When you hear the word prodigy chances are, it brings to mind a child who is capable of performing a skill at a very high level. It could be competing against the grand masters of chess doing college level science and math, or playing a musical instrument. And almost always when we hear stories like this, it is either expressly stated or assumed that the child has been given a special gift and almost always it’s expressly stated or assumed that they were born with that gift. So in other words, they were born with a very unique, special brain.
Now, the question for this episode is does that explanation actually make sense in light of what we know about the brain and what we know about prodigies and the answer to it is more than just academic and interest as it may change how you think about your own brain and your own potential, perhaps the most prototypical child prodigy story is that of Wolfgang Amadeus, Mozart, who, as you probably know, is considered to be one of the greatest, if not the greatest classical composers of all time, by the age of six, he was touring the world, performing piano and violin for the aristocracy.
He wrote his first musical composition before the age of 10. So needless to say from a musical standpoint, he was doing some very unique things for a child his age, and in the usual telling that’s kind of where the story ends what’s often left out of the story is the fact that Mozart was the son of a famous composer and performer by the name of Leopold Mozart, who started young Wolfgang on a program of training in musical composition and performance at the age of three. And it’s estimated that by the time he was six years old, Mozart had put in 3,500 hours of music practice. And this is the common feature amongst all child prodigies. They’ve amassed an unusually large number of hours of practice by a very early age. And that’s because for most children, childhood is a time of intense exploration during this period of time, the developing brain is trying to learn about the world around it.
So it’s generally not a good idea to narrow your focus on any one thing at an early age before you’ve fully explored the world around you. Instead you want a wide field have you so that you’re able to take in as much information about the world around you, as possible as you’re still trying to make sense of it. So childhood is a time when most humans are generalists, which is why the natural inclination of most children is to have a wide array of interests and bounce bounce from one thing to another. This is a beneficial survival strategy, which is likely why it’s been written into our developmental program. So what’s unusual about prodigies is the fact that they’ve deviated from this program, usually either because of some external pressure to do so typically a parent as in the case of Mozart or because of an unusual affinity or interest in a particular area.
So in both of these instances, what you end up with is disproportionate and unusual amounts of time and energy directed towards a single domain. And again, that is what is most extraordinary and unusual about child prodigies. That type of intense focus on a single area is something that usually only happens later on in life. But what isn’t extraordinary is the fact that all that time and energy on one thing leads to the development of expertise. If you provide an attentive and interested brain with the right kind of inputs, expertise will develop no matter what age author, Matthew Syed has a chapter on child prodigies in his terrific book bounce. And in that he says the following child prodigies amaze us because we compare them not with other performers who have practiced for the same length of time, but with children of the same age who have not dedicated their lives in the same way.
So again, it’s far more rare for a child to put in the number of hours. It takes to develop a high level of expertise in something than it is for an adult. And this is why it’s much more uncommon to see an expert pianist at the age of eight, then one at the age of 38. Now there is another area where kids, especially boys do apply an obsessive amount of focus these days, and that is with video games. So video games are extremely rewarding for little brains. And as I’m sure, you know, because of that, kids will play them for hours on end. And many of them develop an incredibly high level of expertise in these games and are able to perform some pretty jaw-dropping feats, no different than the level of expertise displayed by child prodigies who play chess or the violin, but the difference here, and the reason the expert gamers aren’t held up as prodigies is because what they’re doing, isn’t that uncommon, as I said, because kids find video games so, and rewarding, they will spend large amounts of time on them.
So because of that, it’s no surprise that they develop abilities in those games. That in another context we would view as prodigious, it’s just much less common for a child to become obsessed with chess or piano or golf than it is with video games. All right. So why does this matter? Well, it matters because the existence of child prodigies is often held up as evidence of two things. One, the idea of innate talent and two, the idea that you need to be young in order to develop expertise in something, including music yet when we’re given the full details, we find that neither of those things are true.
And I know this impacted me in my own life. Now I loved music growing up and wanted to play a musical instrument. And I played a little bit of piano. But when I started looking at colleges I entered to entertain the idea of studying music, but the first place that I visited and toured the program and it all felt too advanced.
And I felt like I was just too far behind, already that I’d waited too long to decide to start studying music. And that that window of opportunity had closed. And again, I was only 17 at the time. So that was in retrospect, entirely crazy, a direct product of these myths about learning music and childhood. And I know many of you have felt similarly in your own life. And part of that is because of these myths surrounding innate talents and abilities and childhood versus adulthood and our capabilities for learning in those settings, but make no mistake, everyone, regardless of their age only develops expertise through practice. And this is because the physiological mechanisms that are required to develop expertise are present in every brain and developing expertise has nothing to do with having a special brain and everything to do with how you use that brain.
As I said before, it’s not about the brain you have, it’s about the brain you build through practice. And because we commonly take for granted what is ordinary child prodigies actually give us a glimpse of just how extraordinary the human brain is. So we tend to overlook the incredible feat that is language or walking or our ability to read the facial, the many facial expressions of other people, because they are commonplace and ordinary. And again, we overlook the feats of child gamers because they’re ordinary. So the things that we kind of all do, we tend to overlook and think less of despite the fact that they’re just as complex and remarkable as the things that are atypical, I’ve spent my life researching the brain. And one of the greatest lessons is that every single brain is extraordinary. We make so much of our differences, but those differences pale in comparison to the amazing feats that are accomplished by every human brain, every single day back to the story of Mozart.
So Mozart wrote his first piano concertom at the age of 11, wrote three more at the age of 16. And these were really rearrangements of music that had been written by other composers. None of them are considered to be especially original. None are amongst the works of Mozart that are celebrated today. He didn’t write his first concerto considered to be a masterpiece until he was the age of 21. And by that time he’d spent 15 years composing music. And in fact, from this vantage point, it took Mozart longer than what is typical for a composer to begin writing their most mature and original works. And so he’s considered by music historians to have been a late bloomer as a composer. That’s most likely because he started doing it when his brain was still developing and he didn’t have the advantages and life experiences conferred by having an adult brain that leads to the ability to write mature and original music.
One final observation that may be of particular interest to the parents out there. So the stories of child prodigies like Mozart along with a few others who specialized in a particular area very early in life are often taken as evidence that if you want your child to achieve greatness in a particular area, you must not only start them out early, but have them focus on one thing very early and decide on one thing very early yet, these stories are actually the exception to the rule.
It turns out that the most common story for those who achieve world-class success in a particular field is exactly the opposite. They didn’t commit to one thing until oftentimes later than their peers. In other words, those who specialized early were actually at a disadvantage. The most common story of those who achieved world-class expertise in a particular area is that they had a very broad range of interests when they were younger.
So the take home message there is early specialization is not the best route to long-term success. And if you want to explore this topic more I strongly recommend the book range by David Epstein and speaking of books, if you like these Brainjo Bite episodes, then you will probably like the book the The Laws of Brainjo, the art and science of molding a musical mind. Ot’s available, wherever books are sold, and I will put a link to it on Amazon in the description.
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