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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In Sept 2013 I gave my “Brain Coach” talk at both Dulwich College and Sydenham High School. That’s the second consecutive year that Sydenham girls entering their GCSE exam year will get my crash course in applied neuroscience. It covers changes that take place in their brains as they learn and various neuroscience-informed strategies to manage stress better, stabilise mood, boost problem solving and enhance exam performance. It’s the third year in a row that I’ve shared these insights with Dulwich lads about to embark on their A-levels. Nothing quite like repeat business to confirm you have a product that is highly valued and well received!
I’d jump at the chance to give this talk at schools all around the country. Feedback from teachers year on year indicates that students really do benefit from a better understanding of what is going on within their skulls as they learn and acquire new skills. Understanding that all their effort and hard work actually leads to physical changes in the brain is highly motivating – the audience is left to connect the dots themselves – there’s no need to ram it down their throats. Realizing that feeling stressed is a sign that body and mind are being mobilized to deal with the cause of the stress turns a negative into a positive – simply by pointing out the common misunderstanding. And advice on how to reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol when it all starts to become too much to bear gives the students a sense of control over their state of mind. Mnemonic techniques to help them retain important information in mind not just for exams, but for a lifetime – surely the whole point of education after all – has a completely transparent utility. Here’s some feedback from a teacher Lisa Cornell who invited me to speak at Sydenham High School:
The talk .. was inspirational for staff and students alike. The students enjoyed your informal yet informative style. You made difficult concepts easy to grasp. They especially liked how you applied these high level ideas to their everyday lives and studying. You were witty and most importantly not in the slightest bit patronising. You managed to use an array of high level language and technical terms [yet] alienated nobody. I particularly liked how you broke down the latin of long words (eg explaining adrenal).
From a teacher point of view you were engaging, entertaining and a very safe pair of hands for our students to work with. A very good litmus test for any speaker is if students stay behind to speak with you. That you had a ten strong audience of Y11s for half an hour after home time says a lot. Some of those students who stayed I have never seen so enthusiastic about anything!”
The trouble is, popular as these talks are once teachers have actually had the opportunity to witness one, it is extremely difficult to find the right person to speak with in the first place. I’ve tried contacting the registered Heads of PSHE across London and into the Home Counties. This seemed appropriate given that my Brain Coach talk is beneficial to students and teachers from all disciplines, not just those with a particular interest in STEM subjects. But no new opportunities came of it in the long run and so I continue to do 1hr or 2hr talk just a handful of times per year in a few privileged schools.
I would love to get up on stage in front of many more schools each year as I genuinely feel it is one of the best uses of my broad knowledge of neuroscience and aptitude for conveying it in plain english. If you would like me to speak at your or your teenager’s school then please do drop me a line.
You might also consider following me on Twitter. I flag at least 3 interesting pearls of wisdom from the world of neuroscience and psychology research every day.
We humans have far more control over our environment than any other species on planet Earth. We have developed an innate propensity for making and using tools to such a degree that we can now fundamentally change – through architectural, engineering and scientific innovation – the very environments in which we exist and with which we interact every day.
In modifying places in which we spend thousands of hours: our homes, schools, places of work and leisure – we exert more power than any other species in shaping our own brains.
Iterative cycles of human brains adapting to environments and environments being adapted by human brains have enabled our species to thrive in a wider variety of ecological niches than any other mammal across the length and breadth of the entire globe. Of vital importance to our adaptability is the emergence of cognitive faculties enabling us to circumvent the painstakingly slow processes involved in evolutionary change that drive behavioural adaptations in most other multicellular species.
Darwin’s finches on the Galapagos Islands, for example, had to wait for many generations to evolve a useful adaptation that conferred a survival advantage over their competitors. This is because the vast majority of genetic mutations do not yield any useful, adaptive characteristics. For genetic mutation(s) to result in, say, a beak of appropriate dimensions to access an otherwise inaccessible food source, a great many decades of annual mating must pass before this random process eventually hits the jackpot.
Humans confronted with a similar scenario would likely invent a tool to access the food in question. Offspring, or anyone else for that matter, could then mimic the movements necessary to successfully make and manipulate the tool. This is all thanks to “mirror” neurons, which provide us with our natural ability to convert observed movements into movements that we perform ourselves (In his TED talk VS Ramachandran describes the importance of mirror neurons quite beautifully). Behavioural adaptation through tool use is thus not, unlike genetic adaptation, limited to being spread down through subsequent generations.
