Child Prodigies: Cute, Clever, And Cognitively Connected

“The 11-year-olds are taking over the world,” quips Simon Cowell in a recent episode of “America’s Got Talent.” Indeed, there seems to be no shortage of wunderkind whose skills outpace those of adults. Pint-size tots are dancing, singing, and rapping their way to glory on the “Got Talent” TV franchise in countries around the world. News outlets regularly report on preteen students attending college and on golfing whiz kids outplaying seasoned pros.

As we watch them, adults seem to feel an odd combination of emotions. These kids are at once oh-so-cute … and decidedly intimidating. On the popular show “Little Big Shots,” Steve Harvey utilizes this discomfort to comedic effect as his precocious child guests repeatedly prove the comedian, in his 60s, a fool by comparison. Some criticize the trend as a silly obsession born of a youth-centered, ageist culture. Maybe, but one thing remains true — these kids are amazing and have somehow developed skills far beyond the ordinary child. (By the strictest definition, a prodigy is a child, not an adolescent or young adult, who has achieved adult-level skill in a given field.) But what makes them different? Are their brains somehow superior to those of ordinary children?

Psychologists have studied this phenomenon for a while. Stanford University, in fact, began a study in 1921 that follows “gifted” children throughout their lives. However, this study, like many others on giftedness, is regarded as flawed. For one thing, it is difficult to quantify all the various things that influence a child’s development — parenting, home environment, genetics, nutrition, education, and so on. Also, being chosen as “special” for the sake of a study, relies on researchers’ prejudices, and the designation itself probably predisposed a child to excel beyond his or her peers anyway. In the end, it often boils down to the old “nature versus nurture” debate, and no clear conclusions emerge.

However, three interesting traits are nearly universal among prodigies: intelligence, individualism, and drive. First, perhaps unsurprisingly, they are often highly intelligent. Many prodigies, especially musical and mathematical prodigies, score very high on IQ tests. However, a child does not have to be in the “genius” or “gifted” range to be a prodigy. Visual arts prodigies, for example, tend to score only slightly higher than average on IQ tests, and, oddly, they score below average on questions designed to test visual-spatial skills. One area, though — working memory — was high across the board among child prodigies, with the average score indicating memory skills better than 99 percent of children their age. This is just confirmation of what we can all see for ourselves — these kids learn and remember things better than typical children.

The other two traits — individualism and drive — have more to do with personality and temperament, which may be far more important than intelligence in the development of prodigious levels of skill in children. A strong tendency toward individualism means that these kids do not follow the pack. While their peers are playing dodge ball or hopscotch, they are often off on their own practicing piano, drawing in a sketchbook, perfecting dance moves, or calculating equations. Their brains don’t waste time on playground politics and preteen fashion trends.

Perhaps most important is their drive, their unrelenting quest for perfection in their discipline. Psychologist Ellen Winner has dubbed this the “rage to master” since prodigies so often seem obsessed with mastering their chosen skill. In some cases, this intense level of focus is unhealthy, the result of obsessive-compulsive disorder, or precipitated by an overbearing, perfectionist parent. Just as often, though, the child remains basically psychologically healthy but extraordinarily focused on achievement.

Neuroscientists speculate these differences may be the result of unusual brain organization. Prodigies tend to score higher than average on psychological tests for autistic traits, but usually not high enough to be placed on the autistic spectrum, which may explain their unusual levels of focus and individualism. If gifted in art, music, or math, they tend to use both sides of their brains on tasks that usually rely more on one side, and they are often ambidextrous before reaching school age. Rates of dyslexia are also higher than normal. Although it is controversial, one theory holds that excessive testosterone in utero results in subtle differences in brain development.

In many cases, psychological and academic deficits go along with the extreme talent. It is not unusual, for example, for youngsters with incredible math abilities to struggle socially. Some, in fact, are “savants,” a term applied to a person who is severely developmentally disabled, but who also has some special, highly developed gift. Brain scientists believe that higher-than-average development in one area of the brain may result in lower-than-average development in other areas of the brain. For anyone of any age, special talent in one area is usually accompanied by lack of skill in others, what researchers call the “pathology of superiority.” For example, art majors have been shown to have unusually poor spelling ability, far below what would be expected for their average IQ, suggesting that their talent somehow robs them of their brain’s ability to spell.

Overall, being a child prodigy may be a double-edged sword. While their achievements are impressive, studies have shown that loneliness and isolation are common problems for these children. Even if they have access to other children their age, they just don’t fit in. Also, it is a designation that comes with an expiration date — you can only be a prodigy until you are too old to be one any more. Prodigies usually fail to live up to the hype they receive in their childhoods — the too-familiar former child star turned train wreck being a case in point. Only rarely do they turn out to be a Mozart or a Picasso — both child prodigies who achieved greatness in adulthood — even though while they are young we treat them as though this is a foregone conclusion. “He is a 7-year-old Einstein,” we proclaim, or, “She’s the next Taylor Swift!” If adulthood doesn’t prove as promising, the sense of letdown and disappointment that comes with the loss of adulation can be crushing to them in later life.

Ultimately, there is something very different about childhood prodigies in comparison to adult geniuses. Adult greatness tends to be measured in terms of contribution to the advancement of a discipline, not simply on the mastery of basic skills. When you think of people who push science or civilization forward, you would have to look long and hard to find a child who lives up to Marie Curie or Mahatma Gandhi. There are lots of young musical prodigies, but they rarely, if ever, create original music that equals that of the Beatles or Beethoven. Really, child prodigies are simply people who mastered basic skills very early, which doesn’t matter much in the scheme of things.

So, the next time you see a young prodigy shining in the spotlight, don’t assume that you must be innately inferior or lacking in talent since you weren’t one of them. Prodigy is a word that can only be applied to very young people, but genius has no age limit. Lots of people — like Mark Twain or Claude Monet — created their most influential work later in life, but little to-do is made over their “late-bloomer” status. Ultimately, the timeframe within which you develop your brain’s abilities is not that significant, so don’t stifle yourself based on age. Believe in your brain’s very real ability for continuous improvement, and you might just become the proverbial tortoise that beats the quick-footed hare.

This article is updated from its initial publication in Brain World Magazine’s Fall 2016 issue.

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