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3 Steps to Learning New Skills

Humans are learning machines. 

From the day we are born and even before, our brains capture and encode our experiences. The mind is a web of connections with over a hundred billion cells that are crammed into three pounds of the most complex tissue in the universe.

Our behavior can be changed with conscious, deliberate mental effort, but we need to understand these three facts:

1. Skill learning happens in the brain. The first thing we need to know is, that every behavior is activated by an emotion, which changes our brain. Not the skin. Not the muscles. Not our bones. Emotions cause changes in the brain. Stronger emotional connections in the brain lead to the pattern of thoughts and behaviors. And with attention and practice, they become automatic, happening unconsciously.

2. Behavior patterns are complex. A pattern of behavior is an unconscious response that links all kinds of information: perceptual, emotional, intuitive, conceptual, factual and behavioral. To establish a new skill (riding a bike), which can be performed naturally and automatically without thinking about it, an extensive network of neurons (brain cells) must be interconnected. This physical linking process takes place gradually in the brain. In the case of every ingrained behavior pattern, the specific brain cells grow until they connect to other brain cells, forming electro-chemical connections. So physically speaking, a skill is a behavior pattern that is driven by a network of interconnected brain cells. An emotional skill, for example, is a complex network of connections that coordinates perception, analysis and decision-making, triggering verbal and physical behavior. Thus, we may unconsciously respond with empathy or anger depending on how our connections have formed.

3. Ingraining an interpersonal skill takes time. What stimulates the brain cells to grow and connect? Repeated behavior, or simply put, practice, practice and more practice. Anyone who has learned a complex skill knows this is true. It takes an amazing amount of practice to learn how to hit a golf ball with a sand wedge, or to serve a tennis ball for a winner, and so on. Hit a thousand golf balls. Hit a thousand tennis balls. And these skills are not as complex as emotional skills. Before a skill is ingrained, and even while the skill is in the process of being ingrained, the brain has to make the behavior happen without the neural network. So even with effortful concentration, performing the skill may feel awkward and frustrating. With persistence, the connections gain strength, and the skill will seem like second nature, effortless, easy, and automatic. And best of all, once the brain cells are connected, the person “owns” the skill. The network of brain cells that operates the skill is hardwired, and for all practical purposes the skill may now be considered permanent.

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3 Steps to Learning New Skills

Aaron Karmin

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APA Reference
Karmin, A. (2018). 3 Steps to Learning New Skills. Psych Central. Retrieved on January 19, 2020, from


Last updated: 12 Dec 2018
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