Mozart’s inheritance: Discovering the science behind child prodigies

By Opinions Editor

At 10 p.m. on a Tuesday night, most 11-year-olds are already in bed after an afternoon of soccer practice, homework and TV. Yerin Yang, however, is arched over the polished ebony surface of a Steinway piano in Palatine, Ill., intently studying a 50-page Chopin concerto and practicing for the chance to perform with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Barefoot in her teacher’s softly lit studio, Yang moves her small hands across the keys with care, her performance rivaling that of professionals more than twice her age.

By the time she entered fifth grade, Yang had won eight major piano tournaments, including the acclaimed Los Angeles Young Pianist Competition, garnering attention as an up-and-coming professional as a pre-teen. She has performed with the Oistrach Symphony Orchestra, a Chicago-based string orchestra, and is planning to participate in the CSO’s 2015 piano competition for young musicians, where she hopes to win a chance to play solo on stage with the internationally acclaimed orchestra.

“Romantic [compositions are my favorite] because I just try to show everyone my expression, and Romantic fits it,” Yang said. “But then for Baroque and Classical, I really like the music the composers wrote, but because I’m always trying to show everyone my feelings … I kind of switch some of the rhythms and tempos.”

During a regular week, Yang practices the piano for about three hours every day at home in the quiet northwest suburb of Mount Prospect and attends hour-long lessons with her teacher Brenda Huang twice a week. By contrast, that is the same amount of time the average child watches TV per day in the U.S., according to a 2011 report from the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.

“I think [playing music] is like cooking when people add spices to their food,” Yang said. “Since everyone has a different sense of style, spice or ingredients, their music is all different. I feel very special that I get to do that.”

Yang is a child prodigy—someone who achieves an extraordinary skill level at an unusually early age. People in this category are exceptionally rare, according to Ohio State University psychologist Joanne Ruthsatz, who studies child prodigies. One in 5 million children is considered a prodigy, she said.

Prodigies are sometimes recognized at two or three years of age and progress to extreme proficiency in a particular field such as music, science or math. In Freya Pang’s case, she was performing piano professionally after only 10 months of lessons. Pang, from Darien, Ill., is 5 years old and has gained enough skill to play with an orchestra at Carnegie Hall in New York City, according to her teacher Sueanne Metz.

“She just loves music and she’s extremely bright,” Metz said. “We try to make it fun for her. She’s got great ears, and she’s able to pick things up really quickly.”

Reports of children with exceptional talent turn up regularly from all corners of the globe. Akrit Jaswal successfully performed his first surgery on a burn victim at age 7. Jaswal, now 20, was hailed as a medical prodigy in his native India and is now pursuing a master’s degree in applied chemistry, as shown in his March 2011 appearance on Oprah.

Even though child prodigies have been recognized for centuries, such as Mozart in the 18th century and Clara Schumann in the 19th, the neurology behind their precocious skills is just now being explored.

Prodigies have always been fascinating to ordinary people, who usually have a broad range of general skills, rather than one exceptionally honed talent. David Feldman, a psychologist who researches gifted individuals, proposed in a 1993 paper that nature developed two classes of skilled people as a response to evolution. Martha J. Morelock, another psychological researcher, found evidence that child prodigies have extraordinary working memories in addition to above average intelligence, according to a 1992 paper published by the Davidson Institute in Reno, Nev.

Although the true mechanics of child prodigies’ brains remain a mystery, Ruthsatz proposed in 2012 that the brain function of child prodigies is similar to that of individuals with autism.

The possible connection between the two states occurred to Ruthsatz when she interviewed a child prodigy and learned that his first cousin was diagnosed with severe autism. Because child prodigies are very rare and 1 in 88 Americans is autistic, the presence of those two conditions in the same family could hardly be coincidental, she said.

“Some of them are on the [autistic] spectrum, some of them are not,” Ruthsatz said. “But the overwhelming majority [of child prodigies] have relatives with autism.”

Jacob Barnett, a 15-year-old math prodigy from Indiana, began listening in on calculus classes at Purdue University when he was 8 years old and was accepted into the university at 10. He also founded his own charity, Jacob’s Place, in 2002 to support children with autism. Barnett was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism, as a toddler. Autism Spectrum Disorder is a lifelong neurological developmental disorder that comes with a variety of characteristics and typically limits an individual’s social interactions. The condition is still being researched, but it has not stopped Barnett from succeeding in his studies and even giving a TEDxTeen talk about his passion for math in 2012.

“In order to succeed, you have to look at everything with your own unique perspective,” Barnett said during the TED talk. “That means that when you think, you must think in your own creative way, not accepting everything that’s already out there.”

Many of the 30 child prodigies Ruthsatz studied were initially diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, but the diagnoses were disproved as they aged, she said. As she conducted her research during the course of several years, Ruthsatz found the connection was stronger than she had anticipated. More than 50 percent of the subjects had relatives with autism either in their immediate families or otherwise closely related, she said.

