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Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education, Harvard Graduate School of Education; Author,Truth, Beauty, and Goodness Reframed
Psychologist, Harvard University; Author, Changing Minds

The Brain Basis of Talent

I believe that human talents are based on distinct patterns of brain connectivity. These patterns can be observed as the individual encounters and ultimately masters an organized activity or domain in his/her culture.

Consider three competing accounts:

#1 Talent is a question of practice. We could all become Mozarts or Einsteins if we persevered.

#2 Talents are fungible. A person who is good in one thing could be good in everything. 

#3 The basis of talents is genetic. While true, this account misleadingly implies that a person with a "musical gene" will necessarily evince her musicianship, just as she evinces her eye color or, less happily, Huntington's disease.

My Account: The most apt analogy is language learning. Nearly all of us can easily master natural languages in the first years of life. We might say that nearly all of us are talented speakers. An analogous process occurs with respect to various talents, with two differences:

1. There is greater genetic variance in the potential to evince talent in areas like music, chess, golf, mathematics, leadership, written (as opposed to oral) language, etc. 

2. Compared to language, the set of relevant activities is more variable within and across cultures. Consider the set of games. A person who masters chess easily in culture l, would not necessarily master poker or 'go' in culture 2.

As we attempt to master an activity, neural connections of varying degrees of utility or disutility form. Certain of us have nervous systems that are predisposed to develop quickly along the lines needed to master specific activities (chess) or classes of activities (mathematics) that happen to be available in one or more cultures. Accordingly, assuming such exposure, we will appear talented and become experts quickly. The rest of us can still achieve some expertise, but it will take longer, require more effective teaching, and draw on intellectual faculties and brain networks that the talented person does not have to use.

This hypothesis is currently being tested by Ellen Winner and Gottfried Schlaug. These investigators are imaging the brains of young students before they begin music lessons and for several years thereafter. They also are imaging control groups and administering control (non-music) tasks. After several years of music lessons, judges will determine which students have musical "talent." The researchers will document the brains of musically talented children before training, and how these brains develop.

If Account #1 is true, hours of practice will explain all. If #2 is true, those best at music should excel at all activities. If #3 is true, individual brain differences should be observable from the start. If my account is true, the most talented students will be distinguished not by differences observable prior to training but rather by the ways in which their neural connections alter during the first years of training.