Saturday, April 17, 2010
The subject of child prodigies is an endlessly fascinating one. To be clear, by child prodigy I don't mean child actors. Talented yes, but prodigies they are not. I mean kids like Saul Aaron Kripke who mastered mathematics in grade school and was propositioned to teach his Modal Logic theorem at Harvard while still in his teens. Children whom, for reasons that still confound scientists, master a sophisticated skill set far beyond that of a normal adult. How a five year old Picasso could paint Le Picador while his peers struggled to write their own name is something that defies explanation. Child prodigies are exceptions to the "10,000-Hour Rule" Malcolm Gladwell theorized in Outliers, the assertion that greatness requires ten thousand hours of commitment and "concerted cultivation". Instead, it is as though these children are born with a tremendous reservoir of fully realized talent that is tapped the moment they touch a piano or pick up a paintbrush.
For some scientists, the key to unlocking this mystery lies within the relationship between working memory and the cerebellum, the portion of the brain responsible for development of motor skills. When the cerebellum models an action in the brain of a prodigy, it is quickly looped back into the memory areas of the cortex, creating an unending feedback loop and accelerating the development of these skills. What originated as faulty brain circuitry, instead creates the human-equivalent of a supercomputer, learning and growing exponentially faster than a normal person. For a small portion of prodigies (see: autistic savants), these skills come at a steep cost as they are often accompanied by impaired social skills or other developmental disabilities.
Despite the incredible head start in life that these young geniuses are allotted, happiness and success are far from assured. For every Mozart, there is an Alissa Quart or Bobby Fischer. No less brilliant, but withdrawn from society due to domineering parents and more hours in the studio than on the playground. If anything, the existence of child prodigies reinforces the importance of a balanced life, lest you risk being chewed up and spit out by the only thing you know.
All seriousness aside, some professions are criminally absent from wikipedia's list of child prodigies. Are you telling me the are no 8-year-old dental whiz-kids performing root canals somewhere in Kuala Lumpur? No pint-sized air traffic controllers? No precocious defense attorneys? At least I tracked down the next Iron chef.
Edit: I found the baby lawyer.