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Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Do You Have an Expert Mind?

Something a bit different. Scientific American looks at the characteristics of expert minds. Summarizing, "The preponderance of psychological evidence indicates that experts are made, not born," i.e. motivation seems tomatter more than talent. I cut quite a bit - the full article is available for free:

The Expert Mind, by Philip E. Ross, Scientific American: A man walks along the inside of a circle of chess tables, glancing at each for two or three seconds before making his move. On the outer rim, dozens of amateurs sit pondering their replies until he completes the circuit. The year is 1909, the man is José Raúl Capablanca of Cuba, and the result is a whitewash: 28 wins in as many games. The exhibition was part of a tour in which Capablanca won 168 games in a row. How did he play so well, so quickly? And how far ahead could he calculate under such constraints? "I see only one move ahead," Capablanca is said to have answered, "but it is always the correct one."

He thus put in a nutshell what a century of psychological research has subsequently established: much of the chess master's advantage over the novice derives from the first few seconds of thought. This rapid, knowledge-guided perception, sometimes called apperception, can be seen in experts in other fields as well...

But how do the experts in these various subjects acquire their extraordinary skills? How much can be credited to innate talent and how much to intensive training? ... The collected results of a century of such research have led to new theories explaining how the mind organizes and retrieves information. What is more, this research may have important implications for educators. Perhaps the same techniques used by chess players to hone their skills could be applied in the classroom to teach reading, writing and arithmetic.

The Drosophila of Cognitive Science ...[W]hen expertise undoubtedly exists--as in, say, teaching or business management--it is often hard to measure, let alone explain. Skill at chess, however, can be measured, broken into components, subjected to laboratory experiments and readily observed in its natural environment, the tournament hall. It is for those reasons that chess has served as  ... the "Drosophila of cognitive science," as it has been called. ...

The feats of chess masters have long been ascribed to nearly magical mental powers. This magic shines brightest in the so-called blindfold games in which the players are not allowed to see the board. In 1894 French psychologist Alfred Binet, the co-inventor of the first intelligence test, asked chess masters to describe how they played such games. He began with the hypothesis that they achieved an almost photographic image of the board, but he soon concluded that the visualization was much more abstract. Rather than seeing the knight's mane or the grain of the wood from which it is made, the master calls up only a general knowledge of where the piece stands in relation to other elements of the position. ...

Let us say he has somehow forgotten the precise position of a pawn. He can find it, as it were, by considering the stereotyped strategy of the opening--a well-studied phase of the game with a relatively limited number of options. Or he can remember the logic behind one of his earlier moves--say, by reasoning: "I could not capture his bishop two moves ago; therefore, that pawn must have been standing in the way...." He does not have to remember every detail at all times, because he can reconstruct any particular detail whenever he wishes by tapping a well-organized system of connections.

Of course, if the possession of such intricately structured knowledge explains not only success at blindfold play but also other abilities of chess masters, such as calculation and planning, then expertise in the game would depend not so much on innate abilities as on specialized training. Dutch psychologist Adriaan de Groot, himself a chess master, confirmed this notion in 1938 ... He found that although experts ... did analyze considerably more possibilities than the very weak players, there was little further increase in analysis as playing strength rose to the master and grandmaster levels. The better players did not examine more possibilities, only better ones...

De Groot also had his subjects examine a position for a limited period and then try to reconstruct it from memory. Performance at this task tracked game-playing strength all the way from novice to grandmaster. Beginners could not recall more than a very few details of the position, even after having examined it for 30 seconds, whereas grandmasters could usually get it perfectly, even if they had perused it for only a few seconds. ... The specific memory must be the result of training, because grandmasters do no better than others in general tests of memory.

Similar results have been demonstrated in bridge players (who can remember cards played in many games), computer programmers (who can reconstruct masses of computer code) and musicians (who can recall long snatches of music). Indeed, such a memory for the subject matter of a particular field is a standard test for the existence of expertise. ...

Chunking Theory In the 1960s Herbert A. Simon and William Chase,.. [p]icking up where de Groot left off, ... asked players of various strengths to reconstruct chess positions that had been ... placed randomly on the board--rather than reached as the result of master play. The correlation between game-playing strength and the accuracy of the players' recall was much weaker with the random positions than with the authentic ones.

Chess memory was thus shown to be even more specific than it had seemed, being tuned not merely to the game itself but to typical chess positions. These experiments corroborated earlier studies that had demonstrated convincingly that ability in one area tends not to transfer to another. American psychologist Edward Thorndike first noted this lack of transference over a century ago, when he showed that ..., for instance, ... geometric proofs do not teach the use of logic in daily life.

Simon explained the masters' relative weakness in reconstructing artificial chess positions with a model based on meaningful patterns called chunks. ...

Take the sentence "Mary had a little lamb." The number of information chunks in this sentence depends on one's knowledge of the poem and the English language. For most native speakers of English, the sentence is part of a much larger chunk, the familiar poem. For someone who knows English but not the poem, the sentence is a single, self-contained chunk. For someone who has memorized the words but not their meaning, the sentence is five chunks, and it is 18 chunks for someone who knows the letters but not the words.

