Science reveals how to learn new skills twice as fast

If you want to learn something fast, you’re doing yourself no favours with ruthless repetition

Back in 1993, a psychological paper gave us the popular wisdom that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at anything. It has since been pretty much entirely debunked, so sorry if you interrupted your 9,999th hour of plate-spinning to read this article, but I do have some scientific advice about how you can learn skills quickly. It’s all about variety.

Researchers at John Hopkins University discovered that, when learning a new motor skill – playing the piano, say – repeating the same action over and over again isn’t actually the most efficient way to train the brain. Instead, slightly modifying the task resulted in much faster learning.

They put this to the test by splitting their 86 test subjects up into three groups, all of whom were tasked with learning how to move a computer cursor by squeezing a device, rather than using a mouse or touchpad (I can’t see it catching on, but if Apple’s next Mac comes with a squeaky USB mouse, you’ll know why). Each group spent 45 minutes practicing the backwards control scheme, before going about their usual non-mouse-based business for six hours. Two of the groups returned, one to repeat the original training and another to learn a slightly different version where they needed a different level of force to move the cursor. The third group wasn’t required to train again: lucky, lucky control group.

After the training period, all participants were given a test. The group who’d only had one training session did the worst (stay in school, kids), but what was surprising was that those who had mixed up their training did markedly better in the tests than those who had repeated the first session. In fact, they performed nearly twice as well.

Why would this be? Reconsolidation. The idea is that when memories are recalled but adjusted, they’re more likely to be strengthened. “Our results are important because little was known before about how reconsolidation works in relation to motor skill development,” explains senior study author Pablo Celnik. “This shows how simple manipulations during training can lead to more rapid and larger motor skill gains because of reconsolidation.”

What’s particularly interesting about this is that the changes have to be subtle – anything too drastic doesn’t seem as effective. If you’re working on your ball skills, for example, you’re best off using a slightly lighter or heavier ball between sessions. “If you make the altered task too different, people do not get the gain we observed during reconsolidation. The modification between sessions needs to be subtle,” Celnik explained.

While the ramifications of this are pretty obvious for anyone who wants to learn a new skill, it could be especially vital to those who have adjustments forced upon them – people learning to use prostheses, for example.

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Images: Michael Hamann and mararie used under Creative Commons

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