We’ve all heard of sayings like ‘practice makes perfect’ when learning new skills and ‘sleep on it’ when we’ve been struggling with a problem or a difficult decision, but it turns out there really is a lot of truth to both of these statements.
LEARNING TO JUGGLE.
It’s long been known that practising a new skill allows for the building and strengthening of the neural pathways required for that skill. For example, someone learning to juggle will obviously need to practise their new skill and this repetition will first build and then strengthen the neural connections needed for efficient muscular movement of the arms and hands as well as the visual and tactile feedback required to perform the skill successfully.
It turns out however, that this is only half the picture as it’s just as important for our brains to prune old and unused neural connections through ‘synaptic pruning’ to make room for the new connections. If we consider our brain to be a garden where synaptic connections are the flowers of choice, its our glial cells that toil away as gardeners. By doing so they help to improve signalling between certain neurons whilst others prune away at the weeds of unwanted and unused connections to make way for new growth.
Its this latter ‘weeding’ mechanism that researchers are beginning to understand by establishing that little used connections are marked by a protein, C1q, that tells the glial cells to get rid of it. This allows the physical space for new connections, allowing you to learn new skills. Most importantly however, is the discovery that sleep plays a crucial role in allowing this process to take place.
WHATEVER THE PROBLEM, JUST SLEEP ON IT.
Sleep allows the brain to organise the often adhoc, inefficient connections that our brains cobble together. Without sleep, our brains remain a jumble of confusion that isn’t likely to help us work through life’s daily challenges. Whilst we’re asleep, the brain allows the gardeners to get to work at streamlining and pruning and it does this by shrinking the brain cells by up to 60% to allow the glial cells in to do their work.
So not only does sleep allow our brain to streamline and reinforce those new and well used connections that come with learning a new skill, it also removes the unnecessary connections to clear our mind from clutter and thereby allowing us to think a little more clearly after a good nights sleep. Crucially, without enough sleep we are depriving our brains of the opportunity to clean up, which can leave us struggling to learn new information and leave us confused and unable to think straight.
There is some good news though for those that struggle to get enough sleep, as it turns out that ‘power naps’ of 10 to 20 mins can also be enough to allow the glial cells the change to get in and do their thing.
BEING MINDFUL OF WHAT WE’RE BEING MINDFUL OF.
There is also evidence to suggest that we can have some say in what our brain deletes whilst we sleep. It is after all the unused connections that are marked for deletion whilst the used ones are nurtured and reinforced. This highlights the importance of being mindful of our thoughts as it can influence what goes and what stays.
If we spend too much time pondering on negative thoughts and doubts and constantly spiralling with anxious worry, then these are likely to be reinforced as we sleep. Instead, we could be more mindful to think more about our coping mechanisms, new skills and lessons learned at work or school whilst remaining positive even when we don’t actually feel that way. If we can so that, then it may be possible to slowly strengthen those connections instead and thereby learn to be the masters of the garden that is our brain.
If you want to know more about spring cleaning your mind, ask Clarence;