He thus put in a nutshell what a century of psychological research has subsequently established: much of the chess master’s advantage over the novice derives from the first few seconds of thought. This rapid, knowledge-guided perception, sometimes called apperception, can be seen in experts in other fields as well. Just as a master can recall all the moves in a game he has played, so can an accomplished musician often reconstruct the score to a sonata heard just once. And just as the chess master often finds the best move in a flash, an expert physician can sometimes make an accurate diagnosis within moments of laying eyes on a patient.
But how do the experts in these various subjects acquire their extraordinary skills? How much can be credited to innate talent and how much to intensive training? Psychologists have sought answers in studies of chess masters. The collected results of a century of such research have led to new theories explaining how the mind organizes and retrieves information. What is more, this research may have important implications for educators. Perhaps the same techniques used by chess players to hone their skills could be applied in the classroom to teach reading, writing and arithmetic.
The Drosophila of Cognitive Science
The history of human expertise begins with hunting, a skill that was crucial to the survival of our early ancestors. The mature hunter knows not only where the lion has been; he can also infer where it will go. Tracking skill increases, as repeated studies show, from childhood onward, rising in “a linear relationship, all the way out to the mid-30s, when it tops out,” says John Bock, an anthropologist at California State University, Fullerton. It takes less time to train a brain surgeon.