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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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  • Dr Jack Lewis – Motivational Speaking Update

    DrJackLewisKeynoteSpeakerI’ve been on the motivational speaking circuit for over 10 years now. And throughout that period I’ve noticed that the demand for talks that explain how our brains work and how we can get more out of them only increases!

    During the first 5 years the demand came mainly from the British mainland. I travelled the length and breadth of the country to speak at schools, science festivals and businesses. But since then I’ve been invited to speak all over central Europe, western Europe and the USA.

    Talks in educational institutions used to be primarily aimed at students, helping them to understand how best to get their brains into gear as they prepared for examinations. Yet in more recent times this work has extended into promoting a brain-focused approach to improving well-being at all levels of education. In particular I’ve found it particularly rewarding to help teachers, lecturers and other support staff to understand what they can do, in practical terms, to help students develop greater resilience (i.e. to cope with stress without it spilling over into mental health issues).

    Over the first few years, the keynote talks I gave across various industries tended to be focused on increasing productivity at all levels of the business by sharing practical tips (backed by scientific evidence) regarding everything the human brain needs to function at an optimal level. Increasingly these brain optimisation tips (or BOPs) are just used at the beginning and end of each talk, with the main, middle segment focused on a more specialist subject matter developed for the particular audience in question.

    While the neuroscience of decision making and science of creativity have been two firm favourites for a decade, clients have increasingly been requesting talks on bespoke subject matters. For example, last year the National Trust asked me to do a talk about unconscious bias and empathy, THRIVE asked me to cover the neuroscience of meditation and run some mindfulness workshops, while Siemens and a couple of other major engineering firms working on huge infrastructure projects asked me to deliver the neuroscience of decision making talk with a specific focus on matters relevant to health and safety.

    One utilities company in the north-west of England whose Health and Safety record is very nearly perfect even commissioned me to do some research on strategies that might help them promote better mental health throughout their organisation.

    There is a huge amount of insight that neuroscience can provide on a wide variety of topics. It’s always satisfying to find that, in tailoring my talks to the specific needs of a client, I’m constantly stumbling upon new areas of neuroscience and psychology with which I wasn’t previously familiar. No matter what the organisation’s priorities have been in terms of what they want their staff to take away from my talk, a few days of digging around in the neuroscience literature ALWAYS yields some inspiration; shedding an interesting new perspective on virtually any topic.

    Another interesting development has been that content from The Science of Sin – a book I wrote in 2018 that looked at modern neuroscience and psychological studies relevant to the concept of the seven deadly sins – has proven to be very useful in talks focused on improving well-being. Warner Brothers asked me to do a talk as a part of their well-being week and my whistle-stop tour of why our brains make us do the things we know we shouldn’t, stimulated a fantastic debate that extended well beyond the 10 mins of Q&A. It seems that everyone struggles to control one temptation or other (humans always have) and grasping the role of psychological pain in bringing out our worst behaviours was deemed as illuminating as understanding the techniques that can help to successfully reduce it in order to improve our self-discipline was deemed useful!

    Here’s a list of some of the most popular, “classic” talks that I’m asked to return to again and again.

    Talks For Business: Neuroscience of Decision Making

    In the last few of years I’ve been working more and more with senior management teams across Europe to help them understand insights from neuroscience that are relevant to their specific business needs. For example, I helped one of Europe’s “Big Four” auditors win a highly lucrative new business contract by sharing with them my Neuroscience of Decision Making talk in the context of reverse engineering the pitch process in light of the flaws in how the human brain evaluates information when making important choices. By exploiting a large corpus of knowledge generated over the past decade or so from neuroeconomic investigations the realities of how risk, uncertainty and benefit are evaluated in the human brain can be explored in order to concoct strategies that improve the likelihood of developing a successful pitch.

    Talks for Business: Neuroscience of Creativity

    Since the first outing of my Neuroscience of Creativity talk in 2013 it has evolved into a half-day workshop experience. I’ve been rolling this Innovation Workshop out over the course of 2015 with various members of the Senior Leadership Team at one of the world’s biggest broadcasters by sharing with them everything that science has to offer in terms of techniques that work and those that sound good but ultimately don’t. By assisting them to create an environment that genuinely promotes innovative thinking right at the very top of the organisation and convincing them of the worth of approaches in an evidence-based fashion, the idea is to reduce resistance to some of the seemingly unorthodox strategies in order that they might be allowed to permeate freely throughout the rest of the company.

    Sort Your Brain Out

    Sadly many people proclaim that their busy lives simply leave no time to read books. Adrian Webster and I have turned our best-selling book Sort Your Brain Out into a live event. Since our first booking late last year we have been enjoying a steady increase in demand for our motivational speaking duet over the past few months and very much hope that this trend continues in the years to come. We are both represented by Gordon Poole Agency and our speaking agent James Poole is always on hand to discuss booking enquiries.

    Talks for Schools

    Over the years I’ve been invited to speak at many schools across the UK. The aim is usually to engage young learners, usually in the build up to their big exams, with an upbeat neuroscience narrative that brings to life what exactly is going on inside their brains as they learn. Once students grasp that all their efforts are leading directly to huge changes in the wiring of their brains, how memory works and adaptations that brains undertake to support new skills acquisition, motivation levels invariably rise.

    I give them insights into straight-forward techniques to get brains working better: whether memorising information more thoroughly, managing exam stress more effectively and simply encouraging them to see school as the only viable way (currently) of sculpting young brains in preparation for dealing with whatever adult life might throw at them.

    If you’d like me to do a talk for you, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

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  • Exercise Cleverer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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  • Drumming Up Some Neuroplasticity

    If you were to spend two years memorising every major road
    and noteworthy landmark within a six mile radius of central London – your brain
    would change. The rear-most part of your hippocampus – a brain area shaped like
    a seahorse, one in the left hemisphere and one in the right, absolutely vital
    for memory and navigation – will get larger.

