Child prodigies: A distinctive form of giftedness
Feldman, D. H.
Gifted Child Quarterly
National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC)
Vol. 37, No. 4, pp. 188-193
Fall 1993

This article by David Feldman is described in the abstract: "The basic premise of this article is that the child prodigy is a distinct form of giftedness which must be understood on its own terms. In contrast with the child of great general ability, the prodigy tends to have a more focused, specialized, and domain-specific form of giftedness. Studies of prodigies have contributed to changing theories about the nature of giftedness (e.g., from single to multiple) and will likely continue to do so. Along with the related phenomenon of savant syndrome, the prodigy points to a set of complex relationships between psychometric intelligence in the traditional sense and expression of talent within specific domains like music or mathematics. Based in part on findings from studies of prodigies, it is likely that there are important roles for both general and specific abilities in most forms of giftedness and that they represent two distinct evolutionary trends to maximize the likelihood of human survival."

    Abstract: The basic premise of this article is that the child prodigy is a distinct form of giftedness which must be understood on its own terms. In contrast with the child of great general ability, the prodigy tends to have a more focused, specialized, and domain-specific form of giftedness. Studies of prodigies have contributed to changing theories about the nature of giftedness (e.g., from single to multiple) and will likely continue to do so. Along with the related phenomenon of savant syndrome, the prodigy points to a set of complex relationships between psychometric intelligence in the traditional sense and expression of talent within specific domains like music or mathematics. Based in part on findings from studies of prodigies, it is likely that there are important roles for both general and specific abilities in most forms of giftedness and that they represent two distinct evolutionary trends to maximize the likelihood of human survival.

The prodigy has been known for millennia, known but hardly understood. In fact, part of the early meaning of the word prodigy was intended to capture the mysteriousness of a wide variety of events and processes. In its earliest use, prodigy referred to any event that seemed to be "out of the usual course of nature" or "inexplicable" or "monstrous" (Gove, 1961). It did not refer necessarily even to human behavior and was not originally associated with exceptional mental ability. Over the centuries, there has been a narrowing and focusing of the notion of the prodigy; a recent definition all but lost the distinctiveness of the word by defining a prodigy as a "highly gifted or academically talented child" (Gove, 1961, p. 1810).

Were this definition of a prodigy as a high-IQ child to be accepted, it would mean that a prodigy and an academically talented child were indistinguishable. In fact, the relationship between the prodigy and psychometric intelligence is not at all straightforward; an examination of this relationship is a major purpose of the present discussion.

A more recent definition of the child prodigy offered by the author and his colleagues is intended to distinguish prodigies from other forms of extreme intellectual capability, as well as to recapture some of the ancient meaning of the term. The definition that we offered for the 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. This definition has a number of features: it emphasizes performance as a criterion for calling someone a prodigy as opposed to psychometric intelligence, which tries to measure potential; it labels the prodigy as a distinctly human phenomenon that can only occur with the support and assistance of other human beings; it emphasizes the specific realms within which prodigious behavior appears as opposed to psychometric intelligence, which aims at assessing general intellectual ability; and it has a comparative feature which allows for reasonable measurement of the degree of prodigiousness in relation to the standards of performance within a given field.

Although there is growing consensus that a definition of the prodigy such as the one just proposed is a reasonable one, it would be going too far to say that such a consensus exists without controversy. There may, for example, be some wisdom in the view of Radford (1990), who has argued that there are so many problems with specifying at what age, and against what standard, a child would have to perform to be called a prodigy, that it is folly to try to be precise in a definition. It is true enough that each field has its own standards, that these standards change, and that what might be an extremely early age for achievement in one field might be fairly routine in another, making it inherently difficult to classify behavior as prodigious out of the context of a specific field. Still, it seems better to try to specify what is uniquely characteristic of the child prodigy even if ambiguities in doing so are inevitable.

