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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 scientific literature. Wunderkind is also used more generally of adults who achieve success and notoriety early in their careers, such as Steven Spielberg and Steve Jobs.
Cognitive studies on child prodigies
A common error in judgement occurs when one is attempting to evaluate a brilliant 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 both ends of the scale (as any widespread intelligence test is). Age is perhaps one of the most striking factors, but again should not be the primary indicator of where one's talents will eventually lie. Much attention is given to vague concepts such as neuroplasticity 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 ubiquitous in literature and the public consciousness.
The quantifiable nature of mathematics and games make prodigious talent in these areas easier to identify and to define than in the cases of literature, philosophy, and to a lesser extent, art and music. For this reason, most research on prodigies focuses on mathematical genius.
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 times 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 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 further ahead than that, and the skill sets between games and mathematics are very similar.
PET Scans performed on 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. The environment also plays an extremely important role, many times in obvious ways. Solely environmental theories to account for the performance of prodigies have been developed, examined, and to some degree 'tested' (by aspiring parents), and have yet to build a convincing case without yielding some significant measure of credit towards innate ability. For example, Laszlo Polgar set out to raise his children to be chess players, and all three of his daughters went on to become world class players (two of whom are grandmasters), emphasisizing the potency an environment has in determining the area toward which a child's energy will be directed, and showing that an incredible amount of skill can be developed through suitable training. However, despite a highly similar upbringing, all three sisters show disparity in chess skill emphasising the difficulty of ascribing talent to solely environmental causes. 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 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 fare 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 varies, but the essential elements are always, if perhaps unfairly, amplified. Famous examples include Thomas Chatterton, Bobby Fischer, David Helfgott, Blaise Pascal, and Ruth Slenczynska. Counter examples, such as Murray Gell-Mann or Pablo Picasso, suggest that it is possible for prodigies to have continued success well into old age. In cases like Zerah Colburn, William James Sidis, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, history is colored by early achievement and promise of something greater, and tragic events of adulthood 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 is often thought that prodigies 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 based on a dated test: the IQ scale that Hollingworth used, the ratio IQ, is no longer widely used today, and on a normed test 155 IQ is roughly 3+2/3 SD above the mean.
Although Hollingworth's findings may be outdated, some adjustment issues for child prodigies are obvious. It is not uncommon for the highly intellectually capable to be ostracized in school, or at least be emotionally dulled by the conversation of their average classmates. 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 addition, the unusualness of a prodigy's priorities and capabilities can lead to difficulty in relating to his or her peers.
Some may simply dream too large. The possibilities seem endless when one are young: one can progress rapidly through a subject which might take an average disinterested student much more time. As one matures, however, those that one is competing with are proportionally not much older, and possibly just as driven. Also, the subjects become increasingly difficult. For example, mastery of the fundamentals of calculus is not beyond most bright youngsters, but if this ability is misconstrued as a cue to jump into Quantum Field Theory when an individual is not ready, the result may be discouragement and burnout.
In spite of this, most ex-prodigies go on to lead generally happy lives. A famous study by Lewis Terman indicates this, and although the participants were pre-selected to some extent, the results are true of 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, startlingly 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 medalists, Dirac medalists, Abel medalists, and Turing Award winners were educationally accelerated (sometimes remarkably), had remarkable school careers, had an early obsession with computers, or more recently, won major international academic olympiads....
An early film example might be Dear Brigitte with Bill Mumy as a prodigious son of a professor, although there are films with child prodigies that predate that one. A recent work showing characters who began life as child prodigies is the film The Royal Tenenbaums. A film depicting the struggles of a doting working-class mother trying to care for a child prodigy is Little Man Tate.
Child prodigies 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, Matilda, Odd John, Beggars in Spain, Dune, Harry Potter, Artemis Fowl and others deal with child prodigies or focus on them. There's also the Wesley Crusher character in Star Trek: The Next Generation and Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars. Another is Lucas Wolenczak, who was a young computer genius in the TV series seaQuest DSV.
