Ever struggled to break a bad habit? Felt like you were practicing, but nothing was changing? Wished you could stop the negative thoughts that run through your brain in an audition?
To understand how best to practice, how to stop a bad habit or how to change our negative thoughts, we first need to understand their origin: our brain.
The human brain can change itself.
The golden rule of understanding skill acquisition is that “neurons that fire together, wire together”. In extremely simplified terms, every time we practice a skill, the neurons (nerve cells in the brain and nervous system) associated with this action fire tiny electrical pulses. When these neurons start to regularly fire at the same time, they create a connection. The more these neurons fire simultaneously, the stronger the connection becomes, and, in real world terms, the more skilled you become at that particular task.
“Excellence is an art won by training and habituation…
We are what we repeatedly do.
Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”
What we pay attention to strengthens.
These neurons then start to release chemicals that strengthen this connection and promote the growth of myelin. Myelin is an insulator that wraps around nerve fibres, preventing the electrical pulses from leaking out. The more you practice, the more myelin develops, the quicker, stronger and more accurate the signal is, and the more skilled your performance will become. Brain scans of professional musicians have shown levels of myelin proportionate to the hours of practice they have done!
But there’s a catch!
Myelin doesn't care whether you are practicing correctly or not: the more you do it, the more myelin will build and the faster and stronger this connection will be. The connections that are strongest will be the ones that fire more readily in the future.
Once a neural pathway is developed, our brain wants to keep it activated (Have you ever learnt a piece incorrectly and found it difficult to relearn it, even harder, in fact, than it was to learn it in the first place...?). Once myelin has developed, it doesn’t budge easily. This is the best argument I have ever heard for taking the time to learn something correctly from the start!
Bad habits are literally hard to break, so one of the best ways to change bad habits is to build new ones. Purposeful practice of any task will build new neural connections, and given time, these new connections will take up the space previously taken up by the old habits. As the saying goes, ‘use it or lose it’, literally! Or in neuroscience terms, “neurons that fire apart, wire apart”.
This has major ramifications for the way we practice or learn a new skill, but what about the thoughts which underpin it all; the thoughts which come even before you play or sing a note?
“Thoughts become words, words become actions,
actions become habits, habits become character,
character becomes one's destiny”
Every thought you have also builds a pathway in the brain, so if you regularly repeat a thought (whether it be true or not!) you are strengthening this connection and wiring it into your brain. Our brains then learn new information by referencing the connections that already exist, so our original thoughts start to influence all future situations. Our thoughts, literally shape (at a neural level!) our reality.
As Henry Ford said:
“Whether you think you can, or think you can’t; you’re right!”
So, what does this mean for me?
In future blogs I will go into a lot more detail as to how you can channel your mind's amazing powers to your advantage, but for now, here's some food for thought:
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