While visiting Rio de Janeiro two weeks ago, I attended a soccer game. I’m not a big soccer fan. Yet there I was up on my feet, hollering. You just can’t help yourself. Brazilians are the best soccer players in the world!
Inspired by that game, I read the book Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham and the Science of Success by the British, former ping pong champion turned journalist, Matthew Syed. The book presents evidence that success is driven primarily by effort, not genetics. Just the idea of innate talents, has a negative effect on motivation and success. Society would achieve more if everyone understood that expertise is concretely achievable – you are not just born with it. There are loads of scientific studies and historical examples in the book, regarding why and how, such efforts should be applied. To boot, Matthew Syed takes a pro-biotech stance.
Now here’s my question. If this is all so…do our inherited traits have anything to do with why we don’t all achieve expertise? Are many of us just too lazy to put in 10,000 hours – explained in the book – necessary to produce works of genius? Or are we merely misguided? Here’s an applicable behavioral genetics review. Why are children in the same family so different from one another? Plomin et al, (2011) Int J Epidemiol. Behavioral genetics research has demonstrated the greatest influences on complex psychological developmental traits are “non-shared environmental” factors. Briefly…studies use adoption and twin designs, identify shared characteristics for study, then subtract heredity and shared environment factors, leaving mostly non-shared environmental factors. I learned that a shared family environment has no lasting impact on IQ! The authors impart their opinion that child development books need to be re-written“What parents do - does not have the same impact on each of their children’s behavioral development…..a unique environment must be provided for each child”.
Opportunities for neuroscientists lie in identifying epigenetically based causes and biomarkers of developmental differences. Developmental differences are already proposed as a non-shared environmental factor by behavioral geneticists. This recent letter by the director of NIMH regarding investment strategy, notes brain development and epigenetics – mostly aiming at mental illnesses.
Somewhat in contrast to the message in Bounce, I believe developmental differences via epigenetically inherited mechanisms could be the major non-shared environmental factor defining an individual’s learning success. There are two sides to the coin, of course, surplus and deficits. See these articles on innate math skills and this one on learning and memory. The point is that how much effort is required to gain expertise, can vary between individuals based on innate skills – sometimes in a pronounced way.
Which all leads me to say that optimized learning requires practice opportunities matched to that individual’s abilities. Skill acquisition can neither rely solely on “innate talents”, nor practice opportunities set by population averages. It almost reminds me of the personalized medicine model. Personalized teaching is required for the pursuit of expertise by individuals in any area of study, be it soccer, sales, social skills, or seismology. Our individual learning potentials are not limitless in every area, but they are certainly higher than we give ourselves credit for.
Cheers to Matthew Syed for a book that is a great pep talk!
Plomin R, & Daniels D (2011). Why are children in the same family so different from one another? International journal of epidemiology, 40 (3), 563-82 PMID: 21807642