The old adage "practice makes perfect" seems to be mostly correct. We say mostly, because sorry, no matter how many times you practice playing the guitar, you're not going to be as good as Slash (and please, stop growing your hair out. You look ridiculous). But for the most part, when you perform a task over and over again, you do improve. The fourth time you run that mile is easier than the first. The reason? Because you did it wrong the first three times.
Through a seemingly basic experiment, researchers at Johns Hopkins have discovered that our brains learn new skills not just by recalling how to do it correctly, but also by how to do it incorrectly. In fact, the mistakes you make doing one task help the brain learn new, completely unrelated tasks. That brain is one interesting hunk of weird looking flesh, right?
Experts who have studied how we learn to do things, like opening a window, have long understood that part of what is happening inside the brain is that new nerve connections are made that smooth our learning out. Our brains are taking in the details of opening that window, which makes it easier for us to do it the next time. This is called "prediction errors." But the Johns Hopkins team — led by Dr. Reza Shadmehr of the school's Department of Biomedical Engineering — found that the mistakes help us in new ways.
To come to this conclusion, Shadmehr and his team asked a group of volunteers to sit in front of a joystick that they couldn't see, as it was covered with a screen. The joystick was shown on a screen in the form of a blue dot. A target was shown as a red dot. As the people moved the blue dot toward the red dot, Shadmehr adjusted how the blue dot moved, and the participants had to compensate for this. Each participant eventually learned how to react to the changes, and were able to hit the target faster the more times they repeated the task. This is because they kept messing up.
"In learning a new motor task, there appear to be two processes happening at once," Shadmehr told ScienceDaily. "One is the learning of the motor commands in the task, and the other is critiquing the learning, much the way a 'coach' behaves. Learning the next similar task goes faster, because the coach knows which errors are most worthy of attention. In effect, this second process leaves a memory of the errors that were experienced during the training, so the re-experience of those errors makes the learning go faster."
The takeaway from this experiment? If you want to learn things faster, don't be afraid to do them wrong. It only helps. The trick is explaining that to your girlfriend, after the fifth consecutive time you ruined dinner.
[Image via Flickr - Pete]