Want to read Slashdot from your mobile device? Point it at m.slashdot.org and keep reading!


Forgot your password?

The Expert Mind 395

Vicissidude writes "Teachers in sports, music, and other fields tend to believe that talent matters and that they know it when they see it. In fact, they appear to be confusing ability with precocity. There is usually no way to tell, from a recital alone, whether a young violinist's extraordinary performance stems from innate ability or from years of Suzuki-style training. The preponderance of psychological evidence indicates that experts are made, not born. In fact, 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. It is no coincidence that the incidence of chess prodigies multiplied after László Polgár published a book on chess education. The number of musical prodigies underwent a similar increase after Mozart's father did the equivalent two centuries earlier."
This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

The Expert Mind

Comments Filter:
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday August 16, 2006 @02:37AM (#15917137)
    In the early '90-ies Michael J.A. Howe published a book called "The origins of exceptional abilities", which concluded the same by studying the life history of exceptional people like Mozart. Mozart did not write any music worth listening to before after about a decade of hard training. His father made him practice several hours a day from a very young age. Compare that to the "loose your beer belly" gymnastics commercials "five minutes a day for a month for great results", and you understand why Mozart became great!
  • Re:Partial credit (Score:5, Interesting)

    by kripkenstein ( 913150 ) on Wednesday August 16, 2006 @02:50AM (#15917165) Homepage
    You can't be a chess master or genius mathematician or amazing athlete without some genetic preponderance toward intelligence or coordination or speed. This becomes extremely evident in bodybuilding; genetic makeup matters big time. Yes, I realize the article is focused on intellectual pursuits, but the same thing is still true.

    So, to argue that intellectual experts are partially born, you compare them to a field where we know that being an expert is mostly born (bodybuilding)?

    There are no studies showing a trainer taking a few average joes and getting them into the world championships of bodybuilding. But there are such examples in chess, as TFA states.

    I remember learning about the "10-year theory" of genius in a graduate course in psychology (that it takes around 10 years of practice to make an expert, not innate talent). It was portrayed as a 'radical' theory in that it flew in the face of the common belief of innateness. But the evidence does support it.

    The one area where the theory wasn't completely fleshed out in TFA, however, was the issue of age. While it is possible that nearly any child can be turned into a chess master with appropriate training and time, it isn't at all clear that the same is true for adults. Whether this is because adults have less time (or motivation), or because they are missing some biological advantage that children have, we don't know. But compare this to language: we know that children learn languages very fast during a 'critical period' of childhood. Children who don't learn a language at that age cannot learn one later in life. So perhaps there is a 'critical period' for being trained to be an expert at chess. We just don't know that yet (or didn't when I was taking the class 4 years ago).
  • by Rie Beam ( 632299 ) on Wednesday August 16, 2006 @02:59AM (#15917189) Journal
    The question I have is, had Mozart been taught to write and to write constantly, would he be a famous writer? Or would his interests lie elsewhere and writing simply serve to be a hobby?

    I think what seperates genius from someone who is simply "good" at something is a geniuine love for what they do later in life. They tend to be more well-rounded and express themselves through the various mediums, but the true geniuses excel in one or more of these modes of expression. The fact that they're well-versed in some skill just makes it all the more likely they'll end up producing something of great value in that area of the arts or science.
  • Arg (Score:5, Interesting)

    by hyfe ( 641811 ) on Wednesday August 16, 2006 @03:04AM (#15917197)
    In fact, they appear to be confusing ability with precocity

    Just as with the nature versus nurture debate, it's not a question of which one it is; but of how much of each one.

    Obviously, the surroundings, encouragement, over-stimulation, lack of stimulation etc are going to have an tremendous on a child. Anybobdy saying anything else is a loony.

    On the other hand, it's a well known fact among strategy gamers that everybody has, more or less atleast, a limit to how good they get. During 5-6 years of steady play, most people just max at some point, usually after a couple of years and stop becoming better. Be it lack of intelligence, lack of patentience, lack of anal-retentivness, it still happens. They hit their roof.

  • by yusing ( 216625 ) on Wednesday August 16, 2006 @03:26AM (#15917243) Journal
    Of course "It takes approximately a decade of heavy labor to master any field."

    In music for example, certainly Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Berlioz had to work hard to learn their craft, with some of the best teachers.

    Nonetheless, most people would not benefit from that tutelage, because they would be unable to grasp what was important and what was not. A work of genius is not the result of privilege, but of someone whose innate ability to absorb, digest, and then apply in strikingly original ways are simply beyond the grasp of most of us.

