RE: "Rage to Master" from Dr. Winner

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From: Mike Dierken (
Date: Mon Feb 05 2001 - 13:16:47 PST

Thanks for the timely pointer. The guy in the next cube has an
almost-two-year-old that is starting to read and is really into music.


> -----Original Message-----
> From: Rohit Khare []
> Sent: Saturday, February 03, 2001 12:50 PM
> To:
> Subject: "Rage to Master" from Dr. Winner
> >Just as Dr Ericsson took people with no discernible talent and
> >turned them into champions, so, in a fashion, did a Hungarian,
> >Laszlo Polgar. When he began training his daughters, it was widely
> >believed that women could not play serious tournament chess. But
> >through a deliberate (and still continuing) psychological
> >experiment, Dr Polgar and his wife created a trio of world-class
> >chess champions out of their own daughters, overturning this
> >prejudice.
> >
> >By 1992, all three had reached the women's top ten worldwide. The
> >third, who presumably received the most refined training regimen,
> >became the youngest grandmaster in the history of the game and is
> >reckoned by her peers to have a good chance of becoming world
> >champion one day. With remarkable, if not hubristic, prescience, Dr
> >Polgar had written a detailed book on the subject of child rearing,
> >entitled "Bring Up Genius!" before beginning the coaching of his
> >children. But would any child reared by such a parent have become a
> >chess prodigy?
> >
> >Ellen Winner, a psychologist at Boston College who has been studying
> >the relationship between exposure to the arts and subsequent
> >academic achievement, believes not. She argues that only children
> >with the "rage to master" a skill could make it through the
> >gruelling years of training needed to achieve expert ability. The
> >rage to master may be the point at which nature unequivocally makes
> >its constraints felt. Even Dr Ericsson concedes that there might be
> >a genetic component separating the child willing to persevere with a
> >rigorous schedule from the child who would rather play videogames.
> From the Devniad, Bob Devney:
> > BC psychologist Ellen Winner and her book Gifted Children:: Myths
> >and Realities (Basic Books, 1996).
> >
> >Here's a paragraph from the article that's sure to disappoint as
> >many as 99.9% of us, not-quite-Leonardos all.
> >
> >"Gifted children have three telltale characteristics, Winner says.
> >First, they begin to master an area of knowledge, or domain, such as
> >math, drawing or chess, at an extremely early age, before starting
> >school. Second, they need little help from adults in that domain,
> >solving problems in often-novel ways, with each discovery fueling
> >the next step. And third, they have what she describes as a rage to
> >master their domain, working at it intensively and obsessively,
> >often isolating themselves from others in order to pursue it. These
> >children push themselves, achieve "flow states" in their work, and
> >beg their parents for the books, musical instruments or art supplies
> >they need to feed their passion. They need stimulating environments
> >to develop their talents, Winner says of these children, but the
> >demand comes from them, not the parents."
> >
> >Her examples include Michael Kearney, who read signs and labels out
> >loud at the supermarket aged 10 months. (He's now the country's only
> >12-year-old graduate student in anthropology.) Or KyLee, who divined
> >the existence of prime numbers on his own at age 5.
> >
> >Sorry, friend. She's not talking here about when you begged Mom for
> >books on horses or Tom Swift when you were eight.
> >
> >Or, sad to say, even about me.
> >As Ellen Winner argues in Gifted Children (Basic Books, 1996),
> >prodigies can be distinguished from an early age from their peers.
> >Prodigies show a fascination (bordering on obsession) with a certain
> >content (e.g., numbers, visual patterns, auditory musical patterns)
> >and they have a rage to master the domains that deal with such
> >specific content. While they may have parental support, this support
> >is reactive rather than initiating. Moreover, prodigies - unlike the
> >rest of us - do not simply follow the conventional educational
> >pattern. They pose new questions, and they often solve domain issues
> >wholly or largely on their own. Philosopher Saul Kripke conjectures
> >that if algebra had not existed when he was in elementary school, he
> >would have invented it; and this kind of comment (whatever its truth
> >value in the specific case) captures quite accurately the mental
> >attitudes and powers of prodigies.
