Priming: Warm Ups for the Brain

By on June 25, 2021

Before a workout, most of us will perform some kind of warm up. This is intended to serve a number of functions: it helps to encourage blood flow to the muscles we’ll be using, it increases range of motion by loosening up tight muscles, and it activates and engages muscle groups that may not have been used for a while. More generally, it will increase the heart rate and raise energy levels.

We know this is important to improve performance and prevent injury. And yet we rarely ever consider the same approach for the brain.

We sit down at the computer, stare at the blank page, and wonder why the words aren’t just “flowing.” Or we go to answer emails and wonder why we can’t stop checking Facebook.

Never mind, that we we’re fresh from a stressful commute, playing with the kids, or perhaps scrolling the news.

Warm ups for the brain can be just as effective at encouraging maximum performance.

Warm ups for the brain can be just as effective at encouraging maximum performance and may be precisely the missing ingredient to help you tap into optimal performance and greater productivity.

Examples of Warming Up the Brain

There is ample evidence to suggest that warming up the brain can be effective at improving subsequent performance. In one study, it was found that a 5 minute brain-training game used before maths or reading exercises could improve outcomes (study).

This follows from many other studies looking at “priming.” For instance, maths exercises can aid language tasks when used immediately prior (study). Exposure to specific words can improve the ability to generate, recognize, or classify related words (study). Other more unusual examples exist, too. For instance, reading an essay that contains the word “I” rather than the word “we” can actually improve reaction times (study)!

Warming up the brain

Often, this is referred to as “priming.” However, priming can also be used more broadly to refer to activities such as listening to music to impose a positive mood. Indeed, these can be effective measures, too!

Achieving Flow

One of my favourite videos discussing focus and flow comes from the channel “Better Ideas.” Here, Joey Schweitzer discusses the importance of getting “past the hump.” In this case, the hump is the barrier preventing you from properly focussing. Joey suggests that all the flow hacks and tricks in the world usually won’t trump a simple fact: getting into a flow state takes time and sustained effort. If you give up because your mind starts wondering, you’ll never hit your stride. Power through, and eventually you’ll be able to focus intently on what you’re doing.

Flow state

Why might this be? Simple: the brain needs warming up. But what if, instead of banging your head against a wall for 20 minutes (this is how long Joey suggests the concentration hump might last), you could instead perform a simple warm-up?

See also: Upgrade Your Productivity: Top Productivity Hacks

How Does Warming Up the Brain Work?

Complex training is an approach to strength training that seeks to “prime” the muscle for greater force production via “post activation potentiation.” This means that the neural pathways involved in particular movements will be primed to activate again more easily. This effect is why 100kg feels really light after you’ve just been pressing 140kg. It’s also why you feel like you’re floating after you step off of a trampoline.

It’s also why a coach might get an athlete to perform a conditioning activity prior to training – and expect to see a greater overall expression strength (reference).  

Complex Training

As you likely know already, the brain is brought to life by electrical activity that travels between a huge network of brain cells, sometimes called a connectome. Each neuron is a node in this network and when it receives enough electrical stimulation from its inputs – presynaptic neurons – it will continue the chain by passing on that charge. This “firing” impulse is known as an action potential.

In order for an action potential to be triggered in a given brain cell (which is how neurons communicate), it must first reach the “threshold potential.” This is somewhere between -50 and -55 mV, whereas the typical resting potential is around -70mV.

In skeletal muscle, an increase in myosin light chain phosphorylation in type 2 muscle fibers results in muscle cells becoming more excitable and thus more readily able to contract. This excitability remains elevated with a half-life of approximated 28 milliseconds.

Post Activation Potentiation

What’s interesting though, is that we see a continued improvement in performance for minutes after the event. This sometimes described as “post-activation performance enhancement” and is the result of several other factors: blood supply to the muscle, alterations in muscle temperature, muscle/cellular water content, etc. (source, source). This is why a conditioning activity can be effect several minutes prior to the main exercise (benefiting from PAPE) whereas other approaches to complex training use the conditioning activity immediately prior (benefiting from PAP).

Similar effects may be at play in the brain.

Following activation of specific brain regions, we will see an increased blood flow to those regions thereby increasing available energy.

Moreover though, we’ll also see alterations in the excitability of neurons, modulated via neurotransmitters. This is where things get really interesting. 

Plasticity

You’ve heard of the brain’s ability to change its shape and organization. This is referred to as neuroplasticity.

