Tag Archives: practice

Taking short breaks while practicing lets our brains review what we’re doing — and get better at it

When cultivating a new skill, taking a short break can go a long way. This gives our brains time to replay what we just practiced, helping to cement our skills.

Image via Pixabay.

A study from the National Institutes of Health has been looking into best practices when learning a new skill such as playing a new song on the piano. The research involved monitoring participants’ brain activity while practicing, and revealed that taking short breaks during this time is a great way to help speed the process along.

Although taking time off seems counterproductive when practicing, the authors explain that our brains rapidly and repeatedly go through the activity we’re learning during these breaks, reviewing it faster and faster. The more time it gets to do this, the better a participant’s performance during subsequent practice sessions, the team adds, which suggests that these breaks actually helped strengthen their memory of the task.

Festina lente

“Our results support the idea that wakeful rest plays just as important a role as practice in learning a new skill. It appears to be the period when our brains compress and consolidate memories of what we just practiced,” said Leonardo G. Cohen, M.D., senior investigator at the NIH’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) and the senior author of the study published in Cell Reports. 

“Understanding this role of neural replay may not only help shape how we learn new skills but also how we help patients recover skills lost after neurological injury like stroke.”

The study was carried out at the NIH’s Clinical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, using a technique known as magnetoencephalography. This allowed the team to record the brain activity of 33 healthy, right-handed volunteers as they learned to type a five-digit test code (41234) with their left hands. They were seated in a chair and wore a long, cone-shaped scanner cap during the experiment. Each participant was asked to type this code out as many times as possible for 10 seconds and then take a 10-second break, a cycle which they repeated for 35 times.

During the first trials, participants massively improved their ability to type the code up to around the 11th cycle. Previous research done at the NIH shows that the largest part of this improvement happens during the short rest periods, not when the subjects are actually typing. More significantly, the improvements seen during these trials were greater than those seen after a night’s sleep (when memories are strengthened naturally).

As the participants improved at the task, the authors also saw a decrease in the size of brain waves, called beta rhythms.

“We wanted to explore the mechanisms behind memory strengthening seen during wakeful rest. Several forms of memory appear to rely on the replaying of neural activity, so we decided to test this idea out for procedural skill learning,” said Ethan R. Buch, Ph.D., a staff scientist on Dr. Cohen’s team and leader of the study.

So the team developed software that could interpret the brain wave patterns recorded while each participant typed in their test code. This showed that a faster version of these waves, around 20 times faster, were replaying in the participants’ brains during the rest periods. Over the first eleven cycles, these ‘compressed’ versions of the events were replayed around 25 times per rest period. Beyond that, they reduced in number: by two or three times during the final cycles compared to the first eleven ones.

Participants whose brains replayed the typing the most showed the greatest improvements in performance following each cycle, the authors note. This strongly suggests that the replaying has a direct impact on the efficiency of our practice sessions, likely through memory strengthening.

“During the early part of the learning curve we saw that wakeful rest replay was compressed in time, frequent, and a good predictor of variability in learning a new skill across individuals,” said Dr. Buch. “This suggests that during wakeful rest the brain binds together the memories required to learn a new skill.”

As for where in the brain this process takes place, the paper reports that it ‘often’ took place in sensorimotor regions of the brain — i.e. regions involved in movement and sensory processing. However, other areas of the brain were involved as well, most notably the hippocampus and entorhinal cortex.

“We were a bit surprised by these last results. Traditionally, it was thought that the hippocampus and entorhinal cortex may not play such a substantive role in procedural memory. In contrast, our results suggest that these regions are rapidly chattering with the sensorimotor cortex when learning these types of skills,” said Dr. Cohen.

The paper “Consolidation of human skill linked to waking hippocampo-neocortical replay” has been published in the journal Cell Reports.

Massive analysis of gamers’ habits reveals how to best reach excellence in any skill

Scientists are learning tips and tricks for reaching excellence in what most people would call an unlikely source — gamers. A team at Brown University has analyzed countless hours of competitive play to see which practices work best when trying to improve a skill.

Image credits Gerd Altmann.