> >
> >No one understands the origins of prodigies. We simply have to
> >generate satisfying ways of thinking about them. I find it useful to
> >think of prodigies as having the same strategies and parameters with
> >reference to their chosen content domain that all normal individuals
> >have with respect to the mastery of one natural language. (In other
> >words, we are all linguistic prodigies, while prodigies in other
> >domains are rare). The prodigy seems "pretuned" to discover patterns
> >in the domain, including ones that have eluded others. Perhaps, if
> >it is to result in achievements that are valued by the adult
> >society, this gift has eventually to be wedded to strong motivation
> >(to succeed, to master) and to be creative (to step out in new
> >directions); and, if it is to be distinguished from the mechanistic
> >ability of the savant, it has eventually to be linked to wider
> >problems, including issues from other domains. Dean Keith Simonton
> >has written interestingly about the possibility that genius involves
> >the very occasional concatenation of these disparate human
> >proclivities and talents.
> >
> >I think that one is far more likely to understand Mozart, Bobby
> >Fischer, or Ramanujun if one assumes that they differ in fundamental
> >ways from the rest of the population than if one has to gerrymander
> >an explanation that simply builds on the general abilities of the
> >general public. Whether Ramanujun may have recalled an earlier feat
> >of calculation, and whether the rest of us could also recognize the
> >special features of the number 1729 is beside the point. Ramanujun
> >is honored because he covered several hundred years of mathematics
> >on his own in India and then made original contributions to number
> >theory after he joined G. H. Hardy in Cambridge.
> Dr. Winner's Nine Myths About the Gifted.
> Myth #1: Giftedness, when it occurs, is generally global.
> The Reality: More often than not, children are unevenly gifted,often
> being especially gifted in one area. It's not uncommon to find them
> quite gifted in a specific area, but average or learning-disabled in
> another. (She gives the example of adult inventors with verbal IQ's
> of 60.)
> Myth 2: Talented children face different problems than
> gifted children.
> The Reality: Specially talented children face the same problems as
> the globally gifted.
> Myth 3: An exceptionally high IQ is required for giftedness.
> The Reality: Once the IQ exceeds 90, a high IQ is irrelevant in the
> fields of music and art.
> Myth 4: "Genius will out".
> The Reality: Families play a far more important role in the
> development of gifts than do schools, and are essential to the
> development of the gifted or talents child. Genius must be nurtured.
> Myth 5: Genius is entirely environmental.
> The Reality: The brains of the gifted are atypical. Their heads tend
> to be larger, their reflexes are faster, and their brains show
> atypical brain scan patterns. Brain structure, brain size, brain
> speed, brain efficiency, bilateral representation of language,
> language-related problems, non-right-handedness, immune system
> disorders. Programs such as the Japanese Suzuki Method of training
> students to play the violin can elicit remarkable results in
> children, but they don't produce musically gifted children. (Driven
> from within, prodigies are their own taskmasters. If anything, these
> programs testify to the biological basis of precocity.). Chinese
> drawing instruction produces the same kinds of dramatic juvenile
> output, but doesn't lead to true artistry, or to spontaneous learning
> of artistic principles.
> Myth 6: Prodigies are the result of parents that push their children.
> The Reality: Prodigies usually push their parents.
> Myth 7: Gifted children are glowing with psychological health.
> The Reality: As with a disability, giftedness can lead to unhappiness
> and social isolation. With adult minds in children's bodies,
> profoundly gifted children tend to be persecuted by other children.
> They tend to find little commonality with their age peers, relating
> to older children or adults.
> Myth 8: All children are gifted.
> The Reality: Nobody doubts that some children are musical or athletic
> prodigies. Nobody expects a small kid to become a tight end, or a
> short child to become a Harlem Globetrotter. Gifted children are
> biologically different. If you doubt it, try to raise someone's 90 IQ
> to 150. Dr. Winner cites the intriguing case of Charles, versus Eitan
> and Peter. All three boys were obsessed with drawing. However, Eitan
> and Peter were far ahead of their years, whereas Charles, in spite of
> all the drawing he did, never exceeded the norms for his age group.
