Neural Plasticity

Creating new people

Plasticity of the mind, its ability to change in response to stimuli from the environment, is well
understood. The ways we think, and our emotions, are influenced by what we attend to. What we choose to engage with alters the neurological wiring in our brain. This has been demonstrated in a study of identical twins and the influence of media. Half of a group of twins were shown dark movies, depicting violence and their opposite twin group was shown uplifting, feel good movies. Psychologists then observed their respective groups choices over the preceding 24 hours. The twins shown the dark, violent movies tended to choose to wear darker clothes, contacted their friends less
and reported lower levels of wellbeing. The second group were more expressive, confident and chose to buy and wear lighter, more vibrant clothes. This is important because, more often than not, identical twins make similar choices. In both the Vedic and Buddhist traditions the importance of your choices, in shaping wellbeing, is emphasised. A cause inextricably leads to an effect.

All well and good. It’s quite easy to grasp that if you connect to positive media or positive people
it will impact your thought processes and therefore your mood. Unfortunately in 2008 our ability to choose whether or not to attend to positive influences is diminished by our state of continuous partial attention.

If you go back 15 years to a world without google, facebook, multi channel TV, mobiles, pagers, sophisticated product placement, blackberries, free newspapers, on line game playing and
interactive television, our attention was easier to control. The effect of all of this has been massive and sometimes liberating. People report a greater sense of self esteem through connection. We are also more adept at searching for relevant information, have greater manual dexterity
and our IQ levels are rising. But at what cost? Being tuned in, online, in touch, 24/7 means we are constantly scanning for new information and tend only to be attracted to peak experiences, which fire our dopamine reward structures. We are attracted to buzzy, shinny, thrilling experiences, but easily tire of our brief rewards and scan restlessly for new information. This is the world of continuous, partial attention. Maggie Jackson in her book, “The erosion of attention and the coming dark age” sets out a foreboding future, where people constantly crave stimulation. This constant desire to be partially connected leads eventually to stress and burnout.

A simple example of continuous partial attention is the use of hands free kit in cars. As soon as you
begin a conversation, your ability to read road signs is diminished. If the person on the phone then begins to describe a scene to you, your ability to comprehend the images on the road ahead of you begins to diminish. Welcome to the world of partial attention. People sitting on the tube, listening to MP3 players, living in a world of distraction, oblivious to the sights, sounds, opportunities and threats, that are in front of their eyes. Having partial attention becomes a habit.

The re-wiring of our brains seems to be pushing us to be as connected as possible, but cyber connection is not the same as human touch. From hunter gatherers we lived in small groups of up to 150 and had a handful of close confidantes. Business research tells us that our brains are so refined that they can handle understanding complex relationships within a group size of about 150, thereafter trust, empathy and communication declines. Paul Zak, the economist and neurobiologist, is at the forefront of understanding how, being in the presence of other humans stimulates the production of a hormone, called Oxytocin. In simple experiments, Oxytocin sprayed on clothing makes strangers more likely to trust each other. His research points to the conclusion that we need
closeness and human touch to begin the process of trusting and developing positive reciprocal arrangements.

In a facebook world of 450 cyber friends, this warm touch is absent. A 2002 Stamford University study found that for every hour spent in front of a computer, traditional, face to face interactions decline by 30 minutes. A 2005 Kaiser family foundation study found young people, aged 8 to 18, expose their brains to 8.5 hours of digital stimulation every day. People in their early 20’s have never known the old, slow-connection world; they are evolving into a new species. The drift of populations from small, rural communities to large cities and the advent of affordable digital communication is accelerating this process.

Optimistic futurists foresaw an internet world being one that created perfect knowledge sharing and would eliminate tyranny by facilitating communication. However, our digital tools have created brains which crave connection, but at a superficial level. The region of our brain associated with self esteem is initially boosted by having many connections, but over time it leads to isolation and in some cases mental illness. Loose arrangements of people, who are cyber buddies, but don’t touch, create desensitised humans. Our brains are being re-wired to ask, “what is the immediate sensory
award?”. Our ability to defer satisfaction, a key component of wellbeing, is being diminished. Depth and complexity is lost. Because of a loss of real intimacy, we celebrate celebrity and draw these
imaginary people into our inner circles. They are the common thread that enables people to communicate in the absence of real, shared experiences. Celebrity culture heightens both expectations and fear; fear that we can’t live up to having a perfect body, a perfect marriage or a perfect mind. Our children are more aware of who Simon Cowell is, than God or the queen. They have no knowledge of the Killing Fields or Auschwitz. Apathy is descending, context and wisdom being lost. And with apathy comes a loss of hope and dignity.

The speed at which we absorb, understand and communicate digital information has raised our IQ levels but at the expense of depth of experience. We fish for reward stimuli, packets of information and are loosing the ability to delve deep. Reading novels is declining, serious newspapers are being read less and our graduates in the finance industry do not have the attention to investigate. We see frauds like Enron, Worldcom and now a $50 billion hedge fund fraud. In life the devil is in the detail and we are losing our ability to research deeply. Our superficial scanning means that we are a paying less attention to the emotional signals of our friends and frequently get them wrong. So whilst our IQ levels are rising, the other factors that make us successful, happy human beings are declining. Our emotional intelligence is on the wane, the context in which we operate is speeding up (and speed kills loving interaction) and our intention is becoming shallow.

Digital exposure also desensitises our minds. As Joseph Stalin put it “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic”. Empathy, trust and love flows from true deep
relationships with people in your physical presence and a connection with the natural world. Humanity is facing both an environmental tipping point and an awareness tipping point. We are increasingly unaware that we are unaware.

“Distracted from distraction by distraction”. T. S. Elliot

This Christmas, create a new, tranquil space. Give your brain a chance to re-set itself. Turn off the Blackberry, computer and mobile for a few days. Contact the people you love and share with them an authentic experience. Connect to all that you love and a deeper reality by disconnecting from the

  1. How can you help a person suffering from an attack. You should work on those little changes and work your way up slowly.
    Do any of these factors or triggers sound familiar.
    Though it isn’t easy, attempt to remove as much stress from your life as potential to keep away from nervousness constructing up.

  1. Pingback: “Switch it off” and Connect | Breathe London

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