Month: January 2010

Will Apple’s iPad Make Us Dumb? (Or Smarter?)

blogSpanLike many of you, I spent part of yesterday staring curiously at Steve Jobs’s latest creation, and wondering how it might affect my life and my brain.

Certain truths are already clear: this device will make a lot of people more connected, more efficient, and it’ll certainly make them cooler in certain circles. But the real question is this: will it make people smarter?  What’s the best way to use new technology to grow our talents?

  • Theory 1: It’ll Make Us Dumber

The iPad, is built for three basic purposes: 1) absorbing media (video, books, web); 2) curating our stuff (music, photos); 3) connecting to other people. While these activities might make us more connected, or more deft organizers, the basic truth is that we don’t learn best by passively browsing media. To grow high-speed neural circuitry we need action — we need to fire the circuit, make mistakes, fix those mistakes, and repeat.

This is why studies have found that immersing our brains in the Internet diminishes certain aspects of intelligence (see Why Google is Making us Stoopid). It’s also why some schools that had previously introduced laptops in the classroom have now decided to get rid of them, because they diminish test scores.

Here’s why: the Internet is a warm bath of information and entertainment — and warm baths, while they feel fantastic, are an absolutely terrible way to built high-speed neural circuits. (How do you think Apple’s famously obsessive design team got to be skilled enough to produce the iPad? Hint: it wasn’t a warm bath.)

By this way of thinking, the real danger of the iPad is that it will be a time-thief. It is so incredibly delightful, personal, and obedient that it’s the ultimate warm neural bath; the comfort zone we never want to leave.

  • Theory 2: It’ll Make Us Smarter

Sure, whiz-bang new technology always gives us new ways to waste spectacular amounts of time and energy. But it also gives us new and immersive ways to grow our skill circuits. Meet Exhibit A:  Magnus Carlsen.

Carlsen is a youngest chess player ever to achieve a number-one ranking. (He was just profiled in Time magazine.) He is the first of a generation who’ve trained almost exclusively through computer chess (when asked if he owned a chessboard, Carlsen said he wasn’t sure). Carlsen has played and analyzed millions of games, and used that deep practice to develop an uncanny intuition that leaves older grandmasters speechless. As Jonah Lehrer puts it in his insightful blog entry:

“And this is why we shouldn’t be surprised that a chess prodigy raised on chess computer programs would be even more intuitive than traditional grandmasters. The software allows [Carlsen] to play more chess, which allows him to make more mistakes, which allows him to accumulate experience at a prodigious pace.”

Exhibit B would be Mark Sanchez, Joe Flacco, Matt Ryan, and other successful young NFL quarterbacks who’ve developed their skills by playing Madden NFL videogames. As Chris Suellentrop’s great story in Wired magazine shows, this generation is the first to have come up playing thousands of simulated games–recognizing defenses, selecting plays, spotting blitzes. As Suellentrop writes,

“[Playing Madden] isn’t just an exercise in self-obsession. Whether they know it or not, these athletes may actually be strengthening their brains. Cognitive scientists have published a series of studies demonstrating that playing fast-paced action videogames — mostly first-person shooters like Call of Duty and Halo — can alter “some of the fundamental aspects of visual attention,” as a paper published in the July 2009 issue of Neuropsychologia put it. By training on these games, researchers found, nongamers can achieve faster reaction time, improved hand-eye coordination, and greatly increased ability to process multiple stimuli.”

He goes on to cite studies that shows video gaming has been linked to improvements in the skills of surgeons and military pilots; the same dynamic accounts for the success of certain language software programs that combine vivid simulations with real-time feedback.

The overarching lesson here seems to be that growing skills depends on what you do with the device, not what the device does for you. Immersive simulations — which provide space to do things, fire circuits, make mistakes, and which provide vivid, immediate feedback — are by far the best way to learn certain kinds of skills.

All this leaves me imagining the next level in talent-building technology — to provide interactive access to the true magical software, the mind of a master coach. I’d love to see a quick, seamless way to video-link to a master coach anywhere in the world for a lesson. You would throw a ball, or swing a club, or play a song, and they would give you real-time feedback. Can you imagine?

The Science of the Hot Streak

4036590940_0e7ac32096For the last couple weeks, many of my NY friends have been extremely psyched about their Amazin’ Jets: a run-of-the-mill NFL team that suddenly, mysteriously started beating more talented teams, and which now stands one victory away from reaching the promised land of the Super Bowl.

It’s a great story, because we can relate. We’ve all been part of groups, in school or sports or business or music, that suddenly inhabit some magical zone of high performance — and then just as suddenly fall out of it. The deeper questions are: what causes this to happen? How can we make it happen more often?

I think part of the answer might be found in an unexpected place: a small, messy room on West 56th St. That’s where, from 1950 to 1954, a motley group of young comedy writers gathered to write the television program “Your Show of Shows.”

Each week, the writers (Sid Caesar, Mel Brooks, Mel Tolkin, Neil Simon, Larry Gelbart–talk about a talent hotbed) invented an entire show from scratch. By various accounts, the pattern was always the same: Monday, hardly anything got done. Tuesday, a little bit, but not that much. By Wednesday, things started rolling — in part because cameras had to be set up. Thursday and Friday were insanely productive  — which was good, because Saturday night their inventions were beamed live nationwide for 90 minutes.  Every week the pattern was the same: the writers started slow, then (suddenly, miraculously) hit on a hot streak. Their work, so unpromising on Monday, became brilliantly funny by Saturday night.