> Myth 9: Gifted children become eminent adults.
> The Reality: Personality attributes more reliably predict what will
> happen in adulthood than does the child's degree of giftedness.
> Child prodigies are characterized by:
> * Precocity
> * Marching to their own drummers
> * A rage to master
> Dr. Winner cites two examples of global prodigies, "David" and
> Michael Kearney. David began to speak at eight months, and by fifteen
> months, knew 200 words. David learned to read at three, pushing his
> mother to show him what the words meant. Then he began to read
> voraciously, several books at a time. At five, he had reached a fifth
> grade reading level. At fifteen months, he could count to ten. At
> four, he could do simple two-digit additions in his head.
> One way to describe David and other super-bright children with a
> "rage to learn" is that they manipulate their environments in order
> to render them intellectually stimulating.
> Michael and Maeghan Kearney exemplify these characteristics.
> (Please see also the Book Review "Accidental Genius" in the Premier
> Issue of Ubiquity.) Michael began to talk at 4 months and to read at
> 10 months. He began high school at 5, and graduated from high school
> at 6, promptly entering San Joaquin Junior College. At 10, he
> graduated from the University of South Alabama with a 3.6 average in
> anthropology, and graduated from Middle Tennessee State University at
> 14 with a degree in chemistry. (He holds four academic records in the
> Guinness Book of World Records.) Maeghan is equally intelligent,
> although not as far advanced scholastically as Michael. Both Michael
> and Maeghan are globally gifted, and presumably, at the upper limit
> of the human register. Both of them exhibited a "rage to learn" and a
> need to stimulate their minds that was almost like a "magnificent
> addiction". Both of them pushed their parents. Their parents devoted
> all their resources to supporting their unique children, moving
> around the country and making the sacrifices necessary to nurture
> their children's gifts. The parents have gone all-out to ensure that
> Michael and Maeghan are as well-rounded and emotionally healthy as
> possible, and that they have had childhoods that are as normal as
> children this precocious can have.
> The Gifted Child:
> * Is very alert
> * Recognizes people at an early age
> * Has a preference for novelty
> * Is precocious in raising head, sitting up, walking, etc.
> * Talks early and well
> * Tends to be verreactive to noise, pain, frustration
> * Learns with minimal instruction
> * Is highly curious
> * Exhibits persistence and concentration
> * Possesses high energy
> * Has a metacognitive awareness. Induces rules if reading and
> math the way normal children induce the rules of syntax
> * Has obsessive interests
> * Tends to begin reading early and voraciously. Reading at
> 6th-grade level at 5 isn't unusual.
> * Is adept with numbers. Mathematically giftedness: numerical,
> spatial, and working memory tend to go tegether.
> * Has a good memory
> * Is proficient at abstract logical reasoning
> * Tends to have poor handwriting
> * Engages in solitary play (by default)
> * Prefers to associate with older children or adults
> * Exhibits philosophical and moral concerns
> * Possesses a good sense of humor
> * Experiences of awe
> The highly gifted child:
> * Occupies a special position within the family: often
> first-born or only children.
> * Grows up in "enriched" environments. Adam Konantovich.
> * Typically has child-centered parents. Yehudi Menuhin
> * Parents are driven.
> * Has parents who grant considerable independence.
> * Flourishes in an envrionment of high expectations and
> stimulation, combined with nurturance and support.
> When parents push too hard, the child may rebel or "burn out"
> Examples of this phenomenon are John Stuart Mill and William Sidis.
> Social and emotional problems
> * Is characterized by autonomy, independence of thought and
> values, will, and nonconformity.
> * Engages in advanced moral reasoning.
> * Tends toward introversion.
> * Has heightened sensitivity.
> * Loneliness
> * Lowered social self-Confidence
> * Does the label "Gifted" cause problems?
> * May underperform because they are underchallenged, and/or
> because they want social acceptance.
