The strange little PowerPoint asks me to imagine being the new kid at school. I feel nervous and excluded, its instructions tell me. Kids pick on me. Sometimes I think I’ll never make friends. Then the voice of a young, male narrator cuts in. “By acting differently, you can actually build new connections between neurons in your brain,” the voice reassures me. “People aren’t stuck being shy, sad, or left out.”
The activity, called Project Personality, is a brief digital activity meant to build a feeling of control over anxiety in 12-to-15-year-olds. Consisting of a series of stories, writing exercises, and brief explainers about neuroscience, it was created by Jessica Schleider, an assistant professor at Stony Brook University, where she directs the Lab for Scalable Mental Health. She sent it to me so I could see how teens might use it to essentially perform psychotherapy on themselves, without the aid of a therapist.
In the middle of my new-kid scenario, the program tells me the story of Phineas Gage, the 19th-century railroad worker whose behavior changed radically after a metal spike was driven through his skull. With white backgrounds and rudimentary drawings, the program uses Gage’s experience to suggest that personality resides at least partly in the brain. If a metal spike can change your disposition, Project Personality reasons, so can something less violent—such as a shift in your mind-set. There are, perhaps, better ways to illustrate this than an extreme and hotly disputed historical event, but Project Personality finds a way to make it uplifting: “By learning new ways of thinking, each of us can grow into the type of person we want to be.”