As my regulars will know I like to keep abreast of movements in the brain training game market. I’ve reviewed Nintendo DS’s titles from the Dr Kawashima, Lumosity and even some that weren’t specifically designed to improve cognitive functions yet arguably do. Christmas before last I subscribed my parents up to Lumosity on the iPads. 24 months later my dad still plays on a regular basis. He up to 99.9% for his age group in every category bar 1 (where he is up to 99.7%!). This year I’ll be subscribing them to PEAK instead, because having regularly used it on my phone to kill time whilst in transit (or on the throne) for the best part of a year I genuinely think the new kid on the block wipes the floor with Lumosity.
All the major players tend to include a core set of “classic” brain training games that are clearly inspired by neurological tests that have been around for many decades e.g. Go/NoGo, Stroop, N-back etc. Unlike their rivals who seem to be happy with the basic versions, PEAK seems to continually evolve each game by adding a twist or making each game a little bit tougher.
Take for instance working memory training – the only games for which there is any half decent published data in the peer-reviewed science literature supporting claims that it can actually improve cognition (and even that evidence is hotly contested!). The spatial working memory training games like PERILOUS PATH (memorise the position of the mines whilst they’re briefly displayed and then trace a path around them from random start to finish points), MEMORY SWEEP (remember and reproduce the position of illuminated blocks in larger and larger grids) and BOUNCE (guess the finishing point of a laser beam sent bouncing across angled mirrors distributed across the grid after a brief glimpse of where they are) have all been done before, but these are all great versions.
PEAK also takes simple versions of classic brain games and takes steps to improve them. For example, RUSH BACK involves simply answering whether each presented image is the same or different as the previous one. A 1-back task like this hardly challenges working memory because you can use iconic memory (the visual impression left in the mind’s eye for a few tens of milliseconds after any object disappears from view). They quite rightly class this as a test of “focus”, because if you lose concentration then it is easy to accidentally push the wrong button. Particularly when you’re trying to go as fast as possible to maximise points. Yet over the months they’ve introduced RUSH BACK PLUS – which is a 2-back task and two other aesthetically appealing variations on this game:
TUNNEL TRANCE – progresses from the 1-back task to the 2-back (same as the image before last?) to the 3-back (same as the one before the one before last) – this really has the potential to genuinely help people hold more information in mind when they are performing a real life task. It probably goes up to 4-back and beyond… if so, I simply haven’t performed well enough at the 3-back task to get promoted to the next level.
PARTIAL MATCH – the task is to rapidly decide whether the image is identical to the last image, completely different, or partially the same (i.e. same colour but different shape or same shape but different colour). This I have never seen anywhere before. I appreciate that PEAK are putting in the effort to innovate and that it took me a surprisingly long time to get the hang of. I’m always mindful that the harder something is to get the hang of, i.e. the more a brain finds it to be a challenge, the more resources are likely to be invested in reinforcing the relevant neural pathways in an effort to adapt the brain to improve that particular mental function. Speaking of which another game that was introduced very recently definitely deserves a special mention… HAPPY RIVER
A common symptom of depression is the tendency to ruminate over negative thoughts or emotions. An effective but simply remedy is to develop the habit of dwelling instead on the positive whilst disregarding the negative. Bear this in mind as you read on because I’m convinced that HAPPY RIVER can only be a power for good, which suggests that PEAK really are keeping an eye on the latest developments in psychology and neuroscience to find inspiration for their new game pipeline.
HAPPY RIVER involves reuniting a baby elephant with its mother. They are on opposite side of the banks of a river that have several rows of words streaming across it either from left to right or right to left. Each of the individual words acts as a raft. By tapping the screen the baby elephant hops forward. Your timing has to be accurate or else you’ll fall into the gaps between each word raft. You also have to be strategic because only those words with positive emotional overtones provide safe passage. Step onto a negative word and you’ll be tipped over into the rapids. So to successfully reunite the baby elephant with its mother you have to focus on the positive and avoid the negative – hence PEAK have created a game that could well encourage a habit that could ever so slightly nudge players towards a more positive outlook and greater mental health.
