Physical and mental skills may not be that different

Researchers are increasingly finding out that there is less difference than we think between cognitive and physical skill acquisition. In short, different parts of the brain take over when a skill becomes practiced or “automatic.” This frees up “room” and attention for higher order thinking or additional levels of skill development. This is true even with such romanticized skills such as writing. Maybe we need to deromanticize many skills like writing and creativity.

Mignon: I’d like to hear more about how the caudate nucleus is involved in “skills that come with practice.”

Ellen: Yes, in the study, the caudate nucleus lit up when the experienced writers were writing, but not with the inexperienced writers.

The caudate nucleus is a midbrain structure, which means that it evolved way ahead of the cortex and plays a role in a mind-boggling array of functions, including some really fundamental things like sleep and movement.

Germane to this study, it also plays a role in learning.  As you gain expertise, your brain economizes and automates.  In other words, as you get good at something, you stop overthinking—the task becomes automatic, like riding a bike or using a fork.  So it makes sense that this area lit up in the scans of expert writers.