Deliberate practice rewires the brain

The long-game of routine

This week I read The Brain’s Way of Healing: Remarkable Discoveries and Recoveries from the Frontiers of Neuroplasticity by Norman Doidge (Goodreads), which tl;dr not only reinforces the mind-is-body link — your mood, right now, is the shuddering of neurons — but that you can train your brain for a desired mood.

Connections in the mind strengthen or weaken with use or disuse, in the same way your muscles atrophy as a thirty-something who doesn’t get out as often as they should (ahem). Norman Doidge writes about the extremes: training to reduce the tremors of advanced Parkinsons, or focusing on alternative sensations during times of chronic pain to decouple the connection your brain’s made between — say — moving your arm and the sense of hurt. But neuroplasticity applies to emotion and reaction, too - or even creativity.

Doidge often makes the point that these recoveries take months or even years of deliberate practice, which is something I’ve written a number of times about here. “Deliberate practice” refers to specific training designed to improve a metric. It’s the difference in training between going for a run regularly, which is healthy and a great habit, versus going for a run to increase your personal record. In design work, we are in a state of “deliberate practice” when learning a new programming language or a new technique.

Journaling being a foundational practice to the practice of Stoicism is such because it is, in fact, practice. The tenets are unconventional and uncomfortable: it’s weird to not only contemplate mortality but use that as a measure for prioritization. But, you do it long enough — through journaling, or blogging — and such prioritization comes easy - with practice. We start exploring Stoicism as a suite of practices to reduce the noise endemic to a neurotic industry, but we have to go through the motions.

It’s getting through this grind where the value of routine becomes apparent. Routine — setting and keeping to consistent schedules — that incorporates deliberate practice makes the wait for results less grueling by transforming that practice into a habit. If you want to think differently you have to practice thinking differently. This is easier done if it’s on the calendar.

For me, these insights we’re gaining about the neuroplasticity of the brain is a comfort. We can train thinking the same way we can train a skill. If Stoicism is about recognizing, accepting, and letting-go of what isn’t in your control (most things), the Venn Diagram of what is seems to be getting bigger.

Craft virtuously.

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Remember that design is not art, but a practice.

Michael Schofield