I 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…!
Gogglebox 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.
It 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.
Greater 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.
Thanks 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.
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
People 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 LewisWe 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.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)
Vegetarian breakfast and lunch
Twice daily yoga and meditation practices
Either a treatment at a local day-spa or an in-room massage
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: email@example.com
Daily brain talks from Dr Jack on:
Changing Your Brain
Neuroscience of Creativity
Neuroscience of Meditation
Neuroscience of Temptation
In the Smart Drugs chapter of the book I wrote with Adrian Webster “Sort Your Brain Out” we argued that of the various nootropics available in this day and age it makes sense to give preference to substances that have been around for eons rather than the new kids on the block. This really is the only way you can enjoy the benefits without having to worry about the potential unknown long term problems and side effects.
The brain benefits of regular coffee drinking were described, but due to space limitations we were only able to discuss a few other substances. This month’s blog highlights some of the many published studies that have indicated a wide variety of health benefits associated with regularly imbibing green tea – something that people have indeed been doing for hundreds of years.
Green & Black
Camellia sinensis is the name of the plant that gives us white, yellow, green, black and oolong teas. Black tea has more than twice the amount of caffeine as green tea, whilst green tea has more polyphenols (the very antioxidant substances that mop up all those dangerous free radicals). The difference in concentrations of these substances can be accounted for by the fact that black tea requires fermentation before preparation – which increases the caffeine content and decreases the polyphenol content – whilst green tea is prepared from unfermented leaves.
All The Tea In China
Green Tea has been used in traditional Chinese and Indian medicine for thousands of years where it has been exploited for it’s stimulant, diuretic and astringent properties; not to mention improving heart health, flatulence and body temperature regulation. The stimulant effects are thanks to the alkaloids contained within the tea leaf including caffeine, theobromine and theophylline. As green tea contains about half the caffeine of black tea and MUCH less than a cup of coffee, dosing yourself with green tea throughout the day is much less likely to disrupt your sleep come bedtime than the other options.
Typing “green tea” into an internet search engine yields a huge number of websites dedicated to promoting the ubiquitous benefits of regular green tea ingestion to improve the effectiveness of exercise, improving weight loss and even helping to manage diabetes. Of course its always difficult to know which sources you can and can’t trust. Hard data is required to establish whether green tea really does help to ameliorate symptoms of the various complaints for which it has been traditionally recommended.
Is Green Tea Really Good For You?
Yes! When individual research studies are published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal they can provide evidence to support or reject any particular scientific hypothesis, but a single study cannot “prove” or “disprove” any given theory. Meta-analyses are much more powerful in this regard because they look at many different studies all investigating similar hypotheses. If, despite being conducted on a completely different group of subjects, often in a completely different location and undertaken by a different group of researchers, they all point towards the same conclusion this provides for a much more powerful argument to support, or refute, any given claim when the consensus points to a benefit. Just looking at the meta-analysis data it has been confirmed that green tea is effective at lowering blood pressure, reducing risk of several different cancers and improving cardiovascular/metabolic health, to name but a few.
Any Brain Benefits of Green Tea?
Drinking green tea has long been associated with relaxation and, indeed, scientific investigation has now backed this up. Epigallocatechine-3-gallate, the most active of the tea polyphenols (known collectively as “catechins”) is found in much higher quantities in green tea than other teas and is known to inhibit an enzyme that converts cortisone to cortisol. Cortisol is a so-called stress hormone and cortisone the inactive form. By preventing the enzyme in question – 11 beta-hydroxysteroid Dehydrogenase Type 1 – from doing its job, the active ingredient of green tea is able to reduce levels of the stress hormone. (In case you were wondering, the other 5 catechins are: catechin, gallaogatechin, epicatechin, epigallocatechin and epicatechin gallate).
Can Green Tea Can Improve Cognition?
Yes! Anecdotal accounts of the brain benefits of regular tea drinking in the elderly inspired research to establish whether green tea really could improve cognition. Over the last ten years huge amounts of data have been generated on this topic. The more green tea a person consumes, the lower prevalence of cognitive impairment (Full article available for free). Early research trying to ascertain the mechanism by which such benefits are realised demonstrated that spatial cognition was improved in rats that drank water infused with polyphenols from green tea (full article available for free).
