One of the many mythological narratives we’ve constructed around human cognition and intelligence is that of the child prodigy – children who display abilities in sports, music, or academic endeavors well beyond their peers.
We’re inclined to accept them without hesitation as innate gifts. That somehow, despite their absence of survival benefit, the brain decided to expend incredible resources to create the massively complex neural structures required to support them. And, for the prevailing explanation to be true, we’re to believe that those instructions were somehow written into their genome.
That alone should sound preposterous, and should be all anyone needs to cast an extraordinarily skeptical eye towards the default child prodigy narrative.
We can also put that myth to rest empirically as well.
What’t the real explanation? Obsession.
Single-minded obsession about a particular endeavor.
Single-minded obsession that leads to the accumulation of loads of practice in a compressed time frame, coupled with an absence of the fear of failure that so often undermines adult learning efforts.
It is estimated that Mozart, considered by many to be the prototypical child prodigy, had amassed 3500 hours of music practice by the time he was 6. It should come as no surprise that he was light years ahead of his peers.
This is the primary difference between the child prodigy and the typical child. In childhood, our “explore vs. exploit” algorithm is heavily biased towards the former. A wise strategy, since our brain hasn’t learned nearly enough about the world to decide what to double down on. Plus, we have many years ahead of us. Better to cast a wide net, keep our eyes and ears open to new opportunities.
The exploitation of a singular domain in early childhood is what is anomalous.
The fact that their brain responds as it does is not. That part is ordinary.
Every brain, young and old, requires two things to drive massive change over time – inputs and attention.
It must be repeatedly fed input about whatever thing it is we’re trying to learn (whether it is the violin or linear algebra). And we must combine it with intense conscious attention.
Attention comes from caring. Again, this is the atypical trait of prodigies – they care a LOT about a domain most other children do not.
Every parent knows the futility of trying to teach a child something he or she cares little about.
Many children care about things like video games, for example. And young children around the world routinely perform feats of jaw dropping skill in those games. Were video games an uncommon childhood interest – like chess or piano – they too would be heralded as prodigious.