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Unleashing Your Brain's Full Potential


Want to reach your full potential with any skill and in any field of human endeavor? Practice, practice, practice. Whether considering sports, musical instruments, or academic lessons in the classroom, most people believe that getting better at anything requires practice. The overwhelming majority of people are aware of the concepts of practicing to train a craft or practicing to train your body’s physical performance. But increasingly, we are focusing on the importance of practice to train the mind, brain, and overall nervous system. Increasingly, scientific research reveals that neurological function may be the most critical influencer of a person's performance. Neurological approaches to performance and the benefits of exercise on neurological function are significant factors contributing to a person's peak performance athletically, academically, and professionally – across the lifespan. In a nutshell, your brain has the capacity, power, and potential to make you better – at just about anything in life. And it, too, responds to training and practice.

Teaching people, especially athletes, how to assess and train our vision, balance, proprioception, focus, concentration, reaction time, and other neurological functions and skills to optimize performance can be a literal game changer. For example, you’re a baseball player who wants to improve your batting average. Conventional wisdom and historically applied training practices might suggest that you engage in repetitive batting practice, as often as possible, to improve performance at the plate. But what if your swing is like Mike Trout’s, mechanically speaking, yet you can't seem to make appreciable improvements in your hitting performance? As former Oakland Athletics’ General Manager Billy Beane once said in the movie Money Ball: “If he’s a good hitter, why doesn’t he hit good?” Or worse, what if all that repetitive movement in practice results in an overuse injury that confines you to the dugout for the rest of the season?

Applying a neurological approach to performance improvement in the above scenario can make a critical difference. Taking the hitting performance factor into consideration, a sports neurologist might test and evaluate a baseball player’s is their "sports vision", speed of mental processing, and ability to more and more quickly and accurately recognize what pitch is coming (forms of pattern recognition). At a basic level, Sports Vision includes how well athletes can focus on and visually track a ball as it moves in space, their hand-eye coordination, depth perception, peripheral awareness, and more. Once these skills are evaluated in isolation, a sports neurologist can help an athlete understand where some skills might be lacking – and can point players in the right direction for homing in on training cognitive endurance, reaction times, and “chunking” information on subtle aspects of a pitcher’s body movements, arm position, and release points that improves the player’s ability to better predict what pitch is coming and where. In short, this baseball player's success at the plate may have nothing to do with his physical ability or body mechanics. It might be neurological contributions to hitting, like his eyes (which connect to his brain), and aspects of cognitive function that need the training tweaks or improvements. With this knowledge and understanding, athletes can realize the performance benefits of neurological training.

Sports vision and other neurological approaches to peak performance rely on neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity refers to the brain's ability to adapt to learning, training, and experience. Using the eyes again as an illustrative example of this concept, have you ever tried to close one eye for a short time and attempt to perform well at anything? Something seems "off." Perhaps it feels as if your vision has been reduced by half – you just don't feel like you can see as well with one eye closed. However, if you were to perform this test over time, stretching the duration of it a bit with each effort, you might notice something spectacular – your vision may seem to begin "adjusting" to the new normal of using just one eye.

Many people who have vision in only one eye – due to the injury of the other eye at some point in life – report that over time, their vision improves, and they no longer perceive a difference between seeing with one eye or two. This is neuroplasticity at work. The brain and nervous system can change and be trained to improve an array of neurological functions. With targeted types of intervention, connections between neurons and neural pathways in the brain can be strengthened, resulting in significant improvements in skills and performance. That's why training the brain improves vision, balance, reaction time, accuracy, speed of mental processing, focus, concentration, and overall performance.

Neuromodulation is another exciting area of neurology that can help people improve their performance. As the name suggests, neuromodulation alters nerve activity through the delivery of a targeted stimulus, usually an electric impulse or chemical agent, to specific neurological functions of the body. Neuromodulation is used to optimize performance, treat neurologic injury, enhance recovery, and rehabilitate certain types of surgery. Applying stimulation to the brain using practices such as transcranial magnetic stimulation, transcranial direct current stimulation, and other techniques is an exciting new area of research and intervention.

Getting better at anything in life requires diligence. The brain is arguably the most powerful organ in the human body and you can strengthen it through regular training. Doing so can not only help you improve performance, but it can also help you reduce the risk of developing some degenerative brain conditions later in life.