Book Review: Daniel Coyle's The Talent Code: Intriguing neurobiology, disastrous and illogical conclusions

One of my students recently recommended that I take a look at Daniel Coyle's book (Bantam Dell, 2009), The Talent Code: Greatness isn't born.  It's grown.  Here's how.   Like my student, I was fascinated by Coyle's description of an emerging scientific model of skill development.  Apparently, recent research has suggested that myelin, a fatty substance that gets deposited around neurons as brain connections develop, not only provides insulation to the neurons, but also both strengthens and speeds up particularly well-practiced neural connections.  It seems that the more frequently a neural pathway is used, the more layers of myelin get deposited, resulting, as Coyle writes, in a "broadband" effect which increases the effectiveness of the nervous system in performing the skill set under development.

The biological facts that emerge from the research Coyle describes help to explain how learning happens — how we develop skill — and why habits are so hard to break.  Firing a neurological circuit causes myelin to wrap the neurons involved, which is how skills get built up as we repeat the associated actions.  Coyle further reports that there is no mechanism which undoes this wrapping (other than aging or disease), which means that, once you develop an enhanced neural pathway, it is there for life, waiting to be triggered whether you desire it or not.  (Unfortunately, Coyle glosses over this inescapable and critical phenomenon in one short paragraph and never returns to flesh out its consequences.)

Once he has laid the (greatly simplified) neurobiological groundwork for his book, Coyle goes on to draw conclusions and make recommendations that 1) do not follow from his premises, 2) are largely irrelevant to both students and teachers/coaches, and 3) perpetuate a prevalent but detrimental attitude towards learning that can be summed up as "you gotta try hard to succeed."  In the following paragraphs, I'll address each of these weaknesses of Coyle's arguments in turn.

1. Coyle advocates a way of working that he calls "deep practice," which is "mistake-focused," that is, based on performing an activity over and over, making copious mistakes all the while and then re-doing the activity a little bit better each successive time.  He admits that this approach is difficult and unpleasant, but claims — without supporting data —  that such struggle is a "biological requirement."  In Coyle's deep practice paradigm, progress is achieved through "a rhythmic pattern of botches" as well as "a taut, intense squint [that] caused [the learning children] to take on. . .an unaccountable resemblance to Clint Eastwood."

None of this makes sense at all in light of the research Coyle cites.  If performing an action myelinates the associated neural pathways irreversibly, wouldn't it make sense to minimize the mistakes?  Otherwise, you'll just be strengthening the pathways that lead to the mistakes — and to squinting.

F.M. Alexander (the man who developed what is now known as the Alexander Technique), with no knowledge of myelin, recognized over 100 years ago the importance of intelligent practice that would maximize the percentage of successful repetitions while minimizing the mistakes.  Here (in his best-known book, The Use of the Self), he describes what happens in a typical case in which someone is trying to learn a new skill by trying over and over again:

" [H]e will react to the stimulus to [get it right] by the same [habitual] misdirected use of himself. . . .This process is repeated every time he tries. . .with the result that his failures far outnumber his successes, and he becomes. . .disturbed emotionally, as always happens when people find themselves more often wrong than not. . . ."

Alexander discovered that trying to get something right tended to invoke in people an inefficient state of excessive tension, which interfered with their skill.  He had no way of knowing about myelin wrapping, of course, but he noticed that, in attempting any activity, people were likely to use their habitual muscular tensions (highly myelinated pathways), the more so if they were trying hard.  Unlike Coyle, Alexander did not shy away from this difficult realization, but made it his life's work to discover how to overcome the persistent force of habit.  He eventually came to the astonishing conclusion that "the act of prevention was the primary activity" — in other words, you have to spend more of your mental effort in preventing the old habit, not in trying to bring about a better new response.  In fact, as Alexander was fond of saying, if you prevent the wrong thing from happening, the right thing does itself.   (A full discussion of Alexander's concept of inhibition of wrong impulses is outside the scope of this review, but is available in any of his four books.  I have written about inhibition many times on my blog, not necessarily naming it as such every time.)

2. Alexander's decades-long experimentation all took place in the realm of what was observable by him — and by anyone else who bothered to pay attention, for example, to the state of tension in his or her neck while rising from a chair.  Conversely, the research Coyle writes about requires extensive laboratory equipment not available to the average person to peer into the microscopic universe of the biochemical processes of the brain.  Furthermore, the process of myelinization in the brain is not accessible to anyone's direct observation.  Coyle admits, "Myelin is sneaky stuff.  It's not possible to sense myelin growing along your nerve fibers. . . ."

