Redesign my Brain: Neuroplasticity or Practice Effect?

October 14, 2013 | By | 2 Comments

ABC television recently caught the imagination of 865,000 viewers with the first of a three-part series called Redesign My Brain with Todd Sampson.  Viewers learnt that Todd’s remarkable performance improvement, in tasks ranging from ‘attentional blink’ to juggling, could be attributed to ‘neuroplasticity’ – the process by which neural synapses are formed, organized and pruned.  But a more likely, but less glamorous, explanation for Todd’s achievements can be found in a widely studied phenomena known as practice effect1.  Unfortunately, such efforts to popularize neuroscience, described by some as ‘neuromania’2, oversimplify a number of complex relationships.

For example, performance on any mental or physical task is influenced by more than just knowledge, skill and ability.  Individual goals, motivation and emotional state can have a noticeable effect on performance3.  The perceptive viewer might have noticed that Todd was repeatedly worried about his performance on these tasks.  His ‘fear of failure’ or anxiety would have accounted for his inconsistent performance initially.  However, after practice, he became more familiar and confident such that his performance improved.  Neuroplasticity didn’t cause this performance improvement –regular practice did!

Whilst neuroimaging technology, such as fMRI, can measure neural activity, this data alone doesn’t explain what causes an improvement in performance – it simply identifies which neural networks ‘light up’.  This is like trying to explain what’s causing a car to move by simply observing that the wheels are turning.  Cognitive neuroscience shows that brain structures actually change in response to experience4.  Hence, performance improvement relies on repeated experiences (i.e., practice).  But practice must be directly relevant to the desired performance.  So, if you want to improve your juggling then practice juggling.  But don’t expect juggling, or memory tests, to improve non-related performance (e.g., leadership) as the program suggests.

To better explain complex social performance like leadership requires a much deeper understanding of neuroscience than neuroplasticity alone.  For example, self-regulation describes the ability to set realistic goals while monitoring and correcting performance.  Neurocognitive studies show that performance failures occurs when anxiety, fear or anger interfere with our ability to regulate our thoughts, emotions and behaviours5.  This is likely to occur when we face difficult, challenging or stressful situations – just as Todd Sampson did.  Performance often improves because practice makes us feel less anxious, uncertain or frustrated and more focussed and confident.

I will be presenting my latest research paper: A neurocognitive theory of self-regulation, emotion and leadership behaviour at the Australian Conference for Personality and Individual Differences (ACPID) in Brisbane on the 22nd of November 2013.

  1. M. C. Salinsky, D. Storzbach, C. B. Dodrill and L. M. Binder, Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society 7 (5), 597-605 (2001).
  2. R. Tallis, Aping mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis, and the misrepresentation of humanity. (Acumen Publishers, UK, 2011).
  3. M. S. Humphreys and W. Revelle, Psychological Review 91 (2), 153-184 (1984).
  4. A. M. C. Kelly and H. Garavan, Cerebral Cortex 15 (8), 1089-1102 (2005).
  5. D. G. MacCoon, J. F. Wallace and J. P. Newman, in Handbook of Self-Regulation Research, edited by R. F. Baumeister and K. D. Vohs (Guilford Press, New York, 2004), pp. 422-444.


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Comments (2)

  1. Shanta Gerbi

    Maybe I’ve been watching ‘The Gruen Transfer’ for too many years but does Redesign My Brain not look exactly like what a really great marketing guy like Todd Sampson might come up with if asked to market BrainHQ subscriptions?

    • Hi Shanta
      As the EI person on Episode 3 and having some more behind the scenes knowledge, the credit for the show should go to Paul, the producer. It was his idea and he approached Todd – nothing to do with BrainHQ at the time. It was a great show and it was an honour to be invited as the EI world expert. It was fun to make and Paul is a visionary in what and why he created it.
      Hope you enjoyed it.

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