Welcome to the Huberman Lab Podcast, where we discuss science and science-based tools for everyday life. I’m Andrew Huberman, a professor of neurobiology and ophthalmology at Stanford School of Medicine. This podcast is separate from my teaching and research roles at Stanford, but is part of my desire and effort to bring zero cost to consumer information about science and science related tools to the general public.

In keeping with that theme, I’d like to thank the sponsors of today’s podcast. Our first sponsor is Belcampo Meat Company, a regenerative farm in Northern California that raises organic grass fed and grass-finished certified humane meats. I eat meat about once a day, and I’m neither pure carnivore nor a vegetarian. Obviously, I eat meat.

I tend to fast until around noon and then have my first meal, which generally consists of a piece of beef, like ground beef or steak (I prefer ribeyes or flat irons). I also have a small or large salad. For the rest of the day, I stay low carb until the evening when I eat pasta, rice, and other similar foods. This eating pattern optimizes my levels of alertness and sleep.

The source of my meat is very important to me because I eat it almost every day. I want it to be healthy for me and the animals it comes from to have lived a good life. Conventionally raised animals are confined to feedlots and eat inflammatory grains, which is bad for them and us. Belcampo’s animals graze on open pastures and seasonal grasses, resulting in meat that is higher in nutrients and healthy fats, including Omega threes, which I’ve talked about on this podcast as being important for mental and physical health.

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I started using Athletic Greens and I still use it because it’s rather dizzying to know which vitamins and minerals to take. With Athletic Greens, I cover all my bases of vitamins and minerals, as well as probiotics. We now know from an enormous number of quality peer reviewed studies that the gut microbiome is critically important for our immune system function, for the gut brain access, and for our mental functions. Probiotics are one way to support the gut brain axis and the gut health generally. I mix it with water and a little bit of lemon juice, which tastes delicious. I’ll do that once or twice a day, usually early in the day and sometimes even before bed. It’s compatible with fasting at least for me and I’m able to sleep after drinking it without a problem.

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This month on the Huberman Lab Podcast, we’re talking all about physical performance. That means athletic performance, recreational exercise, weightlifting, running, swimming, yoga, and skills and skill learning. Today, we’re going to focus on how to learn skills more quickly, in particular motor skills. This will also translate to things like musical skills and playing instruments, but we’re mainly going to focus on physical movements of the body that extend beyond the hands and fingers.

So if you’re interested in how to perform better, whether or not it’s dance or yoga or even something that’s just very repetitive like running or swimming, this podcast episode is for you. We’re going to go deep into the science of skill learning and talk about very specific protocols that the science points to and has verified to allow you to learn more quickly, to embed that learning so that you remember it, and to be able to build up skills more quickly than you would otherwise.

We are also going to touch on a few things that I get asked about a lot, but fortunately recently I’ve had the time to go deep into the literature, extract the data for you, and that’s mental visualization.

Visualizing a particular skill or practice can serve the learning and consolidation of that practice. It turns out there are some striking protocols that allow one to learn faster and remember how to do things more quickly and better. I’m excited for today’s episode, as we will be sharing a lot of information and simple takeaways.

Before getting into the topic of skill learning and tools for accelerating skill learning, I want to briefly revisit the topic of temperature, which was covered in the last episode. Last episode discussed incredible data from my colleague Craig Heller’s lab at Stanford in the department of biology, showing that cooling the palms in particular ways and at particular times can allow athletes or recreational exercisers to do more pull-ups, dips, bench presses, run further, cycle further, and feel better doing it. These results are anchored in the biology of the vascular system, the blood supply, and how it is involved in cooling us.

Many of you asked about the apparent contradiction between two protocols discussed in previous episodes: cooling the palms periodically throughout exercise in order to do more work and heating up the body with exercise for growth hormone release. Both protocols are true, but should be done at separate times. Before exercising, one should always warm up the body in order to not diminish one’s work capacity or performance. Cooling the palms is the most efficient way to cool the core and improve performance. Heating up the body with exercise, or using a sauna, is geared toward growth hormone release. Therefore, if one is interested in doing more work and feeling better doing it, cooling the palms periodically as discussed in the previous episode is the way to go.

If you’re interested in getting growth hormone release, then hot sauna is the way to go. I offered some other tools if you don’t have a sauna in the episode on growth hormone and thyroid hormone. These tools can be included in your fitness and training regime, but you do want to do them at separate times. As a last point about this, I also mentioned that caffeine can either help or hinder performance depending on whether or not you’re caffeine adapted. If you enjoy caffeine before your workouts and are accustomed to it, meaning you drink it three to five times or more a week in doses of 100 to 300 milligrams, then it’s going to be just fine to ingest caffeine before you train.

Caffeine can be beneficial for regular users, but not for those who don’t typically consume it. It can lead to increases in body temperature and changes in blood flow, which can diminish performance. Therefore, if you don’t usually use caffeine, it’s best not to view it as a performance enhancing tool.
Additionally, I want to offer an additional tool to help with side cramps or side stitches when running or swimming. This is actually due to collateralization of the phrenic nerve, P-H-R-E-N-I-C.

The phrenic nerve extends down from the brainstem to the diaphragm, controlling breathing. It has a collateral branch, similar to a tree branch, which innervates the liver. If breathing is not deep enough, it can cause referred pain which is familiar to those who have read about how to recognize a heart attack. When experiencing a heart attack, people may experience pain in the left arm, back, shoulder, or face. This is because many of our nerves branch and are collateralized to different organs and areas of the body. The side stitch, or pain in the side, is often caused by the contractions of the diaphragm while exercising. To relieve the pain, one must simply breathe deeply.

The physiological side of side stitches can be relieved with a double inhale through the nose, followed by a long exhale. This should be repeated two or three times and can be done while engaging in exercise. Dehydration can also be a factor, but often the stitch is caused by incorrect breathing patterns. To prevent side stitches, some people use the double inhale, long exhale pattern during long bouts of exercise. I personally use this technique when I run.

We have decent data, although these are still unpublished, that can engage a kind of regular cadence of heart rate variability. There are a number of reasons why this physiological side can be useful, but it certainly can be useful for relieving the side stitch or so-called side cramp.

