Treating our brains like a slot machine

My Outlook

I didn't get to know her very well prior to the accident. She was one of many new students that fall. We had two or three conversations at most before the weekend in September when the vehicle she was in flipped several times and left her with a brain injury.

Our brains are remarkable organs always at work sensing, processing, reasoning, learning, thinking, moving and regulating. I remember being given a rather bumpy-looking diagram of the brain in health class to color and label. I disliked doing tasks like that so much. But when our teacher began talking about how our brains worked I was hooked. To this day I remember a lot of what we studied—and years later recognizing what we didn't study. We didn't talk about how to take care of our brains.

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The consequences of concussions in athletes is well documented. A U.S. federal judge approved a plan by the NFL to resolve thousands of concussion lawsuits that could cost the league $1 billion over 65 years. The settlement offers retired players coverage for Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, ALS and dementia. As of June 10, $659,505,421 in claims have been approved.

Multiple concussions may not be a risk factor for most of us but if we were warned about things that could be harmful to our brain would we take evasive action to be as protective as we could?

We've been cautioned for years about what is happening to our necks, shoulders and eyes due to the amount of time we are hunched over staring at our devices, but are we listening to what it is doing to our brain? The individuals who engineer content delivery on our devices are working hard to get us feeling we need to constantly check in and see what's there. A former product manager for the largest player in the game said it is like a slot machine. Each time we check our phones we are anticipating what we might get: messages, likes, comments or new followers. There are millions of computer calculations being used every moment to constantly tweak our online experience to make us come back for more.They know the best moments to give us those rewards which then trigger our brains to make us want more. Our limbic systems get fired up and the stress hormone cortisol is released. In the right amounts it helps regulate our bodily systems, but as it spikes it interferes with learning, memory and our ability to think abstractly. It's affecting our brains.  

There was tremendous excitement when scientists built the SpiNNaker, a computer that directly mimics the workings of the human brain. The supercomputer was ten years in the making and has the capacity to perform 200 quadrillion actions simultaneously. Yet as impressive as this might be it still can't rival the human brain. "For now," stated lead researcher Steve Furber, "exactly simulating a human brain is simply not possible. Even with a million processors, we can only approach 1 percent of the scale of the human brain, and that's with a lot of simplifying assumptions."

A team of people at the school where I worked were given background in brain injuries so we could better understand how to support our student as she continued her education. Many times I found myself wishing we could return to the day before everything changed for her.

More than half of traumatic brain injuries are caused by accidents. We can't prevent everything that might happen to our brains but we need to do what we can while we still can.

This amazing organ, lumpy in appearance and extraordinary in function, deserves the best we can do for it. Slow down. Wear a helmet. Sleep. Exercise. Read. Talk to people. Put down the phone. We don't need to be brain scientists to take care of our cerebrum, cerebellum and brainstem. We just need to recognize how truly precious it is. That's my outlook.

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