How to Practice Effectively: Lessons from Neuroscience Can Help Us Master Skills in Music, Sports & Beyond

Practice makes perfect, so the cliché says, although like many clichés, it has also spawned corrective variants. "Practice makes permanent," a common one of them goes, and what it lacks in catchiness it may well make up for in neuroscientific truth. We've all recognized that, when we do things a certain way, we tend to keep doing them in that certain way; in fact, the more we've done them that way before, the more likely we'll do them that way next time. What holds true for simple habits, formed over long periods of time and often inadvertently, also holds true for deliberately perfected — or anyway, permanent-ified — tasks. But what happens in our brains to cause it?

"Practice is the repetition of an action with the goal of improvement, and it helps us perform with more ease, speed, and confidence," says the narrator of "How to Practice Effectively... for Just About Anything," educators Annie Bosler and Don Greene's TED Ed video above. It then goes on to explain our two kinds of neural tissue, grey matter and white matter. The former "processes information in the brain, directing signals and sensory stimuli to nerve cells," and the latter "is mostly made up of fatty tissue and nerve fibers." When we move, "information needs to travel from the brain's grey matter, down the spinal cord, through a chain of nerve fibers called axons to our muscles," and those axons in the white matter "are wrapped with a fatty substance called myelin."




Myelin, and the sheath it forms, is key: "similar to insulation on electrical cables," it "prevents energy loss from electrical signals that the brain uses, moving them more efficiently along neural pathways." (You've probably read about the weakening of myelin sheaths as a factor in ALS and other movement-related neurological disorders.) Recent studies performed on mice suggest that repeating a motion builds up the layers of those axon-insulating myelin sheaths, "and the more layers, the greater the insulation around the axon chains; forming a sort of superhighway for information connecting your brain to your muscles." This, though it has no direct effect on our muscles, may be what we're building when we say we're building "muscle memory."

All interesting facts, to be sure, but how can they help us in or own practice sessions, whatever those sessions may find us practicing? Bosler and Greene provide a series of tips, each quite simple but all in alignment with current neuroscientific knowledge. They include:

  • Focus on the task at hand. "Minimize potential distractions by turning off the computer or TV and putting your cell phone on airplane mode."
  • Go slow. "Coordination is built with repetitions, whether correct or incorrect. If you gradually increase the speed of the quality repetitions, you have a better chance of doing them correctly."
  • Frequent repetitions with allotted breaks. "Studies have shown that many top athletes, musicians, and dancers spend 50-60 hours per week on activities related to their craft. Many divide their time used for effective practice into multiple daily practice sessions of limited duration."
  • Practice in your imagination. "In one study, 144 basketball players were divided into two groups. Group A physically practiced one-handed free throws while Group B only mentally practiced them. When they were tested at the end of the two week experiment, the intermediate and experienced players in both groups had improved by nearly the same amount."

If you'd like more suggestions on how to practice effectively, have a look at the list of twelve tips from Wynton Marsalis we featured here on Open Culture last year. He takes a more expansive approach, encouraging those who practice — not just music but sports, art, or anything else besides — to adopt strategies like writing out a schedule, avoiding showing off, and staying optimistic. We must also stay realistic: optimism, even optimism backed by science, can't make our skills perfect. None of our skills are perfect — not even Wynton Marsalis' — but with the right techniques, we can at least give them some degree of permanence.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Brains of Jazz and Classical Musicians Work Differently, New Research Shows

All of the musicians I’ve played with have been improvisers, whether they came from jazz, rock, folk, or whatever. As a loose improvisor myself, I've found it difficult to collaborate with trained classical players. It’s not for lack of trying, but—while we like to think of music as a universal language—the means of communication were strained at best. Classical musicians have a hard time with spontaneous composition; jazz players are generally comfortable with loose technique and can adapt to experiments and unexpected shifts.

I’d always chalked this difference up to different kinds of training (or lack thereof in my case), but a new study by researchers in Leipzig suggests a deeper neurological basis, at least when it comes strictly to jazz versus classical musicians. Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences studied the brains of thirty pianists—half jazz players, half classical. They found, the Institute reports, that “different processes occur in jazz and classical pianists’ brains, even when performing the same piece.”




It’s a conclusion players themselves intuitively understand. As jazz pianist Keith Jarrett once said, when asked if he would ever play both jazz and classical in concert, “No… it’s [because of] the circuitry. Your system demands different circuitry for either of those two things.” This isn’t due to hard-wired biological differences, but to the way the brain creates pathways over time in response to different musical activities. As neuroscientist Daniela Sammler puts it:

The reason could be due to the different demands these two styles pose on the musicians—be it to skillfully interpret a classical piece or to creatively improvise jazz. Thereby, different procedures may have established in their brains while playing the piano which makes switching between the styles more difficult.

