• 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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  • Dr Jack’s Comedy Debut on BBC2

    I’ve long been of the opinion that there is no reason why you can’t mix neuroscience and comedy. And this month I finally managed to prove it by appearing on the very first episode of a brand new, big budget, primetime BBC2 comedy show called the RANGANATION (to watch the episode, if you live in the UK, just click the link before 20th June 2019 when the episode will be taken down from the BBC iPlayer; my bit is: 31:30-37:30). The show, presented by the extremely talented and successful comedian Romesh Ranganathan airs on Sundays at 9pm; a slot in the schedule that gets great viewing figures. The show involves discussing current affairs with a pair of special guests and then posing related questions to a panel of 25 men and women representing different places across length and breadth of the UK from all sorts of different backgrounds. My job was to come on half way through to supplement the light-hearted banter on the topic of consumer technology with the latest science regarding what intensive use of smartphones might be doing to the human brain.

    Romesh Ranganathan is a bit of a legend

    It was great to go to Elstree Studios – where so much great TV has been filmed over many decades – and see Romesh work. His ability to maintain the energy and quick thinking required to make this kind of studio show work was truly marvellous to behold. His guests Rob Beckett and Fay Ripley were brilliant to work with, each contributing some excellent spontaneous insights that kept the dialogue free-flowing and relevant to a TV audience of many hundreds of thousands of people.

    Rob Beckett, Fay Ripley, Jack Lewis

    We covered a huge amount of science over the course of my 6 min segment including: a crash course in neuroplasticity, the insight that many people almost certainly use their phones regularly, intensively and long term enough to expect their brains to change accordingly, the psychological evidence that intensive smartphone use is affecting our attention, memory and appetite for immediate gratification and the high likelihood that people who are forever looking down at their phones instead of at the faces of their conversation partners will be missing out on the valuable social information that comes from fleeting micro-expressions, eye movements and body language.

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

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

    Imagine being speechless

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

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

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

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

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

    Pierre-Paul Broca

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

    The superior temporal gyrus (auditory cortex)

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

    The voice box

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

    A long short term neural network looks like this

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

    This sound wave is the word “above”

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

    The inferior frontal gyrus (aka Broca’s Area)

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

    The tongue is a wonderful thing

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

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

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  • Superstitions & Conspiracies

    While writing The Science Of Sin I spent a lot of time mulling over beliefs. I’ve since moved on from focusing on religious beliefs, to explore a wider range of illogical and evidentially-unfounded assumptions that people often hold about how the world works and what goes on in it. It always comes as a shock to the system when I realise that a friend or family member has firmly-held beliefs about a superstition or conspiracy theory, despite the absence of any strong evidence to support it, so I thought I’d have a dig around in the studies that have sought to explain these tendencies.

    Do you believe in the supernatural?

    For example, I was accompanied all the way through my school days (from 5 to 18 years old) by a dear friend who benefited from exactly the same high standards of education, yet whose whose beliefs became permanently warped by the MMR-jab-causes-autism scandal. This particular conspiracy theory arose from the ashes of an utterly flawed research paper the results of which became distorted by bias and then that blown completely out of proportion. While the scandal received great attention, the large body of evidence refuting it did not penetrate society so deeply, which ultimately led my friend to deny his daughters a potentially life-saving medicine.

    Another childhood friend whose aptitude for critical thinking could never be doubted (he went to a top-notch school, studied science at an elite university and is currently head of legal affairs for a major telecommunications firm) is so concerned about the potential impact of electromagnetic radiation emitted from various household devices, that he regularly switches off the wifi hub in his home.

    Wifi in the home poses no threat to your brain

    Science encourages a method of critical thinking that involves evaluating the evidence for and against a certain notion and trying to draw balanced conclusions based on rational evaluation of the data; rather than deciding what to believe based on a hunch, impulse or emotionally-fuelled conviction. Yet scientists are not completely immune to false beliefs. Far from it. When a more analytical mode of thought becomes second nature, scientific training can, at best, help to insulate people from the temptation to blindly-accept the received wisdom of seemingly well-intentioned strangers, conspiracy theorists and flagrant propaganda peddlers alike, but it certainly is no miracle cure.

