We all know a child prodigy when we see one. If you’d been there when Mozart composed his first piece of music at age 5, or when Picasso finished his first painting at 9, or when math genius William James Sidis entered Harvard at 11, you would have understood that something special just happened. In more YouTube-able times, you can recognize the talent in young cellist Sujari Britt without knowing that she performed for President Obama by age 8:
So even as we kind of hate child prodigies, we remain in awe of their gifts. For a long time, scientists had little insight into the nature of these talents. But over the past several years psychologist Joanne Ruthsatz has assembled what she calls the “largest sample” of prodigies on record–a list more than 30 deep and growing–and what she’s found points to one factor that’s consistently off the charts among prodigies regardless of their area of focus: working memory.
“They all have exceptional memories,” Ruthsatz tells Co.Design. “I think it’s the piece that allows for their abilities.”
For one recent study, Ruthsatz analyzed how 18 of her prodigies performed on the Stanford-Binet intelligence test. All had average or higher IQs compared with the general population. All had a heightened attention to detail, too. But their working memories–defined as not just the ability to remember something but the ability to hold and manipulate various pieces of information at a time–were extraordinary.
One way Ruthsatz tests working memory is by listing a series of numbers, at random, from 1 through 8. Any number 1 through 4 appears on a top row, and any number 5 through 8 appears on a bottom row. At the end of the list, she might ask the children to recite all the numbers in the top row, a task that requires them to recite the numbers in their random order while holding the bottom row in mind for a later question.
If that’s too abstract to follow, take a moment to check out the 60 Minutes clip of Ruthsatz testing the memory of young Jake. Standing in front of a map, Ruthsatz points to 28 states at random, over the course of a minute, then hands the pointer to Jake, who proceeds to go back through the list in order. The hardest part for him seems to be pronouncing Ore-gon after Ruthsatz called it Ore-gone.
“I think the general population would call this a photographic memory,” she says. “But it’s not just that they remember. It’s that they can hold it in that memory and work with it. Transform it. Make it do other things.”
Needless to say, that ability comes in quite handy when the prodigies are engaged in their area of specialty. One young artist, for instance, explained to Ruthsatz that she pulls up vivid scenes in her mind while painting to reexamine the details. She can remember the way a shadow fell on an object–the type of minutia the rest of us immediately forget, if we register it in the first place.
Ruthsatz focuses on prodigies in art, math, and music, but she suspects she’d find a similarly strong working memory in a prodigy from another field. Chess prodigies no doubt have the ability to recall certain board setups at will. An athletic prodigy like Tiger Woods, who was swinging a golf club on television at age two, likely concentrates this power in the parts of the brains that store muscular and procedural memory.
In a recent post at his Scientific American blog on creativity, psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman points out that prodigies might be born with brain networks wired to support “an enhanced encoding of new memories.” This ability to keep and hold mental representations often shows up very early. Over time, Kaufman writes, these superlative working memory systems help prodigies learn faster and faster.
Of course, it takes a lot more than a great working memory to become prodigious. You also need that general intelligence and attention to detail noted by Ruthsatz. And great interest in developing the specific skill best suited to your cognitive profile (“I think that my prodigies are driven,” she says. “This kid wants to do this thing, and they want to do it obsessively.”) And the will to engage in lots and lots of deliberate practice.
And occasionally a person achieves prodigy-like excellence in a field
long after he or she is done being a child. Some creative artists do find their so-called calling later in life, and others develop into masters through experience and time. It doesn’t happen for everyone–it can’t, by definition–but for the rest of us, hey, there’s always YouTube.