The Talent Code
At its core this book is all about the concept of myelination. Practicing a skill leads to myelination of the neural network in your brain responsible for that skill. More myelination – the faster and stronger this neural network becomes.
Deep practice is built on a paradox: struggling in certain targeted ways—operating at the edges of your ability, where you make mistakes—makes you smarter. Or to put it a slightly different way, experiences where you’re forced to slow down, make errors, and correct them—as you would if you were walking up an ice-covered hill, slipping and stumbling as you go—end up making you swift and graceful without your realizing it.
The reason, Bjork explained, resides in the way our brains are built. “We tend to think of our memory as a tape recorder, but that’s wrong,” he said. “It’s a living structure, a scaffold of nearly infinite size. The more we generate impulses, encountering and overcoming difficulties, the more scaffolding we build. The more scaffolding we build, the faster we learn.”
The firing of the circuit is paramount. Myelin is not built to respond to fond wishes or vague ideas or information that washes over us like a warm bath. The mechanism is built to respond to actions: the literal electrical impulses traveling down nerve fibers. It responds to urgent repetition. In a few chapters we’ll discuss the likely evolutionary reasons, but for now we’ll simply note that deep practice is assisted by the attainment of a primal state, one where we are attentive, hungry, and focused, even desperate.
Causing skill to evaporate doesn’t require chromosomal rejiggering or black-ops psychological maneuvers. It only requires that you stop a skilled person from systematically firing his or her circuit for a mere thirty days. Their muscles won’t have changed; their much-vaunted genes and character will remain unaltered; but you will have touched their talent at the weakest spot in its armor. Myelin, as Bartzokis reminds us, is living tissue. Like everything else in the body, it’s in a constant cycle of breakdown and repair. That’s why daily practice matters, particularly as we get older. As Vladimir Horowitz, the virtuoso pianist who kept performing into his eighties, put it, “If I skip practice for one day, I notice. If I skip practice for two days, my wife notices. If I skip for three days, the world notices.”
Repetition is invaluable and irreplaceable. There are, however, a few caveats. With conventional practice, more is always better: hitting two hundred forehands a day is presumed to be twice as good as hitting one hundred forehands a day. Deep practice, however, doesn’t obey the same math. Spending more time is effective—but only if you’re still in the sweet spot at the edge of your capabilities, attentively building and honing circuits. What’s more, there seems to be a universal limit for how much deep practice human beings can do in a day. Ericsson’s research shows that most world-class experts—including pianists, chess players, novelists, and athletes—practice between three and five hours a day, no matter what skill they pursue.
“We instinctively think of each new student as a blank slate, but the ideas they bring to that first lesson are probably far more important than anything a teacher can do, or any amount of practice,” McPherson said. “It’s all about their perception of self. At some point very early on they had a crystallizing experience that brings the idea to the fore, that says, I am a musician. That idea is like a snowball rolling downhill.”
“We believe that people are shy not because they lack social skills but because they haven’t practiced them sufficiently” said therapist Nicole Shiloff. “Talking on the phone or asking someone on a date is a learnable skill, exactly like a tennis forehand. The key is that people have to linger in that uncomfortable area, learn to tolerate the anxiety. If you practice, you can get to the level you want.” The godfather of this kind of therapy is Dr. Albert Ellis. Ellis, who was born in 1913 and raised in the Bronx, was a painfully shy teenager, unable to bring himself to speak to women. But one afternoon he decided to make a change. He sat on a bench near the New York Botanical Garden and chatted with every woman who sat down. In one month he spoke with 130 women. “Thirty walked away immediately,” he said. “I talked with the other hundred, for the first time in my life, no matter how anxious I was. Nobody vomited and ran away. Nobody called the cops.” Ellis, who went on to write dozens of books, built a straight-talk, action-oriented approach that challenged the Freudian model of examining childhood experience. “Neurosis is just a high-class word for whining,” he said. “The trouble with most therapy is that it helps you to feel better. But you don’t get better. You have to back it up with action, action, action.”
This is why level of education is one of the most reliable predictors for Alzheimer’s onset, Bartzokis says. More education creates a thicker, more robust circuit, better able to compensate for the early phases of disease. It’s also why we’ve recently seen an avalanche of new studies, books, and video games built on the myelin-centric principle that practice staves off cognitive decline. The myelin model also highlights the importance of seeking new challenges. Experiments have found that situations in which people are forced to adapt and attune themselves to new challenges (i.e., make errors, pay attention, deep-practice) tend to increase cognitive reserve. One study showed that elderly people who pursued more leisure activities had a 38 percent lower risk for developing dementia. As one neurologist pointed out, the mantra “Use it or lose it” needs an update. It should be “Use it and get more of it.”