Virtual “Brain Games” roundtable: Why we can, and SHOULD, train our brains

brainGames_new seasonIn prepa­ra­tion for the new sea­son of Nation­al Geo­graph­ic’s Brain Games, start­ing this Sun­day Feb­ru­ary 14th, their pro­duc­ers asked us to par­tic­i­pate in a vir­tu­al round­table around this thought-pro­vok­ing question:

Do you think indi­vid­u­als can train their brain to respond in a par­tic­u­lar way to cer­tain sit­u­a­tions, or do you think our brain’s innate “star­tle response” is too hard­wired to alter?

Short answer: Yes, we can train our brains…

Long answer: Not only we can, but we should train our brains to respond in par­tic­u­lar ways to cer­tain sit­u­a­tions. That’s why we have a human brain to begin with.

At the core, the ques­tion above goes back to the old “Nature vs. nur­ture” debate. It’s pret­ty clear by now that both mat­ter. As the grow­ing field of epi­ge­net­ics has shown, genes and lifestyles inter­act with each other.

The idea that we are genet­i­cal­ly “hard­wired” for many behav­iors is deeply mis­lead­ing. Yes, we are born with many pre­dis­po­si­tions, but how those are expressed depend on our life­long expe­ri­ences, thoughts, feel­ings and deci­sions. We are ALWAYS train­ing our brains, one way or anoth­er. The range of pos­si­bil­i­ty, while cer­tain­ly not unlim­it­ed, is much larg­er than pre­vi­ous­ly thought.

The new fun­da­men­tal under­stand­ing is “cells that fire togeth­er wire togeth­er.” The brain nev­er stops chang­ing through learn­ing (this is called “brain plas­tic­i­ty”). And the brain, and the mind that emerges from it, is of course the dri­ver of behav­ior. The Brain Games TV pro­gram will explore mul­ti­ple exam­ples of how learn­ing changes your brain, such as what hap­pens to the brains of taxi dri­vers, musi­cians and expe­ri­enced meditators…including how brain train­ing can take over the innate “star­tle response” and others.

Why does this mat­ter? Why SHOULD we fig­ure out ways to bet­ter train our brains and har­ness our human potential?

Sev­er­al years ago I had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to vis­it Oslo’s Nobel Peace Cen­ter. Exposed to so many inspir­ing sto­ries by Prize Win­ners, it struck me what a beau­ti­ful exam­ple they pro­vide of our pow­er to tran­scend our genes and even our “memes” (cul­tur­al and envi­ron­men­tal influ­ences, as coined by biol­o­gist Richard Dawkins).

See this pow­er­ful para­graph by Dawkins, in his influ­en­tial book The Self­ish Gene:

The point I am mak­ing now is that, even if we look on the dark side and assume that indi­vid­ual man is fun­da­men­tal­ly self­ish, our con­scious fore­sight-our capac­i­ty to sim­u­late the future in imag­i­na­tion- could save us from the worst self­ish excess­es of the blind repli­ca­tors. We have at least the men­tal equip­ment to fos­ter our long-term self­ish inter­ests rather than mere­ly our short-term ones…We have the pow­er to defy the self­ish genes of our birth and, if nec­es­sary, the self­ish memes of our indoc­tri­na­tion. We can even dis­cuss ways of delib­er­ate­ly cul­ti­vat­ing and nur­tur­ing pure, dis­in­ter­est­ed altru­ism-some­thing that has no place in nature, some­thing that has nev­er exist­ed before in the whole his­to­ry of the world. We are built as gene machine and cul­tured as meme machines, but we have the pow­er to turn against our cre­ators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyran­ny of the self­ish replicators.”

Please notice these fragments…

  • con­scious fore­sight-our capac­i­ty to sim­u­late the future in imagination”
  • our “men­tal equip­ment to fos­ter our long-term self­ish inter­ests rather than mere­ly our short-term ones”
  • ways of delib­er­ate­ly cul­ti­vat­ing and nur­tur­ing pure, dis­in­ter­est­ed altruism”

What if we can train and expand that “men­tal equip­ment”? What if we are wit­ness­ing the birth of a new “brain fit­ness” cul­ture and toolk­it, com­bin­ing old med­i­ta­tive and cog­ni­tive tech­niques with new dig­i­tal plat­forms, to help us improve imag­i­na­tion, work­ing mem­o­ry, emo­tion­al self-reg­u­la­tion, altru­ism, and more?

Should­n’t we find ways to adopt them, in our schools, our work­places, our lives, and become bet­ter and hap­pi­er human beings?

In my mind, that’s the real brain game.

—> Remem­ber, the new sea­son of Nation­al Geo­graph­ic’s Brain Games starts this Sun­day, Feb­ru­ary 14th

About SharpBrains

SHARPBRAINS is an independent think-tank and consulting firm providing services at the frontier of applied neuroscience, health, leadership and innovation.
SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

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