• Neural Speech – Neural Nets Will Soon Be Able To Do All The Talking For You

    Imagine how annoying it would be if you suddenly found yourself unable to speak? You know exactly what you want to say, when and in which tone of voice, but you just can’t get it out. Your lips, jaw, tongue and voice box just won’t do as their told. They no longer obey the instinctively governed instructions that usually move the 100+ muscles that must be carefully coordinated by the brain to produce effortless speech at the drop of a hat.

    Imagine being speechless

    Sadly, what is to most of us just a worrying thought experiment, actually happens to millions of people around the world. Those robbed of the ability to speak such as people living with with advanced Amylotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (as Stephen Hawking did for decades before his death in 2018), late stage Parkinson’s, strokes affecting the brain stem or throat cancer may one day, in the not too distant future, be able to have a sheet of electrodes surgically attached to the surface of their brain and produce speech via a brilliant invention by University of California San Francisco scientists.

    People with ALS, like Stephen Hawking (RIP), may one day be able to speak via neural speech

    Publishing their innovate study in the prestigious journal Nature, the researchers described how they managed to pull off the incredible feat of developing a computer algorithm able to produce intelligible speech sounds on the basis of brainwaves recorded from the surface of the brains of five brave volunteers. All were patients who had been fitted with a sheet of electrodes so that their neurosurgeon could work out where their epileptic seizures were coming from. As they had to stay in hospital for a few days anyway (waiting for a seizure to happen so that the epicentre can be pinpointed and ultimately removed), they are often happy to help out when neuroscientists have cool experiments to participate in.

    Electrocorticography (ECoG) allows measurement of neural activity to be taken at the brain surface. This electrode grid is over the somatosensory (S) and motor (M) cortices

    In this case the researchers were recording from three different brain areas while each volunteer read out hundreds of words and standardised sentences. One of the brain areas they were interested in getting data from was the Inferior Frontal Gyrus in which “Broca’s Area” is found. Thanks to an intrepid French neurologist, Paul Broca, we’ve known since 1886 that this area is extremely important when it comes to producing speech sounds. He had a patient who was only able to say one word – “Tan” – over and over again. Once the patient died, Broca took a look at his brain and noticed clear and obvious damage to the lower part of the left frontal cortex. Broca deduced that this area must be instrumental in speech production.

    Pierre-Paul Broca

    Another area, the superior temporal gyrus, houses the cortical real-estate in which auditory information arriving through the ear is processed to generate what we hear. This information is important in speech production as it enables us to modulate how we speak on the fly, on the basis of what we hear ourselves saying as we say it. Last but not least, they also monitored what the ventral sensorimotor cortex was up to as they spoke the set phrases. The ventral (lower) part of the motor cortex contains all the neurons that connect with the muscles that control movements of the mouth, tongue, jaw and vocal cords. The ventral part of the sensory cortex contains neurons that detect movements in these same body parts. This is important for speech in terms of providing feedback on how all those articulatory movements (position of tongue, mouth, jaw etc) are faring so that the motor cortex signals can be tweaked accordingly from moment to moment to ensure the correct sounds are produced.

    The superior temporal gyrus (auditory cortex)

    “Articulatory kinematics” refers to movements of the tongue, jaw, voice box and mouth that enable us to produce the word sounds (“speech acoustics”) we are aiming for. Anumanchipalli, Chartier and Chang figured that the best way to generate the sound of speech from measurements of brain waves was to go via these articulatory kinematics. Millions of man-hours had already gone into finessing a model that could take various different acoustic features that make up speech sounds (like the pitch, voicing, glottal excitation and something called mel-frequency cepstral coefficients) and turn them into a sound file that can be played on a speaker. All they then had to do was work out from the brain data what the intended articulatory kinematics were (i.e. should the jaw be open or closed, should the tongue be in the top or bottom of the mouth, how pursed are the lips etc), decode the intended acoustic features from those and then feed all of the resulting glottal, cepstral, pitch and voicing variables into the pre-existing human speech sound generator. Easy? Far from it!

    The voice box

    The type of machine learning algorithm they used to make sense of all that brain data was a bidirectional long short term memory (blSTM) neural network (in case you want to amaze your friends). The first one (there were two!) was trained to work out which patterns in the avalanche of brain data were actually related to the various articulatory movements associated with each word. And here’s the bit that amazes me the most: they didn’t actually have the facilities to measure the actual movements of the jaw, tongue, lips etc – they just estimated these variable using statistical methods from a recording of what the person was actually saying at the time. Given the computer science motto: “Garbage in, Garbage out” it seems nothing short of a miracle that they could train up a machine learning algorithm on an estimate of the articulatory kinematics rather than the actual articulatory kinematics. The second algorithm then decoded the intended pitch, mel-frequency cepstral coefficient, glottal excitation and voicing stuff from the output of the first one. And those data were used to create the final sounds. Phew!

    A long short term neural network looks like this

    The results weren’t
    perfect, but they were good enough to cause a huge ripple of excitement across
    the globe. Listeners were either required to transcribe whole sentences of
    neural speech (audio files generated by the neural networks), or to identify
    individual words that had been snipped out from the full sentences. To help
    them, they did this in reference to a pool of either 10, 25 or 50 possible
    words, which helps to reduce the ambiguity in a manner similar to the strategy
    employed by carers of people with serious speech impairments. Their ability to
    identify what was was being said was improved both by choosing from a smaller
    pool of words and when any given word had more syllables rather than fewer.

    This sound wave is the word “above”

    In order to rule out that the use of recordings of each patient’s voice to train up the machine learning algorithm hadn’t contaminated their results, they also got the volunteers to mouth the words without actually saying them out loud. The neural speech generated from the brain data collected when they were miming the words rather than saying them out loud was also pretty good. It wasn’t as good, but that’s likely to be due to the fact that when a person is mouthing the words, their brains are not sending messages to the diaphragm and intercostal muscles to drive air up through the vocal cords – clearly an important part of the overall speech signal – so without it the quality of the speech was understandably degraded. Degraded, but often intelligible nonetheless, which for most people robbed of their faculty of speech is a better option than the alternatives. While natural speech flows at around 150 words per minute, the currently available alternatives crawl along at a measly 10 or so words per minute.

