Why the Brain Loves Parkour: How Complex Movement Triggers Learning and Tips to Enhance Skill Acquisition

By on September 27, 2016

capoeira

In some ways, a toddler is much more intelligent than you.

They’re not particularly good at maths and their social IQ is lacking but their ability to learn new skills completely outstrips yours. You try and learn a new language as quickly or thoroughly as they can…

Or try learning a movement as complex as walking as quickly as they do; if we could, we could develop all kinds of amazing physical skills with no sweat.


The brains of toddlers and babies are constantly growing and highly plastic. They’re ‘super learners’.

But I do think there are ways we can turn back the clock to some extent and regain some of that super learning ability and use it for accelerated skill acquisition…

How Learning Increases Plasticity

BDNF (Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor) is the neurochemical most associated with brain plasticity. This molecule increases the likelihood of new neural connections forming and strengthening, as well as increasing neurogenesis (the birth of new cells). In short, more BDNF means more plasticity.

And the best way to trigger the release of BDNF is by placing yourself in a novel environment, exploring and learning. For example, studies show that BDNF expression increases in rats when they increase their ‘exploratory behaviour’ (1).

But it’s not just exploring that elicits this response. Just as useful is watching movement, or engaging in movement. During novel behaviour and interaction, the brain is constantly predicting what it thinks will happen next in order to plan the next movement. This is thought to occur in the posterior parietal cortex, which I wrote about at length here.

What happens though, when the reality doesn’t match up to your prediction?

This is called ‘prediction error’ and in short, the brain loves it. When you’re tracking an object on the horizon and it suddenly speeds up, your brain finds this surprising and another area called the ‘substantia nigra’ codes this. The substantia nigra just so happens to be an area of the midbrain and the starting point of many dopamine-receptor neurons. Thus, the surprise triggers the release of dopamine which heightens learning and increases brain plasticity (2) – dopamine increase is correlated with BDNF increase (3).

We can see this in effect when using a laser pen to play with a cat. The cat will respond much more if you vary the speed of the red dot, suddenly speeding up and then slowing down. That would be the substantia nigra at work there…

In other words, surprising or novel stimuli that we don’t have a pre-existing mental model for, stimulates the release of neurotransmitters that enhance plasticity. From a survival point of view, this makes a ton of sense – the brain identifies a need to adapt to changing stimuli and thus increases adaptability to encourage that adaptation.

dodge

Get hit in the face enough and you learn to dodge…

So why do babies and toddlers have super plastic brains? It’s because everything is novel and unique to them. Every single interaction is filled with new information, they have alien data coming in from every channel and they are constantly discovering how to move their own bodies.

They aren’t learning because their brains are so plastic, their brains are so plastic because they are learning.

Then think about how life changes from that point forward. Pretty soon, walking and talking becomes less exciting but you carry on learning through school. Even as you get older, you continue learning at college, in new careers, when learning to drive and when discovering the no-pants dance.

But the older we get, the less many of us are exposed to these kinds of situations. We work the same jobs and have too many ‘responsibilities’ to continue discovering new things. The same neural networks become deeply entrenched and old ones we never use begin to be pruned. Once we reach old age, physical disability often results in our spending more and more time confined to one room, barely moving. And surprise, surprise our brains atrophy.

Fluid intelligence decreases as we get older and a reduction in BDNF is associated with age-related cognitive decline of numerous kinds (4).

I hypothesize then, that if we could flood ourselves with the same number of novel stimuli as a baby, then our brains would respond by producing similar levels of BDNF. We could supercharge our brains and become ‘super learners’ once again.

This of course, is pretty much impossible.

Why Movement is the Most Potent Nootropic

Before we get into the subject matter suggested by the heading, I’d first like to make another speculation: that virtual reality could be used to trigger huge amounts of BDNF.

Most virtual reality experiences are currently interested primarily in recreating reality. But what if we were dropped into an entirely different virtual reality? With new rules of physics and where our physical movements corresponded with different results?

vr-development

I’d also be very interested to see if there is a significant increase in BDNF for blind patients who have their sight restored. I couldn’t find anything in my own research but please let me know if you come across anything!

But there are more practical ways we can increase dopamine and BDNF in the brain in the short term. And these revolve around learning new motor skills.

Primarily, the role of the brain is to control movement and to help us move adaptively through our environments. More brain regions are devoted to movement and sensory inputs than anything else and you could really describe all our other abilities – speech, thought and planning – as being emergent properties of this central objective. Movement helps us seek reward and avoid risk, which in turn makes it crucial to our survival.

Learning to grasp and walk then may be what is most responsible for that increased plasticity in the child brain. We’ve conquered that ability but what about learning to backflip? Or climb?

