Monday, August 20, 2012

Skills Training and the Brain

Training a child to be broadly competent is useful for the child's confidence and later ability to solve novel problems. But what about more intense training for a deeper mastery? We have learned that it requires at least 10,000 hours of training to master a skill. Sometimes skills mastery requires between 10 to 20 years of intense, wisely directed practise.

Are there precautions we should take to protect the child from overdoing it?
Learning a new skill involves rewiring of the brain, a phenomenon called neural plasticity, the paper notes. For the new skill to persist, those brain changes must be stabilised or consolidated by being transferred from short-term memory and locked into long-term memory.

“If the information and/or neural changes are not adequately consolidated, then learning will be temporary or not occur at all,” the researchers say. Other research has found that lack of sleep, for example, can interfere with the consolidation process, as can trying to train for a second skill before the first one has properly sunk in.

“Many studies have shown that you don’t learn if you don’t sleep after a day of training,” says Dr Pearson. “Likewise, overtraining can reduce learning if you don’t allow time for consolidation.”

The researchers were specifically interested in the role played in learning by “waking consolidation” – that is, taking breaks during the training process. They recruited 31 students to learn a difficult computer task - tracking groups of moving dots disguised amid visual distractions on the screen. The subjects were divided into three groups, each of which was asked to learn the task in different ways.

On the first day, a control group spent one hour training and an overtraining group spent two hours non-stop at the task. A third group also trained for two hours, but with a one-hour break between sessions with subjects choosing their own activities – except sleep.

On the second day, it was found that the control group had mastered the task better than the overtraining group, despite training for only half the time. Likewise the waking consolidation group had also learnt better than the overtrainers, even though the two groups had spent the same total time training. _MedXpress
Study abstract Proceedings of the Royal Society Biological Sciences

The findings of the above study should be seen as suggestive rather than definitive. A few days of training on a computer task is not the same as a decade of training in a complex skill the comprises an untold number of sub-tasks which must be learned and integrated together.

But there are dangers in "overtraining." A fascinating neurological disorder known as focal dystonia can affect musicians who train beyond their brain's ability to integrate the training. In such cases, the brain can actually lose the ability to control fine motor movements of the fingers and hands. As one might imagine, this can be immensely frustrating and distressing to the budding young prodigy.

All of this suggests that regular rest periods, and a regular sleep schedule, should be integrated into all serious training regimens. But beyond that common sense advice, it also suggests that coaches, parents, and trainers need to be on the lookout for the analogs of "focal dystonia" in other areas of intense training.

Hard training is necessary for mastery of difficult skills, but so is smart training. Some children may opt for a course of training for reasons other than a genuine suitability and drive. Coaches need to detect when a child is not ready for intense training, or if the child's interest in the training is only superficial.

Besides the real physical and emotional risks of intense training, there is also the risk that a child may be sacrificing other potential avenues of competency or mastery which would be far more rewarding to the child.

That being said, one cannot overstate the inspirational impact of a true master. If the area of mastery is well chosen for the child, and if the regimen of training is wise and measured, the end result can be a lifetime of excellence and satisfaction.

Needless to say, the modern rush to universal psychological neoteny and lifelong incompetence -- as embodied in modern educational systems and child-raising methods -- leads to the opposite of inspiration or satisfaction.

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