The Superhuman Mind

Cases of extraordinary mental ability

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Why we hate child prodigies

By Berit Brogaard and Kristian Marlow

At the tiny age of three Kim Ung-Yong studied physics at Hanyang University and solved complicated differential equations. At the age of four he could read in Japanese, Korean, German, and English. He later learned Chinese, Spanish, Vietnamese, and Tagalog. His score on an IQ test designed for seven-year olds at the time was 200. The now 50 years old Kim is recognized by Guinness Book of World Records as having an IQ of 210, the highest ever measured.

Child prodigies sometimes continue to blossom and become ingenious savant-like professors, doctors and artists. Sho Yano, who began college at age nine and entered medical school at age twelve, graduated in June 2012, at age 21, from the Pritzker School of Medicine at University of Chicago with an M.D. and a Ph.D. in molecular genetics and cell biology. He then started his residency as a pediatric neurologist at University of Chicago.

Graduating from medical school at age 21 may be impressive but Sho Yano is not the youngest person to graduate from medical school. Guinness Book of World Records states that Balamurali Ambati graduated from New York University at the age of thirteen, two years after graduating from high school and co-authoring his first book. Four years later at age seventeen he graduated from Mount Sinai School of Medicine. He completed an ophthalmology residency at Harvard University and later joined the medical faculty at the Medical College of Georgia.

Some historical child prodigies are world famous for their achievements. French-Polish chemist and physicist Marie Curie taught herself to read French and Russian at age four. She later pioneered research on radioactivity, a term she coined. She was the first female professor at La Sorbonne in Paris and the first woman to win a Nobel Prize. Sadly, she died from her prolonged exposure to radiation.

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Jean Piaget was a Swiss child psychologist and philosopher, who developed an influential theory of how we acquire knowledge through various developmental phases. He proposed that children need education in order for them to transition from an egocentric phase to a more sociocentric phase. As a child he was obsessed with zoology. He was contributing to the field professionally and published his first scientific paper in this area at the tender age of ten.

Paul Erdös, a Hungarian mathematician, was a math whiz as a child and would impress people by his ability to multiply three-digit numbers at age four. He went on to become a famous math tramp, traveling from house to house to co-author papers with colleagues around the world. He authored or co-authored more than 1,500 papers in mathematics and even has a co-authorship number named after him, the so-called Erdös number, which describes the collaborative distance between anyone and Erdös. Erdös is the only person with an Erdös number of one. Anyone who co-authored a paper with him has an Erdös number of two. Co-authors of Erdös’ co-authors have an Erdös number of three. And so on. People who haven’t co-authored anything or who have only co-authored papers with people that are not collaboratively related to Erdös have an Erdös number of infinite. Erdös numbers have become part of the folklore of mathematicians and mathematically-inspired computer scientists, philosophers and linguists throughout the world.

Despite the countless prodigious successes, it is far from always the case that child prodigies continue to blossom. A recent study conducted by Ohio State University researcher Joanne Ruthsatz and Yale University scientist Jourdan B. Urbach, looked at the commonalities in eight child prodigies. The researchers found that some child geniuses completely lost their superhuman minds as they grew older. One child prodigy was speaking at the age of three months and writing by the time he turned one. But then he stopped speaking and writing altogether for a couple of years. At the age of two and a half, the time when most children start to speak relatively fluently, he spoke again. The case is reminiscent of the 1999 movie Baby Geniuses, directed by Bob Clark, in which babies have universal knowledge until they “cross over” and learn to talk at age two.

The baby genius who lost his supermind after reading and writing at age one was diagnosed with autism at age three. Autistic features, the researchers found, are common to all child prodigies. Three of the eight children studied had an autism spectrum disorder and the rest exhibited typical autistic traits, particularly obsession with details. Four of the eight children had first- or second-degree relatives with an autism spectrum disorder. In the general population one in eighty-eight individuals have been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder.

