Why are we so fascinated by people like Akrit Jaswal, IQ 146, who performed his first surgery at seven years old; or Kim Ung-Yong, IQ 210, who attended university at age four and received his doctorate in physics at age fifteen; or the precocious Adora Svitak, who has become an accomplished writer, poet, teacher and humanitarian by age twelve?
We have interests and passions just like they do. Still, their abilities allow them to pursue their passions and achieve fantastic success at speeds most of us reach only in our dreams. While their talents and unique minds set them apart from the general public, they represent the best of us, with incredible abilities to learn, process and utilize information and skills. When we look at these individuals, we see life trajectories jumping effortlessly from success to success ad infinitum.
One branch of research into prodigies asks the question: What gives them these abilities? While the scientific basis is still not entirely understood, the Society for Neuroscience, in its briefing, Glia: The Other Brain Cells (September 2010), suggests that part of this capability might lie in a very high density of glia cells which support synaptic function and, ultimately brain plasticity. Studies of Albert Einstein's brain in the 1980s revealed a high density of glia cells "especially in the association cortex, an area of the brain involved with imagination and complex thinking."
Another branch of research asks another question altogether: Why is it that child prodigies often do not necessarily grow up into the out-of-this-world adult successes that we imagine they would? According to Ellen Winner, Boston College professor of psychology and author of Gifted Children: Myths and Realities, child prodigies rarely grow up to become adult geniuses. Interestingly, their young minds seem to be able to master knowledge that has already been discovered, but that does not always come with the ability to create, which "requires innovation, rebelliousness, dissatisfaction with the status quo (What Are Child Geniuses Like As Adults? (ABC News, 2005)."
Malcolm Gladwell, bestselling author of Blink, Outliers and The Tipping Point, summed it up when he said, "What a gifted child is, in many ways, is a gifted learner. And what a gifted adult is, is a gifted doer. And those are quite separate domains of achievement." (See APS Observer, August 2006) In Outliers, Gladwell argues that most so called geniuses (but not these types of prodigies) became experts in their fields by early and intense exposure and practice in areas that they would later excel in; his guesstimate is that it takes about 10,000 hours to become an expert. Somehow, with their mental abilities, these prodigies do what they do without Gladwell's time investment.
Research aside, they represent amazing talents, and we are right to find inspiration in them. Adora Svitak does possess that restlessness and dissatisfaction; these are the minds that I find most interesting. Through watching someone like Miss Svitak learn and succeed as she matures, I am constantly inspired to take my own learning and my own successes, and see how I can use them to make the world a better place.
Learn more about child prodigies in these articles:
- What Are Child Geniuses Like As Adults?ABC News, 2005
- 10 child prodigies (who actually ended up doing something), CNN Living, December 10,2007)
- The Myth of Prodigy and Why it Matters, Observer, Association for Psychological Science, August 2006
Finally, do take eight minutes and thirteen seconds and watch Adora Svitak's February 2010 TED talk. You will be inspired.