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The Mind of the Prodigy

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Prodigies dazzle us with their virtuoso violin concertos, seemingly prescient chess moves, and vivid paintings. While their work would be enough to impress us if they were 40, prodigies typically reach adult levels of performance in non-verbal, rule-based domains such as chess, art, and music before the age of 10.

Their performances are hard to explain from a purely deliberate practice perspective. While it’s true that many prodigies receive support, resources, and encouragement from parents and coaches early on, such support is typically the result of a demonstrated “rage to learn”, as the prodigy expert Martha J. Morelock refers to the phenomenon. The reason why they are so driven to deliberately practice in their domain requires explaining.

In recent years, psychologist Joanne Ruthsatz and colleagues have been shedding light on the mind of the prodigy. In one study, Ruthsatz and violin virtuoso Jourdan Urbach administered the latest edition of the Stanford-Binet IQ test to nine prominent child prodigies who have all been featured on national and international television programs. Most of the children reached professional level performance in their domain by the age of 10, and their chosen domains were notably rule-based. There was one art prodigy, one math prodigy, four musical prodigies, one prodigy who switched from music to gastronomy and another prodigy who switched from music to art.

The first thing they noticed is the wide spread of IQ scores- ranging from 108 to 147. Consistent with the earlier work of David Henry Feldman and Martha Morelock, it appears that a high IQ is not necessary to be a prodigy. More telling, however, were the subtest scores. All of the prodigies showed uneven cognitive profiles. In fact, one prodigy obtained a total IQ score of 108 and a visual spatial IQ score of 71, which is worse than 97 percent of the general population. That didn’t prevent him from winning a prestigious award for his jazz improvisational abilities, becoming the youngest person ever to perform with a well-known musician at one of the best know music venues in America! He also scored three films without any formal composition lessons. Again, this is consistent with prior research showing that balanced cognitive test profiles are more the exception than the rule among academically precocious students as well as students who are precocious in art and music.

More striking is that every single prodigy scored off the charts in working memory — better than 99 percent of the general population. In fact, six out of the eight prodigies scored at the 99.9th percentile! Working memory isn’t solely the ability to memorize a string of digits. That’s short-term memory. Instead, working memory involves the ability to hold information in memory while being able to manipulate and process other incoming information. On the Stanford-Binet IQ test, working memory is measured in both the verbal and non-verbal domains and includes tasks such as processing sentences while having to remember the last word of each sentence, and recalling the location of blocks and numbers in the correct order in which they were presented. There have been many descriptions of the phenomenal working memory of prodigies, including a historical description of Mozart that involves his superior ability to memorize musical pieces and manipulate scores in his head. (See here for a demonstration of the exceptional memory of a physics prodigy.)

The researchers also found that as a group, the prodigies showed higher levels of autistic traits compared with a control group consisting of people weren’t prodigies (but the prodigies scored only slightly higher than those with high-functioning autism, or Asperger’s). While the large majority of children with autism aren’t child prodigies, these results are suggestive that there is a prevalence of autism among prodigies. One particular autistic-like trait that stood out among the prodigies was attention to detail. This trait was higher among the prodigies than either the control group or those with high-functioning autism.

While this study looked at the prodigies as a group, it’s possible that the prodigies’ cognitive profiles differ depending on their domain. Enter a new study, which has just been accepted in the journal Intelligence.

Ruthsatz and colleagues investigated the cognitive profiles of 18 prodigies (9 of the prodigies were in their earlier studies). In total, their sample consisted of eight music prodigies, five math prodigies, and five art prodigies.

In terms of total IQ score, math and music prodigies had a significantly higher total IQ score than the art prodigies:

Math Prodigies: Average IQ= 140; Range= 134-147

Music Prodigies: Average IQ=129; Range=108-142

Art Prodigies: Average IQ= 108; Range=100-116

The math and music prodigies scored higher than the art prodigies on tests of general cultural knowledge, vocabulary, quantitative reasoning, and visual spatial ability. Surprisingly, the art prodigies displayed below average visual spatial skills (average visual spatial IQ = 88; Range=82-94). This finding suggests that the kind of mental visualization skills tested on IQ tests does not adequately capture artistic talent.

As a possible explanation, Ruthsatz and colleagues discuss research suggesting the key role of attention in the development of artistic talent. Artistically talented children tend to actively focus on the forms, shapes, and detailed surface features of their environments. As a result, the visual information around them is better and more selectively encoded, and they are able to remember those details while drawing. This skill may be at odds with the visual spatial skills tested on IQ tests, which highlight categories, concepts, and holistic perception at the expense of detailed-oriented perception. Consistent with this account, one of the art prodigies explained to the researchers that she uses her extraordinary memory to conjure images in her mind while painting. She remembers such details as how shadows fall on an object and is able to paint the entire scene from memory building up from those details.