    If, instead, you were to learn to play a string or keyboard instrument
    to a professional level, your hippocampus would remain more or less the same,
    but the part of the motor cortex responsible for sending messages to the
    muscles of the fingers will enlarge to a significant degree. In order for a
    person to improve their ability to manipulate an instrument accurately, with
    the appropriate tempo and rhythm, to make pleasant sounding music the
    connections between brain cells in the most relevant brain areas must become more
    refined and efficient in their function, by trial and error.

    If we practise our navigational or music making skills on a daily basis, tackling challenges of increasing difficulty and maintaining the discipline to keep up the practice over several years our brain will change in a manner commensurate with the provision of more skilful application of the ability in question. The brain invests more and more resources into whatever brain pathways are most regularly and intensively used in order that we might become able to perform that ability with greater aptitude.

    The brain’s ability to adapt its connections to improve skills is called neuroplasticity. And this month a scientific paper was published that illustrates the neuroplastic changes that occur in a drummer’s brain. As this is the season of new year’s resolutions and my own new year’s resolutions often include musical ones – e.g. practise the bass, join a choir, pick up the harmonica every day – I thought I’d dedicate this month’s blog to how to thicken up the brain wires that connect the left and right parts of your frontal brain.

    The results of the Diffusion Tensor Imaging MRI paper published by Schlaffke et al, based at the German universities of Bochum and Essen, showed that pro drummers’ neurons were fewer, but wider, in the first segment of the corpus callosum, which connects frontal regions of the left and right brain hemispheres. The wider diameter of these neurons suggests faster transmission of electrical messages. The brain areas in question coordinate a wide variety of brain functions. One of the key tasks overseen by such brain areas in the context of drumming is to ensure that the movements of one hand don’t interfere with those of the other.

    In drumming, the movements performed by each hand are often very similar, yet each hand needs to follow a slightly different rhythmical pattern and make contact with drums or cymbals arranged in different parts of the physical space. Preventing interference between the two target drumming patterns is not as straightforward a task as it might seem, requiring commands sent to one hand to simultaneously inhibit similar movements in the other. (The classic school yard challenge of patting your head while rubbing your tummy with a circular movement is testimony to the existence of a natural instinct to match movements of one hand to the other; something that must be overcome to drum properly).

    Schlaffke also published evidence of a correlation between the structural differences observed in the corpus callosum and the amount of inhibitory GABA neurotransmitter present in the motor cortex. In other words the wider and less numerous each professional drummer’s corpus callosum neurons, the more inhibitory neurotransmitter was available in the part of the brain that send messages to muscles of the arms, hands and fingers; the implication being that this enables more accurate drumming control.

    The upshot is that the 10+ hrs of practise these professional drummers were getting through each week, over the course of many years, actually increased the size of their corpus callosum neurons. This allows faster and more efficient communication between left and right hemispheres which is apparently a prerequisite for their superior drumming skills. The intensive training also increases inhibitory control in the motor cortex to ensure that the signals that instruct one hand to move are not accidentally relayed to the other hand, hence the greater concentration of inhibitory neurotransmitter in the motor cortex. And the point of all this is: if they can do it, so can you!

    For those who got a drum kit for Christmas this year, then you can get cracking on modifying your corpus callosum right away! But even if you don’t have real drums to play with, it’s still possible to get the requisite training in and without annoying the neighbours! I just happened to reviewed a virtual reality drumming game last week on my YouTube channel (Brain Man VR, it’s embedded below if you want to take a look) called Drums Hero. It enables anyone with a VR kit to play a virtual drum kit along with a handful of rock songs without even needing to be able to read music. And, unlike real drums, they are completely silent to anyone in the real world, as the drums and the cacophony of sounds they produce only exists in virtual reality.

    When it comes to the idea of brain training, there are often (perfectly reasonable) complaints that while it might enable “near transfer” (getting better at that particular task), evidence of “far transfer” (improved abilities that carry over into real life tasks) is very rare. That said, practising with VR drums in Drums Hero will undoubtedly translate directly into a greater aptitude with a real drum kit. I’ve started to get good enough to unlock the hardest versions of some of the songs and already the syncopated rhythms I’m now able to pull off with a reasonable degree of accuracy have gone from highly cognitively challenging to more or less instinctive. I can almost FEEL the myelination of my corpus callosum taking place. No, but really, I have genuinely come on in leaps and bounds in just 1-2 hours of game play. I’m genuinely blown away by what I can now do and have no doubt that if I was wearing my headset, but using real drums and real drum sticks, I could do a pretty decent job of hitting the drum line for those particular songs.

    While the VR motion controllers and real life drum sticks are not the same weight and shape (and in VR the motion controllers never make contact with a surface, as opposed to the drums sticks that helpfully bounce back off the skin of the drum after each contact), Drums Hero still enables a complete beginner to improve their competence at initiating the appropriate movement at the correct time. I genuinely believe that people who play the VR drums on a daily basis will end up considerable better at playing a real drum kit than a complete beginner. I would anticipate that the haptic adjustment to the sticks bouncing off the skin of the drum would make it easier, not harder, to play than striking thin air in VR. So if you have ambitions of joining a band as a drummer, and want to get started on modifying segment 1 of your corpus callosum without running the gauntlet of ruining relationships with your neighbours by getting a real drum kit, Drums Hero comes very highly recommended.

    In addition to these monthly blogs I regularly tweet (@drjacklewis) about brain research that hits the lay press. Brain Man VR is a weekly virtual reality review show that lands every Tuesday. Wishing you a very happy, healthy and hobby-filled 2020!

