2013 Monograph Series, #1
Note: This is the first of a 2013 Neuroscience Monograph Series. The goal is simple – finding practical applications of the latest brain science research to how one learns and stores movement. This includes all aspects of golf, from putting to the full power swing.
By Ron Cruickshank, Ph.D.
In 1990 the Congress of the United States in conjunction with the Library of Congress and The National Institute of Public Health (NIH) declared the next ten years as the Decade of The Brain. The purpose of this declaration was “to enhance public awareness of the benefits to be derived from brain research.” It’s objective was to “encourage public dialogue on the ethical, philosophical and humanistic implications of these emerging discoveries”. Wow, a government initiative that was timely, on target and in the Bush #2 administration. Wonders never cease!
However, credit must be given when earned because this declaration was truly prescient, as the advancements in understanding of brain science (neuroscience) since that date has eclipsed mankind’s understanding since the beginning of recorded time. There has been a virtually shattering of long held notions about how the brain works. In fact, even the scientists themselves have had a hard time accepting these revolutionary findings. Dr. Per Anderson, of the University of Oslo put it well when he said. “The neuroscientists have responded to these new findings with ‘resounding silence’, because “the findings are simply too startling and revolutionary to digest”.
So how are we plebian golfers supposed to separate the wheat from the chaff? My approach has been to do as much reading as possible and begin to pull out principles or key insights that have application to how we might accelerate the learning process using neuroscience insights. Below are my initial offerings as to what I see as key insights emerging from this new field we call neuroscience.
Key Insight #1: Neuroplasticity is a fact
This is a big one. It sounds like such a scholarly word but it is quite simple to comprehend. The neurons=cells that are specialized to transmit nerve impulses plus plasticity=pliability or malleability of these cells. Simply put, in the context of brain studies, the word neuroplasticity means our cells are adaptable to changes in habitat, environment and stimuli. This is a radical and new discovery.
The old accepted scientific truth held that when born we had a fixed number of neurons in the brain and they gradually died over our lifetimes. Poppycock says the neuroscientists. It turns out that our brains are much more generative, malleable and changeable than imagined, hence the term neuroplasticity. This means that regardless of age the brain is responsive to environmental stimuli and perhaps more important, the brain can change in real time in reaction to environmental input, literally within minutes of the stimulation happening.
The big implication here is that we are beginning to understand how learning happens. Moreover, it appears we can all learn new stuff at any age and that neural circuits will be developed to support such learning. Contrary to the old belief that after childhood cells could only grow in strength, we now know that brain cells can literally change throughout our entire lives. If this is the case, then it means that we can train the brain for such radical things as learning how to be happy or to cultivate compassion. In street terms, it means we can teach old dogs new tricks.
Key Insight #2: Epigenetics Changes the Nature/Nurture Argument
Increasingly, new studies concerning epigenetics (epi = from the Greek meaning over or above) are impacting how we think about who we are. The old idea was that our genes provided us with an unalterable blueprint for how our lives would unfold.The scientific community has accepted for generations that genes affected our phenotype and behavior in a highly deterministic manner, making us all victims to our gene pool. Whoops, we have to rethink this one now too.
The new thinking holds that our genes are much more susceptible to alteration in a short-term manner without altering the underlying DNA structure. This means that events that happen to us in our lives can impact our children for generations to come without altering their DNA. So, it seems that non-genetic factors can actually cause your genes to behave or ‘express themselves’ differently than the gene intends. This is heresy to old-line genetic thinking.
The implication of this insight can really give you pause. “At the heart of this new field of epigenetics is a simple but contentious idea – that genes have a ‘memory’. This means “the lives of your grandparents – the air they breathed, the food they ate, even the things they saw – can directly affect you decades later, despite you never experiencing these things yourself.” BBC. Ghost in Your Genes.
Key Insight #3: Learning Physically Changes the Brain
Intelligence is malleable. The very act of learning enhances and thickens connections in the brain and intelligence can therefore be built. We do not come into this world with a fixed intelligence, but rather build it by making on-going and continuing connections. Our intelligence is literally forming throughout our lives.
A genius is nothing more than someone that has made more distinctions about a specific subject than everyone else. If you know more about duck feathers than anyone else in the world, you get called a genius. (Falling in the I just had to know category – check out the International Down and Feather Laboratory– the IDFL for you newbie’s. They have feather geniuses there and I found myself spending 30 minutes learning more about duck feather turbidity than I ever wanted to know) Genius is nothing more than having extra and thicker neural connections on a specific subject than the average Joe.
It has been reported by several contemporary writers and researchers (notably authors Gladwell, Greene, & Coffman) that the table stake for genius or mastery is that you must spend at minimum 10,000 hours to have mastery level abilities. In the context of what we are learning about how the brain changes and adapts as a result of its experiences, this makes a lot of sense. After the 10,000 hours your brain is literally different, making it true that the brains of experts are different than those of non-experts. However, those differences are a result of practice, not innate intelligence.
Mesmerizing to me is that just having this knowledge that you aren’t born with a fixed amount of intelligence will make you smarter. Research at both Columbia and Stanford University in 2007 (Blackwell, Trzesniewski and Dweck) found that “both morale and grade point average took a leap when students understood the idea that intelligence is malleable”. Understand what we are saying here – you can choose to make yourself smarter and that this knowledge alone has a motivational impact.
Key Insight #4: Use It or Lose It
We know that when people practice an activity, or even just access a memory of the activity, that the brain responds by wiring the involved cells together. However, on the other hand, it turns out that when these pathways are not used that they will diminish in strength and eventually become what scientists called ‘pruned’. This means you will lose or eliminate a skill if you stop practicing or exercising the ability.
I have a friend that spoke fluent Italian as a child growing up in Boston. As a young teen his friends would make fun of him for this and he stopped using the language. By the time he was 30 he had effectively lost his ability to communicate in Italian. When he hit 40 he could only recall a couple of phrases, generally about food. By not regularly practicing and retrieving information he completely lost the hard wiring and hence the capacity to communicate in another language.
The implication here is that while a lot of practice helps to make learning permanent, you must continue to use this learning or skill. This knowledge would also argue that a small amount of regular practice (information retrieval and rehearsal) is much better than no practice. So pick up that training club and do some drills during the winter my fellow snow bound friends.
There seems to be no question amongst neuroscientists that practice makes for permanent learning when reinforced regularly. As the nerves fire together they wire together and that is the basis for all expertise and mastery to develop. This includes everything from learning how to use a fork, walking or swinging a golf club.
When applying this to learning a specific motor skill (a golf swing) there is no replacement for regular and focused practice. This does not mean that all practice must be perfect or with zero variance, as that is not possible. You should practice with the correct information and as perfectly as possible. Fortunately, the brain does a superb job of learning from our errors. If you doubt that, just watch a baby learning how to walk.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this first edition of my 2013 Monograph series on neuroscience as much as I’ve enjoyed researching the subject. To this point I’ve read over 300 studies on neuroscience based research, watched dozens of videos and lectures and read a shelf full of books. Whew! Only another 9,270 hours to go!
About the Author: Ron Cruickshank, Ph.D., is a GGA Master Instructor and the author of the soon to be available book entitled Swing Like Moe Norman- Use Your Brain for a Change and Learn the Swing of the World’s Greatest Ball Striker featuring Todd Graves. This book is written to utilize the latest insights from neuroscience to help turn you into a reliable and consistent ball striker.