On Being Plastic
5 Keys To Optimize Learning
So, you want to learn how to strum Dylan ditties on the guitar or parler un peu de francais before your Parisian holiday? But you’re not a kid anymore. Back then new skills were seemingly absorbed effortlessly through osmosis. Yes, it is biologically true. If you’re older than 25, your brain is not as malleable as it once was. But les bonnes nouvelles (the good news) is that, even in your middle-aged pre-senescence, your noggin can generate new neural pathways. It has the aptitude for change.
I am living proof. In November 2016, I beleagueredly asked myself, “What made America great in the first place?” While there are myriad answers to this inquiry, I landed on the great American songbook, the canon of tunes penned by the likes of Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Billy Strayhorn and Rodgers and Hart. For generations, every American of every race, religion and creed knew these songs. Ain’t Misbehavin’, Lover Man, Take the “A” Train, Bewitched. America’s home-grown music brought people together around the radio, in clubs and in concert halls.
So, with no formal training, I assiduously set out to learn a jazz standard per week on the piano. I made it through 40 weeks and 40 songs, much to the chagrin of my doting daughters who endured my clunky plunking night after night. A year into this folly, I developed a respectable repertoire that will someday secure me my dream retirement gig in a seedy hotel bar. You likely have a more ambitious goal.
Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to change in response to the environment.
In this essay, I will eschew my tendency for loquacity (and SAT vocab words) and aspire to transmit some basic, practical neuroscience. My ambition is to inspire you to expand your abilities and provide some tools to make learning more efficient.
To begin, there are a couple of key neurological terms and systems to understand. You may be quite familiar with the next few concepts, but stick with me as I lay the groundwork for understanding and improving your neuroplasticity.
The nervous system is your body’s command center. Originating in your brain and moving down your spinal cord and into your gut, the nervous system controls your motor skills, thoughts and automatic responses to the world around you. It also governs bodily systems and processes, such as digestion and breathing.
Your nervous system uses specialized cells called neurons to send messages all over your body. These electrical signals travel between your brain, skin, organs, glands and muscles. Different kinds of neurons send different signals. Motor neurons tell your muscles to move. Sensory neurons take information from your senses and send signals to your brain. Other types of neurons control the things your body does automatically.
Your autonomic nervous system is part of your over-arching nervous system. It mediates your “bottom-up” activities — actions transpiring below the crust of consciousness like breathing, shivering, maintaining a regular heartbeat and processing food. Your autonomic nervous system is further divided into two primary sections: the parasympathetic system and the sympathetic system.
The parasympathetic nervous system is most linked with “rest and digest,” decreasing respiratory and heart rate and increasing gastrointestinal activity. The sympathetic system is famously associated with the “fight, flight or freeze” stress response. It directs the body’s rapid involuntary response to dangerous or stressful situations. A flash flood of hormones boosts the body’s alertness and heart rate, sending extra blood to the muscles.
Your parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system are affiliated with various neurotransmitters — chemical messengers that transmit signals between neurons or between neurons, muscles, and other cells. There are specific neurotransmitters that play a significant role in neuroplasticity, the ability of neurons to create new networks, unwind old ones and strengthen or weaken synapses, the communication junctions between neurons.
The neurotransmitters cortisol, epinephrine, acetylcholine and dopamine all play important roles in the ability of the brain to modify its connections and re-wire itself. There are certain “top-down” behaviors or practices one can adopt to trigger the release of specific neurotransmitters. In short, you can tinker with systems that generally function automatically in a manner that confers benefit to your ability to learn.
Keys to Effective Learning
Here are some praxes to optimize learning grounded in a personal example — yours truly grinding through Herbie Hancock’s “Dolphin Dance,” a stunning, if harmonically complex, jazz standard.
You are likely familiar with the concept of circadian rhythm, which literally means “approximately a day.” Within the 24-hour cycle of your circadian rhythm, there are shorter 90-minute cycles called ultradian rhythms. These ultradian cycles align well with learning bouts. So, when I sit down at the piano to tackle the beast that is Dolphin Dance, I generally devote a 90-minute interval to this undertaking.
The first integral aspect to optimal learning is alertness. While creativity may percolate in dreamier states, learning when you’re sleepy is not ideal. You need controlled energy to activate your brain. This is why good learning bouts often occur in the earlier part of the day when your body is naturally releasing cortisol.
