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Inside CSULB
Vol 57 No. 14 : July 14, 2005
Vol 57 No. 14 | July 14, 2005
So, What Makes You Such an Expert?

Philosophy’s Charles Wallis wants to know one thing:–– what makes you such an expert?

“Know-how,” the essence of expertise, is the latest research topic for Wallis, himself an expert on cognitive science.

Wallis has recently authored several papers on “know-how” for journals in philosophy, and presented a paper on the topic at the Cognitive Science Conference held on campus last February.

“The biggest difference between experts and non-experts is the way they go about solving a problem,” said Wallis, a Venice resident, who joined the university in 2000. “Experts don’t have to pull out a rulebook. They have a natural, intuitive way of working. Novices check rulebooks. The expert will go to the heart of the matter. They have an intuitive interaction with it.”

Wallis believes expertise is the driving force behind the rise and fall of nations. “You have to create an environment in society that nurtures expertise,” he said. “It is not a natural thing for people to solve mathematical problems. But if you create a society where that kind of thing is valued, which is what, for instance, the Chinese and Japanese have done with mathematics, then people are more inclined to be math whizzes. They see it as something valuable. In America, there is a wide divide between everyday life and intellectual life. There’s too much distraction with no purpose.”

Experts often have difficulty articulating their knowledge. “How do they solve problems? They often can’t explain,” he said. “But you can infer their thought processes from, for instance, looking at the big difference between how a physicist organizes and classifies problems and how an undergraduate physics major does it. The student looks at superficial features and the expert works in terms of solution strategies.”

“Conscious learning of rules is one approach to expertise, but the ultimate goal is to operate by the rules without thinking about them. When you learn a piano concerto, at first, you think about where your fingers are going, but the goal is to move the fingers without thinking about where or how. The same is true for higher cognitive functions. There is also ‘implicit learning,’ or the figuring out of a field’s dimensions by interacting with it. For instance, you can teach people how to sex chickens in eggs just by giving them feedback about their performance.  They may get quite good without being able to articulate their methodology. The goal of the mind is consolidate this unconscious process.”

Expertise is often a matter of memory but more than one kind. In a recent paper, Wallis looked at two memory systems: the declarative and the procedural. The declarative memory sorts out subjects people can state such as, “I was born in a log cabin.” But procedural memory has to do with motor skills, rudimentary decision tasks and what makes an expert, problem solving. “They are quite separate,” he explained. “If brain injuries damage one area, they may not affect the other. Say your declarative memory system is damaged through damage to your hippocampus. You won’t be able to store new long-term memories about things. Every time you met someone, it would be like the first time, such as in the movie “Memento.”

The odd thing is that these damaged people can still learn to solve puzzles, even though they don’t remember working with them. Say the damage is to the front of the brain. These victims will be able to come up with elaborate theories about what is right but they won’t necessarily be able to act on them. Say they face a betting scenario, they can explain why such-and-such is a good bet but they won’t follow their own advice when putting money on the table.”

Wallis did a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Rochester after earning his Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota. He spent a year teaching at Dickinson College before joining the University of British Columbia in British Columbia and the University of Waterloo.

The sad news about expertise is that it gets more difficult to achieve as you get older.

“The brain gets slower and becomes less efficient in growing dendrites, the parts of nerves associated with learning,” he explained. “Kid’s brains are good at dendritic growth. They can learn and utilize large amounts of new information.  Worse still, there is a kind of cell called ‘glial’ that wraps a sheath of fat around the neurons and allows them to operate much faster. As you get older, you lose that sheath or ‘de-myelinate,’ making learning and quick thinking that much harder.  For instance, mathematicians most often make their most significant contributions in their 20s and early 30s. It’s sad but we were engineered to be at our maximum efficiency at the reproductive age.”

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