Practicing cognitive skills can expand associated neurological capacity

If you practice playing a musical piece or solving hard math problems, you might imagine that improvement corresponds to more deeply encoding relevant knowledge—motor, conceptual, etc. But at least in some fields, it appears that practice doesn’t just help you learn a cognitive skill: it may also {expand your capacity for that skill} by {physically enlarging associated brain regions}. This may be part of why Human physical and cognitive capacity can be expanded surprisingly far with practice.

Ericsson and Pool (2016) summarize this effect as: “with deliberate practice … the goal is not just to reach your potential but to build it.” (p. 48)

Q. With deliberate practice … the goal is not just to __ your potential but to __.
A. reach; build it


{Gaser and Schalug} ({2003}) found that professional pianists had {substantially more gray matter in motor, auditory, and visual-spatial brian regions} than amateur pianists did.

{Aydin et al} ({2007}) found that mathematicians had {significantly more gray matter in their left inferior frontal and bilateral inferior parietal lobules}, compared to control subjects. These regions are associated with {arithmetic processing}. And the density of the {right inferior parietal lobule} correlated with {years of experience} (r=0.84). The inferior parietal regions are associated with {visuospatial imagery}.

{Hutchinson et al} ({2003}) found that {male} musicians’ cerebellar volume {correlates with their number of hours of training}. It’s odd that they found this effect only for males, but oddly, no difference for females? It was quite an effect: r=0.595, P=0.001. Apparently females just have larger base cerebellar volumes, which they propose may mask the effect.

Is this plasticity age-dependent?

{Bengtsson et al} ({2005}) studied the white matter structure of {professional pianists} and found an association between {childhood practice time}, specifically, and increased white matter density in tracts of the {corpus callosum} associated with {motor coordination}. They suggest that the susceptibility to these changes may be much higher in childhood because {the relevant white matter tracts aren’t yet mature at that time}.

Is this plasticity rival?

Ericsson and Pool (2016, p. 45-46) make the claim that this kind of expansion may be rival, citing a single study on London cabbies performing worse at spatial memory tasks, but


Aydin, K., Ucar, A., Oguz, K. K., Okur, O. O., Agayev, A., Unal, Z., Yilmaz, S., & Ozturk, C. (2007). Increased Gray Matter Density in the Parietal Cortex of Mathematicians: A Voxel-Based Morphometry Study. American Journal of Neuroradiology, 28(10), 1859–1864.

Bengtsson, S. L., Nagy, Z., Skare, S., Forsman, L., Forssberg, H., & Ullén, F. (2005). Extensive piano practicing has regionally specific effects on white matter development. Nature Neuroscience, 8(9), 1148–1150.

Ericsson, A., & Pool, R. (2016). Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise (1 edition). Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Peak - Ericsson and Pool

Gaser, C., & Schlaug, G. (2003). Brain Structures Differ between Musicians and Non-Musicians. Journal of Neuroscience, 23(27), 9240–9245.

Hutchinson, S., Lee, L. H.-L., Gaab, N., & Schlaug, G. (2003). Cerebellar volume of musicians. Cerebral Cortex (New York, N.Y.: 1991), 13(9), 943–949.

Last updated 2023-07-13.