Friday Brainstorm 13 🧠

New sensory experiences, brain training apps, and digital art

Hi friends,

Happy Friday and welcome back for Friday Brainstorm #13! This issue will largely focus on brain plasticity, or the ongoing change happening in our brains.

You probably know a few things about plasticity, like how children have a larger capacity for learning than adults. I’m here to tell you that's only the tip of the iceberg. The last decade of research have drastically changed our understanding of plasticity.

Here’s an overview of what you can expect:

  • New sensory experiences 🤯

  • Brain training app review 💪

  • Learning to make digital art 🖍️

Let’s get into it.

New sensory experiences 🤯

David Eagleman is a neuroscientist and NYT bestselling author, but I appreciate him most for his talent as a science communicator — using straightforward language to make ideas about neuroscience widely accessible. Livedwired is his latest book, where he attempts to change the narrative around how we think about brain plasticity.

Livewired by David Eagleman

Let's think about human-built technology - an Apple Watch, for instance. We buy a specific model (hardware) and install apps (software) to help us accomplish whatever we need to do. This is a plastic system that depends on apps to adapt the functionality. If a new model comes out with heart-rate monitoring capabilities, however, we can't just install an app or update our watch. We would need new hardware.

This is where the hardware-software metaphor breaks down for understanding the brain. Unlike our technology, our neurons (hardware) are constantly redesigned by input through our senses (software). If we encounter a problem that we're not currently equipped for, we don't need a new brain - it can change itself dramatically to meet the demands.

Eagleman introduces a new term to describe a dynamic, adaptable, information-seeking system like our brain - alivedwired” system.

To illustrate this, consider our five senses: touch, smell, sight, hearing, and taste. You might think that there is something special about them, but to our brain, it really doesn't matter kind of sensory organs we have.

Eagleman calls this the Potato Head model of evolution - our sensory organs are just plug-and-play peripheral devices.

Mr. Potato Head Costume for Adults Inflatable

“Whatever information the brain is fed, it will learn to adjust to it and extract what it can. As long as the data have a structure that reflects something important about the outside world”

In other words, our senses are arbitrary. Over the course of evolution, random mutations led to the senses we have and the brain simply figured out how to use them.

Here's why this matters:

Sensory Substitution

What if you could stream the sound environment around you and convert it into touch on your skin? Would you be able to hear through your touch?

Turns out, the answer is yes. I briefly touched on this in an earlier newsletter, but Eagleman's startup created the Buzz, a wearable wristband that enables deaf people to hear the world via vibrations.

You can now expand your sensory experience. It's all in the wrist.

Here is one user's experience:

“Philip reports he can tell when his dogs are barking, or the faucet is running, or the doorbell rings, or his wife calls his name (something she never used to do, but does routinely now).”

Importantly, Philip isn’t just interpreting the buzzing on his wrist. After some training, he has the sensation of distinct sounds in his head! In other words, the brain has learned how to translate the vibrations into a perceived sound in real-time.

If you're curious to read about the experiences of deaf people using the Buzz device, check out the startup's blog.

Sensory Addition

Beyond expanding senses to take in more of what they normally do, could we create entirely new senses?

“Given our current knowledge, there’s no end to imagining the sensory expansions we’ll build: vision in other parts of the electromagnetic spectrum, or ultrasonic hearing, or being plugged into the invisible states of your body’s physiology.”

Here are a few wild possibilities:

  • a surgeon feeling patient data so that they don't have to look up at the monitor during an operation

  • a trader perceiving real-time data from the stock market

  • a long-distance couple feeling each other's biometric data

You might not want any of these applications in your own life, but this is only meant to help you imagine that landscape of possibilities.

What will these things feel like? It’s impossible to describe. This much is clear: it won’t just feel like a buzz on your wrist. Over time, your brain will internalize the new data stream as an internal sense, much like sight or hearing.

What I’ve described so far is just a few ideas in this brilliant book. Check it out:

👉 Livewired: The Inside Story of the Ever-Changing Brain 👈

App review: Brain Training 💪

In the last newsletter, I reviewed book summary apps — exploring the neuroscience behind why they aren’t effective and how they could be improved. I decided this would be a recurring segment, called App Review.

This week, I’m looking into the world of brain-training with apps like Lumosity, Elevate, and Peak. All of these services make claims about increasing your mental fitness and slowing cognitive decline. The idea is simple — create simple games that train cognitive tasks and track people’s progress over time.

While we do see improvements on the games people trained on, the benefits don’t extend outside the context of the games. Unless you just want to get better at the games themselves, you’re not getting the advertised cognitive benefits.

In 2014, a group of scientists released a statement that there isn’t enough scientific evidence to suggest that brain games improves cognitive abilities or slows decline.

“The promise of a magic bullet detracts from the best evidence to date [...] cognitive health in old age reflects the long-term effects of healthy, engaged lifestyles.”

Now that we’ve established that they don’t work as advertised, I do think there is potential for a mental fitness industry in the future. Let’s explore a few possibilities:

Benchmarking your cognitive capacity

While it’s true that the benefits don’t generalize outside of the games, we can still use this to our advantage. If we’re trying a new diet, exercise routine, or sleeping more — it might be useful to track how much it’s improving your mental abilities. By playing the games before and after the health change, we can quantify the improvement!

On the flip side, if you’re finding yourself trending towards a less healthy lifestyle, seeing the negative effects on your cognitive capabilities might be a game-changer.

It’s easy to imagine this integrating with health wearables and adding a cognitive dimension to the metrics tracked.

Real-time biofeedback

A month ago, I wrote an article that argued our capacity to sustain attention is something we can train, like a mental muscle.

The problem with the status quo is that progress is subjective and hard to measure. But what if you could monitor your focus levels on a moment-by-moment basis?

Recent advances in brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) have made this a real possibility. Having a real-time measure of the cognitive ability you’re training might be pivotal in making brain training games truly effective.

Even if “training” isn’t an effective model, BCIs will help people learn more about their patterns of focus and potentially find new strategies to manage distractions.

If you’re curious, the article imagines a futuristic BCI-enabled VR game for focus:

👉 BCI 2022: Peloton for the Mind 👈

Learning to make digital art 🖍️

I've been taking a little break from writing full blog posts. In the meantime, I've been learning how to make digital art.

With the pandemic, everyone's feeling a little more lonely and confined. I really like the way that the artists behind Pavlov Visuals captured this feeling in their work.

I spent a good chunk of Sunday imitating their pieces. Here’s the result:

Hoping to post more digital art as I get better at this!

I hope you’ve enjoyed this edition of Friday Brainstorm! What did you think? Anything that stood out or sparked your curiosity? Let me know by replying to this email.