• Endure

    If Malcolm Gladwell (author of Blink, Outliers, Tipping Point and several other best-selling pop-science books) says of someone else’s work: “This book is AMAZING” then there are two likely explanations. Either he is just being kind and supportive to a friend and compatriot, or he genuinely meant it. I firmly believe he meant it, it really is an excellently researched and brilliantly written book.

    Great book

    Personally, I can’t think of anything worse than doing a marathon. My body isn’t built for long distance running. I’ve done a couple of decathlons in my time and the last event of the weekend – the 1,500m – was among the most unpleasant experiences of my life. On the final straight I was desperately willing my legs to respond to the cheers of the supporters, but I felt like I was running in treacle; I could barely tell whether my strides were propelling me forwards or backwards. And that’s just a mile! Decent marathon runners manage to keep up that pace for the full 26 miles. Those decathlons are probably the closest I have come to pushing my body to its absolutes limits and that is the subject of Alex Hutchinson’s great new book published last year.

    Marathon Runners

    The full title of the book is Endure – Mind, Body and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance. As a seasoned sports journalist and excellent long distance runner, Alex is extremely well positioned to write THE authoritative account of the current state of international efforts of sports’ scientists, physiologists and neuroscientists to help elite athletes squeeze yet more out of their bodies. And he really does write beautifully. As someone who has written a few popular science, I found myself awe-struck on his ability to quickly, concisely and effortlessly convey quite complex scientific ideas; clearly conveying the basic principle without allowing the explanation to be cluttered by too much pedantic detail. It seems easy to write that way, but if you know the full science story behind the compelling narratives, you realise how deftly he has whittled it down to the bare essentials.

    The scientist in me found the structure of the book very appealing, progressing as it does systematically through all the systems of the human body that could be letting an athlete down as their legs go to mush. The integrity of the muscle tissue, the supply of glucose and oxygen, the build up of lactate and, last but not least, the brain. These chapters are sandwiched between the compelling tale of the incredible efforts (not to mention expenditure of huge sums of money) that have gone into trying to get the world’s elite marathon runners through the fabled distance in a seemingly impossible time of 2 hours or less. And along the way we encounter free-divers, cyclists, triathletes, Antarctic explorers and platoons of military guinea pigs. But that’s not all. It has an additional attribute that may not have been foreseen by either its author or its previous reviewers.

    Freediving

    I noticed that, on days where I had read a few pages from this book, merely reading about the many seemingly illusory limits of human performance was sufficient to boost my own endurance at the gym, playing 6-a-side football or running 10km cross-country around Richmond Park. Just by priming my mind with the knowledge that the main influence in limiting human athletic performance is the brain applying the brakes – well in advance of the real breaking point – seemed to be sufficient to reduce my perception of exertion. When I warm up in the gym, I usually start with 20 minutes on the cross-trainer, alternating between 60 seconds of slow strides with high resistance to warm up my arms and 60 seconds of fast strides (200+/min) at low resistance to warm up my legs. By the half way point I’m inevitably dripping with sweat and wishing for it to all be over. But on days where I’d been reading in ENDURE about the science of athletic performance, my perception of exertion was extremely low. I found myself wanting to push myself harder – with a 2 min sprint rather than 1 min – and even then it didn’t hurt. When playing football on ENDURE days I was sprinting up and down the length of the pitch so much that the people trying to mark me just gave up. And on the 10 km runs, for the first time in nearly a decade, rather than my usual constant refrain of “can we go slower” to get my running partner, whenever an adrenaline surge sent him upping the pace and pulling away from me, it was him putting in the request to ease the pace down a notch or two.

    Running in Richmond Park involves a lot of this

    For many years I’ve been spreading the message during my brain talks that just knowing the basic neuroscience of memory, decision making, nutrition, hydration, sleep etc can really help to Sort Your Brain Out. So it’s extremely gratifying to come across a new string to my bow. I usually never re-read books, so now that I’ve finished ENDURE I might have to scribble down some of the key insights on post-it notes and stick them on the wall of my bathroom. That’s one of the strategies my brother-in-law uses to keep his own athleticism up at incredibly high levels. And given that he’s on the verge of competing in the Olympics next year, if it works for him, I’m sure it could help me achieve my own much more modest athletic goals: which is simply to keep by body fit enough to keep exercising, injury free, to avail myself of the mood boosting benefits of endorphins and endocannabinoids until my dying day.

    In addition to these monthly brain blogs I regularly tweet
    about interesting neuroscience research to hit the lay press and, I know I’ve
    been promising this for ages, but I really am getting very close to launching
    my first YouTube channel: Virtual Vive Sanity. You’d be amazed how much work
    goes into filming, editing and launching a weekly 60-min episode of
    neuroscience-enhanced Virtual Reality game reviews. The reason for the delay is
    I’m reluctant to launch until I’ve got all the bugs and gremlins eliminated
    from my workflow in order that I can release a brand new episode every Tuesday
    for at least a year. Watch this space. It will definitely have been launched by
    the end of the summer…

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  • The Fast 800

    For most of my life I’ve pursued a policy of eating a relatively healthy diet most of the time, but availing myself of most opportunities to eat fast food, gorge on the most delicious options when enjoying a restaurant meal and painting the town red when out for drinks with friends. To compensate for the excessive calorie intake I’ve always hit the gym more regularly and more intensively than most of my friends. Consequently, throughout my twenties and most of my thirties I managed to maintain a healthy weight. However, towards the end of my thirties this approach seemed to become less and less effective. My Body Mass Index (BMI) score started creeping up, from the upper region of the “healthy” values into the early digits of the “overweight” category.

