# The One Extraordinary Skill All Prodigies Share

## Their working memory is much, much better than everyone else’s.

[Image: Anonymous portrait of the child Mozart, possibly by Pietro Antonio Lorenzoni; painted in 1763 on commission from Leopold Mozart via Wikipedia]

We all know a child prodigy when we see one. If you’d been there when Mozart composed his first piece of music at age 5, or when Picasso finished his first painting at 9, or when math genius William James Sidis entered Harvard at 11, you would have understood that something special just happened. In more YouTube-able times, you can recognize the talent in young cellist Sujari Britt without knowing that she performed for President Obama by age 8:

So even as we kind of hate child prodigies, we remain in awe of their gifts. For a long time, scientists had little insight into the nature of these talents. But over the past several years psychologist Joanne Ruthsatz has assembled what she calls the “largest sample” of prodigies on record–a list more than 30 deep and growing–and what she’s found points to one factor that’s consistently off the charts among prodigies regardless of their area of focus: working memory.

“They all have exceptional memories,” Ruthsatz tells Co.Design. “I think it’s the piece that allows for their abilities.”

For one recent study, Ruthsatz analyzed how 18 of her prodigies performed on the Stanford-Binet intelligence test. All had average or higher IQs compared with the general population. All had a heightened attention to detail, too. But their working memories–defined as not just the ability to remember something but the ability to hold and manipulate various pieces of information at a time–were extraordinary.

One way Ruthsatz tests working memory is by listing a series of numbers, at random, from 1 through 8. Any number 1 through 4 appears on a top row, and any number 5 through 8 appears on a bottom row. At the end of the list, she might ask the children to recite all the numbers in the top row, a task that requires them to recite the numbers in their random order while holding the bottom row in mind for a later question.

If that’s too abstract to follow, take a moment to check out the 60 Minutes clip of Ruthsatz testing the memory of young Jake. Standing in front of a map, Ruthsatz points to 28 states at random, over the course of a minute, then hands the pointer to Jake, who proceeds to go back through the list in order. The hardest part for him seems to be pronouncing Ore-gon after Ruthsatz called it Ore-gone.

“I think the general population would call this a photographic memory,” she says. “But it’s not just that they remember. It’s that they can hold it in that memory and work with it. Transform it. Make it do other things.”