FLIGHT PATH challenges many different cognitive capacities. You start with a bird’s eye view of some lush green fields at the middle of which are 4 landing spots for airships that fly into view from top, bottom, left or right of screen. Each airship has a different letter and moves at a different velocity. Your task is to plot the movement of each airship so that they line up on the ground in an order that spells a 4-letter word. The airspace can get pretty crowded so half the challenge is to do what all air traffic control professionals do so well – stop the aircraft from smashing into each other and showering the sky with debris. For this game you need to think strategically, flexibly, linguistically, constantly updating the flight paths for a steadily increasing number of craft whilst simultaneously keeping your eye on an icon in the top right corner to win extra points. Although there is no published data yet to prove it, my hunch is that having to divide your attention across so many competing concerns and continually re-evaluate your priorities, will tune up brain pathways that would surely come in useful for any high pressured professional.
In addition to these monthly brain blogs, you can subscribe to my weekly science podcast (or get it on libsyn) and follow me on Twitter (@drjacklewis) for a daily dose of news articles describing the latest breakthroughs in brain science.
First I met a bona fide bionic man in Cambridge – that got me thinking about an essay I wrote whilst in my undergraduate neuroscience days. It explained, in great molecular detail, the obstacles that would have to be overcome for a robotic limb to ever adequately replace the functional repertoire of a severed one. In other words I described what it would take to do a “Luke Skywalker” (for those who actively avoid Star Wars: Luke is the hero who get his arm chopped off in a light sabre battle only to have an operation that replaces the severed limb with a fully-functional robotic one that he controls as effortlessly as the original).
Second I flew to Kyoto – to interview the Godfather of Androids, a man who has created some of the most sophisticated human-like robots in the world. Over ten days of filming I must have come face-to-face with over a dozen robots. Each time I thought back to something that happened, totally spontaneously, during a game of Jenga with Nigel Ackland – my real life Luke Skywalker.
Finally, Nigel performed a manouevre with his robotic arm that no human could with a mortal one. This event brought to mind a classic series of Japanese neurophysiology experiments from the lab of Professor Iriki. These studies expanded our understanding of how brains keep track of the space around us. In particular, how brains distinguish between parts of the environment that can be influenced with a extended arm (plus any tool that provides an extension), and parts that cannot (NB see in particular the original observations from 1996).
Consequently, this month’s brain blog is dedicated to a combination of…
Robotic Technology, Human Determination & Neuroplasticity
The parietal cortex of the primate brain (including the human primate) is responsible for, among several other important functions, our awareness of space. For example, damage to the patch of brain tissue that resides where the parietal lobe borders its temporal and occipital lobe neighbours can lead to neglect if it occurs on the right side of the head (See the images in this free classic paper on neglect if you want to see exactly where in the brain this is) – resulting in the person’s awareness of the left side of everything being highly compromised. Give someone with neglect a piece of paper with circles drawn all over it, asking them to place a mark at the centre of each, they only mark circles on the right side of the page. Ask them to draw a clock face and they will not draw the numbers on the left side (i.e. having successfully drawn a circle and the hours from 12 to 6 on the right hand side, they’ll typically omit the hours of 7 – 8 – 9 – 10 and 11 because they lack awareness of what should be on the left side of a clock face). They will only eat food from the right side of their plate. They will often even only shave the right side of their face, dress the right side of their body. Their awareness of “leftness” has been fundamentally compromised. Such is the importance of the parietal cortex to our awareness of space.
Towards the end of the 90’s and early 00’s researchers working with Japanese macaques trained to reach for food rewards observed that certain neurons would become activated if the treat was placed within arm’s reach. If the primates were provided with a croupier’s rake (usually used in casinos to collect up chips on gambling tables) then neurons representing nearby space that was previously out of reach would become activated once they gained experience using this simple tool to drag the food rewards towards them. The researchers even took it a step further by providing two rakes, one with a short handle and one with a long handle. Neurons representing space out of reach with the short handled rake became recruited into the “network of reachable space” when the macaques figured out they could use the short rake to pull the long rake closer and then use this to drag the treat from the opposite side of the table. Keep this in mind as you read the following account of bionic brain adaptation.
Bionic Brain Adaptation?
