As a neuroscientist who spends much of his working life giving brain talks at events all around the country (at schools, conferences and science festivals) I’ve noticed that one theme catches public imagination over and over again: How does caffeine work? What does it do to my brain? How long does it stay in my system? Is it really that bad for me? This is one reason why it became one of the key topics in the “Smart” Drugs chapter of my book: Sort Your Brain Out. In this blog I’ll cover some of the most regularly asked questions.
How long caffeine takes to leave your system?
It depends what other drugs you’re on. If you’re on the contraceptive pill it can take up to twice as long for your liver to remove caffeine from your system. So people “on the pill” can find themselves particularly sensitive to its effects because consecutive doses stack up and are not cleared out as swiftly as in everyone else. But if you’re a smoker it is the other way around. Caffeine is removed from your system at double the speed of a non-smoker.
If you’re neither a smoker nor on the contraceptive pill the concentration of caffeine in your bloodstream is halved every 5-6 hours, but it really does depend on the individual as this “half-life” varies greatly from person-to-person.
Is it beneficial to have caffeine before a meeting / presentation / to improve concentration?
Caffeine blocks the receptors of an inhibitory neurotransmitter called adenosine, which under normal circumstances reduces overall activity across the brain. By blocking these receptors and removing the dampening influence on brain activity, caffeine increases activity across brain pathways involved in alertness, focusing attention and initiating body movements. This why people dosed up on caffeine can get quite jittery.
Whether or not caffeine is beneficial for you in a meeting / presentation or to improve concentration whilst working depends on how much you’ve already had. There’s a sweet spot where you will feel more alert and switched on at moderate levels, but beyond that you can become so wound up that it has effects that are deleterious to performance (see description of caffeinism below).
However the increase in feelings of alertness and ability to focus attention only gets regular coffee drinkers up to levels enjoyed by non-caffeine drinkers everyday. This is because once you’re a caffeine addict the brain tends to increase the numbers of adenosine receptors to compensate for the fact that there’s loads of caffeine swimming around in your brain on a daily basis. This means that your average coffee drinker has more inhibitory receptors in their brain dampening activity levels to a greater degree – so they will feel more sluggish whenever they don’t have caffeine in their system.
Is caffeine good or bad for you in the long run?
There seem to be some long-term benefits to drinking caffeine even if the short-term benefits don’t amount to a whole hill of (coffee) beans. It has been observed that regular drinkers of moderate amounts of caffeine (3 cups / day) have a lower incidence of Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, liver and heart diseases. This may be due to the increased numbers of inhibitory receptors triggered by ever-present levels of caffeine dampening activity levels in body and brain. The decreased activity levels across the brain caused by the larger numbers of inhibitory receptors in the caffeine drinkers’ brains may relieve the pressure on dopamine neurons that are compromised in Parkinson’s disease and the acetyl choline neurons that get clogged up with various proteins in Alzheimer’s disease. In other words caffeine seems to slow down the process of cell death so that symptoms of these diseases kick in several years later than in your average non-caffeine drinker. At the moment this mechanism is purely speculative. The jury’s still out on the precise mechanism that might account for these observations, but the evidence supporting the concept of moderate amounts of caffeine having a neuroprotective influence on the brain is steadily increasing.
Is it important to control and monitor your caffeine intake?
A dose of 10g is deadly – 100 cups and a human may well find themselves popping their clogs as a typical cup of brewed coffee contains 100mg of caffeine. (NB you may notice that in the above video from the lovely people at ASAPscience they say 1 cup of coffee has 150mg – presumably they brew it stronger over in Canada For the non-coffee drinkers out there here are some average caffeine contents of some other popular drinks. There are 80mg in a can of Red Bull, 75mg in a cup of instant coffee, 50mg in a cup of tea, 30mg in a can of Coca Cola.
Very high but not deadly doses can lead to a quite severe psychiatric condition known as caffeinism: “which is characterised by restlessness, agitation, excitement, rambling thought and speech, and insomnia.” (Winston et al, 2005). It is important to control and monitor caffeine intake because too much can interfere with appetite, make people anxious or depressed, not to mention the fact that anything that interferes with sleep will have a deleterious effect on the brain. Everyone’s sensitivity to caffeine is slightly different, but if you have trouble sleeping then you’d be well advised to avoid caffeine at least 5-6 hours before bedtime – for your brain’s sake.
