• 2-5 Hours in Nature each Week Improves Brain Health

    On the basis of an analysis of nearly 20,000 people’s feedback, a recent paper concluded that just two hours of outdoor recreation per week is sufficient to yield a significant improvement in health or well-being, compared to people who get no recreation time in green spaces at all. In fact, the more time people spent engaged in outdoor recreational activities, the more happy or healthy they reported to be; an effect that peaks somewhere between 200-300 mins of weekly exposure to mother nature.

    Many previous papers have reached similar conclusions. A meta-analysis of 21 studies suggested that a person’s chances of developing a mood disorder were increased by 28% if they lived in urban as opposed to rural areas, where nature is more easily accessed. There are of course other possible explanations for urban dwellers being more likely to encounter mental health issues than rural ones. Perhaps humans are just more vulnerable to such disorders in a densely as opposed to sparsely populate environment? Or is it really something to do with the presence of trees in the environment?

    This possibility has been addressed by studies using high-resolution satellite imagery to plot tree density against various measures of well being in a huge sprawling urban area in Toronto, Canada. One such study (by Kardan et al, 2015) concluded that people who lived in an area with a higher density of trees in their neighbourhood had a significantly higher perceived health level and a lower incidence of cardio-vascular conditions.

    This complements the earlier study mentioned above that compared the mental health outcomes of people who moved from more green to less green urban areas and vice versa. Alcock and colleagues analysed 5 consecutive years worth of data from 1,084 British households, finding that those who moved from less green to more green urban areas enjoyed fewer mental health complications over the following three years.

    In a previous blog I described the classic study of patients who were recovering from a straightforward hernia operation in adjacent rooms, one that had a view of a brick wall and one that had a view of a small patch of grass with a tree growing in it. The patients who ended up in the room with the view of the tree recovered faster (as evidenced by the number of days they stayed in hospital post-surgery) and even required lower doses of analgesic medication to help them cope with the pain. Other studies have gone on to suggest that just being able to look out the window to catch sight of a slice of mother nature reduces aggression and criminal activity.

    So what is is about plants and trees that seems to have such a profound impact on how we feel? Hartig et al (2016) suggest that viewing a natural scene helps us to put things in perspective, to create a healthy psychological distance between the day-to-day grind by actively engaging our attention in features of the natural landscape. This can help us to repeatedly gain the positive and reinforcing experience of feeling our mood lift and stress subside, both of which naturally occur when we turn our back on the hectic urban world and engage with the more relaxed pace typical of open green spaces. Beyond these important factors, trees also improve air quality and aesthetic appearance of an environment.

    Across many studies, having access to green spaces has been shown to promote mental health, reduce accidental death and even mitigate against the negative impact of economic struggles on various health measure. It also reduces blood pressure and stress by promoting physical activity and reducing sedentary leisure time.

    Even before I read all about this body of research attesting to the physical and mental health benefits of spending leisure time in natural settings, my behaviour over the last few years suggests that I knew this innately. Since I moved into my flat a few years back I’ve spent countless hours watching our neighbourhood sparrows, blackbirds, blue tits, goldfinches, crows and wood pigeons flitting around the communal gardens (see above) that I can see from my balcony. When I taking breaks from researching and writing books and blogs while surveying this green scene, I can feel the stress drain out of my body. Then when I get back to work, I feel significantly better able to crack on after the ten to fifteen minutes spent watching the natural world do its thing; an observation supported by research indicating that attention and memory resources get a boost from even a brief exposure to nature.

    Beyond engaging with mother nature as a spectator, one of my favourite recreational past-times is to go running around Richmond Park with my mate Nathan. We’ve been doing it once a month for the past eight years. We talk almost non-stop during these 10km runs, mostly about nonsense just to reduce our perceived exertion (i.e. to distract ourselves from the bodily discomforts of keeping up a brisk jog for a solid hour), but we also regularly find ourselves commenting on how life just seems much better, easier, less daunting when you get outside, running cross-country through woods, fields of fern and grassy plains studded with herds of deer. It seems that the academic research data supports these views and backs the idea that communities benefit hugely from improved access to green spaces.

    In addition to these monthly brain blogs, I regularly tweet about the latest neuroscience research to hit the lay press and review a virtual reality game or experience every week on my YouTube channel Brain Man VR.

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  • Exercise Cleverer

    All forms of exercise do not yield equivalent benefits. While brains do profit from taking any kind of exercise on a regular basis, getting your heart rate up to triple digits is not enough, on its own, to get the full spectrum of possible brain benefits. To gain the greatest neural benefit from aerobic exercise, running cross country is better than plodding along on a treadmill, pounding a cross trainer or even hitting the track. And it’s not just that our brains benefit from spending plenty of time each week in the great outdoors. Exercising at the athletics track shares with gym based exercise the absence of another important factor that would otherwise yield an additional cognitive benefit: having to choose stable footing on an uneven terrain at a glance. Running on uneven surfaces, i.e. natural terrains not man-made ones, can supercharges the brain benefits of a workout.

    For some years now we’ve known that mice and rats that exercise regularly create more new neurons in the part of the brain important for navigation and memories than those who don’t. This increase in hippocampal neurogenesis is entirely logical if you think about it. A mouse who exercises more is likely to cover more ground and so have a larger territory to neurally map in order to later remember where the food is (F), where the dangers are (D) and how to navigate from A to F avoiding D.