Putting the Research to Use
As we move into the next millennium, the diversity of the population, including the population we think of as "gifted," is likely to increase markedly. Although there is growing consensus that our notions of giftedness have to respond to the changes in our population, it is not always clear how to go about transforming ideas and practices so that they are more responsive to the changing needs of our children. Although prodigies represent extreme examples of diversity, and although it is rare that a prodigy appears, the study of prodigies helps us begin to layout the dimensions of a notion of giftedness that can guide future practice. In particular, prodigies represent one of the profiles of giftedness that has been more or less excluded from most current definitions: the highly specialized and focused talent for a particular domain or field. Prodigies also help us begin to sort out the relationship between broad, general academic talent and more domain-specific talents. It appears that any of several combinations can occur: general academic talent can exist in combination with domain-specific talents, or each can occur in the relative absence of the other. Prodigies seem to be individuals with average or above average general academic talent and profoundly powerful domain-specific talents. By showing how, in extreme cases, giftedness takes on a distinct form not found elsewhere, the prodigy helps show what identification of giftedness might look like in the next century.

Definitions notwithstanding, what has happened during the past decade or so is that there is renewed interest in the prodigy as one of the more striking manifestations of human potential, and recognition that the prodigy, along with other examples of extreme talent such as savants and very high-IQ cases, is increasingly seen as worthy of careful study (Morelock & Feldman, 1991). The study of prodigies therefore offers an opportunity both better to understand the nature and limitations of the concept of psychometric intelligence and to offer a unique avenue into some of the least understood aspects of intellectual development.

It must be emphasized, however, that there have been an amazingly small number of scientific studies of prodigies. In the entire psychological research literature, only three books have reported major studies, and two of these appeared in German more than 50 years ago (Baumgarten, 1930; Revesz, 1925/1970). In spite of the many centuries of anecdotes and stories and legends about prodigies, from the young David of the Old Testament to Joan of Arc in medieval times and Yehudi Menuhin in this century, the scientific knowledge base is extremely modest. Fewer than 20 cases have been studied in depth (Feldman, 1991a).

We know that prodigies have appeared in many but far from all fields of human endeavor. There is no accurate estimate of the number of prodigies in general, nor are there accurate counts within various fields, but there are some domains in which prodigies are relatively more frequent, others in which they are less frequent, and still others in which prodigies have not yet been identified.

Music is probably the field in which prodigies appear with greatest frequency, and chess has also had many prodigies. Mozart is often cited as the most extraordinary child prodigy that the field of classical music composition has produced, and the American chess player Bobby Fischer was acclaimed as the most exceptional prodigy of the 1960s. Although mathematics is generally believed to be the specialty of prodigies, most known cases have actually been calculators, more akin to savants than prodigies (Smith, 1983). When original mathematical reasoning is included as a criterion for calling a child a mathematical prodigy, there are actually a relatively small number of documented cases (Feldman, 1991a; Radford, 1990).

There have been no more than a few writing prodigies; the best known is probably the English girl Daisy Ashford, who wrote a popular novel "The Young Visitors" before the turn of the last century. Even fewer prodigies have been found in the visual arts. Until recently, the only clear case of an artistic prodigy was that of Nadia, a disturbed English girl whose artistic ability diminished as her autism responded to treatment (Selfe, 1977). More recently, a mainland Chinese girl, Wang Yani, has achieved considerable fame for her exceptionally deft watercolors of monkeys and other subjects that she began producing at age 3 (Ho, 1989). If sports fields are included within the definition of prodigy, then the number of cases increases considerably, particularly in fields like gymnastics and swimming where an early start seems necessary to achieve the highest levels of performance.

There have been few if, any prodigies who have been identified in the natural sciences, philosophy, dance, or the plastic arts. Fields like law and business and medicine also seem to require a greater number of years of preparation before the heights are scaled, although there have been a few instances of individuals who have achieved entry-Ievel status while still in their teens; a Ronda boy named Steven Baccus took the oath to practice law before his 18th birthday (Hicks, 1986). Computer programming appears to be a field in which prodigies may appear, although none younger than 10 has come to widespread public attention thus far.