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  • Slight Hearing Loss Means Cognitive Impairment

    My best mate’s dad is stubborn to say the least. Two heart attacks didn’t convince him it was time to stop smoking. And when his hearing started to go he refused to wear a hearing aid. That was 10 years ago. Today this has progressed to the stage of being really hard of hearing. He’s a quiet man by nature, usually on the edge of a discussion rather than at the centre of the debate, but his comments were always incisive and insightful when he chose to contribute. With four kids and five grandkids there were always plenty of other voices clamouring for centre stage, so he was happy just to listen in from the fringes.

    Over the past decade, when I accompany them on their annual family holiday, I’ve noticed that his contributions to the conversations were becoming less frequent. At first I just thought he was becoming more melancholy in his post-retirement years, but then in the last few years it became apparent that he simply couldn’t hear what people were saying, whether they were speaking to him or each other.

    Well into his seventies now he still manages all the accounts for the family business and had mentioned once or twice over the years, when I drop in to say hi on Christmas Day, that simple invoicing jobs were taking him much longer than usual. Straight-forward office management chores were taking all day rather then just being a few hours work in the morning or afternoon.

    He puts it down to the inexorable processes of ageing, which seemed perfectly reasonable. But research published this month in JAMA Otolaryngology makes me question this assumption. I now suspect that his dogged resistance to getting hearing aids may have done him a disservice. When it comes to the important task of holding onto your marbles in your 50’s and beyond, pouncing immediately on hearing loss is vital. Eliminating hearing loss not only fights against age-related cognitive impairment, the latest estimates indicate that it could even lead to a reduction of 9% in the diagnosis of new cases of dementia.

    It turns out that just a small decline in hearing ability predicts a fairly alarming drop in cognitive power and even more so for every additional 10dB reduction in hearing. Bearing in mind the concept of neuroplasticity, when mild hearing loss leaves a person unable to catch everything that is being said, less information will end up being pushed through the areas of the brain that extract meaning from and mull over the words that have been uttered. The less information that is pushed though any given brain network, the less the brain will selectively reinforce those pathways.

    The study under consideration here was published by Justin Golub and colleagues at Columbia University in New York City who evaluated the level of hearing loss and cognitive abilities of over 6,000 people in their fifties and upward. It provides strong evidence that the hearing impairment-related cognitive decline occurs with a drop of just 10 dB from the level considered to be perfect hearing.

    As someone that spent the early part of his teenage years standing too close to the speakers at gigs and raves, I’ve know for a long time that the hearing in my left ear is not as good as my right. For the time being this isn’t a major problem because I rarely find myself unable to hear what people are saying. When it does happen, usually only in very noisy environments, I simply switch sides. But I never miss out completely on what is being said to me. I remain deeply involved (some would say too much) in any conversation.

    Thanks to Golub and colleagues, over the next few decades I’ll be paying extra close attention to any deterioration to the hearing in my right ear to ensure I maintain my cognitive capabilities for as long as possible. Who knows, thanks to these insights I might even dodge dementia. As I described in my last book The Science Of Sin – it’s vitally important to our physical and mental health to stay socially connected to other people in our communities. Anti-social behaviour is one thing that can leave people socially isolated, but even mild hearing loss can distance people from the cognitively nourishing impact of interaction with other people. In the words of Golub himself:

    “Most
    people with hearing loss believe they can go about their lives just fine
    without treatment, and maybe some can. But hearing loss is not benign. It has
    been linked to social isolation, depression, cognitive decline, and dementia.
    Hearing loss should be treated. This study suggests the earlier, the better.”

    In addition to these monthly blogs I regularly tweet about the latest fascinating titbits of neuroscience research I find in the lay press (@drjacklewis) and now have a YouTube channel called Brain Man VR where I review Virtual Reality games and experiences every week. Currently there are 9 to choose from, but as a new episode is released every Tuesday, there’ll be more than that by now…

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  • My Top 10 Virtual Reality Experiences

    During my PhD I had the opportunity to visit an academic virtual reality laboratory. Professor Mel Slater, who at that time was based at UCL just down the road from my lab, had put together a state-of-the-art VR Cave and demonstrated to us various experiences that were possible in virtual reality. We started off by visiting a world made entirely out of colourful, child-like, crayon drawings – that had been scanned in and placed in various locations around the 3D environment. I was amazed that, despite the simplicity of the artwork, it nonetheless felt like you had departed the room you started in and were fully immersed and present in an alternate universe. He then showed us a world he had developed to help people get over their social phobias – a bar, in which realistic human avatars would cheerily greet you as you enter and then engage you in conversation. At that time such mind-blowing experiences were only available to people with a budget of £250,000-£300,000. 4 years ago I invested in the first consumer ready HTC VIVE set up and once I’d got the powerful graphics PC all set up it had set me back the best part of £2,500. Now everyone can get involved as the Oculus Quest (the first stand-alone headset that gives an extremely high end experience, without needing to be plugged into a computer, launched earlier this year) costs just £400-£500.

    No longer is VR a toy for the super-rich, or available only in VR arcades. Everyone can get involved for a miraculously reasonable price. So this month my blog is dedicated to my top 10 VR experiences.

