One of the more noticeable effects of getting older is how much harder it becomes to require new skills. When we are children, skill acquisition is easy and we are able to pick up all manner of skills merely by the process of mimicking those around us. My own child is learning two languages, English and Mandarin, without any comprehension that this is supposed to be hard. At less than three years of age, he is already annoyingly better than me in Mandarin and his English is coming on apace.
Unfortunately, this hyper-pace of learning seems to slow down from childhood onwards. By the time we are in our mid-twenties, we have switched from the overtaking lane to the slow lane. At the age I am now, 67, it sometimes feels like I have been left abandoned on the hard shoulder!
Fortunately, much work has been done to address this problem and techniques developed that do allow for late skill acquisition. This is a subject I have been interested in for several years. Because of this, I have tried out various options, some more effective than others.
Types of Physical Skills
Basically, most physical skills that we learn can be assigned one of two categories. We call these ‘Open-loop’ and ‘Closed- loop’ skills.
Open loop skills
Open-loop skills are actions that are discrete in their own right. They may be subsequent repeated but they are not running on a continuous loop. Free throws in basketball would be one example, throwing darts another, the golf swing a third. Of course, your practice of these skills will involve repetition. On the other hand, each repeat is unique, meaning it is not immediately followed by another repeat in a continuous manner.
Closed-loop skills, on the other hand, involve a continuous repetition of a certain movement, each one immediately following the previous. Obvious examples of this would be such things as running, cycling and swimming.
Repetition is key to skill acquisition at any age but becomes progressively more important as we age. Whereas children often seem to pick up new skills in a matter of hours, adults will generally take much longer. This particular limitation is more noticeable in the second half of life. Many more iterations of an action are needed for learning to take place.
The point should also be made that merely repeating alone is not enough in itself. The repetitions must be performed with sufficient intensity. You must really want, or at least be very interested, in acquiring the skill you are practising.
Oddly, some people dispute the importance of repetition in learning, pointing out that some intense experiences remain with the person for their whole lives. Whilst true, this is actually quite difficult to use as a reliable learning mechanism. In practice, repetition gives us the reliability and simplicity we seek. It allows us to apply a simple mechanism to promote the learning and acquisition of new skills and material.
A simple example of this from my own experience would be learning to juggle. No matter how motivated one is, it would be impossible to learn such a skill as a one-time learning experience. Simple, repeated sessions, however, soon led to the acquisition of this skill. Whenever I wish to pick up a new juggling pattern, it feels as if it is nearly impossible at first. Often, I can barely manage even a single repetition without dropping the balls. A couple of weeks later though, I will be demonstrating the pattern whilst simultaneously having a chat with a passer-by or thinking about what I will be having for lunch that day. The skill will have passed from being a completely conscious, and often very clumsy effort, to a largely unconscious pattern that I can repeat with little to no attention required at all.
What fires together, wires together
There is an old axiom that you often hear repeated in relation to learning and the brain; what fires together, wires together. Though obvious, it is one of the most basic lessons we can learn from the world of neuroscience.
Whenever we learn something, our neurons fire and wire together and thereby create connections. Various chemicals are released in our brains to enhance this process. As ever, the brain uses a complex mix of neurotransmitters but the most important of these for learning are noradrenaline, acetylcholine and dopamine.
Stress and Intensity – Noradrenaline
Noradrenaline gives sufficient excitation to signal to the brain that something significant is happening. It is often involved in emotional reactions and has been called the neurotransmitter of fear. This may be going too far though, but it is clearly involved in the brains reaction to stressful or challenging events.
Fort the brain to want to make changes in reaction to a given occurrence, it needs to experience that event as worthy of attention. If something is stressful or demanding, the brain reacts by releasing noradrenaline, thus marking that pattern out as something unique and worth taking note of.
Exercise, in itself, can be thought of as a stressful event, at least in the sense that we mean it here. It loads the body to the point where the body has to respond to be able to cope with the demand put upon it. Much the same can be said of the frustration of learning a new physical technique.
Often, we experience a degree of discomfort at our own inadequacy. This is followed by the desire to be able to do the challenging movement without such negative feelings. This can also be said of more academic learning situations. As long as care enough, the discomfort of realising just how little we know or understand can be the trigger for the release of noradrenaline. Though not pleasant in itself, it can act as a spur to action. A common human trait most of us share is a very fundamental desire to better ourselves. To state the obvious, few of us enjoy feeling inadequate.
