Have you ever wondered why practice works?
For complex skills like hitting a baseball, analyzing a chess board, or dancing, your brain needs to coordinate a lot of activity between the areas of the brain involved in the skill. In physical terms, there are a lot of neural pathways that need to be activated at just the right times in order to process all of the information that goes into the behavior and be able to perform activities.
How does practice relate to my brain activity?
One of the amazing features of the brain is that it can adapt to stimuli. When specific neural pathways are activated over and over, brain cells called oligodendrocytes wrap layers of myelin around the activated nerves. Myelin is a fatty substance that conducts electricity really well, so the nerves that are wrapped in myelin can carry their signals faster.
Every time you practice, you repeatedly stimulate the nerves involved in the activity. As a result, those nerves begin to develop thicker myelin sheaths and thus can communicate with other nerves more efficiently. In other words, practice reshapes your brain, at the neural level, so you can more effectively process all of the information you need.
The effects of myelination are dramatic. If you watch a brand new group of dancers, you will doubtlessly see people stumbling over their own feet, moving off time, and losing track of their partners. Advanced dancers still need to be aware of where their feet are. However, they are now also thinking of the timing of the song, their partner, and in fact are usually thinking about more complicated ideas as well, such as when the next hit is coming and what kind of styling their partner likes to do. The reason advanced dancers can process all of that information is that their brains have gotten really good at keeping track of all the dance-related information. Now, they don’t have to spend extra effort thinking about which foot to move next.
How fast is the process?
The process of myelination is relatively slow. This is why repetition is so important for effective practice. Current research suggests that it takes at least 300 repetitions in order to learn a new skill. The bad news is, there is no shortcut! If you don’t put in the time, your brain will need to work harder to perform the skill. The good news is, that repetition is within your power and your friend. Every good rep makes a little contribution towards your brain’s development. So go out there and practice! Change your brain, and you’ll change your dance. That’s why practice works!
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