We often associate cortisol with stress. While we certainly want to avoid chronic production and secretion of cortisol — which can lead to high blood glucose levels — a certain amount of this hormone is crucial for attentiveness. Cortisol is a steroid hormone made from cholesterol. It is produced in the adrenal glands and crosses the blood-brain barrier. Adrenaline (which is essentially the same hormone as epinephrine) is also produced in the adrenal glands but does not cross the blood brain barrier. Epinephrine will also make you feel alert.
So, prior to jumping into Herbie’s masterpiece, I can deploy techniques that activate the production of epinephrine. Some of these modalities include Wim Hof (Tummo) breathing, cold water therapy, pupil dilation and balancing challenges.
In essence, you are triggering a short-term “fight or flight” response in your body such that you feel the same alertness as you might on the Serengeti when spied by an odd-toed ungulate.
The 30 sharp rapid inhale-exhales of Tummo breathing followed by a long-hold has numerous physiological impacts including the production of anti-inflammatory cytokines that bolster the immune system. The practice also produces adrenaline. Cold water therapy can upregulate the oxidation of adipose tissue as the mitochondria go into energy production to raise body temperature. It also stimulates epinephrine.
Another epinephrine hack is to focus your eyes intensely on a small object. This can give you a pulse of adrenaline to help with alertness. I’m likely the only jazz pianist in history to do breathwork, take a cold shower and then bug-eye at my vitamin D capsules prior to tickling the ivories.
The last trick involves balance. The eyes have two basic purposes: 1) to transform light into electrical signals that the brain turns into images and 2) to set your circadian clock. The ears also have two basic functions: 1) to transmute vibrations into electrical signals that the brain processes as sound and 2) to maintain your balance.
The vestibular system located in your inner ear provides the brain with information about motion and spatial orientation. In three-dimensional space there are six directions: up, down, forward, backward, left and right. Through the use of fluid, the vestibular system calculates the degree to which the head is moving in these different directions. When you engage in an activity that challenges your balance, the vestibular system releases a cocktail of neurotransmitters that turn out to be ideal for learning: epinephrine, acetylcholine and dopamine. It makes sense. Envision yourself crossing a mountain pass on a balance beam. You are both alert and completely focused.
Focus is the second key to learning. You want to be energized but you don’t want to be jittery. Some people indulge in espresso shots prior to learning. Depending on your caffeine tolerance, a cup of Joe can be effective. As you progress through your day, your body generates adenosine, a neuromodulator that makes you increasingly, albeit imperceptibly, tired. Caffeine blocks your cells’ adenosine receptors for a certain period of time. But the combination of an adrenaline rush with adenosine blockage can lead to a jittery energy in which one is easily distracted.
Given the complicated chord changes in Dolphin Dance, the last thing I want is a shaky hand or to be checking the deluge of emails cresting the hull of my inbox. Hence, everyone needs to experiment to find the right elixir of techniques to stimulate an energized body and a calm mind, a perfect balance of sympathetic and parasympathetic.
On a neurotransmitter level, epinephrine creates alertness and activates neurons. Acetylcholine promotes focus and marks the neuron for memory consolidation.
The next key to optimal information absorption is, oddly, frustration. More specifically, you want to make mistakes. And, believe me, I will practice a difficult run of notes and produce an incessant dissonance that leaves me with little hope of success and a great probability of driving my wife crazy. But the brain has an uncanny ability to recognize patterns of blunder. This is where a dogged perseverance is crucial. After a string of mistakes, I will finally land the right combination of notes and, as a reward, my brain is topped off with a sweet dollop of dopamine. This final dousing completes the full chemical bath that supports neuroplasticity.
You might also consider rounding your learning session with another pulse of adrenaline through the techniques previously mentioned.
Alertness. Focus. Mistakes. Perseverance. These are the active states of learning. But, young Skywalker, you are not a Jedi yet. New neural networks are not immediately consolidated. They are codified only later in sleep or in deep rest practices like Yoga Nidra. Yet another reason that restoration is crucial to well-being.
Neuroplasticity, unfortunately, does not only apply to accruing piano-playing dexterity or language proficiency. You can also construct “negative” neural networks. The presence of adrenalin that is key to optimizing learning is also concomitant with trauma. In fact, it is the very attendance of adrenalin that underscores why we tend to remember trauma with such acuity. But the emerging science of both epigenetics and neuroplasticity gives us hope and agency. Rewiring trauma is a practice we can choose to take on like any other. We are not fixed by our genetics.
Fin. Please leave a tip in the jar.