    However humans are not mice. For one thing we stand up on two legs rather than four, and so locomotion is a tougher computational challenge which requires a handful of brain modifications to support it. Furthermore our methods of acquiring enough food for everyone to eat is more cognitively demanding. Our ancestors had to make up for their relative lack of speed and agility by tracking their prey across many tens of kilometres if they wanted to get their hands on the larger quarry that promised to provide many weeks worth of food for the homestead. This meant that they had to become masters of multitasking.

    Walking on two legs is more cognitively demanding than
    walking on four legs. If you trip on a branch with four legs, you’ve got three
    others to catch you before you fall. If you trip on a branch with two legs,
    you’ve got fewer options available to stay upright. Accelerate from walking to
    running and the computational problem of staying upright after a trip, rather
    than potentially smashing your skull on a rock, is much harder still; there’s
    simply much less time available to move a limb in time to break your fall. Add
    into the mix the need to process the visual world at great speed to choose a
    stable footing while traversing an uneven terrain, scanning for obstacles in
    the near distance, monitoring dangers in the immediate periphery AND verbally
    communicating with other members of the party, and the challenge of staying
    upright becomes even harder still.

    And that’s why I do a 10km cross-country run at least once a month with my old mate Nathan Flutebox Lee…

    In addition to these monthly blogs I tweet interesting, accessible articles about neuroscience research on a daily basis (@drjacklewis) and post a new virtual reality review every week (http://bit.ly/BrainManVR)

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  • Three Brain Hacks

    Earlier this month I gave a talk in an achingly cool studio space in Wapping; a short distance east along the Thames from Tower Bridge. This future-proofing healthcare event seemed to be a great success and I even got meet a hero of mine. I’m happy to report that not only is Henry Marsh a well-regarded neurosurgeon and fantastic author (whose book Do No Harm I reviewed here back in 2015), but he is also a brilliant speaker!

    My brief was to open the event with a quick overview of what the brain is, how its building blocks are arranged to accomplish all the marvelous things our brains can do and then offer a handful of tips and tricks that everyone can use to get their brains firing on all cylinders. When I give these talks there is always hard science behind whatever I share with the audience. It occurred to me that flashing up the relevant references on screen is probably not sufficient if people wanted to go back to the original science papers at a later date. In this month’s blog I thought I’d provide a few links to research articles summarising some of the research that motivates me to recommend three brain hacks to help people keep their grey and white matter in tip-top condition.

    SLEEP

    Many people consider it a nuisance to spend 1/3 of life unconscious. In our increasingly busy lives, spare time tends to get squeezed mercilessly and the time we spend sound asleep in bed usually suffers as a result. This is a travesty because it is when we are asleep that the brain does all its running repairs and maintenance work. It is when temporary memories reverberating around the brains neural highways are re-visited, the superfluous ones deleted and more important ones consolidated into long term memory by the laying down of proteins. According to a brilliant study published in the journal Science the metabolic waste materials that build up in the brain over the course of the day are also removed at a much faster rate when we are asleep compared to when we are awake.

    If these metabolic waste materials are allowed to accumulate in brain tissue it can have a negative impact on brain function and can potentially build up to levels that are neurotoxic, hence prolonged sleep deprivation being deadly for all animals. So a huge part of the reason it’s vitally important that we all try to get at least 7 and ideally 8 hours of sleep each night is to give the brain an opportunity to banish as much of these potentially toxic materials from the brain as possible. While the 2013 study was in mice, a paper published this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science also demonstrated that sleep deprivation has a similar impact on the clearance of toxic substances from the human brain too.

    I’ll not go into further detail here as next month’s blog will be a review of Matt Walker’s book Why We Sleep, but I’ll conclude with one more sleep-related tip. It is perfectly normal to feel drowsy in the mid-afternoon. Acting on the urge to have a 15-20 min nap is not just restorative, enabling you to continue your daily activities with greater efficiency but, perhaps even more importantly, it also vastly improves memory retention and creative problem solving. Personally, I take a nap most days. In fact, I’m feeling the urge right now, so I’ll complete this blog once I’ve taken 40 winks (1 nap-wink = 30s ;-)…

    … that’s better! (I genuinely did). Not only do I practice what I preach but I regularly urge businesses to encourage their staff to take an afternoon nap every single time I speak at a business conference. On many levels it is flagrant false economy to allow the myth  that napping is tantamount to laziness to be perpetuated. It simply couldn’t be further from the truth.

    HYDRATION

    Every single morning we wake up dehydrated. That’s because we have to keep breathing 24/7 to stay alive. This is the only way we can keep our oxygen levels topped up (to maximise the release of energy from glucose to keep our vital biological processes ticking over) and to eliminate the carbon dioxide that is a key waste material of this process, which would otherwise increase the acidity of the blood with potentially catastrophic consequences. To keep these gases moving in and out of the bloodstream, the inner surface of the lungs must be kept moist, which means that every time you exhale you are blowing away a little bit of water vapour.

    Assuming we stay asleep for 7-8 hours, we will always wake up a little bit dehydrated, which knocks all sorts of biological mechanisms out of kilter. From the brain’s perspective the most important impact of this dehydration is that it has a negative impact on neural transmission – the capacity for each of your 86 billion neurons to efficiently send electrical messages along their wire-like axons and thereby influence other brain cells. People usually wake up a little bit grumpy because the first thing to go awry when people are dehydrated is mood. The cognitive impairment associated with dehydration also explains why you’re likely to find yourself prone to getting mixed up in the process of executing straightforward tasks. Accidentally putting coffee in the saucepan with the porridge instead of the cafetiere where it belongs is a personal favourite, as is the struggle to find everything needed for the day ahead in the daily rush to get out the door on time.

