Neuroplasticity Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

GENERAL QUESTIONS ON NEUROPLASTICITY

Q: What are some ways to support positive neuroplastic change?

A: I included a list of things I did to support my neuroplasticity rehab plan on the main Neuroplasticity page. Check it out! There are probably some things on that list that will work for you.

Some other ways to support brain health by taking advantage of neuroplasticity are to learn a new language, to learn a musical instrument, to do games or puzzles that use skills you don’t normally use (for example, if you have been doing crossword puzzles for years, try Sudoku, but if you’ve been doing Sudoku for years, switch to crossword puzzles), and physical exercise, especially vigorous exercise that you enjoy. There is also evidence to suggest that challenging yourself cognitively while you exercise is even better for your brain (try doing math problems while on the treadmill, or focus on what you’re doing with your arms when you swim).

Even though they’re on my list of things I did, I want to give a shout out again to meditation and yoga. I strongly encourage everyone to try meditation and yoga, which are good for body and mind in many respects. If you are new to meditation, I encourage you to start with Metta (lovingkindness) meditation, instead of Vipassana (insight or mindfulness) meditation.

Q: How can I learn more about neuroplasticity and the brain?

A:  If you’d like to learn more about neuroplasticity and how it can support human health, check out the neuroplasticity book list.

If you’re looking for a layperson’s guide to neuroanatomy (the structure of the brain), I recommend Beyond the Zonules of Zinn: A Fantastic Journey Through Your Brain, by David Bainbridge. It is a whimsical approach to the structure and biological history of the nervous system.

Q: How do I know DNRS, Gupta, or other neuroplasticity programs will help me?

A: You don’t. Nobody can predict the future, including me. I have no experience with Gupta, but as for DNRS and other established neuroplasticity programs, I see no reason not to believe that they could work for you if you have MCS, CFIDS, fibromyalgia, PTSD, anxiety, or depression AND you implement all parts of the program and stick to it in an organized and dedicated manner for six months to a year. Of course, that is a tall order; it is neither simple nor easy. But these are certainly the only approaches I’ve heard of that apply science to recovery from these conditions AND has resulted in hundreds of people recovering as a result.

CAVEAT: If you have primary obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), I think that DNRS and similar programs may not necessarily be the best option for you. DNRS relies on what is essentially a counterconditioning ritual, and people with primary OCD usually already have problems with ritualized behavior. (That’s the “compulsion” part of “obsessive-compulsive.”) There are some people who have other disorders (such as MCS, CFIDS, FMS, etc.), who also have some obsessive-compulsive behaviors, and DNRS has helped them. But if your primary challenge is OCD, and you are looking for a neuroplasticity-based therapy, I would instead suggest Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz’s Brain Lock: Free Yourself from Obsessive-Compulsive Behavior.

Q: I have Lyme disease. Can a neuroplasticity program help me?

A: Anyone can benefit from a good neuroplasticity program in terms of better mood, reduced pain, better memory, and other aspects of improved wellbeing. In terms of Lyme and tickborne disease, your treatment up to this point has a great bearing on whether I think you can recover with a neuroplasticity program.

If you have done long-term, aggressive antibiotic and/or other antimicrobial treatment, so that you have killed all the bugs, and you still have symptoms, then I do think a neuroplasticity program can help you recover. If you have not adequately treated Lyme and cos — meaning that you still have active infection — I believe your chances of achieving complete recovery are best if you first treat all active infection and then do brain retraining. I recently wrote a post on Lyme and neuroplastic recovery.

Q: What is your relationship to the DNRS program? Are you a certified DNRS coach?

No, I am not a certified DNRS Coach. My opinions may differ from those who developed the DNRS program or who are certified DNRS Coaches. I have no affiliation with DNRS other than as a happy customer.

Q: Do I have to believe in God to use a neuroplasticity program or recover from my illnesses? It seems like faith healing.

A: No, you don’t need to believe in God, and it’s not a program that relies on faith, although at a certain point you do need to make a “leap of faith” in order to make the commitment to put recovery before other activities since we all have only so many hours in the day.

Still, I know people from a wide range of religious and spiritual traditions who have recovered using neuroplasticity programs. I am an atheist Jew who follows a lot of Buddhist principles, but I am not Buddhist, I don’t believe in God, and I recovered!

