New research measures how practice physically manifests itself in the brain:
Just about everything we do modifies connections between brain cells—learning and memory are dependent on this flexibility. When we improve a skill through practice, we strengthen connections between neurons involved in that skill. In a recent study, scientists peeked into the brains of living mice as the rodents learned some new tricks. Mice who repeated the same task day after day grew more clusters of mushroomlike appendages on their neurons than mice who divided their attention among different tasks. … “I think it is a very active process,” [Yi] Zuo says. “The neurons work very hard to form clusters, to place spines close to one another. Even after a short training period on the first day, a mouse makes of a lot of new spines—they might make double what they make in an ordinary day, but these spines are not clustered. Only after repeated training are they clustered.”
I find this fascinating because it reflects what one might call a conservative truth: we become what we do. We are not Etch-A-Sketches, blank slates on whom a new abstract idea can simply and easily be applied to turn our lives around. We are constantly evolving organisms, each choice leading to another fate and another choice and all of these creating us, slowly, by will and habit. One is reminded of Orwell's assertion that "at age 50, every man has the face he deserves" (something he conveniently avoided by dying in his forties). I'm also reminded of Pascal's rather controversial dictum that merely practicing faith will instill it. Acts become thoughts which become acts, and habits become personality which becomes character. There can be no total rupture – which is why I am not a fan of "born-again" Christianity. It only takes if it reorients practice.
We like to think of the brain as some kind of separate part of the body. It isn't. And what exercize and diet and sleep do for the body, thought and practice and sleep do for the brain. And when this kind of practice of something becomes effortless, when it becomes second nature, instinctual, it becomes part of you and you of it. You simply cannot describe the great skill of a craftsman, or a cook, or a priest, or an artist except by observing how he or she has become what she creates and does. Julia Childs' cook-book can never replicate an actual Julia Childs meal. It can merely abstract from it, copy it. But the itness is hers and hers alone. At that point, where the idea and the practice and the person simply become one, human activity takes flight. It becomes integral.
The neurons merely prove what every truly wise man has long known.
(Painting: The Music Lesson, Jan Vermeer.)