Brain Health,
Sci + Society,

#193: How Far Will Expertise Go?

August 11, 2017

“Perception is at the heart of expertise.”

This is an idea put forward by Adriaan de Groot, a 20th century Dutch chess master, and psychologist, and author of Thought and Choice in Chess, a seminal wok in the study of expertise.  Not only do experts perform differently, making things “look easy” to the non-expert bystanders…they actually see the world differently.

But — importantly — they don’t see the whole world differently.  Just the area of their specific domain of expertise, where their intensive training has steeped them in both declarative knowledge and unconscious intuition, giving them a vast library to pattern-match against when examining the raw data arriving from their senses.

Where a chess novice sees geometry on a board and little archipelagos of figures who can hop according to certain rules, the grandmaster sees lines of force and intention, areas of danger and opportunity.

Dr. Fernand Gobet is another former chess champion, as well as a professor of Decision-Making and Expertise at the University of Liverpool.  He is also author of the 2016 book Understanding Expertise: A Multi-Disciplinary Approach.

His work and research look into the relationship between effort, talent, experience and end-results — as well as near- and far-transfer of skill between domains, both cognitive and otherwise.  (Will having a mean tennis forehand help you in badminton?  Listen to Episode #193 to find out!)

The Myth of the Piano Springboard

Generations of parents have sent generations of kids to piano lessons (other lessons as well, but pianos make a great example) not because they want to sit through kids’ recitals, or set their kid up to play passably at some future holiday party, but because music skill correlates with many other skills: mathematics, general intelligence, future income, and other good things besides.

The dirty word hidden in that sentence, though (according to Ph.D. candidate Giovanni Sala), is correlates.  The implication — which few piano teachers will seek to disabuse you of — is that the piano practice is somehow to credit for pupils’ future successes in other arenas.  Meta-analyses by Sala and Dr. Gobet, however, refute this idea.  “Far transfer,” they say — the highly desirable idea that effort expended and expertise attained in one area can be siphoned over to other cognitive domains — doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

Look for your little piano prodigy to do all right with a pipe organ or a xylophone, maybe, but not to build the next Mars rover.  Or if he or she does — the common denominator is likely a prodigious natural intelligence, not a spillover from one skill area overflowing into the next.


Episode #193 is all about gaining expertise on expertise itself.  After all, we all want to be damned good at something.  Maybe more than one something.

And the first step — the first of what will likely be very, very many steps — is understanding how expertise itself works, and how it is built up over time.  So give a listen, and then get to work.  🙂

Show Notes
  • 00:00:26

    Episode Introduction: How Far Will Expertise Go?

  • 00:01:13

    This Week in Neuroscience: Lefties, Righties, and Cognition

  • 00:05:41

    Smart Drug Smarts News + Updates

  • 00:07:02

    Interview Lead-in: An Expertise in Understanding Expertise

  • 00:08:57

    Interview Begins

  • 00:10:23

    Far Transfer vs. Near Transfer

  • 00:12:09

    Debunking The Idea That Generalized Improvements Can Be Effective

  • 00:14:09

    Perception Is At The Heart of Expertise

  • 00:16:52

    The Difference Between Knowing That vs Knowing How

  • 00:21:20

    Ways Of Thinking

  • 00:22:37

    Is Expertise Possible For Analytical Method of Thinking?

  • 00:24:22

    Do Lessons For Kids Make Them Smarter?

  • 00:26:21

    Far Transfer With Expertise

  • 00:29:04

    How To Recognize Advantages to Acquire Expertise More Quickly

  • 00:32:06

    Personality Types For Expertise

  • 00:35:47

    Limits In Domains of Expertise

  • 00:38:35

    Interview Wrap-Up

  • 00:40:02

    Ruthless Listener Retention Gimmick: Weight Maintenance & Smell

  • 00:43:20

    Episode Wrap-Up

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