Let’s talk about the acquisition of new skills. These could be skills such as a golf swing or a tennis swing, shooting free throws, learning to dance, or learning an instrument. I’m mainly going to focus on athletic performance. There are basically two types of skills: open loop and closed loop. Open loop skills are skills where you perform some sort of motor action and then you wait and you get immediate feedback as to whether or not it was done correctly or not. A good example is throwing darts at a dartboard. So if you throw the dart, you get feedback about whether or not you hit the bullseye, you’re off the dart board, or you’re some other location on the dart board; that’s open loop.

Open loop would be practicing your tennis serve, such as throwing a ball up and hitting it over a target on the other side of the net. You would know whether or not you were in the court and close to the target or not. Closed loop, on the other hand, would be something more continuous, such as running or doing ladder work, where you can adjust your behavior and get feedback on a moment to moment basis. For example, when running, you can feel whether or not you’re running correctly and adjust your speed, stride, or posture.

Learning a skill can be broken down into two distinct categories: open loop and closed loop. An example of an open loop skill is learning a swim stroke, while an example of a closed loop skill is learning a particular rhythm on the drums. When attempting to learn a skill, it is important to identify whether it is open or closed loop. There are three components of any skill that involves motor movement: sensory perception, motor control, and cognitive processing. Sensory perception involves perceiving what is happening around you, such as what you see, hear, and the trajectory of your arm or how you are moving your feet. Motor control involves adjusting in real time to try and catch up or slow down or speed up. Cognitive processing involves understanding the skill and why it is important.

When learning to dance, you are often more focused on something outside of yourself, such as listening for something in the music or paying attention to the way your partner is moving. Additionally, you need to pay attention to the movements of your limbs and body, as well as something called proprioception. Proprioception is a sixth sense of knowing where your limbs are in relation to your body. This is vitally important and when learning, you are typically placing more focus on proprioception than you do ordinarily. For example, when you get up from a chair and walk out of the room, you don’t think about where your feet are landing relative to one another.

But if my leg had fallen asleep because I had been leaning on one of the nerves of my leg or something like that, and my leg feels all tingly or numb, I and you, if this were to happen to you, would immediately notice a shift in gait. It would feel strange, I’d have to pay attention to how I’m stepping.

And the reason is I’m not getting any proprioceptive feedback. Now, skill learning has a lot of other dimensions too, but those are the main ones that we’re going to focus on. So just to remind you, you need to know open loop or closed loop and you need to know whether or not, excuse me, you need to know that there’s sensory perception what you’re paying attention to, movements themselves and proprioception.

And there’s one other important thing that you need to know which is that movement of any kind is generated from one, two or three sources within your nervous system, within your brain and body. These are central pattern generators which are sometimes called CSPGs, excuse me, CPGSs, CSPGs are something entirely different in biology. CPGSs, this just goes to show that I have a module. CSPGs are chondroid and sulfate proteoglycans.

Central Pattern Generators (CPGs), also known as CPGSs, are found in the spinal cord of humans and animals. They generate repetitive movements such as walking, running, cycling and breathing. After learning how to do these activities, much of the work is taken over by the CPGs. Experiments done in the 1960s, 70s and 80s looked at the effects of removing the cerebral cortex in humans and animals. These experiments showed that even without a neocortex, the animals could still engage in a kind of movement called fictive movement. This has become a key part of neuroscience textbooks and shows the importance of CPGs.

Humans with massive strokes to their cortex, who lack any neocortex, can still walk just fine. This is due to the central pattern generators (CPGs) that control a lot of our already learned behavior. For example, when someone is good at golf, CPGs are controlling a lot of that behavior. Even if the golf swing is not repetitive, CPGs are still handling a lot of it. This is true even for those who have only done mini golf, such as myself. Someday I may learn how to golf, setting the golf ball down and swinging. Central pattern generators will still be controlling a lot of that.

If I were to go to the golf course, Stanford has a beautiful golf course. If I were to go out there and put a ball on the T, my central pattern generators would not be involved in that at all. The moment I bring the club back to swing, it’s going to engage upper motor neurons. We have motor neurons in our cortex, in our neocortex that control deliberate action. These are the ones that you have to pay attention in order to engage when you are learning.
For instance, if I decide I’m going to reach down and pick up my pen, which I rarely think about, but now I’m thinking about it and I’m going to do this in a very deliberate way. I’m going to grab with these two fingers and lift.

Upper motor neurons are very important because they are involved in the process of learning. CPGs are responsible for rhythmic movement, while upper motor neurons are responsible for deliberate unlearned movements or movements that we are in the process of learning. Lower motor neurons, which are located in the spinal cord, send little wires out to our muscles and cause the firing of those muscle fibers. To understand the neural pathways controlling movement, it is important to understand the roles of CPGs, upper motor neurons, and lower motor neurons.

When learning something, it is critical to decide what to focus on. This should be the second question asked by those who take notes.

The first question to ask is whether the task is open loop or closed loop. The second question should be what should be the focus of attention: auditory, visual or proprioception. Should the focus be on the outcome or the movements of the body? This is an important distinction. For example, when learning a golf swing, free throws or tango, the focus could be the movements of the partner or the position of the feet. Attention could be allocated by looking, feeling or sensing the position of the body. Knowing how to allocate attention in the best way in order to learn faster is a critical decision to make.

Fortunately for you, you don’t have to think about whether or not you’re going to use your upper motor neurons and your lower motor neurons or not, because if you don’t know how to do something, you’re automatically going to engage your upper motor neurons. And if you do, then you’re not going to use your upper motor neurons. You’re mainly going to rely on central pattern generators. You are always using your lower motor neurons to move muscle. So we can really simplify things now.

I’ve given you a lot of information but we can simplify it. Basically open loop or closed loop, that’s one question and what am I going to focus on? And then your neurology will take care of the rest. So now I want to talk about realistic expectations. Somewhere in Hollywood presumably, it got embedded in somebody’s mind that instant skill acquisition was possible, that you could take a particular pill or you could touch a particular object or you could have a wand wave over you and you would suddenly have a skill.

Hollywood’s myth of instant skill acquisition doesn’t exist in reality. The 10,000 hours rule, which implies that learning takes time, is more accurate but overlooks something crucial: it’s not about hours, it’s about repetitions. Experiments have shown that by adjusting what you focus on while attempting to learn a new skill, you can adjust the number of repetitions and vastly accelerate learning. This is known as the “Super Mario Effect,” and there is a good video on YouTube describing it.

