So I’m reading a book called The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle.  Overall, I’d say it’s a pretty good book, though sometimes a bit repetitive, as if the author just wanted to make the book longer, or make extra-sure he got his point across.  The book firstly argues that “genius” and “giftedness” and “skill” are not innate, people aren’t just born more special than everyone else (though we seem to like this idea in fiction).  Expert skill can be acquired by almost anyone who is willing to put in the enormous amounts of time and effort.  (Of course, this really isn’t a world-changing view; plenty of people, including my genius self, have already concluded this.  And, as I said in one of my earlier blog posts, The Talent Code feels like a sequel, or at least a companion book, to The Genius in All of Us. (By the way, I know these books might sound like cheesy self-help books, but I don’t think they’re that bad…))

The book also talks about the importance of the brain’s myelin.  (It mentions it over and over and over… yes, myelin, I get it!)  The book argues myelin, which insulates the axons of the brains neurons, plays a key role in developing skills.  Developing skills is, in fact, all about growing myelin around the proper neurons in your brain.  (OK, maybe not all about growing myelin, but its certainly a vital factor.)  But beyond that (and beyond repeating it 12 billion times), it really doesn’t go very in-depth about the science of myelin, nor does it talk about any ways to get more myelin, besides good practicing, which would be the obvious way to gain skills anyway.  So I’m really not sure why the author chose to make myelin such a big theme of the book.  Coyle could’ve talked about it for three or four pages and then moved on; it doesn’t seem to really add that much to his point.

The book also talks “deep practice” … that is, practicing that counts.  Just going through the motions does not provide the best learning experience, you have to sit and contemplate what you’re doing, mentally recognizing some mistake you keep making, some thing you can improve on, and consciously working on it.  (I’ve played some kids in chess, and some of them, after learning how the pieces move, just play the first moves that pop into their heads instead of taking the time think.  It seems useless to play like that; they’re never going to get any better without thinking.  I’d actually go so far as to say that there are these huge institutions which encourage (and spend millions of dollars on) “shallow practicing” … in these institutions, people just read some material, hear a lecture on it, take a test on it, and they’re done.  They never apply much of their knowledge to anything.  These institutions are the American high school system and the American college system.  (Plenty of exceptions of course, but overall, these institutions are centered around very stupid ways to learn useless things.))

I’ve just started the chapter “The Three Rules of Deep Practice” … can’t say much about it yet, ’cause I haven’t read it yet!  But it looks interesting.

Anyway, I came across some quotes from the book that I don’t quite agree with.  Overall, it’s an interesting book, and I’d say it’s “good” … but these quotes really annoy me.

On pages 49-50, Coyle writes:

A famed 1956 paper by psychologist George Miller, called “The Magical Number Seven, Plur or Minus Two,” established the rule that human short-term memory was limited to seven pieces of independent information (and gave Bell Telephone reason to settle on seven-digit phone numbers).

OK, this quote isn’t that annoying, but I wonder if this notion that “telephones numbers have seven digits because of short term memory studies” is just a myth; I’ve never seen any evidence of it, and the author here doesn’t cite anything. Is he just repeating something he read somewhere without checking up on it?

Even if this notion was true, it wouldn’t make much sense. The digits of a phone number are not “pieces of independent information” … you can remember a sequence of 12 or 15 digits (or plenty more) very easily if you use them enough; you remember them as a sequence, or maybe even as an image or one big chunk. And if the goal was to make phone numbers easy to remember, shorter is always better, so why not make it shorter? Or why not disregard number length completely and just use easy to remember sequences? For example, 11111 is easier to remember than 59834. You don’t have to actually remember 1, then 1, then 1, then 1, then 1. Instead you just remember “5 1’s” … so you could perhaps have sequences like 444-555-1. Then you just remember “3 4’s, 3 5’s, 1” … the 1 being the “end” symbol. Then we could have a ton of possible numbers with very little remembering to do.

I’m sure there are some problems with that system, but my point is that 7-digit phone numbers could just be a coincidence. I’m not convinced a huge amount of psychological thought went into choosing how many digits to make phone numbers; I think people just used what they were comfortable with. Maybe they did put a ton of thought into it and labored over scientific papers on short-term memory, but I haven’t seen any actual evidence of it, besides people mentioning it in passing when they talk about the “7 items in short term memory” thing.

