Monday, February 18, 2008

Hard graft, not genes.

From the New Scientist:

WANNABE rock stars: keep practising. Yet more evidence has emerged that musicians are made through training, not born with the gift.

We already know there is something special about the way musicians' brains react when they hear music. Now new scans have revealed that specific regions of the brain dedicated to musical syntax and timbre become even more animated than usual in musicians when they hear recordings of their own type of instrument.

Elizabeth Margulis at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville and her colleagues noticed the distinctions when playing music to flautists and violinists: only when the musicians heard their own instrument did these areas show this boost in activity.

The team reckons the musicians' intense training for specific instruments is responsible. If the brain's response to the music were decided by genetics, they argue, brain scans would be similar in all musicians listening to music, regardless of the instruments played.

Margulis speculates that other differences previously observed between musicians and non-musicians may also be due to training alone (Human Brain Mapping, DOI: 10.1002/hbm.20503).

"The suggestion has been that musicians have a different brain, but it doesn't seem they were born that way," she says.


  1. with training instead of genetics then, you will be 2000 'before no time' as we say in English, meaning very fast.

    you are a blessing to know. thank you as always

    warmest, dk

    PS and by the way, we all appreciate your sharing Phaedrus--who never disappoints (just like you in that way).


  2. Still its hard to believe Salieri was completely wrong when he cursed god for giving all that talent to Amadeus Mozart.

  3. Phaedrus,
    There are of course matters that are important to chess that are native. But the brains, unlike muscles, remain adaptive after birth. During your whole life, to be precise. So the relative influence of matters that are native diminishes overtime when the brain adapts.

    If you compare Kasparov the prodigy with Judith Polgar the trainee, the prodigy becomes the number one of the world while the trainee managed to become number 10. Besides that, there are alot of prodigies that end up plateauing on 2300.

    The fact is that we don't know what the effect would be on Kasparov if he had undergone the Polgar training. But for now there is little evidence that innate talent is paramount for chess.

    If the father of Mozart wasn't a musician but a cooper for instance, and there was no piano in his neighbourhood, what would have become of his talent? Environment is essential. In case of the Polgar sisters that happened to be papa Polgar.

  4. I think a small adjustment to the old proverb is called for:

    "the more I practice, the more talented I get"


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  6. I think the scientists conclusion deserves a discussion of how the musician chose their instrument. For example, if a musician chooses the flute over the oboe and the saxophone because the flute sounds the best to them, that would indicate to me that the brain response to their particular instrument is present before the training, not after. Of course, I could be way off in how a musician chooses their instrument.

  7. I bet a monkey can't learn chess no matter how many hours we spend teaching it. :)

    Tempo, where are you??

  8. Blue,

    I'm busy with acquiring a new job which takes all my focus and energy right now. So I'm taking a break from blogging and all non-OTB chess. It is a good moment for a break since I have reached a few definite conclusions lately. Which will lead to a fresh start after the break. I don't know how long the break is going to last, probably a few months. But I will come back.
    Wish me luck.

  9. Blue,

    about the monkey:
    this means that brains in general aren't reprogrammbable. Otherwise a monkey could learn any task.

    So what is different in the human brains? That different part must be reprogrammable. Is it only one area (of functions) or are there more?

    And what we have in common? I sometimes play like a monkey.

  10. Tempo: monkeys are reprogrammable. They build procedural memories like the ability to ride a bike and the like (I think we agree procedural as opposed declarative memory is crucial for chess). They can learn symbol-thing connections (e.g., red square means 'bananna'), but are not so good with learning syntactic rules defined over the symbols.

    Plus, they probably don't give a crap as they don't have egos :)

    If chess were only procedural reinforcement learning algorithms would do well at chess. They don't (but they are great at backgammon).

    So there is more to it.

  11. PS Good luck with the job change. I know such things are always a big stressor. Hope the transition is smooth.