This non-observability means that, while the research mentioned in the book might provide a very good explanation of the mechanisms behind observed learning behavior, it does nothing to guide a person interested in improving his or her learning process.  (Similarly, much modern neurobiological research validates Alexander's observations and discoveries without giving us any better way of achieving psychophysical improvements than what Alexander himself proposed a century ago.)

Trying to increase your skill in an activity by understanding the myelination of neurons is tantamount to trying to bake a more delicious loaf of bread by studying how yeast fungi convert sugars into carbon dioxide.  Interesting, perhaps, but ultimately devoid of usefulness to the baker.  It's a matter of intervening in a problem at the wrong structural level.  In the practice room, on the playing field, you must intervene in the learning process at the behavior level, not the molecular level, because that is where our senses — and thus, our intelligence — are usable.

If you're not convinced of the incongruity of a molecular approach to skill development, ask yourself how many of the successes Coyle mentions — Mozart, Einstein, the Brontë sisters, Anna Kournikova, for example — understood or even knew about myelination while they were honing their skills.  If there is any performance-enhancing benefit to understanding myelination, it is that it might make you more mindful of the need to maximize the percentage of correct repetitions, which is exactly the opposite of what Coyle is proposing in his deep practice!

3) For maximum skill development, Coyle proposes a program of learning arduous in many ways.  To his way of thinking, high-level progress requires squinting, the effortful making of and correcting of mistakes, long hours of practice every day for a decade, in a word (his word), STRUGGLE.  It is unfortunate that, given scientific data that imply just the opposite, he has leapt to illogical conclusions that play right into the popular misconception that is often expressed as "no pain, no gain."  Most people seem to believe that high achievement requires intense concentration and struggle.  Our whole educational system is set up to inculcate this logical-sounding, but ultimately erroneous belief, so few people escape its influence.  But how many, other than the relatively few who faithfully practice Alexander's principles, have given the alternative a chance?

The alternative is not a quick fix.  As Coyle mentions, citing the well-known "Ten-Year Rule" (that it takes 10,000 hours of practice, or approximately ten years, to develop a high level of skill in any area), skill development takes time.  A long time.  But not as much of that time as you might think needs to be spent actively practicing skills.  Regular supervised sessions during which the student, under the teacher's guidance, rehearses new neural pathways are needed, along with intervening stretches during which the student avoids performing the activity at less-than-optimum levels and gives time for the body and mind to integrate the learning.  Over many years of this kind of approach, which involves much inhibition of the wrong pathways so that the right thing can do itself, the student's skill level will rise higher and higher.  Progress is inevitable, but it requires great commitment and patience, especially during the long stretches of "doing nothing" during which the student feels negligently inactive, but which (like sleep) are required for integration and re-organization of the body's resources.

Coyle incites his readers to panic over taking time off their mistake-focused practice, claiming that if they miss a month of firing of their circuits, their skills will "evaporate."  (But doesn't he also claim that myelin never unwraps?)  Anyone who has ever hopped back on a bicycle after months or years of not riding will disprove this claim.  In fact, I have noticed just the opposite effect: when I return to voice lessons after a month of vacation or a several-week bout of the flu, I usually find my voice in better shape than when I last sang.  I believe that this happens because of the greater importance of not singing wrong over singing right, which largely does itself when I am able to inhibit the firing of those wrong habits.

Happily, there are some modern pedagogues who preach the alternative approach.  The well-known voice teacher Cornelius Reid was fond of saying, when his students came to their lessons apologizing for not having practiced since their last lesson, "Well, then you haven't sung incorrectly all week!"  His attitude was "practice makes permanent."  Similarly, Terry Laughlin, the developer of the Total Immersion swimming method, gives this warning to his students: "Don't practice struggle."  Both of these teaching geniuses knew intuitively what the myelin scientists are now corroborating: every repetition of an activity locks in a little more securely the particular way you performed the activity.  It's not what you do, but how you do it that is crucial.

It's your choice, ultimately, how to spend your Ten Years striving to get great at something.  You can follow Coyle's advice to myelinate the pathways leading to mistakes, squinting, and struggle, or you can emulate F.M. Alexander and myelinate the pathways leading to perfection and ease through gentle, intelligent practice under the guidance of a worthy teacher/coach.