Training Genius

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.

Related Materials

“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.

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Cognitive Performance Group, LLC is a woman-owned small business with offices in Orlando, Florida, and Cleveland, Ohio. It was founded by Dr. Karol G. Ross, Jennifer K. Phillips, and William A. Ross. The three CPG Principals developed the concept for a company to support cognitive performance improvement in industry and government. (more...)

5 Comments
  1. avatar Hutton, Robert (UK)

    I wanted to comment on this, but access was denied by my firewall at work!! This reminds me a little of “Ender’s Game” a great story about child geniuses and training command expertise (by the way, the movie is currently in progress for a Nov 2013 release!). However, the initial element of Ender’s Game is that only a subset of children are chosen for battle school based on extensive observation and testing from pre-birth to the age of selection, or rejection. In Polgar’s case, are we conflating nature with nurture to an extent? Were these girls just from really good chess “stock” (pre-disposed to effective pattern matching and progressive deepening)? We need the corollary study where a child from “average” parents is nurtured to be a young grand master, surely? Does this work really generalise to training cognitive skills? Or is a large part of the answer in our genes? (the whole “are leaders born or bred?” question again). Just a thought. Rob Hutton (friend of CPG)

    • avatar cpgfla

      Rob! You’re very right, it may be possible that the girls were pre-disposed to an affinity for chess. Of course, it is difficult to tell. Further research in this area would require some children with very dedicated parents, for sure!

      • avatar Donald C

        For anyone interested in expert performance, I highly recommend Mathew Syed’s Bounce. Currently less than $7 on Kindle.

        He goes in to some detail on the Polgar’s. His account, if it is accurate, is that it is almost all nuture. According to Syed’s book, Judith’s father set out to create a (family of) chess great(s). In fact, he chose his wife based on her being someone who supported his project. His goal was in part to show that it was about practice, and not about innate talent or genetic ability. Mostly it appears to be about having crazy parents. Like the Williams sisters.

        Syed is a good compliment to Gladwell, particularly Outliers.

        Don

        PS for Rob – Syed is a former UK table tennis star.

  2. avatar cpgfla

    Don, thank you for the book recommendation! It really does sound like a version of the William’s sisters. We will be sure to add it on our reading list.

  3. Early exposure and practice to a skill, domain, or language for that matter (cf. Pinker’s “Language Instinct”), particularly when the cortical structures are most malleable and neural wiring is being shaped by external stimuli, does seem to give a huge advantage in building a skill and nurturing genius. But there are many intangibles that may also come into play. Below is a short list:
    > the “innate instinct’ in the learner — that maybe hardwired, much like the language instinct — to acquire a skill (e.g., cognitive/analytical like chess; psychomotor like tennis)
    > Self efficacy and motivation of the learner
    > Instructional strategy (e.g., Learning orientation vs. Performance orientation; acquiring deep domain knowledge is emphasized in the former rather than just reaping quick gains or wins in the early stage of skill acquisition.)
    Finally, the amount of effort required by a learner who is precocious or has a predilection towards a particular skill, may gain mastery over it faster, and perhaps, with relatively lesser effort when compared with other conspecfics.

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