Practice smarter: The physiology behind learning
Monday, December 18, 2017
In Part 1 of this series, I discussed the principles of deliberate practice. In this article, I discuss practice physiology and how it affects our skills.
When we learn a new skill, we are changing how our brain is wired on a deep level — deliberate practice literally rewires our brains. Neuroscience uses the term plasticity to describe the brain's ability to form new connections between brain cells (neurons) and to reorganize itself throughout our lives.
There are three main drivers of this process:
- Young immature brains at the beginning of life that are initially organizing
- Brains that have received injury and are compensating for lost function
- Brains that are exposed to new experiences or are learning something new
Scientists once believed that as we aged, the connections in the brain became fixed. However, modern research has shown that the brain never stops forming and developing through the process of learning. While younger brains can learn some things more easily than adults (e.g. a new language), all of us, regardless of age can transform our neurocircuitry through learning new skills.
Does this really work, and is it applicable to the shooting sports and self-defense? Yes.
To perform any kind of task, we activate various portions of our brain. To draw and fire a pistol accurately, our brains must coordinate a complex set of actions involving both our fine and gross motor functions, visual and spatial processing, and more.
When we initially begin learning a new task, the action is often slow, awkward or clumsy. However, as we repeat the process, it gets smoother and feels more natural and comfortable.
Practice makes permanent, regardless of whether we are performing an action correctly or incorrectly. This is why the principals of deliberate practice I mentioned in the first part of this series are so important.
What our practice is actually doing is helping the brain optimize for a set of specific, coordinated activities through a process called myelination. Our neural networks — groups of neurons that fire together along electrochemical pathways — shape themselves according to the activity and the manner in which we performing the activity.
When we stop practicing a movement or activity, our brain will eventually reduce or perhaps even eliminate the connecting cells that formed these pathways. That's why the swift, accurate execution of the fundamental shooting skills is perishable.
How does this work?
Some basic neuroscience: Neurons are the brain's cellular building blocks. A neuron is made up of dendrites, which receive signals from other neurons, the cell body that processes those signals and the axon — a long neuro cable that connects and interacts with other neuron's dendrites.
When different parts of the brain communicate and coordinate, the brain sends electrical impulses that travel down axons to the next neuron in the chain. This process repeats from neuron to neuron, until the nerve impulses or signals reach their destination.
These firings happen incredibly fast, which is why you are able to duck a ball thrown at your face without conscious thought.
Perhaps you have heard the term "gray matter" when someone referred to the brain. From the outside, the neuron cell bodies do look somewhat gray. However, there is also a lot of myelin or "white matter" in our brains.
Myelin is a fatty tissue that fills nearly 50 percent of our brains and covers much of the long axons that extend out of our neurons. The most important purpose of the myelin sheath is to strengthen and speed up the electrical signal propagating through a nerve cell.
Without myelin we could not function (as we can see in neurological disorders that damage myelin). The myelin sheath effectively insulates the electrical impulse and prevents it from leaking out of the axon. Myelination is the process of how our bodies thicken the myelin sheath through activity and learning.
Practice increases neural activity, which causes myelin growth
How does our body thicken the myelin sheath on our nerve axons? A lot of myelination happens naturally, much of it during childhood. As we get older, we can still generate more myelin onto our axons, but this happens at a slower rate.
Scientists believe that two non-neuron cells in the brain play a role in creating new myelin by monitoring neuron axons for activity. When we generate numerous repeat signals from a particular axon, this triggers the release chemicals that stimulate myelin production, which thickens the myelin sheath along that particular axon.
As we practice, we trigger a pattern of electrical signals through our neurons. Over time, that triggers the body to myelinate those axons, thereby increasing the speed and strength of the signal.
How do we know myelin improves performance? A key factor demonstrating myelin's importance in enhancing our ability to perform an activity is what happens when myelin is missing.
Demyelination is a known factor in several neurodegenerative diseases (e.g. multiple sclerosis) which produce symptoms such as loss of dexterity, blurry vision, balance and general weakness and fatigue.
Practice makes myelin, so practice deliberately
Understanding myelin's role means not only understanding why the quantity of practice is important to improving a skill — repetition causes the same nerve impulses to fire over and over and thereby increase the myelin thickness on those axons — but also how practice quality is important.
Conducting practice without identifying and correcting errors will cause our bodies to myelinate those axons and increase the speed and strength of the error signals. We are actually improving our ability to perform the error — this obviously is not desirable.
Deliberate practice with a focus on quality is critical for improvement. Deliberately and correctly practicing skills over time causes those neural pathways to work better in unison via myelination.
To improve your performance, you need to practice frequently, and get lots of feedback so you practice correctly and enhance the right things.
So how do we ensure out practice is achieving our goals? There are several ways we can do this.
1. Break it up
Examine each task and break it up into discrete steps for deliberate practice. For example, instructors often teach how to correctly draw a pistol as a series of steps. As we look at these steps, it is clear that each step of a standard draw consists of a series of specific actions as follows:
- Initial hand movement consists of simultaneously moving both hands to their initial draw positions. For right-handed shooters, the right hand goes to the pistol and establishes a correct firing grip. The left hand moves to the body center line and prepares to receive the pistol to establish the two-hand grip.
- The draw movement begins as the right hand removes the pistol from the holster and rotates the muzzle toward the target. The shooter then raises the pistol into position for the left hand to establish its grip and prepare for extension to fire.
- The extension to fire begins once the two-hand grip is established and stable. As the shooter extends the pistol, the trigger finger contacts the trigger and takes up any slack (this assumes that the shooter intends to fire immediately).
- As the shooter completes the extension to fire, she obtains a proper sight alignment and sight picture. The trigger finger increases pressure on the trigger while the shooter simultaneously maintains the correct sight alignment/picture and the pistol fires.
Regardless of whether the shooter intends to fire additional rounds or return the pistol to the holster, an entirely new task and new sequence of steps begins.
2. Start slowly and then speed up
Start slowly and deliberately practice each of these discrete steps and specific actions separately. Learn what doing it correctly feels like as you identify and correct errors as they appear. And they will appear.
As your skill develops, speed up until errors begin to appear once again. Identify the cause of these errors, correct them and speed up.
3. Repeat over and over and over
Ensure that each movement and discrete action has the full focus of your attention. Concentrate on what you are doing without dividing your attention between your practice and distractions (e.g., the TV if you are dry practicing).
You must push yourself outside your comfort zone. If you can consistently draw and hit an eight-inch steel plate at seven yards in 1.5 seconds, go faster and strive for 1.4 seconds. Learn what it feels like to move your hands faster and extend to fire faster.
You will miss the target occasionally. Is it because you are extending so fast you get a bounce with full extension that is corrupting your sight alignment/picture as you press the trigger? Is there another portion of the movement that you can speed up while extending to fire just a tad slower? What changes can you make to correct your errors?
Explore what each movement feels like, and experiment with adjusting the speed and timing. You will reach a point where you can consistently do it in 1.4 seconds. Then, speed up again and repeat the process.
In Part 3, we provide some drills and further insight into how you can improve your shooting performance.
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