    Do yourself a favour: make drinking a glass of water (laying in wait on your bedside table) the first thing you do after switching off the alarm to help you minimise the amount of time you spend lacking a sense of humour and unable to perform the simplest of tasks effectively each morning due to a dehydrated brain. Having started the day well, monitor your mood and when you feel irritable, before you try and blame others for being so annoying, think to yourself – when was the last time I drank water? (NB not coffee, fizzy drinks or juice, but just plain, old-fashioned, H2O).

    COFFEE

    There is pretty good evidence to suggest that people who drink a moderate amount of coffee each day have a lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease and also (in men at least) Parkinson’s disease. We still don’t know what exactly it is about the magic bean that confers these neuroprotective effects – the most popular hypothesis is that the benefits arise as a result of all the antioxidants contained in the coffee bean helping to soak up all the free radicals that would otherwise interfere with our DNA.

    Despite these benefits, there are drawbacks to a voracious appetite for coffee. One broadly overlooked peril of the coffee habit is that caffeine has a very long half-life. It takes 6 whole hours to reduce the concentration of caffeine in the bloodstream by half (NB this takes much longer if you’re pregnant or on the contraceptive pill, but less time if you’re a smoker). This means that if you have the equivalent of 4 cups of coffee’s worth of caffeine in your bloodstream at midday, then it will take until 6pm before this has been reduced to 2 cups-worth and 6 hours after that – at midnight – this will finally have been halved again: down to 1 cup of coffee’s-worth of caffeine. Clearly anyone who is in the habit of drinking coffee throughout the afternoon is going to have so much stimulant swimming around their system come night time that it will inevitably interfere with their sleep. We’ve already covered the reason’s why this is bad news for brain health.

    The upshot is this: to avail yourself of the neuroprotective benefits of coffee, without suffering negative impacts on sleep in terms of onset, duration and/or quality, then get all your coffee drinking out of the way in the morning and if you absolutely must take caffeine onboard in the afternoon, then at the very least try to switch to green tea instead (15% of the caffeine in a cup of coffee). The next time a waiter or waitress offers you an after-dinner coffee, feel free to inform them that they are effectively tempting all their customers to play roulette with the health of their brain.

    NEXT UP

    I’m giving another talk at the end of this month – at 1pm on Sat 28th April – at the Leeds International Festival on the topic of how technology impacts our brains. If this is of interest, then tickets are available here – it’s free!

    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 in July 2018 my new book Science of Sin will hit the shelves in the UK (11th Sept in the USA).

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  • Gogglebox-Inspired Brain Hack by Dr Jack

    Gogglebox_logoI love Channel 4’s Gogglebox. In case you’ve never had the pleasure – it’s a TV series where everyday British people’s living rooms are fitted out with TV cameras to capture the spontaneous conversation that arises as they sit together watching the week’s big shows on their own television. Watching people watching television may not sound like a particularly interesting way to pass the time but I personally find it absolutely fascinating. In fact, I’ve tried on several occasions to convince my friends to be filmed watching Gogglebox with me so that we can launch a YouTube channel where friends and families all over the country can post their own videos of their own running commentary as they watch people on television who themselves are watching television. That way, viewers of this meta-Gogglebox channel can amuse themselves by watching people on the telly who are watching people on the telly who are watching telly.

    Am I the only one to find this prospect tantalising?

    Apparently so. Nobody’s ever taken me up on the offer…!

    sid-siddiquiGogglebox has a strange way of making me feel connected to my fellow Brits up and down the length of the nation. Why? I think it’s because for such a wide diversity of households, featuring such a variety of people who seem, at first glance, to be completely different yet deep down clearly share a very similar set of values. It’s surprisingly satisfying to find that you share certain strong opinions, make similar observations and perhaps most tellingly read between the lines in a similar way to people of a completely different age, regional dialect, sex, ethnicity, socioeconomic status and/or sexuality. For example, I find myself agreeing with most of the observations made by the father and two sons in Nottingham, yet the slang that the Brixton girls use are the words most familiar to my ear. So, bizarrely, I find myself identify most closely with three guys of south Asian origin and two girls of Afro-Caribbean origin.

    Sandy and SandraIt reminds me that being British ain’t so bad after all and that feeling proud of my nation (rather than a little bit apologetic, as our default setting seems to be under normal circumstances) is not such a terrible thing. Jeremy Paxman’s brilliant book: “The English” started this process in me many years ago and now Gogglebox has picked up where he left off but applying this newfound pride to the whole of Britain rather than just England. I like my weekly reminder that the average, everyday, normal British person can be both amusing and insightful. I enjoy contemplating that, despite our varying outward appearances, accents and slang, scratch the surface and we’re actually much more similar than we are different deep down, on the grand scheme of things. It  genuinely warms the cockles of my soul…

    Anyway, I digress. The main reason I wanted to blog about Gogglebox this month was not just to sing its praises in terms of it’s capacity for promoting a much needed sense of national togetherness, but rather to point out a simple tweak to a common habit that takes place in living rooms all over the UK. This could genuinely help each and every one of us to take some simple steps to avoid developing Type II diabetes. So you could view this as my small offering in the battle against the rising global obesity epidemic.

