We humans have far more control over our environment than any other species on planet Earth. We have developed an innate propensity for making and using tools to such a degree that we can now fundamentally change – through architectural, engineering and scientific innovation – the very environments in which we exist and with which we interact every day.
In modifying places in which we spend thousands of hours: our homes, schools, places of work and leisure – we exert more power than any other species in shaping our own brains.
Iterative cycles of human brains adapting to environments and environments being adapted by human brains have enabled our species to thrive in a wider variety of ecological niches than any other mammal across the length and breadth of the entire globe. Of vital importance to our adaptability is the emergence of cognitive faculties enabling us to circumvent the painstakingly slow processes involved in evolutionary change that drive behavioural adaptations in most other multicellular species.
Darwin’s finches on the Galapagos Islands, for example, had to wait for many generations to evolve a useful adaptation that conferred a survival advantage over their competitors. This is because the vast majority of genetic mutations do not yield any useful, adaptive characteristics. For genetic mutation(s) to result in, say, a beak of appropriate dimensions to access an otherwise inaccessible food source, a great many decades of annual mating must pass before this random process eventually hits the jackpot.
Humans confronted with a similar scenario would likely invent a tool to access the food in question. Offspring, or anyone else for that matter, could then mimic the movements necessary to successfully make and manipulate the tool. This is all thanks to “mirror” neurons, which provide us with our natural ability to convert observed movements into movements that we perform ourselves (In his TED talk VS Ramachandran describes the importance of mirror neurons quite beautifully). Behavioural adaptation through tool use is thus not, unlike genetic adaptation, limited to being spread down through subsequent generations.
Humans are not the only creature to use tools. New Caledonian crows are top of the pecking order when it comes to birds intelligent enough to use tools. They use a variety of different tools and in the appropriate sequential order, to obtain a food reward that would otherwise be beyond their reach. Each bird is clever enough to figure this out for themselves, or at least to learn from others, but their capacity to propagate this information beyond their immediate habitat is prohibited by a lack of sufficiently sophisticated communication tools.
Chimpanzees strip the leaves off of long straight sticks to use the resulting tool as a means to “fish” for termites in a termite mound. However, as E. O. Wilson famously pointed out: non-human primates do not have the necessary intelligence to prepare a neat stack of fishing sticks the night before. Non-human species only make and use tools as and when they are needed. In more recent times exceptions to this rule have been observed.
It was long thought that we humans were the only species with sufficient foresight to predict the need for certain tools in the future and to prepare them in advance. However a chimpanzee residing in a Scandinavian zoo turned this assumption on its head by building a stack of stones in the morning to hurl at visitors later on once the zoo had opened to the public!
That said, we still enjoy the unique status of being the only species able to share knowledge of making and using tools through verbal or written communication. This has propagated knowledge of all sorts of tools way beyond our own communities, to other members of our species across the entire globe – eliminating the need to reinvent the wheel and build upon the creativity of others.
Arguably the kings of tool use (homo sapiens exluded) are surely the bonobos. The below footage shows our closest primate cousin making tools out of stone, just as our caveman ancestors did, and using them to perform a variety of scraping, cutting and boring purposes.
In addition to these monthly brainblogs you can catch my daily #braintweet several times a day by following me on Twitter.
The first time I came across this kind of technology was at the Society for Neuroscience annual conference in 2003. But back then it was a monkey who was controlling the robotic arm, to reach out for a piece of fruit and bring it close enough to eat, using the power of thought alone.
Now in 2012, the first peer-reviewed study has been published in the scientific journal Nature, demonstrating that a 96 electrode implant can enable paralysed human beings to manipulate objects via a robotic arm just by “willing it” as an able-bodied person would do: click here for full story
Rats fed high fructose corn syrup supplement navigate a maze significantly slower than others fed normal rat feed: click here for full article. Researchers suspect that the increase in insulin that results from high blood sugars may be to blame. In the body insulin serves to instigate biochemical process by which the sugar is taken out of the blood and put into storage. Yet although insulin can get into the brain, there no room there for excess sugars to be stored and so its role in the brain is not well understood. It is thought that elevated levels of insulin induced by the ingestion of sugary foods somehow interferes with the mechanisms of learning.
