The Expert Mind

My wife told me I should read this Scientific American Article. She found a link to it on Ryan’s blog. I immediately noticed that it’s much longer than my normal attention span. “Make sure you read all the way to the end,” her email told me. I knew I was going to be quizzed on this, so I dutifly clicked on the link.

BrainThat was a couple weeks ago. I’ve been thinking about the concepts in the article ever since. The article examines how “experts” think, reason, and make decisions within their areas of expertise. Researchers have concluded that experts rely more on structured knowledge than on analysis of options. An expert chess player doesn’t examine the implications of all of the possible moves. He or she simply looks at the game as a whole — the relation of the pieces to one another, and picks the best move.

This approach to memory is known as chunking. The article uses this example: The sentence “Mary had a little lamb” can convey infomation of vastly different complexity depending on the reader’s background. If you know the story, you’re thinking about fleece as white as snow, and the lamb following her to school (which is against the rule in the story, but I don’t see that mentioned in our student handbook). The sentence is a single chunk which represents quite a bit of information.

If you don’t know the story, the sentence represents a single chunk, but doesn’t convey any more information. A young reader who can read without comprehension sees five chunks (words) without necessarily getting the connection between them, or the broader meaning. Non-readers may see 18 chunks, if they know their alphabets. Non-Westerners may not even recognize the alphabet, and may break the letters down into a series of lines, dots, and curves. At this level, there’s an incredible complexity to the information.

So, when my football-coaching brother looks at a defense, he knows they’re in double coverage at a glance. and he can call out the line’s techniques in the couple seconds before the ball is snapped. I’m still trying to make sure there are eleven guys on the field. The chunks depend on the level of expertise.

The same is true of technology “experts.” Two people at the middle school call from different offices within a few minutes of each other. One can’t get to email, and the other is having trouble changing a student’s schedule. The technician puts these together, along with the fact that school is starting in a couple days, and determines (correctly) that a teacher somewhere else in the building has plugged a hub into two network ports and created a network loop. It’s not jumping to conclusions. It’s just applying previous knowledge to the current situation, and looking at the big picture.

The major implication is that these talents are developed, not inborn. Dr. Suzuki recognized that all students are fluent in their native languages. Even in really difficult languages, the slowest kids are language experts in their native tongues. He applied this to music instruction, concluding that anyone can be an instumental master. He built the Suzuki Method of music instruction around this philosophy, and millions of very young kids are outstanding musicians.

I’m at the level where I can play chords on the guitar. My fingers don’t have to think about where to go to play a C chord. If I’m in they key of D, I know that I’ll probably be going to A or G at some point in the song. If I’m throwing in a minor, it’ll probably be B minor. If we want to play the same song in G, that’ll be an E minor with C and D major chords. I can look at a key and know which chords are probably going to be there. What I can’t do yet is figure out how a blues song would differ from a country song or a rock song in this area. I also don’t understand augmented and diminished chords. But that’s just a bigger chunk.