HomeArticlesCorey Young

BDNF, Myelin, and the Art of Deep Practice


by Corey Young

Unless you’ve been spending your free time studying neuroscience – and I’m going to go out on a limb and imagine that you haven’t – then you probably aren’t familiar with the acronym BDNF. BDNF stands for Brain Derived Neurotropic-Factor, and might be the most important key to brain development that you’ve never heard of.

BDNF is responsible for increasing the rate of a critical process in the brain called myelination. But before we dive into what myelination is, and why it’s important, we need to take a step backward and go read a chapter in Simplified Brain Function for Dummies.

The brain has somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 billion (yes that’s billion with a B) nerve cells, also known as neurons. Neurons in the brain have essentially two jobs: gather and send electrical signals. Those electrical signals are responsible for triggering just about every voluntary – like me typing on this keyboard – movement, along with nearly every involuntary movement as well, which is a good thing. I mean who doesn’t like breathing?

Now for just a moment let’s imagine that all of those neurons in our brains are like small individual cities. Each city is a little bit different and unique in its makeup, and there are unique and special jobs that go on there. In order to transport goods, people and services from city-to-city we need roads. Roads that are poorly cared for, and riddled with potholes, make transit slower and more difficult, but by all means not impossible. Conversely a well paved road allows smooth travel, faster transit times, and greater efficiency.

Well if our neurons are the cities, all connected and interdependent on each other to function effectively, then a substance called myelin would be our pavement. Myelin (pavement) surrounds a fiber called an axon (road) that carries the signals from the nerve cells to the rest of our body. So the more myelin we have, or the thicker our myelin sheath is, the faster signals are able to travel across the axon. Or more simply put: cars can drive faster on the roads from city to city when they have good pavement.

Just like pavement on the road, myelin in our brain can breakdown, making it more difficult for signals to find their home. This is where BDNF comes in. BDNF acts like new pavement – it helps thicken the myelin sheath, allows signals to travel faster, and thus makes the brain function more efficiently. The higher the levels of BDNF in the brain, the more likely you are to have cities that communicate effectively between one another.

We’ve all heard the saying practice makes perfect. And I’ve got news for you – it’s stupid. Practice doesn’t make perfect. In fact, according to author Dan Coyle it’s actually a term that he’s coined Deep Practice that makes us perfect.

So what’s the difference between plain old regular practice and Deep Practice? In a word: Immersion. In order to enter into a state of Deep Practice – the place where Coyle believes that mastery of a skill occurs thanks to BDNF (there’s that term again) – you need to fully immerse yourself in whatever it is that you’re doing. You need to commit deeply, and pursue relentlessly. Although you may become better at a given skill or task by the simple process of going through the motions repetitively – like traditional practice. When committing to Deep Practice not only are you going through the motions, but you’re also changing, assessing, reevaluating, and continuously attempting to dive Deeper into your craft.

It seems simple enough on paper, but here’s the thing. There isn’t any metric we can use to determine exactly what Deep Practice is, which means that while we may think that we’re fully immersed in our efforts and immersing ourselves in a state of Deep Practice, in reality we could really be doing nothing more than spinning our mediocre wheels – never tapping into that higher level where improvement occurs.

There’s a cool thing that happens to the brain during Deep Practice: BDNF increases. That means that as we continuously dive into our bouts of Deep Practice, our brains actually become more efficient at our task by increasing BDNF, which increases myelin, which increases the travel speed of nerve signals in those parts of our brain. More Deep Practice means more BDNF, which means that it’s possible to become devastatingly efficient, or at least significantly better, at a task if we spend enough time in pushing ourselves to perform at the highest level possible – a feat that takes place outside of our comfort zone, which is why the majority of us never actually reach a state of Deep Practice. Because we’re unwilling to exit our safety net. So instead we push against it and convince ourselves that we’ve reached our outer limits and gone far enough.

And I believe this is why some are able to keep constantly evolving, and others find change near impossible: Because some have mastered the art of Deep Practice and are fully willing to exit their comfort zone to get there, while the others are willing to tread lightly up to the outskirts of their safety nets, but pull themselves back and subconsciously recoil out of fear. So they show all the signs of change and improvement before ultimately relapsing into their old ways, smack dab in the middle of their comfort zone. Their brains never receive that extra push from BDNF, their processes never become more efficient, and they become stuck in an endless cycle of near improvement, without ever actually making it to the other side.

Deep Practice seems to explain perfectly why there are some athletes in bodybuilding who just don’t quite ever seem to get it…cough, cough Lionel Beyeke…and why others are able to be mechanistically efficient over the course of decades a la Dexter Jackson. It is, quite literally, a case of the haves and the have nots. While some have fine-tuned their ability to enter into the most powerful flow states of Deep Practice, elevating levels of BDNF and paving the metabolic highway reward systems in their brains, others fail to ever reach it, leaving roads unfinished and promise unfulfilled.

There’s an undeniable element of chemical superiority in bodybuilding. Unfortunately the chemicals that have been assigned the label pf key ingredients to individual success or failure are all irrelevant and inferior to one that is above all a rate limiting factor of potential – BDNF. And unlike other chemicals in the sport, it isn’t something that can be easily acquired. It can only be accrued through the art of Deep Practice. And that means that the highway to success isn’t found esterified inside of a bottle.
It’s built over the course of years by the true architects of champions, BDNF, Myelin, and the art of Deep Practice.

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