It wasn’t too long ago that medical science assured us that once we reached a certain age, our brains didn’t change. The old saying insisted, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” Recent research has turned that notion upside down. It turns out your brain is a work in progress, not only in childhood but throughout your life. You can teach an old human new tricks and when you do, the old human’s brain changes. This ability for the brain to change is called plasticity.
Magnetic resonance imagery (MRI) has demonstrated structural changes in the brains of adults who meditate, play music, and even taxi drivers learning their way around London. The structures of the brain involved in learning these activities actually grow larger and more active with practice. While scientists used to believe that behavior was strictly a result of brain activity, it’s becoming clear that the things you do, especially the things you practice over and over, actually shape your brain. It’s a two way street.
It Matters What You Do
When you practice an activity your brain fires neurons in a particular sequence called a neural pathway. As Donald O. Hebb once said, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” When Daniel Coyle titled his book The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How, he was referring to neuroscience that links myelin – a substance surrounding nerve fibers that insulates electrical activity – with skill building. According to Coyle, myelin is increased through what he calls “deep practice.” Increased myelin affects the signal strength, speed and accuracy of the electric signals traveling through nerve fibers. More practice = more myelin = more skill.
“Neurons that fire together, wire together.”
However the opposite is also true. If you don’t “exercise” a neural pathway in your brain, that pathway’s signal will weaken. Perhaps this is one reason why multitasking may inhibit productivity. If the ability to focus attention for enough time to complete a task is a learned skill, then it’s worth considering how the constant interruptions typical in today’s digital age may be fostering an inability to concentrate.
It Matters How You Do What You Do
Brain research shows that “multitasking” is not an accurate description because you aren’t really doing things simultaneously. In fact multitasking requires your brain to switch attention back and forth between tasks. We should recognize multitasking for what it really is: self-interruption. Multitasking is the 180 degree opposite of Coyle’s “deep practice.”
So why do we do it? Perhaps because the act of multitasking temporarily boosts the level of dopamine in your brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter which in small amounts gives you the feeling of accomplishment and reward. Even though you may feel happy about getting a lot done at once, it’s an illusion. With the exception of extremely familiar tasks like folding laundry while you talk on the phone, studies show that for tasks requiring some level of comprehension, multitasking always takes more time than if you did each task separately. When you divide your attention you rob yourself of the opportunity to do a good job efficiently. More importantly, you miss the chance to strengthen desirable neural pathways.
It Matters What You Think
In the studies of musicians or taxi drivers, the brain-changing behaviors were primarily physical. However the research involving meditators showed that the brain change were solely resulted because of how the subjects focused their minds. Brain imaging technology has shown increased blood flow and electrical activity associated with different thoughts, but now there’s new evidence that thoughts actually influence brain chemistry. The connection between the neurotransmitter serotonin and mood has long been known, but the it was believed that your serotonin level influenced your sense of well-being, not the other way around. A report in the 2007 Journal of Psychiatry & Neuroscience states, “The study by Perreau-Linck and colleagues is the first to report that self-induced changes in mood can influence serotonin synthesis. This raises the possibility that the interaction between serotonin synthesis and mood may be 2-way, with serotonin influencing mood and mood influencing serotonin.”
Thinking happier thoughts, focusing on the positive, and cultivating an “attitude of gratitude” all increase the physical potential of your brain to experience more joy and happiness. And that’s practicing good Thought Medicine!