    I find it fascinating, if not a little odd, that ostensibly intelligent people can hold beliefs that fly so squarely in the face of the actual evidence (autism is not caused by the MMR vaccine; wifi in the home is very unlikely to be a health risk). So this month’s blog is dedicated to outlining the findings of a recently published research paper that investigated the oft-described but rarely investigated link between people who are more apt to spot illusory patterns in random data and those who hold superstitious beliefs and/or give credence to conspiracy theories.

    Do you wish upon a falling star?

    Before I delve into that data, in the interests of full disclosure, I must admit to engaging in a certain amount of superstitious behaviour myself. Knocking on wood for luck at the moment my words might be tempting fate and wishing on a falling star whenever I spot a meteor zipping across the sky are good examples. In my defence, in tacit acknowledgement that the superstitious responses I permit myself to indulge in are completely imaginary and have nothing to do with reality, I often change the rules of engagement on a whim rather than enduring any inconvenience on my part. For example, when I see a lone magpie (which is allegedly unlucky for those who’ve yet to read the poem that inspired this ridiculous belief) rather than protecting myself by uttering the bad-luck-neutralising charm: “Good morning, Sir John” – I wink at it instead. Why? Because the University of Nottingham campus where I did my undergraduate degree in neuroscience was completely over-run with magpies. It became annoying to say the “magic words” over and over again each day and I was starting to worry about the looks I was getting from passers by when my mumblings drew their attention.

    Over the years I’ve broken the rules of conventional paranormal beliefs yet further by: a) casting my gaze around, actively searching for a second magpie (NB two magpies is supposedly lucky) whenever I’d spotted a first and then b) accepting the sound of the distinctive call of a second magpie as proof of its existence should I find myself unable to actually see the fortuitous second. I have always felt free as a bird when it came to taking such liberties because all superstitions are made up anyway, so I felt comfortable that it wouldn’t make the blindest bit of difference either way.

    One for sadness, two for joy… (it’s a load of old cobblers, but harmless really, I would argue)

    While I choose to indulge myself in flights of fancy that are, at the end of the day, utterly harmless and regularly bend the rules of my silly superstitious beliefs to help avoid any convenience in my real life, the consequences of my friends’ respective irrational beliefs could genuinely cause harm. Accepting conspiracy theories as a genuine phenomenon really could end up causing real life problems as one person dear to my heart has allowed his false beliefs to interfere with an important decision that could have a serious impact on the health of his daughters, while the other is driving his wife up the wall every time she tries (and inevitably fails) to access the internet at home.

    If I flipped a coin over and
    over again, recording whether it came up heads (H) or tails (T) you could get
    all sorts of different outcomes. Some random sequences look, at a glance, to be
    genuinely random, but others may show all the signs of a distinctive pattern
    that gives us the sense that it has been organised by some external force.

    This is the actual coin I flipped (why would I lie)

    Sequence 1: H, H, H, H, H, T, T, T, H, H

    Sequence 2: H, T, T, T, H, T, H, H, T, T

    Does one of the above sequences seem more random than the other? Many of you will find yourselves with the distinct feeling that it would be unlikely for a genuinely random sequence of coin tosses to result in 5 heads in a row, or that a head to tail ratio of 7:3 skews too far from the expected 50/50 split of probabilities, both of which are features of Sequence 1, but I promise you (cross my heart and hope to die) that I really did flip a coin 20 times and Sequence 1 is truly what resulted from the first ten tosses and Sequence 2 really is what resulted from the second set of ten tosses.

    If you do find yourself struggling to accept that this could possibly be true, convinced that there must be some untoward meddling going on in the background to yield such a distinctive feature as 5 heads in a row (followed by a suspiciously tidy 3 tails in a row, then 2 consecutive heads), then according to van Prooijen et al (2018) you are probably also prone to superstitious beliefs and/or conspiracy theories too. Those among you who are perfectly willing to accept that all sorts of suspiciously organised-looking sequences can naturally emerge from a series of random events are, conversely, much less likely to buy into superstitious claptrap and compelling yet false conspiratorial fabrications.

