On Tues 2nd November a beautifully shot episode of “Plain Jane” airs across Europe on MTV at 21.00 (GMT). British fashion journalist, Louise Roe, takes sweet but slightly awkward, inelegant young women and transforms them into confident, gorgeous divas.
The aim: to hone their raw potential into a final product that enables them to win their secret crush.
In a nutshell: Louise meets “Jane” who explains why she just can’t seem to make a good impression, they go shopping, “Jane” gets some expert date training, confronts phobias via adrenaline sport and then turns up to a lavish date in an exotic location to seduce her man – a man who has no idea who his date for the night will be. Sure, you’ve heard it all before, except that in this particular makeover show they’ve injected some brain science!
Last summer, MTV invited me out to the beautiful alpine lake town of Montreaux (directly opposite the iconic mountains of Evian bottle fame) to provide a little brain-informed date training.
Having a neuroscientist provide inspiration to a girl trying to get ahead in the love game may sound a bit odd, but at the end of the day it is the brain after all that produces the experience of love in the first place.
The “Plain Jane” of this episode goes by the name of Sarah – a tomboy by day and a little bit too slutty by night. Her difficulty essentially boils down to the fact that she simply tries too hard and becomes clumsy when in the company of guys she really likes.
Once her shopping trip to Geneva and morning at the local Swiss finishing school were successfully completed, I coached her with a few choice tips on how to get the best out of her brain when chatting with the hottest young gentlemen that the Swiss Alps had to offer.
She was given the opportunity to practice putting this advice into action with a medley of men from the European brat pack in a beautiful hotel that looks out across the serene grace of Lake Geneva.
On a date, if one person perceives the other to be uncomfortable then that makes them feel uncomfortable too, setting up a downward spiral.
However by thinking about the signals that your body language, tone of voice, enthusiasm with which you embrace certain topics of conversation sends out, an explosion of dopamine and serotonin can be triggered in the other person’s brain to make them feel comfortable and happy.
I explained to Sarah the mechanisms at work in her brain that lead to her trying too hard to impress and the influence that this subsequently has on her date’s brain state. I spoke with her about how the adrenaline and cortisol release that can put a person on edge can also be harnessed to produce a spark of excitement. I explained ways in which she can wield the power of the oxytocin neurohormone that, when released in the brain, leads to feelings of trust, comfort and bonding; luring that man into her spell.
How much of this ends up hitting the cutting room floor and how much into the final cut remains to be seen. Either way I think that MTV deserves a little credit for being forward-thinking enough to employ a neuroscientist as one of their dating coaches in the first place! Personally I’m going to be watching on Wed at 9pm because I’m really keen to find out whether or not she got her guy. She was firing on all cylinders when I last saw her so I’m cautiously confident that it might just have gone her way. Plain Jane, 9pm, Wed 2nd Nov, MTV.
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Cosmetic psychopharmacology, cognitive enhancement or simply smart drugs, call it what you will, the use of pharmaceutical agents like methylphenidate (Ritalin) and modafinil (Provigil) for performance enhancement and sleep avoidance is rife. Throughout big business, software development, academia, poker tournaments and – according to a recent academic paper – even the medical establishment itself, many healthy individuals are opting to optimise brain function with drugs specifically intended for the treatment of illnesses, simply to keep up with the breakneck pace of life in the 21st century.
This summer a paper was published in the Journal for Law, Medicine and Ethics discussing a pretty unusual moral dilemma. Some medical doctors have concluded that their “ethical duty to reduce error during periods of fatigue” extends to dosing themselves with smart drugs, such as modafinil, to improve concentration and alertness in circumstances where their punishing schedule leaves them feeling utterly exhausted. Medical physicians are also finding themselves under pressure from patients to dish out prescriptions for “smart drugs” to help them keep up with the incessant demand for increased efficiency and competitiveness placed on them by work, family and friends. It may sound reasonable upon first glance but the upshot is that, in either case, it is quite simply illegal for these drugs to be prescribed for such purposes and, irrespective of issues of jurisprudence, it places patient, physician and society “at risk for dangerous health and social consequences.”