It’s easy to dismiss gamers as slack-offs, but what most people who don’t partake in video gaming fail to understand is how competitive and skill-centric some game communities can be. Sure, there’s a lot of stuff out there that’s designed purely as a time-and-money sink — a title about crushing candies comes to mind. But in the kind of games that attract competitive players, the ones you’ll see in eSport competitions, you live or die by your skill. Through their very nature, by pitting player against player, these games rear their community with a single overarching goal — to git gud.

Mastering a game isn’t much different from mastering anything else. Mostly, it comes down to practice. So when you think about it, studying gamers, a demographic in which individuals continually order themselves after levels of excellence/skill at a common task, can yield some valuable insight into which practice patterns work best.

Which is exactly what a team led by a Brown University computer scientist has done. They’ve analyzed data gathered from thousands of online matches of Halo: Reach and StarCraft 2.

“The great thing about game data is that it’s naturalistic, there’s a ton of it, and it’s really well measured,” said Jeff Huang, a computer science professor at Brown and lead author of the study.

“It gives us the opportunity to measure patterns for a long period of time over a lot of people in a way that you can’t really do in a lab.”

The results obtained from the first showed how different patterns of play affected skill improvement rates, while the latter showed how highly successful players’ unique and consistent “rituals” play a key part in their success.

There were several reasons for choosing these games: they’re both hugely popular. They have built-in ranking systems which sort players according to their success, providing the team with a solid estimation of individual skill levels. They’re also both highly competitive games, but play very differently from one another.

From zero to hero

Halo: Reach is a first-person shooter, a genre of games in which players take on the role of a single character and have to use a plethora of weapons to battle others. FPS games generally rely on motor skills (e.g. hand-eye coordination), reaction and decision speed, as well as individual tactical choices. One of the most popular game modes is Team Slayer, where players are placed on opposing teams which compete to get the most kills by the end of the 10-15 minute game time.

To make sure the game is fair for everyone, the game uses a metric system called TrueSkill — whose ratings are constantly updated with a player’s performance following each match — to put the together teams of roughly equal ability. TrueSkill gave Huang and his colleagues the means to see how playing habits influence gamers’ skill acquisition. They looked at data mined from all the online Halo matches played since the game’s release — totaling a staggering seven months of continuous game-play.

People who played the most matches every week (more than 64) had the largest overall increase in skill over time. But simply playing a lot isn’t the most efficient way to improve your skill, the team reports. Over the first 200 matches played, people who played 4-8 matches a week showed the most improvement on a per-match basis. They were followed by those who played 8-16 matches every week.

“What this suggests is that if you want to improve the most efficiently, it’s not about playing the most matches per week,” Huang said.

“You actually want to space out your activity a little bit and not play so intensively.”

The team also looked at the effect breaks had on a player’s skill. Players who took short breaks — i.e. one or two days — showed some decrease in skill in the first match following the downtime, but no decrease in their second one. Longer term breaks, however, had more pronounced effects on their efficiency. The effects of a 30-day break, for example, lasted for around 10 matches. So the lesson here is moderation — don’t overdo it on either the practice or the rest.

Tap it like it’s (a) hot (key)

The second study focused on the real-time strategy game Starcraft 2. Like other RTS games, it puts players in control of an entire army. They have to secure resources and manage an economy, build up bases and infrastructure, train their forces, and direct them in battle — often taking place on multiple fronts, with hundreds of units at a time. It’s an entirely different game from Halo, promoting management skills, large-scale tactical choices, sustained attention, and strategical thinking.

By comparing the in-game habits of elite players to those of average or lower skill, the team found one major difference: heavy use of hotkeys. These are customizable keyboard shortcuts which enable complex commands to be issued much more quickly. Less skilled players usually gave orders using the mouse. Elite players universally prefer hotkeys, the team found.

Image credits: Josef Glatz.

This gives them a huge advantage. For instance, the task of finding a free worker and selecting it with the mouse, clicking on the build icon, selecting the right building, and finally placing it in the desired location — which can take 4-5 seconds — can be done in under a second with hotkeys. Just press F1, B, B, click, and you have a barracks under construction. Skilled players can issue up to 200 different orders a minute in typical matches with hotkeys, dwarfing anything possible through the mouse alone.

