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The brain and “practice makes perfect”

I’m answering most questions from the Blame My Brain competition (closing date June1st) beneath that competition blog post itself, but a few I’m answering separately.

Today I’ll answer Avril Luke’s question:

“What does practice makes perfect have to do with our brain and is it ever too late?”

“Practice makes perfect” is an old adage but we now know more of what the brain does that makes it true. We all have roughly 100 billion neurons (nerve cells) in our brains, about the same number as a newborn baby has. (We lose some from adulthood onwards, quite naturally and without harm, and there are also times when we grow some more, but this is not relevant to the practice makes perfect thing.) Now, obviously, a new born baby can’t do very much. But as a baby starts to try to do things (ie practise) the neurons grow branches (called dendrites) and make connections (synapses) with other neurons. (Actually these connections are not connections, but tiny gaps, but the gaps are small enough for the electrical messages to cross.) The more the baby practises, the more dendrites grow and the more complex and therefore reliable the neural pathways.

So, the baby learns to do things, by practising and thus growing connections between cells.

This process never stops. We can grow new connections at any age. It’s not just babies and children but all of us, forming connections between brain cells to make us better at things.

So, it’s never too late. The act of practising and trying (and failing) helps us become perfect by growing connections and strengthening them.

However, we do have periods of our life when learning new things is easier. (Actually, a few skills seem to require to be developed at certain young ages – sight and language, for example – but most skills can be learnt at any age, though with a bit more difficulty when we are older.) The years of childhood and adolescence offer the greatest opportunities for building strong neural networks and then pruning them to be efficient.

Childhood allows us to create the building blocks of certain aptitudes and skills. Adolescence gives us sudden growth in volume of grey matter (neurons and connections) which allows us to perfect those skills. If we try to learn a whole new skill as an adult – for example, a musical instrument – it will certainly not be impossible but it will be harder as we will have to create those building blocks from scratch.

But Dr Gary Small, author of iBrain, explains that it takes only 5 hours of intense practice of a new skill (in adults) to alter neural pathways, proving that no, it is never too late!

4 Responses

  1. Did you see the UCL research that suggests the difficulty people have learning another language later in life is not to do with neural plasticity at all but to do with experience of known languages making us jump to the known thing and missing new things? So it’s probably not a matter of neural pathways being harder to bulid later, but that the previously strengthened neural pathways act as a kind of bypass. It was 2005, Dr Paul Iverson at UCL Centre for Human Communication. It’s all very encouraging for those of us beyond childhood!

    1. Stroppy, that’s *very* interesting and makes perfect sense. It also fits with the idea that forgetting things is important and happens for good reason, making it easier for us to learn new things. And not be too rigid in our thinking, which is what your point also suggests. Thank you!

  2. I have been trying to learn a new language but I find that every time I try to slot my brain into language mode, it presents me with French – the language I learned at school and last worked in at Uni in the early 1980s. I am producing French vocabulary I never knew I’d known! But it is so hard to hammer the new language into my brain that I am beginning to think I should just go and improve my French instead of trying to learn something new. Clearly the neural pathways from my teenage years are much stronger than any of the wobbly little paths I have managed to construct recently!

    1. Kate, that’s interesting, too, and makes sense to me. It’s most likely that those neural pathways from your teenage years are stronger than the “wobbly” new ones, but it may be nothing to do with them having been constructed during your teenage years per se. It may just be that you almost certainly spent more hours practising/learning during those teenage years than you’ve don with the new language you want to learn. You are trying to do it all through self-motivation, whereas at school you had scary teachers breathing down your neck (not that I recommend that as a good teaching method!) Also, there will be some networks that are “language networks”, and thus will come into play for all languages you learn, and others which are for “French language” or “Mandarin” or whatever.

      I once did creative writing workshops with very bright, multi-lingual Bulgarian teenagers. One warm-up exercise we did involved them writing down as many words as they could beginning with a given letter, in one minute. They could use any languages they wanted. The fascinating thing was that they found that if the first word they thought of was, say, in English, ALL or almost all the words they thought of were English, as though (as is likely to be the case) all their English vocab were “stored” in one place in the brain so it became easier to access once already accessed.

Do comment but please remember that this site is for all ages.

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