The World-Builders

This article is part of a series entitled The Unlimited Mind. See also:
1. On Memory; 2. The Genius Within; 3. The World-Builders

I’ve been fascinated with expertise since childhood. And it started over the chessboard. My dad would beat me—swiftly, crushingly, and above all, effortlessly—time and time again. He understood lines and positions in a way that I just couldn’t, and, as it seemed to me, would never be able to. My first question at the end of most games was: “where did I go wrong?”


Chess has served as a popular topic of study for those seeking to understand expertise.

Almost more unnerving than my dad’s ability was the fact that there were people out there who could, just as easily, beat him. “In college in Russia, I played a classmate of mine, who was a master,” he told me once. “I would think all night about my move, and then the next day in class, he’d move right away. Still, he beat me easily.”

Thus my interest in expertise was born. It seemed that some just had some sort of divine gift, which beckoned them onto a higher plane of understanding. For me to attempt to reach those heights would be futile. I could only watch in awe from below.

As I grew older, my skills improved. My games with my dad grew stricter and cleaner, until, one day, I beat him. In time, whether I won or lost, I was always able to give him a fair fight. I came to appreciate chess as an incredibly rich and rewarding game.

But my view of expertise—now that I had a taste of it—had lost a bit of its sparkle. Continue reading


Mental Rotation

My visuospatial reasoning skills have proven essential to my learning of anatomy. As I perform a dissection, I’m constantly recalling, scrutinizing, and manipulating mental images.

For example, I’ll think something along the lines of:

I’m currently viewing a cadaver from the anterior side. I know that, on the posterior side, the circumflex scapular artery emerges from the triangular space, between the teres major and minor muscles and medial to the long head of the triceps brachii. Here, I see the subscapular artery, which divides into thoracodorsal and the circumflex scapular. I know that the proximal branch must be the circumflex scapular, since I see it diving deep between the teres muscles, into what, on the posterior side, will become the triangular space.

And so on.

I quickly found that I was not alone in citing the benefits of visuospatial reasoning to medicine (1).

ColonoscopySo, I started to wonder: can visuospatial ability be quantified? Can it be improved?

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Tables Turned

The experimenter across from you, wearing a lab coat and an identification tag, places his clipboard on the table. He explains the day’s experiment. “I’m thinking of a rule which generates triples of integers,” he begins. “I’ll first give you one example of a triple conforming to the rule. Then, you must propose additional triples, and I’ll give immediate feedback: yes or no. You must try to guess the rule after submitting as few questions as possible. Ready?”

The experiment begins. “2, 4, 6.”

  1. You: “4, 6, 8?” Experimenter: “Yes”.
  2. You: “6, 8, 10?” Experimenter: “Yes”.
  3. You: “10, 12, 14?” Experimenter: “Yes”.

“Ascending triples of consecutive even integers?” you blurt out. “No. Ascending sequences in general,” the experimenter responds, as he leans back and disdainfully scribbles something on his board. You’ve been defeated. Continue reading

The Research Player

This article is part of a series entitled 20th Century Chess Greats. See also:

  1. Mikhail Tal: The Deep Dark Forest
  2. Bobby Fischer: The American
  3. Tigran Petrosian: The Iron Fortress
  4. Mikhail Botvinnik: The Research Player

In a previous article, I addressed the classic nature vs. nurture dichotomy, in which skill is attributed to both genetics and environment. I noted that, while talk of nature often concerns only genetic inclination towards talent, we might also consider genetic tendency towards drive, which prompts the skill-seeker to alter her environment such that she might increase her skill beyond that which her combination of environment and natural talent would otherwise allow.

For example, Fischer became a great player only because the three stars aligned. His environment led him towards chess; his talent, presumably, brought strong results early-on; and finally, his incessant drive allowed him to keep studying long after most would-be champions would have put the board away.

Today, I advance an even stronger argument: perhaps, natural talent doesn’t even exist; perhaps we’re dealing only with environment and drive. Natural talent is simply an apparition, a phantom, often confused with natural drive, but not even existing in its own right. Or, more profoundly, perhaps the existence of natural talent is not scientifically-supportable, and, whether or not it exists, we need not believe in it. Continue reading

A Neuroscience Great Left Big Shoes Behind

This article is part of a series on Our Grandparents. See also:

  1. Irving Diamond: A Neuroscience Great Left Big Shoes Behind
  2. Ilya Dreyzen: A Faded Russian Hero
  3. Viktoria Dreyzen: Home of the Brave
  4. Michelle Diamond: Washington Prom

I never got to know my grandfather; he passed away from Alzheimer’s when I was young. Only later, after I developed my own interest in neuroscience, did I learn that Irving T. Diamond was a towering figure in the neuroscience world. I can only hope to someday equal his legacy—and I’m not just talking about his accomplishments in the laboratory. He was loved by his colleagues, students, family, and by the entire scientific community.


A portrait of Irving from the early 90’s

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The American

This article is part of a series entitled 20th Century Chess Greats. See also:

  1. Mikhail Tal: The Deep Dark Forest
  2. Bobby Fischer: The American
  3. Tigran Petrosian: The Iron Fortress
  4. Mikhail Botvinnik: The Research Player

Chess’s greatest player can tell us a lot about the game, the mind, and man in general.

The Soviets dominated world chess through the 20th century.  Why? Because the state subsidized the game.  Soon after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, the Lenin regime officially introduced chess to the USSR as a means to gain international dominance on the mental battlefield.  (2) The government organized state-run tournaments and chess clubs.  It established official chess columns and publications. Most effective of all: a chess requirement was established for all Soviet schools.  Students began in elementary school; the students who showed the most promise were chosen for more advanced lessons; those students who showed the most promise were again moved to even more advanced teaching, and so on.  The plan worked; the USSR became a veritable grandmaster factory, churning out greats such as Alekhine, Botvinnik, Tal, Petrossian, and many more.  Suddenly, though, an unknown American player exploded onto the international scene, effectively turning the chess world upside down.

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