I’ve reported before on how London taxi drivers increase the size of their posterior hippocampus by acquiring and practicing ‘the Knowledge’ (but perhaps at the expense of other functions). A new study in similar vein has looked at the effects of piano tuning expertise on the brain.

The study looked at the brains of 19 professional piano tuners (aged 25-78, average age 51.5 years; 3 female; 6 left-handed) and 19 age-matched controls. Piano tuning requires comparison of two notes that are close in pitch, meaning that the tuner has to accurately perceive the particular frequency difference. Exactly how that is achieved, in terms of brain function, has not been investigated until now.

The brain scans showed that piano tuners had increased grey matter in a number of brain regions. In some areas, the difference between tuners and controls was categorical — that is, tuners as a group showed increased gray matter in right hemisphere regions of the frontal operculum, the planum polare, superior frontal gyrus, and posterior cingulate gyrus, and reduced gray matter in the left hippocampus, parahippocampal gyrus, and superior temporal lobe. Differences in these areas didn’t vary systematically between individual tuners.

However, tuners also showed a marked increase in gray matter volume in several areas that was dose-dependent (that is, varied with years of tuning experience) — the anterior hippocampus, parahippocampal gyrus, right middle temporal and superior temporal gyrus, insula, precuneus, and inferior parietal lobe — as well as an increase in white matter in the posterior hippocampus.

These differences were not affected by actual chronological age, or, interestingly, level of musicality. However, they were affected by starting age, as well as years of tuning experience.

What these findings suggest is that achieving expertise in this area requires an initial development of active listening skills that is underpinned by categorical brain changes in the auditory cortex. These superior active listening skills then set the scene for the development of further skills that involve what the researchers call “expert navigation through a complex soundscape”. This process may, it seems, involve the encoding and consolidating of precise sound “templates” — hence the development of the hippocampal network, and hence the dependence on experience.

The hippocampus, apart from its general role in encoding and consolidating, has a special role in spatial navigation (as shown, for example, in the London cab driver studies, and the ‘parahippocampal place area’). The present findings extend that navigation in physical space to the more metaphoric one of relational organization in conceptual space.

The more general message from this study, of course, is confirmation for the role of expertise in developing specific brain regions, and a reminder that this comes at the expense of other regions. So choose your area of expertise wisely!

The research is pretty clear by this point: humans are not (with a few rare exceptions) designed to multitask. However, it has been suggested that the modern generation, with all the multitasking they do, may have been ‘re-wired’ to be more capable of this. A new study throws cold water on this idea.

The study involved 60 undergraduate students, of whom 34 were skilled action video game players (all male) and 26 did not play such games (19 men and 7 women). The students were given three visual tasks, each of which they did on its own and then again while answering Trivial Pursuit questions over a speakerphone (designed to mimic talking on a cellphone).

The tasks included a video driving game (“TrackMania”), a multiple-object tracking test (similar to a video version of a shell game), and a visual search task (hidden pictures puzzles from Highlights magazine).

While the gamers were (unsurprisingly) significantly better at the video driving game, the non-gamers were just as good as them at the other two tasks. In the dual-tasking scenarios, performance declined on all the tasks, with the driving task most affected. While the gamers were affected less by multitasking during the driving task compared to the non-gamers, there was no difference in the amount of decline between gamers and non-gamers on the other two tasks.

Clearly, the smaller effect of dual-tasking on the driving game for gamers is a product of their greater expertise at the driving game, rather than their ability to multitask better. It is well established that the more skilled you are at a task, the more automatic it becomes, and thus the less working memory capacity it will need. Working memory capacity / attention is the bottleneck that prevents us from being true multitaskers.

In other words, the oft-repeated (and somewhat depressing) conclusion remains: you can’t learn to multitask in general, you can only improve specific skills, enabling you to multitask reasonably well while doing those specific tasks.

The mental differences between a novice and an expert are only beginning to be understood, but two factors thought to be of importance are automaticity (the process by which a procedure becomes so practiced that it no longer requires conscious thought) and chunking (the unitizing of related bits of information into one tightly integrated unit — see my recent blog post on working memory). A new study adds to our understanding of this process by taking images of the brains of professional and amateur players of the Japanese chess-like game of shogi.

Eleven professional, 9 high- and 8 low-rank amateur players of shogi were presented with patterns of different types (opening shogi patterns, endgame shogi patterns, random shogi patterns, chess, Chinese chess, as well as completely different stimuli — scenes, faces, other objects, scrambled patterns).