> * Enjoys a challenge
> * Sets high standards
> * Generally has academic self-esteem
> Gender differences:
> Boys with SAT math scores above 700 were 13 times as
> prevalent as
> girls. (However, the ratio is only 4:1 among Asian-Americans taking
> the SAT.).
> Terman Study
> The Terman-Cox Longitudinal (Lifetime) Study of Gifted Children
> began in 1921-22 with a screening of ~250,000 schoolchildren in
> California. Nominally, the top 1% were to be accepted into the study,
> but in reality, only 1,526, or (0.6%) were accepted. To compound the
> problem, the initial screening for the Terman Study was performed by
> teachers. We know today what they didn't know in 1921: that the
> brightest-seeming, best-behaved children may not be the brightest.
> The brightest may be bored troublemakers or argumentative with the
> teacher. In reality, the Terman Study selected much less than
> half--perhaps, 20%- of the children who would later become gifted
> adults. In particular, it missed the two children who would later
> become Nobel Laureates in physics--Dr. William Shockley and Dr. Luis
> Alvarez.
> Dr. Terman laid by the heels the adage, "Early to ripen,
> early to
> rot". For the most part, his "Termites" went on to become successful
> professionals. However, in his zeal to counter the pejorative notions
> about prodigies that pervaded the public mind, Dr. Terman went a
> little overboard. His data actually showed that the brighter the
> child, the less well-adjusted he/she. was. There was a "sweet spot"
> ranging from IQ 120 to, perhaps, IQ 150 where the individual is
> smarter than the average bear, but not so smart that they have
> problems adjusting to a lesser world--like the plight of a 6' 4" man
> versus that of his 7' counterpart.
> Gifted Programs
> Special Problems for Gifted Children
> * Because of their high energy levels and boredom with trivial
> busywork, gifted children are often misdiagnosed with ADHD.
> * Difficult to distinguish between boredom, disturbed, or
> learning disabled.
> * 30% show a discrepency between MA and reading achievement.
> Types of Gifted Programs
> * Egalitarianism.
> * Ability grouping
> * Acceleration
> * Home schooling is last resort. Can't be with their peers.
> Dr. Winner has this to say about our current offerings
> for gifted students:
> * American schools have low standards
> * Low standards lead to underachievement
> * School plays litle or no role in the nurturing of their gifts
> * Gifted chidren from disadvantaged backgrounds suffer most.
> Options:
> * Private schools
> * Magnet schools
> * Gifted programs
> * CTY
> In 1972, the Marland Report concluded that:
> * Only 4% of gifted students were getting any kind of
> special services
> * Half the superintendents said they had no gifted children in
> their schools.
> * Gifted are the most "retarded" in their schools because of
> discrepency between abilities and what schools could offer them.
> * Only disabled children have a law mandating that they get
> special educational treatment. Only about a fifth of our states
> include the gifted as special education students covered by the law
> for the handicapped.
> The Riley Report, a Follow-Up Study to the Marland Report:
> * Again deplored the state of gifted education in our country.
> * Observed that we offer far more services to retarded children
> than to gifted children.
> * IQ's 2 s. d. below the mean (68) are given special help.
> * IQ's 3 s. d. below the mean (52) are enrolled in partial or
> full-day programs
> * IQ's 4 s. d. below the mean (36) are given special
> supervision and are in institutions.
> Dr. Winner Concludes that:
> * We should pull up all school standards.
> * We are wasting what few gifted resources we have.
> The Gifted Child Grows Up
> Benjamin Bloom: Not one world-class performer in a variety of fields,
> including math, art, music, and athletics ever achieved expertise
> without a supportive and encouraging environment, including a long
> and intensive period of training, first from loving and warm
> teachers, and then from demanding and rigorous master teachers.
> Anders Ericsson: Levels of achievement reached in piano, violin,
> chess, bridge, and athletics correlate highly with hours of
> deliberate practice.
> (Shows necessity but not sufficiency.)
> Childhood: 30% hereditary, 30% family environment, 40% other
> environmental.
> Adolesence: 50% hereditary, 10% familial, with 40% environmental.
> Adulthood: 75% heredity, 5% childhood background, 15% environmental,
> 15% error.
