The Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth (SMPY) is one of the more colorfully named scientific studies. Now on its 45th year, it tracked the careers and accomplishments of up to 5,000 individuals, starting from when they were children or teenagers. As detailed by Nature, it would go on to transform the way gifted children are both identified and nurtured by the US education system.
More than anything other longitudinal study, it arguably is the best source in the world for understanding how to “make” children grow up with some impressive intellectual heft. It has produced hundreds of academic studies, and in particular, it appears to know how to spot talent ripe for development in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.
Unsurprisingly, many of those in SMPY – which is coordinated by Vanderbilt University – have gone on to become high-profile scientists. So what’s the secret to turning your kids into potential geniuses?
Well, it appears that, contrary to many other studies, SMPY’s data seems to suggest that a lot of it is born and bred in youth, and that inherent intelligence beats repeated practice when it comes to becoming an expert in something. In fact, early cognitive ability has a greater effect on achievement than either continued practice or other factors like the family’s socio-economic status.
This finding also runs against the grain of most Western educational ethoses, which prioritize improving the abilities of children who struggle in this regard rather than those who have potential to reach great heights. Essentially, SMPY finds that if you’re smart, and you are identified as such and nurtured, you will make it.
As such, standardized testing was a common method used by the initiative to find intellectually potent kids. Along with the partnered program at Johns Hopkins University’s (JHU) Center for Talented Youth, the program tended to admit those who scored in the top 1 percent in their university entrance exams.
Alumni included Mark Zuckerberg, Lady Gaga, and Google co-founder Sergey Brin, along with pioneering mathematicians Terence Tao and Lenhard Ng. “Whether we like it or not, these people really do control our society,” says Jonathan Wai, a psychologist at the Duke University Talent Identification Program in Durham, North Carolina, and a collaborator with JHU, told Nature.
Standardized testing is used to find those with high potential. bibiphoto/Shutterstock
Initiatives like the SMPY have also been criticized for how it may be putting too much emphasis on the smartest kids. Some worry that those with slightly more limited potential may be ignored by such initiatives. Additionally, labelling kids as smart from an early age could undermine their willingness to learn.
Importantly, it has not been conclusively shown that there’s just one single factor that will guarantee your child will grow up to be the next Richard Feynman or Rosalind Franklin. Many different studies trying to pick apart the varying influences of nature versus nurture seem to settle on the idea that it’s a bit of both genetics and their upbringing.
One suggests that parental love, in terms of being very supportive and cooperative with your child around the pre-school age, significantly boosts their brain growth rate. Another study strongly hints that complex tasks that get increasingly difficult over time are huge boons to neural connectivity and mental flexibility.
Interestingly, computer games of varying kinds are structured in this way, and an increasing body of evidence suggests that the occasional spurt of virtual roaming, puzzle solving, or competitive combat in video games may contribute towards improving cognitive functions in later life. Learning how to play a musical instrument and regularly reading books is just as neurologically beneficial for adults as it is for children.
SMPY suggests it's clear early on if children will rise to the top of their fields. Pressmaster/Shutterstock