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Why (smart) practice makes perfect
Date:7/12/2010

Struggling with your chip shot? Constant drills with your wedge may not help much, but mixing in longer drives will, and a new study shows why.

Previous studies have shown that variable practice improves the brain's memory of most skills better than practice focused on a single task. Cognitive neuroscientists at USC and UCLA describe the neural basis for this paradox in a new study in Nature Neuroscience.

The researchers split 59 volunteers into six groups: three groups were asked to practice a challenging arm movement, while the other three groups practiced the movement and related tasks in a variable practice structure.

Volunteers in the variable practice group showed better retention of the skill. The process of consolidating memory of the skill engaged a part of the brain the prefrontal cortex associated with higher level planning.

The group assigned to constant practice of the arm movement retained the skill to a lesser degree through consolidation that engaged a part of the brain the primary motor cortex associated with simple motor learning.

"In the variable practice structure condition, you're basically solving the motor problem anew each time. If I'm just repeating the same thing over and over again as in the constant practice condition, I don't have to process it very deeply," said study senior author Carolee Winstein, professor of biokinesiology and physical therapy at USC.

"We gravitate toward a simple, rote practice structure because we're basically lazy, and we don't want to work hard. But it turns out that memory is enhanced when we engage in practice that is more challenging and requires us to reconstruct the activity," Winstein said.

Winstein's team, led by Shailesh Kantak, a graduate student in biokinesiology at the time of the study, verified the neural circuits involved through harmless magnetic interference applied immediately after practice.

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Contact: Carl Marziali
marziali@usc.edu
213-740-4751
University of Southern California
Source:Eurekalert

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