Deliberate practice and the unconscious brain

By Dan Peterson

The subject of deliberate practice has been discussed a lot here recently, and K Anders Ericssson’s “10,000 hour rule” has become a popular cultural touchstone because of Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers.

But an intriguing recent study by neuroscientists at Northwestern suggests that it might be possible to make the same gains with less actual, working practice time, by supplementing that practice with passive observation while the brain’s subconscious systems does the rest of the learning.

The researchers had all of the subjects practice a task 360 times per day for six days, which in this case was an auditory discrimination task where the subjects had to determine whether two similar sounds were the same or different.  Then, they divided the subjects into three groups, each of whom did a different type of follow-up training.  The first group practiced a completely irrelevant task in silence.  The second practiced that same irrelevant task while relevant noise was played in the background.  The third group continued to train on the auditory discrimination task.

What did the researchers find?  Jonah Lehrer has a great writeup of the results:

So which group improved the most? It turned out that you needed to be exposed to the relevant stimuli. This meant that the group which practiced the unrelated task in silence didn’t improve. However,  these experiments also demonstrated that listening to relevant background stimulation could be just as effective as slaving away at the task itself, at least when the subjects had practiced first. In fact, the scientists found that we don’t even have to be paying conscious attention to the stimuli – subjects still benefited from the stimulation even when distracted by an entirely unrelated task. I emailed with Andrew Sabin, one of the co-authors on the study, who summarized the results:

A great deal of previous work has shown that simply presenting the stimuli to the participant is usually not enough. They actually have to do the task. This is where our group comes in. Basically, what we say is, yes you do have to do the task, just not for the whole time. The main result is that if you practice for 20 minutes, and then you are passively exposed to stimuli for 20 minutes, you learn as if you have been practicing for 40 minutes. You can cut the effort in half, and still yield the same benefit. This finding could be important for clinical training programs, such as the ones that attempt to treat language-based learning disorders.

Will this make you better?


Does this sound a little bit too much like a free lunch?  Possibly.  But it does point towards the power of the brain’s subconscious and everything that it does that we are, well, not conscious of.  The study looked at a very simple and specific task, but it raises a lot of great questions about how training might be restructured or re-imagined to make it more efficient.  A sentiment offered in the study authors’ closing comments:

On a practical level, the present results suggest a means by which perceptual training regimens might be made markedly more efficient and less effortful. The current data indicate that it may be possible to reduce the effort required by participants by at least half, with no deleterious effect, simply by combining periods of task performance with periods of additional stimulus exposure. If this proves to be a general rule of nondeclarative learning, it could help to explain how potent instances of learning can arise when sensory stimulation is not always coupled with attention.

Interesting. I don’t know if athletes should go cutting their practice time by half and then watching sports, but more exploration into unconscious learning is going to be a fruitful area of research.

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3 Responses to Deliberate practice and the unconscious brain

  1. Craig Burton says:

    The best kids that I have coached are usually the ones that cant get enough of their sport on the TV or watching it live added to the training. Sounds a bit like the old saying..”Eat, Drink and Sleep” your chosen sport.

  2. Let us remember that in the first study referenced here, by Ericsson, deliberate practice is task specific. This means that to be a better baseball hitter, you must actually be exposed to practice hitting balls, not just playing baseball in general. I am guessing this new information is the exact same way so as many of you read this and think people can now get better at a sport by watching it on TV I think you are incorrect. What would possibly help, from this new information, is structuring Practice sessions so that athletes in line or not participating are still seeing pitches (or other stimuli that may improve performance in other sports or situations) while they are waiting and things of this nature. Still a great study for sport Coaches to consider and implement into their practice.

    • Joaquin says:

      Thanks for the excellent comment Brad. I completely agree that studies like this, while fascinating, often carry the potential to be misused and misinterpreted. There is no such thing as a free lunch.

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