The Talent Code: Two Truths and a Lie

The Talent Code (Daniel Coyle) makes three claims: that myelination is instrumental in learning, that skill is built by by methodically breaking down actions into component parts and perfecting them, and that these two facts have anything to do with each other.

In TED talk form:

Some background: your brain is made of nerve cells, which connect to each other and to other nerves outside the skull.  We have only the foggiest idea what brain cells do, but we’re pretty sure the external nerve cells are for controlling muscle movement and reporting sensory data.  Nerve cells communicate with each other by extending a long arm (called an axon) from their body to meet an axon from another nerve.  Signals travel down an axon electrically, and between axons chemically.  Like any electrical charge, nerve signals are subject to resistance and decay.  To prevent this they are wrapped in myelin, a mostly fatty substance that insulates the axon.

I had never heard of myelin being involved in learning, and in fact it’s not on the wiki page, but deeper googling reveals that there is some fairly compelling research to back this up.  Einstein had an unusually high number of glial cells (which, among other things, produce myelin).  White matter (made up mostly of myelin and glial cells) volume in fine-motor-control areas in the brains of pianists correlates with self-reported practice hours.  Most compellingly, mice prevented from producing new myelin are unable to learn a new task but maintain previous learning.  And it makes a certain amount of intuitive sense that a substance that protects and speeds up nerves would be involved in learning.   However, I don’t see anything here that tells us how a specific act of learning affects myelination of specific cells.  Coyle’s explanation of this is so dumbed down I immediately want to trounce it, but as far as I can tell it’s a reasonable summary of the data for his purposes.

His recommendation to practice by breaking down a skill into component parts and refining them to perfection seems entirely reasonable to me.  He cites a little bit of science for this, but mostly it’s just his observations of various talent hotbeds (The Spartak Tennis Club in Russia, KIPP schools, ).  He believes these hotbeds stem from a combination of this cultivated practice and “ignition”, the ability to make a kid believe they can be successful at something.  No doubt those are both helpful, but I don’t see any evidence that those factors and only those factors distinguish the talent hotbeds

This was originally going to be part of a longer series on several books with “talent” in the title, but there is only so much “intelligence is irrelevant, practice is everything” followed by absolutely no guidance on practice I can read.  So, here you go.