And typically, you might think of this process as taking weeks, months, or years. It is through neuroplasticity, for example, that a blinded individual may develop heightened hearing. This is how a cellist gains greater sensitivity and dexterity in their hands. How impressive.

See also: Neuroplasticity – An In-Depth Guide to Improving It

What might shock you, however, is to learn that plasticity occurs over the space of seconds. Of course it does! You can commit new information to memory instantly, and this must correlate with some physical change in the brain.

Synapse

You may have heard that your memories are physically altered every time you recall them. The very act of remembering changes the memory.

This is “short-term plasticity,” or “dynamical synapses.”

Two key processes in short-term plasticity are enhancement and depression (fatigue). These processes increase or decrease the likelihood of activation, respectively, and can occur within milliseconds (reference).

As most of you will know, neurons do not only communicate via electricity. Rather, they also rely on chemicals called neurotransmitters. You will recognize many of these: such as the feel-good serotonin, and the goal-directing dopamine.

These chemicals exert their effects primarily by increasing or decreasing the excitability of neurons. Inhibitory neurotransmitters like GABA and serotonin make neurons less likely to fire, whereas excitatory neurotransmitters like norepinephrine, dopamine, and acetylcholine have the opposite effect.

Neurotransmitters

Pop-science tends to imply that our brain is full of one chemical or another at a given time. Rather, these chemicals often act in a far more localized fashion: at the scale of brain regions and even specific connections in some cases. (This is one reason taking a pill to increase dopamine is not the smart fix we might assume it to be!)

Short term synaptic facilitation (a form of synaptic enhancement) results from an increased likelihood of presynaptic neurons (inputs) releasing neurotransmitters, due to previous activity (more specifically, this is due to increased presynaptic Ca2+ concentration). Because more neurotransmitters are being released, synapses will strengthen for a short time, resulting in “increased excitatory post synaptic potential.”

Hence, a maths “warm up” will prime you to subsequently solve difficult maths problems.

Facing Brain

Conversely, synaptic depression (fatigue) occurs when the readily available neurotransmitter vesicles become depleted. This makes those synapses less likely to activate.

These processes do not occur exclusively but rather concurrently.

It is thought that these adaptation processes help to prime us to process important new information. For example, synaptic depression may help us to focus more greatly on novel stimuli. And it’s easy to see how synaptic facilitation could result in greater focus after a period of effort, or a heightened ability to recall specific information.

Longer Term Implications

Synaptic enhancement can be divided into sub-types: facilitation, augmentation, and potentiation. These classifications represent the duration of the effect, with facilitation lasting only a few milliseconds whereas augmentation lasts for seconds. Potentiation (poste-tetanic potentiation) can last for minutes. And if you consider how signals spread and propagate throughout a brain region, the lingering effect could cumulatively be significantly longer.

If you think of your connectome as a complex network of roads, then these adaption processes act like diversions: rerouting traffic through those existing structures and potentially resulting in entirely different outcomes. Over time, this may also lead to permanent structural changes as the increased likelihood of specific patterns of activation result inevitably in their becoming reinforced via long-term potentiation. Computer models of neuroplasticity reveal short term plasticity to have profound effects over time (reference).

Priming for the Brain

Synaptic facilitation has even been used as the proposed neural mechanism of working memory (study)! This may be what allows us to maintain and manipulate information in the mind’s eye – although I should mention that this is just one possible explanation. I wonder whether this could go some way to explaining the Zeigarnik effect, too. This is the effect that allows a waiter to recall multiple customers’ orders, only to fail to even recognize them after their shift is over. Information that is in active use, is more easily accessed.

Zeigarnik Effect

Long Term Plasticity

The timescale of long-term plasticity is not fully known. Neurogenesis and gliogenesis occur over the course of days, which has led many to presume that permanent structural changes require a similar time-period.

But there is ample evidence to suggest that morphological changes – such as the formation of entirely new synapsis – can occur much more quickly.

Dynamical Synapses

In one study, structural changes (that amounted to variations in the density of tissue) were observed in the brains of participants using DTI following 90-120 minutes of a spatial learning task (study). Think about this for a minute: as you learn and play, your brain is literally growing and reshaping like a timelapse of a tree.

I highly recommend reading all these studies, they are fascinating.

To me, this seems highly intuitive. After all, I have made no attempt to recall what I had for breakfast and yet I can do so with ease. I’ll likely still remember this in a few days. Facilitation doesn’t explain this as it happened hours ago. It’s possible then, that priming could even result in physical changes to the very layout of your brain, resulting in an improved ability to focus and/or learn. At least in areas such as the hippocampus.

