Unlike what many of us maybe are used to thinking, the brain is not just a pre-programmed given at birth with short term memory (REM) and long-term memory (hard-disk). A left and a right side. A center for instincts and a center for ratio and ethics. Recent research is increasingly making clear that one could actually think of the brain as a muscle that can be trained. If we use and challenge it regularly, it improves its performance, if we get lazy and let it idle it deteriorates. Scientists find out by putting people into MRI scanners and let them do different cognitive tasks.
In his new book The Shallows, Nicholas Carr argues that our brains get rewired by the shattered focus that our digital lifestyles stimulate. Our digital lifestyle and always-on culture is fostering continuous partial attention, the desire to be a live node on a network. Office workers can feel the compulsion to check their inbox 30-40 times an hour; research has shown that the average office worker never pays more than 3 minutes of focused attention to one thing. We are changing our brains functioning; we train it to not think deeply anymore. The anecdote of Isaac Newton thinking up the gravity theory whilst lying under a tree is often used to illustrate this. We need to give our brain some time off, if we want it think.
Yogis have known for ages that they could reach nirvana by practicing yoga and meditation. Brain scans of yoga practitioners have shown healthy boost in levels of GABA neurotransmitters immediately after a one-hour yoga session. Low levels of GABA are associated with anxiety and depression. These yogi actually know how to reach happiness. And happy people live longer. The reason is that they have a healthier lifestyle, sense of purpose and are more socially connected.
Understanding the brain is our gateway to be able to regulate mental health. Obviously mental health and fitness of the brain are closely connected, so I see here an important emerging area of attention for a company that focuses on health & wellbeing. It’s going to be an interesting quest, and the brain-machine interface is going to be a crucial enabler for us to read the brain in a less intrusive way.
Published in edited form in Philips Design New Value News August 2010