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How to boost neuroplasticity?

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In the previous part, we examined what neuroplasticity is and how it works.

Our brains can and are constantly changing in response to the stimulus we are giving it, developing to become better to perform the task at hand.

These tasks include learning and developing new knowledge, new skills, and new habits. And this can take place across all ages. Neuroplasiticity occurs throughout our lifetimes. 

But what boosts the process of neuroplasticity in our brains? What can help us change, and make these changes more permanent and quicker?

1. Understand neuroplasticity and recognise that we can change

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For us to be able to make changes to ourselves, we must first believe that changes are indeed possible. This sounds obvious but there is still fairly widespread belief that change is not possible. That our brains are set at an early age, that most of the changes we can make occur before age 7.

This is where the understanding of neuroplasticity is important.

 

||  Neuroplasticity isn't just possible, it's constant and inevitable. 

 

The entire wiring of our brain facilitates taking in new information and skills throughout our lives. We have increasing numbers of people in their 80s and 90s completing a university degree. There's a professional counterstrike team with average age of 67, duking it out with kids that could be their grandchildren. We even generate new neurons up till our passing.  What's critical to note is that there's nothing special about this. It's doesn't take anyone "special" to be able to keep learning and developing, all our brains are wired this way. 

Giuseppe Paternò, graduating at age 96.
Photo credit: Guardian

2. A Growth Mindset - Reward ourselves not just for the outcomes we achieve but the changes we make

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There is an important second layer that builds on the foundation of understanding neuroplasticity

 

This is Carol Dweck's terrific work on the "Growth Mindset". Even if we cognitively accept the concept that our brains are plastic and can change over time, many of us are reluctant to believe in this in real life. 
 

Dweck identifies that 2 mindsets which govern how people view their abilities. 
 

  1.  Fixed Mindset: In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success. More importantly, when they don't do well, when they meet failure they see this as an indication that they are not good enough.
     

  2. Growth Mindset: In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and work—smarts and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment. People adopting a growth mindset see challenges as part of the learning curve.

Dweck found that when we adopt a growth mindset, we embrace the idea of "Not Yet." "Not Yet" provides the compass and path for people to keep going on, and improving. It signals to us that we haven't gotten the outcome, but even if takes some time, we can get there. In contrast, with a fixed mindset, people tend to admit defeat when they encounter failure. They see themselves as "just don't have the head for figures", or "I'm just not creative." One group keeps pursuing, while the other sees one outcome as final.

The Growth Mindset is useful to adopt because empirically, it works in reality.  Among many examples in the "Growth Mindset" book, Dweck shares that:

"In our country, there are groups of students who chronically underperform, for example, children in inner cities, or children on Native American reservations. And they've done so poorly for so long that many people think it's inevitable. But when educators create growth mindset classrooms steeped in yet, equality happens. And here are just a few examples. In one year, a kindergarten class in Harlem, New York scored in the 95th percentile on the national achievement test. Many of those kids could not hold a pencil when they arrived at school. In one year, fourth-grade students in the South Bronx, way behind, became the number one fourth-grade class in the state of New York on the state math test. In a year, to a year and a half, Native American students in a school on a reservation went from the bottom of their district to the top, and that district included affluent sections of Seattle. So the Native kids outdid the Microsoft kids."

This extends beyond kids.  The psychologist John Hayes examined seventy-six famous classical composers and found that, in almost every case, those composers did not create their greatest work until they had been composing for at least ten years.

And in "Outliers", Malcolm Gladwell wrote: "the closer psychologists look at the careers of the gifted, the smaller the role innate talent seems to play and the bigger the role preparation seems to play. In cognitively demanding fields, there are no naturals. Nobody walks into an operating room, straight out of a surgical rotation, and does world-class neurosurgery. And second—and more crucially for the theme of Outliers—the amount of practice necessary for exceptional performance is so extensive that people who end up on top need help."

 

Beyond just a mindset, there is also a process. 

If we reward ourselves only on the outcome, then it is easy for us to fall into the fixed mindset, where we see ourselves as failing, and undeserving of any reward. 

 

||   But what if we rewarded ourselves based on effort? We acknowledged the trying.

Instead of being pleased with ourselves that we have accomplished X, recognise the effort we have put in to do the work, to hold on to the belief of "Not Yet", and to continue developing a strategy and pushing ourselves to get to X.

Conversely, even if we haven't accomplished X, the same effort, belief, and grit should still be recognised.