    They started out by getting nearly 300 people to look at sequences of coin flips and declare which ones they thought look suspicious organised (determined, in their words) and which looked genuinely random to get a measure of that particular person’s propensity to detect illusory patterns. The same people then filled out a bunch of questionnaires about how plausible they found several different commonly encountered conspiracy theories such as: “The US government had advance knowledge of the 9/11 attacks” and some made up ones like: “Red Bull contains illegal substances that raise the desire for the product.” They also measured how superstitious these same people were by getting them to rate how strongly they agreed or disagreed with statements like: “Horoscopes are right too often for it to be a coincidence” or even: “I think I could learn to read other people’s minds if I wanted to.”

    By running appropriate statistical analyses on the data they found positive correlations between the detection of seemingly-meaningful patterns in actually-random data and the belief in both conspiracy theories and superstitions. Perhaps the next logical step would be to include some questions relating to illusory pattern detection in the compulsory testing of 11-, 13-, 15-year-olds to establish which young minds might benefit the most from extra tuition in critical thinking and statistics.

    I am, of course, joking.

    Or am I…?

    In addition to these monthly brain blogs I also regularly tweet about the interesting brain research articles I stumble on in the press (@drjacklewis) and will be doing a couple of talks over the next few months about my new book: The Science of Sin.

    Mon 8th April – 8pm – Cabaret Bar, Pleasance – Edinburgh International Science Festival – Tickets Available Here: bit.ly/2IadGX9

    Fri 7th June – 6:30pm – Ron Cooke Hub, University of York – York Festival of Ideas 2019 – Tickets not available at time of writing…

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  • Poverty of Empathy and Smartphone Overuse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    This could lead to a poverty of empathy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Eyes down

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

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

    Take control – eliminate tech distractions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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  • The Fast 800

    For most of my life I’ve pursued a policy of eating a relatively healthy diet most of the time, but availing myself of most opportunities to eat fast food, gorge on the most delicious options when enjoying a restaurant meal and painting the town red when out for drinks with friends. To compensate for the excessive calorie intake I’ve always hit the gym more regularly and more intensively than most of my friends. Consequently, throughout my twenties and most of my thirties I managed to maintain a healthy weight. However, towards the end of my thirties this approach seemed to become less and less effective. My Body Mass Index (BMI) score started creeping up, from the upper region of the “healthy” values into the early digits of the “overweight” category.

    My BMI was always in the 23-24 region, but in my late 30’s it crept up to 25-26

    I responded to this worrying observation by cutting out certain foods. No longer would I perpetually have a loaf of bread, ham and cheese to hand when I was at home, so that I could munch on cheese on toast or ham sandwiches whenever the fancy took me. Out went the full fat milk and in came a 50/50 mix of semi-skimmed and soya milk whenever I ate a bowl of cereal. No longer would I habitually keep biscuits, cakes or chocolate in my kitchen cupboards. I reasoned that if it is readily available then it will get eaten, so the only way I was realistically going to win the battle against my gently ascending BMI scores was to be more disciplined in my purchasing decisions when at the supermarket. If only lower calorie foods were available to snack on then those are what will end up inside me when I find myself hunting for edible treats late at night.

    Farewell old friend

    Sadly, these simple calorie intake reduction steps were sufficient stop the increase in BMI score, but not to bring it back down to into the healthy zone. While I wasn’t overly concerned about the impact of this on my health right now, as a scientist who has read much of the relevant literature, I have become acutely aware that as a person progress from the first half of life into the second, the metabolic goalposts shift. Our organs’ innate capacity for self-repair are not what they once were when we proceed from a young adult into middle age. In my younger years a cut would heal miraculously fast, usually in less than a week. As the decades have rolled by I’ve noticed that my skin heals slower when I cut myself. These days the process is still ongoing even a couple of weeks later. The skin is an organ that is conveniently visible to the outside world so it’s possible to observe the differences in healing timelines from one decade to the next. But of course the same thing goes for every organ, even those hidden deep within our bodies. Given these insights it should have come as no surprise that a few brain hacks to reduce calories would not be sufficient to keep my aging body and brain in good nick. I needed a new regime.

