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!