Three common markers of a child prodigy are high IQ, extraordinary working memory and heightened attention to detail, according to Ruthsatz’s most recent study, which was accepted Jan. 7 by the scientific journal Intelligence. The connection between prodigies and people with autism is found in the way they store long-term memory.

There are many places to store memory within the human brain, but the primary locations are in the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex. Multiple studies have found that the two areas are respectively linked to long-term memory and procedural memory, according to the National Institutes of Health. The hippocampus stores long-term memories, such as important events, names and general facts, while the prefrontal cortex stores processes such as tying shoes and opening doors, sometimes colloquially called muscle memory.

Ruthsatz said she theorizes that child prodigies and individuals with autism store their memories in reference to particular skills in the prefrontal cortex of their brains, rather than in the hippocampus, as most do. So for a prodigious pianist, reciting complex Mozart compositions is like opening a door—it still takes recollection, but the motion is easier for them to access than it is for the average person who stores the memory in the hippocampus, jumbled with addresses and phone numbers.

“We store how to ride a bicycle [in the prefrontal cortex]—they say that’s why you never forget how to ride a bike,” Ruthsatz said. “I think [prodigies] are using that for all their memories committed to their domain.”

While their brains function similarly, child prodigies generally have little difficulty in social settings compared to the experiences of children with autism, Ruthsatz said. Some individuals with autism, called savants, sometimes have an astounding ability to memorize and perform particular skills, such as reciting statistics or performing mathematical calculations at incredible speeds. Savant syndrome is a condition that could be present in 10 percent of autistic individuals, according to a 2009 Royal Society of Biological Studies report.

Ruthsatz also theorizes that autistic individuals and child prodigies have some damage to the left hemisphere of their brains, but there is an unknown genetic moderator that controls how they adapt to the damage and gain right hemisphere dominance. The left hemisphere damage theory—which has been proposed as a potential cause for autism—is still debated by psychologists and neurologists, but there is some evidence that supports the argument.

The theory that brain hemisphere dominance determines creativity or personality traits is not fully accepted. An August 2013 study of brain activity in both hemispheres from the University of Utah found that more than 1,000 non-autistic people performed both analytical and creative tasks using both hemispheres of the brain, not just one.

However, all the subjects of the Utah study were people without autism. An August 2013 study published in the open-access journal BMC Medicine found that brain scans of 430 children with Asperger syndrome identified weaker activity in the left hemisphere of the brain, confirming the findings of several studies that showed individuals with left hemisphere damage having similar symptoms to those associated with autism.

Regardless of whether or not the left hemisphere is dominant, the notion of superior working memory seems to stand, but the skills of child prodigies do not come without hard work. Child prodigies do not suddenly become skilled without receiving any instruction; instead, they display proficiency in a skill they have seen demonstrated and are able to apply it creatively, Ruthsatz said. The area in which a prodigy shows talent mostly depends on his or her working memory, with the people with the strongest memories tending to lean toward music, she said.

While Yang is exceptionally talented, according to David Booth, the impresario who represents her and organizes her concerts, some of her expertise can be attributed to her family’s support and her strong commitment to music, he said.

Yang, whose family immigrated from Korea when she was 3 years old, said her parents believed she was a genius because she could read and write Korean by age 2, far ahead of other children. When she was 5 years old, Yang said she heard a friend play the piano and told her mother she wanted to take lessons. Her mother immediately arranged for her to begin. Even when her lessons end as late as 10:30 p.m., Yang said she returns home and does her homework before going to bed and waking early the next morning for school.

“I’m one of the ones that wants everything done [perfectly], all the good grades done,” Yang said. “My mom doesn’t want it. My mom and dad are worrying about my growth, but I sleep late and wake up early to do my work and go to school.”

But most young musicians Booth works with do not end up becoming working professionals, in part because the music industry is flooded with young talent but also because their priorities change as they enter high school, he said.

Life is not easy for many child prodigies; advancing into a professional sphere can damage their ability to connect with their peers, and many choose between socializing or practicing their skill as they age. Others can become socially isolated—graduating college at 16 does not guarantee that researching in a lab or performing when they reach adulthood will be effortless.

Yang transferred to a new elementary school last year, and despite her love for music, she has only played three times at her school, she said. She used to play at the Christmas assemblies and programs, but she does not like to play in front of her friends because they do not share her understanding of music, she said.

Yang said she often feels lonely because of that, so being a part of Huang’s studio is a way for her to connect with other musicians her age. Even though she is not a paid professional, she said she feels at ease any time she plays music, no matter the time or place.

But Yang said her main goal is to help other people feel connected to music the way her teacher helped her.

“[People who heard me play] were just saying that I’m brilliant, but I don’t think that’s true,” Yang said. “I think it’s all because of Miss Brenda. At the studio, people understand music, so I have some friends that I like very much here.”