Practice Doesn't Always Make Perfect

Repeating something won't make it second nature

When I was growing up, I would spend hours upon hours practicing a new skill. During my gymnastics phase, I’d channel my inner Mary Lou Retton, doing one-handed cartwheels across my back lawn until mom beckoned me for dinner. For all the time I put in, I never did see all that much improvement. My one-handed cartwheel is still just okay, and I never mastered the handstand or backflip. Though I could chalk it up to not having Mary Lou’s natural proclivity, new research suggests that my repetitive drills could also have been to blame.

According to a new study published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, practice doesn’t always make perfect. If you want to really improve a skill, doing it over and over and over again isn’t the best way to get better, says a team of neuroscientists at the University of Southern California (USC) and the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA). Instead of practicing a single task over and over again, the best way to master something is by switching up your routine. Doing cartwheels all the way across America, for example, wouldn’t be nearly as helpful as doing a mix of cartwheels, backflips and handstands. The reason: This kind of mental cross-training forces the brain to work harder, so that it builds a stronger memory of the skill.

“If I'm just repeating the same thing over and over again, I don't have to process it very deeply,” said senior author Carolee Winstein, professor of biokinesiology and physical therapy at USC in a statement.

For the study, researchers asked 59 volunteers to learn a challenging arm movement. Half of them practiced just that task, while the other group practiced the movement along with other related tasks. Those in the second group were able to memorize and recall the movement better than those in the first group. Scientists verified which neural circuits were involved via electromagnetic interference (EMI) that was applied immediately after practice.

According to Winstein, switching between activities forces the brain to reconstruct each task anew, so that it becomes more deeply engrained in our memory. This engages a part of the brain known as the prefrontal cortex, which is associated with higher level planning. The volunteers who engaged in simple repetitive drills, on the other hand, only engaged the primary motor cortex, used for simple motor skills.

Cross-training, says Winstein, is useful for anything from improving your golf swing to teaching kids how to write cursive. Definitely a good thing to know going forward. While my dreams of becoming an Olympic-hopeful gymnast are far gone, maybe it’s not too late to learn how to do a backflip and handstand after all. As for getting my fiancé to wash his dishes? I think I’ve been much too single-minded in my training. Looks like the trick in getting him to master it is in showing him how to vacuum and do the laundry, too.

What's your best strategy for mastering a new skill? Chime in below!

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