During the past ten years we’ve probably learned more about the workings of the human brain than at any time in history. Neuroscientists have been busy digging around in our heads trying to get a glimpse of creativity, proficiency and talent. Something they were looking at was myelin.
Long neglected by scientists, myelin is a whitish mass that surrounds our nerve fibers. Now it seems that myelin is a sort of electrician’s tape that insulates our wiring. The more myelin the better. As our brain fires off instructions to parts of our body, these myelin coatings have the effect of changing “dial up” to “broadband.”
You can’t build myelin by taking pills, nor can you inherit it from your parents. Myelin builds through active and repetitious use of your brain. Scientists are now calling this “deep learning.” No room for the lackadaisical here, proficiency happens when you’re intense. Whether learning to play soccer, blow a clarinet or paint a picture, you need hard repetition, long hours, student mentality, and strong desire. While this may seem old hat, the relationship to measurable myelin is new.
The value of myelin is well discussed in The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle. He fingers a number of historical periods when deep learning took place. Florence from 1440 to 1490 is one of them. Verrocchio, Donatello, Ghiberti, Ghirlandaio, Michelangelo and da Vinci swapped ideas and technologies as well as competed with one another. Craft guilds arose and excellence prevailed.
Talent occurs when folks don’t fear failure and there’s a premium on getting good.
Myelin works in all human pursuits. In soccer, for example, Coyle looks at the remarkably high percentage of world-class soccer players generated by Brazil. With 40% of the country in poverty, soccer is seen as an avenue of economic escape. But the main credit for Brazilian soccer excellence goes to “futsal,” a similar game played in indoor courts with a small, heavy ball. Kids learn sophisticated, clever little moves not available to those out on the big grass of other nations. Reverse spins, back-shooting and ultra-short passing are ingrained through energetic, competitive hours spent in neighborhood pick-ups.
Looking for little moves that count? Make small paintings, make lots of ’em, make ’em often, and you’ll be in the winning circle when you come to make the big ones.
PS: “Practice makes myelin, and myelin makes perfect.” (Daniel Coyle)
Esoterica: A current myelin hotspot is China. More than 2000 Chinese companies currently compete to make various types of scooters and powered bicycles. While lots of these two-wheelers are junk, it’s safe to say the next generation of great scooters will come from China. In the painting game, Chinese workshop-schools, mainly in Shenzhen, teach economically-stressed youth traditional Western methods. Thousands of graduates currently work in the low-cost art-cloning industry. But look out. Quality work tethered to individual ego will be moving the Himalayas. And with the incredible bog of dilettantism through which the West currently slogs, we will soon be studying Chinese myelin.
Smalls good for the bigs
by Kat Corrigan, Minneapolis, MN, USA
This letter got me right where I needed it! I have been trying to paint daily and have been inspired by a number of daily painting blogs and it is the consistency and the commitment I am reaching for right now. I do feel more confident in my work and I’m wanting to spread out beyond my beloved dogs and go back to painting trees and skies. Living in Minnesota with the yearly miraculous reappearance of green requires a larger celebration and documentation than I think we give credit for! And thank you for stating that the small and the quantity develop the big and the deep.
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Restoration of mental damage
by Randal McClure
Ironically, I recently spent several days researching the nature of the blood-brain barrier, which insulates and protects the brain and its myelin. A break in this barrier can allow T-cells to enter the brain which in turn attack myelin, and can thus result in MS symptoms, Alzheimer’s, dementia, memory and motor function loss, you name it. The barrier consists of a lining of epithelial cells unique to that part of the circulatory system. So let’s say you have a compromised barrier due to inflammation or diabetes or something of that order, and you are fortunate to catch on to what is happening and get it under control with diet, medicines, supplements, exercise and meditation. It is great to think that mental and physical exercise can seemingly restore some of the damaged myelin.
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Smalls without fears
by L. Anne McClelland, Mountain View, AB, Canada
Hurrah for encouraging small works — I use them to experiment without fear in small gaps of time between other projects. Some of my best pieces are these little gems. Too bad many people think serious painters only paint big. Experimentation is key — you need to keep learning and discovering and then work, work, work to bring new skills or techniques into common practice in your imagery. That’s one of the best things about painting — always a learning curve.
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The cure of ‘deep learning’
by Dana Whitney, TX, USA
While it may have a genetic or even viral component, my reaction upon reading your essay was that my mother’s MS probably had a lot to do with her preferring drinking and denial to “deep learning.” Even though she had a superior brain and education for a woman of her time. Challenge denial. Embrace truth and sobriety… even when they’re inconvenient.
