Ultrealearning author Scott Young explains why the brain is not a muscle, what's a better analogy, and whether you can train your brain to become smarter.
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I think that certainly some people are smarter than others. I think that makes a long way to explain the extreme ends of performance. So people who like Albert Einstein clearly smart, you know, I don't think you can become Albert Einstein just through practice.
But I think that what we know about learning shows that if you like take someone who has no practice and lots of practice, the things that the person who has lots of practice can do are impressive. And that's from a change in the structure of your long-term memory and the, the sort of there's been kind of a wave of research in artificial intelligence and human cognition and sort of the early wave was the idea.
Well, we're going to give computers these sort of general purpose methods, and they're just going to be really good at them. And that's how they're gonna, you know, perform well. And it turns out that that doesn't work, that in order to perform well, you need to have tons and tons and tons of domain specific knowledge.
And so the idea here is that people who spend extensive periods of time interacting with a discipline just build up huge libraries of this information and it makes them smarter in that way in the doing things that they're used to doing. So the classic experiments on this had to do with chess chess, masters who chess masters did not, so this is a study by DeGroote found that the chess masters and the sort of more casual players did not differ in terms of how they thought about the game. Like it's not like the chess masters were faster thinkers and they analyze more moves and they were, you know, all the only difference seemed to be that chess masters had a larger library of internally stored patterns in chess.
And the way that they showed this was that if you give someone a sort of random chess board and get them to reconstruct it, the better players can do this better. And but if you give a randomly, so you just randomly move around the chess pieces so that it's not something that would ever happen in a game.
The chess masters do not do better than people who are not experienced with chess. And this suggests that much of what they know. It's like, oh, this is this position. And the knight was forking the queen and the rock and you know, and oh, it was like this and it was like that. And this kind of. Elaborate set of chunks allows them to think more smoothly and effectively in going through the game.
And so the idea here is sort of that you know, just as in learning a language, depends on knowing a lot of words, learning any domain or skill depends on having a lot of individualized facts. And so we tend to exaggerate when we view the sort of skill being learned as a sort of monolithic ability.
So the kind of metaphor that I rally rail against is this sort of the mind is like a muscle. And so I just do a lot of like kind of bulk practice, like, and just get really strong. And so this is sort of the, I think, mistaken intuition behind things like brain training, which is the idea that if you just do some narrow kind of practice activity and you just get really good at it, that you'll just be smarter in all sorts of ways.
And there's lots of research showing that brain training doesn't work and the better metaphor is probably. It's a little bit more like an organized library that like, if you have more and more and more books in the library, you just have more knowledge. You can just handle things better. Now it's not a perfect analogy because it has to be organized and structured.