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Sandeep Gautam is a psychology and cognitive neuroscience enthusiast, whose basic grounding is in computer science.

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Practicing deliberately for excellence



Malcolm Gladwell had popularized the ‘10,000 hour’ rule to expertise in his popular book ‘Outliers’. As per his formulation, anyone who puts in 10,000 hours of effort could excel in a particular field. What one required was determination and raw effort. He had based these conclusions on the work of Anders Ericsson and colleagues and now Anders Ericsson (with Robert Pool) in his new book ‘Peak’ has tried to clear the muddied waters surrounding the 10,000 hour rule.

You can read an excerpt from peak here , where Anders himself clarifies that it doesn’t necessarily take 10,000 hours to develop expertise- for some it takes longer while for others it is much lesser. Also that the number of hours required varies form domain to domain;  and that for exceptional performance you may need another additional 10,000 hours; he adds all that nuance but the most important caveat is that not any effort will do, it has to be 10,000 or more hours of ‘deliberate practice‘.

So what is ‘deliberate practice’ and how does it differ form mere blind efforts? As Scott Barry Kaufman brilliantly explains in this article:

Deliberate practice involves a series of techniques designed to learn efficiently and purposefully. This involves goal setting, breaking down complex tasks into chunks, developing highly complex and sophisticated representations of possible scenarios, getting out of your comfort zone, and receiving constant feedback.

And this is over and above purposeful practice , which again is a different beast from mere effort or repetition and involves, well-defined specific goals, focused efforts, , feedback and getting out of one’s comfort zones. Add to that specialized learning (and teaching) techniques available in a field, learning from a coach or mentor to constantly push oneself beyond one’s limits, the use of mental representations and  conscious and intentional improvement efforts and you have a perfect recipe for deliberate practice.

However, important caveats apply.  Deliberate practice is useful/ applicable only in highly specialized domains (what a downer!).

But as they note midway through their book — and I believe this is a really important caveat— the techniques of deliberate practice are most applicable to “highly developed fields” such as chess, sports, and musical performance in which the rules of the domain are well established and passed on from generation to generation. The principles of deliberate practice do not work nearly as well for professions in which there is “little or no direct competition, such as gardening and other hobbies”, and “many of the jobs in today’s workplace– business manager, teacher, electrician, engineer, consultant, and so on.”

Important points to note here: for most messy fields, like say expertise in psychology, the 10,000 hours rule may not apply as there are no clear techniques for being a  better psychologist that one can learn from a  coach/ mentor and improve by getting instant feedback on one’s skill as a psychologist – so there is little room for deliberate practice…..moreover deliberate practice as I understand applies more to development of skills and not so much to knowledge, so many academic disciplines will likely remain out of its ambit.

I myself have been guilty of wrongly understanding and applying the 10,000 hour rule- my about page proudly proclaims that I have developed expertise in psychology by the hard way- by putting in more than 10,000 hours of self-study- however as long as the 10,000 hour is rightly applicable to domains in which one can learn under the guidance of a coach and consciously keep improving and pushing limits, my 10,000 hours of self study is unlikely to make me an expert or anything like that as per the research is concerned.

However, I can think of one example from my life where I did indulge in deliberate practice. Counter-intuitive though it may seem, it was while preparing for a high stakes educational assessment called JEE (entrance test of IITs‘), and this may be applicable to other high stake testing like GRE/GMAT /SAT also.

One can consider the final exam / test as a performance and all the prior preparation like mock tests etc as practice. Now, I used to study in  a coaching class under the guidance of an expert teacher in mathematics, and the teacher (Mr Bansal) used to stretch us beyond our comfort zones by constantly exposing us to problems that were difficult to solve and also helping us see what we can do to improve and where we needed to put in more efforts. Although the whole duration of preparation was about an year, and I definitely did not become a maths expert after that, it was enough to crack the JEE, but the larger point is that if that sort of deliberate practice was continued, I might have become an expert in maths.

So having just said above that deliberate practice may not apply to academic pursuits,  on second thoughts I would grant that it may apply very well to some academic pursuits by building skills of thinking and solving problems.

Creativity of course would be a different beast and as Scott rightly notes may involve more than the 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. But while everyone may aspire for creativity, and its origins still remain mysterious, Anders with ‘Peak’ had demystified how to be an expert in any field.

‘Peak’ is a much needed and timely book that will help you apply the principles of deliberate practice to all parts of your life , including your work life, and can take you to the next level- of course you will have to put n the right efforts, keep motivated , find the right coach , but the sky is the limit once you decide to achieve expertise in the domain and Anders is there to help.

Do yourself a favor, do read this book on expertise , by the world’s foremost authority on the subject and then choose a domain and stick to it. You may surprise yourself with what you are able to achieve


How Cotard’s and other phenomena throw light on the self

indexCan the Cotard’s syndrome tell us something about the self? A person suffering from Cotard’s syndrome is likely to claim that he/ she is dead- can such a delusional experience make us appreciate what self is what it isn’t – and more importantly how the sense of self can go awry in some phenomena?

Anil Ananthaswamy, in his exquisitely written book ‘ The Man Who Wasn’t There‘ beautifully illustrates how Cotard’s and other such weird and not so weird phenomena can shed light on the true nature of self (provided the self exists and there is something it is like to have a self- more about this later).

The book is beautifully written, weaving narratives of actual patients suffering from various disorders, with cutting edge research in the field and at all times tying it back to the nature of the self.

Although the eight chapters talk about eight different phenomena- ranging from Cotard’s to deperosnalisation to Autism to schizophrenia to out-of-body experiences and ecstatic epilepsy to BIID ( or having a desire to amputate ones limbs) and Alzheimer’s – there doesn’t seem any discontinuity- nor does it seem as if disparate phenomena are being talked about. With self being the focus, each of these is used to approach the self from a different angle.

I am reminded of the parable of  blind men and the elephant – whereby each blind men could only grasp one part of the elephant. Self is such an elephant in the room. The various chapters do advance our understanding of the self and fortunately, this time, the sum is greater than the sum of the parts, and we are indeed able to get a  sense of the elephant/self!

It would be naive to assume that Anil would have solved the problem of self where great philosophers or scientists of past and present have failed to do so- but he does gives tantalizing glimpses of what the answer might me and at least brings us up to speed with what is being thought of in the philosophical / scientific circles.

The power of the book comes from its very approachable and readable writings style and the humane treatment of its subjects.  Whether its the isolation felt by a BID sufferer who has no means of getting his limb amputated legally or the strangeness felt by those suffering from deperosnailsation, Anil makes the stories vivid- loud and clear in one’s mind;s eyes.

The book is also chock full of interesting facts- some of which I was already familiar with, but got an opportunity to brush up on the latest happenings in the filed, others were new to me – for example I hadn’t realized that people with Cotard’s are typically depressed or that people remember more about their life from between 10 and 30 years (the reminiscence bump) and many such nuggets.

The book is immensely readable and holds your attention from chapter to chapter.  I was almost felling bad about having finished it as I wanted more of the treats to continue.  In a week in which we lost Oliver Sacks, it takes some solace to discover that there are others who are keeping the tradition alive.

Both the erudition , humanity and narration of Anil is superb. While reading the book, I thought he was himself a prominent neuroscientist- its only post reading it I realized he is a science journalist and has also written  a best seller in physics. Surprising how brilliant people are able to make their mark in whatever field they chose to focus on. Quiet coincidentally I had also reviewed ‘Subliminal’ by Leonord Mlodinow- who is also a physicist but has written a good book rooted in psychology.

My advice to readers of this blog- if you loved Sacks, if you loved VS Ramachandran,  or even if you didn’t or haven’t heard about them, do give this book a read- you are going to love the easy style- yet a lot of substance. I, for one , am eagerly looking forward to Anil’s next read.

Dancing with your baby

We all understand intuitively the necessity of better bonding with the new-born baby and research has shed light on the importance of early child-caregiver interactions for the formation of what is called ‘secure attachment‘  in the baby. We also know the importance of the first few critical years of development and why all the sensory and motor modalities of the infant needs to be  adequately stimulated for proper and timely achievement of developmental milestones.

