2 THE BRAIN GAIN
There was nothing much wrong with Caroline Williams’ brain. Well, besides her distractibility, chronic worrying and lousy maths. But could she rewire her mind to be smarter and calmer? Armed with a shopping list of cognitive boosters, Williams went on a b
Can a normal but ageing brain be rewired to function more efficiently? Margo White talks to a science writer who put that theory to the test. PLUS an update on two groundbreaking New Zealand research projects.
Not so long ago, it was thought that when we got past adolescence, we were pretty much stuck with the neuronal hardware we had, the brain shaped by genes and experience in our formative years.
Then scientists discovered the brain can form new neural connections well into adulthood, and often did so in response to injury or disease or changes in the environment. They began to talk about neuroplasticity, the potential to “rewire” the brain.
The brain, we now know, is changing all the time, with neurons becoming more connected as synapses (the connections that send electrical signals from one neuron to another) get larger and more numerous when we learn new things. Inevitably companies saw the commercial potential, and a multi-billion dollar industry was spawned, claiming we could train our brain as we might our body – as if it were separate from our body – to become mentally fitter, sharper, even protected from cognitive decline.
Scientists were sceptical, and in 2014 more than 70 academics published a consensus statement, declaring that while popular brain- training games might improve our ability to play a certain game, there was little evidence the skills learned in these sessions could be transferred to other aspects of our life. They particularly objected to the claim that brain training would prevent or reverse Alzheimer’s disease.
Yet scientists are continuing to investigate our neuroplastic potential, particularly for people recovering from brain injuries or who have neurological disorders, and with some promising results. Sticking with the brain as a kind of organic polymer, then, what does this mean to those of us with normally functioning brains, but which we’d like to function a bit better?
The question is explored by Caroline Williams in her book Override: My Quest to Go Beyond Brain Training and Take
Control of my Mind. When she started looking for answers, she couldn’t find any. “Despite all of the research into the brain’s awesome powers of plasticity, no one seemed to know exactly what we should be doing to apply the science to everyday life,” she writes. “Sure, there are fascinating tales of people harnessing their brain’s plasticity to recover from major brain injuries, but to my knowledge there was no such evidence for the average person on the street.”
Volunteering as a guinea pig, she enlisted the help of neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists in the US and Europe to find out if any scientifically based brain training ( as opposed to commercial forms) could improve the way her brain worked.
There were aspects of her mind she’d like to change, such as her distractibility, her tendency to worry about nothing, her rubbish maths skills, limited navigation ability and so on. “I wanted to find out what I could tinker with and what I couldn’t, because some aspects of your personality aren’t that helpful as an adult, but are so entrenched by then they’re not easy to change,” she tells North & South.
Over the course of a year, her brain was scanned and stimulated with magnetic pulses, she practised all sorts of cognitive exercises and learned to meditate. Did she change her brain? Probably not – but she says she got better at working with what she had.
Wouldn’t it be great if brain training could help focus the mind? Williams, a UKbased freelance science writer with a young child and a tendency to distraction, was keen to try; and working faster and smarter could surely help her earn more.
She approached neuroscientists at the Boston Attention and Learning Lab, who were using computer-based training and transcranial magnetic stimulation to improve the attention span of people with brain injuries, who’d had a stroke, or had attention deficit disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder.
They were initially reluctant; while their approach had been shown to help the patients they were working with, they didn’t expect it would do much for a normally functioning person. But when Williams scored 20 per cent below average in the sustained-attention test, and other tests showed she clearly had issues around distractibility, they decided to humour her.
She ended up sitting in front of a computer as a stream of faces was flashed in front of her, tasked with pressing a button in response to some, and not others. In between, her brain was stimulated with magnetic pulses. This was not to charge it up, as she first assumed, but to dampen down the left side of her brain and encourage the right side to take charge: people who struggle to pay attention show more activity in the lessefficient left side.