Another feature of the prodigy phenomenon has been that vastly more boys than girls have been identified (Goldsmith, 1987). This seems to be true for at least two reasons: the fields in which prodigies are found have tended to be populated more by males than females (e.g., chess) and there has been a long history of prejudice against girls participating in and/or receiving recognition for their work in fields like music or mathematics. If allowed to participate in a field, girls have often been relegated to amateur status or been required to pursue their interests in a field outside of the professional community. In the only published article specifically on girl prodigies, this example is given:

    Sophie Germain began an informal study of mathematics when she was 13, and in six years had mastered the field to such a degree that her work came to the attention of mathematician Joseph Lagrange. Working almost exclusively out-side of the established (male) community, Germain nonetheless made a substantial contribution to the field of number theory...(Goldsmith, 1987, p. 77)

As social and cultural restrictions on women have broken down, the number of girl prodigies has begun to increase. The most striking change has been in the field of music performance, where girls are now found in numbers more or less equal to boys. Girls have also moved toward greater parity in the field of chess; a Hungarian girl named Judit Polgar has achieved the rank of grandmaster at age 15 years, 5 months, a month earlier than the great prodigy and eventual World Champion Bobby Fischer (McFadden, 1992). It is reasonable to hypothesize that the number of girl prodigies will increase, and increase rapidly, during the next few decades as opportunities for participation increase, barriers are lowered, and rewards for high-Ievel achievement are equalized.

Recent Research
In the mid 1970s, the first modem study of child prodigies was begun at Tufts University under the direction of the author (Feldman, 1991a). This study followed six boy prodigies over a nearly 10-year period. The boys were between 3 and 10 years old when first observed and were involved in fields ranging from writing to chess to mathematics to music. Two of the children were difficult to classify as pure prodigies, one because his abilities seemed so diverse, the other because he was originally identified in mathematics but became more interested in science over time.

In contrast to earlier studies, which tended to concentrate on the mental abilities of the child subjects as revealed in tests of various kinds, more recent studies have focused on broader processes of development, including aspects of the prodigies, family and educational experiences, personal and emotional qualities, and interactions with the various domains in which they are involved (Bamberger, 1982; Feldman, 1991a). The questions of interest to current research have more to do with the processes through which a prodigy achieves such high levels of mastery than with the amounts of intelligence or more specific abilities that give rise to high levels of performance. Earlier studies focused more on the kinds of logical, spatial, musical, and linguistic abilities the children possessed; they also established the distinctive mixture of child and adult qualities that so often marks the prodigy's profile both intellectually and emotionally (Baumgarten, 1930; Revesz, 1925/1970).

Development in Prodigies
Contrary to what seems to be a common view of the prodigy as an adult mind that happens to be constrained by a child's body, the evidence suggests that a more accurate description would be that a prodigy is a child who happens to have a powerful and highly focused talent along with a powerful drive to develop it. Based on observations of the six prodigies in Nature's Gambit, the impression is consistent with earlier accounts that prodigies are indeed remarkably advanced within their specific areas of expertise but not particularly advanced emotionally or in their social development.

Indeed, to some degree the kinds of lives that prodigies have been "encouraged to lead stand in the way of their normal development in other areas. The focus of resources, both those of the child and of those around her or him, can be so intense that there is little emphasis on making sure that the child learns to do things independently. The weight of the responsibility for making sure the child's talent is fully developed can lead to a tendency to relieve the child of other responsibilities (Feldman, 1991a). The turn-of-the-century piano prodigy Erwin Nyiregyhazi could not tie his own shoes at 21 (Revesz, 1925/ 1970).

On the other hand, prodigies are sometimes given responsibilities far beyond their years, responsibilities to earn money to support their families. Particularly in fields such as music and sports and show business, the pressure on children to perform often and in settings inappropriate for them can lead to precocious adult like attitudes about professionalism and about money. The Jackson Five, a popular singing group of the seventies, included the children from a single family, one of whom was then 5-year-old Michael. This group was earning millions of dollars before its oldest member had reached the age of maturity; the youngest has become one of the world's most famous entertainers.