In the last few years experiments dosing healthy, younger humans with green tea versus placebo have demonstrated an increase in functional connectivity between frontal and parietal brain areas during a working memory task (Full article available for free). Bearing in mind that improvements in working memory can translate into better fluid intelligence and therefore a higher score in the IQ test – swapping green tea into your daily hot drink regime might make sense for your brain’s sake as well as your body’s.
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!
From time to time the peripatetic life of a freelance neuroscience broadcaster and consultant can lead to some fantastic moments of serendipity.
Last 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.
After 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.
In 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.
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!
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Exercise 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.
When 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).
I 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.
Last 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.
These 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.
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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.
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.
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.
Mnemonic Techniques by Dr Jack Lewis
There are a wide variety of mnemonic techniques that have been developed over the centuries, some more sophisticated than others. The first memory trick I was ever gifted was: “Richard-Of-York-Gave-Battle-In-Vain” which my primary school teacher taught the class to help us remember the order of the colours of the rainbow.
The first memory trick I ever made up, aged 14 or so, was “purple cof gas” – a memorable mnemonic for me personally because it conjoured up an image of Batman being knocked out with a big plume of noxious, magenta vapours spewing from the tip of the Joker’s umbrella. It was a vivid way to remember some relatively dull facts for when my biology exam came around: the system of classification for living organisms. Every one knows about the Kingdoms, we’ve all heard of the animal kingdom and the plant kingdom etc. But Purple COF GaS enabled me to remember, even now 18 years later, that the correct order for the rest of the classification system was: Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species. I had a test that asked about the classification system on several occasions over the years and it was Batman and the Joker that helped me get full marks in that part of the exam everytime, effortlessly…
A useful little trick, but not terribly sophisticated or flexible. The “Memory Palace,” on the other hand, has been exploited since the Romans and Ancient Greeks. A time when poets were expected to recite 5-hour long poems from memory, word-for-word, or end up meeting an untimely demise.
It involves using a personal “Memory Palace” based on a real place that you know like the back of your hand. Each room is visited sequentially and each place and/or piece of furniture within that room visited in a specific order. This provides a mental framework in which to-be-remembered items can be “placed” to enable perfect recall when the journey is repeated in the imagination. However I’ll return to the Memory Palace at a later date in favour of explaining in more detail one that is fantastic for remembering a simple list. A list of historical events, a shopping list, a list of names, a list of points to be raised in a meeting – whatever you like. If you want a way of memorising a list so you can bring the items to mind in exactly the right order, then what I call the chain mnemonic is a great starting point.
The chain mnemonic involves vividly imagining multisensory “pairs” of memories in a manner that creates successive links between one item and the next to form a chain. I’ll walk you through an example to demonstrate how useful it can be in retaining lists of information that must be recalled in a specific order. Lets say for instance that you wanted to commit to memory every team that has won a football World Cup since its inauguration (in reverse chronological order):
West Germany (1990)
West Germany (1974)
West Germany (1954)
The first challenge is to dream up a memory for the first link in the chain i.e. using your imagination to make an association between Spain and Italy that is personal to you. You create a symbolic representation in your mind’s eye for each of the two countries and then you combine them. Simple. When I personally think of Spain I think of bullfighting and matadors. When I think of Italy I think of pasta. So to create an unforgettable link between the two I imagined an action-packed, movie-esque scene with lots of bullfights and spaghetti:
Link number 1 in the chain: Spain (2010) –> Italy (2006)
A bull gushing blood (emotionally charged – shocking, disgusting etc) is charging towards the matador (fear, horror) at the centre of the bull ring. The light is glittering off his garishly decorated outfit (visual sense), the crowd is roaring their approval (auditory sense), there is an overpowering stench of sweat, dust and blood (olfactory sense), but at the moment the bull reaches the matador I realise (horrified) that the cape he is weilding is not made out of cloth, but of strands of spaghetti (emotion: strange, bizarre, worrying – HE’s GOING TO DIE!!).
