This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Peak" by Anders Ericsson. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.
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How can breaking out of homeostasis help you reach new mental and physical levels? Is it possible to push yourself beyond your limits without burning yourself out?
By pushing your body or mind hard enough and long enough, you can “trick” it into using its desire for homeostasis to your advantage. Over time, your body will change in ways that enable you to run that extra mile or lift that extra 50 pounds. The more you push yourself, the more the structure and chemistry of your brain will adapt to breaking out of homeostasis.
Keep reading to learn how breaking out of homeostasis can help you achieve higher feats.
Breaking Out of Homeostasis
Practice is not about mere repetition or devoting more time to a task. Once you’ve reached your accepted level of performance, additional years of merely repetitive practice don’t help. An average driver who’s been driving for five years is no better than her counterpart who has 20 years of driving experience. At this point, you receive diminishing returns on your practice. To truly improve, you need to change how you practice. It’s not just about practice: it’s about purposeful practice.
Why does purposeful practice work? Because it challenges you to break out of homeostasis. This is the level of stress or exertion to which your body is accustomed. The principle is well-understood by physical trainers: to really see those gains at the gym, you need to exert your muscles and cardiovascular system to the point where your body can no longer maintain homeostasis. Once this happens, your body breaks out of homeostasis and adapts to reach homeostasis at a new level.
By pushing your body hard enough and long enough, you “trick” it into using its desire for homeostasis to your advantage. Over time, your body will change in ways that enable you to run that extra mile or lift that extra 50 pounds.
Much the same principle applies to the human brain. The more you push yourself, the more the structure and chemistry of your brain will adapt to breaking out of homeostasis. Of course, just like in the gym, you can’t push yourself too hard—that will only lead to burnout. But by forcing yourself to go just beyond your comfort zone, you can begin to trigger remarkable structural changes. It is in this sweet spot beyond your comfort zone that your brain can change most quickly and effectively. This is what underlies purposeful practice. A few examples of purposeful practice in action will show just how powerful it can be.
Breaking Through the Plateaus
Anders Ericsson, author of Peak, once conducted an experiment at Carnegie Mellon University, the purpose of which was to measure the capability of human memory and the effect of practice on improving memory. The test subject, an undergraduate named Steven, was read a series of digits, which he was then asked to repeat back to the author.
The results were remarkably consistent at first: Steven was fairly successful at memorizing eight-digit number strings, mediocre with nine-digit strings, and totally unsuccessful with ten-digit strings. It seemed that he had reached some sort of natural plateau, a sharp mental barrier than prevented him from memorizing any more than nine numbers.
Ericsson wanted Steven to break out of homeostasis so he decided to try a different approach, with a new method of training. He would present Steve with five-digit strings: if Steve repeated it back correctly, Ericsson would add one more digit to the string to make it six digits. If Steve got it wrong, Ericsson would drop the length of the string by two digits. This approach kept Steve constantly challenged, asking him each time to slightly outperform his previous best performance. This was purposeful practice in action: a well-defined goal, with each baby step along the way challenging the learner a bit more.
And it worked: in a few days, Steve managed to memorize an 11-digit sequence, two better than his previous record. He had smashed through the barrier: the “natural” ceiling had proved to be an illusion. As the author continued with this training method, Steve’s memory continued to improve and reach new heights: after hundreds of sessions, Steve was able to successfully recite back 82 digits! Throughout, he was motivated by the positive feedback he received from the author and the team of co-researchers, as well as his own intrinsic desire to challenge himself and achieve new levels of performance.
Growing the Hippocampus
To become a licensed cab driver in London, one must pass a series of tests, believed to be among the most difficult in the world to pass. The tests measure “The Knowledge,” everything that a London cabbie is required to know, including every street, park, monument, government office, hospital, place of worship, museum, hotel, restaurant, and general point of interest. They must know the fastest route to get to any of these places from any other place within the giant metropolis. Needless to say, mastering “The Knowledge” is an extraordinary feat, one that tests the limits of human memory.
How do they achieve this? Through purposeful practice. They must first master a list of 320 journeys (trips between two points within the city), memorizing the location of every conceivable landmark or point of interest along each journey and finding the optimal route from the beginning to the endpoint. But this is only the start. The successful candidates continue to challenge themselves, finding new journeys and adding more buildings and landmarks to their memory.
One experiment showed that the hippocampus—the part of the brain engaged in spatial navigation—is larger in London cab drivers than it is in non-cab drivers. The same experiment showed that, before they completed their training, applicants to the taxi program had similarly sized hippocampi as individuals who had never applied to become taxi drivers. Drilling down even further, the research showed that successful applicants who had managed to become licensed taxi drivers had larger hippocampi than both the unsuccessful applicants and those who had never entered the program at all. This proved that there was something about the process of gaining “The Knowledge” that altered the structure and capabilities of the drivers’ brains.
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- How to become an expert in any field you choose
- Why practice isn't enough because you need to change how you practice
- Why natural talent isn't enough and practice is more important