What we don’t typically appreciate is that dancing with your newborn baby may be just such an exercise which involves all the senses of the baby while also providing adequate motor workout for both the baby and the caregiver.

Come Sue Doherty on the scene, and with her thoroughly researched and elaborately written book ‘Dancing with your Baby: For bonding and better health for both of you’ she makes a persuasive case for kinergetcis or taking time out to dance holding your baby using different postures and carriages.

She recommends this dance or workout at least three times a week in either 30 minutes chunk or 2-3 bursts of 10 minutes each. The books is aptly illustrated and comes packed with detailed instructions and do and don’t of each pose or workout.  Along with the basic dance or workout there are Tai-chi and yoga based warm-up and stretching illustrations too.

The book is peppered with quotes and cutting edge research findings by psychologists and neuroscientists and vouch for Sue’s erudition and thorough ground work.

It would make for a  good gift for those expecting or who are already parents of new-born babies. The basic idea is to safely use the baby as a weight for the workout of the caregiver, but at all times focusing primarily on the need and enjoyment of the baby. There are dedicated chapters on the importance of sound, touch , movement, special needs children etc and while some chapters are heavy on the scientific aspect of why its important to dance with your baby , the latter part of the book is more focused on how to dance with your baby and makes for a comparatively easier read.

One downside I noted was that sometimes excessive quotations from experts gets in the way of flow of the book and this could have easily been rectified with some smart editing. But overall I enjoyed reading this book by my twitter friend Sue Doherty (@storiesmatter)

If you are expecting a baby or a parent of a newborn, go buy this book and start dancing with a light step and a song in your heart! No better experience than to be a parent of a new-born!! and no better way to celebrate it than by dancing with him/ her!!!

Depressive symptoms

On the Threshold of Eternity

On the Threshold of Eternity (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was reading ‘Depression’ by Aaron T Beck, who was instrumental in pioneering the treatment of depression with the cognitive behavioral approach, and was surprised to find that Beck had classified depressive symptoms in four buckets which correspond to the ABCD system.

For example, like the Affect, Behavior, Cognition and Drive (motivation) ABCD model, he parses depressive symptoms as either emotional manifestations,  cognitive manifestations, motivational manifestations and vegetative and physical manifestations. A complete list of symptoms is given below:

Emotional Manifestations

  • Dejected mood
    Negative feelings toward self
    Reduction in gratification
    Loss of emotional attachments
    Crying spells
    Loss of mirth response

Cognitive Manifestations

  • Low self-evaluation
    Negative expectations
    Self-blame and self-criticism
    Distortion of body image

Motivational Manifestations

  • Paralysis of the will
    Avoidance, escapist, and withdrawal wishes
    Suicidal wishes
    Increased dependency

Vegetative and Physical Manifestations

While the world has moved beyond these models to the DSM V (although DSM IV-TR ) is still widely used) and its good to be up to speed regarding the latest diagnostics criteria for depression, this historical classification of symptoms to me proves once more the power of the ABCD conceptualization.


Personality decomposed!

Today I read a paper by De Young about Cybernetic Big 5 theory of personality and that led me to think hard about my own conceptualization of personality.  The below is an effort to elucidate the CB5T as well as to enhance and point out the commonalities with my own conception.


To begin with, there are two broad personalty meta-traits: called stability and plasticity. Like all personality traits these are on a continuum and someone low in stability I like to call as labile; while someone low on plasticity I like to call as rigid.

Lets first look at plasticity. It is made up of the big 5 traits of Extraversion also conceptualized as behavioral plasticity and Openness/intellect conceptualized as cognitive plasticity. Its important to note here that plasticity has nothing to do with neuro-plasticity; this is more behavioral and cognitive flexibility or plasticity and is related to a tendency to explore either behaviorally one’s environment or cognitively one’s conceptual space to maximize learning.  Thus while plasticity pole is a learning and exploration pole, the rigidity pole is performance or exploitation pole.  In normal course of life one would need to both learn new stuff and leverage that to perform well using existing knowledge. Plasticity-rigidity, imho,  is the tradeoff and tension between too much learning and too much performance focus. This aspect of personality is purely in cognitive -behavioral domain and can be easily modeled/ replicated by machines. This is the philosophical zombie.

