The Endurance of Learning

By October 9, 2016 December 9th, 2016 Exercise, Lifestyle & Stress

Continually adding to your brain’s database of knowledge and activities is the key to ongoing human performance.

Most of us are familiar with the old saying: “The more you know, the more you realize how much you don’t know.” While some may find this notion discouraging, those who are interested in improving their health and fitness — both mentally and physically — approach this as a challenge to keep on learning throughout their lives.

Lifelong learning is really an endurance activity, much like running a marathon or tackling an Ironman triathlon. There are many parallels between the physical and the mental, and they are also very closely linked.

Transitioning from the physical, biochemical and mental-emotional aspects of track and field to running a marathon, for example, is not easy. I did this years ago, but not without a long and steep learning curve. In fact, I’ve made very similar transitions throughout my life, as has every one of us. This is the process we call learning, an amazing capability of the human brain — something we do better than any other animal — from before birth for as long as we choose to continue to actively seek knowledge.

When horses are born, they immediately stand up and start running around, a bit wobbly at first but quickly, within minutes, becoming graceful. Humans, on the other hand, take many clumsy months to learn running, having to go through the long painful process of creeping and crawling, standing without falling over, then walking. This difference between horses and humans is within the brain. So much “energy” is directed to our complex brain in preparation for our brave new world, even before birth, that there is too little left to devote to neuromuscular mechanisms, like those that allow horses to jump right up, run and bounce around in circles. 

After years of neuromuscular development, we move well enough to obtain an amazing number of motions using strength, speed, endurance, precision and various combinations. That is, only if the brain learns them, just like when developing our first steps. It’s a process that combines conscious and subconscious activity.

We’ve all heard the learning-related buzzwords: patience, time, repetition. These provide us with actions such as walking and running, which in turn also help the brain become more proficient. The end result is improved human performance — a survival mechanism that has evolved within us over millions of years. 

The result, for each of us, is also that we, for example, eventually type faster without mistakes. When we do mess up, we may sense our brain knowing that a mistake is about to happen. Yet we can’t stop the process because the neuromuscular system can’t head off lightning-fast messages that are about to control the mistake-oriented finger movements. Similarly with running if we go longer, faster, harder, and too often, the brain should tap us on the shoulder and say, too much. But too often this is not the case.

The reverse is also true. With a massive amount of sensory information coming into the brain from the body’s muscles, ligaments, joints and skin (to name a few locations), the data is crunched leading to the brain, which directs carefully calculated body movements from its motor centers. These actions don’t repeat now and then, or even every second, but are essentially continuous in both directions. It’s how the brain is so precise and through learning can be nearly perfect, the origin of muscle memory.

This process of learning physical activities involves the brain’s sensory and motor cortex, which help control optimal muscle movements. This explains why the sensation of pain is actually an emotion rather than a sense like sight or hearing. This is the brain’s reaction both to discomfort cause by trauma as well as overdoing it.

Let’s back up to typing as an example, which actually is a good analogy to running. Many of us can remember first learning how to type.

Think about the first time you started typing, learning it in a class, from an online game or just on your own. This learning process is particularly relevant when truly typing with all fingers, not just pecking with only your index fingers. First your brain had to focus on keeping each finger on specific keys, then process how to bring them back after hitting keys other than the ones they were on. It was more than multitasking and a new activity for the brain. 

Among the brain’s tasks is scanning the combined keyboard and finger actions while peeking at the paper or screen to see how many mistakes could be made in a short single sentence. Perhaps the auditory stress was a bit overwhelming, especially if you used a clacking typewriter (some of you have only seen those in movies). Moving the index finger and thumb are easiest for the brain, but those other fingers lag behind the learning curve, and we don’t progress well until they catch up.

We quickly learn how the minimalist movements, including those little pinkies, can cause fatigue. We don’t feel this fatigue throughout the body, unless we have really sensitive brains. But it shows in reduced performance — we lose accuracy unless we keep slowing down even more than usual. No wonder many people resort to index-finger typing.

If we’re not careful, we may not recover quickly enough before our next typing workout. This can lead to clumsy typing. Yes, fatigue builds up in the muscles over time, especially in those just learning since there is still a lack of endurance. But people who type a lot potentially can experience muscle-weakening fatigue and not recover to the point of creating an impairment, such as carpel tunnel syndrome (a sometime serious condition that includes chronic inflammation, pain and reduced finger function) in those using all their fingers, or, in the case of index-finger typing, fatigue in the elbows or shoulders that could lead to vague chronic discomfort or pain. Runners can relate to these kinds of injuries in their more vulnerable areas.

Those who learn to type well generally do so by taking the time so the brain can learn to build better endurance, leading to less injury and better performance. All this typing takes time to learn it well. If we don’t really learn to type well, we are slower and less proficient at the game. The same is true for running or any endurance activity.

In a race, the brain knows the distance remaining all along the course, it knows the levels of fuel, oxygen status and other factors important for not only finishing the race but accomplishing that without sacrificing the body. We could even compare our endurance to the horse that could walk at a much younger age than us — humans with a good aerobic system could actually outrun a horse over long distances and under certain environmental conditions.

Likewise, and on a larger scale, the brain is adapted toward learning itself as an endurance activity. We are never too old to learn something new. Picking up a new intellectual activity such as learning a musical instrument, trying a new sport, taking a physics class or learning to paint landscapes are just some of the many activities we can do at virtually any age so long as we stay healthy and active.

Of course a big part of this learning is dependent on good nutrition. Energy is needed for all this activity, along with tasks such as the heart and circulation, eye-hand coordination, along with a variety of other brain functions such as language. All these mechanisms require fuel, which of course comes primarily from sugar (glucose) and fat (especially ketone bodies), with protein making a smaller contribution. Other micronutrients — vitamins, phytonutrients and minerals — are also very important for optimal brain function and learning.

Learning is a complex and lifelong endurance process. For those of us in it for the long haul, it makes sense to exercise this capability within each of our brains regularly, just as we would make the effort to train or work out for competition or fitness. Continually stimulating the brain’s natural ability to learn helps us to achieve higher levels of human performance throughout our lives.

3 Comments

  • It would be interesting to see the changes the brain undergoes while endurance training.
    A scan of the brain regions that light up during running and how those regions correlate with other bodily functions.
    The typing example was a good analogy on how the brain learns and copes with stress.
    Otherwise good article

  • Brian Donovan says:

    Very good posting, Phil. I would suggest that, for many people, learning is quite unnatural following years of schooling, and the notion that we only learn within school, or other official learning, settings. Nothing could be further than the truth. If we are not open to learning virtually all the time, there is something wrong with us!
    I lecture teachers in university, and find that more and more either refuse, or have lost the explicit ability, to think in any meaningful and deep way. Of course, how can I be surprised? Society almost completely dismisses any real thinking.
    I get the feeling you posting here is really suggesting that our minds are as essential to health and fitness as our physical bodies.
    Keep up the great posting!

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