    My BMI was always in the 23-24 region, but in my late 30’s it crept up to 25-26

    I responded to this worrying observation by cutting out certain foods. No longer would I perpetually have a loaf of bread, ham and cheese to hand when I was at home, so that I could munch on cheese on toast or ham sandwiches whenever the fancy took me. Out went the full fat milk and in came a 50/50 mix of semi-skimmed and soya milk whenever I ate a bowl of cereal. No longer would I habitually keep biscuits, cakes or chocolate in my kitchen cupboards. I reasoned that if it is readily available then it will get eaten, so the only way I was realistically going to win the battle against my gently ascending BMI scores was to be more disciplined in my purchasing decisions when at the supermarket. If only lower calorie foods were available to snack on then those are what will end up inside me when I find myself hunting for edible treats late at night.

    Farewell old friend

    Sadly, these simple calorie intake reduction steps were sufficient stop the increase in BMI score, but not to bring it back down to into the healthy zone. While I wasn’t overly concerned about the impact of this on my health right now, as a scientist who has read much of the relevant literature, I have become acutely aware that as a person progress from the first half of life into the second, the metabolic goalposts shift. Our organs’ innate capacity for self-repair are not what they once were when we proceed from a young adult into middle age. In my younger years a cut would heal miraculously fast, usually in less than a week. As the decades have rolled by I’ve noticed that my skin heals slower when I cut myself. These days the process is still ongoing even a couple of weeks later. The skin is an organ that is conveniently visible to the outside world so it’s possible to observe the differences in healing timelines from one decade to the next. But of course the same thing goes for every organ, even those hidden deep within our bodies. Given these insights it should have come as no surprise that a few brain hacks to reduce calories would not be sufficient to keep my aging body and brain in good nick. I needed a new regime.

    In a happy coincidence, while visiting friends who had decided to forgo their exciting, unhealthy, fast-paced life in London for a much more laid back, healthy and holistic lifestyle in the mountains of northern Thailand, Michael Mosley asked me to review his new book The Fast 800. This is what I had to say about it:

    “In this fast-paced, no nonsense, easy-to-read book, Michael
    Mosley draws upon decades of experience as a self-experimenting, expert science
    communicator to deliver a comprehensive plan for improving health; in
    plain English.
    An overabundance of food, in combination with messages from
    advertising that make overeating seem perfectly normal, means that even those
    who look healthy from the outside are often carrying too much fat around their
    organs.
    We all know that shifting fat involves a better diet and more
    exercise but most people struggle to put this received wisdom into practice on
    a consistent basis for one reason or another.
    In this book Mosley supplements
    the latest science – on which of the numerous approaches to dieting and
    exercise we hear about actually work best – with inspiring accounts into his
    and others experiences of using such strategies to vastly improve their health.

    This book is a triumph in terms of providing just the right
    balance of practical advice, scientific reasoning and ultimately hope – that
    when armed with the right information, it is completely within all of our
    powers to shift excess body weight for good.”

    Great book

    The reason it was particularly serendipitous to have been asked to review this book at that particular time is that I was staying with a good friend who happened to be doing most of the things that Dr Mosley’s book recommends. And as a guest who always tries to adapt my own behaviour to the habits and lifestyle of my host, I joined him in his intensive daily workout (see video below) and took the opportunity to eat the extremely delicious vegetarian dishes available for extremely reasonable prices throughout the nearby town. Four weeks later (and despite plenty of sunset beers) my BMI score has finally dropped into the healthy zone. Hooray!!

    Right now I am sitting in my local coffee shop having eaten nothing all morning save for a couple of black americanos. My stomach is rumbling, which normally I would deal with immediately by stuffing one of the delicious pastries I can spy up on the counter from where I’m currently sat. Today, however, rather than feeling alarmed by my feelings of hunger I’m actually thinking: this is great news, lets see how long we can keep this ketosis rolling!

    Ketosis kicks in when carbohydrates are in short supply and body fats are burned instead

    What is ketosis? Well I had always known, since GCSE biology lessons, that ketosis is a process the body uses to extract metabolic energy from fats when there are no carbohydrates swimming around in the bloodstream. Yet because my biology text books told anecdotes of the role of ketosis in causing illnesses relating to starvation in the developing world, I had always assumed it was a bad thing. Indeed, even today, if you do a Google search for “ketosis” the following result is top of the list: a metabolic state characterized by raised levels of ketone bodies in the body tissues, which is typically pathological in conditions such as diabetes, or may be the consequence of a diet that is very low in carbohydrates. Yet in the context of enduring ketosis just for an hour or two each day, the latest evidence provided by Dr Mosely’s book indicates that it is a great way to lose the excess fat that tips people into the overweight or obese BMI categories.

