The Default State

(2000 words, 7-8 minutes to read)

My Beautiful Bubble (MBB) is skeptical about claims that X, Y, Z activities can “rewire your brain” in a meaningful sense.

When we hear “rewire your brain” we think we’re changing what the brain is, but what we’re really changing is what the brain does. It’s more like installing a new program than rewiring a hard drive. Just as easily as I installed a new mindset via habit formation, it can be uninstalled when the habits change, but the mind-hardware underlying either mindset is fundamentally the same.

The analogy here is that there’s a substrate (the brain as a physical entity like a computer, i.e. the hardware level) and there are processes (brain activity as an emergent layer like a program, i.e. the software level). Claims that meditation / porn / basketball / whatever can “rewire your brain” sound like a hardware-level change like installing new RAM or upgrading your graphics card, and therefore make it seem semi-permanent; but in fact most or all change is merely software-level, like switching programs on your desktop. The latter is important and useful, but if that’s all that is going on then we’re each stuck with the brains we’re born with, along with their myriad limitations. I can’t run Fortnite on my Nintendo 64; the hardware has limitations that software changes cannot overcome.

Looking into this, I invented a fun new game: Type any X plus “rewire brain” (e.g. “candy rewire brain” or “running rewire brain”) into Google and see what happens. Any activity or item of consumption I tried would turn up an article telling me all about it. And probably, they’re all correct in the sense MBB points out: anything you do makes a software-level change, and there’s nothing mysterious or exciting about that. So I take MBB’s point.

However, the stated conclusion seems to miss something important. If I was being really uncharitable, I might accuse MBB of proving too much here, as we could use the same argument not just for the brain, but for any organ. Consider my liver: any one night of heavy drinking doesn’t “rewire my liver” in a hardware sense, but rather just changes its function at the software level. But if I drink a bottle of vodka every day for a month, I can promise you that my liver will be changed in every relevant sense. Since MBB also says that the brain is an organ (not a muscle), I think he’d concede the analogy here: if he’d call this “rewiring” the liver then I think he’d concede that the brain can at least be “rewired” negatively. You can break your liver at a real, substrate level, and in the same way (and with some of the same substances) you can break your brain. This is not mere software; you aren’t left with the same liver/brain you started with. There may be no coming back from a really bad fall or crack to the head.

This is all consistent with the brain being robust but not antifragile, which I take to be the cumulative steelman of the two MBB posts above. I think that’s what he means by the brain being an organ and not a muscle, and also what he means by the “mind-hardware underlying either mindset [being] fundamentally the same” in the above quote. Learning new facts or abilities is just what a well-functioning brain does, and some brains do it better than others. Take care of your brain (don’t drink too much, don’t get hit in the head too hard, etc.) and your brain will do as well as it is supposed to do, given the kind of brain that it is. You can’t train your way into a new brain.

…Or can you?

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At the risk of putting words in MBB’s mouth, I think we agree that we can negatively rewire the brain; the interesting debate to be had is whether there can be positively rewired, which is to say, better than it is by default. I think the latter is indeed possible. I don’t really have the right tools on hand to assess how “real” rewiring goes on in the brain (or the liver), but from a practical standpoint I think I can point out some useful distinctions. Let me try to wave my hands at why I think this way.

Consider, for example, how changes in my daily routine have lasting effects, and some are more “sticky” than others. If on October 1 2020 I start going to the gym after months of not, it’ll be hard to get myself up and motivated enough to do it; however, if I go three times a week for a year, then on October 1 2021 I’ll be itching to go and upset if I am unable to. There’s a change in my muscles for sure, but also there’s a major difference in my experience between the two cases, and it’s not in any one specific gym experience. What is it?

Or suppose I try to take up a new skill, like playing the piano. If I start with no ability and no know-how, the first few weeks will be painful and difficult; however, if I stick with it for many months, it will become natural and fun. My fingers will stretch more and be stronger than before (that’s muscle), but also my brain will take more readily to the practice of playing. This change is sticky in the important sense that after enough time, I can quit practicing and retain my gains. If I come back after a few years, my fingers will be stiff but the effect on my mind will often remain. So did I rewire my brain?

