Your Brain at Work

Article excerpt

One of my big fears while I was researching Bait and Switch was that I would never find a job. The other, which I hesitate to admit, was that I would find a job and that I would be forced to work in some kind of soul-crushing physical environment--a cubicle or a windowless office. I've been in offices--insurance companies, title companies--and felt this terrible weight of blankness and despair. Sure, I work in my own "office," but it looks out on trees and my desk faces a poster-sized image of Eagle Nebula as seen through the Hubble telescope, which is space enough for me.

I felt my aversion was more than a little neurotic. After all, people work in standard-issue offices every day, and very few of them take up automatic weapons against their colleagues. A visitor to my website mentioned the horror of his physical work environment, but only as seen through the eyes of his more free-ranging wife: "My wife visited me at my work a few years ago, so I gave her a brief tour and then we went for lunch. She was honestly horrified at the environment: a maze of cubicles. She is, of course, used to being in an open classroom. She felt sorry for me. She did not understand how I could ever put up with it."

But a recent article in the new pop-science magazine Seed makes me think that our office environments may be more damaging than I suspected. The article is about neurogenesis, the generation of new neurons within adult brains. According to longstanding neuroscientific belief, this is impossible: Neurons cannot regenerate, and we are stuck with the number we were born with, minus those lost to alcohol or Alzheimer's. Princeton psychologist Elizabeth Gould has shown otherwise: Neurons can regenerate. The reason this hadn't been observed before is that the animals studied lived out their short lives in plain laboratory metal cages.

Gould studies little rat-sized monkeys called marmosets. …