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Child prodigy

Prodigies are masters of a specific skill or art, a talent which manifests itself at an early age. One generally accepted definition of a prodigy is a person who, by the age of 10, displays expert proficiency in a field usually only undertaken by adults. Some of the fields more common to prodigies are mathematics, chess, art, and music, but prodigies occur in a variety of areas.


Cognitive studies on child prodigies

Although there is much debate as to the origin of prodigies, many are found to come from wealthy families where one or more of the parents specialize in the field of the child’s talent. Mozart, one of the most accomplished classical musicians and a recognized musical prodigy, grew up under 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 musical prodigies , three-quarters of the children studied were first or only children to wealthy, high-status families.

Neurologically, few studies have examined the cognitive aspect of prodigious children. 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. Mathematical prodigies, so-called “calculators,” achieve blood flow to parts of the brain responsible for mathematical operations six to seven times the typical flow.

PET Scans done to several math prodigies have led to the idea of the LTWM, or long-term working memory. 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 prodigal 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) uses 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.

While there are no definitive answers in the field of child prodigies, the consensus among most researchers is that it is a mix of practice and innate talent. Not all children are prodigies, and not all prodigies became so without hard work to develop their talents. The "Mozart Effect " of hereditary talent provides a base from which prodigious children may express their gifts. As Joanna Schaffhausen put it, "Mozart was a child prodigy; Beethoven was not. The world still marvels at them both."

List of child prodigies





  • Richard Feynman-As a child, repaired radios and taught himself college level mathematics and calculus. Winner of the 1965 Nobel Prize in Physics
  • Murray Gell-Mann-Taught himself calculus at seven. Went to Yale at 15 and received his PhD from MIT at 20. Winner of the 1969 Nobel Prize in Physics
  • Lev Landau-Entered University at 14. Pioneered Condensed matter, and "created" the Russian school of theoretical physics. Winner of the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physics
  • Chris Hirata -Entered Caltech at 14, currently at Princeton


See chess prodigy.





Mental calculators

Note: Many mathematicians were mental calculators when they were still children.


Other fields

See also

Last updated: 02-10-2005 16:59:41
Last updated: 02-24-2005 15:02:15