It was found that the board game patterns, but not the other patterns, stimulated activity in the posterior precuneus of all shogi players. This activity, for the professional players, was particularly strong for shogi opening and endgame patterns, and activity in the precuneus was the only regional activity that showed a difference between these patterns and the other board game patterns. For the amateurs however, there was no differential activity for the endgame patterns, and only the high-rank amateurs showed differential activity for the opening shogi patterns. Opening patterns tend to be more stereotyped than endgame patterns (i.e., endgame patterns are better reflections of expertise).

The players were then asked for the best next-move in a series of shogi problems (a) when they only had one second to study the pattern, and (b) when they had eight seconds. When professional players had only a second to study the problem, the caudate nucleus was active. When they had 8 seconds, activity was confined to the cerebral cortex, as it was for the amateurs in both conditions. This activity in the caudate, which is part of the basal ganglia, deep within the brain, is thought to reflect the development of an intuitive response.

The researchers therefore suggest that this type of intuition, an instinct achieved through training and experience, is what marks an expert. Making part of the process unconscious not only makes it faster, but frees up valuable space in working memory for aspects that need conscious thought.

The posterior precuneus directly connects with the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which in turn connects to the caudate. There is also a direct connection between the precuneus and the caudate. This precuneus-caudate circuit is therefore suggested as a key part of what makes a board-game expert an expert.

There are a number of ways experts think differently from novices (in their area of expertise). A new study involving 72 college-age typists with about 12 years of typing experience and typing speeds comparable to professional typists indicates that our idea that highly skilled activities operate at an unconscious level is a little more complex than we thought.

In three experiments, these skilled typists typed single words shown to them one at a time on a computer screen, while occasionally the researchers inserted errors in the words they typed, or corrected errors they made. When asked to report errors, typists took credit for corrected errors and accepted blame for inserted errors, claiming authorship for the appearance of the screen. Not surprising in the first experiment, when the typists weren’t told what the researchers were doing. But even in the later experiments, when they knew some of the errors and some of the corrections weren’t theirs, they still tended to take responsibility for what they saw.

Nevertheless, regardless of what they saw and what they thought, their typing rate wasn’t affected by inserted errors. Only when the typists themselves made errors, regardless of whether or not the researchers corrected them, did their fingers slow down.

In other words, it wasn’t the feedback of the look of the word on the screen that triggered the finger slow-down, but the ‘knowledge’ the fingers had as to what they had done.

But it was the appearance of the words on the screen that governed the typists’ reporting of errors, leading the researchers to propose two error detection processes: an outer loop that supports conscious reports and an inner loop process that slows keystrokes after errors.

Logan, G.D. & Crump, M.J.C. 2010. Cognitive Illusions of Authorship Reveal Hierarchical Error Detection in Skilled Typists. Science, 330 (6004), 683-686.

A new study challenges the popular theory that expertise is simply a product of tens of thousands of hours of deliberate practice. Not that anyone is claiming that this practice isn’t necessary — but it may not be sufficient. A study looking at pianists’ ability to sight-read music reveals working memory capacity helps sight-reading regardless of how much someone has practiced.

The study involved 57 volunteers who had played piano for an average of 18.6 years (range from one to 57 years). Their estimated hours of overall practice ranged from 260 to 31,096 (average: 5806), and hours of sight-reading practice ranged from zero to 9,048 (average: 1487 hours). Statistical analysis revealed that although hours of practice was the most important factor, nevertheless, working memory capacity did, independently, account for a small but significant amount of the variance between individuals.

It is interesting that not only did WMC have an effect independent of hours of practice, but hours of practice apparently had no effect on WMC — although the study was too small to tell whether a lot of practice at an early age might have affected WMC (previous research has indicated that music training can increase IQ in children).

The study is also too small to properly judge the effects of the 10,000 hours deliberate practice claimed necessary for expertise: the researchers did not advise the number of participants that were at that level, but the numbers suggest it was low.

It should also be noted that an earlier study involving 52 accomplished pianists found no effect of WMC on sight-reading ability (but did find a related effect: the ability to tap two fingers rapidly in alternation and to press a computer key quickly in response to visual and acoustic cues was unrelated to practice but correlated positively with good sight-readers).

