At one point in time, we have all been told that it is best to learn a new skill slowly. To learn to hit a correct forehand in tennis, you need to practice over and over again. To prepare for a test in school, you should study every day leading up to the exam.
This is still great advice, but what if you practice or study consistently and show no signs of improvement?
Should you just give up?
No, you shouldn’t, and here is why:
It turns out that for a lot of tasks, improvement doesn’t come gradually…but instead comes in a flash of insight and clarity, and BOOM: you are perfectly able to hit that forehand or able to ace your test.
Scientists at the Brain Research Center at the University of British Columbia sought to find out if there was activity in the brain that mimicked this ‘eureka!’ moment of clarity, and their findings, although not too surprising, are quite interesting.
Previous research has already determined that the ability to apply new rules (or learn a new skill) lies in the frontal lobes. This is where the executive control center of the brain is located.
A new study, published in the May 2010 issue of Neuron, sought to find out how the neurons in the frontal cortex (in rat brains, which operate similarly enough to ours to test) will switch from encoding a familiar rule (or behavior) to a completely new rule that could only be tested through trial and error.
In other words, when the rats are forced to figure out a new task, how would their frontal lobes react to learning new behaviors?
To see how the brain would respond, the rats were set up in a cage with two levers. Each lever had a light over it, which switched from the left to right levers. If the rats pressed the level that had the light over it, they would receive a treat.
After the rats were successful at this 20 times in a row, the researchers changed the game so that the rats would only get a reward from pressing the right level, regardless of which one had the light.
It took the rats between 30 to 40 trials to fully comprehend and conquer the new game and reward system.
In other words – it took about 30 to 40 trials to learn the new behavior.
Analyzing Brain Patterns
Brain scans showed that although there were different brain patterns going on in the rat’s frontal lobes while learning the new behavior, they actually had to learn the new behavior for the lights to go on…literally.
The researchers offer an analogy that compares the patterns in the brain to a string of lights. All the lights on the string are on (representing the neurons constantly firing within the brain) but for each different pattern, SOME of the lights would shine brighter than others.
When the rats comprehended the new task for the first time, researchers noticed a vastly different pattern of ‘lights’ in the frontal lobe, likening this pattern to their ‘eureka!’ moment, when the rats first successfully completed the new task and received a reward.
The results suggest that when measuring improvement, you may not see constant improvement – but instead you are more likely to see big improvements in chunks over time.
As the researchers note, “there are situations where…it’s really an all or none shift in the brain.”
The big issue then is how do you know when you are improving if you can’t measure gradual improvement? More research is needed here as I don’t think we know the answer.
So, as you are learning something new, like a tennis stroke, do not get discouraged if it doesn’t appear you are making any progress at first. It takes your brain time to learn the new skill set, just as it took for the rats in the experiment.
However, instead of quitting, keep trying, because your ‘eureka!’ moment of clarity may be just moments away.
Durstewitz, Daniel, Nicole M. Vittoz, Stan B. Floresco, and Jeremy K Seamans. “Abrupt Transitions between Prefrontal Neural Ensemble States Accompany Behavioral Transitions during Rule Learning.” Neuron. May 2010. Volume 66, 438-448.