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“We are what we repeatedly do.”

This quote, frequently misattributed in online spaces to Aristotle, actually comes from the author Will Durant in his 1926 chronicle The Story of Philosophy: The Lives and Opinions of the Great Philosophers. While not directly attributable to the philosopher, the phrase does capture the Aristotelian spirit quite well. 

As humanity moves further into the 21st century, it seems that science, philosophy’s younger sibling, is beginning to bear out the truth of this sentiment. The more researchers examine the brain and its physiology or the mind and its psychology, the more they pull back the curtain on the fact that the billions of cells contained within our skulls constitute a fascinating dynamism that both changes and is changed by what it interacts with.

We see an example of this in a 2011 study published in the journal Psychiatry Research Neuroimaging on mindfulness practices. Studies on the trend have soared in recent years, and the data hint at some interesting implications. The study found that participants who took part in an eight-week mindfulness program exhibited significant changes in the physiology of their brains, resulting in an increase in the cortical thickness of the hippocampus, a region that regulates memory and learning, as well as a decrease in cell volume in the amygdala, which governs things like stress and anxiety. 

“There’s no USB slot, but it’s hitting your eardrum, it’s hitting your eyes. You have an interface to it, it’s just that there’s a little bit of distance between the technology and the actual neurons.”

This plasticity is one of the body’s most remarkable characteristics. Unlike other organs that more or less take on a singular role and carry it out until they are no longer capable, the brain can and does shift in its functionality. In fact, because the lifestyles and experiences of individual people are so incredibly diverse, attempting to establish a single prototype of our most important organ may be a futile exercise. 

Exploring new physiological frontiers

“There is no ‘the brain’,” says Dr. Tara Thiagarajan, founder and chief scientist at Sapien Labs, a non-profit that specializes in studying the physiology of the brain and its relationship to the physical environment. 

In an interview with Interesting Engineering, Thiagarajan elaborated on the research she and her team have been doing since late 2015, when Sapien Labs was founded. After earning her Ph.D. in neuroscience, Thiagarajan went to work for Madura Microfinance, a financial services company that helps bring capital to rural economies in India. 

Working with data from thousands of villages across the country, she described how she and Dhanya Parameshwaran, her colleague and research partner, serendipitously stumbled upon an untapped field of neuroscientific study. 

“At Madura, we started trying to understand what drives economic success in individuals. These are ecosystems where individuals are often not literate, so it’s a very data-dark ecosystem. It’s very off-grid. The goal was trying to understand what predicts an individual’s success given that there’s no resume, [with] people that haven’t been past preschool or primary school.” 

In the course of administering surveys and questionnaires to the people in these villages for Madura, they came across responses that piqued their interest. 

Three women in colorful dresses carry bundles of wood on their heads as they walk through a green field in Maharashtra, India. Source: Gyan Shahane/Unsplash

“We asked someone if they can multiply two times ten,” she explains. “Or, ‘If you sell ten cups of tea for two rupees each, how much do you get?’ We had this insightful experience where one person said, “I can’t do it because I don’t make tea.” A lot of people were having this challenge of separating the object from the subject, this abstraction. So we said, alright, well, what do you make? And when they knew what they made, then they could solve the problem.”

The two began to wonder what these peculiar responses could mean in terms of brain activity. They were getting ahead of themselves, however. Madura is a heavily regulated financial services industry, not a neuroscience lab. Whatever further work they would do would have to be in an unofficial capacity. 

“But I was quite curious,” Thiagarajan says. “And both of us being neuroscientists, we thought we’d do a little small experiment, not within the company in any way, but she and I on a weekend on our own. We thought it’d be fun.”

“Really where it lands is where people switch to the smartphone. That is when you start to see a change in the spectral features of the EEG.”

