Tag Archives: Plasticity

Learning To Be The Next Eric Clapton Or Tiger Woods

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Despite being a well-respected cognitive psychology professor at New York University, Gary Marcus had a secret ambition; to shred amazing riffs that would make Eric Clapton envious. The fact that he had been gently told as a child he had no sense of rhythm or tone did not discourage his dream. With a one year sabbatical from NYU available, he turned himself into a lab experiment of how to teach a middle-aged dog new “licks”. At about the same time, Dan McLaughlin was growing restless with his career as a commercial photographer in Portland. To him, life as a professional golfer seemed to be the dream destination if only he could …

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Practice Makes Perfect, Thanks To Plasticity

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As kids, once we have mastered the complex motor skill of riding a bicycle, we’re told that its a lifelong skill that we’ll never forget.  Getting all of the moving parts of human and machine in sync with each other becomes a collective memory that can be called on from age 6 to 60.  Which is surprising, knowing that names, numbers and recent locations of car keys can be so easily forgotten.  What makes motor skills stick in our brains, ready to be called on at anytime?  According to two teams of cognitive science researchers, we can thank a property called neuroplasticity which actually changes the structure of our brain as …

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What If Xavi Made Even Better Decisions?

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When Xavi Hernandez receives the soccer ball in his offensive half of the field, the Barcelona maestro has a world of decisions waiting for him.  Hold the ball while his teammates arrive, make the quick through pass to a slicing Lionel Messi or move into position for a shot.  The question that decision researchers want to know is whether Xavi’s brain makes a choice based on the desired outcome (wait, pass or shoot) or the action necessary to achieve that goal.  Then, could his attitude towards improvement actually change his decision making ability? Traditionally, the decision process was seen as consecutive steps; first choose what it is you want then choose …

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Neuroplasticity, Divers and the Athletic Brain

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Our last post here centered on neuroplasticity and the way that training creates real, visible changes in the brains of athletes.  We referenced a study of Chinese professional divers, who showed enlargement in certain brain areas associated with learning and processing movement.  Back in March, Wired magazine did a nice story summarizing the research: In a new study published last month in PLoS ONE, a research team led by Jing Luo from the Institute of Psychology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences compared the brains of elite divers to those who were not involved in intense physical training or professional sport. To offset the chances that differences found deep within the …

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Neuroplasticity and how training changes the structure of the brain

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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 …

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The science behind choking

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Free throw shooting in basketball offers one of the best opportunities to look at the effects of pressure on athletic performance.  Most NBA players can stand around in an empty gym and knock down free throw after free throw.  It’s one of those skills that has been so refined by deliberate practice that it’s basically performed on autopilot.  But it’s a different story to put that same player in a pressure-packed situation, in front of a crowd, with the game on the line.  In research conducted by Art Markman at the University of Texas, it appears that NBA players are more likely to choke in critical, late-game situations: The  highest pressure …

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Athletes and age of peak performance

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The trajectory of an athlete’s career follows a parabolic arc: a fairly steep rise as the body matures and skills are acquired, a peak, and then a slower, flatter decline as ability fades. But what causes this peak and decline? Obviously it has to do with physical attributes like speed and power, but what about the deep, underlying aspects of performance? The consistency of this rise-peak-decline pattern is striking, even across very different sports. For nearly every major sport, the age of peak performance is in the range of 22-30, and some interesting trends emerge when you look at sport type in relation to an athlete’s peak age. The age at …

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Neuroplasticity and the athletic brain (cont.)

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Last week we looked at several studies that demonstrated evidence of neuroplasticity in athletes’ brains–and saw that the brain physically changes and even grows with training and expertise.  Brains, however, don’t exactly work like muscles, which keep growing and growing as they get stronger.  After all, the skull is a fairly constrictive space, so growth in the cortex obviously has to stop at some point. A new Scientific American article does a good job of discussing new findings around this more nuanced way that the brain grows changes.  The basic overview is that acquiring a new skill leads to an initial burst of increased size in associated brain areas, but that …

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Malcolm Gladwell-moderated panel on building the modern athlete at MIT Sports Analytics Conference

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Embedded below is the keynote panel discussion from the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference at MIT, which just recently wrapped up in Boston and brings together a lot of the people doing the most forward-thinking research in sports. The conference began in 2007, small and basically a total geekfest, but has doubled in size every year since and now gets a fair amount of attention in more mainstream media outlets. (Note: The first 16:30 of the video is full of introductory talking about the conference and is boring, and for some reason the video doesn’t let you jump forward.  But if you start the video and then pause it, it loads up …

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