This article is now about the subject "child prodigy." For the list of prodigies see List of child prodigies.
A child prodigy, or simply prodigy, is someone who is a master of one or more skills or arts at an early age. One generally accepted heuristic for identifying prodigies is the following: a prodigy is someone who, by the age of roughly 11, displays expert proficiency or a profound grasp of the fundamentals in a field usually only undertaken by adults.
The term wunderkind (from German: Wunder, wonder/miracle + Kind, child, kid) is sometimes used as a synonym for prodigy, particularly in media accounts, although this term is discouraged in the scientific literature. Wunderkind is also used more generally of adults who achieve success and notoriety early in their careers, including Steven Spielberg and Steve Jobs.
Cognitive studies on child prodigies
There is much debate about what forms a prodigy, but many are found to come from families where one or more of the parents specialize in the field of the child’s talent. Examples proliferate within popular accounts and historical documents alike. For example, Mozart, one of the most accomplished classical musicians and a recognized musical prodigy, was raised by a musician father whose specialty was teaching. Pablo Picasso, the world-renowned artist prodigy, had a professional painter as a father. Also, in a recent study of Taiwanese physics and chemistry prodigies, three-quarters of the children studied were first or only children in relatively well-off families in which both parents were well-educated.
The limitations in the above observations should be pointed out. Attention was explictly drawn towards young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and as a teacher and father could gain considerable repute doing so. That the talent of the son and father coincided does not necessarily imply that musical talent, much less prodigious genius, is a strongly heritable quality. It should also be noted that Mozart and Picasso were in fields influenced greatly by fashion and the reputation of the performer. As there was a large audience for their works, the public took note of their early talent very quickly, and may have, perhaps, driven them to further strive.
In particular, if one subscribes to some idea of innateness, it is altogether likely for an innate talent to go completely unnoticed in early phases of life if the parents are not professionals or generally well versed in the area of note. You wouldn't notice a violin prodigy unless you give them some time with a violin, the six year old who is annoyingly good at chess will unremarkably beat the family and a few guests, and a potential prodigy in physics will not even be exposed to real physics until high school, or after some serious digging. There are remarkably many cases where uncanny early talent seemingly comes out of nowhere (George Green, Richard Feynman, Michael Faraday, and Srinivasa Ramanujan are good examples).
A common error in judgement occurs when one is attempting to evaluate a brillant child. Often, people become obsessed with the concepts of age, or IQ. This is generally misguided. IQ tests are profoundly ill-equipped to gauge any specific talents, and are highly unreliable at the top end of the scale (as any normed test is). Age is perhaps one of the most striking factors, but against should not be the primary indicator of where one's talents will eventually lie. Much attention is given to vague concepts such as neural plasticity or there is an implicit assumption that mental capacity scales roughly linearly with age (made explicit by the notion of 'ratio IQ' popularized by the Stanford LM), up to a certain point, and such approaches are clearly misguided. IQ, age, neural plasticity, and mental capacity are part of a general cognitive performance metric framework which has little empirical or theoretical bearing on profound early ability in specific subjects. However, these patterns of reasoning are unfortunately ubiqituous in the literature and the public consciousness.
Few studies have examined the neurological activity of prodigies. Michael O'Boyle, an American psychologist working in Australia, however has recently utilized fMRI scanning of blood flow during mental operation in prodigies to display startling results. “calculators,”, those capable of mentally performing arithmetic, geometrical, or other complex mathematical operations normally reserved for electronic calculators, achieve six to seven the typical blood flow to parts of the brain observed to be active during mathematical operations.
Mental calculators are not to be confused with other mathematical prodigies, because mechanically carrying out and keeping track of progress in a calculation is very different from having an understanding of the deeper principles behind mathematics. This is potentially one of the reasons why mental calculators do not necessarily go on to become stunning mathematicians. A similar principle, for nearly the same mental mechanism, can be observed among players in games, such as, for example, chess or go. People typically think a few moves (or ply) ahead. Recent studies have indicated that ordinarily university students think 2, 3, or 4-ply when confronted with some kind of game playing or problem solving task. Beyond that it becomes very difficult to keep track of the different branches and details. But some people (and Chess tournaments are good places to look) are able to look farther ahead than that, and the skill sets between games and mathematics are very similar.