    The answer to the question of nature vs. nurture is that both are necessary. A genius feral child will not recreate social skills alone. Nor will a privileged imbecile be able to govern a nation.
  • Re:the same thing (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Bill Dog ( 726542 ) on Wednesday August 16, 2006 @03:55AM (#15917309) Journal
    I believe the term is "sour grapes [wikipedia.org]", but otherwise I think you're right.
  • Genius vs. Expert (Score:5, Interesting)

    by nacturation ( 646836 ) <nacturationNO@SPAMgmail.com> on Wednesday August 16, 2006 @04:06AM (#15917346) Journal
    Mozart wrote his first symphony (and not some half-assed attempt) before he was ten years old. So unless he received training while still a sperm, I think it's safe to chalk that case up to something other than ten years of hard work. Of course we're talking about people operating at the genius level, not just the expert level. Anyone of sufficient intelligence can become an expert at whatever they work at. I like the quote that I read in a Feynman book a while back as I think it sums it up fairly well:

    "There are two kinds of geniuses: the 'ordinary' and the 'magicians'. An ordinary genius is a fellow whom you and I would be just as good as, if we were only many times better. There is no mystery as to how his mind works. Once we understand what they've done, we feel certain that we, too, could have done it. It is different with the magicians. Even after we understand what they have done it is completely dark. Richard Feynman is a magician of the highest calibre." - Mark Kac
  • Re:Uhh, sorta. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Clovert Agent ( 87154 ) on Wednesday August 16, 2006 @05:09AM (#15917506)
    I can assure you that innate talent exists. It is not hard to find. I have two fairly good archery students - one shoots only the one day of our course and the other shoots at home every day. If hard work and focus was the deciding factor the wrong one is getting much higer scores.

    I don't necessarily disagree with you, but it's hard to tell where background stops and talent starts. For example, perhaps your talented student simply had exposure to a range of activities as a child which meant s/he developed better hand/eye coordination - a head start, in other words, which just looks like innate ability.

    I imagine "talent" to a degree depends on prediliction. I'm not at all musical, and gave up piano lessons as a child because I just didn't find it fun. Kids who /do/ enjoy it and spend hours and hours practising because it's fun, are obviously getting much more training than those who endure a weekly lesson and do a minimum of practice.

    And, of course, what you like probably depends largely on your home environment. So an inclination to develop talent, perhaps, can be instilled from infancy.

    None of which precludes the possibility of innate talent, of course, like you described. Some kids really do just pick up a golf club and show a frightening ability to get it right first time. Seems obvious, really: if talent="physiognomy and mental state being just right to start with", then perhaps everyone's got a statistical chance of being naturally good at any given skill.
  • Effortless Mastery (Score:2, Interesting)

    by jazzman251 ( 887873 ) on Wednesday August 16, 2006 @05:14AM (#15917513)
    There is a book out called Effortless Mastery and It's written by jazz pianist Kenny Werner. A very good read for anybody, not just musicians. I highly recommend it if this topic interests you.

    From Amazon [amazon.com]
    "Werner, a masterful jazz pianist in his own right, uses his own life story and experiences to explore the barriers to creativity and mastery of music, and in the process reveals that 'Mastery is available to everyone,' providing practical, detailed ways to move towards greater confidence and proficiency in any endeavor. While Werner is a musician, the concepts presented are for every profession or life-style where there is a need for free-flowing, effortless thinking."
  • Re:Partial credit (Score:2, Interesting)

    by annakin ( 994045 ) on Wednesday August 16, 2006 @05:23AM (#15917532)
    >As Chomsky said, "it isn't a coincidence that all children in a household learn a language, while none of the pets do so."

    Lol, that's a good quote, innate language was one of Chomsky's finer moments. However, I think the pets do learn language, they just don't have tongues. Try meowing back at a cat, and seeing the surprised look on his face when he realizes, because you are imitating him, that you didn't understand what he said :)

    If you define language as an audible, message-based communication, then a whole bunch of species have it. What they don't have, as evidenced by research on apes, is grammar.
  • by kahei ( 466208 ) on Wednesday August 16, 2006 @07:46AM (#15917896) Homepage
    I've noticed, like many others, that some 'expert' programmers are perhaps 8x as
    productive as regular programmers; their work does not require checking,
    they solve complex problems in such a way that the problem can actually
    be forgotten about, and they never find that something can't be done
    because of the decisions they made earlier. I would rather have one of
    these guys with on a project than three regular Joes, and the wise
    project manager scours the organization for them and collects them all
    in a fiercely guarded hoard. What vast innate aptitude they must have!

    And yet I notice that these experts are, coincidentally, also the same
    people who use a spell-checker, who ask what terms mean before trying to
    use them, who write down what they're going to do before they do it, who
    understand what the business context of the work they're doing is, and
    who understand the imperfect realities of the workplace. In other words,
    they're not natural computer geniuses; they're people who bother to learn
    how to do stuff right.