    My Top Ten VR Experiences to Date

    1. The Tree [Viveport — 2017 — New Reality Co — 360 video on headset]
    The Tree – a genuinely novel use of VR

    From seed, to seedling pushing up through soil, drips of rain falling all around, pooling in the crevice in which the baby tree takes it’s first steps. Breaking through to the surface, user first encounters small flora, fauna and fungi on the jungle floor. Throughout the user is gradually rising so as to remain level with the tip of the young tree. As it gets towards full size the interface between user movements and point of view (POV) in the head-mounted display (HMD a.k.a. headset) fundamentally changes; giving the user a uniquely VR experience. Just by leaning forwards, backwards, left and right ever so slightly the POV rapidly zooms north, south, west and then east enabling you to see up close what’s happening in the boughs of the adjacent trees and down on the forest floor by leaning down. Macaws, tamarin monkeys and leopards are discoverable with precise movements of the body and head. Once in the desired location you must hold the body position very still to inspect the beautifully detailed 3D rendering of each creature. Very clever use of animal sounds alert you to the possibility that the scene might be more explorable than it first seems (given the entirely passive user experience of the first 2 mins). It then switches back to passive for the final, quite moving and emotionally poignant stage, where human voices shouting at each other in the distance precede the lighting of fires. Those distant fires spread towards The Tree and eventually engulf it in flames. The moment you look down and realise that your trunk is on fire is extremely alarming (provoking empathy for trees??) and seemed to trigger the final forced perspective change: in which the POV pushes away from The Tree’s trunk (to reduce the sense of personal threat??) — such that you becoming a more objective spectator — with the POV elevating to take in the full spectacle of The Tree burning in the middle of a huge steamy jungle. Excellent light throughout. The dark murkiness of the beginning. The almost dazzling shards of sunshine that dapple their way through the canopy to strike shadowing strips on the jungle floor. The gorgeous sunset, moon and milky way lighting is also extremely atmospheric.

    2. Virtual Reality To Help Adoptive Parents [Innovate UK Conference, 2017, The Cornerstone Partnership, 360 video experience on Headset]

    Cornerstone – increasing empathy

    This company have created a truly stunning VR experience that helps prospective foster parents understand what they are getting into by helping them see through the eyes of an abused child. From hearing a muffled parental argument going on from within the womb, to a toddler’s eye perspective on witnessing drug abuse, neglect and mistreatment, and concluding with a childhood altercation in the school corridors, this experience is a brilliant example of how VR can be used as an empathy machine. Most of us will never really truly understand what it would be like to be raised in a horrifically dysfunctional household — the fear, the hunger, the pain — but this VR film can help us completely re-evaluate what we think of and how we handle the errant behaviour of certain children (and the adults they become, for that matter).

    3. Escape Now [Steam, 2019, Beat Games, 360 video experience on Headset]

    360 video documentary – feel like you’re really there…

    A VR travel documentary that makes you feel like you are actually in Paris, Florence, New York City, London or Egypt. Near universal accessibility as you don’t have to do anything other than look around as the host (who is always in the scene with you) narrates. I think it’s interesting that he didn’t present “down the barrel” i.e. directly into the lens of the camera. Whether or not there was some technical reason for that I don’t know, but either way I think that is very suitable way of using VR to do documentary work. It’s nice to feel like a companion of the host. You can look at what he’s looking at. Or you can look completely the other way and instead look at the people standing around you or architectural wonders and artworks that he is not referring to but in the same room. It creates a tremendous sense of freedom, just as you have when a tour guide shows you round a gallery or a museum. Many VR experiences do not allow for such a free sense of agency — despite the fact that you are fixed in place at the location the 360 camera was positioned. Rapid cuts leave you wanting more. His casual delivery and laid back personality makes a refreshing change from the more self-conscious and perhaps over-enthusiastic delivery styles of many successful TV presenters. This felt like a refreshing change from the norm. It felt like the future of docs is somewhere down that particular path.

    4. Super Hot [Steam, 2016, Super Hot Team, VR experience on Headset]

    Become a Time Lord without the need for Tardis nor supersonic screwdriver

    One of my all time favourite VR experiences because it enables the user to do something that is completely impossible in the real world: take voluntary control over the speed at which time ticks by. If you move all your body parts very slowly, as you look and move around within each elegantly simple and stylish scene, the action unfolds in super slo mo. You get a fly’s perception of time. If you make any sudden movements of head, hands and particularly all body parts together, then the passage of time accelerates into fast forward in a manner that is proportional to the net sum of motion controller and HMD translocation in space (and thus eventually, after much trial and error, you find yourself able to control the passage of time intuitively). There is a tendency to assume this is just another VR shoot ’em up. That is not true. The small team of polish developers who put this together capture a unique affordance of VR brilliantly and then put control over that affordance into the hands of the user. A truly magnificent achievement.

    5. Beat Saber [Steam, 2019, Beat Games, VR experience on Headset]

    A game that effectively forces you to dance

    I like any VR game that encourages the use of dynamic body movements. I really enjoy dancing. Therefore I love Beat Sabre because it essentially makes you perform dance moves in time to the beat. It has become a daily part of many influential VR practitioner’s life and for good reason. It stimulates mind, body and soul. At expert level a person can boggle at their new-found capacity to perform dizzyingly rapid arm movements in time to music of significant complexity. Once again, disguised beneath a veneer of superficial fun and games is a stroke of genius that can genuinely improve a person’s well-being via encouragement of a form of regular exercise that defies the conventional outlets of the gym, running and various sporting activities. In the context of helping busy people to conveniently find the time to break a sweat — it is second to none.

    6. A Fisherman’s Tale [Viveport, 2019, Vertigo Games, VR on Headset]

    Ahoy me hearties – ’tis a thing of wonder, to be sure…

    Gorgeous story-telling (French accent, gentle sarcasm), excellent devices for drawing attention to correct part of room for next progression (verbal nudges: increasing in obviousness from vague to precise; illumination of room: dim out areas already dealt with using lighting that feels like a cloud covering the sun, spotlight for major transition); seeing in minature actions that you yourself performed over the previous three minutes (circularity: having been instructed to perform specific movements in particular parts of the room it feels uncannily familiar when you see the actions performed, like your movements have been captured somehow — is this illusion?). And that’s just the instructional segment that teaches you the basic rules of that particular VR world. Making that a convincing part of the story rather the usual grind of feeling frustrated while you’re not picking it up quickly. Instead the whole process is a series of discoveries. The game itself clones the room you are in, all the objects and your own movements and then projects that out to the horizon on a x10 scale and then in the centre of the room on a table there is a miniaturised version of the world. Puzzles are cracked by focusing on manipulating either the larger version of you overhead, or the miniature version inside the doll’s house sized version. Ultimately you have to exchange objects “across the line” i.e. between different magnifications. Curious, magical, enchanting and intellectually challenging. A tour de force of perspective taking.

