Sunday, January 11, 2009

Kyle XY and Einstein's Brain


ABC Family's Kyle XY is one of those shows that sounds interesting, but I've never quite gotten around to actually watching. Maybe it's because ABC Family isn't one of the stations that's on my schedule radar, or maybe it's because the teen angst aspect of the show makes it less appealing than the other shows in its time slot. In any case, the new season starts Monday, and I thought it was high time that I looked at a bit of the biology behind the show. Forgive me (and feel free to leave a comment) if I get part of the storyline wrong .

Here's the general premise of the show: Hunky 26-year old Matt Dallas plays teenager Kyle, who one day wakes up naked and belly button-less in the forest with no memory of his childhood. He's an innocent who needs to learn to learn everything: from learning to speak to simple social interactions, all while trying to discover who he is. Of course it helps that has superior mental and physical skills.

During the first two seasons, Kyle's origins are revealed: he's a clone - subject 781227 - who is part of an experimental program funded by the Zzyzx Corporation to develop super soldiers. At this summer's Comic-Con, io9 interviewed Matt Davis about the show. He talks a bit about Kyle's origins, and suggests that Season 3 (which premiers Monday) will delve heavily into science.

So what sets Kyle apart from your usual supergenius clone? It all started with Albert Einstein. You see, Einstein supposedly spend an extra three weeks in the womb, which allowed his brain to develop further in utero than usual. The result was that he became a physics genius - and started a research program to create others like him. Kyle is one of the latest results of that many-decade long research project. He actually spent 16 years in an artificial womb which allowed him to develop high intelligence, telepathy and other mental skills. It also explains his lack of a belly button.

Now is this based on real science? Not really, as far as I can tell.

- Did Einstein spend an extra 3 weeks in the womb?

I couldn't find any mention of anything unusual about Einstein's birth in any of the biographies I browsed online or on Google Books. It's possible that his birth was later than expected, but I would think that even in the 19th century a pregnancy three weeks past its due date would have been a serious cause for concern. The doctor or midwife attending Einstein's mother would likely have tried to induce childbirth before that time. Today doctors usually induce labor when pregnancy continues two weeks beyond the due date.

- Was Einstein's brain special?

As a boy, Einstein excelled at mathematics, solving problems far above his grade level. However, that aptitude didn't extend to every subject. Einstein's parents supposedly consulted a doctor about his slow verbal development. Even at the age of nine he had difficultly speaking. That may have made him seem slow to his teachers and family. It doesn't seem that anyone expected him to end up an icon of scientific genius.

We actually know a lot about Einstein's brain. Since his death in 1955 it has been analyzed by a number of neuroanatomists. While we still don't understand what made Einstein a genius, it appears that his brain differed from the average in several ways:
So what does all of this mean? One suggestion is that Einstein's abilities were due to the fact that the parts of the brain involved in language were smaller than than typical, which allowed parts of his brain involved in processing numbers and spatial relationships to grow larger. That's highly speculative, though, and we may never really know the answer.

One thing is clear: Einstein's brain doesn't appear to have developed more than usual, just differently from average.

- So could extended development in the womb increase intelligence?

Einstein is really only a small part of the Kyle XY mythos. The real biological claim is that Kyle has extraordinary abilities because he remained the equivalent of "in utero" for sixteen years. Is that possible? I don't think so. Human intelligence is determined by a complex set of factors, including genetics, nutrition, and other environmental factors. The connections between neurons in our brain are set in response to training and education, particularly during childhood. That means that it's unlikely that Kyle would develop into a genius would develop without some sort of outside stimulation. And if Kyle wasn't exposed to language in the early years of his life, it's unlikely that he would be able to learn to speak normally at all.

I'd be interested in hearing from any of you readers that have seen the show about what Kyle's development was actually supposed to be like. Was he really isolated in an artifical womb? or was he actually allowed to grow up in some sort of accelerated learning environment? Perhaps that's what will be shown in the show's upcoming season.

Season 3 premieres on Monday, January 12. Or, if you can't wait, you can watch the opening episode right now.

I've only seen the 10 minutes, but it looks like it'll be good entertainment if you are in the mood for teen angst (prom night!) mixed with your SF. You can see full episodes from the first two seasons on the ABC Family web site. (Note: as of 2012 the free episodes of Kyle XY are unfortunately no longer available.)
(I was going to discuss Kyle's missing belly button, but this post is long enough already. Maybe I'll get to it later in the season.)

13 comments:

Larry Lennhoff said...

I enjoy the show, but the science is generally at the epic fail level. Kyle has both physical and mental superpowers - he can levitate (or at least walk on water, including being held off the ground by the spray of a sprinkler), he (or maybe just Jesse) causes light bulbs to explode around him when upset, etc.

I'd definitely classify this as science fantasy, not well grounded SF.

KaylieXX said...

