In the video I told you about a couple weeks ago, a friend of mine (his name is “Angel Vigil” — no kidding) describes my workout routine as “his own self-invented alternative treatment to keep the nerves and his muscles and everything working as long as he can, and fight the progressive, debilitating nature of MS.”
Angel didn’t know it, but he was summarizing two neurological concepts that underlie what I’m doing. The first is neuroplasticity: our brains rewire themselves when we learn. The second is myelination: if we use those new neural pathways often, our brains coat them with a substance called myelin, which acts as a learning and skill development supercharger.
Developmental molecular biologist John Medina describes neuroplasticity this way in his book Brain Rules:
Eric Kandel is the scientist mostly responsible for figuring out the cellular basis of [the process of how the brain learns]. For it, he shared the Nobel Prize in 2000… Kandel showed that when people learn something, the wiring in their brain changes. He demonstrated that acquiring even simple pieces of information involves the physical alteration of the structure of the neurons participating in the process. Taken broadly, these physical changes result in the functional organization and reorganization of the brain. This is astonishing. The brain is constantly learning things, so the brain is constantly rewiring itself.
Drawing on cutting-edge neurology and firsthand research gathered on journeys to nine of the world’s talent hotbeds—from the baseball fields of the Caribbean to a classical-music academy in upstate New York—Coyle identifies the three key elements that will allow you to develop your gifts and optimize your performance in sports, art, music, math, or just about anything.
These three elements work together within your brain to form myelin, a microscopic neural substance that adds vast amounts of speed and accuracy to your movements and thoughts. Scientists have discovered that myelin might just be the holy grail: the foundation of all forms of greatness, from Michelangelo’s to Michael Jordan’s. The good news about myelin is that it isn’t fixed at birth; to the contrary, it grows, and like anything that grows, it can be cultivated and nourished.
Put neuroplasticity and myelination together, and you’ve got brain flubber. Both are at work in our brains all the time, whether we know it or not. My approach is to harness them consciously and intentionally. Technically, what I’m after is re-myelination — when damaged neural pathways get rebuilt. I need that because MS has a destructive effect on — you guessed it — myelin. Therefore, in neuroscience terms, my exercise routine is an attempt to use neuroplasticity and re-myelination to restore my MS-damaged neuro-pathways.
Just like Angel said.
I didn’t know any of this three years ago when I began my “self-invented alternative treatment.” I just had an idea. Turns out I got the idea about the time neuroscientists were hot on the myelin trail. Apparently I somehow got on somebody’s memo routing list.
Now that I do know about these things, I have a new goal in life: to become a lab rat.
More on that next time.