In psychology research literature, the term child prodigy is defined as person under the age of ten who produces meaningful output in some domain to the level of an adult expert performer. Child prodigies are rare, and in some domains there are no child prodigies at all. Prodigiousness in childhood does not always predict adult eminence.
The term Wunderkind (from German: "wonder child") is sometimes used as a synonym for "prodigy", particularly in media accounts. Wunderkind also is used to recognize those who achieve success and acclaim early in their adult careers.
Examples of particularly extreme prodigies could include Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Felix Mendelssohn, Evgeny Kissin and Teresa Milanollo in music; Bobby Fischer, Samuel Reshevsky, Judit Polgár, Magnus Carlsen, Sergey Karjakin, Paul Morphy and José Capablanca in chess; Carl Friedrich Gauss, Shakuntala Devi, Srinivasa Ramanujan, John von Neumann and Terence Tao in mathematics; Pablo Picasso and Wang Ximeng in art; and Saul Kripke in philosophy. French composer Camille Saint-Saëns has been recognized by musical historians as one of the greatest musical child prodigies, but his mother was cautious, and didn't seek to exploit her son's skills, fearing it would cause him emotional trouble.
Memory capacity of prodigies
PET scans performed on several mathematics prodigies have suggested that they think in terms of long-term working memory (LTWM). This memory, specific to a field of expertise, is capable of holding relevant information for extended periods, usually hours. For example, experienced waiters have been found to hold the orders of up to twenty customers in their heads while they serve them, but perform only as well as an average person in number-sequence recognition. The PET scans also answer questions about which specific areas of the brain associate themselves with manipulating numbers.
One subject never excelled as a child in mathematics, but he taught himself algorithms and tricks for calculatory speed, becoming capable of extremely complex mental math. His brain, compared to six other controls, was studied using the PET scan, revealing separate areas of his brain that he manipulated to solve the complex problems. Some of the areas that he and presumably prodigies use are brain sectors dealing in visual and spatial memory, as well as visual mental imagery. Other areas of the brain showed use by the subject, including a sector of the brain generally related to childlike "finger counting," probably used in his mind to relate numbers to the visual cortex.
Working memory/cerebellum theory
"My mother said that I should finish high school and go to college first."
Noting that the cerebellum acts to streamline the speed and efficiency of all thought processes, Vandervert explained the abilities of prodigies in terms of the collaboration of working memory and the cognitive functions of the cerebellum. Citing extensive imaging evidence, Vandervert first proposed this approach in two publications which appeared in 2003. In addition to imaging evidence, Vandervert's approach is supported by the substantial award winning studies of the cerebellum by Masao Ito.
Vandervert provided extensive argument that, in the prodigy, the transition from visual-spatial working memory to other forms of thought (language, art, mathematics) is accelerated by the unique emotional disposition of the prodigy and the cognitive functions of the cerebellum. According to Vandervert, in the emotion-driven prodigy (commonly observed as a "rage to master") the cerebellum accelerates the streamlining of the efficiencies of working memory in its manipulation and decomposition/re-composition of visual-spatial content into language acquisition and into linguistic, mathematical, and artistic precocity.
Essentially, Vandervert has argued that when a child is confronted with a challenging new situation, visual-spatial working memory and speech-related and other notational system-related working memory are decomposed and re-composed (fractionated) by the cerebellum and then blended in the cerebral cortex in an attempt to deal with the new situation. In child prodigies, Vandervert believes this blending process is accelerated due to their unique emotional sensitivities which result in high levels of repetitious focus on, in most cases, particular rule-governed knowledge domains. He has also argued that child prodigies first began to appear about 10,000 years ago when rule-governed knowledge had accumulated to a significant point, perhaps at the agricultural-religious settlements of Gobekli-tepe or Cyprus.
Some researchers believe that prodigious talent tends to arise as a result of the innate talent of the child, and the energetic and emotional investment that the child ventures. Others believe that the environment plays the dominant role, many times in obvious ways. For example, László Polgár set out to raise his children to be chess players, and all three of his daughters went on to become world-class players (two of whom are grandmasters), emphasizing the potency a child's environment can have in determining the pursuits toward which a child's energy will be directed, and showing that an incredible amount of skill can be developed through suitable training.
But on the other hand George Frideric Handel was an example of the natural talent ... "he had discovered such a strong propensity to Music, that his father who always intended him for the study of the Civil Law, had reason to be alarmed. He strictly forbade him to meddle with any musical instrument but Handel found means to get a little clavichord privately convey'd to a room at the top of the house. To this room he constantly stole when the family was asleep". Despite his father's opposition, Handel became a skillful performer on the harpsichord and pipe organ.