    MaloneTreatsGreater Manchester’s contribution to Gogglebox – the Malones – are a family unit comprising a husband and wife accompanied by two teenage sons and several huge dogs that are clearly an intrinsic and dearly loved part of the family. One ever-present feature in their segments of the show is a huge box of sweets or plate of cakes and biscuits placed slap bang in front of them on the footrest siting between them and the television. Every single time I see this I think to myself: bad idea. It may seem perfectly harmless, hospitable even, but in a world defined by the overabundance of sweet, fatty, delicious foods it’s already hard enough to reduce calorie intake to a reasonable level without having temptation permanently within your field of view! With a couple of simple tweaks a scenario that actively promotes the mindless nibbling that inevitably leads to weight gain can be converted into one that helps us to limit intake of foods that are naughty but nice.

    The first thing you should do if you’re keen to reduce the amount of food you eat late at night, whilst unwinding in front of the telly after a tiring day, is to never eat straight out of the packet. When our mind’s are distracted by a TV show or film we simply don’t notice how much food we are eating and so we eat lots without really appreciating it. Whilst the Malones nearly get this bit right, they take the approach of emptying the entire tray of Mr Kipling’s pies onto a large plate for everyone to help themselves to. I would argue that a better strategy would be to put just one or two out on a small plate. That way if they want more then they have to put in effort to go and get it from the kitchen. Several studies have shown that the smaller the plate, bowl, serving spoon etc used to hold the food, the less of it ends up being consumed. Better still, cut these small cakes in half or quarters and empty them directly onto the plate to further encourage a lesser calorie intake by reducing portion size.

    The second brain hack is to move the plate or bowl out of your field of vision, rather than having it sat directly in front of you. Out of sight, out of mind. The more frequently your eyes catch sight of the snack food, the more temptation you have do resist. If you move it out of view you’ll have less temptation to fight.

    IMG_8317Thanks to the Malones, I have started applying these simple brain hacks in my own life. I’ve always been partial to Cadbury’s chocolate fingers. But I’d often go through a whole packet in a night without really remembering munching through them. Having been reminded by the Malones of my tactical error, I now load up a shot glass with half a dozen fingers and put the box back in the freezer (yes, in the freezer). I then place them outside my line of vision directly to the right of my head where I can only see it if I turn my head 90 degrees.

    The result of using this simple brace of brain hacks on a daily basis is that,  when I switch off the box to hit the hay at the end of an evening of being a “sofa sloth”, I’ll typically find that that there are still a couple of uneaten chocolate fingers left in the shot glass. That’s something that simply never happened when I ate straight out of the box. By dishing out a small portion I set the maximum dose to a modest number of calories. And by positioning them out of sight, I ended up completely forgetting that they were even there, reducing the amount of fast-release carbs yet further!!

    Instead of eating a couple of dozen chocolate biscuits in one sitting, this simple tweak to my daily habit means that I’m now only munching my way through four, five or six of them. The best bit of all? It requires no mental discipline from me whatsoever to resist the temptation.

    I’m even starting to see a comeback of something whose days I thought were long gone – my six-pack is mysteriously beginning to re-emerge (well, to be honest it’s only really visible when I’m stretched out in the bath or on the beach, but it’s a step in the right direction!!

    In addition to these monthly brain blogs you can follow me on Twitter for a daily dose of breakthroughs in brain science. My new book – Mice Who Sing For Sex is now available to pre-order. It’s a compilation of the strange and wonderful science stories to emerge in the press over the past two years in the Geek Chic’s Weird Science podcast presented by Lliana Bird and I. And finally my brand new series “Secrets of the Brain” will soon be available to stream from the Insight TV website.

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  • The Runner’s High by Dr Jack

    In previous articles on this blog I’ve described some of the many long-term brain benefits of regular exercise. These have mainly focused on the benefits that regular exercise offers to older people in terms of reducing the rate of age-related cognitive decline. But the brain benefits of taking regular exercise are applicable to everyone, young and old.

    Do It For Your Brain’s Sake

    runners-highPeople who exercise regularly have lower rates of anxiety and depression. They even boast greater cortical thickness in parts of the prefrontal cortex and the medial temporal lobe. Specifically brain scanning studies have demonstrated that the left and right hippocampus, fundamental both to creating memories and knowing where we are in space, are a little larger than in sedentary people. This increase in tissue thickness is thought to be indicative of a denser meshwork of synaptic connections reflecting a greater complexity of neuronal network. In other words several brain areas fundamentally involved in memory and cognition are able to perform better. What’s more regular exercise leads to improvements in mood and even helps you sleep better. And there is little better than a good night’s sleep for helping brains to reach peak performance.

    Exercise leads to increased levels of nerve growth factors like BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factors) that promote the birth and survival of new brain cells, synapses and development of new blood vessels. So this is thought to a likely mechanism for the changes in the thickness of various brain regions in people who take regular exercise and quite possible the long term benefits in cognitive ability and mental health.

    In my talks, workshops and first book (Sort Your Brain Out) I urge people to move away from thinking about exercise as a pastime motivated by the desire to improve the appearance of our bodies and more as something we should get in the habit of doing regular exercise to manage our mood / productivity in the short term and brain health in the long term. When people are feeling stressed out their motivation to hit the gym is often at rock bottom levels. A huge shame because exercise is exactly what would make them feel much, much better almost immediately.

    endocannabinoidsWhat Causes the Runner’s High?

    Athletes often talk of the “runner’s high.” This has long been explained as a result of endorphins released in the brain in response to moderate to intense exercise. It makes good theoretical sense because endorphins, the brain’s natural opiates, have the twin effect of numbing pain and making us feel good. The trouble is that up until 2008 there was little if any hard evidence to back this notion up. Yet further doubt was cast on the whole endorphin hypothesis when a study demonstrated that the runner’s high still occurred even when the effect of any released endorphins was blocked with a drug called naxalone.