Exploitation of prodigies by parents and other adults has been an unfortunate aspect of the history of the phenomenon. Stories of arithmetical calculating prodigies being put on display as freaks were not uncommon during the Middle Ages (Smith, 1983). Even the great Mozart at age 8, as well as his older sister, were advertised in the newspaper as "Prodigies of Nature" well into the so-called Age of Enlightenment (MacLeish, 1984).

The experience of being a prodigy and the experience of raising a prodigy are unusual. It should not be surprising that there are unusual qualities characteristic of both prodigies and their parents. Prodigies tend to be unusually focused, determined, and highly motivated to reach the highest levels of their fields. They are often marked as well by great confidence in their abilities, along with a naive sense of these abilities in relation to those of others. It is often a surprise to prodigies that other people do not have the same talents, or the same preoccupations, that they do. In this respect there can be both the appearance of overconfidence in the prodigy and at the same time a strong sense that doing what she or he does is both natural and comfortable, indeed that doing anything else would be detrimental to the child's well-being.

Parents of prodigies are often involved in the same or related fields as their offspring (Bloom, 1985). Picasso's father was an artist, Mozart's father a musician, Nijinsky's parents were dancers. Often older when they have their children, parents of prodigies are generally willing to devote major portions of their own time and energy to the development of their children's talents. One or both parents may reduce or give up entirely their own careers, may move long distances to be where their children can receive the best instruction, may sacrifice their own comfort and security so that the very best equipment, technology, competition, and promotion can be provided.

Parents of prodigies are also sometimes driven to extreme behavior because of unresponsiveness or even outright hostility to the needs of their offspring. Prodigies in the United States are faced with substantial difficulties in public (and some private) schools. Schools are often rather inflexible in accommodating the special needs of prodigies, such as allowing time for travel to tournaments or competitions or providing special instructional resources. Parents also find themselves at odds with school authorities over the extra resources needed to respond to the exceptional talents of their children. A number of parents of prodigies have found that their children are better served by home instruction. Alternatively, parents find that they must continuously search for appropriate settings for their children, with school changes as frequent as twice a year not unusual (Feldman, 1991a).

Prodigies and Psychometric Intelligence
Recent research on prodigies has established (or reestablished) that the prodigy is a distinctive form of human intelligence not reducible to any other form (Feldman, 1991a). This means that prodigies must be understood on their own terms, but it does not mean that the processes that govern expression of potential in the prodigy are fundamentally different from those same processes in other human beings. Prodigies, like others, are endowed with certain talents and interests, have access to greater or fewer resources, live in families with varying commitments to helping their children achieve their potential, must deal with difficult transitions, confront developmental changes in their bodies and minds and emotions (Bamberger, 1982), and live in cultures where various fields are more or less valued and more or less available; in short, proceed as best they can with the demanding process of developing their talents.

The question of just what role psychometric intelligence might play in the prodigy's development and expression of potential has not been answered systematically. Possible answers have ranged from the prodigy being nothing more than a very high-IQ child (cf. Cox, 1926; Hollingworth, 1942/1975), to prodigies being nothing more than individuals with a peculiar gift unrelated to more general intellectual functioning, in short, a savant (Marshall, 1985). Based on what is now known about prodigies, a more reasonable answer would acknowledge that psychometric intelligence plays a role in the process of prodigy development, but a supporting rather than a central one.

In the six cases studied in Nature's Gambit, for example, IQs were known in two of the cases, SA T college entrance examination scores in two others (highly correlated with IQ), and school achievement scores (also highly correlated with IQ) in the other two (Feldman, 1991a). In all six cases, their IQs were above average by at least one standard deviation. That is, these six boys were all well above average in their general ability to succeed in traditional academic pursuits. One of the boys had a measured IQ of above 200 while a preschooler. Their IQ scores could be reasonably estimated to fall in the range of about 120 (low) to well above 200 (high).

