A scientific look at how experts come to be

(via boingboing)
No, this isn’t like the satirical look Stephen Colbert gave us earlier in the week.  Over at Scientific American there is an article dealing with the study of the mind of experts.

Studies of the mental processes of chess grandmasters have revealed clues to how people become experts in other fields as well

A man walks along the inside of a circle of chess tables, glancing at each for two or three seconds before making his move. On the outer rim, dozens of amateurs sit pondering their replies until he completes the circuit. The year is 1909, the man is José Raúl Capablanca of Cuba, and the result is a whitewash: 28 wins in as many games. The exhibition was part of a tour in which Capablanca won 168 games in a row.

How did he play so well, so quickly? And how far ahead could he calculate under such constraints? “I see only one move ahead,” Capablanca is said to have answered, “but it is always the correct one.”

Part of the problem of studying experts is studying in a field where expertise can be measured.  As the Scientific American article points out, there are experts in fields like teaching or business management, but how can you get quantitative results which can be used to compare the expert and average person in those fields?  With chess, there is the rating structure which is well defined and easily understood.

One of the points  of the study is the nature of experts’ memory and storage of information vs. the average person’s memory and storage.  How things are stored depends on what knowledge is already stored, as well as what information is provided.  An example of what this means is given with the storage of a simple phrase.

Take the sentence “Mary had a little lamb.” The number of information chunks in this sentence depends on one’s knowledge of the poem and the English language. For most native speakers of English, the sentence is part of a much larger chunk, the familiar poem. For someone who knows English but not the poem, the sentence is a single, self-contained chunk. For someone who has memorized the words but not their meaning, the sentence is five chunks, and it is 18 chunks for someone who knows the letters but not the words.

In the context of chess, the same differences can be seen between novices and grandmasters. To a beginner, a position with 20 chessmen on the board may contain far more than 20 chunks of information, because the pieces can be placed in so many configurations. A grandmaster, however, may see one part of the position as “fianchettoed bishop in the castled kingside,” together with a “blockaded king’s-Indian-style pawn chain,” and thereby cram the entire position into perhaps five or six chunks. By measuring the time it takes to commit a new chunk to memory and the number of hours a player must study chess before reaching grandmaster strength, Simon estimated that a typical grandmaster has access to roughly 50,000 to 100,000 chunks of chess information. A grandmaster can retrieve any of these chunks from memory simply by looking at a chess position, in the same way that most native English speakers can recite the poem “Mary had a little lamb” after hearing just the first few words.

So if you already know the poem, hearing the first line gets one chunk of information into your head. If you know the English language, but not the poem, then you have 5 chunks of information – each separate word.  If you don’t even know English and see this, you have 18 chunks of information – each letter.  The larger store of information you already have, the less you have to expend saving new information, and the more easily you end up being able to recall relevant information.

In all, the article covers a lot of what scientists are figuring out about the brain, how memory and recall work, and how expertise comes about.  And ultimately, understanding how chess masters become masters is helping scientists understand how experts in other fields come about.  It is a moderately lengthy article (6 long pages online), but that’s pretty typical with Scientific American.  And as with almost everything else I’ve read from the magazine, this one is worth the time to digest it all.

[tags]Expertise, Scientific American, How experts become experts[/tags]