Brainjo Bite: Have You Stopped Getting Better? (Brainjo Bite)


Welcome to another episode of Brainjo bites. So this episode again was inspired by a question that I got in response to a previous video. 

The question was:

What I’d like to be able to discern is the point at which the brain knows what to do, but our physical limits have been reached. I’ve played for many years and my primary interest has been three finger melodic tunes. After many days, hours, weeks of practice, I still find that I’ll have random mistakes. And of course, with that type of playing, it’s tough to just jump back in. How can we tell if more practice will help and if so, mental or physical, or if we’ve just reached a point of physical limitations.

I compare this to a competitive bicycle rider. One may have a different type muscle structure or enhance lung capacity and be able to achieve a level that another person could never reach no matter how much riding and preparation he did.

Okay. So great question. And this question actually brings up several important issues and ideas, and I’m going to resist the temptation to go super deep into all of them. And what I really want to focus on here is the premise that’s baked into this question, and that is the premise or idea that each of us has fixed physical limitations that set some kind of upper boundary on what we can accomplish or attain in any given domain here in the case of music or banjo playing. So there are two questions really here. One is do these physical limitations exist. And second, if so, how do you know when you’ve reached that upper limit?

Let’s first talk about the very idea of limits on the upper boundaries of our potential in any particular area. I think in most people’s minds, that idea of an upper boundary is as connected to, or ultimately determined by genetics. That’s the common conception and associated with it is this idea of our genetic potential in a particular endeavor. So, you know, we all have our set of 46 chromosomes replete with the DNA that encodes, that contains instructions for everything that we’re made of, and that set of instructions confers a range of possibilities in any particular domain, the upper limit, we could say of that range being our genetic potential one area which the question alludes to in which this is commonly discussed is in the realm of muscular development. And studies here indicate that with consistent training, most people can reach that genetic potential in four to five years.

Now that of course means with consistent high-quality training, good diets, sleep, all that sort of stuff. But at that point at that four to five year mark, that’s the strongest and most muscle bound that they can become. And that upper limit is influenced at least to a degree by genetics. And there’s a similar idea when it comes to our cardiovascular fitness. There, the metric most commonly associated with endurance or cardiovascular fitness is your VO two max. And so how high you can get that is also at least in part influenced by genetics. There are a couple of things here already to note right off the bat. One is that even in these particular domains, there is a pretty big range of possibility with training. Most people can get to levels of muscular or cardiovascular fitness that are, that far exceed the average person.

So there is a tremendous amount of adaptability in these systems. And the second point is that most people never come anywhere close to realizing their potential in these areas. But again, we do have domains here where the upper limit of what’s possible the upper limit of potential does vary from one person to the next and where at least some of that individual variation can be accounted for by genetics. But what’s really important to remember as well, is that this genetic potential only exists within the context of a specific environment. No gene makes any sense outside of a particular environmental context. And in this case, that environment includes the current training protocols and technology for developing these particular capabilities and time. And again, throughout history, we’ve made the mistake of thinking that we had reached the upper limit of human potential in some area only to be proven drastically wrong in the future.

And the history of sports is littered with examples here, since we’ve been keeping a record of these things. So in 1900when the first person broke 11 seconds in running the hundred meters at the Olympics, it was considered a miracle nowadays not only would that winning time, not even qualify you for the Olympics, it wouldn’t even qualify you for the high school national championships. And again, that not because of any change in genes but because of change in the environment, specifically the training environment.

But back in 1896, that 11 second mark was thought to be the limit of human genetic potential. Or to take an example from music, when Franz Lizst wrote “Erlkonig” for the piano back in 1826, it was said to be virtually unplayable, and now it is performed by every top pianist. And again, there are scores of examples of this sort of thing throughout history.

So in other words, history has taught us that just about every time we thought we were up against the upper limits of what a human genetic potential was, we were wrong. So we’ve established that the human body has some pretty remarkable abilities to adapt and increase its own capabilities. And yet compared to the rest of the body, the adaptability of it, the human brain is in an entirely different category altogether or a different universe, really. In fact, learning and adaptation are what brains have been designed primarily to do. They have been optimized for that function and the human brain in particular does this better than any brain in the animal kingdom. It is why we were able to rapidly ascend from the middle to the top of the food chain and why we are the only species to inhabit every part of the world.

So two and a half million years of human evolution has turned it into the greatest learning machine in the known universe. And again, its signature feature is its ability to learn or to acquire, refine and apply new knowledge throughout our lives. The brain has nearly a hundred billion neurons, nearly a quarter trillion synapses and all of those connections can be reconfigured to support the acquisition and refinement of knowledge and skills. So compared to our brains, our muscles and our, or our lungs and our hearts are very simple machines with far fewer variables that can be modified in order to enhance their capabilities. The difference between the adaptability of the brain compared to the musculoskeletal or cardiovascular system is impossible for us to really even wrap our heads around.

So while there may be theoretical upper limit to the brain’s genetic potential, none of us need to worry about reaching that within our lifetimes.

Okay. So now let’s tackle the other part of this question, which is about plateaus in our learning progression, which are not at all an uncommon occurrence, especially in music. So you’re moving along, your skills are improving. And then one day you feel stuck in a rut and you don’t no longer feel like you’re getting better or you’re making the same mistakes over and over as was mentioned in this, in the original question. And we might put the reasons for that, getting to that place, getting stuck into three broad categories.

So the first being we’re stuck because there’s a skill or there’s some kind of knowledge that we’ve yet to acquire that’s needed to move us forward. And in some cases we reach a situation where we don’t even know what that thing is, or we may know what it is, but we don’t know how to learn it or how to acquire it.

And usually that’s going to be in the realm of either your development or knowledge or concepts. Typically we have the best grasp of what kind of technical skills we need in order to move forward, the second category that might cause us to get stuck are the quality of our existing neural networks. And this is usually the cause when there is a technical issue, that’s holding us back. Our technical abilities are the product of the motor networks that we’ve built in the brain through practice and how we practice influences the quality of those networks or how good they are, how well they do the thing we wanted them to do. Imagine the case of a golfer who’s been playing for 30 years, but still has the same terrible swing that causes the ball to slice 50 yards to the right every time he hits the driver.

And the problem there as is that he built a poor neural network in the beginning and has been reinforcing that same network each time he’s played ever since. And now in order to get out of that rut, he has to build a new golf swing network from the ground up and figure out a way to suppress the old one from rearing its head. And this is a perfect illustration of why, how we practice is the critical determinant of success, especially when it comes to technical abilities. In this case, the golfer is at a disadvantage compared to someone with much less experience because all of that time spent reinforcing a bad golf swing or any bad neural network has made that network really, really strong. And again, this is why you hear me talk so often about the importance of being slow and methodical in the beginning when we’re just learning so that we build really high quality neural networks that won’t limit our future potential and why, as I talked about in the last Brainjo bite, having the willingness to go backwards if needed and fix things as soon as you notice that that’s necessary is so important to do so.

And the third possibility which was mentioned in the original question is that perhaps we’ve reached our physical limit. And if it’s an endeavor that primarily involves changing the brain like music, we can essentially put that possibility to rest as the odds of that occurring. Like I said, in our lifetime are astronomically low. So if you’re stuck, think one of those two things, number one, is there some piece of knowledge or skill that I need to acquire that I don’t have that’s needed to move to the next step again? That was the reason I created the banjo players roadmap. And I’ll put a link to that again, in the comments to help you identify, okay, where am I at now? What’s the right kind of knowledge and skills that I need to move me to the next level in each of the categories of banjo playing and musicianship so that you, if you were stuck for one of those reasons, you’ll know what to do next.

And the second possible reason being, is there something in my technique that I have to kind of go back and fix?

All right, so as a final recap, the human body has the ability to increase its capabilities many times over, which allows us to adapt to an extraordinary, a wide range of environments, the physical limits on the potential of the human brain. And that is every human brain it’s far beyond what any of us can even imagine. And so when our progress stalls in learning music, it is a virtual certainty that it is an issue with process rather than any kind of innate upper limit to our potential that is serving as the barrier.

Thanks so much for listening to this episode of Brainjo bite. To make sure you catch future episodes, be sure to subscribe to the podcast on your podcast player and consider leaving a rating and review 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