How Much Skill Is Enough To Prevent Cognitive Decline?


Welcome to Better Brain Fitness, hosted by doctors Josh Turknett and Tommy Wood. In this podcast, we will explore the frontiers of how to keep our brain fit and healthy so that we can perform at our best and do the things we love for as long as possible. Let’s go. Hello everybody. Welcome back to another episode of the Better Brain Fitness podcast. I am Tommy Wood i’m joined today by my very musical cohost, Dr josh Turknet say hello Josh. Hello I’m. Maybe I should sing it but today’s question isn’t about music but could be. It can certainly be related to music as one aspect of how you might answer this and I imagine that will that will come up.

00:54 : But this is a question that I myself was posed recently and I really struggled to answer in a in a way that gave a concrete takeaway because to me it felt like the answer was well it depends. So the context was I was on the drive Doctor Peter Tia’s podcast, and he asked me a question that was then used as a as a clip, as a real on Instagram. And one of, you know, several people commented like you gave a very long answer but you didn’t answer the question.

01:31 : So I’m going to ask you the question and see if you can do better than I did. I think part of it because the remaining context of the conversation is removed in a in a big second clip, but that’s just me defending myself. But the essence of the question is, if you are trying to prevent longterm cognitive decline through skill development and cognitive demand, what is the peak of that skill? I think PC is the word apex that is required in order to do that. And to kind of boil this down to its essence as I understand it, having thought about it a bit more, how much skill is enough skill to prevent cognitive decline? Well, Tommy, it depends.

02:31 : So I might give a long answer, but hopefully I can give a takeaway here. It is something I’ve thought about quite a bit. It is something where the real answer is going to depend on many things, many of which will be specific to the person as well as to the specific skill that you’re talking about. So I’ll I’ll kind of walk through how I think about the answering this question in broad terms so that it’s be most useful and applicable to whatever scenario you’re you find yourself in or whatever skill it is.

03:04 : And it’s also something that we don’t, you know, scientifically know the exact answer to and may never be able to have an exact answer since it’s so contextual. But it’s also not something that has been formally studied in the way that, you know, we’re talking about here with a specific relationship to its impact on brain health. So just a little bit of context or background about why we care about this is that so with our demand coupling concept and the idea that demand coupling is what drives neurodegeneration, we think that cognitive stimulation is necessary in order to keep brain tissue healthy. So growth in repair doesn’t just happen on its own, but rather it happens because we ask for it by using a particular tissue.

03:50 : So in the brain that means that an absence of cognitive stimulation also leads to brain tissue deterioration. And I think the most powerful signal that we can send is a signal that promotes plastic reorganization or synaptic plasticity to allow us to acquire new knowledge and skills similar to muscular tissue the most powerful signal would be to grow, to expand your capabilities. And early life is this time of continuous plastic change because we are acquiring many different complex cognitive capabilities all at the same time.

04:27 : Early life also happens to be associated with very healthy, pristine brain tissue. So I think from this perspective, the early part of any learning process, the time we’re making the most progress, is also going to be associated with the greatest amount of plastic reorganization in the brain and thus the greatest benefits to brain tissue. So going from zero skill at having at something to having some skill is always going to be the most dramatic change both from the standpoint of the skill perspective and from the standpoint of what’s happening in the brain so if you think about something like learning to drive, you know in the beginning it’s totally overwhelming you’d never want to put a first time driver out on the road.

05:06 : There’s so many different things to think about, so many little micro skills that have yet become automated or learned and yet we ultimately reach this point where all of those skills are automated, they’ve all been learned and we can execute them without any conscious attention. So that early phase of learning in which you’re acquiring all those things is going to be associated with lots of plastic reorganization in the brain. In that early phase, you’re going to be driving plastic changes each time you spend some time behind the wheel. But once you’re an experienced driver, you know not nearly at all or not at all.

05:40 : There may be, you know, some benefits still to maintaining that ability, but we know it takes far less effort to maintain a capability than it does to acquire it, you know, hence the phrase it’s like riding a bike, right? And since growth and repair is coupled to the amount of stimulation, the early phases of learning a complex skill like driving are going to be associated with much greater benefits to brain tissue in this model. Now generally speaking, the more complex a skill, the longer the road to mastery, the longer that initial phase of learning is.

06:17 : So for example, if you wanted to learn how to flip a coin, you know, heads or tails, it’s not going to take me too long to learn that skill. And then once I’ve learned it, additional practice time is not really going to, you know, result in much skill improvement or additional change in the brain. Which those are really two sides of the same coin, pun entirely intended. So even you know, even ordinary driving doesn’t have a particularly long road to mastery compared to, you know, other complex skills. And once you’ve become a proficient driver, which doesn’t take a whole lot of time in the grand scheme of things, your skills aren’t going to change all that much as you know, add more experience.