Nigel Ackland is a real life bionic man since a nasty industrial accident left his arm mangled and several subsequent botched surgeries led to his decision to have his right arm amputated from the elbow down. Shortly after this operation, he started to develop pain in his phantom limb. His NHS-issued “pincer” enabled him to gain some additional dexterity, but it did little to diminish the phantom sensation of his fingers and wrist locked into an extremely uncomfortable position. However once he started using a cutting-edge bionic arm, equipped with various pre-programmed five fingered hand movements operated via neuronal signals passing from his brain to the muscles at the end of his arm stump, not only did the phantom limb pain start getting better, but the phantom limb started extending gradually from his stump into the hand and fingers of his bionic arm.
Whilst playing Jenga with him for my new series Nigel did something quite remarkable, triggering the memory of those Japanese macaques. Reaching with his bionic arm to grab an awkwardly positioned brick, from his side of the table he could only present the back of his hand to the block he was after. Unlike the rest of us mere mortals Nigel can rotate the hand of his bionic arm at the wrist by 360 degrees. To reach the brick in question he simply rotated his hand 180 degrees to face the other way, and then grabbed the block he was after with his bionic thumb, fore- and middle fingers in the usual way. It immediately occurred to me that people with bionic limbs – who can do things a normal human limb can not – may be awakening neurons in their parietal cortex that represent areas of space that have never before been recruited into the “network of reachable space” in the history of our species. Now that is very cool.
In addition to these monthly brain blogs, you can subscribe to my weekly science podcast (via itunes, via libsyn) and follow me on Twitter (@drjacklewis) for a daily dose of news articles describing the latest breakthroughs in brain science.
I used to think that the practice of “mindful meditation” was exclusively the preserve of yogis, Buddhists and New Age hippies fresh back from an extended voyage of self-discovery around Asia. If you’ve ever found yourself caught up in a conversation with an over-enthusiastic traveler fresh back from their adventures you’ll know what I mean. Such folk have usually undergone a wholesale transformation from fairly conventional individuals into barefoot, sandalwood-scented, Thai-dyed, hemp shirt and trousers wearing, bead bracelet bedecked eccentrics who preach the stupidity of capitalism and the supremacy of the compassionate mind-set at any and all available opportunities. My attitude has changed fundamentally in recent months.
A recent review paper (in Nature Reviews Neuroscience, no less) evaluating the flurry of scientific investigations into the possible benefits of practicing mindfulness that have accumulated over the past ten years or so, has given me a fresh perspective. To my surprise it turns out that there is plenty of early evidence attesting to “beneficial effects on physical and mental health; and cognitive performance.”
WHAT IS MINDFULNESS?
Mindfulness is actually a very simple concept to grasp, if only we’d give it a half chance. From the moment we wake to the moment we go back to sleep our minds are cluttered with innumerable thoughts.
These thoughts tend to focus on the past and the future: conversations, experiences and interactions that occurred in the past and hopes, ambitions, fears and other concerns regarding the future. Mindfulness encourages the development of attention directing and emotional regulating capacities that enable us to focus on the present moment. Ultimately, by getting in the habit of focusing on what we target with our conscious awareness, rather than just allowing ourselves to be buffeted by whatever stimuli, thoughts or feelings happen to flicker through our minds, we can achieve a greater self-awareness.
There are many different ways of achieving a mindful brain state but typically the beginner is encouraged to start by focusing on their breath. They are asked to breath deeply, in and out, right into the belly to ensure their diaphragm is being used to full effect. Whilst performing these simple actions they are regularly reminded to bring their attention back to their breath whenever the mind wanders elsewhere, to notice the cool air passing in through the nostrils on the inhale and the warm air passing out again on the exhale. After a few minutes of this, you are usually instructed to re-direct the focus of your attention on different body parts, moving systematically around the body. Notice the feeling of clothing on skin, upward pressure of the floor (or the chair) on your buttocks – move your mind’s eye from your toes, gradually up through the legs, into hips, up your back, across your shoulders and down your arms to your finger tips.
FOCUS AND RE-FOCUS YOUR MIND
When thoughts pop into your head, as they invariably will, the idea is not to block them or force them out, but simply to acknowledge them without engaging too deeply; focusing attention back on your breath, or touch sensations in a certain body part.
