Practise: Why does it improve performance?

We all know that we get better at something the more we practise it, but why is that?

In your brain are billions of neural pathways.  When you want to DO something, like turn the wheel of your car or say “hello” to someone, your brain sends coordinated motor signals down particular neural pathways.  When a signal travels along a neuron it attracts tiny quantities of a very important substance manufactured in your brain, called ‘myelin’.

Myelin is a bit like the insulation around electrical wires, only in the case of the brain, the more myelin that is wrapped around a particular neuron, the faster and more efficient its signal transmission becomes.  The more you use a neuron, the more myelin is deposited around it, and the better it works.

The neurons you use for the things that you do all the time, like speaking your own language, or walking, or driving a car, have lots of myelin insulation wrapped round them.  They become so fast and automatic and well-coordinated that we can do those tasks without even thinking about them.  When we start to learn a new skill, like playing an instrument, or speaking a new language, the neural pathways for those activities are not yet established, and we have to think a lot about every little part of what we are trying to do.

At first we are slow and uncoordinated and inaccurate, but the more we practise each component action, the more myelin is wrapped around those neurons.  The more myelin we deposit, the stronger the pathways become, and the easier the tasks are to perform.

If we stop practising, we stop using those neurons.  Gradually and slowly the myelin coating disappears, and our skill level diminishes. So keep practising, but remember, a little practise often is better than a lot of practise occasionally, if you want to keep those neural pathways humming.

The world-famous pianist, Vladimir Horowitz, practised every day, even into his 80s, when he observed “If I don’t practise for a day, I notice.  If I don’t practise for two days, my wife notices.  If I don’t practise for three days, the world notices.”

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