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Inside the Brains of Child Prodigies

Music prodigies beat math prodigies with numbers.

At age 6, Mozart performed at the court of the Prince-elect Maximilian II of Bavaria. At age 8, Joy Foster represented Jamaica in table tennis at the Caribbean championships in Trinidad. What do the brains of these two child prodigies have in common? Not as much as you might think: a study published this week in the journal Intelligence shows that one size brain does not fit all prodigies—the brains of math prodigies are different than those of art prodigies are different than those of music prodigies. But for every prodigy, there's a profile: distinct brain abilities help to make astounding performance possible.

First, the researchers from Ohio State and Brown Universities searched news sources for mentions of art, music and math prodigies. Then they went to prodigies' homes to run them through the ringer of the Stanford-Binet 5th ed. full scale intelligence test.

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Drilling down into the test results strikes the black gold of much cool information, but let's start with the headline of overall intelligence: child prodigies are smart, with an average IQ of 126 putting them in about the 96th percentile. And if you were going to guess, would you imagine that math, music or art prodigies have the highest IQ? Actually, the IQs of math and music prodigies are a statistical tie, with the IQ's of kids tested ranging from 134-147 for math, and 108-142 for music. Art prodigies lagged a bit behind their prodigious peers with IQs between 100 and 116.

And so right off the bat, here's one interesting sidenote: something other than overall IQ must define the brains of art prodigies. And the study has at least a partial answer for what this special something might be: the authors write that, "The art prodigies displayed a surprising deficit in visual spatial skills, obtaining scores much lower than both the math prodigies and music prodigies." In fact the art prodigies' scores were even below the scores of average test-takers at an average of 88.

Does that surprise you as much as it surprised me? Really: art prodigies are awful at rotating shapes in their minds. Why? The study doesn't know for sure, but the authors write that, "Talented young artists [may] perceive objects differently than less talented young artist and use figurative processes which focus on attention to detailed surface features." Less talented young artists are trapped in the literal, but it seems that art prodigies are largely unbound by the way things should look. Apparently, when a math prodigy rotates a shape in his or her mind, he or she gets a rotated shape—but when an art prodigy rotates the same shape, he or she gets…Dali!

In other findings, math prodigies scored highest in fluid reasoning and music prodigies scored highest in working memory (though even the art prodigies had astounding working memories and especially in the domain of art, reported being able to reproduce complex scenes from memory). Surprisingly, there was no statistically significant difference between math and music prodigies' scores on the part of the test that measures quantitative reasoning—in fact, the music prodigies were a bit higher than the math prodigies.

So art prodigies can't visualize shapes with precision and math prodigies are no better than music prodigies at seeing the consequences of numbers.

Garth Sundem is the author of the books Brain Trust, Brain Candy, and The Geeks' Guide to World Domination.

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