Small Wonders ( Vietnam's Chess Champion ) -- Time Magazine

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Feburary 17, 2003 / Vol. 161 No. 6
Small Wonders


Can you create child prodigies, or are they simply miracles of nature?
TIME's Andrew marshall hangs out with superkids and scientists in
search of some answers

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 ph「. 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 Mite 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.


With reporting by Joyce Huang/Taipei, Kay Johnson/Hanoi, Hanna Kite
and Toko Sekiguchi/Tokyo, Saritha Rai/Bangalore, Bhagwan Singh/Madras
and Genevieve Wilkinson/Singapore

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