The matador’s sword delivers the final death blow at the moment that the bull’s horns strike the cape – ripping it to shreds and sending an explosion of spaghetti up into the air (highly exaggerated bizarre image – see left – almost like something out of a cartoon). As the bull dies it’s twitching and tossing sends more and more spaghetti into the air. This is the key image that successfully intertwines the concept of Spain with Italy – the convulsing bull spreading unfathomable quantities of spaghetti all over the bull ring. Picture this vividly, emotionally and in a multisensory fashion and you will never forget it. The spaghetti splatters the matador from head to toe, it flies high up into the sky and showers down upon the noisy crowd who are finding the spectacle hilarious (emotion: bizarre, unreal). This might seem unnecessarily elaborate, weird and harrowing – but this is what makes the memory memorable. Matador/bull = Spain (winners of the 2010 World Cup). Spaghetti covering the whole bull ring = Italy (winners of the 2006 World Cup). We have successfully created the first link in the chain. Now we have to create the second link in the chain.
Second link in the chain: Italy (2006) –> Brazil (2002)
As I’ve mentioned, it is really important for these memories to be relevant to you personally. For me, something that sticks out in my mind about Brazil is that Brasilians absolutely love to eat barbequed chicken hearts. When I first set eyes on a skewer of chicken hearts it turned my stomach (but as with many things, I ended up loving them in the end). I find piggybacking my mnemonic symbol for Brazil onto a real memory THE most effective way to make it stick. The emotionally-potent real event that I’m think of is when a waiter came over to our table in a Churrascaria (Brasilian restaurant where the waiters constantly circulate with hot meat fresh off the barbeque) with a disgusting-looking skewer of 40 or so chicken hearts. I was coerced into trying it and I’ll never forget seeing the waiter saw ten or so frazzled chicken hearts onto my plate. Everyone must find their own symbolic representations that are emotionally charged and inextricably linked to the item that you’re trying to remember, but the charred chicken heart episode is my personal symbol of Brazil (disgulpa!).
So link number 2, at least in my World Cup chain mnemonic, involves our matador, starving hungry (emotional drive) after a long and arduous bullfight (he’s exhausted), scooping up an armful of spaghetti from the floor all covered in blood and dust (disgusting) and plonking it on a plate at a table that has been ceremonially placed at the very centre of the bull ring. As Ronaldinho (a very famous Brazilian footballer for those who don’t follow soccer) dressed as a very formal waiter (bizarre spectacle) with his big goofy teeth (emotion: humorous) approaches the table wielding a skewer of chicken hearts in one hand (emotion: disgusting, stomach turning) and a big knife in the other (emotion: threatening).
He politely bows to the matador who signals that he wants some hearts on his plate and so Ronaldinho saws off every single chicken heart one by one onto the top of the pile of spaghetti. This is the image that forms the core of link 2: a big knife wielded by a slightly deranged-looking Brasilian footballer (scary/funny), cutting many more chicken hearts than you could ever eat in a lifetime from a BBQ skewer (disgusting) which tumble down the sides of the big pile of dusty bloody oily pasta glistening in the sun (unappetising). We have now created link number 2: Pasta = Italy (winners of 2006 World Cup) and Ronaldinho depositing chicken hearts onto the plate = Brazil (winners of 2002 World Cup).
This process continues all the way through the list. Link number 3 in the chain: Brazil –> France, for me, would involve a revolting scene whereby some of the chicken hearts sprout antennae and start crawling off the plate and leave disgusting looking slug trails all over the table. Chicken hearts are about the same size as a snail and not-dissimilar in texture, so the main image here is the chicken heart (symbol of Brazil) miraculously metamorphosising into a snail (symbol of France).
Once a chain of mnemonics has been imagined and elaborated: linking item 1 to 2, item 2 to 3 all the way to the end of the list – it must be revisited. Shut your eyes and imagine the sequence of events from link 1 to 2 to 3 and if you get stuck re-rehearse the transitions that you’re not remembering well. I cannot emphasise enough how important this step is. Focus on isolating weaknesses in the chain and making them more memorable by imaging more disgusting, horrifying, inappropriate or erotic (yes erotic – if it’s risque you’ll remember it even better) scenes and/or adding more imagined sensory information to the scenario to ensure perfect recall. From time-to-time you will have to change the symbolic representation for an item so that it fits into the flow of your chosen narrative, or you might have to change the story a little bit to make it work. Once these imperfections in recall have been identified and fixed, you’ll find that you can roll off the list of items no problem in no time at all – amazing your friends, family and colleagues with your gob-smackingly-good memory.
