The Gift of a Wunderkind...Nature or Nurture?


After being blown away by an incredible video of child piano prodigy Elias Phoenix perform on Ellen, I was intrigued by this social phenomenon of child prodigies. This spunky kid is beyond impressive-- before the age of 7, he had already performed in Carnegie Hall, a huge honor in the classical music world. Between that video and reading a New York Times article titled "How to Raise a Prodigy", I began to question what it takes for a child to be able to attain this status of Wunderkind. Is it a natural aptitude that one is simply born with? Or is it possible to shape your kids into one of these virtuosos?

Elias Phoenix is a 7-year-old piano prodigy and one of Ellen Degeneres's most memorable guests!

Someone who, at an early age, develops one or more skills at a level far beyond the norm for their age is considered to be a child prodigy. One of the most famous prodigies of all time is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who, before the age of 5, was competent in both harpsichord and violin and had composed for the royal courts. This was absolutely unheard of during late 1700s. He eventually composed over 600 works for all instruments and is considered to be one of the most influential composers in history. It is because of him that the Germans created the term "Wunderkind" meaning "wonder child"  that is often used as a synonym for prodigy in the media.

Many have argued that these child geniuses can attribute their gifts to their memory capacity. PET scans performed on mathematics prodigies suggest that prodigies think in terms of what is called long-term working memory. In other words, a memory that is capable of holding relevant information to the prodigy's field for extended periods, usually hours. One subject, a child who had never excelled in mathematics,  was able to create algorithms and tricks for extremely fast mental math. The PET scans showed he was able to manipulate several areas in his brain in order to complete the problems. Prodigies are able to engage visual and spatial memory and visual mental imagery to break down relevant information.

Sujari Britt has been playing music since she was 2-years-old and has been playing cello since she was 4. 

The Working Memory Theory developed by L. Vandervert explains the abilities of prodigies in terms of the collaboration of working and the cognitive functions of the cerebellum. The transition from visual-spatial working memory to other forms of thought like language, art, mathematics, etc. is accelerated by a special emotional disposition and the cognitive functions of the prodigy's cerebellum. In an "emotion-driven" prodigy, the cerebellum accelerates the streamlining processes of working memory in its alterations of visual-spatial content into language learning (in a musician's case, musical notation) and into linguistic, mathematical, and artistic proclivities (Vandervert 2009).

Alma Deutscher, composed her own opera at the age of 7. Next Mozart?

Despite the evidence to support this theory, many believe that children can be "nurtured" into a Wunderkind, arguing that the environment to which you are exposed plays a large role in the early stages of a prodigy's mental development. One example of intensive training that many argue for is the case László Polgár and his determination to turn his children into chess-players, resulting in all three of his daughters growing up to be world-class chess players. Andrew Solomon, Cornell psychiatrist who wrote the New York Times article I referenced earlier, also argues that,"Children who are pushed toward success and succeed have a very different trajectory from that of children who are pushed toward success and fail."

I think everyone can agree that one must have some natural ability, however, so many examples and studies have shown that your upbringing definitely makes a difference. Next time you talk to your parents, you can blame them for squandering all of your innate talents...