    The inferior frontal gyrus (aka Broca’s Area)

    While this study provided evidence that neural speech algorithms can be trained up on the data from one set of brains, but then used to help generate speech from neural impulses gathered from a different brain altogether, the best results were achieved when the neural networks were trained on data from the same brain that later generated the neural speech. This means that the most likely uses, in the early years at least, will be people in whom the power of speech is retained for many months post-diagnosis – providing the opportunity to implant the neural sheet, train up the individual’s personalised machine learning algorithm – and then once the disease progresses to the point where they can no longer speak, the neural speech will be ready and waiting to lend a helping hand.

    The tongue is a wonderful thing

    While such a scenario may be many years in the future (as there is much work to be done before the regulatory bodies are likely to deem such an approach safe and suitably effective given the unavoidable risks of brain surgery), it is nonetheless a very exciting step in the right direction. And to many speechless people, the prospect of being able to speak fluently at more or less natural pace of conversation could be absolutely life changing.

    In addition to these monthly brain blogs I also tweet regularly (@drjacklewis) and am getting very very close to launching my new YouTube channel VIRTUAL VIVE SANITY, where I will be sharing my neuroscience-informed tips and tricks on how to get the most out of virtual reality equipment in the home, reviewing games and eventually creating tutorials to help anyone create their own VR experiences entirely for free!

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  • Poverty of Empathy and Smartphone Overuse

    This month I’ve been spending a lot of time combing through every available research paper investigating what over-use of technology might be doing to human brains. Concurrently, I’ve been reading a little bit of Steven Pinker’s awesome Better Angels of Our Nature in the bath for an hour each morning. The former is very much in its infancy and so this ever-expanding body of literature remains a bit patchy but giving strong hints of what’s to come when the trickle turns into a torrent. The latter enjoys a much sturdier footing, making a compelling argument that, despite the pervading sense of doom that seems to convince many that humanity is going to the dogs, in fact we’ve never had it so good.

    The odds of coming to violent death used to be extremely high for humans back in our caveman days (where the archaeological record comes in very handy) and has declined steadily since historical records documented human deaths. These days we are statistically very unlikely to meet a violent end compared to our ancestors who struggled through the previous bloody centuries. While the various conflicts that raged throughout much of the early 20th century might have seemed unprecedented – a crescendo of human suffering – when deaths from bloody conflicts are measured as a proportion of the total population, several wars from earlier centuries of the past two millennia were just as deadly.

    One of the best ways to stumble on new concepts and dream up new ideas… in the bath

    The seemingly miraculous process of pacification that resulted in the Long Peace that we’re currently enjoying has been attributed to several factors. One was that we started cooperating in larger and larger groups with a level of organisation offering protection from aggressors and the stability that comes from intertwining neighbouring nation’s best interests so that it is more profitable to trade than raid.

    As humans moved away from the historically common arrangement of living in small groups – each with several rival neighbouring collectives with whom competition over resources led to conflict on a regular basis – to a smaller number of larger groups, we gradually became less and less likely to die at the hands, blades or bullets of a bellicose foe. But while the lion’s share of the pacification process was the development of stable states that not only created laws but also had the power and inclination to enforce them, another surprisingly influential part of the overall process has been attributed to the emergence of etiquette.

    Etiquette may seem pointless, but it actually helped us gain control over our base impulses

    Once success depended not on who was the most murderous and belligerent warlord, but on who could curry favour with whoever was the most powerful person in the land – whether king, emperor or otherwise – there was suddenly a pressure to rein in the primal impulses that previously governed human behaviour, rather than allowing them to reign supreme. Essentially, for the first time in the history of our species, to get the best for you and yours, rather than being a fearsome warrior capable of conquering all foes, you instead had to be able to mingle with courtiers. As courtiers had a distinct tendency to go to great lengths to distance themselves from the unwashed masses, their habits became more and more refined. And anyone who wanted to get on with those who held the power had to follow suit, or risk being ejected from the corridors of power.

    The received wisdom that began circulating from the Middle
    Ages onwards regarding best practices in comportment essentially boiled down to
    developing superior capacities for various aspects of self-control. Pinker
    distils this down to the following five:

    “Control your
    appetites; Delay gratification; Consider the sensibilities of others; Don’t act
    like a peasant; Distance yourself from your animal nature”

    This could lead to a poverty of empathy

    This particular passage really struck me because that same week I had been reading all the academic research on the cognitive impacts of smartphone overuse. While the never-ending flow of scaremongering headlines and (mostly speculative) popular science books about the perils posed by overuse of smartphones, the internet and screens in general might have led people to suspect the worse, the hard evidence is surprisingly thin on the ground. That said, two findings are supported by a growing body of data:

    Firstly, overuse of smartphones makes our natural inclination towards immediate gratification even worse – in other words, it makes us more impatient: our tendency to go for a smaller short term gain over a larger benefit later on gets even worse!

    Secondly, and perhaps more worryingly, using smartphones while doing other tasks like watching TV, surfing the internet etc (media multitasking) is strongly associated with a diminished capacity for perspective taking. In other words when a person is juggling their attention between their smartphone and other forms of technology, they become less capable of empathy: putting themselves in other people’s shoes.

    Perspective taking is a vital part of civilised culture; it is eroded by media multitasking

    It’s a common sight these days to see couples out on a date, both head down, scrolling endlessly through posts on Insta, Twitter or Facebook. Whole families round the table in restaurants can routinely be found squinting into their smartphones, while any young kids present are mesmerised by cartoons. People suspect that it’s not ideal behaviour, and it might end up causing problems in the long run, but there are clear practical advantages to just doing what everyone else does.

    I strongly suspect it will end in tears when those kids become adults. After all, to develop effective powers of self-control, it needs to be practised. Yet many parents aren’t requiring their kids to learn to manage their impulses, instead the technology produces convenient opportunities to just give them the stimulation and the immediate gratification that they desire. Rather them getting the chance to flex their fledgling powers of restraint at the dinner table – they’re gaming. Most weary parents will tend to take the path of least resistant advantage – mesmerising whining kids with screens to increase the peace – but at what cost in the long run?

