You’ve probably heard the expression “practice makes perfect” a thousand times. You’ve probably also read that popular “10,000 hours” theory that made world-class athletes and musicians successful. But how does deliberate practice really work? What happens in your brain when you learn something new?
It’s all about insulation
You have two major types of matter in your brain: gray and white matter. Gray matter processes information and directs sensory stimuli and other signals to nerve cells or neurons. On the other hand, white matter is a combination of nerve fibers (also called axons) and fat tissue. Axons are neurons’ long, slender projections; their primary role is to move electrical impulses away from the neurons.
Think of axons as electrical wires in your home. Electrical wires often have insulation around them to prevent the loss of power and keep the energy moving efficiently to the lighting fixtures and electrical outlets in the house. Axons work the same way, and they have natural insulating sheaths called myelin.
Every time you practice something and repeat a physical motion, layers of myelin form around your axons. Over time, those myelin sheaths build up and improve the insulation of your axons. That extra insulation helps create some superhighway for electrical signals to travel through your body proficiently. It’s not that you’re forming muscle memory when you practice. What really happens is those thicker myelin sheaths help increase the speed at which your brain and your muscles communicate, leading to a better and faster recall, command, and response. So over time, you become better in a particular activity.
How to practice better
To get better at something, you have to get your myelin sheaths thicker and build a superhighway for electrical impulses. You can do that by following these tips:
- Focus on the task at hand. Whether you want to get better at playing the guitar or baking, try to focus on the task and remove any distractions. Don’t multi-task, as it forces your brain to process too much information at once and leads to mental fatigue. Remember that you have to focus on repeating a certain physical motion multiple times to let myelin sheaths form around your axons.
- Start slowly to build coordination. To make sure you’re making a certain move correctly, start slowly. That’s why coaches use timers and sports speed guns to track their athletes’ running, hitting, or throwing speed. It’s not only important that your brain and muscles communicate faster. But it’s also crucial that they’re communicating the right “message” or the right form, stance, swing, or any motion necessary to master a certain activity.
- Don’t forget to take breaks. You want myelin sheaths to get thicker to build that expressway for electrical impulses. But you also don’t want to overwork them. Elite performers and athletes practice hours a day, but they recognize that their brains and bodies need time to recharge.
Practice really makes you better because it changes how your brain and body communicate. Now that you know why and how it works, don’t settle for less when you want to master something. Start slowly, and then do it again—and again. But don’t forget to take a break before you say, “one more time.”