Chess, according to the article, is the greatest laboratory for the study of thinking. Levels of mastery of chess can be analyzed and quantified, using a formula that is quite precisely predictive of what percentage of games a higher-ranked player will win over a lesser one.
A chess grand master can often intuit the best move in a few seconds. A great doctor can sometimes make a diagnosis in the same infinitesimal blink of time. Clearly, an enormous amount of swiftly accessed and intelligently interconnected information is brought to bear on such an instant of pattern recognition. (We all do this, as Gladwell points out, to the extent that we're "experts" at certain aspects of living.) Such deep and fast skill is evidence of a brain that has been worked like filigree.
What gives expertise its power is not just the sheer amount of information stored in a brain, but the way it is organized. This is the product not of "talent," which is mere potential (and every brain is packed with that), but of intense motivation -- fascination, obsession -- driving long, hard work:
The one thing that all expertise theorists agree on is that it takes enormous effort to build these structures in the mind. [T]he 10-year rule [ ... ] 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. [ ... ]
[K. Anders] Ericsson [of Florida State University] argues that what matters is not experience per se but "effortful study," which entails continually tackling challenges that lie just beyond one's competence. [ ... ]
Thus, motivation appears to be a more important factor than innate ability in the development of expertise.
And motivation operates in a feedback loop: the pleasure of difficult success feeds the drive for more such challenges and rewards. It's easy to see that the reinforcing rewards are both internal -- the aesthetic rush of solving a problem -- and external: praise, status, opportunity. These rewards would have been beautifully aligned in the situation that gave the brain much of its evolutionary "training": hunting, which required the acquisition of a vast store of structured knowledge about the behavior of animals, learning reinforced by a reward of the highest caloric and cultural value: meat. It took longer to become a master Palaeolithic hunter than it does to train a brain surgeon. And it's no coincidence that, for instance, writing still feels like hunting -- going out into the dangerous unknown, trying to fashion a net of words to throw over a particular idea-creature and bring it back trussed up to the tribe. The first art was the depiction of animals, "catching" their life with a line.
Since it seems quite clear that experts are made, not born, motivation is the mystery and the key. The article focuses on the implications for education. If, with the help of motivated parents, computers, and sophisticated training methods, kids -- including girls -- are becoming chess masters and grand masters earlier than ever before, why couldn't similar principles be used to improve the learning of math and reading?
The article's author, Scientific American contributing editor Philip E. Ross, "is a chess player himself and father of Laura Ross, a master who outranks him by 199 points."
UPDATE: Ann Althouse, guesting at Instapundit, links (thanks!) and nails a point that had been teasing around the edges of my mind:
Perhaps nothing is more valuable and mysterious than becoming interested in something in the first place.
Is an inclination to be interested in certain things the real essence of the inborn thing we vaguely call "talent"? Or is the origin of an interest (like the origin of a sexual fetish?!) a kind of accident -- for instance, a child happens to do something well and is overwhelmingly rewarded for it, and that plants a flag in the terra incognita of the brain which then becomes the focus of a whole new thriving, growing settlement?
I once helped her assistant Diana MacKown assemble a sort of memoir by sculptor Louise Nevelson, Dawns + Dusks, out of many recorded interviews with her, and I remember being struck by a passage that seemed to suggest the latter. First, Louise gave a fairly conventional explanation: I was good at art, and my teachers recognized it:
Who is an artist? I say, we take a title. No one gives it to us. We make our lives. You start when you're very young, say in school. And there you recognize that you have it. In the first grade I already knew the pattern of my life. I didn't know the living of it, but I knew the line. I drew in childhood, and went on painting and moving and everything, daily. [ ... ] I felt that that was my strength. And my good fortune was that many, many years ago, even in a small town in Maine, every teacher knew it too. [ ... ] My teachers praised me. From the first day in school they said I'm an artist.
But then she turned it around:
All the way through school I was fed by these art teachers. [ ... ] From the first day in school until the day I graduated, everyone gave me one hundred plus in art. Well, where do you go in life? You go to the place where you got one hundred plus.
So do we do what we're born (to put it genetically) or destined (to put it spiritually) to do, or, out of all the possibilities in our brains, do we choose the one where we got one hundred plus? Ann, what do you think? Readers, what drew you to what you do?
Most people, no, all people have more than one natural ability -- physical coordination, a mathematical mind, a musical ear. I got fussed over for being able to recognize, read and spell words before the age of three, an ability my maternal grandmother intensively cultivated. My natural musical ability, which showed up as spontaneously being able to sing all of Mozart's "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik" at about the same age (still can!), was largely ignored, or left to my own private pleasure. Had my family been a family of musicians, that would probably have gone very differently, and I might now be, say, an orchestra string player instead of a writer.