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What Separates Experts from Non-Experts?

What Separate Experts from Non-Experts?
Hello there, in this session you’ll learn about how experts differ from non experts. You’ll learn about mental representation and chunks. And you’ll learn what scrub jay squirrels and the world famous London Black Cab drivers have in common. And why this all matters to you in your quest for success. To understand what experts do differently than non experts, researchers have studied world class musicians, athletes, surgeons, engineers, pilots, teachers, managers, chess players, and experts in many other professions. They’ve studied why some radiologists are far more accurate than others in identifying cancerous tumors. And what the best surgeons do differently than other surgeons. And how the highly trained London Black cab drivers’ brains differs from the brains of average cab drivers.
These discoveries provide useful lessons for us all. Whether we want to be superstars in our fields or develop enough of an expertise to do our jobs at a level that we could be proud of. One of the most well known researchers of expertise is professor of psychology Anders Erickson. According to Erickson, experts have the following in common regardless of their fields of expertise.
They have achieved the highest level of performance in their fields and they typically have a reputation for this achievement. Their performance can be objectively measured and it can be compared to the performance of others. They consistently get far superior results to those of most others in their area of expertise. And they acquire their expertise through long periods of focused education, training, and experience that differ in significant ways from how most of us learn new knowledge and skills.
Experts have two advantages over most people. First, they have more knowledge in their area of expertise, so they’re able to use this knowledge to make better and faster decisions in routine and non-routine situations. Second, they have superior skills in their area of expertise that enable them to implement these decisions in ways that are consistently superior to other performance. It’s not that they always are at their best or that they never make mistakes, they are after all human like the rest of us. But they are usually at the top of their game, in their area of expertise.
How do experts gain these advantages? In most ways, experts are just like everybody else. They put their pants on one leg at a time, they love their families and they have bad habits and plenty of weaknesses. When she was a law student at Harvard and Colombia, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, for example, was an intellectual force to be reckoned with, yet she claim she failed the driving exam five times.
Experts, like everyone, else also forget a lot of things. Due to the normal limitations of short-term memory, they too say things like, where did I put my keys? What did I come upstairs for? And what’s the name of the person I was introduced to just five minutes ago? They also have normal limitations with long term memory. They forget much of what they learn in class three weeks ago. Most of us forget most of what we learned in class yesterday. They forget how to set the clock in their car when the time changes, and how to get to that little out of the way romantic restaurant they visited just a few years ago.
But here is the different between experts and non experts. Experts differ from non experts because experts develop effective strategies for overcoming the limitations of memory in their area of expertise.
Long term memory helps us remember knowledge and skills long after we first learn them. Once learned, most of us remember how to do basic arithmetic, speak one or more languages, write sentences and paragraphs, get dressed in the morning, cook at least basic meals without a recipe, and many of us learn how to ride a bike and drive a car. We remember how to do these things because we spend a lot of time learning the knowledge and practicing the skills associated with these abilities. And then we continue to use these capabilities almost daily throughout our lives. Through years of practice, we begin to do these activities automatically, and then we forget how hard we worked to learn them.
Every time we learn something and practice it long enough, we commit it to long-term memory in the form of mental representations.
A mental representation is an image we hold in our minds of what a successful end result should look like, how to get that result, and how to assess whether we reach that result. We use these mental representations to get through the mundane and the complex activities of everyday life. We learn and adapt our mental representations through education, training and experience. And the more we practice and use the skills associated with the specific mental representation, the more likely we’ll be able to consistently use these skills competently and automatically, as if the skills were naturally part of who we are rather than learned. A great thing about mental representations is that they can help us even in situations we’d not encountered before.
Captain Sullenberger used mental representations to successfully land the disabled plane on the Hudson River, even though he had never landed a disabled plane on the water before. Sullenberger attributes some of his success in landing the plane on the Hudson to his many years of paying close attention to what he called energy management during routine flights. Whenever he was planning a flight, Sullenberger would check the weather at the airport he was leaving from as well as at the airport where he would be landing. And he identified the best route and altitude for avoiding turbulence to give passengers a smoother ride. Sullenberger said, on thousands of flights I had tried to fly the optimum flight path.