If you do believe in God, and that faith supports you in connecting to peace, gratitude, joy, and acceptance of yourself and others, that will help you in your neuroplastic recovery work. Good for you! Keep it up!

If you do not believe in God, and you find other ways to connect with peace, gratitude, joy, and acceptance of yourself and others, that will help you in your neuroplastic recovery work. Good for you! Keep it up!

I have no experience with faith healing, so I can’t speak to that issue, but neuroplasticity is a phenomenon that is a fact of biological science. There is no question as to whether your brain will change, because neuroplasticity is happening every minute that you are alive. Like gravity and learning theory, it’s in effect whether you like it or not. The only question is how your brain will change, and whether you will make choices to support the kind of brain change you want.

Q: Isn’t this just more “positive thinking” or magical thinking or manifesting stuff?

A: Sometimes the focus on “positivity” and changing how you think in many neuroplastic programs can seem to be magical thinking or wishful thinking (“manifesting”), but that’s not what it’s about. Magical thinking, and the type of positive thinking that is usually encouraged by the larger culture (Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright Sided is a great look at this phenomenon), are not based on science, but on the idea that you can control or manipulate situations, people, or phenomena that are out of your control. They focus on “hoping for the best,” often without taking steps that actually make a difference in the outcome of the situation and at the expense of denying your real feelings and experiences.

A neuroplasticity-focused program that focuses on “positivity” might instead ask the learner to spend time dwelling in real positive experiences — a happy or satisfying moment during the day, a pleasurable memory or a visualization of the future — and using these genuine experiences of joy or hope to increase mental and physical well-being. Dr. Rick Hanson’s book, Hardwiring Happiness, explains this aspect of neuroplasticity very well.

Neuroplasticity relies on the scientific study of the brain and on using that information to enhance how our brain changes. In the neuroscience community, the evidence is in: how you think (what you think and how often you think it) actually does mold your brain. For example, London cab drivers have a larger hippocampus than most people; the hippocampus is the part of the brain most associated with navigation and cognitive maps. Meditation changes brains, too, and the type of meditation you do actually affects which part of your brain is changed!

SKEPTICISM AND CONCERNS ABOUT DNRS OR RELATED TOPICS

Q: You can’t have been really sick if you got well. Either you didn’t really have MCS, CFIDS/ME, and chronic Lyme, or you had a really mild case, or you’re not actually well.

A: Yes, I used to think that, too. I was certain I would always be disabled. It didn’t even occur to me to hope I’d get well because I thought it was impossible.

Like you, if I heard someone got well from one of these conditions, I thought, “They must not have been that sick,” or “They must have been misdiagnosed.” And if they were really sick, I thought, “They can’t have completely recovered.”

Of course, you’re welcome to think what you want about me! One of my favorite things Annie Hopper said on the DNRS DVD is, “It’s none of my business what other people think of me.”

At the same time, because this experience has been such a gift to me, and I have so much empathy for the people I consider my community — people with these chronic illnesses — and wanting others to have the opportunity I have had of a bigger, fuller, happier life, I am hoping that you will be open to this possibility….

I am guessing that, like me, you are a rational and intelligent person. So I invite you to consider that you are in a compelling loop of circular logic. If you believe that nobody who can get well is really sick, and nobody who is really sick can get well, AND you support this hypothesis by not believing those who were sick and got better, aren’t you supporting your hypothesis by using your hypothesis as the argument?

Q: I don’t think a brain retraining program will help me because I already meditate/have a mindfulness practice.

A: A meditation or mindfulness practice can be extremely beneficial for well-being and can support a neuroplastic recovery program, however, they are not the same thing. There are key differences.

For one thing, DNRS includes a huge counterconditioning component. In order to be effective, brain retrainers must practice exposing themselves to triggers at levels that are low enough to allow focus and concentration on creating a conditioned reinforcer but high enough to be noticed (and therefore to be counterconditioned).

By contrast, most mindfulness and meditation practices, such as Vipassana or Insight Meditation, focus on awareness and acceptance of what is happening in the moment. Brain rewiring recovery programs require sustained focus and effort on changing what is happening in your mind (and therefore in your brain). Simply witnessing your habits of mind, while it can bring great insight and other benefits, will not usually result in recovery from brain-injury-induced syndromes like MCS and CFIDS.

