Strength Training to Brain Training: Learn New Skills for Long-Term BenefitsWhen we learn new things, we also have the opportunity to build important structures in our brains that lead to long-term benefits. Like building muscle from lifting weights, these benefits are independent of whether you get good at the thing you are learning. Brain changes happen with doses of learning and practice, with better doses coming from the times we struggle to improve.
Strength Training to Brain Training: Learn New Skills for Long-Term Benefits
By: Nick Soleyn, PBC, BLOC Editor in Chief
What learning does to our brains is not unlike what happens to our bodies when we lift weights. Most of us lift weights despite knowing that we will never be elite powerlifters. To the uninitiated, lifting impressively heavy weights seem like the most direct measure of successful strength training, but that is really just a consequence of the individual, varied responses to training. On this side of the looking glass, the point of lifting weights is not to be good at lifting weights. We lift weights for the process, not the outcomes. We like that lifting makes other things happen, a cascade of responses that build muscle and keep our bones strong, our hips and shoulders mobile, and our minds and body better able to do other things.
Strength training is for building structures in the body—muscle, bone, and tissue—with our best results coming from the times we struggle to improve, not the early and easy gains. But the benefits are not limited to our abilities to move weight.
When we learn new things, we have the opportunity to build new structures in our brains that lead to long-term benefits. These benefits are intrinsic to the process and do not depend on whether you get good at the thing you are learning. Like physical training, brain changes are dose-responsive. The higher quality the dose, the more impactful it is on our brains. Each dose is made up of instances of learning and practice, with bigger and better doses proportional to how much we struggle.
Yet, when we pick up new skills, often we do so with a particular outcome in mind; we want to be good at it. But, like lifting, being good at something does not have to be the point of doing it. What if we all treated learning for the sake of learning as valuable in and of itself, focusing instead on what it does for our brains the way we lift weights for what it does to our bodies?
“Plasticity” in humans refers to our ability to develop differently from each other due to our behaviors and environment. If you lift weights, you are familiar with the process of myoplasticity. Myoplasticity refers to the ability of our muscles to change. And our skeletal muscles are incredibly plastic, exhibiting short-term changes to stress in the form of more efficient motor unit recruitment and readiness and long-term, structural changes in which muscle cells grow, getting better at producing force. The ability to induce long-term changes throughout most of a person’s adult life is a big part of what makes strength training such a valuable activity. It pretty much never stops working.
Neuroplasticity is surprisingly similar. It refers to the brain’s capacity to change in various ways in response to experience or injury. The brain’s development, growth, and structural differences mirror the developmental and physical differences we see in people who do different things and live in different places. For example, professional musicians’ brains exhibit both functional and anatomical differences compared to non-musicians, likely due to the tangled and complex interplay of sensory input and motor output involved in high-level musical performances. (Münte et al., 2002.) Neuroplastic changes are both short- or long-term, resulting from chemical, structural, and functional changes to neurons and how neurons connect to each other.
Short and Long-Term Changes
A neuron is a cell that communicates with other cells through synapses. That communication happens through action potentials—electrochemical signals—and high activities of action potentials may change what happens at those synapses. Each action potential of a highly active synapse will elicit more responses or cause the synapses to become more sensitive to the signals. This increased excitability or function of existing connections may lead to long- or short-term changes. One researcher described the short-term phenomenon as the feeling you get when you first try something new, and it seems to “click,” but then you return to the activity a day later and, rather than starting from where you left off, you feel as if you lost your previous improvements and have to start over. (Boyd, 2015.) Learning, at the level of our cells, is not achieved with short-term changes.
Learning that matters is a consequence of the long-term structural changes that come from study, practice, and struggle. When you work at a new skill long enough and hard enough, your brain restructures. Two neurons firing frequently enough may see an increase in the number of synapses between them or a change in the length of the branches that connect them together. Due to the potential for structural change to the brain, researchers anticipate finding differences in the gray and white matter of different types of experts’ brains. The difficulty is that we do not really know what those structural changes should look like, as the idea that bigger is better does not seem to hold up, particularly in psychological tasks. (See, e.g., Hänggi et al., 2014.)
