Learning a Skill? Raw Talent Might Trump Hard Work

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Conventional wisdom says if you want to play at Carnegie Hall, Madison Square Garden –– even your local talent show –– it's going to take a lot of practice. But too much faith may be put in the saying "practice makes perfect."

Researchers from McGill University recently published a study in the journal Cerebral Cortex saying while certain parts of your brain get molded by experience, others are based on talent. The researchers studied 14 adults between the ages of 20 and 34 who wanted to learn how to play the piano.Music gives interesting insights into learning since there's both the bottom-up, sensory information in the notes you hear, as well as the top-down, abstractly reasoned rules you learn for what makes or breaks a melody. Past studies have shown certain areas of the brain can be characterized as having more bottom-up roles and others have more top-down functions. You need both types to learn a new skill. But the researchers showed not all parts of your brain change for the better with practice, so what you start with can affect how well you learn.

The study design went something like this: Brain scans measured activity in both bottom-up and top-down regions. Next came six weeks-worth of piano training, with participants progressing through harder and harder levels. Then a final brain scan with auditory tests. In these, music was played (bottom-up, sensory information) and participants judged if notes fit with the overall melody (the top-down ability to imagine music).

The researchers found the abstract parts of the brain improved with participants' piano skills. But the sensory-encoding parts of the brain didn't. But most importantly, how active or "good" the participants' sensory-encoding aspects were before they started playing the piano predicted how quickly or slowly they'd learn how to play.

The study shows which parts of the brain predispose you to the speed at which you learn. We should note though, the study was a short-term one, and more brain changes may occur in the long-run.
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