A YouTuber with a background in science conducted an interesting experiment known as the Super Mario Effect. They had 50,000 subjects learn a computer program by taking words from a computer program that were clustered in a column on the right. These commands translated to things like “go forward” or “go right” and the job of the subjects was to organize the instructions in a way that would allow a cursor to move through the maze. The goal was to prove that anyone can learn to program if they can organize the instructions correctly.

If you don’t have any background in computer programming, it takes some skill. You have to know what commands to give in what particular order. To make this easier, people started assembling commands into a list on the right.

Half of the subjects got a signal on their screen saying “that did not work, please try again” if they entered a wrong command or sequence. They would then reorganize the instructions and the cursor would continue. The other half of the subjects were told “you just lost five points, please continue” if they got something wrong.

Subjects that were told they lost five points had a 68% success rate and those that were told “did not work, please try again” had a 52% success rate. This difference in success rate is due to the fact that the latter group tried many more times per unit time. The source of the success or lack of success is really interesting, as it goes against the self-help literature which states that people will work harder to prevent losing something than they will to gain something.

And then you put a food pellet at one end of the tube. And then you measure the time it takes each mouse to get the food pellet. So the first mouse, the first time it does it, it takes a certain amount of time. The second time it does it, it takes a little bit less time. And then the third time, it takes a little bit less time. And then you start to see this pattern of improvement, where it’s getting better and better and better. But then something interesting happens when you start to introduce a small
punishment or a small penalty.

So let’s say that you give the mouse a mild shock every time it takes more than a certain amount of time to get the food pellet.
What you find is that the mouse starts to learn faster. It starts to learn the task at a much faster rate than it did before the introduction of the penalty.

Mice and rats do not like to share the same tube, so they will push each other back and forth until one is pushed out. The one that gets pushed out is the loser and the one that gets the tube is the winner. If the same winner is given a new competitor, it has a much higher than chance probability of winning again. Similarly, if the loser is placed with a fresh mouse, it typically will lose at a much greater probability than chance. This is not related to differences in strength, size, testosterone, or any other factors, as these were all controlled for.

Now that results have been known about for decades, three years ago a paper was published in the Journal Science, a phenomenal journal and one of the three apex journals. This paper examined the brain area involved in the results and found that a particular area of the frontal cortex, a little sub region of the prefrontal cortex, could be stimulated or blocked to affect the results.

If the brain area was stimulated, a mouse or rat, regardless of whether or not it had been a winner or loser before, became a winner every single time. Conversely, if the activity of this brain area was blocked, the mouse or rat became a loser every single time. This translated to other competitive scenarios, such as a chamber with a heat lamp in the corner where there was only enough space for one mouse to be under the heat.

The one that had won in the tube test or that had the brain area stimulated always got the nice warm spot. This finding demonstrates the power of this particular brain area and its ability to affect the results of competitive scenarios.

The magic brain area, referred to in this transcript, is located in the prefrontal cortex. Stimulation of this brain area had an important effect: it led to more forward steps, more repetitions, and more effort in terms of repetitions per unit time. This effect, known as the “super Mario effect,” was demonstrated in an online experiment as well as a tube test.

This suggests that learning a skill is not simply a matter of 10,000 hours of practice or a “magic wand” approach. Instead, the key to learning is performing as many repetitions per unit time as possible, at least when first learning a skill. It may seem obvious, but it is worth noting that more repetitions do not necessarily lead to faster learning, as errors can lead to poor performance. Feedback is also limited in many cases.

It’s not like every time the rat pushes forward or moves back that it is sensing, “Oh I’m winning, I’m losing, I’m winning, I’m losing” on a micro level. It probably does that as it starts to push the other one out – the rat or mouse probably thinks, “I’m winning.” And as it’s backing up, it probably thinks, “I’m losing.” As you play the Super Mario game, you are told, “Nope, that didn’t work. Please try again.” But the important thing is that the winners are always generating more repetitions per unit time. It’s just a repeat of performance, even if there are errors. And that points to something vitally important, which is reps are important but making error reps is also important. In fact, it might be the most important factor. So let’s talk about errors and why those solve the problem of what to focus on. Because as I said earlier, if you want to learn something, you need to know if it’s open loop or closed loop and you need to know what to focus on, where to place your perception. And that seems like a tough task but errors will tell you exactly what to focus on.

Errors are important for accelerating skill learning because they cue the nervous system to error correction and neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the brain and nervous system’s ability to change in response to experience, allowing it to perform better. A paper published in 2021 from Norman et al. in the journal Neuron provides actionable insights on how to make the most of errors. It suggests that when errors occur, one should focus on the goal of the task, not the errors themselves. This allows for better understanding of the task and more effective learning.

The title of the paper gives away its main point: post-error recruitment of frontal sensory cortical projections promotes attention. When an error is made, it activates the brain areas that anchor attention. Perception and attention are essentially the same thing, and the upper and lower motor neurons need to communicate in the proper ways in order to determine what to pay attention to. Errors tell the nervous system that something needs to change, and if one is learning a skill such as dancing, the errors open the possibility for plasticity. Unless the errors are hazardous, one should continue to engage in the activity at a high repetition rate, as this is where learning is possible.

Errors cue the frontal cortex networks and neuromodulators, such as dopamine, acetylcholine and epinephrine, to enable plasticity in the brain. For example, the Super Mario experiment and the maze experiment focused on generating errors to cue people to the fact that they needed to change something. Making mistakes and errors allows the brain to become more plastic, so that when the correct pattern is achieved, it is rewarded and consolidated with the release of dopamine. However, increasing dopamine levels before learning will not necessarily lead to faster learning, as it can reduce the signal to noise.

It will make these increases in dopamine that pop up in your brain that suddenly make you realize, “Oh, I got that one right.” You want a big spike in dopamine when you perform a motor pattern correctly and you want to make lots of errors, many, many repetitions of errors in order to get to that correct performance.

Now, if you’re like most people you’re going to do this in a way that’s somewhat random. Meaning let’s say it’s a tennis serve. I can’t play tennis, I think I’ve probably played tennis twice. So if I throw the ball up in the air and hit it, I’m going to get it wrong and probably hit the net, then it hit the net. Then I’ll probably go too long then I’ll probably go over the fence. At some point, I like to think I’ll get it correct. The dopamine signal for that is going to be quite big and I’ll think, “Okay, what did I do there? I actually don’t know, I wasn’t paying attention.

