On the 27th June Helen and I chatted about neuroplasticity. Here’s a little summary of the chat…
First, let’s parse the word: ‘neuro-‘ this is Greek for ‘nerves’ or ‘nervous system’; and ‘plasticity’ refers to being able to be molded to assume a desired form. Put the two together and you’ve got a reference to the fact that our brains are able to reorganise themselves and reshape their microstructure in order to create efficiency in the way they master-control the uptake and establishment of new skills.
Neuroplasticity sounds fabulously scientific, but it is really just a word which describes the biological basis of the old wisdom ‘practice makes perfect’. Human brains have been ‘doing’ neuroplasticity for hundreds of thousands of years – long before the word came into existence.
But as knowledge gradually continues its rolling-on, spikes-and-lulls, trajectory of growth, and as new areas of understanding become better described as a result of this, we find that that knowledge can serve us in new ways. The understanding of neuroplasticity – utterly fascinating as a field of enquiry – even though it is describing something that has been present for centuries, has allowed professions of applied human science, to ask new questions about how ‘practising’ might serve us to ‘make perfect’. These questions and the arising investigations and understandings have given us new insights which have supported the honing of the therapy we do with children, with students of all ages, and with adults – including after stroke and brain injury.
Here is a summary of five critical elements which support efficient neuroplasticity and therefore, effficient skills-growth:
- The target skill to be learned must be made bright. It must stand out to the learner.
- The learner’s attention must be directed toward and maintained on the target.
- Practice must take place intensively – the neurons that “fire together, wire together” to create increasingly efficient pathways to mediate that new skill.
- The practice process must be adaptive. This means it must adjust according to the learner’s pattern of responding. If the learner is going along well and nailing it, the target must be adjusted to become slightly more challenging; if the learner is struggling to nail it, the target must be adjusted to become slightly easier so that the learner can experience success! We call this the ‘just-right level of challenge’.
- Reward! It has to be rewarding. This means different things to different people at different times. For children, it often means ‘fun’; for adults it can simply mean the satisfaction of knowing that progress is being made. Reward is almost always more… well… ‘rewarding’ when it takes place within relationship. (Don’t we all benefit from mentors and kind supporters as we try out new things?!)