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How to get better at anything

Tuesday 1 May 2018 2:35pm

We all want to get better at something. Whether it’s writing reports or playing tennis, there is always something we’re looking to improve on. So, what does neuroscience say is the best way to get better? During Brain Week Dr Owen Jones covered just this, with his lecture ‘how to get better at anything’. The trick, he says, is in your cells.

“There are over 100 billion brain cells in your head,” Owen says, “and each one of them is connected to a bunch of other brain cells.” These connections are how cells communicate with one another, sending signals about what’s going on in the outside world or processing information. “There are about 15 trillion of these connections throughout your brain, and the changes in these connections are the physical manifestation of learning.”

When connected cells activate one another repeatedly, their connections strengthen. The more they are activated together, the stronger they get. “In biological terms,” Owen says, “this is how practice makes perfect.” This huge number of connections, and the various bits of information they represent, means that your brain has a huge capacity for learning. “Your brain is essentially a perfect learning machine.”

So, what can you do to take full advantage of your brain’s endless capacity to learn?

Practice

It’s no surprise that practice is an important part of learning. What might be surprising is that it’s much more important than natural talent. Multiple studies, across a wide range of skills, have found time and again that the people who improve the most, and eventually perform best, are those that practice the most. In a study that followed a group of children who were learning chess, researchers found that having a higher IQ, a trait that might be associated with good performance in chess, was actually detrimental to learning the game. Those with a higher IQ, they found, didn’t practice as often as their average IQ counterparts, and so they eventually fell behind. Having the inclination, and motivation, to practice a skill is the most important part of learning. So, whether you’re trying to learn something new or to improve upon an established skill, practicing is key to moving forward.

It’s not just about practicing, however, it’s about how you practice. To keep improving, to keep learning, you need to be deliberate. “It’s not enough to do the same thing and just repeat it over and over again,” Owen says, “as soon as you get better at something you need to move on to the next stage, keep challenging yourself.” You have to keep changing things up, otherwise you’ll have only learned for a very specific situation. If you’re studying for a test, for example, make sure that you’re changing up the way that you’re studying: make lists, draw diagrams, use flashcards, talk to your dog about it. The goal is to separate what you’re learning from how you’re learning it. “I could practice my backhand in tennis a thousand times and I’d have a pretty good backhand,” Owen says, “but I wouldn’t be any good at tennis.”

Break It Up

Rest allows your brain to catch up and focus on laying down those new skills or memories. By cutting up your practice into a series of small tasks, and taking regular breaks between those tasks, you will be able to learn faster and more effectively. “Learning in smaller chunks and taking regular breaks makes learning much more efficient and long lasting.” So, if you’ve been focusing on your practice for a long time take a bit of a rest, walk around, and let the practice sink in before you go back to it.

Sleep

If a rest during practice is your brain’s way of writing down your progress, sleep is like carving it in stone. Your brain needs sleep to clean itself, to perform general maintenance, and to lay down your long-term memories. Memory isn’t just about what your conscious brain remembers, it’s what your body remembers, it’s the building of habits and reflexes. If you don’t get enough sleep then you’re limiting what your brain can remember from your day, and stifling your own progress. So, make sure that you’re getting those 7-8 hours of sleep, so that all your hard work can build up and pay off.

Don’t Stress

‘Don’t Stress’ can, ironically, be a very stressful message, especially if you’re feeling the pressure to improve quickly. The issue, as Owen says, is that “stress is a memory killer.” High stress puts a brake on your ability to learn in the moment, and long-term stress can degrade the part of your brain that lays down and recalls memories. Do whatever you can to limit your stress when you’re practicing. If you feel frustration building, which is normal when you’re learning something new, take a break and let yourself cool off. Don’t let the pressure to improve prevent you from actually improving.

Have Fun

Avoid burn out by keeping it fun! Try to remind yourself why you started learning this skill in the first place, and don’t push yourself so hard that you stop enjoying it. Learning something new is a long-term commitment, there will be struggles and pitfalls, but as long as you’re still enjoying yourself you’re sure to succeed.

Don’t let a difficult start discourage you, we’re not all born with natural talents. “It’s not what you’re born with, it’s not your natural talent,” Owen says, “it’s what you do with it.” And with enough time you can build your own gifts.