Richard G. Petty, MD

Child Prodigies

I’ve recently had cause to look at the published literature on child prodigies and there’s not much there. It is very surprising that such an interesting subject has been so little researched.

First a definition from a paper by David Feldman: A “prodigy was a child (typically younger than 10 years old) who is performing at the level of a highly trained adult in a very demanding field of endeavor.” There are three fields in which high-level creative results have been produced before the age of 10: Chess, Mathematics and Music. There are other fields such as art and writing in which young people may be precocious imitators. Pablo Picasso exactly mimicked his father’s drawings. There is an impressive list of child prodigies in other fields as well, but it seems that only in chess, mathematics and music have profound, original insights been contributed by preadolescent children.

There is an interesting association between mathematics and chess: many top chess players are also extremely good at mathematics. In a previous post I mentioned the English Grandmaster John Nunn, and there are many other examples. Men dominate both fields, but that does not necessarily mean that there is a natural gender difference. There’s a very interesting book entitled Breaking Through, by the chess Grandmaster Susan Polgar who was herself a prodigy, as were both of her sisters. Girls have been excluded from many of these events, or they’ve been forced to play only against girls or women. I know a young person who as a pre-teenager wanted to join the school chess club, but only went once, after discovering that all the other members were boys. A shame: she was already quite a strong player.

Both chess and mathematics involve highly developed non-verbal and visuospatial skills. The writer and critic George Steiner had this to say: “The solution of a mathematical problem, the resolution of a musical discord or conclusion of a contrapuntal development, the generation of a winning chess position can be envisaged as spatial regroupings, that have their own internal logic.” He went on to speculate, “All three fields involve enormously powerful but narrowly specialized areas of the cortex. These areas can somehow be triggered into life in a very young child and can develop in isolation form the rest of his psyche. Sexually and socially unformed, very possibly backward in every general respect, the child virtuoso or pre-teenage chess master draws on formidable but wholly localized synapses in the brain.”

In the book The Exceptional Brain, Lee Cranberg and Marty Albert suggested that these “localized synapses” lie in the right hemisphere of the brain, which is primarily involved in non-verbal visuospatial skills and pattern recognition. They also suggested that gender differences in proficiency in chess support the right hemisphere idea. But after reading Susan Polgar’s book, and spending a great deal of time analyzing the world literature on gender differences in cognition, that last point doesn’t convince me.

It is striking that three of the code breakers at Bletchley Park during the second World War, were outstanding international chess players Stuart Milner-Barry, Harry Golombek and Hugh Alexander. These code breakers who helped win the War also utilized similar skills to those needed to master a chess position or to calculate a mathematical problem.

The child prodigies seem to have some things in common:

  1. An unusually strong talent in a single area
  2. Reasonably high but not necessarily exceptionally high IQ: some people with astronomically high levels of intelligence have had problems with interpersonal adjustment, unless very carefully nurtured as children.
  3. Focused energy.
  4. Sustained effort to achieve the highest levels in their field: even chess prodigies need thousands of hours of practice, and mathematical prodigies need to work at their field.
  5. Unusual self-confidence.

Adults who want to improve in chess are constantly told to practice as much as possible, and to work on pattern recognition and problem solving. It is just the same in music and mathematics.

Although child prodigies may simply have better neurological equipment, usually coupled with extraordinary encouragement by their parents, I am left with a question that I posed in an earlier post. Mozart often said that when he was composing he felt as if he was taking dictation from God. That he was not the one composing, but that he was in effect picking something up from the Universe. I’ve seen countless highly gifted people tell me that their greatest insights in science, music philosophy or chess just “came to them.” The former chess World Champion Tigran Petrosian once said that he could tell when he was out of form when his calculations did not confirm the validity of his first impressions. All this implies unconscious processing to be sure, but I am not sure that it is all in the brain.

Because there is another phenomenon that has also not been much researched, and that is the phenomenon of simultaneous breakthroughs: two or more people in different parts of the world coming up with new creative solutions at the same time and without any personal contact. I shall have more to say about this in another post, but it speaks to the fundamental interconnectedness of all of us.

Maybe the child prodigies not only have special brains and special parents, but they also have access to a store of information not available to everyone.

At least not yet: We already have training methods that help people access accurate information that they did not know consciously. A story for another day.

“Genius is characterized just by the fact that it escapes classification.”
–Leopold Infeld (Polish Physicist, 1898-1968)

About Richard G. Petty, MD
Dr. Richard G. Petty, MD is a world-renowned authority on the brain, and his revolutionary work on human energy systems has been acclaimed around the globe. He is also an accredited specialist in internal and metabolic medicine, endocrinology, psychiatry, acupuncture and homeopathy. He has been an innovator and leader of the human potential movement for over thirty years and is also an active researcher, teacher, writer, professional speaker and broadcaster. He is the author of five books, including the groundbreaking and best selling CD series Healing, Meaning and Purpose. He has taught in over 45 countries and 48 states in the last ten years, but spends as much time as possible on his horse farm in Georgia.

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