> Eitan lost his passion for art.
> Out of 70 musical prodigies in San Francisco in the 20's and 30's,
> only 6 (including Yehudi Menuhin and Leon Fischer) went on to become
> well-known soloists. Norbert Wiener, Jean Piaget, and Pablo Picasso
> went on to become highly successful adults. There are four classes of
> outcomes:
> * Gifted children who drop out. Wiener made it; Sidis didn't.
> * Gifted children who become experts, but not creative geniuses.
> * Gifted children who become adult geniuses. Not only early
> ability but a rebellious disposition.
> * Late bloomers. Bill Gates, Edwin Land, Buckminster Fuller
> Terman subjects were too well-adjusted.
> Adult geniuses stand out far more clearly in personality and
> motivational factors.
> Above an IQ of 120, there is no relationshiip between IQ and genius.
> Some inventors have verbal IQ's as low as 60. Shockley and Alvarez.
> Marilyn vos Savant. IQ tests tell nothing about social skills,
> intrapersonal skills, "practical" intelligence, and resilience.
> (Quotation about high-IQ societies.)
> Greatest classical composers tended to have been child prodigies.
> Prodigies take about three fewer years to achieve greatness, and they
> tend to achieve greater adult eminence. However, the majority are not
> child prodigies. Writing and the visual arts, and law and medicine
> don't lend themselves to prodigies. Of Feldman's and Goldsmith's six
> prodigies, only one chose a career directly related to his or her
> field of precocity. Violin prodigy became a world-class violinist.
> Writing prodigy became a writer for a music magazine. Adam
> Konantovich attended an ordinary college and had a spotty record. The
> math prodigy who entered college at 13 went to work at Goddard. The
> two chess prodigies quit by 10 or 11. One did poorly in school; the
> other went to law school. Adult creativity requires more than
> mechanical knowledge. Adolescebnt identity crisis when prodigy
> realizes that it takes more than mere know-how.
> Geniuses are hard-driving, focussed, dominant, independent
> risk-takers. Drive and energy. Attention, interest, and flow.
> Dominance, confidence, and tolerance of competition. Independence and
> introversion.
> Risk taking and a desire to shake things up.
> Gender.
> Luck.
> The news that I find perhaps the most disturbing is that most
> child prodigies don't mature into adult leaders in their fields. Once
> the IQ reaches or exceeds a level of 120, there is no correlation
> between adult intellectual output and IQ(!).On the other hand,
> (1) There is a tremendous change in capability going from IQ
> 80 to IQ 120,
> (2) The average IQ of Ph. D.'s is 130;
> (3) The average IQ of Ph. D. physicists is 140.
> Obviously, you have a better chance of becoming a Ph. D.
> physicist if your IQ is 160 than you do if it's 120.
> This conclusion of flat performance once the IQ exceeds
> 120 flies
> in the face of common sense. If this is true, what are we doing wrong?
> Says only 2 or 3 in 100 have IQ's of 130 or above. Only one in a
> hundred has an IQ of 140 or above. 1 in 10,000-to-30,000 will score
> 160 or higher, only 1 in a 1,000,000 will exceed 180. Highest Termite
> score was 196; average was 150. Average Ph. D. is 130; average Ph. D.
> physicist is 140.
> --------------------------------------------------------------
> ----------
> Ellen Winner
> Gifted Children: Myths and Realities
> --------------------------------------------------------------
> ----------
> The term "gifted" is emotionally loaded. Throughout history, genius
> has often been seen as one aspect of insanity. Aristotle's
> observation "There was never a great genius without a tincture of
> madness" continues to be believed as common folklore.
> People also tend to believe that intellectualism and practicality are
> incompatible. It is expressed in such sayings as "He (or she) is too
> smart for his (her) own good" or "It's not smart to be too smart."
> High intelligence is often assumed to be incompatible with happiness.
> Gifted children too have inspired fascination and awe, as well as
> intimidation and envy. They have been rejected as nerds. Their
> parents have been derided as zealots who live through their children
> and deprive them of their childhood.