I think that helped me more than anything else on Flight 1549. I was going to use the energy of the Airbus, without either engine, to get us safely to the ground, or somewhere. In other words, the mental representations that he developed in normal situations over his years as a pilot served him very well when he had to handle a crisis.
Competitive swimmer Michael Phelps used mental representations developed through years of purposeful practice to become the most decorated Olympic gold medal champion in history. Phelps was ten years old when he started working with his hometown coach, Bob Bowman, who spent many years training Phelps to develop good habits and routines. In his book the Power of Habit journalist Charles DuHigg describes one of the Bowman’s coaching strategies. Bowman would tell Phelps to repeatedly rehearse his routine in his mind, to mentally replay the video tape of the perfect race.
Phelps perfected his mental representation by visualizing the perfect strokes and the perfect race, not only physically during his practices, but also in his mind as he was drifting off to sleep at night, counting strokes, streamlining his turns and reaching the finish line. Bowman even had Phelps practice his laps in the dark to build Phelps dependence on effective routines under any situation that might come up, including goggle failure. And that situation arose during the 200 meter butterfly competition at the Beijing Olympics on August 13th 2008. Immediately after Phelps dove into the water, his goggles began filling up with water, reducing his visibility to zero by the second lap of the race.
Phelps stayed calm and he replayed the tapes in his mind, just as he had practiced and imagined in his mind throughout many years, counting each stroke and estimating the length of the final stroke with perfect timing. Phelps won the competition and he earned his eighth gold medal at the Beijing Olympics, breaking the world record for the 200 meter butterfly.
Now although we all use mental representations to get through the activities of everyday living, experts have more numerous, more varied and more sophisticated mental representations in their area of expertise. World class surgeons use mental representations to perform life saving surgeries. Virtuoso musicians use mental representations to perform awe inspiring concerts. Expert teachers use mental representations to inspire students to achieve more than the student thought possible. And expert team leaders use mental representations to bring out the best in their teams. Now mental representations, whether simple or complex, are made up of many different pieces of knowledge and skills. Researchers called these small bits of knowledge and skills chunks.
And we create mental representations by stringing together chunks of knowledge into meaningful patterns that we use to make sense of situations and perform complex activities. One benefit of chunking is that it is easier to learn and remember small pieces of information. For example, it’s hard to remember a long string of numbers like 8001550199. But it becomes easier if we break the numbers down into chunks such as 800-155-0199. Chunking is how we remember phone numbers, passwords, and mathematical equations, as well as dance moves, phrases in a new language, and how to do our jobs.
Another benefit of chunking is that it’s easier to mix and match small chunks of information and skills to create a variety of mental representations appropriate to any given situation. Ballerinas turn precise movements into exquisite ballets. Surgeons turn independent surgical procedures into life saving surgeries. Now experts have more chunks in their area of expertise and they’re able to link these chunks together in a variety of ways that help them make better decisions and take more efficient action in many different situations. Researchers have found out while novice chess players are focusing only on the next move, expert chess players are thinking several moves ahead and anticipating various outcomes to each of the moves.
Master chess players store about 50,000 chunks of chess-related information in their long-term memory, and they use this information to quickly make sense of the chess board and efficiently strategize their moves.
So when you say you want to be an expert in a field, what you are saying is that you want to be a really good chunker. Someone who has a lot of chunks of information, that you can turn into mental representations that will help you consistently handle routine and non routine situations calmly, efficiently and successfully. So, in addition to having more chunks and mental representations in their field of expertise, here’s another important way that experts differ from non-experts. Their brains look different than the brains of amateurs and average performers. Neuroscientist Eleanor McGuire and her colleagues studied the brains of London’s licensed black cab drivers known to be some of the most talented taxi drivers in the world.
They studied these expert cab drivers because they have to navigate, learn and retain in their memory vast amounts of knowledge about the streets, landmarks and routines of London City streets. London City streets are among the most complicated in the world and they’re notoriously difficult to navigate.
