Memory and Expertise

I am reading this fascinating book called – Moonwalking with Einstein. It’s a story of a journalist who went to write about World memory championship for Slate and ended up being challenged by one of the participants and trained for a year and won the championship the following year. It’s really cool book. The book in general is his one year delving into this memory learning techniques and also explaining a lot about how our memories work and what it means to have a good memory.

Moonwalking with Einstein

One thing I read in there stuck with me. He talks about Chess champions-  where they did a study of average chess players and world class chess players, they found out that the difference between them is – basically memory. A chess champion is good because he/she can remember thousands of chess positions. It’s totally true. When I was playing chess long time back, it was all about memorizing positions and improvising on a stable position. They also found out that these chess champions didn’t have great IQ or exceptional memory when it came to remembering their shopping list. What they also found out was that when they were given a randomly arranged chess board to remember they had a hard time to remember it.

So what it means is that – they needed context to remember chess positions, they needed a story to remember a chess position. They also took a brain scans of experts and novice players and saw that for an expert every position lit up the parts of the brain which holds memory and for novices, the learning parts of the brain.

This gives an unusual twist on expertise. I believe this applies to any field, including writing software. If you think about it, when you are writing a program and say you are an expert at it – what your mind does is look in your memory to find similar scenarios from the past and how you solved it. A software expert is someone who knows how to solve a particular problem using software and it usually means that they have already solved these problems or similar ones in the past.

So, how do you build this memory whose other side is expertise? Remember Malcolm Gladwell talked about 10,000 hours of practice? There is no other way. Practice is what helps one to build such a strong memory and the outcome of that is expertise. This may sound very obvious, but there is a perception of Intelligence out there which is purely wrong. People assume, some people are smart and some aren’t. But that is a lock in position.

I believe nature plays a role. Some people are gifted and they are exception to the rule. But for the rest of us, it’s all about practice.

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