A Scientific Digression

Skip forward to around 6:10 in the video above to the start of Adam Gazzaley’s (MD, PhD) talk on his quest to optimise the human mind using advanced tools of cognitive neuroscience.

Gazzaley’s lab at UCSF is working to enhance brain function using sophisticated technologies capable of observing the brain at work, and of helping individuals to achieve more with their brains than they currently can do.

The lab designs video games that are based upon real-time neurofeedback. The player’s brain reacts instantly to events in the game — and the game reacts to what is happening in the brain. Gazzaley describes this videogame neurofeedback learning process as a “closed loop system” (see image below).

Closed Loop System Adam Gazzaley UCSF
Closed Loop System
Adam Gazzaley UCSF

Much of the experimentation with these neurofeedback videogames has focused on combat-oriented training, being funded by the US Pentagon. But a moment’s reflection suggests that this “closed loop neurofeedback videogame” approach to brain training could be readily applied — with appropriate adaptation — to humans at almost any age, for multiple purposes of enhanced development, enhanced performance, rehabilitation after injury or disease, or for mitigation of the effects of ageing and neurodegeneration.

Gazzaley’s published efforts are so far still quite primitive, but the possibilities for the future are impressive on many fronts.

Modern societies have grown stagnant and corrupted by a widespread philosophy of rent-seeking, of minimising risk for the sake of long-term security. This philosophy is the opposite of what we at the Dangerous Child Institutes train and teach. We train contrarian thinkers to develop a broad range of skills and competencies which build self-confidence. This self-confidence fuels innovative thinking and risk taking — which are what drives societies to be great.

We are on record as opposing passive popular entertainments for children such as mainstream television and cinema. The developing mind has enough to do without being stuffed full of the low-quality nonsense that movie and television producers crank out for popular consumption.

We are also not enthusiastic about most popular video games and the modern obsession with electronic social media, which takes away from time that would be better spent developing competence in movement, music, language, pattern, and practical skills of all kinds. Electronic gadgets also tend to alienate children from their immediate environments, which can be a deadly failing in many situations.

But real-time EEG and MRI neurofeedback — particularly when combined with sophisticated virtual reality — is different, and holds the potential for enhancing brain function for general learning and for perfecting specific types of tasks.

The brains of children are naturally attracted to play and games of all kinds. The danger that the child will become lost in some types of game-playing is quite real, in the modern age of abusive commercial and ideological child baiting. But if game-playing is used to drive learning and competence-building, the natural child’s drive to play can be used to motivate him to build parts of his brain that can bootstrap later learning which might have otherwise been very difficult to achieve.

Again, even videogames that are used in training skills and competencies should be used sparingly, so as not to create barriers between the child and the real world around him. The competence and confidence for working within the real world is what Dangerous Child training is meant to build.

Teachers, parents, mentors, and coaches cannot ignore developments in advanced applied cognitive neuroscience. Every child runs up against barriers to some subject area of learning or another. Clever and timely use of closed-loop videogame training can help move a child from one learning plateau to a higher plateau — enabling a new and higher world of competence on the road to mastery.

More on applied videogames

Deliberate Practise and the Dangerous Child

To Become a Master, Only the Right Type of Practise Will Do

…think about the future of a world that applies deliberate practice on a regular basis and its impact on education, medicine, health, and relationships. Imagine a world where performance in every area of life gets better and better. __ C

Deliberate Practise, to be Specific

Deliberate practice is when you work on a skill that requires 1 to 3 practice sessions to master. If it takes longer than that, then you are working on something that is too complex.

Once you master this tiny behavior, you can move on to practicing the next small task that will take 1 to 3 sessions to master. Repeat this process for 10,000 hours. That is deliberate practice. __ Kathy Sierra (2012) as quoted by James Clear

There is a lot more to “deliberate practise” than breaking complex tasks into masterable pieces. But any coach, tutor, or instructor must understand how to “break things down” for each individual learner — who will usually put them together himself, once having mastered the pieces in the proper way, in good order. More complex skills are built upon the simpler skills that preceded them.

Deliberate Practise is Smart Practise
Deliberate Practise is Smart Practise

Is Mastery Innate or Acquired?