    An image of the naturally talented 'geek' or 'nerd' has grown up in the
    last 20 years, especially outside of the IT community. These
    individuals, the story goes, can be awkward and eccentric in the more
    'people' aspects of life but are gifted with tremendous focus and
    ability to understand complexity in technical areas. Often seen
    watching Star Trek and blowing things up in their back yards, they are
    the highly specialized new breed on which the information revolution

    The fact is, the above is half-right. 'Geeks' do exist -- but there
    is absolutely no correlation between geek-hood and technical ability.
    Quite the reverse, in fact; technical ability is acquired by learning
    from others, and you can't learn from others if you don't communicate.
    The basement-dwelling machine-code-writing ubergeek of the 80's really
    existed, but only due to social factors; had he left his basement and
    gotten a girlfreind, he would have become more productive, not less.
    This is pretty well recognised in business now; nobody hires the
    basement-dweller if they can hire the rugby-player, which is rather bad
    luck for the basement-dweller but sound thinking on the part of the

    And yet the image persists in popular culture, so much so that people
    who learn that I work with computers still occasionally expect me to be
    into a whole nerd culture of comics, DIY demolitions, and so forth.
    Sure, some people are bigger or stronger or smarter than others to some
    degree; but how remarkably seductive this idea that certain people just
    naturally fall into certain slots, where they are good and bad at
    specific predetermined things, is! And how very different from reality
    it is.

    Except for mathematicians, mind you. Those guys are born not made, I'm sure of it.

  • Re:Partial credit (Score:2, Interesting)

    by alcourt ( 198386 ) on Wednesday August 16, 2006 @08:32AM (#15918080)
    After observing three different teachers closely and how they teach a young child in violin instruction, I can tell you even your basic premise is wrong that they will have the same "basics" level after a year.

    Many Suzuki students after a year are completely unable to read music because they focus so much on rote play. Their technical ability in some areas may be very good, but they have not yet started on certain other areas. Usually these students are able to keep a beat, but their playing has always sounded mechanistic to me during the first two years. Also most Suzuki instruction I've observed has very little concern for correct hand hold and finger placement at least at first.

    Another teacher I saw went rather slowly by Suzuki standards, not even starting Suzuki book one until the student had at least eight months instruction in the basics, but the student understood a surprising amount of theory with focus on music reading, notions of dynamics, musical phrasing, technical perfection etc. This student after a year won't know third position at all, but will have started exercises that will make it so when they do start doing shifts, their hand automatically does it correctly. But what they can play with that technical skill is likely to go very slow.

    A third teacher focused heavily on making the piece musical, allowed some of the technical precision details to slip, etc. But the students of that teacher would be far more likely to be able to improvise or embellish, especially more than a Suzuki student. Their technical precision may be behind on finger placement, proper use of the "sweet spot" for placing the bow, etc. But they'll

    A year just isn't near enough with a violin to get the basics. Three years seems more realistic because that's when the different teaching styles of what they emphasize seems to level out. But depending on the teaching style, some will be able to play by pure memory, some won't even be able to play anything by memory, and others will be able to play some by memory but will be able to improvise some. It really does matter in the teaching style.
  • Re:Of course (Score:5, Interesting)

    by TheRaven64 ( 641858 ) on Wednesday August 16, 2006 @08:34AM (#15918094) Journal
    You downplay the importance of laziness. I, too, am incredibly lazy. Given two ways of achieving the same result, I will pick the easier one. When I was nine, I recall my maths teacher saying 'the best mathematicians are the most lazy' (she died less than a year later, which was a sad day for education). Consider someone like Robert Recorde; he invented the sign for equality so he would have to spend less time writing 'is equal to,' which meant he could spend more time working on actually proving things.

    When I was an undergraduate, I was amazed at the amount of effort people spent which could have been avoided by taking a moment longer to think about the problem. I am firmly of the opinion that I am not much more talented that the people around me; just much more lazy.

  • Re:Partial credit (Score:4, Interesting)

    by cp.tar ( 871488 ) <cp.tar.bz2@gmail.com> on Wednesday August 16, 2006 @08:49AM (#15918167) Journal

    Oh, my bad. But vision is something even older and more fundamental than language, so I guess my point remains.

    As for the Chomsky quote, and the whole innateness theory, sorry, but I remain unconvinced. The capability of learning, understanding and speaking a language is obviously innate just as much as our senses are, but Chomskian views on that matter I find rather... lacking.

    Then again, I'm a convinced cognitivist, so this is no wonder.

    The 'critical period' aspect of language is probably because of its innateness, and not its complexity.

    Whyever do you seem to think that innateness and complexity have nothing in common?

    Take a look at the current optical recognition software, from OCR to robotic sight. How far have we gone in developing those technologies?
    Compare that to the state of NLP. Especially for morphologically rich languages, which have made Chomsky alter his theories time and again.

