Small Wonders

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When he was nearly three years old, Nguyen Ngoc Truong Son would watch his mother and father playing chess in the family's ramshackle home in the Mekong Delta, and, like any toddler, pester them to let him play, too. Eventually they relented, assuming the pieces would soon wind up strewn around the kitchen, a plastic bishop stuffed into a teapot, the white king face down in a bowl of phó. To his parents' astonishment, Son did not treat the chess set as a plaything. He not only knew how to set up the board, which was crudely fashioned with a piece of plywood and a felt-tipped pen. He had, by careful observation, learned many of the complex rules of the game. Within a month, he was defeating his parents with ease. By age 4, Son was competing in national tournaments against kids many years older. By age 7, he was winning them. Now 12, he is Vietnam's youngest champion and a grand master in the making.

Son's parents—teachers with a combined income of less than $100 a month—are at a loss to explain why their otherwise ordinary child is a whiz at the ancient board game. "It's an inborn gift," says his father, Nguyen Ngoc Sinh, content to chalk it up to cosmic happenstance. "You couldn't train an ordinary three-year-old to play like that." Son, for his part, doesn't seem to think the question is worth pondering. To him, the nuance-filled strategies and logic of chess play is something that comes as naturally as chewing bubble gum. "I just see things on the board and know what to do," he says matter-of-factly while capturing a TIME reporter's queen in four moves. "It's just always made sense to me."

How a child prodigy like Son comes by his preternatural ability is not something that has made much sense to scientists. Throughout history, prodigies have been celebrated as objects of envy and adulation. Rarely, however, have they been understood. Often taunted by their peers, hounded by the press, prodded by demanding parents and haunted by outsize expectations of greatness, they are treated as wondrous curiosities. Picture a young Mozart when in 1762 he was lifted, at the tender age of six, onto a pedestal to perform before Austria's Archduchess Maria Theresa. "Let's face it, prodigies attract attention in much the same way people with profound disabilities do," says Maria McCann of Flinders University in Adelaide, an Australian specialist in the education of gifted children. "They're our beautiful freaks."

Only recently has science begun to probe the cultural and biological roots of wunderkinder. New research is showing what scientists have long suspected: that the brains of very smart children appear to function in startlingly different ways from those of average kids. But the question on every parent's mind remains: Are prodigies born, or can prodigies be made? Is giftedness an accident of genetics, or can it be forged through environment—by parents, schools and mentors? In search of answers, TIME tracked down seven prodigies living throughout Asia—from a computer genius in India to a gifted young artist in Japan—to look for clues in their uncommon lives.

This much is clear: ethnicity and geography are irrelevant. Prodigies can materialize anywhere, and Asia produces more than its share of the superprecocious. In the past, poverty, lack of education and absence of opportunities meant their abilities may have gone undiscovered or undeveloped. But bigger incomes and the rise of an ambitious middle class have produced a boom in accomplished youngsters. A 1997 survey of 32 outstanding physics and chemistry students that was conducted by the National Taiwan Normal University found more than three-quarters of them were the eldest child in small, dual-income households—families with relatively high socioeconomic status. Today, there are so many Asian music students at New York City's famous Juilliard School that its students no longer need English to get by socially. Many of their classmates speak Japanese, Chinese or Korean.




 

Strictly speaking, however, most of the smart kids in any given home or classroom are not prodigies, no matter how diligent or talented they may be. The standard definition of a prodigy is a child who by age 10 displays a mastery of a field usually undertaken only by adults. "I always say to parents, 'If you have to ask whether your child is a prodigy, then your child isn't one,'" says Ellen Winner, a psychologist in Boston and author of Gifted Children: Myths and Realities. Prodigies are, by this definition, exotic creatures whose standout accomplishments are obvious.

