Neuroplasticity and how training changes the structure of the brain

By Dan Peterson

The more we practice something, the better we get at it; this much is uncontroversial.  But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth examining. The connection between practicing a skill and then improving because of that practice is a concept that is so natural and intuitive, so well accepted as common knowledge, that we often fail to appreciate the fascinating mechanics behind the process of skill acquisition.

On the most basic level, learning a new skill or improving a skill involves changes in the brain.  There are a few different ways that our brains adapt to picking up new skills and changing environmental conditions.  The first involves a rewiring of the networks of neurons in the brain.  Each skill or action that an athlete performs involves the activation of neural pathways.  In Norman Doidge’s book on neuroplasticity, The Brain That Changes Itself, Dr. Alvaro Pascual-Leone has a beautiful little analogy for the way that these pathways relate to skilled performance (Page 209):

The plastic brain is like a snowy hill in winter.  Aspects of that hill–the slope, the rocks, the consistency of the snow–are, like our genes, a given.  When we slide down on a sled, we can steer it and will end up at the bottom of the hill by following a path determined both by how we steer and the characteristics of the hill.  Where exactly we will end up is hard to predict because there are so many factors in play.

“But,” Pascual-Leone says, “what will definitely happen the second time you take the slope down is that you will more likely than not find yourself somewhere or another that is related to the path you took the first time.  It won’t be exactly that path, but it will be closer to that one than any other.  And if you spend your entire afternoon sledding down, walking up, sledding down, at the end you will have some paths that have been used a lot, some that have been used very little.”

Every action we perform, every new skill we pick up, involves beating down and refining a kind of neural trail.  We are making real changes in the brain.  And our brains are remarkably efficient and quick to change in response to training.  In one study, video game players who played the dark, fast-moving action-based game Call of Duty for 9 weeks were not only better at the game, but were able to see significantly more shades of gray, post-training, than a group who played a simulation strategy game that did not exercise those skills.

Over a longer time span, it is also possible to see significant structural changes in the brain.  For example, the brain area associated with motor control of the right index finger in blind subjects who are braille readers has been found to be significantly larger than that of sighted individuals.  Similarly, a famous study of london cabbies, famous for their ability to navigate the twisting streets of the city, found that they had greater brain volume in the hippocampus, a structure heavily involved in both memory and spatial navigation, than bus drivers who followed a predefined route every day.

With respect to the brains of athletes, structural differences have been found between experienced athletes and novices.  A chinese study of expert divers found increased gray matter volume in brain areas associated with skilled motor control.  Along the same lines, an Australian study of skilled racket-sport players found that brain areas associated with the racket arm were larger than in a matched group of non-athletes.  Skilled athletes have also been found to exhibit different and more economical brain activity while performing.

The overarching theme here is that the brain is malleable–it changes with training.  It is an interesting concept to keep in mind, especially with respect to sports and athletic performance.  It’s easy and natural to think about training in terms of muscles, the body and physical skills.  But every new skill that an athlete learns is accompanied also by neural changes that may be harder to see, but are equally important.

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46 Responses to Neuroplasticity and how training changes the structure of the brain

  1. Great points and great book. This is a great qualifying post to the myth of “muscle memory”. It’s really neural pathways; the muscles take commands from the brain (which I guess is obvious when you stop and think about it). The brain is so plastic that each repetition in practice affects the brain. That puts a lot of importance on “perfect practice” to ensure that the pathways being laid down in the brain are reinforced with the right neural connections. Sloppy, careless practice isn’t just wasted time, it can actually harm a skill.

    Other goodness you found in this book?

  2. Steve:

    Is perfect practice the answer? There are other theories just as differential learning and nonlinear pedagogy that support the idea that athletes should engage in a wide array of skill executions and increase the number of degrees of freedom because by widening the scope of the practice, they are more likely to find the execution that best fits their anatomy, physiology, etc.

    Thinking of the study on the London cab drivers. Is their practice perfect? Is it perfect compared to the bus drivers who drive a pre-defined route? It is essentially the difference between routine expertise and adaptive expertise. The cab drivers, by trying new streets, develop a flexible and adaptive expertise. The bus drivers never err on their route, but their route is not always the best one – what if there is a traffic jam, an accident, a street closure? They can execute their routine with great automaticity, but not the flexibility to deal with these new constraints.

    If the can drivers stick to the conventional path and take the main streets, they are unlikely to make any errors, but they also have shallower pool of experience from which to draw when a new problem arises. It is only through exploration, not perfect practice, that the cabbies develop the new and varied pathways which make them experts at their job.

    • Matthew Berenc says:

      You are absolutely correct, the experience gained by being involved in multiple situations allows the brain to be able to adapt to a wider variety of situations and react appropriately, this will only make the athlete more successful. But this still can apply to the perfect practice scenario. To continue with the cabbie example, they gain great adaptive ability by being able to explore different routes and learning which is the best at which time of day but they still need to drive the car perfectly. If they are constantly trying to drive with the emergency brake on or shift directly in to 2nd gear, the car isn’t going to last long or go very fast. The same with a football player, he needs to learn multiple plays and react to different scenarios but he still needs to practice those scenarios perfectly. Otherwise, he would reinforce a learned habit of imperfect play for a wide variety of situations.

    • Brian,

      I did a bit of research per your comments – you’re absolutely right. Rote repetition isn’t that effective in increasing skill. It’s the variability in practice and pushing the brain to the point of failure over and over that results in optimal changes. Failure can be reached in an infinite number of ways: a batter sees different pace, spin, height – no two pitches are the same. The London cabbie sees the same street grid under different conditions. Through vigorous variability the brain becomes more efficient.

  3. Great comment Brian. Variability is the oil of our central nervous system.

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