Smooth ice is paradise for those who dance with expertise.
The positive psychology concept ‘flow’ proposed by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi is based on the idea of fulfilling skilled activity. Flow is a mental state in which a person in an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity. Synonyms of ‘flow’ include: to be on the ball, in the moment, present, in the zone, wired in, in the groove, or owning.
How do we gain the high levels of skill or expertise that are required for experience of flow – whether in sports, the arts, music, science or business. How do we ‘get in the zone’ and get the most out of our work and activities?
More mundanely, how do we perform at high levels?
Practice and Performance
Psychologists researching this question have found out that a big part of the answer is practice — lots and lots of practice. In a famous early study, Ericsson and his colleagues asked violin students at a music academy to estimate the amount of time they set aside for practice, and when they started playing. Those students who had been identified as the ‘best’ players by the academy, had accumulated an average of over 10,000 hours. ‘Good’ players had accumulated just under 8,000 hours, while the least skilled came in at under 5,000 hours.
So imagine you decided to take up the guitar NOW, and practiced 5 hours a week. How long would it take you to get really good at something according to this study? 2000 weeks – or 38 years!! This would drop to 19 years for 10 hours per week, and 9.5 years for 20 hours per week! That takes dedication – the kind of sustained practice we usually only see with professional athletes, academics and professionals.
Malcolm Gladwell, summarizing Dr Ericsson’s research in his famous book ‘Outliers’, states that practice isn’t “the thing you do once you’re good” but “the thing you do that makes you good.” General intellectual ability – a persons IQ – he argues is not that important:
Once someone has reached an I.Q. of somewhere around 120, having additional IQ points doesn’t seem to translate into any measureable real-world advantage.
In his book “Talent Is Overrated,” Geoff Colvin, argues along similar lines that IQ is not critical to high levels of skilled performance:
IQ is a decent predictor of performance on an unfamiliar task, but once a person has been at a job for a few years, IQ predicts little or nothing about performance.
IQ and performance
This ‘practice makes perfect’ conception of what enables us to be in the zone at the highest levels of performance is now being augmented by recent research showing that IQ (a measure of intelligence) matters for success in many fields — and not just up to a point.
The study that broke waves here was one done with intellectually gifted children – those who scored in the top 1 percent on the SAT by the age of 13 – directed by the researchers David Lubinski and Camilla Benbow at the Vanderbilt University. (SAT scores correlate highly with IQ. The psychologist Howard Gardner has called the SAT a “thinly disguised” intelligence test.) What Lubinski and Benbow found was that participants who were in the 99.9 percentile for intellectual ability (the ‘profoundly gifted’) were between 3-5 times more likely than those who scored in the 99.1 percentile to go on to earn a doctorate, secure a patent, publish a journal article or literary work. Here a super high level of intellectual ability gave an impressive real world advantage.
The work of the psychologists David Hambrick and Elizabeth Meinz, in addition, has shown that working memory capacity, the key component of IQ targeted by the IQMindware training applications, predicts performance in a wide variety of complex skills. In one study, they recorded both the practice habits and working memory capacity of pianists. The pianists were then asked to sight read pieces of music without preparation, and scores on this were recorded. The most important factor determining how well a pianist performed in their sight-reading performance was amount of practice. But working memory capacity made a sizeable contribution too. As they explain:
… 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.
The take home is that working memory capacity and IQ level impact performance levels – impact our ability to ‘get in the zone’ and enjoy exercising our skills. IQ impacts the performance levels we can achieve with practice. Practice alone doesn’t make perfect. Practice and IQ makes perfect! Geoff Golving was wrong. IQ predicts quite a bit about performance. Increase your IQ and you can increase the performance levels of your well-practiced skills.
Success is going from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.
‘Screw up’ brainwaves
There are two universal reactions to mistakes in the brain, both of which can be detected as distinct electrical waves measured by an electrode cap.
