philosophizing about PRACTICE and myelination on a Monday.Posted: August 20, 2018
Science has shown us that the brain is incredibly plastic–meaning it does not “harden” at age 25 and stay solid for the rest of our lives. While certain things, especially language, are more easily learned by children than adults, we have plenty of evidence that even older adults can see real transformations in their neurocircuitry.
In order to do any kind of task, we have to activate various portions of our brain. In the context of various tasks including language learning, experiencing happiness, and exercising…our brains coordinate a complex set of actions involving motor function, visual and audio processing, verbal language skills, and more. At first, the new skill might feel stiff and awkward. But as we practice, it gets smoother and feels more natural and comfortable. What practice is actually doing is helping the brain optimize for this set of coordinated activities, through a process called myelination.
Scientists have found that myelination increases the speed and strength of the nerve impulses by forcing the electrical charge to jump across the myelin sheath to the next open spot on the axon. In other words, myelin turns the electrical signal into the brain version of Willy Wonka’s sideways traveling elevator. Instead of traveling in a straight line down the axon, the charge is hop-skip-jumping down at a much faster rate.
Practice Makes Myelin, So Practice Carefully
Understanding the role of myelin means not only understanding why the amount of practice is important to improving your skill (as it takes repetition of the same nerve impulses again and again to activate the two glial cells that myelinate axons), but also the quality of practice. Similar to how the science of creativity speaks about idle time and not crushing through one task after the other, practicing with a focus on quality is equally important.
As an Athlete, my coach put a spin on the old phrase and would always say: “Practicing poorly just develops poor skills.” If we practice poorly and don’t correct our mistakes, we will myelinate those axons, increasing the speed and strength of those poor signals. Not good.
Practicing skills over time causes those neural pathways to work better in unison via myelination. To improve your performance, you need to practice often, and get feedback so you practice correctly.
Whew! A bit heavy on a Monday…but where dievca’s mind is dwelling~
Photo: dievca NYC 01/2017 Thank you to Buffer and Lifehacker, Jason Shen