    I’ve often thought that the reason so many people tolerate starkly anti-social behaviour from other adults (like people having obnoxiously loud phone conversations in public places) is that new technologies appear on the scene so soon after the previous ones. There simply seems to be no time for society to adjust to each successive disruption of the social norms. And until there is convincing scientific evidence for people to point to indicating a negative outcome from such behaviours, there’s little chance of convincing them to take measures to use their smartphones less. Even now that early evidence is emerging, bad habits remain notoriously difficult to change.

    Eyes down

    In essence, the evidence suggests that overuse of smartphones makes people less able to wait for a better reward later on and temporarily incapable of taking other people’s perspectives. As improving skills of empathy and delayed gratification have been deemed to be an instrumental part of the process of making people more civilised i.e. less likely inflict harm on those around them, it seems distinctly possible that those who overuse their smartphones will end up behaving more anti-socially, compared to those who use them in moderation. Could people who overuse their smartphones really be more prone to uncivilised behaviour?

    Happily this is a testable hypothesis, so hopefully someone out there is looking into this right now. Sadly, if it does prove to be true and smartphone overuse becomes the norm for most people over the next few years, we might also predict that the Long Peace we’ve been enjoying throughout the developed world over the past couple of generations might not last much longer. Let’s hope that our love affair with technology can be tempered sufficiently for this hypothetical unravelling of civilisation to be averted.

    Take control – eliminate tech distractions

    Avoiding this unpleasant scenario should be a piece of cake, if only people would take some simple steps to reduce their smartphone use. If more people kept their phone on silent, deleted all social media apps so they’re only accessed from static computers and avoid getting hooked on pointless, yet fun and addictive, smartphone games like Candy Crush – they’d find the numbers of hours they spent on their smartphones would rapidly diminish. It’s certainly not rocket science. But easier said than done. Once people find themselves hooked on their digital crack, they can feel unable to cut down.

    I finally deleted Facebook from my phone only last month. I now check it once every week or two on my laptop – more than enough to keep up with friends and family. Of the huge benefits I’ve experienced, one game changer has been avoiding wasting many hours lost by unlocking my smartphone to look at a text message or missed call, only to find myself checking Facebook, and various other apps 10, 20 and sometimes 30 minutes later. I call this Off-Target Faff (OTF). Switching off all notifications is a great way to reduce OTF. An even better strategy is to delete all non-essential apps completely.

    Personally, I’m well up for embracing new technologies. I’m just reluctant to surrender all control to them. While I might sound curmudgeonly, it would be a hard sell to accuse me of being a modern day Luddite. I’ve spent most of the last year experimenting with Virtual Reality (VR), reviewing games and building my ones so that eventually I can create tutorials to help others get into the wonderful world of VR. As with everything, I think the rule of thumb that helps people yield all the benefits of technology while avoiding the potential drawbacks is a simple case of: everything in moderation.

    In my soon-to-be-launched YouTube channel VIRTUAL VIVESANITY I make a big fuss about setting a 60 min countdown timer to help moderate how much time you spend in the various weird and wonderful worlds available through VR. I’m genuinely concerned that the sheer variety of immersive experiences offered by this particular “new” media format are so enticing that people will lose track of time and perhaps even start to forego real life events in order to spend more time in VR.

    That said, if people do manage to resist the impulse to overdo it, I feel utterly convinced that while 2D computer gaming made people fat, 3D VR gaming has the potential to make people fit (in both body and brain). So hopefully we can learn from the pitfalls we’ve identified with other new media formats of the past few decades and collectively agree upon a new technology etiquette – or techiquette – to help humanity embrace technological progression, without ending up in societal regression.

    In addition to these monthly blogs I also tweet regularly (@drjacklewis) and am getting very close to launching my new YouTube channel (Virtual ViveSanity).

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  • Tech Companies that Bolster (or Harm) Feelings of Social Connectedness

    As my new book The Science Of Sin essentially argues that increasing a person’s sense of social connection improves their health (compared to social isolation), it occurred to me that we should start to label tech companies according to whether their overall impact on the depth of people’s sense of being socially embedded in a supportive community is improved or harmed by regular engagement. I’ve invented some hashtags in the vain hope that people might start playing the game of thinking about the impact of the technologies they use on their own sense of social connectedness and use #socialXplus to denote an opinion that it is a force for increasing the sense of being meaningfully connected with others (e.g. Twitter #socialXplus) and #socialXminus to tag those social media companies that despite seeming to promote social connections actually have the opposite effect (e.g. Facebook #socialXminus). That said, I won’t be holding my breath waiting for it to go viral! Anyway, let’s consider the cases of Hotels, Hostels and AirBnB.

    Hotels DO NOT foster a sense of community

    In a hotel you are, by definition, crammed in with all the other guests, many of whom you wouldn’t want to get stuck talking to for very long, if you could possibly avoid it. For these reasons, and others, the average guest is likely to hurry by in any given corridor, do their best to avert their gaze while stuck in a lift with you and carry on with their business with as little actual direct communication as possible. Sure, there’s the occasional exchange of pleasantries, but rarely do these result in what might be described as a meaningful social interaction.

    Hostels DO foster a sense of community

    Backpacker hostels across Africa, Asia and South America are a completely different offering. With everyone brought together by relative poverty compared to other visitors to the country who can actually afford to stay for an extended period in a hotel, the banter tends to be lively and all-inclusive. (That their relative poverty is positively lavish by the standards of most local people’s annual income is another matter for another day.) The point is: the usual sharp invisible borders wordlessly drawn between people from different levels of socioeconomic status in the developed world become blurred when you’re all bunk-bedded up in a 16-man & -woman dorm at the mercy of other people’s common decency regarding night-time emanations of light, sound and odour, breaking down many of the usual social barriers as a direct result.

    I’ve done a lot of traveling in my time, doing my best to stray from Lonely Planet recommendations wherever possible, in an effort to maximise my interactions with locals and the more intrepid adventurers. When I’ve been lucky enough to be put up in nice hotels by my bigger clients I try to wear the comfort of the facilities and the obsequiousness of the staff lightly. Don’t get used to it, I tell myself, focusing instead on directing my attention to how my fellow guests interact with those they encounter.

    I very much subscribe to the idea that you can glean much more about what a person’s really like from observing their interactions with others, rather than relying just on how they comport themselves with you. I’ve noticed that those who take the time to be polite and friendly to all, even those employed to serve them, are not as common as they once were.

