Tag Archives: Anders Ericsson

Commencement Address for the CSI Class of 2017

Thank you Provost Reichard and President Fritz and congratulations to the class of 2017!

There’s classic film from the 60’s called The Graduate, and in it, the central character is given a one-word piece of advice: Plastics. I’m not going to tell you about plastics. Instead, I’m going to tell you about something much more important, and that is neural plasticity, which is your brain’s ability to adapt to and grow stronger in response to challenges. Until recently, neuroscientists generally thought that after childhood, you never grow new brain cells; although the hardware may be reprogrammed, you don’t get any new parts. We now know this is wrong. Even as an adult, your brain, like your muscles, can get stronger.

How do we know this? London Taxi cab drivers go through the most onerous training of any cabbies in the world. When they are done, they don’t need a GPS as they have committed the complexity of London’s highways, byways, landmarks and optimal routes to memory. FMRIs show that this training enlarges the spatial-memory areas in their brains. Increasing your brain power doesn’t have to stop at graduation. It’s more than simply living up to your potential; you can, in a very good sense of the word, increase your potential.

But it takes work. It’s tempting to look at successful individuals and think, well, sure, it was easy for them. But as Anders Ericssen points out in his book PEAK, extensive research into the lives of great athletes, scholars, artists, politicians and others, uncovers not one case of easy achievement. In the golfer Sam Snead’s words: “People always said I had a natural swing. But when I was young, I’d play and practice all day, then practice more at night by my car’s headlights. My hands bled. Nobody worked harder at golf than I did.”

And it’s never too late to start. One student this semester Daniel Wisnieski —Daniel, I hope you don’t mind me sharing your story—told me it took him seven years to finish his degree. He said that at the start, his head was in the wrong place; I won’t tell you where he said it was, but it definitely wasn’t where it should’ve been. However, by the time he was taking my class this past semester, his head was firmly planted in his books and his final paper on the nature of science attested to this. I asked him what he was planning to do after finally wrapping up his degree. He wasn’t quite sure, but. . .but he thought he’d like to go back to school.

Whether you’ve been on the fast track or, like Daniel, it’s taken you a while, it doesn’t matter: you live your life from this point on. So, graduating class of 2017, remember: Confetti_(5879576562)Neural plasticity and GO GET ‘EM.

Continuous Improvement

From  Chapter 6 of my forthcoming book,  The Myth of ‘Just do it’: Thought and Effort in Expert Action:  

To become the Cuban ballet dancer Alicia Alonso, who, though partially blind,was able to rise to the top of her profession, one has to be driven to achieve great heights and, at least for many who excel in their fields, this drive is ongoing. Indeed, it may very well be that it is this desire for continuous improvement–what in Japanese is called “kaizen”–more so than talent, that turns a novice into an expert (Ericsson and Smith, 1991). Certainly nature plays a role, but for those who truly excel, nature is almost invariably coupled with a vast amount of hard work.  What does this ongoing desire to improve suggest about the role of the mind in expert in action?  

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