We’re living in a brave new world. Or at least our brains are. No longer ensconced behind the fortress of our skulls, they’re giving up their secrets to new functional imaging technology. Scientists seeking the source of our being and intelligence are no longer confined to comparing the heft and convolutions of dead genius brains to ordinary brains, but can now compare living, thinking brains in action. They can see the physiological difference between the ordinary and the extraordinary, the novice and the expert, and our good thoughts and our bad thoughts – taking us closer to our inner selves than we’ve ever been before. One day, this understanding may make the lame walk, the blind see, the slow quick, and the bad good. But at the same time, our poor brains are being assaulted by less noble technological advances. They’re pulled every which way by television, portable music, the internet, cell phones and multitasking jobs – causing a deficit of attention on a national scale. Which will win out? Will neuroscience discover the secret workings of our most inner selves in time to save us from the distraction and dislocation of our information age? Neuropsychiatrist and noted author Richard Restak attempts to answer that question in his latest book, The New Brain. But alas, the answer is far from clear.
On the one hand, Restak is optimistic. He gives us ample proof throughout the book of the amazing plasticity of our minds. Using PET scans and functional MRI’s, science has recorded not only the differences between the ordinary and the extraordinary brain, but the rewiring of the ordinary toward the extraordinary with the right kind of learning. He documents cases of the blind learning to see, the paralyzed learning to move, and the dyslexic learning to read which prove that our brains’ internal circuits are not hard-wired, but amazingly supple and open to infinite remodeling.
On the other hand, he is also very pessimistic. With very little proof, but much reliance on pop psychological theory, he blames cell phones and our noisy, fast, culture for attention deficit disorder, a condition which he describes as “epidemic.” He takes that theory one step further to suggest that our modern distractions are, in fact, rewiring our brains to make attention deficit not a disorder, but the norm. In a similar vein, he argues that television is rewiring our brains toward violent inclinations. Noting studies that show decreased activity in the orbitofrontal cortex of the brain (the center of our inhibitions) when we think aggressive thoughts and others that show a correlation between the number of hours of television watched a day and an inclination to assault others, Restak makes an astounding leap in logic. Television must be rewiring our inhibition centers, turning them off or turning them down so that we give in to our basest tendencies. But surely, there are other reasons for the correlation between television viewing and violence. Whatever it is that gives a person enough free time to watch more than three hours a day of television – unemployment, willful idleness, depression – might just as likely be the source of the violence. Idle hands are the devil’s tools , you know.
And what about that amazing plasticity the author catalogues so well in the rest of his book? If our brains are flexible enough to learn all over again how to walk, to see, to read; aren’t they also flexible enough to adapt to cell phones and multi-tasking jobs? Couldn’t it be that the information age isn’t making our brains less attentive, but more agile? And if, with the right kind of practice, an ordinary brain can rewire itself to do extraordinary tasks, isn’t it also strong enough to overcome the evil influence of television?
Fortunately, these two theories make up but a small portion of the book. The rest of it is an interesting journey through the state of the art of neuroscientific and behavioral research and its implications for the future. Much of it is speculative, of course, for although we’re learning more about the brain every day, its inner workings still remain a mystery wider than the sky, deeper than the sea.
One interesting facet, though, is that most of the groundbreaking recent advancements that Restak notes have been not in pharmacology as it was in the past twenty five years, but in microelectronics and the understanding of the brain’s electrophysiology. In one of Restak’s early books, The Brain: The Final Frontier, written in 1979, he opened with the prediction that in the year 2000, the Nobel Prize in physics (not medicine) would be given for brain research. That didn’t happen. It was given, ironically, for research that made our burgeoning information technology possible. The very technology that Restak now argues is poisoning our minds. The Nobel Prize in Medicine that year, however, was given for brain research, albeit of the pharmacological sort. Perhaps in another twenty years, nanotechnology will make his original prediction come true, and it will be electrophysiology, not biochemistry, that underpins our treatment of the diseased brain. Let’s just hope that when that day comes we use it wisely.