Learning new motor skills, such as playing the piano or learning a new sport, doesn’t necessarily have to mean many hours spent on practicing. A 2016 study shows that the key for achieving results is not how much, but simply how you practice. Keeping your brain active throughout the learning process by subtly varying your training, can give results in half the time.
Scientist have found out that the old assumption which says “the best way of learning is by repeating a motor skill over and over again” is not that useful after all. Instead, they found out a quicker and a more enjoyable way.
“If you practice a slightly modified version of a task you want to master, you actually learn faster than if you just keep practicing the exact same thing multiple times in a row”, says Pablo Celnik, lead researcher from Johns Hopkins University.
The research was conducted on 86 volunteers who had to learn a new skill. Their goal was to learn how to move a cursor on a computer screen without using a mouse, but instead by squeezing a small device. Divided in three groups, the volunteers spent 45 minutes practicing.
Six hours after the first task, the first group was asked to repeat the exercise, while the second group was given a slightly different version that required different squeezing force to move the cursor. The last group after the first training session was given no other tasks.
The end results showed that the third group had the worst results, due to their lack of training. What was unexpected were the results of the second group, the one that mixed things up and trained in new areas. They had twice as good results as those who’d repeated the original skill.
So how does that work?
Scientists believe that it has to do with something called reconsolidation, or a process in which existing memories are recalled and modified with new knowledge. This experiment was the first to test the hypothesis that “reconsolidation could help to strengthen motor skills”.
The participants were given a six hour gap between their tasks because previous neurological studies have shown that’s how long it takes for our memories to reconsolidate.
However, even though there’s benefit in mixing things up with your practice, the key is to adjust things subtly.
“If you make the altered task too different, people do not get the gain we observed during reconsolidation. The modification between sessions needs to be subtle”, said Celnik.
These results are pretty amazing, but further research needs to be conducted, in order to confirm the findings. If true, this new discovery might help amputees learn how to use their prostheses faster, or speed up the recovery of people who’ve suffered from spinal injuries or a stroke.