Humans are not the only creature to use tools. New Caledonian crows are top of the pecking order when it comes to birds intelligent enough to use tools. They use a variety of different tools and in the appropriate sequential order, to obtain a food reward that would otherwise be beyond their reach. Each bird is clever enough to figure this out for themselves, or at least to learn from others, but their capacity to propagate this information beyond their immediate habitat is prohibited by a lack of sufficiently sophisticated communication tools.
Chimpanzees strip the leaves off of long straight sticks to use the resulting tool as a means to “fish” for termites in a termite mound. However, as E. O. Wilson famously pointed out: non-human primates do not have the necessary intelligence to prepare a neat stack of fishing sticks the night before. Non-human species only make and use tools as and when they are needed. In more recent times exceptions to this rule have been observed.
It was long thought that we humans were the only species with sufficient foresight to predict the need for certain tools in the future and to prepare them in advance. However a chimpanzee residing in a Scandinavian zoo turned this assumption on its head by building a stack of stones in the morning to hurl at visitors later on once the zoo had opened to the public!
That said, we still enjoy the unique status of being the only species able to share knowledge of making and using tools through verbal or written communication. This has propagated knowledge of all sorts of tools way beyond our own communities, to other members of our species across the entire globe – eliminating the need to reinvent the wheel and build upon the creativity of others.
Arguably the kings of tool use (homo sapiens exluded) are surely the bonobos. The below footage shows our closest primate cousin making tools out of stone, just as our caveman ancestors did, and using them to perform a variety of scraping, cutting and boring purposes.
In addition to these monthly brainblogs you can catch my daily #braintweet several times a day by following me on Twitter.
I’ve been devouring popular science books over the last year, with a view to writing a book of my own, and there is no doubt that THE BRAIN THAT CHANGES ITSELF stands out head and shoulders above the rest. Through a series of well-researched scientific breakthroughs explained via a variety of compelling real-life stories, it effortlessly convinces the reader that the human brain is a highly adaptable, “plastic” organ capable of dramatically rewiring itself, at any stage in life, to enable significant recovery from even catastrophic brain damage.
This book is nothing less than inspirational. The 20th Century doctrine of the “unchanging brain” – hardwired throughout childhood and fundamentally unalterable by the end of adolescence – is well and truly turned on its head by this remarkable compilation of case studies to the contrary.
The miracles of modern neuroscience: 65 year old Professor Pedro Bach-y-Rita crawling around on his hands and knees, just like a baby, en route to recovering his ability to first walk, then talk and ultimately go back into teaching, after his brainstem stroke. Ingenious machines, sending computer-generated sensory information to a person’s tongue in place of visual or vestibular information lost to brain damage, enable people to see and walk again. The once seriously learning disabled Barbara Arrowsmith Young now heading up a school that uses novel programmes she developed to treat herself by forcing underdeveloped brain areas to up their game through intensive training sessions.
All of these and much, much more demonstrate that the brain CAN change. All that is required is a knowledge of exactly what is required to encourage those changes to occur – all clearly outlined in this book – and then dedication to putting the hours in to make sure those changes happen. It turns out that neuroplasticity can even explain how the miraculous psychological changes that can be enabled by psychiatric counselling might be underpinned by physical changes in the brain. Sexual attraction, love, pain, obsession, anxiety, compulsions and habits are all fundamentally influenced by neuroplasticity and the sooner the world gets to grips with this the better. Even putting the hours in using your imagination to practice cognitive skills to improve your mental abilities does so via physical changes to the number and connectivity of brain cells.
If I ran a school of brain science I would make this compulsary reading. Partly because the “neuroplastic revolution” that the author, Norman Doidge, envisages is extremely empowering to all people; not just the old and neurologically-impaired, but for every single human being on earth that wishes to improve their brain function. But also because it captures an essential truth about science – professors, medics and other experts who share with us their wisdom are not infallible. They do not, CAN not, know it all. They can only peddle the best of what has stood the test of time since they acquired their body of knowledge combined with the new research that has been confirmed by subsequent independent research. There is always the possibility that they, and their forefathers got the wrong end of the stick – which is almost certainly what happened with the concept of neuroplasticity. Consequently, we must all be critical of what we read and remain open to new findings and novel ways of thinking about how the world, and our own brains, truly work.
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