Luckily, new electroencephalogram (EEG) devices were becoming available for consumer use at that time. These were far more portable and less cumbersome than heavy machinery typically found in hospitals and labs, and this made it easier to go out into the field, to a village in Tamil Nadu, India to gather data. They measured the brain activity of around 15 people in the area, after which they talked some friends and colleagues into having their brain activity measured as well. When they compared the two groups, what they found was startling. 

“When we started looking at the metrics, it was absolutely stark that these were two very different distributions between people at the village and people that we knew from the city—so profoundly different that, it was like, wow, we’re the same species, but the difference is not trivial. At first, we thought we maybe did something wrong, maybe a misreading. But on the other hand, [we thought] if it is real, it needs to be understood. How are human beings this different?”

According to Thiagrajan, neuroscience as a field has traditionally suggested that there is a prototypical human brain that is similar across individuals. “But the differences are so vast,” she claims. In a sense, Sapien Labs was founded to fully realize the project that the two had embarked upon. 

This is your brain on everything

In the years following Thiagarajan’s initial exploration into the EEG data coming out of the village in Tamil Nadu, her team has since widely expanded the scope of their work. Their paper, The impact of socioeconomic status and stimulus inequality on human brain physiology, includes over 400 participants from both small and remote villages to those living in cities of a million-plus in population. 

Their initial observations of the differences in brain activity between rural inhabitants and city-dwellers were confirmed. 

“There is a fundamental shift between these [two] ecosystems. We’ve got all these new technologies that really change the rate and the scope of stimulus that the brain sees. A lot of people say that we’re going to become cyborgs [in the future]. But what you realize is that all of these technologies, they’re already interfaced with us. There’s no USB slot but it’s hitting your eardrum, it’s hitting your eyes. You have an interface to it, it’s just that there’s a little bit of distance between the technology and the actual neurons.”

Their research looked at what happens to the brain when you change the amount of stimulus hitting those neurons. According to their study, the more income a person has, the more ‘stimulus’ they will buy. Stimulus in this case relating to a number of various factors like education, travel, and importantly, computer and phone usage. 

You, Rewired: How Modernity Changes the Brain
A person uses a laptop while scrolling through their phone. Source: Max Ilyahov/Unsplash

“When you get beyond [a certain economic level], most of what you’re buying is now stimulus. It’s a phone, it’s school fees, it’s bus tickets, it’s gasoline for your moped. When you then look at how brain physiology relates to the change in the stimulus consumption, the more you consume in terms of phone use, you hit this transition. It corresponds to an income of around 30 dollars a day, but really where it lands is where people switch to the smartphone. That is when you start to see a change in the spectral features of the EEG.”

Those EEG scans showed that alpha waves, an oscillation thought to be associated with forming mental images and keeping out distractions, were so weak in rural populations that, for the most part, they didn’t even register on the machine. In contrast, people from urban areas showed a distinct bump in this wavelength. While it’s still unclear what this might mean for our brains, Thiagrajan has a couple of ideas. 

“The mind needs stimulus, and stimulus costs more than food. It’s having a cell phone or a car, and for a lot of the world, that’s very much out of reach.”

“I think the big message is two things. One is that [brain function] depends in some way on your stimulus environment. This shift is more for phone use than something like education. There’s clearly something to do with what kind of stimulus you’re getting that’s influencing this alpha oscillation within the brain. The second implication is that [this knowledge] can allow for a different kind of research that you can’t do when you’re working with a homogenous group.”

This sample variety matters. Most neuroscientific work regarding brain physiology and its connection to technology has been carried out in wealthy countries and on college campuses, where the study sample is already a part of an advanced and industrialized setting. Dr. Thiagarajan says we need to broaden our scope to see what’s really going on with our brains. 

“No one can argue that everyone is cognitively identical. Certainly, some people have more musical ability, others can’t sing at all. There are lots of differences.” 

It could be that those in industrialized cities with access to modern technology and more stimulus overall have increased cognitive capabilities in some areas. If someone travels frequently in their day-to-day existence, for example, even if just to work and back, the amount of stimulus and the rate at which their brain takes in that stimulus could result in them having greater cognitive capability than someone who has no access to transportation whatsoever.

