Practice Doesn’t Make Perfect - The New YorkerIn one study, for instance, Hambrick looked at pianists and measured their working memory, or the ability to keep chunks of information in mind and accessible for short periods of time. In the past, working-memory capacity has been found to be heritable. In his sample, it predicted success even when you accounted for the effects of practice; pianists with better working memory were better at sight reading—and increased practice did not alter the effect. When he looked back to one of the most frequently studied groups in expertise research, chess players, he found that, in addition to working or short-term memory, three more components of cognitive ability—fluid reasoning, comprehension knowledge, and processing speed, all abilities that are, to some extent, heritable—were related to performance. This was especially true of younger and less experienced players. If you’re naturally better, you don’t have to practice quite as much to get good.
This Is Your Brain on WritingAs the scientists report in a new study in the journal NeuroImage, the brains of expert writers appeared to work differently, even before they set pen to paper. During brainstorming, the novice writers activated their visual centers. By contrast, the brains of expert writers showed more activity in regions involved in speech.“I think both groups are using different strategies,” Dr. Lotze said. It’s possible that the novices are watching their stories like a film inside their heads, while the writers are narrating it with an inner voice.When the two groups started to write, another set of differences emerged. Deep inside the brains of expert writers, a region called the caudate nucleus became active. In the novices, the caudate nucleus was quiet.The caudate nucleus is a familiar part of the brain for scientists like Dr. Lotze who study expertise. It plays an essential role in the skill that comes with practice, including activities like board games.When we first start learning a skill — be it playing a piano or playing basketball — we use a lot of conscious effort. With practice, those actions become more automatic. The caudate nucleus and nearby regions start to coordinate the brain’s activity as this shift happens.
The key to great practice: avoiding ingraining mistakesThe researchers note that the most striking difference between the top three pianists and the rest, was how they handled mistakes. It’s not that the top pianists made fewer mistakes in the beginning and simply had an easier time learning the passage. The top pianists made mistakes too, but they managed to correct their errors in such a way that helped them avoid making the same mistakes over and over, leading to a higher proportion of correct trials overall.
Dennis Miller told me: “You don’t want to kill too hard, Spudley. It throws up a red flag. You don’t want to be a polished road act.” And I go: “Well, I’m certainly not that. There’s no danger.”