    Excess body fat is usually responsible for overweight or obese BMI scores

    During my time in the mountains of northern Thailand, whenever my host caught me putting sugar or milk into my coffee prior to our morning workouts I would inevitably hear something along the lines of: “What are you doing? That’ll ruin your ketosis.” For me, this was the critical part of the maintaining-a-healthy-body-weight equation that I had been overlooking all my life. I’ve spent very little time in ketosis mode because I always saw being hungry as a bad thing. Recently I’ve become increasingly aware that hunger, in short daily bursts, is not such a terrible thing after all.

    My host put me onto the idea that ketosis is desirable (in moderation) for the average person living in the developed world (whose eating habits have been carefully manipulated by a constant barrage of advertising that leaves us with the general impression that overeating is “normal”). Michael Mosley provided the scientific evidence suggesting that maintaining a healthy body weight is not just about what you eat, but when.

    It’s not just what you eat, but when you eat it, that makes the critical difference in weight loss

    The longer you go without food the greater the chance that you will have used up all your reserves of carbohydrate. Once your body has finally switched into fat-burning mode, you want to keep the ketosis burning fat for as long as possible before succumbing to the desire to end those feelings of hunger. As soon as you eat something, you stop burning body fat and start burning whatever you’ve put in your stomach instead. It really is as simple as that.

    I’ve always thought that “breakfast” was a funny word because I always thought of fasting as something that people did over many days. The concept of breaking a fast that only happened because you were asleep seemed inappropriate because I had got it in my head that fasting must necessarily involve mental discipline and conscious restraint. But it doesn’t really matter what it is that extends the period of zero food intake. If you want to maximise your fat-burning opportunities each day, the timing of your breakfast can be critical to your overall success. This is because our brain’s reserves of disciplined decision-making are limited. Consequently, it is much harder to resist the temptation of delicious foods towards the end of the day, compared to earlier on. So the average person is likely to enjoy greater success overall by delaying their breakfast until later in the morning, as opposed to starting the day with breakfast and then trying to resist eating in the evening.

    High Intensity Interval Training is a great way to burn fat

    Having kick-started the process in Thailand, I’m determined not to let my BMI score creep back up again. Having finished writing this month’s blog over the course of the morning, during which time only calorie-free black coffee had entered my stomach, I headed to the gym to do my normal hour-long cardio-stretching-cardio session (less my customary bottle of energy drink) followed by my first ever High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) class. Only then did I finally break my fast. This meant that I went 14 hours without eating (since dinner last night) and now I can relaxing knowing that I’m allowed to eat what I would normally eat in the remaining 10 hours of my waking day.

    Michael Mosley managed to reverse his Type II diabetes through a combination of periodic fasting, calorie counting and high intensity interval training, not to mention eliminating the visceral fat packed in around his organs in the process which is known to be particularly dangerous to the health. For me, now that my BMI is back in the healthy zone, I’m now aiming to get back the six-pack that I took completely for granted in my twenties, but which has been mysteriously absent for a few years now!

    Exercise is REALLY good for you

    Vanity aside, my ultimate goal in keeping my BMI in check from here on is a healthy brain. Not only does a healthy BMI throughout middle age and beyond predict a lower incidence of various cardiovascular complications, but it is also associated with a slower rate of age-related cognitive decline. Add into the mix the excellent evidence that high intensity exercise can actually actively increase the length of our telomeres (found at the tips of every strand of DNA in your entire body), thereby facilitating the body and brain’s capacity to replace old cells with new ones and who knows – maybe I’ll be enjoying a healthy brain and a lucid mind right up to the age of 100!

    In addition to these monthly brain blogs, I regularly tweet about articles describing the latest breakthroughs in neuroscience research (@drjacklewis). The Geek Chic Weird Science podcast I’ve been doing with Lliana Bird is about to launch the 100th episode. And in the next couple of months I’ll be launching a new YouTube channel: Virtual Vive Sanity – where I showcase some of the best Virtual Reality games to hit the market for the HTC Vive and share some insights from neuroscience research that can help to how to maximise the overall experience.

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  • The Science Of Sin

    This month’s blog is dedicated to a major milestone in my life.

    My first ever solo effort as an author hit the bookshops across the UK on 12th July

    It has it’s own dedicated site, so you can find all about it here: www.sciofsin.com

     

    A few days later, on 17th July, I did a sell out gig at Bart’s Pathology Museum (between St Paul’s Cathedral and Smithfield’s Market). I was delighted to find that 2 clergymen had trekked all the way from west London to hear what I had to say.