Like strength training, long- and short-term changes involve different adaptations and are not equally useful or trainable. A brand-new lifter will get stronger after just one workout. Since strength is measured by your ability to produce force against an external resistance, there are several ways that you be stronger without actually building muscle. Improvements in strength might come from simply learning how to use your body better. Practice setting your back for deadlifts properly can make you better able to lift, carry, push, and pull other kinds of objects, making you functionally stronger even if you have yet to put on muscle mass. Other immediate changes from training are improvements in residual muscle tension or readiness and central nervous system changes due to the experience of lifting weights. If a novice does not lift again for another week, he or she is unlikely to retain these more transient, short-term adaptations.
With consistent training, however, we outgrow the novice phase of training. Soon, we start to struggle a little bit, and each training session will cause noticeably more fatigue than those of the first few weeks. That struggle and fatigue are indications that progress relies more on the structural changes to our muscle cells, changes that take a bigger push to get going but are where goal-worthy PRs are set. This is the point where the most valuable changes start to accumulate.
The Struggle is Real
The struggle carries the benefit. Compare two lifters. They lift the same weights with excellent form, but one struggles to complete the entire workout, and the other finishes without breaking a sweat. The latter lifter is clearly the stronger one, but the first lifter got a lot more out of the training session. Setting up a training program that has no elements of struggle, challenge, or hardship is just not very useful. Training must be difficult to be beneficial, at least in the long-term.
The same is true of those valuable structural changes to your brain. Absolutely nothing is more effective at helping you learn a skill than practice. According to Dr. Lara Boyd, a researcher on neuroplasticity who specializes in developing recovery strategies from stroke, there is no neuroplasticity drug: “The bottom line is you have to do the work.” In an excellent TEDx Talk, Dr. Boyd talks about individual variability being the deciding factor on whether a person will learn quickly and on their ultimate thresholds for performance. However, regardless of variability, struggle leads to more learning and greater structural changes in the brain. Just like lifting, the struggle, not the outcome, carries the most intrinsic benefits.
Note that not all structural and synaptic changes are good ones. Brain injuries cause both. Also, long-term depression of synapses follows the use it or lose it principle. Dr. Boyd also points out that chronic pain can lead to structural changes in your brain as well. We can actually get better at feeling pain, those receptors becoming a well-worn path that mostly leads to nasty cycles of medication and pain avoidance.
Note also that learning new skills does not just include purely mental challenges. New motor skills challenge the brain in many different ways, forming new pathways and leading to long-term changes, too. As such, exercise and motor learning are key elements of stroke patients’ recovery.
If there is a takeaway from this discussion, it is not simply that “learning new skills is good for you.” I think we already knew that. But, presumably, if you are reading this, you have already taken steps for self-improvement. You have likely tried lifting weights, and you know that it is not easy. You also know that it is valuable and that there is a connection between those two things. We do not know all the reasons why lifting and learning make us better; in some ways, it is like alchemy—magicking gold out of the right combinations of base metals, heat, and pressure. Like lifting, learning new skills is good for you, but not when it is easy. It is important to push past the steep learning curve of the early gains to where you really struggle to make progress, because the struggle—the land that will test your willingness to continue—is where the alchemy happens.
Thomas F. Münte, Lutz Jancke, Eckart Altenmüller, “The Musician’s Brain as a Model of Neuroplasticity,” Nature Reviews, Neuroscience, Vol. 3 (June 2002).
Dr. Lara Boyd, “After Watching This, Your Brain Will Not Be the Same,” TEDxVancouver (2015) (available at https://youtu.be/LNHBMFCzznE/).
Brütsch, K., Siegel, A. M., & Jäncke, L. (2014). The architecture of the chess player׳s brain. Neuropsychologia, 62, 152–162. doi:10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2014.07.019