How the Brain Changes When You Become an Expert

Why You Need Expert Guidance when starting as a Novice

By Peter M. Vishton, PhDWilliam & Mary
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

When pursuing certain disciplines such as surgery, it’s clear that you need an expert to provide feedback on your performance. In some disciplines, however—particularly creative ones like art or music—it might be tempting to practice them independently, with no outside feedback. Dr. Vishton explains why this is a bad idea.

Woman painting on easel
When beginning a new skill as a novice, the road to mastering it begins with seeking guidance and training from an expert. Photo by Pressmaster / Shutterstock

Why Seek Out an Expert?

If you can see or hear your own feedback, you may think you don’t need anyone else. However, Dr. Vishton recommends that if you want to achieve expertise and to shape your brain and body to high levels of performance, you should find an expert to serve as an instructor or mentor. The reason why is due to the surprising difference between an expert’s brain and a novice’s brain.

Receiving feedback about your performance is critical to developing expertise in any domain. This is true at almost every level of performance, but it’s especially important when you’re beginning a new type of task. 

Dr. Vishton suggests that before you invest too much time practicing on your own, you should find someone who’s already an expert to give you instruction. If it’s a sport or new instrument, get a few lessons. 

If it’s a new profession, find a mentor and discuss your work—not just the outcomes, but also the thought processes and actions that led to them. An expert instructor will speed your initial improvements in your new endeavor and also lay a foundation for continued improvement.

Some of the best cognitive neuroscience studies on the development of expertise were done by Isabel Gauthier, professor of Psychology at Vanderbilt University, Michael Tarr, professor of Cognitive and Brain Science at Carnegie Mellon University, and their collaborators. They were interested in two questions. 

An Expert’s Brain

First, how are the brains of experts different from the brains of novices? Second, how does the brain of a novice change as he or she becomes an expert?

To address both of these questions, they had to invent a novel task—one in which all of the participants would initially be novices. The plan was to give them a complex, visual cognitive task in this domain. 

The participants would then practice extensively and become experts. Throughout the process, the experimenters periodically scanned the brain activity of the participants using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

The researchers created a family of 3-D structures that they called Greebles. Greebles all have the same basic parts—a central trunk, two ears, and a frontal nose-like protrusion or two. 

These are simulated objects, but most people describe them as having a biological quality. They’re symmetrical, and they have interconnected parts that share many characteristics with human faces. 

All human faces have the same parts. We are able to recognize one person versus another based on relations between those parts such as how big the eyes are and how far apart the eyes are relative to the size of the mouth. As with faces, if you study and practice recognizing Greebles, you’ll get good at it. 

Each Greeble was given a particular name and categorized as belonging to a particular family. Participants in these studies would view individual Greebles and attempt to guess what the individual and family names were.

Initially they were terrible at this. All of the Greebles look very similar. It’s only as you learn differentiating features—for example, the Plok family has downward pointing noses, and the Glip family has upward pointing noses—that you start to get good at this task.

The number of individuals and families as well as the number of Greebles was large enough that this task required a lot of practice. At various times during this training process, as participants were improving, they practiced while they lay inside an fMRI scanner. The experimenters characterized their pattern of brain activation as they viewed these Greebles and attempted to identify them.

Surprising Results

“I would’ve guessed that participants, as they grew faster and more accurate, would’ve developed ways to recruit more and more brain regions to better support their performance,” Dr. Vishton said. “The actual results were exactly the opposite of this.”

When participants were first learning to recognize Greebles, a broad expanse of the visual cortex and surrounding brain regions were boosted in activation. As expertise was developed, less and less of the brain exhibited these boosts in activation. The areas that remained active became more active, but less cortical real estate seemed to be involved in those computations.

A variety of studies like this, including one from Christopher Jannelle and his colleagues involving rifle shooters, suggests that expert performance doesn’t involve doing more. In fact, it involves doing less in terms of brain activation, and presumably less in terms of information processing.

This shift can occur in many ways, but a general result seems to be that experts know what information is important, what things they should be processing, and just as important, what sources of information are not important.

Therefore, having the guidance of an expert when pursuing a new craft will save you ample time and effort. An expert can help you to sift through the noise, stay on the right track, and correct bad techniques before they become habits. 

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for Wondrium Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for Wondrium Daily.
Image of Professor Peter Vishton

Peter M. Vishton is an Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. He earned his PhD in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Cornell University. Before joining the faculty of William & Mary, he taught at Northwestern University and served as the program director for developmental and learning sciences at the National Science Foundation.