How do we come to be strong as people? How do we come to be brave, patient or persistent? Are we born that way?
Sayings such as “Practice makes perfect” exemplify the well-known fact that repetition improves learning. This was discussed by abundant ancient and medieval philosophers and was demonstrated empirically by Hermann Ebbinghaus, the first academic to carry out a protracted series of experiments on human memory. In a classic 1885 book, Ebbinghaus showed that retaining of information improves as a function of the number of times the information has been studied. Since the time of Ebbinghaus, innumerable investigators have used repetition to examine learning and memory.
Without any knowledge of how the brain works, about 2,500 years ago Greek philosopher-scientist Aristotle pretty much nailed it by using common sense to explain what he observed in human behavior:
Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.
It may sound a lot like the truism, “Practice makes perfect,” but Aristotle is accurate that being who we are comes from repetition of performance to form behavior patterns.
These days, neuroscientists explain that behavior patterns happen when the brain cells concerned in the behavior become physically connected to each other in a network called a neural pathway. We aren’t born with this efficient hard-wiring. More exactly, the separate brain cells involved in the behavior are stimulated by usage to grow tiny filaments called dendrites. By reiterating the behavior over and over, the dendrites ultimately connect the cells with each other into a network called a neural pathway. At this stage the behavior pattern is said to be entrenched, meaning the mental processing is so efficient it feels effortless and automatic. Indeed, the behavior may be implemented even without conscious thought.
We use words like skills, habits and personal strengths to describe these behavior patterns. We can learn bad habits as well as good habits—any kind of behavior pattern at all. All it takes is replication over time. We can develop addictions as well as character strengths. As Aristotle said it so well so long ago, “We are what we repeatedly do.”
Thus, repetition need not lead to enhanced learning. Rather, repetition leads to increased opportunities for learning to occur. Whether learning takes place will depend on the type of information that has to be recollected and the amount and nature of dispensation that a person carries out.
Because the brain cell connections are physical, the patterns they enable are hard-wired…and everlasting. So if you want to break a bad habit, your challenge is to grow a new substitute neural pathway. You don’t actually get rid of old, undesirable behavior patterns. You learn new ones that give you more satisfaction, which means you’ll use them more and the old ones less.
The good news is that once you learn how to swim or ride a bicycle, the skill will stay with you for the rest of your life, even without using the ability for years.
More good news for people practicing a learning journey: You can grow stronger by simply doing the right things constantly over time. The behavior may seem awkward and clumsy at first, but it becomes easier the more you do it.