Scientists, psychologists, doctors, and other professionals spend years in graduate or post-graduate studies learning and practicing their domain to be considered experts. In fact, Csikszentmahalyi and Piirto argue that it takes a minimum of 10 years of practice in a domain to be a true master in the field. But what if you could speed up the process by learning the domain in early childhood? What if exposing children to music, arts, or science in a chronological progression at an early age was able to drastically adapt their perspective and in turn expertise? Can focus in early childhood truly impact future expertise?
Enter Laszlo Polgar, a Hungarian writer with the idea that intensifying a subject in early childhood could lead to genius level competence. Polgar, an avid chess player, raised three of his daughters with an intense focus on chess in early childhood. His eldest daughter, Susan, managed to be the top ranked player in the world at age 15 and become the game’s first female Grandmaster.
Susan’s brain has been the source of much study in the area of “creating genius”. Studies surrounding the intense processing power of her brain have only begun to understand the emergence of her ability. During early childhood the brain has an amazing ability to absorb information. This is the point at which most language is learned and patterns in faces start to be recognized. Susan’s exposure to chess at this stage allowed the brain to identify complex sequences as patterns.
Most people look at a chess game in play and may be able to remember where a few of the pieces are placed. Susan can look at a game in play for mere seconds and recreate the board in its entirety. This is due to the pattern recognition automatically triggered in her brain, much like seeing a familiar face. This allows her to play multiple games at a time, in the same way that you can hold conversations with multiple people over time. In contrast, if Susan were to be presented with a board full of randomly placed pieces, she would have as much trouble recreating it as if she were recounting a random 32-digit number.
Laszlo’s success with Susan is very impressive, and Susan now helps children learn to play chess. You can check out the Susan Polgar Foundation here. If Susan’s achievements are not enough, her sister Judit became a chess Grandmaster at age 15 and 4 months. She was the youngest person to ever achieve that at the time, male or female. Most people consider Judit the strongest female player of all time.
What do these astonishing results imply for training experts in a particular domain? Should future experts be trained at universities or should expertise begin in elementary school? Tell us your thoughts.
Watch this video for more information regarding Susan’s amazing abilities.
“People: Isaac Rosa, Jennifer Aniston, Susan Polgar”. The New York Times. 4 August 2005.
“The Mission of Susan Polgar and the Foundation”. Susanpolgar.com.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1996). Creativity: flow and the psychology of discovery and invention. New York, NY: HarperCollins.
Piirto, J. (2004). Understanding creativity. Scottsdale, AZ: Great Potential Press, Inc.
“Super-GM tournament in Sofia starts”. Chessbase.com. May 12, 2005
Kavalek, Lubomir (2005-01-17). “Chess”. The Washington Post: p. C12. Kavalek, GM in the top 100 players for 26 years, called Polgár, “the all-time best female player”
Weber, Bruce (1996-12-22). “Next Move? Chess enthusiasts puzzle over game’s gender imbalance”.Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (New York Times): p. 17A.
Photo Credit: Alan Light.