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, BLOC Editor in Chief (“Soleynni” on Chess.com)
I will never be an elite powerlifter, nor will I ever be a chess master. Yet, I’ve spent more than a decade lifting weights, and as one of my many pandemic projects, I started playing chess. Chess caught my interest enough that my clients may have noticed new terminology slipping into our talks about programming (a combination of strategy and tactics), lifting (main lines of thinking and inaccuracies), and why I will cue lifts in specific ways and employ certain drills (pattern recognition). This bleeding-over effect—where what we learn forms part of the lenses through which we see and think about the world around us—is one of the main reasons we should learn new things.
What learning does to our brains is not unlike what happens to our bodies when we lift weights. As I said, I will never be an elite powerlifter, but that’s really not why I lift weights. Like most people, I lift weights for the process, not the outcomes. I like that lifting starts a cascade of responses that cause my body to build muscle mass and keep my bones strong, my hips and shoulders mobile, and my mind and body better able to do other things. (Like learning to ride my son’s caster board, another pandemic project.) Lifting impressively heavy weights—what may seem to be the most direct measure of successful strength training—is just a consequence of the individual, varied responses to training. For most of us, the point of lifting weights is not to be good at lifting weights.
Strength training is for building structures in the body—muscle, bone, and tissue—and the other physical and mental benefits of hard training. And our best results come from the times we struggle to improve, not the early and easy gains.
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 independent of whether you get good at the thing you are learning. Like physical training, brain changes are dose-responsive. Doses are instances of learning and practice, with bigger and better doses proportional to how much we struggle.
Yet, when we pick up other skills, often we do so with a particular outcome in mind; we want to be good at it. I really want to be good at chess, and while I may eventually get to where I win more games than I lose, I’ll never be great. (All signs point clearly to this harsh reality.) But, maybe 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 intrinsically valuable, 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 tonus (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. Our brains’ 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 to do the tangled and complex interplay of sensory input and motor output involved in high-level performances. (Münte et al., 2002.) Neuroplastic changes can be short- or long-term due to 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 very active synapse will elicit more response 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 is better embodied in 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 to the length of the branches that connect them together. Due to the potential for structural change to the brain, researchers anticipate finding differences in gray and white matter of the brains for different types of experts. 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 learning how to use your body better. Simply learning how to set your back properly can make you better able to lift, carry, push, and pull objects of all kinds. Other almost immediate changes due to training are improvements in residual muscle tension or readiness and central nervous system changes due to the experience lifting weights. If our novice does not lift again for another week, he or she is unlikely to retain these more transient or skill-dependent adaptations.
With consistent training, however, we can outgrow the novice phase of training. Soon, we will 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. Structural changes take a bigger push to get going but are what allow us to pass early plateaus. 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, struggle, not outcome, is the source of 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 novice gains to where you struggle to make progress because that 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