two more thoughts related to the autism/ Rowson/ gender/ chess/ capacity for hard work/obsession conversation:
1. Gary Kasparov's speech at SuperNationals: "Hard work is a talent"
2. An Economist article on autism and genius:
"A standard diagnosis of autism requires three things to be present in an individual. Two of these three, impairments in social interaction and in communication with other people, are the results of autists lacking empathy or, in technical jargon, a “theory of mind”. In other words they cannot, as even fairly young neurotypicals can, put themselves in the position of another being and ask themselves what that other is thinking. The third criterion, however, is that a person has what are known as restrictive and repetitive behaviours and interests, or RRBI, in the jargon.
Until recently, the feeling among many researchers was that the first two features were crucial to someone becoming a savant. The idea was that mental resources which would have been used for interaction and communication could be redeployed to develop expertise in some arbitrary task. Now, though, that consensus is shifting. Several of the volume’s authors argue that it is the third feature, RRBI, that permits people to become savants."
Coming from a chess background, that seems intuitively true, right? Think about people who play on ICC 10 hours a day. The article also contains hope for the "neurotypicals" among us:
"Given such anatomical differences, then, what hope is there for the neurotypical who would like to be a savant? Some, possibly. There are examples of people suddenly developing extraordinary skills in painting and music in adult life as a result of brain damage caused by accidents or strokes. That, perhaps, is too high a price to pay. But Allan Snyder of the University of Sydney has been able to induce what looks like a temporary version of this phenomenon using magnetism.
Dr Snyder argues that savant skills are latent in everyone, but that access to them is inhibited in non-savants by other neurological processes. He is able to remove this inhibition using a technique called repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation.
Applying a magnetic field to part of the brain disrupts the electrical activity of the nerve cells for a few seconds. Applying such a field repeatedly can have effects that last for an hour or so. The technique has been approved for the treatment of depression, and is being tested against several other conditions, including Parkinson’s disease and migraines. Dr Snyder, however, has found that stimulating an area called the left anterior temporal lobe improves people’s ability to draw things like animals and faces from memory. It helps them, too, with other tasks savants do famously well—proofreading, for example, and estimating the number of objects in a large group, such as a pile of match sticks. It also reduces “false” memories (savants tend to remember things literally, rather than constructing a mnemonic narrative and remembering that).
There are, however, examples of people who seem very neurotypical indeed achieving savant-like skills through sheer diligence. Probably the most famous is that of London taxi drivers, who must master the Knowledge—ie, the location of 25,000 streets, and the quickest ways between them—to qualify for a licence.
The expert here is Eleanor Maguire of University College, London, who famously showed a few years ago that the shape of the hippocampus, a part of the brain involved in long-term learning, changes in London cabbies."
update: maybe only tangentially relevant, but today's NY Times has an article on the importance of professional coaching in sports. It makes an interesting counterpoint to the idea in chess that adults almost never improve, even with coaching.