The Mind is a Muscle

29 Nov

Yes, I know that structurally the brain is an organ, and is quite different from a muscle.  However, functionally, our minds are just like any other muscle in our bodies.  They need exercise, they need to be fed the right things, and they need rest occasionally.

As an adult, trying to learn new things is WAY more challenging than it was as a child – I know, since I’m now studying anatomy, biology, and nutritional science having dropped out of all sciences after grade ten (thanks Humanities degree!).  I have to study my ass off first to absorb any new information, then I have to keep studying my ass of to retain it.  Then after I think I’ve got it, I study some more so it doesn’t go away.  I can’t cram to remember things for an exam and then forget them the next day anymore.  Now, if I learn something, it’s sticking.

That said, it was hard to re-learn how to learn.  After University, but before training, I felt as though my brain had atrophied.  That I was about as smart as I was ever going to get, and was probably starting to reverse the learning process.  I’m pretty sure I felt this way because I just wasn’t learning anything new.  I was doing the same thing day in and day out and hoping that I would feel better about my life.  Said Einstein (allegedly), “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.”

My problem was that initially, I didn’t really believe I could learn all of the things that a career/life change would require me to.  I didn’t think I had a “science-y brain”.

In Switch, by the Heath brothers, they quote a study where a middle school math teacher was able to reverse a decline in math scores by having students read aloud a scientific paper on how the mind is a muscle that can change and adapt when exercised.  Carol Dweck, Stanford psychology professor and author of MindSet has done a great deal of research on the differences between fixed mindsets – the belief that abilities are basic, fixed, and unchangeable, and growth mindsets – where challenges and failures are par for the course when improving and acquiring skills. Regardless of whether brain structure and function scientifically supports the notion that our brain is a muscle, the students’ performance suggests that all we need is to think that we can improve in order for improvement to occur.  In the book, Heath asks, “How would we differ in our own willingness to tackle changes if we started believing ‘the brain is a muscle’?”.
Neuroscientists have done great amounts of research into neuroplasticity; from Wikipedia:  “Neuroscientific research indicates that experience can actually change both the brain’s physical structure and functional organization.”

Knowing that your brain can, and does, change is key for a number of reasons:

  • Trying new things
  • Accomplishing stuff you didn’t think you could
  • Being better at things you can already do
  • Generally making progress at anything

Just like in fitness, where progressive overload means that your body is challenged with new movement patterns, heavier weights, and more challenging combinations, your brain needs to stay challenged to make progress.

You can challenge your brain any number of different ways – there’s a push towards “mental fitness” these days.  Computer games and such that challenge your mental agility.  Mental training can have a huge impact on your physical performance as well.  Every now and then, in my derby league, we have mental fortitude practices (an idea that Bonnie D. Stroir passed along).  Days that may not be so physically challenging, but that make you think hard about what you are doing on the track, or get your adrenaline pumping.  For example, scrimmaging in the opposite direction, playing super-loud music during a drill to force focus, or teaching a skill and then doing it on one foot, then backwards, then in the opposite direction.

There’s tons of research to support the idea that training the brain is crucial to training the body.  In fitness, we often say “train the movement, not the muscle”.   Muscles are dumb, they don’t have memory, brains are smart, they do have memory.  Faulty movement patterns, as well as correct ones, live in the brain.  Corrective exercise isn’t just a warm-up or a filler, it’s skill acquisition.  We can use this to our advantage by really digging into how correct movement patterns feel and tapping into unconscious learning.  If we remember that feel is just as important as form, the learning is much more likely to continue into day-to-day life.  I may not find myself breaking down a full squat pattern in my office, but maybe I’ll remember what engaging my glutes feels like when I stand up from my desk chair.

Greg Rose had a great presentation at Perform Better Chicago this past summer about training the brain.  He compared block training (doing the same thing over and over again) with random training (performing variations on a movement pattern) and looked at the gains made by both styles.  Initially, the block training made rapid, dramatic gains, and rightfully so.  Doing one thing over and over and over makes you good at that thing reasonably quickly.  However, over time, the variable training stuck better, and the gains manifested over time.  The block trainees peaked, whereas the variable trainees retained the initial skill and kept building on it over time.  The example he used was math – he had one volunteer answer the same question over and over again, and the volunteer got really good at knowing the answer to that question really quickly.  Why?  Because he memorized the answer.  Next he had a volunteer answer that question, and then a different question, and then a different question, and so on.  The first volunteer could definitely answer the first question more quickly, but over time the second volunteer was better at math.  Same goes for correct movement patterns.  Get people moving well first, then give them greater physical and mental challenges, and they’ll get better at everything.