It sounds extremely simple (too straightforward to result in any meaningful benefits surely?!) but most of us are ingrained with deeply entrenched habits of thought such as worrying about events in the past or future or perpetually seeking some form of stimulation that it can take a while to achieve the goal of quiet contemplation of bodily sensations for more than 20 or 30 seconds at a time. But for those who stick at it – regularly, intensively and consistently over many weeks and months – and gradually build their ability to stay in this mindful state for 5, 15, 30, 60 mins at a time, a wide variety of benefits are achievable. And the latest neuroscience studies into mindfulness are homing in on what it going on inside the brain as a result of all this practice.
To find out about how mindfulness changes the brain please click here.
If you love science geekery then my weekly science podcast Geek Chic’s Weird Science may well be right up your alley. It’s available on iTunes, audioboom, libsyn and podbay, with the delectable Lliana Bird who presents every Fri and Sat nights on Radio X.
I also regularly share the best of the day’s neuroscience breakthroughs on Twitter so if you’d like to follow me, please click here –> @drjacklewis
In part 1 of this blog I broadly described the benefits of mindfulness and what it involves. Here I dig into the detail, outlining the parts of the brain that appear, on the basis of a recent review of many brain scanning studies, to be most consistently impacted by the regular practice of mindfulness.
NEUROPLASTICITY IN ACTION?
Using MRI scanning to focus on differences in the physical structure of brains has revealed that the anterior cingulate cortex (highlighted in yellow in the below image), often implicated in studies of attention, is physically thicker and the underlying white matter denser in practitioners of mindfulness who are highly experienced as opposed to those who are relatively inexperienced.
Moderate to severe stress is associated with high levels of circulating cortisol (a “stress” hormone). This is associated with increased density in the amygdala (highlighted in red in the below image) – a structure deep within the tips of the left and right temporal lobes and vital for orchestrating rapid responses to perceived danger. Decreased tissue density is observed within several prefrontal regions and the hippocampus – which also resides within the core of the temporal lobes – serving several memory-related functions and vital for many aspects of cognition. Regular practice of mindfulness appears to reverse this. Cognitive impairment is reduced and presumably an increase in synaptic connectivity accounts for the increase in tissue density within the hippocampal / prefrontal cortex. The enlarged amygdala shrink – presumably due to reductions in the number of synaptic connections between neurons in this region – which is also associated with a reduction in anxious feelings / the attenuation of heightened perception of threat, back down to normal levels.
The default mode network (DMN) describes a group of brain areas that are activated in MRI brain scanning studies when participants are “in between tasks”. At first these activations were thought to reflect the brain at “rest” or in “default mode.” After a few more years of research, during which this same set of activations cropped up under circumstances that couldn’t reasonably be described as “restful” the original conclusion was revised. Considering all the studies in which the DMN kicked into action it seemed much more likely that it relates instead to “mind-wandering.”
In the original studies, when the participant was instructed to “rest” they would invariably use this period to self-reflect or daydream about something completely unrelated to the experimental task (I certainly did when I volunteered for various MRI studies – it’s impossible not to – anyone that’s seen Ghostbusters should know that).
A couple of years ago when I conducted a series of interviews (British Neuroscience Conversations) with various big hitting neuroscientists at the British Neuroscience Association’s conference, neuropsychopharmacologist Prof David Nutt pointed out that, if our “ego” or the “self” lives anywhere in the brain the Default Mode Network is the best candidate.
The medial prefrontal cortex (labelled DMPFC for the dorsal/upper part and VMPFC for the ventral/lower part) and posterior cingulate cortex (PCC), i.e. the core DMN regions, were less active in experienced versus inexperienced mindfulness practitioners. As one of the primary aims of many mediation practices is to selflessly accept thoughts and feelings in a non-judgemental, compassionate way – the reduction in these neural correlates of “ego” may well reflect a degree of success in this endeavour.
So inspired have I been by these revelations of fairly solid early evidence attesting to a likely neuroplastic impact of regular practice of mindful meditation on brain areas involved in modulating attention, emotional responses and perhaps even ego that earlier in the year I went to Mykonos for a retreat to immerse myself properly (opening the invitation to anyone who faniced coming along).
