Through the Prism

After passing through the prism, each refraction contains some pure essence of the light, but only an incomplete part. We will always experience some aspect of reality, of the Truth, but only from our perspectives as they are colored by who and where we are. Others will know a different color and none will see the whole, complete light. These are my musings from my particular refraction.

8.18.2011

Of the Importance of Practice

Second-to-last (planned) post about the "memory book" I recently finished, Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer. This one offers a bit of insight into how people become experts.

The OK Plateau, and how and why experts avoid it:

In the 1960s, the psychologists Paul Fitts and Michael Posner attempted to answer this question by describing the three stages that anyone goes through when acquiring a new skill. During the first phase, known as the "cognitive stage," you're intellectualizing the task and discovering new strategies to accomplish it more proficiently. During the second "associative stage," you're concentrating less, making fewer major errors, and generally becoming more efficient. Finally you reach what Fitts called the "autonomous stage," when you figure that you've gotten as good as you need to get at the task and you're basically running on autopilot. During that autonomous stage, you lose conscious control over what you're doing. Most of the time that's a good thing. Your mind has one less thing to worry about. In fact, the autonomous stage seems to be one of those handy features that evolution worked out for our benefit. The less you have to focus on the repetitive tasks of everyday life, the more you can concentrate on the stuff that really matters, the stuff that you haven't seen before. And so, once we're just good enough at typing, we move it to the back of our mind's filing cabinet and stop paying it any attention. You can actually see this shift take place in fMRI scans of people learning new skills. As a task becomes automated, the parts of the brain involved in conscious reasoning become less active and other parts of the brain take over. You could call it the "OK plateau," the point at which you decide you're OK with how good you are at something, turn on autopilot, and stop improving. . . .

What separates experts from the rest of us is that they tend to engage in a very directed, highly focused routine, which Ericsson has labeled "deliberative practice." Having studied the best of the best in many different fields, he has found that top achievers tend to follow the same general pattern of development. They develop strategies for consciously keeping out of the autonomous stage while they practice by doing three things: focusing on their technique, staying goal-oriented, and getting constant and immediate feedback on their performance. In other words, they force themselves to stay in the "cognitive phase." . . .

When you want to get good at something, how you spend your time practicing is far more important than the amount of time you spend. In fact, in every domain of expertise that's been rigorously examined, from chess to violin to basketball, studies have found that the number of years one has been doing something correlates only weakly to level of performance. My dad may consider putting into a tin cup in his basement a good form of practice, but unless he's consciously challenging himself and monitoring his performance--reviewing, responding, rethinking, rejiggering--it's never going to make him appreciably better. Regular practice simply isn't enough. To improve, we must watch ourselves fail, and learn from our mistakes.


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How vast experience creates a well-spring of memories that lead to intuitive expertise:

What makes chicken sexing such a captivating subject . . . is that even the best professional sexers can't describe how they determine gender in the toughest, most ambiguous cases. Their art is inexplicable. They say that within three seconds they just "know" whether a bird is a boy or girl, but they can't say how they know. Even when carefully cross-examined by researchers, they can't give reasons why one bird is a male and another is female. What they have, they say, is intuition. In some fundamental sense, the expert chicken sexer perceives the world--at least the world of chicken privates--in a way that is completely different from you or me. . . .

This, of course, is what all experts do: They use their memories to see the world differently. Over many years, they build up a bank of experience that shapes how they perceive new information. . . .

It is said that a student of sexing must work through at least 250,000 chicks before attaining any degree of proficiency. Even if the sexer calls it "intuition," it's been shaped by years of experience. It is the vast memory bank of chick bottoms that allows him or her to recognize patterns in the vents glanced at so quickly. in most cases, the skill is not the result of conscious reasoning, but pattern recognition. It is a feat of perception and memory, not analysis. . . .

For the most part, the chess experts didn't look more moves ahead, at least not at first. They didn't even consider more possible moves. Rather, they behaved in a manner surprisingly similar to the chicken sexers: They tended to see the right moves, and they tended to see them almost right away.

It was as if the chess experts weren't thinking so much as reacting. . . . They weren't seeing the board as thirty-two pieces. They were seeing it as chunks of pieces, and systems of tension.

Grand masters literally see the board differently. Studies of their eye movements have found that they look at the edges of squares more than inexperienced players, suggesting that they're absorbing information from multiple squares at once. Their eyes also dart across greater distances, and linger for less time at any one place. They focus on fewer different spots on the board, and those spots are more likely to be relevant to figuring out the right move. . . .

Chess masters use the vast library of chess patterns that they've cached away in long-term memory to chunk the board. At the root of the chess master's skill is that he or she simply has a richer vocabulary of chunks to recognize. Which is why it is so rare for anyone to achieve world-class status in chess--or any other field--without years of experience. Even Bobby Fischer, perhaps the greatest chess prodigy of all time, had been playing intensely for nine years before he was recognized as a grand master at age fifteen.

Contrary to all the old wisdom that chess is an intellectual activity based on analysis, many of the chess master's important decisions about which moves to make happen in the immediate act of perceiving the board. Like the chicken sexer who looks at the chick and simply sees its gender or the SWAT officer who immediately notices the bomb, the chess master looks at the board and simply sees the most promising move. The process usually happens within five seconds, and you can actually see it transpiring in the brain. Using magnetoencephalography, a technique that measures the weak magnetic fields given off by a thinking brain, researchers have found that higher-rated chess players are more likely to engage the frontal and parietal cortices of the brain when they look at the board, which suggests that they are recalling information from long-term memory. Lower-ranked players are more likely to engage the medial temporal lobes, which suggests that they are encoding new information. the experts are interpreting the present board in term of their massive knowledge of past ones. The lower-ranked players see the board as something new. . . .

Expertise in "the field of shoemaking, painting, building, [or] confectionary" is the result of the same accumulation of "experiential linkings." According to Ericsson, what we call expertise is really just "vast amounts of knowledge, pattern-based retrieval, and planning mechanisms acquired over many years of experience in the associated domain." In other words, a great memory isn't just a by-product of expertise; it is the
essence of expertise.

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