In the context of chess, the same differences can be seen between novices and grandmasters. To a beginner, a position with 20 chessmen on the board may contain far more than 20 chunks of information, because the pieces can be placed in so many configurations. A grandmaster, however, may see one part of the position as "fianchettoed bishop in the castled kingside," together with a "blockaded king's-Indian-style pawn chain," and thereby cram the entire position into perhaps five or six chunks. ... Simon estimated that a typical grandmaster has access to roughly 50,000 to 100,000 chunks of chess information. A grandmaster can retrieve any of these chunks from memory simply by looking at a chess position, in the same way that most native English speakers can recite the poem "Mary had a little lamb" after hearing just the first few words.

Even so, there were difficulties with chunking theory. It could not fully explain some aspects of memory, such as the ability of experts to perform their feats while being distracted (a favorite tactic in the study of memory)...

Fernand Gobet of Brunel University in London champions a rival theory, devised with Simon in the late 1990s. It extends the idea of chunks by invoking highly characteristic and very large patterns consisting of perhaps a dozen chess pieces. Such a template, as they call it, would have a number of slots into which the master could plug such variables as a pawn or a bishop. A template might exist, say, for the concept of "the isolated queen's-pawn position from the Nimzo-Indian Defense," and a master might change a slot by reclassifying it as the same position "minus the dark-squared bishops." ... Anyone who knows the original template should be able to fix the altered one in memory in a trice.

A Proliferation of Prodigies The one thing that all expertise theorists agree on is that it takes enormous effort to build these structures in the mind. Simon coined a psychological law of his own, the 10-year rule, which states that it takes approximately a decade of heavy labor to master any field. Even child prodigies, such as Gauss in mathematics, Mozart in music and Bobby Fischer in chess, must have made an equivalent effort, perhaps by starting earlier and working harder than others.

According to this view, the proliferation of chess prodigies in recent years merely reflects the advent of computer-based training methods that let children study far more master games and to play far more frequently against master-strength programs than their forerunners could typically manage. Fischer made a sensation when he achieved the grandmaster title at age 15, in 1958; today's record-holder, Sergey Karjakin of Ukraine, earned it at 12 years, seven months.

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.

Even the novice engages in effortful study at first, which is why beginners so often improve rapidly in playing golf, say, or in driving a car. But having reached an acceptable performance--for instance, keeping up with one's golf buddies or passing a driver's exam--most people relax. ... Meanwhile the standards denoting expertise grow ever more challenging. ...

At this point, many skeptics will finally lose patience. Surely, they will say, it takes more to get to Carnegie Hall than practice, practice, practice. Yet this belief in the importance of innate talent, strongest perhaps among the experts themselves and their trainers, is strangely lacking in hard evidence to substantiate it. ...

Although nobody has yet been able to predict who will become a great expert in any field, a notable experiment has shown the possibility of deliberately creating one. László Polgár, an educator in Hungary, homeschooled his three daughters in chess, assigning as much as six hours of work a day, producing one international master and two grandmasters--the strongest chess-playing siblings in history. The youngest Polgár, 30-year-old Judit, is now ranked 14th in the world.

The Polgár experiment proved two things: that grandmasters can be reared and that women can be grandmasters. It is no coincidence that the incidence of chess prodigies multiplied after László Polgár published a book on chess education. The number of musical prodigies underwent a similar increase after Mozart's father did the equivalent two centuries earlier.

Thus, motivation appears to be a more important factor than innate ability in the development of expertise. ... Furthermore, success builds on success, because each accomplishment can strengthen a child's motivation. A 1999 study of professional soccer players from several countries showed that they were much more likely than the general population to have been born at a time of year that would have dictated their enrollment in youth soccer leagues at ages older than the average. In their early years, these children would have enjoyed a substantial advantage in size and strength when playing soccer with their teammates. Because the larger, more agile children would get more opportunities to handle the ball, they would score more often, and their success at the game would motivate them to become even better.

Teachers in sports, music and other fields tend to believe that talent matters and that they know it when they see it. In fact, they appear to be confusing ability with precocity. There is usually no way to tell, from a recital alone, whether a young violinist's extraordinary performance stems from innate ability or from years of Suzuki-style training. Capablanca, regarded to this day as the greatest "natural" chess player, boasted that he never studied the game. In fact, he flunked out of Columbia University in part because he spent so much time playing chess. His famously quick apprehension was a product of all his training, not a substitute for it.

The preponderance of psychological evidence indicates that experts are made, not born. What is more, the demonstrated ability to turn a child quickly into an expert--in chess, music and a host of other subjects--sets a clear challenge before the schools. Can educators find ways to encourage students to engage in the kind of effortful study that will improve their reading and math skills? ... Instead of perpetually pondering the question, "Why can't Johnny read?" perhaps educators should ask, "Why should there be anything in the world he can't learn to do?"

Once you understand a theoretical model of some sort, adding incremental changes is often a matter of saying this is just the standard competitive model with a new piece, a fixed price or something, added in. Figuring out what effect the incremental change might have on the model is often fairly easy from that foundation. But without the foundation, the whole structure can appear inpenetrable so a goal of education is to get these structures and there many variations embedded in memory. I think this is how a lot of economists operate - from a fixed set of theoretical structures that can be manipulated fairly quickly through small changes - and those who have accumulated a large number of such structures often appear to have great insight and intuition.

    Posted by on Wednesday, July 26, 2006 at 12:23 PM in Economics, Science | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (20)

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