Using your brain with the future in mind

I read an interesting post yesterday from the Harvard Business Review blog about how feeling as though you are making progress at work, in a video game, or during any kind of training is a great motivator. I can definitely relate: one of the hardest things about being either a scientist or an artist (or an entrepreneur, for that matter) is that you have to spend many, many hours breaking new ground and very often you feel as though you are running in place. That’s the problem with innovation: you don’t know what’s going to work until you’ve tried a lot of different things. Sometimes you get lucky and hit on a solution fairly quickly; but most days, you have to run down many corridors and backtrack half of the time to reach the end of the maze. I hate treadmills: to stay motivated on a run, I need to see the scenery change.

Then I watched Jane McGonigal’s TED talk.

She’s certainly on to something. There’s an addictive quality to internet-based video games, which psychologists have been trying to understand since the tech boom. There’s even a journal dedicated to the psychology of interactive technologies and social networking. These days, instead of thinking about the brain as a machine, made up of solid, unchanging parts, neuroscientists have shifted towards a view of the brain as dynamic and plastic: dynamic in the sense that brain functions are served by chemical and electrical signals and plastic because cell structures, neural circuits and cell-signalling patterns change with use. So, it’s not surprising that spending a lot of time doing any single activity will lead to long-lasting structural and functional changes in the brain. By spending more time playing video games than engaging in other activities, gamers change the circuitry and functioning of their brains to match the demands of their passion.

But as Jane points out, that might not be a bad thing. Sure, internet games tap into the very same circuitry that goes awry in substance abusers. And some people are more susceptible to becoming addicts than others, with genetics and social interaction playing large roles. And the type of game does matter: violent or aggressive games can lead to violent or aggressive behavior, while prosocial games can improve social interactions, just as playing tennis everyday leads to an improvement in tennis playing and a remapping of the sensory and motor cortices that are involved in manipulating the racket and predicting the trajectory of the ball. London cab drivers, who have to memorize the intricate roads of London, develop larger and more efficient hippocampi, the regions of the brain that are involved in spatial navigation. The activities we choose to spend our time doing, regardless of what they might be, will affect the way that our brains function in the future. The time has come to be just as mindful of what we do with our brains as we are about what we ingest or how we stay fit. Jane might be right: if we invest more time in searching for solutions to the world’s problems, or developing the social and cognitive skills the we need to find the solutions, we just might be capable of doing great things.