But what exactly is it that makes great artists?
Painting something real?
Exceptional individuals are made, not born. At least, one could be forgiven for thinking this was the case given the statements made by K. Anders Ericsson and colleagues. …
The “10,000 hours” theory propagated by these authors and others—in which it was claimed that expert performers only really differ from non-experts in the total number of hours for which they have practiced (and to be exceptional, 10,000 hours is minimal)—has captured the imagination not only of the public, but also the scientific community. The paper in which the claims were originally made has been cited over 1,500 times. Many otherwise clear-thinking scientists have cited the theory without reference to the myriad criticisms that have appeared since.
Such criticisms have come to a head recently, in what is a clear swing of the proverbial pendulum away from “10,000 hours” and back towards “hereditary genius“. A special issue of the journal Intelligence was recently dedicated to discussion of talent and practice, and in particular, to consideration of Ericsson and colleagues’ claims (Ericsson has written a response). Particularly damning evidence against “10,000 hours” comes from one paper in the special issue, on the study of child prodigies who cannot possibly have practiced for such extended periods, but nonetheless show incredible feats of, for example, musical ability. …
A beautiful recent paper by Zach Hambrick and Elliot Tucker-Drob shed even more light on the genetic and environmental origins of talent. Examining musical talent in a sample of twins, they showed, first, that musical accomplishments (including winning prizes for musical ability or performing in a professional orchestra) were, on average, 26 percent heritable (that is, 26 percent of the variation in accomplishments in the sample was explained by genetic differences). Second, they showed that the frequency of engaging in music practice was even more strongly influenced by genes: it was 38 percent heritable. Most interestingly, though, they found evidence for gene-by-environment interaction. Splitting the sample into those who did and did not practice, they showed that there was a far larger genetic contribution to the variance (59 percent) in accomplishment among those who regularly practiced than those who did not (1 percent). The practice, then, was the canvas on which the genes were painted.
In a world in which everyone had the same instruction, the same practice, and the same experiences, we should still expect large, genetically-influenced differences in achievement.
Admittedly, the psychological literature contains few studies of the type discussed here that address playwrights or painters. Nor, naturally, can it study individual masters such as Shakespeare or Vermeer, preferring to focus on garden-variety experts and exceptional performers rather than true one-offs. [DS: real work] Nevertheless, since the “10,000 hours” theory turns out to be an extraordinary popular delusion for each of the domains yet studied, there is good reason to give short shrift to accounts that glibly emphasize the making of expertise at the expense of its inherited nature.
The public fascination with ideas like the Shakespeare Authorship Question, the Hockney-Falco thesis and the “10,000 hours” theory is evidence of a strange doublethink: even as we lionize the achievements and creativity of great geniuses, we secretly wish them brought down to our level, and revel in sublunary theories that purport to expose their secrets and crutches. But the psychological literature shows that to write off genius as only experience, trickery, or hard graft is to miss the critical—though still largely mysterious—contribution of innate talent, acting via one’s genetic endowment, to creative achievement. One can only hope that the new wave of psychological research on talent, pushing back as it does against “practice-only” accounts, will allow us to make real progress in understanding this most mercurial of human faculties.
The entire article is good, I just quoted the research dense parts.