Since then I’ve gone on to develop a #brainboost campaign for Weight Watchers in order to help tackle the obesity epidemic by getting people’s brains ready for healthier eating by practising mindful eating, performing a bit of daily brain training to boost their working memory and learning some simple brain hacks, all with a view to eating more strategically.
During my research for this project I came across a nice little book on mindful eating that I would highly recommend: it’s called Eating Mindfully by Susan Albers. Personally I find a lot of books on this topic extremely cringeworthy, but Susan Albers describes the practical tips on how to avoid mindless / emotional eating through mindfulness in a very straightforward manner.
My own book “Sort Your Brain Out” includes a chapter on the kind of foods and eating habits that are good and bad for the brain. In addition, I do a weekly science podcast available on iTunes, audioboom, libsyn and podbay, with the delectable Lliana Bird who presents every Fri and Sat nights on Radio X. And I regularly share the best of the day’s neuroscience breakthroughs on twitter (@drjacklewis).
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?
On 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 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.
The 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.
Infants 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.
If 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 :-))
I’ve now been on the motivational speaking circuit for over 5 years. I’ve traveled the length and breadth of the country to perform at speaking engagements in schools, science conferences and a wide variety of businesses. As of this year, on the business speaking front, I’ve been very happy to find myself in great demand not just in the U.K. but all over Europe. In light of this I thought I’d write a quick update to describe which topics have been most popular with my clients.
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 neuroscientific endeavour 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. Do get in touch if you have a new challenge for me!
Talks for Schools
Over the past five years I’ve been invited to speak at several different schools across the UK. The aim is 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, adaptations that support the new skills that they are developing through trial and error, their motivation levels invariably rise accordingly.
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. The 2015-2016 school year will be my fifth consecutive year of doing my Brain Coach talk at two of the schools I regularly speak at.
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. So Adrian Webster and I have turned our 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.
Over the past few years I’ve been reading copious amounts of popular science. My bookshelves are quite literally overflowing with books about the brain. Yet despite the fierce competition, when it comes to dreaming up metaphors to cut through the complexities of the mind in order to help people understand what drives human behaviour The Chimp Paradox by Steve Peters is king of the jungle.
The main reason it is so brilliant is the elegant manner in which over a century of insights from the fields of psychology and psychiatry is effortlessly translated into a practical user guide to mind management. With The Chimp Paradox to hand, everyone can grasp what drives the internal conflicts that take place in our minds no a daily basis, not to mention the strategies they can employ to diffuse the tensions that inevitably arise as a consequence of being in possession of a piece of neural apparatus that evolved in leaps and bounds over millions of years. There is a delicate balance between simplifying complex concepts and dumbing them down to the point of being condescending. Steve Peters judges this to perfection.
We all have moments in life that we look back on only to find ourselves shaking our heads in disbelief when we recall what we said, how we felt or what we wrote in the heat of the moment. Actions or comments that seem entirely justified on one day often lead to wholehearted regret soon after, yet we make the same mistakes over and over again. By developing an easy to grasp and simple to use model of our mind in which two individuals co-exist: the erratic, primal, emotional CHIMP brain on the one hand and the calm, highly-evolved, rational HUMAN brain on the other – it enables us to understand our own behaviours and, perhaps more importantly, those of the people that we encounter each day.
By thoroughly understanding what drives the decisions and conduct of not just ourselves but also other people, we can start to develop good habits of thought and action (or “Autopilots” as Prof Peters calls them) in place of bad habits of thought and action (dubbed by Prof Peters as “Gremlins”) that cause so much suffering and discomfort in the world. It also throws into sharp relief the times when it’s best to let others vent their frustrations (when their CHIMP is in the drivers seat) without taking any personal offense and saving what you really think of them for a later time when they might have achieved a more reasonable state of mind (when their HUMAN is in control) in which they might actually be capable of grasping the wisdom in your words.
In addition to these monthly blogs you can subscribe to @drjacklewis on Twitter where I share at least three good brain news related articles every day and if you love podcast you can catch Geek Chic’s Weird Science (on iTunes, audioboom, libsyn, podbay) which comes out each and every Friday.
In previous articles on this blog I’ve described some of the many long-term brain benefits of regular exercise. These have mainly focused on the benefits that regular exercise offers to older people in terms of reducing the rate of age-related cognitive decline. But the brain benefits of taking regular exercise are applicable to everyone, young and old.
