Master Versus Tyro – It’s All In The Mind

Master versus tyro-it’s all in the mind or so recent research suggests. The ten thousand hours of learning that is rumored to be required to become a master (talent a prerequisite, of course) are supposed to result in permanent changes in local brain structure. How do we know? The big magnet tells all.

The latest technique is called diffusion tensor imaging. This maps white and gray matter nicely. Only physicists could love DTI as an acronym for an instrumental technique, but the results are something that everybody can appreciate. The latest use is by Roberts et al from UC London on a group of black belt karate masters in comparison with ordinary guys (1). The work is reported in Cerebral Cortex.

They took a dozen of each group and persuaded them to punch hell out of a vertical target that would measure force. They also stood on a plate to measure force and each had infrared markers over their arms, shoulders, and hips so motion tracking could be used.

The black belts hit faster, harder and with greater precision, so their 14 years of practice hadn’t been wasted. The brain scans also showed some differences. The black belts had more white matter in parts of the cerebellum that is critical in the voluntary control of movement, that is, the primary motor cortex and the superior cerebellar peduncles.

White matter and black belts didn’t exactly match. The age, length of training made differences within the group, but they all showed bigger difference with the control group than within their own group.

Now someone needs to follow groups of young athletes or musicians (good hand and eye coordination is required here too) and follow their white matter changes during their training and compare that to average incompetents like us lesser mortals in order to find out whether 10k hours really are required to become an expert.


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