Exploring Giftedness: Is a Child Prodigy Born or Made?
“Everyone loves a prodigy […]. Prodigies get us off the hook for living ordinary lives. We can tell ourselves we’re not special because we weren’t born with it, which is a great excuse,” Nathan Hill writes in his satirical novel The Nix — and we’d be lying if we didn’t agree resoundingly.
Although the precise definition of a prodigy has been widely debated among psychologists (it can be hard to detect ‘genius’ in a 4-year-old), the current consensus is that a prodigy is a child who masters a challenging skill at the level of an adult professional before the age of 10.
Curiously, they tend to appear in mostly “rule-based” fields like music, chess, mathematics, and arguably, even fine art. “Fields like literature require maturity and life experience,” Sam Vaknin, author of Malignant Self Love–Narcissism Revisited, told Forbes, explaining this phenomenon. “Prodigies, no matter how gifted, rarely possess the requisite emotional spectrum, an acquaintance with the nuances and subtleties of human relationships, or the accumulated knowledge that comes from first-hand exposure to the ups and downs of reality.”
Momentary ego-boost for all lit-grads aside, this pattern of prodigies featuring only in certain kinds of fields points to a crucial feature of a prodigious brain: they’re a bit like computers. “The manipulation of symbols — in mathematics, music, or chess — does not require anything except the proper neurological hardware and software, and access to widely available objective knowledge,” Vankin explained.
But, exactly how much of being a ‘gifted child’ is attributable to genetics (‘the hardware’), how much is hard work and dedication (‘the software’) and how much is privilege and luck? Turns out, being a prodigy is a lot like having schizophrenia or autism in the limited sense that all are types of complex neuro-atypical mental processing and all are a result of an unpredictable mix of genetic, environmental and psychosocial factors.
In an extensive 2014 study, psychologists administered standardized tests of intelligence to 18 prodigies — five in art, eight in music, and five in math. They found two things: first, a wide range of unexceptional IQ scores, and second, every single prodigy scored extremely high on the tests of working memory.
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Similar to the central processing unit of a computer, “working memory is a cognitive system responsible for carrying out the mental operations involved in complex tasks such as problem-solving and language comprehension,” David Z. Hambrick, a psychology professor at Michigan State University, explains in Scientific American. Working memory involves the ability to hold information in memory while being able to manipulate other incoming information. It is what you use when you are trying to learn a new, complex skill like, say, photo editing, which requires having to remember the steps behind each process while executing it, or when you split the bill in your head with your friends after a night out, which requires having to hold numbers in memory while manipulating them via basic math. Just like IQ, people differ substantially in their working memory capacity. Tests that gauge working memory show a gifted child develops a ‘bigger’ working memory as they grow and pick up proficiency in their field, as compared to the average Joe. This variation is “substantially influenced by genetic factors, with estimates of heritability typically around 50%,” Hambrick notes.
In another study that looked at brain scans of “calculating prodigies” –children who are exceptional at quickly and accurately solving complex mental calculations –, researchers found that prodigies used different brain areas for calculation altogether than what the general population used. When given a calculation to solve, their brains switched between short-term memory required to store data (sustained by the hippocampus) and a highly efficient working memory used for encoding and retrieval, a process sustained by the right prefrontal and medial temporal areas, compared to the brains of the general population which rely on more typical very limited span of short-term working memory.
Big working memories and neural pathways between brain-regions aside, what about talent? Was Mozart born a talented, gifted child with an innate understanding of musical notes? Is an understanding of color theory embedded in 6-year-old Advait Kolarkar‘s genes for him to have won the Global Child Prodigy award? Well, no and yes.
Technically speaking, there is no such thing as innate talent — no one is born with fully developed skills. At best, people are born with genetic variations that predispose them to go through life acquiring information about a certain field and leaving out the rest. Over time, people accumulate experiences in the field, which results in the practice of skills, habits, and the reinforcement of drive to practice more. This applies to a gifted child as well, but their attention to detail and unusual commitment at a young age is what makes their genetic tendencies towards a particular field shine prodigiously.
“Often one cannot tear these children away from activities in their area of giftedness, whether they involve an instrument, a computer, a sketch pad, or a math book. These children have a powerful interest in the domain in which they have high ability, and they can focus so intently on work in this domain that they lose sense of the outside world,” development psychologist Ellen Winner writes in her paper on giftedness.
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However, this “rage to learn,” she argues, is a part of a prodigy’s neurological wiring rather than a result of it. Think of it as a grand convergence of genetically-influenced ability, interest, and characteristics such as single-mindedness, the propensity to practice, attention to detail, and unique brain-network wiring that enhances the way memories are coded. This explains why prodigies report being attracted to their fields very early on; after a few years of obsessive practice, their brains build up rich long-term working memory structures that allow them to assimilate and learn new information faster and faster.
Arguably, child prodigy and world-renowned music composer Mozart had more than just a big working memory and a genetic predisposition for single-mindedness. His father, Leopold, a respected music teacher, gave up his entire career as a musician to manage Mozart’s career. Tiger Woods’s father introduced him to golf — a very exclusive sport — at the age of 2; the Williams’ sisters’ parents moved from California to Florida so the gifted children could train at an elite tennis academy; even Kolarkar’s parents — his mother, an artist herself — flew him back-and-forth between Pune, New York, and Canada for his art to be recognized.
The social and financial privilege of being able to access above-average training and support systems is what turns a gifted child into a prodigy. Why else do we know of such few prodigies who are women, especially Indian women? No matter how big the working memory or strong the genetic tendency to keep practicing, if someone with the neurological wiring of a prodigy is born into a family that cannot sustain their extraordinary talents or into a society that doesn’t recognize or allow their talents — they will go unnoticed.
Based on detailed interviews with gifted children and their family members, development psychologists David Henry Feldman and Lynn Goldsmith made a list of factors that go into the making of a prodigy in their book Nature’s Gambit: Child Prodigies and Development of Human Potential: the existence of the field the prodigy in inclined towards, availability of the field where the prodigy lives, healthy social and emotional development, birth order, gender, education and training (informal and formal), cultural support, recognition for achievement in the field, financial support from family members, at least one parent devoted to the prodigy’s development almost full-time, and even larger historical forces, events, and trends. Basically, a lot of stars have to align for one to become a prodigy, which explains our fascination with these unique pint-sized geniuses in a world where things seldom work out perfectly.