Nevertheless, the findings are interesting, and do agree with what I imagine is the ‘commonsense’ view: yes, becoming an expert is all about the hours of effective practice you put in, but there are intellectual qualities that also matter. The question is: do they matter once you’ve put in the requisite hours of good practice?

Older news items (pre-2010) brought over from the old website

Developing expertise

How what we like defines what we know

How we categorize items is crucial to both how we perceive them and how well we remember them. Expertise in a subject is a well-established factor in categorization — experts create more specific categories. Because experts usually enjoy their areas of expertise, and because time spent on a subject should result in finer categorization, we would expect positive feelings towards an item to result in more specific categories. However, research has found that positive feelings usually result in more global processing. A new study has found that preference does indeed result in finer categorization and, more surprisingly, that this is independent of expertise. It seems that preference itself activates focused thinking that directly targets the preferred object, enabling more detailed perception and finer categorization.

Smallman, R. & Roese, N.J. 2008. Preference Invites Categorization. Psychological Science, 19 (12).

Practice makes an expert

A comparison of expert video game players and non-players has found that gamers showed a 20% reduction in response times on a visual search test (meaning that, on average, gamers were some 100 milliseconds faster than non-gamers). Analysis showed that expert game players did not show differences in normal visual search patterns; they had simply become faster through practice.

Castel, A.D., Pratt, J. & Drummond, E. 2005. The effects of action video game experience on the time course of inhibition of return and the efficiency of visual search. Acta Psychologica, 119 (2), 217-230.

First steps in developing expertise

Learning to play a musical instrument involves two quite different sense media – sound and movement. Recent imaging studies have shown that professional musicians have highly developed links between these different perceptions, such that sounds activate areas of the brain that process movement, and movement such as silently tapping out musical phrases, evokes brain activity in areas involved in hearing. A new study now demonstrates that this sort of cross-linking occurs within twenty minutes of starting to learn an instrument (in this case, a piano). Novices were given ten 20 minute sessions, during which they heard musical phrases and learned to play them back on a digital piano. Those in the "map" group used pianos where five neighboring keys had appropriate notes assigned to them. The "no-map" group used pianos where the assignment of notes to the five keys was randomly shuffled after each training trial. Changes in brain activity were evident in all participants after one session, but after five sessions, the activity patterns were significantly different between the two groups. In the “map” group, motor areas of the brain were active when the participants listened to music, but this was not the case with those in the “no-map” group. The anterior region of the right hemisphere — an area previously implicated in the perception of melodic and harmonic pitch sequences — was also more active in the "map" group, suggesting it may be the area where the mental map representing the link between a note and a piano key is established.

Bangert, M. & Altenmüller, E.O. 2003. Mapping perception to action in piano practice: a longitudinal DC-EEG study. BMC Neuroscience, 4, 26.

Practicing skills in concentrated blocks not the most efficient way

While practicing several different skills in separate, concentrated blocks leads to better performance during practice, it appears that this approach is not the best method of learning for long-term retention. The temporary improvement in performance that results from blocked practice hinders learning because it allows people to overestimate how well they have learned a skill. For long-term retention, it appears that contextual-interference practice (practicing skills that are mixed with other tasks) results in better learning. This may be because such practice requires people to repeatedly retrieve the motor program corresponding to each task (repeated retrieval is a major factor in making stored memories easier to access). Such practice also requires the person to differentiate the skills in terms of their similarities and differences, which may be assumed to result in a better mental conceptualization of those skills. The fact that blocked practice leads to better short-term performance but poorer long-term learning "has great potential to fool teachers, trainers and instructors as well as students and trainees themselves."

Simon, D.A. & Bjork, R.A. 2001. Metacognition in Motor Learning. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, 27 (4).

About expertise

Tone language translates to perfect pitch

The first large-scale, direct-test study to be conducted on perfect pitch has found that native tone language speakers are almost nine times more likely to have the ability. The study involved two populations of music students: a group of 88 first-year students enrolled at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, China, all of whom spoke Mandarin, and a group of 115 first-years at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, none of whom spoke a tone language. In both groups, the earlier an individual began music lessons, the more likely he or she was to have perfect pitch. For students who had begun musical training between ages 4 and 5, approximately 60% of the Chinese speakers tested as having perfect pitch, while only about 14% of the U.S. nontone language speakers did. For those who had begun training between 6 and 7, approximately 55% of the Chinese and 6% of the U.S. met the criterion. And for those beginning between 8 and 9, the figures were 42% of the Chinese and zero of the U.S. group. Perfect pitch is extremely rare in the U.S. and Europe, with an estimated prevalence in the general population of less than one in 10,000.