    Looking elsewhere for a mechanism through which the runner’s high might be achieved researchers started to focus on a possible role for endocannabinoids. Similar in structure to the hundreds of cannabinoid chemicals found in the Cannabis sativa plant smoked recreationally in pursuit of a mood-enhancing effect, endocannabinoids are naturally produced throughout the brain.

    Subsequently, elevated endorphin levels were observed in a brain scanning study that compared brains that had recently completed a 2-hour endurance run compared to other brains that hadn’t (Boecker et al, 2008). So consensus now is that the anxiolytic effects of exercise are mediated by a combination of endocannabinoid and endorphin release in the brain.

    EndorphinsWhat Purpose Might the Runner’s High Serve?

    From an evolutionary perspective pain signals clearly should be switch on and off-able because they can be helpful or disabling depending on the context. Pain signals from damaged body parts helps us to avoid worsening the injury when at rest or engaging in gentle exercise, clearly an advantage when the priority is to allow a twisted ankle, strained knee or inflamed muscle to heal properly. But in the context of evading a predator or attempting to catch prey, such pain signals could lead to the huge potential disadvantage should it lead to getting caught and killed by the predator, or failing to catch the very food that might keep us, and our dependents, alive. The benefit of the analgesic / hedonic effect is that if a person is running to save their skin, then switching off the pain signal and inducing a light high to further compensate for any residual pain resulting in an unimpeded getaway makes perfect sense. Better to endure minor tissue damage if it is the only way to ensure you’ll live to see another day.

    runLittle and Often

    There is a huge amount of evidence to support the concept that regular exercise is extremely good for body and brain. The trouble is, we all know this but few actually get around to taking regular exercise. In my view the main reason for this is partly feeling overwhelmed by their busy lives but also probably involves exercising in the wrong way: when people do finally get around to exercising they often overdo it. Spending the whole of the next day aching all over will do little to incentivise them to take the trouble to exercising again any time soon.

    I would argue that little and often is the best policy. Even at the frantic pace of modern life everyone can fit in 20-30mins of exercise a day. That way, even if some weeks you only hit 50% of your target, you’ll still be getting your heart rate and breathing rate up, flooding the brain with highly oxygenated blood, endorphins, endocannabinoids and BDNF, 3-4 times per week – exactly the recommended dose!

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

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  • Sort Your Brain Out Retreats

    Feeling stressed? Need a break? Fancy spending a few days in paradise to learn how to meditate?
    Better still would you like to learn more about how your brain works AND simple things you can do every day to be more creative, make better decisions, manage your mood?
    The SYBO retreats might be just the thing for you!!
    The venue is the beautiful Greek Island of Mykonos.
    Your hosts are the beautifully-bendy Jasmyn (see photos) & yours truly: the brain-besotted Dr Jack Lewis
    We are now offering a fantastic, luxurious, Stress-Busting, Yoga & Meditation Retreat by day with a selection of intellectually-stimulating Brain Talks just before lunch each time, freeing up the afternoons for exploration of the island’s many beaches.
    Meditation is clinically-proven to reduce stress. So if you’re feeling washed out after a particularly tough start to the year this really will help you to Sort Your Brain Out. It might just change your life. Jasmyn talks everyone through the various yoga moves, in a mixed group of beginners and advanced practitioners, and then concludes with a guided meditation session. These dawn and dusk sessions are complemented with several talks that explain, amongst many other things the science of meditation and why it’s so good for brains. Once a person truly grasps why mindfulness meditation is so good for health of body and brain they naturally become motivated to incorporate it into their daily routine back in the “real world.
    Myk
    What to expect from the Neuro-Infused Art of Peaceful Living Retreats this spring / summer?
    The villas are in a very private neighborhood in Mykonos, Greece.
    The properties have 4-5 rooms each, sleeping maximum 10 per house.
    These neuroscience-infused Art of Peaceful Living™ programs lasts 5 days and includes:
    • 21-25th May (now fully booked)
    • Airport Transfers
    • Luxury accommodation
    • Vegetarian breakfast and lunch
    • Twice daily yoga and meditation practices
    • Either a treatment at a local day-spa or an in-room massage
    • Daily brain talks from Dr Jack on:
      • Changing Your Brain
      • Neuroscience of Creativity
      • Neuroscience of Meditation
      • Neuroscience of Temptation
    All for £1,550 (€2,120) for the Spring retreat during 21st-25th May (SOLD OUT)
    Did I mention there is a pool?
    Also please bear in mind that if you want to arrive a few days early or leave a few days later we may be able to arrange accommodation for you at the villa during this time.
    The rooms each have a queen bed and most have private bathrooms.
    Every morning, as the host (Jasmyn) prepares your breakfast and lunch, she gives instruction on how to prepare these “plant-based” meals in your kitchen at home as part of the included Look Alive™ Nutrition workshops. These workshops will have recipes, and detailed explanations about why eating a plant-based is beneficial to brain-function and chemistry, physical performance, treatment of psychological disturbances and disorders, as well as a know-how to have your kitchen prepped and ready for easy to make and quick recipes.
    Yoga classes are all multi-level and while the morning classes can be vigorous exercise, the evening classes are relaxing and recuperative. The morning Vinyassa Yoga classes are more dynamic for beginners to advanced practitioners, and are immediately followed by a meditation class to settle the minds before the day’s activities. And of course there is no obligation to attend classes, so whether you just fancy a lie in or want to go off one afternoon for a wander, that’s totally up to you!
    Activities include additional excursions on the island, lounging by the on-property pool, or venturing to any of the island’s other many delights.
    Yoga-Nidra sessions are given at sunset following a gentle Yin-Yoga Flow class incorporating techniques of thai-massage, to restore you and prepare you for the next day’s Vinyassa Yoga sessions or for going out that night! Dinners are not usually included to give attendees freedom to roam in the evenings (unless you request to have a special dinner prepared instead of lunch).
    Sort Your Brain Out Retreats are 5 days of true luxury living. Treating the body and brain to wholesome, delicious food, body balancing exercise and gentle meditations, all in the privacy of the Maera Villas – with the endless view of the Mediterranean from each of the properties.
    Bespoke Corporate Retreats for groups of 5 or more people can also be discussed.
    For enquiries about availability please feel free to drop Jack an email: dr.lewis@neuroformed.com
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  • Music & Healing, Acoustics & Learning

