The Situationist

Posts Tagged ‘practice’

The Situation of Practice

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 17, 2010

From USC News:

Struggling with your chip shot? Constant drills with your wedge may not help much, but mixing in longer drives will, and a new study shows why.

Previous studies have shown that variable practice improves the brain’s memory of most skills better than practice focused on a single task. Cognitive neuroscientists at USC and UCLA describe the neural basis for this paradox in a new study in Nature Neuroscience.

The researchers split 59 volunteers into six groups: three groups were asked to practice a challenging arm movement, while the other three groups practiced the movement and related tasks in a variable practice structure.

Volunteers in the variable practice group showed better retention of the skill. The process of consolidating memory of the skill engaged a part of the brain – the prefrontal cortex – associated with higher level planning.

The group assigned to constant practice of the arm movement retained the skill to a lesser degree through consolidation that engaged a part of the brain – the primary motor cortex – associated with simple motor learning.

“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,” said study senior author Carolee Winstein, professor of biokinesiology and physical therapy at the Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry of USC.

“We 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,” Winstein said.

Winstein’s team, led by Shailesh Kantak, a graduate student in biokinesiology at the time of the study, verified the neural circuits involved through harmless magnetic interference applied immediately after practice.

Volunteers in the variable practice group who received magnetic stimulation in the prefrontal cortex failed to retain or “consolidate” the arm movement as well as those in the same group who did not receive magnetic stimulation.

This implied that the prefrontal cortex was necessary for consolidating the memory.

Likewise, constant practice volunteers who received magnetic stimulation in the primary motor cortex failed to retain the arm movement as well as volunteers in the same group who did not receive magnetic stimulation.

“While it may be harder during practice to switch between tasks … you end up remembering the tasks better later than you do if you engage in this drill-like practice,” Winstein said.

“In motor skills training they know this, in educational programs where they’re teaching the kids cursive hand writing, they know this.”

Winstein described the study as “the linking of motor neuroscience to behavioral movement science to better understand the neural substrates that mediate motor learning through optimal practice structures. No one had done this before in this way.”

The magnetic interference tests also helped define the time window for the brain to consolidate skills. For volunteers chosen to receive interference four hours after practice, the procedure had no effect on learning. This suggested the brain already had done its consolidation.

Winstein’s team included first author Kantak, a recent USC Ph.D. graduate on his way to a postdoctoral position at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago; fellow biokinesiology faculty Katherine Sullivan (primary adviser to Kantak) and Beth Fisher, director of the Neuroplasticity and Imaging Laboratory where the study was conducted; and Barbara Knowlton, professor of behavioral neuroscience at UCLA.

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To read a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of ‘Genius’,” Wise Parents Don’t Have “Smart” Kids,” Jock or Nerd,” “The Situation of “29″ & the Downside of Goal-Setting,” The Unconscious Genius of Baseball Players,” The Situation of a Baseball Pitch,” The Batting Situation,Team-Interested Decision Making,” and The Situation of ‘Winners’ and ‘Losers’.”

Posted in Education, Embodied Cognition, Situationist Sports | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

The Situation of “Genius”

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 11, 2009

Child Genius -  flickrDavid Brooks had a worthwhile, situationist op-ed in the New York Times on sources of “genius.”  Here are some excerpts.

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Some people live in romantic ages. They tend to believe that genius is the product of a divine spark. They believe that there have been, throughout the ages, certain paragons of greatness — Dante, Mozart, Einstein — whose talents far exceeded normal comprehension, who had an other-worldly access to transcendent truth, and who are best approached with reverential awe.

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The latest research suggests a more prosaic, democratic, even puritanical view of the world. The key factor separating geniuses from the merely accomplished is not a divine spark. It’s not I.Q., a generally bad predictor of success, even in realms like chess. Instead, it’s deliberate practice. Top performers spend more hours (many more hours) rigorously practicing their craft.

The recent research has been conducted by people like K. Anders Ericsson, the late Benjamin Bloom and others. It’s been summarized in two enjoyable new books: “The Talent Code” by Daniel Coyle; and “Talent Is Overrated” by Geoff Colvin.

If you wanted to picture how a typical genius might develop, you’d take a girl who possessed a slightly above average verbal ability. It wouldn’t have to be a big talent, just enough so that she might gain some sense of distinction. Then you would want her to meet, say, a novelist, who coincidentally shared some similar biographical traits. Maybe the writer was from the same town, had the same ethnic background, or, shared the same birthday — anything to create a sense of affinity.

This contact would give the girl a vision of her future self. It would, Coyle emphasizes, give her a glimpse of an enchanted circle she might someday join. It would also help if one of her parents died when she was 12, infusing her with a profound sense of insecurity and fueling a desperate need for success.

Armed with this ambition, she would read novels and literary biographies without end. This would give her a core knowledge of her field. She’d be able to chunk Victorian novelists into one group, Magical Realists in another group and Renaissance poets into another. This ability to place information into patterns, or chunks, vastly improves memory skills. She’d be able to see new writing in deeper ways and quickly perceive its inner workings.

Then she would practice writing. Her practice would be slow, painstaking and error-focused. According to Colvin, Ben Franklin would take essays from The Spectator magazine and translate them into verse. Then he’d translate his verse back into prose and examine, sentence by sentence, where his essay was inferior to The Spectator’s original.

Coyle describes a tennis academy in Russia where they enact rallies without a ball. The aim is to focus meticulously on technique. (Try to slow down your golf swing so it takes 90 seconds to finish. See how many errors you detect.)

By practicing in this way, performers delay the automatizing process. The mind wants to turn deliberate, newly learned skills into unconscious, automatically performed skills. But the mind is sloppy and will settle for good enough. By practicing slowly, by breaking skills down into tiny parts and repeating, the strenuous student forces the brain to internalize a better pattern of performance.

Then our young writer would find a mentor who would provide a constant stream of feedback, viewing her performance from the outside, correcting the smallest errors, pushing her to take on tougher challenges. By now she is redoing problems — how do I get characters into a room — dozens and dozens of times. She is ingraining habits of thought she can call upon in order to understand or solve future problems.

The primary trait she possesses is not some mysterious genius. It’s the ability to develop a deliberate, strenuous and boring practice routine.

Coyle and Colvin describe dozens of experiments fleshing out this process. This research takes some of the magic out of great achievement. But it underlines a fact that is often neglected. Public discussion is smitten by genetics and what we’re “hard-wired” to do. And it’s true that genes place a leash on our capacities. But the brain is also phenomenally plastic. We construct ourselves through behavior. As Coyle observes, it’s not who you are, it’s what you do.

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The entire op-ed is here.   For some related Situationist posts, see “Wise Parents Don’t Have “Smart” Kids,” How Situational Self-Schemas Influence Disposition” (which includes a video of Carol Dweck), “The Perils of Being Smart,” “Jock or Nerd,” “First Person or Third,”The Unconscious Genius of Baseball Players,” and The Situation of ‘Winners’ and ‘Losers’.”

Posted in Book, Education, Situationist Sports, Video | Tagged: , , | 3 Comments »

 
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