> Our schools have often been criticized for refusing to modify the
> curriculum for the gifted, or for pulling the smart kids in from
> other schools in order to fill a gifted program. Despite lip service
> paid to the gifted our society ignores the problem of how to identify
> and nurture children with exceptional abilities.
> In her new book "Gifted Children: Myths and Realities," Boston
> College psychologist Ellen Winner examines the issues associated with
> gifted children. In the book Winner explores the myths about
> giftedness and shows us what these children are really like.
> --------------------------------------------------------------
> ----------
> winner_1
> 97.html+%22rage+to+master%22+ellen+winner+boston+&hl=en&client=googlet
> Tischler: How did you become interested in the topic of
> gifted children?
> Winner: I am a developmental psychologist, so I am interested in
> normal development. I also have been particularly interested in
> artistic development, and as soon as you are interested in artistic
> and musical children you are exposed to issues of extreme ability and
> talent.
> I also became interested in this topic because psychologists seem to
> know a good deal more about the negative aspects of development than
> the positive. We know a lot more about retardation than we do about
> giftedness. So I felt there was much research that needed to be done.
> Tischler: I have often noticed a level of hostility and resentment
> toward programs for the gifted. Why is that the case?
> Winner: I think that they are threatening. I think people feel
> envious also. There is also an anti-elitism strain and an
> anti--intellectualism strain. It's interesting, because I don't think
> that we feel as hostile towards children who are artistically or
> musically gifted or athletically talented. We are perfectly willing
> to accept that there are children at the high end in those areas. We
> know that these children get extra and special lessons after school.
> The academically gifted, however, seem to bother people. If there are
> certain children who are the academic elite, it means there are
> others who are not, and people do not want to think that.
> Tischler: In your book you mention several traits that are associated
> with gifted children. What are these traits?
> Winner: I talk about three traits. The first is precocity. These
> children are extremely precocious. They do things years ahead of
> their peers. For example, in the academic area they may start to read
> at age two or three. They will talk early. One gifted child started
> to talk before he was six months old. He was reading before he was
> twelve months old. That was the most extreme case, a child named
> Michael Carney, who has been in the news often. He was the youngest
> college graduate ever, graduating at age ten.
> A second characteristic is what I call a rage to master. Gifted
> children are internally driven. They are driven to master their area
> of talent. You don't need to push these children. They are pushing
> themselves.
> The third characteristic is that these children march to their own
> drummer. They are not just faster, they are also different. One way
> that they are different is that they are extremely independent. They
> need almost no adult support in order to master their domain. In
> fact, they are often resistant to adult interference. They are also
> different in that they seem to solve problems in unusual ways. They
> don't just solve problems faster, but they come up with intuitive and
> creative solutions.
> Tischler: Is there a difference between the academically gifted and
> the aesthetically gifted?
> Winner: In my book I talk about academic, musical, and artistic
> giftedness. In the academic area I distinguish between math and
> linguistic abilities. I think each of these areas has its own
> developmental history, its own early signs, and needs to be
> considered separately. The art and music children have all three of
> the criteria for giftedness that I just mentioned.
> I think it is a mistake to differentiate too strongly between the
> aesthetically gifted and the academically gifted. We tend to call
> academically gifted children "gifted," and musically and artistically
> gifted "talented." We imply that there is some qualitative difference
> between these two classes of children. I don't think they are
> qualitatively different except for the domain in which they have
> their talent. The musically and artistically talented are also
> extremely precocious, they have this rage to master and they also
> march to their own drummer.
> Tischler: You also take issue with the statement that many teachers
> make that all children are gifted and they all have talents that just
> need to be nurtured and developed.
> Winner: About twenty years the view was that no children were gifted.
> Today the politically correct thing to say is that all children are
> gifted. It also means that we do not need to do anything for these
> children, because there are no special children and every child has a
> gift. Of course every child has relative strengths and weaknesses,
> but that is not the same as saying that every child has an extreme
> area of ability. In my book I am talking about children who are
> extremely gifted. It is certainly not the case that all children are
> extremely gifted.
