June 24, 2018

Review: My Plastic Brain by Caroline Williams

On sale now.

Looking to change your brain? Sure, we’d all like to be smarter, more math savy, or simply able to flip automatically into creativity mode on command… but are such changes possible?

Science writer Caroline Williams takes us on a fascinating personal journey through the modern world of neuroscience to see if such changes are possible. My Plastic Brain: One Woman’s Yearlong Journey to Discover if Science can Improve Her Mind out from Penguin Random House looks at developments in the forefront of the field, and where we may be headed. This is a very timely book, as the concept of “mindfulness” is thrown around lots these days… we also find ourselves bombarded by an endless stream of digital distractions, all vying for our seemly shortening attention span. Are we modifying our brain, every time we compulsively check Facebook? Should we heed calls for digital detox, made ironically on podcasts and YouTube?

Williams casts a critical and skeptical eye over the current trend of brain training and modification, seeking out the scientific experts in the field. Like us, Williams has dabbled with meditation but is leery of its many purveyors as a panacea, those with the glassy-eyed stare who’ve seemed to have “drunk the Kool-Aid…” I’d agree with the sentiment… meditation is great for dealing with anxiety and putting oneself in a “relaxed and ready,” state, just don’t tell me it’ll cure cancer.

The author agrees that the brain state of anxiety “isn’t good for anything,” and undergoes training to get herself in a mode where she can exhibit the grace under pressure “it’s all good” mentality in formerly stressful situations. She also looks to refine her geospatial sense of direction by wearing a belt around the neighborhood that vibrates (!) giving her the innate sense of true north. She also works to overcome math anxiety, and see if she can give herself a better sense for numbers through brain training.

The author also delves into some fascinating applications for such training, and methods that may be just around the corner. Particularly interesting are the possible applications for chronic sufferers of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. Those who endure PTSD daily say its like being in a constant state of high alert, where the brain seems stuck at open throttle with little or no respite.

The author’s research also delves into an often under-appreciated mode of thought, one that’s just now becoming recognized as an essential mode for creativity: mindfulness‘s relative, mindlessness. Simply put, this is the sort of daydreaming boredom that allows us to start puzzling together old ideas in new ways, as our brain meanders about. Are we losing this trait, as we can now fill every available moment of our lives with tailor-made digital distraction? And should we choreograph children’s lives to keep them gainfully employed with each waking moment?

This might also explain something we’ve noticed over the years, where our most creative thoughts and problem-solving peaks come while out running. We’re away from distractions, and we only grudgingly recently allowed our smartphone to come along on our daily runs, if only to measure and chronicle our daily course.

Perhaps in the end, doing whatever makes us ‘zone out” –whether it be running, mediation, or killing zombies in a video game—are equally therapeutic. The author seems to have brought her anxiety level down and found a way to change settings into a mindful creative mode, something we’d like to turn on at will.

Be sure to read My Plastic Brain for a good look at what’s possible and where we might be headed in terms of brain training and modification.

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