Learning More Through Exercise

In the 1990s studies confirmed what many people had asserted for decades, that our brain had an autopilot mode. To explore this hypothesis, researchers used fMRI brain scans to test this theory. They had some participants play a well-known card game with a full understanding of the rules, while they had other participants play an unfamiliar card game where the researchers did not define the rules. The second group was left to figure out the card game as they played.

During their research they found the latter group showed signs of using parts of their brain associated with learning, with much of their brain showing active as they figured out the game as they played. The former group, being familiar with the game and rules, showed decreased activity in the brain overall, with the activity demonstrated in the study aligning with an activity pattern known as the default mode network (DMN).

This default mode network is commonly referred to as the autopilot part of our brains. This is also the part of the brain that is active during activities such as meditation. It is the portion of the brain that allows us to efficiently multitask while doing other simple tasks such as walking, running, sitting, driving, and even showering. Anything with which we are already familiar, have fully internalized, or can perform through “muscle memory”, relies on the default mode network insider our brain.

Many of us get comfortable with what we do everyday; therefore, most of our routine is performed by utilizing our default mode network. Our brains want to put us into a routine any chance it can get to conserve energy. Our brains will do everything in their power to simplify anything we do so it can then set that activity on autopilot. This is demonstrated best with small children.

When a child is first learning to walk it requires concentrated effort of will. A child will fall repeatedly as its brain struggles to keep everything in balance while maintaining a forward momentum. Eventually, over the course of only a few months, the child’s brain will become increasingly efficient at the once impossible task of walking. Soon, the child’s brain becomes so efficient at walking that the child pushes to explore running, which is the natural progression of walking.

The key is, the child only grows by stepping out of its comfort zone of sitting up and crawling. Like the child, we too can use these techniques to grow and expand our abilities and ideas. There is a good chance we are all comfortable, our brains have put as many things as possible on autopilot, and we are just flying through life looking for casual enjoyment. The seat belt lights are off and we feel safe to move about in the regiment of our daily routine. That is no place for growth.

If growth only happens outside of our comfort zone, one of the easiest ways to step out of that comfort zone is through exercise. New exercises, especially, will push you to move in ways for which your brain may not have a preprogrammed flight path. You have probably never found yourself doing a burpee while standing in a check-out line at your local grocery story or pressing out a set of tricep extensions on your drive to work. If you have, we may need to talk. (Feel free to leave a comment!)

Beyond removing you from your comfort zone, exercise has many different paths for personal development if done correctly. It requires an almost Zen-like approach when you focus on the exercise being performed. Taking this focused approach will further force your brain to abandon its default mode network circuitry and begin the phase of learning something new. That sense of learning will spill over into other parts of your life.

You will find yourself breaking old habits in life and at work, discovering new solutions to old problems, and becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable. It will inspire a new sense of confidence in your mind as you see changes in your body from hard work and renew your sense of accomplishment in the tasks you do everyday. The benefits are only limited by the amount of change you allow into your life.

Although we evolved with the default mode network portion of our brain intact, which helped us survive in times of famine and need, today it only seems to hinder our ability to grow. It is something that has served us well and we must respect it in its ability to make us more efficient, but it is also something we must fight, unless we become complacent and stagnant. Step out of your comfort zone and be committed to your reason for doing so.

Autopilot disengaged.