When it comes to brain function, you “use it or lose it”

This question originally appeared on Quora: Does mastering a skill diminish your proficiency in other areas because your brain may have re-purposed neurons in other areas to help you master it? Answer by Joyce Schenkein, neuropsychologist.

My take is that skill mastery generalizes to other areas—for instance, musicians learn principles of music on one instrument (say, the piano), but then transfer this understanding to others (guitar, violin, accordion). Someone who already plays the cello will have an easier time mastering the bass.

If you drive a car, you can transfer principles of vehicle operation to boats, tractors, etc.

A good ping pong player already has important skills for learning tennis and other racket sports

Learning a new word does not “use up” the letters from your available alphabet. Indeed, your new word begins to fit in with your existing language structure and helps you better modify your thoughts. The more words you have, the more you are able to understand and communicate.

When children play, they are putting together important skills that later become components of advanced behavior. When I was a child, something I needed rolled into a dark space under a bed. Although I didn’t have a flashlight, I knew, from my play with mirrors and periscope toys, that I could reflect light from the ceiling and redirect it under the bed, enabling me to see where my treasure had rolled.

Developing a skill involves linking many components of behavior, but these components are NOT dedicated for only that skill. They can be applied to other new skills.

As a case in point, many people spend hours playing video games and doing online puzzles. Is this a useless waste of brain power? Hardly. Scientists in the Human Connectome Project are currently recruiting these puzzle-solvers in trying to create a 3D model of brain structure.

The bottom line: When it comes to brain function, you “use it or lose it.” Don’t fear that you will tie up needed neurons for one task and not have them available for others. On the contrary, you will wind up using those cells over and over and be more likely to keep them.

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