Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Cross-Train Your Brain!

An article in the Nov.6 Fortune Magazine highlights some very interesting research on the brain's ability to learn skills faster through cross-training rather than through repetitive practice on just one skill. Senior Fortune writer Jerry Useem and Jia Lynn Jang write about Dr. Rachael Seidler's research and J. Cog Neuroscience article.

Traditionally, we have believed that to be good or even expert at a particular skill or activity, we must learn skills specifically related to that activity. Dr. Seidler hypothesized that learning skills across several activities could quicken learning and increase overall expertise. She in fact found that subjects exposed to multiple visuomotor skills (compared to a group that focused on acquiring just one skill) were able to transfer skills and parts of skills to acquire new skills more quickly than the other group. In other words, more experience helped create more neural connections and helped make learning faster for those who "cross-trained." They were able to transfer all or parts of skills they knew to learn new skills so they could not only learn them faster but move to higher levels of expertise more quickly.

The authors go on to give fascinating examples of well-known personalities who "cross-trained" in multiple areas and became expert in multiple skills, using experience in one area to apply to others for quicker learning. A couple of examples: Leonardo da Vinci--architect, painter, sculptor, inventor, mathematician, anatomist; Gordon Parks: Life Photographer, Director of Shaft, author, musician. And Condi Rice--diplomat, university professor and administrator, concert-level pianist who plays with Yo-Yo Ma in her spare time.

Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was asked to relate his undergraduate training in nuclear propulsion systems to what he's doing today: "I'm not applying those exact skills every day, but it taught me ways to think through problems--visualizing, conceptualizing--that I do use every day. Your mind touches on these resources and you're not even aware of it."

My take-away from these findings: the hypothesis of cognitive reserve makes more and more sense. Cross-training on multiple cognitive skills aids new learning, builds on the brain's experience, and creates new pathways and connections that can in fact build a mental savings account. Cross-training our brains can only help mental agility over time--cha-ching, cha-ching, cha-ching in that savings account upstairs. As this article points out, "The more varied our skills. . . the more varied the neural pathways in use."

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