We have all experienced that magic moment when, after days, months, or even years of practicing something, we nail it: we score the perfect three-point-shot in basketball, our hands come together to complete a flawless Mozart sonata on the piano, or we manage to parallel park the perfect distance from the curb on a crowded street.
You have probably heard the expression “practice makes perfect” countless times since childhood, and it’s true that our performance gets better when we practice doing the same things over and over.
But why exactly does repetition help us learn and improve?
It all comes down to the way cells in our brain communicate, and the physical changes that they undergo when they communicate repeatedly as we practice the same action over and over.
Our brains are made up of neurons, which are specialized cells that talk with each other using electrical signals called action potentials. Here’s what they look like:
The major parts of the neuron are the dendrites, structures that receive signals from other cells, the cell body, which interprets those signals, and the axon, a long, wire-like structure where the signals travel along to the next neuron.
The axon is shielded by a white, fatty substance called myelin, which acts as insulation. Myelinated axons make up the “white matter” in your brain, complementary to “gray matter,” which is composed of cell bodies.
If you think of the neuron as a power cord, the axon is the live wire, while the myelin is the rubber insulation. The better insulated the axon, the faster the signal can travel from one neuron to the next.
Whenever we perform an action, for example, kicking a soccer ball, the neurons involved in that action start firing electrical signals, or action potentials, and form an active network of cells. One effect of repeatedly practicing the action may be increasing myelin around the network, leading to faster and more efficient processing of the cell signals — and better performance.
Spaced Repetition: Space Out Your Learning to Boost Memory
So now that we understand the neuroscientific basis of why repetition works, how can you apply it to your daily life — your upcoming Spanish quiz, for example?
Before you run off to repeat your new Spanish vocab words ten thousand times in the mirror, you should know that repetition works best if you space it out over time — something aptly called spaced repetition. If you are trying to commit something to memory, try repeating the information throughout the day, at increasing intervals. For example, you might first, look at a word on a flashcard, and repeat it in your head a few times. Then look at it one minute later. Then five minutes later, then ten, and so on. Myelination is a slow process that works over days and weeks. (See this fascinating account of myelination in the context of Moscow’s Spartak Tennis Club, where young tennis stars are grown over multiple years).
Another thing to keep in mind is that while repetition builds myelin, if you’re consistently repeating the wrong action, or, say, switching hola for cola, you will encode that information incorrectly, and make the neural pathways for the incorrect action stronger, which is anything but helpful. In this sense, it’s not “practice makes perfect”; it’s “perfect practice makes perfect.”
So practice, practice, practice — but carefully.