    Comparing the incidence of positive social connection experiences in backpackers’ hostels to a wide variety of hotels, from one star holes right up to the full five star luxuriance, the backpacker hostels win hands down in the pro-social stakes. So I would say that, in my humble opinion, if I had to choose which of the two is a force building a sense of social connectedness (#socialXplus) and which ultimately reduces a person’s sense of social connectedness (#socialXminus), the categories would have to be:

    BackpackerHostels #socialXplus
    Hotels #socialXminus

    Then along came AirBnB, dutifully disrupting (as all good tech firms are wont to do) the whole traditional approach to finding a place to lay your weary head. And it is much more #socialXplus than any of its recent predecessors. Not only does the traveler get to meet a local who is incentivised by the ratings system to be helpful and friendly and do their best to provide the basics, but you become physically embedded in the local community. You see things that a relatively isolated hotel or hostel dweller would never see. As you’ll more often than not just be given the keys and told to leave your keys on the side on your way out, you usually have no choice but to ask local people for help and advice. Which is a good thing, by the way. Let me give you an example…

    I’m in Copenhagen as I type, staying in an AirBnB, tapping this into my laptop with the rare September sun streaming through the window and a swirling wind violently whipping the leaves of the plants on the balcony in time with the drum ‘n’ bass beats streaming from my laptop (Goldie, Strictly Jungle, 1995 – in case you’re curious). Earlier today, I had to ask three people where the nearest cash machine was until I finally tracked it down. And I also ended up asking a woman in the supermarket whether the carton I had in my hand was milk (because late last night, starving hungry, I ended up having a very sickly bowl of cereal because I’d accidentally bought a carton that looked very much like milk, but was in fact full cream!). My point is, as much as I wasn’t relishing the prospect of having to rely on the kindness of others to get what I needed doing done, it was ultimately great to have had some interactions with local people. I felt buoyed each time and it made me feel more at home as a stranger in a foreign country.

    These are minor moments of #socialXplus but ones that are worth mentioning all the same. The main boost this trip is giving for my sense of social connectedness (#socialX) is that I’m here to give a lecture as an excuse to spend time with two neuroscience buddies from my PhD days who are based here in Denmark. AirBnB quite literally made the trip financially viable, whereas if I’d had to stay in hotels I’d have flown in and out with one overnight stay, as the hotels in Copenhagen are outrageously expensive!

    There are also important #socialXplus opportunities on the other side of the equation. My host this time is staying at her boyfriend’s place so her interaction with me has been minimal. But the last time I stayed the night in an AirBnB it was on the outskirts of Bristol and the circumstances of my host were very different. We were in her spare room and it quickly became apparent that she often forged friendships with guests that she “clicked” with. She was a bouncy, vivacious, 45-year-old, full of West Country hospitality, enthusiasm and charm. She immediately invited us to have a cup of tea and join her on the sofa to watch the tennis (Wimbledon was on). Later that night my girlfriend came back to our AirBnB at midnight (while I continued on at the party hosted by another bunch of old university friends) and they ended up having an hour-long chat over a glass of wine. In the morning we tiptoed down to the kitchen / lounge to find the patio doors had been pulled back to reveal a beautifully-kept, wide, lush garden complete with pond, rock garden and seating area. She was up a ladder trimming the hedge in glorious sunshine, but immediately beckoned us to sit down and have some lemonade. She made us feel very welcome and all parties benefited from the social intimacy that the arrangement evoked.

    It is for these reasons that I offer AirBnB as a technology company that is a clear and unequivocal source of #socialXplus … helping humans to form social connections, helping them feel embedded in a community. And by bolstering their sense of being socially connected, albeit briefly, it should reduce their feelings of social isolation which might otherwise have increased their chances of getting cancer, cardiovascular disease, psychosis and depression according to a series of peer-reviewed scientific articles that have been accumulating in the literature since 1988.

    In addition to these monthly blogs, I tweet interesting brain articles (@drjacklewis), do a regular science podcast with the divine Lliana Bird (Geek Chic’s Weird Science) and am on the verge of launching a brand new YouTube channel where I take people in Virtual Reality adventures….

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  • Online Gaming Bilingual Boost

    You’ve probably heard by now that learning a foreign language is good for the brain. This is true in the sense that using a second language on a regular basis seems to help build up cognitive reserve. This results from bolstering certain connections in the prefrontal cortex (the part behind your forehead) involved in the process of switching from one language system to another. The linguistic “gear-shift” mechanism of the brain actually involves a vast network of interconnected neurons spanning every lobe of the brain. They constantly re-organise themselves on a trial and error basis (but only if you regularly use both languages) in order to help the person get better and better at using all their brain resources with slightly greater flexibility than people who only speak one language from one week to the next.

    The cognitive demands involved in learning a new language are vast. Once the endless list of words have been memorised, the grammatical quirks of each language finally mastered, our brains will have physically changed themselves, having updated the brain’s wiring to have neural networks capable of communicating using either of the learned languages. The ability to switch between two languages turns out to be great cognitive exercise which results in the development of cognitive reserve that can come in to play in later life to compensate for problems caused when bran cells die off in large numbers due to neurodegenerative conditions.

    Cognitive reserve is something that we would all be well advised to put time and effort into developing. And beyond that many people find the motivation to put themselves through the extensive process of learning a language because they know that when traveling overseas, communicating with the locals in their own language improves the quality of your experiences exponentially. Because most people don’t bother, it really does differentiate a English native-speaker if they actually do try to speak a foreign language. It opens so many doors, helping you gain access to experiences that simply wouldn’t be on offer when the communication barrier gets in the way all the time. Surprisingly, it turns out that, the technology may already be at hand to help people clock up enough hours of interaction in a new language to make relatively fluent communication easier to achieve, for keen computer gamers at least.

