Friday 20 September 2019

Is it possible to make your brain smarter? Expert reveals how our busy lives can affect our brain health

Is it possible to build a smarter brain?

(Stock picture)
(Stock picture)

Professor Iain Robertson

I realised I was hooked when, in the seven seconds it took to go up the Connolly Station escalator, my finger was stabbing the iPhone, checking for email. This restless swiping of its silky-smooth screen, this filling of every spare moment in the day, was, I suddenly realised, a problem - not least because I stumbled like the technology-intoxicated drunk I am off the top of the escalator into the station.

Across the concourse, everywhere I saw swiping fingers and a blur of texting thumbs, flickering eyes a perfect reflection of an underlying mental restlessness. There was a time when the people across from me on the train would be reading, chatting or resting in a dazed half-dream as their eyes trawled the passing landscape.

But now almost every head is bowed into its tiny arc of uncannily bright light, a pale up-glow on their faces. No wandering daydreams across a passing countryside for this lot. And not for me either, with these seven-second voids in my life to be filled quick before something else takes their place.

So what could that something be? What is this pressure to fill our minds with information, data and images? Part of it is simple habit. I started biting my nails aged six simply because I saw a girl I fancied biting hers. With repetition, it became a near-impossible-to-break habit that took months to eliminate. The seduction of a new message laid out in the silky glow of a smartphone screen is a much more potent habit-former than the satisfyingly crunchy give of a nail between teeth.

But the other reason we fill our minds so continuously is that we get edgy - maybe even a little anxious - when we stop. Take a moment to imagine that you have left your smartphone at home. How do you feel? Edgy, in most cases I bet.

So what's the problem?

The most valuable material in the world is between your ears - your brain. And the most valuable resource in the world is something your brain produces - attention. Attention is the gateway to consciousness, to memory, to learning and to problem-solving.

Attention is you, that flow of awareness, that slow river of memory and anticipation you swim through in life.

And attention is the most valuable traded commodity in the modern world. The biggest and most successful companies in the world, with capital values many times greater than those of whole countries, make their profits by trading in attention. Google, Facebook and many others make most of their money from advertising - from the trillions of clicks we make while hunched over our phones.

Each few seconds of attention you give to that new alert on your phone contributes to these profits. Great, you might think - it costs me nothing. But it does, as one study showed.

People in their early seventies listened to a story and then were asked to recall as much of it as they could. They then either sat engaging in 'wakeful resting' for 10 minutes - equivalent to gazing out the train window mindlessly - or they played a spot-the-difference computer game.

Those who had rested for the 10 minutes after learning the story remembered 20pc more of it half an hour later than those who had played the game. Amazingly, and more importantly, these effects lasted a full seven days.

And it wasn't the case that they were frantically rehearsing the story while wakefully resting - debriefing afterwards showed that very little of that went on. These effects, known as consolidation, were an automatic process of laying down the memory that goes on in the resting brain, but not in one which is full-on engaged with technology.

So you do pay - and a very high price - for access to these wonderful digital platforms. You sell your attention, and that is a Faustian pact because your attention is you. By constantly engaging my brain in every seven-second vacant slot, I am stopping it doing the backroom work of storing memories securely so they can be retrieved later.

If you are digging the garden or running, your body needs to stop and rest every so often. The same is true for your brain - it needs breaks to sort out and store the most important of the trillions of bits of information that bombard us every hour. Without these breaks, life becomes a blur and a blurred life seems like a faster and shorter one.

But technology's trade in attention means it needs us to be in a blur because our attention is money. So our brains have to do the equivalent of running, or digging the garden, without a break. Something has to give - in this case, our memory.

But the no-rest brain has other consequences - not just on our memory and learning. In one study, young adult Facebook users were texted five times per day for two weeks to ask about their mood and Facebook usage. The more people used Facebook at one time point, the more their life satisfaction declined over time afterwards.

Attention is not only the gateway to our memory, it is also the archway to our emotions.

We feel happy when we pay attention to positive events or memories and we feel sad when attending to negative or depressing thoughts.

Facebook can be a challenging place for young adults because it is easy to find people there who are more popular, happier, attractive and successful than you, and so your attention is more readily filled with negative rather than positive thoughts.

Research shows that people who can focus their attention on what they are doing - even if that is a chore like washing dishes or reading a boring document - are on average happier than those who are prone to mind wandering.

This is not the sort of deliberate mind wandering of train journeys or lazy days on the beach - that is often good and likely to help us solve problems and come up with creative ideas. It is the mind wandering that happens in spite of ourselves, when we should be paying attention to what we are doing, that drags our mood down.

When it comes to our brain health, technology is not the problem in itself - it is how we use our own brains that matters and, in particular, what we do with our attention, impacting as it does on our memory, thinking and emotions.

The way we use our brains affects how good our memories are, how well we can think and solve problems, and how happy we are. This is brain health. We know that good physical and cardiac health will protect us to some degree from heart disease. What is less well-known is that good brain health can protect us partially from an even more frightening disease - dementia.

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