The Emotional Intensity and Complexity of Child Prodigies
Prodigies and other gifted children have a finely-tuned sensitivity to feelings.
Posted Sep 27, 2014
In Nature’s Gambit, his illuminating extended study of six child prodigies, Tufts University researcher David Henry Feldman recounts several very strange anecdotes told to him by parents of these children. One of them, Adam (pseudonyms were used to maintain confidentiality), related what seemed to be memories of his own birth, including reaction to the bright lights of the delivery room and the placement of a suctioning bulb into his nose. He also related apparently prenatal memories, such as the sound of his mother's singing and "the walls closing in on me – they hurt." What makes this latter point so remarkable is that his mother's pregnancy was beset by numerous complications, including uterine contractions that threatened to terminate the pregnancy from the fourth month onward. (Feldman, 1986)
Among prodigies, there is an over-representation of complicated pregnancies and premature births. For instance, the mom of Jake Barnett (a renowned math and physics prodigy) was hospitalized multiple times before giving birth. In another notable case, a mother of an eventual prodigy had an accident while pregnant, but not just any accident – she fell as she was helping her husband fight off an intruder they surprised trying to break into their house. Talk about a fearful experience! Fear – and the brain and body’s amped-up reaction to an imminent threat – was the subject of my previous post. I provided evidence that specific fears can be passed down at least two generations (in mice, anyway) and speculated that, especially where the fetus is primed to be high reacting and environmentally sensitive, a mother’s fearful experience can ‘imprint’ her developing child with a virtual snapshot of impressions from that moment.
There is also an increased occurrence among mothers of prodigies-to-be of preeclampsia, a condition marked by a sudden rise in blood pressure and swelling of the face, hands, and feet. Preeclampsia generally occurs during the late second or third trimester and may be caused by an under-developed placenta. That, in turn, may be due to a genetic defect whereby the mother’s immune system treats the placenta like an invader. Another study has found that exposure to environmental toxins increases the risk for both preeclampsia and premature birth. Clearly, the role of the immune system in conditions marked by environmental sensitivity cannot be overlooked. (One of my previous posts delved into this.)
Just as preeclampsia is associated with more than its share of child prodigies, so it is also significantly linked to the development of autism. The placenta, in fact, may be a ‘biomarker’ for autism. Researchers have found that the more abnormal folds a mother’s placenta has, the more likely the child will have autism and the more severe the condition. Such creases seem to be the placenta’s way of responding to a variety of stressors – placental folds are akin to a check-engine light, a marker of something somewhere being wrong.
Although seeming to retain memories of in utero experience is not something all prodigies share, virtually all of them have a finely-tuned sensitivity to feelings – their own and others’. On the one hand, their own feelings are intense. As with many children with autism or Sensory Processing Disorder, their outbursts can be too much to handle. One mother of a prodigy reflects that her son “just felt more from the time he was born. He just had so much emotion and feeling inside of him.” Claudio, at age 2, wept uncontrollably when he heard his father playing Rossini’s Stabat Mater Dolorosa. Years later, Claudio related that from an early age he felt connected to each note of music he heard and just knew that music was an expression of his soul.
By the same token, prodigies’ sense of connectedness with other people and with life in general disposes them to be “the most morally sensitive and generous individuals I’ve ever met,” says Dr. Joanne Ruthsatz of Ohio State University, who’s been studying child prodigies for the past 15 years. This global sense of responsibility and altruism begins early. Take Rachel, who at age 8 asserted that she could communicate with animals. “I can!” she said defiantly. “I can see it in their eyes and they sense my caring.” Prodigies – and other highly gifted children, for that matter – are likewise protective of others and have a deeply felt sense of justice. They can become terribly upset if a classmate is wronged, and take personally issues such as war, poverty, homelessness, global warming, and environmental degradation. They may even cry at the violence in cartoons.
Furthermore, gifted children tend to ask probing, existential questions early on, indicative of an intuitive understanding that they’ve come into a world much greater than themselves. They may also report transcendent or spiritual experiences. Elizabeth, for example, while sitting on a cliff overlooking the Pacific, felt her mind transported beyond the ocean, beyond the earth, and beheld what she described as “the total interconnectedness of the universe.” And Ian spoke of feeling holes in the fabric of the universe with the extinction of every species. Talk about empathy! (Note: The best collection of such anecdotes is Edward Hoffman’s Visions of Innocence. (Hoffman, 1992)
Lisa Simpson, of the television “Simpsons” is, funnily, the public face of all these qualities. But 20 years before The Simpsons, a pioneering Polish psychiatrist, Kazimierz Dabrowski, catalogued such personality traits in a cluster that translates from the Polish as “superstimulatability” or “overexcitability.” The five traits he identified are: an abundance of physical energy; sensory hyper-reactivity; vivid imagination; intellectual curiosity and drive; and a deep capacity to care. The combination of all five manifests as an emotional complexity and intensity. It’s been described as a wholly different way of experiencing life: “vivid, absorbing, penetrating, encompassing, complex, commanding – a way of being quiveringly alive.”
Clearly, these highly gifted children are blessed in numerous ways. Their penetrating intellect, their acute and prodigious memory, their reservoir of energy, their passion and drive, their empathetic embrace of others – all set them apart. Savants, too, are set apart, but through their particular and often bizarre abilities. Synesthetes are also a curiosity, pointing toward the marvels of heightened connectivity between brain regions. If all these conditions develop in the womb, they are in some sense ‘throwbacks’ to capacities we all could have if our own prenatal development had been disadvantaged or interfered with in a major way. Are there still other capacities that only a few have access to? I believe there are, and will present evidence for these in my next post.
Feldman, David Henry. Nature's Gambit: Child Prodigies and the Development of Human Potential. New York: Basic Books, 1986, 200.
Hoffman, Edward. Visions of Innocence: Spiritual and Inspirational Experiences of Childhood. Boston: Shambhala, 1992.