3 cups of coffee per day is considered a “moderate dose” for most people. Get these in early enough to avoid any potential for them to interfere with sleep and you should get the apparent long-term brain benefits without the negative consequences associated with excessive consumption (DISCLAIMER: this should not be interpreted as medical advice – it is just the science-based opinion of the author who has a Ph.D. in neurobiology i.e. not a medical degree!).
I don’t like tea or coffee, are there any other sources of caffeine?
Caffeine is also found in kola nut (one of the original ingredients of coca cola) and guarana – a wonder berry from the Brazilian rainforest; it’s also found in low quantities in chocolate. Caffeine is also included as a stimulant in many cold and flu remedies – so beware what you reach for when you wake up in the middle of the night with a bunged up nose!
By the way: if you study the picture on the left very carefully you’ll find a face amongst the coffee beans – can you find it?
Keep looking… he’s definitely there and you’ll kick yourself for doubting me when you find him!!
If you liked this you’ll love my daily brain tweets so please follow me on Twitter by clicking here.
A big thank you to everyone who took time to view the clip reels for each series and send in votes for their favourite bits.
Those clips given the biggest thumbs up by the largest number of people made the final cut.
So here are the fruits of your labours… enjoy!
Dr Jack Lewis Showreel 2014
This Is How The Showreel Came Together…
The only way to create a decent showreel is to watch everything you’ve ever presented and then choose the best bits. However when this means watching over 40 hours of footage it can be hard to find the time to do this properly! In the past few weeks I finally got around to doing this and, having created a selection of best bits per series, I’m now at the stage where I need to whittle it down to the best 3 minutes worth of footage – which is where you come in.
Wisdom of the Crowd describes the phenomenon that if a large number of people are asked to make an educated guess about something, when considered together their estimates are much more accurate than each individual estimate.
This observation was first made by Sir Francis Galton (Darwin’s cousin no less!) at the beginning of the Twentieth Century at a country fair in Plymouth where 800 people were asked to guess the weight of an ox. The true weight of the beast was 1198 lbs and although each individual guess varied wildly around this value the median value (the middle value when each of the individual guesses were organised into ascending order) was 2017 lbs – within 1% of the actual weight.
Trying to figure out which of the clips from 6 years worth of TV series are the “best” is not an exact science. A clip that one viewer considers to be brilliant may well be entirely uninspiring to another. A TV development producer will likely be looking out for something completely different from a TV commissioner. A younger viewer might find one clip extremely compelling whilst an older viewer’s favourite is completely different.
By asking a large number of individuals to select their favourite clip(s) from each series the aim is to leverage your collective wisdom to construct the best possible showreel. Below you will find a selection of clips from each of the various TV shows I have appeared on over the years. Please simply watch each short film and make a note of the ClipID number that appears on screen during the clip you find most compelling. Then, if you would be so kind, please tweet these ClipID numbers to @DrJackLewis as per the following example (NB please use #crowdsourcedshowreel rather than other derivations)…
Below we have a selection of clips from ITV’s This Morning spanning the period from 2011-2014
And clips from the second series of Plain Jane on MTV in 2013
Assortment of clips from Sex Hospital on Discovery Homes & Living / TLC in 2013
Selection of clips from The Tech Show on Discovery Science in 2011
Clip medley from How To Get What You Want on Sky One in 2010
And finally, assembly of clips from People Watcher’s on BBC2 in 2008
It would be amazing if you could find the time to watch these short compilations of clips and let me know via Twitter (or by clicking “contact” on the right of the menu bar at the top of this page).
Please don’t bother writing a comment below. Unfortunately there is far too much spam sent via the comments and so wading through all the rubbish to find the genuine comments is unfeasible.
