The Science Behind Practicing

Maybe it’s not such a good idea to start a post with the words science and practice in the same sentence but this is really interesting stuff and I just couldn’t resist. Here is the science behind everything we have been saying about practice.

As we know, mastering anything takes practice. Practice is the act of repeating an action with the goal of improving. It enables us to perform that action with confidence, ease and precision. This post delves into exactly what practice does to our brains.

Our brains contain two types of neural tissue, white matter which is mostly fatty tissue and nerve fibers and gray matter which is what processes information by directing signals to our nerve cells through sensory stimulation. In order for our bodies to move the signals created by that information need to travel from the gray matter down our spinal chords through nerve fibers called axons and into our muscles.

This is how practice effects the inner workings of our brains. The axons that exist in the neural fibers of our white matter are wrapped in a fatty substance called myelin which seems to change with practice. Like the insulation on an electric cable myelin prevents energy loss so that the axons can move along the neural pathways more efficiently. Consistent repetition of an action adds new layers to the myelin sheath. More layers means a thicker layer of insulation around the neural pathways allowing the axons to flow faster and faster which in time creates a kind of superhighway for information.

Although we often refer to muscle memory when we talk about practice, in strict scientific terms muscles do not have memory. Rather it is the myelination of neural pathways that are created through practice that give performers the edge. There is no scientific evidence to back claims that there is a magic number of repetitions that are the key to progress. Rather the key is effective practice.

Scientifically there is evidence that consistent, intensely focused practice that targets content and weaknesses that are on the edge of our ability are the key to getting the most out of our practice time. Coordination is built with repetition which is why it is so important to start slow and gradually increase our speed. The quality or accurateness of each repetition are what is required to help us learn things correctly. Our brain seems to develop optimally with frequent repetitions and allotted breaks suggesting that dividing our practice time into multiple daily sessions of limited duration  works best.

This is good news. Whether you are too young to sit for lengthy practice sessions or just too busy to find a solid hour to practice, here is your justification to break your practice sessions into smaller, more palatable and accessible pieces which may actually help you to learn faster.

Finally, based on this same scientific information it is actually beneficial to engage in mental practice periodically. This means practicing in your brain in vivid detail (while away from your instrument). Once a physical motion has been established it can be reinforced by just imagining it! In a recent study athletes were divided into two groups – one  engaged in a physical activity, the other just vividly imagined the same activity. After two weeks both groups had improved by nearly the same amount.

Good news again. At times when you need to be away from your instrument or on days that you are too busy or just too exhausted to fit in as much practice time as you’d like, you can sit quietly and imagine the drill you are currently working on and actually benefit from it.

As scientists learn more about our brains the understanding of effective practice will only improve. For now we know with scientific certainty that effective practice is the most effective tool we have to push our limits, achieve new heights and maximize our potential.

The content of this blog comes from the TED-Ed video which can be viewed in this link. How to practice effectively

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