What Makes a Prodigy?


This January, the unique wunderkind of classical music, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, turns 260. Before his death, at age 35, Mozart composed 49 concertos 61 symphonies, 23 operas, 17 masses, and dozens of other works. He was said to be writing on his deathbed. But by way of a dozen or so major biographies the imagination are Mozart's childhood achievements. As the historian Paul Johnson recounts in Mozart: A Life, Mozart was composing at 5 and started playing with the clavier. He played for the Holy Roman Empress of the Habsburg Dynasty and her musically inclined daughter, Marie Antoinette. At age 7, he played in Paris Louis XV in a dinner party and toured Germany, and by age 14, he had written an opera. Thus did Mozart accomplish more by the age than one of his contemporaries would hope to accomplish in a very long composing career, that somebody now would enter school.

What explains prodigies? How can a person accomplish? This question has been long debated by psychologists. According to one account, it is likely that most anyone could be a prodigy, with the environment. As the late psychologist Michael Howe argued,"With sufficient energy and dedication on the parents' part, it is possible that it may not be all that hard to produce a child prodigy." Opportunity is a theme that runs through the biographies of many prodigies. Mozart's father, Leopold, was a sought and gave up his own promising career to mange his son's career. Tiger Woods' father introduced him to golf. They moved with their family from California to Florida so they could train in an tennis academy when Serena and Venus Williams were kids.

Recent research indicates that basic cognitive skills known to be influenced by genetic factors play a role in achievement. In the study of prodigies thus far, the psychologist Joanne eight in songs and her colleagues administered a test of intelligence five in art, Ruthsatz, and five in mathematics. However, with an average score of 140 (above the 99th percentile), almost all the prodigies did extraordinarily well on the tests of working memory. Analogous to a computer memory's central processing unit is a cognitive system accountable for carrying out the mental operations. It is when you hold in mind the measures of a skill you want to learn, or what you use when you calculate a tip for a dinner check on mind.


Working memory is measured that involve both information for a time period and manipulating that information. In backward digit span, for instance, the test-taker is read a sequence of digits, such as 8 3 2 9 5 1 3 7 5 0. The objective is to recall the digits back in the opposite order--0 5 7 1 5 9 2 3 8 to the preceding sequence. As measured by tests like these, people differ substantially from the capacity of their working memory system--some people have a"larger" working memory than other men and women. Moreover, genetic factors substantially influence this variant, around 50% typically with estimates of heritability.

With an average score of 148, the music prodigies in the Ruthsatz study were particularly high in working memory (the average for the math prodigies was 135 and also for art prodigies was 132). Eight randomly chosen people scoring this high on a test's chances are essentially zero. Ruthsatz and colleagues concluded that a working memory is just one characteristic that prodigies in music, art, and mathematics have in common.

Prodigies also exhibit an unusual devotion to their domain, which the developmental psychologist Ellen Winner calls a"rage to master". Winner describes children who have this quality in these terms:"Often one can't tear these kids away from activities in their area of giftedness, whether they involve a tool, a computer, a sketch pad, or a mathematics book. These children have a powerful interest in the domain in which they have high ability, and they art prodigy can focus so intently on work in this domain that they lose sense of the external world." Winner argues that this single-mindedness is a part of innate talent rather than a reason behind it--a convergence of genetically-influenced aptitude, interest, and drive that predisposes a person. And"rage to master" is a fantastic description of Mozart's character.

Consistent with Winner's thesis, results of a recent analysis of more than 10,000 twins by Miriam Mosing, Fredrik Ullén, and their colleagues at Sweden's Karolinska Institute demonstrated that a common set of genes influence both music ability and the propensity to practice--an example of a phenomenon called genetic pleiotropy, which occurs when one gene (or group of genes) affects multiple traits.

More generally, psychologists who study expertise are moving beyond the question of whether experts are"born" or"made." Since the psychologist Jonathan Wai put it, it is increasingly clear that"Experts are born, then made."

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