One of the region's young hothouse flowers is Abigail Sin who, at 10 years old, is Singapore's most celebrated young pianist. Sin started reading at age 2, and for the past three years has been ranked among the top 1% in the city-state in an international math competition sponsored by Australia's University of New South Wales. She's smart, but it was only through her music that she qualified as a bona fide prodigy. The youngest Singaporean ever to obtain the coveted Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music diploma in piano performance, Sin demonstrates one of the hallmark qualities of the breed: a single-minded drive to excel. Winner calls it a "rage to learn," which in Sin's case was manifest in her almost unstoppable urge to master the keyboard since she took her first lesson at age 5. "A lot of kids don't like to sit at the piano for hours," says her tutor Benjamin Loh. "Abigail is different," practicing 25 hours on average a week. "She loves to play, and she learns extraordinarily fast." Her intensity is all the more obvious when she is compared with her twin brother, Josiah, who like his sister is good with numbers but doesn't share Abigail's passion for music. "She always practices the same stuff over and over again," he complains.

Where does the drive come from? Researchers are just beginning to understand that there are differences in the functioning of the brain's neural circuitry that appear to differentiate prodigies from their ordinary peers. Neuroscientists have learned more about human gray matter in the past 10 years than in all of previous medical history combined, partly due to the advent of sophisticated technology such as a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner, which measures blood flow to different segments of the brain, revealing which parts "light up" during various mental activities. The only fMRI scanner in the Southern Hemisphere can be found in Melbourne, where American psychologist Michael O'Boyle has been scanning the brains of young people gifted in mathematics.

He's making some startling discoveries. O'Boyle found that, compared with average kids, children with an aptitude for numbers show six to seven times more metabolic activity in the right side of their brains, an area known to mediate pattern recognition and spatial awareness—key abilities for math and music. Scans also showed heightened activity in the frontal lobes, believed to play a crucial "executive" role in coordinating thought and improving concentration. This region of the brain is virtually inactive in average children when doing the same tasks. Viewed with fMRI, "It's like the difference between a stoplight and a Christmas tree," says O'Boyle, the director of the University of Melbourne's Morgan Center, which researches the development of children who have high intellectual potential. "Not only do math-gifted kids have higher right-side processing power, but this power is also fine-tuned by frontal areas that enhance concentration. These kids are really locked on."

O'Boyle believes prodigies also can switch very efficiently between the brain's left and right hemispheres, utilizing other mental resources and perhaps even shutting down areas that produce random distractions. In short, while their brains aren't physically different from ordinary children's, prodigies seem to be able to focus better—to muster the mental resources necessary to solve problems and learn. "For the longest time, these kids' brains were considered the same as everyone else's; they just did twice as much, twice as fast," says O'Boyle. "It turns out those quantitative explanations don't fit. They're doing something qualitatively different."




 

But are prodigies born different, gifted by genetic accident to be mentally more efficient? Or is the management of mental resources something that can be developed? Scientists aren't sure. Studies have shown that raw intelligence, as measured through IQ tests, is highly (though not completely) inheritable. But the connection between high intelligence and prodigious behavior is far from absolute. So-called idiot savants, for example, show unusual mastery of specific skills—they could even be described as prodigies were it not for their overall low intelligence. And many very creative children don't necessarily register high IQs because they don't test well on standardized exams, says McCann, the education specialist at Flinders University. Creative kids "are looking for different ways to answer the questions," she says. "They're looking for the trick questions."

With only sketchy evidence to rely on, researchers and other experts continue to debate the age-old "nature vs. nurture" question. "There is no inborn talent for music ability," Shinichi Suzuki, creator of the Suzuki Method of training young musicians, once declared. Even those who believe certain talents are innate agree that a child's upbringing has a big impact on whether a gift is developed or squashed. "Prodigies are half born, half made and mostly discovered at an early age," says Wu Wu-tien, dean of the College of Education at the National Taiwan Normal University. The role adopted by parents is vital. According to psychologist Winner's research, the parents of gifted kids provide stimulating environments: their homes are often full of books; they read to their children at an early age; they take them on trips to museums and concerts. They do not talk down to their children, and they allow them a high degree of independence. And if their child shows talent, they will pull out all the stops to make sure it is encouraged.