    In a happy coincidence, while visiting friends who had decided to forgo their exciting, unhealthy, fast-paced life in London for a much more laid back, healthy and holistic lifestyle in the mountains of northern Thailand, Michael Mosley asked me to review his new book The Fast 800. This is what I had to say about it:

    “In this fast-paced, no nonsense, easy-to-read book, Michael
    Mosley draws upon decades of experience as a self-experimenting, expert science
    communicator to deliver a comprehensive plan for improving health; in
    plain English.
    An overabundance of food, in combination with messages from
    advertising that make overeating seem perfectly normal, means that even those
    who look healthy from the outside are often carrying too much fat around their
    organs.
    We all know that shifting fat involves a better diet and more
    exercise but most people struggle to put this received wisdom into practice on
    a consistent basis for one reason or another.
    In this book Mosley supplements
    the latest science – on which of the numerous approaches to dieting and
    exercise we hear about actually work best – with inspiring accounts into his
    and others experiences of using such strategies to vastly improve their health.

    This book is a triumph in terms of providing just the right
    balance of practical advice, scientific reasoning and ultimately hope – that
    when armed with the right information, it is completely within all of our
    powers to shift excess body weight for good.”

    Great book

    The reason it was particularly serendipitous to have been asked to review this book at that particular time is that I was staying with a good friend who happened to be doing most of the things that Dr Mosley’s book recommends. And as a guest who always tries to adapt my own behaviour to the habits and lifestyle of my host, I joined him in his intensive daily workout (see video below) and took the opportunity to eat the extremely delicious vegetarian dishes available for extremely reasonable prices throughout the nearby town. Four weeks later (and despite plenty of sunset beers) my BMI score has finally dropped into the healthy zone. Hooray!!

    Right now I am sitting in my local coffee shop having eaten nothing all morning save for a couple of black americanos. My stomach is rumbling, which normally I would deal with immediately by stuffing one of the delicious pastries I can spy up on the counter from where I’m currently sat. Today, however, rather than feeling alarmed by my feelings of hunger I’m actually thinking: this is great news, lets see how long we can keep this ketosis rolling!

    Ketosis kicks in when carbohydrates are in short supply and body fats are burned instead

    What is ketosis? Well I had always known, since GCSE biology lessons, that ketosis is a process the body uses to extract metabolic energy from fats when there are no carbohydrates swimming around in the bloodstream. Yet because my biology text books told anecdotes of the role of ketosis in causing illnesses relating to starvation in the developing world, I had always assumed it was a bad thing. Indeed, even today, if you do a Google search for “ketosis” the following result is top of the list: a metabolic state characterized by raised levels of ketone bodies in the body tissues, which is typically pathological in conditions such as diabetes, or may be the consequence of a diet that is very low in carbohydrates. Yet in the context of enduring ketosis just for an hour or two each day, the latest evidence provided by Dr Mosely’s book indicates that it is a great way to lose the excess fat that tips people into the overweight or obese BMI categories.

    Excess body fat is usually responsible for overweight or obese BMI scores

    During my time in the mountains of northern Thailand, whenever my host caught me putting sugar or milk into my coffee prior to our morning workouts I would inevitably hear something along the lines of: “What are you doing? That’ll ruin your ketosis.” For me, this was the critical part of the maintaining-a-healthy-body-weight equation that I had been overlooking all my life. I’ve spent very little time in ketosis mode because I always saw being hungry as a bad thing. Recently I’ve become increasingly aware that hunger, in short daily bursts, is not such a terrible thing after all.

    My host put me onto the idea that ketosis is desirable (in moderation) for the average person living in the developed world (whose eating habits have been carefully manipulated by a constant barrage of advertising that leaves us with the general impression that overeating is “normal”). Michael Mosley provided the scientific evidence suggesting that maintaining a healthy body weight is not just about what you eat, but when.

    It’s not just what you eat, but when you eat it, that makes the critical difference in weight loss

    The longer you go without food the greater the chance that you will have used up all your reserves of carbohydrate. Once your body has finally switched into fat-burning mode, you want to keep the ketosis burning fat for as long as possible before succumbing to the desire to end those feelings of hunger. As soon as you eat something, you stop burning body fat and start burning whatever you’ve put in your stomach instead. It really is as simple as that.

    I’ve always thought that “breakfast” was a funny word because I always thought of fasting as something that people did over many days. The concept of breaking a fast that only happened because you were asleep seemed inappropriate because I had got it in my head that fasting must necessarily involve mental discipline and conscious restraint. But it doesn’t really matter what it is that extends the period of zero food intake. If you want to maximise your fat-burning opportunities each day, the timing of your breakfast can be critical to your overall success. This is because our brain’s reserves of disciplined decision-making are limited. Consequently, it is much harder to resist the temptation of delicious foods towards the end of the day, compared to earlier on. So the average person is likely to enjoy greater success overall by delaying their breakfast until later in the morning, as opposed to starting the day with breakfast and then trying to resist eating in the evening.

