Gretchen Reynolds, Phys Ed columnist, learning to snowboard.
By GRETCHEN REYNOLDS
MARCH 2, 2016
Learning in midlife to juggle, swim, ride a bicycle or, in my case, snowboard could change and strengthen the brain in ways that practicing other familiar pursuits such as crossword puzzles or marathon training will not, according to an accumulating body of research about the unique impacts of motor learning on the brain.
When most of us consider learning and intelligence, we think of activities such as adding numbers, remembering names, writing poetry, learning a new language.
Such complex thinking generally is classified as “higher-order” cognition and results in activity within certain portions of the brain and promotes plasticity, or physical changes, in those areas. There is strong evidence that learning a second language as an adult, for instance, results in increased white matter in the parts of the brain known to be involved in language processing.
Regular exercise likewise changes the brain, as I frequently have written, with studies in animals showing that running and other types of physical activities increase the number of new brain cells created in parts of the brain that are integral to memory and thinking.
But the impacts of learning on one of the most primal portions of the brain have been surprisingly underappreciated, both scientifically and outside the lab. Most of us pay little attention to our motor cortex, which controls how well we can move.
“We have a tendency to admire motor skills,” said Dr. John Krakauer, a professor of neurology and director of the Center for the Study of Motor Learning and Brain Repair at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. We like watching athletes in action, he said. But most of us make little effort to hone our motor skills in adulthood, and very few of us try to expand them by, for instance, learning a new sport.
We could be short-changing our brains.
Past neurological studies in people have shown that learning a new physical skill in adulthood, such as juggling, leads to increases in the volume of gray matter in parts of the brain related to movement control.
Even more compelling, a 2014 study with mice found that when the mice were introduced to a complicated type of running wheel, in which the rungs were irregularly spaced so that the animals had to learn a new, stutter-step type of running, their brains changed significantly. Learning to use these new wheels led to increased myelination of neurons in the animals’ motor cortexes. Myelination is the process by which parts of a brain cell are insulated, so that the messages between neurons can proceed more quickly and smoothly.
Scientists once believed that myelination in the brain occurs almost exclusively during infancy and childhood and then slows or halts altogether.
But the animals running on the oddball wheels showed notable increases in the myelination of the neurons in their motor cortex even though they were adults.
At the same time, other animals that simply ran on normal wheels for the same period of time showed no increase in myelination afterward.
In other words, learning the new skill had changed the inner workings of the adult animals’ motor cortexes; practicing a well-mastered one had not.
“We don’t know” whether comparable changes occur within the brains of grown people who take up a new sport or physical skill, Dr. Krakauer said. But it seems likely, he said. “Motor skills are as cognitively challenging” in their way as traditional brainteasers such as crossword puzzles or brain-training games, he said. So adding a new sport to your repertory should have salutary effects on your brain, and also, unlike computer-based games, provide all the physical benefits of exercise.
These considerations cheered me a few weeks ago when I took to the slopes of my local mountain for a weekend-long crash course in snowboarding. (Crashing, regrettably, is inevitable while learning to shred.) I had wondered if I might be too advanced in years and hardened in the habits of skiing to learn to ride. But the experience was in fact exhilarating and glorious. Learning a new sport or skill when you are old enough to be a parent to your instructor is psychologically uplifting, as well as beneficial for the body and brain. It reminds you that your body can still respond, that it can still yearn for movement and speed.
By the end of the second day, I attempted my first moguls on a snowboard and completed precisely one turn before auguring hindside into the slope and slipping and picking my way down the rest of the run. But one mogul turn was 100 percent more than I had managed before. I now aim to return to the mountain and double that number to two turns, which is how we learn and progress and, with luck, change our minds — both literally and about our limits.