Mining the mind of a child prodigy


By the time he was 14, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had written a symphony and an opera. In one year alone, Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy composed a violin sonata, two piano sonatas, a short opera and a quartet for male voice. The year was 1820. Bartholdy was 11.

Anomalies! Freaks of nature! That was a long time ago; people were smarter. They wore strange clothes.

Brighter than the sun

It’s a safe bet that, in terms of sheer brilliance and prodigious output, the world will never again see the likes of a Mozart or Mendelssohn. But that doesn’t mean the world lacks prodigies today.

Cameron Carpenter plays classical organ. By the time he was 11, Carpenter had committed J.S. Bach’s “The Well-Tempered Clavier” to memory. To put this in perspective, YouTube videos of Glenn Gould and other Bach interpreters playing the work, clock in at well over an hour.

Magnus Carlsen became the youngest chess grandmaster at 13 years, 4 months and 26 days, prompting the Washington Post to dub him the Mozart of chess.

Esther Okade enrolled in a British distance learning college called Open University. She is 10. She says, “I want to finish the course in two years. Then I’m going to do my Ph.D. in financial maths when I’m 13. I want to have my own bank by the time I’m 15 because I like numbers and I like people and banking is a great way to help people.”

It isn’t just brain power

Scott Barry Kaufman, in the July 2012 edition of The Creativity Post, cites the works of researchers who administered IQ tests to nine prominent child prodigies. These individuals have been performing since the age of ten. One tester scored a 71 on the visual spatial portion of the test. This ranked him below 97 percent of the population.

What the testers did have in common was a remarkable working memory, with six out of eight scoring better than 99 percent of the general population. According to the article, “…working memory involves the ability to hold information in memory while being able to manipulate and process other incoming information. There have been many descriptions of the phenomenal working memory of prodigies, including a historical description of Mozart that involves his superior ability to memorize musical pieces and manipulate scores in his head.”

Elephants — and prodigies — never forget

Two psychiatrists, Anders Ericsson and Walter Kintsch, coined the term Long-Term Working Memory, or LTWM. Essentially, LTWM is a well-organized database of long-term memory that is on-call. What the two psychiatrists found was that people with LTWM are able to link it to short-term memory, thereby getting the both of best worlds. For example, a musician called upon to perform a long piece of music has a much more vivid and meaningful recollection of the notes than someone who simply plays it from rote. Without actually being aware of it, the musician’s LTWM frees up his or her brain to concentrate on the performance at hand, providing him or her with the subconscious assurance that the musician will hit every note.

Not all rosy: Autism

Autism may also factor into a prodigy’s development. One in every 88 children in the U.S. will be diagnosed with autism. According to Kaufman, four out of the eight prodigies in the study had a family member who was autistic or was somehow related to someone with autism. This is not to say all prodigies are autistic; however, three of the eight were. One explanation for the correlation is minute attention to detail. Autistic individuals are largely obsessive about detail. They tend to perseverate; meaning, they continually repeat a word or action. However, prodigies are not autistic savants — the latter being capable of extraordinary feats of memory and recollection.

He’s smart but failing

Many parents are simply flabbergasted when their extremely bright child underachieves or even flunks out at school. Children with high IQs or who are gifted, either musically, artistically or intellectually often are bored to distraction by traditional curricula. This can be particularly true for a prodigy.

If your child or teen is gifted or shows awe-inspiring promise but simply falls short of achievement, do not despair. Here are some tips for discovering what is at the root of the problem:

  • Get him or her tested; it is important to know if your child is Mensa material or has other cognitive issues going on.
  • Talk it out; if your child complains he or she is bored, do not immediately assume this is just some ploy to get out of doing homework.
  • Focus on your child’s talents; if artistic, get them into art studies; Musically, then sign up for lessons.

White River Academy is a residential boarding school located at the rim of the monumental Great Basin in Delta, Utah. White River focuses on treating young men with addiction and mental health disorders. We offer regimented, competitive and innovative curriculum to challenge your child and set your son up for success in whichever path he chooses hereafter.

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