I was paying attention to whether or not the ball went to the correct location on the opposite side of the net. Remember, it’s an open loop move, so I don’t actually know what I did correctly. However, my nervous system will take care of that provided I complete more and more repetitions. Taking a large amount of L-Tyrosine (1500 milligrams) to increase my dopamine levels would be counter-productive as it would decrease the signal-to-noise ratio and hinder the plasticity process. Errors cue the brain that something was wrong, and open up the possibility for plasticity.

This is about the framing effect, which is sometimes called the framing effect. It frames what is important and is distinct from the growth mindset theory and practice of Carol Dweck at Stanford. This is about how you actually learn, not motivation to learn. To approach learning effectively, you should designate a particular block of time (e.g. 30 minutes or an hour) to perform repetitions, and try to do the maximum number of repetitions safely in that time. This is the best way to learn most of the time. Making errors is also key. This is not a motivational speech, but rather an explanation of the framing effect.

No, I’m not saying, “Oh, go make errors, errors are good for you. You have to fail in order to win.” Instead, I’m saying that you have to fail in order to open up the possibility of plasticity. This means that within the same training session, you have to fail many times. This will help to cue your attention to the appropriate sensory events.

When working with a coach, they can see things that the practitioner can’t. This is vitally important, as the coach can point out errors such as swinging the elbows too high or not gripping the racket in the right way. Therefore, it is important that each training session has a period where the practitioner can pay attention to their errors without their attention being cued to something else.

The practitioner needs to use the error recognition signal to focus on something, and the errors will tell them what to focus on. Repetition after repetition is necessary for a period of time. Many people, including coaches, are afraid that bad habits will get ingrained, but it is very important that these errors occur in order to cue the attentional systems and to open the door for plasticity. For example, if someone is told to tighten their stance, they need to generate many repetitions from that stance. If they are constantly being cued from the outside about what they are doing incorrectly, that is not as efficient. The length of the learning session will vary depending on lifestyle and other factors, but it is important to get the maximum number of repetitions in and to make errors in order to allow for plasticity.

Science points to the fact that there is a particular sequencing of learning sessions that will allow you to learn faster and retain the skill learning. This involves doing as many repetitions as possible in the learning session, paying attention to any errors that you make. Additionally, rewards generated from the successful performance of a movement (even if it is not perfect) will be rewarded with a neurochemical mechanism. After the session, it is important to do nothing. Data from the hippocampus (which is the area of the brain involved in the consolidation of new memories) suggests that in sleep, there is a replay of the sequence of neurons that were involved in certain behaviors the previous day. Similarly, after a skill learning session, there is a replay of the motor sequence that was performed correctly and an elimination of the motor sequences that were performed incorrectly. Therefore, if you are learning a new skill, you may make a lot of errors, but if you get a little bit better or perform it correctly a few times, it will be beneficial in the long run.

It sounds like something I might do, and there I’m probably being generous to myself. After I finish a training session, if I do nothing and am not focused on additional learning, I can sit and close my eyes for a few minutes. During this time, the brain will start to replay the motor sequence corresponding to the correct pattern movement, but it plays it backward. We don’t know why it does this, but it appears to be important for the consolidation of the skill learning.

Many people finish their classes, such as jujitsu, yoga, dance, etc., and immediately devote their attention to something else. There is a lot of talk about visualization, which we will discuss. However, it is important to take a few moments to replay the skill learned during the session.

Sitting quietly with your eyes closed for one to five to 10 minutes allows the brain to replay the sequence in a way that appears important for the more rapid consolidation of the motor sequence and to accelerated learning. This is not work that I was involved in, but there is an excellent paper that covers this and much more titled, “Neuroplasticity Subserving Motor Skill Learning” by Dayan and Cohen, published in 2011. There have been a number of updates and the literature that I’ve described in other portions of today’s episode come from the more recent literature such as the 2021 paper. We hear so much about mental rehearsal and we always think about it as the thing you do before or instead of training. However, this is rehearsal that is done afterward where the brain is just automatically scripting through the sequence.

For some reason, that’s still not clear as to why this would be the case, it runs backward. Then, in sleep, it runs forwards and certainly absolutely, sleep and quality sleep of the appropriate duration, et cetera is going to be important for learning of all kinds, including skill learning. We did an entire four episodes on sleep and how to get better at sleeping back in January. Those episodes were essentially one, two, three, and four, and maybe even episode five, I don’t recall. But, you can go there to find out all about how to get better at sleeping.

Now, there are other training sessions involved. I’m not going to learn the perfect golf swing, or the tennis serve, or how to dance in one session and I doubt you will either. So, the question is when to come back and what to do when you come back to the training set. Now, first of all, this principle of errors queuing attention and opening the opportunity for plasticity, that’s never going to change. That’s going to be true for somebody who is hyper skilled, who even has mastery or even virtuosity in a given skill.

But at the highest level of virtuosity, we invite uncertainty back into the practice.

Remember, when you’re unskilled at something, uncertainty is very high. As you become more skilled, certainty goes up. Eventually, you achieve levels of mastery where certainty is very high about your ability to perform, yours and that of other people. There is a fourth category of virtuosity where somebody, maybe you, invites uncertainty back into the practice because only with that uncertainty can you express your full range of abilities which you aren’t even aware of until uncertainty comes into the picture.

I happened to have the great privilege of being friends with Laird Hamilton, the big wave surfer who is phenomenal. I don’t surf, but he and another guy that he starts with, Luca Patua, are virtuosos at surfing. They don’t just want the wave that they can master, they want uncertainty. They recognize that when uncertainty shows up like a wave that is either so big or is moving in a particular way, it brings an element of uncertainty for them about what they’re going to do and they recognize that as an opportunity to perform better than they would otherwise.

At the beginning of learning any skill and as we approach from uncertain to skilled to mastery, we want to reduce uncertainty. But at the highest level of virtuosity, we invite uncertainty back into the practice.

