Commentary

Practice Pays When Undertaking Creative Action


 

In last month's issue of

Once the decision to act is made, the success of the creative endeavor will depend on the dexterity of its execution. With 3 seconds left to play, the fate of a team down by one point will differ drastically if the ball falls into the hands of a Michael Jordan versus a basketball wannabe like me. The research reported in our pages represents the dexterous execution of well-formulated experiments that further our knowledge and ultimately lead to treatments and cures of diseases such as Parkinson's disease, epilepsy, and diabetic neuropathy as highlighted at last month's annual meeting of the American Academy of Neurology. Yet, not all research successfully illuminates the questions it was designed to answer, and not all last second shots result in victory.

We differ greatly in our levels of dexterity in the performance of any given task. How can we explain such differences and, in particular, how can we explain the extraordinary dexterity of virtuoso musicians, elite athletes, and Nobel laureate scientists? Do these differences reflect how much of an impact nurture has on nature? Might it simply be that some individuals are just more practiced than others (nurture)? If so, this then begs the question of whether anyone of us could practice to the point of perfection. Or is that we are built differently (nature)? Might biological differences between us facilitate greater dexterity in the fortunate few, and if so, would this translate to all abilities or to just certain domains of skill (such as one of the multiple intelligences proposed by Howard Gardner that were described last month)?

Nurture, nature, and their interplay all contribute. Epigenetic alterations of genetic expression – the influence of nurture on nature – can occur at all levels of our physiology from DNA transcription to behavior: the social structure in which a child is reared, the expression of trigger-sensitive phenotypes, and the plasticity of hard wired neuronal circuits are just a few examples of their interplay (Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci. 2003;999:451-60).

But, even in the case of a biologically influenced skill, environmental factors must play a role. For example, although just knowing how to play the piano is not sufficient to achieve virtuoso status, it is still a basic requirement even for a biologically determined musical prodigy. Therefore, let us examine nurture more closely.

Practice is part of everything we call learning and education: school, music lessons, rehearsal for a play, and so on. Learning to read requires a transition from an effortful, letter-by-letter phonetic strategy to a much less effortful whole-word semantic recognition strategy, and we find a similar pattern in learning a new skill. When we first begin to practice a new skill, many details are unfamiliar to us. Before a video gamer can reach the competitive level of the game itself, he must first learn how the controller works. Button A controlled jumps in the last game, but in the new game it controls gunfire. Even the layout of controls differs between PlayStation, Xbox, and Nintendo game systems. Learning how the controller works takes time and, until the controls are mastered, a player cannot be at his potential best. Acquiring any new skill requires overcoming these unfamiliar details during early practice stages so that, early in our practice trials, we pay close attention to these unfamiliar details. This is the attentional stage of skill learning. Attention and organization of the different steps of the skill are mediated by the prefrontal cortex and other regions that comprise the attentional network.

With repetition, these details become increasingly familiar. Later in our practice trials, these details and the skill itself become so familiar that the practiced action is nearly automatic. The transition from the effortful attention to each unfamiliar detail and stitching together of a series of skill fragments into a complete seamless action marks the beginning of the automaticity stage, and it is not until then that we can start down the road to virtuoso levels of skill. Functional brain imaging studies show that activation of prefrontal cortices during the early attentional practice stage diminish as the skill becomes automatic. With increasing task familiarity comes greater task automaticity and increasing performance dexterity (Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 1998;95:853-60). By the time we reach the stage of performance automaticity, our performance level plateaus. There are individual differences in how long it takes for a skill to reach the automaticity stage and the level of dexterity achieved by that time (although external rewards can influence this), but most people can reach this stage for most tasks.

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