Giftedness and Special Talents

The term gifted as used in an educational context commonly refers to a high level of general mental ability, or psychometric g, which is typically associated with accelerated progress in scholastic achievements. In a broader context, gifted may refer to exceptional special talents or any abilities or personality traits — artistic, musical, athletic, interpersonal — that are out of the ordinary (Jensen, 1996, 2004a; Simonton, 2003).

The criterion for academic giftedness in most school systems is a score on highly g loaded tests that is two or more standard deviations above the mean of the general population (IQ > 130). As such, we should expect chronometric tests to show differences between gifted (G) and nongifted (NG) pupils to the extent that such chronometric tests are correlated with psychometric g. What comes as a surprise to many parents and educators is that groups selected as G differ quite markedly from the much larger NG segment of the school population in their speed of information processing even when the processing tasks are very simple and have no content of a scholastic nature. The NG-G difference is clearly shown in a study (Kranzler et al., 1994) that compared groups of G and NG students (aged 11-14) on three processing tasks: simple RT (SRT), 8-choice RT (CRT), and discrimination RT (DRT) based on the odd-man-out paradigm (described in Chapter 2, p. 30). Figure 12.4 shows the results for mean RT (panel A) and for intraindividual variability (RTSD) (panel B). The NG-G differences in both the mean RT and the SDRT increase as a function of task complexity. Although the differences may appear small in absolute magnitude, in terms of effect size (ES = mean differences between the groups divided by the average SD within groups) the ES is approximately .25 on SRT, .75 on CRT, and 1.30 on DRT for both the mean RT and the mean SDRT. The long-term effects of this magnitude of differences in speed of information processing over an extended exposure to

Figure 12.4: (Panel A) mean RT and (Panel B) mean RTSD of Gifted (G) and Non-gifted (NG) groups on each of three cognitive tasks: Simple reaction time (SRT), Choice RT (CRT), and Discrimination RT (DRT). (From Kranzler et al., 1994.)

many learning experiences easily accounts for the marked superiority in general knowledge and other cognitive skills and achievements accrued by G as compared with NG pupils with equal opportunities over any given period of time.

What has not yet been determined is whether the highest levels of the g dimension that can be convincingly assessed by standardized psychometric scales are measurable by speed of information processing on relatively simple chronometric tasks. Within the range of standardized psychometric IQ up to about 160, there seems to be no departure from a linear relationship between IQ and either CRT or DRT. More extraordinary levels of a specific kind of cognitive performance probably represent some quite specialized and highly focused investment of g in a very narrow sphere of cognition. Shakuntala Devi, one of the most astounding numerical calculators in the world, for example, tested only within the average range for college undergraduates on both psychometric and chronometric tests, except for the one chronometric test based on a numerical version of the Sternberg paradigm, which measures the speed of STM scanning of series of 1-7 digits. Devi's performance did not show the typical Sternberg effect (a linear increase in RT as a function of the number of digits presented), a phenomenon that has always appeared in the hundreds of undergraduates tested under exactly the same conditions (Jensen, 1990). Scanning even as few as seven digits in memory is evidently performed by some quite idiosyncratic process by a numerical savant like Devi, who could mentally calculate the 20th root of a 200 digit number in less than one minute.

Surpassing Talent

I have not found an application of chronometric methods to the study of individual differences in special talents, such as aptitude for musical and artistic performance per se. The nearest thing to it is the Seashore Musical Aptitude Test and its similar offshoots, which objectively measure variables involving time, such as thresholds of pitch discrimination (measured in hertz) and durations of tones (in millisecond). The sum of such elemental aptitudes, however, do not add up to musical talent by any means, although it is highly likely that well above-average performance on such tests of auditory discrimination is a necessary-but-not-sufficient condition for a successful career as a professional musician.

The most interesting use of chronometry in this realm that I have come across, however, is in the purely objective analysis of musical performance per se. Music critics' evaluations of concert performances and their characterization of different musical interpretations of masterpieces in the standard repertoire have long been a literary art form. It typically describes and compares, in largely musical terminology along with evocative similes and metaphors, the critic's subjective impressions and evaluations of noted concert artists' performance of famous masterpieces. Although these highly subjective impressions have some broad consistency and validity, they also show many differences among critics. They are too broad-brushed for precise comparisons, leaving much of whatever properties differentiate musicians in a literary limbo of mystery. One of the typical questions in this realm, for example, is what distinguishes the performances of the acknowledged great and famous concert artists from those of outstanding conservatory graduates and successful professionals. One thing is clear: it is not technical skill and accuracy per se. Concert audiences do not fill Carnegie Hall to hear letter-perfect renditions of their favorite masterpieces. That is mere baseline expectation, and even a few technical imperfections in performance are overlooked, provided the audience experiences certain appealing qualities. The audience seeks a "musical experience," a kind of aesthetic excitement. But this is strictly auditory and it comes through on recordings as much as in an observed live performance. It has nothing to do with the performer's appearance, on-stage personality, showmanship, or publicity hype.

