Are You Practicing with Intention? Flexible Memory Representation

Mastery requires much more than just rote repetition

By Richard Restak, MD, The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

You may have mastered your craft to the point where you can practically perform it in your sleep, but can you quickly adjust if a curveball comes your way? Dr. Restak explains how to develop this level of mastery through deliberate practice.

Formula 1 driver in race car
Using “deliberate practice,” new drivers became quite experienced at driving a car; some drivers advance to becoming professional drivers—for trucks, cabs, Formula 1 racing, and so forth. Photo By Guillermo Pis Gonzalez / Shutterstock

Deliberate Practice Beats Overpractice

The main requirement for deliberate practice, which is the type of focused practice that differentiates professionals from amateurs, is to remain fully aware of what you are doing. It’s funny how many of us go through the day not fully aware of our surroundings or even what’s going on inside our minds. The goal of deliberate practice is the formation of a flexible memory representation, which means that we can accommodate for changes. 

You achieve full awareness of every aspect of performance by breaking it up into small parts, which leads to flexible memory representation because you can then rearrange these parts when necessary. Coaching helps, but it can’t be overdone. 

Imagine a coach following you every step of the way you’re out on the golf course and commenting on every movement you make. Most people would find that inhibiting. 

The solution is coaching that corrects for major defects, but gives you plenty of opportunity to develop your own unique style. For example, concert pianist Angela Hewitt wrote, “In my recording sessions, I find that the improvement comes not in endlessly repeating a piece, but in listening intently to what has been recorded and then thinking about how it can be done better.” 

That’s deliberate practice. Concert pianists such as Hewitt eventually reach a point where the essence of their performance is etched in their brain.

Driving and Flexible Memory Representation

The goal of deliberate practice is to encode the basic information into our brain so that we no longer have to think about it, which frees us up to pursue increasingly more complex areas of our craft. For example, most of us learned to drive when we were around age 16. 

We had to put all our energy into steering and using the gears and the clutches. It was quite a challenge. We got better, and then we could listen to the radio or talk to people. 

Then we became quite experienced, and a small number of us went on to become professional drivers—maybe it was trucks or cabs or Formula 1 racing. In any case, we had to take this driving experience and fraction it into smaller and smaller pieces and learn each of those through deliberate practice. 

The overall aim is vigilance and the monitoring of each component of the driving experience. This takes time, and most of us who are not professional drivers take it only far enough to drive safely and efficiently under most circumstances. 

“I emphasize most circumstances because that can change, and performance can decrease and accidents may result,” Dr. Restak said. “That’s what ice- and snow-associated mishaps are all about. Somebody [who lives] most of the time in Florida, then moves up to Vermont for a couple of months, may well be involved in some accidents when [there is] ice and snow because they’re not used to that.”

The Mark of a Professional Musician

Deliberate practice, though, helps an individual to better adjust to changes. For example, one experiment pitted experienced professional musicians against less experienced musicians. 

They were both asked to reproduce some tempos under changed conditions. They were asked to play every other note, play using only one hand, or transpose into a different key. 

Experienced musicians had no problem with these changes while the less experienced ones—the ones we would call very good amateurs—had many problems. That experiment illustrated what is meant by encoding and retaining a flexible memory representation.

Once information is encoded into your memory, it can be manipulated and altered. If you’re a surgeon, for example, you have a mental representation encoded in your brain; you know the operation you’re performing that morning. 

You know how to prepare for the operation and how to get to the particular organ you’re operating on, but sometimes in surgery, things don’t go just as planned. Emergencies arise, and you must modify your procedure in response. In order to adjust to unexpected events, you must have a firm mental representation that can be manipulated. 

You can then decide to operate differently because circumstances that arise during the operation require you to make modifications, and you know enough about your field to understand how to make these modifications. By contrast, if you have not yet mastered your craft, you will not be able to effectively pivot.

The music studies illustrated this same concept. The greater the amount of solitary music practice accumulated during musical development and training, the higher the levels of attained musical performance. Additionally, the more evolved the mental representation—that is, the more the musical performance can be broken down into little parts and the components rearranged—the better your performance as a musician.

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for Wondrium Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for Wondrium Daily.
Dr. Richard Restak is Clinical Professor of Neurology at The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. He earned his MD from Georgetown University School of Medicine. Professor Restak also maintains an active private practice in neurology and neuropsychiatry in Washington, D.C.