Although IQ scores are of course not available for most of the famous prodigies of history, it seems reasonable to guess that most of them were also generally able, if not exceptionally gifted (Feldman & Goldsmith, 1989). Mozart, for example, wrote quite well, picked up languages with relative ease, and had a keen ability to judge both musical and nonmusical qualities in other people (Feldman, 1991b; Marshall, 1985). This is not to say that Mozart's gifts in verbal areas were equal to his exquisite musical gifts but rather to suggest that his musical gift was supported and enhanced by his somewhat more modest gifts in verbal (and also interpersonal) intelligence (Feldman, 1991b; Gardner, 1983).

There are cases of individuals whose striking gifts in highly specific areas are not supported by more general intellectual abilities. These cases have been studied more extensively than have prodigies and are now labeled savant syndrome (Howe, 1989; Treffert, 1989).

A savant may be someone who is able to carry out highly complex arithmetic calculations quickly and seemingly effortlessly or who can play back any piece of music perfectly, holding that piece of music permanently in memory. Savants have been found in many of the same areas as prodigies: mathematics, music, art, and occasionally chess. There are also savants who are able to memorize great volumes of verbal material (e.g., the Manhattan telephone book) or who can provide the correct day of the week for any date in history (Treffert, 1989). Although it would be overly simplified to say that prodigies and savants differ only with respect to the amount of psychometric intelligence available to them, it is clearly one way that they do differ, and a vitally important one.

Explaining the Prodigy Phenomenon
It should be clear from what has been presented above that the prodigy is a distinctive form of giftedness, marked by unusually strong talent in a single area such as music or mathematics, reasonably high but not necessarily exceptionally high IQ, focused energy and sustained effort to achieve the highest levels of the target field, and unusual self-confidence. Although the prodigy shares some qualities with other forms of giftedness, it nonetheless would be a distortion of the phenomenon to try to reduce it to one or another of the other forms such as general academic talent or savant-Iike isolated talent. It would also impede progress in deepening our understanding of all forms of giftedness to fail to attend to the distinctive qualities of the prodigy.

Although there is no theory which can adequately explain the various forms that giftedness has been known to take, some features of such a theory can be identified. Whatever else turns out to be true, it is clear that the traditional notion of intelligence as IQ will not serve as an adequate theoretical basis from which to analyze the now differentiated forms of giftedness. This does not mean that IQ is an irrelevant construct necessarily, but it is likely to be a component of the theoretical landscape rather than its foundation in future work.

The main reason that IQ is inadequate to organize research on giftedness is that it altogether misses the prodigy as well as the savant (Morelock & Feldman, 1991, 1992, 1993). In fact, the prevalence of IQ interpretations of intelligence is likely to have impeded research on various distinctive extreme forms of giftedness by suggesting that they all represent high IQ, which in fact they do not (Feldman, 1979, 1991a). A theory like Howard Gardner's multiple intelligences (Gardner, 1983) is a better fit to the prodigy phenomenon. In fact, the existence of prodigies in particular fields was one of the eight criteria that Gardner used to support the claim for a particular form of intelligence; This theory, which claims that there are at least seven distinct forms of intelligence, each existing more or less independently of the others in any person, certainly comes closer to capturing the prodigy (and the savant, another criterion for calling a candidate ability an intelligence) than IQ.

Yet it must be acknowledged that the presence or absence of more general adaptive qualities differentiates the prodigy from the savant. Therefore, to leave out general academic talent would seem to be problematic if an adequate overall account of the prodigy is ever to be achieved. General academic talent seems to play an enabling role for the prodigy, allowing the prodigy to develop her or his more focused talent in ways that afford a successful career and full participation in social and cultural life (in contrast with the savant).