I suspect that structural plasticity can occur in an even shorter timescale.

Thus, I suspect that structural plasticity can occur in an even shorter timescale. And that means that priming your brain could actually change the roads themselves ready for action, as well as the flow of traffic.

How to Warm Up the Brain

The initial likelihood of vesicles releasing neurotransmitters varies from neuron to neuron, and this essentially allows certain neurons to act like “filters.” Some neurons we want to fire easily, some we want to be more difficult to activate.

So, the brain is super complex.

And that this is to say that attempting to boost your cognitive performance by taking stimulants is like trying to tune a radio with a hammer. This is not the key to better focus and creativity. This could also present issues for those hoping to use transcranial direct current stimulation. We don’t want to make every connection in a brain region more prone to firing!

But priming and warming up the brain? That may well be more effective!

Cognitive Conditioning

With all that said, how could you go about warming up the brain and priming it for action?

We could start with some broader, systemic approaches. Full body exercises will help stimulate blood flow around the body and that will include the brain.

Listening to music that improves your mood could also be helpful. If you are in a funk and can’t focus, the right music could alter your hormonal cocktail. As many hormones also act like neurotransmitters, this can also get you in the right state of mind.

But the secret weapon may well be to use a cognitive conditioning activity.

See also: tDCS for Enhanced Motor Learning, Reactions, Memory & More – An Introduction to Neurostimulation

If you need to write an essay, you could spend a few minutes writing something else to start priming the right networks for action.

When exercising, if you feel tired, lethargic, and out of touch with your body: try using music to boost your energy and your mood (research suggests you will do best to start with a slower tempo that gradually ramps up over the course of your playlist). This also works for other physical chores like tidying the house.

But also try engaging in some light exercise while focussing on the minutiae of the movement.

To put it another way: if you can’t bring yourself to do a workout, just aim to do a little bit of fun movement. Perhaps a little dance. You’ll find it’s now MUCH easier to train subsequently, and you’ll have a better workout as well.

Neurotrainer and Plasticity

This is something that the folks at NeuroTrainer have been tapping into. NeuroTrainer is a suit of virtual reality brain training tools used by athletes and others that need to be highly focussed while performing complex tasks. The tool can offer improvements in visual processing, working memory, focus, and more over time with repeated use. But what Noah Rolland and his team have found, is that it could ALSO be used as a tool for priming cognitive function.

Noah Rolland

By using a tool like the NeuroTrainer for a brief spell prior to competition or training, an athlete could theoretically enjoy greater focus, reactions, and performance.

See also: REAKT Performance Trainer Review (for Oculus Quest)

Moreover, this could even result in heightened plasticity and thereby greater learning. Andrew Huberman discusses a similar topic in his podcasts: suggesting that handbalancing and similar activities could increase the amounts of plasticity-promoting agents in the brain (such as brain derived neurotrophic factor). The key here is that the activity be challenging and novel, such that a high error rate encourages focus and learning and puts the brain in a state that is malleable and ready for change. Handbalancing does this effectively due to the huge amount of new sensory-rich information – though the same effect won’t be felt for pros. NeuroTrainer enjoys an advantage here, as it is able to adapt the level of difficulty and even the nature of the stimuli in real-time to meet the user where they are at.

BDNF for plasticity priming

Imagine a future where before flying a passenger plane, a pilot first engages in a bit of brain training to prime them for action and improve their focus. How about a surgeon? The benefits are clear.

Some Implications

Before parting ways, I should mention that priming can happen implicitly. You are constantly being primed by your environment and your actions and this is what so often leads to the disconnect between the way you want to perform… and the reality.

If you’ve spent all day staring at a phone darting between ads and mobile games; if you’re tired from a stressful commute, or you’ve simply been allowing your mind to wander… Then you may be primed for entirely different activities.

FOCUS

And remember: some of these changes are structural and permanent within the space of minutes. When you expose yourself to advertising or bad news… that stuff is literally reshaping your brain.

Did you know that when a synapse is strengthened, this process also weakens the surrounding connections? What information might be lost?

Think carefully about your environment then. Pay just as much attention to what you put into your brain, as would your stomach.

And especially when it comes to the moments leading up to an important event.

Order your copy of SuperFunctional Training - A complete training program for body and mind.





ORDER HERE



Support the Bioneer at Patreon for Exclusive Content: Click Here!

About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *