The modern world: how the brain adapts

The human brain is one of the most complex entities in the entire universe, with so much about it still unknown. One fascinating area of psychological and neuroscientific research is the evolution of the brain to what we call the ‘modern brain’ of today.

Humans are continuously adapting to thrive in our ever-changing social environment. The brain is changing in order to keep up with this modern world, but there are still some parts of the ‘reptilian brain’ hard-wired into us.

The ‘reptilian brain’ refers to the pre-historic parts of the brain that have existed for millions of years. For instance, aspects of the limbic system such as the amygdala, are still used greatly today. These areas are linked to anxiety and fear, and are activated when the brain detects a seemingly dangerous situation and needs to protect itself from threat. In our modern world, we have many ‘perceived threats’ that are not actually physically dangerous, such as exams, presentations and large social gatherings.

Nevertheless, our brains may often detect these situations as ‘dangerous’ and activate the sympathetic nervous system (the fear response). This increases the heart rate, breathing rate, cortisol and adrenaline levels to make you feel nervous, stressed and anxious. In moderation, these feelings are helpful for us to perform at our best, but we do not need to feel like that all the time. This is a good example of when the old adapted ‘reptilian brain’ and the modern world are unaligned and thus sometimes unhelpful.

So, what are the newer adaptations that fit in with our current technology-based world?

The impact of technology and social media is paramount in brain development. Research shows that patience is decreasing with increased and regular social media use, and stress, anxiety and depression are on the rise. This means that new neural pathways in the brain are formed, along with increased neuroplasticity and increases in the default mode network. This network is the state you reside in when daydreaming, contemplating or perhaps overthinking. Too much time spent in this state can increase feelings of negativity. That is why mental health techniques such as mindfulness and meditation are so helpful, as they reduce time spent in the default mode network by anchoring you to the present moment and your external surroundings.

The brain is changing and adapting in response to social media, technology and the adverse consequences of these. However, in order to create helpful adaptations, instead of maladaptive ones, the brain must experience positive social interactions on a regular basis.

A study at the University of Michigan found that even just a 10 minute conversation with another person, in real life, can increase memory, cognition and intellectual performance.

Oscar Ybarra, a psychologist at the U-M Institute for Social Research (ISR) and lead author of the study, said that “In our study, socializing was just as effective as more traditional kinds of mental exercise in boosting memory and intellectual performance.”

A lack of personal interaction creates a barrier for the brain to form new connections, and can lead to increased feelings of loneliness which can lead to depressive symptoms. Although social media and the internet provides hyperconnectivity, it is not as psychologically healthy as in-person conversations that naturally boost mood, serotonin and subsequently motivation. Hyperconnectivity with a large number of influencers, acquaintances and friends takes a toll on the brain as the large volume of information can be overwhelming. This can result in increased feelings of stress, even though social media is addictive, releasing hits of dopamine (a feel good chemical) every few seconds.

The brain is a complicated structure that is continuously regulating itself to the external environment. Whilst parts of the pre-historic brain are still intact and potentially mal-adaptive, new stimuli from a technology-heavy modern world also have challenges to brain function and adaptation. To boost brain health in the long term, it is important to consider the impact that technology and social media has on the adapting and developing brain.

Featured image by Gaspar Uhas on Unsplash

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