Why Would-Be Geniuses Shouldn't Despair: Memory Isn't Everything

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Yes, certain aspects of musical genius are intrinsic, but without a nurturing environment, a potential virtuoso cannot rise to the top

piano player-gagilas-body.jpg

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? The psychology professors David Z. Hambrick and Elizabeth J. Meinz have a novel partial answer in the New York Times: a superior ability to memorize random information.

Not surprisingly, there was a strong positive correlation between practice habits and sight-reading performance. In fact, the total amount of practice the pianists had accumulated in their piano careers accounted for nearly half of the performance differences across participants. But working memory capacity made a statistically significant contribution as well (about seven percent, a medium-size effect). In other words, if you took two pianists with the same amount of practice, but different levels of working memory capacity, it's likely that the one higher in working memory capacity would have performed considerably better on the sight-reading task.

But do these results really refute the research of psychologists of expertise like K. Anders Ericsson and of academics like Richard Sennett and writers like Malcolm Gladwell, David Brooks, and David Shenk, who have used Ericsson's and other findings against innatists and hereditarians?

Mostly no. It is interesting that the 99.9th percentile achieve significantly more than the mere 99.1 percentile in academic degrees and publications. But whatever special gifts the very top bracket has are not necessarily the main reasons for their success. Young people who are recognized earlier get more attention and encouragement, and it's well known that a false high IQ score can become a self-fulfilling prophecy in the classroom, the famous Pygmalion Effect. (The Economist has an excellent discussion of another paradox of intelligence, the Flynn Effect.) Of course early identification as a genius can backfire too; For every John Stuart Mill there seems to be a William James Sidis.

It's possible, then, that working memory and hence "medium-size" advantage in sight reading ability will have a multiplier effect in qualifying for conservatories, summer programs, and scholarships. But young musicians past a threshold of ability have many ways of compensating; If we aren't surprised at the achievements of people with truly serious disabilities who find ways to work around them, working memory hardly appears as destiny.

The argument of Hambrick and Meinz would have been stronger if it had been confined to competition for top rankings, in which most contestants are practicing as intensively as possible. Thus it's possible to nurture "average" children to become championship chess players, as Geoff Colvin has observed, and many supposedly innate abilities will develop to elite levels through deliberate practice. Yet in a contest, small differences of memory and visualization skills may prevail. I cited Bobby Fischer's pyramid "practice, study, talent"  here. Likewise you don't need to be well-endowed with fast-twitch muscle fibers to be an Olympic championship sprinter, but it helps.

Unless one is obsessed with zero-sum games and a handful of glittering prizes, as opposed to excellence and contributions to human well-being, the Hambrick-Mainz op-ed should not discourage anybody from logging their 10,000 hours.

Image: gagilas/Flickr.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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