The Plateau and The Brain

Kyle Weisbrod’s recent Ultiworld series on skill plateaux in ultimate is very interesting. Certainly it’s true that we all experience that feeling of stagnation pretty often as we progress through our careers.

And Kyle is bang on when he suggests that the feeling of hitting a plateau is caused by two things – by moving the goalposts on what we think we ought to be able to do by now, and by not understanding the variety of skill that is needed to be ‘consistent’. I won’t repeat all that he said – go read it if this introduction is too short to make sense to you.

But something else interesting to me is that hitting the plateau might sometimes be real. As Kyle says, there are strong psychological factors that will make you feel you’re going nowhere, even when you are improving significantly. But perhaps just occasionally there really is something fundamental going on that slows you down.

Research by Pascual-Leone et al* in 1999 showed a very interesting two-stage mechanism of learning in the brain. At a fundamental level, the brain actually displays evidence of a plateau in skill learning.

The skill in question was Braille reading. Blind subjects were taught Braille for 2 hours a day, every weekday, and their brains mapped to see what changes had been made. The area of the brain directly related to the finger that read the Braille was shown to get larger as they trained – just as taxi drivers have been shown to get larger areas dealing with spatial relationships, or violinists shown to have larger brain maps for the fingers the more they practice. The brain is plastic and changes significantly in response to what we do.

But what is really interesting is that the brains were mapped both on Fridays – after five days training – and on Mondays, after a weekend off.

For the first 6 months, Friday maps for the ‘index finger’ part of the brain got consistently and rapidly larger. As the subjects trained, they devoted more and more neuronal resources to the process of reading Braille. But Monday maps stubbornly refused to change. After the weekend, the brain largely defaulted back to its original state.

Clearly something was happening, because each week they were able to more quickly expand the map such that each Friday was larger than the last. But there was no real difference in the way their brains looked after a weekend off.

After 6 months, things started to change. The Friday maps continued to grow of course, but now the Monday maps began to increase also, eventually settling down to their new size at around 10 months. The speed of the participants at reading Braille was much more closely related to the size of the Monday maps than the Friday maps.

There really did seem to be a plateau – all that work wasn’t really having as much effect on skill as it ought to, but it was laying the groundwork for the kind of permanent changes in the brain that reflect real, autonomous skill.

After two months without training, the brains were mapped again and remained just as they had looked on that last Monday. More permanent change had taken place, after a long plateau. Daily training led to dramatic short term changes, but it took a long time – many months – before it was truly ‘learned’.

I’m getting much more speculative now. But it certainly wouldn’t surprise me to find that the kind of skills we need in a game – the ability to do complex things unconsciously so that we free our minds to deal with the wind, or the position of the defender, or a thousand other things – only appear once we’ve ingrained our learning over many months. Quite simply, I think there very probably IS a difference between the brain mechanisms that allow us to throw a nice disc in a closed drill and those that allow us to throw it in a game.

The ability to throw, and the ability to throw unconsciously, are not the same. The plateau is real. But the solution remains the same – keep pushing.

*Handily summarised in ‘The Brain that Changes Itself’ by Norman Doidge – a much recommended read – since no-one is going to want to pay to read that full article.
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2 Responses to The Plateau and The Brain

  1. Aaron says:

    Interesting article and thoughts regarding the plateau period that we experience. However I’m not sure how much relevance the changes in braille readers have to us. Is this phenomenon in brain mapping more widely seen in other types of learning?

    I am not a neuroscientist and have a a very basic insight into the learning/memory formation, however I’d guess that reading braille and ultimate are vastly different in terms of learning. To me, not being a braille reader, I’d imagine that most of the learning to read braille is to do with improving how you interpret the sensory information from running your fingers across the page. This is very different to improving the execution of the motor patterns we require to play a sport, and involve different parts of the brain. From what I remember from second year neurology a lot of the progression in motor skills is to do with changes in the cerebellum, which would be relatively unaffected in a skill requiring information processing. The plateau I feel in ultimate is generally that my motor skills aren’t improving beyond a certain point, and I don’t know how similar that is in terms of the learning mentioned in this article.

    Is the brain mapping the ‘Friday’ and ‘Monday’ areas happening simultaneously, or does the ‘Monday’ area require the time off over the weekend to process and cement the learning done during the week? Many ultimate teams practice throughout the week without such an on/off schedule; at Aberdeen we train Mon, Wed, Thur, Sat so have a maximum of one day between actual training sessions.

    Do you feel like the learning outlined in this article is more related to the processing and understanding of the game going on around us more than executing the physical skills we practice? I find it much harder to notice that I’ve plateaued mentally than I do with say my throwing.


    • Well, I confess I’m no expert either really, and you might be right. One other interesting snippet though is the claim, by a biomechanicist I know, that experts in motor skills don’t actually reproduce the same action again and again when studied closely with accurate high speed tracking equipment. Instead, what makes them expert is the ability to adjust, such that if the elbow is slightly lower, they can compensate with the wrist and achieve a very similar execution of the skill overall.

      I think that fits much more into what we’re talking about with the braille – some immediate, unconscious processing of sensory input would be necessary in order to make those tiny adjustments. Again though, I can’t say for sure, and no one’s about to give me a grant for neuroscience research… 🙂

      Anyway, the wider point is about the mechanisms for changing brain structures – that there appear to be mechanisms for fast reversible change or for slower, more permanent change. I don’t know to what extent that would apply throughout the brain, including the cerebellum, and again I’m no expert, but it seems to me that the basic chemistry is likely to be similar in different areas. If the two changes are something like (for example) strengthening existing pathways or forging new ones, I’d anticipate broadly similar biology through different brain areas.


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