Saturday, August 12, 2006

How to Get Really Good at Anything

It turns out all our teachers and coaches were right: experts in just about any field are made not born. The people who practice the most learn the most, according to a large amount of psychological evidence gathered together in Phillip E. Ross' "The Expert Mind," published in the August 2006 Scientific American.

But how do they do it? I've always joked that intuition is "compressed experience." I may be right. Some of the key questions involving "expert" minds have revolved around how information is stored in our brains and then retrieved. Those who work hard at becoming experts in a particular area see similar situations come up again and again, whether in chess, music, or I suppose, surgery. The brain begins to chunk the information and build templates to use later, if a similar situation arises again. When it does, our brains fall back on the templates but quickly, using short-term memory, customize our actions--and the template-- by making small changes where needed. This skill enables experts to quickly make correct decisions about chess moves, for example. And a pro tennis player's mind is likely to use the same mechanisms, when she anticipates where a ball may hit and is there ready for it. Ross notes that this "knowledge-guided perception" enables true experts to correctly guess what is likely to happens next and prepare for it. And these mental templates are built through repetition and experience, in other words: time put in on the task, enabling us to store information in long-term memory and customize it when we retreive it.

As Ross points out, there are many more experts and prodigies in many fields today than there were formerly, in great part due to using computers that provide many times more "experience" than humans can. Of course, intense motivation and the ability to focus deeply and immediately are also traits that experts have in common.

Ross leaves us with a compelling question: Instead of asking, "Why can't Johnny read?" we should be asking, "Why should there be anything in the world he can't learn to do?" And I would add: at any age.

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