Friday, November 20, 2009

On the Brain

I've always had an abiding curiosity for how the grey matter in my skull operates. Two recent books, Talent is Overrated and The Talent Code, deal with how humans, and brains in particular, develop talents. The current scientific consensus is that myelin is an insulating coating that covers the neurons and facilitates any human skill or activity. The more myelin in an area, the more skilled.

My curiosity into the workings of the brain has turned into something of an obsession after my oldest daughter suffered a head injury in the fall of 2005. It is hard to believe that it occurred just over four years ago. I've learned about neuroplasticity, seizure disorders and the long and short term implications of a traumatic brain injury.

The recent books on talent are just the most recent step in this exploration. How do you create myelin? How do you develop skills that you want to have or that may have been lost due to an accident in the extreme or simply through complacency?

The answer appears to have a current consensus in the scientific community that resonates with my personal experience: deliberate or focused practice creates skill. Basically, hard work. The hard work does require focus on the particular task at hand, however. Just working hard won't do it, you have to focus and learn from repeated mistakes. Without the mistakes, no myelin gets produced, you are just using an already well-paved neuronal highway.

I know my wife and children have had to put up with me deliberately practicing to be a good husband and father. I make lots of mistakes while I parent. One of the hardest skills that I struggle with is letting my children deliberately practice in their own lives. This means letting them struggle and learn through their own mistakes and that is the only way to build the myelin and build the skills that will help them when I'm not available.

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