The intricate pattern of the brain: skills and intuition

A five-year-old child gets a violin for their birthday. They like playing it and they practice a lot. The parent provides violin lessons for the child and over the years, the child grows up and becomes better and better. They don’t know it yet, but they are on a fast track to becoming one of the best violinists in the world. What happens in this brain? What makes these virtuosos different from other children who also practice violin? In this article I want to explore the idea that, though not everyone can become the best, or even world-class, everyone does have the ability to become an excellent violinist if they choose so, and if they start at a young enough age. This article is one in a series of articles about the workings of the brain. I would advise you to read these articles first before reading this. And again, I am not a neuroscientist. The ideas in this article are just speculation.

A five-year-old child is practicing violin. They scrape the bow over the strings and a sound comes out. It is not very beautiful. The child places its fingers on the fingerboard that is marked with lines that show the correct finger placements to play the notes in tune. Slowly, the child plays Frère Jacques. These notes will become the foundation of future skill.

Experience is a detailed, localized pattern

When a child first learns to play the violin, the instructor will mark the correct places where to put the fingers on the fingerboard of the violin to play the notes in tune. This has to be done to give the student a visual cue as to where to move the fingers. It also gives the student a visual stimulus to move the fingers. If the violin is not marked, and a person does not have experience playing violin, they will probably refuse to play it. Maybe they will comically try, but no serious attempt will be made. There simply are not enough visual stimuli to make the student’s thread move towards the memory objects necessary to make the left hand press the strings appropriately.

So, to counter this, the instructor marks the fingerboard, so that the student has visual stimuli to make the hand and fingers move to the appropriate place. This will create micro memories. These micro memories will start “paving” synaptic plasticity to form memory objects of where to place the fingers on the fingerboard. Place the finger correctly every time, and the “plasticity road” that is paved gets wider and wider. Make a mistake, and plasticity roads are paved where none should be. This is true for all fingers in all positions.

Practicing all finger positions in the correct way, therefore, will create an intricate, fine-tuned pattern of synaptic plasticity. It will be nestled in with the other, similar finger movements that have been learned over time, but the plasticity roads between these “violin movements” will be wide when they have been practiced enough. This way, the thread will have an easy time moving from one violin movement to another, since they are all physically connected to each other, through “roads” of increased synaptic plasticity.

The same applies to the bow hand and its movements. This will also create an intricate, finely tuned pattern of how it has to move. From now on, I will only write about the left (fingerboard) hand, but all of this will also apply to the right (bow) hand.

The pattern that is paved by practice is experience.

The virtuoso and the perfect pattern

I want to speculate that when a virtuoso practices in the beginning, they make more sure than average that the fingers are placed in the correct spot. This will create the correct micro memories that will pave the synaptic pathways. To facilitate this process, I want to speculate that virtuosi, when starting to learn, teach themselves to do this slowly, while making sure that the finger is placed correctly. This way, the virtuoso can guarantee that the note is played in tune. When they do this slowly, this process will be less error prone, and the violin sounding good will attach positivity to the violin playing memory objects. This will make it more fun to practice in the future. Maybe virtuosi all had their own way of developing their skills, but I suspect that this connection of pleasure with practice somehow makes them practice (way) above average To make it clear, I am not suggesting that virtuosi always are laughing and smiling while practicing. They, too, have to struggle through it as the rest of us. I am arguing that with us non-virtuosi the frustration seems to build up more, and it makes us quit, while virtuosi seem to have developed a way around this frustration.

When the virtuoso notices that they play the notes correctly, I speculate that they increase the tempo and monitor if the finger placements are still correct. Being able to do this quicker and quicker will attach more positivity to the memory objects involved.

If a mistake gets made too often, the virtuoso will have to process micro memories of incorrect movements. This will also create wider plasticity pathways, whether the virtuoso likes it or not. If this happens too frequently, a structural mistake will creep into the habits of the virtuoso, because the plasticity is increased over the incorrect movement path. This means that every time they get to the section with the mistake, the thread will choose to pass over the incorrect movement memory objects, leading to the mistake. How do they solve this?

I would argue that the only way to solve this is to slow down and ingrain the correct hand movement in the pattern of the self. I suspect that that is what the virtuoso does. The virtuoso will focus on where the mistake is and in a lower tempo they will place their finger in the correct place over and over again, until the plasticity for the correct finger placement has created a wider path than than the plasticity path for the mistake. This way, the correct path is preferred over the incorrect one. When the correct plasticity is properly set, the virtuoso will increase the tempo, making sure that it gets better and better every time. This way, the virtuoso makes sure not to make the experience too frustrating. Over time, the incorrect plasticity will diminish, since it is never used anymore. Now the pattern is set properly.