PET Scans done to several math prodigies have suggested thinking in terms of long-term working memory (LTWM). This memory, specific to a field of expertise, is capable of holding relevant information for extended periods, usually hours. For example, experienced waiters have been found to hold the orders of up to twenty customers in their heads while they serve them, but perform only as well as an average person in number-sequence recognition. The PET scans also answer questions about which specific areas of the brain associate themselves with prodigious number-manipulation. One subject never excelled as a child in mathematics, but he taught himself algorithms and tricks for calculatory speed, becoming capable of extremely complex mental math. His brain, compared to six other controls, was studied using the PET scan, revealing separate areas of his brain that he manipulated to solve the complex problems. Some of the areas that he and presumably prodigies use are brain sectors dealing in visual and spatial memory, as well as visual mental imagery. Other areas of the brain showed use by the subject, including a sector of the brain generally related to childlike “finger counting,” probably used in his mind to relate numbers to the visual cortex.
It is vital to note that the activity of parts of the brain which share a functional role with a more researched function, like visual and spatial memory, is only correlational, and may only indicate that they share some functions at a higher or lower level. One may point out that many mathematicians and theoretical physicists are completely hopeless in labs, falling victim to the annoying habit of constantly losing items. The idea of a Long Term Working Memory is only an abstraction, and psychology may be better served by a different set of such memory abstractions. LTWM is a surprisingly minimal abstraction, in the sense that it is rather obvious that the details of a problem remain lodged in our memory until we have let go of it. It is also as fuzzy as its definition, bearing on the meaning of 'field', 'expertise', and 'extended periods'.
Most researchers recognize that prodigious talent tends to arise as a result of the innate talent of the child, the environment that the individual resides in, the energetic and emotional investment that the child ventures, and the personal characteristics of the individual. This seemingly vacuous statement is necessary to rule out a simplistic view. Prodigies, regardless of their portrayal, are people, and as such are generally confined by much the same constraints on learning and emotional issues that most people deal with. It is extremely difficult, and ultimately fruitless, to claim that innate talent does not exist. It is impossible to learn to play tennis in a prison, and it is rewarding to learn music with encouragement. One cannot spontaneously have knowledge beam itself from the heavens into one's head: at least some time, and therefore energy, is required to learn and absorb the proper skill set. Emotions play an incredibly important role (as in almost all people), from the catastrophic tendencies exhibited by stereotypical examples of 'tortured geniuses', to the obvious distracting quality of bouts of uncontrollable depression, to the less tangible and poorly understood qualities of the effects of emotions on one's creativity and general thought patterns. Finally, if the person is particularly determined, stable, passionate, cheerful, focused, and energetic, they will likely fair better than a lethargic, and unhappy person of nebulous will or intent.
Adjustment into adulthood
The personal growth of child prodigies has traditionally captured a decent share of popular culture, and has over the years been the subject of reasonable historical and sociological inquiry.
The tragic story strikes many as a captivating, and defining plotline. The vehicle upon which these personalities enter the public consciousness vary, but the essential elements are always, if perhaps unfairly, amplified. Famous examples include Bobby Fischer, Evariste Galois, David Helfgott, Blaise Pascal, and Arthur Rimbaud. In cases like Zerah Colburn, William James Sidis, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, history is colored by the early achievement and promise of something greater, and complications of adulthood, which are always tragic, are particularly emphasized in historical or popular accounts. One early literary example of a child prodigy with a tragic fate is found in The Hampdenshire Wonder, but again the portrayal is rather colored, describing not an accurate account but a fictionalized idealization.
It has been conjectured, this time within the guise of a scientific study, that prodigies fare often have difficulty 'adjusting' socially. In the 1940s Leta S. Hollingworth noted that the optimum "IQ range" appeared to be between 125 and 155. Those above 155 had more problems with personal adjustment.. Above a certain point there was a slight inverse relationship between performance on "the Concept Mastery Test Form A", a test of verbal intelligence, and personal adjustment. It should be pointed out that this is ancient social science dating from a medieval stage of psychology. The tests, and even the theoretical interpretation, of intelligence and personal adjustment, were, and still are, far from perfect. The slight inverse relationship is also statistically insignificant above the range Hollingworth had proposed (where it should be noted that the IQ scale they used in that era, the ratio IQ, is no longer used seriously today, and on a normed test 155 IQ is roughly 3+2/3 SD above the mean). Nonetheless, due to a general misunderstanding and a powerful draw towards attributing flaws toward the prodigies personal makeup, theories such as these relentlessly proliferate and spawn in the literature, the public consciousness, and the internet.