 

While the art prodigies had below average visual spatial scores, and a close to average total IQ score, they did share the exceptional working memory of the math prodigies. The music prodigies, however, had the highest working memory scores. Anecdotal reports backed this up: every music prodigies’ parents reported that their child began to reproduce from memory music they heard at a very early age, and that the ability to read music only came later in development.

 

Development of the Prodigious Mind

These studies start to give us a picture of the mind of prodigy. Prodigies are characterized by their at least average global intellectual functioning, and exceptional levels of working memory, attention to detail, and domain-specific talent.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of misconceptions about talent. There is no such thing as “innate” talent. No one is born with fully developed traits. Michael Jordan didn’t pop out dunking a basketball from the free throw line. People differ in their genetic foundation, but all talents must be developed through an intricate and dynamic interplay of ability, motivation, practice, and support.

Based on detailed interviews with the children and their family members, David Henry Feldman and Lynn Goldsmith concluded that the prodigy phenomenon is the result of a lucky “coincidence” of factors, including the following: the existence of a domain matched exceptionally well to the prodigy’s proclivities and interests, availability of the domain in the prodigy’s geographical location, healthy social/emotional development, family aspects (birth order and gender), education and preparation (informal and formal), cultural support, recognition for achievement in the domain, access to training resources, material support from family members, at least one parent completely committed to the prodigy’s development, family traditions that favor the prodigy’s development, and historical forces, events, and trends.

More accurately, genes can be thought of as learning devices that predispose us to acquire certain information in the environment, and ignore other aspects of our world. Viewed in this way, genes are fundamentally active seekers of knowledge as they attempt to find the best fit to their genome. Therefore, genes exert their influences on the development of talent through their control of motivations, preferences, and emotional responses. Over time, people will accumulate experiences that result in the practice of skills, habits, and patterns of responding that reinforce the drives in an ongoing mutually reinforcing cycle (see Experience Producing Drive Theory). These drives apply to all areas of individual differences, including motivations, interests, personality, attitude, values, and quirky traits unique to each individual.

Think of the kid who is immediately attracted to structure of classical music and spends hours and hours practicing the violin without anyone telling him to do so. Or the young girl who finds numbers beautiful and spends many hours playing with numbers in her head, discovering new patterns and the structure of mathematics. These children find these activities and rule structures inherently rewarding. And their skills in their respective areas build up because they seek out opportunities to do the things that they find rewarding, gaining lots of practice along the way.

Therefore, it is possible that prodigies are born with genetic variants that relate to various tendencies, including an attentional focus on details and a brain-network wiring that supports an enhanced encoding of new memories. This could explain why prodigies frequently report that they were attracted early on to domains that deal with systems, and why many also display — even in infancy — an enhanced ability to maintain mental representations, with the working memory of prodigies most enhanced for the symbol systems that interest them the most, such as mathematical or linguistic stimuli.

After just a few years of obsessive focus, prodigies build up rich long-term working memory structures that allow them to assimilate and learn new information faster and faster. This could also explain their enhanced ability to manipulate information in their heads. In sum, child prodigies rapidly develop brain structures that make them even more prepared to learn new information within their domain.

While it’s particularly important to build these knowledge structures in youth when the brain is at its most plastic state of development, life isn’t a zero-sum game. Just because prodigies exist doesn’t mean life is hopeless if you weren’t a prodigy. In a wide range of fields, especially ones that require leadership and creativity, the number of elite experts who weren’t child prodigies far outnumber those who were. Late blooming is possible.

Which is why I believe it’s so important for society to have an accurate understanding of how talent develops, and the environmental structures that support flourishing in every child. I recommend an educational system that exposes children to as many materials as possible, and leaves the door continually open for accelerated and enriched resources whenever a child displays his or her readiness for engagement.

Prodigies will continue to fascinate us, but let’s make sure that in our fascination with them, we don’t forget that they require the nurturance and development of their inclinations and passions just as much as the rest of us.

Portions of this post were taken from my earlier article at The Creativity Post.

image credit cover: istockphoto; image credit #1: cnn

Scott Barry Kaufman About the Author: Scott Barry Kaufman is Scientific Director of The Imagination Institute in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Follow on Twitter @sbkaufman.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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