What makes a Prodigy?

Prodigies astonish us with their outstanding musical abilities, stunning artwork, inspired chess playing and skilled sportsmanship.  They stun us all the more because typically they reach adult levels of achievement before the age of ten.


Think of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart who wrote his first symphony when he was eight but actually began composing at the age of five, Enrico Fermi, an Italian who won the Nobel Prize for his work on radioactivity and was considered a maths and physics prodigy and Pablo Picassowho painted his first work in oil when was 9 years old.  At the age of 14, he was admitted to a prestigious Barcelona art school and just a year later, he completed First Communion, an astonishingly mature work that was exhibited.


Words that seem to mean prodigy are tossed around at will – gifted, talented, genius, super-high IQ, savant; however, a prodigy is not necessarily a gifted child, a talented child, a genius or a young person with a very high IQ.  And a prodigy is never a savant.


Gifted means someone with exceptional talent or natural ability.  Genius encompasses someone of exceptional intelligence or creative power or other natural ability. Talented describes a person who has an exceptional aptitude or skill, while a savant is someone with an exceptionally high level of knowledge or skill involving very detailed specialist knowledge in a particular field but who may have limited capacity in other ways, such as autism or a low IQ.


A prodigy is a person under ten who produces meaningful output in some domain to the level of an adult expert.  They are rare.


Joanne Ruthsatz, a psychologist at Ohio State University, has studied prodigies.


“I would say for a true prodigy, it’s as rare as 1 in 5 million or 1 in 10 million.”


Ruthsatz found that prodigies have exceptional working memories.


Working memory is important for a number of tasks in our everyday life – its main task is to memorize and store information and keep several pieces of information at once in our head.


A typical situation in which we need our working memory is when someone tells us a phone number but we don’t have anything to write it down on so we have to keep it in mind for a little while until we find a pen and a piece of paper.


In her study published in the journal Intelligence, Ruthsatz said that the eight prodigies in her study each had a working memory ability in the 99th percentile.


She also found that the prodigies showed significant attention to detail, which aligns with people on the autism spectrum. Although prodigies aren’t on the scale, more than 50 percent of them have a family member on the scale, Ruthsatz’s research shows.


Their elevated general intelligence – in a range of IQs from 100 to 147, with a mean of about 128 – also marks them out.  So too does their altruism. Ruthsatz says that her subjects tend to be far more altruistic than the general population. In watching her group grow up, she says they continue to do well in society: “They’re just benevolent souls.”


So it seems that prodigies are at least average in their intelligence, they have high levels of working memory, great attention to detail and domain-specific talent.


In an earlier study, David Henry Feldman and Martha Moorlock, concluded that the prodigy phenomenon is a lucky coincidence of factors including a domain matched to their proclivities and interests, healthy social and emotional development, cultural and family support, recognition for their achievements, committed encouragement for at least one parent and birth order and gender.


Developmental psychologist, Ellen Winner, adds the child’s own unusual commitment to their domain, what she calls a “rage to master” as another factor in their success while the late psychologist, Michael Howe, argued:


“With sufficient energy and dedication on the parents’ part, it is possible that it may not be all that difficult to produce a child prodigy.”


However, reports the Scientific American, recent research indicates that basic cognitive abilities known to be influenced by genetic factors also play a role in prodigious achievement.


David Z Hambrick, writing in Scientific American goes further:


“Taken together, these findings add to a growing body of evidence indicating that exceptional performance in music, the arts, sports, science, and other complex domains is, at its core, determined multiply—the product of both environmental factors and of genetically-influenced traits.”


“More generally, psychologists who study expertise are moving beyond the question of whether experts are born or made.”


As the psychologist, Jonathan Wai, put it, it is increasingly clear that “experts are born, then made.”


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