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Boabom on the Brain

 

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When you’re doing brain science you can get lost in the details — there are mountains of theory and data aimed at making sense of how humans and animals adapt to an ever-changing world. My work focuses on how animals and humans learn. Boabom has given me a refreshingly holistic take on learning — it offers a wider perspective on the facts and figures I sift through in my research. Now, I know I’m supposed to be concentrating 100% while the class is going on, but occasionally something causes a light to flicker on in my head — perhaps a few words the teacher says to help us learn a new movement or improve an old one. And I think: that sounds like something neuroscientists talk about! So now I’d like to share some of the ideas that have struck me over the past few months.

Little by little

This could be an unofficial Boabom slogan! Everything we learn accumulates little by little. Each movement is learned gradually, and the movements themselves grow and build upon each other. Once you have a few basic moves down, you find it easier to put more energy into them, and use them in slightly different contexts. Experimentalists who work with rats or monkeys often spend months training the animals to do basic tasks. But once these tasks are learned, the animals can use them to do new things more easily. They start by learning something specific, and soon they can generalize in novel and interesting ways. 

boabom-brain-4The flip side of “little by little” is the fact that learning might just happen faster than you expect. Sometimes when I try out a new movement for the first time, I think: I’m going to take weeks to get this right. But the very next class I can detect a little improvement! Studies have shown that animals and humans trained on a task will perform better the next day, even without any extra practice! During sleep, a rat’s brain rapidly retraces the maze it was running that day. A good night’s sleep helps you sort and file what you’ve learned, so you can use it more effectively the next day.  In fact we’re often told in class that it takes a little while to “rewire your brain” — this is literally true! 

Each one is different

boabom-brain-2I remember once being quite surprised by a brain scan study I was reading. Normally, to get a clear result, you make a group of people do a task while they’re in the scanner, and then you average their brain scans because most brains are broadly similar. But in this study one subject’s brain was structured so differently from everyone else’s that they couldn’t use his data! This was a striking illustration of the fact the people differ in important and unpredictable ways. In Boabom class you see this too. Some students struggle with one thing, and others with something else entirely. And when we’re learning a new movement, each student might find a different style of explanation from the instructor helpful — a different metaphor. We can all do similar things with our bodies (and minds!) but we need different clues, symbols, and ideas to unlock our latent abilities.

Boabom is mind-expanding!

Every part of the body — each muscle and organ — is mapped to a region of the brain. Boabom shows us how a physical activity is not just about strengthening muscles or increasing stamina; a major part of the learning process is just figuring out how to acquire control over your body. It’s as if we’re given a sophisticated machine with lots of buttons and levers, but in our daily lives we only use a small subset of them for a few rudimentary activities — walking, sitting, eating, and watching a glowing screen! It gets to the point where we don’t even know where those buttons and levers are. Even if we wanted to do something more complicated or subtle, we wouldn’t know where to start! The buttons and levers are all in the brain; little by little Boabom reveals them to us, and teaches us how to use them. And this newly discovered control can manifest itself in contexts outside the specific movements we learn in the classroom. The brain is not like a computer, with each component doing one specific thing: its regions overlap and share functions and resources in ways that science still doesn’t fully understand. Learning to do something with one part of your brain can enhance abilities elsewhere. So in teaching us new ways to use our bodies, Boabom reveals new ways to use our minds! It is mind-expansion at its most enriching and fulfilling.

-Yohan, Boston University (Boabom North)