It may seem like a lot of effort to begin with. However, as with all things (see here for more) the more time you spend experimenting with your imagination the faster, better and more efficiently you’ll be able to create and recall the memories. After a while you’ll be able to sit down for 10 minutes with your list of to-be-remembered items, be it a shopping list, or points that you want to raise in a meeting or during a presentation without using prompts, and you’ll nail it every time.
MEMORY AND THE BRAIN – going deeper into HOW and WHY these mnemonics work so well…
The successful creation of memories relies upon a densely packed and highly interconnected network of brain cells called the hippocampus residing deep within the temporal lobes.
We know that the hippocampus is vital for the formation and retention of memories because when it is damaged, by oxygen starvation resulting from ischaemic or haemorrhagic stroke, encephalitis, certain types of epilepsy or Alzheimer’s disease, people become amnesic.
The hippocampus is so named because if you take cross-sectional slices of the temporal lobes, which run horizontally along the left and right sides of the brain, it looks like a seahorse (In greek “Hippo” means “horse” and “campus” means “sea”).
The hippocampus nestles inside the medial or “inward” facing part of the temporal lobe, which is a key component of the emotion-producing limbic system. So the first tip to creating memories that are easily and effectively recalled is to ensure that they incorporate some kind of potent emotion. More on this later.
The hippocampus is also highly connected to all sensory areas. Visual brain areas at the back and underside of the brain that make sense of the light that strikes the retina at the back of the eyeball feed into the hippocampus. Auditory brain areas on the upper portion of the temporal lobes that create the sounds that we hear send millions of neuronal tendrils through the hippocampus. Touch information coarses down from somatosensory areas located within regions of the parietal cortex right at the top of the brain. Tastes feed in from brain stem regions involved in processing chemical stimulation of the tongues taste buds. And smells feed directly in from the olfactory bulb directly above the nasal cavity. Consequently, the second tip for creating memories that are swiftly and faithfully recalled is to make them multisensory. So with any mnemonic strategy you must commit items to memory not just by imagining what it would look like, but also what would it sound like, smell like, feel like and taste like too. This makes them much easier to recall than unisensory memories – those that exploit only one sense. This is because multisensory memories are embedded not only in connections from the different sensory areas to the memory forming and recalling hippocampus, but also in connections between the different sensory areas. Multisensory memories are more powerful than the sum of their parts.
Emotionally-labelled memories are given special priority treatment when it comes to recall because the amygdala, a structure densely connected with the hippocampus and residing at the tips of the medial temporal lobe, becomes activated when the brain is processing emotionally-significant information, imprinting it with HIGH STATUS. The amygdala is most famously involved in the fear response, in which it responds to sensory information indicative of a threat to life and limb, by mobilising body and brain to fight or flee the danger. More recently it has been discovered that it becomes activated by stimuli that induce positive as well as negative emotions, so long as they are potent. Presumably the reason that the mechanism for making emotional inducing stimuli and events more memorable evolved is because, for the event or scene to have produced a strongly positive or negative emotional response, then it is likely to be useful to be able to recall it in the future to guide our behaviour.
So, bear THIS in mind: when dreaming up these mnemonics…
- a disgusting scene such as someone you know vomiting in front of you
- a funny scenario that makes you feel genuinely amused inside
- or, perhaps, an “inappropriate” scenario such as walking in on your boss, your teacher or your parents having sex
…will be much more effective in ensuring recall than emotionally-neutral scenes. Don’t forget: as well as being multisensory in nature, your imagined scenarios must be emotionally-charged.
If you find this useful and/or interesting it would be really great if you could take the time to write a comment. I don’t get paid for this and it’s very time consuming. I do it because I’m passionate about the brain and want to share this passion with the world. So prove yourself to be one of the determined few who got right the way through to the end and please do me a favour by letting me know you’re there and leaving a comment.
