I’ve long felt contrary around the famous quote from Suzuki Roshi, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities but in the expert’s mind there are few.” It sounds snappy, it’s a great sound-bite and on the surface it seems to be make sense and be true, but it’s facile, simplistic and most of the time untrue, and when it is true, only superficially so. Most of the time, beginners don’t know or understand enough about the topic at hand to actually have much in their mind in terms of possibilities. Just imagine someone with no understanding of particle physics: what could they possibly imagine as a possibility if they know nothing? But experts who do know and understand can imagine things a beginner cannot even begin to comprehend. Or imagine a beginner approaching her first lesson in saxophone. She will be lucky if she gets any sound at all, and if she does it may sound more like a wet fart than anything. She’d be at a loss to imagine the possibilities (Circular breathing? Voicing? Extended harmonics? Listen to a performance of Colin Stetson to see the possibilities a virtuoso/expert can bring forth). And in those cases where it’s true that a beginner may hold many possibilities, we then have to ask how many of them are actually possible? How many of them are efficient and workable?
Researchers have studied expertise and found some interesting things. One is that it takes about ten years of practice to reach expert-level proficiency in any field or activity. It takes so long because one needs to develop the ability to anticipate problems, which it turns out, is not the result of simply having knowledge of a given field, but of structured knowledge. An example comes from the rarefied world of international tennis competition. The best ones don’t merely react to what their opponents are serving, but are capable of anticipating where the ball will go before the opponent even hits it! This is an acquired intuitive skill, made possible because the brain has seen enough similar situations, that it can extract patterns and thus predict where the ball is most likely to go from the anticipated angle of impact on the opponent’s racket.
Even more telling, Cindy Hmelo-Silver and Merav Green Pfeffer have investigated the difference between superficial and structural knowledge in the case of people’s understanding of aquaria. Children, “naïve” adults (such as myself, having no real interest in the subject), and two types of experts: biologists with a specialzation in ecology and aquaria hobbyists were compared. As one would expect, children and naïve adults evidenced a very simplistic understanding of the workings of an aquarium, and – tellingly, in light of Suzuki Roshi’s famous quote – often resorted to one type of causal explanation and failed to appreciate the intricacies of the system. Experts were greatly appreciative of the systemic functioning of an aquarium and could describe multiple causal pathways affecting the enclosed ecosystem.
Further, what’s really interesting is that the researchers found that the two types of experts differed quite dramatically in the kind of knowledge of aquaria they had built. Biologists explained the functioning of the aquaria as microcosms of natural ecosystems at an abstract-theoretical level. Hobbyists understood their aquaria around the practical issues of filtering systems, feeding systems, and anything that played an active role in keeping the aquarium functioning well and the fish healthy. Thus, along with evidence that there is a profound difference between naïve and expert knowledge, there is evidence that there is more than one way to be an expert! These differences among experts have less to do with any intrinsic properties of the system (though they do play some role) than the particular kinds of interest that different individuals have in that system.