    The study I stumbled upon during my latest exploration of the science journals looked at the impact of playing Massively Multi-Player Online Role Play Games (MMORPGs) on language acquisition. It had been postulated that, for example, when MMORPG gamers sit in front of their computers – each in a different country, wearing headphones / mics so they can coordinate their battles with dragons, dwarves and elves – they may end up improving their command of a non-native language. Under such circumstances, English is usually the language that everyone has in common and people end up getting hundreds of hours per month experience of listening to and speaking in this non-native tongue, due to the need to stay in constant contact with each other to coordinate everyone’s efforts to win the game. So seeing as people are already doing this, all the researchers had to do was track these people down and compare them to people who don’t play those kinds of games. This hypothesis is perfectly cogent in terms of how neuroplasticity works. This is because the brain only invests resources in reinforcing and bolstering neuronal pathways that are used regularly, intensively and over long periods of time. Given that some people on the Steam Wall of Shame – a list of how many hours individual gamers have clocked up playing online games – do it for more hours each year than can be accumulated during a 52 week year of working 9-5, these pre-requisites all seem adequately covered.

    As you may have guessed, several studies HAVE shown a benefit in people who regularly play MMORPGs in terms of improving their grasp of a foreign language and several others have tried to unpick the processes by which this effect is realised:

    • Kongmee, I., Strachan, R., Pickard, A., and Montgomery, C. (2012). A case study of using online communities and virtual environment in massively multiplayer role playing games (MMORPGs) as a learning and teaching tool for second language learners. Int. J. Virtual Pers. Learn. Environ. 3, 1–15. doi: 10.4018/jvple. 2012100101
    • Peterson, M. (2010). Massively multiplayer online role-playing games as arenas for second language learning. Comput. Assist. Lang. Learn. 23, 429–439. doi: 10.1080/09588221.2010.520673
    • Peterson, M. (2011). Digital gaming and second language development: Japanese learners interactions in a MMORPG. Digit. Cult. Educ. 38, 289–299.
    • Peterson, M. (2012). Learner interaction in a massively multiplayer online role playing game (MMORPG): a sociocultural discourse analysis. ReCALL 24, 361–380. doi: 10.1017/S0958344012000195
    • Zheng, D., Bischoff, M., and Gilliland, B. (2015). Vocabulary learning in massively multiplayer online games: context and action before words. Educ. Technol. Res. Dev. 63, 771–790. doi: 10.1007/s11423-015-9387-4
    • Zheng, D., Newgarden, K., and Young, M. F. (2012). Multimodal analysis of language learning in World of Warcraft play: languaging as values-realizing. ReCALL 24, 339–360. doi: 10.1017/S0958344012000183
    • Zheng, D., Young, M. F., Wagner, M., and Brewer, B. (2009). Negotiation for action: english language learning in game-based virtual worlds. Mod. Lang. J. 93, 489–511. doi: 10.1111/j.1540-4781.2009.00927.x

    What does this mean to you? Well if you fancy learning Mandarin and can’t get over to China to immerse yourself in the language in person – you could download an app to learn the basic vocabulary, pronunciation of and word order for common phrases – and then sign up to a Chinese-speaking MMORPG. If you can find time to play for an hour or so every day then, before long, you’ll soon find yourself able to understand certain phrases that are commonly-uttered in the context of such games and who knows, you might even summon the courage to say something yourself. One thing is for sure, if you get yourself hooked on the game, then you’ll rack up the hours of immersion in that foreign language much faster than one or two hour long lessons per week…

    In addition to these monthly brain blogs, I tweet about brain-related research that hits the press on a daily basis (@drjacklewis) and do a fortnightly podcast about recent quirky science stories called Geek Chic’s Weird Science. I have a new book – The Science of Sin – coming out next month in the UK (pre-order here) and in September in the USA (pre-order here). It now has its very own website where you’ll soon be able to find some video footage of a speech I gave from a soapbox at Speaker’s Corner and a fun quiz to help people work out which of the Seven Deadly Sins is the temptation they struggle with the most (www.sciofsin.com).

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  • Virtual Reality Arcade coming soon…

    Please forgive the brevity of my recent brain posts.

    I’m working non-stop on my new book – due with the publishers at the end of the month.

    When I’m not writing, I’m finishing filming / voiceover for the new series of Secrets of the Brain.

    Haven’t had a day off for weeks!!

    I expect no sympathy, only  patience: normal service will resume later in the summer…

    In the meantime, I just wanted to share this small update:

    Four years ago I asked Mel Slater, Professor of Virtual Reality Environments and all-round legend, if he thought there was any chance that recent advances in VR technology might lead to the return of the video arcade …

    As it turns out, London’s First Virtual Reality Arcade opens this summer…




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  • Adverts Encouraging Use of Tech to Subdue Kids Could End In Tears

    A new Vodaphone advert hit our screens recently and I hate it with a passion. My gym seems to have it on a loop at the moment and every time I see it I progress through a variety of emotions ranging from mild disappointment to abject rage. It starts innocently enough, depicting a bus weaving it’s way across a patchwork quilt of luscious fields. England’s green and pleasant lands, we might assume. The driver is keeping a kindly eye on his customers through the rear view mirror, a young woman is dozing on her man’s shoulder, a suited middle-aged businessman is reading his newspaper and a teenage girl is listening to music on her headphones. One row in front of our lovers a mum finds herself unable to pacify her crying toddler. We’ve all been there. It’s not a pleasant experience when the calm and tranquility is pierced by the ululations of an irate infant child. One-by-one the cast make faces betraying their discontent over the bawling nipper. In such situations – what can you do? Other than grin and bear it?

    VodaphoneAdOn this particular bus, in this particular locale, a hero is at hand. In a bid to bravely defend his belle from her rude awakening, that self same man (one row behind the squalling squib) unsheathes his smartphone. And using the “Power of 4G” summons a cartoon to his screen with which to mesmerise and thus pacify the aforementioned disconsolate child. Miraculously the tears dry up immediately, the sobbing quickly replaced by smiles and giggles of joy. Peace reigns over the bus once more and glances of appreciation ensue.

    The boyfriend/man/husband presumably earns himself a family-sized haul of brownie points from girlfriend having demonstrating not just a strong capacity for empathy but a clear aptitude for child wrangling (what a great dad he could be!). Mum is palpably relieved that the blight to everyone’s day has been appropriately dealt with by this marvellous stroke of genius (so embarrassing when he plays up like that!). Even the stressed out businessman seems to have gone a few shades of purple lighter. The teenage girl goes as far as taking off her headphones, momentarily, to revel in the delicious, unexpected peace and quiet before breaking into a private smile. In the estimation of these fine bus passengers, the holder of the phone is clearly nothing less than an absolute legend.