Many thanks for your continued support and happy viewing…
Parks and open spaces improve health and quality of life by incentivising people to get out and take some exercise, which is extremely good for brain health. Just being within eye shot of some greenery can accelerate healing – so even if you can’t get outside, all you need is a room with a view! If it wasn’t for the armies of parkies and council cleaning staff who clean up after members of the public who routinely leave their litter behind, these green spaces would soon become the last place you would want to spend your spare time. The question is: why do people leave their litter behind for somebody else to clear up in the first place?
All human behaviours are governed, more-or-less, by the brain’s predictions of reward and punishment. We are subconsciously guided towards actions that maximise rewards whilst minimising punishments. The pleasure pathways of the brain, in particular the nucleus accumbens, are involved in attaching a reward prediction to a certain course of action based on past experience. Drinking water when thirsty or eating food when hungry are examples of behaviours hardwired to produce powerful sensations of pleasure because they help to keep us alive. However the sense of pleasure that people get from putting rubbish in the bin is not innate, like drinking and eating, but instead it must be learned.
Nonetheless, even in the absence of a sense of reward from putting rubbish in the bin, if littering is consistently punished then that too can steer people away from anti-social and towards pro-social behaviours. Whilst most parents are still apt to discipline their children for littering, which provides valuable experience of the punishments that follow such anti-social behaviour, parents aren’t always around. In the past adults felt at liberty to scold, or even physically punish, any child that they happened to see dropping litter, but in the modern climate of political correctness this has become a thing of the past. Young people no longer learn that punishment reliably follows the act of dropping litter and so their brains do not generate the sense of discomfort, anxiety or unease (generated, if you’re interested, by the anterior insula) that would precede acts of anti-social behaviour that they know through experience is likely to be punished. So in the absence of any negative emotions associated with the act of littering, nor positive emotions associated with the act of putting litter in the bin, rubbish ends up being lobbed around willy nilly, even when a bin is conveniently located just a few steps away.
When children are brought up with a strong sense of social responsibility then in later life they may get sensations of what might be called “righteous” pleasure from doing the “right thing.” The point is that to get a feeling of satisfaction from performing pro-social behaviours you must have been trained over prolonged periods of time by parents, carers, teachers and/or peers in order to get a kick out of it. If society wants to encourage pro-social behaviours we’ve either got to praise young people more for putting litter in the bin, or make them very uncomfortable when they just drop it for someone else to deal with. Or, take a leaf out of the Texan’s book. They had great success in reducing littering on the highway (after many years of failure with several different approaches) by adopting a campaign that would appeal to young men’s sense of pride and bravado (see left).
A fascinating study, again from the journal Science (Keizer et al, 2008), indicates that evidence of other people’s antisocial behaviour can make others more likely to be antisocial themselves. This would suggest that the problem with litter goes beyond just rubbish on the streets and in our parks. In one of their experiments they demonstrated that environments in which anti-social behaviour was evident, e.g. litter strewn around on the pavement, graffitti sprayed on the walls or fire crackers set off in the background, not only makes people more likely to litter themselves, but also to commit more serious anti-social behaviours like theft. It seems that people modulate their own behaviour according to cues regarding the degree of anti-social behaviours committed by others. So if you really want to stop other people dropping litter, you might consider reducing the evidence of other people’s anti-social behaviour by picking it up yourself!
I tweet the latest neuro-breakthroughs, hot off the scientific press on a daily basis (and have been doing so for the past 5 years!) so if you’re keen click here to follow me on Twitter.
Immersive virtual reality gaming is good, frighteningly good. So good that it makes me worry that people will increasingly choose the excitement of virtual worlds over the relative mundanity of the real one. Recently I was walking through the British Film Institute (under Waterloo Bridge in London) on my way to the library when I stumbled upon something rather marvellous. The experience I had was so wonderful (it genuinely filled me with wonder) that I quickly reached a chilling conclusion: immersive virtual reality (VR) gaming is now so good that it seems clear that in the not too distant future it will be a miracle if parents ever manage to get their kids to leave their bedroom and venture out into the real world.
Last year I interviewed Prof Mel Slater, a widely respected guru of VR technology formerly of UCL and now at the University of Barcelona, in which he stated in no uncertain terms that immersive virtual reality gaming is now affordable enough to be accessible to everyone.