A model that might begin to integrate the two kinds of capabilities that seem central to the prodigy's development-general academic talent and specific field talent-is one that proposes an evolutionary explanation for the existence of the two forms of giftedness (Feldman, 1991a). In this model, it is assumed that over the course of evolution two quite distinctive forms of intelligence have evolved. One of these, what we now usually call general intelligence or IQ, has the purpose of permitting the maximum degree of adaptability under the widest variety of environmental circumstances. It is what has made it possible for human beings to gain dominion over the planet, to control or destroy other inhabitants of the same space, to exploit natural resources of staggering variety for their own purposes, and to form adaptive yet stable societies and cultures. To function well in any society requires at least a reasonable dose of this kind of intelligence. The other form of intelligence that has evolved is a highly specific talent for a relatively constrained dimension of experience, often associated with one or another of the sensory channels. If someone has highly sensitive visual capabilities, for example, it makes it more likely that she or he will be visually oriented, will gravitate toward visual experience, and may develop visual skills to a high degree through the mastery of a domain like architecture or art.

The kind of theory that is necessary to capture the prodigy would encompass both the more general and the more specific, forms of intellectual functioning and would assume that human beings were born with potential of both sorts to varying degrees. In other words, one person might be blessed with great general intellectual talent and more modest specific capabilities, while another might have a very powerful specific talent but more modest general intellectual ability. Someone else might have more than one specific talent or have great general intellectual capability as well as a very powerful specific talent.

All the combinations of general and specific intelligences are possible and likely to be found in the human population. One is in fact a hedge for the other; the specific talents are there to make maximum use of heightened potential for experience within fairly narrowly constrained domains; the more-general talents tend to be used for sustaining and extending culture. The title of my book on prodigies, Nature's Gambit, is intended to capture this evolutionary tendency to play one type of intelligence off against the other as a way to ensure the long-term survival of the human species.

The specific talents tend to require environments very well-suited to their development and will thrive only under a limited range of variations of environmental conditions. General adaptive talent is useful in almost any environment and makes it possible to use the widest variety of environmental resources to ensure survival and well-being. The specific talents are more likely to be called upon when major changes in bodies of knowledge come about; more general talents tend to be used to sustain steady growth and stable progress in most fields.

"Nature's gambit," then, is the remarkable evolutionary tendency to produce a small number of extremely specialized talents that depend upon finely tuned environmental circumstances for their expression (as in prodigies) and therefore only rarely develop fully, balanced by a much larger number of general talents that make survival possible even when environmental circumstances are not favorable for specific talent development. Often both kinds of talents exist in the same individual, but not necessarily; thus the savant, the prodigy, and the high-IQ individual represent extreme variations in the evolutionary process of general and specific talent distribution.

Comparative studies of various forms of extreme intellectual giftedness would go a long way toward helping answer some of the many questions remaining about prodigies and would also add to our understanding of giftedness in its many forms. Although we know more than we did even a few years ago about prodigies, the study of extreme giftedness is still rarely done despite pioneering efforts by some of our predecessors (Hollingworth, 1942/1975; Silverman, 1990). Some of the questions that need answers are: What are the essential similarities and differences between prodigies and savants? Between high IQ and extreme talent? Is it possible to use general academic ability to achieve high levels of performance in specific fields and would there be differences between this way of accomplishing high-level performance and accomplishing it through the use of specific talent? Why are there both prodigies and savants in certain fields (such as music or drawing) but not in others? Are there fields in which there are prodigies, but not savants? And vice versa?

These and many other questions can be more productively pursued now that the prodigy has begun to establish a distinctive place among the recognized manifestations of human giftedness. We are also aided in our efforts by changing theories of giftedness itself. As it becomes clearer and clearer that giftedness must be conceived as multiple in nature, as domain specific, and as developmental (cf. Feldman, 1992; Gardner, 1983), better conceptualizations and better research questions will emerge. During the coming decades, we may hope that some of the many questions raised by the prodigy, this most fascinating form of human intelligence, will be answered. It likely that these answers will deepen our understanding of all forms of giftedness.


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1) This article is based on a similar one to appear in the Encyclopedia of Intelligence (R.J. Stemberg, Ed., to be published by Macmillan Publishing Company). The research is drawn from the book Nature's gambit: Child prodigies and the development of human potential (Teachers College Press. 1991).

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