    The event was hosted by Carla Valentine – with whom I’d worked last year on a Vampire Special of my Geek Chic’s Weird Science podcast recorded live at Soho Theatre – and who insisted that we pose for this: my favourite photo ever…

    The Priest, The Mortician and the Neuroscientist

     

     

     

     

     

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  • Book Review: WHY WE SLEEP by Matt Walker

    By his own admission my dad is not a great reader of books. Yet he devoured Matthew Walker’s WHY WE SLEEP in no time at all. As he sped through this tome I received regular updates, sometimes on an hourly basis, summarising the parts he found most inspiring, shocking and illuminating. The goal was to get me to read it as a matter of urgency so that I might disseminate the countless invaluable insights contained within, describing the vital importance sleep in improving every aspect of brain health, as far and widely as possible. Fast forward a few weeks and this month’s blog was born…

    While the accounts in this book of the brain benefits associated with getting plenty of sleep on a regular basis are as fascinating and detailed as they are numerous, I must admit to finding the writing style a touch irritating. Emancipated from the rigid constraints of authoring important scientific studies in peer-reviewed journals, many life-long academics seize the opportunity to wield the English language with greater freedom of expression when they finally get the chance to write something for general consumption. The trouble is, just as it’s annoying to be in the audience of a presentation that’s packed with interesting facts, yet conveyed in context of overly-cluttered slides, liberally sprinkled with too many animations and transition effects, it can also get a bit much when an author indulges themselves with too much latitude in the creative language department. I found myself cringing at many of Professor Walker’s linguistic flourishes, which impeded my progress in getting through this otherwise excellent book. This is a great shame because the contents of this book are as awesome as his personal contributions to the world of sleep neuroscience have been immense. That said, aside from the writing style not being to everybody’s taste, I still agree with my old man’s contention that everyone should take the time to absorb the wisdom that is found within the pages of this book. For many people it could be lifesaving. Literally.

    The book kicks off with a lovely quote from Charlotte Brontë that everyone can surely relate to:

    “A ruffled mind makes a restless pillow”

    It is goes on to detail the many benefits of sleep for our physical and mental health. The stories are told with authority and in a manner that is entirely accessible. My favourite parts include research demonstrating that:

    • When a person falls asleep at the wheel while driving, their perception of what is going on around them is not merely degraded but actually switched off. During the few lethal moments of a micro-sleep, a person is completely unconscious. This would explain why drowsy driving is to blame for more road deaths than drink and drug driving together.
    • ‘Night owls’ suffer from higher rates of several serious physical (stroke, diabetes, heart attacks, cancer) and psychological (anxiety and depression) illnesses compared to the average ‘early bird’ sleepers. Yet stone-aged man almost certainly benefited from having a mixture of night owls and early birds in any given community to minimise the length of the period during which everyone is unconscious and so vulnerable to attack from predators and/or enemies.
    • The specific roles played by particular sleep stages in reviewing and consolidating memories (NREM: non-random-eye-movement) and the mechanism by which upsetting events from each day are revisited at night in order to emotionally detoxify them so that they can be more comfortably recalled in the future with less anxiety than at the time (REM).
    • The contribution of adenosine accumulation in the brain to feeling of needing to sleep, i.e. sleep pressure.
    • The accelerating rate of cognitive deficits that accumulate over successive nights of sleep deprivation.
    • The accounts of why pregnant women should avoid alcohol if they don’t want to disrupt the slumber of their (mostly sleeping) foetuses, why exactly it is that children need more sleep than adults and the compelling arguments to suggest that it is folly to have adolescents getting up extra early in the morning for pre-school sports, tuition, music or hobbies when their time would actually be much better spent in bed!

    On balance this really is a very important read and I thoroughly encourage everyone to get hold of a copy of this book by a fellow graduate of Nottingham University’s Neuroscience B.Sc. undergraduate degree, who went on to take the Ph.D. earned from the same institution over to the other side of the pond where he became a Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School (although how he pulled that off without a medical degree I have no idea!), finally settling into his current job as a Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology at Berkley.

    Prof Walker is on a mission to inspire the world to get more sleep and I for one am thoroughly convinced. Now I can actually feel my adenosine levels, which have been steadily rising over the course of the morning, tipping me over into sluggishness, so I’m off to catch forty winks. That way I’ll be able to come back to this article with a sleep-refreshed brain, ready to get it published as efficiently as possible and enabling me to get on with the next job on my To Do list with greater verve and relish.

    If you struggle with sleep, help is out there. Websites like www.sleephelp.org contain plenty of info to help you find that much craved good night’s sleep that might just change your life.

    In addition to these monthly brain blogs, I regularly tweet about brain-related research that hits the lay press (@drjacklewis), I do a fortnightly podcast about the more unusual scientific breakthroughs (Geek Chic’s Weird Science) and on 12th July 2018 my new book The Science of Sin will hit the shelves in the UK (11th Sept in the USA).

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  • A Book Pairing for Summer 2017

    Certain restaurants like to suggest specific wines that go well with particular dishes. The crisp, citrusy, Sauvignon Blanc to go with a dish of lemon sole, or the full bodied, smokey Malbec to go with a sirloin steak. The flavours of the wine and the dish are often said to mutually reinforce each other, such that the combination is greater than the sum of its parts. Passing through an airport bookshop earlier this month I made a lucky spontaneous decision that demonstrated a similar effect is possible in the literary world. So I thought I’d share my discovery with you: I picked up two books, one fiction, one non-fiction, and they complemented each other perfectly. I would wholeheartedly recommend the following pairing.

