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How You Can Practice More Effectively

Ah, you seek to master the art of [insert skill here], do you?


Sorry lazybones, but I’m afraid that means you’ll need to practice for a chunk of your life. Fortunately, there are some insights from neuro-research that can help make those chunks a little tinier and a little cuter.


Our brains are made up of two types of tissue: grey matter and white matter. Grey matter processes information, directing signals and stimuli to nerve cells, while white matter, it is mostly made up of fatty tissue and nerve fibers. For our bodies to move like a master ninja, the information must travel from the grey matter in the brain, down the spinal cord, through a chain of nerve fibers, we call it axons, to our muscles.


So how does repetition affect the inner workings of our brains? The axons in the white matter are wrapped in a fatty substance called myelin. It’s this myelin coating that seems to change with practice. Myelin is like insulation on electrical wires, it prevents energy loss in the electrical signals that the brain uses, allowing them to move more efficiently along neural pathways.

Illustration of a neuron with a pun: "are you a myelin sheath? because you're getting on my nerves and into my practice methods...

Some studies in mice suggest that repeating a physical motion increases the layers of myelin coating that insulate the axons. The more layers, the greater the insulation around the axon chains, forming a sort of superhighway for information connecting your brain to your muscles.


So while many athletes and performers attribute their successes to muscle memory, muscles themselves don’t really have memory. Rather, it may be the myelination of neural pathways that gives these athletes and performers their edge with faster and more efficient neural pathways.


So if effective practice is the key, how can we get the most out of our practice time?


1) Trash Distractions

Banish potential distractions by shutting off your computer or TV and putting your cell phone in time-out. In one study, researchers observed 260 students studying.

On average, those students were able to stay on task for only six minutes at a time. Laptops, smartphones, and particularly social media were the main culprits behind the distractions.

Illuminated neon snail with practice tips glowing patterns against a blurred colorful background.

2) Go...... S L O W

Coordination is gained through repetitions, whether you’re actually doing it right or not.

Here’s a tip, instead of rushing full-speed-ahead, gradually increase the speed of the repetitions. You’ll have a better shot at pulling it off correctly as you bank more myelin. 

S L O W 


3) Break it Up

Research has shown that many top athletes, musicians, and dancers spend between 50-60 hours a week on activities related to their craft.

BUT – what also was shown is that they divided their time into multiple daily practices sessions with breaks in between. This makes sense because when we spend too much time focused on a goal impairs, our ability to focus depletes. 

When you take breaks, you give your brain a chance to consolidate and more deeply network any information or insights you’ve learned.


4) The Black Magick of Imagination

In one hilarious experiment, they rounded up 144 basketball players, split them into two groups, Group A, they made them practice shooting one handed free-throws for real, and Group B, they made them sit around and just think about shooting one handed free-throws. And you know what?

At the end of two weeks, the people in both groups had gotten just as good at shooting one handed free-throws.”

Turns out, a number of studies suggest that once learning has been established, it can be reinforced just by imagining it 

This post drew from a nice TEDx video, check it out and the research behind it here

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Comments (1)

excellent. like the inclusion of the visualization!

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