© 2018 by Dr. Sam Pascoe

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Is it true you can't fix 'stupid'?

“James Olds, a professor of neuroscience who directs the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study at George Mason University, says that even the adult mind ‘is very plastic.’ Nerve cells routinely break old connections and form new ones. ‘The brain,’ according to Olds, ‘has the ability to reprogram itself on the fly, altering the way it functions.’”




The above is a quote from our last blog--I felt the need to use it twice for two reasons. First, it is an important quote and concept for today's blog and, second, Dr. Olds teaches at my alma mater and--apart from a totally serendipitous appearance in the Final Four a few years ago, GMU gets no cred. So . . .


We ended our last blog noting that the brain's plasticity is both good and bad. We'll start with the bad--traumatic events (bombs going off near us) can rewire the brain so that even benign (car's backfiring) or happy (someone surprising you with a "Happy Birthday" shout out) can trigger a fight, flight, freeze response. This is classic PTSD territory. The brain has been rewired, in an instant, to perceive and respond as if it is in danger.


In a dangerous world, this is not a bad thing. Your ancient ancestors survived because they coded unexpected experiences as danger and proceeded cautiously or defensively. Their contemporaries who reacted with curiosity or vulnerability probably got eaten. Your genetic makeup is programmed to avoid danger, surprise, pain, etc. While this is not all bad, we don't often face saber-toothed tigers anymore and most perceived "threats" are very first-world sorts of things: missing out on good parking places, slight slights at parties, having our favorite team lose a close game, etc. But, we still react as if these were huge calamities.


The good news is that the same process that created the PTSD can be reversed so that we don't respond to benign or happy stimuli in dysfunctional ways. Sadly, this does not happen in an instant, like PTSD does, but it can happen over time. The brain can reprogram its neural pathways so that we respond in more healthy and life-giving ways.


This is where Google comes in--through the side door. Google, and the internet in general, are training our brains to expect--even crave--exceedingly high levels of stimulation. Mouse clicks and screen taps get instant rewards by producing an ever-changing landscape of stimuli. But, just as we are becoming stimuli junkies, we can train our brains to be less needy of these artificially rapid rewards. The first step, however, is to recognize what we are doing to ourselves.


Just as our bodies need periods of physical rest, our brains need periods of mental and psychological rest.


The best things in life, and the best parts of life, take real time. It takes time to prepare a good meal or form a good friendship or hear a good piece of music or read a good book. Mere information can be downloaded in an instant but wisdom does not come quickly. Anything we can do to slow ourselves down, even just a little, will make us a little less stupid.


The Greek had a term for folks who had a lot of knowledge but not much wisdom: Sophomores. The Greek word sophomore is actually two Greek words stuck together for irony's sake: sophia means wisdom and moron means, well . . . you get the idea. A sophomore was a "learned idiot."


Is Google making us stupid? Only if we let it.


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