    Over the past twelve months or so I’ve seen lots of people wielding a copy of Yuval Noah Harari’s SAPIENS – A Brief History of Humankind in planes, trains and automobiles. When everybody seems to be reading a certain book it always piques my curiosity. Either the marketing campaign was particularly effective or, more likely, each person who chose to buy it had been recommended it as a good read by a handful of people. As regular readers of this blog will know: I’m a sucker for Wisdom of the Crowd. And it did not let me down on this occasion because SAPIENS is an absolute cracker.

    A huge volume of well-packaged, condensed, easy-to-assimilate information that touches on the major milestones in our species’ prehistory including our encounters with other, now extinct, human species, the agricultural and industrial revolutions, and a wide variety of human empires that rose and fell through the ages is presented with great speed, style and finesse. The most gob-smacking revelation for me, overall, was mention of the genetic evidence suggesting that a fair chunk of European human DNA is of Neanderthal origin and a sizeable portion of Asian human DNA originated in the Homo erectus species. We’d covered a science story on the fact that Neanderthal’s were to thank for the keratin in our hair and nails on the Geek Chic Weird Science podcast, but I’d presumed that this was the case for all Homo sapiens, not just the European ones. The concept that the human species with which our ancestors had sexual dalliances differed according to whether the Homo sapiens in question happened to reside to the east or the west of the Eurasian land mass came at me like a bolt from the blue.

    Jean M Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear is the first book in a series of works of fiction describing an orphaned Homo sapiens girl being adopted into a Neanderthal tribe. Access to evidence regarding how Neanderthals behaved, what they believed and the extent of their knowledge is inevitably scant given how long ago they were wiped off the face of the planet. But Auel’s account of their superstitions, social organisation and rigid thought processes seemed entirely plausible. I’ve always been a great fan of Bernard Cornwell’s books. I love his approach of sticking faithfully to the historical record regarding the Saxon and Viking invasions of Britain wherever it is available, but filling in the gaps with reasonable fictions that are entirely compatible with what is known from those times. I got the distinct feeling that Jean Auel takes a similar approach. Even when the storyline became slightly fantastical as the tribal witch doctor communes with the ancestral spirits to seek advice on the best course of action, the brews concocted by their medicine woman were certainly based in fact. And speculations regarding differences in the cognitive abilities of Homo sapiens and Neanderthal’s also seemed reasonable given what we can glean from the skulls in the archaeological record.

    Frustratingly, the further back into the history of our species we peer, the greater the uncertainty regarding the actual facts. I personally found the pairing of the facts presented in Sapiens A Brief History of Humankind with the fictional accounts of the nature of interactions between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens in The Clan of the Cave Bear to be an absolutely delicious antidote to this problem. And I hope you do too!

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  • Announcing the Birth of our Beautiful New Book

    On the 6th October 2016 the book of the podcast that is Geek Chic Weird Science hit the shelves of bookshops all over the UK. A couple of days prior to this my co-author (and co-presenter of the podcast) Lliana Bird and I threw a little party to celebrate this milestone with a few family and friends.

    micewhosing_twitpic3dd4078I’m quite literally just running out the door to record our 60th podcast tonight! For those who’ve never had a chance to listen, every couple of weeks we talk about the latest weird and wonderful science stories to hit the press in the past few days. We tend to favour the conversation starters: the whacky techy tales that people might pull out of the bag around the dinner table, at work/school or in the pub to spark a conversation around the latest strange/surprising scientific discoveries.

    By the time we got about episode 50 we had an archive of about 200 or so of these science stories. So we thought: why not write a book. Happily the publisher Little Brown were prepared to publish it under their Orbit imprint and with only four months to bash it out we just about managed to hit the deadline. It’s a bit ragged in places, a few errors and slight inaccuracies here and there, but given the incredibly limited time we had to get it done I think we did a pretty good job.

    We’ve had some tremendous reviews from the likes of Brian Cox and the Times Science editor. Some of our stories have already been picked up in the NME and the London Metro. And with Noel Fielding’s beautiful original artwork adorning the front cover we have high hopes for some good sales over Christmas.

    mumanddadWe dedicated the book, with love to our parents, but also to Richard Boffin who has been our “sound guy,” editing our podcast, adding the music and sound effects and getting it up on iTunes, libsyn, podbay (click any of these links if you want to have a listen) and various other podcast media month after month for over two years now. Thanks Boff – you’re a legend!

    A huge thanks must also go to our thousands of podcast listeners around the world – we’re really grateful for your continued support – and we really hope you enjoy the book, not to mention the quirky and amusing illustrations our talented artists conjured up for us.

    Mice Who Sing For Sex by Lliana Bird and Dr Jack is now available to buy online and in all good bookshops like, my personal favourite, Waterstones.

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  • Geek Chic’s Weird Science – The Book

    Since its inception as a three-minute science splash on Lliana Bird’s Sunday show on XFM (now known as Radio X) Geek Chic’s Weird Science has gone from strength-to-strength. After 9 months of brevity we moved, in September 2014, to podcast format and promptly rocketed up the iTunes science podcast chart all the way to 4th place by the 31st October! I still can’t quite figure out how that actually happened. We were getting 20,000 downloads per month after just a couple of months. Weird. (Must be something Birdy did!) That said, we clearly owe a great debt of gratitude to all those who embraced us with such enthusiasm right from the outset. So ta! Gracias! Danke! Terima kasi! Grazie! Konnichiwa!