Do It For Your Brain’s Sake
People who exercise regularly have lower rates of anxiety and depression. They even boast greater cortical thickness in parts of the prefrontal cortex and the medial temporal lobe. Specifically brain scanning studies have demonstrated that the left and right hippocampus, fundamental both to creating memories and knowing where we are in space, are a little larger than in sedentary people. This increase in tissue thickness is thought to be indicative of a denser meshwork of synaptic connections reflecting a greater complexity of neuronal network. In other words several brain areas fundamentally involved in memory and cognition are able to perform better. What’s more regular exercise leads to improvements in mood and even helps you sleep better. And there is little better than a good night’s sleep for helping brains to reach peak performance.
Exercise leads to increased levels of nerve growth factors like BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factors) that promote the birth and survival of new brain cells, synapses and development of new blood vessels. So this is thought to a likely mechanism for the changes in the thickness of various brain regions in people who take regular exercise and quite possible the long term benefits in cognitive ability and mental health.
In my talks, workshops and first book (Sort Your Brain Out) I urge people to move away from thinking about exercise as a pastime motivated by the desire to improve the appearance of our bodies and more as something we should get in the habit of doing regular exercise to manage our mood / productivity in the short term and brain health in the long term. When people are feeling stressed out their motivation to hit the gym is often at rock bottom levels. A huge shame because exercise is exactly what would make them feel much, much better almost immediately.
Athletes often talk of the “runner’s high.” This has long been explained as a result of endorphins released in the brain in response to moderate to intense exercise. It makes good theoretical sense because endorphins, the brain’s natural opiates, have the twin effect of numbing pain and making us feel good. The trouble is that up until 2008 there was little if any hard evidence to back this notion up. Yet further doubt was cast on the whole endorphin hypothesis when a study demonstrated that the runner’s high still occurred even when the effect of any released endorphins was blocked with a drug called naxalone.
Looking elsewhere for a mechanism through which the runner’s high might be achieved researchers started to focus on a possible role for endocannabinoids. Similar in structure to the hundreds of cannabinoid chemicals found in the Cannabis sativa plant smoked recreationally in pursuit of a mood-enhancing effect, endocannabinoids are naturally produced throughout the brain.
Subsequently, elevated endorphin levels were observed in a brain scanning study that compared brains that had recently completed a 2-hour endurance run compared to other brains that hadn’t (Boecker et al, 2008). So consensus now is that the anxiolytic effects of exercise are mediated by a combination of endocannabinoid and endorphin release in the brain.
From an evolutionary perspective pain signals clearly should be switch on and off-able because they can be helpful or disabling depending on the context. Pain signals from damaged body parts helps us to avoid worsening the injury when at rest or engaging in gentle exercise, clearly an advantage when the priority is to allow a twisted ankle, strained knee or inflamed muscle to heal properly. But in the context of evading a predator or attempting to catch prey, such pain signals could lead to the huge potential disadvantage should it lead to getting caught and killed by the predator, or failing to catch the very food that might keep us, and our dependents, alive. The benefit of the analgesic / hedonic effect is that if a person is running to save their skin, then switching off the pain signal and inducing a light high to further compensate for any residual pain resulting in an unimpeded getaway makes perfect sense. Better to endure minor tissue damage if it is the only way to ensure you’ll live to see another day.
There is a huge amount of evidence to support the concept that regular exercise is extremely good for body and brain. The trouble is, we all know this but few actually get around to taking regular exercise. In my view the main reason for this is partly feeling overwhelmed by their busy lives but also probably involves exercising in the wrong way: when people do finally get around to exercising they often overdo it. Spending the whole of the next day aching all over will do little to incentivise them to take the trouble to exercising again any time soon.
I would argue that little and often is the best policy. Even at the frantic pace of modern life everyone can fit in 20-30mins of exercise a day. That way, even if some weeks you only hit 50% of your target, you’ll still be getting your heart rate and breathing rate up, flooding the brain with highly oxygenated blood, endorphins, endocannabinoids and BDNF, 3-4 times per week – exactly the recommended dose!