Chancing upon a computer gaming conference at the BFI gave me the opportunity to get into the demonstration suite ahead of the delegates, which meant I had the computer game programmers all to myself and discovered first hand exactly how good these games have become already. The experience of actually being inside the computer game is incredibly compelling.
I made a beeline to a game called “Sandman” that made use of a Head Mounted Display (HMD). An HMD creates a truly immersive 3D VR experience via two key features that trick the brain into feeling as if you have been physically transported into the game. Firstly, a different image is presented to the left and right eye, slightly offset in terms of perspective (in a manner identical to real life circumstances) from which the brain can create 3D vision. Secondly, and this is critical to the illusion of being physically immersed in the 3D world, the HMD also tracks the movements of your head so that the image presented to the eyes changes as it would do in the real world. If you look up, you see the sky. As you move your head to the right the images presented to the eyes scrolls across to give a view of whatever is to your right in the 3D environment. Twist all the way round and you can see what is directly behind you. Look down and you can see your own computer-generated body. This creates an extremely compelling illusion that you really are “inside” the game.
“Sandman” involves paddling a canoe along waterways within an enchanted forest. It was absolutely magical. Meditative even. I immediately felt calmer having been transported into this alternate gaming universe. The images provided at the top of this post simply don’t do it justice (even when you click on it to reveal the full high def image). It looks so much better when you are wearing the HMD. The colours of the forest canopy were so vivid. The sounds of the water lapping at the boat and from the oar as it pushes against the water each time you paddle is very realistic.
Using a normal Sony Playstation controller you can paddle on the left or right side of the boat and even paddle in reverse to guide the canoe just as you would a real one in the normal world. Of course the controller doesn’t give you the usual haptic feedback – but just wait – it soon will. If you can’t wait that long read READY PLAYER ONE by Nathan Cline – it’s a fantastic science fiction account of how good this kind of technology is likely to get in the not-too-distant future. Patrolling the perimeter of a lake I eventually stumbled across a narrow stream and slotted my virtual boat between the rocks on either side I navigated the chicane they created and came across a small boy on the bank to my right. Behind him an old man was calling him back from the waters edge. As I turned to look at them the sound of their voices in the headphones shifted from just the right ear to both ears equally, demonstrating that not only was the visual world updated according to my head movements but so too were the acoustics.
As I shot down the white water rapids encountered a short while later I giggled and whooped like a boy half my age. I was really enjoying myself and have never been one to hide my emotions. After about 20 mins I took off the HMD and headphones only to find, to my slight embarassement, that the room was now packed full of delegates (having been completely empty when I started the gaming experience). And there was a queue of about a dozen people behind me waiting to play!
In addition to these monthly blogs I also tweet every day so if you would like to follow me on Twitter please click here. If you wish to leave a comment please email me rather than leaving a comment below because I’ve been outpaced by the spambots!
Last week I gave a talk on body language for post-graduates at Middlesex University. I promised I’d write up a blog about it as a reference for all those lovely people in the audience who listened so attentively and had so many interesting questions for me afterwards (for 2 hours!). So here’s the gist of the main points…
The brain produces many thoughts during any interaction.
Every thought generates a feeling.
Human feelings are spontaneously expressed in body language.
Thus it is possible to work backwards along this chain of events in the following way:
A person’s body language can give you an insight into what they are feeling.
Knowledge of what a person is feeling can be used to infer their thoughts.
But only if you have given the P. I. C. process careful consideration:
- PERSPECTIVES – bear context of each situation in mind: crossed arms = feeling defensive? Or just cold?
- INCONGRUENCE – when words don’t match the voice &/or body language the words will be discounted
- CLUSTERS – of body language cues are MUCH more reliable than individual ones
The key thing to bear in mind when thinking about one’s own body language is to try to avoid postures / gestures that raise the suspicion that you are feeling anxious, guilty, uncertain etc. If you know what other people might be looking out for body language-wise then you can take measures to avoid accidentally giving out the wrong message.
