Part 5: Skill Depends Upon Myelin
This is the fifth installment in a nine part series. If you have not yet read Parts 1 through 4, you should begin with those. Part 1 was published on Nov. 16, 2014.
Part 1: “The Talent Code”:
Part 1 introduces Daniel Coyle’s book, “The Talent Code”.
Part 2: The Myelin Factor:
This section presents a short course in neuroscience centered around myelin and the role it plays in building new skills.
Part 3: Equine Simulators:
Part 3 looks at creative ways to build your handling skills BEFORE you work directly with your horse.
Part 4: What Does Soccer have to to with Horse training?:
There are two types of skills you need to build: the first are technical skills you need to be able to handle a horse, these include rope handling and other physical skills. The second involves the split second decisions you must make.
Part 5: Skill Depends Upon Myelin:
Myelin builds high speed neural pathways. How does this translate to the building of skills for horses and their handlers?
Part 5: Skill Depends Upon Myelin
Coyle summarizes skill acquisition with the following:
1.) Every movement, thought or feeling is a precisely timed electrical signal traveling through a chain of neurons.
2.) Myelin insulates the nerve fibers and increases signal strength, speed, and accuracy.
3.) The more a particular circuit is fired, the more myelin optimizes that circuit, and the stronger, faster, and more fluent our movements and thoughts become.
I have just gotten a new computer. I’m not altogether convinced that all of its features are advantages, but the one thing I do like is the speed. My old computer had slowed down to the equivalent of an elderly person using a walker to get around. The wait times for even the simplest of operations were horrendous. This new computer is lightening fast. There are no wait times. I’m not spending half my morning watching the little wheel circle round that tells me the computer is working. Like the little engine that could, my old computer would eventually manage to bring up the file I needed. This computer has it up on the screen instantly. That I like.
That’s the metaphor for the effect deep practice has on the speed of transmission of the electrical impulse traveling along that network of nerve fibers. It transforms it from the dinosaur days of dial up modems and slow computers to the blazing speeds of this new computer. The efficiency that creates for me is enormous. There’s no more stop and go interruptions as the computer tries to run the programs I’m working on.
Again, as Coyle defines it: “Skill is built from myelin insulation that wraps neural circuits.”
In the talent hotbeds Coyle visited he saw very deliberate, mistake-focused practice. The current understanding of myelin and the role it plays in nerve-fiber conductivity seemed to explain why this type of training is so effective.
To build high speed circuits you need to activate the circuit, address any mistakes, and then activate the circuit again – over and over.
I have always valued persistence and that other key ingredient – passion – or as the writer Joseph Campbell put it – “following your bliss”. Why is this important? Wrapping one or two layers of myelin around a nerve fiber is a good start, but it takes a lot more than that to develop a high speed, super efficient circuit. It takes time and it takes energy. You need a passion for your chosen interest in order to sustain the level of commitment it takes to build a super star circuit.
The translation to Horses
So how does this relate to clicker training? We’re used to hearing that we need to focus on what we WANT the horse to do, not the unwanted behavior. We don’t generally talk about mistakes – that’s focusing the spotlight on what we don’t want. Or is it? I think there is a difference between looking at where you currently are with all the unwanted behavior your horse is throwing at you and attending to mistakes in a deliberate, focused, chunked down process.
Suppose a horse is crowding into me, leaning into his inside shoulder, and swinging his head in to swipe at my arm. Focusing on this behavior will suck me into the drama of a confrontation, and it may blind me to the solutions that will shift this horse out of my space. In this scenario what myelin circuits will I be firing? What myelin circuits will I be strengthening? That’s an interesting and important question to ask yourself. Remember it isn’t just the circuits for physical actions that are strengthened. Myelin also effects the pathways that regulate emotional responses. So every time I get frustrated or angry with that horse when he crowds in on me, I’m strengthening that response. I’m making it easier and easier to become angry. I’m creating the very thing I most want to avoid – a hair trigger for anger.
So I want to make a sharp U turn and shift my focus to what I want. In a broad brush description of what I want, I would say that I want my horse to keep his head straight, and to walk forward with his weight evenly balanced between his shoulders. The result will be that he’ll stay out of my space.
So now I apply deliberate deep practice techniques to building those skills. I begin by putting my horse away and working out the details of what I want by miming both my actions and the horse’s. I’ll slow everything down so I can really understand what is needed. I’ll pretend that I am my horse. What happens to my balance when I lean in on top of my handler? How does this effect my ability to walk forward? How does it make me feel? What do I need to do to change out of this balance into a more desirable balance? How does that make me feel? Always I pay attention to these emotional shifts. It shouldn’t be a surprise that they track very accurately the changes in my balance. Physical balance helps to create emotional well-being.
I’ll imagine again that I am a horse standing in reasonable balance. My handler will be asking me to walk off maintaining this good balance. How does my weight need to shift to create that first balanced step? Remember I am miming all of this, moving in slow motion so I can notice all the tiny details, all the changes in balance that will become more automatic as I speed things up.
Building a skill follows a curious trajectory. I’ll begin with this very chunked down, slow-motion process where everything is noticed and nothing is automatic. How do I shift my balance to begin to lift my foot so I can take a step? Where does the movement begin? What allows it? What blocks it? Everything is noticed. But this isn’t where I am going to end up. Thank goodness! I’d never be able to walk if that were the case. And that’s the point.
As a skill develops, you become less and less aware of what you are doing. The skill becomes automatic. There’s a name for this: automaticity. We need skills to become automatic so we can attend to other things. If I had to think about every tiny detail of how I walk every time I took a step, I would never be able to work with my horse. So I analyze this process away from my horse. I build the circuit I want, strengthening it with repetitions until it begins to feel automatic. That’s when I am ready to explore the next step in the process. When I have strung enough of these chunks together so the entire flow feels smooth and automatic, I’ll ask my horse what he thinks about all this deep practice. Has it made me a better dance partner? His feedback will tell me what I need to work on next.
Coyle made the comment that the process of building brain circuits accompanied by automaticity yields a curious result: as we build these enormous and highly detailed circuits, we’re simultaneously forgetting that we have built them. Perhaps this is the reason people are often reluctant to begin the deep practice routines of miming in slow motion the skills they want to build. They have forgotten what it is like to be a complete beginner and the work that’s involved in learning a new skill. None of us like the feeling of being clumsy and awkward. It’s an uncomfortable place to be in. We want to move out of that zone as quickly as possible.
There are two ways to do this – the first is to avoid exploring any new activity where you might experience being a beginner without well-insulated myelin circuits to guide you through. The other way is to build good circuits through an efficient, effective process. The deep practice techniques give you the fast track out of this zone, and they do it oddly enough by slowing everything down. That’s the paradox.
So in my deep practice approach to developing good training skills I’ll continue to explore balance from the horse’s perspective. I’ll begin by shifting my weight so I can step off with my outside foot. Oh no, there’s a slight bobble as I begin the shift. Left unattended that will snowball into my falling over my inside shoulder. As I pretend to be a horse, I’ll feel crowded by my handler who will be trying to push me back. We’ll both be heading down a well-myelinated track of annoyance that was built up via our previous training encounters. So I’m going to notice all those tiny losses of balance, attend to them, and now that small part of the circuit can fire without the error. I won’t be triggering that older habit pattern that leads to annoyance. Instead I am building a better “expressway”.
Highlight – Adjust – Click! – Reinforce – Repeat. That’s clicker training.
I’ll repeat this segment, attending to the nuances of the balance shifts until I have a clean circuit. The myelin pathway that I am strengthening is building towards excellence.
Coming soon: Part 6: The Positive Role of Mistakes