I also have the firsthand experience of many friends with these conditions who are meditators, many of them Buddhists, who have not recovered despite years of meditating. By contrast, two of my Buddhist friends — both of whom engaged in very long-term, disciplined meditation practices, including spending many months and even years in silent retreat — have undertaken the DNRS program. One used DNRS to recover from 15 years of severe MCS. While I believe the discipline and experience she had in mental training as a meditator helped her to use DNRS to recover from MCS, she did not get better from hypersensitivity to fumes from meditating; it was DNRS that helped her to recover.

The other friend is using DNRS to recover from PTSD. She has told me on several occasions that the DNRS technique is far more effective than any other practice she has tried for ameliorating PTSD, including meditation and extensive training in psychology. She has been blown away by how quickly it showed results.

A spiritual or insight practice can offer a sense of groundedness, purpose, focus, and many other benefits. It is not, however, in itself a recovery program.

Q: Maybe these types of programs help people who have panicky responses to triggers, but I’m not like that. I have a positive attitude, and I stay calm during exposures. But I still get sick, so I don’t see how a counterconditioning program can help me.

A: That was a source of skepticism for me, too. Another related reason for my disbelief was that I could have exposures without knowing it and still get sick from them. I thought, “How can a program that focuses on the conscious mind help me when I am not even aware of the exposures until hours or days later, when I’m having seemingly inexplicable violent physical reactions?”

Both these lines of thought are based misconceptions about how neuroplasticity, and limbic system retraining programs, operate. For one thing, the study of “experience-dependent neuroplasticity” has shown that conscious action (the use of the mind, otherwise known as how and what we think and focus on) can change unconscious activity of the brain. There are all sorts of events taking place in our brains that are outside our consciousness or awareness. We do not think, “There is my child whom I love. I think I will release some vasopressin and oxytocin now.”

No, we hug our child (which is a conscious behavior, something we’re aware of, as is the thought, “How I love this person!”), and our brain releases those hormones in response to those behaviors and thoughts. But we generally have no awareness that those chemicals are coursing through our bodies!

Likewise, several years ago, when I was looking for an apartment, I visited two on a long road trip to different towns. There was one I really liked; I put in an application for it. The second one was not a good match for me. That night, I was tremendously sick — migraines and projectile vomiting. I was so sick, I slept on the bathroom floor because I couldn’t manage to get to bed. I had no idea what had caused the reaction. Because it was so severe, I thought I’d had a pesticide exposure, but I didn’t know where. I suspected the apartment I had turned down.

Two weeks later, I heard from the landlord that I was approved for the apartment I’d liked. I was very happy because I’d been searching for housing for a long time. As part of my due diligence, I spoke to the current tenant and asked some screening questions. Imagine my shock when I found out that she had sprayed RAID ant spray around the outside of the house the same weekend I visited!

This was not the last time I’d have severe physical reactions on exposure to pesticide or herbicide without knowing the cause until much after the fact. So, how is it possible that I could have this kind of reaction as a part of a brain dysfunction that can be ameliorated with conscious thought?

Well, for one thing, the olfactory bulb is in close contact with the limbic system, including the hippocampus, which stores memories of injuries and traumas when they occur and then constantly scans for anything similar. When it finds something it thinks is the same or similar to what caused pain or injury in the past, it activates the amygdala and hypothalamus to go into red alert mode, releasing a flood of chemicals that cause the symptoms we associate with “exposures.” All of which happens without our conscious awareness. Even though I didn’t know what RAID or 2,4-D smelled like, my hippocampus recognized them as similar to substances that had caused problems in the past. It was my brain’s reaction to this stimulus that was unknown to me (my conscious mind) that made me sick, not the chemical itself.

However, what is so incredible about this plastic brain we have is that by using my conscious focus and awareness to create a conditioned positive or neutral response to other smells and chemicals that I am familiar with (perfume, cigarette smoke, bleach, etc.), I was able to retrain my brain’s reactions to these stimuli, and that lack of activation cascade (an unconscious process) among known former triggers has spread to include my being able to be around pesticides without getting sick. In other words, it doesn’t matter what your conscious reaction is to triggers — whether you are calm or panicky on the surface, whether you know you are around something your hippocampus recognizes or not — you can still have the symptoms of limbic system activation that make you sick. And you can still undertake to change that cascade so that these triggers no longer cause this unconscious dysfunctional response in your brain.

