You can teach an old brain new tricks.
But it takes more than simply waving a magic neuroplasticity wand and saying “Rewire my brain!”
Brain plasticity encompasses a number of neurobiological mechanisms by which our human brains and minds learn, change, and master new skills.
The capacity for brain plasticity varies across the lifespan.
Children learn effortlessly because their brains are plastic. They absorb new ideas by default.
Every experience sculpts brain architecture and builds their repertoire of knowledge, skills and behaviours.
As you get older, your capacity to learn new things doesn’t disappear entirely, but the effort required increases dramatically. Brain plasticity is no longer the default.
The older brain is still plastic and remains plastic to the end of life — we can learn, change, and master new skills as adults. For example, we’re capable of learning to speak a new language at any age, but we’re not going to pick it up as easily as if we learned to speak the new language when we were two or three years old.
If a baby’s brain experiences ‘anything-goes plasticity’ whereby every experience moulds and changes neural circuits, then adult plasticity only occurs when certain conditions to be met. These conditions include focused attention, intentional curiosity, low-level stress, repetition and the right mindset.
Practice makes perfect because of plasticity.
If you’ve ever marvelled at the outstanding skills of Olympic divers, gymnasts, basketball players, or other elite athletes, you’ll know they look natural and effortless (with super-human capabilities can seem so far removed from our own!!). It’s often not difficult to attribute their performances to innate talent or good genes: they’re gifted, natural athletes who were born to win.
But it turns out there is much more to mastery than innate talent. Underlying exceptional performance is the capability to tap into adult neuroplasticity.
If we could lift the lid and peer into the brains of violin virtuosos, Olympic gold medalists, or the masters of literature and art, we’d see that their exceptional performance, masquerading as talent, is typically acquired with a LOT of what we call deliberate practice.
Deliberate practice isn’t what most of us think of as training. It’s not simply practising a golf swing or playing a musical instrument a few times a week. Deliberate practice is a highly structured activity you engage in with the specific goal of improving your performance. It involves rehearsing a behaviour over and over again, constantly striving to improve performance, and using feedback from a coach or mentor.
There are a few more steps to mastery and brain rewiring beyond deliberate practice: motivation, positive emotions, and visualisation all play a part. The adult brain’s innate capacity for neuroplasticity in adulthood can be tapped into when specific conditions that enable or trigger plasticity are met. These include when change is deemed to be important, rewarding, or crucial for survival.
I should note that any change needs to be built on a foundation of good brain health, a topic I’ve written about extensively. Here’s a good primer on brain health.
How you can R.E.F.I.R.E. to REWIRE
Here are the 6 steps that may enable you to tap into your capacity for adult brain plasticity and mastery.
REASON: Find your why.
- What is your goal? What skill, behaviour, or mindset do you want to learn, change, master, or perfect?
- Having clarity around a goal breeds confidence, motivation and excitement rather than fear and uncertainty.
- Knowing your goal enables you to establish ‘micro goals’.
- Microgoals set you up for some early easy wins. Early easy wins close the feedback loop and trigger the dopamine reward pathways in your brain. Reward enhances learning and sparks motivation.
ENGAGE: Absorb yourself in learning the task. Get feedback from the best.
- Focus on learning the new skill.
- Single-minded attention on the task is vital (multi-tasking leads to cognitive burnout!)
- Use a teacher/coach/guide to give feedback and finesse.
- A note for any teacher/coach/guide: You should act as a resource, not a micromanager of the process. Motivation comes from autonomy and mastery. We all respond to internal rather than external rewards.
FEEL: Find the sweet spot between boredom and fear.
- Find your flow. At mild to moderate levels of activation, the brain is in the optimal state to learn. At very low levels or very high levels of arousal, learning is inhibited. We see this at every neurobiological level from the synapse all the way through to behaviour.
- Boredom is a symptom of under-arousal — perhaps the new task isn’t testing you. Try to set a bigger goal, move the goalposts, or change the environment you’re training in.
- Fear is a symptom of over-arousal — perhaps a task is too hard. Does it FAR exceed your skill level? Maybe you haven’t ‘micro-goaled’ your challenge down into manageable pieces or projects.
IMAGINE: Rehearse in your mind’s eye.
- Thinking and doing are the same in the brain. The same brain regions that are activated when completing a motor skill are activated when mentally rehearsing the same task.
- Musicians and athletes commonly use mental rehearsal or visualisation to help achieve mastery.
- You can mentally rehearse how you’ll respond emotionally to an event. Try rehearsing how you’ll respond emotionally if you hit a ‘roadblock’ or failure.
- Mental rehearsal can be thought of as practising when you can’t deliberately practice.
REPEAT: Deliberate practice makes perfect because of neuroplasticity.
- Practice (practice, and practice) the new skill, behaviour or mindset.
- Neurons that fire together wire together. Neurons that are out of sync fail to link.
- Deliberate practice trumps talent. Genius is not born; instead, mastery is made.
- This is where the grit and determination come in. Deliberate practice isn’t always fun.
- Amateurs practice till they get it right; professionals practise till they can’t get it wrong.
EGO: Who are you becoming?
- The language you use to talk to yourself matters. Are you trying to write a book, or are you an author? Is your goal to get fit, or are you a runner? Do you want to learn to play the piano, or are you a musician?
- Instead of focussing on distant goals, tend to your identity. Who you will become as you REFIRE?
Ice Skating Image credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/bensonkua/6625045137
About Dr Sarah
I’m an Oxford University-educated neuroscientist, presenter of ABC Catalyst, director of The Neuroscience Academy, and author of The Women's Brain Book. The neuroscience of health, hormones and happiness.
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