Some level of talent and ability must be present to give the learner a starting foundation. And the more natural talent, the more quickly the student can progress — at least in particular phases of the training. The mistake that is too often made is attempting to train so quickly that crucial fundamental skills and competencies are left out of the process. This mistake is most often made in training those who appear most talented in the beginning, who then expect everything that comes afterward to be easy.

when scientists began measuring the experts’ supposedly superior powers of speed, memory and intelligence with psychometric tests, no general superiority was found — the demonstrated superiority was domain specific. For example, the superiority of the chess experts’ memory was constrained to regular chess positions and did not generalize to other types of materials (Djakow, Petrowski & Rudik, 1927). Not even IQ could distinguish the best among chessplayers (Doll & Mayr, 1987) nor the most successful and creative among artists and scientists (Taylor, 1975). In a recent review, Ericsson and Lehmann (1996) found that (1) measures of general basic capacities do not predict success in a domain, (2) the superior performance of experts is often very domain specific and transfer outside their narrow area of expertise is surprisingly limited and (3) systematic differences between experts and less proficient individuals nearly always reflect attributes acquired by the experts during their lengthy training. __ K. Anders Ericsson

Of course we would not expect IQ to be the deciding factor in distinguishing among elite chess players, artists or scientists. If one is looking exclusively at elite levels, several other factors come into play that are more likely to distinguish the best of the best other than a score on an IQ test. Ambition, persistence, sustained energy levels and reserves, smart practise, ego strength to break out of consensual groupthink, conscientiousness, emotional stability and control, and many other qualities that augment and reinforce simple cognitive skills when moving from simple mastery to innovative mastery.

More on deliberate practise:

Deliberate practice is different from work, play and simple repetition of a task. It requires effort, it has no monetary reward, and it is not inherently enjoyable.

When you engage in deliberate practice, improving your performance over time is your goal and motivation. __ Source

Whether deliberate practise is inherently enjoyable or not, is likely to depend upon the person and how his deliberate practise is designed and carried out.

The recent advances in our understanding of the complex representations, knowledge and skills that mediate the superior performance of experts derive primarily from studies where experts are instructed to think aloud while completing representative tasks in their domains, such as chess, music, physics, sports and medicine (Chi, Glaser & Farr, 1988; Ericsson & Smith, 1991; Starkes & Allard, 1993). For appropriate challenging problems experts don’t just automatically extract patterns and retrieve their response directly from memory. Instead they select the relevant information and encode it in special representations in working memory that allow planning, evaluation and reasoning about alternative courses of action (Ericsson & Lehmann, 1996). Hence, the difference between experts and less skilled subjects is not merely a matter of the amount and complexity of the accumulated knowledge; it also reflects qualitative differences in the organization of knowledge and its representation (Chi, Glaser & Rees, 1982). Experts’ knowledge is encoded around key domain-related concepts and solution procedures that allow rapid and reliable retrieval whenever stored information is relevant. Less skilled subjects’ knowledge, in contrast, is encoded using everyday concepts that make the retrieval of even their limited relevant knowledge difficult and unreliable. Furthermore, experts have acquired domain-specific memory skills that allow them to rely on long-term memory (Long-Term Working Memory, Ericsson & Kintsch, 1995) to dramatically expand the amount of information that can be kept accessible during planning and during reasoning about alternative courses of action. The superior quality of the experts’ mental representations allow them to adapt rapidly to changing circumstances and anticipate future events in advance. The same acquired representations appear to be essential for experts’ ability to monitor and evaluate their own performance (Ericsson, 1996; Glaser, 1996) so they can keep improving their own performance by designing their own training and assimilating new knowledge.

__ K. Anders Ericsson

Pioneering 1993 PDF paper by Ericsson on Deliberate Practise

Professor Ericsson recently published a book on the topic of deliberate practice, entitled “Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise.”

Book Outline by Chapter:


The opening question “Why are some people so amazingly good at what they do?” sets the stage for the whole book. Ever since I was in third grade I’ve read biographies and autobiographies to understand how people achieved great success. I was always more interested in learning about the journey than to know what it was like on the mountaintop. This book explains in detail the journey that expert performers go on to reach the mountaintop.

Chapter One

This chapter explains the value of purposeful practice.in expanding your physical and mental capacity for generating greater achievements in the future. It emphasizes the importance of taking small steps on a regular basis and gathering feedback on what you are doing effectively and ineffectively.

Chapter Two

Here you will learn how to specifically harness your mental adaptability to develop new skills and move beyond the status quo way of doing things. It also explains how your potential is not fixed, but rather is something that can be continually expanded.

