All This 2020 Tumult Could Make Your Brain Sharper

This year has knocked our brains off of their hamster wheels, says neuroscientist David Eagleman

Darryn King
Elemental
Published in
6 min readSep 9, 2020

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Image: Sherbrooke Connectivity Imaging Lab (SCIL)/Getty Images

We’ve heard a lot about the irreparable toll that the stress of the Covid-19 pandemic will take on our brains, and rightly so. But not everyone is 100% pessimistic about the long-term effects. Stanford neuroscientist David Eagleman says that, in some cases, dealing with this tumult could be good for your brain.

The host of PBS’s The Brain, scientific adviser of the HBO series Westworld, and author of several books on neuroscience has recently published a new one. Livewired: The Inside Story of the Ever-Changing Brain is all about the extraordinary adaptability of that skull-encased, three-pound, jellylike mass called the human brain. In a year that has surely tested the limits of our adaptive abilities, Elemental spoke with Eagleman about what’s going on in his head and ours, cognitively speaking.

Elemental: Very important question to start off, David. Is there a neuroscientific reason behind all of us bingeing our favorite television shows?

Eagleman: That tends to be where the brain likes to be the most! That sweet spot between familiarity and novelty. We’re gravitating towards the familiar since there’s perhaps been too much damn novelty lately.

Have you been looking after your brain in this novel time?

Actually, this is the one silver lining of Covid. It knocks us all off our hamster wheels, of doing things in a particular way, and forces everyone to think of new ways of doing things. Which is actually, cognitively, quite good for you. In that sense, all our brains are forced to be more exercised than normal. Challenging your brain with novelty appears to provide cognitive protection.

What’s happening in the brain on an anatomic level?

For example, in one study, some older people who had remained cognitively active until their last days were found, at autopsy, to have Alzheimer’s disease. But no one knew it when they were alive. Why? Because even while their brain tissue was being ravaged by the disease, they were constantly building new neural pathways — new roadways — between areas that had become…

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