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 neurobiological mechanisms by which our human brains and minds learn, change, and master new skills.
The capacity for brain plasticity varies across the lifespan.
During infancy childhood and teenage years, the neuroplasticity switch is dialled ‘ON’. In the adult brain, various molecular and physiological brakes act to dial the plasticity switch towards (but not fully) ‘OFF’.
The older brain is still plastic and remains plastic to the end of life. We can learn, change, and master new skills as adults. We’re all 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 it before starting school.
If a baby’s brain experiences ‘anything-goes plasticity’ whereby every experience moulds and changes neural circuits, then adult plasticity only occurs under particular circumstances.
When does adult plasticity occur?
If you’ve ever marveled 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.
Practice makes perfect because of plasticity.
If we could lift the lid and peer into the brains of violin virtuosos, surgeons, jet-fighter pilots, chess champions, tennis grand-slam winners, or the masters of literature and art, we’d see that exceptional performance (masquerading as talent) is typically acquired through roughly ten years (or 10,000 hours) of deliberate practice.
Deliberate practice isn’t what most of us think of as training. It’s not simply practicing 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.
Practice isn’t enough.
But there are a few more steps to mastery and brain rewiring than just 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.
Here are the 6 steps that may enable you to tap into your capacity for adult brain plasticity and mastery. In other words ….
How you can R.E.F.I.R.E. to REWIRE
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 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 yours 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 practicing 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.
EXTEND: Change requires pushing yourself to the edge of your comfort zone.
- Repeating the same task over and over again isn’t enough to improve. You must deliberately practice at the edge of your capability.
- Amateurs practice till they get it right; professionals practice till they can’t get it wrong.
Try it! What new skill would you like to master? Apply the REFIRE model as part of your learning, and let me know how you go.
Ice Skating Image credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/bensonkua/6625045137