    High Intensity Interval Training is a great way to burn fat

    Having kick-started the process in Thailand, I’m determined not to let my BMI score creep back up again. Having finished writing this month’s blog over the course of the morning, during which time only calorie-free black coffee had entered my stomach, I headed to the gym to do my normal hour-long cardio-stretching-cardio session (less my customary bottle of energy drink) followed by my first ever High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) class. Only then did I finally break my fast. This meant that I went 14 hours without eating (since dinner last night) and now I can relaxing knowing that I’m allowed to eat what I would normally eat in the remaining 10 hours of my waking day.

    Michael Mosley managed to reverse his Type II diabetes through a combination of periodic fasting, calorie counting and high intensity interval training, not to mention eliminating the visceral fat packed in around his organs in the process which is known to be particularly dangerous to the health. For me, now that my BMI is back in the healthy zone, I’m now aiming to get back the six-pack that I took completely for granted in my twenties, but which has been mysteriously absent for a few years now!

    Exercise is REALLY good for you

    Vanity aside, my ultimate goal in keeping my BMI in check from here on is a healthy brain. Not only does a healthy BMI throughout middle age and beyond predict a lower incidence of various cardiovascular complications, but it is also associated with a slower rate of age-related cognitive decline. Add into the mix the excellent evidence that high intensity exercise can actually actively increase the length of our telomeres (found at the tips of every strand of DNA in your entire body), thereby facilitating the body and brain’s capacity to replace old cells with new ones and who knows – maybe I’ll be enjoying a healthy brain and a lucid mind right up to the age of 100!

    In addition to these monthly brain blogs, I regularly tweet about articles describing the latest breakthroughs in neuroscience research (@drjacklewis). The Geek Chic Weird Science podcast I’ve been doing with Lliana Bird is about to launch the 100th episode. And in the next couple of months I’ll be launching a new YouTube channel: Virtual Vive Sanity – where I showcase some of the best Virtual Reality games to hit the market for the HTC Vive and share some insights from neuroscience research that can help to how to maximise the overall experience.

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  • Changing Brains

    Zazetsky & Luria

    Way back in 2011, I reviewed Norman Doidge’s incredibly inspiring book The Brain That Changes Itself. It tells remarkable stories of various individuals who – long before the idea of adult human neuroplasticity had become widely accepted – managed to defy the odds to overcome adversity by physically changing their own brains. One man was able to regain full control of his speech, movements and faculties, ultimately returning to his beloved lecturing job just a few years after a catastrophic stroke in his mid-60’s. He regained the ability to move and speak fluidly, having been completely paralysed for many months down one side of his body, thanks to years of intensive, daily (and mind-numbingly boring) rehabilitation exercises dreamed up by his neuroscientist son.

    One woman – Barbara Arrowsmith-Young – managed to overcome several profound, life-long, learning disabilities; also using brain training approaches of her own design. She was inspired to give it a go by the work of trailblazing Soviet neuropsychologist Aleksandr Luria (on right of photo) investigating brain injured war veterans (on left of photo). These seemingly miraculous achievements enabled patients to use the brain’s tremendous potential for change, even during adulthood, to defy the advice of medical experts of the day and take control of their own fates. In defense of the experts of the time, what these people had managed to do was unprecedented. Regaining lost cognitive capacities, or further developing those that had never flourished in the first place, had simply never been documented at that point in time, so it had been presumed impossible.

    Arrowsmith-Young has written her own account of her adventures in neuroplasticity

    Each and every time the key ingredients to success in the brain re-training stakes was always: tireless adhesion to gruelingly intensive, daily, long-term training regimes for the brain trainee themselves. The impulse to take a leap of faith to try something that, while seemingly logical, was both completely unproven and deemed by most experts to be a fool’s errand. These interventions yielded benefits either by retraining intact brain areas to take over the function of permanently damaged parts, or by improving the processing capacity of certain chronically under-served brain areas. In the case of the young woman who fixed her own learning disabilities, her difficulties with reading clock faces inspired her to developed clocks with hands not just for the hours, minutes and seconds, but also for the days, weeks, months, years, decades and so on.

