• How Virtual Environments Shape Your Brain by Dr Jack Lewis

    London_Black_Cab wikiComAny 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.

    VR wikiComIn 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.

    Cell_phone_use_while_driving wikiComThese 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.

    porn_star wikiComreport 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.

    brain that changes itselfMy 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.

    Quiet carriageI’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.

    In addition to these monthly blogs I also tweet daily about interesting brain-related articles that hit the press. If that sounds good to you then please consider following me by clicking here.

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  • Adolescent Brains in the 21st Century by Dr Jack

    I was once told that adolescence is the hardest thing I would ever have to do in life. Up to that point in time I had got the overwhelming impression that most adults wished they could go back to the simple life they seemed to distinctly remember enjoying during childhood. All this smacked of rose-tinted glasses to me, but still I asked myself what exactly was I doing so wrong to find the teenage years a bit of a grind.

    Teenagers tend to experience life in the extreme. The highest highs rub shoulders with the lowest lows. They tend to experience everything as either fabulously exciting, depressing, or mind-numbingly boring, with very little in between. There are a variety of reasons why this is the case:

    • during adolescence the brain is a patchwork quilt of work-in-progress (see video below)
    • it is undergoing a neurochemical conspiracy that simultaneously amplifies emotions
    • whilst encouraging risk taking and exaggerating perceived benefit

    …all in the absence of any extensive experience that, in adults, can occasionally step in to trump the usually erroneous risk/benefit calculations that accompany every decision at an unconscious, implicit level.

    I personally found the acknowledgement that being a teen is tough to be profoundly reassuring. Now as a neuroscientist I can go one step further by actually showing WHY being a teenager will always feel tough at times. More importantly I will describe why teenagers of today will turn into adults that are even more different from the previous generation than ever before in the history of man.

    Human brain maturation does not reach completion until after adolescence. During the teenage years the brain is literally caught midway between adulthood and childhood. In the mid-teens cerebral maturation looks like a patchwork quilt, with some areas that have already reached their adult form intermingled amongst others that have not changed significantly since childhood. Yet other regions of cortex find themselves in a transition state part way between the two extremes. This is why a teenager can seem so bright and intelligent one minute, whilst making the most disasterous decisions and over-reacting in the most outrageous emotional outbursts the next. There is a child and an adult co-existing in the brain of a teen. Below is a video that tracks the brain’s maturation over the course of adolescence starting in the early teens and ending in late teens (blue colour = mature cortex; so keep an eye out for how much green, yellow, orange and red is still in the mix throughout most of adolescence).

    The process of adolescent brain maturation, counterintuitively, does not involve an increase in the thickness of the brain’s outer surface (the cortex). On the contrary, it actually involves a reduction in cortical thickness – as less important synaptic connections and brain pathways are “pruned” away; presumably to free up resources for more intensively-used neural networks. This process enables the brain to function more and more efficiently the more certain behaviours are repeatedly performed and elaborated upon. Skills that we acquire with a great deal of time and effort during childhood are performed effortlessly by the time we reach adulthood.

    The human brain will adapt to any environment with which many, many hours are spent interacting. These days the real life immediate environment of a teenager’s home, school, playground, social settings etc in which they spend their waking hours is increasingly supplemented by a wide variety of virtual and online spaces and places into which innumerable hours are poured. This means that digital natives – kids that cannot remember a time before the internet – are going through their “synaptic pruning” maturation phase of accelerated teen brain development synergistically with virtual, as well as real, worlds. The brains that result from this interactive process will be specialised differently to those honed during a twentieth century adolescence.

    Cause for alarm? Well, maybe yes, maybe no. It will undoubtedly be a mixed bag. Brain specialisation to improve efficiency in the execution of one behaviour will always come at the expense of specialisation that could have been invested in something else. This is displacement.

    When time spent playing massive multiplayer online games (MMOG) entirely displaces time spent engaging in old fashioned face-to-face interaction with a friend or group of friends certain brain areas will be improved in preference to others. That teenager would develop superior visuospatial, rapid task-switching and quick decision making abilities, but at the expense of social skills; unless time is also invested in extensive face-to-face communication with peers. Social networking and instant messenging services actually takes this social displacement to a whole different level by actively disrupting what little time is acutally spent in the company of real people.

    Teen social lives are increasingly becomeing less about the face-to-face and much more about face-down-to-phone. The right to choose which smartphone alerts they do and don’t respond to are waived in favour of a slavish dependency. The attention of many teens is immediately diverted to any BBM, Twitter, Facebook etc alert that squarks and vibrates from their smartphone – regardless of where they are or who they are with. This constant disruption must surely degrade the quality of in person social interaction and brain specialisation supporting this vital skill. So does this mean the art of conversation is utterly doomed?

    If teens can be made aware of the need to take control of their digital consumption then there is hope. Otherwise they’ll find themselves distinctly uncomfortable being in the same room as other people and will much prefer to communicate through the written word – a scenario that will inevitably leave them feeling empty. Brains that evolved to communicate much more effectively through body language than speech will inevitably miss the physical presence of another person when communication becomes exlusively remote. Not to mention the fact that physical touch is one of the primary ways in which a brain is inspired to activate brain circuitry that makes a human being feel safe, secure and content.

    In addition to these monthly brainposts you can catch daily #braintweet by following me on Twitter.

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