With some outliers aside, a person’s ability to perform complex mathematical calculations may derive not necessarily from innate intelligence but from methodical practice.

A new neurological study from the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom offers a bit of support to the “10,000 Hour Rule,” a theory promoted by author Malcolm Gladwell in his 2008 Outliers: The Story Of Success. In the best-selling book, Gladwell argues that excellence throughout the spectrum of human endeavor may be attributed to the same “zeal and and hard work” described by Charles Darwin.

Success to a large extent depends upon opportunity and drive, rather than the deus ex machina of “genius,” as both thinkers would have it.

In this new study, British researchers put one such outlier, Yusnier Viera, under the microscope. As the man known as the “mental calculator” performed arithmetical tasks that were either familiar or unfamiliar to him, his brain appeared not much different than anyone else’s while observed with functional magnetic resonance imaging.

“This is a message of hope for all of us,” study co-author Natasha Sigala, told reporters in a statement. Experts are made, not born."

The Cuban-born Yusnier holds world records for his mental ability to name the days of the week for any dates during the past several centuries, flashing his answers in less than a second. Although the ability sometimes appears in people with autism spectrum disorder, Yusnier developed his talent by creating shortcuts to his answers by storing information in the middle of the brain, within the hippocampus and surrounding cortex that is home to long-term working memory.

As expected, the left side of Yusnier’s brain lit up on screen as he performed familiar mathematical calculations. But when faced with a novel problem, researchers saw markedly increased connectivity of the anterior parts of the brain often involved in decision-making. His answers were also slightly less accurate at 80 percent, compared to 90 percent for those of familiar tasks.

Those observations supported the researchers’ hypothesis that Yusnier simply added a mental step to calculations, arriving at an answer by a different route than someone with autism, who cannot explain his mental process.

“Although this kind of ability is seen among some people with autism, it is much rarer in those not on that spectrum,” Sigala said. “Brain scans of those with autism tend to show a variety of activity patterns, and autistic people are not able to explain how they reach their answer. With Yusnier, however, it is clear that his expertise is a result of long-term practice – and motivation."

Sigala said the study finds no evidence to support the idea that one’s ability to perform complex mathematical calculations derives from innate talent, and suggests that practice makes perfect.

Below is a video interview of author Malcolm Gladwell by CNN's Anderson Cooper on the topic of the "10,000 Hour Rule":

Source: Minati, L., Sigala, N. Effective Connectivity Reveals Strategy Differences In An Expert Calculator. PloS One. 2013