In 2008, results of an online poll were published in the journal Nature, revealing that 20% of respondents (predominantly academics) had used such nootropic substances for non-medical purposes like improving concentration, memory or to counteract jetlag. This inspired a large number of newspaper and magazine articles and a flurry of scientific studies to further investigate this phenomenon.
Hollywood got in on the act earlier this year with the blockbuster film Limitless. It spun a typically high-octane tale of the meteoric rise (and inevitably crushing fall) of a failing author who temporarily manages to transform himself into a super-intelligent, ultra-motivated, overachieving writer, linguist and stock trader through regular doses of a transparent, fictitious and exceptionally effective smart drug. (Un?)Fortunately, in the real world, pharmaceutical neuroenhancement quite simply does not result in such dramatically transformative effects.
A businessperson hell-bent on performing to the best of their abilities in spite of jetlag may elect to emulate the example set by the military, which can actually require their staff to neutralise the debilitating cognitive consequences of fatigue under circumstances of “operational necessity,” by using modafinil to gain the competitive edge. Yet a recent meta-analysis of a large number of studies investigating the use of popular neuroenhancing drugs in healthy people highlighted the gap between people’s expectations and the actual effects of such substances. In sleep deprived individuals a single dose of modafinil does have a strong positive effect on executive function and improvement in memory – an effect that wears off during continued sleep deprivation. But were they to take a single dose when not sleep deprived, they would find it has the opposite effect; under these conditions it actually induces drowsiness. Furthermore, repeated doses of modafinil when not sleep deprived increases both positive and negative affect, which means you would simultaneously feel slightly happier and more anxious.
As pressure to succeed continues to mount in higher education, business and medicine, a wide range of different people from all walks of life are beginning to find themselves under increasing pressure to jump on the smart drug bandwagon just to keep up with their peers. Given that the 2008 Nature poll also found that “one-third of respondents said they would feel pressure to give cognition-enhancing drugs to their children if other children at school were taking them” – it is perhaps unsurprising that the competitiveness epidemic may already be spilling over into the school system. Indeed, confidential sources (an ex-pupil) tell me that it has become common practice in many British public schools for those prescribed Ritalin for ADHD to sell it on to other pupils at extortionate rates. Interestingly, the market appears to be not the usual suspects – that inevitable group in every secondary school who become enamoured with with recreational drug experimentation - but instead the conscientious geeky types who are hell bent on doing whatever they can to ace their exams. The sad thing is they are almost certainly wasting their money.
Methylphenidate, the drug branded as Ritalin, is a funny old drug. Much confusion has, quite understandably, arisen from the counterintuitive concept of using an amphetamine-derivative in the treatment of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). A typical response to this revelation is: “Why would anyone want to give a hyperactive child speed?” The explanation is, in fact, reasonably straightforward. Methylphenidate has a very different effect on the brain to the other amphetamines. Whilst amphetamines generally elevate levels of neurotransmitters such as dopamine across the whole brain, a low dose of methylphenidate has a different impact on levels of these neurotransmitters in different brain areas. The trick with methylphenidate is that it slightly increases dopamine and noradrenaline in prefrontal brain areas involved in maintaining attention and inhibiting impulsive behaviours, whilst having a minimal impact on levels of those same brain chemicals elsewhere in the brain that lead to the hyperexcitability usually associated with amphetamine drugs. But what effect do such drugs have on a healthy, normal brain? Overall there is minimal evidence to suggest any objective improvement on alertness, attention, mood or memory (apart from spatial memory) when healthy people take methylphenidate. So my message to school kids (or their parents for that matter) who are considering buying into the promise of Ritalin enhanced grades? Don’t believe the hype!
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