Sometimes, that encouragement can go to damaging extremes. It is often assumed that behind every prodigy is a demanding parent: the father who drives a son to succeed where he himself had failed, the mother who feeds greedily off the publicity a daughter's talents inspire. In other words, parents who "love their children's achievements more than their children," as Winner puts it. Mathematician Norbert Wiener, who earned a Harvard doctorate at 18 and later invented cybernetics, had recalled how his otherwise gentle father became a tyrannical "avenger of the blood" whenever Wiener made a mistake in his calculations. More recent is the case of Sufiah Yusof. Born in England to a Pakistani-born father and a Malaysian mother, Yusof was home-schooled by her ambitious parents and gained a university place to read mathematics at St. Hilda's College, Oxford at age 13. But just after she sat her third-year master's exams, she disappeared. Her father feared she had been abducted. But then an e-mail arrived from his missing daughter. In it, Yusof wrote that her parents had made her life a "living hell." She accused them of "15 years of physical and emotional abuse," including long study sessions in a house kept icy cold supposedly to improve her concentration. Yusof, who also wrote that she never wants to see her "controlling and bullying" father again, is now in the final year of her degree.

Despite sensational examples of smart kids driven to their breaking point, McCann maintains that the stereotypical pushy parent is "a bit of myth." Parents don't push prodigies, prodigies push parents, she says. Ask R. Subramanian, a chartered accountant from India's southern state of Tamil Nadu, whose son Chandra Sekar began operating the family PC on the sly at age 6, to his father's consternation. "Initially I was worried about Sekar getting electric shocks," he recalls. Very rapidly, however, the boy was displaying an uncommon flair for programming. "He used to surprise me by exploring the software and coming up with any number of shortcuts." His father hired a computer tutor to help him develop his interest.

No challenge seemed too daunting for the youngster. When Sekar read that a 17-year-old American had become the world's youngest Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE), he became determined to beat that record. "At first, neither his coach nor I believed that the boy was setting a realistic target," says Subramanian. "We worried it was too much, but the kid was adamant." After six months of coaching, in 2000 he sat the MCSE tests and passed—at age 10.

Now 12, Sekar is enrolled as an undergraduate at the Anna University in Madras, which bent its rules to admit him. (He also has to stand on a box to conduct classroom experiments.) "I like cricket and football," he grins. "I am just like any other kid of my age." Hardly. Next year Sekar will join an élite group of government scientists to help devise hacker-proof security systems for India's computer networks.




 

Because they are so obviously different, some prodigies are unable to live a normal childhood. Eric Lo Shih-kai, a 13-year-old Taiwanese golfer who last November became the youngest person ever to play in a PGA European Tour event, spends most of his energy on the links practicing his game when he is not in school. His day starts at 7 a.m., when he jogs at a park near his home in Loutung then practices approach shots until it is time for school. After classes let out at 4 p.m., he heads to the course, where he spends the next five or six hours on drills—sometimes driving 300 golf balls in a session—before finally heading home for bed. "The golf course has been like a day-care center to Eric," says his father and coach, Tony Lo Chi-tung, a 51-year-old retired bus driver. "There is nothing else in his life." But the teenager, who plans on turning pro by the time he is 17 or 18, says he doesn't mind. "I'm not like my normal classmates, who only think about having fun without worrying about the future," he says. "I prefer to be hardworking at a young age. I'll enjoy myself when my efforts pay off later."

There are other costs these young stars must pay for their passions. Junichi Ono, 13, is quiet and reserved for his age, making him hard to spot among his rowdy classmates at Kurakuen Middle School in Nishinomiya, Japan. But he stands out from the crowd. Ever since he drew his first character, "Liberty-kun," a Statue of Liberty doodle he made when he was six during his first trip to New York City, Ono has shot to fame as a noted Japanese Pop artist. His debut exhibition was held when he was eight; he has since had several books published, mingled with adult artists (Japanese and foreign) and met heads of state Junichiro Koizumi and George W. Bush (whom he recalls, with a caricaturist's economy, as "the guy who choked on a pretzel"). His mother, clothes designer Naomi Ono, says she once tried to set up a joint exhibition with some art students. "But we couldn't, because they only produced one or two pieces a year. Can you believe that? Junichi goes to school, does his homework, plays with friends—but produces at least 300 drawings yearly."

Ono occasionally comes off as odd to some of his seventh-grade classmates. "He talks to himself a lot," says one. "He's a little strange," says another. Indeed, his teachers also say he is exceptionally sensitive. Many of his pieces are inspired by New York City (he wants to be an architect when he grows up), so 9/11 was a huge shock. "Junichi really took it to heart," says one teacher. When Ono recently visited New York City to open an exhibition of his work, he took time out to see ground zero. "He got back in the car without saying a word," says his mother. "He still hasn't talked to us about it."

