Attaining mastery, Children, Mystery, Psychology

To attain mastery… a surprising discovery

Many years ago, quite by accident, I noticed something amazing about the human brain. Although I’ve read many books on psychology and how the brain works, I never came across anything that prepared me for what I encountered. I believe this discovery can help anyone greatly improve their skills at whichever pursuit they wish to master. I’ve followed my accidental discovery with a ‘home-cooked’ science experiment that beautifully confirmed the original finding. This insight could help parents, teachers and coaches in the way they cultivate young talent. It should also be an encouragement to such talent: whatever your skill level at this moment, you ain’t seen nothing yet – mastery may be fully within your grasp, even if you can’t quite fathom it at present. Here it goes…

My Minesweeper experiment

At one point in my life I spent a great deal of time playing the Minesweeper computer game which used to come installed with Windows operating systems (if you are familiar with this game, you may skip to the next paragraph). Minesweeper presents the player with a grid of fields with a certain number of mines hidden within it. The player clicks around the grid to uncover the safe fields and avoid ‘stepping’ on the mines. The mines are surrounded by numbers that help the player to deduce where the mine is. A square adjacent to a single mine will display “1.” A square adjacent to two mines will display “2,” etc. The objective is to open all fields without stepping on a mine. Minesweeper comes in three levels: beginner (table consisting of 9×9 fields with 10 mines in it), intermediate (16×16 fields with 40 mines in it), and expert (30×16 fields with 99 mines in it). The game also times how long it takes you to ‘resolve’ the table.

I started playing the beginner level until I understood how to play the game, but I quickly moved to expert level. At first, I’d get killed most of the time and I could successfully solve about one game in fifteen or twenty, taking 900 seconds or even more (the game doesn’t do minutes). After a while, my performance improved marginally, but eventually I got bored with the game and quit playing it.

Two or three months later, I started playing again and here I was in for a surprise: my performance was now a lot better. I was able to solve more games than before (about one in eight) and I was able to do it in under 600 seconds. As I played on, my performance improved further; I was solving the expert grids in 300-400 seconds with my best results just under 300 seconds. There I plateaued again, but by now I was truly intrigued. How could the same me now be so much better at the same game although I wasn’t practicing or even thinking about it for three months? The only answer I could entertain is that my brain gathered that solving the little equations to locate mines was important, and while I quit playing Minesweeper, the brain was busy optimizing for the required processing. I decided to wait another two or three months, then play again, and see what happens.

On my third return to the Minesweeper my performance obviously improved and was now far better than my initial experience. I noticed that rather than thinking about the numbers and fields (playing Minesweeper involves solving a lot of simple spatial equations), I was rapidly clicking around the field as if on an auto-pilot. The ‘thinking’ was no longer explicit – it now seemed to be handled in a very different manner by my brain, bypassing conscious thought.

This time I also paid closer attention to the statistics: I solved about one expert level game in five, regularly in less than 200 seconds. By the time I plateaued the third time, my results all clustered in the low 100s and my best result was 91 seconds. At one point, I remember telling a colleague that I could solve the beginner level games probably in less than ten seconds. He wouldn’t believe me and I offered to do it right in front of him. In fact, I cleared the field in 4 seconds!

Here’s a summary of my performance progression:


What I found amazing was that the big leaps in my performance clearly took place during the months when I wasn’t playing the game or even thinking about it at all. It was many years later that an opportunity presented itself to redo this experiment – and record the exact statistics this time around.

My ex-s Spider Solitaire experiment

One day, I saw my (then) wife playing Spider Solitaire on her PC. I told her about my Minesweeper experience and asked her to play 100 games of Solitaire in three phases, let a month pass between each phase (and not play a single game during this month) and to keep the statistics on her success rates. These are her results:


Here’s the screenshot of her third phase result:


It seems certain that our brains have the capability to reconfigure information processing faculties and optimize the efficacy and skill with which we can handle a given task. The implications of this may be quite important. If you wish to attain mastery at some pursuit, perhaps the right way to go about it is to immerse yourself in intense practice for a period of time, then take a longish break from it. Then come back to it, and repeat the process several times.

In many domains, this is likely to lead to important improvements, but perhaps not in all domains. I don’t expect you can use this approach to become a better doctor, meteorologist or stock trader. But I’m pretty sure it can help you or your child to improve at piano, chess, bridge, dance, reading, tennis, archery, or similar ‘finite’ skill-based pursuits. The difference: medicine, meteorology and market speculation are all subject to complexities and uncertainty in ways that chess, dance, archery or Minesweeper aren’t.

In the years that passed I tried still another experiment involving my motor skills, where they were definitely poor: juggling a football with my left foot. I completed two phases and recorded the results in my Blackberry. They were coming out exactly as expected. Unfortunately however, in December 2016 I lost my Blackberry and all the results of my experience with it. But these kinds of experiments, whether they involve computer games or other kinds of pursuits should be easily replicable to anyone armed with pen and paper and some sincere curiosity. If you do try it, I’ll be grateful if you let me know how it went.


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