How to Master a New Skill in Half the Time

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Want to master a new skill faster? Researchers have just found a way, and it upends all previous assumptions about how we learn new tricks. According to a new Johns Hopkins study, whether you want to learn to play guitar, speak a new language, or even juggle, the key is making tiny adjustments each time your practice, rather than repeating the exact same routine over and over. 

The researchers discovered this after recruiting 86 volunteers to learn a completely new computer-based motor skill. They were given a unique device, kind of like a video-game counsel, that they had to squeeze and release just right in order to move a cursor around the computer screen in a set pattern. Everyone received an initial training session. Then one group had a second, identical training later in the day, while another group got no additional instruction. A third group also received a second training later on, but unbeknownst to them, the pattern they were asked to trace on the computer was tweaked ever so slightly.

The next day, all three groups came back to the lab to test their newly learned skill. Not surprisingly, the folks who had only one training session performed the worst in terms of speed and accuracy. But of the other two groups, those who received the slightly modified training session the second go-around rocked the task twice as fast and twice as accurately as the group that got the exact-same training twice.

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These results prove that an emerging notion called memory reconsolidation leads to faster learning of new-to-you skills. "The first time you learn a new task, you form a memory of it," explains lead researcher Dr. Pablo Celnik. "The second time, you retrieve that memory and practice what you've already learned. But when the task is subtly different the second time, along with retrieving, you're also learning something else that's very similar but also new." Then, when you take a third stab at the task, Celnik says your brain, without you even realizing it, strategizes how to consolidate what you learned in both practice sessions to help you nail the task.

Imagine, for example, you're learning to play tennis. If your first lesson is on a beautiful sunny day, and then the next day you hit balls on a rain-drenched court, the ball will be heavier and won't have the same bounce, so your practice will be slightly modified. If on day three it's sunny again, you'll have benefitted from those differences because your brain will have had to adapt to each scenario and pull together everything you learned. Another example of a slight modification would be changing the inflation level or size of a basketball or football. Or learning to skate on a rock-hard rink and then moving to mushier ice. Or even practicing guitar in a quiet room and then a noisier space.

"These findings challenge the old dogma of learning," says Celnik. "We'd always thought that memory becomes fixed and the brain resists change, and therefore you'd learn new skills faster by practicing in identical conditions. But now we see that by introducing modifications, what you gain is more robust."