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Hannah Corbett Alexander Mackenzie HSJanuary 5th, 2017 The Child Prodigy: Born or Made?Profoundly gifted children have long intrigued the science and psychology communities: the four year old who can inexplicably complete high school math problems, the seven year old violinist mastering Paganini’s 24 Caprices, the ten year old chess master, victorious over even the most complex supercomputers. It is undeniable that these children are extraordinary, but what is it that makes them this way? Is it possible to nurture, create and develop prodigiousness, or are these Wunderkind just “born with it”? How can we identify this incredible talent and nurture it into exceptional accomplishments? Much has been studied, but we still have so much to learn about the brain function of these prodigies. Exceptional cognitive abilities and above-average IQs are common occurrences in studies performed on prodigies from multiple fields. In her most recent study, psychologist and scientist Joanne Ruthsatz administered intelligence tests to 18 art, music, and math prodigies. The findings of the study illustrated that all eighteen children had not only high IQs, but also exceptional working memories. Much like the central processing unit of a computer, working memory is a cognitive system that absorbs, stores and manipulates information in the short term. It is required to carry out rational mental tasks including learning, reasoning and comprehension. To test the strength of their working memory, the children were given a sequence of eight numbers and asked to repeat them, then to repeat them again in reverse order. This knowledge of working memory can easily explain the phenomenon of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, perhaps the world’s most famous prodigy. As a young boy, Mozart would visit churches to listen to the music. He would hear cantatas, masses and chorales for the first time (the processing and storage of information) and then run home and flawlessly transcribe these lengthy works from memory (manipulation from aural to tactile skills). His abilities to perform such tasks can only be described as prodigious, yet as Ruthsatz’s study suggests, are a result of to his naturally exceptional working memory. Child prodigies nearly always demonstrate precocity in their area of giftedness from birth. Mozart was said to have had a natural affinity for all things musical, be it composition or piano performance. Already proficient on both the piano and the violin, the young toddler at age 4 wrote his first compositions in chalk on the kitchen floor. His father Leopold’s diaries described how quickly Mozart overtook his older sister Nannerl, a prodigy herself, with very little instruction. At age 8, Wolfgang had composed his first symphony and was already touring the cities of Europe, concertizing for royalty. But how could someone so young have mastered a field where even adults struggle to find success? Swedish psychologist K. Anders Ericsson, renowned for his studies of human performance, hypothesized that any person can master any skill if they dedicate the required 10,000 hours of practice. But perhaps Ericsson’s theory is just that – a theory. While it may be possible to achieve mastery after investing these hours, it is only genetics that can explain the talents of Mozart and other profoundly gifted children After all, some of these children are only toddlers – it is simply impossible for them to have already dedicated 10,000 hours of practice to their crafts. British prodigy Adam Kirby who, at the age of two, achieved a near genius score on the Stanford-Binet IQ Test and was welcomed as the youngest member of Mensa. This young toddler taught himself to read, memorize his multiplication tables and the periodic table, and was also fluent in Japanese, Spanish and French. This phenomenal aptitude for learning can only be attributed to nature, as it is clearly not possible for a toddler to have invested 10,000 hours into such skills. Furthermore, Akrit Jaswal, at the young age of seven, was already performing successful surgeries in his native India. At an age where most children cannot even bear the sight of a scrape or a bleeding knee, Jaswal exuded the calmness and confidence of a surgeon many years his senior. This genius could not have been taught; it is clear it was born.  Within almost every prodigious child lies an insatiable, relentless drive to become masters of their craft. These are the children who devour books at alarming rates, solve complex math equations, or effortlessly perform major piano concerti. This self-driven thirst for excellence is aptly named the “rage to master”. In her book “Gifted Children: Myths and Realities”, psychologist Ellen Winner believes that this “rage” is the reason for such early prodigious success. “I hear it from parents all the time,” she says in an interview. “They say there’s nothing that can keep their kids from what they want to be good at.” With young prodigies, this passion is extreme, as seen in the incredible accomplishments of 16 year old Gregory Smith, who not finished elementary school and high school in just three years, but was also nominated four times for a Nobel Peace Prize for his humanitarian organization. Nine year old Marko Casalan, the Microsoft’s youngest systems engineer, also experienced these urges and drive to achieve perfection, teaching himself to write flawless computer codes before he was ten. Taylor Wilson who, at the age of eleven, became the youngest person to build a functional nuclear fusion reactor. The accomplishments of these children are surely signs of a natural born gift, nurtured by their own insatiable thirst to learn and master their craft.Prodigious talent could be attributed solely to innate abilities, but what about cases where the learning environment and parental support play a more significant role? Extraordinary nurturing is a thread that runs through the fabric of every prodigy’s story. Whether it be remarkable teaching or extreme pressure placed upon them by a parent, these children often experience environments where high performance is expected. Classical pianist Lang Lang openly discusses his father’s extremely strict practicing regime and the role it played in his meteoric success. From the young age of five he often spent upwards of six hours each day at the piano. He poignantly describes his experiences with his father, saying in an interview that, “had I not been successful, my father’s methods would have been called abusive.” His father, Lang Guoren affirmed that, “the way I see it, pressure always turns into motivation and Lang Lang is well aware that if he fails to be outstanding at playing the piano, he has nothing.”  