Friday, January 4, 2013

Brains, Automation, and Undoing Bad Habits

The brain is a pretty interesting piece of machinery.  One of its most amazing characteristics is how quickly it can adapt itself to new situations on a biological, flesh and blood level.

The book "A User's Guide to the Brain" relates a study regarding monkeys and skill development.  Scientists at the University of California, San Francisco, put food pellets inside large cups, and put those cups in cages just barely in reach of the monkeys.  They practiced dozen times of a day reaching in and maneuvering the cups so they could get to the pellets.  After they'd mastered large cups, they started working with sequentially smaller cups, to a fourth, smallest cup.  The entire time, their brains were being mapped for activity and growth.

The result: after just a day of training, the area of the brain related to this activity had grown in size, and it continued to get bigger and bigger.  Once they'd mastered the fourth and smallest cup, the area started getting smaller as the process became more and more automatic.

The gist of this is that all skills start out untrained and conscious.  Over time with training, we get better, understanding them more and more, and the brain uses more of its energy to perform it.  The thing is, the brain is always looking for ways to save energy and automate things.  If it had to consciously use energy on every new skill you learned, it wouldn't have energy to maintain itself, or concentrate on other new things.  So wherever it can, it cuts corners.  It makes things automatic, and frees its energy for other stuff.

The ultimate goal of developing a skill is to train it properly and relegate it to automation.  This is why when you ask how a professional does something, they typically say "I just do it."  The catch?  If you train a skill badly, and do so long enough, you will automatically perform the skill poorly.  This is where our bad habits come into play.  Our brains will want to do things wrong, and then they won't want us to get in the way.

Here's the thing though; doing something wrong (but doing it efficiently) can look better than doing the right thing inefficiently.  The whole system, even if flawed, can be perfected within itself.  Undoing it takes a lot of conscious effort and reworking.  You have to take that bad habit, concentrate on every part of it, and rework it.  The whole process is grueling and the worst part is you rarely see immediate reward.  Your brain is performing right things inefficiently, slowly, awkwardly; the old bad habit feels more natural, and it gets better short term results.  You have to trust that your new way of doing things will eventually become automatic, eventually settle into place, and yield serious results.

My father loves golf, but he's not very good at it.  He's okay, by the standards of the average golfer (i.e., he isn't super terrible), but he has a lot of bad habits.  As he phrased it himself, "I didn't have a coach, so I just found a bunch of bad habits that fit together and practiced them."  So sometimes he does pretty great, but his habits don't form a foundation of consistency.  Sometimes he just plays terribly, and his golf swing isn't very natural, so its uncomfortable for him to play for long, especially now that he's older.

The thing is, at this point if he tried to undo any of those habits, his whole game would fall apart!  He would need to take each part of his swing, from his stance to his grip to the angle of his arm on the backswing to the way he turns going through the ball, and hammer each part out individually.  And because the swing is a giant compound movement, changing anything is going to play against all the habits he has now (because they're designed to kind of work together), and he would swing terribly.  The ultimate result, if he stuck with it long enough, would be a better, smoother, more consistent swing and a lower score.  Unfortunately, it means a lot of failure, botched swings, and discomfort in the mean time.  And if he isn't concentrating 100%, some of his old habits will resurface and kick his progress in the butt.  Because he plays for fun and just likes to get outside after working in an office all week, this isn't really appealing to him.

If you want to rework bad habits that have become automatic, you have to grind them out.  Sometimes you have to revamp your entire form, or your entire mindset, and the process can take a long time, dosed with quite a a lot of failure to boot.

The fastest (and most effective) way to do this is to devote your practice to one thing at a time and don't concern yourself with overall success.  Drills are helpful for this, rather than just sitting down and playing a full game of [whatever], because most games are divided into lots of parts with lots of interaction; if you don't drill a certain ability, you won't get enough practice on it through your game session.  Our brains are pretty flexible, and they will change with effort, even when we're older.  The trick is picking a singular element of your game and focusing on it ruthlessly until it's perfect, then moving on until it all falls into place.

Thanks for reading.  See you next time!


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  3. Habit formation and breaking is a bit more complicated than one's brain just being a sponge and then having to scrub out unwanted material. The brain is very plastic even into adulthood like you said. New research has shed light on some of this.