The shift towards recognising and rewarding ourselves for the effort ensures that when we do fail, we will keep pushing on and not give up. The growth mindset is a terrific example of Nicholas Taleb's conept of antifraglity - where stress, shocks, and failure doesn't cause damage, but instead strengthens a system and makes it better. 

 

Sometimes, we simply cannot control for the outcome. But the effort to pursue is what makes us antifragile, what allows us to keep developing to become better versions of ourselves.

3. Practice and Training 

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Neuroplasticity is re-wiring of the brain every time we learn or practice something new, our brain re-wires. Put another way, if there is no re-wiring, the knowledge is not stored, and the new skill is not developed. 

But what causes this re-wiring to happen more effectively, allowing us to better understand what we learnt, and better perform the skill we developed?

A few considerations.  

 

First, the primary driver of change in our brain is behaviour. There's just no other way. In other words, there must be practice (almost always a lot of it) - nothing is possible without putting in the work. It is only with the practice that provides enough time and stimulus for the brain to re-wire. But how much practice? And what kind of practice? 

It turns out that there is a large amount of variability. There is no one-size fits all guidebook on how to learn -it depends on the person, and the task. Earlier, we quoted Malcolm Gladwell, who posited that the magic number for anyone to master a skill is 10,000 hours. This is very unlikely to be true. For some skills, we will take a shorter time, and for others, it might take even longer.
 

But it's not just the hours of practice that matters. Research from Lara Boyd at the Univesity of British Columbia show that generally, the more difficult the practice, the more we have to struggle during practice, the greater the learning and structural change in the brain.

We can translate this into 5 actionable steps:
 

  1. Study how and what you learn best. Repeat those behaviors that work the best for you. You have to figure this out yourself, there's just no one that will know this better than yourself. One huge advantage we have in the current era is that you choose teachers anywhere in the world, even those who are no longer with us, who are more interesting and help you learn better. One of the most difficult topics to learn is physics, and many of us are turned off by the combination of  difficult mathematics based on abstract theory. Yet almost everyone I know enjoy the lectures by MIT's Walter Lewin, who presents Physics is a transformative manner. 
     

  2. For learning knowledge, take a look at the picture at the very top of this section. It is what is called the Feynman method of learning, named after Richard Feynman, a Nobel Prize winning scientist. Feynman postulated that if you truly understood what you've learnt, you will be able to explain it very simply to others so that they too, can understand it. Where you can't explain clearly is where a gap exists in your understanding, and that should be the area(s) to focus on. And this fits perfectly into Lara Boyd's research above - the more difficult it is, the deeper the learning and structural change. Teaching someone what you've learnt is that difficult challenge.  (check out also what Bill Gates had to say about Feynman)
     

  3. Deliberate practice: The issue with common practice - repeating something over and over again is that we do not correct the flaws that we might have, until eventually we become so used to doing something in a certain way that it beocmes a habit - we do it so automatically, it's very difficult to change.

    In contrast, deliberate practice involves breaking down the overall process into parts, identifying weakness in each of these parts, trying out a new strategy, and measuring performance. It is also premised on immediate feedback. We look through how we have done something as soon as possible, and assess (possibly with someone else, especially someone better than us at that area) how we have done and what we can do better. 

    A great example of deliebrate practice is shared by author Geoff Colvin, on how Benjamin Franklin improved his writing skills:
     When he was a teenager, Benjamin Franklin was criticized by his father for his poor writing abilities. Unlike most teenagers, young Ben took his father's advice seriously and vowed to improve his writing skills.
     He began by finding a publication written by some of the best authors of his day. Then, Franklin went through each article line by line and wrote down the meaning of every sentence. Next, he rewrote each article in his own words and then compared his version to the original. Each time, “I discovered some of my faults, and corrected them.” Eventually, Franklin realized his vocabulary held him back from better writing, and so he focused intensely on that area.

For the last 2 actionable steps, we will these in the greater detail in the next sections below.

4. Stimulating environment 

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A 4th action step is being in a stimulating environment. 

 

One of the first landmark studies on neuroplasticity was done all the way back in 1972, by Mark Rosenzweig. Rosenzweig divided lab rats into 2 groups:

1) a deprived condition, where rats lived alone in a small and empty cage

2) a stimulating condition, where rats lived n groups of 10-12, in a large cage full of toys and play structures, and with additional training in maze solving and other challenges. 
 

