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Does practice make perfect?

  • Published9 Apr 2014
  • Reviewed9 Apr 2014
  • Author Carolee Winstein
  • Source BrainFacts/SfN

The old adage “practice makes perfect” has been applied to many kinds of learning, from high school chemistry and creative writing to music and sports. While experts continue to debate the number of hours and the type of practice that is optimal for success, one thing is clear: training improves performance and changes the brain.

Scientists first began examining the ways practice affects performance more than a century ago. A later study of women working in a cigar factory in the 1950s revealed that even after years of practice (in this case rolling cigars), people can become faster at a task. More recently, movement scientists studying college basketball players found that skilled players are better at making set shots at a foul line than would be predicted on the basis of performance at other nearby locations on the court. However, a similar effect was not seen when the players attempted jump shots at the foul line, suggesting that massive levels of practice can enhance specific actions more than others.

With the advent of brain imaging technology, we now know that the human brain maintains the ability to modify its structure and function throughout life through a process called experience- or learning-dependent plasticity. Such changes include the strength of connections and changes in activity that are engaged with specific actions or conditions. When comparing the brains of professional and amateur violinists as they performed, for example, scientists found that professionals exhibited higher activity in the auditory cortex, the part of the brain that processes sound.

These and other findings over the past two decades have contributed greatly to our understanding of learning and memory. We now know that in order for practice to induce learning-dependent brain changes it must be meaningful, motivating, skillful, challenging and rewarding. In my lab, we are using this knowledge to develop a principle-based approach to foster the recovery of voluntary movements in people who have sustained a stroke and lost motor skills such as walking and grasping. Ultimately, we hope to optimize neurorehabilitation through an accelerated skill-acquisition program.

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