07:01 : Unless you of course try in a new environment like a, you know, race car track. Playing a musical instrument, on the other hand, does have a very extended learning phase, and in fact you can spend a lifetime, you know, practicing every day and still have things that are that are still to learn then that’s one reason I think of it as the archetypal brain fitness activity. So if you’re optimizing your activities from a cognitive perspective entirely for their brain fitness value, then you’d want to be spending all of your time on those earlier phases of learning and then moving to something different once you’ve kind of exited that phase.

07:42 : And So what does that look like so imagine you’re playing piano and you’ve reached a you know, you’ve progressed steadily over the course of maybe two or three years, reaching a decent level of proficiency. And then as you ascend, you start to face this reality of increasingly diminishing returns on your practice efforts. You may have to practice, you know, twice 3 times 4 times as much for the to achieve the same amount of improvement that you did in the very beginning and at the various, various, at the very highest levels of mastery.

08:16 : You know, people are spending very large amounts of time, you know, making performance improvements that are imperceptible to most people. And so you can think of this, you know, like a curve in the beginning you have this fairly consistent linear growth phase and then it starts to become more logarithmic to eventually it’s almost getting flat. And you know, the further you within that curve to the more time you’re also spending just maintaining the capabilities that you’ve built. And so this is also likely the curve of the brain benefits of that activity. You reach this point of diminishing returns for brain tissue as well. So if you’re optimizing again for brain health, you don’t want to be spending a lot of time in that zone of diminishing returns.

09:01 : Now, of course, there are many other reasons why you might continue, you know, to do so, to continue to practice and be in that particular zone or to continue to try to progress, especially, you know, if you enjoy doing it or if it’s important for your career or whatever. It’s just probably not the best use of time if you’re optimizing for brain health. You know, in that case you want to move to some other complex skill where you’re completely, you know, unskilled or you’re a novice.

09:26 : And this also you know this isn’t a 0 sum game so you could you can continue to do the thing that you got good at while still adding something new and I think probably that for me is the more important takeaway here it’s that to be mindful of trying to always be engaged in some and learning something complex where you’re still in that early learning phase and making measurable progress. And quite possibly the ideal is to actually be engaged in multiple things that fit that description, you know, which would more closely replicate childhood. And again, This is why I like music so much for this, because there are endless opportunities for people to go back to being a beginner.

10:06 : You can learn a new style, a new technique, a new instrument, a new genre. And I mentioned, I’ve given a lot of thought to this question, especially as it pertains to music that’s kind of one of the central concepts behind the brain fitness aspect of the brain Joe Academy. And there are courses there that are kind of specifically designed to equip you with the foundational skills or get you to that point where things start to plateau. So the goal is to kind of get you to reap all the brain benefit rewards and then if you want to continue on beyond that great but you know that’s where you kind of that we’ve maximized it from the brain fitness standpoint.

10:48 : This podcast is brought to you by the Brain Joe Academy. The Brain Joe Academy provides brain boosting whole brain stimulation in the form of neuroscience based musical instruction designed for adult brains and with no prior musical experience required. Start your brain boosting musical journey today at Brain Joe dot Academy. So obviously when you get into that zone of diminishing returns is going to differ by activity. You know very soon for coin flipping much longer for music or dance or a skill sport maybe like tennis or baseball.

11:24 : But again, I think the simplest takeaway, the simplest way to know whether you’ve hit that zone is that your skills have started to plateau. And the caveat there being that sometimes that’s just because of ineffective practice methods, sometimes it’s because you just don’t know how to improve or you know what you need to work on so you’re still, there’s still the possibility of improving your capabilities and stimulating plastic change. It’s just that you don’t know how to go about it.

11:54 : And those are common reasons why folks plateau in music. In sports, You know, many people plateau even though there’s still a lot of room for improvement simply because they’ve hit a ceiling from bad habits or, you know, poor quality practice reinforcing bad habits. You see this a lot and like recreational, golf and tennis players who, you know, learn sort of a poor mechanics swing at the outset and then reinforce that over and over and have it find it hard to get out of that and so they habituate these poor mechanics.

12:24 : So even though it’s a great deal of room to improve and increase their skills, they don’t because it requires, you know going back to basics and figuring out how to how to do so they’ve plateaued a lot earlier than they could have in that particular endeavor. So if you are in a plateau, either figure out whether it’s a practice issue or move to another activity that puts you back into that zone of easy progress. And i think this is a good conversation to be having because it allows us to see learning new skills through an entirely different lens, one that kind of flips the frame in a couple of key ways.