On its face, the study may hardly seem illuminating. We have long known that repeated actions change the structure of the brain, so why should it be different for musicians? Things get a little more interesting as we dig into the details. One finding, study author Robert Bianco notes, shows that jazz pianists “replan… actions faster than classical pianists” and were “better able to react and continue their performance” when asked to play a harmonically unexpected chord within a standard progression (see graph below).

On the other hand, Science Daily reports, classical pianists’ brains showed, “a stronger awareness of fingering, and consequently they made fewer errors while imitating the chord sequence.” The critical distinction between the two relates to how they plan movements, with classical pianists focusing on the “How” of technique and jazz players on the “What” of adaptation to the unexpected.

Other studies substantiate the findings. Researchers at Wesleyan University focused on the role of what they call “expectancy” in three groups: jazz improvisers, “non-improvising musicians,” and non-musicians. Jazz players trained to improvise not only preferred unexpected chords in a progression, but their brains reacted and recovered more quickly to the unexpected, suggesting a higher degree of creative potential than both classically trained musicians and non-musicians.

“The improvisatory and experimental nature of jazz training,” the study’s authors write, “can encourage musicians to take notes and chords that are out of place, and use them as a pivot to transition to new tonal and musical ideas.” However, the comparison between the two groups does not place value on one over the other.

While jazz improvisation may better teach creativity, classical training, as neuroscientist Ardon Shorr argues in his TEDx talk above, may better train the brain in information processing. These studies show that the effect of music on the brain cannot be studied without regard for the differing neurological demands of different kinds of music, just as the study of language processing cannot be limited to just one language.

Such studies can also give us an even greater appreciation for the rare musician who can easily switch between jazz and classical in the same performance, like the late, great Nina Simone. See her work a Bach-influenced fugue into "Love Me or Leave Me," at the top.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

How Meditation Can Change Your Brain: The Neuroscience of Buddhist Practice

Nirvana is a place on earth. Popularly thought of a Buddhist “heaven,” religious scholars discuss the concept not as an arrival at someplace other than the physical place we are, but as the extinction of suffering in the mind, achieved in large part through intensive meditation. If this state of enlightenment exists in the here and now—the scientific inquirer is justified in asking—shouldn’t it be something we can measure?

Maybe it is. Psychologist Daniel Goleman and neuroscientist Richard Davidson set out to do just that when they flew several “Olympic level meditators” from Nepal, India, and France to Davidson’s lab at the University of Wisconsin. Once they put the meditators under Davidson's scanners, researchers found that “their brain waves are really different,” as Goleman says in the Big Think video above.

Perhaps the most remarkable findings in the Olympic level meditators has to do with what’s called a gamma wave. All of us get gamma for a very short period when we solve a problem we’ve been grappling with, even if it’s something that’s vexed us for months. We get about half second of gamma; it’s the strongest wave in the EEG spectrum….

What was stunning was that the Olympic level meditators, these are people who have done up to 62,000 lifetime hours of meditation, their brainwave shows gamma very strong all the time as a lasting trait just no matter what they’re doing. It’s not a state effect, it’s not during their meditation alone, but it’s just their every day state of mind. We actually have no idea what that means experientially. Science has never seen it before.

The meditators themselves describe the state of mind in terms consistent with thousands of years of literature on the subject; “it’s very spacious and you’re wide open, you’re prepared for whatever may come.” Goleman and Davidson have elaborated their findings for the public in the book Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body. For more on Davidson’s work on the subject, see his talk at Google, “Transform Your Mind, Change Your Brain.”

The bar to enlightenment seems high. Goleman and Davidson’s “Olympic level” test subjects spent a minimum of 62,000 hours in meditation, which amounts to something like 20 years of eight-hour days, seven days a week (and maybe explains why the path to enlightenment is often spread out over several lifetimes in the tradition). But that doesn’t mean meditation in lesser doses does not have significant effects on the brain as well.

As Goleman explains in the video above, meditation induces a state of hyper-focus, or “flow,” that acts as a gym for your brain: lowering stress, raising the level of resilience under stress, and increasing focus “in the midst of distractions.” As some point, he says, these temporary “altered states” become permanent “altered traits." Along the way, as with any consistent, long-term workout program, meditators develop strength, stamina, and flexibility the longer they stick with the practice. Find resources to get you started in the Relateds below.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

A First Look at The Animated Mind of Oliver Sacks, a Feature-Length Journey Into the Mind of the Famed Neurologist

“Every day a word surprises me,” famed neurologist Oliver Sacks once told Bill Hayes, with whom he spent the final six years of his life. The comment came "apropos of nothing other than that a word had suddenly popped into his head," writes Hayes in a recent New York Times piece on Sacks' love of language. "Often this happened while swimming — 'ideas and paragraphs' would develop as he backstroked, after which he’d rush to the dock or pool’s edge to get the words down on paper — as Dempsey Rice has captured in an enchanting forthcoming film, The Animated Mind of Oliver Sacks." You can get a glimpse of that film, and its portrayal of Sacks' habit of getting ideas while swimming, in the trailer above.

