Don't get too excited just yet. Sure, you may have an IQ on par with a musical, artistic, or chess-playing wunderkind — but that actually says a lot more about the mind of the prodigy than it does your own.

Over at Psychology Today, NYU cognitive psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman explores how new research on child prodigies is turning up some surprising findings about intelligence. For instance? High IQ is not a prerequisite: a recent handbook on intelligence I co-edited, David Henry Feldman and Martha Morelock make the case that child prodigies aren't distinguished by their overall IQ, but are exceptionaly talented in specific skills related to their domain. Both Feldman and Morelock have extensively studied precocious children, and their conclusions are based on careful analysis of the children they've worked with as well as the larger literature on prodigies.

Unfortunately, there really aren't that many systematic studies of prodigies... Which is why I was very pleased to see a new study in the journal Intelligence that sheds some new light on prodigies. Psychologist Joanne Ruthsatz and violin virtuoso Jourdan Urbach adminstered the latest edition of the Stanford-Binet IQ test to nine prominent child prodigies who have all been featured on national and international television programs. Most of the children reached professional level performance in their domain by the age of 10, and their chosen domains were notably rule-based. There was one art prodigy, one math prodigy, four musical prodigies, one prodigy who switched from music to gastronomy and another prodigy who switched from music to art.

When it came to total IQ scores, the kids scored anywhere between 108 and 147 — all above average, but nothing too extraordinary. Likewise, the range makes it clear that "consistent with the work of Feldman and Morelock, "a high IQ is not necessary to be a prodigy." Neither, evidently, is visual spatial reasoning, a skill commonly associated with high intelligence; one prodigy (an award winning jazz violinist who, despite never receiving formal lessons, is the youngest person to ever perform alongside Wynton Marsalis at the Lincoln Center) wound up with a visual spatial IQ score of 71 — that's below 97% of the general population.


What every single prodigy did share in common was an extraordinary working memory:

Every single prodigy in the study scored off the charts in working memory— better than 99% of the general population. In fact, 6 out of the 8 prodigies scored at the 99.9th percentile! Keep in mind that working memory isn't solely the ability to memorize a string of digits. That's short-term memory. Instead, working memory involves the ability to hold information in memory while being able to manipulate and process other incoming information.

The million dollar question now is why all these prodigies have such impressive working memories. Check out Psychology Today for a thorough and lucid breakdown of the various theories — most notably the potential role of autism spectrum disorder.

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