Brain Plasticity in Action

At an early age, our brain creates wiring that causes us to remain or fall back into certain habits.  This wiring will always be there but if we make the commitment to change and stick with a new process for a period of time, new wiring will be created in the brain, allowing new habits to form.  As the old wiring remains, there is always the possibility of falling back to the old habits.  So stick with it.

Every thought you have and every action you take has an impact on your brain, causing it to change.  Learning new things or experiencing something you deem important creates new connections, or “motor maps”, between cells that strengthen over time.

In 1994, neurology professor Alvaro Pascual-Leone ran an experiment to determine what happens to motor maps as individuals learn to play a musical instrument.  The selected subjects, who had no prior musical background, were taught to play a five-finger exercise on a piano keyboard.  Before training began, a technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) was used to measure the size of each subject’s finger maps in their brains.  They were asked to perform this exercise two hours a day for a week.  All subjects improved their piano skills.  Each day, their finger maps were re-measured and at the end of the week, the maps for each set of finger muscles had increased dramatically in size.

Learning any new physical skill produces positive changes in our motor map connections.  With practice, these newly learned skills integrate more fully into our body’s wiring, causing these skills to become more efficient and automatic.

Pascual-Leone subsequently performed a similar experiment with new subjects.  But instead of asking the subjects to physically practice the piano exercises, they were instead asked to only visualize themselves play the piano with a form of mental practice called internally generated motor imagery, the process of performing a physical movement virtually in your mind.  After a week of motor imagery practice, the same level of body map reorganization occurred as compared to physical practice.  This shows that executed and imagined movements are almost identical as all but one of the brain regions that controls our physical movements becomes active during mental imagery.

Focused attention is necessary to create these new connections.  When we focus our attention fully on whatever we are learning, the brain is able to map this information as a new motor map connection.  Without focused concentration, brain connections are not made and memory is not stored.

Make multi-tasking a thing of the past.  Focus on one thing at a time.  Practice new skills.  Use visualization techniques for an added benefit.  And experience the positive effects of brain plasticity first-hand.

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