> Tischler: How extensive are the programs for the gifted?
> Winner: We really don't do that much, and it is particularly a
> problem during the elementary school years. The most common form of
> program for the gifted is an enrichment or pull-out program. That
> means that the child is taken out of the classroom once or twice a
> week for a forty minute session of a class that, it might involve
> field trips, creative problem solving, projects, and just about
> anything. These programs are not geared to any particular area of
> giftedness and the way to get into these programs is to score 130 on
> an IQ test or by a teacher recommendation. This means that these
> programs are mostly populated by what I call moderately gifted
> children, and they are in there with the extremely gifted. These are
> minimal solutions to big problems. These kids then go back to the
> regular classroom and are asked to spend the rest of the week
> learning at a level for which they are much too advanced.
> Parents of extremely gifted children need to find a school that is
> specially set up for these children. If that is not possible, I would
> recommend some moderate grade skipping, possibly one or two years. I
> would also recommend a school that allows the child to advance at his
> or her own pace. That might be the only solution parents can find
> today.
> Who wants to be a genius?
> Jan 13th 2001
> From The Economist print edition
> Psychologists are divided over whether genius is innate or acquired.
> Nobody has yet been smart enough to figure it out
> THOMAS EDISON gave his famous formula for genius as 1% inspiration
> and 99% perspiration. Modern-day students of geniuses and prodigies,
> though, argue over the relative contributions of more tangible
> factors-of genetics, of physiology, of hours spent in training. Most
> believe that geniuses have special genes. Almost nobody takes the
> opposite stance: that prodigy performance, in any field, lies within
> the grasp of anyone who cares to try hard enough.
> Anders Ericsson, a psychologist at Florida State University, falls
> into the minority camp. Given ten years of deliberate practice, Dr
> Ericsson says, anyone should be able to attain prodigy-level
> performance in his discipline of choice. The intuitive objection to
> this idea is the "Mozart argument", as it is called by Brian
> Butterworth, a neuroscientist at University College London who has
> studied the psychological aspects of arithmetic for many years. This
> argument is that not everyone can become a Mozart merely by dint of
> hard work. Dr Ericsson wonders why not. After all, he argues, did not
> Mozart become Mozart by dint of hard work?
> This may seem to be easily refuted by popular legends about geniuses
> such as Mozart, Paganini and Gauss, which report that they all showed
> exceptional skills in early childhood before receiving a shred of
> formal instruction. But Dr Ericsson points out that most of these
> stories are, indeed, legends. Rather than rely on such myths, he
> insists on studying those experts and prodigies who are living today.
> Practice makes perfect
> Dr Ericsson does not believe that the exceptional abilities of such
> people are due to their innate talent. Rather, he explains their
> performance by pointing out that they have developed powerful
> memories for storing information about particular topics.
> Psychologists recognise (and brain-science confirms) a distinction
> between short-term "working" memory and long-term memory. Dr Ericsson
> believes that prodigies get such impressive mileage out of their
> working memories by placing important pieces of information into
> their long-term memories in a way that makes them accessible to
> working-memory processes. According to Dr Ericsson, this "long-term
> working memory" is the essential ingredient for expert performance in
> any field, from chess to typing to golf, and can be developed at will.
> Recently, some neuroscientists tried to observe long-term working
> memory in action. Nathalie Tzourio-Mazoyer at the University of Caen,
> in France, and her colleagues, measured the brain activity of a maths
> prodigy as he performed some feats of arithmetical acrobatics. Their
> subject, Rüdiger Gamm, can calculate the fifth root of a ten-digit
> numeral within seconds, and as quickly raise a two-digit number to
> its ninth power. When asked to divide one integer by another, he
> unhesitatingly recites the answer to 60 decimal places. Dr
> Tzourio-Mazoyer's research, published in this month's Nature
> Neuroscience, represents one of the first efforts to watch such a
> performance as it unfolds in the brain.