    7. Moss [Steam, 2018, Polyarc, VR experience on Headset]

    Experience what it’s like to be INSIDE a cartoon, where you are in control of the heroine

    I think that VR has a capacity to create a sense of magic and wonder that is unsurpassed even by the standards of film and television (but not literature). The aesthetics of Moss has a phenomenal capacity to leave people awe struck. I have put several friends into it (I have the footage of them playing to prove what I’m about to say) who are hardened gamers with over 20 years experience apiece, who have experienced extremely hi-spec VR experiences such as the Star Wars experience at Westfield White City last Christmas, people who think they’ve seen it all and Moss — more than any other game — has left them just as enchanted as I was. Helping Quill — a gorgeously designed and animated cartoon mouse — on a quest guided by a charming will ‘o wisp is a genuinely novel experience because not only are you controlling her movements with the analogue joystick with one hand, but with the other “hand of God” you can move obstacles out of her way. Furthermore, the puzzles are genuinely challenging to crack and very imaginatively put together. So much of VR gaming is just stuff people have been doing in 2D or aeons. Moss is a VR game that takes the basic concept of a platform game and brings it into the 21st Century with very high production values and a generous sprinkling of that magical je ne sais quoi.

    8. Mars Odyssey [Viveport, 2016, Steel Wool Games Inc]

    Do your due diligence – go to Mars and get in practice for the inevitable

    Viveport — What a brilliant way to learn. I’ve never been that interested in Mars, after all the universe is a big place, but this game got me fascinated by it. Astronomers gather all sorts of fascinating information about heavenly bodies, but I’ve never really found a medium in which I could consume that knowledge as a form of entertainment. This is an extremely fact-based experience. It presents information in a manner that is both rich but also palatable. They help the user grasp the sheer vastness of Mars’s biggest volcano and canyon by positioning scale models of Everest and the Grand Canyon within the 3D scene. And they keep people engaged by having them run errands around the orbiter, perform maintenance tasks on real-life gadgets that are actually there on the surface of Mars right now and react to changing weather patterns. In one challenge a sand storm looms in from the distance and in a race against time you have to steer a remote control science tool buggy into shelter before the storm hits — with such effective sound design it’s a truly visceral experience. I was surprised by the variety of different modes of interaction with each successive scene. It never got to the point of being monotonous like some other similar game titles (e.g. Time Machine) that also encourage a more scientific engagement with the VR environment.

    9. Sandman VR

    This is not an image from the game, but this is what it felt like…

    Many years ago I was working at the BFI library and when I
    came out for a mid-morning coffee I realised there was an animation festival
    going on. I snuck into the demonstration hall where a dozen games developers
    had set up their demos and were awaiting the delegates who were about to emerge
    from the morning screenings. I made a beeline for the only VR headset I could
    see and the guy kindly let me have a peek. The user is aboard a canoe on a vast
    tree-fringed lake. The water effects — both audio and visual — were fantastically
    high fidelity and I immediately felt tangibly calmer. I was guided over the one
    side of the lake where it fed a stream that turned into a white water rapid. As
    I guided my boat down the tributary I heard a voice and turned to see an old
    man calling to his grandson. They didn’t notice me as I passed but I could
    observe their interactions which clearly suggested they were enjoying
    grandfather and grandson time together out in the countryside. Turning my
    attention back to the river I realised that I was nearing the rapids. The sound
    of the rushing water matched perfectly with the sense of proximity to different
    sections of the rapid (I found it very true to the genuine article; speaking as
    someone who has whitewater rafted down Victoria falls on the Zambezi river).
    The sense of audiovisual 3D acceleration as I shot down the fast section was so
    acute that I involuntarily found myself whooping, shouting and laughing with
    glee. Then I remembered that I was in a public place. I had completely lost
    touch with the outside world over the course of the 10–15 minute experience.
    When I took the headset off to see if any of the delegates had arrived in the
    demo room yet I discovered that there were people everywhere. While each of the
    other demonstrators had clusters of 2–4 people around them, a 15-person strong
    queue had formed behind me!

    10. Do Not Touch [YouTube — Krispymedia — 360 video on phone— 2018]

    Touching the art in an art gallery is forbidden. We all know that. But what would actually happen if you did? According to this imaginative interpretation it enables a person to cross from the real world into the virtual world within the painting. Not only that, you can jump from painting to painting — taking on the appearance of the art style in question each time. Really clever. Very creative interpretation of the medium. But not much goes on in quadrants 2, 3 and 4 (i.e. behind you and on either side); apart from the usual…

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  • Brain Man VR on YouTube

    I’m delighted to announce the launch of my new YouTube channel BRAIN MAN VR. Each week I share some tips and tricks on how to get more out of your virtual reality experiences and review one or two games available on the HTC VIVE and many other VR headsets. I’ve been working on this project for over a year so I’m really happy that I’m finally ready to commit to releasing a brand new episode every week for a year! So, from now on, when you realise it’s Tuesday – head to Brain Man VR and check out the latest and greatest games from the wonderful world of virtual reality.

