There has always been this question about ‘talent’ that has been debated over many a times on intellectual, scientific and even on sports forums.  The question is: Is Talent inborn or can it be created?

From a neurological perspective, everything we do, even our thoughts and feelings are the results of precisely timed electrical signals travelling through the trillions of neural networks in our brain. The more we use a particular circuit, the faster and more accurate that circuit becomes. The reason being; our body chooses to insulate it’s frequently used neural circuits with a protein and fat sheath called Myelin. Myelin sheath facilitates our brain’s electrical pulse transmissions to be quick and effective.

An athlete training for the big game or a pianist rehearsing for a recital the next day – are neurologically doing the same thing. They are giving specific signals to their body to myelinate certain brain circuits. This phenomenon is explained in detail by the award-winning journalist Daniel Coyle, in his book ‘The Talent Code’.  When we fire our circuits the right way, myelin responds by wrapping layers of insulation around the nerve fibres: each new myelin insulation layer adding a bit more skill and speed. The thicker the myelin, the better it insulates - the faster and more accurate the nerve signal transmissions become; and a Talent is born.

 This means that Talent isn’t just about acquiring a new skill but about practicing that skill till it becomes a second nature. Science has proven that the only way to perfect a skill is by repeated practice. The more we develop the insulation of a particular impulse circuit, the more automatic that skill becomes. Meaning the practitioner reaches a point in time when he (or she) will be able to perform the skill without the use of his conscious mind. The skill becomes so innate that the practitioner performs it subconsciously. According to the book ‘The Talent Code’, this stage of skill development “creates a powerfully convincing illusion: the skill feels utterly natural, as if it’s something we’ve always possessed.”  It is easy to see why at this stage, the practitioner of the skill is often labelled as ‘Gifted’ or ‘Born with the Talent’. Professor John Hayes, a cognitive psychologist who has done extensive research in this area, calls this practice period before the blooming of Talent as the “ten years of silence”.  (Ten years in various practices, being a mean estimate rather than specific).  Theophilus Mozart, arguably the most gifted musician in the history of classical music started composing at the age of five, although it took him roughly ten years of music before he created his first masterpiece.

In short, there is no neurological difference between the basic brain structure of a ‘Talented person’ and an ordinary person (There are exceptions; conditions like schizophrenia robs the body the ability to build and maintain the myelin sheath); which leads us to the conclusion that anyone can develop Talent. Then what differentiates Talent? How does it materialise? How do the ‘Talented’ accomplish seemingly unachievable goals?

The answer is in what they do to initiate the process of myelination. A horse is born with its muscle circuits already myelinated. It is an evolutionary necessity. On the other hand being a pianist or a mathematician is not. It makes sense for nature to wait and see what particular circuits this individual uses and optimise those.  This is where nature needs nurture. Then again not all nurture results in Talent.

As per psychologist Ellen Winner, every Talent has one thing in the common - “The rage to master”. The rage lets you to seek out opportunities if it is missing: the rage gives you the stamina, grit and tenacity to do “Deliberate Practice” that can manifest talent.  According to psychologist Anders Ericsson “Deep practice “or “Deliberate Practice” is working on technique, seeking constant critical feedback and focussing ruthlessly on shoring up weaknesses. It seems this ‘struggling in a targeted way’ is a neurological necessity to produce Talent. Years ago, when a soccer coach decided to decode the success of Brazilian soccer, he stumbled upon a game that was until then unheard of in other parts of the world.  The ball was half the size, twice as heavy with no bounce. The game is set in a smaller area than a football ground. Thus the practice happens in a comparatively packed space with closer proximity to other players, with a ball that is significantly hard to maneuver. The game automatically becomes faster paced with much lesser error margins. The practice sessions automatically transform into deep, deliberate skill building and problem solving endeavours.

Even though it sounds amazing, ‘Deep Practice’ is not always a comfortable place to be in. The practitioner is constantly stretching his capabilities, working at the very borders of what is probable.  It is not always a rewarding experience. It takes a kind of maniacal passion to sustain the ‘deep practise’ enough to create a genius; and that’s where ordinary people and Geniuses differ.

In 2017, at the World Rowing Youth Coaches Conference Professor Vladimir Issurin who specialises in Physical Education and Sports; presented his research.  His study indicates that deliberate practise (in athletics) is not possible without a pre-defined set of character traits that are in-born. Self motivation, high- learnability, high tolerance to fatigue and a very competitive mindset – were common to all Olympic champions. Olympic coaches are reportedly able to identify these traits before success is attained.

As I write this article, I look out through my window. I see a kid in my neighbourhood; almost one and a half years old. He has a sandwich in one hand and two small packets of chips in the other. He is struggling to run up an incline, hoping to catch up with his older brother. I see that small boy and I choose to believe that the gift to greatness, the potential to do the impossible is inherent in all of us. The idea of Deep Practice, bestow on us this intriguing possibility: to create the so-called Talent within ourselves. Now I just have to find my strongest passion; my ‘rage’.

Compiled by Shreya Karuman, with references from “The Talent Code” by Daniel Coyle and the News Article “What makes a Champion” from www.