Q: But if there were a real CURE, wouldn’t I know about it by now? Wouldn’t EVERYONE with these illnesses be doing it?

A: That’s what I used to say, too! I said, “I have tried enough expensive, pointless experiments! I am done being a guinea pig! Let someone else test things out. When the real thing comes along, I’ll find out about it.” (Not believing that the real thing ever would, but being fed up with getting my hopes up only to have them dashed, and all the energy and resources that went into that.)

So, here’s my answer, now that I’m looking at things from across the divide: People ARE doing it, and we ARE getting better. My guess as to the reason you’re not hearing about it every other day is this conglomeration of circumstances:

1. It’s not a cure. It’s a recovery program or a rehab program. I make the distinction because a cure is something someone does to you — gives you a pill, performs surgery, etc. — and a recovery or rehab program is something where the ill or injured person does all the work, which is empowering but also a lot of work and a big commitment. Everyone I know (including myself) who has recovered using a neuroplasticity program has worked super hard to do so. That is not appealing to everyone!

I know people who are not interested in doing DNRS, even after they’ve seen me or others recover, because it doesn’t seem worth the work to them. My guess is that sometimes it’s because their life is satisfying to them the way it is, so making big, challenging changes does not seem worthwhile. For others, my guess is that their hesitancy at the amount of work is in part because they don’t believe it will actually work, so why put in all this work and precious energy if it doesn’t work AGAIN? But, whatever the reason, I think the work is a factor.

2. Relatedly…. Many people who have gotten well have not been met by open arms and unbridled enthusiasm from their peers and community. I know some people who recovered from MCS who eagerly started telling other people with MCS, and those people told them they were not interested in hearing it — which I completely understand because I was one of the people who said, “I don’t want to hear it”! In fact, the main reason I borrowed the DNRS program was because I was so tired of people (usually healthy people) saying, “Have you heard about this DNRS?! I hear it can CURE MCS!” So, I borrowed it (because I was certainly not willing to pay for it) mainly so I could review it on my blog. I expected the review would say, “Here are some things that seem mildly useful, but mostly it’s just a lot of hot air, and some of it is actually dangerous!”

Thus, many people are not talking about it because they have been positively punished for doing so. They are keeping it to themselves or among supportive friends and family, or among others who have recovered. Which is also related to….

3. People get well and drop out of their illness communities. I think this happens a LOT. (Actually, in googling someone who did this, I found this article on this phenomenon!)

For example, when Susie Collins, who was the creator and host of the Canary Report, an online community for people with MCS, recovered using the Gupta brain retraining program, she closed down the Canary Report. (If I remember correctly, she tried to find someone else to take it over, but that didn’t turn out to be viable.) Anyway, that was a pretty dramatic example because she was the person who was running this huge illness community, and then she got better and the whole community got scattered to the winds!

4. People don’t believe neuroplasticity-based recovery can work for them because their situation is different.

I was one of these people. In fact, everyone I know who has embarked on a neuroplasticity recovery program has told me why they didn’t think, or were afraid it wouldn’t work, for them — because their situation is different. Some reasons I or other people thought it wouldn’t work for us were because we

  • had conditions, symptoms, or syndromes different from or in addition to the ones it was intended for
  • were sick longer
  • had more severe illness
  • didn’t have as much in-person support
  • did not have computer access/internet support
  • etcetera

As far as I know, none of these things have correlated to success or failure with neuroplasticity-based recovery programs.

5. People misunderstand what neuroplasticity is and think the recovery programs are saying that their illness is “all in their heads” or that the work is based on magical thinking, manifesting, or religion.

I was one of these people, too! I thought it sounded like “positive thinking” pop psychology baloney until I actually watched the DVDs and discovered it was based on real brain research. As I read books on neuroplasticity, I understood how the program (in my case, DNRS) had been designed, and it made even more sense. I also discovered additional ways to increase my success by implementing other neuroplastic therapeutic techniques that I read about.

HOW TO APPLY NEUROPLASTIC PROGRAMS

Q: I tried DNRS, and I still have MCS, fibromyalgia, or CFIDS/ME.

A: I’m sorry to hear that. I’m guessing that is incredibly disappointing.

