Improving at anything is an awesome capacity that we are capabale of. So how do we do it efficiently? The best and pretty much only way is practice. Our approach to this practice is key as Dr. Merzenich, a brain expert an a pioneer of neuroplasticity, states, “We know that you have to be engaged attentively, and in a sense that the more attentively focused you are, the more positively enabling machine the brain is when turned on”. Here, Merzenich gives the two keys of developing a skill: active engagement and attentive focus. Focusing makes your brain more plastic, that is to say more adaptive and receptive to stimuli. We intuitively know that brain plasticity exists as we have all had experiences of making improvements in some undertaking. Maybe you starting playing guitar and couldn’t even play one chord, but now you can progress through a range of chords with ease. Where else could this progress have come from if not from some kind of evolution in the brain? Abilities can be developed thanks to your brains ability to mold and adapt to the things it consistently faces. While focus is definitely important in developing reading skills, the active engagement that Merzenich mentions is a far broader subject. So let’s look into it.
Engagement is a key principle behind the phrase: you must want to learn something before you can. If your efforts to improve are not backed by serious motivation, you will be less attentive and less motivated to practice in the first place. For this reason, focus on the things that you truly desire, not what others desire of you or what you think you should desire. This powerful focus will motivate you to engage thoroughly. Dr. Merzenich illustrates the importance of this concept as well: “When it matters to you, you are going to drive changes in your brain. That’s something always to keep in mind. If what you’re doing seems senseless, meaningless, if it does not matter to you, then you’re gaining less from it.”
This isn’t anything breakthrough, but start with at a comfortable level. Getting in over your head will lead to frustration and failure. Without any positive reinforcement to encourage you and show that your efforts are worthwhile, it will be much harder to find the motivation to continue on. The perfect level is that which is hard enough to cause a few mistakes, but well within your ability to comfortably accomplish. This level of difficulty is the sweet spot to induce a flow state, a term coined by Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his classic book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. He coined the phrase flow because a number of the peak performers he interviewed all described the sensation as flowing with the current. The job was accomplished with no resistance. Flow is a fascinating subject characterized by total immersion in a single task, ultimate engagement.
Stephen Covey, the author of The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People, understands engagement’s importance in learning. He suggests that as you read his book “shift your paradigm of your own involvement in this material from the role of learner to that of teacher. Take an inside out approach and read with the purpose in mind of sharing or discussing what you learn with someone else within 48 hours after you learn it”. This is an awesome technique to reinforce any mental process. Just as you can teach someone what you are reading, you can pretend to teach someone the proper basketball shot as you practice your shooting. You can pretend to teach someone guitar as you are in the process of guitar practice. Improvement comes because the more you elaborate on something, the more well you come to know it.
So there it is. Effective practice is all about active engagement and attentive focus.