    Now that we’ve crossed the 50-episode milestone we can safely say that we’ve had tens of thousands of downloads. Looking back at the strangest, most curious, thought-provoking, limits-of-mankind’s-knowledge-pushing science stories we’ve covered over the months is quite mind-boggling. Rainbow universes, panda’s feigning pregnancy, lab-grown human penises, discovering a new 9th planet to replace Pluto, boozy chimps, underwater cities, quantum teleportation for instantaneous communication across interplanetary distances (one day), musical marmosets, a paralysed woman flying fighter planes with thought alone, the imminent mini-ice age, a 6th mass extinction (this time it’s our fault), futuristic hover boards and a handful of dinosaurs thrown in for good measure – we’ve had it all.

    No wonder Little Brown wanted to turn it into a book!

    The illustrious Lliana Bird (@LlianaBird) and I (@drjacklewis) have just submitted the middle third of our wonderful tale of Geekery and Chicery to our publishers. Our book will take our readers on a carefully carved narrative that takes in the very best of all of the bizarre scientific endeavour and technological innovations we have encountered on our merry way through the last two years of science.

    Best of all it will be illustrated by Dyna’s fantastically-talented, comedic, arty friends. [Dyna, by the way, is what I call Birdy in private – don’t ask].

    So I wanted to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has supported the Geek Chic cause so far. Whether it’s subscribing to our podcast feed at iTunes, streaming us each week from Libsyn, Podbay etc or simply following us on Twitter (@GCweirdscience) to catch the interesting stories that didn’t quite make the cut for the show, plus supplementary information on each of the stories we do cover each week – THANK YOU!

    THANK YOU!

    THANK YOU!

    THANK YOU!

    THANK YOU!

    THANK YOU!

    THANK YOU!

    THANK YOU!

    THANK YOU!

    THANK YOU!

    THANK YOU!

     

    Without you, there would be no point in doing any of it. Okay so it would still be nice to know these things but if you hadn’t kindly taken the time to…

    • Download it.
    • Listen to it
    • Let us keep you company whilst:
      • commuting
      • partaking of exercise
      • going to the shops
      • loafing around in bed, or
      • cooking
    • Mulling the stories we tell you over in your head.
    • Discussing them with your friends, family and colleagues
    • And choosing the steadily growing family of regular weird science listeners.

    …we would soon have found ourselves not bothering any more. If you stopped being interested in what we had to say we would simply have lost the impetus to keep it up. The research, the preparation, the recording, the editing, the re-listening, the final edit notes, the sound production and the releasing of this podcast, month after month, year after year, was for love not money. So if nobody was loving it, then there’d have been no point in doing it.

    A handful of generous benefactors have kindly covered the podcast hosting costs (by contributing at Patreon; so at least we have been saved the indignity of losing money despite working unpaid on this for the past 2 years!). We are particularly grateful to them for opting to give something back to this enterprise.

    As for the rest of you… it’s not too late! If you’ve enjoyed any of our podcast over the years then you can show us some love by picking up a copy of The Mice Who Sing For Sex when it’s release at the end of this year – just in time for Christmas. Hey, why not pick up two copies – one for yourself and another as a gift. That is the kindest way you could say thanks for all our hard work.

    Last but not least Birdy and I would like to thank Richard Boffin for two years of impeccable support as our sound guru and also Kate McLoughney for being sweet enough to look after our @GCweirdscience Twitter feed.

     

     

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  • BOOK REVIEW: “The Chimp Paradox”

    ChimpParadoxOver the past few years I’ve been reading copious amounts of popular science. My bookshelves are quite literally overflowing with books about the brain. Yet despite the fierce competition, when it comes to dreaming up metaphors to cut through the complexities of the mind in order to help people understand what drives human behaviour The Chimp Paradox by Steve Peters is king of the jungle.

     

    The main reason it is so brilliant is the elegant manner in which over a century of insights from the fields of psychology and psychiatry is effortlessly translated into a practical user guide to mind management. With The Chimp Paradox to hand, everyone can grasp what drives the internal conflicts that take place in our minds no a daily basis, not to mention the strategies they can employ to diffuse the tensions that inevitably arise as a consequence of being in possession of a piece of neural apparatus that evolved in leaps and bounds over millions of years. There is a delicate balance between simplifying complex concepts and dumbing them down to the point of being condescending. Steve Peters judges this to perfection.

     

    JourneyWe all have moments in life that we look back on only to find ourselves shaking our heads in disbelief when we recall what we said, how we felt or what we wrote in the heat of the moment. Actions or comments that seem entirely justified on one day often lead to wholehearted regret soon after, yet we make the same mistakes over and over again. By developing an easy to grasp and simple to use model of our mind in which two individuals co-exist: the erratic, primal, emotional CHIMP brain on the one hand and the calm, highly-evolved, rational HUMAN brain on the other – it enables us to understand our own behaviours and, perhaps more importantly, those of the people that we encounter each day.