In 1971 Prof Albert Mehrabian together with colleagues at UCLA published a paper indicating that when we say a word the meaning of that word only accounts for 7% of the information communicated. Visual signals (body posture, facial expressions, eye contact etc) accounted for a whopping 55% of the message and acoustic signals in the voice (volume, tempo, rhythm etc) accounted for 38%. Amazingly, given how unlikely these figures seem when we first hear them, it seems that this idea has more or less stood the test of time.
Visual > Auditory > Linguistic - In Communication Signals We Trust (most > least)
Mehrabian et al’s work indicated that if what is being said somehow doesn’t fit with the rhythm, speed, volume of voice and/or facial expressions, eye movements and body posture displayed by the speaker, we become suspicious of the words and tend to ignore them. So if we wish to communicate clearly then we must take measures to ensure that these are all aligned. It is vitally important to ensure that you do not inadvertently send mixed messages into the outside world that might cause people to be confused by, angered by or distrustful of the words we speak. This is particularly important when making a first impression in a job interview, business meeting or on a date.
Two Way Street
When we feel happy we smile, when we are sad or angry we frown. Not only do these facial expressions helpfully communicate how we’re feeling to others so that they might use this information to guide their behaviour, it also affects the way we feel ourselves (facial feedback hypothesis).
If you pull a smiling expression, it might feel fake, but it will send a torrent of sensory messages to the brain about the position of your face. This, in turn, triggers activity in the emotional pathways to create feelings that match the facial expression. The same thing goes for the negative emotions. If you pull a sad face – with bottom lip protruding as if you’re going to start blubbing – eventually you will start to feel melancholy and thoughts of things you really are sad about will start to flit around in your head. People who have had Botox for cosmetic purposes – to remove frown lines in their forehead (making them physically incapable of frowning) – even leads to increased ratings of happiness!
The critical point of all this is that it’s a two way street:
• Emotions spontaneously generated by your brain can automatically induce a facial expression
• Facial expressions commanded voluntarily by your brain can automatically induce an emotion
When somebody smiles at you, you will instinctively smile back. That is because in our species a smile indicates that the smiling person in question means no harm – it says: I am friendly, you have nothing to fear. If you think about the two way street of facial expressions / emotions in the context of our innate tendency to mimic the facial expressions of the people around us – when you smile at someone it makes them smile, and their own smiling face makes them feel ever so slightly happier. Never underestimate the power of the smile. Your own happiness can be infectious and people like to spend time around people who make them feel good.
Part two describes body language evolution, leakage and Dr Jack’s A-H of body language, so please CLICK HERE.
Springing a Leak
Although we can voluntarily move our faces around at will, pulling whatever facial expressions we want when called upon to do so, there are other automatic physiological responses generated in the body by emotions that we can’t control.
We betray our true feelings through body language all the time. When we lie, our awareness that we are doing wrong produces feelings of guilt (in most but not all people), which in turn “leak“ out into the outside world through various aspects of body and voice. Whether we are feeling comfortable or stressed. Whether we are feeling confident or timid. Even aspects of our personality are advertised to our immediate environment through our body language.
At the same time that we are constantly leaking information into the outside world through body language, information that subtly betrays our true feelings, there are many body positions that we assume and actions that we perform which have nothing to do with our current feelings whatsoever.
Beware Lone Rangers
Sometimes we scratch our nose just because it is itchy, and it has nothing to do with whether or not we are lying. Just a spurious coincidence. Sometimes we put our hand to our mouth simply because we’re stifling an unfortunately-timed belch, any apparent relevance to the words just uttered entirely coincidental. The point here is critical – there is lots of noise in the body language signal. The secret to decoding the signals properly is to keep the P.I.C. in mind and never allow a lone indicator to skew your thinking.
Dr Jack’s A-H of Body Language
Here’s my A-H of Body Language signals (with guidance for avoiding giving confused signals in parentheses) :
A – Appendages (uncross arms & legs, plant feet squarely on floor, keep your hands in view / suppress urge to fidget)
B – Body Posture / Tension (sit up straight, alert, edge of your seat to open diaphragm, breathe deep to reduce stress)
D – Dress (what you wear speaks volumes about you, invest wisely in a suitable outfit that blends in to the particular work environment)
E – Eyes (listen with eyes; professional triangle of gaze: eye, forehead, eye; don’t look away too much; not looking = not listening)
F – Face (pulling a smile = friendliness, frown = hostility; smile to show you are friendly and mean no harm, but don’t over do it!)
