How We Learn (The Language of the Brain)

In the last article we explored how the brain is the gateway for all incoming stimulation, real and perceived. We learned that visualization practice can create physical change, both in the brain (measured via brain scans) and in muscular strength. 

But you may be asking how does that happen? How can our intent affect the physical results? 

To get to the answer we first need to understand the brain. It is the gateway for all incoming stimulation, real or perceived. So it is important to understand the role the brain plays in all learning, and therefore performance.

It starts with electricity, the language of the brain.

Thoughts, emotions, memories, and signals for the body to move all start in the brain as electricity. Electrical signals are passed from neuron to neuron via synapses. 

As our body interacts with the outside world we perceive the environment through our eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and touch. With each sensory input the information is sent via electrical signal from those peripheral nerves to the receptors in the brain.

The brain then processes the electrical signals as information, compares it to past memories, decides if there is a perceived threat, and responds by sending new signals back out. These signals cause the body to move, and also release chemicals in the brain to help us function better. We’ll get into the chemical side more later as it is crucial to stress and performance. 

An important thing to realize is that the body, including the brain, wants to be as efficient as possible

Throughout our evolution as Sapiens we have had limited resources. To help us survive the body tries to conserve energy by performing all functions, from movement to thought, as efficiently as possible.

But what does this mean for learning and performance?

Since we have limited energy and resources the brain and body are constantly adapting to incoming stimulation. When we try a new skill or movement the brain has not yet made those neural connections. 

That’s why new things are difficult for us and practice leads to improved performance.

Repeated experiences cause the neural pathways to be strengthened. Reinforced. We learn and improve and as a result it takes less energy to accomplish the task. The brain wants to be efficient, remember?

To better explain how neural pathways are created and strengthened we’ll use the example of trying to find our way through a jungle. 

When we try something for the first time we don’t know how to get from Point A to Point B. We slowly slog our way through the jungle until we reach Point B. The result of this slow journey is a sloppy minute on the row erg, an awkward missed free throw, or a muscle cramp during some mobility work. The brain isn’t quite sure how to communicate with the body to accomplish the task.

But with a little practice we start to become familiar and learn our way through the jungle. We bring a machete with us and hack a little path that helps us get from A to B more quickly. The neural connections for this new skill are becoming stronger.

And with a LOT of practice we build a wider path in the jungle so it’s easy to get from A to B. If we are dedicated and practice consistently, we can build a highway for neural connections to speed along with ease. Far quicker and more efficient than slogging our way through the dense jungle.

This is how practice takes us from a new and untrained novice to the ingrained muscle memory of an expert. The brain creates neural highways to keep us efficient at what we perform frequently.

And because the body and brain want to be as efficient as possible, the neural pathways are susceptible to degrading over time, our path from A to B being overtaken by the jungle if it’s not in use.

The brain’s ability to adapt like this is called neural plasticity. Neurons that fire together, wire together. Practice doesn’t necessarily make perfect, it just makes us efficient.

So the intent of what we do continues to be incredibly important. If you practice sloppy repetitions, just going through the motions, your brain will become very efficient at sloppy repetitions. You will become an expert in being mediocre.

And quality repetitions repeated consistently with focused intent will create neural pathways for more of those quality repetitions. Perfect practice makes perfect. 

Stay tuned for the next article as we explore how the brain perceives and reacts to stress and the follow-on effects on the body. 

If you’re interested in applying these learnings to your fitness, career, and life in general but aren’t sure where to start, check out our 8-Week Building Better Humans Mindset Course. You’ll get access to over 60 videos, exercises, 1-on-1 coaching, and interviews with experts in a variety of industries from a Navy Seal to an executive from Proctor and Gamble, CEO’s, mothers, and entrepreneurs as we walk you through a step-by-step process to achieve your full potential.

 - Written by The Nate Chambers, co-founder, coach, and positivity guru at Project 13 Gyms

The Nate Chambers
The Nate Chambers