Can Tech Lead To Better Brain Health? What Africa Is Thinking

Published 2 years ago
Man having a cognitive behavioral therapy video call with mental health professional

Can technology lead to better brain health? Welcome to the world of digital therapy.

By Tiana Cline

TECHNOLOGY ISN’T ALL DOOM AND gloom. What it is doing, however, is shifting what it means to be human through how we interact with the world and each other.


This social connectivity has a real impact on our mental wellbeing and that’s not always a bad thing.

According to Dr Jonathan Moch, a psychiatrist and author based in Johannesburg, South Africa, technology is competing with therapy for the better. It’s disrupting the mental health space.

From video conferencing to meditation apps, technology is taking away what Moch calls shadow costs.

“The right technology could help people to reframe situations but there will also be inequality – the sad could get sadder and the happier more so because what they’re doing is using technology wisely.”


This also relates to the concept of doomscrolling – spending an excessive time on social media absorbing negative news. Instead, they could be using an app that is built to amplify digital wellness.

“The real struggle is the internal reality. On the outside, it may look like you have everything but inside you don’t feel like you have meaningful purpose. Can something from the external environment come in and make you happy? You can go watch good or bad videos, choose to listen to inspiring podcasts or binge series…” says Moch.

“You need to invest in yourself and that begins with brain health.”

Bloom, for example, is a cognitive-behavioural- therapy (CBT) app created by two Australian influencers-turned entrepreneurs, Chloe Szep and Molly Jane. It combines mindfulness exercises with journaling and interactive videos in an accessible, mobile format. It’s working well for those who cannot afford therapy or prefer a more discreet way of tackling stress and anxiety (so much so that it has now been downloaded by over a million people in 220 countries). But Bloom is far from the only digital therapy option, apps such as Calm, Breathe, Headspace and Insight Timer all offer different forms of meditation and mindfulness, in your pocket. What they also do is present a healthy alternative to the dopamine rush that people get when they use social media.


According to a Harvard study conducted by cognitive neuroscientists, dopamine is a chemical produced by the human brain that gets released when we perform beneficial behavior. While this could easily mean exercising or eating, dopamine also gets released during successful social interactions – every notification activates the same dopaminergic reward pathways.

Brent Davidoff, a manager of network experience and innovation at Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator, used this research to create an online space called Coach Me to reach those who could no longer get to their offices across South Africa due to lockdown.

“We were faced with a situation where there were young people who were more desperate than ever but didn’t have a place like Harambee to go to. We set up
a toll-free support line where someone could call and speak to guides,” explains Davidoff, “we started out with around 100 calls a day but as the pandemic went on, we grew to a couple of thousand calls a day. Even with a contact center and 50 guides, we still needed to find a way how we could support young people at scale. This is where the idea of Coach Me came up.”

Coach Me is a web app that takes the best of what Harambee’s guides have to offer and puts it into a virtual space. “It helps people to understand what the challenges they’re facing are and give them some sort of map for their next step,” adds Davidoff.


For Coach Me, Harambee researched inspiration as a psychological construct, using the app’s dopamine effect to motivate its users.

They also looked into long-term, goal-setting theories, using a practical technique called mental contrasting for the app: “What is your dream? Where do you want to get to? And what is stopping you from getting there? It gets you excited but also creates some kind of cognitive friction which the brain wants to resolve. The result is that you have to start getting rid of those obstacles,” he explains.

By setting up a goal and then working out its obstacles, Harambee has seen that over time, the goals that their users create become more practical. “It goes from someone saying ‘I want to start my own business’ to working on an outcome that is far more realistic and achievable in order to get to that long-term wish, something like going somewhere with free Wi-Fi to research what funding is out there.”

Meeting realistic goals is rewarding; it is what both video games and gamified business applications use to keep those who play them release dopamine and come back. While the amount of dopamine released is similar to that of stimulant drugs, the cognitive, behavioral, and neurochemical impact of gaming isn’t all bad news.


Tetris, for example, may be visually pleasing but a research team in New Mexico found that playing the game leads to a thicker cortex and an increase in brain efficiency.

A British study also discovered that Tetris may prevent post-traumatic stress disorder (PSTD) as it reduces flashbacks experienced later on. The team from Oxford wrote that “recognizing the shapes and moving the colored building blocks around in the computer game competes with the visions of trauma retained in the sensory part of the brain.”

Re-shaping trauma using digital tools is something Moch is particularly interested in, especially when it comes to post- traumatic growth. “There are those whose neurosis are fed by the negative side of technology which means anxiety and stress- related problems are going up. Technology is here to stay. It’s the driving force of innovation and that’s why choosing brain health is so important. Everything comes with a curse or a blessing.”

While there are psychologists already using technology like virtual reality and telehealth, as a sector, it’s growing exponentially, Moch says the Metaverse could be a game-changer going forward.


“There are two realities: your internal subjective and the external environment that you share. Now, for the first time in the history of the world, there could be a third reality,” he says.

“It’s going to be very disruptive to the psychological model of therapy.”