    I’ve been extremely excited about virtual reality ever since I got the chance to visit Prof Mel Slater’s VR lab when he was based at University College London. I went into a magical world that had been created by scribbling child-like crayon drawings of houses, trees, plants and butterflies, which were scanned in and distributed throughout the 3D virtual room. You might think that the simplistic nature of the images might have ruined the chances of making a person wearing a VR headset truly believe they had been transported into another world. On the contrary, I genuinely felt like I was in a wonderland and the vivid, chaotic crayon squiggles only helped to enhance the sense of enchantment. I was already completely hooked on the concept of VR before I’d gone into the other experience that Mel had arranged for me and my neuroscience PhD colleagues. The second experience was composed of much more sleek and sophisticated graphics depicting human-like avatars in a bar setting. It was designed to help people get over their social phobias. As soon as I walked in the bar, the attractive blond woman at the bar immediately greeted me and asked me what my name was. I didn’t answer straight away as I was distracted by these thoughts: surely an illusion can’t possibly hear anything I say if I respond? My hesitation meant that when I eventually spoke out loud, the avatar spoke over me with another sentence. When she didn’t then reference that we’d spoken over each other the illusion of really, truly, genuinely feeling like we were in a bar together was shattered. And before I’d even come across the terminology, I immediately had a sense for the difference between the two components of a genuinely immersive VR experience – the presence AND plausibility.

    Place illusion involves producing sights in the head-mounted display and sounds via the headphones that update perfectly when you move your head and body around in the physical space, just as they would do in the real world. Plausibility illusion is slightly different. All the ingredients of the Place Illusion can convince the human brain that they genuinely have been transported into an alternate universe, yet if two people speak over each other and then don’t say something suitable to acknowledge the error and perhaps make a comment to smooth over the social aberration, then the experience can no longer seem plausible.

    Back then, for a set up with enough ooomph to create a completely convincing and genuinely immersive virtual reality experience, the costs were in the realm of £250,000. These days you can get a decent stand alone, VR headset for £400 and so finally, after almost half a century after people started taking the concept of virtual reality seriously, this phenomenon is ready for the people. I’ve spent the past year experimenting with my first VR headset. It’s an HTC VIVE kit that I actually bought 4 years ago. I then had to patiently wait for 2 years while I saved up enough money to buy a graphics PC powerful enough to “drive” the headset and motion controllers. I then had to wait 6 months for all the parts to arrive and then summon the courage to try and assemble the PC without breaking anything! Scary, but with lots of help from a benevolent team of YouTubers who give up their spare time to create tutorials to help others with various tech difficulties, I finally got it done.

    I am going to release one episode of my new YouTube channel Brain Man VR every week for a year. Starting today. Wherever you are in the world, every Tuesday, you can go to Brain Man VR and watch me review one or two virtual reality games to a) see what all the fuss is about if you don’t currently own a VR set b) see which games you might want to buy if you do have a VR rig and c) either way get a regular insight into what’s happening in the rapidly developing and incredibly exciting world of virtual reality.

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  • Body Scan Meditation

    Over the past few months I’ve given four talks at Thrive Approach conferences all over the UK: Barnsley, Pontypridd, Brighton and Norwich. Thrive is an amazing organisation that provides training and support for teachers and carers that work with troubled children; helping them with their emotional and social development needs.

    As part of my talk I have a section on the neuroscience of mindfulness and later in the day I’ve been running a couple of mindfulness workshops. I promised I’d make the Body Scan script I’ve been working with available in this month’s blog, so here it is…

    Kids can meditate too

    It looks like a poem, but it isn’t. I structured it like that to help me get the appropriate pacing; to remind me where to pause before moving on. If the script is delivered at a reasonably slow pace, it should last about 20 minutes. Too long for many children, but just right for busy adults. It can always be shortened to suit kids of different ages by concentrating on specific body parts and skipping the others.

    If some of the words are not the kind of language you’d normally use in your part of the world, please feel free to change it to make it sound more natural. But do try to keep the verb structure. Words like: “moving,” “shifting,” “accepting” – invite the listener to focus on different parts of their body rather than instructing or commanding them to do so. It can sound a bit wishy washy, but it’s important that people don’t feel like they’re being bossed around. Using non-confrontational language like this helps to avoid getting people’s heckles up.

    Body Scan in action in Brighton

    So, here’s the body scan meditation I’ve been working with:

    “This body scan meditation is designed,

    To bring greater awareness to body and to mind.

    We’ll be doing this in a state of physical motionless,

    So try to arrange a time and a place,

    In which you’ll be comfortable,

    And you won’t be disturbed

    Dressing in loose and comfortable clothing

    Which won’t restrict your waist or your breathing

    This meditation is usually done while lying on your back

    But can be done in any position that is comfortable for you

    It can be done on a rug, a mat, or towel laid out on the floor,

    Or even in a comfortable chair or lying on a bed.

    If you are lying on your back

    Position your arms so that they are lying alongside you

    Palms up towards the ceiling, so long as that is comfortable for you.

    Place both heels on the floor,

    And allow your feet to fall away from one other.

    And as you’re lying there…

    Allow yourself to notice whatever pops up into your awareness,

    Simply accepting whatever is happening in your body and your mind,

    Experiencing it with clarity,

    And as it is in the moment.

    Noticing where your body makes contact with the floor, the chair or the
    bed,

    You may feel sensations of touch or pressure

    On your heels…

    Your calves…

    Your legs…

    Your bum…

    Your upper back…

    Your arms…

    And as you’re becoming aware of these sensations,

    Bring your awareness to the fact that you’re breathing [extended pause]

    Noticing the physical sensations of breath,

    Just noticing the rhythm of your breath.

    As it moves your belly,

    Slight movements of your chest.

    You may become aware of how the air enters your nostrils,

                And through your windpipe and into
    your lungs

    Allowing that natural movement of your breath to continue,

    Without really having to do anything about it at all.

    There’s a tendency to
    want to control the breathing when we bring attention to it

    Just noticing how it
    is, is just fine…

    Whether it’s short and
    fast…

     Or long and deep…

    Just allowing it to
    move at its own rhythm……….

