Neuroplasticity and the Art of Improving Your Performance

What is the best way to learn, neurobiologically speaking? How can we make the most of research into neuroplasticity in order to improve our performances? In this blog I cover the best thing to do to improve what you do.


Howdy, I know it’s been a while since I’ve been online and that’s because life has been really, really hectic.
Not only with half-term, and the kids, but also with the Opera weekend I ran with Christopher Cowell – which was so much fun, and we didn’t talk about the dreaded T word at all.

We didn’t touch on vocal technique, directly, instead we looked at how we can better connect with and engage our audience. The idea being that once you get that going, once you get a better connection with your audience, not only do you benefit from that better connection and you engage your audience better, but you also perform better. Even enhancing your, dare I say, vocal technique without even thinking about it!

We’ve had brilliant feedback, which is wonderful, on the basis that that was actually what people got. They got what we set out to give them, which is fabulous, and we saw that in their performances at the end of the weekend. Not only did they engage us more as an audience, but they sang better. Which was wonderful.

Today I want to talk to you about neuroplasticity, and how that ties in with a passion of mine.

As most of you know, I am absolutely passionate about the importance of enjoying, not only your performance, but the preparation and practice that goes into that performance. Now before I get into the neurobiology, I’m a positive zealot (if you’ll excuse the pun) about the negative impact of self-criticism on our performance and our preparation. On negative impact of being hard on ourselves. Nearly all high achievers self-criticise because they believe it does make them better. I mean after all they’re high achievers, how else did they think they got there?

It’s true, it can be effective, but it is not the most effective way of achieving improvements in what you do, and not only that but it comes at a high price. It comes at a cost to your self-esteem and to your motivation, because we stop enjoying what we’re doing. It also promotes a fixed mindset, instead of a growth mindset. So it actually inhibits our learning in the longer term.

It’s better simply to be curious, to play around with ideas in our preparation, and even in our performance to focus on what our purpose is and enjoy it, because if we enjoy it and get committed to it, and really, properly get into what we’re doing, then our audience will too. That’s not to say we’re not being professional, or taking what we’re doing seriously, it’s when we start to take ourselves too seriously that rigidity and self-criticism creeps in.

Now I’ve done lots of different blogs on various topics around this and if you want to take a look at them they’re all up on my website, but today I want to talk about, as I said, neuroplasticity.

Recently I’ve been doing a course on interpersonal neurobiology by Dan Siegel, which is fascinating, and he talks about the importance of play for neuroplasticity. For those of you don’t know, neuroplasticity is the ability of our brain to change and adapt, to rewire. This happens not only during the learning process, but also during healing when brain injury has taken place, whether by stroke or by accident. However, we’re talking about learning here, and when we’re learning and practicing, and preparing, we are attempting to change the way our brain fires. Whether we’re learning words or different ways of doing things, we’re attempting to change the way our brain is wired so that we can do it in a different way, and so that way becomes easier and easier. So that we become unconsciously competent and do it without thinking. This way we’re re-wiring our brains.

Now there are practically an infinite number of ways that our brain can fire, we have billion neurons and each of those have 10,000 possible connections, so some genius has calculated that we have 10 to the power of a million possible different on/off switches, on/off positions, in our brain, and that is apparently more than the number of atoms in the known universe! These are figures way too big for my head, but essentially they mean that we have, as I say, practically an infinite number of ways of wiring our brain.

Not only this, but we now know that neuroplasticity is life long. So we can change the way our brain fires till the day our brain stops working and we stop living. It is harder to rewire something that’s been wired a certain way, but it is possible. So “I’m too old to learn that” isn’t really an argument in terms of the neurobiological sense.

What Don Siegel says about play is that play opens up our minds and puts us into a state of receptivity, and it’s in that receptive state that neuroplasticity emerges, i.e. the ability to change our brain. Not only that, but they’ve done research that shows that laughter also puts us into the condition of neuroplasticity. So play and laughter encourage us and help us to learn. Yay!

When we’re at play our brains are more capable of changing, and we’re more capable of learning. So being more light-hearted about what we’re doing, about our performance, not only benefits our self-esteem and our motivation (because frankly we are always more motivated to do the stuff that we enjoy) but it also enhances our ability to actually learn, neurobiologically, and it helps us create more effective patterns in our brains.

So if you do one thing today, please, go out and, in whatever you’re doing, have some fun!