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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Play­ing an Instru­ment Is a Great Work­out For Your Brain: New Ani­ma­tion Explains Why

Wyn­ton Marsalis Gives 12 Tips on How to Prac­tice: For Musi­cians, Ath­letes, or Any­one Who Wants to Learn Some­thing New

What Are the Most Effec­tive Strate­gies for Learn­ing a For­eign Lan­guage?: Six TED Talks Pro­vide the Answers

How Bud­dhism & Neu­ro­science Can Help You Change How Your Mind Works: A New Course by Best­selling Author Robert Wright

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.

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