Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Talent Code

I have just finished reading Daniel Coyle's 'The Talent Code'. It adds some biology to the idea that 'you are what you do' and '(deep) practice makes perfect'. It is no revelation that our brains are plastic and can adapt throughout life - but Coyle digs a little deeper.

Myelin is a waxy substance that can be prompted to insulate neural networks. The significance of this is that:
  1. All human thought and deed is simply an electrical pulse between neurons,
  2. Myelin wraps around these circuits, the insulating effect of which is to boost signal "strength, speed and accuracy",
  3. Increased firing of a circuit promotes myelination of that circuit and so it fires with increased efficiency and fluidity.
This manifests as 'skill'. The general idea is to engage with 'deep practice' - which is driven by passion and persistence, but which is 'mistake focused' - a situation where you push yourself to the borderline of your ability, where mistakes will occur, but at a point where you can self-correct. The challenging nature of this approach, the novelty of random error, forces us to learn, prompting myelination which makes us remember.

Broadly, Coyle advises us to:
  1. Break the skill up in to manageable chunks, and,
  2. Repeat.
As electrical impulses are sent down the nerve fibres, the chain of fibres is wrapped in myelin. This process of myelination is paramount. It insulates this neural circuit and optimises the impulse:
  • "Neural traffic...with myelin's help [can] accelerate to two hundred miles and hour. The refactory time (the wait required between one signal and the next), decreases by a factor of 30"
The combined effect of this is "...to boost overall information-processing capability by 3000 times". He goes on to note that "...myelin has the capacity to regulate velocity, speeding or occasionally even slowing signals to they hit synapses at the optimal time".
Finally, Coyle gives us the four fundamentals of myelin:
  1. The firing of a circuit is paramount. Myelin responds to the 'urgent-firing' of electrical impulses along a circuit.
  2. Myelin is universal. It doesn't care what you are doing, it responds to what you do! Coyle describes it as 'meritocratic'. Those circuits fired most get priority myelination. (Those of you inclined to watch soap operas or daytime talk-shows on TV for large amounts of your time might want to reflect upon this!)
  3. Myelin wraps - it doesn't unwrap. This is why habits are hard to break! Myelinating a new habit will change behaviour! Only disease or aging removes myelin.
  4. Age matters. We net-gain myelin until about 50 years of age (although after this time we can still myelinate).
Fascinating subject.

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