How Practice Affects Our Brains

From the greatest musicians and athletes to rookie meditators, practice helps us get better, and more confident. But how? This short animation delves into the research behind effectively training the brain. 

How Do We Get Better at Things?

When we repeat an activity, like playing the violin, we strengthen the neural circuitry in the brain. You might have heard the saying that “practice is like doing a push-up for the mind.” This video from Ted Ed explores what actually happens in the brain when we go through the motions of honing a skill.

There’s a fatty substance located in the white matter of the brain called myelin, and it serves as a “sheath” that protects nerve fibers, prevents energy loss, and helps information move along neural pathways. When we repeat an activity, the myelin coating thickens, leading to a more efficient transfer of information.

So instead of building muscle memory, you’re actually building up myelin in neural pathways—creating a “superhighway of information connecting your brain to your muscles,” as Don Greene, the narrator of the video, notes.

3 Ways to Get the Most Out of Your Practice Time

1) Minimize distractions. In one study, researchers observed 260 students studying and concluded that they were able to stay on task an average of 6 minutes at a time. The culprit? Social media, texting—our addiction to devices, generally. (Don’t roll your eyes too hard, Gen X’ers—you use social media more than millennials.)

2) Take breaks. Repetitive tasks work best with breaks. Studies show elite performers break up their practice time into 50-60 hour chunks over multiple tasks.

3) Picture yourself winning. Studies suggest that once we’ve practiced something enough, that action can be strengthened through imagination.