The Science Behind ‘Practice Makes Perfect’

Practice, Practice, Practice

• Practice makes signals from brain to muscles travel more efficiently
• Quality- not just quantity- of practice is important
• Imagining detailed motions is effective in reinforcing practice

Last week we explored the topic of grit, and how practice is a pivotal aspect of success. While practice in itself is important, the quality of practice is exceptionally important. Repetition is a key player in what makes practice to effective and is even helpful for work related tasks too like waking up at the same time every morning! In a recent TED Ed lesson, creators Annie Bosler and Don Green explain the basics of how practice affects the nervous system and how to get the most out of your practice sessions.

No “Muscle Memory” With Practice

“Practice is the repetition of an action with the goal of improvement, and it helps us perform with more ease, speed, and confidence.”

Whether your focus is academic, athletic, or musical, practice is required to master any physical skill. As any elite performer can tell you, there is truth behind the idea that practice makes perfect (or at least gets you closer to it). However, the idea of practice leading to muscle memory may be misleading. Rather, Bosler and Green suggest that the “edge” elite athletes and performers have is due to more efficient neural pathways thanks to a substance called myelin.

Practice and the Nervous System’s “Superhighway” of Information

To understand how practice and repetition affect the brain, it is important to understand the basics of how movements are generated. Movements in the body begin with grey matter in the brain, where information is processed and signals are directed to nerve cells. White matter in the brain consists of mostly fatty tissue and nerve fibers. To create movement, information must travel from the grey matter, through the spinal cord and through axons (chains of nerve fibers) to reach the muscles.

Axons are wrapped in a sheath of myelin, a fatty substance that acts like insulation on electrical cables by “preventing energy loss from electrical signals that the brain uses, moving them more efficiently along neural pathways.” These myelin layers are what change with practice.

“… The repetition of a physical motion increases the layers of myelin sheath that insulates the axons. 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.”

How to Practice Efficiently

“Effective practice is consistent, intensely focused, and targets content or weaknesses that lie at the edge of one’s current abilities.”

Bosler and Green elaborate that, in addition to quantity of time practicing, the quality or effectiveness of that practice also influences mastery of a skill. They suggest these tips to reap the most benefits from practice:

  • “Focus on the task at hand.” Put away or turn off anything that is potentially distracting. Especially phones, laptops, or television.
  • “Start out slow or in slow-motion. Coordination is built with repetitions, whether correct or incorrect.” Practice the proper motions from the beginning to avoid developing bad habits, then increase speed gradually.
  • Have “frequent repetitions with allotted breaks.” This is a habit of many elite performers and athletes, who break up their practice into many different sessions throughout the day.
  • “Practice in your brain in vivid detail. A number of studies suggest that once a physical motion has been established, it can be reinforced just by imaging it.”
  • While our muscles may not actually have memory, these effective practice methods can help our bodies and brains push limits and reach new levels of mastery. The increased layers of myelin from focused, slow, repetitive movements increase one’s mastery of skills, proving that practice really does make perfect – or at least very efficient.

    Greene, D., & Bolser, A. (2017. February 23). How to practice effectively…for just about anything [Video file]. Retrieved from https://ed.ted.com/lessons/how-to-practice-effectively-for-just-about-anything-annie-bosler-and-don-greene#review


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