Mental training and fortitude improves physical performance.  However, the reverse is also true.  Physical exertion can improve your mental health and performance as well.  Not only are the endorphins generated during exercise a nice pick-me-up to your day, but challenging your body can help your cognitive functioning.

Also from Wikipedia:  In a 2009 experiment led by researchers at National Cheng Kung University,  two groups of mice swam a water maze, and then engaged in an avoidance task – gauging how quickly they would move away from an unpleasant stimulus. Then, for four weeks, one group of mice ran on their wheels (which mice seem to enjoy), while the other group ran harder on mini-treadmills at a speed and duration controlled by the scientists. They then tested both groups again to track their learning skills and memory. Both groups of mice improved their performances in the water maze. Only the treadmill mice were better in the avoidance task, a skill which demands a more complicated, cognitive response.  Exercise improved both sets of results, but more challenging exercise improved cognition.   “Our results support the notion that different forms of exercise induce neuroplasticity changes in different brain regions,” Chauying J. Jen, a professor of physiology and an author of the study, says.

Other recent studies have provided human examples as well. In an experiment published in the ASCM journal, 21 University of Illinois students were asked to memorize a string of letters and then pick them out from a list flashed at them. They then did one of three things for 30 minutes — sit quietly, run on a treadmill, or lift weights — before repeating the test, they were then given a 30-minute cool-down and tested again. The test was repeated twice more, on different days, with students engaging in each of the options.  Running improved performance, both in speed and accuracy the retest (as well as the post- cooldown retest), when compared with the other two options.  (source) 

So, let’s keep going with the idea that our brain is like a muscle, that can grow, change and adapt when exposed to challenging stimuli.  Like any other muscle, its gains come from acute bouts of exercise followed by rest.

Your mental fitness demands rest – just like your physical fitness does.  We make thousands of decisions every day, we challenge our minds in all sorts of ways, we need to make sure that we give our brains down time as well.  Whatever that looks like to you – going for a walk, meditation, a long bath with a gossip magazine – it’s all important to your mental recovery.  And while we’re on that subject, we go to the dentist for a check-up twice a year, the doctor once a year, when was the last time you had a mental health check-up?  Look into it.  Letting stress, negative mental messaging, poor coping mechanisms mess with your mental health will take a toll on all aspects of your health and performance.  Your sleep will suffer, as will your cognitive, physical, and emotional functioning.

So look after your brain.  Keep it just as fit as your body.  Take it to the doctor every now and then for a check-up.  Feed it good food (both literally and figuratively, with the media you consume).  Exercise it well and often.  Believe that with proper prompting your brain (as well as your abilities and your notions about yourself) will change, adapt, and improve.  And finally, make time to let it rest.

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One Response to “The Mind is a Muscle”

  1. Brandon November 29, 2012 at 3:56 pm #

    “Faulty movement patterns, as well as correct ones, live in the brain.”

    I was just reading a section in Sapolsky’s Zebras book on how implicit memory starts to take over from explicit memory as fatigue occurs. This is why it’s important to learn correct movement patterns from the start, if incorrect patterns are stored you will tend to revert to those patterns as you fatigue, rather than using the ‘correct’ pattern from more explicit memory.
    You are doing a good thing by studying the basics, I think it’s difficult to assess the value of different training methodology without some basic understanding of the mechanisms involved. Lots of things sound like they will work until the mechanisms are understood.

    I think is the best exercise physiology book I’ve read so far if you haven’t read it already:
    Exercise Physiology: Human Bioenergetics and Its Applications

    Also Sapolsky has a series of lectures from his Human Behavioral Biology course for free on YouTube, it’s quite a time commitment though at 20+ 1.5 hour lectures but I learned quite a bit that’s very applicable to training from it.

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