©Arlene R. Taylor PhD

I might have glossed over the headline altogether. Rugby World Cup to Be Held in New Zealand. That once-every-four-years premier international rugby union competition. Yes, I knew rugby was a game—cousin to football or soccer, knew Nelson Mandela had used it to help pull his country together in the years after he’d left Robbins Island and had taken office, knew the story had been memorialized in the book Playing the Enemy and in the movie Invictus. But rugby wasn't high on my radar. Having been born in Canada, hockey was the game. After all, my mother was a speed skater, and some of us had learned to skate not all that much later than we’d learned to walk!

As I said, I might have missed the headline if I hadn’t just finished reading The Talent Code. Initially it had been Coyle’s reference to hockey that had caught my attention. He had ascribed the apparently supernatural skills of some Brazilian soccer players to their practice of a game known as futsal. “In its rhythm and blinding speed, the game resembled basketball or hockey more than soccer,” he wrote. Hockey more than soccer? Hmmm.

Beyond that, having been interested in high-level excellence for as far back as I could remember, I had found the author’s perspective—greatness isn’t born, it’s grown—fascinating. So were the stories and examples provided to support the belief that individuals who have developed exceptional skills likely did so because they had honed their neural circuitry and obeyed the rules of the talent code. In short, by growing more myelin, a neural insulator.

According to Coyle, “Every human skill, whether it’s playing baseball or playing Bach, is created by chains of nerve fibers carrying a tiny electrical impulse—basically a signal traveling through a circuit. Myelin’s vital role is to wrap those nerve fibers the same way that rubber insulation wraps a copper wire, making the signal stronger and faster by preventing the electrical impulses from leaking out.”

As a brain function specialist, I knew about the myelination process and about studies linking myelin problems to a variety of health challenges (e.g., attention deficit disorder, autism, dyslexia, post-traumatic stress syndrome, and multiple sclerosis). It’s no secret that one reason teenagers sometimes make less-than-desirable decisions can be related myelination. For example, the corpus callosum is the largest band of horizontal connecting fibers in the human brain, forming a highway between the left and right cerebral hemispheres across which they communicate. Until this process is complete at about age 20-21 the brain is at risk for shorting out. Conversely, the wisdom that is more likely to be found in older individuals again relates to myelin. In these brains, key myelination processes are complete, which allows complex and complicated thought processing to occur on several levels (one definition of wisdom).

As an aside, were you breast fed as a baby? I wasn't, more's the pity. According to Bartzokis, professor of neurology at UCLA, breast-fed babies tend to have higher IQs because fatty acids in breast milk are the building blocks of myelin. Many nutritionists tout the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids and recommend eating foods high in fatty acids. Evidently, the more myelin you have in your brain, the smarter you can be.

When you practice a skill, your glial cells respond by secreting myelin and wrapping layers of it as insulation around the nerve fibers that make up that neural circuit. (If it’s an easier metaphor, think of those circuits as a neuron highway paved with myelin, the brain’s asphalt.) With each practice, the myelin gets thicker and insulates better, allowing your movements to become faster and more accurate. Whether or not they can articulate what is happening, individuals who have developed exceptional skills have done so through focused practice. The best way to build a neuron circuit (or highway) is to fire the circuit, learn from the mistakes made, then fire the circuit again. Over and over and over. Wrapping myelin around a large circuit requires immense energy and time. (No surprise this is called practice.) In this process, struggle and persistence are biological requirements.

Only one team will win the coveted Webb Ellis Cup—“Bill,” as the trophy is known colloquially in Australia, since it is reportedly named after William Webb Ellis, the man credited with creating the game. Be assured: the players on the winning team will be a group of individuals whose brains contain a great deal of myelin. In many ways they will resemble any other randomly selected group of individuals. They will have come from poor and from wealthier families alike, they will have differing personalities, they will have been born in different cities and countries, they will have had different teachers and, of course, different parents. But make no mistake. They will all have one characteristic in common. They will have spent thousands of hours practicing rugby, honing their skills, making mistakes and correcting them, learning to be team members, and learning to compete. They will have taken part, as Coyle put it, “in the greatest work of art anyone can construct: the architecture of their own talent.”

Thousands of hours? You bet! Anders Ericsson estimated that every expert in every field is the result of about 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. That results in a temptingly concise equation: Deep practice x 10,000 hours = world-class skill. Stated another way, expertise in every domain requires roughly a decade of committed practice.

I went to the Internet (that instant and up-to-date encyclopedia) and Googled some of the high-scoring rugby players: Wilkinson of England, Fox of New Zealand, de Beer of South Africa, Hastings of Scotland, Lyangh of Australia, Quesada of Argentina, Michalak of France, Little of Fiji, Rees of Canada, and even Mark Cueto (who was on suspension earlier in the year). I read some of their bios, learned of their dedication to the game, learned of the hours they’ve spent practicing.

This year will find me following some of the Rugby World Cup on television. Yes, that’ll be a first! But I want to watch those players; I want to experience the thrill of seeing human beings who have embraced the rugby equation and followed the rules of the talent code race across the screen; I want to be awed by their world-class skills; I want to know who wins.

What are you passionate about? In what are you willing to invest time, energy, and practice? What innate talent do you possess that you can hone into a high-level skill? Every brain has talent!

As it happens there’s good news. According to Ericsson there is no cell type that geniuses have that the rest of us do not. The difference lies in passion and persistence. Seize the opportunity. Start honing your skills. Get busy becoming world class—at something!

Source examples:
Bartzokis, George, MD. Interview. Myelin: The insulation that coats the brain's wiring system. (http://www.ucop.edu/sciencetoday/article/20663) and http://www.ei-resource.org/news/autism-news/autism-linked-to-fatty-nerve...)
Coyle, Daniel. The Talent Code. NY:Bantam Dell, 2009.
Fields, R. Douglas. The Other Brain. NY:Simon & Schuster, 2009.
Sears, Martha, R.N. and Williams Sears MD. Why Breast is Best. http://www.enotalone.com/article/3603.html

Author's Bio: 

Taylor, a brain function specialist, is Founder and President of Realizations Inc. Her non-profit corporation engages in brain function research and provides related educational resources. Taylor is an internationally known author and speaker. www.arlenetaylor.org