Conscious thought guides the movement of the hands

When the virtuoso first starts playing violin, they must create memory objects that form the understanding of what they have to do. These memory objects are formed by the teachings of the instructor. They form a basic understanding of where and how hard the fingers have to press, for instance. These memory objects serve as guiding memory objects. The knowledge that the virtuoso has to place their fingers on the markings is such a memory object. The placement of the fingers is guided by a conscious realization that that is where the strings have to be pressed. So conscious thought in the form of these higher social memory objects are necessary to guide the movement of the hand, instead of the plasticity pattern itself. This is necessary because otherwise the thread would not know where to go at all, because there is no pattern yet when someone just starts learning.

The virtuoso and gratification

When a non-virtuoso player needs to practice the violin, they don’t always want to. When they practice, they become frustrated. They start to work in against the grain and create emotional bonds between the taught memory objects and anxiety. The frustration makes it that they cannot focus. The long term memory (LTM) tries to lock out the memory objects needed to learn because they are so tied to anxiety and its inhibitory workings. When this player needs to practice, they often choose not to do so. After a while, they give up.

With the virtuoso, this seems to be different. Most of the time, the virtuoso seems to like practicing. When I have heard virtuosi talk about their youth, they all seem to have in common that they became somewhat obsessed with the thing that they became skilled in. They just had to practice every day. I have already speculated that, for instance, playing slowly but correctly might lead to a positive connection to the practice memory object, which will then lead to more, and more effective, practice. But maybe they have more things in common, and it could have something to do with how we practice.

When we teach children certain skills, we tend to teach them the technique that they have to execute properly. We show it to them in a lesson. Then they have to show it to the teacher to see if they understand what the correct movement is. Then they have to practice by themselves. We assume that everyone practices in the same way, and although the practice exercises might be the same for all students, the way in which they practice is not.

See it like this. The non-virtuoso has done the exercise correctly in the lesson and now thinks that it is going to be easy. When they start to practice at home, they realize that repeating this feat a day later is not so easy. Also, repeating it over and over turns out to be more difficult than expected. Maybe the non-virtuoso thought that the let’s say, ten times they tried it in the lesson and the one time that they got it right meant that from now on it would go smoothly. Of course, like with all learning, it won’t. The non-virtuoso starts to get frustrated and starts to show behavior of avoidance of practice. The pattern is not going to be carved out properly.

The virtuoso might see it more like a challenge. Yes, they played it correctly that one time in that lesson, but that doesn’t mean that it will be like that in practice. This is not a hindrance, but a challenge! So when the virtuoso plays it incorrectly, then that is just a benchmark for the rest. Play it slowly and try to get better every time. Do it like this, and the pattern will reinforce more and more. It will become better every time. This constant stream of success will make the virtuoso be more positive. They want to practice the next day, because practice feels good! Not practicing will start to feel bad. They will have a sturdy pattern in the LTM representing the movement of both hands, and the memory objects of that pattern will be connected to positive emotions.

Automatization: the higher layers of the virtuoso’s play

After a year of practice, both the virtuoso and the non-virtuoso have a pattern in their LTM. The virtuoso’s pattern is sturdy and robust. The many times that the hands have played the notes correctly have created a very precise pattern. Because of the pleasure during practice, the pattern is also attached to that feeling and its stimulating effects on the brain. The non-virtuoso’s not-a-challenge-but-a-chore approach has led to a less sturdy pattern. It is filled with the memories of incorrect movements and plasticity pathways that go half the correct way and half the incorrect way. The pattern is therefore not very detailed and kind of “hazy”. On top of that, the pattern is connected to frustration.

Automatization of driving

Before I go on with the virtuoso and their violin playing, I need to expose myself a bit. In a past life, I used to be a driving instructor. As a driving instructor, I once followed a course on how to teach more efficiently. Now, a lot of interesting things were taught, but I really want to focus on one exercise for the student driver that they suggested that we would do. The exercise was that the student had to keep the car rolling, unless it was prohibited by law (like a stop sign). Of course, this did not mean that the student had to cross a crossroad even when a car was coming. The student was supposed to see the car coming in time, so that they could slow down and inch towards the crossroad. If the car then had passed, they had to cross behind them.

The purpose of this exercise was twofold. Firstly, it was important to teach the student to look far ahead and see things coming in time. Secondly, and this is the reason that I mention it, it was to automatize the control of the car. Allow me to explain.

When a student driver is learning how to drive, they get taught by the instructor to control the car in a certain way. The clutch has to be gently lifted, the accelerator has to be gently pressed, the brake has to be gently pressed, and so on. In the beginning, the student uses these higher layered memory objects to guide the thread towards the correct movements. They recognize this in their heads by noticing though like: “I should not press the brake too hard this time.”, and then they will focus on the leg movement to monitor if the movement is done correctly. This often leads to somewhat clumsy behavior, which I will get back to later. This conscious guiding of action is necessary, because there is no experience pattern yet. Some other memory object has to point to the correct place. Over time, though, when the experience pattern is formed, these guiding memory objects should not longer be used, since they will make someone preoccupied with controlling the car, and they will not have time to look for other traffic.

So, somehow the student has to go from using these guiding memory objects to the automatized control of the car. When experienced drivers drive their car, they don’t really think about how to press the accelerator or the brake, they just do. I remember a story a student once told me at their first lesson. They had asked a parent which paddle was the accelerator and which was the brake. Their parent had to climb into the car, they said, to remember which one is which. We don’t think anymore about the control of the car, we just control it. For a student driver, however, it is difficult to go from using a higher layered guiding memory object to just relying on the pattern itself. This is where the exercise where the student cannot stop the car can be useful.

Before I did the exercise with the student, I had to train the car-control experience pattern sufficiently. If the pattern is riddled with incorrect plasticity pathways, then the student will make a lot of mistakes and will find the exercise frustrating. But if the pattern is set properly, this exercise distracts them from the guiding memory objects and get them to rely on the experience pattern. By consistently pointing out the higher order task of observing traffic, I could get them to focus on just this. This way, they had no time to let the thread pass over the guiding memory objects, and instead had to pass the thread more directly into the experience pattern itself. This way, the focus lay on traffic and not the control of the car. The control of the car was no longer being interrupted by the thread also passing over the guiding memory objects and therefore interfere with the thread passing over the experience pattern. The car control of my students would increase drastically, almost without exception. Their control became automatized.

Why guiding memory objects are intrusive

If an experience pattern is accessed, and it is set properly, then the synaptic plasticity will guide the thread over the correct memory objects and the body will end up making the correct movements with the extremities. If the thread is monitored, it must send a signal towards the experience pattern to achieve this monitoring. There seems to be no other way of monitoring it. Therefore, the monitoring will always interfere with the thread passing over the experience pattern. Because the thread is just neurons firing in a certain order, and neurons fire when enough of their neighbors have fired, the intrusive monitoring sub-thread will lead to neurons firing in the experience pattern that should not fire. This makes the movements clumsy. Anyone who has felt themselves being watched while walking or drinking or something else will recognize that this monitoring of their own behavior leads to distortions in movement.

Automatization and our violinists

A student driver can be distracted from the conscious interference of the thread by focusing on their most important task, observing traffic. But how does a virtuoso violinist do this?

Here, I must speculate again (but by now you must be used to it). I think that virtuosi “distract” themselves, among other things, with the emotion they want to convey in their music. This time I am not talking about the emotion that is linked to the memory objects that are used. What I mean is the emotion that the virtuoso wants to convey in the piece that they are playing. They want their audience to feel a certain way when listening to the music. The virtuoso tries to put these feelings into the composition. This is the emotion they focus on. The best way to do this is by making a prediction of what feeling the piece is going to convey. This prediction must, of course, be based on past experiences. So making the piece sound like the sobbing that humans do when they are sad, and the tone that they then speak at, lets the virtuoso tap into the emotions that are based on these sad past experiences. The virtuoso then also becomes a bit sad. The memory objects of these feelings that are based on sad social settings are stored in the social memory. So by focusing on this layer, the virtuoso can achieve the same thing as the student focusing on traffic. Higher layers can ask experience patterns to just allow the thread to pass over. If the pattern is sufficiently practiced, it can be triggered by the higher layers without any interference. The virtuoso feels “in the zone”. They just have to think of an outcome and the feelings that are associated with it, and their hands will play the piece. When they get this good, they must feel as if their hands can do their own thing sometimes.

Here, the hobbyist will be stuck in limbo. The hazy pattern has led to the hobbyist never truly being able to enter the higher layers satisfactorily, since the result will be sloppy because of the hazy pattern connected to frustration. They might lose interest in playing the violin. So many mistakes have slipped in that it would take too long to correct them all. The hobbyist might continue playing a couple of times a week, but it will never be more than a hobby.

If a mistake slipped in your pattern

If a mistake has slipped into your pattern, don’t worry. What you should do is lift this mistake out in a separate practice exercise. Then play it slowly over and over again, until you are confident that you can do it quicker. Then do it quicker. If the mistake returns, just slow down again and keep on practicing. Every human can do these things on at least some level. Don’t give up! When your pattern is up to snuff, so to speak, you can try to play the piece emotionally. This applies not only to all instruments, but to all skills. You might need to find out what the higher layer is in your skill, though.