> Through the use of positron-emission tomography (PET), an imaging
> technique, Dr Tzourio-Mazoyer's team found that Mr Gamm was using
> more of his brain than normal controls, with whom they compared him,
> as he performed his mathematical tricks. Both Mr Gamm and the
> controls showed activity in 12 parts of the brain, but in five
> additional areas, Mr Gamm alone showed any activity. Three of these
> areas have previously been linked with the formation of episodic
> memories, which are a kind of long-term memory.
> Mr Gamm appeared to be using his long-term memory to store the
> working results that he needed to complete his calculations-for
> example, all the dividends and remainders of a division sum. His use
> of this extra memory space meant that he could circumvent that
> perennial pitfall of mental arithmetic, losing one's place. In other
> respects, Mr Gamm's brain does not appear notably unusual. Nor does
> he perform with exceptional aptitude on tests of skills that lie
> outside his area of expertise, such as verbal recall. Moreover, Mr
> Gamm, who is now 26, was not born with this computing ability. He
> developed his skills, through four hours of practising memorisation
> daily, only after he had passed the ripe old age of 20.
> As both the PET scan and his past experience bear out, enhanced
> memory appears to be the key to Mr Gamm's ability. So this study
> seems to provide some neurological evidence for Dr Ericsson's idea
> that long-term working-memory function underpins prodigy-level
> performance. So far, so plausible. But Dr Ericsson also maintains
> that such memory function, and the superlative performance that goes
> with it, can be attained by anyone-biology no bar-given enough
> practice and perseverance.
> This is a much more contentious point. Twenty years ago, Dr Ericsson
> tried to prove it by training some ordinary laboratory volunteers up
> to prodigy-level performance in a number-memory task. Average people
> tend to have a "digit-span" of seven-in other words they can recall a
> string of seven random digits after hearing it read out once. But
> after a year's practice, two of his particularly dedicated subjects
> were able to increase their digit-spans to lengths of 80 and 100.
> Just as Dr Ericsson took people with no discernible talent and turned
> them into champions, so, in a fashion, did a Hungarian, Laszlo
> Polgar. When he began training his daughters, it was widely believed
> that women could not play serious tournament chess. But through a
> deliberate (and still continuing) psychological experiment, Dr Polgar
> and his wife created a trio of world-class chess champions out of
> their own daughters, overturning this prejudice.
> By 1992, all three had reached the women's top ten worldwide. The
> third, who presumably received the most refined training regimen,
> became the youngest grandmaster in the history of the game and is
> reckoned by her peers to have a good chance of becoming world
> champion one day. With remarkable, if not hubristic, prescience, Dr
> Polgar had written a detailed book on the subject of child rearing,
> entitled "Bring Up Genius!" before beginning the coaching of his
> children. But would any child reared by such a parent have become a
> chess prodigy?
> Ellen Winner, a psychologist at Boston College who has been studying
> the relationship between exposure to the arts and subsequent academic
> achievement, believes not. She argues that only children with the
> "rage to master" a skill could make it through the gruelling years of
> training needed to achieve expert ability. The rage to master may be
> the point at which nature unequivocally makes its constraints felt.
> Even Dr Ericsson concedes that there might be a genetic component
> separating the child willing to persevere with a rigorous schedule
> from the child who would rather play videogames.
> Put it another way: even if there are no born mathematicians or
> musicians, there may be "born achievers". The particular area in
> which such people make their mark might be determined purely by the
> kind of environment or skill to which they were exposed and how hard
> they then applied themselves. But among many psychologists this
> all-purpose view of genius is not a popular one. Dean Simonton of the
> University of California, San Diego, dubbed it the "drudge theory" of
> genius in a recent book review.
> Dr Simonton considers genius to have more of a genetic component. Yet
> this conviction has not stopped him from writing a book of profiles
> of psychologists who were reckoned to be geniuses. The American
> Psychological Association will publish this book later this year, so
> that its members may learn from Dr Simonton's observations on the
> great prodigies of psychology. And though Dr Ericsson is not on his
> list this year, in ten years from now he doubtless will be-if he
> wants it badly enough.
> Copyright © 1995-2001 The Economist Newspaper Group Ltd. All
> rights reserved.

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