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?”

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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

The Genius Within

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

Savants are those who, along with serious mental disability, demonstrate remarkable talent in a very specific area.  Only about 50 currently exist worldwide.  Most of the time, their disability is autism, although savant syndrome sometimes seen alongside other mental disabilities, including acquired disabilities such as those resulting from traumatic brain injury.  The source of savants’ talent remains a mystery, but their talent itself is very real.  Let’s learn about some of the most fascinating savants.

Notable savants

Stephen Wiltshire can draw entire cities, from memory, after just a single helicopter ride.  He gets it all right, too—down to the last window! (1) He’s drawn London, Tokyo, Rome, Madrid, Hong Kong, Dubai and Jerusalem, as well as New York, shown below.

Stephen Wiltshire draws Manhattan from memory

Wiltshire recently opened a gallery in London to house his art.

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On Memory

This article is part of a series entitled The Unlimited MindSee also:
1. On Memory; 2. The Genius Within; 3. Coming soon

Have you ever tested your digit span?

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Read the 8-digit string above, then close your eyes and say it out loud.  Were you successful? Try again with each member of this list.  Better yet, get a friend to read each string out loud, and then say it back to them.

Digit span seems like a useless ability.  Why would you want to test it?  Well, surprisingly, digit span is highly correlative with general intelligence.  And, as it turns out, 8 digits is a pretty good span. So, if you were successful at the task above, chances are you’re a pretty smart fellow.

How could a task as simple as repeating a digit string predict one’s IQ?  Well, digit span tests working memory, which refers to the amount of information that can be stored in one’s brain at any given time.  If someone can process more thoughts at a time—juggle more balls, so to speak—he will be able to make deeper connections and think more abstractly.  Note that working memory can store all kinds of information—sounds, images, and even ideas.  How did you complete the digit span task?  You might have just repeated the sounds of the numbers.  Or, maybe you pictured shapes of the numbers in your mind.  Or maybe you used a combination of these and other techniques.  It’s not too hard to imagine that one who can process many sights and sounds simultaneously will excel at activities we commonly deem as requiring intelligence.

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