Why we need the second meta trait of stability- labile is somewhat of a mystery to many people. This is the part of person that feels, has motives and understands and acts as if others too are conscious entities like him/her. This is the ghost in the machine. Stability is comprised of Big 5 underlying traits of Neuroticism also conceptualized as low emotional stability , Conscientiousness conceptualized as motivational stability and Agreeableness conceptualized as social stability. Stability here refers to the fact that one can exercise control over ones reactions to the environment. While labile, the polar extreme of stability, is characterized by reactivity to environment/ stimuli, giving in to impulses and is more toward the facet ‘Experience’ of consciousness; stability on the other hand is all about effort-full regulation of impulses, willpower and control and related to ‘Agency’ part of consciousness.

That is about the two meta traits.

Now, lets come to the big 5 and 2 aspects of each of the big 5 as per De Young.

First up is Extraverison. Its there because rewards are present in the world and it codes for reward sensitivity. As long as rewards are there in the world and the organism acts to receive rewards, there would be individual differences in how much the behavior is performed for the same reward. Thus though operant conditioning will guarantee that behaviors get coupled with reward contingencies in the environment, the degree of coupling will be a matter of individual taste. There are two aspects of Extraversion: assertiveness and enthusiasm. Assertiveness is related to wanting a reward and enthusiasm to liking a reward and this echoes earlier work by Berridge et al. I also think of them as Work (wanting something  and willing to expand energy) and Play (liking something and enjoying it) aspects of extraversion. These neurobiologically are related to the BAS  (behavior approach system)  and pleasure system (PS ) about which I have blogged elsewhere,

Next up is Neuroticism. Its because there are punishments and threats in the world and it codes sensitivity to the same. As long as threats are there in the world, the organism will respond by defensive behavior that can be either active escape or passive avoidance. There are tow aspects of Neuroticism: Volatility or active FFFS (fight, freeze, flight response) response and  Withdrawal or BIS (behavioral inhibition system) like responses. On the flip side you have a calm person (flip of volatile) and a confident person (flip of withdrawn) . Volatility is active in nature while withdrawal is passive in nature. This can also be thought of as the Avoid system, but is made of FFFS and BIS as I have blogged elsewhere.

Consider Agreeableness next. It is a response to a problem posed by con-specifics and significant others. Here the self-other dynamic plays. On one hand you curb selfish impulses to co-operate ad share with con-specifics, on the other hand the attachment system makes you automatically care and be compassionate about your kins and near and dear ones. The two aspects of  Agreeableness are accordingly politeness (curbing impulses to be pro social) and compassion (genuinely caring about others) . This is colloquially the attach system , also made popular by Rick Hanson, but I am sure will be decomposed in two systems on closer analysis.

Next come openness/ intellect: It is a response to the problem of uncertainty. We are never sure what is out there and thus need to continuously update our representation of the world. One can do that using a broad lens and by abstracting or one can use a concrete lens and be narrowly focused .  One can take things in parallel or consider inputs serially and in a logical fashion.  Correspondingly, there are two aspects of this : Openness to experience that is broadly construed and intellect which is more narrowly construed.  But at the end of the day this system is about attending to the world and about cognitive exploration and can be called an Attend system.


Lastly comes Conscientiousness. Here the challenge is unpredictability- of self – and thus the need to regulate oneself. This could be done by either inculcating habits and routines or by exercising willpower and top down control. Accordingly the two aspects are industriousness (characterized by delaying gratification and forgetful control) and orderliness ( following rules, routines etc). This is the domain of self regulation and motivation.

I am so excited by this new model- it does seem to sum up many things beautifully and gels beautifully with my ABCDS (now a S or  social factor to be added to affective, behavioral, cognitive and motivational domain ) model and also with the polarities of Millon .  Do let me know what you think about this model of personality?

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