Talent Inside the Brain

layers of myelin surround nerve fibers

layers of myelin surround nerve fibers

Where does talent come from? In locating that answer on the nature vs. nurture continuum, conventional thinking over the centuries has favored nature.

Sure, training, discipline and hard work are all well and good but they can only take one so far if God or DNA didn’t seed talent. This view has perhaps been most prevalent with athletics, but it has also figured in to science, commerce and art.

That traditional view has largely been upended in recent decades by research in psychology and neurology. A number of books have reported these findings, including The Talent Code (Daniel Coyle, 2009), Talent is Overrated (Geoffrey Colvin, 2010) and Expertise and Expert Performance (K. Anders Ericsson, 2006). Having just read The Talent Code, I am now recalibrating my thinking on the subject.

A question that haunts every struggling artist is, Do I have the talent to succeed at this? This annoying doubt sneaks in between me and my writing every day. Despite not knowing the answer, I soldier on. Paul Cezanne (1830-1906) offers a classic example. Although he painted virtually every day, he went to his grave doubting he possessed sufficient talent. In 2012 his painting “The Card Players” sold for $250 million (not that money is the only or best measurement of quality).

TalentCodeDaniel Coyle’s book The Talent Code is a restorative for the artist’s self-doubting soul. Coyle focuses on myelin, a microscopic substance in the brain that enwraps nerve fibers. You can think of myelin as insulation around wire. The more layers of myelin, the faster signals travel in the brain’s complex circuitry, resulting in improved timing, speed and accuracy, whether playing soccer or a violin, writing a novel or creating a painting.

(How complex is the human brain? Try 100 billion neurons – wires – connected to each other by synapses).

The discovery of myelin dovetailed with the research of psychologist K. Anders Ericsson, who found that achieving expertise in every field is the result of roughly 10,000 hours of committed practice. Cited by Malcolm Gladwell and many other writers, Ericsson’s finding has become popularized as “the 10,000 hour rule.” Ericsson learned that most world-class experts, including pianists, chess players, novelists and athletes, practice between three and five hours a day, regardless of what skill they pursue. Coyle explains that those thousands of practice hours are building up layers of myelin around nerve fibers, eventually resulting in proficiency.

When I had previously run across this 10,000 hour rule, I had no trouble seeing its application to athletics or even to some performing arts such as playing the piano or violin, but I questioned its relevance to more generative creative enterprises, say composing a symphony, making a film or writing a novel.

Coyle takes on this question: “Skills like soccer, writing, and comedy are flexible-circuit skills, meaning that they require us to grow vast ivy-vine circuits that we can flick through to navigate an ever-changing set of obstacles. Playing violin, golf, gymnastics, and figure skating, on the other hand, are consistent-circuit skills, depending utterly on a solid foundation of technique that enables us to reliably re-create the fundamentals of an ideal performance. This is why self-taught violinists, skaters, and gymnasts rarely reach world-class level and why self-taught novelists, comedians, and soccer players do all the time.”

Practice must be challenging enough to produce mistakes and failure, which one then corrects for and tries again. Gaining skill should be awkward, difficult and mistake-laden. That’s how the layers of myelin get built up. It’s like muscle-building. If you continually try to lift things you can barely lift, your muscles will respond by getting stronger. As one of my heroes, Samuel Beckett, wrote in Waiting for Godot, “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Another interesting thing about acquiring skill is that we want to make skills automatic, to get them to operate at the subconscious level so they’re not tying up our more limited consciousness circuitry. This migration of skill from conscious to unconscious creates a powerful illusion: the skill eventually feels utterly natural, as if we were born with it. Neurologists call this process automaticity.

Why do we associate passion and persistence with gaining and retaining talent? The neurological answer is because wrapping myelin around a big circuit requires immense energy and time. “If you don’t love it, you’ll never work hard enough to be great,” Coyle writes.

For anyone trying to learn new skills or develop proficiency, The Talent Code delivers insights about what is going on physiologically inside the skull as we do that. The book is also a terrific source of encouragement and inspiration for anyone questioning his sufficiency of talent and struggling to gain proficiency.

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