What are the essential features of performance itself that distinguishes the super-talents — a Kreisler and a Heifetz, a Paderewski and a Horowitz, a Casals and a Rostropovich, a Callas and a Flagstad, a Toscanini and a Furtwangler — from the performances of those excellent professionals who never attain such exceptional acclaim?

The answer seems to lie in the entirely unique and idiosyncratic distortions of the musical score in subtle ways that evoke an emotional response in most musically sensitive listeners, a kind of aesthetic excitement. A strictly accurate, literal rendition of the work hardly evokes such a response. The departures from literalness are not a flouting of the composers intentions as shown in the printed musical score, but are an idiosyncratic attempt to express the composer's inspiration. In this effort, the great performers differ much more among themselves than do the adequate but less gifted performers. An expert can immediately recognize whether the interpretation of a famous work is performed by, say, Kreisler or Heifetz, Rubinstein or Horowitz, Toscanini or Stokowski. Each of these great artists has a unique and recognizable "musical personality" that infuses virtually all

Intro 1st theme 2nd theme 3rd theme

Intro 1st theme 2nd theme 3rd theme

Transition Subd 1 Subd 2 Subd 3 Subd 4

Figure 12.5: Chronometric measurement of tempo fluctuations in two performances (recorded live in 1951 and 1953) showing Furtwängler's rendition of the first movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony (From Rink, 1995, with permission of Cambridge

University Press.)

Figure 12.5: Chronometric measurement of tempo fluctuations in two performances (recorded live in 1951 and 1953) showing Furtwängler's rendition of the first movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony (From Rink, 1995, with permission of Cambridge

University Press.)

the works in their repertoire. One of the musical dimensions in which "musical personality" is most prominently expressed is in tempo and its fluctuations.

Recently, some musicologists have subjected these purely tempo aspects of musical interpretation to entirely objective and fine-grained analysis by means of chronometric technology applied to recorded instrumental and orchestral performances by famous instrumentalists and conductors (Rink, 1995). A striking example of this is the analysis of tempo fluctuations throughout the first movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony as conducted by Wilhelm Furtwangler, generally acknowledged as one of the greatest conductors of the twentieth century. He was highly acclaimed for his interpretations of Beethoven's orchestral works, especially the great Ninth ("Choral") Symphony, which he recorded with several of the world's great orchestras. Although the last and most technically advanced of these recordings were made in the early 1950s, they are still in demand by the musical cognoscenti.

A brief example of the chronometric analysis of Furtwangler's rendition of the first movement of Beethoven's Ninth is shown in Figure 12.5. The ordinate indicates the tempo within each measure of the score in standard metronome units (i.e., number of beats per minute); the abscissa marks the measures of the musical score, which is in 2/4 time throughout the first movement. (Shown here are only 429 measures of the total 547 in the first movement.) Beethoven's own metronome marking printed at the beginning of the score is 88 and if performed consistently at that tempo throughout would create a graph with a straight line through all the measures at the 88 point on the ordinate, except for three places in the score where Beethoven indicates a retard in just the second half of each of these measures, which occur at different points in the first movement. Incidentally, no major conductors observe Beethoven's metronome marking of 88, considering it a mistake, possibly resulting from Beethoven's total deafness at that time. The overall average tempo of most conductors in this movement is about 75. But the most conspicuous feature in Figure 12.5 is the great variability in tempo, varying almost from measure to measure. Evidence that the tempo fluctuations are not merely haphazard or due to any lack of control of the orchestra is shown by superimposing the graphs made from two different performances two years apart (1951 and 1953) with different orchestras (Berlin Philharmonic and Vienna Philharmonic). The degree of similarity in the tempo fluctuations of these two performances is equivalent to a reliability coefficient of about .97. It is clear that Furtwangler's unique rendition of Beethoven's Ninth (as with virtually everything else he conducted) was entirely intentional and a result of a superb, almost magical, fine-grained control of the orchestral forces. This degree of inducing such expressive subtleties throughout the entire movement, however, could never be achieved merely through Furtwangler's instruction and rehearsal, but must necessarily come about almost entirely emphatically, by every player's involuntarily reflecting the conductor's individual feeling of the musical expression. Only the greatest conductors, such as Furtwangler, Toscanini and Stokowski, can induce such a wholly unique emphatic response from a great orchestra. From a purely subjective musical standpoint the tempo fluctuations that appear so conspicuous in Figure 12.5 seem hardly noticeable in the heard performance, yet they evoke the important emotional features of the music that mysteriously create its subjectively moving and heroic character, making it sound peculiarly "Beethovean."

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