. The two girl-crazy smarties that design and deliver supermodels courtesy of their Commodore 64s. The absent-minded professor who serves as a catalyst for love between his students when he is not unraveling the secrets of the universe or solving that energy-matter-time-space-continuum-equation thingy.
Be they endearing dweebs incapable of engaging the opposite sex or haunted and perpetually troubled souls, popular portrayals of the gifted and talented have wormed their way into our collective hearts — so much so that they've even inspired a survivor-like game show 'King of the Nerds.' Working in the field causes one to ponder whether Doogie Howser, M.D. was able to contend with the issues emerging from asynchrony. How might Sherlock Holmes might tackle his obsessive friendship issues with Dr. Watson? Would he benefit from Bibliotherapy or see right through it? Have Sheldon Cooper's perfectionist tendencies diminished over the years since dating Amy Farrah Fowler? Is Robin Williams's Simon Roberts creatively gifted or just chemically in tune with popular tastes? Is Spock gifted, or does he merely possess the organizational and time management skills that facilitate metacognition across the sciences? Is Hannibal Lecter's dark humor a way to deflect the pressures of an overachieving personality?
Although much work has been undertaken in this area, further examination of archetypes of the gifted as portrayed in the popular media is an intriguing prospect on many levels. Practical neuroscience and a deep investigation of the socio-affective characteristics of these roles can help us better and more accurately address the extent to which characters are truly gifted — or merely mimic stereotypical tendencies to solicit a laugh or empathetic reaction. More than that, it is fun.
Please do stay tuned as the Education Department embarks on this journey to see if your favorites are really gifted — or just stayed at a Holiday Inn Express last night. For more information about this post or project, please contact Morgan Appel, director of the Education Department at firstname.lastname@example.org.