Makings of Genius, Part 1

>The current issue of Scientific American has a thought-provoking feature called "The Expert Mind" that challenges the conventional wisdom as to whether genius should be ascribed to innate talent or trained experience. The author, Philip E. Ross, argues that the "preponderance of psychological evidence indicates that experts are made, not born." The conclusion that it is "effortful study" that produces masters, though, has touched off some controversy.

Using chess play—Goethe's "touchstone of the intellect"—as the overall basis of this look into the latest theories in cognitive science, Ross notes that "much of the chess master's advantage over the novice derives from the first few seconds of thought"—a facility known as apperception. "Just as a master can recall all the moves in a game he has played, so can an accomplished musician often reconstruct the score to a sonata heard just once," Ross writes. "And just as the chess master often finds the best move in a flash, an expert physician can sometimes make an accurate diagnosis within moments of laying eyes on a patient."

Ross relates the findings of a study by Herbert A. Simon and William Chase, of Carnegie Mellon University, who concluded that it takes about a decade of intensive training to master any field. In a similar study by K. Anders Ericsson, of Florida State University, the research concluded that masters are created not by experience so much as by "effortful study"—taking on challenges that lie just beyond one's competence. Ross states:

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. Their performance then becomes automatic and therefore impervious to further improvement. In contrast, experts-in-training keep the lid of their mind's box open all the time, so that they can inspect, criticize and augment its contents and thereby approach the standard set by leaders in their fields.

The notion that geniuses are made and not born rubs some people the wrong way. Upon being posted to the technology-oriented Web site Slashdot, Ross's article touched off a fiery debate on intelligence. Tomorrow, we'll continue with more on Ross's article and the commentary it's receiving from the technology community.

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