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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

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As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters and more, SharpBrains is an independent market research firm tracking health and performance applications of brain science.

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