What makes child prodigies different from other children?
This episode is in the form of a podcast, during which I have a good ol’ chat with my guest Zack Cahill about the research on whether child prodigies are made or born. Featuring discussions about Venus and Serena Williams, embodiment theory, and how IQ is only useful for one thing.
If you’d rather read than listen, a transcript edited to remove hesitation, repetition and deviation is below the recording.
Clare: Hello, I’m Clare Jonas, and this is That Thinking Feeling, a podcast about psychology. Today I have with me my friend Zack. Zack, would you like to tell us a little bit about yourself?
Zack: Hello. I’m Zack, I am a writer-slash-personal trainer. Like most personal trainers, I’m a slash-something else.
Clare: I didn’t know that about personal trainers.
Zack: Well, it’s a flexible job that lets you do other stuff. So there’s a lot of slashies, like a waitress, I guess? Slash actress, slash something else.
Clare: Oh, yes! I suppose I was a waitress-slash-bartender-slash-student at one point.
Zack: Well, there you go! We’re all slashies at some point.
Clare: Exactly. Okay, Zack, what question would you like to ask me today?
Zack: I’d like to know what’s different about child prodigies compared to other children?
Clare: What made you interested in this question?
Zack: I have been obsessed with this my whole life. I don’t know why, I just keep kind of circling back to this question, the whole thing of nature versus nurture, and I find it fascinating that there seem to be some schools who come down really hard on one side of that, when it seems intuitively that it would be both.
Clare: Well, I guess that answers my next question – do you have a sense of what the answer to this question might be?
Zack: I don’t know why it wouldn’t be both. I don’t understand why you would have to hitch your horse so strongly to one particular wagon.
Clare: It’s true. Spoiler alert – the answer is probably, ‘it’s a combination of nature and nurture’. But the interesting question is, I think, how we get to that combination of nature and nurture.
One other question I have for you is, what do you think of when you think of a child prodigy? How would you define a child prodigy?
Zack: You think of TED talk-worthy skill in a number of things. Well, actually, no, I suppose not. The way it’s often presented is a child who’s amazing at piano, or a child who’s amazing at solving Rubik’s cubes, or playing chess, or something that looks good on TV and you associate with the idea an adult does that.
Clare: Adult-level skill at something while you’re still a child?
Clare: Just before we started recording this, we were talking about Olympic gymnasts. They often reach the peak of their expertise while they’re still in their teens. Would you regard them as child prodigies as well?
Zack: Yes, of course. It’s just maybe we’re more conditioned to think of prodigies as cognitive or – we see athletes as naturals anyway, don’t we? We’re inclined to see someone doing slightly more of a cognitive task as different from a purely physical thing.
Clare: Yes! But, as I will reveal to you in the course of this podcast, I think we can talk about athletes as – not necessarily child prodigies, that depends on the type of sport, but they certainly might be considered experts in their domain.
All right, we’re going to talk about three different theories that people have come up with about this. You can largely divide people’s theories into It’s all the genetics!, or It’s all the environment!, or It’s a combination of both!, which is probably the sensible conclusion to come to.
Let’s talk first about an environmental explanation by Dai and Renzulli [i]. They consider competence at a task to be a result of functional interactions with the environment – for example, writing, playing the piano, or playing chess – that gradually get refined over time as we practice them. They believe that giftedness is an extension of that process of functional interaction into super-competence, and they talk about three kinds of processes that might be involved in this. The first is selective affinity, which is a predisposition to be attracted to certain tasks. For example, as a child I was very attracted to reading. There are pictures of me attempting to read at the age of two, and looking very annoyed about being interrupted. Did you have anything that you were particularly interested in as a child?
Smol Clare just wanted to read
Zack: Yes, it was largely stuff that I picked up from my dad, who would draw, and play the guitar, and write. I did all of those things, and I got pretty proficient at them, but I feel like I was never particularly gifted as an artist, I just did it because my dad did it, and I got good because I worked hard at it. The only thing I think I had a natural affinity for is actually writing.
Clare: Do you know why it was that one out of the three?
Zack: … No.
Clare: This is part of the problem with trying to understand giftedness: often you don’t necessarily know why people are so good at the things they’re good at. Sometimes it’s really obvious, though. For example. Venus and Serena Williams are probably good at tennis in part because they enjoy playing, but we also know that their dad was very invested in their success, so there would have been a driving force from a parent as well. They might well have become top athletes if their dad hadn’t been that into it, but the fact that he was probably gave them an extra push.
OK, so you have this idea of selective affinity: the more you like something, the more likely you are to spend time doing it. It seems to be a feedback loop. If you like something, you spend more time doing it, and then you get the reward of becoming more competent at it than other people. I don’t know about you, but I love being competent at something.