    From time to time the peripatetic life of a freelance neuroscience broadcaster and consultant can lead to some fantastic moments of serendipity.

    bnaLast December, at the annual BNA Christmas symposium, I screened a 10 min teaser of a series of interviews I conducted at the British Neuroscience Association Conference in the Barbican last Spring. The aim of these mini-films is to make the impressive work done by some of the world’s leading neuroscientists interesting and accessible to all by discussing the latest revelations from the world of neuroscience in plain English. Having to learn to use editing and 3D motion graphics software on the fly has made this a slow-moving yet intensely rewarding project. The teaser is *very nearly* ready to go up on the BNA website. Eventually, it this project will comprise a series of 8 x 3 min films that will enable any curious mind to get a sneaky peek at the fruits of several globally renowned scientists’ thoughts about the latest brain research direct from the horses’ mouths. Here are three snippets from the first cut to give you a taste.

    chelsea-westminster-hospital-performanceAfter the inaugural screening of the “British Neuroscience Conversations” teaser, a Ph.D. student who had been in the audience kindly took the time to engage me in conversation about her research. In so doing she introduced me to the wonderful world of psychoneuroimmunology. In a nutshell, it turns out that music can accelerate healing not by just making people feel happier upon hearing the music, but by actually impacting upon the immune system. For the scientifically literate amongst you here is her excellent review paper, hot off the press (published earlier this month). In a previous blog I described research showing that healing times after routine gall bladder surgery were significantly sped up simply by giving patients a view from their sick bed of grass and trees (rather than a brick wall). And given the robust increases in certain immune cells (immunoglobulin A) and decrease in stress hormones (cortisol) outlined in the Fancourt et al (2014) review paper – it seems likely that soothing low tempo music could be added to the mix to create an even more effective healing environment.

    At the Chelsea and Westminster hospital, where Daisy Fancourt and her colleagues are based, they have a regular program of live music performed in a fantastic space at the very heart of this beautifully designed building. The aim is not just to allow the patients to benefit from the mood and health promoting properties of music, but the staff too. Doctors, nurses and other health care practitioners can often be found stopping by to listen to the live music for a few minutes whenever their snatched opportunities to wolf down a sandwich or gulp a cup of coffee happens to coincide with a performance.

    EssexStudyIn a second coincidence the very next day I met up with my cousin for a couple of beers. He is an acoustician – a physicist who consults for property developers and re-developers on how to manage the acoustics of living spaces, working spaces, learning spaces, healing spaces and musical performance spaces. I mentioned what was going on down at the Chelsea and Westminster and he responded by introducing me about The Essex Study. In a school in Essex three different classrooms were kitted out with “re-verb dampening” panels that attenuate certain acoustic features known to make hearing the voices of other people more difficult over the background noise. In untreated rooms the unattenuated echos tend to lead to a positive feedback loop – students find it harder to hear each other over the reverb so raise their voices to be heard – which upon multiple iterations gradually increases the overall volumes levels, making teaching very difficult and teachers very hoarse!

    As well as subjectively rating various aspects of the rooms with the greater re-verb reduction more highly, teachers also found it much easier to teach classes in rooms with the larger degree of sound dampening; stating that in normal classrooms those same groups of students were usually much more unruly. Although the students’ academic outputs were (unfortunately) not tested in the four different environments with varying degrees of echo dampening, the teacher’s anecdotal testimonies regarding how much easier it was to teach in the acoustically tweaked classrooms were compelling nonetheless (see Appendix B, p29).

    I wonder about the potential for crossover between these two distinct areas of research. Might excessive reverb caused by the acoustical properties of hospital ward architecture could potentially impede healing? Perhaps by increasing cortisol, high levels of which suppress the immune system? Mozart Effect notwithstanding might musical activities, perhaps between lessons, potentially promote learning by helping students reduce high levels of cortisol that might be induced by social strife (bullying, the inclusion / exclusion roller coaster of teenage friendships) not to mention exam-related anxiety? Is anyone out there looking into these things? If so, please do drop me a line and let me know about it.

    In addition to these monthly blogs I tweet on a daily basis about articles in the lay press that give a neuroscience-informed (#neuroformed) insight into human behaviour and brain health. If you’d like to follow me then please click here.

