Anthony Donskov is the founder of DSC where he serves as the Director of Sport Performance. Donskov holds a Masters Degree in Exercise Science & is the author of Physical Preparation for Ice Hockey.
Use It or Loose It
I just finished reading two fascinating books on the human brain and its neuroplastic ability to change based on the sensory information it ingests. The external environment plays on the brain like a keyboard. A healthy dose of sensory stimulation is crucial in building strong neuronal connections and increasing synaptic efficiency and function. Bottom line: use it or loose it! Whether in the classroom or on the field/ice, we have the unique ability to craft our brains into more efficient, well-oiled machines. Here are a few excellent pieces of information from the books “The Brain That Changes Itself”, and “Inside The Brain”.
- “During fetal development the brain goes wild, producing twice the number of cells it will eventually keep.”
- “Between birth and about 8 months of age, the number of connections (synapses) skyrockets from about 50 trillion to 1,000 trillion.”
- “Critical restructuring of the brain takes place between the ages of 4 and 12. Using PET (positron emission tomography) there was a big spurt between the ages of four and ten when the brain seemed to glow like a nuclear reactor, pulsating at 225 percent higher than adult brains. It is a time when the brain is deciding whether to keep or eliminate connections.”
This has major implications for using a more biologically based approach to education and sport. Why are we teaching foreign language to high school students after this critical period is over? If we have a plethora of unused neuronal connections at a young age (4-12) why not take advantage of this window? This carries over into sport as well. Istvan Balyi has been saying this for years with his framework of the Long Term Athlete Development Model: “There is a better opportunity to be Active for Life if physical literacy is achieved before the Training to Train stage (age 12). Skills are introduced during the optimum point in physical development, which is prior to age 11 for girls and age 12 for boys.”
- Pain and body image are closely related; brain maps produce body image.
- Pain is created by the brain and projected to the body.
- How much pain we feel is determined in significant part by our brains and minds, our current mood, past experiences of pain, psychology, and how serious we think our injury is.
- “Pain is an opinion of the organisms state of health rather than a reflexive response to injury.” - V.S. Ramashamdran
I found this information to be particularly interesting. No doubt, pain is not a bad thing. It allows us to learn from our mistakes and prevents us from making them again; it guards the system in times of injury/acute trauma. However, the idea that chronic pain may have to do with “crossed” brain paths is fascinating. What happens if motor command gets wired into the pain system? Dr. V.S. Ramashamdran asked this question and then went on to answer it, as he was the first physician to perform the successful amputation of a phantom limb. In essence, he relieved the pain of an already amputated limb. He did so by uncrossing brain maps that had been merged improperly.
- “Genes provide the building blocks; the environment is the job foreman. The outside world is indeed the brains food (touch, holding, sound, vision).”
- Genes have two functions: 1.) Template: allows replicating, 2.) Transcript: new protein is produced that alters the function of the cell.
- The transcription function is altered by what we do and think. We can shape our genes.
How awesome is this. In essence the brain has a huge appetite, what we feed it determines our fate. Dr. Kandel expands: “It presumably does so through learning, by producing changes in gene expression that alter the strength of synaptic connections, and structural changes that alter the anatomical pattern of interconnections between nerve cells and brain.” Take home point, be active, learn new things, constantly seek higher education, and quit falling into the “time poverty” trap of TV, video games and non-stimulating activities.
Feed the brain and feed it often. Just make sure what you put in the right fuel. Neuroplasticity allows the brain to change, good or bad: The Plastic Paradox states that the same neuroplastic properties that allow us to change our brains and produce more flexible behaviors can also allow us to produce more rigid ones.
(1) Doig, N, The Brain That Changes Itself: Penguin Books, 2007.
(2) Kotulak, R. Inside The Brain, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 1997.
(3) Long Term-Athletic Development, Canadian Sport Centers, Resource Paper V2.