Schematics and diagrams of brain maps, two and three dimensional, are all the rage now. But I think the diagrams, as pretty as they are, miss the point. The diagrams show the location of vision or hearing, for example, but they do not help anyone realize the dynamic, ceaseless activity in the human brain, nor do they give a knowledge seeker any sense that the inner workings of the brain can be improved. Working memory, fluid intelligence, mindfullness, attention, for example can all be improved with attention.
And I think Michael Merzenich in his research, makes the point that we need to pay attention to.
Brain maps are alive and vibrant. The brain is a data seeking organ, and it wants to improve its performance.
What can we do to help it out?
Here is how Norman Doidge, MD, in his remarkable book, "The Brain That Changes Itself", describes Michael Merzinich's claims for our potential if we exercise our brain maps.
p.46. "Of neuroplasticians with solid hard-science credentials,it is Merzenich who has made the most ambitious claims for the field; that brain exercises may be as important as drugs to treat diseases as severe as schizophrenia, that plasticity exists from the cradle to the grave, and that radical improvement in cognitive functioning-how we learn, think, and function-are possible even in the elderly...Merzenich argues that practicing a new skill, under the right conditions, can change hundreds of millions, in not billions of the connections between the nerve cells in our brain maps...Merzenich claims that when learning occurs in a way consistent with the laws that govern brain plasticity, the mental machinery of the brain can be improved so that we learn and perceive with greater precision, speed, and retention."
What are the Laws of Brain Plasticity?
I want to know what are "the right conditions" that Merzenich speaks of above.
For information in that regard, let us take a look at another recent book, "The Body Has a Mind of Its Own" by Sandra and Mathew Blakeslee.
In chapter 4, they refer to the work of Alvaro Pascual-Leone, who is a self-described soccer fanatic and and avid tennis player, who is working to understand the effect that Walter Straub demonstrated in his work on imaginal practice, actual practice with imaginal practice, and no practice on dart throwing.
Pascual-Leone uses a tool called transcranial magnetic stimulation to help understand how the primary motor map changes when the brain learns a new skill.
Pascal-Leone reports, "The brain changes with anything you do, including any thought you have." The Blakeslees report that any time you learn something new, any time your brain deems an experience worthy of remembering, new connections sprout between cells, and existing connections are strengthened.
This process is called plasticity.
So What About Athletics
What Pascal-Leone found is that the best effect on athletic performance comes from practice of one kind of imagery, internally generated motor imagery. It is the only kind of imagery that alters brain maps the way actual practice does.
Visual imagery (as from a spectator's point of view) relaxation, hypnosis, affirmation, prayer, and other techniques may help you in one way or another, but will not alter your motor maps.
Remember, the students who improved the most in Straub's test were the students who did the motor imagery.
I am reminded of the Peniston Protocal that my friend Jeremy Croyle and I used with addiction clients not so many years ago, where a mental image of handling a drinking situation was implanted while the client was in a theta brain wave state, and deeply relaxed.
So it seems that brain maps can be altered and skills improved by practicing motor skills and motor skill imagery.
So how do we construct motor skills imagery? More information tomorrow.
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