A sultry Tuesday afternoon in Bali. A gentle breeze flutters the white curtains of my beach bed, making it look like a magic white carpet floating above an untouched beach. I should really be doing yoga, or at least getting up to get a drink, instead of waving the pool boy over. Or should I?
I’ve been immersed in a book called “ The Brain that Changes Itself”. A mindboggling read, it tells me, among other things, that imagining an exercise could be almost as efficient as actually doing it. In fact, when a clinical study compared two groups — one that actually flexed a certain muscle, and one that only imagined doing so – the first group increased it’s strength by 30%, while the second – by 22%. I put a book down and stretch lazily, imagining myself in a head-stand while sipping a mohito… heaven!
“The Brain That Changes Itself” opens a window into a scientific field called neuro-plasticity. For a long time scientists believed that while our brain would change and evolve dramatically in childhood, it then became hard-wired for the rest of our lives, leaving us in a sad downward spiral of losing whatever capacities we have acquired throughout adolescence. Languages were forgotten, skill-sets lost, and brilliant fiery students turned into shriveled old men with rigid ideas, forever trying to adapt the world to their picture of it. In the past few decades, however, science has established beyond any doubt that brains remain “plastic” throughout our lives. The author, Norman Doigde, quotes clinical studies as disparate as programs to aid autistic kids to brain research on seniors, to psychiatric techniques for healing war traumas. There is even a chapter on Internet porn, which apparently wins a double whammy for its capacity to rewire our brainmaps.
Exciting, you might say. How do I get started altering my brain to approximate that of Steve Jobs or Steven Spielberg? Well, we create new patterns in an adult brain when we pay close attention. When something truly “grabs” you – whether its gardening , Facebook or YouPorn, you do it over a prolonged period of time and receive positive stimuli (a rush of dopamine) – you are successfully redrawing your brain maps. The brain real estate, however, is still limited, so new brain maps crawl over the old ones, reassigning neurons we no longer use. This is what neuroscientists refer to as the “Use it or Lose it” rule. Suppose you were excellent at German in highschool, but haven’t used for a decade or two – well guess where your Twitter map now sits. Right on top of that Goethe novel your were hoping to reread one day. And here comes the paradox: it is because the brain is so plastic, that we actually get caught in rigid patterns, which we draw by doing the same activity over and over again. Every time we repeat an action, we dig a deeper pathway in our brain. Soon these patterns become the “paths of least resistance” which we consistently choose to follow – and so brain maps become brain traps.
Slowly, as my vacation nears an end, the implications of my summer read start to sink in. We live in an era of massive brain rewiring by computers, Internet and social media At the end of the last century most entertainment and advertising was still passive – you watched an ad on TV or a film in a theater. Today we spend most of our day actively interacting with the ads and entertainment that comes our way. We no longer just see an ad online – we click on it, we arrive on some site, we spend hours searching for the best option – whether it’s a new tablet or a perfect vacation home – and we have no idea that by doing so we are actually writing over all that Shakespeare we read in college. The Internet noise, the Facebook obsession, the video games – they are not just harmless distractions we turn to at lunch hour, to disconnect from our office rut. They are parasites crawling inside our mind, erasing the skills we still think we have, going over our creative dreams and aspirations like a giant tractor of a cultural revolution. Forget “ The Medium is the Message” maxim. YOU are the message. You are becoming the things you do day into day….
Horrified, I think of all the neurons I must have “written over” while shopping on Net-A-Porter. My brain feels oh so plastic, and melting in the Bali heat. It is time to imagine another Downward Dog and wonder if reading this book has wired my brain in the right direction.