Myelin, neural pathways, and skills
Everything we think, feel and do is a result of electrical impulses traveling through our nerve fibers. We call this connected fibers “circuits.”
Each circuit is responsible for a certain action, for example, thought or feeling. When we move a part of our body, it is the result of electrical impulses passing through brain circuits, all the way to our muscles.
The neuronal circuits are encased in a substance called myelin. Myelin acts as an insulator for neuronal circuits and also regulates how quickly and precisely a signal can travel along a circuit. This gate-type functionality is crucial in the development of skill.
A thicker layer of myelin produces faster electrical impulses. The thicker they myelin of a circuit, the greater your ability to control thoughts and movements accurately.
Now that we know that myelin is a key factor in developing new skills, the question is, how can we get more myelin?
Grow myelin by making mistakes
“Practice makes perfect.” but why? Whenever you practice something, nerve signals fire through a circuit in your brain. But practicing something you are already good at won’t stimulate significant myelin growth because that circuit is already well established.
If in contrast, you decide to practice something new — for example, an unfamiliar song — you cause new nerve circuits to fire which causes a thickening of myelin around them (see the learning curve). At first, you will be making mistakes, but by constantly correcting them and keep practicing, you will create a fast myelin circuit for that particular skill.
Deep-practice vs. nature and nurture
If you think of the great artists like Michelangelo, do you attribute his skills to his genes i.e. his talent, or do you attribute it to the environment he was risen in?
To determine the causing factor, let’s look at how great talents often appear in history. The first thing to notice is that talents often appear in large clusters, at a certain place and time. Take, for example, the huge number of great artists who rose in Renaissance Florence during the fifteenth century. The nature-nurture hypothesis seems insufficient for the explanation of this phenomenon.
Common nurture factors such as long periods of peace, freedom, and prosperity didn’t appear to be particularly present at that time in Florence. What about nature, i.e. genes?
It would seem unlikely that so many talents would rise over a period of just two generations if genetic factors caused the talent.
What else is there to explain this phenomenon then? It turns out that in Renaissance Florence, there was a culture of teaching boys a craft from a young age. They were taken as apprentices in “craft guilds,” where they learned a vocation over the period of many years, by the supervision of a master.
Michelangelo began his apprenticeship at the age of six and went on over decades. Once we understand this, it becomes apparent that his later masterpieces were not the result of innate genius, but a product of decades of myelin layer thickening.
This practice over long periods of time is what the author calls deep-practice. It becomes apparent that we can become adept at almost anything if we put in enough deep practice.
Deep practice, ignition of motivation and master coaching
The author visited numerous talent hotbeds around the world. The common pattern he identified was a combination of three factors, deep practice, ignition and master coaching.
Deep practice is the kind of intense practice mentioned above. One illustrative example of deep practice is the “futsal” game which is very popular among young Brazilian soccer players.
The difference of futsal with regular soccer is that the ball has only half of the size of a regular soccer ball, but is twice as heavy. The field is also much smaller. These factors allow a type of deeper practice for regular soccer. A smaller field means greater interaction, less delay and thus, higher amounts of total training time. The game also demands higher precision of movement.
Once the players finally play with a regular ball on a regular field, their skill shines in the virtuosity they are commonly admired for.
The second factor is motivation, which the author calls ignition. Ignition refers to circumstances which motivate deep practice. One example of ignition stems from the 19-year-old Andruw Jones from Curaçao who hit two home runs in the 1996 World Series and became the youngest person ever to hit a homer in the World Series.
This motivated many young children from Curaçao to pursue baseball and gave them the belief that they could succeed.
Another good example is the ignition phrase a very successful charter school in the U.S. uses: “every student will get into college.”
The school repeats the word college frequently and takes students on a trip to various colleges on a regular basis. The results of the ignition seem undeniable. In 2007, the school ranked in the top 3 percent of California’s public schools regarding students academic results. Ignition is analogous to the motivation trigger.
The third of the three factors is a master coach. A master coach is someone who knows how to ignite motivation and how to foster deep practice.
To perform deep practice, break the skill down into smaller units
Chunking a task into smaller pieces is crucial to deep learning. By examining and learning these units, on the one hand, we get higher satisfaction by mastering one goal at a time, on the other hand, we get a deeper understanding of each crucial component. This is analogous to the SMART goals mentioned in the book Smarter Faster Better.
One good example of chunking was found by the author as he visited a “talent hotbed” New York music school. He noticed that sheet music was chopped up horizontally so that a piece of music would first be practiced in random order. When the musicians finally played the whole piece they had a much deeper understanding of every element or chunk.
Keep the bar high
Deep practice needs time, a lot of time and repetition. Indeed studies have shown that to completely master a particular skill requires 10.000 hours of practice. Something which is described in detail in the book Outliers. But repetition alone is not enough.
For deep practice to be effective, you have to raise the difficulty while practicing constantly. Repeating the same thing once that myelin is well established in a circuit won’t help much, you have to strive beyond the limits of your current ability constantly. This is analogous to “raising the bar” as described in the book Bounce.
This was shown well in one study with babies. The study showed that the speed at which babies improve their walking ability is proportional to how frequently they fail and try again.
The lesson: Failure is necessary to improve skills.