Recently there was a clever series of commercials that featured celebrities like Larry Bird and Aretha Franklin showing off their respective talents, and the announcer urged us to do the same. “Are you a prodigy?” he wanted to know. Sadly, for most of us the answer is no. Our abilities are too ordinary. The term “prodigy” retains the sense of its earliest meaning, when it referred to any occurrence outside of the usual course of nature. One could easily argue that Bird’s basketball skills and Franklin’s singing voice give them abilities far beyond the normal range, and such enormous talent is amazing when found in adults. It is even more startling when it is placed in the hands of a child.

Dr. David Feldman, a psychologist who has devoted many years to studying child prodigies, wrote about six 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.

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. By far the most industrious program was led by Lewis Terman, who began a study of 1500 genius children that lasted nearly seventy years.

The Terman Study
As one of the founders of our standard IQ test, Lewis Terman spent most of his life studying the nature of intelligence. He believed that intelligence testing was important for identifying child prodigies, whom he felt were destined to lead the country. Not everyone agreed. In the 1920s, popular thinking on child geniuses was that they were frail, sickly, and socially maladapted, certainly not the types one would want in public office. Determined to prove his critics wrong, Terman began one of the most ambitious studies in the history of psychology. He would track the development of 1500 child prodigies over their entire lives. The results of his research had some surprising things to say about what it means to be born with a genius IQ.

To find his subjects, Terman sent his colleagues out to dozens of California schools, where they asked each teacher to name the brightest child in the class, the second brightest, the oldest and the youngest. Nominated children then took a battery of intelligence tests, including the Stanford-Binet IQ exam. Less than 1% of the population receives a score of 145 or above on the test, so Terman set the cut off point for his study at 140. Interestingly, the children most likely to meet Terman’s criteria were the ones identified as the youngest in their class, suggesting that ability to compete with slightly older peers is a good indicator of extreme intellectual talent. Terman also tested siblings of children admitted to his study, and many of them were admitted as well. One family had all five children make the cut. By all accounts, Terman’s subjects were pleased and honored to be included in his study; they even nicknamed themselves “Termites.”

Right from the start, it was clear that Terman was correct about the hardiness of child prodigies. Each time they were tested, results showed that his subjects tended to be healthier than their peers, probably because their comparatively wealthy status afforded them better nutrition and medical care. Terman was also pleased to note that his subjects scored well on traditional measures of success. Most of them graduated college several years ahead of schedule. Compared to their peers, Terman’s children held more professional jobs and thus earned more money. Three Termites became members of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences, and eighty-one Termites, including twelve women, were listed in “American Men of Science.” As a group, the Termites earned 350 patents and wrote 200 books.

Life was not always rosy for the Termites, however. Terman was quite surprised to find that starting life with an enormous IQ was no guarantee of future success. While it was true most of his subjects went on to make substantial contributions to society, there were many who seemed to flounder as they reached adulthood. Some had trouble keeping a steady job, others were merely average at the jobs they had. The Termites’ intellectual prowess did not make them immune to mental illness, and a good percentage struggled with alcoholism. At least twenty-two of his subjects committed suicide. Terman searched his early data for clues that might explain why some of his children succeeded where others failed, but he was unable to find any reliable predictors. Furthermore, none of Terman’s subjects achieved the kind of fame or made the genius contributions that he had hoped they would. Terman was correct that precociously bright children grow up to be bright adults, but IQ is not necessarily the best measure of a person’s potential. Among the students passed over for Terman’s study, there were two Nobel laureates. Among Terman’s group, there were none.

What makes a child prodigy?
Most people who have studied child prodigies agree that there is a genetic component to genius. The kids in Terman’s study went on to have exceptionally bright children. When one of Terman’s successors administered the Stanford-Binet IQ test to 1500 of the Termites’ children, he found they had an average IQ of 133, with an astonishing 16% scoring in the gifted range. But even in cases where the child’s ability is remarkably focused, as with music or athletic skills, there is often precedent for such talent within the family. Many times a family’s established interest in the field helps them recognize and nurture the precocious child. Tiger Woods was born with a great deal of raw golf ability, but it might have gone undetected if it weren’t for his father’s early attention. But aside from a probable heritable component to prodigious talent, there is not much known about the biology of intelligence. A few people have suggested that gifted children have greater specialization in brain areas that control motor behavior and increased communication between the two hemispheres. While there is some evidence that children with high IQs have brains that are slightly less lateralized (e.g., they do not have as strong a preference for one hand over the other) but many non-prodigy children are also ambidextrous. Also, it is difficult to know if prodigies are born with superior motor skills, or if they develop them with the intense practice that follows their keen interest in music, drawing, or athletics.

Why Piano and Not Physics?
While nearly every field has precocious contributors, Feldman notes that not all domains are equally likely to produce a child prodigy. Art, for example, is one area where young prodigies are uncommon, and child authors are rarer still. One of the prodigies in Feldman’s study was a boy named Randy, who began writing plays at the age of five. Though he was wise beyond his years, Randy’s dramas still tended to revolve around superheroes, and his language would not be mistaken as the work of an adult. This is in contrast to musical prodigies like the violinist Mi Dori or athletic prodigies like figure skater Tara Lipinski, both of whom were able to compete successfully with adults in their fields at the tender age of thirteen. Feldman proposed that children are most likely to be able to compete at an adult level in fields that are highly structured, with a clear set of established rules. Children seem especially drawn to domains like music or chess, which rely on symbolic representation that relate to each other in fixed patterns. Fields that have more open-ended goals, such as writing or scientific research, often require a depth of experience and abstract thinking that make them difficult for children to master.

Learning from Child Prodigies
Some of the early studies on child prodigies have already provided parents with valuable information. The name of the game, says Feldman, is maximizing a child’s potential. By examining the personal histories of prodigies, we become better at recognizing and nurturing precocious ability. For example, Terman concluded that for children with an IQ over 140, it is often better to let them skip a grade in school rather than risk the child’s losing interest in the institution altogether. Both Feldman and Terman noted that gifted children usually have gifted siblings. Thus, parents with an exceptional older child would be wise to watch for special talent in the younger ones, who can often get lost in the shuffle. It is also important to consider the cautionary threads woven into Feldman and Terman’s tales of genius children. Being born with a high IQ or amazing piano ability is no guarantee of later success, and parents who push too hard are likely to set their child up for a fall. Randy, the young writer from Feldman’s study, had a difficult time adjusting to the fact that other children managed to “catch up” with his writing ability by high school. He was still very bright, but his talent was not as awe-inspiring as it once was. Likewise, parents of seemingly “ordinary” children should not despair; many of the world’s most significant contributions have been made by people who struggled as youngsters. Mozart was a child prodigy; Beethoven was not. The world still marvels at them both.