Chapter Three

You learn the importance of mental representations, of actually seeing the level of performance that you are aspiring to reach. By visualizing the details of what needs to happen, you are able to see the pieces and patterns that are necessary for a great performance.

Chapter Four

This chapter explains in great detail the steps involved in deliberate practice, which is the absolute best way to improve your performance in any type of activity. I would try to explain my interpretation of deliberate practice here, but I think you would benefit a great deal more by really studying this chapter and learning the insights that Anders Ericsson developed over a lifetime of studying deliberate practice.

Chapter Five

A great explanation of how deliberate practice can be used in actual job situations regardless of the type of work that you do. I’ve found in my executive coaching sessions that guiding people through the steps of deliberate practice and showing how the principles of deliberate practice connect with their work situations helps them to move forward in a more intentional and effective way.

Chapter Six

This chapter shows how deliberate practice can be applied in everyday life situations whether you’re exercising, parenting, or enjoying a hobby. Literally anything you do you can learn to do it better the next time.

Chapter Seven

If you were ever wondering what it takes for a young person to go on to be world-class in any activity, this chapter explains what is involved. And it’s not for the faint of heart. Literally thousands and thousands of hours of deliberate practice over many years are required to become the best of the best at what you do. But if you’re goal is to be world-class, then this chapter explains how to do it.

Chapter Eight

This chapter explodes the myth of natural talent. It shows in detail that great performers always got there through extraordinary practice.

Chapter Nine

In this closing chapter, Ericsson and Pool guide the reader to think about the future of a world that applies deliberate practice on a regular basis and its impact on education, medicine, health, and relationships. Imagine a world where performance in every area of life gets better and better. They close their book with a new concept, Homo exercens rather than Homo sapiens. They wrote, “Perhaps a better to see ourselves would be as Homo exercens, or ‘practicing man,’ the species that takes control of its life through practice and makes of itself what it will.”

__ http://www.thecoughlincompany.com/cc_vol14_12a/

Chapter 9 of Ericsson and Pool’s book suggests that a world that applies deliberate practise regularly, would be a better world in many ways. That is probably true. But in the modern world where virtually every institution of government, education, media, foundations, and other cultural institutions are irredeemably corrupt and self-serving, how can productive disruptive change be implemented on a broad scale?

The answer is, it probably cannot be implemented on a broad scale in any meaningful sense — without dumbing it down to impotence.

Sure, if a billionaire such as Sergey Brin, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Tom Steyer, Richard Branson, or one of the other “usual suspects” would stop squandering resources on delusional green boondoggles, and begin to invest on the future minds and competencies of new generations, things would likely change. But such billionaires — and virtually all men of power and influence — are corrupted by the taint of groupthink and government rent-seeking. Institutional rot exists not only in large institutions, but also infects all products and forms of output from such institutions.

What is to be done, then? What indeed.

Hope for the best. Prepare for the worst. It is never too late to have a Dangerous Childhood. Best to start the formation of networked Dangerous Communities as soon as practicable.



Dangerous Child: The Road to Mastery

We talk a lot about competence in the dangerous child, and certainly competence is crucial when dealing with dangerous (and valuable) skills. But on the road to mastery, competence occurs somewhere near the half-way point.

In 1980, Stuart and Hubert Dreyfus described A FIVE-STAGE MODEL OF THE MENTAL ACTIVITIES INVOLVED IN DIRECTED SKILL ACQUISITION (PDF). In the document, they describe 5 steps, or stages, in the growth from beginner to master:

  1. Novice
  2. Competent
  3. Proficient
  4. Expert
  5. Master

Since then, the Dreyfus and Dreyfus model has been altered so that the 5 stages are now:

Novice — Advanced Beginner — Competent — Proficient — Expert

When reduced to just 3 stages common to both ancient and modern guilds, we would describe the model as Apprentice — Journeyman — Master.

Slideshare presentation of the Dreyfus & Dreyfus model

The road to mastery is a long one, which modern western educational systems are reluctant to follow. The resistance to mastery learning among modern educators is extremely strong, perhaps due to the time and effort required of both teacher and learner.

Famed psychologist of expert learning, K. Anders Ericsson, says that world class mastery requires at least 10 years of directed practise by the most gifted, and more like 15 to 25 years of hard directed practise by the merely elite (PDF).

