A Neuroscientist Debunks the Myth of Musical Instinct

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Why innate talent may not be the key to success for musicians

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Are musicians born or made? What is the line between skill and talent in any domain, and can we acquire either later in life? That's exactly what neuroscientist Gary Marcus explores in Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning—a fascinating journey into the limits of human reinvention.

bookcover_crops.jpg In an effort to reconcile his lifelong passion for music with his self-admitted chronic musical ineptitude, Marcus set out to debunk one of science's longest-running theories about learning—that there are "critical periods" in which complex skills can be learned, and that they slam shut after adolescence.

"If critical periods aren't quite so firm as people once believed, a world of possibility emerges for the many adults who harbor secret dreams—whether to learn a language, to become a pastry chef, or to pilot a small plane. And quests like these, no matter how quixotic they may seem, and whether they succeed in the end or not, could bring unanticipated benefits, not just for their ultimate goals but of the journey itself. Exercising our brains helps maintain them, by preserving plasticity (the capacity of the nervous system to learn new thing), warding off degeneration, and literally keeping the blood flowing. Beyond the potential benefits for our brains, there are benefits for our emotional well-being, too. There may be no better way to achieve lasting happiness—as opposed to mere fleeting pleasure—than pursuing a goal that helps us broaden our horizons."

To his astonishment, however, Marcus found a dearth of scientific literature and research on music learning for his age group. The problem, it turned out, wasn't lack of scientific interest but, rather, a lack of subjects—studying the outcomes of adults who put in 10,000 hours of practice proved difficult since most people of that age have life responsibilities that prevent them from putting in that time in the first place. So, Marcus decided to turn himself into the guinea pig.

For a glimmer of hope, he looked to a number of well-known musicians who arrived at their particular musical talent late in life—Patti Smith didn't consider becoming a professional singer until she was in her mid-twenties, iconic jazz guitarist Pat Martino only relearned to play after a brain aneurysm at the age of 35, and New Orleans keyboard legend Dr. John switched from guitar to piano when he was 21 after an injury, then won the first of his five Grammys at the age of 48. Having no such aspirations of grandeur, Marcus, aged 38 and with a documented lack of rhythm, still found himself desperately longing to learn to play the guitar. As he puts it, "Perhaps few people had less talent for music than I did, but few people wanted more badly to be able to play." So he confronted the fundamental question:

"Could persistence and a lifelong love of music overcome age and a lack of talent? And, for that matter, how did anyone of any age become musical?"

Curiously, one of the most influential experiments on critical periods comes from barn owls who, like bats, rely heavily on sound to navigate; but, unlike bats, they see better than bats do, and one of the first things they do after hatching is calibrating their ears with their eyes, attuning what they hear to what they see. But because this navigational mapping of auditory information depends on the exact distance between their eyes and ears, which changes as the owl grows, it can't be hardwired at birth.

To study how the owls calibrate their visual and auditory worlds, Stanford biologist Eric Knudsen devised a clever experiment, in which he raised owls in a kind of virtual reality world where prisms shifted everything by 23 degrees, forcing the owl to adjust its internal map of the world. Knudsen found that young owls learned to compensate for the distortion easily, and older owls could not—at least not in one go. But as soon as the 23 degrees were broken down in chunks—a few weeks at six degrees, another few at 11, and so forth—the adult owls were able to make the adjustment.

Using this insight, Marcus turned to David Mead's Crash Course: Acoustic Guitar, which broke guitar playing into the kind of bite-sized morsels fit for the human equivalent of adult owls. It gave Marcus the basics, and thus the first step in rewiring his own brain.

"This book is about how I began to distinguish my musical derriere from my musical elbow, but it's not just about me: it's also about the psychology and brain science of how anybody, of any age—toddler, teenager, or adult—can learn something as complicated as a musical instrument."

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Wilder Penfield's cortical homunculus, a pictorial representation of the neural tissue in the primary motor cortex assigned to different body parts, illustrates that the exact amount of 'cortical real estate' varies between body parts, with the more sensitive ones getting more real estate. Marcus suggests a try-this-at-home test:

"You can confirm this with the aid of a pin and a trusted friend. Close your eyes as the friend gently pokes you with the pin. In areas with heavy cortical representation, you will be able to easily discriminate closely spaced pinpricks; in areas with light cortical representation, you will sometimes be unable to distinguish two pinpricks that are close together but not identical." Along the way, Marcus explores the basic elements of music and how it evolved culturally and biologically. He dives deep into the popular "ten thousand hours" theory of mastery, developed by cognitive psychologist Anders Ericsson, "the world's leading expert on expertise," and examines Ericsson's second, lesser-known prerequisite for expertise—the notion of "deliberate practice," which describes the constant sense of self-evaluation and a consistent focus on one's weaknesses rather than playing on one's strengths. In fact, the practice of targeting specific weaknesses is known as the "zone of proximal development" and offers a framework for everything from education to video-games:

"The 'zone of proximal development' is] the idea that learning works best when the student tackles something that is just beyond his or her current reach, neither too hard nor too easy. In classroom situations, for example, one team of researchers estimated that its' best to arrange things so that children succeed roughly 80 percent of the time; more than that, and kids tend to get bored; less, and they tend to get frustrated. The same is surely true of adults, too, which is why video game manufacturers have been known to invest millions in play testing to make sure that the level of challenge always lies in that sweet spot of neither too easy nor too hard."

But what makes Guitar Zero exceptional isn't simply that it simultaneously calls into question the myth of the music instinct and confronts the idea that talent is merely a myth—at its heart is a much bigger question about the boundaries of our capacity for transformation and, ultimately, the mechanics of fulfillment and purpose.

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This post appears courtesy of Brain Pickings, an Atlantic partner site.

Image credits: Penguin Press

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Maria Popova is the editor of Brain Pickings. She writes for Wired UK and GOOD, and is an MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow.

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