Monday, October 4, 2010

How Much Should We Practice? - By Jonah Lehrer

Found via Simoleon Sense. I’ve been thinking about this topic as it relates to investing. What can one do to become an “expert” as quickly as possible? I think finding the most efficient process is at the heart of the matter, and a couple of things that help this to be reached are very good filters and checklists. Tim Ferriss has had some interesting posts relating to efficiency in other areas like language, working out, and probably several others that I haven’t gotten to yet (some of which are likely detailed in his new book).

Somewhere, right now, a little kid is fighting with his parents about how much he needs to practice the piano. Or maybe it’s the clarinet. I fought with my parents about practicing everything. I didn’t want to practice my major chords, or my tennis swing, or my multiplication tables. I insisted that I already knew how to do it – I’d just done it – so why did I need to do it again?

Well, it turns out that 10 year-old Jonah had a point. There’s a brand new paper in the Journal of Neuroscience by a team of scientists at Northwestern (first author Beverly Wright) that investigates how much deliberate practice can be replaced with periods of “additional sensory stimulation,” or passive listening.


Obviously, these results have big implications. We spend a lot of time trying to improve our perceptions on very particular tasks, whether it’s a jet fighter pilot learning how to fly or a baseball player learning to hit a fastball or child with dyslexia learning how to read. Although we currently assume that the only way to improve is to constantly practice – in technical speak, the act of practicing provides a “permissive signal” that allows the accompanying stimulation to “drive learning” – this research demonstrates that we can also improve through mere exposure. Furthermore, our obsession with practice comes with serious drawbacks, since the tedium of practice can prove discouraging for beginners. And so we quit the piano and give up on our reading lessons, because we can’t stand the training regimen.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that we can just play Yo Yo Ma in the background and expect to master the cello, or put the textbook underneath the pillow and expect to ace the algebra test. We still need to practice. We just might not need to practice as much as we think.