Pure Genius

Q&A: Psychologist Joanne Ruthsatz on the common trait of all prodigies

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There may be one specific trait that provides the exceptional talent found in all child prodigies. We spoke to the researcher who has discovered this link.

Imagine a child who spoke his first words at three months old and then learned the entire alphabet by eight months. By 14 months he had memorized the atlas. Later, after attending university at age 9, he developed a new form of mathematics, and by 13 years had a research paper accepted by a mathematics journal. This is the summary of an actual prodigy.

A prodigy is someone who is exceptionally talented and skilled by a very young age. Prodigies tend to excel in music, art, math, computer science and other disciplines, and they are marked by an acceleration of learning that occurs very quickly, usually during childhood.

There is a lot of debate about what produces a prodigy. Is it genetics? Is it an enriched environment, including many hours of intense practice? Is is due to talent within a specific field, or do prodigies have an overall greater memory, or general intelligence?

A study by psychologist Joanne Ruthsatz at Ohio State University attempted to determine the defining biological trait of prodigies. She and her team tested and analyzed eight prodigies including the one described above. And they found that it wasn't necessarily intelligence or practice that distinguished them, but rather one single trait appeared to be exceptionally great in all of them.

SmartPlanet spoke with Ruthsatz about this trait as well as a possible link between prodigies and autism.

SmartPlanet: What is your definition of a prodigy?

Joanne Ruthsatz: It’s someone who starts [showing a talent] at a young age, but I don’t think it has to be before 10 years old. I believe that the real key is that they have an exponential pattern of growth, it just explodes and you don’t see that in the normal population.

There is an ongoing debate about whether prodigy arises from a heritable trait or the environment, i.e., practice, study, etc.

Without practice no one could become a prodigy. But I think driving the practice [to begin with] is a genetic component. I have prodigies who have come from very difficult upbringings where their talent still emerges even without parents who are willing to foster their talent.

You’ve thought that there’s a connection between prodigy and autism. And you even mention that in your recent study that four out of the eight prodigies have family members who have an autism diagnosis, or a one to two-degree relative that has autism. But you also note that the prodigies don’t tend to develop the more negative traits associated with autism. So first, can you talk about the connection between prodigy and autism?

I think the child prodigies are reliant on the talent that is sometimes associated with autism and with autistic traits. However, they do not display the deficits. And so I believe there’s a genetic modifier that is holding back the deficits and allowing that talent to shine through.

Can you unpack that a little bit more?

Sure. If you have a full diagnosis of clinical autism, you have social deficits, communication deficits, and they also have repetitive behaviors. You do not see that in the child prodigies I’ve studied. Even though some of them themselves are diagnosed early on with autism, they are highly verbal at this point and social.

You recently completed a study in the journal Intelligence. Could you describe one or two of the prodigies that stand out for you, in your study?

Well my first prodigy, back in 1990, was on the cover of People magazine. He came home at two years old and he started to reproduce the music that he had heard at church. But the family is not musical. I thought he was going to have this huge general IQ, but he did not. He had a gifted IQ, but nothing that you wouldn’t see in every single classroom at the very high end of the spectrum. What he did have was that exceptional working memory.

This is striking conclusion from your paper. The conclusion that it is so-called working memory and not necessarily IQ that is the common factor among all the prodigies you studied. Can you first explain what working memory is?

Working memory is the ability to hold information in your mind and then manipulate it and recite it in a different order, which is very, very difficult. Each prodigy was at the 99th percentile with working memory.

Can you give an example of a test of working memory?

Let’s say I gave you a hundred words and I want you to put them into categories. So I might give you five categories with those hundred words, things like Christmas-related items or fruits, vegetables, etc. I read you a hundred words and then I ask you to put them into the appropriate category, then I ask you to tell me every fruit. So you have to hold that information and work with it.

And the prodigies were off the charts with working memory for their age, or maybe for any age?

For any age.

And their IQ?

The IQ range now, because now I’m right around 20 prodigies at this point, the IQ range is 100 to 147 with the mean still being around 128. So although general intelligence is related to it, it’s not the defining factor.

Other than working memory what might have been the second strongest common denominator. I guess it might have been IQ, but is there anything else?

The attention to detail. They don’t miss a trick. They don’t miss anything and they can remember it all.

You mention that there is something very interesting about the prodigies’ visual spatial memory -- the ability to have good mental images of maps or objects and the ability to rotate images of objects in your mind.

Yes. Some of them are highly reliant on that visual spatial talent and interestingly some of them are reliant on it being a deficit. And I think that’s what pushes them in one way or another.

And you are publishing a research paper on this?

Right, and what will be interesting once this paper goes out is if this is true for the general population. And my guess is it is.

That is interesting. Some depend on visual spatial memory for their special talent, and then there are others who have domain-specific talents that require their visual spatial ability to actually be lacking.

Exactly.

Can you talk about this notion of domain-specific skills, like mathematics, versus a more general talent like working memory?

I think that’s probably the most interesting thing, at least for the academic community. People have sat on one side or the other. Some say [the talents of prodigies are attributed to] general intelligence or domain-specific skills.

But the truth of it is: It’s both and how they combine. Think of it like a computer. The hard drive, how much space you have, how much capacity you have is probably related to general intelligence, and the domain-specific skills are probably like software packages just loading in.

How do these talents age? So for instance, do prodigies tend to "level off" and if so at what age? And when compared to other exceptionally talented adults are they more equal at that point once they get older?

Do prodigies crash and burn out? I mean, people love to tell that story but by and large, no. Will there be an individual that has a hard time when they’re older who was a child prodigy? Absolutely. But if we look at them, and that’s what I’m trying to do, we find that they go on and do great things. And the other thing that you haven’t asked me and I haven’t talked about yet, but I will as soon as the research is done is that they have an incredible benevolent side. That they’re all very interested in doing good deeds.

That’s interesting. I was going to ask about their social skills.

As youngsters they prefer adults for conversation because their level of knowledge. They don’t have the same interests as the typical five-year-old or the typical seven-year-old. No one really wants to hear about black holes when they’re seven. So that’s tough for them. They need to find people to talk about their interests with just like we all do.

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Christie Nicholson

Contributing Writer

Christie Nicholson produces and hosts Scientific American's podcasts 60-Second Mind and 60-Second Science and is an on-air contributor for Slate, Babelgum, Scientific American, Discovery Channel and Science Channel. She has spoken at MIT/Stanford VLAB, SXSW Interactive, the National Science Foundation, the National Research Council, the Space Studies Board and Brookhaven National Laboratory. She holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and Dalhousie University in Canada. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure