Behind Every Breakthrough

Photo illustration by Kay Hinton

If you’ve followed the firestorm over The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, you know that the treatise on Chinese versus American child rearing put a lot of parents here on the defensive. In it, author Amy Chua proudly describes parenting methods that seem barbaric by American standards—making her two daughters practice piano for up to six hours a day, for instance, or rejecting a handmade birthday card because it didn’t represent her child’s best work.

Mothers across the US were predictably horrified, quick to call Chua a monster. But as a subsequent article in TIME magazine points out, our outrage may have been a smokescreen for another, underlying emotion: the nagging fear that Chua may be on to something.

“Though Chua was born and raised in the US, her invocation of what she describes as traditional ‘Chinese parenting’ has hit hard at a national sore spot: our fears about losing ground to China and other rising powers and about adequately preparing our children to survive in the global economy,” writes Annie Murphy Paul, a former senior editor at Psychology Today who has written books on child development.

In Paul’s analysis, I was most struck by her reference to “mastery” experiences—the exhilarating moment when you achieve something you’ve been working toward. It’s the feeling you get when you hit a perfect tennis serve, or play a difficult piece of music without missing a note, or finally “get” algebraic equations.

But that particular brand of high is one American kids experience all too rarely, according to Chua (and some psychology experts as well), because their parents are too busy gushing with praise over their every move to really push them to excel.

The key component of mastery experiences, apparently, is not so much the mastery as the effort it took to get there. As our brains develop the memory of a particular skill, they literally transform to hone the behavior so that we get better at it. But it is only through repetition and practice—practice, practice—that those pathways form, making certain actions or knowledge automatic and freeing up more of our brains for things like critical analysis, quick reaction, and that mystery we call inspiration.

“Cognitive neuroscience, in other words,” writes Paul, “confirms the wisdom of what the tiger mother knew all along.”

This issue of Emory Magazine highlights many mastery moments—scientific breakthroughs that subsequently proved to have far-reaching positive impact on many thousands of lives. The term eureka comes from the Greek for “I have found,” and the fabled “eureka moment” holds the magical shiver that we all want to feel when we think about scientific research and discovery—we imagine scientists huddled in their labs late at night, exulting over bubbling Bunsen burners as they realize they have discovered a new formula or cure.

What we don’t deeply consider—at least, I didn’t, until more recently—is the hours and days and weeks and maybe years that led up to each “eureka.” It’s easy to forget that scientific research is not actually conducted by wacky geniuses in stained white coats, but by women and men who are doing a job. They show up every day at their labs or offices, switch on their computers, answer their emails, and assess the status of their research projects. They probably oversee lab assistants in the form of grad students or post-docs, may teach a class or three or four, and almost certainly are involved in generating financial support for their work, such as grants and funding both public and private. And they may have families at home, too, expecting them for dinner or a soccer game.

But it’s their particular version of the daily grind that does lead to watershed findings—like a promising new treatment for traumatic brain injury, the leading cause of death and disability in children and young adults, and a nightmare still fresh in the memories of a family Emory Magazine visited in its wake. Like a vaccine for a nasty strain of flu that once caused meningitis in some twenty thousand children each year. Like a first-of-its-kind drug for Alzheimer’s, or fragile X syndrome, or hemophilia, or HIV.

These transformative inventions come about through not just one, but a series of mastery moments—helped along in between by committed people, institutional resources, major funding, and the drudgery of daily tasks.

And it is such scientists’ hard work and perseverance and brilliance—supported by research institutions like this one—that will not only improve public health and quality of life for millions, but will help this country remain a leading force for positive change and progress and, yes, prosperity around the world.

Take that, tiger mom.

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