Wednesday, 3 February 2010

More Talent

Maybe you remember, I wrote about talent and how it's a modular thing. My belief was that if you don't have a talent for something, it is possible to learn how.

It was later that I formed a view that reflected a similar way of thinking in both myself and my father. We both aspire do perfection in the things we care about. And when I say perfection, here is what I meant. We create in your minds a picture, a vision, to which we aspire. If I'm cooking, there might be a certain taste that I'm after, or maybe just a certain qality of taste. If the sauce isn't there yet, I'll refer to my little vision of perfection and decide that the sauce will be closer to that vision if I add more thyme. Then I taste again, and decide I need to add some cream. I keep going like this until I reach the envisioned standard. Both myself and my father are irked if something prevents us from ataining that percieved perfection.

I play a competitive card game, Magic: the Gathering. In it, there are many decisions to be made, so many chances to make mistakes. When I watch the the pros play, I create a mental standard for play based on the decisions they make. Then when I play myself, I try to make decisions based on this mental standard. If I make a play and realise that it doesn't reach the standard, I will note it down as a mistake, even if it is nonetheless a 'good' move or if I later win the game or the match. If even one of my actions in a give situation does not meet the mental standard, I will remember it and correct myself the next time a similar situation arises. Such is the way that I improve my play.

I play a bit of guitar, and I follow the same pattern. The track I'm trying to learn is playing in my mind and that's my guiding force. The tablature tells me the notes to play, but it's the recording in my head that really guides me. I follow it for timing and sound type and quality. I've often had arguments with my brother about the timing of a particular riff or whatever and I'm often right because I'm following my internal recording. If I'm wrong, I'll know and I'll keep trying differently until the sound from my guitar matches the sound in my mind. However, I didn't really realise I was doing this. Or maybe I quietly assumed that it was the same for everyone. For christmas, my brother got me a book on talent (which I confess I have not yet read past the first chapter). However, the first chapter tells the anecdote of a psychologist watching a video of Clarissa, a 6 year old girl playing the recorder. She's not very good (well she's very young and still beginning). However, she moves on to her favourite piece (I forget the name) and suddenly, it sounds like she's been playing it for years. The psychologist says this is what we call a child prodigy. A child before the age of 10, performing with the ability of an accomplished adult. The psychologist says that it seems like she has a mental recording of this tune, and plays to match that recording. If she's the slightest bit off, she'll know immediately and correct herself to match her little vision of perfection. He says that's a key to defining talent.

Well. That sounds exactly like what I've been trying to define. Does that make me a talented cook, Magic player or guitarist? Well I wouldn't go that far exactly, but I can say that however good I have become at whatever I do, it is in part due to this method. I also assert that this may be the reason that I've been in general a quick learner and never truly awful at something that doesn't disinterest me. I also clearly took this kind of learning for granted as for years I didn't question methods of learning, though it did baffle me how some people could be so accepting of mediocrity or be so bad at things that I found easy. I would like to know, for anyone that may read this, am I taking this for granted? Do you learn in a different way to me? Are you aware that there could be different ways for different people to learn?

Today I am researching for my history and philosophy of science exam. I'm focusing on the area of positive feedback loops in biological and psychological context (as a pretext to sexual selection being described as a positive feedback loop by Fisher in 1930) and I come across texts by two individuals, Winner (1996) and Vaudevert (2009). It is now that everything falls together.

Winner describes gifted children as driven by positive feedback loops involving setting their own learing course, this feeding back to self satisfaction, thus further setting their learning goals to higher levels and so on. She calls this the rage to master. Vandevert discusses this in deeper detail, proposing that a positive feedback loop occurs between the output of thinking/performing in working memory, which is then fed back to the cerebellum where it is stramlined, then fed back to working memory, thus steadily increasing the quantitative and qualitative output of working memory.

This is essentially what I have been grasping at. Talented individuals are simply employing a positive feedback loop in their learning. However, I suggest that some people are naturally predisposed to use this positive feedback loop to aid their learning. That does't mean that other's can't use it. Some people have diverse interests and spread their efforts across all their interests. Some people have fewer interests and focus on a small number of them throughout their lives.

A person who naturally learns with positive feedback loops, coupled with one central interest or hobby will excel in that interest or hobby. It is from these people that we get child prodigies and people enormously taleted in their field.

A person with one central interest who doesn't naurally learn in this way takes presumably more effort to learn than the previous 'talented'individual. This is the 'skilled' individual.

A person who naturally learns with positive feedback loops, coupled with a much more dispersed range of interests, tends to go under the radar as being 'talented', though this kind of peron is a fast learner and quickly achieve basic proficiency in his interests. I think this profile describes me the best, and it is true that in the varied things I've tried with an avid interest under tuelage (SCUBA diving, piloting a Grob 115E aircraft, chess, fencing, archery, army fieldcraft, marksmanship and weapon handling basics to name a few) I've been repeatedly told how remarkably fast I learn or how good I become in such little time. Though I never become good enough as a true master as never devote enough time to one thing.

I conclude with this. Talent is achieved by accelerated learning via use of positive feedback loops. Anyone can in theory apply this and become talented in anything they have a passion for. So go out there and excel!

Please remember to answer the bolded questions! I'm extremely interested to find out peoples' own experiences on the subject!


  1. I'm going to answer the bolded question, but I'm going to think on it a little first. Will get back to you! Possibly here, or possibly in the pub sometime. :P

  2. I think what you described definitely applies to singing. When you try so sing a melody, you don't have any tabs to refer to. You can only compare the sound and pitch of your voice to the recording in your head.
    I noticed once that I can start songs I've been singing a lot of times in the perfect pitch, although normally you would assume that I needed to hear some kind of key note first.

    Again, a very interesting article!

  3. Every time I come back I realise how much we have in common..
    although I can't help but feel a little offended about the musical thing. I could swear that it was me that was usually right......