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Practice 101 – Improve your brain while becoming awesome

learn something new.

Today, we’re talking about practice…

What is it? How does it work?
Why should you?
What’s the best way?

It’s not just for athletes.

It’s how you get good at something. It’s how you advance your career. It’s how you learn more. It may even be how you get better at dealing with others. Or yourself.

It also happens to be a way to keep your brain healthy. You can’t just go for a jog and come home and watch TV. Exercise may help your brain, but your brain needs it’s own exercise too.

In part 101 of this discussion, we will talk about what practice is, how it works, and why it’s good for your brain.

In 102, we will discuss the best way to practice.

  • What is Practice?

Clearly, practice is important for pretty much any skill ever. It can be applied to anything: from your golf swing to making better business deals.

Practice is doing something with the purpose of making you better at it. That’s the whole point, and people forget this. They think simply repeating things over and over counts as practice.

Not really. See Practice 102.

It’s not enough to just do the same thing over and over… sure, you may be using your brain, but you have to keep challenging it too. Remember Exercise vs. Activity. Doing math = mental activity. Doing progressively harder math to get better at it = mental exercise.

It involves improving your efficiency and efficacy. It’s not just about getting more done in less time; it’s also about getting better work done. It’s not about punching more hours.

  • So how does Practice work?

Skill is in your brain, so in a sense, practice is ‘brain exercise’. I know that sounds cheesy, but think about it: when you learn and practice, your brain forms new connections and strengthens existing ones.

This is probably why there are particular health benefits to practicing a skill (which we will review later) that may not occur with other types of physical exercise.

An Analogy: The Walking Trail:

Instead of getting into the complicated neurobiology of learning, I’ll use an analogy:

The best analogy I have ever heard for how learning works is ‘the walking trail’. You brain is like a field. First, there are no paths. There’s an endless variety of ways in which you can go. Your choice.

use it or lose it.

The first time you go through, the bushes are in the way, so it’s hard (learning something the first time). But, as you keep going through (practice), you stomp the grass down and push bushes aside. The more you do this, the easier the path becomes (whether or not this is a good path is another question; perhaps poor paths are also how bad habits are formed).

If you stop walking that trail, and start using another one, the original path will eventually grow in with grass and fade away. You get rusty. Use it or lose it, as they say.

What about becoming an expert?

Well, you can simply walk the path like a zombie… or you can pick the best path available and keep stomping the grass down / pushing it aside every time you go through.

Obviously this analogy isn’t all-encompassing of the nuances of expert performance, but it’s a good start.


Does ‘training your brain’ really have health benefits? It does sound kinda hokey. But there is some scientific evidence to show that it’s promising.

Recently, a 2011 study 1 on older adults with mild cognitive impairment (slowing memory, a sign that Alzheimer’s could be starting) looked at the effects of memory training on brain activation. The folks who did the memory training tasks ended up showing significant neural changes that were measurable through brain imaging. Primarily, it looked like certain parts of the brain became more efficient.

Another experiment in 2006 2 showed similar results. Older folks were given ten training sessions for memory, reasoning, and speed of processing. Some of them had boosters of four sessions at 11 and 35 months later. With or without boosters, those who had training reported less decline in ‘instrumental activities of daily living’ like managing their money, and taking care of their house. These improvements were still present five years later!

Looks like a pretty good reason to learn golf and play chess when you retire!

Since the science is limited, don’t just do ‘brain exercises’ like you see in cheesy ‘increase your brain power’ type books. Pick activities and skills you like, or ones that are actually useful. That way you are getting some kind of benefit either way.


Practice is how you get good at something (or amazing, if you keep pushing yourself).

Besides the obvious benefit of becoming good at something, there may even be health benefits to “sharpening your saw”. These benefits are especially important as you get older.

If you’re young: practice something. There are a million reasons why you should.

If you’re finished your career (retired)… still, practice something! It will keep you sharp.

Find something you enjoy, and work hard at it. It’ll pay dividends in your future.

If you’re reading this post, you probably already have goals. Now you have even more reasons to practice your craft. Yet, the question remains…

What’s the best way to practice something?

Stay tuned for Part II!

Good luck!

  • References:

1. Belleville, S. et al. Brain 134, 1623–1634 (2011). Abstract.

2. Willis, S. L. et al. J. Am. Med. Assoc. 296, 2805–2814 (2006). Abstract.

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