Change Work June 2013

The ghost in the machine

You can't have missed all the recent publicity and discussion about information technology: how we've come to depend on it and how it might now be used to spy on us. There could be an interesting article in how the power to gather information, initially with benevolent intentions, can eventually corrupt those who wield it.  But this isn't that article. (Besides, you never know who might be looking!)

As well as the profound changes in communication that we're still going through, technology has also accelerated the pace of fundamental research. The sheer quantities of data generated by particle colliders, astronomical telescopes and genetic mapping projects couldn't have been handled a few years ago. And one field that's making rapid progress as a result of new techniques is that of mapping the brain and relating that map to function.

Regions of the brain have for a long time been identified with certain abilities. For example, I've referred before to David Eagleman's book "Incognito - The Secret Lives of the Brain" where he explains some of the differences between teenagers' behaviour and that of adults in terms of the development of the prefrontal cortex.  And the effects of stroke and injury reveal a lot about which parts of the brain are important to movement, speech and memory.

We can also investigate how the brain can restore lost function after injury by reorganising its connections.  Different collections of neurons take over the role of the missing ones.

This ability of the brain to physically adapt itself is called "plasticity" - and it's not restricted to large-scale repair processes. At the cellular level, making new connections seems to be (at least in part) how the brain incorporates learning.

Now I've had rather mixed feelings about this. For a while now I've found it very useful to draw the analogy between the brain and the computer on your desk or in your hand. And the distinction between hardware and software is particularly relevant.  The argument goes: we all have essentially the same hardware in our heads - what distinguishes us as individuals (and causes all the trouble!) is the software. In human terms, "software" is the collection of mental programs that we run - most of which we aren't conscious of.

Now, neuroscience is blurring the distinction between the physical structure of the brain and learning. So my nice brain-computer metaphor doesn't seem quite so neat.  But on reflection, I don't think it matters that our biological computers work differently from the electronic ones.  The important similarity is that both systems can adapt.  You don't throw away your PC when you want it to do something new, you upgrade the software.  In the same way your brain is continually learning and refining.

So what's the practical significance of all this?

Well, one factor is that your learning and refining is completely haphazard.  You don't draw from a tested and approved set of experiences and lessons.  You make the best sense you can of what happens to you and the outcomes of your own actions. You're influenced by the people around you (and not just when you're very young) as well as by your physical environment.

So the skills, abilities, knowledge and preferences that you have at any point in life - what makes you "you" - is the result of all of that chance experience.  But just because personality can develop on its own doesn't mean that it can't be deliberately shaped if you understand how to do it.

You can change how you respond, how you feel about things that upset you, change who you are - if you want to.  When you experience a problem in life that you can't see a way through, it stems from the limitations of your available programs.  You have the same potential for action as anyone else - it just doesn't look that way at the time because your past experience hasn't prepared you for the situation you're in.  So you feel aggrieved, unfortunate or unworthy.  The fact that there are others who seem to be able to cope much better just makes it worse.

But what they've got is a set of strategies - ways of doing things - that are different from yours and more useful in this situation.  They've learned these strategies unconsciously over many years.  But the good news is that the learning process can be condensed.  If you begin to think about how those capable people do what they do then you'll open the door to learning the trick yourself.

There's a set of tools and techniques that you can use to do this.  But the key is always to ask "how?"

It's so much more resourceful a question than "why me?"