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Prodigy Please!

What do Sammy Reshevsky, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Srinivasa Ramanujan have in common? Reshevsky, at eight was taking on twenty strong adult players, simultaneously, at chess. Mozart composed his first piece of music at five. And Ramanujan had mastered complex mathematical concepts when only ten.

According to Professor David Henry Feldman of Tufts University, Boston, “A prodigy is a child who, before the age of 10, performs at the level of an adult professional in some cognitively demanding field.” So, a prodigy is not someone who out performs his or her peers, but someone who performs as well as an adult would after many years of learning. Secondly, eligibility to the prodigy status requires that this level of expertise and performance is manifested before a certain age.

It would be most tempting to not go any further and say: It has to be in the genes.

As we mentioned in our post on ‘Nurturing Nature’, that is exactly what Francis Galton (1822-1911) – a half cousin of Darwin and a prodigy by many accounts – tried (and failed, scientifically) to demonstrate. Now consider the claim made by author and sociologist, Malcolm Gladwell (of the Tipping Point fame), in his second book, Outliers, that you must spend 10,000 hours honing your skills if you want to be a success at anything. In other words, at least three hours a day of practice and hard work for ten years. Well, a child prodigy would just not have had the time. It must be in the genes!

The experience of Boris Becker and Andre Agassi shows us that it is possible to start tennis with a child of six or seven – when he can barely start to hold a racket – and get him to take a game off adult, proficient players by 10 or 11! Agassi’s father worked him like a horse year in and year out. As a result, Agassi ‘hated’ tennis. He says so, again and again, in his autobiography, Open. Also, the expertise requirement is that of proficiency one would expect from an adult, not excellence. While the three prodigies mentioned in the introduction excelled as adults – they were, in fact, completely off the charts – all prodigies don't necessarily go that way. Agassi rebelled again and again – but by wearing pink shorts and earrings, not by giving up tennis!

The conventional wisdom today is that genes can be thought of as the priming agents that predispose us – make us, focused, receptive and passionate - to acquire information in a certain domain while ignoring other aspects of our world. When this innate seeking, if you will, is combined with intense engagement and, hence, the accumulation of experiences, it leads to prodigious levels in performance.

Based on detailed interviews with the children and their family members, Feldman and his colleagues concluded that the prodigy phenomenon is the result of a lucky “coincidence” of many factors: the existence of an environment that is conducive to the prodigy’s proclivities and interests, healthy social/emotional development, family aspects (birth order and gender), education and cultural support, 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.

A case in point – for a combination of supportive factors – would be that of Maxim Vengerov, one of the great violinists the world has seen. He was born to a family with a strong musical tradition: his mother sang and conducted a 500-voice orchestra and his father played first oboe in the local philharmonic. He says of his mother: '(She) would get home at 8 pm, cook dinner and then teach me the violin until four in the morning. As a four-year-old boy it was torture. But I became a violinist within two years.’ After being given a miniature fiddle at the age of four, he displayed outstanding aptitude and began studying with leading violinists of the time. His talent was matched by an immense work ethic. He practiced for several hours a day, giving his first recital at the age of five, performing to audiences abroad at age 10, and winning his first international prize at 15.

Psychologist Joanne Ruthsatz, of Ohio State University has been studying the mind of the prodigy. In one study, with a cohort of nine children – reaching professional level performance levels before 10 years, in art, music and math – she was surprised to see the wide spread of IQ scores, ranging from 108 to 147. The sub-tests revealed that the cognitive profiles varied depending on the specific domains where they demonstrated great focus and, in the words of prodigy expert Martha J. Morelock, a "rage to learn".

Another striking observation was that every single child scored better than 99 percent of the general population in working memory. According to Scott Barry Kaufman, writing for Scientific American, “Working memory … (is defined) as the ability to hold information in memory while being able to manipulate and process other incoming information.” Mozart’s superior ability to memorize musical pieces and manipulate scores in his head is legendry. Also, one particular trait that stood out among the prodigies was the attention to detail.

An alternative understanding based on the cognitive-developmental theory of the child prodigy phenomenon is put forward by to Dr. Larisa V. Shavinina of University of Québec, Canada. According to this theory, ‘this phenomenon is a result of an exceptionally accelerated mental development during sensitive periods that leads to the fast growth of a child’s cognitive resources and their construction into specific cognitive experience … The cognitive experience is a psychological basis of extraordinary intellectually creative achievements, which expresses itself in the prodigy’s unique intellectual picture of the world.’

The ‘unique picture’ may be illustrated thus. When Karina Oakley, just under 4 years (today 10 years of age) at the time, was shown a picture of a teapot without a handle and asked what was missing, she said the picnic mat. Shown a picture of a glove that was lacking one finger and asked what was missing, she said the other glove! The IQ test may not have looked upon this kindly – though she had an IQ of 160 – but what’s interesting is that she did not give the obvious answer. She saw the bigger picture.

Now, genes being almost ‘given’ – advances in genetics notwithstanding – our best chance to help a child rise to her potential would be to help build neural knowledge structures when the brain is at its most plastic – in the early years. Well, here we go again. Cannot say it often enough.

We would like to strongly recommend all the appropriate interventions during pregnancy and the first six years, especially the first three – physical care, health and nutrition, mental stimulation, emotional nurture, protection and safety. This should be followed up with 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.

Next time you watch re-runs of Doogie Howser (popular American sitcom about a child prodigy who at 16 is a second year resident surgeon), tell yourself – he is an outlier. Prodigies are one in 5 million or 1 in 10 million. And sometimes, they don't have a life.

See also:

Amadeus”, feature film directed by Milos Forman, 1984

Frank Brady, “Bobby Fischer – Profile of a Prodigy”, Dover Publications Inc. 1965

Robert Kanigel, The Man Who Knew Infinity – A life of the Genius Ramanujan”, Maxwell Macmillan International, 1991

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