Or fire a gun while performing a one-armed cartwheel?

cartwheel-guns

One study showed that we can continue to increase production of BDNF through practicing complex motor skills (5). In the study, one William Greenough demonstrated that rats would produce more BDNF when learning complex motor skills, versus engaging in aerobic exercise on a wheel.

When we attempt any coordinated movement, we first visualize how we want that movement to go. We then perform the movement correctly, reward hormones are released which help to strengthen the neural pathways that led to that correct movement. But when the movement goes wrong, the brain detects the error, increases attention and updates the internal visuomotor mappings that are thought to be stored in the cerebellum (6).

wall-run

Games add to the ‘reward’ element that teaches new motor patterns by adding flashing lights and sounds

This process results in an unconscious improvement in our abilities. In one study, participants were instructed to aim at a target and were given instructions on how to compensate for a visuomotor rotation – they had to aim 45 degrees wide of the target in order to hit it. At first, this instruction worked but as the brain adapted to the rotation, they began to overshoot the mark. In short, they were consciously and unconsciously compensating for the change, resulting in an ‘overcorrection’ (7). Over time though, we can successful marry implicit and explicitly strategies to improve success rates (8).

This performance monitoring and adaptation appears to be controlled by the anterior cingulate cortex brain region (9, 10).

In short, engaging in new movements introduces a lot of new inputs and this triggers a lot of reward chemicals, resulting in enhanced learning.

This might even explain why we enjoy watching the movements of others so much. Mirror neurons would encourage us to imagine ourselves moving in those ways and we know that similar brain areas light up when observing movements vs performing them. So watching a beautifully choreographed dance, or an awesome fight/action scene might result in the release of a lot of reward chemicals.

spider-flip

In fact, according to Scientific America, expert dancers show more brain activation when watching others dance than those who don’t dance.

How to Improve Skill Acquisition

So how can you improve skill acquisition to more quickly learn new motor abilities?

One tip is to keep learning and to keep trying new skills. The more you do, the more BDNF you’ll product and the greater plasticity you’ll enjoy. One way to do this might be simply to increase the challenge of your daily activities – to add a little flourish when picking up a pen for instance, to try brushing your teeth with your left hand, or to bound up the stairs. When I’m just standing around waiting, or killing time around the house, I like balancing on tip-toes or walking with my heels raised just off the floor. (That said, any physical activity will increase BDNF to some extent (10).)

Another important element is conscious attention. In order to improve BDNF, you need to be mindful of your body as you move and focus on the movement. Otherwise, you will fall back on established motor patterns and no learning will occur. By simply being more mindful of your body and of all your movements then, you can engage more active learning at all times and strengthen that ‘mind muscle connection’.

And yeah, even watching others engage in complex movement could be useful. Those hours of watching Jackie Chan movies may not have been wasted after all!

block-leg

Conversely, the worst thing you can do for your brain’s ability to learn is to move less and spend lots of time in a static environment with no novel stimuli. This isn’t great news for those trying to recover from strokes, who find themselves trapped in a hospital bed. And it’s not great news if you work in an office 9-5 either…

***

I heard a fascinating discussion on what makes games fun, where the conclusion was that what made it fun was the player’s effort. The harder the player tried to play the game, the more enjoyment they would get. And this corresponds to the neural basis for learning – the harder they tried and the more attention they gave to the game, the greater the neurochemical reward. The brain finds learning addictive and computer games are essentially nuggets of learning. Learning is fun but not so much when it’s abstract historical information. The brain loves learning to move and getting reward signals. Computer games tap right into that and so do sports. And the fact that it’s fun is a sign that we should really be doing more of it.

You can turn anything into a game by increasing the challenge and then focussing on getting it just right. Don’t just write a letter, try to quickly write a letter with the most beautiful handwriting you can. That challenge and attention will engage the error monitoring parts of your brain and fine tune your motor control, resulting in better performance in everything you do. Don’t just pick up your socks – do it with your feet and then try to throw them into the basket. Use your body and make every movement challenging.

neo-dodge

The biggest take-home  is that complex movement in general is fantastic for the brain. Whether that means dancing, martial arts, parkour, learning to juggle or even playing computer games with new control schemes and physiques… As long as you are learning new movements and new sequences of movement, the brain will come alive.

There’s one type of training that I believe can do all this even more effectively than anything else. But I’m going to end this one on a cliff hanger and talk about that in the next post…

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About Adam Sinicki

Hi there! My name is Adam Sinicki, I’m an entrepreneur, psychology graduate and amateur bodybuilder interested in fitness, self improvement, technology and transhumanism. I run an online business (NQR Productions) which allows me to live the lifestyle I want: getting time to hit the gym and to work on my projects and apps. Stick around and I’ll be sharing my experiments and adventures in brain training, bodybuilding, productivity, business and technology.