The Brain

New Method Helps You Learn Skills Twice As Fast

February 5, 2016 | by Robin Andrews

Photo credit: By slightly modifying the task each time, your brain becomes far more adaptable. Robert Miramontes/Shutterstock

What’s the best way to learn a new skill, such as playing the guitar? Multiple hours spent doing the same task over and over is thought to be the optimal strategy – practice makes perfect, as many would say. However, a new study in Current Biology has revealed that varying your training regime, and not making it so repetitive, may actually double the speed at which you learn.

Eighty-six volunteers were recruited by a team of researchers from Johns Hopkins University, and asked to learn a new skill: Moving a cursor around a screen by squeezing a small, touch-sensitive device, rather than using a traditional mouse.

The volunteers were segregated into three groups. The first (the controls) were only given one 45-minute-long training session. The second group were given one training session, then asked to wait six hours before they repeated the same exercise. The third group had the same experience, but their second training session modified the sensitivity of the controlling device, meaning they had to quickly adapt to the new conditions.

The next day, all three groups were asked to repeat the first training session with the original device sensitivity restored. At the end of each group’s sessions, they were scored on how accurately and rapidly they were able to move the cursor around the screen.

Intuitively, one would expect the third group to perform worse than the second group, with the changing parameters of their gaming sessions increasing the overall difficulty of the task. Remarkably, the situation was reversed, and the third group did twice as well by the end of the experiment than the second group did. The control group performed the worst.

“What we found is if you practice a slightly modified version of a task you want to master, you actually learn more and faster than if you just keep practicing the exact same thing multiple times in a row,” said lead researcher Pablo Celnik, from Johns Hopkins University, in a statement.

Modern video games involve constantly changing parameters, meaning that they could cause memory reconsolidation in players. tlwmdbt/Flickr; CC BY-SA 2.0

The secret lies in the six-hour gap between training sessions that the groups were given. The memory of their new skill is “consolidated” within the brain during this time period, wherein the neural connections in the brain form and “preserve” the memory. With this memory consolidated, the volunteers could reactivate it during the second training session in order to perform the task with increased ease.

However, these consolidated memories can be modified. Changes to the parameters of a second session practicing any motor skill – attempting a video game level with different obstacles, for example – “reconsolidates” these memories, slightly altering then reinforcing the original neural connections. This allows them to become more adaptive and flexible to future changing conditions.

This explains why the third group performed best in this study. Celnik noted that a massive change in the parameters of the game would not produce the same beneficial effects, however. “The modification between sessions needs to be subtle,” he added.

Although this study tested only one specific skill, its finding could hopefully be applied to many other situations. Amputees could be taught to learn to use their prosthetics more rapidly by using memory reconsolidation techniques, for instance. 

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