Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Nurture Trumps Nature, Part II

Written by johnleemk on 9:00:39 am Feb 20, 2007.

This is the conclusion of a two-part series, following Part I.

The August 2006 issue of Scientific American frontpages a story titled "Secrets of the Expert Mind", with the subtitle "Become Good At Anything". The article is an investigation of how experts in particular fields have a seemingly supernatural ability to perform in them - whether it's the grandmaster who can spot a winning move in two seconds, or a doctor who can diagnose a patient the moment she walks into the room. Much of the article centres around the abilities of chess grandmasters.

Now, I'm certain you must be questioning the validity of any study that focuses on one particular microscopic segment of the human population - surely there is biased sampling going on here! However, the article;s author explains that the only reason chess is being studied for this purpose is that ability in chess is highly measurable, whereas success in a variety of other fields, from stock-picking to wine-tasting, is not. Furthermore, in other fields, he notes, it is difficult to seperate the wheat from the chaff - professional stock-pickers do no better than average ones (the Wall Street Journal once conducted an experiment with picking stocks by throwing pins at a dartboard, and the stocks selected frequently outperformed those selected by professionals), for example.

Several studies have shown that talent, at least in chess, is nurtured rather than natural. For instance, show an amateur and a grandmaster two game boards - one displaying a real game in progress, and the other displaying a random jumbling of chess pieces. The grandmaster will consistently and accurately recall the positions of the pieces in the real game, while only marginally outperforming the amateur in remembering the positions of the randomly arranged pieces. In other memory tests, these grandmasters have been proven to have no innate advantage when compared to the amateurs. The only logical conclusion that can be drawn is that years of practice have allowed the grandmasters to unconsciously build up a mental database of moves - which is apparently what gives them an edge in matches against amateurs, who have to spend more time analysing a novel move, while the chessmasters, familiar with the position, will subconsciously and intuitively know the correct response to make. There has even been a case study conducted on one Canadian man, who over the course of nine years, rose from his mediocrity in chess to being one of his country's leading masters. Psychologists analysing his thought processes showed no difference between his thinking before becoming a professional and after - the only difference was that he now had a greater deal of experience to drawn on when making decisions. His analytical skills remained the same.

This, combined with other studies, has led one psychologist to coin a law called the 10-year-rule, which predicts that "it takes approximately a decade of heavy labour to master any field". Proponents of this law note that the proliferation of chess prodigies in recent years an be attributed to the wide availability of chess computer programs, which expose children to a much broader repertoire of positions and moves than chess players of years past were exposed to. A study of tournaments played prior to the Computer Age and contemporary matches has shown that a grandmaster in 1911 would probably be ranked hundreds of points below grandmaster level. Again, this can only be attributable to the increased experience had by modern chess players.

Psychologists have also found that it is not just doing something that counts as practice; you have to consciously and effortfully analyse your conduct, searching for mistakes or areas to be improved on. You can spend thousands of hours driving without ever coming to close to Fernando Alonso's skill in handling a corner, but if each of those hours was spent consciously analysing how you took a corner, you could pose some tough competition - at least, that's how the theory goes.

As an experiment, a Hungarian educator homeschooled his three children in chess. He produced one international master and two grandmasters. Either those are some pretty naturally chess-inclined genes, or the concerted practice was the difference. Incidentally, it seems that the number of chess prodigies rose significantly after he published a book on chess education. A similar phenomenon was observed when Mozart's father did the same thing, publishing a book about the education of a musical prodigy.

The conclusion seems clear: nurturing has the upper hand in determining one's fate in life. But the data doesn't appear completely convincing yet, does it? After all, maybe chess players are just freaks on a different plane of existence than the rest of humanity. Let us, turn then, to a study of football players in Brazil, Germany, Japan and Australia - a study showing that those born in the first three months after the cutoff date for youth football leagues are over-represented in these leagues by at least five, and often ten percent. The only plausible explanation for this? Those born earliest would have up to twelve months more experience than their competitors, and similarly they would also have a physical advantage when entering the leagues. This would only provide a slight advantage initially, but through the process of a virtuous circle, they would be motivated to work harder, and thus the advantage would widen - leading to the overrepresentation of the demographic in football leagues.

