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Nate’s Notes 5: Making Myelin

By March 1, 2021June 8th, 2023No Comments

Our brains are full of billions of neurons which are connected to each other by synapses. Whenever we do anything, like talk, read, or walk, our brain is sending small electrical signals down these neurons to our muscles. In other words, every thought, feeling, or movement is a precisely timed electrical signal traveling through a circuit of nerve fibers. The electrical signals, traveling through circuits, then determine the timing and the strength of each muscle contraction. However, these electrical signals can leak out, making the signal weaker and slower. Which brings us to myelin. Myelin insulates these circuits, preventing leakage. In other words, myelin acts the same way for our nerves that rubber insulation acts for copper wires. Myelin makes the signal faster, stronger, and more precise by preventing the electrical signal from leaking out. A leaky, unreliable circuit means a slower, unreliable movement, whereas an insulated, reliable circuit means a faster reliable movement.

And here’s the key: every time we practice something, like reading, like math, or like swinging a golf club, a new layer of myelin is added to the neural circuit. The more we practice a specific behavior, the thicker the myelin gets, the more insulated the circuit becomes, and the faster and more precise our thoughts and movements become. In other words, each additional layer of myelin adds a little more speed and skill, and this is true of both mental and physical skills. So, when coaches talk about developing muscle memory, they are really talking about mylinating more circuits. And fortunately, we can all grow myelin, though it grows much faster in children than it does in adults. Perhaps this is primary reason why it can be difficult to teach an old dog new tricks as they say.

But this all leads to a question, How much do we need to practice a specific behavior if we want to master it?” The short answer is that the more we practice, the more myelin we grow, and therefore the greater our mastery.

Researchers studying elite Brazilian soccer players found that many grew up playing a specific type of soccer called Futsal. Futsal is played on a very small field, rather than a large field, allowing players to constantly kick the ball…6 times more often than they would on a large field. In fact, many professional Brazilian players never even play on a large grass field until their teenage years. The compressed field increases the number of repetitions, therefore increasing the amount of myelin. We can see the same pattern in babies: the key predictor of whether a baby can walk is how much time the baby spends trying to walk. Whereas a horse is born with myelinated circuits and can walk when it’s born, a baby must develop myelin through practice.

But what if we want to become world class? How much practice is required for that? Research conducted by Anders Ericsson found that world class performers in chess, violin, and math, practiced 3-5 hours per day, for 7-11 years, or approximately for 10,000 hours. This finding matches what researchers know about the Bronte Sisters, Charlotte and Anne, who have been called the world’s greatest literary sisters. While they are famous for their books such as Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and the Tenant of Wildfell Hall, few people have read the Brontes’ childhood writings, in large part because the writings aren’t that good. As children, the Bronte sisters spent 1000s of hours writing 1000s of pages in homemade books. In other words, they spent 1000s of hours developing myelin and improving their skill, which allowed them to each write masterpieces later in life. Again, practice makes myelin. Sure, some people are naturally more gifted than others, but it’s hard to overstate the importance of practice and hard work. Michelangelo understood this point when he said, “If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery it would not seem so wonderful at all.”

Practice and hard work are crucial to developing myelin, but not all practice is created equal. Practicing soccer on a large field is not nearly as beneficial as practicing soccer on a compressed field. But not only do we want to increase the number of reps, we also want to rep the best reps…what researchers call deep practice.

I use a simple example to demonstrate deep practice to my students when I present them with two lists of words, and I ask them to memorize as many words as they can from each list. However, on one list of words, the words are missing a single letter, forcing the students to spend an extra moment figuring out what the word is. This extra moment of struggle helps the students remember more words from that list. The students aren’t necessarily practicing harder, but they are practicing deeper. Deep practice has been defined as practicing at the edge of our ability, aiming for targets just out of reach, while embracing attentive repetition.

I learned about deep practice while playing football in college. Up to that point, I had always played running back, but in college, I realized that I was better suited to play wide receiver. However, there was a major problem: I could not reliably catch the ball. In fact, I distinctly remember one practice, where I got open over and over again. The quarterback threw me the ball over and over again. And I dropped the ball, over and over again, at least 5 – 7 times in a single practice session.

A coach suggested I practice catching tennis balls shot rapid fire out of a machine. For the first few sessions, I dropped way more balls than I caught. I was at the edge of my ability. But over the course of several months, and after thousands and thousands of reps, I improved. I learned that to catch the tennis ball, I had to absorb the ball as if it were an egg, and watch the ball all the way into my hands. I developed new habits as the myelin in my brain grew, and soon catching a much larger football, traveling at a much slower speed, became infinitely easier by comparison. For my final two years of college I played wide receiver and caught every single pass thrown to me—every pass except one—a pass that came moments after I had suffered a minor concussion. Not only had I practiced a lot, but I had also practiced better, at the edge of my ability. Practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice makes myelin. And perfect practice makes more myelin. And then Myelin makes perfect.

Finally, anytime you are trying to develop a new skill, find someone that you want to be like, and stare at them. Stare at the person you most want to become, and then do what they do. By doing what they do, you will grow myelin the same way they did. No need to reinvent the wheel each time we want to succeed at something. In the words of Picasso, “Good artists borrow. Great artists steal.” As we grow more myelin, we will also learn important truth: if the person we’re staring at can be successful, so can we.

So in summary, if you want to excel, you need to practice. You need to practice a lot. You need to practice at the edge of your ability. And all the while, stare at those you want to become. The more you do those things, the more myelin you will grow, the more myelin you will earn. Myelin is the key.

It’s a simple idea. Please take it seriously.

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