Brainjo Bite: Why Am I Terrible Today?

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All right. Welcome to another episode of Brainjo bites. This week, we have another episode sparked by a question that came from John inside of the banjo for adult learners, Facebook group, his question, it says, hello, all I’ve been learning claw hammer for about two months. Now, some days when I go to practice my fingers, don’t wanna do what I want. And it feels like I’ve never even held a banjo. Is this normal? Or am I doing something wrong with the learning process? Okay. So first of all, , yes, this is totally normal. I personally have experienced this a great many times. I’m sure there are many of you listening who have as well. And while there are likely several factors that could contribute to variations in our day to day performance. So maybe having too much to drink, either during, a practice session or the night prior or a poor night’s sleep.

But I’m going to focus here on some features of the learning process in the brain that I think will help you to understand not only why this happens, but why we should expect it to happen, , as part of our learning. And I think it’s worth noting that in addition to the above described experience where you pick up your instrument one day and you feel like it’s totally brand new, I know many others have had the opposite experience where you pick up the insrument one day and suddenly something that once felt really challenging now feels much easier. Like you’ve made a sudden leap in progress. I think anybody who’s been playing for any length of time will have experienced that phenomenon as well. It’s one of the things that makes the learning process so addictive when that kind of thing happens.

And it’s really, like I said, the opposite of the phenomenon described in the question. And so we can have these really abrupt changes in our ability levels, which can be in either direction. So what’s going on here as you know, learning anything, including the banjo or any musical instrument is all about changing the brain. And specifically it’s about creating or building new neural networks or, or new neural circuits that are essentially a set of instructions for whatever bit of knowledge that we’re storing and learning. For example, making the shape of a decor on the banjo requires a precise and coordinated series of muscle contractions and relaxations. And when we try this for the first time, we have no networks that we’ve constructed for making those movements. We’re not born to make that shape. It wouldn’t do us any good outside of the context of playing a banjo.

And so we have no networks prebuilt to make our hands form in that position. So it feels really, really hard, but the magic of the brain is that with practice and repetition, we can build a network that does just that. , so once we’ve done, so that network turns on and that whole set of contractions unfolds in our hands, magically move to that shape. It’s no different than how we constructed our networks that enabled us to walk on two feet for the first time. So all of our learning requires changing the brain in some way. Now we have nearly a hundred billion neurons in the brain and each of those are massively connected to each other. So it’s estimated that the average neuron has around a thousand connections to other neurons. Now that’s an average. This varies a lot, depending on the part of the brain we’re talking about.

Some neurons like those in the cerebellum have up to 200,000 connections with other neurons and the place where two neurons connect to each other is known as the Synapse. But this gives you the basic ideas of kind of the raw materials of the computational machinery that we have to play with a hundred billion neurons and a thousand potential connections on average with other neurons. And the way we make new networks that can store new forms of knowledge is by strengthening or weakening the connections amongst large clusters of neurons. And this strengthening of connections mainly happens in the brain, and the synapse being the place where two neurons communicate with each other. And when two neurons do communicate, what you have is an electrical signal that moves down the first neuron, which you can think of like a wire.

And once that signal reaches the end of the neuron, that neuron then squirts out some chemicals into the Synapse, the space between the neurons, those chemicals then float across the synapse and bind to receptors on the other neuron across the synapse. And enough, if enough of those chemicals bind it, then triggers an electrical signal in that next neuron and that chain of communication continues. Now, it’s not important for you to know those particular details to understand the phenomenon that we’re talking about here. But what is important to understand is that it is the strength of the connections between neurons or how likely an electrical signal from one neuron is to generate an electrical signal in one of the neurons that it connects with that we think to be the primary means by which new information new knowledge is stored in the brain.

So how we form these new neural networks to support learning new things, incidentally, this adjustment of the strength of the connections between synapse is based on experience is how machine learning algorithms work, , which have led to the enormous advance recent advances in artificial intelligence, though compared to the brain, those networks, those computers that are based on that type of system have been able to accomplish feats of learning that computers previously could not do, which is also pretty good support of the idea that this strengthening and weakening of connections or synapse is based on our experience is a fundamental mechanism of han learning. So again, learning is fundamentally about making new connections in the brain or strengthening synapses, and it turns out in the brain, there are many different mechanisms, or ways, in which you can adjust the strength of a connection between two neurons and those mechanisms or those ways of adjusting that that connection operates on very different time scales.

