How practice changes the brain and exceptions to the 10,000 hour rule

No human being can make the circuit from eyes to brain to muscles fast enough to hit a ball in midflight or avoid an oncoming fist. You can’t change those natural limits with any amount of practice. So how do they do it?

You live in the past.

You don’t know this because your brain lies to you and then covers up the lies, which is a good thing. If your brain didn’t fudge reality, you wouldn’t be able to hit a baseball, drive a car, or even carry on a conversation.

You may have already noticed this through its absence. Sounds that come from very far away don’t get edited. Maybe you’ve been high in the bleachers at a sporting event and saw the crack of a bat or the crunch of a tackle, but the sound seemed to arrive in your head just a tiny bit later than when it should have. Sometimes there is a delay, like reality is out of sync. You can see this in videos too. If you see a big explosion or a gun shot from far away, the sound will arrive after the camera has already recorded the images so that there is gap between seeing the boom and hearing it.

The reason this occurs, of course, is because sound waves travel much more slowly than light waves. But if that’s true, why isn’t there always a lag between seeing and hearing? How come you can carry on a conversation with someone at the end of a long hallway even though the light that’s allowing you to see her mouth is arriving well before the sound of her voice?

You can talk to people across a distance because your brain holds on to light info, waits for the sound info to arrive, edits them so that they line up, and then it releases the combined information to your consciousness. But that all takes time, and that’s why sometimes you catch the brain in a lie.

king-of-the-weeds-cover David McRaney's You Are Now Less Dumb is available from Amazon.

It takes about 80 milliseconds for the brain to generate consciousness, to take all the information flowing in and construct a model of reality from moment to moment. You interact with that 80-millisecond-old model, the afterglow. Everything you think is happening now already happened 80 milliseconds ago, and you are just now becoming aware of it over and over again. Sounds that occur more than 30 meters away take longer than 80 milliseconds to get to your ears, and so those sounds don’t arrive in time to get stitched together with the visual information. It’s called the 80-millisecond rule. That’s why you usually see the lightning well before you hear the thunder. You live in the center of a sphere about 60 meters in diameter. In the center, sounds and sights line up perfectly. Anything farther out does not. It’s also why you can snap your fingers and it seems like the sound waves are moving at the same speed as the light waves. They aren’t. It’s a lie, a representation of reality that’s more useful than the truth.

Since you live in the past, it should be impossible to do things like hit a baseball or duck a punch, yet athletes do these sorts of things all the time. As our guest David Epstein explains in the latest YANSS Podcast, professional baseball players and boxers don’t have faster reaction times than the average human being. No human being can make the circuit from eyes to brain to muscles fast enough to hit a ball in midflight or avoid an oncoming fist. You can’t change those natural limits with any amount of practice. So how do they do it?

Epstein explain that practice strengthens intuition, not reaction times. Even among chess players, practice builds up a cognitive database that nonconsciously informs our decisions and reactions. Experience and mastery are demonstrations of a robust, well-trained unconscious mind that senses tiny cues in the environment and then prepares an action that will occur later, syncing up reality the way you stitch together sounds and sights. All sports are a display of brains predicting the future based on intuition built up by practice – brains compensating for lag by seeing what is happening now, before the ball is thrown, before the punch is launched, and making a best guess on what will happen later. We also talk about the 10,000-hour-rule, nature vs. nurture, and how come the best athletes seem to come from the smallest towns.

After the interview, I discuss a news story about the psychology behind trying to get children to eat their vegetables.

In every episode, before I read a bit of self delusion news, I taste a cookie baked from a recipe sent in by a listener/reader. That listener/reader wins a signed copy of my new book, “You Are Now Less Dumb,” and I post the recipe on the YANSS Pinterest page. This episode’s winner is Chris Leslie who submitted a recipe for macaroon kisses. Send your own recipes to david {at} youarenotsosmart.com.

GET YOU ARE NOT SO SMART: DownloadiTunesStitcherRSSPublished 7:00 am Sat, Aug 16, 2014

About the Author

David McRaney is a journalist and self-described psychology nerd. He's the author of the books You Are Not So Smart and You Are Now Less Dumb. He has written for several publications, including The Atlantic and Psychology Today. He lives in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

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