Ericsson begins Chapter 2 with a comparison between performing physical and mental activities. Say a person undergoes a strenuous exercise regimen. After time, the person’s body will change. They may lose excess fat, build muscle, improve lung capacity and other physical changes that should be expected. But what about mental activities? Over the last twenty years, neuroscientists have conducted a number of experiments that show that a similar change takes place in the brain when a mental activity is practiced over a period of time. In other words, our brains adapt, change, and get stronger just like our muscles!
Interestingly, one of the groundbreaking studies that proved the brain’s adaptability wasn’t done on mathematicians, concert pianists, or chess grandmasters, but on London cab drivers. As Ericsson recounts, learning your way around London is a feat and the entrance exam to become a London cab driver is one of the most tests in the world. Many people attempt this exam but never pass it. A scientist studied the brains of London cab drivers and compared them to the brains of people who had tried to pass the test and failed and also people who had never attempted the test. The study showed that those that had passed the London cab driver’s test had noticeably larger hippocampi (a section of the brain). Other tests have yielded similar results. For example, tests of musicians’ brains show higher levels of gray matter than non-musicians. This shows that our brains (like our bodies) are highly adaptable and can change based on what we ask it to do!
To harness this mental adaptability, we have to overcome a major obstacle: homeostasis. Homeostasis is the tendency for a system to act in a way that maintains its own stability. An example of this would be if a person ran as fast as they could for 30 seconds. Their heart rate and breathing would rapidly increase. But, eventually, it would return to normal. For physical changes to take place (in our muscles or our brains), Ericsson says that we must push ourselves consistently past this point of homeostasis. This requires a physical change or response from the body (or brain). To go back to the example I just used, say a person wanted to be able to sprint for 5 minutes straight rather than just 30 seconds. Consistently engaging in this more strenuous activity will probably require physical changes in the body. The same is true for our brains. We must push ourselves out of our comfort zones in order to harness the adaptability of our brain. The best way to do this, according to Ericsson, is through deliberate practice!