Anyway, that’s just a small annoyance. A bigger annoyance is what Coyle writes next on page 50:

When one of Ericsson’s student volunteers memorized an eighty-digit number, the scientific establishment wasn’t sure what to think.

Ericsson showed that the existing model of short-term memory was wrong. Memory wasn’t like shoe size–it could be improved through training.

But I just read about this in The Genius in All of Us! Yes, these student volunteers learned to memorize huge sequences of random numbers, but did that really improve their short-term memory? Not necessarily. Give them random sequences of letters, or animal names, or DNA code, and they become normal again. They weren’t really “improving their short-term memory,” they were teaching themselves number-chunking skills. If you chunk 7 and 8 and think “seventy-eight,” 7 and 8 are no longer independent entities; you remember them as a group, one number. But what’s most striking is the non-transferability of these students’ memorization skills. Ultimately their skill is useless because we have very little need for memorizing large sets of numbers. But they don’t have the skill to memorize just vast amounts of anything on the fly. So I’m not sure I really buy the notion that “the existing model of short-term memory was wrong.” Maybe it was, but Ericsson’s study is not direct evidence of that, as far as I can tell.

(On a side note, transferability is a huge topic in psychology and education. It’s easy to look at a really good piano player and notice other things he does well and reckon “ah, playing the piano helps your math skills” or whatever. Maybe it does in some amount, but people forget that correlation does not prove causation. You cannot see such cause-and-effect in the complexity of human behaviour so completely just with passive observation. Yet schools (and people trying to sell educational material) do this all the time. “Playing chess will help your logic reasoning!” “Listening to Mozart will improve your math skills!” etc. (Again, not that it doesn’t, but it’s much more complex than just playing chess and suddenly applying logic in more places. Transferability of skills is simply not so simple. (It would be interesting to read a big scientific book on the subject, but I’m not sure if it’s been written. I’ll have to look around.)))

This next annoyance isn’t really Coyle’s fault since he’s just quoting someone else. On page 66:

“Why do teenagers make bad decisions?” he [George Bartzokis] asks, not waiting for an answer “Because all the neurons are there, but they are not fully insulated. Until the whole circuit is insulated, that circuit, although capable, will not be instantly available to alter impulsive behavior as it’s happening. Teens understand right and wrong, but it takes them time to figure it out.”

*Sigh* … more teenage brain bias based on no evidence. Firstly, this doesn’t explain teens who made no more bad decisions than adults, like, gee, I don’t know, me. Nor does it explain adults who make worse decisions than teens, or pre-teens who make better decisions (as they would also have less myelin). Secondly, there doesn’t seem to be any actual science behind it. OK, we know there’s myelin, we know it helps, we know teens have less of it (in general, at least, though I’m not even sure how much evidence of this there even is), but, as usual, correlation doesn’t prove causation. You can’t just say “Ah, teens have less myelin, therefore that is the cause of their bad decisions! Makes sense to me! And I’ve seen teens make bad decisions, so it must be true!” It seems it’s just old people generalizing teenage behaviour and assuming little can be done about it, it’s just innate, and must be countered with parental control. It’s quite sad and disturbing and ultra-annoying.

Then, on page 67, Coyle quotes Bartzokis as saying:

“Sure, you can teach a monkey to communicate at the level of a three-year-old, but beyond that, they are using the equivalent of copper wires.”

Er … if you read up on the science of monkeys learning language, I’ve yet to see any convincing evidence that monkeys are even close to learning language at a three-year-old level. Mr. Bartzokis’s credibility, like the list of Gandalf’s and Elrond’s allies after the betrayal of Saruman, grows thin.

Anyway, there are some quotes from this book that I like (as I said, overall, I think this is a good book). For example, the author at times seems to recognize the complexity of human behaviour. Coyle talks about David Banks, “a Carnegie Mellon University statistician.” Banks realizes that geniuses (at least famous geniuses) tend to appear throughout history in clusters, not regular intervals. He wonders about why this is. He says that conventional wisdom might say that the certain cultures, certain political environments, certain cultural wealth, etc., all make the environment perfect for nurturing geniuses. Banks, however, does not see any strong correlations. So Coyle writes on page 63:

Banks’s paper neatly illustrates the endless cycle of tail-chasing that ensues when you apply traditional nature/nurture thinking to questions of talent. The more you try to distill the vast ocean of potential factors into a golden concentrate of uniqueness, the more you are nudged toward the seemingly inescapable conclusion that geniuses are simply born and that phenomena like the Renaissance were thus a product of blind luck. As historian Paul Johnson writes, giving voice to that theory, “Genius suddenly comes to life and speaks out of a vacuum, and then it is silent, equally mysteriously.”

