Friday, April 16, 2010

How Our Brain Cells Determine Our Talents

What’s the difference between the brain of the talented and the less?
Why do the world’s top athletes or musicians start young?
What’s the formula of being a Nobel-prize genius?

In one of my articles, ‘The Scientific Difference between Liking & Wanting’, I have mentioned about brain circuits. In this article, I would expand on them. Specifically, how it determines our talent, and how can we use it to improve our skills. Brain circuits consists of a few ‘wires’ we call neurons, which transmits signals from our senses to our brain. From there, the brain processes the information, decides a response and ‘wires’ back the information through another set of circuits to appropriate parts of the body. Like when you are eating hot dogs when you are supposed to be on a diet, and then your friend suddenly comes up to you and say “Hey, why are you eating? Aren’t you on a diet?” The words made its way from your ears to your brain, processes it, decides a response, and sends back signals to your hand, mouth and tongue muscles, throwing away the hot dog and say “Oh no, no, I was just looking through that hot dog. I think it’s really hot…uh…the dog…anyway, why are you here?” Your brain tries to change the topic of hot dog to distract your friend. That’s our brain, it’s smart.

A neuron is like a wire cut off at both ends where at each end will be the shrub of shiny coppers sprouting out from the plastic insulator at the middle. In neurons, these ends are called dendrites on one end, and synaptic knobs on the other. In between those is the long part of the wire we call axon. Most neuron don’t have axons long enough to make it all the way to the brain. So the synaptic knobs connect to the dendrites of another neuron by small divisions called synapse (like soldering ends of wires to make it longer) until it reaches the brain. For the sake of simplicity, I will refer a neuron as a ‘wire’, and synapses as ‘wire connector’.

Unlike fishes or worms, most of our wires can’t be grown again after childhood. Logically, the more wires we have, the faster, the more accurate we respond, right? However, the good news is, we can always add more ‘wire connectors’. We don’t really have to grow new wires. These wires form basic function, like lifting your hand, or tilting your head (even a baby can do that). Scientists believe that even if we have the brain of a fish, we can still button our shirts! But that’s as long as we add wire connectors. Fishes don’t have much wire connectors like in humans, hence they don't wear shirts. Adding more wire connectors will strengthen the connection. In science we call this ‘synaptic plasticity’, the strengthening of synaptic connections. A strengthened connection allows you to respond faster, more accurate, and with less effort.

Now here is how wire connectors work:
  1. The more we use the wire, the more wire connectors are built
  2. The more wire connectors there are, the stronger the wire connections
  3. The stronger the wire connections, the faster and more precise the connection signals
  4. The faster and precise the connection signals, the less aware you are that you are using them

Remember, wires are just parts of a circuit. So when a circuit is used, not only one, but a few bunch of wires gets stronger. The last two points are the most profound. It holds the key to our talents, to being an Olympic athlete, a world-class musician, or a Nobel-prize winner. Now let’s go back to the questions:

What’s the difference between the brain of the talented and the less?
Why do the world’s top athletes or musicians start young?
What’s the formula of being a Nobel-prize genius?


To answer these questions we’ll need real-life proof. Let us start with Tiger Woods. Taking scandals aside, Tiger Woods is no doubt the world’s greatest golfer. However, he didn’t turn into a world champion overnight. He became a champion after decades of brain wire strengthening. There is no doubt that he started playing golf when he was very young, but how young? It was accounted that at the age of 5 months, Tiger started watching his dad play golf on a baby chair. By 9 months, his father made him a sawed-off golf club which he could handle. By 1 year old, he started going to golf courses. At 2, he already won Under Age 10 golfing competition. After the age of 11, he surpassed his father’s skill, and was never again beaten by his dad in golf. He won his first national junior tournament at the age of 13. I guess I do not need to keep on. You get the point from here. The question is not ‘what else did he won?’ but ‘what was happening inside his brain?’

