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Inside the minds of 7
child prodigies
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At age 3, a female prodigy (we’ll call her Jane) was composing music. By age 6, she had played at the White House and toured internationally. What makes Jane and other child prodigies different from the rest of us? In a 2012 paper published in the journal Intelligence, two researchers from Yale and Ohio State Universities profiled 7 child prodigies in hopes of uncovering the root of their talents. Their secret? Something quite common: all 7 excelled in working memory, a core cognitive ability that every person uses in day-to-day life.
7 exceptional people measured by 5 variables
Child prodigies, as defined by the authors of this 2012 paper, are those who managed to reach professional status in an established field at a remarkably young age. This paper examined 7 child prodigies so outstanding, each had been featured in national and international TV segments for their prowess in music, art, gastronomy, or math.

Previous attempts to uncover the root of child prodigies’ talents proposed several possible factors: general intelligence, working memory ability, visual ability, amount of time spent training in their skill (10+ years), autism, and others.

To investigate each of the above factors, all 7 prodigies in this study took a full intelligence test that evaluated general intelligence, working memory, and visual ability; an autism assessment; and an assessment of their history, lifestyle, and family.
All prodigies fall into the 99th percentile for working memory performance
Regardless of their performance along every other dimension, all prodigies placed in the 99th percentile for working memory ability, or the ability to store and manipulate multiple pieces of information in your mind. Used in everyday life to juggle multiple ongoing activities or hold onto a thought when interrupted, working memory performance proved to be the most exceptional trait shared by every prodigy in this study.

Prodigies varied considerably in all other measures. General IQ scores ranged from 108 to 142 points (where an average score in the general population is 100); the two prodigies with the lowest IQs were only in the 70th and 79th percentiles. While all prodigies were intelligent, researchers concluded that extreme IQ was not a determinant.

Prodigies also failed to display high visual abilities across the board and did not train their skills for more than 10 years before demonstrating extraordinary talent. And while prodigies scored differently on the autism assessment compared to a control group of normal people, the difference was not significant.
What you can learn from child prodigies
While this 2012 study is far from the last word on prodigies, these findings suggest that working memory may be associated with exceptional abilities of many kinds. This discovery is not a complete surprise: long considered an important ability, working memory is already known to contribute to higher-order cognitive processes such as executive control. In studies that explore topics ranging from emotional control to daydreaming to learning, researchers continue to gain insight into the implications of working memory for various abilities and populations.
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