Brain Training in Sports – Bragging Helps Us Learn

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“Bragging gives the same sensation of pleasure as food and money”.

Using special imaging of brain, Harvard neuroscientists demonstrated that self disclosure increases activity of the meso-limbic dopamine system. This system is the same system that is associated with the sense of reward or satisfaction from food, money or sex. So essentially, talking about ourselves, sharing our thoughts and feelings makes us feel good.

Now, it is not just about feeling good! That dopamine pathway is key to a lot of other functions including learning (associative and procedural), working memory (prefrontal cortex function) and attention. According to Bruce Dobkin, M.D. in “The Clinical Science of Neurologic Rehabilitation”, “dopaminergic projections from the ventral tegmental tract relate a reward to the cognitive effort, which reinforces associative learning.” Essentially, when this reward pathway is “fired” after a given event there is an increase in learning.

Now, when we are learning something new our “reward” is unpredictable which increases the dopaminergic output. Predictable response decreases learning. With this in mind, and thinking about how we can apply this to learning, should we praise consistently, and constantly? Should we always be saying “wow, you did great!” no matter what? Is this predictable response impairing their learning?

Our ability to attend and block out background noise, or control specific motor pathways is a function of, or influenced by, the ventral tegmental area (VTA) and its dopaminergic projections. Dr. Dobkin points out that it “rewards attention to what is significant or surprising”. Learning or “long term potentiation, LTP” is modulated by dopamine. This is particularly true of the neuronal branches or “dendrites” in the frontal cortex. As noted above, it does this by enhancing the salience of a task.

Our brains have general pathways that excite a lot of areas of brain and specific pathways for specific expression or tasks. In order for us to focus on a task (e.g. decrease all the surrounding noise and listen to person we are speaking with) or for us to execute a specific motor task associated with an action while inhibiting surrounding muscles (e.g. finger position for a specific pitch, kicking a ball, taking a jump shot) this VTA pathway must be functioning appropriately.

So we know the importance of the VTA and dopaminergic pathways to learning, attention and motor function. How do we potentially apply this knowledge to our benefit, to our children’s benefit, to coaching or training? When we talk about certain areas of brain being involved or of benefit with a specific task or function, the questions to ask are: “How do we activate these areas?” “What drives these areas?” “Who are the players within the system that need to be engaged, that is, what pools of neurons fire into this VTA and can drive it?”

The VTA is in the midbrain, or mesencephalon. It has projections that connect into motor areas, emotional areas and cognitive areas of brain. One of the very important areas of brain that drives the VTA is the cerebellum. Yes, that is correct, the structure that we think of as being related only to balance, drives the VTA and its dopaminergic influence on learning, motivation, motor function and more.

So one massive input into the VTA and consequently the dopaminergics system, is the cerebellum. A lack of coordination and balance is directly influential on the ability to learn, to attend, to think. It is for this reason that deficits of cerebellar functions like balance and motor coordination are associated with learning disabilities like ADHD. The integrity and level of function of the cerebellum can be evaluated and exercised or trained to drive this all important VTA pathway.

What about a top down influence on the VTA? Let’s go back to the beginning of this blog and remember that talking about ourselves, expressing our thoughts and feelings drives this VTA, dopamine system. With this in mind, perhaps we can come up with creative ideas to drive this reward pathway. Maybe, letting our kids brag about themselves and what they did or accomplished in the practice or game is a good idea. Maybe we also need to consider the predictability nature of our praise? My goal is to take information like this and apply it in my MVP program. The goal than would be to apply strategies for dopaminergic activation to help drive the procedural and associative learning associated with skill acquisition and retention.

BRAIN TIP: Let your kids talk about themselves, their thoughts and feelings, to their hearts content.

QUESTION: Do we over praise, not praise enough? Is there a balance?

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