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Why “Untrained Brains Are A Bit Like Puppies,” And How To Put Together the Building Blocks of a Smarter, Happier Mind

As a child, I was con­vinced that my dad just went to work to play. My father was a neu­ro­sci­en­tist at Bay­lor Uni­ver­si­ty, and his office was full of bright­ly col­ored blocks to test intel­li­gence, books by MC Esch­er to study per­cep­tion, and even a sound­proof room cov­ered in blue foam that I thought was for gym­nas­tics (but lat­er learned was for study­ing brain waves dur­ing sleep). My favorite room in the office, though, was a com­put­er lab down the hall labeled “Play Room.” In this small clos­et of an office, there were three com­put­er sta­tions fea­tur­ing the lat­est tech­nol­o­gy on the mar­ket. In 1985, when I was bare­ly five years old, I remem­ber sit­ting on my dad’s lap as he taught me how to fill a screen on a Mac Clas­sic with a fence-like pat­tern and then print it out on a space-age dot matrix print­er. I was fas­ci­nat­ed. We lit­er­al­ly believed that com­put­ers were just fun puz­zles to solve, and we would explore every menu item and but­ton until the screen froze, then turn off the com­put­er and slink out of the room as if noth­ing had hap­pened.

What we didn’t know at that time was that we were part of a new gen­er­a­tion grow­ing up believ­ing that com­put­ers were tools for explo­ration and adven­ture, and that our mind­set of curios­i­ty and explo­ration was actu­al­ly a crit­i­cal com­po­nent in devel­op­ing an abil­i­ty to absorb infor­ma­tion and inno­vate. As we look to the future, hav­ing a growth mind­set about how tech­nol­o­gy can help us under­stand, rou­tinize, and rein­force pos­i­tive behav­iors will undoubt­ed­ly be inter­twined with our abil­i­ty to strive after our poten­tial.

No one under­stands this bet­ter than the fac­ul­ty and stu­dents at the MIT Media Lab in Cam­bridge, MA, who aim to open the public’s mind to com­ing pos­si­bil­i­ties. In the spring of 2016, I had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to vis­it the gor­geous muse­um-like Media Lab facil­i­ty, which is like a mod­ern-day dig­i­tal play­ground. I met with Javier Her­nan­dez, a PhD stu­dent in the Affec­tive Com­put­ing Group, to pick his brain about how tech­nol­o­gy will shape the future of hap­pi­ness. Her­nan­dez was part of a research team that devel­oped the MIT Mood Meter, which was intend­ed to be an artis­tic instal­la­tion rep­re­sent­ing the mood of peo­ple on cam­pus. As indi­vid­u­als passed one of four Mood Meter loca­tions, they could see them­selves on the large screen while a com­put­er algo­rithm ana­lyzed the inten­si­ty of their smile. Instan­ta­neous­ly, their image would appear as either a neu­tral face or smi­ley face. Data was then col­lect­ed in real time over ten weeks to explore trends on ques­tions such as, “Do midterms low­er the mood?”; “Does warmer weath­er lead to hap­pi­ness?”; and “Are peo­ple from one depart­ment hap­pi­er than oth­ers?”

While the dig­i­tal play­ground can be awe-inspir­ing and fas­ci­nat­ing, it also presents new chal­lenges that we must learn to over­come. Our deci­sion-mak­ing can either derail us or dri­ve us toward our poten­tial. We can use per­sua­sive tech­nol­o­gy and pos­i­tive psy­chol­o­gy in tan­dem to ele­vate our mind­sets and begin to bench­mark change for sus­tain­able growth.

Untrained brains are a bit like pup­pies, devel­op­ing “a mind of their own” and caus­ing a cas­cade of con­se­quences. If you have ever raised a pup­py (or a child, for that mat­ter), you will under­stand how shock­ing it can be when your adorable angel first gets that glint in his or her eye. I remem­ber the morn­ing that this hap­pened to me with our new pup­py. I was run­ning late for work, and my pup­py was tak­ing an epic morn­ing stroll to find the per­fect spot to do her busi­ness. The moment that she fin­ished, I swooped in impa­tient­ly to pick her up, but she looked me square in the eye and did a side-lunge-juke to evade me, then squeezed through my fence and dashed into my neighbor’s mud­dy gar­den with the joy­ful bound of a gazelle. I chased after her; I scold­ed her; I even tried to trick her into com­ing with a treat. But in that moment, I real­ized with cha­grin that I had nev­er both­ered to teach my pup­py the all-impor­tant recall com­mand “come,” as in, “come here right now, darn it!” I had under­es­ti­mat­ed my puppy’s grow­ing mind and the need for atten­tion train­ing.

Like­wise, we fail to train our brains to “come” when called, assum­ing that our minds oper­ate on autopi­lot and will act in our best inter­est. Yet, as we all know from per­son­al expe­ri­ence, when chal­lenges come, our bod­ies aren’t always well-trained to respond on com­mand. Some­times our bod­ies take over, resort­ing to a “fight or flight” response, and instead of behav­ing in our best inter­est, our mind turns into a mis­chie­vous gazelle-pup­py-on-the-run. In the­o­ry we would like the mind to lis­ten to us obe­di­ent­ly, but in fact it will not—chiefly because we have nev­er taught it how. We either didn’t even know it was pos­si­ble or had no idea how to do so.

For­tu­nate­ly, the last two decades of research in the field of pos­i­tive psy­chol­o­gy have revealed that train­ing our brains is not only pos­si­ble, but that doing so can actu­al­ly change the shape and func­tion of our brains by improv­ing neur­al plas­tic­i­ty (you can, in fact, teach an old dog new tricks), increas­ing gray mat­ter (the den­si­ty of brain cells that dri­ve how fast you can move, learn, and sense things around you), and strength­en­ing neur­al net­works (the path­ways for our brain to talk to itself and the rest of the body). The best part is that you don’t have to be a neu­ro­sci­en­tist to start train­ing your brain, nor do you need sophis­ti­cat­ed equip­ment.

Believ­ing that your behav­ior mat­ters is at the heart of train­ing your brain. While this idea is not new—numerous sci­en­tists, reli­gious gurus, and thought lead­ers have pre­ced­ed me in espous­ing this idea—the Dig­i­tal Era has opened a new fron­tier of under­stand­ing how we can get strate­gic about brain train­ing by using tech­nol­o­gy to rein­force pos­i­tive behav­iors in our lives.

–This is an excerpt from The Future of Hap­pi­ness: 5 Mod­ern Strate­gies for Bal­anc­ing Pro­duc­tiv­i­ty and Well-Being in the Dig­i­tal Era, (Ben­Bel­la, April 2017), by Amy Blank­son. Amy’s new book brings her years of expe­ri­ence in hap­pi­ness research and con­sult­ing to deliv­er a roadmap for those feel­ing over­whelmed by the wave of tech­nol­o­gy. She has a BA from Har­vard and a MBA from Yale School of Man­age­ment. She has been called upon by the likes of Google, NASA, the US Army, and the Xprize Foun­da­tion to con­sult on pos­i­tive psy­chol­o­gy strate­gies.

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