After several days of lousy scores and considerable frustration, she found herself going through the paces with Zenlike calm and her scores escalating. Even the scientists were surprised. Had four hours of “boring brain training and a side order of brain stimulation” changed her brain enough to improve her capacity to concentrate? If new connections were made, they wouldn’t show up in a brain scan, but she says it wasn’t about building up her synapses but learning how to “go with the flow” – that is, getting into a state of mind that allowed her to fluctuate between concentrating and mind-wandering without panicking. (Or, putting things more neuroscientifically, letting the mind fluctuate between the dorsal attention network and the default mode network.)
“The important thing was realising how it felt to be in that mental state, to learn how to be the right amount focused and right amount relaxed,” she says. “It’s hard to describe. But there are other ways to get into that state of mind. You just have to experiment. A friend of mine who juggles says she has to get in that zone; so does my brother who plays in a band.
“It doesn’t sound like much, but it has stayed with me. It’s easier if you like what you’re doing, but if I have to read something I don’t want to, I’ll take a deep breath, think ‘Relaxed and ready, here we go’. If I can’t, I down tools and take the dog out for a walk.”
Of course, you don’t need a PHD in neuroscience to know taking the dog for a walk helps clear the brain. This is a recurring theme throughout Williams’ book; while she explored some of the most sophisticated brain-training interventions that science could offer, there were less high- tech ways to achieve the same results.
In an effort to overcome her mathematical shortcomings, for instance, she had a week of brain-training exercises and transcranial random-noise stimulation. Both the exercises and stimulation were aimed at dampening down her fear of maths – the maths-anxiety that was diverting her cognitive capacity and interfering with her ability to solve a problem. She did get quicker and more accurate at the maths exercises, but she concluded she didn’t need to get her brain stimulated or do all that brain training. She just needed to get over her aversion to maths – the
belief she didn’t have a “numbers brain” – and to practise her sums.
“After doing the brain tests, and the stimulation to turn down emotional reactions, I just got a simple maths book, worked my way through it and thought, ‘I can do this’ rather than ‘I can’t do this.’”
She adds, “Although I can’t say I’ve been doing any maths exercise since...”
She might want to do something about that. What are eight nines, then? “Nine eights...” Pause. “54?” No, 72. She laughs. “Yeah, well, that chapter was a success.”
Can brain training help make you less neurotic?
Neurosis, Williams suspects, runs in the family – and worrying is worrying. “Here’s a statistic that worriers everywhere will enjoy: persistent worrying... makes you 29 per cent more likely to die of a heart attack and 41 per cent more likely to die of cancer,” she writes. If it doesn’t kill you, it’s bad for the brain, narrowing cognitive focus, reducing impulse control, robbing the brain of processing power, even shrinking the hippocampus, the area of the brain associated with memory.
Williams, a terrible worrier, first turned to the research of psychologists and neuroscientists at the University of Oxford, who believe excessive worrying is the result of cognitive bias, an unconscious mechanism that processes information in the world around us, seeking out rewards or, alternatively, scanning the world for danger. The direction of our cognitive bias (whether we look for the rewards or for the dangers) shapes who we are – in Williams’ case, possibly as a “reticent worrier” unconsciously scanning the world for threats, such as other people’s disapproval, and consciously worrying herself sick about things that might never happen.
She tried a number of brain-training exercises with scientists doing research into how a negative cognitive bias could be steered in a positive direction, including an exercise in which faces were flashed on a computer screen, and she was tasked with clicking on the happy face as soon as she spotted it. Eyetracking tests showed she was naturally drawn to frowning faces. “And I was really slow at finding the smiley face.”
The exercise is supposed to help you build a better mental habit: by learning to disengage from frowning faces, you learn to also disengage from negative thoughts and anxieties. “So there is something going on before you start thinking, ‘Why is that person looking at me like that, have I got something on my chin?’ But this is a result of your eyes being drawn to the people who you think are staring at you.”
She got faster at clicking on happy faces. “I started off at minus 31, and then towards the end, I was at the other end of the scale; my eyes flicked to a happy face much more quickly.”
But training herself to click on the happy face and skim over the unhappy faces... really? Can that undo a lifetime of negative cognitive bias?
Cognitive bias operates at a subconscious level so it’s difficult to know, but she believes it helps, and that she’s less on the lookout for disapproval in people’s faces, and generally less primed to fret about the sky falling in. It has, at least, made her more comfortable in crowds.