In addition to these monthly blogs you can catch my weekly podcast Geek Chic’s Weird Science (on iTunes, audioboom, libsyn, podbay) and subscribe to @drjacklewis on Twitter where I share at least three good brain news related articles every day.
Feeling stressed? Need a break? Fancy spending a few days in paradise to learn how to meditate?Better still would you like to learn more about how your brain works AND simple things you can do every day to be more creative, make better decisions, manage your mood?The SYBO retreats might be just the thing for you!!The venue is the beautiful Greek Island of Mykonos.Your hosts are the beautifully-bendy Jasmyn (see photos) & yours truly: the brain-besotted Dr Jack LewisWe are now offering a fantastic, luxurious, Stress-Busting, Yoga & Meditation Retreat by day with a selection of intellectually-stimulating Brain Talks just before lunch each time, freeing up the afternoons for exploration of the island’s many beaches.Meditation is clinically-proven to reduce stress. So if you’re feeling washed out after a particularly tough start to the year this really will help you to Sort Your Brain Out. It might just change your life. Jasmyn talks everyone through the various yoga moves, in a mixed group of beginners and advanced practitioners, and then concludes with a guided meditation session. These dawn and dusk sessions are complemented with several talks that explain, amongst many other things the science of meditation and why it’s so good for brains. Once a person truly grasps why mindfulness meditation is so good for health of body and brain they naturally become motivated to incorporate it into their daily routine back in the “real world.What to expect from the Neuro-Infused Art of Peaceful Living Retreats this spring / summer?The villas are in a very private neighborhood in Mykonos, Greece.The properties have 4-5 rooms each, sleeping maximum 10 per house.These neuroscience-infused Art of Peaceful Living™ programs lasts 5 days and includes:
- 21-25th May (now fully booked)
Vegetarian breakfast and lunch
Twice daily yoga and meditation practices
Either a treatment at a local day-spa or an in-room massage
All for £1,550 (€2,120) for the Spring retreat during 21st-25th May (SOLD OUT)Did I mention there is a pool?Also please bear in mind that if you want to arrive a few days early or leave a few days later we may be able to arrange accommodation for you at the villa during this time.The rooms each have a queen bed and most have private bathrooms.Every morning, as the host (Jasmyn) prepares your breakfast and lunch, she gives instruction on how to prepare these “plant-based” meals in your kitchen at home as part of the included Look Alive™ Nutrition workshops. These workshops will have recipes, and detailed explanations about why eating a plant-based is beneficial to brain-function and chemistry, physical performance, treatment of psychological disturbances and disorders, as well as a know-how to have your kitchen prepped and ready for easy to make and quick recipes.Yoga classes are all multi-level and while the morning classes can be vigorous exercise, the evening classes are relaxing and recuperative. The morning Vinyassa Yoga classes are more dynamic for beginners to advanced practitioners, and are immediately followed by a meditation class to settle the minds before the day’s activities. And of course there is no obligation to attend classes, so whether you just fancy a lie in or want to go off one afternoon for a wander, that’s totally up to you!Activities include additional excursions on the island, lounging by the on-property pool, or venturing to any of the island’s other many delights.Yoga-Nidra sessions are given at sunset following a gentle Yin-Yoga Flow class incorporating techniques of thai-massage, to restore you and prepare you for the next day’s Vinyassa Yoga sessions or for going out that night! Dinners are not usually included to give attendees freedom to roam in the evenings (unless you request to have a special dinner prepared instead of lunch).Sort Your Brain Out Retreats are 5 days of true luxury living. Treating the body and brain to wholesome, delicious food, body balancing exercise and gentle meditations, all in the privacy of the Maera Villas – with the endless view of the Mediterranean from each of the properties.Bespoke Corporate Retreats for groups of 5 or more people can also be discussed.For enquiries about availability please feel free to drop Jack an email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Daily brain talks from Dr Jack on:
Changing Your Brain
Neuroscience of Creativity
Neuroscience of Meditation
Neuroscience of Temptation
In the Smart Drugs chapter of the book I wrote with Adrian Webster “Sort Your Brain Out” we argued that of the various nootropics available in this day and age it makes sense to give preference to substances that have been around for eons rather than the new kids on the block. This really is the only way you can enjoy the benefits without having to worry about the potential unknown long term problems and side effects.
