The Frontal Cortex

Talent and Practice

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.


  1. #1 Gav
    August 15, 2006

    It’s probably necessary to put the hours in, and at an early age, but what a golden world it would be if that were sufficient!

  2. #2 Lizzie B
    August 15, 2006

    This is a gross oversimplification of the role of genetics and innate ability in the performance of people with exceptional abilities. You use, as examples, Mozart and Michael Jordan, and maintain that “they are testaments to neural plasticity and the benefits of practice.” Although they trained rigorously, and neural plasticity certainly contributed to their performance, this is an irrational trivialization of their natural ability.

    Mozart is a recognized child prodigy, memorizing symphonies at the age of 4 by listening alone, and composing and playing blindfolded by the age of 5. He was genetically endowed with exceptionally rare musical capabilities, and to think that anyone would have this ability if they simply started earlier and had “a willingness to endure the endless hours of sweat and toil” is absurd to anyone who ever played a musical instrument as a child.

    We are all genetically unequal, and it is highly unlikely that these differences affect every part of the body but the brain. Ericsson’s article, as presented in your post, seems to deny human variability, implying that we are effectively genetic clones. Inborn talents do exist. Diligence and social factors also contribute to our abilities, and probably make the difference between making varsity and making JV, or being cut all-together. But innate biological differences exist too, and in Mozart and Michael Jordan these differences endow them with exceptional abilities that a scanty few of our species will be able to attain.

  3. #3 DavidD
    August 15, 2006

    All it takes is practice!!! My God, I hope no impressionable parents see this. I was almost chained to a piano bench as it was. Some poor kid might wind up even closer to losing the rest of his life than I did.

    I read Ericsson’s page that you linked to in the previous article. That’s all fine, but it doesn’t tell you that much. OK, so practice takes someone from merely talented to virtuoso, unless it’s someone like Bobby Fisher and chess, if I’m correct in recalling that that was one example where it wasn’t practice that made his opponents amazed at his abilities. Where are you starting from? What is some objective measure of talent that didn’t lead to virtuosity through lack of training? Maybe there are studies like that of high IQ individuals who weren’t educated, in prison or wherever they wound up. Are there neuroimaging studies that address that?

    It’s been known for a long time that professional musicians use their left hemisphere. What actually is happening there? Are movements or sounds becoming symbolically meaningful? Can you track that as practice proceeds? Can there be ongoing help from neuroscience to make one’s practice more efficient and successful? That would be a powerful way to go from what there is now, maybe even show what you need to have as a baseline to make practice worth it, that it’s not for everyone.

    For anything about nature vs. nurture, though, this is a strange time to be putting one’s reputation on the line, either way. How long will it take to know all 25,000 human genes, their gene products, polymorphisms, and significance for human life? 2050? The end of the century? It seems a safe bet for now that almost anything important to us is a combination of genetics and environment. I suppose anyone could defend himself or herself for taking that position, but to take an extreme position on something other than eye color or something else that’s clearly genetic is asking to look foolish eventually.

    Still some like to take chances, I know. No guts, no glory, that’s not someting I learned at a piano bench. It might be what made me insist on getting up from that bench. For now, who knows why we do what we do? In a hundred years it could be so different.

  4. #4 Jonah
    August 15, 2006

    Thanks alot for your comments and criticisms. Look, I’m in way defending some larger nurturist ideology. I have no doubt that our genes play a crucial role in influencing many of our behaviors. But I don’t think that case studies of extraordinary talent demonstrate the importance of genes. Obviously, if Jordan was 5 foot 3, or Mozart wasn’t intelligent, then all their practice would have been for naught. But the stubborn fact remains: there is no biological or psychological evidence that all these examples of extraordinary talent are innate. Since nature probably hasn’t endowed us with a specific set of genes that make us excel at musical composition or professional basketball or brain surgery, we would expect very talented people to display a wide variety of other cognitive talents as well. But they don’t. In fact, the only innate talent that talented people seem to contain is a talent for practice. But if there are scientific studies that suggest otherwise, I’d love to hear about them.