Notoriety, too, adds to the pressure of being a beautiful freak. Step into the diminutive shoes of Japanese table-tennis star Ai Fukuhara. She started playing Ping-Pong at the age of three when she could barely see over the table. Two years later she was winning competitions, often trouncing opponents three years her senior. Her powerful volleys and tendency to burst into tears when she lost made her a favorite among Japanese fans, who nicknamed her "Ai-chan," chan being a suffix reserved for children. On top of homework, she must endure a punishing training schedule and unrelenting attention from the media. When traveling by train to tournaments, "women would come up and pinch her cheeks," says Chiyo Fukuhara, her mother.

Now 14 and in training for the Athens Olympics, Japan's table-tennis ace wants her life back. Her name isn't Ai-chan, she insists—it's Ai Fukuhara. Previously her manager answered for her at press conferences; these days, she speaks for herself. And the trademark waterworks? Fukuhara still cries, she confesses, but her tears are not for public consumption. "I used to cry when I lost. Now I let it all out once a month. The stress and exhaustion build up and everything I've been keeping inside just explodes. Sometimes I cry even when there is nothing particular to cry about." And although constantly orbited by various trainers and managers, Fukuhara remains convinced of one fact: her talent is entirely her own. "If I ever decided to quit," she says, "then nothing my parents would say would change my mind. It's my life, not my parents'."




 

Prodigies should not put away childish things simply because they perform as adults, say experts. "Children still need time to be children," says McCann of Flinders University. Violinist Yeou-Cheng Ma—the lesser-known older sister of cellist Yo-Yo—once poignantly remarked of her eight-hours-a-day practice sessions, "I traded my childhood for my good left hand." Even the devoted Singaporean pianist Sin sometimes wants a break from her beloved instrument. "Most of the time I enjoy practicing," she says, "but sometimes I only want to play with Jacky." Jacky is her 18-month-old Yorkshire terrier.

Usually lost in the media celebration surrounding child prodigies is a sobering truth: most do not mature into adult leaders in their fields. (Parents of underachievers can console themselves with the fact that many adult pioneers—like late-bloomer Charles Darwin were not child prodigies.) Some burn out spectacularly, others carry on in their specialties in adulthood but never match their remarkable childhood achievements. Still others just become bored with pursuits they once found all-consuming and move on.

It is no coincidence that prodigies tend to master adult fields that are formal and rigorously rule-bound, such as music, chess or math. You don't hear of kids winning Booker Prizes or devising U.S. national security strategies. To make the leap from pint-size prodigy to grownup genius—that is, into a person who not only excels in a subject but revolutionizes it—requires more than mere technical prowess. It takes intuition, creativity, originality and years of patience and diligence. "If precocity and technical skill are all that prodigies have," observes Winner, the psychologist, "as adults they are no longer special. Late bloomers have caught up with them."

While they are young, though, they seem uncatchable. Each day, Tathagat Avatar Tulsi, 15, pedals his red bicycle through the hallowed grounds of the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, India's premier science school, where he is on his way to becoming the nation's youngest Ph.D. Hailing from Patna in Bihar—one of India's most underdeveloped states—Tulsi earned his undergraduate degree in physics at age 10. He has been famous since he was six years old, when the local newspapers nicknamed him "computer brain" for his ability to take a random date and immediately calculate which day of the week it fell on. Years later, amid great public controversy, Tulsi and his father claimed that he had discovered a new particle to explain the presence of dark matter in the universe—a claim the young physicist never substantiated, which briefly brought the media tag "fraudigy" upon him. (Tulsi says he had merely suggested an idea that, if proved mathematically, might explain dark matter, but the Indian press misrepresented his theory. He later filed a defamation suit against a wire service and a government official who was critical of him in the press.)

Hype and hyperbole aside, Tulsi is the real thing. If he completes his doctorate within three years as planned, he will have gained a place in the record books. Still, he wants more. His next aim: to get a paper published in such globally renowned journals as Nature or Physical Review—and shake the label of "beautiful freak" once and for all. "I want to show I am an original thinker," says Tulsi, "not just a kid who passes his exams ahead of time." For most kids, trying to pass exams is hard enough; for prodigies, that's the easy part.