The brain benefits of regular coffee drinking were described, but due to space limitations we were only able to discuss a few other substances. This month’s blog highlights some of the many published studies that have indicated a wide variety of health benefits associated with regularly imbibing green tea – something that people have indeed been doing for hundreds of years.
Green & Black
Camellia sinensis is the name of the plant that gives us white, yellow, green, black and oolong teas. Black tea has more than twice the amount of caffeine as green tea, whilst green tea has more polyphenols (the very antioxidant substances that mop up all those dangerous free radicals). The difference in concentrations of these substances can be accounted for by the fact that black tea requires fermentation before preparation – which increases the caffeine content and decreases the polyphenol content – whilst green tea is prepared from unfermented leaves.
All The Tea In China
Green Tea has been used in traditional Chinese and Indian medicine for thousands of years where it has been exploited for it’s stimulant, diuretic and astringent properties; not to mention improving heart health, flatulence and body temperature regulation. The stimulant effects are thanks to the alkaloids contained within the tea leaf including caffeine, theobromine and theophylline. As green tea contains about half the caffeine of black tea and MUCH less than a cup of coffee, dosing yourself with green tea throughout the day is much less likely to disrupt your sleep come bedtime than the other options.
Typing “green tea” into an internet search engine yields a huge number of websites dedicated to promoting the ubiquitous benefits of regular green tea ingestion to improve the effectiveness of exercise, improving weight loss and even helping to manage diabetes. Of course its always difficult to know which sources you can and can’t trust. Hard data is required to establish whether green tea really does help to ameliorate symptoms of the various complaints for which it has been traditionally recommended.
Is Green Tea Really Good For You?
Yes! When individual research studies are published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal they can provide evidence to support or reject any particular scientific hypothesis, but a single study cannot “prove” or “disprove” any given theory. Meta-analyses are much more powerful in this regard because they look at many different studies all investigating similar hypotheses. If, despite being conducted on a completely different group of subjects, often in a completely different location and undertaken by a different group of researchers, they all point towards the same conclusion this provides for a much more powerful argument to support, or refute, any given claim when the consensus points to a benefit. Just looking at the meta-analysis data it has been confirmed that green tea is effective at lowering blood pressure, reducing risk of several different cancers and improving cardiovascular/metabolic health, to name but a few.
Any Brain Benefits of Green Tea?
Drinking green tea has long been associated with relaxation and, indeed, scientific investigation has now backed this up. Epigallocatechine-3-gallate, the most active of the tea polyphenols (known collectively as “catechins”) is found in much higher quantities in green tea than other teas and is known to inhibit an enzyme that converts cortisone to cortisol. Cortisol is a so-called stress hormone and cortisone the inactive form. By preventing the enzyme in question – 11 beta-hydroxysteroid Dehydrogenase Type 1 – from doing its job, the active ingredient of green tea is able to reduce levels of the stress hormone. (In case you were wondering, the other 5 catechins are: catechin, gallaogatechin, epicatechin, epigallocatechin and epicatechin gallate).
Can Green Tea Can Improve Cognition?
Yes! Anecdotal accounts of the brain benefits of regular tea drinking in the elderly inspired research to establish whether green tea really could improve cognition. Over the last ten years huge amounts of data have been generated on this topic. The more green tea a person consumes, the lower prevalence of cognitive impairment (Full article available for free). Early research trying to ascertain the mechanism by which such benefits are realised demonstrated that spatial cognition was improved in rats that drank water infused with polyphenols from green tea (full article available for free).
In the last few years experiments dosing healthy, younger humans with green tea versus placebo have demonstrated an increase in functional connectivity between frontal and parietal brain areas during a working memory task (Full article available for free). Bearing in mind that improvements in working memory can translate into better fluid intelligence and therefore a higher score in the IQ test – swapping green tea into your daily hot drink regime might make sense for your brain’s sake as well as your body’s.
I also do a weekly science podcast called Geek Chic’s Weird Science which you can download for free from iTunes or alternatively, if you’re not an iPhone or iPad user, you can download/stream it from a variety of online sources such as Podbay, Libsyn, and PodcastChart, amongst others!