June 21, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Yesterday was the final of Britain’s Got Talent. Though I can’t deny watching the general public take to the stage is entertaining and often times hilarious, occasionally I worry that the rest of the world is watching and concluding that the best we have to offer is a middle aged couple with no rhythm grasping at hand bells. Having said that, there are some whose performances are just about fit for the queen, according to Simon Cowell.

Simon’s irrational judgement isn’t enough for me, and the strange array of ‘talented’ Brits who will compete this evening led me to wonder where talent actually comes from and is there a more scientific way of measuring it. My first thought was that there seems to be a positive correlation between Amanda Holden’s tears and the level of talent being exhibited. But there must be a more foolproof method of separating the wheat from the chaff.

It seems accepted that talented musicians, athletes, actors and the like are simply born with a gift. They have an innate ability to wow an audience with their unique skills. However, modern neurological science has a very different idea about where talent comes from.  In his book The Talent Code Daniel Coyle attempted to discover how we unlock our talent and whether the ability to sing to the rafters or move in ways that defy the laws of physics are skills available to all of us or just a select few?  After worldwide observations of ‘talented’ individuals and copious interviews with scientists it seems that we are not born with talent or a gift but all have the ability to develop it.

A neural insulator called myelin seems to be responsible. We are all able to grow myelin; no one has a greater ability to do this than anyone else. This growth begins at a very early age and the nerve fibres we use when we first kick a football or play the piano become wrapped in myelin, which insulates these areas allowing the electrical impulses to travel at faster speed and with greater magnitude. The more we practice a particular skill, the thicker the layers of myelin become, the better it insulates and so the accuracy and speed of our movements improve dramatically. Just as constant use of certain muscles increases their strength and size, repeatedly firing the same electrical impulses increases the levels of myelin surrounding the neurons involved in those movements.

So practice does make perfect and scientists have now developed the ‘Rule of 10,000 Hours’.  The earlier one begins hitting a tennis ball, the sooner you will reach at least 10,000 hours of practice and the likelihood you will be walking onto Wimbledon’s centre court is greatly improved.

Obviously it’s not that simple. If I hit a tennis ball against my garage wall for 10,000 hours I doubt I could beat Federer or Nadal any time soon (maybe I could beat Murray if he was having a bad day). In order for myelin growth (and an individual) to reach their potential, they have to push themselves to the limit. They must both put in the groundwork and take risks to ensure myelin grows at its fastest rate.

This is where talented individuals often fall from grace; they take necessary risks in an attempt to nurture their talent and if they fail, they are described as having ‘lost it’ and will be benched.

The science of talent is much more complicated than simply growing myelin, practicing and taking risks. However, discovering some biological basis and scientific theory behind this concept has put my mind at rest. Britain definitely has more to offer than what we will see on our screens this evening. The theory goes deeper, considering the psychological roles of having a mentor and the importance of inner motivation but we no longer need to worry that we weren’t born with an individual gift. We all were, so get practising! There are 8765 hours until next year’s ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ final, so perhaps set your sights on 2013. The world is watching and we must have something better to show them!

By Nathan Wren

image from inews.co.uk