Friday, August 11, 2006

The Expert Mind

I have to thank Flux for finding this article in Scientific American on The Expert Mind about how grandmaster chess champions differ from say beginners or even master chess champions and what that says about how one gains mastery or expertise in a given area.

The article calls chess the "The Drosophila of Cognitive Science" in reference to the fruit fly that is at the heart of many a science experiment.

After reading the article, I found my mind circling around several points made in the article.

Grandmaster chess champions don't necessarily analyze more possibilities than other players, they simply analyze the better ones and analyze them at a deeper level than others. Although they have a memory for the various chess board layout possibilities, they don't necessarily have better general memory at remembering a randomly situated chess pieces.

The grandmaster chess champions are able to view a board layout of pieces in larger chunks. While beginners might memorize where each piece is layed out, a grandmaster would see the same board but see numerous pieces as part of one large chunk of memory. The example the article gave was in regards to the poem, "Mary had a little lamb". Most English speakers know the entire poem, while a non-English speak tries to remember each word in the order that it came in. But not only do they remember chunks of chess information, they may see these chunks as a template with parts that can easily be switched around.

But the most interesting part of the article is how does one gain expertise. And this is what they called, "effortful study."

Ericsson argues that what matters is not experience per se but "effortful study," which entails continually tackling challenges that lie just beyond one's competence. That is why it is possible for enthusiasts to spend tens of thousands of hours playing chess or golf or a musical instrument without ever advancing beyond the amateur level and why a properly trained student can overtake them in a relatively short time. It is interesting to note that time spent playing chess, even in tournaments, appears to contribute less than such study to a player's progress; the main training value of such games is to point up weaknesses for future study.

They note that as beginners we all do this, but the difference is whether or not we stop doing this. Usually once people gain a certain level of competance, we stop. Do just enough to pass. Just enough to get around. I drive every day but I'm not a skilled formula 1 racer and I don't really care to be.

In contrast, experts-in-training keep the lid of their mind's box open all the time, so that they can inspect, criticize and augment its contents and thereby approach the standard set by leaders in their fields.

Yet to have the desire to continue to "leave the lid off the box" takes a level of motivation, either competition or a certain level of achievement. A person with the motivation to be better. And that what make an expert is not talent as much as it is this effortful studying combined with motivation. So indeed, Tiger Woods may have gotten as good as he did because of all the training he went through, but it's also because he had the motivation to become better.

Now granted, effortful studying and motivation may not make a 5ft player good enough to go to the NBA, then again there's Earl Boykins at 5'5". But I think it certainly differentiates the Michael Jordons and the Magic Johnsons from numerous unknown players you never hear of.

The article says that the skills don't quite transfer. Grandmaster chess players don't have better spatial relations than other people. But I think the skill set they can transfer over is this desire for effortful studying, the desire to challenge and compete, and improve upon their skills.

And so how does this apply to writing and arts, because people always talk about talent. While chess playing to an extent has a very established and understood ranking of skill, who is good and who is better is quite measurable relative to say poetry. There is a bit of murkiness in the arts of what makes for good and great skill. Are the classics a measure of skill? Is it the New York Times best seller list? What about all the writing awards?

And yet I think this article still applies as writing is still a craft. And perhaps there might not be overall standards that everyone generally agrees upon, those who write are all striving for some personally viewed standard that they are trying to achieve whether they believe that standard includes the NYTimes best sellers list or various writing awards, or what have you. Because the direction one goes in would likely vary depending on who they believe are the leaders in their field. You pick a lowly leader, you'll probably get a lowly skill set. In areas in which there isn't a "standard" for achievement and/or mastery, then what does one strive towards?

Another thing that struck me in the article is that the amount of chess playing seemed less important than the effortful studying in the person's progress. And that the playing of chess was a way to see how one could improve in the future. So once a poem is written, once the game is played, once the thing is executed, the "expert-in-training" is already looking to what they can do better for the next time. It explains how a writer doesn't write for years yet is able to pick up the pen as if they had never stopped.

And talent alone doesn't get a person past those low points when things aren't going so well. Usually people with talent, but no motivation, quit when the going gets rough.

So why do we obsess over talent when in the end to some extent we should really be concerned about cultivating motivation and desire? How do you keep the lid off the mind's lid?

Maybe it's because if we believe in innate talent over motivation and study, then those with talent can believe that they are inherently special and that those without don't feel guilty that they should be able to do more. Sure there are some areas of expertise that there are physical limitations to, but there are plenty of areas of expertise that do not. Chess is one an area that's quite accessible to the vast majority of people.

The other question that come to mind is what are the differences between effortful study and simply practice. How does one improve the quality of one's practice in a given area to create effortful study?

My husband tells me there was an article in the New Yorker on this very topic. I'll have to go check it out and compare notes.

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