And from a practical standpoint or a design standpoint, it makes sense that we’d want to have, such a thing, different mechanisms for different time scales. So sometimes we only need to store information or knowledge for a short period of time. We only want those connections to be strengthened for a short time. Imagine the case of trying to remember a phone number that you only have to cal, once. You might need to remember it for a few minutes until you can make the call, but after that, it’s useless to you. And so it will be wasteful of the brain to continue to store that knowledge, to make permanent changes that would be needed to remember that phone nber over the long term. Again, most of our forgetting is not a bug, but a feature. So for this type of memory, we only need to create a new network for a few minutes.

So the mechanisms that allow for these kind of temporary networks are fast acting and short lived, and they operate on the scale of seconds to minutes. And at the level of the neurons, the changes that happen that allow for that are chemical in nature. So changes that involve changing chemistry are fast acting, but they’re also short lived. On the other hand, of course, there are kinds of memories and kind of knowledge that we want to retain over the long term. And in those cases, we want the networks that support those memories and support that knowledge to be long lasting. And so there are different mechanisms involved in changing connections over the long term and making those long term changes involves changing the actual structure of the neurons and the structure of the synapse and those types of structural changes, making new, physical stuff that takes time.

And that operates on the scale on the scale of hours to days to weeks or even years. And it’s those kinds of long term changes in synaptic strength that require structural changes in the brain that allow us to learn new knowledge or skills like playing a musical instrument. The structural changes are the ones we’re really trying to stimulate, which is why things like consistency and repetition are so important to being successful in the learning process. The cool thing is once those networks are built, they are literally a part of you. They’re a part of the physical substance of the brain. Also incidentally, much of those changes happen while we sleep. And this is likely the main reason, or at least one of the main reasons why we sleep at all the brain needs this time where it’s not spending its energy processing the world around us so that it can go through the memories of the day, decides which ones need to stick around and start making those structural changes that would support that.

Okay. So that’s a window into what’s happening at the level of neurons to support learning something new. What’s important to understand is that this is an ongoing process and you have multiple changes happening in all of these synapses that are changing their strength operating on all different time scales. So when you’re learning something new, you have this period of time during which whatever new thing you’ve been trying to learn is still in progress. Those networks are still being formed. All of those connections are forming, but they’re still tenuous or unstable. And in reality, for learning any type of complex skill, like learning to play a musical instrument, this sort of thing is happening in multiple networks over time, as we’re trying to learn multiple different sub skills. So you have multiple networks in various stages of maturity and so various stages of stability. And we experience this instability that’s occurring at the neuronal and the network level as instability in our own performance from day to day, a useful metaphor that can take this out of the abstract and somewhat foreign realm of neurons is to think of this process like going sledding on freshly fallen, snow freshly.

Initially, when, you know, snow has first fallen, there are no paths in the snow or no tracks, and you can put your sled and you can go anywhere yet over time, as you make multiple sledding runs, grooves or pathways start to form in the snow. Ultimately those pathways become deep grooves, such that once you’re on that path, once your sleds on that path, it’s now hard to get off of it. But during that time where the pathways are being formed, you may sometimes make it all the way down the hill on one of those paths. While other times you may veer off that path and head in a different direction. But again, once those paths are fully formed, it’s almost impossible to go anywhere else. So you can think of these pathways in the snow like the pathways in the brain that we’re trying to build to support learning a new thing.

So the case of where a circuit hasn’t fully formed yet is like that path that hasn’t fully formed. Sometimes we can go, we make it all the way down. And sometimes we veer off and we end up where we didn’t intend to, and that’s why some days are better than others. But again, the great thing is once that path is fully formed, our chances of veering off are really low. And we then experience that as this sudden improvement in our abilities where doing whatever it is we’ve been trying to learn almost feels effortless or automatic. This metaphor also helps us to understand why it’s so important to build those paths the right way, the first time to make sure they actually lead where we want to go, because once they’re billed, it becomes virtually impossible to not go down them. So again, the take home message is these seemingly abrupt changes in our ability from one day to the next are simply a natural byproduct of a norming normal learning process in the brain.

All right, thanks again for the great question. Also if you enjoy this Brainjo bite series, you will likely enjoy the book, the laws of Brainjo, which was published last year. It’s all about how to apply the science of neuroplasticity to learn smarter and more effectively the easiest way to find it is just to search laws of brain Jo or just brain Jo on Amazon. Thanks so much for listening to this episode of brain Jo bites, to make sure you catch future episodes. Be sure to subscribe to the podcast on your podcast player and consider leaving a rating interview in iTunes, which helps other folks to find it as well, to learn more about music courses based on the Brainjo method of instruction, head over to