Physical genius

"The Physical Genius" is an article from the New Yorker magazine dated August 2, 1999

Click this to read the entire article online or download the pdf.

The article explores the role of imagination in physical skill, using a few famous examples from sports, music and medicine.

Professional ballet dancers are all operating in the domain of physical genius.

Here are a few excerpts from the article:

"What do Wayne Gretzky, Yo-Yo Ma, and a brain surgeon named Charlie Wilson have in common?"

"This kind of obsessive preparation does two things. It creates consistency. Practice is what enables Greg Rusedski to hit a serve at a hundred and twenty-five miles per hour again and again. It's what enables a pianist to play Chopin's double-thirds Étude at full speed, striking every key with precisely calibrated force. More important, practice changes the way a task is perceived."

"When psychologists study people who are expert at motor tasks, they find that almost all of them use their imaginations in a very particular and sophisticated way."

"Stephen Kosslyn has shown that this power to visualize consists of at least four separate abilities, working in combination:

  1. The first is the ability to generate an image - to take something out of long-term memory and reconstruct it on demand.
  2. The second is what he calls "image inspection", which is the ability to take that mental picture and draw inferences from it.
  3. The third is "image maintenance", the ability to hold that picture steady.
  4. And the fourth is "image transformation", which is the ability to take that image and manipulate it."

"If you think of physical genius as a pyramid, with, at the bottom, the raw components of coordination, and, above that, the practice that perfects those particular movements, then this faculty of imagination is the top layer. This is what separates the physical genius from those who are merely very good."

"Here is the source of the physical genius's motivation. After all, what is this sensation - this feeling of having what you do fit perfectly into the dimensions of your imagination--but the purest form of pleasure?"