    Sight, hearing, language... all these require extensive training at a certain point in life. At a certain early point in life. And the reason for this is, I'd guess, because of their complexity. I've read of jungle tribes whose members can only visually comprehend distances up to 10 m or so; they never get to see anything farther away than that. In our world, they'd be maladjusted; in theirs, we would be.
    These perceptive and cognitive functions are way too complex to be fully innate; instead, capabilities for development of those functions are innate, and the functions develop according to the surroundings.

  • Re:the same thing (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Marillion ( 33728 ) <ericbardes.gmail@com> on Wednesday August 16, 2006 @09:21AM (#15918447)
    I decided in University that there two types of people who got high marks: Lazy people who got good marks effortlessly and those to worked really hard.
  • An Example (Score:4, Interesting)

    by BenEnglishAtHome ( 449670 ) * on Wednesday August 16, 2006 @09:50AM (#15918726)

    I remember learning about the "10-year theory" of genius in a graduate course in psychology (that it takes around 10 years of practice to make an expert, not innate talent). It was portrayed as a 'radical' theory in that it flew in the face of the common belief of innateness. But the evidence does support it.

    If you've studied comedy, you've run across a couple of truisms. One is that it takes 10 minutes of killer material to make a superstar. If you have a routine 10 minutes long in which every single bit is strongly laugh-inducing (given your delivery), then you should expect to have your own sitcom and endless fame and money in short order. Very, very few people *ever* put together 10 minutes of true, killer material.

    Another truism is that your core routine, your truly great material, grows in direct relation to how much time you spend working on it, performing, and writing. If you treat it like a full-time job, write every day, and perform every chance you get, then you'll add about 1 minute of core material to your routine for every year you practice your craft.

    In comedy, then, the theory holds. It takes 10 years to become an expert.

    On a related note, while talent can reach its potential in a decade, I'm of the opinion that a total lack of talent can never be overcome. Some people can't tell a joke. Ron Jeremy (a name that should be familiar to most Slashdot denizens) used to desperately want to be a standup. (I don't know if he still feels that way.) I've seen his act many times over a number of years. He has no timing and even though the material is pretty good, he just can't tell a joke. He gets some laughs. He may even be just good enough to make a living at it (as a novelty act) if he wanted to. But I'm convinced that he proves that a LACK of talent can never be overcome no matter how hard you work.

  • Re:Give me a break (Score:3, Interesting)

    by rolfwind ( 528248 ) on Wednesday August 16, 2006 @10:02AM (#15918831)
    Give me a break! You're saying you could be like Mozart if you really worked at it (even from a young age)? That is absurd.

    "If you think you can, you might, if you think you can't, you never will."

    "Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration." - Thomas Edison

    "I am neither especially clever nor especially gifted. I am only very, very curious." --Albert Einstein

    I think what sets these men apart from normal people is the extraordinary focus, concentration, and obsession they had in their fields. In this society with increasing emphasis on "multitasking" and the large amount of diversions, I believe that characteristic will be harder to come by, thus that genius rarer.

    I believe these men were extraordinary in that regard but not mystically out of reach. In the end, they were people like you and me. Let's not deify them and have them imbued with some mysticism.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday August 16, 2006 @11:15AM (#15919634)
    TFA is very similar to an article in the New York Times by Steven Levitt of Freakonomics fame. In his article he cites the work of Anders Ericsson. If you follow the links provided you can find his paper. What he points out is that humans are very plastic both physically and mentally. Given the motivation to practice in a certain manner, almost anyone can become an expert at anything. There are some physical limits of course. If you're five feet zero, you're not making it as a professional basketball player.

    If the work cited by Levitt is true, and I believe it is, this has tremendous implications for public policy.

    If we think that people's ability to learn is genetically determined, then we will think that poor people became that way because their ability is limited. In that case, there is no point in spending a lot of money educating them. On the other hand, if we believe that almost anyone can excel with the right amount of work then it is worthwhile to make the effort to try to educate them. We see the problem as one of motivation and not ability. So, there's the problem. Are inner city kids defective or is it worthwhile to provide them with the programs and education to raise them into mainstream society. There is very strong evidence that we should spend the money and insist on a better education for them.

    http://www.freakonomics.com/times0507.html [freakonomics.com]
  • Re:the same thing (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Abcd1234 ( 188840 ) on Wednesday August 16, 2006 @01:29PM (#15920929) Homepage
    Alternatively, the lazy folks might have had better training (better teachers, worked harder, etc) prior to University, and so were better mentally prepared.
  • Re:the same thing (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Impy the Impiuos Imp ( 442658 ) on Wednesday August 16, 2006 @04:21PM (#15922217) Journal
    Actually, evolutionarily, applying extra thought to accomplish goals while minimizing physical effort gains the advantage of using less energy for the same (or even better) accomplishments.

    Of course, only a really lazy guy like me would think of that...

Disraeli was pretty close: actually, there are Lies, Damn lies, Statistics, Benchmarks, and Delivery dates.