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Can learning be addictive? | Tigran Sloyan | TEDxYerevan



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Translator: Ivana Krivokuća Reviewer: Ellen Maloney

I'd like to start by taking you guys back to the 1960s

and telling you a story of three sisters.

Back in the 1960s, there was a Hungarian educator called László Polgár.

He wrote a book titled "Upbringing a Genius".

In this book, László argued

that you could take any healthy child early enough,

and by focusing their attention on one subject only,

with intensive training, within a couple of years,

you can turn them into a genius.

How many of you buy this argument? Say, "Aye".

Okay, like, 10 percent.

Well, László decided that in order to prove his theory,

he has to try it in real life.

He didn't have children back then, so he decided to go out and find a wife

who would agree to conduct this experiment with him.

(Laughter)

So he did.

He went out, found Klára Polgár who agreed that they would conduct this experiment

on their own children.

Between 1969 and 1976, they had three beautiful daughters,

Susan, Sofia and Judit,

and just like they planned,

they had to pick a subject on which to train their daughters on.

They settled on chess,

because for chess it's usually unambiguous who's a genius and who's not.

They were also considering math and foreign languages,

but László also knew enough chess where he could be their first teacher.

So on they went.

When the kids were only three years old,

they started them on intensive chess training.

Things got a little bit more complicated as they got older,

because they had to focus on one subject only.

This is 1970s - in Hungaria, you know, homeschooling is not a thing.

So they had to go to school,

but they also had to stay at home and focus only on one subject.

Authorities started chasing them,

trying to figure out a way to maybe even take the kids away.

They were also quite poor.

When the kids got stronger and stronger,

and László could not be the teacher anymore,

they had to hire trainers.

Fortunately, they kept the experiment running.

They came up with the money, they fought back the authorities,

and they kept the experiment running.

By the time Judit was ten, she defeated her first International master.

By the time she was 11, she defeated her first Grandmaster.

She went on to become one of the most celebrated

female chess players in the world,

going as far as defeating some of the top men's World masters,

and even Kasparov himself.

It's a really great video,

watching Kasparov get defeated by 20-year-old Judit.

If it was only Judit, you could say that this experiment didn't really work.

You know, Judit was just born with this natural talent.

But all three sisters became chess prodigies.

All three were ranked among the top ten chess players in the world.

How do we explain what happened?

How can you say, "I'm gonna have genius kids,"

and then prove that it works?

Well, neuroscience in the past 20 years has started providing some answers for us.

You see, your brain consists of millions of electrical connections called neurons,

that are responsible for pretty much everything you do.

All of your thoughts, all of your movements,

all of your actions.

When you start learning a new skill,

specific neurons become dedicated to holding the information

necessary for performing that skill.

But what differentiates neurons of a beginner

from neurons of a professional is this substance called myelin.

Myelin was discovered almost 100 years ago,

but initially researches thought

that myelin that wraps around your neurons is static,

so each neuron has a fixed amount of myelin wrapped around it.

In the past 20 years we've realized that's not true.

What really happens is myelin keeps wrapping around your neurons.

It's like sheets: it keeps wrapping and wrapping and wrapping.

What it does to the neuron -

it makes electricity that travels through the neuron faster.

So you basically take a beginner's neuron, wrap a lot of myelin around it,

and it becomes this super conductive neuron.

A neuron that doesn't have any myelin wrapped around it

can transfer electricity at about two miles an hour.

That's like a children's bike if you take it out for a spin.

Once you keep wrapping myelin around it, it can go up to 100 times faster.

That's like 200 miles an hour.

That's almost 320 kilometers an hour.

That's as fast as Formula One race cars go on a race track.

What happens with the Polgár sisters is they started them very early on,

and because wrapping myelin happens actually faster when you're a kid,

within those seven, eight years of deliberate practice

every day, every year,

they wrapped so much myelin around the neurons of playing chess

that they reached the peak of their ability.

Even though they were 12-year-old kids,

they were able to face some of the top chess players,

and even go as far as defeating them.

By now you're probably wondering, "So, how do we wrap myelin?"

It's kind of important, right?

(Laughter)

Well, this concept was widely popularized

by Malcolm Gladwell in his book "Outliers".

He calls it deliberate practice.

What deliberate practice is,

it's pushing yourself to the limit of your abilities

every day that you're practicing.

There is practice in which you just do what's comfortable,

you just do what's safe, and you do what you're familiar with.

Deliberate practice is different.

Deliberate practice is:

every time you're pushing yourself to this limit where you're uncomfortable.

Every time you do it.

When you see a violinist practice -

the ones that are doing deliberate practice,

they're not just playing something that they're great at.

They're constantly struggling, going back and fixing.

That's deliberate practice.

What happened is 10,000 hours of deliberate practice

takes about seven, eight years.

So if you start early on and you focus on one subject only, it starts working.

You can see that, if you want to push yourself to the limit of your abilities,

it's supposed to be hard, right?

It's supposed to be hard every time you do it.

But the key is: hard does not equal boring.

Hard does not equal boring. Hard can actually be fun.

You can be doing deliberate practice for 10,000 hours

and actually having a lot of fun.

László was portrayed as this modern-day Frankenstein

that did an experiment on his own kids,

and he tortured his kids into becoming geniuses,

but if you ask the kids, they're like, "This is the most fun we've ever had.

It was so much fun growing up in an environment

where we were having fun every day playing chess, learning chess,

getting better, going and defeating international masters".

Creating this fun environment was the key for keeping them going,

because 10,000 hours is a lot.

Humans are not able to sustain that much focus

if you're not enjoying what you're doing.

The reason this story is so dear to my heart

is that I'm a result of a similar experiment.

I grew up in Armenia, like most of you.

When I was 12, I was a regular kid with regular habits.