Returning to anecdotal evidence once more, my youngest sister is also developing her social skills through practice. Joche (that's her name; for those who are curious, she was named after Jochebed, the mother of the Biblical prophet Moses) was born with global developmental delay, which essentially means her development in all aspects - mental, physical, emotional - has been greatly delayed. It is something like Down's Syndrome, although nowhere as debilitating - with enough rehabilitation, Joche can become a positive contributor to society.

The thing about Joche, though, is that she learns extremely slowly. Some people, once exposed to something, will never forget the lesson they learn. Others (like me) need to repeat the lesson a few extra times to get it drummed into us. Joche literally needs to learn the same thing a few thousand times to master it (she will be turning ten in a few months, and she still has no understanding of abstract concepts like numbers or time, despite repeated encouragement and exercises). Most (if not all) of the few things she has actually learnt, however, have been learnt through hours and hours of practice.

Joche's talent is in dancing and singing - and she's also showing signs of language mastery (a real surprise, since she couldn't even speak a word until she was about four or five years old). How did she attain these skills? By spending almost every waking hour of her day watching the idiot box. I'm serious - she would watch Barney the Purple Dinosaur from the early hours of the morning (by which I mean 4AM, when she'd wake up to turn the television on) to the latest hours of the night. The whole family was forced to listen to the insane songs of a man in a purple rubber dinosaur suit, but in the end, my sister benefited because as a result she was encouraged to take up a hobby with normal kids - ballet.

Now Joche's most recent obsession is that piece of tripe from Disney known as High School Musical. If you're a parent, you may have heard of it if you have a daughter under the age of 21, who would likely be drooling over a talentless hack named Zac Efron (who incidentally is quite possibly the ugliest lead male actor I have seen on Disney). Anyway, Joche is slowly picking up social skills by watching High School Musical. Whenever she encounters a plot point she doesn't understand, she asks for an explanation. At present, her main difficulty is understanding why the lead female character is upset with the lead male character - so she'll watch the movie again and again until she's got this prickly point nailed down. (During the Christmas season, our DVD player ran daily shows of High School Musical - and sometimes more frequently than that.) And then she'll move on to the next issue - such as perhaps examining the motivations of the supporting characters, or understanding why so many people think i[]High School Musical[/i] is the greatest thing since sliced bread when it has the most contrived plot I've ever seen. (Although that could be asking too much of a nine-year-old girl with symptoms of autism.)

At any rate, even with a developmentally delayed child, the key to reaching her full potential seems to merely be repetition - repetition with a challenge in mind. Every time a challenge is confronted, a new experience is gained, and one's abilities broaden - whether by a mile or by an inch is perhaps not determined by nurturing, but certainly, if you are of normal aptitude, there seems to be no reason why you cannot excel in at least one field you devote yourself to. In the January 2007 issue of Reader's Digest, Will Smith says:

I consider myself to be basically of average talent, right? What I have that other people do not is a sick, obsessive, raw animal drive.

Apparently Will Smith believes he can fly the Space Shuttle, because "someone else knows how to fly it". I don't know if that's an appropriate amount of hubris - but I doubt it could hurt if people were more determined and self-confident. (In an irony of ironies, I am hardly one to preach about perseverance or self-confidence - but those are stories for another time. And surprisingly, I find I actually agree with Will Smith on a number of issues, running the gamut from education to relationships. It's eerie, because I never thought I could have more than something superficial in common with a rapper.)

Does all this mean that nature has little or no role to play in our personal development? Absolutely not - as mentioned earlier, you will never get a Down's Syndrome sufferer to discover the theory of relativity on his own - not even with all the nurturing in the world. (Although I'd be more than happy to be proven wrong.) But as Scientific American concludes, perhaps educators ought to be asking not "Why can't Johnny read?" but "Why isn't there anything in the world Johnny can't do?"

This is the conclusion of a two-part series, following Part I.

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