     

    By thoroughly understanding what drives the decisions and conduct of not just ourselves but also other people, we can start to develop good habits of thought and action (or “Autopilots” as Prof Peters calls them) in place of bad habits of thought and action (dubbed by Prof Peters as “Gremlins”) that cause so much suffering and discomfort in the world. It also throws into sharp relief the times when it’s best to let others vent their frustrations (when their CHIMP is in the drivers seat) without taking any personal offense and saving what you really think of them for a later time when they might have achieved a more reasonable state of mind (when their HUMAN is in control) in which they might actually be capable of grasping the wisdom in your words.

     

    chimp brainI genuinely believe that if this book were to be put on every school curriculum, the world would be a better place. A truly excellent, fast-paced and invaluable read.

     

    In addition to these monthly blogs you can subscribe to @drjacklewis on Twitter where I share at least three good brain news related articles every day and if you love podcast you can catch Geek Chic’s Weird Science (on iTunes, audioboom, libsyn, podbay) which comes out each and every Friday.

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  • Review: “Do No Harm” by Henry Marsh

    Do No Harm by neurosurgeon Henry Marsh is a truly magical read.

    do-no-harmThis candid, blunt and often painfully amusing collection of tales about neurosurgical procedures that went well against the odds, that went catastrophically wrong when it really should have been plain sailing, drives home how tough being a neurosurgeon really is. Several passages describe what it’s like to carefully navigate the nervous tissue packed tightly inside a person’s skull so beautifully that it verged on the poetic. Others, conveying the profound guilt associated with the realisation that an inadvertently nicked blood vessel would ultimately leave the patient permanently paralysed for the rest of their life, were so honest as to be emotionally brutalising. And as for the how the changes in the NHS have impacted on the profession of neurosurgery, not to mention the Catch 22 of how do develop surgical skills when no one wants to be operated on by a novice, it generates tremendous empathy for those brave young souls embarking from scratch on this hugely challenging career path in a totally new era.

    Do No Harm really struck a chord with me on a personal level. During my teens I was always torn between a career in medicine and my scientific calling. Friends’ parents often commented that I would make a brilliant doctor and my best friend’s father, who spent most of his career as head of immunology at St Thomas’s Hospital in London, urged me on numerous occasions to take the medical route and then branch out into research later. Deep down however I lacked the courage to accept the inevitable mistakes that might lead to catastrophe for my patients. I had watched far too many episodes of the 90’s medical drama series Casualty. This excellent series may well have inspired thousands of Brits to pursue careers in medicine, but for me, it instead made me acutely aware that unnecessary deaths were an unavoidable consequence of practicing medicine. I realised that errors of judgement could spell disaster at any moment and I knew deep down that these would inevitably weigh heavily on my conscience. So I chose to pursue neuroscience instead of medicine.

    The first few chapters of Do No Harm brought tears to my eyes on more than one occasion because the tales being told were not works of fiction, but instead the autobiographical real-life experiences of an extraordinarily honest man, brave enough not only to build a career in surgery but also to give equal voice to both his successes and failures.

    This is an excellent book. Not only will you find it very rewarding but it might just make you realise how lucky we Brits are to have people like Henry Marsh in our beloved National Health Service.

    In addition to these monthly blog postings I tweet about interesting brain-related articles in the press on a daily basis. You can follow me by clicking here.

    I also do a weekly science podcast called Geek Chic’s Weird Science which you can download for free from iTunes or alternatively, if you’re not an iPhone or iPad user, you can download/stream it from a variety of online sources such as Podbay, Libsyn, and PodcastChart, amongst others!

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  • Sort Your Brain Out – new book by Dr Jack Lewis and Adrian Webster

    Webster_Sort_Your_Brain_Out_3D_FINALFiguring out what I should write about in my blog this month really was a no brainer. It’s not every month that I have a new book about to hit the shelves (Friday 28th March 2014). So from April onwards, if you happen to be passing a WHSmith’s then please do consider popping in. You should find Sort Your Brain Out prominently displayed in the Non-Fiction and Business charts. If you can’t find it then please drop me a line!

    Although we have specifically targeted the business market in the first instance, primarily due to their familiarity with my co-author’s previous work, this truly is a book for everyone. We hope that business professionals will decide that other members of their family would also benefit from reading it and pass it on; whether the recipients are their children – to help them get the most out of their brains to achieve more in their education, or their own parents – to help them get the most out of their brain during the post-retirement years. In fact, the book has been carefully put together to ensure that readers of all ages will be able to get something out of it. Happily we’ve already had some feedback that suggests we have been successful in achieving this goal. If you fancy flicking through a few select pages, or perhaps even pre-order a copy with a 30% discount, then please click here to see it on Amazon.

    We are encouraging people to tweet photos of Sort Your Brain Out when they find it in the wild with the hashtag #SortYourBrainOut or #SYBO for short – we’ve been made aware of sightings all over the UK and the world – from Jamaica to Hong Kong and Cornwall to Edinburgh.