The experienced master

The virtuoso has now become a master. They have mastered the skill of playing the violin fully automatized, while mostly focusing on the feelings they want to pass on to the audience. Their focus on playing the violin is now on how to build up a piece uniquely that reflects who they are and how they want to approach their audience. This is only possible because the experience pattern is so clear and robust.

Of course, some techniques are used more than others. Those other techniques can become rusty. Synaptic plasticity doesn’t last forever. It needs constant reinforcement, so practice is still necessary.

Learning in the far future

In the far future, you might be able to acquire skills in just a couple of minutes without practice. “Just” attach a device to your head, and the appropriate neurons of the correct pattern will be triggered by the device over and over again, creating the correct pattern in your head. Your limbs can be neutralized, so that the thread can just do its thing while you wait, without your limbs responding to the triggers. This will create the proper plasticity pattern in your head. You have now learned kung fu!

Sadly enough, you cannot simply copy the pattern of a master. That pattern is meant to control that master’s body, not yours. Your body is different: different height, different length of limbs and so on. So there needs to be some tweaking.

Of course such a wonderful device is probably not something we will see in our lifetimes, but I would argue that theoretically it should be possible. For now, it is just science fiction.

Experience and intuition

Intuition is just a form of prediction. Anyone can have intuition. But is this intuition worth anything? Let’s go to an example of a wartime general.

When a general has to make instant decisions in a battle, they don’t have all the information that would be useful to make an appropriate, weighed decision. Luckily for them, they have had a ton of training and experience on the battlefield. This has resulted in a robust and precise experience pattern. When the few external stimuli of a sudden attack by the enemy are recognized, they send the thread over this experience pattern. As I have discussed in a previous article, when part of a pattern can be unlocked, all the pattern can be unlocked by the thread. This means that the general can make a prediction. Because their experience pattern is so precise, they can lean on many past experiences, good and bad, to make the thread end up in a place that is most in line with those past experiences and the current pattern that has been discovered in the external stimuli. This makes it that the experienced general will be able to come close to the best solution, even when there is not enough information to make a proper decision.

The general will notice the thread passing over the experience pattern by getting an urge to react to the sudden attack in a certain way. This is the result of the thread passing over the memory objects in the experience pattern that have opened up. This opening up was caused by memory objects having the correct emotional bonds through proper training and experience, but also because the thread was already guided by the memory objects that recognized the predicted pattern derived from the external stimuli. The thread can unlock these memory objects in just a few passes, so this urge will come almost instantly. I speculate that this urge is known as intuition.

It is important to note that this intuition is still just a guess. In our example, the general could still be wrong. There simply is not enough data to base a proper response on. It’s just that the chance that the intuitive guess is right is far bigger than when an inexperienced person made the guess. Because of the detail in the pattern, the guess can also be wrong, but still closer than a random guess. In this case, the general can minimize losses this way. So, intuition can be good in a pinch, but if sufficient time and data is at hand, the rational method is preferred, and any degree of rationality allowed by time and evidence should be used.

When someone without an experience pattern tries to do something similar, they will get a similar result, that is, emotionally similar. They will also unlock memory objects of prediction. It will feel really good that they have discovered it. But because they don’t have the experience pattern, the thread will just end up in a very hazy, general place. The prediction will be very bad, since the person’s LTM does not possess enough past experiences to make the pattern able to weigh all the options properly. Since the pattern of the non-experienced involves only a few general memory objects, the thread will always end up in one of those. Precision and fine-tuning in intuition is now impossible. This is basically what prejudice is. So even though “intuition” can feel the same for the experienced as it does for the non-experienced, the non-experienced are just randomly guessing.

Before we go on…

When you learn things, don’t expect miracles. You’re just human. See it as a challenge. Try to make less mistakes every time. And if you notice that you are doing something consistently wrong, don’t give up! Just slow down! Create that pattern first, then speed it up!

I think that there are far more virtuois out there then we might think. I suspect that the way in which we teach our children to learn can use an overhaul. I would mostly focus on teaching children how to practice things properly. And I’m not just talking about skills. This also applies to learning the sciences. Boredom and frustration might be the result of poor mental preparation of the student. Children are expected to come up with strategies without supervision. Surely these strategies are very different depending on the child. And can this then explain why some children find certain things harder to learn than others? I don’t want to imply that there is no genetic component in someone’s ability to learn something. I just think that maybe between two children with similar genetic intelligence, there can still be a big difference caused by an incorrect learning and practice strategy of one or both. I think that there must be better ways to look at making practice and learning more stimulating by aiding children more in how to effectively create the correct pattern in the brain, so that two children with the same genetic background can learn in the same effective way.

Intuition is not what you think. It is not some magic pathway to knowledge.

Now on to the next article about social entanglement.