Zack: Absolutely! Being told you’re great is amazing.
Clare: I think competence is also a reward in itself, though. For example, if you’re an artist, you can look at something you’ve done and go, That’s really good! – even if no-one else sees it.
The flip side of selective affinity is that some people are going to be interested in things that aren’t necessarily valued by the people around them. The classic example I think of, because I’m a woman, is the response of, “You can’t do that! You’re a girl!” But there are other, broader problems. It’s possible that I could be a prodigy at something that hasn’t even been invented yet. Or I might be really brilliant at spinning, but because that’s not a thing that is a necessary component of my existence…
Zack: Or you just might not have had the opportunity. There might be some kid in Borneo who is the greatest person at financial instruments and will never be exposed to them.
Clare: Yes, there’s certainly the question of what you have access to, culturally speaking. Some people are going to have access to a broader range of cultural things than others. I remember my dad telling me when I was little that I shouldn’t get interested in horse-riding because we could not afford a horse. Who knows, I could have been the world’s greatest polo player!
Zack: I wonder if that produces the phenomenon that if you’re not in the group of people who are normally going to be exposed to something, in order to be recognised at that thing you have to be much better than anyone else who would naturally be exposed to it.
Clare: Yes. This is the same kind of problem you see in racism and sexism – in order to be considered as good as a white person, or as good as a man, you have to be extraordinary, which is…
Clare. Yes! Stop doing that, society. We don’t like it.
Returning to this theory, after selective affinity Dai and Renzulli start talking about maximal grip, which I enjoy as a phrase. This is the attempt to master a skill, which some people want to do more than others, and presumably there are also some tasks that people want to master more than others. Maximal grip is somewhat culturally determined. For example, are you able to access training at the highest level? If you want to be an expert at chess, do you happen to know a chess master? If you want to be an expert skier, do you have access to a ski slope and all of the expensive equipment you need? And then there’s the question of whether the people around you are invested in you developing your skills, like with the Williams sisters.
So, Zack – what is the task you are most interested in mastering? Where is your maximal grip placed?
Zack: It’s writing. Telling good stories is what I’m most interested in. That doesn’t mean I spend enough time doing it, because it’s incredibly painful to do, but it is the thing I’m most interested in doing.
Clare: There are also, perhaps, financial considerations, which brings us back to the cultural stuff.
Zack: The time you spend writing is It’s not keeping your lights on, it’s not keeping you fed.
Clare: Hence the slash-personal trainer, I suppose!
OK, the third component of Dai and Renzulli’s theory is the edge of chaos. This is a moment when you experience the tension between the known and the unknown. I was saying earlier that I have experienced this as a scientist. I used to be a psychologist, which is partly why this podcast is about psychology, and when I was designing experiments there would be times when I’d go, “Oh, of course! If I do it that way then it will reveal some unknown thing to me.” … But I’ve also experienced it while playing video games, so the edge of chaos can apply to lots of situations.
Probably most people have experienced the edge of chaos. You don’t have to be an expert to it experience it. Zack, have you – ?
Zack: I’m just trying to understand it. Is it when something reveals itself? Is it an ‘a-ha’ moment?
Clare: The way I’ve tended to experience it is that I am struggling with a problem and suddenly it comes into focus.
Zack: Oh, I’ve definitely had that. That’s all of story-writing. You want to get a character, and you kind of know where they end up and you have certain points along the way, but then you have to figure out how they get there. Or you want to create a feeling, and you need to figure out how you get there. That’s always mysterious. Maybe you’re just lying there, and maybe a memory from childhood or a headline or a phrase that you hear, something triggers it and it just reveals itself. And you always go, “How did I experience that?” because you want to reproduce it, but there is no way of reproducing it, there is only feeding more information in, until one thing hits that sets it off. That’s the only way I can make it happen.
Clare: Oh, this is really interesting to me! Maybe this is a difference between you being an atheist and me being… somewhere between agnostic and deist? I experience it almost as a mystery suddenly revealing itself to me in the manner that I imagine people might experience a divine visitation.
Zack: Well, that’s the really interesting thing. Most people’s descriptions of writing – well, it’s like the Michaelangelo thing, “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” I don’t think it’s a theist thing or an atheist thing, it’s that something is out there pre-existing and you’ve somehow stumbled on a way to reveal it.
Clare: I’m reminded of Newton, standing at the edge of the ocean of truth and playing with the pebbles on the shore.
Zack: You hear that time and time and time again from people who write: the story is out there and you’re – Stephen King talks about seeing the top layer of fossils, and then he has to dust dig away and reveal the tyrannosaur underneath. I don’t think that’s literally true, that you are discovering rather than creating, but that’s exactly what it feels like.
