How Virtual Environments Shape Your Brain by Dr Jack Lewis
Any environment in which we immerse ourselves on a daily basis will eventually induce changes in the very fabric of our brains. This observation is based on brain scanning experiments investigating the brains of taxi drivers and professional musicians before and after they have acquired their expertise. Intensive training over many months and years physically changes the size of the hippocampus and motor hand area of these individuals, respectively. This occurs as a direct result of repeatedly challenging the brain to perform specific tasks, navigating around London in the first instance and manipulating an instrument to emit the desired sounds in the second, so that the connectivity between areas involved in executing that task is improved. This occurs at the flick of a few genetic switches that increases the number of synapses across which one neuronal brain wire influences the next in line in pathways that are used often and intensively. It seems reasonable to assume that any cognitive capacity that we regularly use over long periods of time will have a similar impact via the same mechanism.
In the past I’ve written about our incredible aptitude for using tools to manipulate our environment. One of the best examples of recent human ingenuity in this regard are the virtual environments we have created – video games, internet, online social networking and the like. Millions of people are immersed in such virtual environments intensively, regularly and consistently over extended periods of time, exactly the pre-requisites for interaction that drives brain changes; occurring whether the environment in question is real or virtual. I’ve written previously about the potential impact of this on the adolescent brain but, of course, adult brains also adapt to the demands of any virtual environments they may be regularly immersed in too, albeit at a reduced rate.
These brain changes occur for better or for worse. Adults who engage in intensive action video gaming for endless hours slowly but surely begin to accumulate cognitive improvements, namely enhancements in certain aspects of vision, memory and rapid decision-making. On the other hand, those who automatically respond to any bleep, buzz or vibration from their laptop or smartphone appear to be training themselves into a state of constant distraction. A recent study has suggested that so-called heavy media multi-taskers are gradually losing their capacity to block out distractions, an unintended consequence of “dual screening” behaviours like surfing the internet and responding to electronic messages whilst watching television.
My message is simple. Technology is neither good or bad, it’s all about how you choose to use it. Stopping to contemplate your habits when it comes to using technology and considering whether the likely changes to your brain will serve you well or badly, might be advisable. Evidence is currently quite sparse, but rapidly accumulating. Just bear in mind the rule of thumb that anything you do intensively, daily, for months on end has the potential to re-wire your brain to perform that task more efficiently. Some behaviours honed in this way do not always serve your best interests when operating in the real world.
A report hit the press this week describing as yet unpublished brain data from Cambridge University demonstrating that people addicted to internet pornography show a heightened sensitivity in the reward pathways (specifically in the ventral striatum) when exposed to sexually explicit images. Results were not dissimilar to that observed in the brains of alcoholics and illicit drug addicts when viewing images of the target of their addiction. How might this hypersensitivity to pornography have developed? I’m sure you can guess what’s coming next… by viewing pornographic images with great scrutiny, regularly and over periods of months if not years – pleasurable sexual responses have become honed to whatever stimuli have been encountered in the virtual environments with which they are regularly immersed.
My concern is the impact that such outcomes of neuroplasticity might have on people’s real life behaviours. Could it be ruining people’s real life sex lives? The anecdotal evidence presented in Norman Doidge’s excellent book: “The Brain That Changes Itself” certainly backs up this notion. From the perspective of basic neuroscience it also seems likely. Once a brain is trained to respond in a manner that results in feelings of pleasure when viewing hyper-sexual body shapes performing wild and gratuitous sex acts, it is likely that less powerful sexual images – a real life sexual partner, for instance – no longer hit the spot. Given how much of a boost a healthy active sex life gives to real romantic relationships it seems a real shame (if not a blight to wellbeing in society as a whole) that sexual relationships might be harmed by unconstrained consumption of pornography.
I’m not an advocate of censorship. It doesn’t work anyway. I believe in freedom of informed choice. I am an advocate of encouraging people to think carefully about what their habitual behaviours might be doing to their brains from the perspective of neuroplasticity. This I hope will enable them to make choices that benefit them in the long run as well as in the short term. Carving out periods of the day when emails are ignored and phones switched to silent will preserve the ability to sustain attention, engage in deep thought and enable people to remain the master rather than slave of technology. And actively avoiding indulging in online pornography on a daily basis might help people to evade brain adaptations that set the bar of satisfaction ever higher so that the real thing can maintain its lustre. “Everything in moderation” will steer us all clear of unwanted brain adaptations.
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