13:03 : First is that we’re used to the, you know, viewing, being unskilled at something or a beginner as kind of the worst time yet this is, they know from the brains perspective, the time you’re greeting the greatest benefits. And number two, we’re also used to thinking that we should just try to get as good as we can at something, right? Like why would you do anything else? But we again, we see there that this is also not the best strategy if keeping healthy brain tissue is the goal. And I think one final thing worth mentioning is that there’s also evidence that plasticity itself is plastic, what’s been referred to as metoplasticity.

13:41 : So you know, there are a host of molecular mechanisms involved in rewiring synapses and the more you use those mechanisms, the more those genes are upregulated, you know, the easier it is for you to stimulate plasticity or to add new capabilities. So the more successful you are, you know, as you get older and learning new things. And this kind of phenomenon is seen all over the place in biology. So continuing to engage in novel complex learning may also make it much easier for you to continue to learn new and complex things as you get older, as you’re maintaining the capacity for plasticity in the 1st place.

14:23 : It’s also likely that our brain becomes less plastic if we’re not utilizing its capacity for plasticity. But we can also make it more plastic by engaging those mechanisms more and of course we think that’s a driving process in you know maintaining peak brain health over the course of our lifetime and preventing neurodegeneration. So yeah, the key takeaway there I think is the is the plateau concept in my opinion, right that’s very helpful. I think that gives people a framework to work with. But I do wonder can we UN you sort of touched on it but can we unpick that plaso thing a little more because there’s the there’s obviously the frustration of not being good enough for something or failure which can actually help drive.

15:22 : Plasticity we’ve talked about that a little bit in the past. So that’s so having some of that is obviously important so how do we make sure we get enough of that and we’re not just giving up because we’re frustrated. And then on the plateau side, are there, you know what strategies can we use to figure out what may be causing a plateau that’s not because we’re getting to the limit of the sort of linear benefit of practice so a coach or something else that you know some other resource you might do to be able to apply some diagnostics to our to our plateaus.

15:59 : Yeah, I think regarding the second question, yeah, that’s probably the most helpful is to have an outside resource to know is this plateau expected or is this premature, you know, is this something you know or is there something I could be doing to break through that particular plateau? And of course those things are going to be dependent on the skill. It’s also you know brings up the concept of actually like having a way of measuring and having some kind of feedback system to know if your capabilities right the great thing about this, you know plasticity being the key is that we have this easy metric which is we get better at something.

16:42 : So just knowing like what are the very various dimensions of that so one thing with respect to music is that people oftentimes sort of hyper focus on the technical aspects, which is 1 component you know, how do I move my fingers in a way that makes the instrument do what I want it to do. But there’s also the whole body of perceptual skills that are involved that we might refer to as ear training, which are huge and play a big part in skill development, but are oftentimes overlooked or not as well understood in terms of how they play into the skill and then how to develop them.

17:15 : And there’s also the whole body of conceptual knowledge about just how music works that is also another thing that’s learned and that contributes significantly to your ascension along the learning curve. So early on, it’s very easy to focus on the technical stuff. You’re getting better. You know, most people get plateau when that start, when those skills start to plateau and they don’t realize there’s this whole other body of things they can be, that they’re still kind of in the beginning phases of perceptual and conceptual skills that can be learned so that’s we’re having some kind of external system to raise your awareness of the things that you don’t know. Which is an easy thing to cause, cause an early plateau.

17:54 : And then the, you know, the frustration side. It’s kind of like the phenomenon of getting anxious before, you know, giving a talk or getting anxious before a game. There’s some level of that that’s actually helpful, right and we know that and there’s definitely some level that’s way too far and that I know undermines our performance overall i think that more often than not it it’s something that for people undermines them because of the all sorts of negative self talk around learning and what they should be capable of and you know, people think of if they’re not good at something, it’s a referendum on their ability, you know rather than that there’s plenty of room for them to improve.

18:34 : So this is one reason why I like trying to promote this reframing of learning, especially in the beginning as this is the time where you’re getting the greatest benefits and the more you’re struggling, the more those benefits, you know are accruing so provided provided you kind of it at that zone of proximal development where you’re kind of at the edges of your capability and you’re and you’re giving your the right level of challenge to stimulate plasticity and to you know improve or progress, right. Can we turn that into a sixty second reel to do over reel. Yeah, yeah fantastic i think that will give people some something to take home and chew on and if there’s any follow up questions on that, please do send them.

19:25 : Send them through That’s where to send them. And I will see you and everybody else next time thanks very much.