The first – 50 milliseconds after a screw-up, originating in the anterior cingulate cortex that helps monitor performance for errors. This neural reaction is quick and involuntary and can occur below the radar of awareness. This is a signal for the brain that reality is not flowing as it should do.
The anterior cingulate cortex
The second electrical wave (called the Pe signal) arrives later after the cock up – up to half a second into the perceptual event. It occurs over the parietal cortex and signals the subjective experience of actively paying attention to the error and evaluating it, perhaps engaging emotions of regret, guilt, disappointment or anger and imaging what could have been better in the mind’s eye.
The learning brain – Pe brainwave signals
A distinct brainwave profile of these two signals helps us identify good learners. Many studies show the best learning brains have: 1) a bigger initial brainwave response to the mistake and 2) a stronger and more consistent later Pe brainwave.
A question arises: Why do some people have better Pe waves? Why are some people so much more effective at learning from their mistakes?
Enter Jason Moser at Michigan State University:
In a study coming out in Psychological Science Moser and his colleagues show that our subjective belief about intelligence and learning is a major factor in determining the size of our Pe wave, our ability to learn from mistakes, and our performance gains.
Fixed mindsets vs growth mindsets on IQ
Some people have a fixed mindset, believing IQ to be fixed in stone, impervious to change. IQ is like height – fixed in young adulthood. Others have a growth mindset about their mental capacities, believing they can get better at almost anything with enough time and effort.
Mosner found that our mindsets about our brainpower determine how we respond to cock-ups, which in turn determines how well we learn and improve our performance.
One big difference between people who think intelligence is malleable and those who think intelligence is fixed is how they respond to mistakes.
Jason S. Moser
Mosner’s mindsets-Pe wave experiment
Moser first gave out a questionnaire to determine which participants in his experiment had a fixed mindset or a growth mindset about intelligence. In the experiment a simple task was used in which performance was monitored. It was boring enough that people would frequently zone out and make mistakes. While performing the task, participants wore EEG caps, monitoring their brain waves.
Results showed that those participants with a growth mindset were significantly better at learning from their mistakes. Those with a growth mindset generated a much larger Pe signal (up to x3 as big), revealing increased attention to their mistakes.
And what’s more, this increased Pe signal was closely linked to improvement in performance on the task after the errors. Because the subjects were thinking about what they got wrong, they learned how to get it right.
It’s how you deal with failure that determines how you achieve success.
Failure in the classroom: Lessons for all of us
Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck is known for her research on fixed vs growth mindsets.
Her most famous study was done in twelve different schools involved giving more than 400 fifth graders. Students were given feedback that either induced a fixed or a growth mindset, and Dweck looked at the effect of this on how they tackled a series of tests.
Test Set 1: Creating the mindset
First they were given a test of nonverbal puzzles – not a hard test at first. After the test, the students were told their score, and given a single line of praise. Half of the kids were praised for their intelligence.
“You must be smart at this,” the researcher said. This encouraged a ‘fixed mindset’.
The other students were praised for their effort:
“You must have worked really hard.” This encouraged a ‘growth mindset’.
Test Set 2: Choosing a challenge
The students were then allowed to choose between two follow up tests – the first described as a more difficult set of puzzles, the second an easy test, similar to the one they just took.
Depending on the ‘fixed’ vs ‘growth’ feedback, there was a dramatic difference in the choice of test: nearly 90% of the kids praised for their effort chose the harder test. But most of the kids who were praised for their intelligence chose the easier test.
Why? According to Dweck, praising children for intelligence encourages them to hold onto an image of ‘looking’ smart. Making a mistake could threaten this privileged (fixed) status. Those who were praised for effort were focusing more on the learning process itself, not concerned about protecting a fixed image of themselves as good or bad.
Test Set 3: Grit
Dweck went on to show that fear of failure actually impairs learning. She gave the same fifth graders yet another test. This test was difficult — it was originally written for eighth graders – and Dweck wanted to see how the children would respond to the challenge.
