In his book Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell asked the question of what makes the best and brightest, the world’s high-achievers, different. The answer? Practice. They work at their chosen field of endeavor. More specifically, Gladwell said that 10,000 hours of practice was the sort of endeavor that makes the Yo-yo Mas of this world experts of their trade.
Sports fans, as well as those that follow musicians and writers, all know of someone that performs at the top of their profession without seeming to exert much effort. Though I grew up at the skating rink, the first time I watched a college hockey match I couldn’t believe how the skaters made jumps, turns and twists while on skates. These were the sorts of moves that most of us couldn’t do in jogging shoes, yet these guys seemed to do it without thinking about it. Effortlessly, even under pressure.
Or how about the way that a quarterback could get a ball into his receivers hands with the receiver 40 yards downfield and the quarterback throwing off his nondominant foot? What do the hockey players and quarterbacks have in common with professional musicians? Many, many hours of practice.
It is known that development of motor skill occurs incrementally and involves a gradual transition from the initial sensory-driven response (transmitted via the eye or ear) to internally-generated patterns of behavior reliant on anticipatory planning (the ability to think ahead while acting in the present). A large amount of practice is typically required to achieve the transition to an internal generation of movements, as well as to maintain a high level of performance.
With human experts of motor tasks who have spent years in training, studies have asociated the training with changes to the structural and functional organization of the cortical motor areas of the brain. Professional musicians in comparision to amateur musicians, have a larger volume of the cortical motor area M1 and other premotor brain regions. In addition, the brain regions corresponding to the hands and arms of professional musicians have been found to be enlarged compared to the corresponding brain region of amateurs.
However, other studies using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) have shown that cortical activation measured by blood oxygenation level-dependent (BOLD) contrast is decreased after long-term training. Indeed, in the premotor areas or M1 the functional activation is reduced in professional musicians during performance of various sequential tasks, compared to amateurs and nonmusicians.
The fMRI study results have a variety of interpretations, and the authors of this recent paper note that the level of neuron discharge associated with functional activation, is unknown. Functional activation and neuron firing need to be measured during the same motor tasks to determine if long-term practice modifies efficiency of neural processing.
N. Picard, Y. Matsuzaka and P. Strick, in the paper “Extended practice of a motor skill is associated with reduced metabolic activity in M1”, published online recently in Nature Neuroscience, looked at the outcomes of practice-dependent motor learning on the metabolic and neuron activity in M1 of monkeys with extensive training on sequential movement tasks.
These studies captured the continuum from visually-guided (sensory-driven tasks) to internally-generated sequences of movement.
See the paper, cited below, for detailed experimental procedures and explanations of the results, as well as carefully considered controls.
The condensed version of the results is that a substantial reduction of metabolic activity was observed in the M1 region during performance of internally-generated tasks (think professional musician) compared to visually-guided tasks in the ten monkeys studied (training time ranged from ~1–6 years).
However, Picard et al. found neuron firing to be similar during tasks, that is, no difference between internally-generated and visually-guided tasks. This disconnect between brain metabolic and neuronal activity implies that many hours of practice can result in improved neuron efficiency in M1.
Picard, N, Matsuzaka, Y, & Strick, PL (2013). Extended practice of a motor skill is associated wtih reduced metabolic activity in M1. Nature Neuroscience, 16 (9) DOI: 10.1038/nn.3477