Playing golf involve complex movements, requiring precise coordination between the mind and muscles. When I say complex movements, it means that it involves a lot of muscle-brain circuits. For example, the one controlling hand movements, the one maintaining the hip positions and the ones keeping the eyes on the ball. Everything needs to be precisely coordinated. However, as stated before, the more we use these wires, the more connections are built, the stronger, faster and more precise the connections, and hence, the less aware he is that he’s using it. Remember the first time you try to play the guitar, piano or learn dancing? It was a struggle wasn’t it? You need a lot of effort. You need to be so attentive to the movements of your hands, your fingers or your feet. But after hours and hours of practicing it feels less of an effort, until you reach a stage where you can play a song or dance and talk to your friend at the same time. That’s because the wire connectors inside your brain have become strong enough that you start doing the movements automatically. We call this 'automaticity'. Once you have reached automaticity, you don’t need to pay enormous amount of attention on what your muscles do. Hence, allowing you to play music or dance while paying attention to other things, like talking to your friend. That is exactly what happened to Tiger Woods.

Since 5 months old, Tiger has started strengthening his connections, at the age of 13, he already perfected his craft, with connections as solid as steel. By that time, the complex movements of hitting the golf ball ceases to be an enormous effort. It’s already automatic, and when that is combined with focused attention, he starts shooting like a machine. Tiger keeps on winning because he has an advantage over others: he has strong wire connectors since young, and all he has to do is keep on practicing to keep ahead of others. There are many other world-class athletes that start young. Roger Federer starts playing tennis at six. Lionel Messi started playing soccer at five. This is not limited to sports. Mozart started composing his first piece at 4. Jimi Hendrix started playing the guitar at 10. Each and everyone of them started stimulating their wires at a young age, and day by day strengthening them to perfection so that when they reach adulthood, they’re already the master of their art.

Now do not be disappointed when I said that most of them start young, thinking that it is too late for you. The essence of what I have explained earlier is not actually starting young, but spending a whole lot of time honing your craft more than anyone else. For example, before the rise of The Beatles, there were many other bands that started playing young. However, The Beatles went the extra mile by playing for 8 hours a day even before their first hit single, strengthening their ‘music wire connectors’ each and every minute they play. Soon, they surpassed the abilities other bands which mostly played 3 to 4 hours a day. Pablo Picasso once did a painting in 2 minutes and sold it worth millions of dollars. When asked how he created the masterpiece in just 2 seconds, he answered: “It took me 20 years of practice to do that painting in 2 seconds’. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and the founders of Sun Microsystems were given access computer at a time when computer access is limited to others, allowing them to strengthen their wire connections long before others. Today, they are the big players in the computer industry.

Hence, it is apparent in that world-class achievers either start young or spent countless hours on the things they’re focused to. ‘Focused’ means that they aim to be the master of one, instead of being the jack of all. Tiger Woods never changed his focus to tennis. Federer never tried to be a musician. Bill Gates never wanted to join the bands. They are all focused on the things they like and good at. They focused on it like crazy, strengthening their wire connectors related to their craft. As what Robin Sharma, the author of the bestselling book ‘The Monk Who Sold his Ferarri’ once wrote:

Daily improvement + focus = genius

It means find something that you like and focus on it, improving it each and every day. It doesn't have to be golf, tennis, or music. It could be literature, business, science or even Lego-building. You can become a genius in any field you want by applying the formula. So, what kind of genius you want to be in the future? Start practicing today. Nothing is too late. If you practice and improve every day, no matter how little, in 5 to 10 years from now, you will become a world-class achiever. When that day comes, I'd be happy to hear from you

5 comments:

mimiqt said...

Lutfi...

satu soalan.. apa formula All rounder pulak? hehe.

Dalam ni cuma fokus kat satu benda je. lol.

Yuci said...

hahahaha really inspired me on how to study....
now i need to strengthen my wire..
hahaahaa

IRA said...

i love this :)

soraskype said...

very good article..post more next time.

Raja Noor Izzuddin said...

Lufti,

Cool article. Thumbs up. Your article reminds me of "The Hedgehog Concept" by Good to Great Author Jim Collins.

I suggest you read book entitled "Talent is Overrated" by Geoff Colvin. In a nutshell, the book exlained that everyone can achieve world-class performers through "deliberate practice".

Keep up producing thought-provoking article.

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