SPORTS MEDICINE
August 1, 2010

Practice is Good, But Not Repetition

We learn better when we change our routines, rather than doing the same thing over and over, according to a new brain study.

We all know that "practice makes perfect", but studies have shown that it's all about how you do it. Making variations on how we practice new movements has been shown to be much more effective than repeating the same thing over and over again. A new brain study shows why just this is the case.

These results show that different kinds of practice actually affect the way the brain uses the information it's asked to remember.

Researchers at the University of Southern California had people practice arm movements either by doing the same movement repeatedly ("constant practice") or by alternating between movements ("variable practice"). In the school's news release, study author Carolee Winstein explains the difference between the two conditions: "In the variable practice structure condition, you're basically solving the motor problem anew each time. If I'm just repeating the same thing over and over again as in the constant practice condition, I don't have to process it very deeply."

After the participants had practiced their tasks, the researchers "interfered" with the learning process by applying magnetic stimulation (which does not hurt the person in any way) in two areas of the brain involved in motor processing.

What they found keyed them into how and where motor memories are stored in the brain. They found that in the constant practice group, only interference to the part of the brain involved in simple movement processing (the primary motor cortex) disrupted people's memory of the new skill. On the other hand, only interference to the center involved in "higher" motor processing (the dorsolateral-prefrontal cortex, or DLPFC) affected how well people in the variable practice group remembered the skill. These results show that different kinds of practice actually affect the way the brain uses the information it's asked to remember.

So it's probably a good idea to mix up your practice routine, for whatever skill you happen to be working on. As Winstein says, "[w]e gravitate toward a simple, rote practice structure because we're basically lazy, and we don't want to work hard. But it turns out that memory is enhanced when we engage in practice that is more challenging and requires us to reconstruct the activity."

The study was published in the July 11, 2010 online issue of Nature Neuroscience.

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