"In 1982 I wrote a section of A Leg to Stand On" — his memoir of his experience recovering from a mountaineering accident that left him without awareness of his left leg — "by a lake." We watch his animated form making its way across the water in cap and speedo, a wake of words trailing behind them.




After the swim, "dripping, I would write." We then see James Silberman, then president and editor at Summit Books, reading Sacks' handwritten, still-soggy manuscript. The sogginess might be artistic license, but the handwritten-ness wasn't: Silberman "wrote me back saying, did I think this was the 19th century? No one has sent him a manuscript for thirty years. And besides, this one looked like it had been dropped in the bath."

So maybe the animators didn't get quite as creative drawing those pages as it might seem, but they still must have had to get creative indeed to keep up with Sacks himself, a decade of whose conversations with Rice provide the film's narration. "Oliver saw his patients as whole people, rather than isolated disorders," she says by way of explaining what made Sacks' books, like AwakeningsThe Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and many more besides, so resonant with readers the world over. "He wasn't afraid to openly inquire of the patient with autism or amnesia, 'What is it like to be you?'" The Animated Mind of Oliver Sacks finished a successful Kickstarter campaign in July, but you can still donate and keep up with release details at its official site. As a viewing experience, it should confirm what readers have long suspected: though they come for a look into the unusual minds of Oliver Sacks' patients, they stay to inhabit the even more unusual mind of Oliver Sacks.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Cheap Trick’s Bassist Tom Petersson Helps Kids With Autism Learn Language With Rock ‘n’ Roll: Discover “Rock Your Speech”

You can’t fault people for turning away from current events these days, but there are many pockets of light, even if they rarely make headlines or get curated by gloom and doom algorithms. Some optimism has come to us by way of musicians like David Byrne, whose good-news aggregator “Reasons to Be Cheerful” showcases positive developments around the world. Indie rock drummer Thor Harris has encouraged fans with tips on how to stay healthy in trying times, and he has announced a run for governor of Texas. And last fall, Cheap Trick’s bassist Tom Petersson started a project called Rock Your Speech, which “leverages the power of music to build language skills in children who are working to overcome speech delay associated with autism.”

As Petersson and his wife Alison explain above, they were inspired by their experience with their son, Liam, who, “until the age of five,” reports David Chiu at Huffington Post, “had difficulty communicating,” They discovered that music could help when Liam began singing along to one of her favorite Elton John songs. Petersson wanted “to help other parents,” he told HuffPo, “and to let people know they’re not alone.” An L.A. benefit concert harnessed the collective power of celebrities and indie artists to jumpstart the project, with bands like the Dandy Warhols and Red Kross and actors Ed Asner and Billy Bob Thornton participating.




Rock Your Speech is not the only such initiative, but it is probably the most high-profile, and could bring attention to similar efforts like Auditory-Motor Mapping Training, developed by Dr. Gottfried Schlaug of the Music and Neuroimaging Laboratory. At the Autism Speaks blog, Schlaug writes, “as many as three in ten children with autism are nonverbal. Yet many children with autism have superior auditory skills and a particular attraction to music.” Like Rock Your Speech, his approach uses “forms of music-making that encourage vocalization as a pathway to developing language.” Musician and psychologist Adam Reece has also written about his research showing the positive role music therapy can play in language acquisition for kids on the spectrum.

Petersson’s project puts a rock star face on music therapy and comes “from the point of view of the parent,” he says. Rock Your Speech not only raises autism awareness but also offers original music and videos designed to stimulate and inspire kids. Hear "Blue" from the Rock Your Speech, Volume 1 album above, one of several songs Petersson wrote that “employs actual rock music," Chiu writes, "not necessarily the gentle, kiddie-type of sounds that are generally prevalent in children’s music.” Videos on the Rock Your Speech site for “Blue” and other songs “not only show the words but also demonstrate to kids how those words are formed and mouthed.”

