The rat listener

Behavioral neuroscientist Dr. Kelly Lambert thinks the easy life might be hard on our brains

Illustration credit: Katie McBride

The promise that everything you want or need can be but a tap, click, swipe, or “Hey Google,” away, that our devices will in fact soon be able to anticipate our needs before we even know what they are, is the stuff of Silicon Valley dreams. But are our brains paying a price for this outsourced life?

This is the question, both practical and philosophical, that Kelly Lambert explores in her research. Professor of behavioral neuroscience in the psychology department of the University of Richmond, Lambert has focused a 30-year career on studying the relationships among the brain, behavior, and the environment. In particular, she’s interested in experience-based neuroplasticity, or “how our experiences, our lifestyle, our external and internal environments influence our brain’s ability to keep changing,” she says.

The accumulated evidence of Lambert’s work, she believes, offers compelling evidence to suggest that our brains benefit when we engage our bodies in effort — such as cooking or throwing clay, exercising or gardening — where we interact physically with our environment to achieve a desired result.

“My brain benefits from persistent hard work,” she says.

So when Lambert looks around at a world growing increasingly effort-free and device-mediated, she worries that our brains’ ingenuity might be triumphing at the cost of our brains’ well-being.

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