    Dora_The_ExplorerDora the Explorer is the chosen cartoon and it’s a good choice (a much better choice than Teletubbies, for example). Inexplicably, the language she utters in this British version of the ad is Spanish. I may be showing my ignorance here. Perhaps Dora the Explorer is always aired in it’s original tongue. But it occurred to me that just maybe the ad was cheekily alluding to possibility that the kid might even start to pick up a new language as a fortuitous side effect of this timely intervention. Such is the “Power of 4G”. It’s just a shame that the evidence from several studies indicates that too much screen time spent goggling at idle entertainment displaces valuable time doing other things in the real world that really facilitate a child’s neurodevelopment. Surely encouraging the habit of endlessly distracting kids with smartphones, tablets and laptops throughout their entire childhood is only going to perpetuate this problem, not to mention fueling a boom in short-sightedness.

    It’s not just Vodaphone who are at it. Nissan have also released a TV ad recently for the Pulsar. Excitingly it has automatic braking. For those unfortunate circumstances where the driver’s brain is distracted away from the road at precisely the moment the vehicle in front decides to slam on the brakes without warning. The vital milliseconds saved by circumventing the pesky human can make the critical difference between a dangerous fender bender and safely completed journey.

    Nissan Ad Zombie ChildrenThe key message throughout is that the car is carefully built around the driver and therefore every conceivable problem has been anticipated and addressed. In the closing scene two children appear in the back seat fidgeting, shouting and generally being… well… children. In the blink of an eye technology has magically teleported into their midst – the rowdy boys instantly transformed into well-behaved, docile and, most importantly, silent little angels: one absorbed by a tablet, the other gazing out of the window listening to something on a pair of expensive looking headphones (let’s hope it’s my podcast). That’s right kids. Do not interact with each other. That would just cause a disturbance to your father, or whoever he is. Communication must be discouraged when in ear shot of your elders and betters. And remember: silence is golden!

    My issue with these ads is not Susan Greenfield-esque. I don’t believe that technology is good or bad. But I do think that to unquestioningly consume limitless hours of screen entertainment at the expense of all other activities would have negative consequences for brain development across childhood. My objection to these ads revolves around that fact that they are normalising, if not positively encouraging, child-rearing behaviours that are likely to be deleterious to the best interests of the next generation.

    Study after study has demonstrated that what kids really need if their brains are to develop optimally throughout childhood is lots of interaction with other people. Ideally in the context of unstructured play. Keeping them perpetually spell-bound by computer games, films or cartoons is very much against their best interests.

    telly tubbiesInfants plonked in front of Teletubbies for hours on end are measurably retarded in their language development and verbal expression in comparison to those rarely exposed to screens in their first 2 years of life. This is ironic given that, allegedly, a large team of child psychologists were assembled by the BBC to consult on what elements should be included in order to optimise neurodevelopment.

    Admittedly endless hours of interacting with young kids are shattering. And undoubtedly the most effective method of conjuring some much needed peace and quiet from the endless barrage of questions, perpetual motion, mess, mood swings and tears are screen-based innovations designed specifically to captivate young minds. But the easiest route is rarely the best path and whilst this approach may well be very convenient for frazzled parents it is demonstrably not best for the child.

    Advertisers will jump on any scenario that their intended market might be able to relate to so the theme of pacifying noisy kids with tech is not surprising. Yet it supports the proliferation of lazy, unhelpful parenting tricks that ultimately work against the best interests of a whole generation of humans. Whether or not this amounts to a whole hill of beans in the long run is yet to be seen. Yet from what is known with any certainty so far, there are clear indications that screen time should be monitored and possibly limited, or else it will displace the human face-to-face interactions that so beautifully sculpt young brains in preparation for a long life of interacting with other humans.

    buggy phoneIf you want a child’s neurodevelopment to proceed optimally you should, in my humble opinion, forego the lure of using technological paraphernalia to distract them – unless you are carefully restricting its use at other times – and instead encourage them to engage in some form of play in the real world. And whilst we’re at it you should ensure that as much as possible you give them your full attention. Having your eyes on your smartphone whilst talking to your child is a terrible example to set. So much of communication happens via eye contact and active (as opposed to partially distracted) listening, so if you rob your children of valuable experience with this mode of interaction then their communication skills and social dexterity will suffer.

    I’m not saying people should consign their tablets to the rubbish, nor permanently ban children from using all tech. I’m merely encouraging parents to avoid using these tactics habitually. Save it for when you really need it and you will help your kid to develop the full range of skills, both hard and soft, to give them the best possible start in life.

    And if you think I’m a luddite after this rant you’d be wrong. If you explore my blog further you’ll find plenty of articles relating to the brain benefits of various computer games. Everything in moderation I say (unless we’re talking about working memory training using the Dual N-Back task or reading books in which case I see no harm in overdoing it so long as combined with a healthy social life :-))

    As well as these monthly blogs I do a weekly podcast – Geek Chic’s Weird Science – and daily tweets about breakthroughs in neuroscience and beyond – @drjacklewis.

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  • New Hope for Paralysis Recovery by Dr Jack Lewis

    As 2014 draws to a close my thoughts have recently turned to pondering the greatest neuroscience discoveries of the year. For me I’ve been struck by several developments in an area of biomedical science that during most of my lifetime has been considered beyond the powers of medical therapy to provide a decent remedy.


    christopherreeveEver since Christopher Reeve (the actor who played Superman in the much loved films of the late 70’s and 80’s) became paralysed from the neck down during an equestrian accident in 1995, the plight of people who suffer traumatic spinal damage has seemed utterly futile; despite the huge amounts of money various benefactors have ploughed into research. However this year we have seen huge leaps in scientific advancement enabling previously wheelchair-bound people to stand up and take some small but important steps forward under their own volition.


    A paralysed person kicked off the 2014 World Cup in Brazil during the opening ceremony using an EEG-controlled robotic exoskeleton. But given that the person in question had to be carried onto the pitch on a golf buggy, as opposed to rising up out of their wheelchair as promised, that feat should only really be considered a drop in the ocean compared to the much more remarkable progress in paralysis rehabilitation we’ve seen over the course of 2014.


