Challenging the Perception of Early Achievers

Forbes publisher Rich Karlgaard is a self-professed late bloomer. At 26 years old, he was a graduate of Stanford University (which he says he got into on a fluke) working as a security guard, with little direction in life. It wasn’t until soon after, when he was given an opportunity to be a technical writer, that he “felt a cognitive renaissance in that path.”

Kevin

Kevin Ochsner. Photo courtesy of the Rubin Museum of Art.

At last week’s Brainwave event at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City, Karlgaard sat down with neuroscientist Kevin Ochsner, whose lab studies emotion and self-control at Columbia University, for a conversation about late bloomers. What started as an exchange about their personal experiences soon became a discussion over the pros and cons of early focus versus finding one’s path later in life.

Both guests criticized the pressure placed on children by schools and oftentimes parents to be high achievers at early ages when critical capabilities are still evolving. Kaarlgard cited research by Harvard’s Laura Germine and colleagues, who reported that different capabilities peak in different stages of our lives. For example, raw speed in processing information seemed to peak around age 18 or 19, while the ability to evaluate other people’s emotional states did not peak until the 40s or 50s.

Ochsner warned of defining achievement too narrowly, as standardized tests, such as the SAT and GRE, often do, without taking into account other forms of intelligence, especially emotional intelligence. Historically, passion and reason were treated as distinct, “as one rises, the other falls,” he said. But that model does not match the research. Gut feelings and insight are largely driven by systems associated with emotion, he said.

Ochsner told the audience that when interviewing Ph.D. candidates at Columbia, he won’t consider applicants who don’t show interests beyond academics. These students have proven they’re very good at being students, in a set structure, he said, but being a Ph.D. student is like being an entrepreneur of your own company. They need to be able to handle criticism and choose their areas of study, he explained. Demonstrated characteristics like maturity and resilience score high during his application evaluations.

Rich Karlgaard Headshot1

Rich Karlgaard. Photo courtesy of the Rubin Museum of Art.

Passion as a driving force to success was a theme revisited throughout the night’s discussion; early achievers often seem to know what they want to do from a young age and receive validation for it, while late bloomers may want to explore options before settling down in one area, Karlgaard posited. Being a late bloomer is “the perfect intersection of our deepest passions and talents,” he said.

Both speakers had ideas on how to nurture curiosity and exploration in a data-driven world. Karlgaard proposed a skilled trades track in school (what used to be called “shop”), gap years in between high school and college (but not just a long vacation), and mandatory service, whether military or community service.

Ochsner circled back to the importance of nurturing emotional or social intelligence so that you can “learn how to get out of your own way and access your own potential.” He pointed to the work being done at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, where they have designed curriculum for schools that supports the development of emotional intelligence.

Ochsner also called out what he saw as trends in education that have not proven to work. Assigning homework at early grade levels and over-planning kids’ afterschool activities have not been proven to help them succeed, he said. Taking away recess is a “huge mistake.”

With that food for thought, Tim McHenry, director of programs and engagement at the Rubin Museum, closed the night’s discussion by tying it back to the museum’s Himalayan roots, noting the increase in meditation in classrooms and the growing scientific validation for it, as a way to achieve a sense of balance.

Brainwave events are planned through September. To see the remaining events and to purchase tickets, visit the Rubin Museum website.

– Ann L. Whitman

Video games stay on the brain?

Thinking of sneaking in a few rounds of Halo during your lunch break? You may want to reconsider—the video games we play may have long-lasting effects on how we study and work.

According to a new study in the journal Perception, different genres of video games “prime” us for certain ways of thinking. Scientists at Wheaton College in Norton, Mass., found that, after playing Unreal Tournament, a fast-action first-person shooting game, people were faster but less accurate at spatial and perception tasks. In contrast, after sitting down to Portal, which involves solving puzzles, people became more accurate but slower at the follow-up tasks.

In some ways, this is not too surprising. Scientists have long known that, over time, video games—like any form of entertainment—cause changes in the brain. As Douglas Gentile
writes in a recent Cerebrum piece
, these effects are many and can have both positive and negative influences. Fast-paced games can increase reaction times and perceptual discrimination, just as violent video games can blunt typical brain reactions to the suffering
of others.

But psychology professor Rolf Nelson, who led the study, speculates that the priming effect might have significant effects on our day-to-day work and school lives, since the changes show up after only an hour of play. Such a short chunk of time, he says, suggests that action fans may return to homework assignments with increased speed at the cost of making more mistakes; puzzle aficionados might become more methodical and accurate at work but fail to meet deadlines.

Determining whether that is actually the case will require significantly more study, of course. Video games are complex and varied and rarely have a single mode of play, while the tasks presented to research subjects don’t really reflect what goes on in the modern workplace. It’s also unclear how long the effect lasts and whether people can become “immune” to it. But such studies demonstrate the usefulness of research that parses out the exact effects of video games and other technologies on the brain. If confirmed, Nelson’s work suggests that some frantic Call of Duty action might help me meet pending afternoon deadlines—OK as long as my editor ensures an extra-sharp eye with some rounds of Tetris and Minesweeper.

-Aalok Mehta

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