What an insightful and informative piece. I enjoyed reading it. I was always intrigued by the notion that Albert Einstein had a longer gestation in his mother's womb. Thanks for bringing that up.

Hope everyone out there will be watching the new season premiere of Kyle XY!

Winawer said...

They also haul out the old "humans only use 10% of our brains" canard - hey, Kyle's brain scan is lit up like a Christmas tree! He's got to be a superpowered kinda guy!

Sigh....

Peggy said...

Larry: I didn't realize that they had given him magical powers too. (Walks on water - that's a bit messianic, no?) That takes it far beyond any "real" science.

KaylieXX: Glad you enjoyed it.

Winawer: I actually was going to bring that up and forgot. In the interview io9 did with Matt Dallas he claims that Kyle uses "70% of his brain". I'm pretty sure that would make him a bit brain damaged.

Anonymous said...

IIRC they were pumping all sorts of information into kyle's head as he was in his artificial womb-thing. But he wasn't supposed to be really conscious, so that wouldn't change anything.

Generally the "science" is comparable to what you find on "fringe" or "heroes". They occasionally use scientific terminology or ideas, but none of it makes any sense.

Larry Lennhoff said...

As always happens with shows I like, Kyle is apparently being canceled after the present run.

scentsy nerd said...

I shared excerpts from this piece on my facebook-- Einstein is such an interesting character, but explaining how his brain is actually different than most was so interesting, thank you!

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Josiah steven said...

Hmmm intresting, i now understand why einstein was just superb. Funny to say though, but i have a feeling that i am taking his foot steps, but hey, that doesnt mean i spent more than 9 months in my mothers womb.

C.C. (aka Crunchy Catholic Mama) said...

I found your blog while trying to find out if Einstein had indeed been post-date. I had a little chuckle when I read your statement about a 43 week baby being a "serious cause for concern" in the 19th century. In fact it was much more common place for a couple of reasons. First prior to modern ultrasound techniques, if a baby went post-date they often assumed that the conception was later than earlier thought and secondly prior to modern NICU's they knew better than to try to start needless inductions. It has only been recently that doctors decided to try to narrow the normal due window.

I myself delivered a little girl last year at 43 weeks, 3 days. Due to charting my cycles, we knew when she was conceived and a first trimester ultrasound confirmed that, so we know that she was truly post-date. I read a ton of research and came to the conclusion that in my case, which included a family history of complication free post-date babies on both sides, that the safest thing in our case was to wait on the baby while monitoring more frequently.

Of course my daughter will always know that she was a 43+3 baby but that is more a reflection of today's "have it your way" culture than anything to do with evidence-based care. If Einstein was post-date it might have been so unimportant at the time that it was barely noted.

Anonymous said...

Wow! All so skeptical!
The author of the article, having necer seen the show, is missing a lot. It seems perfectly scientifically sound to theorize that 16 years of gestation would cause one to be able to use a much larger percent of one's brain than average. The author's point, that human beings learn through experiences and therefore being stuck in a pod would actually make one dumber, misses the fact that the human brain WANTS to learn (just like the reproductive system wants to reproduce). It is therefore logically sound that when external stimulation is limited, the brain would turn back to itself to create experience. This would mean growing it's capacity, which would essentially mean more part becoming active. If it is in fact true that humans only use 10% of our brains, simply imagining what we could do if we used more can only ever reveal the beginning of possibility. Why wouldn't someone using more be able to alter their own density to the point of levitation. Hell, I believe if we used even 50%, we could teleport ourselves. Come on now! If you have even the most basic understanding of quantum physics, you have to admit that ANYTHING is theoretically possible!

Anonymous said...

I have two sons that were born past their due date. The oldest was 24 days overdue. He is really bright. He knew the alphabet at 18 months and could read at 2 1/2. He excels at math and works as a programmer. The other son was 16 days late equally bright, but he is more right/left brain balanced. Good at math, but likes structure. I was allowed to be overdue this long in 1983 and 1987. The brain does develop more towards the end of gestation so there might be something to the theroy.

Anonymous said...

I found your blog while looking for the Kyle XY Einstein claims too :) I wondered just how overdue he was. I figured a few weeks, wasn't a big deal. If they claimed it was 3 weeks then I'm not sure how that would have made him exceptionally smarter.

Many children are born well after the due date. I also have to agree with some other posters, 3 weeks overdue is definitely not any more of a "serious cause for concern" than it is a recipe for a smarter individual.

A baby is considered full term between 38 and 42 weeks--two weeks before and after the due date. So with a due date at the 40 week mark, he would really only be 1 week "exceptionally" overdue.

My son was born at 25 weeks and obviously with an underdeveloped brain. He was in an incubator for 108 days. Today he's perfectly healthy and happens to be more developed than most kids his age. He is very articulate, can easily repeat a song after hearing it once and, at five, can read at the level of an ten year old (something he picked up in just a few weeks).

Who knows, maybe it has something to do with being in a "pod" :P