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Brain plasticity: learn to play a melody by thinking….

July 4, 2010

THE EXTRAORDINARY NATURE OF BRAIN PLASTICITY: learn to play a melody by thinking…

“this is the power of the imagination…..”

This remarkable work published in 2005 by Alvaro Pascual-Leone demonstrated that just

“by using imagination to mentally rehearse practising a melody on the piano, a novice can systematically develop the same brain circuits as novices who physically practice the melody on the piano.”

“This was achieved through systematic mental work which could be exhausting and not through wishful thinking, which is transitory, fanciful and not usually systematic.”

Physical or mental practice develops the same brain circuits

The TMS record above is astonishing. What is important to realise is that there is focused practice and a piano involved, physically practiced in the top row and mentally practiced in the lower row.  There is remarkably little difference in brain imaging results between the two. But to achieve this there is

  1. a familiar  object, a piano keyboard (connected via computer musical interface),
  2. an intent to learn a simple exercise and
  3. an actual or imagined behaviour (using five fingers).
  4. It is meaningful to the learner.

Motivation, attention, plasticity and the known world

To be motivated to do brain training exercises systematically I find I prefer to sense the applied nature of the exercise.

Like the piano keyboard above, I find that a simple pictorial context on my computer screen is sufficient (by association) to engage my known world….to build my attention, a crucial component of memory. A digitised painting or photograph creates an illusion of reality (some cognitive fidelity) and makes the behavioural response more meaningful. (Perhaps I have reverted to Piaget’s concrete operational stage in my old age: alternately the concept of “practical intelligence” may be appropriate).

As an older person, my aim in training is just to maintain or increase broad functionality in terms of every-day life, (not to be ‘smarter’) and perhaps to be more insightful.

Pascual-Leone demonstrated that you can think (or drive) yourself into playing a five-finger exercise by “looking” at a piano. It is not a far cry to thinking yourself into identifying animated details of birds flashed in a picture of a forest, as in the Posit Science Insight program and then learning to transfer these into other contexts in everyday life: pictures and suggestions are provided in the program.

However transfer of training is the holy grail…cognitive training that generalizes to other situations. It must be extremely hard to operationalise such a possibility.

You can see  Alvaro Pascal-Leone and Michael Merzenich discussing common interests here.

One Comment leave one →
  1. July 7, 2010 2:31 am

    Great article, thanks for the info!

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