  5. #5 Lizzie B
    August 15, 2006

    while it’s true that “nature probably hasn’t endowed us with a specific set of genes that make us excel at musical composition or professional basketball or brain surgery,” (if it had, there would be many more Mozarts and MJs), this doesn’t mean that Mozart was not endowed with a specific set of genes that affects the wiring or metabolism of his brain in a way that enhances his musical ability (without affecting–or perhaps at the expense of–other abilities). The brain is asymmetrical and heterogeneous, with different portions specified at different times during embryonic development, and it is not unreasonable to assume that a certain combination of genes can specifically affect one region of the brain. This may be speculation, but is not unreasonable.

    There is a good deal of research on the heritability of innate talents by behavioral geneticists, especially on the inheritance of IQ, which I believe is well-accepted by the scientific community. One of the basic lines of evidence comes from twin studies, some of which are reviewed by Ulric Neisser in a report for the Am Psychological Association. Basically, identical twins separated at birth and reared apart (sharing all their genes but none of their environment) have a much higher correlation between their IQ scores than adopted children reared together (sharing none of their genes but all of their environment) and even than fraternal twins reared together (sharing half of their genes but all of their environmet). This shows that IQ is heritable. Of course, upbringing is still important: identical twins reared together are more alike than identical twins reared apart.

    Arthur Toga and Paul Thompson have a more recent review (July 2005) in Annual Reviews of Neuroscience entitled “Genetics of Brain Structure and Intelligence,” which discusses some more recent studies that combine sophisticated brain imaging techniques with genetics, and provides a convincing argument for the inheritance of intelligence and its correlation with (likewise inherited) brain structure.

    These findings can certainly be extended to other, more specific, innate abilities, such as musical composition and extraordinary athletic capabilities.

  6. #6 Jonah
    August 16, 2006

    I have no doubt that intelligence, at least as measured by the IQ test, is in large part genetic. But I don’t believe that this causal link can be extended to “other, more specific, innate abilities”. For one thing, IQ is usually stable over a person’s lifetime. Talent isn’t. As I note in my Seed article, Mozart’s early compositions are rarely performed by symphony orchestras. Why? Because they aren’t very good, at least when compared to his later compositions. But if talent is innate, then why does it take so much cultivation and practice? I mean, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t insist that we are born geniuses, but then insist that genius requires thousands upon thousands of hours of practice to realize itself.

  7. #7 somnilista, FCD
    August 16, 2006

    There’s a recent Scientific American article on this topic by Philip E. Ross. Most of the research has been done on chess players, since ranking of chess skills have proven to be reliable. Ross agreed with you that “effortful study” is the key to such success.

  8. #8 Jonah
    August 17, 2006

    For a lucid criticism of my argument, see I agree that this issue is bound to remain mired in issues of causation and correlation for the foreseeable future. However, I disagree about what our default position should be, given that we don’t know very much. Small and Gray argues that “in the interim, the appropriate position is probably to default to existing estimates obtained in non-expert domains, and maintain that it’s a bit of both: genetic and environmental contributions both influence expert performance.” My own belief is that the startling demonstrations of neural plasticity, coupled with an inability to identify genes or innate psychological factors (like reaction times, intelligence, etc.) that aren’t domain specific, should lead us to focus increasingly on the nurture side of the equation when discussing expertise. But I thank Small and Gray, as always, for his excellent comments and criticisms.

  9. #9 stewart
    August 19, 2006

    Any discussion about whether expertise or genius can be developed should mention the Polgar sisters and chess. Susan, Judit, and Sofia, who were raised by their parents (non chess-players) as an experiment to see if specific talents could be developed. Susan and Judit are grandmasters, and Judit is an international master with a hisotry of exceptional play.

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