Saturday, February 10, 2007

Attention

I just read about an experiment that was done a few years ago: A group of monkeys was attached, for 100 minutes a day, to a device that tapped on their fingers according to a certain pattern. At the same time, they had on earphones on playing music.

The monkeys were divided into two groups, one half was rewarded with a sip of orange juice every time they detected a certain pattern in the tapping, the other was rewarded when they detected a certain musical sequence. Basically, one group was encouraged to pay attention to the tapping, and the other to the music.

After six weeks, the monkeys paying attention to the tapping showed growth in the area of their brain dedicated to sensory awareness in the fingers, with no change in the area related to auditory processing, while those paying attention to the music showed growth in the area of the brain related to auditory processing, but not in the part related to sensory awareness in the fingers.

The point the authors were making was that it was not the tapping or the music that caused the brain to increase its capacity, it was the attention to these items that caused the change.

Which is a fascinating way to put it. I've thought for a long time that part of what we refer to as "talent", or "ability", is really a reflection of a person's fascination with a subject. People who are history buffs develop an ability to remember historical facts and dates with great facility. People interested in sciences or math develop those capabilities. Kids that have a fascination with soccer tend to develop a skill in that area.

Of course you could say that the fascination with a subject is in itself a talent. And I'd agree with that statement. Which really says that the ability to develop a fascination with a subject is one of the most important, and perhaps the essential precursor of what we perceive as talent, ability, and genius.

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