Tuesday 20 March 2018

Radio: Pondering the mysteries of human nature

Pat Kenny
Pat Kenny
Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

It was fitting that The Pat Kenny Show (Newstalk, Mon-Fri 10am) hosted a discussion on expertise, because Pat is just about the prime example of that quality in Ireland.

Unkind minds sometimes suggest that he doesn't always wear this expertise as lightly as he should - and sure, those thousand-word questions which display Pat's knowledge of a subject are editorially fairly pointless. But there's no doubt that, when it comes to mastery of his brief - politics and economics, especially - PK is unrivalled in Irish broadcasting of the last several decades.

This week, he spoke to Anders Ericsson, Swedish-born professor of psychology at Florida State University, introduced here as "the world's leading expert on expertise". Prof Ericsson specialises in the science of peak performance. So what, in his - ahem - expert view, makes someone a virtuoso?

Essentially, it's due more to practice than innate gifts, though those obviously play a part, too. And the practice side comes with qualifiers; like, you or me won't become a concert pianist after taking it up in middle-age.

For many disciplines, firstly, you have to start by a certain age. Ballet dancers, for example, must begin before their early teens, when physiological changes will make it impossible for them to make certain shapes with their bodies.

Also, and maybe most crucially, you have to engage in what the professor labels "deliberate practice". It's no use repeating the same moves or honing the same skills over and over, even to the point of Malcolm Gladwell's famous "10,000 hours of practice".

To achieve true excellence, you must challenge yourself and your skillset, doing things outside your comfort zone. Learning, I suppose, through mistakes and failures.

This was the sort of item that I can envision bringing on yawns of boredom for some people. But as a bit of a science nerd, I found in enthralling. And yes, Pat did defer throughout to the other expert in the room.

Also enthralling was Dr Broks' Casebook (BBC Radio 4, Mon 12pm), in which clinical neuropsychologist Paul Broks set out on a "detective hunt in search of the self". If you're a science nerd, too, that kind of introductory promise will have you hooked.

Using interviews with experts and Dr Broks' former patients, and what they termed "philosophical thought experiments", the show explored the meaning of the individual self.

What exactly is the self? How do we precisely define it? What makes one self distinct from another? Is the self just a collection of memories, or something more? Is it just the firing of electrical impulses in the brain? What happens the self when we die?

Truly fascinating, and some of it was beyond weird. They examined the case of a man with Cotard's syndrome, which makes the sufferer think they're dead. Literally: I'm here but I'm not really here, I'm talking but I'm not alive anymore.

I love, love, love this kind of philosophical enquiry (plus, with the added bite and heft of actual science to buttress the chin-stroking speculation). My ideal job would be if someone paid me to lie on the couch all day, smoking cigarettes and pondering the mysteries of existence. That, sadly, is unlikely to happen (but I am open to offers). Until then, programmes like this will fill the gap.

Staying on a theme, the same station's Book of the Week (Mon-Fri 12.30am) was The Gene, a truly brilliant work by Siddhartha Mukherjee. I've actually read this history of genetics for review in this paper, and couldn't recommend highly enough that everyone buys a copy. In the meantime, this abridged version - a la Paul Broks - fills the gap nicely.

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