July 27, 2006

Understanding experts, the expert mind and expertise

An interesting article at scientific american about understanding how experts are different from novices

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. By measuring the time it takes to commit a new chunk to memory and the number of hours a player must study chess before reaching grandmaster strength, 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.

Experts can also easily tap long term memory. All expertise theorists agree 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.

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.

motivation appears to be a more important factor than innate ability in the development of expertise. It is no accident that in music, chess and sports--all domains in which expertise is defined by competitive performance rather than academic credentialing--professionalism has been emerging at ever younger ages, under the ministrations of increasingly dedicated parents and even extended families.

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.