The nervous system is trying to eliminate errors and hone in on the correct trajectories. If you perform a lot of repetitions and use a period of immediately after, it can lead to a deeper learning and more quick learning. However, if we focus on other things, such as our phones or performance, this will not serve us well when it comes to skill learning. To improve skill learning, try introducing these sessions. On subsequent sessions, after a night’s sleep or two sessions a day, you can express the gains from the previous session, with most often an improvement in performance, even if it’s subtle. Additionally, you can direct your perception to particular elements of the movement in order to accelerate learning further.

You might do that for one session or five sessions, is going to depend. But once you’re familiar with something and you’re performing it well every once in a while, you’re accomplishing it better every once in a while, then you can start to cue your attention in very deliberate ways. The question then becomes what to cue your attention to. Fortunately, it doesn’t matter. Claudia Lappe and colleagues have done some nice work published in 2018, looking at sequences of keys being played on a piano. This work talks about the influence of pitch feedback on learning of motor timing and sequencing.

This study turns out that it doesn’t matter so much what you pay attention to during the learning sequence, provided it’s something related to the motor behavior that you’re performing. This seems incredible! For example, I’m not good at a tennis serve. After doing a thousand repetitions, I got it right three to ten times. After a post-training session and some good sleep, I come back and start generating errors again, presumably with fewer errors. Now I decide to cue my attention to something very specific, like how tightly I’m holding the racket, or my stance, or whether or not I rotate my right shoulder in as I hit the ball across. It turns out that as long as it’s the same thing throughout the session, learning is accelerated.

People can use their powers of attention to direct their attention to particular aspects of a motor movement once they are familiar with the general theme of the movement. It is not important what they pay attention to exactly, but rather that they focus on one specific thing. Claudia Lappe and colleagues showed that when people are trying to learn a sequence of keys on the piano, they can receive multiple forms of feedback. If they hear a piece of music and then press the keys in a particular sequence, the sound that comes out of the piano may not sound like the song they just heard. For example, if someone were to play the wrong sequence, or press too hard or too lightly on the keys, the sound would not be correct.

Researchers showed that if people are instructed about the correct sequence to press on the keys, it does not matter what sound comes back, as long as it is the same sound. To conduct the experiment, they had people press on the keys of a typical piano, which generated the particular sequence of sounds that would be generated by pressing the keys. Alternatively, they modified the keyboard so that when people pressed on the keys, a random tone or a single tone was played each time. The task of the subject was simply to press the keys in the proper sequence, regardless of the sound. The results of the experiment showed that people could still complete the task with the same accuracy, even with the single tone or random tones.

Learning to play the piano at least at these early stages is really just about generating the motor commands. It’s not about paying attention to the sound that’s coming out of the piano. This makes sense as when we are beginners, we are trying to focus our attention on the things that we can control. Pressing the keys on the piano and paying attention to the sounds that are coming out are two separate things. As you get deeper and deeper into a practice, focusing purely on the motor execution can be beneficial. This is going to be harder to do with open loop type things where you’re getting feedback. An example of open loop would be the attempt at a back flip – if you get it wrong, you will immediately know, if you get it right, you’ll immediately know.

It turns out that the rate to motor learning was the same, whether or not they were getting feedback that was accurate to the keys of the piano or whether or not it was a constant tone. Performance was terrible and the rates of learning were terrible if they were getting random tones back.

Please don’t go out and try and do a back flip on the solid ground, or even on a trampoline if you don’t know what you’re doing because very likely you’ll get it wrong and you’ll get injured.

But if it’s something that is closed loop where you can repeat again and again, and again and again, that is advantageous because you can perform many many repetitions and you can start to focus or learn to focus your attention just on the pattern of movement.

In other words, you can learn to play the piano just as fast or maybe even faster by just focusing on the sequence that you are moving your digits, your fingers and not the feedback. Now, I’m sure there are music teachers out there and piano teachers that are screaming, “No you’re going to ruin the practice that all of us have embedded in our minds and in our students.”

And I agree, at some point you need to start including feedback about whether or not things sound correct. But one of the beauties of skill learning is that you can choose to parameterize it, meaning you can choose to just focus on the motor sequence or just focus on the sounds that are coming back and then integrate those.

And so we hear a lot about chunking, about breaking things down into their component parts. But one of the biggest challenges for skill learning is knowing where to place your attention. So to dial out again, we’re building a protocol across this episode, early sessions, maybe it’s the first one, maybe it’s the first 10, maybe it’s the first 100. It depends on how many repetitions you’re packing in.

But during those initial sessions, the key is to make many errors to let the reward process govern the plasticity, let the errors open the plasticity.

After the learning sessions, it is important to let the brain go idle for a short period of time and maximize sleep. As more sessions are incorporated, one starts to gain skill level by learning to harness and focus their attention on particular features of the movement, independent of rewards and feedback. The reward is no longer in the tone from the piano or whether or not the target was struck correctly, but simply the motor movement. This helps to embed the plasticity in the motor pattern most deeply.

Coaches and teachers may disagree with this, and that is great. However, it is important to break the learning process down into its component parts. As one makes fewer errors per session and per unit of time, they can start to migrate their attention from one feature such as the motor sequence to another feature, like their stance and another sequence. This can be done by changing it up each time, focusing on where the ball lands, the speed, the grip, and the stance from trial to trial.

We need to master the core motor movements which have been done session to session. According to the literature I have access to, this seems to be suboptimal. To address this, we are breaking the connections between upper motor neurons, lower motor neurons and central pattern generators into their component parts.

There are some papers showing that performing a movement in slow motion can be beneficial for enhancing the rate of skill learning. However, it appears that ultra slow movements should be performed after some degree of proficiency has already been gained in that particular movement. This is not what I would have thought; I thought that ultra slow movements at first would be the best way to learn how to perform a movement and then gradually increase the speed.

Ultra slow movements can be beneficial once you already have some proficiencies. Two things are not available when doing ultra slow movements: proprioceptive feedback is not accurate due to fast movements of limbs being very different than slow movements of limbs, and it is too accurate, meaning you don’t generate errors. Data shows that very slow movements can help if you are already proficient in a practice, but not if you are just beginning to learn. This is because errors allow for plasticity, and correct performance of movements cues the synapses in the brain and spinal circuits that need to change. These changes occur immediately after skill learning and in sleep. As an example, you can stand in your living room and perform your tennis serve in ultra slow motion, thinking about how you are adjusting your elbow and arm trajectory as taught by your tennis coach.

