Brain change in a world of digital disruption

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About a month ago I finished an amazing book called “Switched On” by John Elder Robison. It tells the true story of how he underwent a “brain change” and emotional awakening, using an emerging science called brain stimulation.

To me the book highlights the changes occurring in our world and how we need an even greater awareness of human emotions as we rely more on human-to-computer interfaces and computer-to-computer interfaces. The digital world is where we often meet people today, but we must not lose the ability to connect on an emotional level, something people with autism and Asperger’s — like Robison — can have trouble doing.

In the book Robison talks about his transformation using TMS (Transcranial Magnetic Simulation) as therapy to tap into his emotions. The story is empowering. And from my own perspective, as someone who seems to “get” computers more than I do people, I can relate to the need to work hard at small talk and sometimes be completely oblivious to the feelings of others.

But I wonder if changing your brain is the best approach? Do you lose something in that process?

Sometimes, in order to look forward and understand yourself better, you have to look back.

When Robison goes through TMS he finds that he looks back on his memories with a different perspective and a new filter. He understands more about his relationships and the emotional intent behind the interactions, and this newfound ability allows him to understand his memories better. As an indirect result, his memories change. People he once thought were nice to him were suddenly seen to be ridiculing him. To have this newfound insight must be fascinating and scary at the same time. Alas he lost a few friends through this process.

I recently had my own brush with the past that yielded insights. A new colleague of mine introduced himself a few months ago and said, “I know you. Were you the Sarah James from Client X many years ago?” “Yeahhhhh,” was my intrepid response.

He then reminded me of a lovely email I had sent about emigrating to Australia, how I gave him hints and tips about upheaving his family to the other side of the world. He had even kept a copy of this email and was very proud to show me.

In my head, I was proud of my former self and vowed to be more kind like this on a daily basis. And I know this is part of my personality I would never want to change.

But imagine if we lived in an age in which we could change the way we think. Maybe an alarm would come on when self-doubt took hold, or when your perception was distorted or group think was evident. Wouldn’t that be an interesting world to live in?! We would be, ultimately, very aware of our own and others’ thoughts, as well as the consequences of our thoughts and actions.

In computing language, the way in which the brain processes is similar to what is called distributed processing. Our brains seem do it on the fly, and can grow and expand depending on what we need to absorb at any point in time. And, with TMS, there’s now a possibility to rewire and change the brain. Robinson talks about the “coming resolution in the treatment of brain disorders” as these techniques and technologies converge. I think the key is in using technology where it has never been used before in ways we have never dreamed of.

But we should be careful not to lose core aspects of ourselves as humans along the way. Think about Sir Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein. Suspected to have autism, they were both able to think outside the box, even though they were sometimes persecuted as a result. If some among us can’t think differently, then how can we reinvent the future?

It can be frightening to look into someone else’s mind and realize they don’t think the same way as you. But that might not be something that needs “fixed.” It could be what makes us unique and leads us, eventually, to great accomplishments.

Sarah James was ANZ lead for Authentic Leadership in DXC and an advocate for DXC’s Women in Leadership and STEM. Prior to leaving DXC in September 2017, Sarah founded the Empowering Future Leaders blog and was its primary author. With over 15 years of experience in the world of IT, Sarah’s specialty is spatial information and includes integration on projects as diverse as mapping volcanoes in Hawaii to delivering high-tech police vehicles.


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  1. […] Brain change in a world of digital disruption […]

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