Exploring Characteristics of Prodigies

Innate ability fuelled by 'rage to master' is a key driver of young children with exceptional talent

By Claudia Kalb
photographs by Paolo Woods, Gabriele Galimberti
Published 5 May 2018, 11:55 BST
Piano prodigy Gavin George, 14, enjoys playing for his mother, Mary, in their home in Granville, ...
Piano prodigy Gavin George, 14, enjoys playing for his mother, Mary, in their home in Granville, Ohio. Gavin, who made his Carnegie Hall debut at the age of six, starts practicing at 6 a.m. every day. “I love the challenge,” he says.

One bright Sunday afternoon, 14-year-old Gavin George sits down at a grand piano in his home in Granville, Ohio, filling the space with the luminous melodies of Rachmaninoff’s Études-Tableaux Opus 39, Nos. 2 and 5, and Paderewski’s Nocturne in B major, opus 16, No. 4. Gavin’s playing seems both effortless and all-consuming, as if the instrument is an extension of himself. “He was born for music,” says his father, Eric.

Gavin’s journey as a pianist started early and decidedly. Classical music calmed him as an infant. When he was about a year old, he heard Handel’s Messiah on a Christmas CD and began greeting visitors with “Hallelujah!” As a toddler, Gavin was captivated by a DVD featuring Dutch violinist André Rieu—a gift from Eric to his wife, Mary—and insisted on viewing it repeatedly. His parents enrolled him at three in Suzuki piano lessons. By four, he had learned to read music fluently. When he was just six, Gavin made his musical debut at Carnegie Hall. Kate Kenah, a family friend, recalls seeing him play for the first time. “I was expecting ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,’ ” she says. Gavin played Beethoven instead. “These small hands, how can they be reaching the keys? And his feet, how are they reaching the pedals?” Kenah remembers thinking. “I was stunned. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.”

Gavin George is a prodigy, an individual whose superlative skill in a particular area—math, chess, visual arts, music—soars to a professional level before adolescence. Little is known about the origins of such early mastery, because prodigies are rare and because research dollars tend to be designated for the study of illness rather than exceptional aptitude. Still, a small number of scientists have identified key characteristics. Ellen Winner, director of the Arts and Mind Lab at Boston College, and Jennifer Drake, a developmental psychologist at Brooklyn College, have found that precocious artists excel at tasks that require detailed focus and are able to draw realistically and incorporate foreshortening and perspective years before their peers. Drake is now studying a group of 25 art prodigies from around the world—from Malaysia to the United States—to see if she can pinpoint perceptual, behavioural, and personality traits that set them apart from typical children. Are they more open to new experiences, an inherent component of creativity? Do they have heightened visual-spatial skills? “We’re starting to discover what may be contributing to their abilities,” she says.

The quest to understand prodigies inevitably raises the question of whether their aptitude is innate or cultivated through intensive practice. Winner and Drake believe both are critical. The two-year-olds they’ve studied “couldn't have possibly acquired their ability through practice alone,” says Drake. “It has to be something they are born with.” Winner believes that this innate ability is fuelled by a “rage to master,” propelling art prodigies to work diligently at their craft. Often, parents must pull their children away from their sketchpads to sleep, eat, or go to school. “If you’re really good at something,” says Winner, “you’re motivated to keep trying.”

In an early stage study at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, scientists compared the genes of prodigies and family members with autism. This vial, along with others containing prodigy DNA, is stored at 70 degrees below zero Celsius in a lab freezer.

The concept of “rage to master” resonates with the Georges. “You couldn’t feed him enough music,” says Eric. “He devoured whatever you put in front of him.” Gavin, who is homeschooled by Mary, gets up around 6 a.m. and heads to the piano, where he practices for hours at a time—until he accomplishes his musical goals. “It’s not a task. I have a passion for music. It’s something I look forward to,” he says. Learning complicated new pieces takes effort, “but the challenge drives me,” he says. “I can overcome it, because I know I’ll be able to enjoy it even more.”

Joanne Ruthsatz, a psychologist at Ohio State University at Mansfield, has found two core features among prodigies she has tested: an exceptional working memory—the ability to hold on to and manipulate information—and remarkable attention to detail, a trait that is also associated with autism.

Ruthsatz’s finding prompted her to investigate whether there might be a genetic link between prodigies and people with autism. Her collaborator, Christopher Bartlett, a geneticist at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, studied DNA samples from 11 prodigy families and uncovered genetic variations in a region of chromosome 1 that were common in both prodigies and family members who had autism, a finding he and Ruthsatz published in 2015. Bartlett cautions against drawing any conclusions from such a small number of participants. Instead, he views the research as a flag post in the science of prodigies, providing momentum for additional studies. “We can build on this,” he says.

Bartlett’s findings are now undergoing further analysis at McGill University in Montréal, where geneticist Dr. Guy Rouleau is looking for genetic variants across the genome that may be at play. In rare cases, people with autism are highly skilled in the repetitive features of math, music, and art, displaying what is known as savant syndrome, a condition Rouleau is also studying. He says it’s possible that there are similar genes exhibiting different effects across all three groups or distinct genes unique to each. If genes do play a role in the exceptional abilities of prodigies, that information could be valuable to understanding and perhaps even treating other populations, including people with dementia or other cognitive challenges, says Rouleau. “It could give us insights into how the brain can work better.”

Biology is always intertwined with environment. In Gavin’s case, his parents recognised and nurtured his passion, sought out top-notch teachers, and provided a flexible schedule, allowing him to incorporate practice into his daily routine and pursue other activities he enjoys as well, including chess. A thoughtful and witty teenager, Gavin loves Russian literature and jokes about his perfect pitch. “I hear notes all over,” he says, even in the whirring of a fan in his home. “That’s a D sharp,” he says with a laugh.

Despite their early success, prodigies often struggle to sustain their expert performance. They may feel pressured to excel or are socially isolated. Raising a prodigy can be difficult for parents, too, who have no road map. “Honestly, I don’t sleep some nights because I don’t know if I’m doing the right thing,” says Mary. These doubts diminish, however, when she recalls the happiness her son exuded during his earliest days playing piano and his radiant face after performances today. “It’s pure contentment,” she says. “It’s so rare that you find something that can give you that pleasure. That’s what life is about.”

Claudia Kalb wrote Andy Warhol Was a Hoarder: Inside the Minds of History’s Great Personalities for National Geographic Books. Photographers Paolo Woods and Gabriele Galimberti live in Florence, Italy. This is their second story for the magazine.

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