Clare: That is amazing. Thank you for sharing that.
So – that’s Dai and Renzulli’s theory, that pretty much everything going on is environmental, but with some selective affinity for things you’re genetically good at. I think this is often particularly the case with physical activities. For example, I knew from an early age that I would not be an Olympic gymnast because I have really terrible knees, but I think that there are quite a lot of different things I could have done with my intelligence. Maybe selective affinity applies in different ways in the mental and physical realms.
Zack: Well, I work in a very physical job, but I had really bad asthma when I was a kid and got really sick all the time. When I was able to treat that, it may have pushed me further into physical activities because I could do it. The brakes were suddenly taken off! So you can read selective affinity both ways. You specifically couldn’t have been a gymnast, because it involves smashing down at a high velocity onto your feet, but that wouldn’t have stopped you doing another physical task, necessarily.
Clare: In fact, I have had a similar experience to you. My ex-boyfriend gave me a bike when I was 25 and I discovered I love cycling, which unlocked the world of physical activity for me because it was something I could do that wasn’t intensely painful. I’ve sought out physical activity since then. Last year I discovered I really love long walks! Again, not so painful on the knees. But it just hadn’t occurred to me in school, where most sports are running-based, that I might enjoy it.
Zack: I suppose it’s no different from a child deciding they’re terrible at maths and then never pursuing anything cognitive, but maybe they’re amazing at some other subject and don’t know it.
Clare: We put ourselves in boxes far too early based on this kind of thing, and it may not even be true that we are bad at maths, we’ve just heard someone saying that when what we really need is a nudge in the right direction and then we’d be fine at maths.
Moving on, Vandervert [ii] has a genetic explanation. He talks about the difference in cerebellum functioning between different people. If you put your hand high on the back of your neck, it will be just over the cerebellum. It looks a little bit like a cauliflower stuck on the bottom of your brain! As far as we know, it’s largely involved in movements like writing and walking – repetitive, often fine movements. But it is a bit of a mystery from a psychological perspective – it might also have some cognitive functions.
Zack: I’ve heard a lot of things attributed to the cerebellum with great confidence, and that always makes me suspicious of that person. As far as I’m aware, there is localisation of function in the brain, right? But people who go, “this bit does this” are usually talking arse.
Clare: There are bits of the brain where we fairly reliably know if you damage this bit, you will lose that function. If you damage the back of your head, you will quite often have visual problems because that’s where the brain deals with visual information. But when we get to a finer-grained level, this cubic centimetre does this thing, we’re starting to enter the realm of – as you call it – arse.
The problem we’re facing is that we don’t have enough resolution to pick out what individual cells are doing. You’ll find it very hard to tell the difference between this group of cells does both these things and this is two very small groups of cells, each doing a separate thing. There’s also a more philosophical question around whether a group of cells being active actually means they are contributing to a function. My particular view on psychology is that the brain is part of the seat of who we are, but that extends out into the body and even into the world. I keep part of my self in my notebook.
Zack: Or iPhones are part of our selves, right? That’s where we store most of our knowledge now.
Clare: Yeah. And if you consider solving a Rubik’s cube, you don’t usually sit there and think of what to do to solve it, you move it with your hands. You’re using your hands to think about how to solve the problem. Embodiment is fascinating!
Returning to Vandervert’s theory, he thinks there’s a kind of feedback loop in the cerebellum that allows an unusually high level of focus on particular tasks for child prodigies. And some people are more interested in verbal or visual-spatial tasks than other people – for example, I was very into reading as a child – and that can be to the point of obsession, you devote all your energy on this one thing. I don’t know that that’s necessarily a broadly helpful idea of child prodigies, because he’s talking about mental kinds of child prodigies – chess, writing, art – but it doesn’t give us an explanation for kids who become very good at sports.
Zack: Well, those are also things that are just lying around if you’re a posh kid! There’s the writing desk, the chessboard, the easel…
Clare: Again we come back to this problem of what kind of environment is surrounding you, culturally and specifically. I don’t think we can discard that – you wouldn’t find a scientist who would say, “Anyone can become an expert at anything!” Instead, they would say, “You can become an expert at something if you have the right resources.” That’s the point at which you start arguing about whether the expertise is genetic or environmental.
The last theory that I’ve got here is from Ruthsatz and Urbach [iii]. They don’t directly address genetic/environment question, but reading between the lines they seem to be making a genetic argument. And here is where I try to avoid going into a long rant about how IQ is useless –
Zack: Oh no, do a rant!
Clare: Okay! My main rant is that IQ has one use: if someone tells you their IQ on their Tinder profile, you should swipe left.
Zack: Oh, yeah, they’re a dick.