Again another dramatic difference: The kids who had the growth mindset worked hard at figuring out the puzzles. Those with the fixed ‘I’m bright’ mindset were easily discouraged. Mistakes were seen as a sign of failure.
Test Set 4: Learning from others
After test set 3, the two groups of students were then given the option of looking either at the exams of students who did worse or those who did better. Another big difference: Students praised for their intelligence almost always wanted to see the poor performers – to affirm their status as bright. Students praised for hard work were more interested in looking at the higher scoring exams. They wanted to learn from their errors and do better.
Test Set 5: Overall gains in performance
The final round of tests was the same difficulty level as the first test. Students who were praised for their effort – with a growth mindset – exhibited significant improvement, raising their average score by 30 percent. With a growth mindset these students were willing to challenge themselves, even if it meant failing at first, they ended up performing at a much higher level.
By contrast, those who were praised for being smart saw their scores drop by nearly 20 percent. The aversion to failure and error had actually resulted in regression for these children.
Dweck’s Mindset Model
Here’s Dweck’s mindset model:
Take Home: Succeed through failure over self-image safehavens
Don’t fear failure and seek to avoid it, but embrace it as one of the best mindhacks for performance gains that’s out there. The better you think you might be, the more you should be doing this to cultivate your ability.
Unless we experience the unpleasant symptoms of being wrong — that surge of Pe activity a few hundred milliseconds after the error, directing our attention to the very thing we’d like to ignore — the brain will never rewire itself to do better. We’ll keep on making the same mistakes, forsaking self-improvement for the sake of our self-image.
I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. ..I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.
Expertise in any domain – whether chess, language learning, medical diagnosis, carpentry, or statistical analysis – involves hundreds of hours of deliberate, experimental practice. This results in the following:
- Developing the perception of relationships and patterns through ‘chunking’ (grouping together complex information into simpler units)
- Developing a highly organised knowledge bank that guides perception, and the efficient and deep search of the ‘problem space’.
- Developing intuitions are honed that goes well beyond conscious analysis and problem solving.
This is the basis of expertise.
How can IQMindware brain training help with the development of expertise?
1. Number of chunks that you can reason & plan with at one time
IQMindware n-back training improves your working memory capacity – by 65% in 20 days. Working memory is short term memory for items of information that can be used in analysing, thinking and decision making. There is a striking capacity limit in how many of these items of information can be used by working memory – usually only 2-3. The evidence shows that there is generally no difference between novices and experts in terms of working memory capacity. What usually makes the expert superior is his or her ability to ‘chunk’ information. Chunking can encode more complex and meaningful patterns of information as a unit.
IQMindware training can actually increase the number of chunks that can be held in mind – from around 2-3 to 4-6. This facilitates the process of ‘chunking’ – more complex patterns can be converted into ‘units’ for working memory. Also, it allows for MORE chunks to be held in mind for analysis, thinking and reflecting.
2. Expectations, failure and analysis
Expertise in chess and other domains is largely automatic. Masters and Grandmasters play moves intuitively and often cannot give reasons for why they make the moves they do – they just feel right. With intuition comes expectations. When we make mistakes, we experience what psychologists call ‘expectation failures’. When there is failure, attention is drawn to the problem and reasoning processes try to figure out why it ‘went wrong’. This involves active reasoning and problem solving. IQMindware training improves fluid intelligence – our ‘on the spot’ reasoning and analytic ability in situations that are new or unexpected. So it is clear that this process of analysing unexpected failures – which is needed for developing our expertise – benefits from this kind of brain training.
3. The efficiency of absorbing lessons
Becoming an expert requires lots of practice – up to 10 years of practice on some accounts. And we know that this practice must be deliberate – meaning focused, purposeful and systematic. It must involve conscious experimentation – analysing the situation, generating tactics about how to tackle something, trying things out, and learning from the feedback. This speeds up the learning process considerably.
Training with IQMindware brain training software increases your ability to be deliberate in this experimental way during practice. This improves your overall efficiency of gaining expertise through practice.