Rewire your Brain: Attention and Neuroplasticity

Rewire your Brain:

Attention and Neuroplasticity

One day a man of the people said to Zen master Ikkyu, “Master, will you please write for me some maxims of the highest wisdom?”

Ikkyu immediately took his brush and wrote the word: “Attention.”

“Is that all?” asked the man. “Will you not add something more ?”

Ikkyu then wrote twice running: “Attention. Attention.”

“Well,” remarked the man rather irritably, “I really don’t see much depth or subtlety in what you have just written.”

Then Ikkyu wrote the same word three times running: “Attention. Attention. Attention.”

Half-angered, the man demanded, “What does that word ‘attention’ mean anyway?”

Ikkyu answered gently, “Attention means attention.”

One of the few things in this world that we have any degree of control over is what we pay attention to. I can decide to watch television, or to practise scales on my guitar. If I spend sufficient time doing the latter, I’ll get good at it. And if you scanned my brain with a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scanner you’d find that the part of my brain devoted to sensory and motor function in my hands would have increased in size. If you stuck slices of my brain under a microscope you’d find three things:

  • An increase in brain cell numbers
  • An increase in the connections between brain cells
  • An increase in the amount of insulation (called myelin) along the nerve fibres. This enhances efficiency of conduction along the fibres.

If I stop practising, these changes will reverse. (Use it or lose it). This is why musicians have to keep practising to stay in top shape. Of course the process never completely reverses, and even after 20 years of just driving, I won’t have lost my ability to ride a bicycle.

The capacity for the brain to change its wiring in response to practice is known as Neuroplasticity. When I was a medical student in the 1970s there wasn’t much about it. Indeed, we were told that whatever function a patient had six weeks after a stroke was about as good as it was going to get.

So finally we have scientific support for what every musician and craftsman has known for millennia- practice makes perfect.

What I propose to show you how you can improve the quality of your life, reduce stress and anxiety, get the life you’ve always wanted, by deciding what to focus your attention on.

But be warned, this is no quick fix, play guitar like rock-star in three days, or speak a foreign language in three weeks. I have spent 300 hours on one guitar piece, and I still can’t play it through without a mistake. And people will tell you even that after a year in a foreign country, totally immersed in new language, their grasp is still rudimentary.

In fact the magic number to remember is 10,000. That how many hours it takes to achieve mastery of a skill. This number has become a bit of an urban myth in the past few years. How do you know when you’ve achieved it; most masters still feel like beginners. And the quality of practice matters. Hours on the meditation cushion day-dreaming about food or sex won’t cause much rewiring, any more than playing only songs you know over and over will lead to any improvement.

The key is not just how long you practise, but how well. And this combination is going to take all you can muster of those qualities your teachers said you so sadly lacked in school- discipline, persistence, determination, application, dedication, courage and above all, as we’ll see, faith.