We know that deliberate practice is an important part of learning (and mastering) new skills–but what role, if any, does mere passive exposure play? Can relevant background stimulation help us to reduce the amount of effort and practice necessary to master a skill?
To answer these questions Jonah Lehrer contacted the authors of a recent paper studying exactly this and found that passive exposure can be as effective as practice, drastically cutting the effort required to learn.
These experiments […] demonstrated that listening to relevant background stimulation could be just as effective as slaving away at the task itself, at least when the subjects had practiced first. In fact, the scientists found that we don’t even have to be paying conscious attention to the stimuli – subjects still benefited from the stimulation even when distracted by an entirely unrelated task. […]
Yes you do have to do the task, just not for the whole time. The main result is that if you practice for 20 minutes, and then you are passively exposed to stimuli for 20 minutes, you learn as if you have been practicing for 40 minutes. You can cut the effort in half, and still yield the same benefit. […]
On a practical level, the present results suggest a means by which perceptual training regimens might be made markedly more efficient and less effortful. The current data indicate that it may be possible to reduce the effort required by participants by at least half, with no deleterious effect, simply by combining periods of task performance with periods of additional stimulus exposure.
Along with the obvious caveats (the study looked only at auditory discrimination tasks), the published article offers some practical clarifications:
Learning was enhanced regardless of whether the periods of additional stimulation were interleaved with or provided exclusively before or after target-task performance, and even though that stimulation occurred during the performance of an irrelevant (auditory or written) task. The additional exposures were only beneficial when they shared the same frequency with, though they did not need to be identical to, those used during target-task performance. Their effectiveness also was diminished when they were presented 15 min after practice on the target task and was eliminated when that separation was increased to 4 h.