Why and How Practice Makes Perfect: Your Brain Versus the World Pt. 2

Hi everyone, Fabian from the think writing a cross-over episodes of two series of How Neuroscience can save the world and why dancers are researchers!

We've all heard it "Practice makes perfect!" or some even say "Practice makes permanence". Two weeks ago each of the think-team members were practicing our presentation for our Tokyo University Short Course program. Our CEO Tak, would stress about the necessity of practicing, every, single day. But what does practicing actually do? Today I'd like to jump in straight to the Neuroscience and not try to build too much unnecessary context as usual (I'm learning). Let's talk about how you become good at something. However, today I am going to cover more specifically in motor movements. Of course, I will start to illustrate with dance.

Say you're learning a dance move. By the way, was just watching this video earlier today. You wiggle your limbs accordingly to the desired move. You may get frustrated the first day that you just can't get it right. You repeat. You sleep (essential part of learning I'll get to in a bit). You repeat. and eventually.... you got the move down. What is happening in the brain?

Too many things to cover perhaps, but let's start with something simple. Bear in mind, I am trying to break down a very specific and complicated molecular processes, so my explanation will be a mere oversimplification for the sake of understanding.

When you perform activities, you fire a certain pathway in the brain. When you keep practicing, these pathways keep firing. First, what can happen is the thickening of your myelin sheaths. The best way to visualize this is to imagine a cable. Your neurons are essentially electric circuits. The thicker the myelin sheaths, the more insulated the the current becomes, thus the more efficient your neurons fire. Nifty.

Now I want to talk about the NMDA receptor. That's right we're visiting molecular neuroscience yeehaw. So at a certain point, when your neurons keep firing, you will reach what's called Long-term potentiation ( LTP ) ( where potentiate means “to strengthen or make more potent”). The pathways become stronger. But how?

This is the fun part. At the molecular level, LTP is mediated by the excitatory neurotransmitter glutamate (the things that tells neurons "go"). One of the receptors that glutamate binds to is called the NMDA receptor (N-methyl-D-aspartate). The NMDA receptors are blocked with the chemical AP5 (2-amino-5-phosphonopentanoate). When this happens, LTP is prevented. However, once you have established LTP the AP5 does not have an effect. Therefore, NMDA receptors are central to producing LTP.

Okay, if you're really really not into cell biology, imagine it this way: There is a shop with heavy discounts (neuron), people are waiting outside dying to go in (ions), Glutamate is a key to opening this door, while NDMA receptor is the lock. Let's say AP5 is a protestor blocking the front door as well. However, once LTP is established, in this case we can say the reputation of the shop, then the protestor (AP5) will not stop people from going in. This way neurons will continue to fire, despite the presence of AP5, hence making you better at what you are doing. The protestor may not be a very good analogy, but I hope it serves the purpose of explanation.

Okay cool so that's on memory and learning, but how can we actually practice effectively. Again, I am not going to cover a whole chapter on learning, but I will give another example that fascinates me.

Ever imagined yourself practicing versus actually practicing. Turns out, that actually helps! Studies with basketball players show that imagining yourself practicing is almost as effective as actually practicing. This is because, imagining motor movements (also known as Motor Imagery) have circuits that overlap with the same circuit as actually moving. Even crazier, the same circuits overlap with watching someone do something (action observation). I'd like to use this to justify the number of dance videos I've watched in YouTube. So if your parents ever caught you not practicing physically, you can tell them that your mentally practicing, approved by Neuroscientists 😉.

If you are interested more on practicing effectively, this Tedx video covers it really well.

So aside from practicing motor skills does this apply to more mental tasks as well? Oh why yes very good question indeed, nice critical thinking skills. Speaking of which, does this translate to practicing critical thinking?

Essentially, any type of skill or task has a specific neural pathways. And the biggest takeaway here is that neurons that fire together wire together. Meaning, the short answer is yes you can practice anything :). Butttt, again the brain is very complicated. You cannot exactly practice same way. For example, speaking to yourself when learning a language does not actually help that much. So before you take my word and start practicing purely by imagination, hold your horses and wait for my next blog when I talk more deeply about practicing these types of tasks.

So whether you're a dancer trying to pick up new moves or a basketball player trying to improve your lay-ups, I hope you learned something new about practicing mentally. For everyone else trying to practice other skills, I hope you don't get discouraged to keep practicing because it will strengthen your neural pathways and eventually your skills.

Thanks for reading, see you next week!

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