Practice is the repetition of an action with the goal of improving physical skills, such as performing a pirouette or playing an instrument. But what happens within our brains when we practice? Scientists are now beginning to understand how practice can be used to make us better at things.
Our brains are composed of two kinds of neural tissue: gray matter and white matter. Gray matter processes information and sends signals and sensory stimuli to nerve cells. White matter, on the other hand, is mostly made up of fatty tissue and nerve fibers.
In order for our bodies to move, information needs to travel from the brain’s gray matter down the spinal cord through a chain of nerve fibers called axons to our muscles. When we practice, the axons that exist in the white matter are wrapped with a fatty substance called Myelin. Scientists believe that Myelin is similar to insulation on electrical cables, and that the repetition of a physical motion increases the layers of Myelin sheath, thus improving the efficiency of neural pathways.
Many athletes and performers attribute their successes to muscle memory, but it is really the Myelin wrapping of neural pathways that gives them their edge.
Although we don’t yet have a magic number for the amount of practice required to master a skill, we do know that it is not simply about the amount of hours of practice. It is also the quality and effectiveness of that practice that matters.
Here are some tips for getting the most out of practice: minimize potential distractions by turning off the computer or TV, start out slowly or in slow motion, practice in frequent repetitions with allotted breaks, and practice in the brain in vivid detail.