The adult human brain is comprised of approximately 86 billion neurons on average, with at least as many nonneuronal cells, networked together to create the substance and memories of a human being. Every skill that you’ve acquired, every memory that you’ve formed, and every experience you’ve ever had is contained and represented by these neural connections and networks. Depending on which networks get repeatedly stimulated, certain connections are strengthened, whereas others may become weaker, or even lose their connectivity entirely. This process is referred to as neural plasticity: as a task is repeated, the network of neurons involved in performing the task is strengthened in order to improve performance. Virtually any skill or talent can be created and perfected through training; people with no innate ability to remember numbers can memorize hundreds of decimals of pi through repeated training. Because neural plasticity is such a fundamental and powerful mechanism of neural development, self-awareness and the ability to direct neural plasticity has a profound ability to enrich our lives. Through understanding the mechanisms by which our brain improves its performance at certain tasks, we have the potential to become truly great.
While the cheetah may instinctively chase down prey, and by the nature of this repeated act lead it to become both swift and agile, causing it to become an excellent hunter, it is limited by its own instinct. Human beings on the other hand, can recognize a need or desire to excel at a certain task, and selectively strengthen the skills necessary to do so. The person that wants to be a concert pianist will endlessly practice individual components of the activity – from reading music, to recognizing pitch and tone, to performing complex and precise keystrokes, which ultimately endow the person with the ability to create music. Similarly, someone who trains to be a professional athlete will strengthen the connections of the brain utilized when making complex and coordinated muscle actions, thereby becoming better and better at the desired activity.
Even so called internal traits like rationality and emotional resilience are comprised of neural connections, and can therefore be trained and strengthened through practice. Through years of schooling and intellectual exercise, we become better at thinking rationally and logically. By the simple practice of learning information, no matter what that information is, we become better at learning future knowledge. Indeed, whatever task you are performing at any given time, you are physically altering your brain structure to become better at it. By being aware of how your brain learns and improves, you have the capacity to direct it through repetition and training to improve in areas that are important to you. Without this self-awareness and ability to direct our own learning and improvement, we would not be capable of the vast array of greatness that is exhibited by the human race. From Olympians, to virtuosos, to astronauts: we are all simply actualizing our incredible ability to modify our neural connections to constantly improve at a given task.
How will you improve tomorrow?
Written by Nick Goeden
Azevedo F.A.C., Carvalho L.R.B., Grinberg L.T., Farfel J.M., Ferretti R.E.L., Leite R.E.P., Filho W.J., Lent R. & Herculano-Houzel S. (2009). Equal numbers of neuronal and nonneuronal cells make the human brain an isometrically scaled-up primate brain, The Journal of Comparative Neurology, 513 (5) 532-541. DOI: 10.1002/cne.21974
Image adapted from Alan Carey/Corbis.