Jonathan Sacks in the Times of London (July 22, 2011) posts an article inquiring into elements that create greatness.
What makes a champion? Is it down to hard work and repeated practice? There has been a splendid spate of books recently, from Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers to Matthew Syed’s Bounce, on what makes great people great. What is it that some have and the rest of us don’t, whether in sport, literature, music or science?
Read his findings especially to note their implications for the growing harmonization between religion and science.
It’s a key question and there are some fascinating stories on the way to an answer. Syed, for example, tells us that there was once a street in Reading that contained more young table tennis champions than the rest of Britain put together. He should know. He was one of them.
Then there was the Hungarian Laszlo Polgar who decided, even before getting married, that his children would be chess champions. He had three daughters and they did all become chess-playing stars.
Clearly, then, genius can’t all be in the genes. There is no reason to suppose that a table tennis gene suddenly appeared at a particular time and place in Berkshire. The answer turns out to be the neuroscientific equivalent of the old joke. A tourist stops a taxi driver and asks how you get to the Royal Festival Hall. The taxi driver replies: “Practise, lady, practise.”
Which is what champions do. They simply put in more hours than anyone else. The magic number is 10,000 hours. That — roughly ten years of “deep practice” — is what it takes to reach the top in almost every field.
Even Mozart, the classic example of a child prodigy, turns out to confirm the rule. His father Leopold was a considerable musician, as well as a dominating parent who forced the young Wolfgang Amadeus to practise music constantly from the age of 3. Although he achieved brilliance as a performer by the age of 6, it was not until his early twenties that he was composing works of genius.
What is new in all this is our understanding of the neuroscience involved. Each new skill reconfigures the brain, creating new neural pathways. It seems that a substance in the brain known as myelin, whose function was previously not well understood, wraps itself around these pathways, making the connections speedier the more they are used.
The result is that practice makes certain responses immediate and intuitive, bypassing the slow, deliberative circuits in the brain. That accounts for the speed with which a Novak Djokovic or a Roger Federer can deliver a blinding return of serve. The more you practise the less need you have for conscious thought. That’s why after years of driving we no longer need to think about gear changes the way we did when we were still learners.
None of these authors, as far as I know, has applied these findings to religion, but they have huge implications for one aspect of the religious life that tends to be ignored much of the time. I refer to ritual.
People tend to think that what differentiates religious people from their secular counterparts is that they believe different things. But that is less than half the story. People in most religions behave distinctively. They engage in ritual. They do certain things like praying, over and over again. Ritual is the religious equivalent of “deep practice”.
We can now understand why. Constant practice creates new neural pathways. It makes certain forms of behaviour instinctive. It reconfigures our character so that we are no longer the people we once were. We have, engraved into our instincts the way certain strokes are engraved in the minds of tennis champions, specific responses to circumstance. Prayer engenders gratitude. Daily charitable giving makes us generous. The “thou shalt nots” of religion teach us self-control. Ritual changes the world by changing us.
This would not have surprised Aristotle or Maimonides because that is how they believed virtue is acquired, by constantly repeating virtuous acts. “Habit becomes second nature,” as the medieval thinkers put it. That does not mean that genes have no part to play. I think I always knew that with my height and lack of co-ordination I was not destined to be a basketball champion. But neither talent nor virtue is determined by the lottery of birth. Hard work beats lazy genius every time.
Far from being outmoded, religious ritual turns out to be deeply in tune with the new neuroscience of human talent, personality and the plasticity of the brain. The great faiths never forgot what science is helping us rediscover: that ritual creates new habits of the heart that can lift us to unexpected greatness.
The old saying “practice makes perfect” refers to repetition in creating our ability to do something well. In Outliers, Malcomb Gladwell indicates that professionals who are the best at something tend to follow the 10,000 hour rule; they spend 10,000 hours working on something to master it.
There is a caveat, however,this practice works best on children. This is the difference between “first nature” and “second nature.” This is because there is the greatest opportunity for brain development in the first years, as after life in the womb human brains continue to grow and develop for several years.
Jose Delgado did brain research at Yale and discovered that children born with cataracts could see normally if the cataracts were removed by age five. However, if the cataracts were removed after age 13,the neurons associated with sight had ossified and died. Sight became possible with a tremendous amount of effort training other neurons to perform the sight task, but these people could never see the same as those whose sight was “first nature.” This same issue relates to learning Chinese, if you try to learn it as an adult the neurons associated with some of the tonal discrimination in the language have ossified and died, thus you can only speak the other language as a “second nature.”
This is why it is important for character to be trained into children from an early age, and why they say it is hard “to teach an old dog new tricks.” However, “second nature” is better than none at all.
The acquisition of virtue is generally not created by reasoning about what is good to do, but by following role models. Learning through watching parents and those nearest to you and mimicking their behavior is the practice that makes one virtuous. But parents and teachers also convey virtuous behavior through stories of heroic action. Movies can also convey traits of virtue by identification of a person with characters the repeatedly exemplify virtues.