    It is now a broadly-accepted fact people can change their brains for the better. Not everything that is touted as brain training actually works of course. Certainly the Mozart Effect is a load of old nonsense. The Tellytubbies project didn’t exactly go to plan. And the manufacturers of brain training apps are apt to vastly overstate the benefits of their rather drab games. Yet is an inviolable truth that, through sheer grit and determination, many people have now overcome incredible neurological adversity, which means that for those with brains that are functioning pretty well in the first place some desirable brain changes must surely also be achievable.

    The Mozart Effect – a load of old nonsense

    Indeed, as described in my first book – Sort Your Brain Out – when aspiring cabbies want to drive one of London’s famous Hackney Carriages (a.k.a. a black cab) they memorise all the major routes and landmarks within a 6 mile radius of central London to pass an exam known as: The Knowledge. In so doing, they increase the density of synapses packed into the rear-most parts of their hippocampi: brain areas critical to their ability to successfully navigate the complexities of London’s sprawling road network, without having to look at map ever again! The original brain imaging studies demonstrating that hippocampal grey matter actually physically changes when comparing drivers’ brains before versus after The Knowledge were published back in 2011.

    Sort Your Brain Out

    These findings were subsequently replicated and extended further by comparing taxi drivers brains to bus drivers brains; re-scanning taxi drivers after retirement etc. Eventually these follow up studies convinced even the most hardened skeptics that neuroplasticity in adults might genuinely be the real deal. Broader acceptance of the idea that adult humans aren’t stuck with whatever brains they end up with by the end of adolescence is empowering. That it is within everyone’s power to affect physical changes to the fabric of their own brain, can genuinely inspire people to take the necessary steps to elevate themselves. But, along the way the simplicity of this message has become corrupted by a combination of those wishing to profit from it, and those pushing back against the hyperbole.

    Juggling changes your brain

    The optimism that greeted these early studies was somewhat dampened when the results of studies into other areas of skill acquisition turned out to be much more underwhelming. For example, juggling induces surprisingly fast (but later, it transpires, relatively short-lived) changes in brain areas involved in processing movements of visual objects in space. So while quick brain changes were possible in the first week, beyond that juggling didn’t really seem to confer any benefits. Add into the mix the emergence of various brain training products trying to exploit the newfangled idea that certain games might improve specific cognitive capacities to a degree that delivers benefits in real life, but not a shred of data to prove this, and the baby of neuroplasticity was on the verge of being thrown out with the dirty brain training bathwater.

    Let’s not throw the neuroplasticity baby out with the bathwater

    A large scale study conducted jointly between a couple of high profile Oxbridge scientists failed to show any meaningful benefits from the brain training games and training regime they devised. That is what happened in that widely broadcast news story. But as SCIENTISTS FAIL TO SHOW MUCH is a pretty lousy headline the BBC went instead for: BRAIN TRAINING GAMES DON’T MAKE US SMARTER. I’ve ranted elsewhere about this so I won’t take up any more precious column inches here by repeating myself, save to point out that in the eyes of the general British public the adult neuroplasticity movement was another case of emperor’s new clothes. To redress this cruel imbalance – I offer a few pearls from the the neuroplasticity literature with a view to convincing you that despite the various cases of snake oilsmanship out there – brain’s really CAN physically change in a way that propels you positively forward in life, if only you can adopt the appropriate lifestyle.

    I am of the opinion that, despite the various setbacks, it is still worth keeping an eye on the research hitting the science press that investigates adult human neuroplasticity. It has such huge potential in terms of motivating people to adopt a more positive lifestyle that I find myself determined to wait for a clearer picture to emerge on this potentially revolutionary insight into the nature of the human brain. So this month’s blog is an update on some of the recent published research investigating the potential for neuroplastic change in the adult human brain.

