How Experts’ Brains are Different in Amazing, Powerful Ways

After hours and hours of deliberate practice, at long last you’ve reached your goal: you’re now an expert. Congratulations.


But what is expertise? How is it that some people are so good at some skills? What has actually happened to their brains to allow them to be an expert?




Expertise is Easy

If you watch an expert, they “make it look easy.”


It’s not just that they’re good at whatever they do. They’re also relaxed and at ease.


The first time I really noticed this was playing a friend in a game of pool. I was hitting the balls hard, trying to make them go where I wanted. He was gentle. The balls would drop into the pockets slowly. He exerted just enough power to accomplish the goal.


Watch an expert musician, sports player, or just about anything else and you’ll see the same thing. They use just enough effort to get the job done, while novices tend to overexert themselves.



Superhuman Experts

What’s so striking about experts is that they seem to have abilities that we do not.




The musician moves his fingers faster than we can even recognize the note. The world memory champion memorizes entire decks of cards. The skilled doctor eliminates an improbable diagnosis and zeros in on a course of action more effectively than her novice peer.


Swedish psychologist K. Anders Ericsson has devoted his career to studying this phenomenon that we call “expertise.” His seminal work was The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, an excellent bit of reading for anybody interested in the science of expertise. In short, though, experts have the unique ability use pattern recognition to create shortcuts.


The professional world is one place where this is easy to see. Take computer programming (my day job), for example. One hallmark of the expert is that she can recognize the class of problem easily, and therefore hone in on possible causes for a bug or solutions to a problem. She has seen enough similar situations that she instinctively knows what kind of solution to consider. Her brain is doing something fundamentally different than the novice.


To see how, let’s look at the big picture…



Seeing the Big Picture

Thanks to chunking, experts can take in more information at once.


The point of perfect practice is to improve pattern recognition and create chunks of knowledge. Take chess, for example. If you’ve never played chess, the following image doesn’t have any particular significance. But if you know the rules, you know that this is the starting position for a game:




The research shows that expertise involves learning more patterns, just like this “starting the game” pattern. In a curious study, expert and non-expert players were asked to quickly memorize the entire layout of a chess board. The experts were better at the memorization task, but only if the board was in a “legal” configuration for chess. If the board was arranged randomly, so that no chess game could produce it, the experts were no better at memorization.


Scientists at Cornell explain how the brain starts to do less work as it gets better at a skill:

Specifically, training resulted in decreased activity in brain regions involved in effortful control and attention that closely overlap with the frontoparietal control and dorsal attention networks. Increased activity was found after training, however, in the default network that is involved in self-reflective activities, including future planning or even day dreaming. Thus, skill mastery is associated with increased activity in areas not engaged in skill performance, and this shift can be detected in the large-scale networks of the brain.


What this tells us is that the experts use the power of chunking. Instead of seeing 32 different pieces (a lot of information to remember) they were able to identify groups of pieces. Look at the above image again: it’s easy to see two groups (the white and the black, each in starting positions). Since you’re familiar with starting positions, you only need to remember those two bits of information instead of 32 distinct positions for pieces.



Shortcuts and Stereotypes

The brain is really good at coming up with these chunks.


So good, in fact, that it leads to what we call “stereotypes.” A stereotype is just a pattern that has been over-applied. When you encounter what appears to be a pattern enough times, you inevitably start to generalize that pattern. You start to see the group (the chunk) instead of the individual. When you have seen 99 people of the same group who appear to be one way, it’s hard not to assume the 100th person will match that pattern as well.


The fact that stereotypes exist is just one more piece of evidence that the brain is built for this sort of automatic pattern recognition. It lazily creates shortcuts, so that it can see these big chunks instead of finer details because most of the time this sort of grouping is an effective tool.


Chunking and stereotypes are just two examples of the brain automatically creating shortcuts for itself. So while this is the goal of learning, we should be aware what we lose in the process of becoming an expert.



The Creativity of Novices

The point is that expertise is a double-edged sword. What you gain in efficiency you can lose in nuance.





The intrepid outsider thinks to question the rules. When presented with a problem, she does not have the expert’s shortcuts to fall back on… so she has to evaluate everything without heuristics to make it easier. This means she can come to different conclusions than the expert. The fact that she is a novice means that many of her conclusions may be wrong, but she will challenge the status quo and sometimes she’ll strike upon something important that the experts may have not seen.


Does this mean that being a novice or being an expert is “better?” Hardly. Rather, they each have certain traits. There are ways for experts to be creative, and they have their own abilities to see things that novices cannot. Where a novice sees a collection of chess pieces, an expert sees potential combinations of moves.


Acknowledging the strengths and weaknesses of each can lead to a richer ability to utilize your own specific skills. So, as you embark on your learning journey, try to think about the places you’re a novice and the places you’re an expert. As you develop a skill, be aware of what you’re gaining… and what you’re losing.


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