Clare: I mean, IQ scores are useful proxies for some kinds of intelligence, like how verbally intelligent someone is, or how visuospatially intelligent. But you have to bear in mind that they were designed by rich white men in the Victorian era, and they were consciously or unconsciously invested in thinking of themselves as the most intelligent, which means that they ended up designing tests that are racist, sexist, classist…
Zack: “How like me are you?” tests.
Clare: Exactly! IQ scores can tell you a few interesting things, but please never take them as the entire basis of someone’s intelligence. There are many more things about a person that can be defined as intelligence beyond their IQ score.
Zack: Have we formalised that? Are there nowadays more recognised forms of intelligence that we’ve quantified?
Clare: Yes. This is probably common knowledge among psychologists, but not necessarily in the general public. Gardner [iv] identifies multiple intelligences, which include verbal and visuospatial intelligence, which make up the IQ test, but also environmental intelligence (are you any good at keeping plants alive? Can you look after animals?) and my favourite, existential intelligence (how good are you at dealing with the weirdness of being alive and a human?).
Zack: I once had the goal of using the word existential correctly in a sentence…
Clare: Well, now you’ve done it! Returning to Ruthsatz and Urbach’s theory, they talk about IQ scores but also about working memory. What they found was that child prodigies’ IQ scores weren’t exceptional, but their working memory abilities were. Working memory is what allows you remember the last few words that were said, or picture a recent chess move, or remember a particular musical phrase.
[At this point we did the digit span task, which is a working memory test. If you’d like to try it, there’s an online version here. You’ll need to make an account, but it’s free.]
Clare: According to Baddeley and Hitch [v] [vi], our working memories contain a verbal loop, which allows you to mentally repeat the last few seconds of what you’ve heard. How were you remembering what you heard me say in the digit span?
Zack: Sometimes I could hear them, sometimes I could see them in different colours.
Clare: Wait, are you a synaesthete?!
Zack: I’ve been tested for synaesthesia and I’m a bit synaesthetic…
Clare: Ah, okay! I’m assuming the digit span got trickier the more numbers there were?
Zack: Yes. Mostly I was just looping the sound as a kind of song, but when it got longer it would start to loop before the last couple of numbers, which is when it got tricky.
Clare: I noticed in the last one you weren’t quite sure whether you got the sequence right. Did you do anything like chunk the numbers (sticking them together in groups)?
Zack: Yes, I did them in threes.
Clare: That’s a classic trick to increase how much you can remember. Do you remember back in the days before mobile phones when we had to remember entire phone numbers?
Zack: I used to have a cool trick. You remember there used to be three letters per digit on a phone keypad? I used to be able to picture the phone and then say the alphabet backwards really quickly like I was reading off it. That’s lost to kids these days. They don’t know they’re born.
Clare: I was about to say, “Ah, millennials!” and then I remembered I am a millennial, just. An old millennial.
Back to working memory – we have now discovered that it’s a function that allows you to remember what’s just happened. That’s really useful if you’re developing a skill that depends on memory, like chess. If you can remember the last few moves, you might be able to see where your opponent is going. It’s also useful for music – you hear something and then you can play it back. In mathematics, you can keep track of where you are in an operation. And even things like art: what was my intention in drawing this line? Remembering those last few seconds is hugely useful?
Zack: So it’s a specific span of time?
Clare: It’s talked about in terms of the number of items, usually: the magic number seven, plus or minus two [vii]. Most people can remember somewhere between five and nine items in their working memory. For you, it’s nine, as we learned during the digit span task. Maybe you could have been a child prodigy!
Initially, Ruthsatz and Urbach are very focused on the idea of very good working memory being the key factor for all child prodigies, but in a later paper [viii], they come to the idea that deliberate practice is also very important. The example I always think of here is that no-one ever picks up a violin and is instantly able to play it. Perhaps if you have been around violinists, you’d know how you should hold the violin, and you might be able to make a nicer noise than other people at first, but you’re not going to be an expert.
Zack: And it’s not just memory, is it? There are going to be so many other factors, a confluence of different skills.
Clare: This brings us back to the idea that genius is both genetic and environmental. Maybe you have innate capacities that allow you to be better at tasks than other people, but you have to have the right environment to learn those tasks.
Zack: So it is a bit of both.
Clare: It is!
Zack: I was right at the start, and I’ve learned nothing! This was a waste of time, and I could have been practising violin.
Clare: Yup! Gosh, what were we thinking? Thank you very much, Zack, it’s been a pleasure talking to you.
Zack: Thank you!
[iii] Ruthsatz, J., & Urbach, J. B. (2012). Child prodigy: A novel cognitive profile places elevated general intelligence, exceptional working memory and attention to detail at the root of prodigiousness. Intelligence, 40(5), 419-426.