CAROLINE WILLIAMS wanted to outsmart her brain. Research over the last decade shows that the brain is ‘plastic’: it physically adapts as we learn new things.
However, if this is the case, Williams asks, can she reorient her brain to reduce her anxiety and enhance her navigation skills and attention span? In Override, Williams, a science journalist, meets the experts and tries brain interventions to discover whether neuroscience can help us to make real changes to our fallible brains.
When Williams was 19, her father was killed in a car crash. At least since then, Williams has had an anxious temperament where she is always primed to see threats. A cognitive bias is an assumption we aren’t aware of and Williams has a negative cognitive bias.
Williams undergoes simple training to change this. A group of faces flashes up on a screen. Most of the faces are angry, but one is happy and Williams must click the happy face as fast as she can. Yet by playing this five-minute game each day for six weeks, Williams shifted her cognitive bias from negative to positive.
Given that persistent worrying makes you 29% more likely to die of a heart attack and 41% more likely to die of cancer, the effect of Williams’s training is startling.
However, Williams’s efforts at improving her poor sense of direction are less successful.
For six weeks when walking around her local countryside, she wore a navigational belt that calculated the direction of north and vibrated on the belt’s northwards-facing part. In tests taken before and after she wore the belt, however, Williams’s performed well below average in making mental maps of new surroundings.
Neuroscience emphasises that one of the brain’s primary responsibilities is focusing our attention.
To improve her concentration, Williams takes sustained-attention tests where, for example, she must click only male faces on a screen where camouflaged faces fade into each other.
After just a week of training, her results suggested her brain was now better at directing its attention and eliminating distractions. However, the drawback is that you must keep it up: without continuing the mental workouts, within a few weeks Williams will lose the improvements she gained.
Presented in crisp chapters, Override is a diverting investigation into how neuroscience can nudge us towards making more efficient use of our brain’s resources. It’s also an accessible read. Williams achieves this through a zippy writing style (a researcher “attaches the two electrodes on my head to a battery and slowly cranks up the power … my focus gets up and leaves the building”) and her self-deprecating humour: her anxiety increases dramatically when waiting for an email reply from an anxiety specialist and she gets lost on her way to meet a navigation researcher.
The main problem, however , is that the research Williams explores is still in its infancy. She is unfailingly thorough in sifting through the evidence, but for every theory she dissects there is almost invariably a counter-argument and, ultimately, the acknowledgement that we don’t yet understand enough about the brain’s myriad intricacies.
For all that, Williams is convinced our brains are plastic and says we can over-ride them. The key is knowing ourselves: exploiting our brain’s strengths and adapting to its weaknesses.
Her recommendations are reassuringly familiar: take physical exercise, let our brains roam so that they can reset and, despite her initial scepticism, practice mindful meditation.
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