    And when you’re ready,
    on your next in-breath,

    Allowing the breath
    that comes in to fill up your lungs, move your tummy up

    Imagine that your
    entire body is hollow

    …and accepts the air
    as it comes in through the lungs

    accepts the air as it
    comes in through the nostrils

    … in through the
    lungs…

    … imagining that it
    goes all the way in, down into the belly, into the legs

    … all the way down
    into the toes

    You may notice
    tingling, or warmth, or coolness, or pulsing…

    … or you may not be particularly
    aware of anything at all

    If that’s the case,
    just be aware that that’s where your attention is…

    And as you breath out,
    allowing your awareness to move from your toes

    … to the balls of your
    feet

    Allowing your
    awareness of the balls of your feet to dissolve…

    … as you move your
    awareness to the whole sole of your foot

    … all the way down to
    your heel

    Spread your awareness
    across the whole triangular part of your foot…

    … the areas that make
    contact  with the ground when you walk

     And noticing where your heel is touching the
    floor…

    … and the floor is
    touching the heel, right now

    And whatever you might
    be noticing,

    Is just what you
    happen to be noticing right now.

    There’s no right or
    wrong feeling or sensation to have.

    And allowing your
    awareness to move to the ankles.

    All the way from the
    surface of the skin to the inner parts.

    The bones and tendons
    inside that support your body when you walk.

    And on your next
    out-breath, moving your awareness to the calves of your legs

    … including the part that
    is making contact with the floor

    … and the muscles and
    tendons that run alongside the shin bone

    And when you’re ready,
    moving your awareness to your knees,

    … including the back
    of the knee

    … the kneecap itself

    … the joint inside

    …. the skin around the
    whole circumference

    And moving from your
    knees to your thighs

    … the quads on the
    top, to the hams on the bottom

    … bringing your
    awareness to the whole circumference of your thighs

    The muscles and
    tendons right down to the bone…

    … seeing what it’s
    like to have your awareness on this part

    You may feel
    heaviness, or your pulse, or tingling, or pressure…

    … whatever comes to
    awareness is right, there is no wrong…

    And as you’re ready to
    do this, bringing your awareness higher to the hip

    … the pelvic area

    … buttocks where they
    touch the floor

    And moving your
    awareness from the pelvic area to the lower back

    … right the way round
    to your abdomen, all the way round the circumference

    … & being aware of
    how your movement of breath affects this part of your body

    On each in-breath your
    tummy expands a little

    On the out-breath it
    flattens somewhat

    And seeing if it’s
    possible to maintain awareness of your breathing through a whole cycle

    And how it’s
    physically moving with your abdomen

    All the way through
    the in-breath, to the pause between in- and out-breath

    As you’re ready to go
    in the other direction – through the out-breath

    Noticing how the
    expansion and contraction affects the sensations on your skin…

    … from your clothes,
    or pressure from the floor…

    Moving your awareness
    higher up your body..

    …to the area of the
    diaphragm, deep inside the base of the ribcage

    Including the areas
    both on top and below the diaphram

    …where some of the
    internal organs are

    …and bringing your
    awareness into rib cage … and your middle back

    If, as we’re doing
    this, you’re noticing any holding or tension…

    …in any part of your
    body…

    …just noticing that
    that’s there

    Letting your breath
    move through that part of your body…

    … if your breath is
    affecting it

    Imagining your breath
    going into that part of your body

    Imagining it leaving –
    in it’s own rhythm

     And when you’re ready bringing your attention
    and your awareness

    … inside the cavity of
    your chest

    … your ribcage

    … round to your upper
    back

    … where it touches the
    mat or the floor

    Noticing how the chest
    is expanding and contracting…

    just slightly with
    each breath…….

    Being aware of how the
    entire torso area moves ….

    … very slightly during
    each in-breath and out-breath ….

    … being aware of how
    your shoulders are affected by each breath….

    … including the upper
    parts of your shoulders

    …. the sides of your
    shoulders

    … the upper back

    Moving your awareness
    from the shoulders themselves

    To where they attach
    to your neck

    And sensing into those
    areas of connection

    Starting from a broad
    base at the top of the shoulders…

    … and narrowing to the
    neck itself

    With your next
    in-breath,

    … allowing your
    awareness to move back into your shoulders…

    … through your upper
    arms

    … through elbow to
    your lower arms

    ….. all the way down through
    your hands

    …. to your fingertips

    Imagining your breath
    moving in / out of that area…

    … and shifting your
    attention now to the back of your hands….

    …… and the palms of
    your hands

    …. The base of the
    thumb, where it connects to the hand itself

    …. And shifting your
    awareness to your wrists

    Moving to your lower
    arms …

    …. Extending all the
    way from your wrists to your elbows

    And moving your focus
    from your elbows to your upper arms…

    … and back up into the
    shoulders

    And the base of the
    neck…

    … and moving from the
    base of your neck round to the sides and the throat area

    … and up into the jaw

    … now including the
    sensations you might have in the inside of your mouth

    When you’re ready
    shifting your attention into your tongue

    … shift your attention
    into your gums and your lips

    … and being aware that
    your lips have both an interior and exterior surface

    … and then into the
    cheeks

    To the nose…

    … noticing how the
    cool air comes in through the nostrils

    … and noticing the
    warmer feel of the breath as it passes back out again

    Moving up into the
    eyes…

    … and the muscles
    around the eyes …

    … including the upper
    cheeks and the eyebrows…

    … and the corners of
    your eyes

    And moving to the
    forehead …

    … and the surrounding
    scalp area

    …. From the crown of
    your skull to the ears

    …. And on to the back
    of your head where it makes contact with the floor

    And when you’re ready,
    sensing into the entire body

    From the top of your
    head

    To the bottom of your
    feet

    All at the same time.

