Sunday, March 21, 2010

Genie, the Feral Child

This article talks about Genie's story when she facilitated a group of scientists who was researching about how human learn. The 'Genie Team,' as these researchers were known, wanted to know if Genie would be able to recover and learn normally, after being isolated from human contact for ten years.

The scientists took Genie out and about and taught her new things. Genie began to recover; she smiled, ran, and played. After several months under these scientists' care, Genie was able to acquire over one hundred words that she understood, but remained silent and continued to make high-pitched squeaks. Over the next several years, Genie showed impressive learning skills such as scoring the highest recorded score ever on tests that measure a person's ability to make sense out of chaos and to see patterns. However, she was still unable to speak with syntax, let alone make meaningful sentences. In a test conducted on her, scientists found out Genie was particularly quick and confident at tasks that involved more of the right side of the brain. She was extremely slow at tasks that needed coordination of both sides of the brain. And failed with tasks that involved more of the left brain, such as language.

This shows that language is something that is acquired during our first few years, or the first decade. Genie was robbed of that. She was locked in a room alone for ten years. She did not receive any 'parentese,' but was beaten if made any sound. Children also have an innate language acquisition device that allows them to learn language if exposed to enough sampling of it. Genie was exposed to none. Does the left side of the brain develop only during the first critical years? Could this mean that Genie will never recover fully? It seems that is the case, because after the scientists ran out of fundings, Genie was still unable to speak properly, only telegraphically. She continued to live in a series of foster homes.


Swe said...
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Swe said...

Genie, a feral child deprived of a proper environment, human interaction, and even nutrition, was finally found at age 13. While most children can speak, think for themselves, and express their ideas somewhat eloquently by that age, she could not even speak and was not potty trained. Yet she showed progress after just three days in the hospital in dressing herself or being able to go to the bathroom on her own. While researchers were curious to see if her isolation would leave her incapable of learning and functioning as a normal child.
She proved them wrong by understanding words quickly and learning to do everyday things she never did before. While her recognition of patterns proved that she could be intelligent and use the right side of the brain, the left side was where she seemed challenged. I don't think this means that she is incapable of changing that; the article states that the researchers were unable to continue their studies after a few years. If anything stunted her development, it was this. She was then sent off to her mother, several foster homes, and finally a home for mentally challenged adults.
I think the main problem is that the study is incomplete. Genie lived thirteen years in isolation but was probably exposed to normal society and learning environment for a small fraction of that time. Just as children take time to crawl, walk, and then run or to speak one word and months later a whole sentence, what Genie needed was time.
It's not as though she had brain damage. She was underdeveloped due to isolation and neglect. How could sending her off to an abnormal place like a special needs home help her? With proper time and diligence in teaching her, I believe Genie could have been "normal." While early years are crucial in developing skills such as language, we are constantly learning and developing (as are our brains) well into adulthood. The question is not whether she was capable, but how long it would take for her to become capable. Genie, however, was never given a proper chance.

Jiji said...

The story of Genie is truly an unfortunate event. I wonder if her brain has been damaged during her times of confinement and cruel punishments, due to physical abuse and malnutrition. It doesn't seem too unlikely. However, I have come to believe that the brain is flexible after reading about some recent neuroscience researches. The ability of the brain to rewire itself after some sort of trauma in order to make the living organism function effectively again is called brain plasticity. I believe Genie, under the care of the scientists during those few years, displayed some aspects of brain plasticity by showing the ability to learn fundamental things despite having past the adolescent learning stage. The biggest problem seems to be language syntax. Individual signs and words could be acquired, but her grammar doesn't improve in anyways. I think this is because language is something so specific to humans that it is not yet biologically fundamental for a living organism's brain. In other words, it is not a inherent skill like sight or balance; it is a skill taught from one human to another. What is more unfortunate is that the scientists weren't given the chance or time to discover whether this specific human trait could be rewired in the brain along with everything else.