G – Gestures (amplify your words with firm gestures. Get in the Goldilocks Zone: not too much, not too little, but just right)
H – Head (Active listening involves plenty of eye contact but also nodding [slow→fast] to show you: are following → agree → want to speak)
Over the next few weeks look for these critical sites of body language in the people around you whilst traveling, in restaurants, pubs, bars, offices, meeting rooms and in your home. The more you study it the more aware you will become of the feelings of the people around you. The more you increase your awareness of how body language betrays true feelings in others, the more you will start noticing yourself betraying your true feelings to others. As your awareness of your own body language and that of others increases you will not only get better at detecting deception in others but you will be able to communicate more effectively yourself by ensuring that the visual, auditory and linguistic components line up so that you come across as confident, competent and trustworthy.
Origins of Body Language
The human brain became much, much larger than our primate cousins as we began living in larger and larger groups. And over these many thousands of years certain areas of this expanded brain real estate became specialised to improve our abilities to communicate with each other. We now have brain networks specialised for creating and understanding speech, but also others that discern eye gaze direction and movements, another territory for perceiving faces, yet another involved in registering body parts and even several involved in trying to deduce what a person is really thinking.
More effective communication would likely have been the foundation for stronger, broader allegiances which in turn enabled pre-human species to enjoy a greater ability to read between the lines. This probably increased likelihood of survival amongst these creatures leaving the less sophisticated communicators in their wake. In this way the human brain would have evolved according to a selection pressure on communication abilities to equip the human race with increasingly sophisticated social skills whilst competitors without the ability to read true intentions from voice and body language perished.
In addition to these monthly brain blogs you can also follow me on Twitter for daily news about discoveries in neuroscience, psychology and psychiatry…
2014 has already seen a TV lifetime ambition of mine achieved by appearing on CBBC’s Newsround (9th April). I explained, in a manner that 6-12 year old children can grasp, exactly how an amazing new electrode implant for people suffering from paralysis due to a spinal injury boosts the weak signal to enable them to move their legs again. Tomorrow (1st May) I’ll be back on This Morning after a two year hiatus to discuss human sex pheromones with Phillip Schofield, Holly Willoughby and Tracey Cox. And right at the beginning of this year I made my debut in a documentary for CBC (Canada’s version of the BBC) called Officeland, which took a lighthearted yet thorough look at working life in the modern office…
The topic of whether open-plan offices are, on balance, a good or a bad thing is extremely relevant to many people. The concept was first implemented in the hope of doing away with the strictly-defined hierarchy that ruled many office workers lives during the mid to late Twentieth Century. In-so-doing it was hoped that it would encourage greater interaction between staff and thus more spontaneous cross-fertilisation of ideas and innovation. This may be the case, but many workers stuck with this suspiciously cost-effective system of organising a workplace have begun to wonder if it really is the best way to work.
The Canadian Broadcast Corporation asked me to do some filming with them last year for a new documentary which aired in January of this year. My role was to illustrate how distracting the open plan office can be. I stress the word “illustration” here because anytime you wheel an EEG kit into an office space in front of TV cameras you are rarely doing what science would consider to be a bona fide experiment or study. The aim was simply to demonstrate what the EEG literature has found time and time again – prefrontal alpha waves are positively correlated with quiet, focused attention, whilst prefrontal beta waves are associated with the effort of blocking out distractions.
Officeland was presented by the inimitable Peter Keleghan whose light-hearted, comedic approach to the subject matter really helped to carry the whole documentary along very nicely. We wired him up and set him the task of completing an online IQ test in an open-plan office, to see how his brain would contend with commonplace distractions and some more unorthodox distractions thrown in for good measure. You can see how he got on below…
Figuring out what I should write about in my blog this month really was a no brainer. It’s not every month that I have a new book about to hit the shelves (Friday 28th March 2014). So from April onwards, if you happen to be passing a WHSmith’s then please do consider popping in. You should find Sort Your Brain Out prominently displayed in the Non-Fiction and Business charts. If you can’t find it then please drop me a line!