Results were presented November 17 at the meeting of the Acoustical Society of America in San Diego.
The study, with graphic figures of the results and sound files of the test, is available at

Patterns of brain activity differ with musical training, not cultural familarity

Unlike language, which elicits different activity patterns in the brain depending on whether it is a familiar or unfamiliar language, a new imaging study has found that music of another culture produces no differences in brain activity compared to music from your own culture. The study compared responses to Western and Cantonese music, and used 6 professionally trained American musicians and 6 people with little musical training. The study did however find that 30-second excerpts in the familiar style of music were more easily remembered, and also, that training affected the pattern of brain activity.

Morrison, S.J., Demorest, S.M., Aylward, E.H., Cramer, S.C. & Maravilla, K.R. 2003. FMRI investigation of cross-cultural music comprehension, NeuroImage, 20 (1), 378-384.

Another link between music and language

New research augments earlier findings concerning the amount and distribution of gray matter in the brains of professional musicians. It now appears that musicians also have an increased volume of grey matter in the Broca's area, an area of the brain involved in the production of language. A critical factor appears to be the number of years devoted to musical training - at least for musicians under the age of 50. The research supports recent suggestions that musicians process music like an additional language.

Sluming, V., Barrick, T., Howard, M., Cezayirli, E., Mayes, A. & Roberts, N. 2002. Voxel-Based Morphometry Reveals Increased Gray Matter Density in Broca's Area in Male Symphony Orchestra Musicians, NeuroImage, 17(3), 1613-1622.

More grey matter in the auditory cortex of musicians' brains

A German study has found that a region of the auditory cortex was more active in professional musicians listening to tones of varying frequencies compared to amateur musicians and considerably more active than that of non-musicians. More surprisingly, there was a very significant difference in the amount of "grey matter" in the part of the auditory cortex called the Heschl's gyrus. The structure contained 536 to 983 cubic millimetres of grey matter in professionals, 189 to 798 cubic millimetres in amateurs, and 172 to 450 cubic millimetres in non-musicians.

Schneider, P., Scherg, M., Dosch, H.G., Specht, H.J., Gutschalk, A. & Rupp, A. 2002. Morphology of Heschl's gyrus reflects enhanced activation in the auditory cortex of musicians. Nature Neuroscience,5, 688 - 694.

Another interesting facet to expert memory: how professional musicians process music

A magnetic-resonance study has found that professional musicians use their left brain more than other people when listening to music. In particular, while the planum temporale was activated in all subjects listening to music (a Bach piece), in non-musicians it was the right planum temporale that was most active, while in musicians the left side dominated. The left planum temporale is thought to control language processing. It may be that musicians process music as a language.This left-hand brain activity was most pronounced in people who had started musical training at an early age, as well as in those with absolute or 'perfect' pitch (suggesting that musical traits such as absolute pitch are the result of childhood training rather than genetic predisposition).

Ohnishi, T., Matsuda, H., Asada, T., Aruga, M., Hirakata, M., Nishikawa, M., Katoh, A. & Imabayashi, E. 2001. Functional Anatomy of Musical Perception in Musicians. Cerebral Cortex, 11, 754-760.

Chess experts and chess amateurs use different parts of their brain when they play

Professor Thomas Elbert, Ognjen Amidzic and colleagues at the University of Constance, Germany, used a new magnetic imaging technique to study chess players' brains in action. They found that mid-match activity in grandmasters' brains is mainly in regions thought to be involved in long-term memory - the frontal and parietal cortices. Amateur chess players relied more on the medial temporal lobe, which helps to encode new information, suggesting that they analyse situations afresh. The finding supports the idea that expertise depends on stored memory chunks that are called up when needed.

Amidzic, O., Riehle, H.J., Fehr, T., Wienbruch, C. & Elbert, T. 2001. Pattern of focal gamma bursts in chess players. Nature, 412, 603.

Significant brain differences between professional musicians trained at an early age and non-musicians

Research has revealed significant differences in the gray matter distribution between professional musicians trained at an early age and non-musicians. It is most likely that this is due to intensive musical training at an early age, although it is also possible that the musicians were born with these differences, which led them to pursue musical training.

Schlaug, G. & Christian, G. Paper presented May 7 at the American Academy of Neurology's 53rd Annual Meeting in Philadelphia, PA.