Possible re-growth of myelin
by Sandy Gorski, Australia
I had Guilliane Barre Sydrome 5 years ago. That’s when the body eats away at the myelin and leaves you paralyzed. I was from the waist down for a short time. From that time I have endeavoured to pursue my creative talents. The stronger I got the more I did. I am a mosaic artist amongst other arts. You have to be quite strong to build cement sculptures. Slowly, slowly I kept at it. What you have said makes a lot of sense as I have experienced the re-growth of my myelin over these years.
The current wave of sketchers
by Marilynn Brandenburger, Decatur, GA, USA
I teach a workshop “The Illustrated Journal in Ink & Watercolor” that speaks directly to this issue. In it I show students how to make quick watercolor and ink sketches that record moments in their lives. The students think they’re learning techniques for travel sketching — and indeed they are — but I know what’s happening is much more than this; they’re learning how to paint. The results are always so much better in these sketching classes than in my more formal painting classes. Why? Because the students are relaxed (after all, it’s just a “sketch” not a “painting”) and absorbed in filling page after page with small studies, done from direct observation. They’re drawing and coloring intuitively, with joy. When they come up for air, they seem surprised they’ve been having so much fun and that their tiny paintings are so expressive and charming. Apparently that’s myelin in action, accompanied by intense, deep learning. I can’t say enough about the value of doing lots and lots of small paintings, and I keep trying to pass that on to students. Some years ago, International Artist published a great book, Work Small, Learn Big: Sketching with Pen & Watercolor — now, sadly, out of print, but still available — that makes this same point. And online groups like SketchCrawl and Urban Sketchers, that encourage artists of all levels to get out and sketch, are creating an international community of like-minded folk. So, there’s a lot of momentum, for this, Robert, and I’m glad to hear medical science is backing this up.
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Time and focused effort
by Robert Lewis, BC, Canada
I’m dealing with a progressive form of Multiple Sclerosis and one problem I worry about is a decline in cognition so I spend hours reading and trying to learn new things. This supposedly fends off dementia and other problems of aging that affect the mind and cognition as the disease attacks the myelin sheath. I have read plenty of articles yet we now barely scratch the surface in understanding the brain and nervous system. Malcolm Gladwell has his 10,000 hour formula to become a concert violinist and so on. What all researchers are saying is that it takes time and focused effort to build again the synaptic connections.
Methods of defeating Alzheimer’s
by Delores Hamilton, Cary, NC, USA
Alzheimer’s runs in my family, so I read a lot of research on what one can do to stave it off for as long as possible. A strong connection exists between myelin and Alzheimer’s. Many of the suggestions for creating new neural pathways are similar to the suggestions you made. Others include: learning a new language, taking classes in higher math, solving jigsaw puzzles, creating original dressmaking patterns, and simple things like moving things around (putting the mouse on the other side of the keyboard, moving a wastebasket, and moving things around in the kitchen).
Work fast and train
by Nigel McCoy, UK
It is amazing how old values like hard work, focus and steady application to a task are reinforced by the findings of modern science. And the idea the knowledge can be gained in miniature — such as the small indoor soccer pitches in Brazil — is exemplary. I was wondering if ping pong would be an aid to developing tennis players. Whether it’s a matter of growing myelin or something else, the principle is the same. Go for it, do it hard, work fast, TRAIN.
Combining science with practice
The idea is that through reinforcement — ‘deep practice’ as Daniel Coyle calls it — particularly when things go wrong in ways we can pick up and learn from — our brain develops pathways that become more efficient. This has been talked about for a long time in terms of the brain being a self-patterning system, where the more we use particular pathways the more bandwidth they carry — the only new bit of science is the knowledge that this ‘thickening’ is actually of the myelin sheath around the neurons.
What Coyle does most effectively is to combine the information about this feature of the brain with observations of how to practice, an understanding of how seeing individuals break out can ‘ignite’ breakthroughs in others, and an excellent analysis of the most effective approach to coaching. As he makes clear, the idea that good coaching is about strong leadership and charisma simply isn’t true — it’s much more about micro manipulation on the edge of an individual’s or team’s capabilities.
High Desert Spring
acrylic painting by Beverly Theriault
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Eva Kosinski of Louisville, CO, USA, who wrote, “Freedom and success are both the result of allowing others to take responsibility for, as well as bear the consequences of, their own actions or inactions, while exercising self control and taking personal responsibility for your own.”
And also Marge Drew of Ormond Beach, FL, USA, who wrote, “While persons with MS cannot be cured by what you suggest, there is some excellent research on the subject of myelin repair here.”
And also Ellen Kingsbury, who wrote, “How you conduct your hours and your days, is, of course, how you conduct your life.”
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