This is Your Brain On Awesome Thoughts on the world from a student of the mind


How to Facilitate Motor Memory

I think this website, This Is Your Brain on Awesome, should be about getting your brain on awesome.  Almost like a how-to guide for squeezing the most out of your melon.  Usually, this would probably involve applying some sort of exogenous brain stimulation.  I'm partial to noninvasive electromagnetic stimulation myself, but to each his own.

With that in mind, here's a tip on how to get started getting your brain on awesome - shut down your prefrontal lobes when trying to learn new motor memories.

Two main categories of learning you'll often hear people refer to are declarative and procedural.  Declarative memories can be likened to facts you know about the world - for example, we all know that driving through the entire state of Kansas on I-70 is worse than Chinese water torture and the best parts of Kansas City are actually in the state of Missouri; procedural memories, on the other hand, tend to be more automated and motor in nature - like driving a car or tying your shoe.

A recent study published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience (Galea et al., 2009) demonstrated that using transcranial magnetic stimulation to inhibit the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex led to increased consolidation of procedural skills.  Put more simply, what this may mean is this: by temporarily shutting down a region of the brain important for higher order cognitive function directly after performing a motor memory type task, you will see an increase in the retention of that motor memory.  The group that published the paper suggests this effect may be caused by disrupting dorsolateral prefrontal cortical functioning, which eliminates or reduces it as a resource competitor in the brain, "leaving more resources to be recruited by the procedural memory system".  By what mechanism this works isn't exactly clear, as other lines of evidence dealing with the prefrontal cortex function suggest inhibiting the prefrontal cortex could be releasing an inhibitory control that derives from that area (called disinhibition).  Regardless, the main findings still stand and make sense in light of the consolidation competition hypothesis, which suggests that memory systems interact on a competitive level with each other, especially when it comes to the consolidation stage.

So, to start getting your brain on awesome, here's what you may want to do: pull out the old guitar that's sitting in its case collecting dust, hook up some excitatory brain stimulation over your motor cortices (there is evidence this is beneficial - I'll write about those later), and practice until your fingers can't take it anymore.  Then, immediately after, apply inhibitory brain stimulation over your prefrontal cortices for a little while.  With this approach, you may be maximizing plasticity in the motor regions of the brain during skill acquisition and minimizing interference from declarative memory systems during memory consolidation.

Consider your brain juiced!  You'll be shredding like Yngwie Malmsteen in no time... but you're on your own when it comes to finding the cool outfits and necessary jewelry.

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  1. What are some examples of “inhibitory brain stimulation”? Taking a nap? Does this study have anything to do with the efficiency/inefficiency of “multi-tasking” ?

  2. Inhibitory brain stimulation would just be any sort of interference in the neural processing of a particular brain region or network. In this case, it was an externally-generated interference in the form of continuous theta-burst repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation. Theta-burst is a stimulation frequency that has been shown to temporarily decrease activity in targeted cortical tissue. They could have also used a slow frequency (typically 1 Hz) repetitive stimulation. Other possibilities include placing an anodal electrode over an area and passing a weak current into the brain, or, as you mentioned, creating an endogenously-generated inhibition by giving some sort of secondary task that sort of “ties up” the brain region you are hoping to suppress.

    The more recent literature on multi-tasking really seems to suggest it is much more inefficient than previously thought. Taking a nap would actually be beneficial to the consolidation of the memories. One aspect of this study that was very interesting was the fact that these consolidation differences occurred without any intervening sleep periods.

  3. I hereby declare that Kansas is better than Missouri and the rest of the country and world.

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