SXSW Interactive 2012

It’s All in Your Brain

by Anita Schillhorn van Veen

14 March 2012

A crash course in neuroscience at SXSW.

Neuroscience is the it-girl right now. A horde of scientists is starting to unpack the funny chemical underpinnings of why we do what we do.  And a horde of marketers, pop sociologists, armchair psychologists, and even game-makers are in hot pursuit.

These brain-junkies are out in force at SXSW Interactive; after all, what’s the deep down root of all human interactions? Panels like “How Brain Science Turns Browsers into Buyers” and “Hack Your Brain for Peak Performance” translate neuroscience into action.

One speaker is straight to the source. David Eagleman, a neuroscientist at Baylor University, is a key player in bringing hard science to the masses. He’s a Guggenheim Fellow who’s written best-selling books like the recent New York Times bestseller Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, and is running the media circuit to bring what he learns in the lab to the masses.

He gets busy by exploring phenomena like synesthesia and what happens when part of a person’s brain goes missing to reflect on how normal folks work—and he says what we think of as free will is really a set of brain chemicals functioning deep beyond our knowledge and control.

So how do you actually use all that information in the real world? How does knowing more about what underlies our brain chemistry help us actually live a better life? That’s where the doers and the makers come in.

Jane McGonigal is a gamer. She defies all stereotypes of gamers—female, adult, fun, and most of all, extremely engaged in the real life world. She’s collected a pile of awards and recognition for her work in advocating gaming as a way to improve the world.

She’s been tracking how brains work to more deeply understand how gaming can make a positive impact. From her research—both intensely in gaming and in learning about brains—she’s built the concept of getting SuperBetter into an online game to help people in recovery or rehabilitation create better outcomes.

Our brains love feeling rewarded, and will respond in kind with the flood of good feelings that come out of a dopamine rush. If games reward actions that are good for us, then we can better develop behaviors that will help us in the long run. SuperBetter does just that, turning recovery from an injury, or any health or personal goal, into a game with quests, goals and power boosts. Looks like we have free will after all.


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