"Increased struggle leads to increased structural change in the brain."
-Dr. Lara Boyd
During a conversation yesterday with a few other beginner jiu jitsu students, someone said, 'the way I'm learning is I keep failing and then noticing what I can learn from those failures.' This resonated with my experience as well and reflected what I know about ALL learning. It ALWAYS requires some version of what we could call failure. By failure, I don't mean an emotional word of collapse or resignation, or something that comes with feelings of regret or grief. By failure, I'm talking about it from a more biomechanical perspective.
To build muscle from lifting weights, one strategy is to lift until you eventually get to a point of 'failure' - this is when the muscle is so fatigued that you can no longer do a full repetition. Although recent research shows that training just short of complete failure is actually possibly a better strategy, the point is that to build muscle, a person needs to lift enough weight that there is some form of fatigue that forces their mind and body to recruit new resources that can handle more than it's used to.
Something similar happens in the brain, and this is why some form of challenge - where we could face our inability to do something - is important for learning. Neuroplasticity (forming of new circuits and re-allocation of neural resources) occurs when the demands of an environment or situation EXCEED the behavioral and neural resources that currently exist.* This means that in order to build any kind of new circuits, the brain needs challenge.
*neuroplasticity can also occur in environments of neglect and deprivation. This happens when the neural and behavioral resources EXCEED the challenges of the environment. This can lead the brain to change structurally but in a way that becomes less adaptive and suboptimal in its functioning (it can also shrink in size and the number of connections decreases). See Max Planck Institute of Human Development for more on this.
Play is a form of training
One way we can introduce these kinds of challenges without serious consequences is through PLAY. All mammals play. Research suggests that play is a way of creating simulations for unexpected events to occur so that the mammalian brain-body system can build muscle and brain circuits for flexibly adapting to constantly changing and constantly unexpected scenarios.
Play (which in mammals often includes some form of wrestling and other physically arousing activities like chasing and hiding) is considered by some researchers as "training for the unexpected" (Spinka et al., 2001). Studies show that mammals intentionally seek out and create scenarios that force them to be in unexpected situations - and they do this by purposely self-handicapping - deliberately putting themselves in disadvantageous positions so they can find new sequences of behaviors and control their nervous system to switch rapidly into well-controlled behaviors under stress.
Spinka, M., Newberry, R.C., Bekoff, M. (2001). Mammalian Play: Training for the Unexpected. The Quarterly Review of Biology, (26), 2, University of Chicago.
As we can see, this kind of intentional seeking out of unexpected and disadvantageous positions is EXACTLY what the brain needs to learn. It's that idea of facing potential failure and navigating through the stress it can cause the brain-body. We put ourselves into situations that our brain-body has never figured out before - and then let it figure it out, in its own unique way, re-configuring and re-purposing the resources it has at its disposal.
So - get out there, play, learn and "train for the unexpected"!
With Love from Me to You
Years ago in Peru - first aid training. Scenarios and simulations are also a form of 'play': they are situations that we create deliberately and where we remove actual threatening consequences such as in role play.
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