I’m also wondering if you are open to considering trying again with more information or support? I ask because so far, when I hear from people that DNRS didn’t help them recover (some people say it has improved their mood but not their physical symptoms, for example), my guess from what I’ve observed of their behavior that I’ve witness is that they were not able to implement all of the program. I am hoping they, and you, will take another shot at it — perhaps when you have more supports in place to boost your likelihood of success.

Here are some examples of how someone might not find DNRS effective because they were not implementing all aspects of the program:

  • They did not keep a record of their improvements, successes, and progress with recovery. I don’t know why in all cases this doesn’t happen. My guess is that some people don’t understand why it’s so important. I also understand that some people are physically unable to write. If this is the case for you, I encourage you to find another way to keep track of any progress you have made, such as by calling a friend and telling them at the end of each day what your progress was that day, recording successes on your voicemail or answering machine, or any other system of record keeping that occurs to you.
    There are two reasons this record keeping is so important: 1. Because of the brain’s negativity bias, people (and probably most animals) naturally focus on what is causing worry, fear, anger, sadness, and similar types of feelings, while a constant stream of good or neutral “news” slips by us with little impact. This distorts our perception of reality and can easily make us forget our progress. This has happened to me countless times and to everyone I know who has done these programs! One of the most effective reminders, when I’d say how I wanted my recovery to go faster/stronger/better (because I want it all, and I want it now!) was other people saying, “But remember how before you were dealing with X (terrible symptom) and couldn’t do Y (basic functional thing), and now you can?” And then I’d go, “Ohhhh, yeah!” [Facepalm]
    2. I haven’t yet found research to back this up, but my experience is that when I am NOT in pain or ill or struggling with something, I forget very quickly and easily what it was like when I was struggling with it. I will remember some of the more traumatic moments, but I forget a lot of the daily details and what it actually felt like in my body. I think people adjust to “normal” so quickly! This, again, means that it’s very easy to forget about progress. Having some way to “reality check” that you HAVE made progress can be an essential part of the motivation to keep going!
  • People who have not been able to make the global modifications to their behavior that are an essential part of the program. For example, someone will tell me that DNRS did not help them as much as they hoped in the same voicemail or email as they talk at length about their illness, symptoms, worries about toxins, and related topics that keep those neuronal pathways that we want to die off very active, instead. DNRS is a behavioral program. It’s based on application of experience-dependent neuroplasticity. Although most people don’t think of “behavior” as including thought or speech, they both have a big impact on the structure and function of the brain. In the case of DNRS or other neuroplasticity programs, thinking is actually a behavior that requires constant modification and monitoring. I think if a person is still talking, eating, thinking, breathing limbic system overactivation, they are not really giving those synapses a break from firing and allowing other neuronal paths to form. Changing the whole way you think and talk and act can be very challenging, of course, but it IS possible!
  • Both of the guesses above, and many others, fall under the heading of some people may require more information, instruction, or support in how to apply the program. Over and over again, I am grateful for all the years I spent studying and working on practical applications of learning theory because I’m convinced this knowledge had a huge impact on my ability to make the DNRS program. For example, questions that come up for almost everyone I know who does this program include: How long should each training session be, and how many times a day should I do them? How do I implement incremental training, including…
    What mental, physical, or emotional states or external triggers should I use?
    How do I know what intensity to use them at?
    How do I know when to move on to the next step in incremental training (increasing duration or intensity of the stimulus, for example)?
    What happens if I miss a day or two or ten?
    How do I know I am not building the wrong linkage (what if I am strengthening undesirable neuronal pathways instead of starving them)?
    What strategies can I use when I am over threshold (very symptomatic, overwhelmed by a trigger, or otherwise not in the state I want for training)?
    I’m really struggling to keep going. I know it’s helping, but I hate doing the practice. How do I get past this aversion?
    And much more. I think in many cases, talking to others who are doing or have done a similar program, or getting guidance from someone who can help set up a practical, day-by-day (or hour-by-hour) training program can be very helpful. (This is the main reason I am excited to offer coaching that focuses on practical strategies for applying behavioral science to neuroplastic recovery.) I have tried to offer some practical guidance in the last question in the FAQ to assist those who are already doing brain retraining in how to structure practice.

Q: I am scared that if I try this program, it won’t work, and then I’ll be out a lot of time and money, and I’ll be crushed because I will have gotten my hopes up!

A: OF COURSE you are scared! How could you not be? It’s extremely human and normal to be scared in this situation. And the very definition of courage is to take action in the face of fear! Rewiring your brain requires tremendous courage, determination, and discipline! It takes courage for you to even CONSIDER taking this leap!