Whatever the cause of this disruption to the brain apparatus for maze navigation – a highly cognitively demanding ability – the study also observed that rats fed flax seed oil, a source of the essential fatty acid: omega 3, were protected from the debilitating effects of a high sugar diet.
And what does this mean to you? Stop stuffing your face with sweets, fizzy pop, cake and other snack foods high in quick release simple sugars. They cause your blood sugars to roller coaster in the following way:
1) large quantities of insulin are released (from your pancreas) to bring blood glucose levels back down to safe levels (by putting it into storage – ultimately as fat surrounding organs and under the skin).
2) Very high levels of insulin will often remove too much glucose from the blood – leading to hypoglycaemia.
3) Very low blood glucose levels detected in the brain (the hypothalamus, if you’re interested) triggers feelings of hunger and food seeking behaviours, which invariably entice modern man into a hunt for snack foods. These of course usually comprise high sugar foods sending blood sugars rocketing (please go back to stage 1).
It has been known for some time that the beta cells of the pancreas, which produce and release insulin, get worn out through overuse and that the insulin receptors doing the bidding of this life-saving hormone become increasingly unresponsive after decades of overuse resulting in diabetes, obesity and ultimately heart complications. What is new here is the suggestion that even before all that damage is even done the high levels of circulating insulin might be blunting our cognitive capacities.
How to avoid the sugar roller coaster?
Slow release carbohydrates. Eat porridge for breakfast and vegetables, fruit, wholegrain-rich meals for lunch and dinner so that all the carbohydrates aren’t dumped immediately into your blood stream – but instead are gradually released over the course of hours rather than minutes.
Not only will this help to protect against diet-related diabetes and obesity, but it will stabalise mood AND it seems from this latest research – improve your cognitive abilities to boot.
In addition to these brainblogs you can follow me on Twitter and if you like the sound of this Brain Optimisation Principle then why not book a Brain Coach Live seminar so I can share the other BOPs I’ve accumulated over 15 years of studying the brain.
Can you imagine having to knock out your own child in case their recurrent epilepsy seizures last so long that they might hurt themselves? Epilepsy is often intractable to drug therapy and in the past only specialist hospitals like Great Ormond Street could provide the surgery that eliminates epilepsy at it’s cause. Shortly this treatment, which eases the burden both on the sufferer and their family/carers, will be made available all across the UK: http://bbc.in/JTWXzc #braintweet #neurosurgery
At school my favourite subject was human biology. When I became anxious about what I should do with my life my parent’s gave me some very sage advice – which I often pass on to others when I do gigs as a motivational speaker:
“Study what you love. That way you will stick at it for long enough to become an expert – and once you’re an expert in something you’ll always be in demand!”
So that’s exactly what I did:
- I received a First Class B.Sc. degree in Neuroscience from the University of Nottingham in (2001)
- I got my Neurobiology Ph.D. after 3 years of using fMRI brain scanning to study sensory integration (2005)
- My Post-Doctoral research at the Max Planck Institute was published in the Journal of Neuroscience (2010)
Along the way I developed a powerful urge to share my love of science and particularly the human brain with others. And because I’ve never lost the knack of explaining complicated science concepts in plain English my career as a science communicator has slowly but surely gone from strength-to-strength.
In addition to the monthly blogs I’ve been posting here for the past 5 years, I’ve been the presenter or science consultant for TV series on every terrestrial channel in the UK. I now have a weekly science slot on XFM 104.9FM called Geek Chic which airs every Sunday and a podcast is in the works. My most recent TV projects have aired on several satellite & cable television channels all over the world broadcasting on Sky, Discovery and even MTV.
