Thursday, September 07, 2006

The Expert Mind

I've been meaning to mention an interesting article in the August issue of Scientific American, by Philip Ross, on how people become experts in different fields of accomplishment.

Some clips ard paraphrase from that article: Some of the most clear research on expertise has studied skill at chess, which can be clearly measured. What emerges is that the expert relies not so much on an intrinsically stronger power of analysis as on a store of structured knowledge. Similar results have been demonstrated in bridge players (who can remember cards played in many games), computer programmers (who can reconstruct masses of computer code) and musicians (who can recall long snatches of music). Ability in one area tends not to transfer to another. American psychologist Edward Thorndike first noted this lack of transference over a century ago, when he showed that the study of Latin, for instance, did not improve command of English and that geometric proofs do not teach the use of logic in daily life.

Figure from Amidzic et al. (2001) Brain activity in chess masters is different from the pattern observed in novices. Relationship between chess-playing skill (Elo rating scale) and the relative share of dipoles located in medial temporal lobe structures (black) and in the frontal and parietal cortices (red). In weaker players more activfity occurred in the brain's medial temporal lobe than in the frontal and parietal cortices, which suggests that the amateurs were analyzing unusual new moves. In gradmasters, however, the frontal and parietal cortices were more active, indicating that they were retrieving information from long term memory.

It takes enormous effort to build these structures in the mind. Herbert Simon coined a psychological law of his own, the 10-year rule, which states that it takes approximately a decade of heavy labor to master any field. Even child prodigies, such as Gauss in mathematics, Mozart in music and Bobby Fischer in chess, must have made an equivalent effort, perhaps by starting earlier and working harder than others. K.A. Ericsson argues that what matters is not experience per se but "effortful study," which entails continually tackling challenges that lie just beyond one's competence...Having reached an acceptable performance--for instance, keeping up with one's golf buddies or passing a driver's exam--most people relax. Their performance then becomes automatic and therefore impervious to further improvement. In contrast, experts-in-training keep the lid of their mind's box open all the time, so that they can inspect, criticize and augment its contents and thereby approach the standard set by leaders in their fields...

At this point, many skeptics will finally lose patience. Surely, they will say, it takes more to get to Carnegie Hall than practice, practice, practice. Yet this belief in the importance of innate talent, strongest perhaps among the experts themselves and their trainers, is strangely lacking in hard evidence to substantiate it...motivation appears to be a more important factor than innate ability in the development of expertise. It is no accident that in music, chess and sports--all domains in which expertise is defined by competitive performance rather than academic credentialing--professionalism has been emerging at ever younger ages, under the ministrations of increasingly dedicated parents and even extended families.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous1:53 PM

    But what about the fact that one person will gain chess strength much more rapidly than will another, when they both study lots of chess tactical puzzles?