    Allowing and noticing
    whatever sensation may appear…

    … as you include all
    of the body

    Head and shoulders…

    Arms, torso…

    Bum and hips…

    Thighs and calves…

    Feet …

    … allowing things to
    be just as they are:

    Beyond the tendencies
    of the mind to want everything to be a certain way…

    Beyond liking and
    disliking…

    Seeing ourselves as
    complete… And whole …

    Right here … Right now
    … Just exactly as we are…

    Noticing and
    experiencing… the fullness of life

    Acknowledging our
    ability to be present… with whatever presents itself

    And as this meditation
    ends… you might want to wiggle your toes and fingers…

    Stretch in whatever
    way feels comfortable to you right now …

    If your eyes have been
    closed, allowing them to let the light in, little by little …

    And as you’re ready,
    re-establishing contact…

    … with the entire
    world outside your body.

    Thus ends the body scan meditation!

    I hope you find this useful.

    I’ve also recorded an audio file of me reading out the script in case people would find it useful. I haven’t quite figured out how to upload it yet but as soon as I do I’ll update this post.

    In addition to these monthly blogs I regularly tweet about any interesting neuroscience research that hits the press (@drjacklewis) and next month I’ll finally be launching my new YouTube channel BRAIN MAN VR!!

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  • A Ciência Do Pecado

    … means The Science of Sin in Portuguese. This month I spent a week in Lisbon, Portugal to promote the launch of the Portuguese translation of The Science of Sin. I arrived at Lisbon airport on the Monday and was whisked straight to a hotel near the Marquêz de Pombal roundabout – where a huge statue of the former prime minister looks out across the city he rebuilt after the devastating earthquake of 1755. A non-stop carousel of journalists and photographers from Portugal’s most esteemed and popular newspapers and magazines interviewed me one-by-one all day long; blowing me away with how keenly they took to the subject matter.

    The Science of Sin now translated into Portuguese

    It wasn’t until first thing the following morning that a journalist from Diario Do Noticias (more-or-less the equivalent of The Times here in the UK) helped me understand why The Science of Sin was deemed to be of such interest to the readership of so many publications. I knew that Portugal (like Spain) is a deeply Catholic country, but what I didn’t realise was that Portugal essentially lived under a papist dictatorship from 1926-1974. While all people raised in Catholic countries generally feel a strong pressure from various elements of society to regularly attend church and uphold its teachings, a dictatorship that “insisted” upon it no doubt consolidated the stranglehold yet more.

    After the first interview of the day we immediately shot off to do a TV interview for cable channel SIC Mulher, the presenter of which was as ravishingly beautiful as she was fiercely bright. I have never had the pleasure of doing an interview where the presenter conducted a simultaneous translation before. Perhaps what she did during that 10 minute interview was perfectly standard. But as a neuroscientist I found her performance to be truly stunning. A simultaneous translation is not, strictly speaking, simultaneous. It could be argued that serial translation is more accurate: the English-speaking interviewee (me) is asked questions in English, free to reply in English but then the interviewer goes on to immediately translate whatever the the interviewee has said in the native tongue of the land in question, in this case Portuguese.

    Describing The Science Of Sin on SIC Mulher

    My answers are rarely as concise as they should be. At best I manage to capture the answer in about 20-30s, but more often than not my responses lasted for over a minute. Yet Ana Rita Maria was able to not only recall everything I said (my Portuguese is not great, but certainly good enough to follow roughly what she said) but even re-structure it (often translating the last thing I said first, then going back to cover the first point I made right at the end) all the while translating into coherent, conversational Portuguese.

    This was definitely the highlight of the trip for me. To meet someone with such an astounding working memory and such linguistic agility in terms of being able to find the right words to translate some fairly complex concepts and terminology into a different language, on the fly, was truly impressive. It made me want to scan her brain to see if there were any specialisations that might account for her super-skills.

    Ana Rita Maria – extraordinarily talented simultaneous translator. Not keen on ironing 🙂

    We then bombed it back to the hotel to do an interview for a public radio station called Antenna 3. That was hosted by a mischievous and charismatic presenter by the name of Fernando Alvim who did everything in his power to bring the subject matter back to his favourite Deadly Sin: Lust. After a full hour of that there were a few more interviews with print journalists before I got a couple of days off and then on the Friday I did one final interview for the public TV station RTP. The presenter and cameraman kindly picked me up from my Air B&B in the nearby beach town of Carcavelos to convey me to the location of our interview: a small bar embedded in the cliffs, overlooking a small cove.

    Fernando Alvim – concluding an entertaining interview

    Originally from the Azores (a place that I’m told could get hold of all the exciting American products like jeans, hamburgers and Coca Cola that were strictly banned on the mainland during the dictatorship) the interviewer was extremely laid back and full of helpful advice about where I should go to find great beaches and reliable surf next time I find myself back in Portugal. That final interview seemed to go very well and as there was no simultaneous translation I can only assume the translation must have been done in the edit when they got back to the studio later that day.

    So now that I’ve got through all that “hard work” I’m excited to see how well A Ciência do Pecado does in Portugal. Who knows – if it does well enough in Portugal – maybe the publishers will try and flog it in Brazil? If they decide that they want to fly me to Rio de Janeiro or Sao Paulo I might even take a few more lessons in Portuguese to save the interviewers the trouble of having to translate for me! Given how good speaking two or more languages is for slowing age-related cognitive decline, that would definitely be a win-win.

    In addition to these monthly blogs I also regularly tweet about interesting brain science research that hits the press each week. And after discussions with various friends, family members and industry professionals I’ve decided to re-name my forthcoming YouTube channel. It’s now going to be called BRAIN MAN VR and is now scheduled for launch in September!

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  • Endure

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

    Great book

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

    Marathon Runners

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

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

    Freediving

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

    Running in Richmond Park involves a lot of this

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

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

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