The project’s Vimeo channel shows the Petersson family involved in Liam’s speech development through music, including his older sister Lilah coaching her brother with a song called “Wash Your Hands.” (See Lilah's video above for her song "All the Same," written for Liam.) Liam, now ten, has come a long way. “He’s in school,” says Petersson, “He loves music… He’s definitely on the autism spectrum, but he speaks, he’s social. He’s the sweetest little guy.” His musical family has a lot to do with that, but Rock Your Speech offers even non-musician parents a wealth of catchy tools to help kids struggling with speech to connect with language through rock ‘n’ roll. For many families, that could be very good news indeed.

via HuffPo

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

How Does Language Shape the Way We Think? Cognitive Scientist Lera Boroditsky Explains

Imagine a jellyfish waltzing in a library while thinking about quantum mechanics. "If everything has gone relatively well in your life so far," cognitive scientist Lera Boroditsky says in the TED Talk above, "you probably haven't had that thought before." But now you have, all thanks to language, the remarkable ability by which "we humans are able to transmit our ideas across vast reaches of space and time" and "knowledge across minds."

Though we occasionally hear about startling rates of language extinction — Boroditsky quotes some estimates as predicting half the world's languages gone in the next century — a great variety still thrive. Does that mean we have an equal variety of essentially different ways of thinking? In both this talk and an essay for Edge.org, Boroditsky presents intriguing pieces of evidence that what language we speak does affect the way we conceive of the world and our ideas about it. These include an Aboriginal tribe in Australia who always and everywhere use cardinal directions to describe space ("Oh, there's an ant on your southwest leg") and the differences in how languages label the color spectrum.




"Russian speakers have to differentiate between light blue, goluboy, and dark blue, siniy," says the Belarus-born, American-raised Boroditsky. "When we test people's ability to perceptually discriminate these colors, what we find is that Russian speakers are faster across this linguistic boundary. They're faster to be able to tell the difference between a light and dark blue." Hardly a yawning cognitive gap, you might think, but just imagine how many such differences exist between languages, and how the habits of mind they shape potentially add up.

"You don't even need to go into the lab to see these effects of language; you can see them with your own eyes in an art gallery," writes Boroditsky in her Edge essay. "How does an artist decide whether death, say, or time should be painted as a man or a woman? It turns out that in 85 percent of such personifications, whether a male or female figure is chosen is predicted by the grammatical gender of the word in the artist's native language." More Germans paint death as a man, and more Russians paint it as a woman. Personally, I'd like to see all the various ways artists speaking all the world's languages paint that waltzing jellyfish thinking about quantum mechanics in the library. We'd better hurry commissioning them, though, before too many more of those languages vanish.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The French Village Designed to Promote the Well-Being of Alzheimer’s Patients: A Visual Introduction to the Pioneering Experiment

Having seen firsthand in my own family how devastating Alzheimer’s disease can be to the sufferer and those who care for them, I acutely feel the need for better social remedies than those we currently have. Institutionalizing relatives places them at risk of abuse, neglect, or extreme loneliness and anxiety, over and above what they already experience. Relying on family members can result in highly overstressed caretakers who lack resources, time, and training. In either case, patients and caretakers can end up isolated, emotionally overwhelmed, and heavily reliant on medications.

While there is yet no cure for Alzheimer’s and age-related dementia, the good news is that there may soon be a treatment that provides sufferers with care, attention, dignity, and generous social interaction, while also giving researchers humane and ethical opportunities to study the progression of the disease. The not-so-good news is that it might require building an entire village, complete with a supermarket, hairdresser, library, gym and other facilities. But if an experiment in Dax, in southwestern France, proves viable, many other municipalities might willingly shoulder the expense.




Designed by Champagnat & Grègoire Architects and NORD Architects, the 12-acre Village Landais Alzheimer will cost a hefty $28 million, reports Newsweek. Curbed quotes the even higher figure of $34 million, “primarily funded by the government.” Expected to open at the end of 2019, the village will “house 120 patients, 100 live-in caretakers, 12 volunteers, and a team of researchers who will approach the treatment center as a testbed for alternative Alzheimer’s care.” Designed to replicate a traditional medieval town common to the area, the experiment was inspired by a similar undertaking in the Netherlands, in which residents showed increased well-being and lived longer than expected.

Neurologist and epidemiologist Jean-François Dartigues explains the purpose of the village as maintaining “the participation of residents in social life,” a proven factor in slowing memory loss and improving mental health, as studies have shown. The village will also give residents a sense of freedom and control over their environment, while making sure attentive care is on hand at all times, and it will “host trained dogs,” reports the BBC, “to help residents escape their psychological isolation.” Moreover, “drug treatments will be set aside,” along with the side effects of medication that can negatively affect quality of life.

The previous experiment and current state of the research predict that Village Landais Alzheimer will be successful in improving the lives of its residents. While one can imagine this idea taking hold among private investors willing to build exclusive villages for wealthy patients, the question is whether countries far less inclined to fund healthcare would invest public resources. Local officials in Dax at least “have promised,” Curbed reports, “to match nursing home fees and make some form of government assistance available so as not to prevent poorer patients from residing in the facility.”

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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