“I’d go to the supermarket and try to get through the queue and pay as quickly as possible, because I didn’t want to have to make polite conversation with a stranger. But then I found myself thinking, those smiling faces make me feel good, so I found myself smiling, saying hello, and having a little chat. I think I’m more smiley to other people as a result.”
She plays the “click-the-happy-face” game regularly, if only while waiting for the kettle to boil. “It’s better than wasting my time on Facebook for five minutes.”
But meditation or mindfulness also turned out to be effective at stilling her over-anxious mind. She was initially sceptical. “Yeah, it seems to have this cult status where people think it’s
The direction of our cognitive bias (whether we look for the rewards or for the dangers) shapes who we are – in Williams’ case, possibly as a “reticent worrier” unconsciously scanning the world for threats, such as other people’s disapproval.
the answer to everything.”
She was asked to bite into an imaginary lemon, eat a raisin mindfully, and lie down and think about the different parts of her body. Later sessions involved thinking about how a pleasant experience manifests in the body, and the way her body responded to unpleasant thoughts. She was, in the end, a convert. “It’s easier to notice what is going on in your body than it is to know where your mind is. If I’m biting my lip or clenching my fist, it’s like an in-road to what is going on in my mind. And then you can work out what to do about it. I found that useful... And just taking the time to sit and breathe feels really nice.”
But she’s still a pessimist. “Despite all the training, all the meditation, everything I’ve done for the book, that score stayed pretty much the same throughout. Even though my cognitive bias seemed to change, my general outlook on life didn’t. I might be more socially chilled- out, but I don’t expect roses all the way. That’s not who I am.”
The brain is complicated, certainly more complicated than the promotional material for brain-training games and populist misconceptions of neuroplasticity would suggest. You may be familiar with the brain- imaging studies of London cab drivers who, having obsessively learned the routes around London, were shown to have a bigger posterior hippocampus, a key brain area for spatial navigation.
Williams wondered if she could grow her hippocampus and improve her own navigation skills, but rather than memorising a map of London, she walked around the countryside wearing a belt that buzzed in certain places to indicate north. “I thought that would help me develop mental mapmaking, which is a skill I don’t have.” It didn’t. Instead, it helped her build a mental map of her local countryside. “From memory I can say where north is, but if I go anywhere else, I’m stuffed.”
As she found out, London cab drivers might have a bigger hippocampus, but they’re not inherently better at navigating. “Take that taxi driver to New York and he may not know his way around better than anyone else.” Moreover, none of the studies that showed cabbies have a bigger posterior hippocampus have shown they’re more intelligent as a result. One study suggested that to make way for their bigger posterior hippocampus, the London cabbies’ anterior hippocampus shrank, and also suggested the taxi drivers performed worse on certain visual memory tasks.
If there were any structural changes to Williams’ brain after more than a year of training and stimulation, they weren’t significant enough to detect on a brain scan. They weren’t significant enough for her husband to notice, either. “I was at a New Year’s party and someone asked my husband, ‘Do you reckon she’s different?’ and he said, ‘No’. I was really shocked because I feel totally different. But it’s very much an internal thing.
“I came to the conclusion that maybe the changes weren’t structural at all; it was about learning how to use what I’ve got, and engage the necessary mental states that get things done, depending on what that thing is.”
As she notes in her book, those wanting to give their brain a workout would be better off getting away from the computer. There’s mounting evidence that physical activity is good for the brain, that it boosts memory, cognitive skills and improves our mood. Exercise gets blood and oxygen to the brain, and seems to promote the release of chemicals called “growth factors”, which help keep existing neurons healthy, stimulate the growth of new ones, and also the growth of new blood vessels.
“So there’s more infrastructure there... it creates a chemical environment that’s good for learning. Which I think is a relief, because the brain-training exercises are so dull. You must have better things to do with your time.”
Williams tried a number of brain-training exercises with scientists doing research into how a negative cognitive bias could be steered in a positive direction. In one, faces were flashed on a computer screen, and she was tasked with clicking on the happy face as soon as she spotted it. Eye-tracking tests showed she was naturally drawn to frowning faces.