Born Stupid: Your Plastic Brain, III

Photograph of a stained neuron

Man is unique not because he does science, and is unique not because he does art, but because science and art equally are expressions of his marvelous plasticity of mind. ~Jacob Bronowski


I keep hammering away at the brain’s ability to re-wire itself because 1: It’s so darn fascinating, and 2: To combat the old saw that “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” which research is telling us is completely false. Here’s some more evidence of the lifelong plasticity of the brain. Anyone over 18 who is considering doing something new and unfamiliar should be required to watch the following video.

In an earlier post I reviewed Dan Coyle’s The Talent Code, which is partly about how myelin is used in the brain to coat neurons, allowing them to fire more efficiently and which occurs throughout life. In the below 2004 TED talk by Michael Merzinich we learn about how the brain wires and rewires itself. Fascinating stuff! One connection between The Talent Code and this post is that Merzinich shows a kid from Sao Paolo, Brazil playing futsal, a game which is highlighted in The Talent Code, a game that helps soccer players because futsal is more intense than soccer.

Some musical things to listen for and think about when you watch:

Epoch 1: The Critical Period in which basic processing is set up. It doesn’t take learning to change brain, only exposure. He uses harmful sounds in the environment as an example, but imagine the potential of positive sounds in your environment, like listening to good music. The developing brain (and it’s always developing!)  is at the mercy of the sound environment in which it’s immersed. Listening to great music (live is best), is critical no matter how old you are, but it’s especially important for younger people.

The 2nd epoch deals with adult plasticity, and findings are the antithesis of “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” In this stage the brain refines its interactions with the environment. It begins late in 1st year of life and ends with death.  We have a “lifelong capacity for plasticity,” and the changes can be MASSIVE–tens- or hundreds of millions of new neurons! And this means hundreds of millions, possibly billions of synaptic connections in the brain. So if you’re embarking on learning a new thing, take comfort from the fact that your brain will learn, and those neurons will grow. It does take time however, so be patient and keep at it!

Neuroscience is beginning to have a profound impact on how we think about teaching and learning. Thirty hours of listening training can improve memory and cognition, speech production and fluency, and reading, and 430,000 kids trained with these techniques as of 2004. And 80-90 year olds who receive the 30 hour training improved by 2 std deviations! This is an incredible finding! Brain aerobics are going to be a reality. Use it or lose it. So without further ado, please have a listen to the engaging expert, Michael Merzinich.

If you liked this vid, you really should go visit the TED site. The 2010 conference just happened and lots of fascinating new vids are up.

May you grow many new neurons this week! Have fun and good luck with your practice.

Want to learn more about the best ways to practice? Get an e-mail with a discount code when The Practice of Practice is published (June, 2014). To learn more about the book, check out a sample from The Practice of Practice.


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