Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Genius, Or Exceptionally Hard Worker?

There's a fascinating article at Scientific American, by Philip E. Ross, that looks closely at the question of whether expertise in any given area is more a matter of aptitude, or application. Are virtuoso musicians, and championship athletes, and chess masters just naturally more gifted than the rest of us, or are they really more motivated instead? The quick and dirty answer according to SA is the latter. Ross delves into the world of chess to illustrate how masters think so much more effectively than the average player, and boils it down, essentially, to the notion that the greats are accessing more stored information at any given time, but that they are retrieving it in essentially the same way as the rest of us, in chunks. He says we can all access between 5 and 9 chunks of information at a time. For example, a chunk of information can range from a single letter, for those just learning their alphabet, to a whole poem, or story, including how it fits into a cultural context, for those who have mastered a certain knowledge of literature and culture. A novice musician might know a few notes of a song, which for them is a chunk, while a virtuoso pianist might hold a concerto in a single mental chunk of information. According to this theory, those we think of as really gifted may not hold any more natural ability than you or I. Their chunks simply hold more information than ours, because they've applied themselves to acquiring the knowledge, either through inherent interest, or some other motivation.

Ross goes on to explain how this has led to younger chess prodigies over the last century, because now there are better "training methods" and computer programs to aid in learning. They are building larger chunks into their mental storage at younger ages. He says the same thing applies to athletes, who train more effectively now, and thus achieve things it took previous generations much longer to master. He also says that early success can increase motivation and application, which leads to more success, which leads to more motivation, and the cycle continues. He applies this principle to kids in school today, and draws the conclusion that, with the proper motivation, there's no reason any kid can't learn anything. He uses an example of a school where they started paying kids money if they did well on tests, with encouraging results.

I wish someone had found a way to motivate me more when I was in school. (Maybe money would have helped.) I often regret how much of the time, before college, I skated by with doing just enough to get the grade I wanted (I think most kids can read a teacher and figure out how much it's going to take to get the A, or whatever they'll settle for, and don't do much beyond that), while very seldom applying as much effort as I was capable of investing. I put pressure on myself, but it was for grades, not for knowledge. Occasionally, though, a subject would come along that was sufficient motivation in itself, something that compelled me, out of interest, to put in that extra effort. Those, generally, fit the profile of the examples that Ross uses above. I had interest, which led to application, which led to success, which led to more interest. In college, of course, I was much more able to choose my own area of study, so things shifted a bit, but some of the same general rules applied. So far, I can see my way fairly clear to agreeing with what Ross explains.

Where I'm stumbling just a bit is in the other people I see around me who are particularly good at any specific thing. I'll use my husband as an example. He can pick up just about any instrument, and in what I (and most sane people) consider an astonishingly short amount of time, become at least adequately proficient at it. Call it hyper-accelerated application if you want to, but most of us would just call it gifting. He understands music in a way that I never will. I grant you, how quickly he progresses does depend on application, but that is only when gauged against himself--if his progress is gauged against mine, I don't care how hard I'm working, there is no comparison. He does have a larger knowledge base than I do musically, and these are the chunks that he's retrieving and applying to the next musical learning situation, so I suppose the theory Ross presents holds, but that's just not how it feels in real time. The truth is, he has always had the same gifting, despite having very little formal musical training through his early years. He was singing three part harmony with his brother and sister when he was eight. This, however, is where Ross would say that my own misgivings about this theory can be answered. Even when my husband was not receiving formal training, when he was just a child, music interested him, and thus he applied himself to sing that harmony part to "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" when the rest of us were singing "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" in rather halting and off-key melody. He wanted to learn it, and so he did.

I do believe that God wires people with certain giftings, but does he do it by instilling in them more natural interest, or more natural ability? According to this article in SA, it would be interest. Ross spends much more time on the scientific explanation of all this, and I don't have those chunks so readily at my own disposal, so I'll let him tell you more, if you're motivated to acquire that knowledge, but I certainly found what he had to say interesting. I would love to believe that what he says is true. I have always tended to believe that I wasn't interested in things I have no aptitude for, but if what Ross says is true, I really simply lack application for things which don't interest me. Now, if I can figure out some way to get interested in those things which haven't been my strengths over the years, maybe I can see some improvement, which will lead to more motivation, which will lead to more success, which will lead to more interest and effort, and so on. My biggest problem then is going to be finding time to do all these new things I will suddenly find myself so competent to do, now that I'm interested, like playing an instrument to make my husband happy. I'm not sure how that's going to work--I spend too much time on this blog to leave room for learning to play the tuba.

Hat tip: Sioux Lady