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  • Green Spaces Accelerate Healing by Dr Jack

    Spending time in green spaces reduces blood pressure, increases self-reported happiness ratings and even boosts self-confidence. And this is not just because being in clean and tidy natural environments encourages people to take exercise. Neither, it seems, do you have to actually be physically outdoors in these spaces to benefit from these life-enriching effects. Merely having a view over a natural green space is sufficient to influence the rate of healing and the perception of pain. In a famous Science study published in 1984 by Roger S. Ulrich, patients whose recovery room had either a view of a small copse of trees or a brown brick wall were compared, retrospectively, in terms of duration of their stay in hospital and strength of analgesia required to deal with the pain induced by gall bladder surgery performed in the same Pennsylvanian hospital. They found that on average those with the view of a green space spent on average one less day in hospital and required much fewer moderate or strong doses of pain killers compared to those with a view of the brick wall.

    Numerous studies have been conducted since to try to establish what aspects of the natural environment have the strongest benefits to our wellbeing. Virgnia I Lohr, of Washington State University, describes studies suggesting that bright green colours synonymous with luscious vegetation make us feel happier than light greens and yellows that could indicate plant nutrient deficiencies. Furthermore not only does mood improve when we look at trees but we even have a preference for trees with spreading canopies over short and stubby bush like trees typically found in arid areas and tall / narrow trees typically found in areas of very high rainfall. The explanation Lohr offers for these preferences for bright greens and trees with spreading canopies is that such visual stimuli are indicative of conditions suitable for the proliferation of human life. In other words an innate appreciation of such visual characteristics conferred a survival advantage to early humans as they would have been attracted to environments with flourishing plantlife and thus food sources, whilst others would have perished in environments that were either too dry or to wet.

    So whether you are recovering from illness, or merely wish to boost your mood, get outside and take a stroll in the countryside, in your local park or common. If that’s not possible for one reason or another go take a few moments to sit somewhere with a view of some greenery. As I type I happen to be whizzing through the Northumbrian countryside on a train (that’s in the North-East of England for those who live further afield) meditating upon how beautiful it is. Enjoy!

    If you liked this you’ll love my daily tweets in which I share breakthroughs in brain science that are fresh off the press, so please do consider following me on Twitter.

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  • Gyms of the Future – Good for Body, Good for Brain by Dr Jack Lewis

    healthy brainExercise is good for health, we all know that. That said it is also clear that the whole world is utterly fixated on the benefits to the body. The considerable benefits of physical exercise for the brain are invariably overlooked. As proof of these benefits continues to trickle in and the exact mechanisms by which exercise improves brain function gradually makes itself apparent, I’m guessing we’ll find ourselves increasingly inclined to take regular exercise for our brain’s sake. This article reveals insights from a recent report I wrote about why using high tempo music can naturally stimulate the brain to help you exercise harder with a lesser perception of exertion. I also argue that we might as well further enhance this effect by distracting ourselves with on screen activities that give the brain a work out whilst we’re at it.

    lactic 1When it comes to keeping motivated in the gym, the name of the game is distraction from the discomfort caused by lactic acid building up in the muscles when the capacity of aerobic exercise is exceeded and anaerobic metabolism takes over (releasing energy without oxygen). If you are not distracted, each minute of moderately intensive exercise can seem to take an age to tick by. If, on the other hand, your mind is elsewhere, then the minutes can fly by and you can clock up a decent amount of time doing continuous exercise without really noticing the burn in your muscles so much. The bottom line is: if the brain’s attentional resources are focused intently on something in the outside world – listening to upbeat music or watching an engaging TV programme, for instance –  then it limits the amount of brain resources available for sensing what is going in inside your body. This results in a decrease in “perception of exertion” for any given workout as a direct consequence and boosts your mood (so long as it’s music that suits your personal tastes).

    CountdownI gave a talk at last year’s Fitness Industry Association annual conference in Rotherham’s amazing MAGNA Centre (ex-steel works) where I suggested that if people work out harder when their mind is elsewhere – why not go for a double whammy and actually give them some brain teasers to do to as the distraction from the pain associated with moderately intense exercise? All it would take is to have one of the screens in the cardio section of any gym displaying a series of number / word / logic puzzles.

    This vision was inspired by my own experience of playing along with Channel 4’s Countdown whilst pounding the treadmill – I completely lost track of time and clocked up a much longer-than-normal running session (for the benefit of non-UK citizens: Countdown is a British game show where a pair of contestants must create the longest word possible from a sequence of 9 randomly selected letters and a bit of mental arithmetic with randomly selected numbers). I did this three times a week and within a month I was regularly able to find words as long as those found by the on-screen contestants.

    basal_gangliaLast month, brain & fitness became the hot topic yet again when I was unexpectedly commissioned to write a report on the evidence for and against the anecdotal observation that fast tempo music seems to do something to the brain which enables people to get more out of their workout. Part of the effect boils down to plain old distraction, as discussed above. But delving deeper into the neuroscience literature revealed that whenever the brain perceives a regular beat, the basal ganglia become activated, increasing the amount of connectivity between other brain areas: those involved in creating the sound of music (auditory cortex) with those that trigger bodily movements (motor cortex).

    The basal ganglia are the brain structures that are compromised in Parkinson’s disease, which involves difficulty initiating movements, resulting in a shuffling gait and jerky limb control. So with this in mind the responsiveness of the basal ganglia to a music beat is a likely mechanism through which the sounds impact upon exercise to produce the “ergogenic” properties.

    swimming to musicThese ergogenic properties of music, particularly effective in the 162-168 bpm range, enable people to exercise faster, stronger, harder and for longer whether they are running, doing weights, cycling, circuits and even swimming. If the part of the brain involved in initiating movements (basal ganglia) is responsive to the beat, then when that beat is rapid, the muscles of the body are presumably primed to match the pace set by that beat. Creating an exercise playlist where successive tunes gradually increase the tempo should allow you to enjoy a harder work out but with a reduced perception of exertion. More gain for less pain!

