Our brains are even more plastic than we thought.
The last couple of decades of brain research has revealed some fascinating findings about how our brain adapts to different kinds of activities. One very clear finding is that our capacities i.e. our IQ, abilities and ‘talent’ are not fixed entities as once thought. They evolve in response to how we engage in particular kinds of practice and behaviour. Our brains are even more plastic than originally thought.
Deliberate Practice makes us smarter and more talented
In their recent book, Peak: Secrets from the new science of expertise, Anders Ericson and Robert Pool present the compelling research evidence to show that we get smarter and more talented in areas that we focus on using an approach that they call Deliberate Practice which is a particular methodology of learning.
If we’re aiming for expertise in any field whether it is music, mathematics, memorisation, sports, chess, carpentry, physics, design, art or any other discipline – the trick is to practice. Of course, that’s obvious! But it has to be a particular kind of practice and not just repetition. Repetition alone doesn’t develop expertise. Rather the focus must be on HOW to improve.
This entails finding new ways of systematically experimenting with things that are just beyond our comfort zone; focusing on and concentrating hard on particular aspects of skill development rather than on general overall improvement; and becoming highly tuned to our performance so we can spot our own mistakes and self-monitor.
So what’s New?
On their own, none of these concepts are particularly new. The great twentieth century Russian educational psychologist, Lev Vygotsy, called the zone beyond our comfort zone the Zone of Proximal Development, teachers call it scaffolding. And when we get good at reflecting on our own performance, monitoring ourselves and making decisions about how best to improve our learning and performance, it is referred to as metacognition and self-directed learning – all concepts that have a good body of rigorous research to substantiate them. However, what is new, is the insights we are beginning to glimpse from the last decade of neuroscience research into how our brain physically adapts and recalibrates in response to these kinds of learning activities.
When we approach skill development in this very deliberate and purposeful way, our brain responds by adapting the parts required in the performance of this skill. Neural pathways are rerouted and sometimes even new neurons are grown. In other words, the structure of the brain changes in response to intense training. This changed structure not only improves our performance on the road to mastery but actually increases our capacity to continue the improvement. In other words, we become more able, more talented and potentially smarter in relation to that particular discipline.
Your IQ is not set in stone!
These findings challenge traditional notions that talent and IQ are immutable, innate properties. That people who reach the pinnacle of performance in particular fields do so because they are ‘naturals’ born with a particular capacity that inevitably destines them for greatness in their field. Now we know that we can actually grow our talent, IQ and ‘smarts’ if we approach the process of acquiring mastery in a particular way. Our amazing brains rise to the challenges and help us on the road to peak performance.