    Keyboard musicians change their brains

    Musical people were among the first to come under the scrutiny of scientists looking for the tell-tale signs of neuroplastic change in the brains of professional versus amateur musicians (e.g. Gaser and Schlaug, 2003). Since then the timing of the grey matter changes in musicians brains have been captured by Groussard et al (2014). They demonstrated observable changes in the left hippocampus and right superior/middle frontal regions after just a few years, but only after more extensive musical training were further structural changes observed in the right insula, supplementary motor area and left superior temporal cortex. Another recent study demonstrated that pro keyboard players brains exhibit clear differences in the volume of gray matter in brain areas dedicated to:

    1) precision control over movements (operating the keyboard, striking correct keys with appropriate timing, rhythm, tempo, expression etc)

    2) sound-processing brain areas (enabling efficient conversion of vibrations into the tones, timbres and musical textures we hear in elaborate music)

    3) brain regions that monitor where everything is terms of time and space.

    Drummers change their brains

    In 2017, Amad and colleagues published a paper demonstrating that: not only did the skill level of the participants improve considerably over the course of eight weeks-worth of half-hourly drumming sessions three times per week, but that their brain’s functional connectivity changed significantly too. Specifically, the resting state functional connectivity between a brain area known to be very important in musical perception – the posterior part of the superior temporal gyrus – and ALL other brain areas (i.e. every other voxel) increased by a significant margin.

    Sanskrit scholars change their brains

    In an interesting tangent in the neuroplasticity research a paper published in 2016 by James Hartzell and colleagues essentially applied the basic logic of the taxi driver study – committing a large amount of information in memory is likely to result in significant brain changes – to a different information domain. Rather than scanning the brains of people who had been engaging in memorising an important body of information for about 2 years, they scanned the brains of people who had been doing it their whole lives. Pandits are Indian scholars who learn 10,000-40,000 word long Sanskrit texts so that they can recite it from memory. They are not just “word perfect” but each word is pronounced absolutely perfectly as well.

    While it was not possible to scan them before and after they underwent all those brain changes, and so it is impossible to know for sure whether the various differences in brain structure occurred over the course of training, or whether they were there all along (i.e. they were accepted into Pandit training due to pre-existing aptitude for verbal memorisation), it is still interesting to note the various huge differences observed in the Pandits versus the age-matched, control subject brains. Firstly, they had significantly larger grey matter volumes in the lateral temporal lobes, on both the left and rights sides, both hippocampi were larger than usual and they found enlargements of the tissue across the entire anterior cingulate cortex. That their brains seemed to have undergone such significant changes is perhaps no surprise given how intensive Pandit training is.

    Action video gamers seem to end up with better connected, more cognitively flexible brains

    Ever since significant differences in cognitive flexibility were found between those who have intensively played action video games compared to a control group who have not (Colzato et al, 2010), the race has been on to find evidence of adult neuroplasticity that might account for these improvements. In 2017, Gong et al published a brain imaging paper where they compared the white matter of hardcore gamers to non-gamers. They found significantly strengthened structural connections between prefrontal, limbic and visual regions known to be involved in cognitive control (e.g. task-switching tasks) and sensorimotor (hand-eye coordination) skills. Another 2017 paper, this time by Schenk and colleagues, showed that the performance of regular video gamers in a “weather prediction” game (a probabilistic learning task) was superior to non-video gamers and this was related to stronger activation of various brain areas involved in semantic memory (hippocampus), visual imagery (precuneus) and cognitive control.

    It is still relatively early days when it comes to realising the full potential (and fundamental limitations) of human neuroplasticity. But what seems abundantly clear is that what was once a trickle of relevant papers is turning into something of a stream and as we head into the 2020’s I have no doubt that it will turn into a torrent. That torrent will hopefully be instrumental in helping to propagate the message that, no matter how old we are, there are always things we can do to change the very fabric of our brain in a meaningful fashion that actually improves cognition.

    In addition to these monthly blogs I also tweet about interesting neuroscience articles I come across on a regular basis (@drjacklewis). And in spring 2019 I will be launching a new YouTube channel called Virtual Vive Sanity. In each episode I explore a new Virtual Reality realm and share some neuroscientific pearls of wisdom to help everyone optimise their experiences. I feel very strongly that VR has huge potential, not just to provide excellent entertainment, but to accelerate various types of therapy, improve cognitive skills, fitness and well being. This channel aims to introduce newcomers to the basics and to open experienced VR users eyes to its transformational potential, while learning from our encounters with the dark potential of other new technologies to maximise the benefits while reducing the risks. Watch this space…

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