The slight inverse relationship between two ancient and unreliable test scores should never be emphasised. However, some adjustment issues are obvious. It is not uncommon for the highly intellectually capable to be chastized in school, or at least be emotionally dulled by the conversational character of their average classmate. They typically have very different priorities than other people, with popularity, friendship,and common excitement playing second fiddle to the quest for knowledge, mastery of skill, or more personal yearnings, creating a mis-step with society. In some cases this may be profound, and communities have not been traditionally kind to outsiders.
Some may simply dream too large. The possibilities seem endless when you are young: one can progress rapidly through a subject which might take an average disinterested student orders of magnitude more time. As one progresses, however, those that you are competing with are proportionally not much older, and possibly just as driven. Further, the subjects become difficult. Mastery of the fundamentals of calculus is really not beyond most bright youngsters. If this ability is miscontrued as a queue to jump into Quantum Field Theory, for example, the result will probably be a severely confused and bewildered individual. Things are hard near the top.
It is vital to emphasize that most ex-prodigies go on to lead fairly balanced and generally happy lives. The famous study, by Lewis Terman, indicates this as a primary result, and although the participants were pre-selected to some extent, the results do point in the right direction for the majority of individuals. The spectacular flameouts are held in the upper echelons of public awareness, but it should be emphasized that our history is filled with geniuses which have displayed phenomenal early talent. One must note that phenomenal early talent is de rigueur in classical musical performance, starlingly commonplace in the hard sciences and engineering, extremely well established in writing, journalism,debate, and law, and as is becoming increasingly clear as the internet opens up a showcase for blossoming talent, in artistic endeavours as well. One author notes that an extraordinary number of nobel prize winners in physics, Fields medalist, Dirac medalists, Abel medalists, and Turing award winners were educationally accellerated (sometimes remarkably), had remarkable school careers, had an early obsession with computers, or more recently, won major international academic olympiads. There is considerable overlap, and prodigious talent is, when compared to known alternatives, simply an exceptional statistical predictor of later achievement. Unfortunately, it is not perfect, and perhaps some people expect too much.
A recent work showing examples of tortured prodigies is the film The Royal Tenenbaums. The William H. Macy character in the film Magnolia could also be deemed a troubled child prodigy who became a failure as an adult.
Child prodigies, not necessarily tortured ones, are also a staple in much science fiction. Several episodes of the X-Files featured varying kinds of child prodigies; ranging from noble to violent and psychotic. Books like Ender's Game, Odd John, Beggars in Spain, and others deal with child prodigies or focus on them.
Popular fictional representations of relatively well adjusted prodigies include Doogie Howser, M.D., Lisa Simpson, and Indiana Jones. (Prodigy status based on Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Young Indiana Jones Chronicles)
One film depicting the struggles of a doting mother to care for a prodigy and helping to live a 'normal' life while struggling to make ends meet is Little Man Tate.
In the science fiction TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation, Wesley Crusher – the son of the Enterprise-D's physician, Dr. Beverly Crusher – was exceptionally bright and encouraged to advance in Starfleet by Captain Picard. Early on in the series, the enigmatic Traveler saw in Wesley the unique ability to unify time, space, and thought; with the Traveler's later aid, Wesley was able to transcend human existence.
Lucas Wolenczak was a young computer genius in the TV series Seaquest DSV, mentored by Capts. Nathaniel Bridger and (later) Oliver Hudson.
- Time article linked to in the article
- Roeper review article
- The relationship between early giftedness and later achievement from the Development Group at Harvard University Graduate School of Education
- Article by Boston psychology professor Ellen Winter on giftedness and prodigies
- Oxford considering restricting child prodigies entering
- Study of Extreme Giftedness
- The Lewis Terman Study of young geniuses