When I started DNRS, I was terrified. It was the first time in many, many years that I even entertained the possibility that something might help me regain some level of health and function. DNRS challenged deeply held beliefs that I’d had, unquestioned, for decades. Entertaining the possibility that my core beliefs were wrong felt like I was adrift at sea with no idea what my guiding star was.

I was also afraid of what people would think if I did get well: Would they think I was faking all those years? Would they think it had all “been in my head”?

I was also afraid of getting my hopes up and being devastated if it didn’t work out. This is called “foreboding joy,” and it’s actually a byproduct of our brains being hardwired with a bias toward “negativity.” (Just google “brain negativity bias,” and you’ll get lots of great articles on this phenomenon.)

Or, here’s my explanation, leaning heavily on Dr. Rick Hanson’s writing: Human (and a lot of other animal) brains have evolved to favor those who are worried, clingy, and driven. Why these traits?  Our ancient forebears needed to approach rewards (food, shelter, water, sex) and avoid dangers (predatory animals, warring humans, unexpected natural phenomena). Being driven gave humans the edge in approaching rewards like food, and being clingy supported early humans in bonding with each other, which kept us safe. (Like other social animals, we depended on others in family/tribe for survival.) But the most important trait was being worried.

As Rick Hanson explains in his presentation, “Paper Tiger Paranoia,” people could make one of two mistakes: Think there was a tiger in the bushes when there wasn’t, or think there was not a tiger in the bushes when there was. The first mistake would lead to stress and discomfort. The second mistake would lead to death. If you’re dead, you don’t pass on your DNA. Thus, worry, nervousness, anxiety, fear, and generally fixating on every possible negative or threat became the norm for human brains. For this reason, we tend to focus on the potential threat or negative outcome of any situation.

This is what foreboding joy is about: when you have hope or feel joyful, a little voice says, “Omigod, but what if . . . disaster?!” We think that if we stave off joy, we will be safer. Our brain is trying to protect us from vulnerability. But this is actually not only an unhealthy strategy, it’s not even effective at protecting us from hurt!

I know this from experience because I was the queen of foreboding joy for most of my life. I made a practice of not getting my hopes up. The problem with this is that it’s already difficult for our brains to focus on and spend time with happy things. We’re wired to focus on the negative and ignore the nonthreats (the good stuff), so going to efforts to fend off hope can really make you miserable. But, that’s what I habitually did — until my second service dog, my heartdog, Gadget, got cancer.

I could not bear the thought of life without Gadget, and while I was aware that statistically, the best odds were on cancer killing him, I did not give in to despair. I focused all my time and energy on trying to help him get better — get into remission and stay there — and to enjoy every precious moment with him. The veterinary oncologist kept trying to get me to lower my expectations, to face the likelihood of his death, but I didn’t want to — I wanted to live in hope and joy.

So, for several months, I savored every walk, every training session, every cuddle with my dog. And I worked my ass off to get him healthy, which he was. Then the cancer came back, and he died, and I was utterly heartbroken. But even in my complete devastation, I realized something crucial: I would have been just as heartbroken if I had not hoped, if I’d spent the previous six months anticipating his death.

Nothing could erase my heartache when Gadget died, but so too, nothing could erase the months of happy walks, birthday parties, dog play groups, and other adventures I threw myself into after his diagnosis. The only difference would have been that I’d have been robbed of the joyous times we had together in the last half-year of his life.

Foreboding joy does not prevent disappointment and heartache, it only prevents joy. I’m so glad I learned this lesson before I watched the DNRS DVDs, because even though it scared the pants off me, I was willing to risk hope to recover — and I did.

Q: What’s the best way to organize brain training? How should I schedule my brain retraining sessions? When should I make things harder or easier?

A: People (and other animals) learn best using several intense, short sessions per day. In particular, it is better to do a short session where you are completely focused on what you’re doing than a longer one where your attention wanders. (Of course, your attention will wander sometimes. That is the nature of the mind. That is why it is called “practice.” The important thing is to just keep coming back to your focus of attention.)

