This week, we’re serializing another episode of the After On Podcast here on Ars. Our guest is University of California ,San Francisco neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley, who runs one of the largest academic neuroscience labs on the West Coast. His main research goal is tuning video games to combat neurological aliments, including dementia and ADHD.
This may sound a bit like sci-fi (or wishful thinking!), but his work has been featured on the cover of Nature—which is widely considered to be one of the most prestigious academic journals in all of science. Short of a Nobel, peer validation doesn’t get much stronger than that.
We’ll run this interview in three installments. You can access today’s via our embedded audio player or by reading the accompanying transcript (both of which are below).
At the heart of today’s conversation is Adam’s take on neuroplasticity. I’ve known this term for years and long thought I understood it. But this interview (which was first recorded a little over a year ago) brought me a far more nuanced comprehension of the term.
Writ large, neuroplasticity denotes the brain’s ability to rewire itself by forging new neural connections. It was long believed that this ability attenuated late in childhood, but it’s now known to be retained throughout life. I used to think of neuroplasticity almost strictly in connection to “book learning,” but Adam ties it deeply to experience. This can include semi-virtual experiences, like the ones we engage in while playing video games.
Neuroplasticity can have negative effects. The canonical example is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), in which searing experiences rewire the brain in ways that produce lingering trauma. On the positive side, Adam believes neuroplasticity could one day deliver far better therapeutic effects than any “small molecule” drug.
Eat two power pellets and call me in the morning
On a certain level, psychologists have known this for years. “Talk therapy” of the sort popularized by Freud and his acolytes amounts to a series of hour-long experiences built around conversation. But how do you “administer” an experience with the precision and replicability of X milligrams of Prozac? No clinician or teacher will ever deliver the exact same session or lesson twice.
Enter the video game. Gaming experiences can be standardized in terms of events, timing, and intensity. Or they can be personalized within the framework of a semi-standard experience to dial up the training a given patient most needs. Combine this property with a strong point of view on which brain habits need to be strengthened—plus data from high-end brain imaging—and you could have a powerful form of therapy without medical side effects
If you enjoy my interview with Adam, a full After On archive can be found on my site or via your favorite podcast app (search for “After On”). The broader series is built around deep-dive interviews with world-class thinkers, founders, and scientists and tends to be very tech- and science-heavy.
Finally, if you’re curious about the latest episode in the main After On podcast feed, it’s an interview with Great Britain’s Astronomer Royal Martin Rees. We of course discuss some astrophysical awesomeness, like gamma ray bursts. But our main topic is the existential dangers facing humanity in the 21st century. If you find this topic interesting, you may want to check out the four-part essay I just starting posting on Medium.com, called “Privatizing the Apocalypse.”
This special edition of the Ars Technicast podcast can be accessed in the following places:
https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/the-ars-technicast/id522504024?mt=2 (Might take several hours after publication to appear.)