Deeply Relaxed – Acetylcholine
Another vital neurotransmitter involved in skill acquisition is acetylcholine. Once the intense practice session has been performed it should be followed by a session of deep relaxation. This only last from ten to fifteen minutes to be effective. By deep relaxation, we mean a period of time when your mind is relatively unfocussed and reasonably clear of content, much like in some forms of meditation. It doesn’t mean checking out a video, surrendering yourself to endless clickbait on your phone or listening to a podcast.
Whilst you were practising intensely, the neuro-active compound acetylcholine is busily marking out those neuronal pathways to be reinforced for learning to be achieved. A period of quiet rest, or even sleep, allows this reinforcing process to take place.
For skill acquisition to be effective, the brain needs to change some pathways yet leave others in place. The tagging mechanism referred to above is how this is done. Learning will be increased if the brain is given the necessary hiatus of a quiet and relaxed time for the tagging process to be completed. Without it, you may well improve but it is likely to be at a much slower rate.
Reward – Dopamine
Dopamine rewards us by giving us a small high when we obtain something or achieve something. It pushes us towards repeating whatever behaviour gave us the dopamine hit in the first place. This process can play a very positive role in skill acquisition. In other areas of life such as drink and drug addictions, the response that dopamine elicits can be more problematic.
Dopamine levels in the brain continuously signal to us how good or valuable a situation is. Or, put another way, how likely the behaviour you are involved in is likely to lead to a reward. This helps to motivate us to continue to work hard towards a given goal. When we perceive that we are making progress, the brain gives us a little dopamine hit that helps ensure that we will want to continue that behaviour.
Oddly, the actual attainment of the goal that we had in mind is often not as well rewarded as we would imagine. It seems to be, emotionally at least, the journey that is the focus of dopamine release, rather than the destination.
In practical terms, it helps to be attached to the target of your behaviour in an emotionally significantly way. Merely toying with something in a laissez-faire manner (a common fault of mine but I believe I am not alone) may not be enough to trigger the desired dopamine needed for learning to take place.
Aside from affecting immediate mood and behaviour, dopamine also produces changes in the brain that are persistent, sometimes lasting a lifetime. The very famous Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov highlighted this effect in the early years of the twentieth century. In some of his most famous experiments, he trained dogs to respond to clues, a ringing bell for example, that food would be coming soon. Once learned, the salivation/expectation response produced by the clue would be remarkably persistent.
Visualisation is another method that we can employ to increase/reinforce learning. Once again, the more you repeat the more the pathway is reinforced. The metaphor of a pathway is quite appropriate. It is very much like a pathway through a forest. If it is barely walked upon it will all but disappear in a fairly short period of time. On the other hand, if it is constantly used it will become better and better defined.
At one time, it was thought that visualisation was more or less the equivalent of practice in a real, three-dimensional environment. When I learnt NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) a few decades back, I was made aware of a study that seemed to support this idea. In the study, a basketball team was split into two groups. The first group practised free throws in a real-life environment. The second group merely relaxed and imagined themselves throwing perfect free throw after perfect free throw. In the story I was told, the second group subsequently scored as well as the first when they compared the two (1).
It seems now that the original study has not stood up to replication. Although visualisation is indeed valuable, it is not as good as real-life practice. In one study, after an equal amount of time, the visualising group achieved an improvement of 13% to 35% whilst the real-life practice group achieved 53%. The visualisation result was impressive. Indeed, the mechanism could clearly be very useful. On the other hand, for the same amount of time, real-life practice is much better (2).
If you find yourself stuck in a situation wherein normal movement is severely restricted (long-duration flights, for example) and you wish to learn a physical skill, then visualising your practice will serve at least a maintenance function, even if it is not as good as actually performing the actions in the physical world.
An important point should be made at this point about visualisation. It is much better to visualise the performance of a given technique from a subjective, internal point of view. Although seeing the technique being performed may have some efficacy, it is much better to visualise it from the inside, as if you were performing the action in that moment.
On this point, it is also useful to make the experience as multi-sensory and intense as you possibly can. If you were visualising juggling, for example, try to feel the impact of the balls on your hands, hear the sound that the balls make, feel the contraction of the muscles in your arms, the ground beneath your feet, etc. Try to make it as immediate and as intense as you possibly can.
In this short article, we have focused on skill acquisition at a fairly basic level. Obviously, there is much, much more to the process than I could possibly cover in a simple blog. On the other hand, this article should be enough to point out some of the more useful techniques that can be applied. The techniques and mechanisms discussed here are particularly relevant for those of more mature years. Contrary to the old adage, you can teach an old dog new tricks but it may require a different approach, more conscious effort and take a wee bit more time.