Neuroplastic research shows that, in particular, what the learner focuses on is what leads to brain change. For example, in a study with monkeys, all the monkeys in the trial experienced a fluttering sensation on their fingertips and had music playing in the background. Half the monkeys were trained to pay attention to the music (they got a food reward for indicating a subtle change in the music), while the other half of the monkeys were rewarded for indicating a change in the fluttering on their fingertips. Thus, half the monkeys learned to ignore the fingertip sensation and half to ignore the sound. After the study, researchers found that the monkeys who were focused on their fingertips had changes in the motor cortex area associated with those fingers, and those that were listening intently to the music had changes related to the auditory processing area. In both groups, there was no change to the area where the monkeys were passively experiencing the stimuli (the stuff they tuned out didn’t change their brains). [I can’t find a reference to this study online, but you can read about it in Sharon Begley’s book, Train your Mind, Change Your Brain: How a New Science Reveals Our Extraordinary Potential to Transform Ourselves.]

Short, intense practice sessions with breaks between them is the approach that modern animal trainers (“clicker trainers”) use. In human psychology, this type of studying is called “spaced learning.”

While the intense focus helps the learner absorb the information initially, the breaks help the learner take advantage of “latent learning.” Latent learning is when we learn between study sessions, when we think we are resting. (Well, we are resting, but our brain is still processing the information.) Latent learning is probably where the expression “to sleep on it” comes from.

As far as I know, there is no definitive answer to how latent learning works, but one hypothesis that I find persuasive is that when we are learning, information is stored in short-term memory — where we can retrieve it quickly. After learning the same type of information repeatedly, our brains need to move that information to long-term memory, where it becomes more permanent. This fits with a phenomenon that many animals trainers are familiar with (and many human students and teachers, too), which is that suddenly, after training or studying something for a period of time, the learner seems to have forgotten a lot of it! This is a very short period, often just one or two learning sessions. These are often referred to as “learning dips,” “learning plateaus,” or even “learning tantrums” because sometimes the learner (or the teacher!) throws a fit and seems very frustrated to suddenly not be able to remember what was there the previous day. However, after this “dip,” at the next training session or class, suddenly the learner has made great progress. This would seem to support the idea that while information is being reorganized from short-term memory to long-term memory, it’s difficult for the learner to access (thus the sudden frustration), but that after it has been moved to permanent memory, it is more solidly “learned” and the learner has access to it again.

People (and animals) also learn better if they are as free as possible from fear, pressure, or other negative consequences of mistakes (punishment), and if they are positively reinforced for their efforts. (Read anything in the clickertraining.com archive on this topic. Here’s an article on accidental punishers.)

All of this means, for brain training for adult learners:

  • Try to do three or four sessions a day of 15 to 30 minutes each
  • Try to give your mind something else to do between sessions, ideally something that is enjoyable, relaxing, and different from what you were doing during training
  • Try to train every single day, except….
  • Try to take a day or two off every once in a while (to allow latent learning and memory storage to catch up), such as a day off every two weeks, or two days off (in a row) each month
  • Try to find something rewarding or reinforcing to do for yourself during or at the end of each session — something that you know is directly related to, and a result of, having completed a discrete task
  • Try not to punish yourself! We are often our own worst task masters when it comes to training ourselves. If you miss a session or a day, just pick up where you left off; guilt, shame, or berating yourself are not helpful. If you make a mistake, laugh it off (literally — even fake laughter has positive psychological and physiological benefits), and get back to it.
  • Keep your criteria (goals) very doable. It is much better to set a lower bar and reach or exceed it than to set a higher bar and fall short. A good thing to aim for is an 80 percent success rate. This means that you are reaching your goal most of the time, but still leaves room for improvement. As you reach 80 to 100 percent success, you raise your criteria (make training a little bit more challenging) again.

If you want to learn more about how to apply learning theory (the art and science of teaching and training) to yourself or others, I suggest reading Karen Pryor’s Don’t Shoot the Dog! or Reaching the Animal Mind (the first of which is mostly about training and teaching people, not dogs, and the latter of which applies to any species with a brainstem, including people). You can also book a coaching session with me, and I will be happy to help you tailor your brain training sessions to make the best use of your time, how to reach goals efficiently, and how to maximize focus and fun in (active and latent) learning!

Got more questions? Drop me a line!

NOTE: I have heard from some people that they have used my contact form on my website, and I’ve never received it. If you use the form below and don’t hear back, please EMAIL ME at swachsler at gmail.com. I apologize for the inconvenience!