Rewiring the Brain

There is an absolutely awesome bit of Neal Stephenson’s book Reamde, that goes like this: The brain “was sort of like the electrical system of Mogadishu. A whole lot was going on in Mogadishu that required copper wire for conveyance of power and information, but there was only so much copper to go around, and so what wasn’t being actively used tended to get pulled down by militias and taken crosstown to beef up some power-hungry warlord’s private, improvised power network. As with copper in Mogadishu, so with neurons in the brain. The brains of people who did unbelievably boring shit for a living showed dark patches in the zones responsible for job-related processes, since all those almost-never-exercised neurons got pulled down and trucked somewhere else and used to beef up the circuits used to keep track of NCAA tournament brackets and celebrity makeovers.”

In the post “Your brain vs technology: How our wired world is changing the way we think”, Baroness Susan Greenfield is quoted, professor of Synaptic Pharmacology at Lincoln College, Oxford: “If the human brain is exquisitely adapted to the environment, which it is, if the environment is changing, which it is, then it’s a given the brain will change”. She is concerned by how our brain changes as a result of increasingly spending our time in front of technology, that areas of the cortex may be going dark as we spend our lives immersed in Big Brother and Facebook.

It seems to me that in order to get good things out of our interactions with technology, we should focus on how we can use our screen time to exercise areas of our brain in ways that wouldn’t normally happen.

A good example of this was a recent post on Scientific American called “In the mind of others - Reading fiction can strengthen your social ties and even change your personality”. This article is about research that indicates how reading fiction may help social interaction by building experience on how to interact with other people, without physically interacting with other people. As people empathise with characters in the book and those characters relate to other characters in the story, they build up this mental database on how to behave. This mental database helps with later, “meat-space” interactions.

I remember reading related work on using virtual reality to overcome phobias through repeatedly experiencing a fear-inducing situation in a safe, virtual environment.

Is it just our thinking and behaviour we can affect through computer interaction? The BBC had a news story about how a virtual gym could help with weight loss which suggests that maybe our virtual experiences also affect our body. What are the limits for this? This sounds like a wonderful area to explore. How can we re-wire the brain in beneficial ways using our computers?