The Fact or Myth of Brain Hacking

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The Fact or Myth of Brain Hacking. Over the past 100 years, our understanding of the human brain has expanded from the 47 brain regions known in 1909 to the modern human brain map with 98 regions in the cortex alone.

The last two decades were particularly productive in terms of new discoveries thanks to recent advances in technology and a number of brain research initiatives in the US, EU, Japan and other countries. Examples of some prominent and far-reaching discoveries include the following:

– Stanford University made a key breakthrough with a new bifocal microscopy technique called COSMOS which show how decisions light up the brain;

– researchers at the University of Birmingham uncovered how our brain helps us to perform highly skilled tasks

– at the University of Melbourne, scientists created and successfully tested tiny implants which allow paralysed patients to control a computer;

– researchers at the University of Cambridge discovered that tuning into the unique brainwave cycles of human brains dramatically speeds up learning in adults.

These are just a few of many truly incredible breakthroughs of our generation. And yet, the more we learn about the brain, the more we realise the limits of our knowledge and understanding.

This ever-increasing interest in the human brain and mind and the intense love and fascination with all things “neuro” (known as “neurophilia”) creates a fertile environment for “neuromyths” – misconceptions generated by a misunderstanding, a misreading, or a misquoting of facts scientifically established (by brain research) to make a case for the use of brain research in different contexts. The term itself was first introduced in an OECD report in 2002. 

One of the well-known neuromyths is that we only use 10% of our brain and that we have a huge untapped brain reserve which, when unlocked, can lead to incredible results, as illustrated by the films Lucy (2014) with Scarlett Johansson and Limitless (2011) with Bradley Cooper.

The latest developments in functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), and other brain imaging techniques proved that, in reality, we are using all our brains all the time, although not all our neurons are “firing” simultaneously at any given time.

Does this mean that we don’t have any untapped potential and can’t develop our brains and performance beyond what we have now?

Fortunately, we are not “stuck with” the brains we are born with. Our brains have an extraordinary ability to change in order to adapt, learn and recover thanks to a phenomenon known as “neuroplasticity” – developing new neural pathways in the brain as a result of our experiences (new information, sensory stimulation, development, damage or dysfunction). For anyone interested in the secrets of the cutting-edge science of neuroplasticity, “The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph From the Frontiers of Brain Science” by Norman Doidge is a must-read book.

The “father of neuroscience” and Nobel Laureate once said:

“Every man can, if he so desires, become the sculptor of his own brain.”

Santiago Ramon y Cajal

And this is where “brain hacking”, also known as “mind hacking” (the application of techniques and/or technologies to affect one’s mental state, cognitive processes or level of function) can become very useful.

Up until recently, it was one of the favourite topics of SciFi literature and movies. However, research into brain waves and neuroplasticity proves that it is possible, after all. Furthermore, brain hacking is now seen as a distinctive approach to personal development aiming to enhance cognitive function, optimise efficacy and increase a sense of happiness.

Martin Dresler and his colleagues pointed out the three clusters of cognitive enhancement strategies:

  • biochemical (nutrition, natural remedies, recreational drugs, pharmaceuticals and body derivatives);
  • physical (implants, electrical stimulation, optical stimulation, acoustic stimulation and gadgets);
  • behavioural (physical exercises, sleep, meditation, learning a foreign language, mnemonics and computer training).

They argued that cognitive enhancers with the most wide use and longest history are probably behavioural strategies. A rapidly growing body of evidence shows that these everyday activities significantly improve cognitive functioning and wellbeing.

With this in mind, in my new series of articles about brain hacking, I will be focussing on some key evidence-based strategies and techniques which are simple, accessible and highly effective in helping you improve your brain and enhance your performance.

Are you curious? Great! My next article will follow soon.