Learning a skill can be difficult, and it does not appear to be the best way to learn a skill from the outset. When should you start to introduce slow learning? It is recommended to talk to coaches about this, but if you do not have a coach, you can navigate it by using scientific literature. It appears that once you have achieved success rates of 25-30%, super slow movements can be beneficial. However, if you are still only achieving 5-10% correct, super slow movements are probably not going to be as beneficial. Additionally, super slow movements are not applicable to a lot of things, such as throwing a dart – it will just fall to the floor. There are, however, a number of things like baseball bat swing which you can practice in super slow motion.

But if you try and do that with an actual baseball or softball or something like that, that’s not going to give you any kind of feedback about how effective it was. So super slow movements or a decelerated movement has its place but once you’re already performing things reasonably well like maybe 25 to 30% success rate.

And I’ve tried this, I actually, I struggle with basketball for whatever reason and my free throw is terrible. So I practiced free throws in super slow motion and I nailed them every time, the problem is there’s no ball. Some of you already have a fair degree of proficiency, of skill in a given practice or sport or instrument.

And if you’re in this sort of advanced intermediate or advanced levels of proficiency for something, there is a practice that you can find interesting data for in the literature, which involves metronoming. So this you’ll realize relates to generating repetitions and it relates to the tone experiment where it doesn’t really matter what your attention is cued to as long as you are performing many many reps of the motor sequence.

You can use a metronome and obviously musicians do this, but athletes can do this too. You can use a metronome to set the cadence of your repetitions. Now for swimmers, there’s actually a device.

I was able to find online a brand of swim cap that can cue you to when you need to perform another stroke. For runners, there are other metronome type devices that through headphones or through a tone in the room can cue you to when you need to lift your heels. Athletes find that by doing this, they can perform more repetitions, generate more output, and increase speed. There is also research being done with stroboscopic metronoming, which is changing one’s perception of how fast they are moving through space by playing with the visual system. Auditory metronoming can also be used to generate more movements per unit time, more errors, and therefore more successes and more neuroplasticity. There are a number of different apps available, some of which are free, where you can set in a metronome pace.

That’s a little fast for most things, but you can imagine if this were darts or this were golf swings that it might be tick, tick, tick, tick or something more like tick, tick. Every time the metronome goes, you swing or throw a dart. There’s some wild experiments out there like cup stacking, where a young lady can take all the cups spread out on a table and stack them into the perfect pyramid in the least amount of times. This is something I’d never thought to pursue and frankly never will pursue unless my life depends on it for some reason, but it’s really impressive.

If you look at the sequence, as these have been recorded, you can look this up on YouTube. What you’ll find is that these expert cup stackers, it’s just all about error elimination. But their two metronomic and auditory cues can actually cue them to pick up the cups faster than they would ordinarily and to learn to do that.

Cup stacking is probably not a skill most of you are interested in doing, but for any skill, if you figure out at what rate you are performing repetitions per unit time and want to increase that slightly, you can set a metronome which is slightly faster than your current rate. This relates back to an experiment from Lappe and colleagues, where your attention is harnessed to the tone of the metronome rather than the motor movement. To do this, you need a bit of proficiency and you’re essentially creating an outside pressure, a contingency, so that you generate more errors. These errors are not ones where all the cups tumble or you have to stop, but rather a pace that is just a little bit beyond what you currently can do. This forces the nervous system to make errors and correct them inside of the session. This is interesting because it involves sensory perception, proprioception, and motor neurons.

Forget about paying attention to your upper and lower motor neurons. You should not focus too much on proprioception, which is the slow motion of your body. Instead, you should harness your attention to an external force, such as a metronome. This will help you increase the number of repetitions, successes and errors, as well as accelerate the plasticity and the acquisition of skills. The mechanism behind this is unknown, but it is speculated that it is neurochemical. Metronomes are also very inexpensive, making them a great tool for improving skills.

You can find these free apps, such as a musical metronome, which can be a powerful tool for speed work, such as sprinting, swimming, or running. The rate of the metronome is important, as it can help you to lengthen your stride, take fewer strokes, or glide further. Additionally, the number of repetitions per unit time can help to train the central pattern generators to operate at a higher speed. Speed walking is an interesting sport, as it is difficult to walk very fast without breaking into a run. All animals have these crossover points, such as with horses where they trot and then gallop.

I clearly don’t know anything about horses, except that I find them beautiful and I like them very much. When a horse moves, it shifts over to different central pattern generators. For example, when it moves from a slow walk to a jog and then to a full sprint, it is engaging different central pattern generators. Metronoming can be used to bring the activity of these central pattern generators into their upper range and even extend their range. There is a fascinating biology to how these central pattern generators work together, such as the coupling of them in order to achieve maximum speeds. This is a topic for an advanced session, and Costa loves it – he just barked!

The metronome is a powerful tool for more advanced practitioners or for advanced intermediate practitioners. It brings back the point that what we put our attention to while we’re still learning is important. To ensure effective skill learning, it is important to focus on one thing at least for the moment or trial to trial. This focus can be external or internal.

The cerebellum, which is commonly referred to as the mini brain, is located in the back of the brain and looks like a miniature version of the rest of the brain. I recently discovered a cool tool that can increase flexibility and range of motion based on this brain area. When I first heard about it, I didn’t believe it would work, but it is actually deeply anchored in the biology of this brain region.

The cerebellum takes information about those three aspects of your eyes and eye movements, and pays attention to where your eyes are in space, what you’re looking at. It also has a lot of non-movement associated functions. The cerebellum is an absolutely incredible structure involved in movement. For example, when primates such as Marmosets roll their head, it helps generate depth perception. This is a form of motion parallax which helps them determine how far away from them you are, even if you are stationary.

As you move your head and body through space, the image on your retina moves in a combination of pitch, yaw, and roll. This information is relayed to your cerebellum, which is rich with visual information, a map of your body surface, and the timing of your movements. It is an incredible structure that brings together all these elements, and in humans, it’s actually quite large.

All this information is integrated in the cerebellum, and it also handles learning of motor sequences and skill learning that involves timing. After you learn something well, it is handed off to the cerebellum. However, you can do something with your cerebellum to increase range of motion and flexibility; much of our flexibility is not due to the length or elasticity of our tendons or muscles, but something else.