Though it is undeniable that he was successful in developing the innate talent of his son, even this “tiger” father is brought to tears when asked to discuss the severity and aggression of his parenting style. Lászlo Polgár is another father who had big dreams for his daughters, deciding even before they were born that all three would become chess grandmasters. As a chess teacher and educational psychologist, Polgár considered himself exceptionally qualified to raise the champions he had in mind. Polgár believed that with the right environment and education he could turn “any healthy newborn into a genius”. And so, his daughters Susan, Sofia and Judit were trained to become chess champions; living, breathing and learning nothing but chess. Confirming their father’s belief that “innate talent is nothing, that success is 99 percent hard work”, all three went on to become chess grandmasters, ranked first, second and sixth in the world. Were these prodigies born gifted or are their successes merely products of a controlling environment? Though some children have an internal drive to work, one cannot deny that the mentoring, pressure and focus forced by Lang Guoren and Lászlo Polgár was instrumental in the successes of their children. How does a child progress from brilliant toddler to precocious child, to eminent adult? According to David Feldman, child psychologist at Tufts University, this evolution can be attributed to “the coincidence process.” Feldman suggests that to allow a prodigy to truly flourish, the conditions must be ideal. This may explain why not every T-Ball player will make it to the big leagues, not every gymnast will make it to the Olympics, and not every lead in the school play will end up on Broadway. Even talented children, showing incredible promise in their field at a young age, may not succeed. But how does Feldman describe these Goldilocks-like conditions? “There has to be an almost uncanny convergence of certain things lining up,” says Feldman. “The gifted child must be exposed to a field or art, someone must observe their interest and act upon it, and the timing and cultural context and available technology must all be right. Parents and teachers must have the resources … to connect the prodigy with the right mentors or coaches, if the child is going to achieve any significant portion of innate potential.” This is a crucial point to make; it indicates that there are potentially countless individuals who are never given the opportunity to succeed as Adam Kirby, Akrit Jaswal and Lang Lang did. The prodigies we know today may only be a fraction of the potential talent in the world. I can attest to the truth of David Feldman’s “coincidence process” hypothesis. I am a violinist, a musician, a young artist. I have been for as long as I can remember. However, I am not a prodigy. As a gifted child I had many unusual interests that my parents embraced and nurtured. At the age of two I learned about plagiarism and footnotes. I drew pie charts and graphed the ratio of different coloured Smarties in a box before I ate them. I had a voracious appetite for books and an unusual memory for song lyrics, and I appeared to have perfect pitch. I also wanted a violin. As musicians and educators themselves, my parents recognized my natural musical abilities and began to seek opportunities to nurture my interest, but it never occurred to them that these were not the usual activities of a pre-schooler. At the age of three, I became the youngest member of the Canadian Children’s Opera Company. At the age of five I was performing in productions with the  Canadian Opera Company, and on stage with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and the Canadian Tenors. Through this all, I continued to ask for a violin. When I was eight years old, my parents finally relented and I began taking violin lessons.         I entered the Royal Conservatory of Music’s Taylor Academy for Young Performing Artists as a twelve year old violinist. While I was talented enough to be accepted, my growth over the past four years has been on a trajectory that surprises even my teacher. I have a passion and talent, and in this exceptional, nurturing environment, I have had the opportunity to flourish. The Taylor Academy is a highly competitive breeding ground for emerging talent but it is also a wonderful haven for young classical musicians to meet like-minded peers. Every student has the support of a large community of parents, private teachers, chamber coaches and conductors and of course, each other, as we navigate our own musical journeys. Without the nurturing of this environment, I know I would not be the violinist I am today. I am grateful for the journey I have been on as a musician and thankful that  my parents knew years ago, perhaps as I did, that this passion for music was not just the fleeting interest of a young child. Similarly, without the right technology, teachers, mentors, parental support and environment, other prodigies are deprived of the nurturing they need to succeed. What a tragedy that, thanks to fate, our world is robbed of so much genius.  


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