    This is my first foray into the world of publishing. Strictly speaking it’s the second book I’ve ever written, if you count my Ph.D. thesis. However I doubt whether more than a handful of people have ever pulled it out of the vaults of the University of London library in Senate House. For most readers it would be pretty incomprehensible anyway what with being laden with complex scientific terminology. The whole point of Sort Your Brain Out is to make the latest neuroscience accessible for everyone, not just the science enthusiasts. So with this in mind, for my first published book, it only seemed appropriate to co-author it with someone who has extensive experience in writing books that everyone can get something out of. And a few years back, thanks to a fortunate twist of fate, I met the perfect collaborator.

    polarbearpiratesAdrian Webster and I both contributed as motivational speakers at a conference in Tenerife in 2011,  presenting me with the perfect opportunity to forge an alliance with a truly exceptional individual. An internationally best-selling author, his first book Polar Bear Pirates was a massive hit. It is very unusual to see a business book packed full of cartoon characters, yet this unorthodox approach may well be precisely what made it resonate with such a broad audience. We’ve tried to reproduce this effect with a handful of illustrations commissioned for Sort Your Brain Out. For a sneak preview: click here.

    Over more than a decade Adrian has been one of Europe’s most popular and influential motivational speakers. His uncanny ability to spin a yarn in an entertaining yet impactful way, leaving audiences not just spellbound by his performances but also much wiser about how to get the best out of themselves at work is unparalleled. He distils many years of experience in the workplace into witty/moving anecdotes and wise observations about how best to motivate ourselves and those around us. Here’s a quick taste of his speaking style brilliantly animated by some young and very talented animators.

    Running MachineOur book Sort Your Brain Out aims to make what modern neuroscience has discovered about the strengths and weaknesses of human brain function accessible to the broadest possible market. We wanted to provide some powerful insights into how to get the most out of your brain, whoever the reader happens to be. After all, every one of us has a brain, but it doesn’t come with a user guide. So we thought we’d pen a book that illuminates what’s going on within our skulls and what brains need to function optimally. The Sunday Express kindly published an article we wrote to support the launch of the book and the following Monday we got a mention in the Daily Express. We also penned a short article on how to stoke the fires of creativity which you can also read online.

    We asked a few kind souls to read the final version before it went to print and were overwhelmed by the positive feedback. Below you’ll find just a small selection of the endorsements we received:

    This truly inspiring and fascinating book leaves you never wanting to waste a single second ever again. Everything you need to know about how your brain works and how to maximize it is contained in an easy-to-read way. The book proves you really can do anything and there are lots of simple ways to help ensure you too can make the most of your biggest asset – your brain! Without doubt, a book you cannot be without!”

    Dame Sarah Storey, DBE

     

    For all the debate about governments nudging people to make better decisions or to adopt better behaviours, it is easy to overlook the fact that we can actually nudge ourselves. This book is a wonderful guide to how to do just that.”

    Rory Sutherland

    Executive Creative Director and

    Vice Chairman, OgilvyOne London

     

    I thought it was accessible, thought-provoking and full of useful, easy-to-follow tips about improving your everyday life through a better understanding of the brain.”


    Killian Fox

    Writer for The Observer and other publications

     

    This book explores the kind of topics we all think and talk about: Is the internet making us stupid? What do alcohol and caffeine really do to our brains? It provides you with kind of fascinating nuggets of information you end up reading out to whoever you happen to be with, as well as practical tips on how to maximise what we all have between our ears. Forget brainstorming, it’s all about brainshaking and dunking now. Neuroscience demystified and simplified without being patronising; a must-read.”

    Olivia Walmsley

    Mail Online

     

    A really great book that explains in layman’s terms how the brain works and how you can then translate that knowledge to enhance your own performance. Thought-provoking and insightful, it will add considerable value to anyone still willing to learn, irrespective of which rung of the success ladder they are on. It’s an enjoyable and extremely useful read.”


    Mark Hussain

    HSBC

     

    Sort Your Brain Out is a must-read for everyone. It is a clever and thoughtful book designed to help the lay reader understand more about the brain’s most intimate workings but most importantly it provides erudite yet easily consumed bite-sized gobbets of information on how to improve one’s lobar lot. The fascinating examples are eminently readable and marvellously memorable; the reading of this book will stretch the brain in exactly the way the authors have devised. This is mental stimulation at its best.”


    Chantal Rickards

    Head of Programming and Branded Content

    MEC

     

    As someone who has spent their life reviewing neuroscience material, I was struck by how the overview on offer contextualises some aspects of brain function in a novel and refreshing way. In short, this is a delightful and illuminating read – it is the book that I would (will) give my family, when they ask searching questions about neuroscience – and what it means for them.”

    Professor Karl Friston FRS

    Scientific Director

    Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging

    University College London

     

    Sort Your Brain Out is has clarity of purpose and many features that puts it ahead of its competitors in an expanding area of interest. Making the best use of the amazing brains we all inherit, even though they are destined to operate in a world far removed from the environment that shaped their evolution, is crucial. There probably is no more important a task for us as individuals or for the groups we live and work in than this. Help and the chance to expand our insight is at hand.”

    Ian Edwards

    Head of Strategy

    Advertising Planning firm Vizeum

     

    Engaging, accessible, demystifying.”

    Dr Daniel Glaser

    Director

    Science Gallery London

     

    If you do decide to purchase a copy we’d be really grateful if you’d find time to review it on Amazon.

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