Think back 2,000 plus years ago.
Plato opens “The Academy” in Athens, Greece and begins holding informal gatherings to discuss philosophical issues with his buddies. As you’d imagine from a group of young men basking in the sun amongst olive trees and prolific gardens, ideas began to sprout. Conversations involved mathematics, physics, science, religion, art, love, hate, and anything else that came to mind.
“Mind” itself, became a hot topic.
What is mind? Where does it come from? Where does it go when we die? Do our animals and livestock have mind? These questions plagued many of the “Early Thinkers” for years on end.
Eventually they concluded that there was a dual purpose for the mind: both as the explainer, as well as the thing being explained.
Dualism was born and along with it emerged terms that helped define the “dualistic” characteristics of the mind. Attention, as a means of focus. Intention, to describe wants and desires. Cognition, to illustrate various forms of thought.
And as new terms emerged over the centuries, they occupied more and more of the brain’s real estate: goal seeking, memory, planning, creativity, desire, imagination, instinct, reason, and more were squeezed into nooks of the brain much like shoving books onto an already full shelf. In fact, in the human prefrontal cortex alone there is thought to be more than 100 terms associated with it.
This notion implies that the brain is a blank slate (tabula rasa). A library that opens upon birth with empty shelves and barren hallways. Experience gets layered into the brain which then forms everything that we become both consciously and subconsciously. Dualism provides the framework to experience the world, as well as how we react to it.
The Early Greek thinkers were right about many things, but the brain as a blank slate (tabula rasa) was not one of them.
The idea is appealing and makes logical sense when you think back 2,000 years. The Early Thinkers were obsessed with the idea of the soul. From there, it shifted to the mind, and ultimately the brain.
But the problem was they carried the luggage of their soul-based, mind-favoring beliefs along with them. And this proliferated largely because there was no understanding of brain biology. There was no way to understand what nerves were, let alone how they evolved over hundreds of millions of years to culminate into the three pounds of Jello we currently have nuzzled into our skulls.
If you were unlucky enough to suffer from a tumor compressing important cognitive structures in your brain, you were simply seen as a crazy person possessed by demons, and you were burned at the stake. There were no MRI machines absolving you of your “demonic” behavior.
While we’ve made unquestionable progress since our toga-totting, free-thinking days, much of neuroscience still adheres to these highly entrenched philosophies. Tradition has designed our cognitive abilities to sit in a nebulous world somewhere between perception and action, and it still resides there today. This is wonderful if you’re a burgeoning researcher publishing papers and attending conferences. But if you’re trying to understand the fundamentals of the brain or how it generates “mind”, it doesn’t get you very far.
5 Reasons Why Brain Games Don’t Work
First, we need a loose definition of what I mean by brain training. I do not view brain training as the ability to get better at some overly specific series of games or tasks.
I view brain training as the ability to create lasting change within the underlying self-organized dynamics of the brain. These changes to the underlying structural and functional mechanisms give rise to a highly efficient, adaptive organ.
- The brain has no vocabulary. The brain doesn’t care about words like attention, creativity, memory, love, anger, etc. Your brain doesn’t care about how we cluster these words into into what we perceive, think, or act, yet this is the brain training we see today. You want to improve your memory? You are given a stimulus to perceive, your brain interprets that stimulus, and then decides how to respond. The problem is your brain has no idea what memory is or your desires to train it. Your brain doesn’t know what is happening in the outside world, and it doesn’t care. It understands the firing of other brain cells upstream and downstream and nothing else.
- The brain is not a computer. Using a brain-computer metaphor, neurons (brain cells) respond to stimuli from the outside world, similar to the way computers respond to a series of inputs. The problem with this metaphor is that unlike a computer, the brain has the dynamic ability to have varied responses to the same stimuli. Imagine this for a moment: put an apple on your kitchen counter and look at it when you wake up every day for one week, and your brain activity will be remarkably different every time you see that apple. The brain does not care about any representations from the outside world. The brain cares about one thing and one thing only: its own survival.
- What is assumed to be distinct is in fact mixed. Current brain games assumes that the brain is composed of distinct regions, networks, and behaviors. You want to improve your ability to focus or hold attention? Then you train attention-specific networks in distinct brain regions with attention specific tasks. You want to improve your intention ability? Well, those are different networks that need to be trained in a different way. This intuitively makes sense as attention and intention are different cognitive processes. But, the fact is that attention and intention are derived from the same neural networks and in many cases, the same individual brain cell! This is a profound revelation in the world of neuroscience, and it throws into question everything that we thought we knew about the brain.
- The brain does not operate in a serial manner. Computers are serial and human brains are parallel. The human brain weighs approximately 3 pounds and contains approximately 86 billion neurons. It is ridiculously greedy, consuming more than 20% of the calories you take in on a daily basis, yet does so generating less power than a 20-watt lightbulb. This means the brain has evolved to be wonderfully efficient. The key to this efficiency is the brain’s ability to operate as a series of dynamic feedback loops. Perception, interpretation, and action are taking place at the same time in the same distributed networks. For comparison, IBM’s Watson with its serial computing power has trouble beating people in Jeopardy and needs to generate 85,000-watts to do so.
- Brain data does not support existing brain training paradigms. To take this one step further, brain data doesn’t support most of what happens in cognitive neuroscience. By default, this makes it virtually impossible to reconcile neurophysiologic brain data with brain games. This is why time and again, study after study, there seems to be little to no evidence that “brain training” does anything other than have people get better at the games they are playing.
From Simple to Complex
The human brain is incredibly complex, but brains in general weren’t always this way. In fact, throughout most of biological evolution brains were rather simple. There were simple feedback loops which enabled organisms to act by understanding what was happening in the surrounding world.
But this understanding required more than just the ability to respond to the outside world; it required the organism to have a built-in system capable of simultaneously acting and interpreting the world. The brain wasn’t a blank slate, even in the simplest of times.
The North American monarch butterfly has a barely perceptible, relatively simple brain, yet can fly thousands of miles during winter migration on a route it has never seen before. Even crazier is that it actually takes 3–5 generations for the monarch butterfly to make a round trip. On its return flight from basking in the Mexican sun, the females fly hundreds of miles, then stop to lay eggs and die. The eggs hatch, and the baby monarch continues the journey, no luggage or map necessary. This process gets repeated until eventually the monarch ends up back at home.
The amazing feats of a monarch butterfly still pales in comparison to what us humans can do. While we haven’t evolved to have the navigation skills of a butterfly or the ability to smell like our pet dogs, evolution has gifted us with an astonishing level of behavioral flexibility.
For too long we undervalued our flexibility and complexity by reducing highly evolved, diverse behaviors into traditionally parcellated categories of perception, cognition, and action. This was understandable 2,000 years ago, and still acceptable 200 years ago, but not today.
Current brain training games do not arise from localized singular areas of the brain, and neither does cognition. A new form of brain training (though I don’t like to call it that) needs to evolve. A type of training that forgoes tradition in favor of mechanisms. A type of training that appreciates the brains preconfigured, self-organizing dynamics and attempts to match those sequences with what happens in the outside world. This makes it less about “training” the brain and more about interacting with a multitude of dynamic systems within the brain to generate action!
Action that enables us to thrive.