All the best and enjoy expanding your mnemonic abilities, DrJ
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Dr Jack Lewis is keen to get people motivated to get the best out of their brains, so has compiled a quick overview of brain training options:
Brain teasers are good for you. Brain teasers include word games, number puzzles, spot the difference, Where’s Wally-type games, attention directing or splitting challenges, general knowledges quizes and so on. Brain training simply involves perfoming various different brain teasers on a regular basis. Your brain constantly adapts to serve you better. The more often you perform a certain mental function the more the brain will do to make changes so that the next time you do it, you can perform it slightly faster, with a greater degree of success and more efficiently.
How do we know that practice increases the connections between different brain areas? Two brain imaging studies have demonstrated that when people practice a skill very hard for prolongued periods of time despite the fact that the changes happen at the ultramicroscopic level of the synapses where two brain cells meet the net effect of billions of these changes occuring over many months is that the grey matter gets larger in the part of the brain responsible for that function. The part of the brain that controls hand movements is significantly larger in professional string and keyboard musicians than non-musicians because of all the training they have done over the years to manipulate their instruments with split second precision. Another brain region, the hippocampus, creates and recalls memories particularly for geographical locations and is significantly larger in the brains of London Cabbies – who navigate around their city based on a sound KNOWLEDGE of every landmark, road and bridge – than in the brains of bus drivers – who simply drive the same route over and over again.
The synapses connecting various different groups of brain cells together that are responsible for perfoming a certain task, say a crossword for instance, are strengthened each time to try to solve the puzzle in order that they can function slightly more efficiently next time round. If you do the crossword every day, then the net effect of many slight overnight adjustments to the brain areas involved in searching your memory for suitable words that have a certain meaning, a certain number of letters and specific letters in at certain positions within the word, become noticably better after just a few days. The same goes for number puzzles. Or games that involve prolonged concentration. Or the ability to recall trivia when it becomes relevant to conversation.
We all know that practice makes perfect and the strengthening of connections between the relevant brain areas to enable more efficient communication between them is the reason why. Of course getting good at doing crosswords is not particularly useful in its own right, but the point is that once you become good at recalling suitable words for the sake of the crossword, you will also find it easier and quicker to bring the appropriate word to mind during conversation or when creating written documents – and that can be extremely useful.
There are numerous websites that have compiled a large variety of different puzzles (http://www.brainbashers.com/puzzles.asp) and various others where you can try out electronic versions of classic physical puzzles like the Tower of Hanoi (http://www.mazeworks.com/hanoi/index.htm). However these all pale into comparison next to custom-designed brain training games such as those available at Lumosity (www.lumosity.com), which have not only the advantage of a much more aesthetically-pleasing look and feel of games that are genuinely fun and engaging to play, but also as you have to log in to play (they offer a free 30 day trial) you can keep track of how your performances improve over time.
Nintendo DS were the first console manufacturer to produce and market games with the aim of improving brain function which all started with the release of Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training in 2005. This predominantly involes some quite predictable tasks like the Sudoku number puzzles, simple rapid-fire arithmetic, but also some unexpected treats like the Stroop Test (naming the colour of the font ignoring the meaning of the word which can be tricky when the word RED is written in blue font!) which take advantage of some pretty nifty voice processing software. I must admit I found myself thinking “can I really speak to this machine?”
The effect of the advertising campaign that accompanied the release of this game was quite profound as it not only encouraged everyday consumers to purchase Nintendo’s products, but more importantly sent out the message that the brain is something that you can do something pro-active to improve; a concept that has been long-accepted to be the case in children but the mantra “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” meant that this was rarely considered to be applicable in adults. Such a message is particularly enticing for people entering into old age, for whom the prospect of holding onto their marbles for as long as possible is extremely desirable and thus motivating. In this regard the key thing to remember is that, as far as the brain is concerned, it’s a simple matter of use it or lose it. Exercising brain areas involved in problem-solving by tackling word games, logical reasoning problems, memory challenges and number puzzles keeps such mental faculties in tip-top condition. If you don’t continue to use these mental abilities then they will fall into disrepair because the brain receives no indication that connections between appropriate areas should be maintained and reinforced. The upshot: it is never too late to improve your mental fitness. By emulating the lifestyles of individuals enjoying a healthy brain in their 80s and 90s, who have regular social interaction, cards games, read extensively, stay physically active and challenge themselves daily with various puzzles and quizes, the odds of being afflicted by Alzheimer’s disease are reduced by 25%.