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Neuroscientists Identify Brain Regions that Account for Individual Talent

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Posted July 29, 2015

What‘s more important – work or talent? This question has been haunting both the scientific community and the lay public since time immemorial, with highly skilled individuals usually leaning on the latter, and the less fortunate ones betting on the former.

What’s more important – work or talent? According to a new study in Cerebral Cortex, the answer is “yes”. That is, both have a role to play, although “talent” seems to make the process much easier and, ultimately, more rewarding to those who have it. Image credit: PublicDomainPictures via pixabay.com, CC0 Public Domain.

What’s more important – work or talent? According to a new study in Cerebral Cortex, the answer is “yes”. That is, both have a role to play, although “talent” seems to make the process much easier and, ultimately, more rewarding to those who have it. Image credit: PublicDomainPictures via pixabay.com, CC0 Public Domain.

So, what‘s the right answer? We already know that the 10,000 hour “rule” is mostly bunk, but what’s the actual relationship between talent and dedicated practice? Well, the answer seems to be that practice does make perfect… but only if you’ve got the brain for it.

A new study from the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital, conducted with colleagues from Münster, Germany and published in the science journal Cerebral Cortex, has found evidence to suggest that “talent” is a very real, physical thing, which can be distinguished from other areas of the brain, activated via training.

The research involved 15 young adults with little or no musical background, who were put through an fMRI machine before and after they underwent 6 weeks of musical training, which consisted of learning simple piano pieces.

Indicating the protocol’s effect, the brain’s fronto-parietal and cerebellar areas, related to storage of newly-learned auditory and motor associations, saw a marked increase in activity. This is completely normal and something the team expected from the beginning.

The real meat of the study, so to speak, is the finding that certain other cerebral regions, such as the right auditory cortex, hippocampus and caudate nuclei – all of which are associated with stimulus encoding and motor control – were much more predictive of who will find playing the piano difficult, and who will not.

According to Dr. Robert Zatorre, a cognitive neuroscientist and the lead author on the study, “predisposition” plays an important role in learning new skills that require both auditory and motor proficiency, and can be clearly distinguished from “training-induced plasticity”.

Zatorre and his team claim their study not only pertains to the age-old “nature-nurture” debate, but might also have practical relevance for the practice of medicine and education.

For instance, with these findings on hand, researchers might be able to develop effective, custom-made interventions for both students and neurological patients, based on their innate capabilities and individual needs.

However, as is often the case with scientific advancement, new answers lead to new questions. The next juicy line of inquiry for the team – and the entire field – will be to try and find out the relative extent to which individual “predisposition” is determined by genetics and brain plasticity that resulted due to past experiences.

Sources: study abstract, mcgill.ca, futurity.org.

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