In music, foreign languages and new technology, children usually
surpass adults in the ability to absorb knowledge and develop skill. But adults
aren’t hopeless. They too can learn new skills if instruction is broken into
small bits over longer periods of time.
Gary Marcus is a cognitive
psychologist and student of the human mind who runs the Center for Language and
Music at New York University. In "Guitar Tricks for a Middle-Aged Dog," a piece he wrote for the Wall Street
Journal, Marcus describes a study by Stanford biologist Eric
Knudsen on the learning capacities of adult and baby
owls. While baby owls quickly learned to compensate for artificially distorted
vision, adult owls didn’t. But
Knudson discovered old owls did learn to compensate when presented much more
slowly with smaller degrees of distortion.
At age 38, Marcus began using himself as a guinea pig to
learn about adult learning. He had always wanted to play the guitar, but in
school he had been considered musically inept, and as adult an expert suggested
he suffered from congenital arrhythmias—inability to keep time even with a
metronome. He chronicles his
three-year-effort in his new book, Guitar Zero: the New Musician and the Science of Learning.
"Applied Neuroscience, the Six-String Method," a New York Times story by Bruce
Headlam, tells about the book and Marcus’s musical and intellectual quest. Marcus
figured his arrhythmia and a life-long tendency toward motion sickness might
arise from his cerebellum. As a scientist, he wanted to know if his prefrontal
cortex could be trained to compensate for what his cerebellum couldn’t do.
He took a sabbatical, because he knew this project would
take time and concentration. And
he was familiar with the work of K.
Anders Ericsson, one of the psychologists who believe
that true expertise requires at least 10,000 hours of seriously focused practice. Marcus began with Guitar Hero, a video game that
rewards players for pressing the right buttons in time with recorded
music. Then he bought a real
guitar, read books, learned theory, found expert instructors, and practiced
every single day. Despite some frustrations, he never gave up. He is now a
competent musician, and even improved his rhythm enough that he was recently
complimented on his dancing.
Read the Times
story here. Click here to read "The Making of an Expert," an essay
by Ericsson and colleagues on the value of deliberate practice and