Why your brain wants you to learn new things and have fun
A few years ago, a friend and I took a beginner ballet class for adults. It was a choice that occurred within the the heyday of the T.V. show, So You Think You Can Dance, and that elicited high levels of mockery from plenty of h8ers.
If only we'd known about neuroplasticity back then.
Neither of us believed that our new class would lead to successful auditions on the show, if for no other reason than there was not yet a Canadian version. Our citizenship stifled our dreams of seeing our very own names forged in glitter on audience constructed signs.
Yet, we persisted all the way to our recital, in which we danced a delightful medieval-inspired number, complete with masquerade-style masks. We curtseyed and plied for the rapt eyes of our friends and family members, who were all there to witness the marvel of adults trying to learn a new skill.
Broadly, neuroplasticity reflects our brains' capacity to change. It allows neurons (the cells that comprise our brains) to forge new connections and allocate space to the sensations and thoughts that are most used, and to allow unused connections to fade.
The idea that the adult brain can change used to be highly controversial, but was eventually accepted even by skeptics with the scientific community. This research is covered in Norman Doidge's amazing book, called The Brain that Changes Itself.
What does neuroplasticity have to do with bad dancing?
If we learn new and challenging things through adulthood, we're less likely to end up with Alzheimer's. So learning to dance could add a level of resiliency to my aging brain, especially if I have fun doing it.
It's easier to learn when we're having fun. This is because the combined release of brain chemicals associated with pleasure (dopamine), and memory sharpening (acetylcholine) heightens our ability to learn. When we succeed, we feel happy, and we remember that.
I've thought a lot about how this knowledge translates to how we structure our learning. It's not possible to have fun all of the time, and becoming skilled at something means that we have to practice the same thing over and over again, probably becoming bored.
I play piano, and during practice I think about neuroplasticity. When I begin learning a new piece it's exciting, and I can quickly see my improvement. As improvement slows, I resign myself to the idea of boring practice. After reading Doidge's book, I'm attempting to prime by brain to benefit most from repetitive practice, by beginning with fun pieces, and sprinkling them through the whole session. I'll just have to stay tuned to see if my new strategy works, besides, changing my brain is its own kind of fun.
Update: Although my friend and I have not ended up on So You Think You Can Dance, we're working on our own show called Grown-up Dance Starz.
Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itself. Penguin Books: New York.