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An interesting study from the University College London discusses the question of whether outstanding performers are born or created. Traditionally many of us assume that areas of high performance such as people who play chess extremely well, or a fine sportspeople, or great musicians, can be attributed to innate talent. However a Professor at University College London, Dr David Shanks, questions this assumption that some of us might have.

This was originally published in Science Spectra, 1999, Number 18. To read this click on: Outstanding Performers: Created, Not Born? NEW RESULTS ON NATURE VS. NURTURE

1. Outstanding performers are they born or created – what do you think?

This is such a core part of the nature nurture debate. What are your opinions about it? Are you yourself a high performer? If so what do you feel that you feel that this is your innate talent, but that it has come from deliberate practice perhaps. Even if you don’t feel that you are a high performer, no doubt you know somebody who seems to fit into this category.

2. The Guinness book of records and Rajan Mahadevan

Rajan Mahadevan set himself the challenge to memorise as much of the digits of pi as he possibly could. He wanted to prove his superiority when it came to memory, and was urged on by the advice of the Guinness book of records editors also, and his what happened when it came to the day of his challenge.

He managed to recall 31,811 digits, which took around three areas, reciting three digits every second. At this stage he needed to pause for a can of Pepsi, but when asked why he said stopped at the 31,812t digit, he said he wasn’t sure why, but that he often stumbled over it.

Obviously with an exceptional ability like this, plenty of people will attribute it to an innate gift that he was born with. However research that emerged at the end of the 20th century started to show that this type of the exceptional performance may be attributed to nurture as opposed to nature.

In fact a phrase that perhaps when you were younger you might have got sick of hearing – practice makes perfect – maybe at the bottom of this level of excellence.

 Created or Born

3. Outstanding performers are born or created – K. Anders Ericsson Top Data

The man who is considered to be one of the world’s top experimental researchers on the subject of expertise, K. Anders Ericsson , collected some data in order to appreciate what extent a memory capacity can become better with practice.

outstanding performers nature v nuture blondzombie.wordpress.comHe was analysing digit span which is a particular memory capacity. Digit span is about how many numbers are memories can hold one digit are presented to us at a rate of one every second. They then need to be recalled in the right order. So for example a syndicated their phone number, talk about the old days when we didn’t have mobiles I guess, you might have memorised it and that would have been kept in your short-term memory.

But if the number becomes a longer selection of digits for example starts going over around nine digits, then this short-term correct recall is far more challenging. It seems that memory span, at least on the surface, is a relatively fixed property of our memories.

Eriksson and his team managed to show that actually with practice, we can recall over 100 digits. Two people were trained and over a period of a few months, these two people practised improving their memory for these digit sequences. At the beginning of the experiment they both had average digit spans, but it was discovered that every single two hours that each of them practised, would improve by one digit.

4. Ericsson, Howe and Sloboda More Studies Along The Same Lines

As well is Ericsson, there are a couple of others whose studies of this type stood out in the debate. All of these actually emphasise how important nurturing is.

The following quote is taken from an analysis from Indiana’s University, about this subject.

The environment is dramatically different for a child who practices a great deal and one who does not. Yet it is not only in specific abilities such as memory, music, chess, or sports that the effects of the environment can be seen. It is now clear that even intelligence, that traditional favorite of psychologists, can be dramatically influenced by changes in the environment.


Clearly there’s plenty of evidence that shows the importance of nurturing. I certainly remember when I was younger, that teachers and some parents were always on the lookout for somebody who was gifted. This type of evidence just shows how much a loving parent can actually do to help their child develop – of course always with a balanced approach, so the child can enjoy whatever the pursuit might be.


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