    DrJackNewsroundAt the beginning of the year I was invited to make an appearance on “Newsround” – the Children’s BBC channel’s daily news show – to explain a totally unexpected and extraordinary breakthrough in rehabilitation research with paralysed army veterans in the USA. A chip was surgically inserted into their spinal cord, below the sites of damage, to apply weak currents of electricity in an effort to reinvigorate the involuntary spinal reflexes that enable us to maintain our balance whilst standing (no input from the brain necessary).

    This unexpected development occurred when, after a few weeks of further intensive rehabilitation exercises, several people regained voluntary movement of their legs for the first time in 2-4 years. Can you imagine how good that must have felt for the people in question? As someone who personally spent three weeks of 2014 with an almost completely paralysed arm after complication during routine surgery, it brings tears to my eyes to think how amazing it must have been to have control over legs that had previously seemed utterly useless for so many long months. It seems that the current injected by the chip had unexpectedly boosted signal strength across the area of damaged spinal cord sufficiently for the electrical messages (action potentials) to get all the way down to the leg muscles.


    Geoff RaismanIn 2004 whilst I was doing my PhD at University College London, I attended a talk by Prof Geoff Raisman, now chair of Neural Regeneration at the Institute of Neurology in Queen Square. He presented brand new data that he was clearly extremely excited about in which he showed data that clearly depicted new neuronal growth across the site of a spinal lesion. I cannot remember whether the experiment involved rodents or non-human primates but he made it clear that it would be many years before this pioneering research could ever be used to help paralysed humans. Today, in 2014, this dream is a reality.


    OlfactoryCellsInjectedDarek Fidyka was paralysed from the chest down for several years after a knife attack that severed his spinal cord. The 8mm gap that prevented messages sent from his brain to reach the muscles of his leg, penis and bladder were bridged using stem cells extracted from his brain. Mr Fidyka first underwent surgery to remove one of his two olfactory bulbs – the antennae like structures that extend forwards from the brain’s limbic system, running above each nasal cavity and extending smell receptors across the skull and into the nasal epithelium. Because the olfactory receptors come into contact with so many volatile compounds (just think of how potent the gases are that get into your nostrils when you’re downwind of a bonfire) a fair amount of damage happens to these brain cells and so they must be constantly replenished. This means that the olfactory bulbs / neurons of the nasal epithelium are a great source of stem cells.


    Darek Fidyka walks with the aid of leg-braces and a walking frameOnce sufficient numbers of Olfactory Ensheathing Cells (OECs) had been cultured and several million of them injected into the gap in his spinal cord a period of intensive rehabilitation exercises got underway. 6 hours per day 5 days per week. A few no-doubt-frustrating weeks later he graduated from walking with the assistance of parallel bars in the rehabilitation gym, to walking with a frame outside the hospital in Wroclaw, Poland where the surgery took place. Perhaps as important he regained some bladder control and sexual function. An incredible achievement for Mr Fidyka, but an absolutely triumph for Prof Raisman and the hundreds of people that have contributed to the groundwork that led to this unbelievable feat of brilliance.


    This story was covered in episode 10 of the podcast Geek Chic’s Weird Science – co-presented by yours truly and the gorgeous Lliana Bird – which you can subscribe to on iTunes, absolutely free of charge, by clicking here.


    For daily news on the latest advances in neuroscience research you can follow me on Twitter by clicking here.

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  • Game Over for Reality? by Dr Jack Lewis

    SandmanBinocularImmersive virtual reality gaming is good, frighteningly good. So good that it makes me worry that people will increasingly choose the excitement of virtual worlds over the relative mundanity of the real one. Recently I was walking through the British Film Institute (under Waterloo Bridge in London) on my way to the library when I stumbled upon something rather marvellous. The experience I had was so wonderful (it genuinely filled me with wonder) that I quickly reached a chilling conclusion: immersive virtual reality (VR) gaming is now so good that it seems clear that in the not too distant future it will be a miracle if parents ever manage to get their kids to leave their bedroom and venture out into the real world.


    Last year I interviewed Prof Mel Slater, a widely respected guru of VR technology formerly of UCL and now at the University of Barcelona, in which he stated in no uncertain terms that immersive virtual reality gaming is now affordable enough to be accessible to everyone.



    Chancing upon a computer gaming conference at the BFI gave me the opportunity to get into the demonstration suite ahead of the delegates, which meant I had the computer game programmers all to myself and discovered first hand exactly how good these games have become already. The experience of actually being inside the computer game is incredibly compelling.


    hmdI made a beeline to a game called “Sandman” that made use of a Head Mounted Display (HMD). An HMD creates a truly immersive 3D VR experience via two key features that trick the brain into feeling as if you have been physically transported into the game. Firstly, a different image is presented to the left and right eye, slightly offset in terms of perspective (in a manner identical to real life circumstances) from which the brain can create 3D vision. Secondly, and this is critical to the illusion of being physically immersed in the 3D world, the HMD also tracks the movements of your head so that the image presented to the eyes changes as it would do in the real world. If you look up, you see the sky. As you move your head to the right the images presented to the eyes scrolls across to give a view of whatever is to your right in the 3D environment. Twist all the way round and you can see what is directly behind you. Look down and you can see your own computer-generated body. This creates an extremely compelling illusion that you really are “inside” the game.


    “Sandman” involves paddling a canoe along waterways within an enchanted forest. It was absolutely magical. Meditative even. I immediately felt calmer having been transported into this alternate gaming universe. The images provided at the top of this post simply don’t do it justice (even when you click on it to reveal the full high def image). It looks so much better when you are wearing the HMD. The colours of the forest canopy were so vivid. The sounds of the water lapping at the boat and from the oar as it pushes against the water each time you paddle is very realistic.


    ready-player-oneUsing a normal Sony Playstation controller you can paddle on the left or right side of the boat and even paddle in reverse to guide the canoe just as you would a real one in the normal world. Of course the controller doesn’t give you the usual haptic feedback – but just wait – it soon will. If you can’t wait that long read READY PLAYER ONE by Nathan Cline – it’s a fantastic science fiction account of how good this kind of technology is likely to get in the not-too-distant future. Patrolling the perimeter of a lake I eventually stumbled across a narrow stream and slotted my virtual boat between the rocks on either side I navigated the chicane they created and came across a small boy on the bank to my right. Behind him an old man was calling him back from the waters edge. As I turned to look at them the sound of their voices in the headphones shifted from just the right ear to both ears equally, demonstrating that not only was the visual world updated according to my head movements but so too were the acoustics.