Rats living in the stimulating environment developed a heavier and thicker frontal cortex (the part of the brain that regulates cognition). In addition, the rats developed more acetylcholine receptors - acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter that is emitted in large amounts when we are encoding new experiences and memories into our brain. Finally, the entire weight of the brain in the simulated environment can be up to 10% heavier, with 20% more synapses or connection between neurons. 

These results translate to humans. Numerous studies show how children and teenagers who have been neglected or suffer from poverty or constant stress eventually develop thinner pre-frontal cortexes and a larger amygdala (regulating anxiety, anger, aggression, and fear). And just in an earlier section, we saw examples of being in an environment that promoted a growth mindset radically transformed the performance of students. 

So what is a stimulating environment? We've covered the important elements in the earlier sections:
1) interaction with people who are further along in the field you are pursuing. if direct interaction is not yet possible, minimally going through their books or long-form podcasts/videos

2) people or conditions that would provide honest but well-meaning feedback, and constantly push you slightly out of your comfort zone by challenging your views.

3) where you can try out doing in the area you are interested in, whether to actually perform a new skill, or to share/teach the knowledge you have learnt.

Deliberate imagery

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Speaking of revolutionary experiments, we have this beautiful piece work by Havard's Alvaro Pascual-Leone. Pascual-Leone got one group of non-musician volunteers to learn a five-finger exercise on the piano. Every day for five days, this group of volunteers would practice for two hours. 

 

After each day of practice these volunteers were placed in a transcranial-magnetic-stimulation, which allowed Pascual-Leone to observe neural patterns in the brain. After just a few days, Pascual-Leone observed that the neural networks in the motor cortex tied to the playing hand expanded. If there was no further practice, these expansions did not last for more than a few days. This is consistent with what we've discussed earlier.But after a few weeks of practice, the neural networks in the motor cortex devoted to he hand movement expanded massively, with many new connections. 

So neuroplasticity - the brain changes due to our behaviour. Sure, we already know this.

But Pascual-Leone went one step further. He invited a second group of volunteers, who were thought the same finger movements on the piano. Then, again for 2 hours a day, these participants would imagine themselves practicising only in their head, while keeping their physical fingers still. Here's the amazing bit. Just like the first group who physically practised, the second group who only practised mentally, also saw neural expansions in the motor cortex!

Jus imagery alone leads to neruoplasticity. 

You can read his study here: 

Since then, numerous studies have confirmed the same thing - mental practice without actual practice rewires the brain. This study by Classen et al show that this re-wiring can occur within minutes. And the extent of the effectiveness of mental practice goes.. quite far. This study by Guang Yue et al looked at developing finger abduction strength. Volunteers who traind physcially increased their finger strength by 53% after 12 weeks. The group doing mental practice? A respectable 35%.

Mental imagery is so well established that today, top sportsmen, speakers, and performers engage in it. Mental imagery is also being used in medicine, in pain management and fear reconditioning. 

It's important to note that mental imagery and practice is not just daydreaming or simple imagination. These changes in neuroplasticity and actual performance isn't just sitting there thinking about achieving something randomly. It is practicing - running through a set of actual training procedures, except it is done mentally.

Booster factors

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There are 2 additional things we can do in our daily lives that boost neuroplasiticty and neurogenesis. 

The first is sleeping. This point is often made that sleeping helps with memory, though no one was really able to explain why. This was until Matt Wilson from MIT found (almost accidentally) that our brains continue replaying new and major experiences that we have just gone through. Remembr the previous point on mental practice? When we are sleeping, it turns out that our brain still get in a bit of practice, just without us noticing.  

You can read more about Wilson's work here. 

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Image from Tedx Talk: Max Cynader at TEDxStanleyPark

The second is exercise

 

Research from the Brain Research Centre at the University of British Coumbia produce interesting findings:

 

In the first chart, "Running Enhances Neurogenesis" - the green cells in the pictures depict current neurons in the brains of rats. The red cells denote new neurons (what we call neurogenesis - read more here). What was found was that the rate of neurogenesis is almost 3 times faster for rats that go through daily exercise as compared to sedentary rats. Exercise allows us to produce new neurons, more of them and at a faster rate.

In the second chart, Ambrose-Liu of UBC tracked the hippocampus of seniors who were showing signing of cognitive decline. Again, amazing results. The 2 graphs show the volume of the left and right hippocampus respectively in these seniors. The blue line are results of seniors who did no or only stretching exercises over time - it's a straight decline. The red line show the results of seniors who did both cardio and resistance training. Not only is here no decline in the hippocampus, it even grows in size. 

 

For better brain development and performance, sleep. And exercise - especially with resistance training. 
 

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