Television characters who are relatively well adjusted prodigies include Doogie Howser, M.D., and Lisa Simpson, although in both cases some degree of isolation and difficulty is shown in their stories. A polar opposite to these is Asuka Langley Soryu from Neon Genesis Evangelion, whose extreme arrogance is implied to be largely induced by her extraordinary intelligence and the resulting megalomania.
Most fictional examples given here ultimately could be deemed troubled or even tortured prodigies, even the seemingly happy ones.
The final episode of Doogie Howser seems to parody the idea: he appears on a talk show with child prodigies who end up confessing outrageous mental problems, but at the end he essentially agrees it applies to him as well. He therefore quits medicine in search of some kind of philosophical answers to his problems. Lisa Simpson is generally shown as having virtually no friends and her obsessive need to go to school seems occasionally pathetic even to her. Wesley Crusher's feelings of abandonment and resentment are more often shown as caused by the early death of his father, but in the last episode featuring him he could be deemed to show signs of "aging child prodigy disease." He is hostile to everyone, disobeys orders, and ultimately abandons Star Fleet for his own kind of spiritual/philosophical journey.
A few films take a slightly different approach. In Little Man Tate he suffers from burnout in the middle of the film, but by the end he recovers and is ultimately better adjusted then he was before the film started. A vaguely similar result occurs in Searching for Bobby Fischer where, after a tormenting level of external pressure, the prodigy finds his own way toward stability and even being "a good person."
Films intending to deal, comically or seriously, with the more tortured variety include Shine, the William H. Macy character in Magnolia, and The Royal Tenenbaums as mentioned. The film Real Genius takes a mixed approach. It seems to indicate that impressive early ability, leading to grand self and external expectations, coupled with obsessive studiousness and a seriousness towards ones work and life, leads people towards burnout, a phenomenon well understood within the real life version of the thinly veiled environment that is portrayed (the California Institute of Technology). The central epiphany in that film occurs when the younger Mitch and the older Chris develop a balance within their lives, fueled by their rediscovered love of science.
A complication worth mentioning though is that the child prodigy fictional characters thus mentioned often had deeply troubled family histories. In Shine David Helfgott, who is not a fictional character but the story is fictionalized, is shown as having an almost viciously domineering father. As does Macy's character in Magnolia and arguably all of the Tennenbaums. In The Simpsons Lisa's father is a borderline alcoholic, her mother has a gambling addiction, and her brother has been in juvenile hall. By comparison she is sometimes considered to be the most well adjusted character in her family. Wesley Crusher faced the death of his father and also faced the possible death of his mother numerous times. Doogie Howser had a stable home, but nearly died in childhood from cancer. Little Man Tate had a good mother, never had terminal illnesses, and ended up fine. Asuka Langley Soryu's mother committed suicide while institutionalized from apparent schizophrenia. Still a great deal of this is simply the need to add drama to the lives of any character. A comparison of "police characters" or "doctor characters" in film or TV might also show an unusually high rate of burnout or even crippling mental illness when compared to reality.
Many cartoons also include child prodigies, and some are based primarily around the prodigy themselves. The character Jimmy Neutron from the film and TV series of the same name and Dexter from Dexter's Laboratory would be two such examples. School of Rock includes a number of child prodigies with the school kids as musicians. In real life, these children mastered to sing or play music before the age of 10. In the series Artemis Fowl of books by Eoin Colfer, Artemis Fowl II is a 12 year old (turns 13) criminal prodigy. In the Chronicles of Narnia Lucy Pevensie is portrayed as a wunderkind in the movie soundtrack.
- 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 Winner on giftedness and prodigies
- Oxford considering restricting child prodigies entering
- Study of Extreme Giftedness
- The Lewis Terman Study of young geniuses
- The Davidson Institute for Talent Development: Provides free support and services for profoundly gifted young people, their parents, and educators
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