I think there’s a useful connection between the Jets’ hot streak and those insanely productive days on West 56th St. — and not just because comedy and football are so similar (collaborative, complex, relying on precise timing).  But rather because both are beautiful examples of how to build a deep-practice hothouse; a place that combines intensive learning with an urgent set of emotional cues. Three common elements jump out:

1) Super-high goals, from the start. On his first day, to the open-mouthed disbelief of media and fans alike, new Jets coach Rex Ryan talked about how the team would be visiting the White House after winning the Super Bowl. The West 56th St. writers set their goals even higher. As Mel Brooks said, “It wasn’t only a competition to be funnier. I had to get to the ultimate punch line. I was immensely ambitious. It was like I was screaming at the universe, like I had to make God laugh.”

2) Strong shared identity. It’s no coincidence that Coach Ryan and Sid Caesar resemble each other in personality; or that they have created teams in the images of themselves — tough, sharp, provocative, funny as hell. Because they’re not just building a team — they’re creating a story.

3) Early failure is not a verdict, but a navigation point for better work. The Jets went through a tough patch early in the season, much like the Monday-Tuesday doldrums on West 56th. The bad days weren’t the end; they turned out to be stepping stones.

Of course, that’s not to say that doing these things is any kind of guarantee. Hot streaks are mysterious because they always depend on factors beyond our control. Truth is, the Jets could easily have lost to the Chargers last week; truth is, “Your Show of Shows” was sometimes hilarious, sometimes not so much. But the deeper truth is, both caught a hot streak because they had build a structure to do so.

Side note: There’s an interesting school of thought that holds that hot streaks don’t actually exist. Several studies have found that what we see as hot streaks is really just our narrative-hungry brains superimposing a story on a random run of luck. But I’d like to point out that most of these studies involve coin flips, NBA scorers, and MLB batters —  highly compartmentalized, either/or scenarios that don’t resemble the complex, emotional group interactions we find in football, comedy writing, and, I’d argue, our everyday lives.

Family Talent

Jeff Nugent, CEO
The Nuge's Brother
The Nuge

A few years back I was eating dinner with Ted Nugent (for this Outside magazine story). The Nuge was on a roll — you know,  shredding on his guitar, raging against The Man — until midway through our venison steaks he lets drop a little family fact. His brother, Jeff, happens to be a successful businessman. In fact, he was CEO of Neutrogena (now CEO of Revlon).

I thought Nugent was pulling my leg. But in fact it turned out to be true.

While it’s relatively common to find siblings who are talented at the same skill (Venus/Serena Williams; the chess-playing Polgar sisters, the skiing Mahre twins, the Jackson/Osmond/Gibb singing dynasties, etc.). It’s quite another — and perhaps worth exploring — how a single family can produce two unique and diverse talents.

Because the Nugents aren’t the only ones who follow this pattern. Consider Irving and Arthur Penn — one a great photographer; the other an Oscar-winning film director. Then there’s William and Henry James (psychologist/philosopher and writer), and more recently brother and sister Maile Meloy (fiction writer) and Colin Meloy (songwriter and lead singer of The Decemberists. On a personal scale, I can think of a handful of familie, including the Putnams, a brother and sister who were my childhood neighbors in Anchorage, who grew up to be a successful filmmaker and a Sports Illustrated writer.

So what accounts for this pattern? To put it more concisely, what makes these remarkable families tick?

I think the first thing to point out is that the talents in question aren’t quite as diverse they first appear. Look closer at the Nuge and you’ll find an incredibly disciplined, calculated, message-conscious, ambitious entrepreneur — perhaps not as unlike his buttoned-down brother as you might suspect. The same deeper connection exists with the James brothers (pioneering thinkers), the Penns (visual artists), and the Meloys (creative types). It’s not like one sibling is an Olympic sprinter and the other an impressionist painter. (Though if anybody knows of an example like that, I’d be curious.)

If we think about talent as a neural circuit requiring practice and motivation, this pattern makes sense. Siblings usually share a common identity that can fuel motivation, especially when there’s some competition. The shared environment helps those talents along exactly as it does in the case of the Williams sisters or the Brontes: they are motivated to deeply practice in that area.

These families also help underline the importance of what we might call meta-skills — the larger qualities that form the foundation for all high performance: qualities like self-control, focus, ability to project toward a goal. As a neurologist might point out, these are also neural circuits; they’re also partly a result of the shared family environment. We could theorize that these families are examples of a kind of hothouse effect, where kids with a shared identity have a tendency to develop meta-skills in certain areas.  Then they diverge, as siblings tend to do, into their own narrower areas of expertise.

That’s kind of what happened in my family. I’ve got an older brother who’s a writer/editor and a younger brother who’s a doctor, and I’m in between — a guy who came very close to going to med school (even took the MCATs) but who ended up writing. We three brothers are different in many ways, but underneath we share the same way of looking at the world, analyzing it to see the underlying patterns, the same work habits — the same meta-skills, you might say, along with obviously much of the same identity.

To be fair, someone else could look at this pattern and see it as evidence for some talent gene that predestined the Nugents, Osmonds, et. al. It’s tempting to see it this way — and in fact Darwin’s cousin, Sir Francis Galton, along with his modern successors, tried for years to prove that such a gene or gene combination exists. But they haven’t had much luck. Because the fact is, there is no gene for family talent because it simply takes too much deep practice, time, and motivation to build fast, fluent neural circuits.

And besides, if family talent was all about genes, how in the world would we explain Jermaine Jackson?

(I’d like to send special thanks to Bill Forward for bringing this to my attention–and who wisely suggests adding another sibling duo: Rahm and Ari Emanuel.)