My new book Sort Your Brain Out was launched in April 2014 and has been going great guns so far. So thanks to everyone for their support so far. Through the exposure that my TV work and book have brought me over the years I’m now becoming extremely busy on the speaking circuit, having given talks in schools all over southern England for many years, not to mention a diverse range of businesses. I really enjoy speaking face-to-face with live audiences. My experience has invariably been that people are extremely motivated to better understand their brains and how to get them working better. I never get bored of answering these questions (in fact when I spoke at the 2013 Cheltenham Science Festival it took me more than an hour to answer everybody’s questions in the bar after the show!)
- “Pheromone Parties” This Morning ITV (2014, ITV productions) with Phillip Schofield and Holly Willoughby
- “Spinal Chip Enables Paralysed People To Move Again” Newsround: Children’s BBC (2014, BBC)
- “Officeland” Canadian Broadcast Corporation (2014, CBC)
- “Sex Hospital” 5 x 60 mins by TLC (2013, Betty)
- “The Tech Show” 26 x 30min showcasing latest sci, tech & engineering Discovery Science Channel (2012, Reef)
- “Plain Jane” MTV – training young ladies on brain-based tricks & tips to boost confidence in the dating game
- “This Morning“ ITV a monthly strand called Don’t be a Slave to your Brain over the summer of 2011
- Tom Dyckhoff’s “The Secret Life of Buildings” Channel 4 - EEG demo of open plan office distractions
- Tony Robinson’s “Gods and Monsters” Channel 4 - when epilepsy was mistaken for demonic possession
- “Body Language Secrets” a.k.a. “How to Get What you Want” 8 x 60 min on Sky One
- “Naked Britain” 3 x 30 mins for Sky One
As well as presenting series and contributing to one off television programmes I’ve also provided science consultancy services for several TV projects including helping to design the games for “Britain’s Best Brain” on Five in Nov/Dec 2009, and developing a science-based 3D feature film for Blink Films; doing for the brain what “The Great Sperm Race” did for the story of conception.
My very first presenting job was a 20-part social psychology series for BBC2 called “The People Watchers”, where we performed a wide variety of social psychology experiments on unsuspecting members of the public.
Previously, before that I was the science consultant (and featured actor) for a feature-length, Emmy Award winning documentary for Channel 4 and National Geographic, which described the biological processes that take place “Inside the Living Body” from birth until death.
Other television credits include contributions to the 5-part strand ‘Teen Club’ for This Morning and a 3-part prime-time ITV series called “How to Get More Sex”.
I have also designed a Brain Gym in central London to test the brain power of the public, offering advice on how to improve memory and decision making strategies.
Over the past 4 years I have been developing my motivational speaking repetoire from “Brain Coach Live!” for secondary school pupils in their GCSE or A-Level years. These talks have been successfully adapted for undergraduate and post-graduate university students and particularly over the last year or two business audiences. These talks cover various ways in which a person can optimise the functionality of their brain using memory tricks , techniques for minimising and harnessing stress, a brain-focused explanation of why practice makes perfect and a range of practical tips on how to boost general brain health.
During my undergraduate days in Nottingham, I co-founded an extremely successful club night featuring every DJ from the “drum and bass” hall of fame over three years of monthly events, and even managing to scrape a First Class degree at the same time.
A bit of a daredevil I have surfed, climbed, dived and white water rafted in every continent bar Antarctica
I am very active on Twitter, tweeting at least three brain-related news stories everyday.
I also religiously produce a blog each and every month for this website on a wide variety of topics.
Over the years I’ve developed extensive experience on the radio appearing on various regional and national radio stations discussing subjects from the effects of partying hard on the human brain, the brain benefits of volunteering, how to make better decisions, adopting new habits, the impact of digital technology on the brain and the brain’s responses to beauty, flirting and sexual attraction.
Although most of my journalistic output has been through my blog, I’ve contributed several times over the years to the health/science pages of the Mail on Sunday and London Lite.