If you continue to practice a skill even after you’ve achieved mastery of it, your brain keeps learning to perform it more and more efficiently, says a new study.
As we perform a task – say, dunking a basketball or playing a sweet guitar lick – over and over again, we eventually reach a point that some psychologists call “unconscious competence,” where we execute each movement perfectly without devoting any conscious attention to it at all. But even after this point, our bodies keep finding ways to perform the task more and more efficiently, burning less energy with each repetition.
This story’s got it all – brain-hacks, mysterious discoveries, robots – but to put it all in perspective, we’ve gotta start by talking about this idea we call perfection.
“Practice makes perfect,” the old saying goes – but what’s this “perfect” we’re trying to reach? Isn’t it often a matter of opinion? What I mean is, how do we judge, say, a “perfect” backflip or a “perfect” dive? We compare it to others we’ve seen, and decide that it meets certain criteria better than those examples did; that it was performed with less error.
But where do these criteria for perfection come from? Well, some have said there’s a Platonic realm of “perfect forms” that our minds are somehow tapping into – a realm that contains not only “The Perfect Chair” but “the perfect version of that chair” and “the perfect version of that other chair” and “the perfect version of that molecule” and so on, ad infinitum. Kinda weird, I know – but a lot of smart people believed in ideas like this for thousands of years, and some still do.
Science, though, works in a different way: Instead of trying to tap into a world of perfect forms, scientists (and engineers and mathematicians and programmers and so on) work to find errors and fix them.
And it turns out that the human body is quite talented at doing exactly that. A team led by Alaa Ahmed at the University of Colorado at Boulder found this out firsthand, with the help of robots, the Journal of Neuroscience reports:
Seated subjects made horizontal planar reaching movements toward a target using a robotic arm.
These researchers weren’t interested in brain activity – instead, as the volunteers practiced moving the arm, the researchers measured their oxygen consumption, their carbon dioxide output, and their muscle activity.
As you might expect, the scientists found that as people got better at moving the arm, their consumption of oxygen and production of carbon dioxide, and their overall muscle activity, steadily decreased:
Subjects decreased movement error and learned the novel dynamics. By the end of learning, net metabolic power decreased by ∼20% from initial learning. Muscle activity and coactivation also decreased with motor learning.
But the volunteers’ bodies didn’t stop there. As people kept practicing, their gas consumption and output continued to decrease – and so did their muscle activation. In short, their bodies kept learning to move the arm with measurably less and less physical effort.
Though this study didn’t record any data from the subjects’ brains, it’s easy to see how this continual improvement is just one reflection of a very versatile ability. For instance, we know that when two neurons get really friendly, they become more sensitive to each others’ signals – and we also know that underused neural pathways gradually fade away, making room for new ones. Self-improvement impulses are woven deeply into our bodies – into our cells.
When I say that our brains and bodies are cities, I’m not just speaking metaphorically – you are, quite literally, a vast community – an ecosystem composed of trillions of interdependent microorganisms, each one constantly struggling for its own nourishment and safety.
And though your conscious mind is one part – a very significant part – of this great microscopic nation, it’s not the only part that can learn. At this moment, all throughout the lightless highways and chambers of your body, far below your conscious access, networks of cells are changing, adapting, learning, adjusting - finding errors and fixing them.
So, you can think about “perfection” all you want – but even at that magical moment when you achieve it, the multitudes within you are still hard at work, figuring out how to reach beyond that ideal.
What do you think they’re up to right now?