Wow, you’re a natural!

Mastery through plasticity.

We all have a certain set of skills we have mastered through the years. According to Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers, it takes roughly 10,000 hours of engaging in a certain skill before becoming an expert (Gladwell, 2008). The question however, is how do we learn new skills, what part of the brain structures come in to play when learning these new skills, and how can individuals and businesses benefit and learn from this?

The human brain has what experts call – plasticity. This in simple terms means that the human brain has the immaculate ability to adapt to changes or to react upon different stimuli; basically the brain has the ability to regulate the strength of synapses between neurons (Gladstone, 2018). So what happens within our brain physiologically when we embark on the journey of mastering a new skill?

We have neural pathways that form within the structure of the brain when we perform certain acts repeatedly. These pathways are constantly changing as we acquire new information every day and perform tasks. These pathways form so that heuristics can come into play. Heuristics are mental shortcuts we form within the structure of the brain across numerous areas so that we decrease the cognitive load we experience (as in the amount of mental effort required) for faster and more effective information processing (Bridger, 2017). Neural pathways however, cannot go away but only become dormant until faced with a trigger to activate the activity within these structures (Duhigg, 2012).

Music to our brains.

An excellent example of this is when learning to play a new music instrument. You won’t be able to shred thunderstruck on a guitar just from one guitar lesson. After numerous lessons your ability to play the guitar will increase as your perceived difficulty will decrease. This is where heuristics come in to play. As you keep on learning and building upon this skill your brain will form a heuristic pathway and over time this will come naturally without you even having to think about it. When we learn a new skill, our brain essentially rewires itself in certain areas (forming new neural pathways). Depending on what skill is being learned or what activity is repeatedly done by an individual, will influence what part of the brain structure these neural pathways will form. The formation of these neural pathways come with much more ease if an individual finds themselves acquiring a new skill similar to skills they have already obtained. For example, tennis players will theoretically be better at learning to play golf than learning to play chess. Note that the same set of skills are not necessarily required for these two sports, but some aspects are intertwined such as hand-eye coordination and ball sense, amongst others. (CalTech, 2019).

Researchers at CalTech found that a region called the anterior intraparietal cortex is responsible for the learning process of new skills. This region has specialised neurons that modulate different sets of itself depending on what skills are needed to complete a certain task. The modulation comes much easier with skills that could be related to one another as these neural pathways have already been formed previously (CalTech, 2019). Skills are a set of procedural memories stored within the brain, similar to a user manual to assemble a new office chair. The more you read the instructions while building the chair, the better and more efficient you will become at assembling the chair. And the more chairs you build, the less reliant you are on the manual.

A team led by Anatol C. Kreitzer from the Gladwell institute, came across interesting findings while doing research on the basal ganglia and how its basic mechanisms work. They found that fast spiking interneurons were involved in memory and learning. Fast spiking interneurons only make up around 1% of the brain’s total neurons, but basically take control of the wired circuit with ease (Gladstone, 2018). These fast spiking interneurons act as a simulated regulation mechanism, which controls the brain’s plasticity. This regulates the basal ganglia’s ability to remember how to perform tasks. The basal ganglia are specialised neurons that play a key factor in the role of forming habits, associative learning, decision making and action selection (Duhigg, 2012). Essentially if a skill is mastered over time, it becomes heuristically embedded in the brain and the cognitive workload needed to perform this action decreases.

Building on the above, researchers had found that there are common themes associated with brain activity when individuals practice a new skill up until they have mastered this new skill. Regions that were responsible for attention demanding activities have been found to be dormant after training compared to before training, whereas regions where the brain structures were at ease most of the time, lit up (Booker, 2013). This meant that with practice the participants performed the tasks with much more ease and less thinking, as heuristics decreased cognitive workload. This is where the cliché “practice makes perfect” starts making sense. At the end of the day, our entire physiological composition as humans is based on the fact that we want to follow the most efficient path, within the shortest time to reach the desired outcome. Even your brain starts learning to take shortcuts after a while to decrease its effort.

So what could marketers learn from this?

As you have read above, our entire biological basis runs on saving time and energy to get to the desired outcome. When people access your website/app they don’t want to struggle to get where they want to be. Navigation of your website/app should be smooth and effortless. The only way to ensure that the website/app is at its absolute best it could be, is through testing your user experience. Here the insights will astonish you to give you that edge.

The fact of the matter is, if people have to work too hard to get where they want to be they will find another way to get there, more efficiently. People should not have to learn an entire new set of skills just to get to their desired destination. You should leverage existing design and layout heuristics, as well as imagery and iconography that are used commonly across multiple online platforms, rather than trying to re-invent them.

You should ensure that your brand has a positive association with the use of brand heuristics. When referring to brand heuristics we refer to visual and verbal assets of a brand. Take a quick look at Coca Cola for example. They have incorporate the perfect association between brand and color.

For websites and apps specifically, you also need to ask yourself the following questions:

Learnability: How easy is it for a new user to accomplish tasks the first time they visit your website?

Memorability: How easy is it for someone to come back to your website after they haven’t used it for a period of time?

Efficiency: How quickly can users complete tasks on your site once they have become familiar with it?

User Satisfaction: Do users enjoy the overall experience – the design; the ease of navigation; the lack of errors or ability to resolve errors themselves?

If the answers to the above aren’t satisfactory, you’ll need to work harder on your UX and UI so that your customers brains don’t have to.

In summary, you learned how we obtain new skills and what happens in the structure of the brain when we learn new skills versus when we have mastered skills. You also gained inside information to use and improve your business, and might have even formed a few new neural pathways in the process.

Stay stimulated.


Booker, K. (2013, April 4). Cornell Chronicle . Retrieved from Cornell Chronicle: https://news.cornell.edu/stories/2013/04/scientists-discover-how-brains-change-new-skills

Bridger, D. (2017). Neuro Design. In D. Bridger, Neuro Design (pp. 146-153). New York: Kogan Page Limited

CalTech. (2019, May 2). Skill Learning Brain. Retrieved from Neurosciencenews.com: https://neurosciencenews.com/skill-learning-brain-13013/

Duhigg, C. (2012). The Power of Habit . London: Random House Books

Gladstone. (2018, February 9). Skill learning neurons basal ganglia. Retrieved from neurosciencenews.com: https://neurosciencenews.com/skill-learning-neurons-basal-ganglia-8464/

Gladwell, M. (2008). Outliers . London: Penguin Group.

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