The street layout in London has been described as being, and I’m quoting different sources here, “A preposterously complex tangle of veins and capillaries. The cardio vascular system of a monster” and “More like a tangle of yarn that a pre-schooler glued to construction paper than a metropolis designed with architectural foresight.” London taxi drivers must be able to figure out the fastest route to get customers from point A to point B, through a mind-boggling labyrinth of 25,000 streets. Navigating through constant obstacles caused by construction, congestion and one-way streets.
And in addition to being intimately acquainted with the dizzy entangle of roads, London taxi drivers also need to know the locations of tourist attractions, theaters, pubs, restaurants, shops, offices, government buildings, schools, parks, places of worship, hospitals, and cemeteries. Any location a customer might ask for, with or without a specific street address, is fair game.
When someone wants to become a licensed cab driver in London, they take a rigorous course called “The Knowledge” To prepare for a grueling test that requires that they memorize, not only the 25,000 streets, but also 320 routes and the location of at least 20,000 well-known and obscure landmarks. They must also be able to calculate the most direct and fastest routes from A to B without using maps or a GPS. They have to store all that information in their brains. Now 70% of the people who start the rigorous knowledge course quit the course before taking the exams required to become licensed.
Although an aspiring taxi driver can take the exams as many times as he or she desires, only about 50% successfully complete the exam. About the same number of people who succeed at becoming a member of the elite US Navy Seals.
McGuire and her colleagues used magnetic resonance imaging to compare the brains of the most experienced taxi drivers to those who had less experience as well as to people who weren’t taxi drivers. They found that the most experience taxi drivers had larger posterior hippocampi than those with less experience. And the longer someone worked as a taxi driver the larger their posterior hippocampi were. The two seahorse-shaped hippocampi are located at the front of each side of our brains. The posterior of the hippocampus, the tail of the seahorse shape, acts as a cognitive map without which we would not know where we are, where we’ve been or how to get to where we want to go.
At the beginning of this session, I mentioned that you’d learn what expert cab drivers, scrub jays and squirrels have in common, so here it is. Scrub jays and squirrels also have larger posterior hippocampi because they hide their food in different locations and need to find it again months later to avoid starvation. Birds and mammals that play hide and seek with their food, have larger posterior hippocampi in their brains than those that don’t hide their food. Because just like London’s black cab drivers, they need to have expert long term memory, and spatial navigation skills and these are the skills that are associated with the hippocampi.
In a different study, neuroscientist, Baranique Bobat found that people who regularly uses GPS systems to get around tend to have smaller hyppocampi than those who regularly use maps or other methods, that require them to put in more effort to navigate their way from point A to point B. Bobat believes this is because people who passively depend on GPS systems don’t learn and use the complex skills associated with map reading and navigation. And they don’t tax their long-term memory to remember landmarks, turns, and street names. Bobat argues this may be a problem because people with smaller posterior hippocampi are more likely to get dementia later in life.
Bobat says that she uses her GPS system a lot less now and I’m going to turn mine off as well, at least some of the time.
Note that researchers have found that developing high levels of expertise in other domains creates changes in the brain as well. For example, the area of the brain related to the right index finger is larger in the brains of people with limited or no eyesight who read braille. Extensive training in music, dance and athletics can lead to structural changes in the brain.
So now you know the ways in which experts different from non experts.
Experts have more and deeper knowledge in their area of expertise because they have more chunks and mental representations than novice or average performers. They are able to use their extensive number of mental representations and chunks to make faster and better decisions. And take a wider variety of actions that help them consistently achieve superior results in their area of expertise, in routine, and non routine situations. You now know that the structure of experts’ brains actually changes as a result of their years of intense training. This supports the ideas that adults, as well as children could learn new complex knowledge and skills, and that experts are made and not born. And there’s a downside to expertise that I haven’t mentioned yet.
Developing world class expertise comes with a cost. In the taxi driver study, the front part of the hippocampi was smaller in the expert taxi driver’s brains. Suggesting that gains in expertise in one area, may result in losses in other areas. In the next session you’ll learn how people become experts through a special kind of practice. Until then, take care and I’ll see you soon.
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