Thursday, March 17, 2011

Back to the Memory Palace

"What is familiar is not known." That was a favorite expression of one classics-oriented tutor at my alma mater. The psychologist K. Anders Ericsson puts it more vividly: "Living in a cave does not make you a geologist."

Ericsson is one of the world's leading experts on the subject of expertise -- what it is and how to get it. He's the editor of the 900-page Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, though his conclusions have also been boiled down into a business magazine article that is digestible even by the likes of me.

One key finding is that factors such as IQ (and pretty much all other vaunted forms of innate ability, except for the physical gifts of athletes) have almost no bearing on how quickly or to what level expertise can be acquired. What matters most by far is what Ericsson calls "deliberate practice," which almost always (even in seemingly exceptional cases such as Mozart or Bobby Fischer) turns out to adhere closely to the 10 years/10,000 hours rule. {"Many characteristics once believed to reflect innate talent are actually the result of intense practice extended for a minimum of 10 years.")

"Deliberate" is the operative word: you can flub around playing mediocre golf for 30 years, but your game will only start to improve if you focus purposefully on identifying and correcting flaws. So writing teachers whose only advice is to "read a lot, read everything," may have been steering people wrong all these years. How you read could be just as important. People training for marathons don't just go out and "run a lot." They set schedules that include days devoted to speed, days devoted to distance and days devoted to pace, with days of rest in between. Tiger Woods famously spends entire days practicing a single problem shot. The quality of teaching and coaching is said to be crucial, as well, not least so that a practitioner can learn to identify his own flaws and graduate to "coaching himself." Editing is the obvious parallel in my area. Good editors improve not just writing but writers -- suggesting that the the current norm of editors who don't bother to edit could be having deleterious effects on the entire culture.

On the whole I find this encouraging. One knows one is not a genius, after all, but perhaps achievement of some kind is possible anyway. There is also little evidence, apparently, that age is a barrier. More good news.

Later I happened upon an article in the New York Review of Books that made me wonder if the recently discovered brain quirks known as "mirror neurons" could be exceptions to Ericssons' exclusion of in-born traits:

In a chapter boldly entitled “The Neurons That Shaped Civilization,” Ramachandran invests the famous “mirror neurons” (discovered in the 1990s) with remarkable generative powers. The mirror neurons that have been identified in the brain serve as the mechanism of imitation, he suggests, in virtue of their ability to react or “fire” sympathetically, and thus affect consciousness, when you are watching someone else do something: some of the same neurons fire both when you observe the performance of an action and when you actually perform that action. This is held to show that the brain automatically produces a representation of someone else’s “point of view”—it runs by means of mirroring neurons an internal simulation of the other’s intended action.

Observing that we are a species much talented in the art of imitation, Ramachandran suggests that mirror neurons enable us to absorb the culture of previous generations:
Culture consists of massive collections of complex skills and knowledge which are transferred from person to person through two core mediums, language and imitation. We would be nothing without our savant-like ability to imitate others.
The mirror neurons act like sympathetic movements that can occur when watching someone else perform a difficult task—as when your arm swings slightly when you watch someone hit a ball with a bat. For Ramachandran this specific neural circuitry provides the key to understanding the growth of culture; indeed, the mirror neurons are held to permit the evolution of language, by enabling imitative utterance.
What if an excess in the mirror neuron area (or a defect in the "special inhibitory mechanisms" we need to "keep our mirror neurons under control") could help account for the exceedingly fine grained imitative ability of a great actor, or of a writer whose dialog is uncannily authentic, or of a draughtsman who with a single pencil stroke can evoke the shape of a tree branch or the curve of a woman's hip? Must also enter into our response to those productions, with an excess perhaps nudging upward the work of the greatest critics.

How weird would it be if critics, those ticks on the dog's rump of art, turned out to be among the few people on earth who could legitimatly be described as talented?

UPDATE: The parallel drawn above between "reading a lot" and "running a lot" doesn't work. The real comprison would be with a guy who thinks he can learn to write by piling up pages. So how would a budding writer pursue reading as a form of deliberate practice? Studiously, perhaps. You read George Higgens not just to savor his flavorful dialog but to figure out how he does it. Because it is, after all, a trick. None of the guys who are noted for this (Higgens, Leonard, Price) gets these passages by turning on a mental tape recorder.

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