In Ericsson’s view, it is the duration and quality of practise which determines who will master the skill, rather than innate talent or IQ. Perhaps it is best to adopt that view, and teach students to enjoy the hard effort required to achieve mastery, even if it is not entirely correct.

After all, even among the elite, there are those who are clearly superior, who took much less time and practise to achieve higher levels of mastery than the masses of those who are considered “expert” or “master.” But again, perhaps it is best to focus on teaching students to enjoy mastering challenges, and solving difficult problem after difficult problem. Students who incorporate persistence and grit along with expertise, are more likely to succeed.

But each child is different, with different propensities and likelihood of achieving mastery, for a wide range of skills and practises. Some children are more likely to be happy as specialists, while others are more naturally generalists. Not only must we provide the child with a likely path to mastery in his general field of choice, we must also learn to gauge his optimal balance of depth vs breadth.

For students who wish a shallower level of mastery for a large number of different fields, the mastery of “heuristics” in each field is likely to be very important.

For those who wish to master a smaller number of fields, the utilisation of customised “mastery learning” should take them to a deeper level, as appropriate.

And for those who are compelled to take the field or profession beyond the level of its current masters — to achieve creative innovation and genius level work — a working through the entire 5 stage Dreyfus and Dreyfus model is required, plus just a little extra.

When a master is doing genius level revolutionary innovation, he is working at a hypothetical “level 6” or higher. He is devoting his entire being to the problem, over an extended period of time. This is something that is not easily taught — if it can be taught at all.

Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking Fast and Slow, illustrates some of the problems in making decisions and judgments at different stages from novice to expert.

Typically we think of the early stages of mastery as involving more conscious and deliberative thinking, while the more expert stages involve more automatic and intuitive types of thinking.

But if experts and masters cannot “keep their hand in” with the earlier skills of deliberative and conscious thinking and fact-checking, they may be at a loss when entirely new problems arise which do not succumb to their intuitions and learned automaticities.

Early stage learning — before the ages of 12 or 16 — will provide the child with a wide range of competencies and mid-level skills which fall far below mastery. But if sometime between the ages of 5, and 12 to 16, the child experiences a special affinity to and talent for one or more skills, he should be encouraged along a road that might lead to mastery of the special skill or skills. The more high quality directed development time the child can put in for a particular skill, the closer to world class mastery he can come.

Early stage learning focuses upon heuristics and rules of thumb. These are practical and easy to remember scaffolds of learning, for building more detailed structures of learning later.

Many people go through their entire lives without ever going beyond the early heuristic level of learning for any given field. And some do not even get that far.

For those who wish to raise truly dangerous children, it is important that you learn to provide the important heuristics which will keep the child safe even in a dangerous environment. And should the child show a marked preference for any particular dangerous environments, the child should not only be given the crucial heuristics to keep him safe, but should also be helped further along the road to mastery so that he can shape both himself, and the environment itself to his own advantage.

Finally, a caveat: IQ and innate ability do play an important part in the road to mastery along with innate inclinations — despite what well-meaning experts such as KA Ericsson may claim publicly. Pay close attention to cues which may indicate an especially fulfilling direction of development for a particular child.

Children can become infatuated with a particular field without understanding the incredible amount of difficult work that is necessary for mastery of it. It is important that children be given a chance to prove themselves, but in a realistic — not pampered or sheltered — way. Force them to see what the thing really is, and what it will take to achieve it. Be brutally honest here, or you may do far more harm than you realise.

The child does not have time for a large number of abortive attempts at mastery, if it takes between 15 and 25 years for him to achieve top level mastery. And most parents don’t have the time, patience, or the money to support multiple failed attempts.

Yes, you want the child to aim high. But: Do not pamper. Do not shelter. Do not encourage fantasy dreams which are without realistic possibility. Make the child prove himself each step of the way, but be sure to provide the opportunity for him to do so.

More: We have pointed out in previous articles that dangerous children should be able to support themselves economically — in multiple ways — by the time he or she is 18. This is due to the multiple skills and competencies which the child will have learned on the path to becoming dangerous.

This is a very good thing for parents, who will no doubt have their own uses for their hard-earned wages. A widely-competent dangerous child should be able to finance his own long experimentation into mastery over the decades of early to middle adulthood.

Dangerous children typically remain dangerous over entire lifetimes. They are far less likely to sink deeply into time-killing entertainments and mind-wasting amusements and intoxicants. Parents give dangerous children their start, but it is the children themselves who must find their own way.