You've heard the expression “practice makes perfect” a million times, and you've probably read Malcolm Gladwell's popular “10,000 hours” theory. But how does practice actually affect the brain?
Learning Rewires Our Brains
When we learn a new skill, whether it’s programming in Ruby on Rails, providing customer support over the phone, playing chess, or doing a cartwheel, we're changing how our brain is wired on a deep level. Science has shown us that the brain is incredibly plastic–meaning it does not “harden” at age 25 and stay solid for the rest of our lives. While certain things, especially language, are more easily learned by children than adults, we have plenty of evidence that even older adults can see real transformations in their neurocircuitry.
But how does that really work? Well, in order to perform any kind of task, we have to activate various portions of our brain. We've talked about this before in the context of language learning, experiencing happiness, and exercising and food. Our brains coordinate a complex set of actions involving motor function, visual and audio processing, verbal language skills, and more. At first, the new skill might feel stiff and awkward. But as we practice, it gets smoother and feels more natural and comfortable. What practice is actually doing is helping the brain optimize for this set of coordinated activities, through a process called myelination.
Practice Makes Myelin, So Practice Carefully
Understanding the role of myelin means not only understanding why quantity of practice is important to improving your skill (as it takes repetition of the same nerve impulses again and again to activate the two glial cells that myelinate axons), but also the quality of practice. Similar to how the science of creativity speaks about idle time and not crushing through one task after the other, practicing with a focus on quality is equally important.