integrating the science of expert performance and practice with modern ski racing
How the Brain Learns
Your brain is ‘plastic,’ in the best sense of the word, meaning it can change and adapt for its surroundings and experiences. When learning new skills or techniques, neurons make new connections to other neurons creating a new neural circuit in our brains. It is not a big surprise that you are often awkward and slow when you try something completely new because the brain is creating a new neural circuit for that skill. Imagine stepping out onto an ice skating rink for the first time. The brain has no ice skating circuit so it must create a new one by getting neurons, that have never interacted, to work together.
Every human skill, whether it’s, charging the Streif in Kitzbuhel to sewing a button on is created by chains of nerves relaying a small electrical impulse, a simple signal traveling through a circuit. Imagine being a first time skater. The first time you skate there is no circuit in your brain to tell you what do, what muscles to use. No evolutionary circuit exist to ice skate. No cave man ever needed it to skate away for a tiger. Now however you are skating, firing neurons together that have never had to before. You are in every sense building and learning. The neural circuit that now exists is easier to use than building a new circuit the next time you step on the ice. Once the circuit exists the brain then starts to strengthen and reinforce that neural circuit by frequency and recency of use.
This process is called myelination. Myelination is the process of adding a white fatty substance to the circuit that insulates the neuron. Myetion is helping you get better by making your skate circuit faster. Get better, more experience, adding myelin. Myelin’s role is to wrap those nerve fibers in the same way that rubber insulation wraps an extention cord, making the signal clearer, stronger and faster by limiting the electrical impulses from leaking out. A neural circuit that has been myelinated can fire up to 200 times faster than and non-myelinated circuit. Imagine comparing the neural circuit of a beginning skier against the circuit of an schooled and practiced World Champion.
The animation depicts the difference in speeds that electrical impulses travel between a myelinated (insulated) and a regular non-insulated nerve.
Our brains are hardwired for efficiency. If two circuits are available it will default to using the fastest, most efficient one or in other terms, the most myelinated. This circuit, the one with increased bandwidth, would often be known as a habit. Your brain does not care that you are executing a good or bad habit, it does not know the difference. Your brain just wants to use the circuit that is fast efficient and that it has used before. So when you work on a new technique your brain learns it and creates a new neural circuit. This is why it is crucial that when you begin learning a new skill that it is practiced error free. When you practice that technique your brain adds myelin to reinforce it. The more you practice that technique the more myelin is added. The more myelin there is, the more that technique becomes automatic or the default.
“Practice makes Perfect” is misleading statement. Practice makes Myelin, Myelin makes a Habit/Technique. The problem is that the myelinating process does care if it is a good or bad habit. Every run that you make with poor technique reinforces the poor technique. Only careful, error correcting practice that makes perfect.
Here are some basic rules of Myelination
The Myelination process is a reaction. It responds best to short intense bursts of focus. The process pays attention to what you pay attention too.
Myelination only works one way. The brain cannot unmyelinated or unwrap a circuit. So this is why it is so important to correct bad habits/technique immediately. If you continue to use a neural circuit that is associated with a bad habit the brain will continue to add myelin and reinforce the habit. The brain has no way of knowing which circuit is good or bad. It just adds myelin to the one that is used the most. Still rotating at the bottom of the turn? Well the simple answer is that’s the neural circuit that has been myelinated
We all have roughly the same amount of Myelin. Scientists have found that the amount of myelin does not vary between people. Our brains produce roughly the same amount of myelin. All athletes have the same potential “Talent”. The main difference between top performers is how they have been able to myelinate and focus on the correct circuits.
The Myelination process slows with fatigue. Neural systems fatigue quickly, actually within minutes. With three to five minutes of sustained activity, neurons become less responsive. They need a rest (not unlike your muscles when you lift weights).
Insufficient sleep affects formation of Myelin. The components of myelin are replenished with good sleep (especially REM). When you sleep stem cells are stimulated to make oligodendrocytes which help to form more myelin. The opposite effect occurs while you are awake.
Refreshing the Correct Circuit. Myelin is dynamic tissue. It builds with more practice. There is no process to unmyelinated or unlearn something. However, myelin will decay slowly without practice. It is thought that myelin begins to degrade after about 12 weeks. This means that 90-120 days is the most amount of time that you can afford to not fire a specific circuit before it starts to be compromised. This is why you may feel moderately rusty after a few days of no practice, but take months or years off and it feels like starting from ground zero.