On rare occasions, the world has been introduced to children who possess mysterious powers and excel in the worlds of art and science. Mozart began composing at the age of 5. Bobby Fischer competed with chess grandmasters when he was only 6. The incredible talents of such young geniuses have fascinated and puzzled scholars for centuries. What can possibly explain the phenomenon of "Child Prodigies"? Let’s examine the subject a bit more…
A child prodigy, or simply prodigy, is someone who is a master of one or more skills or arts at an early age. One generally accepted rule of thumb for identifying prodigies is the following: a prodigy is someone who, by the age of roughly 11, displays expert proficiency or a profound grasp of the fundamentals in a field usually only undertaken by adults. The term wunderkind (from the German: Wunder, wonder/miracle + Kind, child, kid) is sometimes used as a synonym for prodigy, particularly in media accounts, although this term is discouraged in the scientific literature. Wunderkind is also used more generally of adults who achieve success and notoriety early in their careers, including Steven Spielberg, renown film maker and Steve Jobs, creator of Apple Computers.
The truth is that there seem to be more child prodigies around in the fields of music and mathematics then anywhere else. Some say music and math are the same thing so the two fields both having many child prodigies may be no fluke. Take Jessica Constant, for example, she may seem like a typical teenager, but at 14, she's already a college student and plans to attend medical school. But Jessica's interests are not solely confined to academics. Jessica is also an accomplished cellist. Along with her two older brothers, she makes up "The Constant Trio." The three siblings have performed at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Remarkably, neither parent has any musical talent themselves and they are awed by the artistry of their children.
What mysterious set of circumstances contributes to a child having such extraordinary talents? According to David Henry Feldman, Professor of Child Development at Tufts University, "Prodigies seem to be a combination of timing and talent and the right circumstances, all occurring during the same moment and sustaining itself for at least ten years. So, a prodigy is a child with unusual talent who appears in a society that has value for that talent."
Dr. David Feldman, a psychologist who has devoted many years to studying child prodigies, wrote about several of them in his book, Nature's Gambit. There was Billy, a seven year old who read college physics books for fun, and Franklin, who was a top-rated chess player by the time he was eight. Perhaps the most amazing of all was three year-old Adam who could read, write and speak several languages, as well as compose music on the guitar. His knowledge seemed to have no bounds. When the boy was five, Feldman took him to Boston's Museum of Science, where he enjoyed a puppet show on humpback whales. He participated like the other children right up until the end, when the puppeteer asked the rhetorical question, "Does anyone know what humpback whales eat?"
"Krill!" called Adam immediately. Then he added helpfully, "They're small shrimp but they're not microscopic."
Feldman noted that unlike Adam, child prodigies are typically extreme specialists. They are finely attuned to a particular field of knowledge, demonstrating rapid and often seemingly effortless mastery. While most child prodigies do have high IQs, they do not demonstrate extraordinary performance across the board. Rather, they are bright individuals whose ability is far beyond that of age mates but falls short when compared to adults.
Some child prodigies, however, have skills outside the range of even the most able adult competitors. For example, the young chess player studied by Feldman could recreate entire games from memory, an ability even most chess champions do not possess. Once in a great while, a child prodigy will be born with even a rarer type of genius, one which expresses itself in many areas at once.
At age 12, Albert Wong is already an accomplished violinist, teaches himself a wide variety of subjects from college textbooks and is famous in the world of music as a concert pianist. Albert first displayed his mysterious musical talents when he was just 3 years old. Yet by the time he was five, he had already won the grand prize in a Dallas piano competition for children up to 18. Eventually, Albert came under the tutelage of renowned former prodigy Earl Wild. At age 10, Albert recorded his first CD.
For many years, people looked upon child prodigies with a mixture of awe and trepidation. Some cultures even considered gifted children to be a sign of impending doom, but mostly the children's talents served as entertainment for curious onlookers. It was not until the turn of the twentieth century that researchers began systematic study of gifted children, searching for clues about the nature of intelligence.
Child prodigies, just another weird stop on our tour of our weird world! According to scientists who study child prodigies, no one knows whether the causes are genetic, evolutionary, cultural, historical, or a combination of all of those things. At this point in time, the exact cause remains a mystery.
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