Some people have longer or shorter muscle bellies, but muscles always essentially span the entire length of the bone or limb, along with your tendons. This has to do with the neural innervation of muscle and the fact that when muscles are elongated, there’s a point at which they won’t stretch out any longer and the nerves fire, and they shut down. There are also inhibitory pathways that prevent you from contracting the muscles or from extending them, from stretching them out any more.

It turns out that your range of visual motion and your range of vision, literally how wide a field of view you take, impacts how far you can extend your limbs. As you move through space, as you walk forward or backward, or you tilt your head or learn a skill, your eyes are generating spontaneous movements to offset visual slip. In other words, you don’t see the world as blurry even though you’re moving because your eyes are generating low compensatory eye movements to offset your motion. There is a fun experiment with medical students where you spin them around in a chair with their eyes closed and then you stop and have them open their eyes and their eyes are going like this, which is nystagmus.

I don’t suggest you do this experiment. When we were kids, we did a different experiment which was to take a stick and to look at the top of the stick and to spin around on the lawn looking at the top of the stick then put it down on the ground and try and jump over it. You ended up like jumping to the side, missing the thing entirely. The reason those two “experiments” which I hope you don’t do or for somebody else to do is because normally your eye movements and your balance and your limb movements are coordinated. But when you spin around looking up at the stick, what you’re doing is you’re fixating your eyes on one location while you’re moving. And then when you stop those two mechanisms are completely uncoupled and it’s like being thrown into outer space. I’ve never been to outer space, but it’s probably something like that, low gravity, zero gravity. If you spin around in your chair with your eyes closed, you’re not giving the visual input that you’re spinning. And then you open the eyes and then the eyes only have what we call the vestibular, your eyes jolting back and forth, back and forth.

I can extend my range of motion by measuring my range of motion first. I do this by stretching out my arms like a T on either side and pushing them as far back as I can, in line with my shoulders. I then stop and move my eyes to the far periphery, looking over my left shoulder and then off to the right. This helps me to extend my range of motion, although I’m not particularly flexible or inflexible.

It’s a little awkward to do this, then up then down, but I’m mostly going to just focus on left and then right. This is sending a signal to my cerebellum that my field of view is way over to there and way over to there. Remember that your visual attention has an aperture which can be narrow or broad. Taking a broad visual aperture can help relax the nervous system. Moving the eyes from side to side, without moving the head, can increase your range of motion by 5 to 15 degrees. Try this for yourself to see the results.

We can warm up before exercise or before skill learning by doing movements for the body and also moving the eyes from side to side in order to generate a larger range of motion. This is purely cerebellar and a fun one to play with. In an earlier episode on neuro-plasticity, I discussed how you can disrupt your vestibular world by getting into modes of acceleration and moving through space in certain ways. This can open up the windows for plasticity in yet other ways. The cerebellum is capable of incredible things and there are many ways to explore its potential.

Check out one of the earlier episodes on neuroplasticity; everything is timestamped. If you want to expand your range of motion either before or after skill learning, try this fun approach. I have an aversion to stretching work, so I start with a visual practice of expanding my field of view. This naturally increases my flexibility, as I have expanded my range of motion.

Mental rehearsal and visualization have been asked about a lot, and it relates to the idea of being embedded with a skill. However, visualization does involve some work.

Some people find it very hard to mentally visualize things, while others find it very easy. In the 1960s, Roger Shepherd at Stanford and others conducted research looking at people’s ability to rotate three-dimensional objects in their mind. The results showed that some people were better at this than others, and that it could be improved with practice. Today, we will be discussing whether or not this ability can help people learn faster. The answer appears to be yes, but it is not as good as physical performance itself.

That’s essentially what they were doing.

Imagining contracting a muscle can lead to the same gains as actually contracting that muscle, and the same can be said for skill learning. However, this is not always the case. Research conducted by Rang Ganason in 2004 found that physical training and skill learning can be supplemented and supported in powerful ways by imagining those activities. The study included 30 subjects who were divided into different groups. One group performed finger flection, which is a come here finger movement.

Mentally rehearsing a physical movement can lead to significant increases in strength. In one experiment, subjects either did a physical movement against resistance or imagined moving their finger or wrist towards the shoulder (elbow flection). The results showed an impressive increase in finger adduction strength of 35%, and an increase in elbow flection strength of 13.5%. This was done without any physical movement.

Other experiments looked at what was happening in the brain during this time. It was found that mental rehearsal can lead to increases in strength of anywhere from 13.5 to 35%. However, those who actually moved their wrist or finger against an actual physical weight had improvements of about 53%. This is repeated throughout the literature and shows that mental rehearsal can cause increases in strength.

Mental rehearsal can create increases in skill acquisition and learning, although they are never as great as when done alone as compared to the actual physical execution of those movements or the physical movement of those weights. This should not come as a surprise. However, understanding the mechanism behind this improvement can enable the creation of better protocols. Mental rehearsal typically involves closing one’s eyes and visualizing a particular sequence of movement in one’s “mind’s eye”. This activates the upper motor neurons, which generate the command for movement, in a similar way to the actual physical movement. Lower motor neurons, on the other hand, connect to the muscles and actually move them, while central pattern generators are involved in the coordination of the movement.

Lower motor neurons and central pattern generators generate the actual movement. Visualization is a powerful tool and this study had people perform it for 15 minutes a day, five days a week, for 12 weeks. This amount of mental rehearsal is not a lot of time each day, but it is considerable when it comes to imagining going through a particular skill practice or moving a weight. For example, playing keys on a piano or strings on a guitar for 15 minutes a day, five days per week for 12 weeks.

Most people, given the fact that the actual physical practice is going to lead to larger improvements than mental training, would opt for the physical training. However, if you don’t have access to the physical training, such as when on a plane, augmenting with visualization training can compound the effects of the physical training. Studies are limited on how visualization on top of physical training can increase the rates of learning and consolidation of learning. It is also hard to control for because what would you do in its place? The point is, if you want to use visualization training, great, but forget the idea that it is as good as the actual behavior. People often say that imagining an experience is the same as the actual experience, but this is not how the nervous system works.

