In response to my last post on Musical Geniuses, I was accused of being a simple minded nurturist, a proponent of environmental determinism. So I thought I would take a moment and elaborate on why people with extraordinary talent – like Mozart, or Michael Jordan, or this Jay Greenberg kid – aren’t testaments to genetics. Rather, they are testaments to neural plasticity and the benefits of practice.
For one thing, there’s a lot of empirical evidence that suggests I’m right. Virtually every psychological study that investigates expert “performers” – from chess grandmasters to concert pianists to brain surgeons – concludes that what separates these individuals from their peers is the amount of “deliberate practice” they are willing to endure. If there is an innate difference between Yo Yo Ma and a mediocre cellist, or between Tiger Woods and your golfing uncle, it is a willingness to practice, and not an innate aptitude for the cello or the 9 iron. As K. Anders Ericsson, a cognitive psychologist at Florida State University, wrote in his influential article “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance,” “The differences between expert performers and normal adults are not immutable, that is, due to genetically prescribed talent. Instead, these differences reflect a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance.” If there is a genetic element linking Mozart and Jordan it is the talent for practice itself, a willingness to endure the endless hours of sweat and toil required of all great performers.
This is a deeply counter-intuitive idea. Although we pretend to be egalitarians, we really believe that the talented are naturally “gifted”. You and I can’t become chess grandmasters, or brain surgeons, simply because we don’t have the necessary anatomy. Endless hours of hard work won’t compensate for our biological limitations. When fate was handing out skill, we got screwed.
But there is virtually no evidence that expert performers are born with extraordinary brains. In fact, the average IQ of people at the top of their field – whether they are surgeons or politicians, pianists or painters – equals that of the average college student. In other words, their expertise is very specific, confined to a particular “cognitive domain”. Although a professional baseball player is able to make better perceptual judgments when swinging a bat, his overall perceptual abilities are no different than the man-on-the-street. (As Michael Jordan learned, being the world’s greatest basketball player doesn’t mean you are fit to be a minor league baseball player.) The same is true of elite chess players. When tested outside the context of a chessboard, their spatial memory is indistinguishable from control subjects.
So why can’t we all hit a 95mph fastball? Or play a chess game entirely in our head? Or solve a difficult calculus problem? To the unskilled spectator, these feats of cognition seem incomprehensible. This is for a good reason: they are incomprehensible. When working within their specialty, expert performers routinely circumvent the ordinary limits of the human brain. But this is because of practice, not genetics.
Neuroscience can now see how these years of “deliberate practice” actually alter our mind. When individuals begin learning a task – and this includes everything from swinging a golf club to writing poetry – the right hemisphere of their brain is extremely active. However, with time and practice, the neural activity gradually switches over to the opposite hemisphere. It literally becomes second nature. For example, Yo Yo Ma uses a different part of his brain when playing the cello than a beginner does. A lifetime of practice allows him to predominately use his left hemisphere, a cortical region associated with the performance of well-learned routines. As a result, Ma is able to focus less on mechanical aspects of the performance (like remembering how to play the A minor chord) and more on his creative interpretation of the music.
But practice doesn’t just change which brain areas are activated by a certain task. It also leads to anatomical changes within those same brain regions. For example, the brains of expert violin players have swollen representations of the fingers of their left hand in the somatosensory cortex. This increase in neural space makes Bach easier to play. Other studies have confirmed similar effects with non-physical activities as well. London cab drivers have swollen hippocampuses, the part of the brain in charge of spatial memory, which enables them to remember the backstreets of an entire metropolis. Each of has the power to structurally alter the architecture of our mind. All it takes is practice.