Spark·Q&A

Pandemic uncertainty may actually be good for your brain, neuroscientist explains

Adapting to life during a pandemic may be stressful, but neuroscientist David Eagleman says these changes help keep our brain in shape. In his book, Livewired, he argues that our brains constantly adapt to the changing external environment. He explains how the brain responds to new demands, whether that's living in a pandemic or recovering from injury.

For brain health, 'it's really useful…to be knocked off your path of least resistance,' David Eagleman says

In his book, Livewired, David Eagleman argues that our brains constantly adapt to the changing external environment. (Mark Clark/Pantheon/CBC composite)

Lifestyle changes during a pandemic may be stressful, but neuroscientist David Eagleman says they help keep our brain active. 

Eagleman believes the brain's unique ability to adapt to changes in the environment with amazing speed and efficiency is what makes it "the most fascinating technology" on the planet.

In his new book, Livewired, the researcher and science communicator explores the phenomenon of neuroplasticity — the ability of neural networks in the brain to change and make new connections — while dispelling some common myths around what goes on inside our heads. 

He spoke to Spark's Nora Young about what it means for the brain to be flexible and how the "livewired" nature of the brain can help us navigate through unprecedented times like the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Here is part of their conversation. 

I think many of us are familiar with the basic idea of neuroplasticity — the idea that the brain isn't totally fixed, but that neurons can reorganize and grow. What do you mean by this idea of brains being "livewired"?

We used the term "plasticity" in the field, but I think that term is a little outdated at this point. It was coined because we were impressed by the way you could mold plastic into shape and it would hold that shape. But we now know it's so far beyond just holding on to something. 

I think this is the most fascinating technology we have on the planet, these three pounds inside of our heads. The idea is that it is not only a flexible system, it's a system that's constantly in flux. It's a living, dynamic electric fabric that we have. 

"Livewired" — I use this term to represent this futuristic technology and what's actually happening under the hood. 

Many of us think (I certainly did) that there's a part of the brain that's responsible for a particular function, or a particular sense, or where a particular memory is stored, but it seems like that's not what's going on. Can you explain? 

Actually, part of my purpose in writing this book is to get rid of this thing that essentially is in every single neuroscience textbook that you'd ever pick up: "Okay, here's the brain, this part is for vision, this part is for hearing," and so on. But it turns out it's a very fluid system. 

As soon as, for example, someone goes blind, that part of the brain gets taken over — by hearing, by touch, by vocabulary words. So it's not inherently the visual system — it just happens to be that in most people, because that's where the data cables plug in that are carrying information from the eyes. 

If our brains are designed to adapt, why is it that some of us have trouble learning new skills, or adapting to a radically changing situation, especially as we get older?

Turns out that the flexibility of the brain diminishes as we age. It's actually a really good thing that this happens, because the decrease in flexibility that we have as adults represents that we've actually been building a good internal model of how the world works: how people react, how to speak your language, everything about your career…  

Sometimes, people lament this and think, "Wow, I'd like to go back to the flexibility of a child," but you actually wouldn't — because you'd lose everything about who you are.

The one benefit to this pandemic is that suddenly we don't get how the world works and we have to rethink things.- David Eagleman

How quickly can the brain respond to a change in our environment? For example could an event like the pandemic, where we're suddenly living much differently than before, have an impact on our brains?

There's a million bad things about getting knocked off your internal model, your internal hamster wheel of what you think the world is supposed to be like. But there is one silver lining to this, a small one, which is: it's actually really useful, from a brain plasticity point of view, to be knocked off your path of least resistance. 

And the reason is, as we age, we get this model, and it turns out that while that's useful, what happens to people as they [get] older is that their lives start to shrink and they have less and less challenges to their brain. And as a result, when brains get older and start physically degenerating — maybe with a disease like Alzheimer's disease — they're losing functions. But what happens with people who stay cognitively active their whole lives, even as their brains are degenerating, they're building new bridges all the time. They're always making new connections in their brain. 

So the one benefit to this pandemic is that suddenly we don't get how the world works and we have to rethink things. 

There is a certain creativity that's been happening — everything from technologies to games people play across apartment complexes. All these things that no one would have thought of six months ago, and now everyone's thinking about things in new ways because they're forced to. 

You talked about this idea of mental models or maps about how the world is supposed to operate. But you also talked about the benefits of throwing all of that out. So what's the right balance there? 

What humans are always seeking is a balance between familiarity and novelty. And you don't want to be too far on either side. We love going to Burning Man for five days, but you don't want to live at Burning Man all year round. 

The first two weeks of lockdown was a very weird time. But what happened is that people settled into this. Not that anybody's enjoying it, but you kind of get used to the new normal and you set up new routines within that. It is important during this time to make sure you have routines in place. And also it's important to inject some novelty in there — the fun kind, not the scary kind — by, say, going on a road trip. We always have to figure out that sweet spot. 

This Q&A has been condensed for length and clarity. To hear the full conversation with David Eagleman, click the 'listen' link at the top of the page.

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