Sorry to burst your bubble, but your bubble is made of myths. When the brain executes a movement, it is generating proprioceptive feedback. This feedback is critical in creating our sense of the experience and in learning. Visualization does work, but it is not as effective as physically engaging in the behavior. The same is true for experiences of all kinds, including PTSD. The replay of the traumatic event may feel real, but it is not the same as the actual event. Of course, PTSD should be treated with the utmost seriousness, and my lab works on these sorts of things. My point is that visualization and imagining something is not the same as the actual experience, and this is grounded in the idea of proprioception.

The fact that feedback to the cerebellum, talking to other areas of the brain, are critically involved in communicating to the rest of our nervous system, is not just a belief, but something that is actually happening. For example, when there is muscle load, muscles feel tension, and the contracting of the muscle under that tension is part of the important adaptation process. In a future episode, we will discuss hypertrophy and how it works at the level of upper motor neurons, lower motor neurons, and muscle itself. Visualization can also be effective, although not as much as real physical training and practice. It has been observed that there can be increases of 35% or 13.5%, although these are not as significant as the 53% increases that come from physical training. For those interested in the skill learning that relates to musical training, such as cadence, metronomes, tones, etc., there is a review published in the journal Neuron by Herholz and Zatorre (H-E-R-H-O-L-Z and Z-A-T-O-R-R-E).

Musical training can impact many aspects of learning and physical skill acquisition. Cadence training, with or without tones or auditory feedback, can help with instrumental music training as well as physical skill learning. To learn more, there is an article available online free of charge. To accelerate skill learning, motivation is key. You must be motivated to focus your attention and perform many repetitions in the training sequence. There is no pill that can replace the need for repetitions, but it is possible to create conditions that allow for more repetitions per unit of time.

Creating the right conditions for yourself to focus can be a key factor in achieving success. In previous episodes, I have discussed the importance of focus, plasticity, and motivation. I have also provided many tools based on the underlying science. For some, a cup of coffee before a training session can help to improve focus. Conversely, for others, coffee may make them too jittery and their attention may be scattered. Everyone’s needs are different and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. There is no magic pill that will allow you to learn more with fewer repetitions or less time.

There are a few compounds worth mentioning because of their ability to improve physical performance and cognitive function, especially in older populations. One of these compounds, alpha GPC (alpha glycerylphosphorylcholine) is particularly interesting and is sold over the counter in the United States in dosages of 300 to 600 milligrams.

Alpha GPC has been shown to do a number of things that could be beneficial for some people. For example, it can enhance power output for activities such as Shotput throwing, resistance training, sprinting or rock climbing. The dosages for cognitive effects are much higher, up to 1200 milligrams daily divided into three doses of 400 milligrams. Studies have reported a significant but modest effect on offsetting cognitive decline, particularly in older populations and some populations with reported neuro degeneration. One study noted a 14% increase in power output.

Alpha GPC has been shown to significantly improve cognition in people with Alzheimer’s. It has also been shown to increase fat oxidation and promote the release of growth hormone, although to a small degree. When combined with low levels of caffeine, Alpha GPC can improve power output, growth hormone release, and fat oxidation, which can all support skill learning. Caffeine itself can also motivate people to do physical training, which can improve and enhance the rate of skill learning and how well skills are retained.

On a previous episode, I talked about epinephrine (adrenaline) and how it makes sense to spike epinephrine levels up after cognitive learning. However, for physical learning it appears to be the opposite – caffeine and alpha GPC should be taken before the training. After the training, idle time should be used to let the brain replay motor sequences in reverse. Additionally, one should optimize their sleep by avoiding taking a lot of caffeine late in the evening. Lastly, the things to optimize are repetitions, failures, and more repetitions and failures at the offset of training.

Today we discussed how one can come back for additional training sessions and use things like metronoming to queue their attention to an external stimulus. We also talked about how one can use cerebellar neurophysiology to extend range of motion and use visualization to augment practice. Additionally, we discussed how to design protocols that are optimized for learning various motor skills for 15 minutes a day, five days a week over a period of 10 to 12 weeks. We also covered the different motor pathways and central pattern generator so that one can be armed with the information needed to generate movement.

These overlapping concepts have to do with neuroplasticity and learning things such as languages, math, engineering, and neuroscience. Before we depart, I want to make sure I return to the concept of the ultradian cycle. Ultradian cycles are 90 minute cycles that occur during sleep and wakefulness. They are optimal for learning and attention. During wakefulness, they are the stages of sleep that consist of slow wave sleep and rem sleep.

Some listeners may be wondering if physical practices should follow the 90 minute cycle. This depends on the type of practice. For strength training, it may be too long to generate enough force output. For golfing, it may take many hours due to the walking, driving, and other activities. Additionally, sometimes somebody carries your stuff around for you.

A four hour golf game may not involve swinging the golf club for the entire duration, so it is not necessarily a good constraint for skill learning in most cases. For those short on time, 10 minutes of maximum repetitions and focus is going to be very beneficial. The key is to maximize the density of repetitions and failures, provided they are done safely, in order to accelerate skill learning. Don’t let arbitrary constraints prevent this practice. Get as much work done as you can per unit time and you will see the skill improve vastly.

Sometimes it’s a little bit of a stutter start, but you will see incredible improvement in skill. If you’re enjoying this podcast and finding the information interesting and/or of use to you, please subscribe on YouTube. That really helps us. As well, please subscribe and download the episodes on Apple and Spotify. On Apple, you also have the opportunity to leave us up to a five star review if you think we deserve that. On YouTube, please hit the thumbs up button if you liked the episode and please give us feedback in the comment section. We read all the comments, and use your feedback to sculpt the content and the direction of future episodes.

Check out our sponsors mentioned at the beginning of each podcast episode to support our production team. We also have a Patreon page at patreon.com/andrewhuberman. In previous episodes and this episode, I mentioned some supplements which may be beneficial for improving sleep, immune system function, learning, and so forth. To see the supplements I take, go to thorne.com/u/Huberman. Through this portal, you can get 20% off any of the supplements Thorne makes.

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Finally, I’d like to thank you for your time and attention. I’m grateful for your interest in neuroscience and physiology, and I hope you consider the information we discussed today about skill learning. If you decide to try any of these tools, please let us know your results.

We appreciate your feedback in the comments section. Thank you for your interest in science. [Instrumental music]