Saturday, September 8, 2012

Kathy Sierra: Brain Death by Dull Cubicle

Environmental enrichment is my new thing, so I took to google to find more data. Here's a relevant blog post I found.

Brain Death by Dull Cubicle
Posted by Kathy Sierra on February 20, 2006, on her Passionate blog:


You always knew that dull, boring cubicles could suck the joy out of work, but now there's evidence that they can change your brain. Not mentally or emotionally, no, we're talking physical structural changes. You could almost say, "Dull, lifeless work environments cause brain damage."

I said "almost", because it depends on your definition of brain damage. What the research suggests is that in unstimulating, unenriched, stressful environments, the brain STOPS producing new neurons (more on that later). But it's only been the last few years that scientists have finally realized that the human brain can build new neurons. For most of the previous century, it was believed that we were born with all the neurons we'd ever have.

Scientists who believed in and studied the idea of "neurogenesis" were dismissed, criticized, ignored. But Princeton's Elizabeth Gould has picked up the neurogenesis ball and run with it. She is almost single-handedly changing the face of neuroscience and psychology.
From a fascinating article in the new print issue of Seed Magazine (my new favorite):

"Eight years after Gould defied the dogma of her field and proved that the primate brain creates new cells, she has gone on to demonstrate that the structure of the brain is incredibly influenced by one's surroundings."

One of the most interesting (and, in hindsight, "doh!") discoveries was that one of the main reasons researchers kept finding NO evidence of new neuron development in their test primates is because they kept them in an environment which shut that process down. In other words, it was the caged-living that stopped the neurogenesis process. By giving her animals a rich, natural enviornment, Gould "flipped the switch" back on, allowing their brains to work normally, and sure enough--the happier, more stimulated animals showed a DRAMATIC increase in neurogenesis as well as dendrite density.
  One summary:
"Complex surroundings create a complex brain."

[One interesting and beautiful back story--researcher Fernando Nottebohm had showed earlier that neurogenesis was necessary for bird songs. "To sing their complex melodies, male birds needed new brain cells. In fact, up to 1% of the neurons in the bird's song center were created anew, every day." Of course, his work was dissed as irrelevant. I mean, come on, these are bird brains. "Avian neurogenesis was explained away as an exotic adaptation..."]

So, back to cubicles. The key to Gould's demonstration of neurogenesis (where virtually all other primate studies had failed) was the stimulating environment. Cages stopped neurgenesis, which she describes as "The neurons stop investing in themselves." She links caged environments with stress, and stimulating natural environments as less stressful, so there is a big assumption here that a dull, boring, unstimulating cube life is also stressful (for the brain, anyway--it doesn't mean the work itself is stressful).

But she didn't just throw them in a natural environment... she also made sure they had a lot of opportunities for play. And perhaps very importantly--frequent rotation and introduction of new toys. I've always wondered why in every game company I worked for (or anyplace with "creatives"), it was assumed and encouraged that people made elaborate virtual worlds out of their workspace, but in non-game/creative workplaces, not so much. While this is often allowed in the cubes of non-game programmers, for the most part it's only the young hipster startups that consider this a primary, essential element of their corporate culture. [Apparently those ping-pong tables and games in those web startups were more than just examples of bubble/VC excess.]

With Gould's work, it would seem, we should not only be allowing employees to, say, decorate their cube, but we should be encouraging it at every turn AND take steps to make frequent changes to the area. (And by "changes", I don't mean rotating demotivation posters). For too many places I've worked, a new "official policy poster" or some new HR thing is about all the stimulating change we got. (That, and the increasingly emphatic signs posted in the coffee/kitchen area about "your mother doesn't work here, it's up to US to keep it clean!!!")
It would appear that blowing your own mind on a regular basis is not just a good idea, it's a key part of neurogenesis. One of the conclusions she came to is that "learning heals the brain." And again, we aren't talking emotionally or psychologically, we're talking physical structures.

She believes that even those who have been in a stressful environment can undo much of the damage by not just removing the stress, but actively introducing enriching and stimulating things.

Experiencing and learning new things is literally exercise for the brain!

That's so cool.

The implications of her work are of course much deeper and more significant than just "dull and/or stressful work environments with low stimulation suppress neurogenesis, which means less or no new brain cells." There are all kinds of social implications as well, although she points out that like most scientists, she does not want to see her work "twisted for political purposes".

But it does mean that the work we are all doing to help our users learn and grow and develop (and kick ass) is a lot more meaningful than just good customer support. Remember, when WE say "passionate users", we mean the kind of passion that inspires people to spend time learning and getting better at whatever it is they're passionate about. So it would seem that it might not be a huge stretch to say:

Passionate users grow more brain cells!

Apparently all work and no play makes Jack not just dull, but dumber. So don't forget to have fun...

Kathy SierraKathy Sierra has been interested in the brain and artificial intelligence since her days as a game developer (Virgin, Amblin', MGM). She is the co-creator of the bestselling Head First series (finalist for a Jolt Software Development award in 2003, and named to the Amazon Top Ten Editors Choice Computer Books for 2003 and 2004). She is also the founder of one of the largest community web sites in the world, Kathy's passions are skiing, running, her Icelandic horse, gravity, and her latest favorite thing--Dance Dance Revolution.

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