The apparent kinship between autism and prodigious abilities suggests that neural wiring in prodigies’ brains could be just like that of autistic individuals. Like autistic individuals, prodigies appear to have excessive connectivity in local brain regions, which seems to be what enables them to stay focused on a task for hours at a time and manipulate a multiplicity of data all at once. Despite the autistic traits, however, not all prodigies are diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. In the current diagnostic manual for psychiatric disorders DSM IV, an autism spectrum disorder diagnosis requires poor social communication skills. This can emerge in the form of difficulties keeping eye contact, excessive staring, excessive attempts to establish contact, odd forms of communication and general awkwardness in social situations. Though child prodigies who are not diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder may be less adroit in social situations than the normal population, most are significantly better socially than individuals with an actual autism spectrum disorder, even of a high-functioning kind. Prodigies’ extremely high intelligence may be what prevents social awkwardness of the most noticeable kinds. They are likely to figure out ways of dealing with the system overload either on their own or with the help of family and friends, whereas less capable people don’t have ways of coping.

Extraordinary gifted children are not generally well-liked. Though many children with a super-mind understand basic social interaction, such as eye contact and back channelling during conversation, they often miss little cues, which may make them seem intentionally rude or just plain annoying. They may talk for hours about their special interests, express their emotions and pompous attitudes at inappropriate times or be openly judgmental about older peers. It doesn’t make things better that they enter colleges when still in diapers believing they are the next Einstein. On the “Chronicle of Higher Education” forum, a college teacher says he fears becoming the teacher he hates, covering everything sloppily on PowerPoint, because a math prodigy in his Calculus II class constantly disrupts the class with pompous comments, such as “so, five steps from now, once we have modeled the function and set up the integral, this will be a trig sub, right?”

It may be the attitudes of prodigies that make most universities and colleges reluctant to accept extremely young students. Eight-year old Tanishq Abraham was accepted at four years of age to Mensa, an organization for brainy people with well above average IQs. He wanted to become a medical doctor or an astrophysicist but was rejected from all colleges and universities he applied to until a local community college finally took mercy on him. Initially his mother was required to enroll as a student to assist him. However, college administrators learned via Tanishq’s teachers that he had had to help his mother pass the exam, at which point they allowed him to enroll unassisted. His mother still has to drive her eight-year old college boy everywhere. She still may have to drive him when he graduates from medical school if he continues at his current pace. But Tanishq is far from the stereotypical child genius. He is polite and respectful and seems to thrive in adult settings, though he says he wishes he had more friends.

Though the behavior of baby geniuses can be nerve-wracking, the annoyance with child prodigies is probably to a large extent grounded in envy and psychological pressure. Imagine being a fifth year graduate student in 1960 receiving a B in advanced modal logic from a seventeen-year old prodigious and socially awkward sophomore student named Saul Kripke. Saul, who is now a distinguished professor at CUNY, taught his own semantics for modal logic to MIT graduates during his second year at Harvard University and then received a research fellowship at Harvard a couple of years later without ever having to take any graduate courses. It’s not hard to envision the psychological pressure contemporary students must have suffered while struggling to pass the young supermind’s modal logic courses and be expected to perform on a comparative level. If grading on a curve had been in fashion at the time, it would no doubt have been advantageous for the students to abduct Kripke and release him only after their successful graduation.

Prodigies applauded in the media intimidate us even when they are not nearby because they implicitly raise the bar for what one can reasonably expect. Graduating from medical school at age twenty-five is no longer a huge deal—especially not when names like Sho Yano, Balamurali Ambati and Tanishq Abraham and the achievements associated with them are plastered all over the internet. This perhaps can explain the tendency to consider genius God-given. Brushing aside genius as God-given makes geniuses less threatening. Once fenced in with the ten commandments and the holy spirit they can’t raise the bar for what can be expected. They’re just there to be admired, worshipped or laughed at.

Berit Brogaard is a Professor of Philosophy with joint appointments in Philosophy, Psychology and the Center for Neurodynamics at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. She directs the St. Louis Synesthesia Lab. more...

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