But that’s pretty common knowledge in the StarCraft player-base. Hotkeying is the one skill all my friends say has improved their game the most — and we’re nowhere near an ‘elite’ level of play. What top players do differently is that they form unique hotkeying habits and stick with them. These habits are so distinctive and consistent, in fact, that the team was able to identify specific players with over 90% accuracy just by looking at how they hotkey. These habits are almost like a second nature, the researchers say, enabling players to issue commands efficiently when pressure is on.

They also seem to “warm up” this skill in every match. The study shows that even in the very early stages of a game when there’s almost nothing going on, these players will rapidly scroll through their hotkey habits issuing dummy commands to whatever units they have available.

“They’re getting their minds and bodies into the routines that they’ll need when they’re at peak performance later in the game,” Huang said.

“They’re getting themselves warmed up.”

Mastering mastery

Huang hopes their research will help people can improve their performance in other areas of life. Professions which require specialists to pay attention to lots of different elements at once could benefit from a “warming up” similar to that in StarCraft.

“Air traffic controllers come to mind,” he said.

“Maybe when someone first gets in the seat, they should take a few moments and re-enact what they do until they can get warmed up and in the zone.”

The results of the Halo study confirm previous cognitive research, he adds, which suggests that moderate activity coupled with short breaks can improve learning efficiency.

“People have seen this for other things, like studying.”

“Cramming is generally regarded as less efficient than doing smaller bits of studying throughout the semester. I think we’re seeing something similar here in our study.”

Taken together, the results show that the best way to become good at something is to “practice consistently, stay warm,” Huang concludes.

The full paper “Master Maker: Understanding Gaming Skill Through Practice and Habit From Gameplay Behavior” has been published in the journal Topics in Cognitive Science.


There’s more to excellence than just practice, study finds


Practice isn’t all you need to become successful. Photo: muscleprodigy.com

The old adage goes ‘practice makes perfect’, and while we all know there is truth in it, at some point practice ceases to become the driving factor towards excellence, at least if we’re to judge from the recent findings of a group of psychologists who  studied how people acquire skills and become experts at what they do.

There’s quite a lot of scientific literature that suggests practice is the leading factor in achievement. Possibly the most famous study in this respect was published in 1993 by K. Anders Ericsson, a Swedish psychologist. After asking violin students to estimate their lifetime practice, he found those who logged at least 10,000 hours of practice outperformed and displayed more skill than their peers who reported less hours of practice. This number was subsequently made famous by Malcolm Gladwell in his book  Outlier: The Story of Success, where he writes what he learned after studying successful people and what makes them tick, often citing that 10,000 hours of practice will help you become an expert.

The team shifted through 9,331 research papers about practice relating to acquiring skills and concentrated on 88 of these that collected and recorded data about practice times. Contrary to popular belief and what mainstream literature would have us believe, practice on average only explained 12 percent in mastering skills in various fields, from music, sports and games to education and professions. The contribution of practice to excellence varied from field to field as follows:  26 percent for games, 21 percent for music, 18 percent for sports, 4 percent for education and less than 1 percent for other professions.

Excellence depended even less on practice when the data used by researchers came from logged hours in a journal over time, instead of self-reporting practice habits from memory. So, what are the other factors that lead to excellence?  Confidence, positive or negative feedback, self-motivation and the ability to take risks, the researchers note. Each of these factors will be analyzed in depth by the researchers next to see what their contribution to excellent might be.

A personal note: some people might believe that practice is not so important, judging from the findings, and that if they think they’re not talented, they should not try to excel seeing how it’s useless anyway. False. The researchers themselves are careful to highlight that while the importance of practice may have been overestimated previously, it is still paramount to success.

The team was comprised of  Brooke N. Macnamara, a Case Western Reserve University assistant professor of psychology, David Z. Hambrick, from Michigan State University, and Frederick L. Oswald, from Rice University.

Their findings are in this month’s online issue of Psychological Science.