See, isn’t that a good paragraph? Or am I just using confirmation bias? No, I think it’s a good paragraph.

On page 53, Coyle writes:

In the vast river of narratives that make up Western culture, most stories about talent are strikingly similar. They go like this: without warning, in the midst of ordinary, everyday life, a Kid from Nowhere appears. The Kid possesses a mysterious natural gift for painting / math / baseball / physics, and through the power of that gift, he changes his life and the lives of those around him.

That quote made me laugh, it seems pretty true, doesn’t it? In fact, how many stories in general, even if not involving a “genius” character, involve some main character (or set of characters) that is just more special than everyone else? And why is that? To feed our natural desire / daydreams to be that kind of person? Not that this is necessarily a bad thing; I enjoy reading those kinds of stories and have some novel plots like that. But we should also realize that the “specialness” of characters in stories is not like real life…

Consider Pixar’s awesome movie The Incredibles. (By the way, I talk to one of the animators from that movie every week, brag brag brag, ha ha!) Firstly, the movie centers around characters who are definitely more special than everyone else… they have super powers after all. When you imagine yourself in that movie, would you imagine yourself being a regular non-powerful person? Maybe a non-super friend who learns their secret but is happy to keep it with them? Probably not. (Disney channel shows love doing that, giving one or a few characters special abilities and having their friends happily accept their side-kick roles.)

Anyway, there’s a part in The Incredibles in which Elastigirl (the mom) tells her son, Dash, that “everyone is special.” To which Dash replies “which is another way of saying no one is.” Beyond that the movie doesn’t really resolve the issue. Very quotable. How I resolve it: Yep, it’s true. Yep, sorry. No one is special. Everyone is. Live with it. What, Dash, you have to be more special than everyone else? Selfish conceded jerk!

Yet, in fiction, we don’t really live with it. We pretend it’s not true. We imagine stories of characters who really are more special than everyone else. The “chosen one” syndrome, as I might call it. I’m not sure why we do it, but we should at least recognize that we do. (Or maybe only I do since I am more special than everyone else.)

(Think about other exchanges Dash and Elastigirl could’ve had: “No one is special, Dash.” “Which is another way of saying everyone is!” or “The glass is half empty, Dash.” “Which is another way of saying the glass is half full!”)

(On a side note, Coyle also points out in the footnotes that the notion of the “Heroic Artist”–the genius artist that is more special than everyone else–may be a more recent phenomena in the course of human history, something that perhaps emerged in the Renaissance? Culture now supports the worshipping of geniuses of the past, putting them on pedestals: Shakespeare, Mozart, Beethoven, Rembrandt, da Vinci … such great works of art they produced! These people were not like us, they were geniuses high above us!)

OK, whew, didn’t mean for my post to get so long, but I think those are all the points I wanted to make today!


3 Comments

Steph · August 1, 2010 at 3:45 PM

The beginning of your post reminded me of what my (crazy) piano teacher used to tell me: “Practice does not make perfect. Perfect Practice does.”

Otherwise, this is interesting. I bought The Genius In All of Us, but haven’t had a chance to read it yet (self-imposed deadlines for my manuscript have pushed reading aside for the moment).

I tend to think that some people do have a more natural tendency to pick things up quicker. I always felt that I had to spend less effort for the same result as some of my friends. But maybe that is just a skill I taught myself at a young age? At the moment, I live in LA and meet a lot of people who say things like “I’m not as smart as you” or something that will make it seem like they have to rely on their pretty faces because they don’t have other skills the way I do. It drives me crazy. First of all, it’s a power move to get me to compliment them, which gets old fast when it happens as often as it does. Second, i worked hard for the skills I have and I’m still working to improve them. Third, I don’t believe that they aren’t smart. Sure, they haven’t undergone traditional education and lack some basic skills that I take for granted, but they’re parents allowed that to happen. And now as adults they don’t want to make the effort to gain or improve the skills that allow humans to function within society. They are happy to just accept that some are born smart, but they weren’t. Okay, I guess while I would love to consider myself just naturally intelligent, there were a lot of factors that added up to it (not least of which is who I’m comparing myself to).

