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

North & South - - In This Issue -

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.”

Caro­line Wil­liams

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.

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