    As I shot down the white water rapids encountered a short while later I giggled and whooped like a boy half my age. I was really enjoying myself and have never been one to hide my emotions. After about 20 mins I took off the HMD and headphones only to find, to my slight embarassement, that the room was now packed full of delegates (having been completely empty when I started the gaming experience). And there was a queue of about a dozen people behind me waiting to play!


    In addition to these monthly blogs I also tweet every day so if you would like to follow me on Twitter please click here. If you wish to leave a comment please email me rather than leaving a comment below because I’ve been outpaced by the spambots!

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  • How Virtual Environments Shape Your Brain by Dr Jack Lewis

    London_Black_Cab wikiComAny environment in which we immerse ourselves on a daily basis will eventually induce changes in the very fabric of our brains. This observation is based on brain scanning experiments investigating the brains of taxi drivers and professional musicians before and after they have acquired their expertise. Intensive training over many months and years physically changes the size of the hippocampus and motor hand area of these individuals, respectively. This occurs as a direct result of repeatedly challenging the brain to perform specific tasks, navigating around London in the first instance and manipulating an instrument to emit the desired sounds in the second, so that the connectivity between areas involved in executing that task is improved. This occurs at the flick of a few genetic switches that increases the number of synapses across which one neuronal brain wire influences the next in line in pathways that are used often and intensively. It seems reasonable to assume that any cognitive capacity that we regularly use over long periods of time will have a similar impact via the same mechanism.

    VR wikiComIn the past I’ve written about our incredible aptitude for using tools to manipulate our environment. One of the best examples of recent human ingenuity in this regard are the virtual environments we have created – video games, internet, online social networking and the like. Millions of people are immersed in such virtual environments intensively, regularly and consistently over extended periods of time, exactly the pre-requisites for interaction that drives brain changes; occurring whether the environment in question is real or virtual. I’ve written previously about the potential impact of this on the adolescent brain but, of course, adult brains also adapt to the demands of any virtual environments they may be regularly immersed in too, albeit at a reduced rate.

    Cell_phone_use_while_driving wikiComThese brain changes occur for better or for worse. Adults who engage in intensive action video gaming for endless hours slowly but surely begin to accumulate cognitive improvements, namely enhancements in certain aspects of vision, memory and rapid decision-making. On the other hand, those who automatically respond to any bleep, buzz or vibration from their laptop or smartphone appear to be training themselves into a state of constant distraction. A recent study has suggested that so-called heavy media multi-taskers are gradually losing their capacity to block out distractions, an unintended consequence of “dual screening” behaviours like surfing the internet and responding to electronic messages whilst watching television.

    My message is simple. Technology is neither good or bad, it’s all about how you choose to use it. Stopping to contemplate your habits when it comes to using technology and considering whether the likely changes to your brain will serve you well or badly, might be advisable. Evidence is currently quite sparse, but rapidly accumulating. Just bear in mind the rule of thumb that anything you do intensively, daily, for months on end has the potential to re-wire your brain to perform that task more efficiently. Some behaviours honed in this way do not always serve your best interests when operating in the real world.

    porn_star wikiComreport hit the press this week describing as yet unpublished brain data from Cambridge University demonstrating that people addicted to internet pornography show a heightened sensitivity in the reward pathways (specifically in the ventral striatum) when exposed to sexually explicit images. Results were not dissimilar to that observed in the brains of alcoholics and illicit drug addicts when viewing images of the target of their addiction. How might this hypersensitivity to pornography have developed? I’m sure you can guess what’s coming next… by viewing pornographic images with great scrutiny, regularly and over periods of months if not years – pleasurable sexual responses have become honed to whatever stimuli have been encountered in the virtual environments with which they are regularly immersed.

    brain that changes itselfMy concern is the impact that such outcomes of neuroplasticity might have on people’s real life behaviours. Could it be ruining people’s real life sex lives? The anecdotal evidence presented in Norman Doidge’s excellent book: “The Brain That Changes Itself” certainly backs up this notion. From the perspective of basic neuroscience it also seems likely. Once a brain is trained to respond in a manner that results in feelings of pleasure when viewing hyper-sexual body shapes performing wild and gratuitous sex acts, it is likely that less powerful sexual images – a real life sexual partner, for instance – no longer hit the spot. Given how much of a boost a healthy active sex life gives to real romantic relationships it seems a real shame (if not a blight to wellbeing in society as a whole) that sexual relationships might be harmed by unconstrained consumption of pornography.

    Quiet carriageI’m not an advocate of censorship. It doesn’t work anyway. I believe in freedom of informed choice. I am an advocate of encouraging people to think carefully about what their habitual behaviours might be doing to their brains from the perspective of neuroplasticity. This I hope will enable them to make choices that benefit them in the long run as well as in the short term. Carving out periods of the day when emails are ignored and phones switched to silent will preserve the ability to sustain attention, engage in deep thought and enable people to remain the master rather than slave of technology. And actively avoiding indulging in online pornography on a daily basis might help people to evade brain adaptations that set the bar of satisfaction ever higher so that the real thing can maintain its lustre. “Everything in moderation” will steer us all clear of unwanted brain adaptations.

    In addition to these monthly blogs I also tweet daily about interesting brain-related articles that hit the press. If that sounds good to you then please consider following me by clicking here.

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  • Brain Implant Enabling Paralysed Woman to Operate Robot Arm

    The first time I came across this kind of technology was at the Society for Neuroscience annual conference in 2003. But back then it was a monkey who was controlling the robotic arm, to reach out for a piece of fruit and bring it close enough to eat, using the power of thought alone.

    Now in 2012, the first peer-reviewed study has been published in the scientific journal Nature, demonstrating that a 96 electrode implant can enable paralysed human beings to manipulate objects via a robotic arm just by “willing it” as an able-bodied person would do: click here for full story

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