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February 17, 2003

Child prodigies

There is a reasonably good article in Time magazine on Child prodigies (Update from Razib: another intelligence related article). My only complaint is that it lumps together intellectual/academic prodigies, chess prodigies, musical prodigies, sports prodigies and 'creative' children. I'd suspect the first three groups probably do have a lot in common physiologically and psychologically (take for instance Bobby Fischer's reputed 180 IQ). It does cite some interesting research on commonalities which presumably apply most to the first three groups:

The only fMRI scanner in the Southern Hemisphere can be found in Melbourne, where American psychologist Michael O'Boyle has been scanning the brains of young people gifted in mathematics.

He's making some startling discoveries. O'Boyle found that, compared with average kids, children with an aptitude for numbers show six to seven times more metabolic activity in the right side of their brains, an area known to mediate pattern recognition and spatial awareness—key abilities for math and music. Scans also showed heightened activity in the frontal lobes, believed to play a crucial "executive" role in coordinating thought and improving concentration. This region of the brain is virtually inactive in average children when doing the same tasks. Viewed with fMRI, "It's like the difference between a stoplight and a Christmas tree," says O'Boyle, the director of the University of Melbourne's Morgan Center, which researches the development of children who have high intellectual potential. "Not only do math-gifted kids have higher right-side processing power, but this power is also fine-tuned by frontal areas that enhance concentration. These kids are really locked on."

O'Boyle believes prodigies also can switch very efficiently between the brain's left and right hemispheres, utilizing other mental resources and perhaps even shutting down areas that produce random distractions. In short, while their brains aren't physically different from ordinary children's, prodigies seem to be able to focus better—to muster the mental resources necessary to solve problems and learn.

Posted by jason_s at 03:11 AM

"It's like the difference between a stoplight and a Christmas tree,"

That's a weird statement...

Posted by: b at February 17, 2003 05:54 AM

Here's a somewhat related story (neuroscience and fluid intelligence) that's interesting:

Posted by: the alpha male at February 17, 2003 11:59 AM

On music prodigies: Mozart's father was a professional musician. His specialty? Pedagogy. Mozart was a guinea pig for a teaching method. (I would call that a **good** teaching method.) Picasso's father was also a professional-quality artist (not successful, but skilled).

In highly specialized areas like meth, painting, and music, only people who have contact with the profession at an early age have much chance of succeeding. There are also many areas of study (eg. language learning and anything involving memorization) which the youngest are best at, if they get the chance. In Chinese culture for more than 2000 years, the prodigy who had memorized the Book of Songs (comparable to Psalms in the Bible, the foundational Chinese text) by the time they were 6 or even 3. But all of them were living in a culture which was looking for, and prized, prodigies of this type.

One way of looking at the rarity of prodigies is to conclude that hereditarily few have the talent (as the Chinese believed). Another way is to say that few have the educational opportunity (which the Chinese also believed). There's really no conflict. There's nothing at all unusual about someone being fluent and literate in 3 or 4 languages by age 10, if the kid's life was organized with that goal in mind. But in that circumstance, some will do much, much better than others.

There's always been a lot of wasted potential. Not just in the US educational system, but certainly there.

A special study of prodigies who came from humble families would be especially interesting. My bet is that a lot of them had been apprenticed out to talented men (usually) who were highly skilled but not upper-class. Or perhaps, had been adopted by elite families.

Posted by: Zizka at February 17, 2003 03:42 PM

fMRI + biofeedback. Should work.

Gregory Cochran

Posted by: gcochran at February 17, 2003 05:47 PM

on adoption-from what i remember it was/is not a common practice among confucian cultures because if the importance of the blood-line in maintaining the graves of ancestors (though obviously adoption could be a solution to childlessness). in contrast, the romans were enthusiastic adopters-and this might have led to a lower need to procreate among their elite classes. the "good emperors" from trajan to marcus aurelius had no biological sons, so they each adopted heirs in turn. it was screwed up by marcus aurelius, who had one surviving son (out of 17 pregnancies by his wife!-though a daughter, lucilla, did survive too) and broke the adoption chain....

Posted by: razib at February 17, 2003 06:03 PM

And Marcus Aurelius' son was a disappointment too. In his Meditations, Marcus thanks his adoptive mother for rescuing from the fate of being reared by a slave woman (his biological mother). One Chinese emperor (K'ang Hsi of the Manch Ch'ing dynasty I think) was born in the seventh month and was thought to be illegitimate for that reason. So his biological mother was allowed to die. Royalty is a high-stakes high-risk game.

Posted by: Zizka at February 17, 2003 08:48 PM

zizka-i believe that marcus was a relation of hadrian (nephew or some such), not the son of a slave woman-and was later adopted by antinuous pius.

additionally, i think it was kanghxi's grandson, the quianlong emperor that was a bastard? (rumored)

Posted by: razib at February 17, 2003 11:28 PM