    To find out the bpm of your favourite tunes I would recommend using this free, simple, but ingenious, web resource: BeatFinder. Just position your cursor over the big red button and then click along in time with the beat of the tune.

    Catch me on Twitter to hear of amazing breakthroughs in brain research every day.

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  • Mnemonic Techniques by Dr Jack Lewis

    Your Memory Palace should in fact NOT be a building where the royal family lives, but instead a location where you have an intimate knowledge of the layout (unless, of course, you happen to be a royal yourself, have been invited for tea, to receive a medal, or similar)

    Not so long ago most people didn’t know how to write and so if you needed to remember something your only option was to use your head. These days we tend to rely on various methods for jogging our memories such as post it notes, notebooks, diaries, the internet, smartphones and so on. But back in the day it was just you, your memory and tricks like the Memory Palace.

    Legend has it that the Memory Palace was invented in the 5th Century B.C. by a poet called Simonides of Ceos. He was the soul survivor of a catastrophe that may be the first ever documented cases of cowboy builders – an entire banqueting hall fell down all around him, killing every guest save himself. When asked who had been present, he is said to have closed his eyes and, in his mind’s eye, moved his attention around the room naming each and every person that had been in the room before the building collapsed. His Eureka! moment came when it occurred to him that this previously unknown human facility for recalling information from memory by moving sequentially around a location could be used to remember all sorts of information with a just a few slight tweaks.

    That makes the Memory Palace a very, very old technique that bards of antiquity from Simonides onwards used to memorise their poetry for the entertainment of many an Ancient Greek and Roman audience. Often the poems in questions were epics and using this particular memory trick they could recite verse for, quite literally, hours at a time. It is very much a tried and tested technique, having only gone out of fashion in recent decades. And if they could do that with it, just think how useful it could be for you.

    The contributers who used the chain mnemonic to remember 20 objects live on British television both improved marginally but those who played along in the comfort of their own home did much better!

    I described the chain mnemonic (a.k.a. memory trick) in both a previous brainpost and during my first appearance on THIS MORNING with ITV1’s Phillip Schofield and Jenni (a.k.a. Rachel – oops, you’ll know what I’m talking about if you were watching!) Falconer (in fact you can watch again if you live in the UK by clicking the link above). The two contributers whose challenge it was to memorise 20 objects live on television under the hot studio lights and the scrutiny of the nation improved, using the chain mnemonic, by one item each. Not as much as we had hoped for but, given the pressure, not bad all the same. However, a couple of viewers playing along in the comfort of their own home (and therefore without the distraction of feeling like they were being watched by thousands of people!) got in touch with me after the show via twitter to say that they improved from 12 out of 20 objects before they learned the chain mnemonic to 16 out of 20 afterwards and another said (claimed?!) that they managed to score a whopping 20 out of 20 using the chain mnemonic!

    The basic strategy for all mnemonic tricks, Memory Palace included, to make those memories “stickier” i.e. tougher to forget, involves:

    • intensely focusing your attention
    • vividly imagining the to-be-remembered items in your mind’s eye for about 20-30s each
    • imagining not just how it looks but how it sounds, smells, tastes and/or feels to the touch
    • imagining a scene that is dynamic, not static i.e. the object is doing something, not just sitting there
    • and make sure that whatever multisensory scene you dream up generates a potent emotion (e.g. frightening, rude, disgusting, bizarre etc.)

    The Memory Palace itself should be a real physical place where you know every nook and cranny like the back of your hand. Perhaps your primary/secondary school, your childhood house/flat, your current accomodation/place of work or a shopping/holiday desination you’ve been to many times. The idea is to use your imagination to take a SET PATH through that familiar location depositing the items you need to remember along the way. Having done this, you must subsequently retrace your steps in your mind’s eye, going to each nook and cranny where you placed your objects earlier and there they will be, firmly lodged in your memory.

    Whether memorizing teams that have won the football World Cup using the Chain or Memory Palace – my symbols for Spain, Italy & Brazil are a matador, pasta & Ronaldinho

    Often the items you want to recall aren’t actually physical objects, but that isn’t a problem, you just have to find an object that symbolically represents what you actually need to remember. For example, in my earlier brainpost about the Chain Mnemonic I demonstrated how I personally remember all the countries that have ever won the football World Cup. For me, the ultimate symbol of Spain (who won the World Cup most recently) is bullfighting, so my symbol for Spain is a matador in a bullring. My personal symbol for Italy is spaghetti. My personal symbol for Brazil is Ronaldinho etc. So although in the chain mnemonic my matador is holding a cape made out of woven Spaghetti which explodes everywhere when the charging bull’s horns make contact and then Ronaldinho turns up to add some Brazilian ingredients to my pasta dish to remind me that Spain won the cup in 2010, Italy in 2006 and Italy in 2002, when I used the Memory Palace trick I have a matador teasing a bull along the path that leads from the street to my house, spaghetti covering my my front door from top to bottom and Ronaldinho doing kickups in the hall.

    When you first try these tricks you’ll probably find that your imagination isn’t what it used to be and it’s a bit of a struggle to dream up scenes whacky enough to make the memory stick. But trust me, put in 20 minutes a day and in a week your imagination will be much better and much faster so the memorising part will become much more effective in no time at all.

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