These are illustrations of add-on effects and even of lasting long-term gains; in both cases, any one instance of a behavior isn’t sufficient to make a big change to the substrate, but day-after-day repetition can add up. We’re familiar with add-on effects in a negative sense, like the alcoholic’s liver or a rock musician’s eardrums. So I can reduce the question whether the brain can be rewired, to the question of positive rewiring, and now to the question of positive add-ons or long-term gains. How could it be that repeated training or practice can make the brain better than it usually is?

And here, I think there’s a simple answer: the default state of our brains and the default way we use them are poor, or at least, very often they are unfit for the tasks we care about. Even if our brains are merely robust (not antifragile), they will still fail to achieve their fullest potential if they’re constantly buffeted by negative forces or asked to perform tasks outside their expected purview.

It’s straightforward to see this from an evolutionary viewpoint. Our minds were not tailored for the modern environment: we are tribal even when it’s counterproductive; we have high levels of anxiety or depression in spite of unprecedented levels of comfort and pleasure; we work themselves to death playing social status games at the expense of their happiness and health; and so on. Maybe hunter-gatherers were happier than we are, but historical facts notwithstanding, it’s not hard to imagine a mind much like ours but which didn’t have to deal with these built-in failures to adapt. These failures imply that our minds aren’t, by default, cut out for the tasks we give them.

It’s as though we are all unknowingly consuming liver-harming toxins (e.g. alcohol or lead) all the time. Everyone thinks to themselves, “The liver is an organ not a muscle, so just make sure to eat clean and don’t strain it and it’ll be as good as it naturally is”, until someone comes along and tells them “HEY there’s lead in your water literally ALL THE TIME!” Your ordinary routines are not allowing you to achieve the health your liver is capable of. Get the lead out of the water and your liver will improve, not because it’s antifragile (it’s not) but because you hadn’t previously recognized the circumstantial factors that were making it operate poorly.

And our minds do seem to be capable of outgrowing this default state; this fact is nowhere more apparent than in mindfulness practice. By observing your thoughts or sensations in the body as closely and precisely as possible, you become capable of realizing the extent to which you were really not doing that the rest of the day. If you live a reasonably healthy life you will (in absence of e.g. lead in the water) likely have as healthy a liver as you care to have; yet, living a default-state kind of life will lead you to, at best, a merely adequate sort of mind, one which misses our on much of what your mind is capable of. So it makes sense in this picture that meditation is one of the main practices that seems to affect the Default Mode Network, the brain network associated with mind-wandering and daydreaming. This seems to be a case where people are able to pull themselves out of the “normal” state of their mind and reach, however briefly, for something better than default.

The brain is different from the liver in another regard. The liver is operated fully unconsciously; try as you might, you literally cannot affect the functioning of the liver by focusing really hard. But you actually can affect the functioning of your brain through hard work and dedication. Call this a “mere” change of habits or whatever you want, but some of these changes can be sticky enough to warrant calling them real improvement, like piano skill or gym motivation. More fundamentally, you can be more attentive, or charitable, or loving, or rational. You can train in that. And you don’t have to think the brain is antifragile to see why it’s possible.

There is a kind of awakening that comes from transcending your default state, by becoming aware of your thoughts and the internal workings of the mind. It can feel a bit like waking up from a dream you didn’t know you were having. It can even feel like mind is expanding. Speculatively, this might be what flow is.

So let’s come full circle on the original MBB question. Yes, the brain is an organ, and yes, organs tend to be robust and not antifragile. But these giant Homo Sapiens brains are the newest bit of hardware we own, and they were not evolutionarily selected for proper functioning in the modern environment. Reading, meditation, or mental exercise may or may not literally “rewire your brain”, I don’t know. But I see little reason to doubt that over time the changes they produce could be real, sticky, and important. They may allow the possibility to transcend the bad, often very bad, default state of our minds.

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Let me close with a passage from one of my favorite speeches: This is Water by David Foster Wallace.

Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about “the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.”

In other words, the goal is an awakening which might allow us to transcend the default state of mind, within which we often don’t even realize we are trapped. The default state of our brains is sub-optimal, and we can do better.

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