Learning creates skill via brain growth (or, talent is not innate)

Practice really does make perfect (a glass of wine helps, too).

Practice really does make perfect (a glass of wine helps, too).

A few weeks ago I shared an article on Facebook from SocialPsychOnline.com (here) that made the case to praise effort, not talent. “The Psychology of Success: Praising People for Effort vs. Ability” shares the results of research by Carol Dweck. Essentially, Dweck found that praising people for their “natural ability” can be destructive because if you think that skills and talents are things you either have or don’t have, when you struggle, it’s that much harder. The study showed that focusing on effort and determination makes you better at overcoming future obstacles.

I’d like to go a step farther here and share something I heard this weekend at the first annual Wild Wonder Nature Journaling Conference in Pacific Grove, California. In his inspiring keynote address, John Muir Laws shared that practicing a skill actually makes your brain grow. Laws said that if you consistently put in the “pencil miles” you will get better.

That’s right: skill is earned not innate. Brains are hungry for exercise and like other muscles respond to input and use.

An article in Science News for Students (here— “Learning rewires the brain”) explains that while neurons are the best-known cells in the brain, another type, called glia, actually makes up a whopping 85 percent of brain cells. For a long time, scientists thought that glia simply held neurons together. But recent research by Doug Fields at the National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development, reveals that glial cells not only become active during learning, they increase (while also creating an important sheath-forming protein called myelin that helps transmit brain signals). These changes in the brain allow for faster, stronger signaling between neurons as the brain gains new skills.

And, the gist of the study showed that the best way to speed up those signals is to introduce new information slowly. Pencil miles! The more you challenge your brain (not just repeating the same thing over and over, but introducing new things to make it work hard) the more likely you are to improve.

A reader of this blog also recommended Angela Duckworth’s book Grit. A psychologist, Duckworth shows that for anyone striving to succeed—students, educators, athletes, artists—the secret to outstanding achievement is not talent but a special blend of passion and persistence she calls “grit.”

So practice really does make perfect.

Get out the pencil and challenge yourself, every day.