“There’s no way to completely stay away from [politically charged ground]. It matters the kind of lens you put to it. What we’re saying here is, look, the brain is the organ tasked with cognition. Therefore, if we believe as neuroscientists that our cognition is embedded in the brain’s physiology, then there is going to be that relationship [with stimulus].”

The science of social commentary  

While still in its early stages, this work is beginning to open up conversations about how society can better provide for its members. For Thiagarajan, one failing has been the fact that, while we acknowledge that children need proper nutrition to achieve the full physical potential of their bodies, we seem to be ignoring how stimulus poverty similarly affects the brain and its development. 

“I hope people recognize that part of your cognitive capability comes from privilege, of all the resources of stimulus that you have been privileged to have. The poverty line itself came about as a number that allows the individual to have enough calories that sustain the human body to full growth. That’s now at like two dollars a day. But when we look at the change in stimulus, it looks more like 30 dollars per day. Eighty percent of the world lives below this number. I think the challenge is recognizing that the poverty line [that’s been established] for the physical body is not sufficient for the mind. The mind needs stimulus, and stimulus costs more than food. It’s having a cell phone or a car, and for a lot of the world, that’s very much out of reach.” 

Recognizing how stimulus directly affects the brain’s physiological development could be a great way to improve health and educational outcomes. Thiagarajan notes that, since the amount of physical travel a person does is an important stimulus factor, promoting public transport infrastructure could go far in removing physiological barriers for large populations of people, for example.  

“In this transition that we’ve made to the internet, something has fallen apart in terms of the nature of human interaction.”

“People think that [their] privilege of education and being born into a certain environment doesn’t matter—yes, it matters. To me, that’s an important acknowledgment that we have to make. When the stimulus investment into one child is 300 dollars a year and 100,000 dollars to another child, there is a difference there cognitively. We can’t say that nothing changes cognitively if I put my child through school or not or if I buy them a laptop or not. If that’s the case, then why do we do [those things]?” 

Connecting the mental dots

As part of a broader mission to understand the consequences of modern living on the human brain, Sapien Labs released its inaugural Mental State of the World Report on March 15 of this year. Covering data for 2020, it’s the organization’s first annual report that provides, “a view of mental wellbeing trends across eight English speaking countries,” and it offers some valuable insights into the potential connection between the increased cognitive capacity that comes with greater access to stimulus and mental health. 

“This internet-enabled, English-speaking world is feeling really good about their cognition, but feeling really badly about their mood and outlook.”

The survey was given to roughly 49,000 participants in the United States, the United Kingdom, India, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and Singapore, and gives these countries an overall mental health quotient (MHQ) score. This quotient measures “mental wellbeing based on a comprehensive list of capabilities or assets as well as challenges that encompass symptoms across ten major mental health disorders, to reflect the spectrum of mental wellbeing across the general population.” 

Because it was given in English and in an online environment, Dr. Thiagarajan says that this group is representative of those who have access to the higher amounts and varieties of stimulus as shown in her studies, and therefore are likely to have increased cognitive capabilities due to the physiological changes that result from this.  While that might sound like a good thing, she says it’s not the whole picture, and in fact, the report’s findings are somewhat troubling. 

“What we see in the transition from premodern to modern technologies we can see on the mental health side of things. This internet-enabled, English-speaking world is feeling really good about their cognition, but feeling really badly about their mood and outlook and what we call social self. Cognition is not everything, and while you need stimulus for cognition, in this transition that we’ve made to the internet, something has fallen apart in terms of the nature of human interaction.” 

Understanding what that means for human health overall is the next important mission. Thanks to Dr. Thiagarajan and her team, we might be seeing the beginnings of a vast new field of scientific inquiry. 

“We’re trying to make the link between cognition and mental health a little more explicitly. That’s the next phase.”   

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