I liked playing soccer, going to school, having regular grades.

Average grades, I should say.

(Laughter)

One day I came home, and my father was sitting in his chair

intensely reading a paper announcement.

My brother was running around, cracking jokes at me.

He would go to another room and be like, "Hey, gifted kid, come over here".

What's happening?

My father found an article that said there is a math competition organized

by one of the private schools in Armenia which was very expensive,

but the catch was that this was called "Contest for gifted kids,"

and the one who got the first prize would get to go to the school for free.

Now I got it.

My brother was finding it hilarious

that my father would consider me a gifted kid.

I don't blame him.

There was nothing that would tell you there was even a chance.

Well, my father had his mind set on it, so we started practicing math.

Months went by. I wasn't really bought into it.

Math was very boring, as most of you would probably agree.

Then I went to the exam and I failed it miserably.

Well, my father was still not ready to give up on me,

so he asked the organizers, "Is there any other way

that we can get Tigran to go to the school?"

I'm sure they were joking, but they said,

"If he wins national math contests we'll take him regardless".

I'm pretty sure it was a joke,

because those national math contests are a lot harder than the entrance exams.

But we took it seriously.

So, Math Olympiads it was.

But compared to this entrance exam,

Math Olympiads were something completely different.

With Math Olympiads, I found myself in a game.

When I started doing Math Olympiads, when I first went to my Math Olympiad,

I saw kids that looked just like me walk up to the stage,

get their first degree diplomas,

accompanied by applause, accompanied by so much praise,

I was like, "Hey, I want to do that too".

The fact that Math Olympiads are structured in this progressive way

where initially you have your school competition,

then you've got the regional, then you've got the city,

then you've got the national, then international.

It's progressively getting harder,

and for me, it's like defeating one monster, then another monster,

then getting to a bigger one,

and then continuously practicing day-in, day-out,

to go there and win the game.

What happened in the years that followed -

the first year I got my second place in the National Olympiad.

Of course, the school said, "Hey, you should come to the school.

We'll take him for free".

But if I had to go to that school, I would actually have to attend school.

By then, I wasn't going to school anymore.

You know, we didn't know anything about deliberate practice

and László's experiment, but we had a hunch.

If you are going to compete at the highest level,

you have to focus on one thing only.

So I quit going to school.

For five years, I did math from 8 a.m. until midnight,

and then rinse and repeat every day.

In the four years that followed, I won five international awards in math

and became one of the most decorated math kids in Armenia

since its independence.

Those medals eventually led me to MIT in Boston,

and when I went there, I was convinced I was going to be a math professor.

Well, everybody by then believed that I was a gifted math kid, right?

It had to be so. There was no other explanation.

So I believed in it too.

But two years into it, and I was like, "I don't like math anymore".

(Laughter)

As soon as you take away that competitive, that exciting aspect of it,

math was kind of back to being boring.

I started wondering, how could that be?

Well, it turns out, game designers had the answer all along.

Game design in the past 20 to 30 years turned from an art into a science.

As we understood human psychology more and more,

as we understood what drives us, we started understanding

that there are certain things that we can artificially create,

which drive human motivation.

One of them is called a dopamine loop.

Dopamine is the substance that you guys all crave.

Dopamine is sometimes called the happiness substance.

It's generated in your brain pretty much in everything that you do

that makes you feel great,

from watching a great movie to hearing a joke,

to hopefully hearing this talk.

Challenge-achievement-dopamine loop can be artificially created,

because one of the ways we create dopamine is when we're faced with a challenge

that's achievable in a short enough period.

When we complete it and we're celebrated for doing it,

we get this dopamine rush in our heads that says, "I want to do this again".

It kind of gets us hooked into this loop of challenge-achievement-dopamine,

and then you're back to the challenge.

As long as this challenge says interesting enough,

it says new, it says exciting,

at least if there is some sort of progression -

you know, the challenges get progressively harder,

you get progressively better -

you can keep running in this challenge-achievement-dopamine loop,

keep getting challenged.

It's hard, but you're still having a lot of fun doing it.

This is pretty much every game you've ever played.

If you look at an RPG, you start, there is a little monster,

you beat the little monster, you get some coins,

you go buy some stuff, you go defeat a bigger monster,

and then to a bigger one, and then to a bigger one.

Every time there is a big celebration.

You've done an amazing job; go and do another one.

If any of you have played Super Mario as a kid, it's the same thing.

Every time you make a jump, that's a small challenge-achievement-dopamine loop.

Every time you release that princess and defeat that monster,

it's another challenge-achievement- dopamine loop, and it gets you hooked.

Every time you complete it, every time you hear the celebration,

"Ta-da! Princess is free!", you want to do it again.

What happened with Polgár sisters and what happened with me -

we've accidentally walked into challenge-achievement-dopamine loops.

For them, their father created environment in which at a very young age

every time they would win a game, every time they would learn a new move,

they'll get celebrated for it,

and it created this short-term challenge-achievement-dopamine loop

that they kept on running.

By the time they got to a more advanced stage,

it got even more exciting.

All of a sudden, you've got 40-year-old men sitting in front of you,

and you're a 12-year-old girl and you're beating them.

How exciting is that?

For me, the Math Olympiads did the same thing.

All of a sudden, I was competing with the best in the world,

and I was looking for ways to optimize my practice

to do the deliberate practice every hour of the day

so that I could go on and win the game.

To sum up -

advances in neuroscience, psychology and game design

have paved the way for creating learning experiences

that are fundamentally different from what we've come to accept as a norm.

You see, talent is the most precious resource that humans have.

By making learning fun,

we can create a self-reinforcing talent generation machine.

My hope is that this talk will inspire at least some of you

to start thinking about how can we make this vision a reality sooner.

Thank you.

(Applause)