The secret trait of child prodigies

At age 3, a girl prodigy (we’ll call her Jane) was composing music. By age 6, she had played at the White House and toured internationally. What makes Jane and other child prodigies different from the rest of us? In a 2012 paper published in the journal Intelligence, two researchers from Yale and Ohio State Universities profiled 7 child prodigies and found that each one had exceptional working memory abilities, though they differed in other qualities.

7 exceptional people measured by 5 variables

Child prodigies, as defined by the authors of this 2012 paper, are those who managed to reach professional status in an established field at a remarkably young age. This paper examined 7 child prodigies so outstanding each had been featured in national and international TV segments for their prowess in music, art, gastronomy, or math.

Previous attempts to uncover the root of child prodigies’ talents proposed a number of possible factors: general intelligence, working memory ability, visual ability, amount of time spent training in their skill (10+ years), autism, and more.

This 2012 paper investigated each of the above factors in the 7 prodigies. All prodigies in the paper took a full intelligence test that evaluated general intelligence, working memory, and visual ability. The prodigies also took an autism assessment. Finally, prodigies and their family members were interviewed about their history, lifestyle, and family.

Results reveal one consistent trend

Regardless of their performance in every other aspect, all prodigies placed in the 99th percentile for working memory ability, or the ability to store and manipulate multiple pieces of information. Used in everyday life to juggle multiple activities or hold onto a thought when interrupted, working memory proved to be the most exceptional trait shared by every prodigy in this study.

In every other measured trait, prodigies varied considerably. General IQ scores ranged from 108 to 142 points (an average score is 100); the two bottommost ranking prodigies were only in the 70th and 79th percentiles. While all prodigies were intelligent, researchers concluded that extreme IQ was not a determinant.

Prodigies also failed to display high visual abilities across the board or train their skills for 10 or more years before demonstrating extraordinary talent.

Prodigies scored differently on the autism assessment compared to a control group of normal people, though the difference was not significant.

What you can learn from child prodigies While this 2012 paper is not the last word on the subject of prodigies, it strongly suggests that working memory may provide a foundation for exceptional skills of many kinds.