My biggest question is how learning disabilities fit into this model? I think that they prove that some of us will have an easier time than others. At least with certain skill sets. I’ve read research that suggests the best way to deal with dyslexia is to be persistent. That the effects of the learning disorder will lessen with practice. (That is a paraphrase of something I read two years ago, so take it with a grain of salt). This would lead me to believe that what we do with our basic ability is more important than the place we start from.

As for the piano makes you good at math bit, I think that there can be a correlation, but not necessarily the one we expect. The kids I meet who are massively gifted at something artistic usually have parents pushing them to excel. They have learned time management and discipline at a very young age. These are the skills that I think transfer to other areas of life to improve math scores, etc.

S P Hannifin · August 2, 2010 at 7:56 PM

Thanks for comment!

I agree that sometimes people seem to have a knack for learning something quicker than others, I just think it’s hard (maybe impossible) to know how “natural” that tendency really is. I mean, it might not be something we can necessarily achieve through just will-power and hard work (since the point of learning something more quickly is to not have to work as hard), but that tendency could’ve still arisen from that person’s previous decisions, previous environments, previous knowledge, etc… If you’re learning something new, but you find ways to compare it to something you already know, you might learn it quicker and seem to have a more natural tendency for it, even though it’s not quite as natural as you think (but you might not be as consciously aware of this process of how you learn in the first place, which makes it seem natural all the more). Similarly, (and this point is made in The Genius in All of Us I think) if it takes you a little longer to understand one certain concept, it then becomes harder to understand all the concepts built on that concept, so if nobody recognizes that there was that one concept you didn’t quite understand as well, it can seem like you just don’t have the “natural” ability for that subject. But really you are more capable than you realize, you just have to identify that thing you don’t understand as well (which, of course, can often be difficult, which is why it’s easier to just blame it on not having a natural knack for it). Of course, not that natural tendencies don’t exist at all, it’s just really hard (or impossible) to know how much of our thought processes come from our DNA and how much from everything else that has happened to our brain since (or even before) we were born.

I like your response to people saying “I’m not as smart as you” … it is indeed sometimes a power move to get you to compliment them, or an excuse to get you to do something for them or for them to do less work. I bet a bunch of us from our generation get the same kind of thing from older technology-impaired people asking us for computer help. I’m convinced a lot of that comes from them just not wanting to learn about computers in the first place; they’re too scared and/or lazy. After all, there are a lot of older people who do learn and are good with computers, and I’m not convinced they’re just naturally smarter.

I also wonder how learning disabilities fit into the model, which is why I always try to use words like “almost” and stuff… firstly, it’s again hard to say how much of a disability is “natural”, depending on how you find the disability. Obviously some conditions like Autism and Down syndrome have effects, it’s not like one can just learn to not have these conditions anymore; they’re there, and they affect development. But if you’re just observing that otherwise normal little Bobby is just learning to read slower than everyone else, I don’t think that necessarily implies that it’s because of his DNA, and his disability is just natural. But, yes, overall I think you’re right: learning disabilities show that some of us will have an easier time than others with certain skill sets… at least, again, depending on how exactly those “disabilities” are defined and found…

You also make a good point about skills like time management and discipline, those would seem to be very transferable things, as they can be applied so many places to so many things. I might add emotional control (like anger management), self-image control (not comparing yourself to others too much, which can lead to envy which can lead to distraction and discouragement), and maybe even proper amounts of skepticism… and I’m sure there are a bunch more. I guess effective practicing techniques themselves are highly transferable skills… at least the ability to recognize the properties of what makes practice more effective.

And there are plenty of relationships between math and music, especially in terms of rhythm (key signatures and note values). I remember I learned about note values pretty easily because you can think about them just being numbers. Then you can add them, subtract, multiply, etc. Just treat them like numbers (or fractions) and they’re easy to work with if you’re already good with that kind of stuff. So I think there’s some transferability there. But it still might not necessarily work for everyone… and though it might help me learn note values quickly, it doesn’t necessarily so directly help other aspects of music skills, like piano playing, which is more of a motor skill, or melody composing, which is a more creative process.

S P Hannifin · August 2, 2010 at 8:26 PM

Come to think, transferability itself might be a transferable skill…

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