Although we have specifically targeted the business market in the first instance, primarily due to their familiarity with my co-author’s previous work, this truly is a book for everyone. We hope that business professionals will decide that other members of their family would also benefit from reading it and pass it on; whether the recipients are their children – to help them get the most out of their brains to achieve more in their education, or their own parents – to help them get the most out of their brain during the post-retirement years. In fact, the book has been carefully put together to ensure that readers of all ages will be able to get something out of it. Happily we’ve already had some feedback that suggests we have been successful in achieving this goal. If you fancy flicking through a few select pages, or perhaps even pre-order a copy with a 30% discount, then please click here to see it on Amazon.
We are encouraging people to tweet photos of Sort Your Brain Out when they find it in the wild with the hashtag #SortYourBrainOut or #SYBO for short – we’ve been made aware of sightings all over the UK and the world – from Jamaica to Hong Kong and Cornwall to Edinburgh.
This is my first foray into the world of publishing. Strictly speaking it’s the second book I’ve ever written, if you count my Ph.D. thesis. However I doubt whether more than a handful of people have ever pulled it out of the vaults of the University of London library in Senate House. For most readers it would be pretty incomprehensible anyway what with being laden with complex scientific terminology. The whole point of Sort Your Brain Out is to make the latest neuroscience accessible for everyone, not just the science enthusiasts. So with this in mind, for my first published book, it only seemed appropriate to co-author it with someone who has extensive experience in writing books that everyone can get something out of. And a few years back, thanks to a fortunate twist of fate, I met the perfect collaborator.
Adrian Webster and I both contributed as motivational speakers at a conference in Tenerife in 2011, presenting me with the perfect opportunity to forge an alliance with a truly exceptional individual. An internationally best-selling author, his first book Polar Bear Pirates was a massive hit. It is very unusual to see a business book packed full of cartoon characters, yet this unorthodox approach may well be precisely what made it resonate with such a broad audience. We’ve tried to reproduce this effect with a handful of illustrations commissioned for Sort Your Brain Out. For a sneak preview: click here.
Over more than a decade Adrian has been one of Europe’s most popular and influential motivational speakers. His uncanny ability to spin a yarn in an entertaining yet impactful way, leaving audiences not just spellbound by his performances but also much wiser about how to get the best out of themselves at work is unparalleled. He distils many years of experience in the workplace into witty/moving anecdotes and wise observations about how best to motivate ourselves and those around us. Here’s a quick taste of his speaking style brilliantly animated by some young and very talented animators.
Our book Sort Your Brain Out aims to make what modern neuroscience has discovered about the strengths and weaknesses of human brain function accessible to the broadest possible market. We wanted to provide some powerful insights into how to get the most out of your brain, whoever the reader happens to be. After all, every one of us has a brain, but it doesn’t come with a user guide. So we thought we’d pen a book that illuminates what’s going on within our skulls and what brains need to function optimally. The Sunday Express kindly published an article we wrote to support the launch of the book and the following Monday we got a mention in the Daily Express. We also penned a short article on how to stoke the fires of creativity which you can also read online.
We asked a few kind souls to read the final version before it went to print and were overwhelmed by the positive feedback. Below you’ll find just a small selection of the endorsements we received:
This truly inspiring and fascinating book leaves you never wanting to waste a single second ever again. Everything you need to know about how your brain works and how to maximize it is contained in an easy-to-read way. The book proves you really can do anything and there are lots of simple ways to help ensure you too can make the most of your biggest asset – your brain! Without doubt, a book you cannot be without!”
Dame Sarah Storey, DBE
For all the debate about governments nudging people to make better decisions or to adopt better behaviours, it is easy to overlook the fact that we can actually nudge ourselves. This book is a wonderful guide to how to do just that.”
Executive Creative Director and
Vice Chairman, OgilvyOne London
I thought it was accessible, thought-provoking and full of useful, easy-to-follow tips about improving your everyday life through a better understanding of the brain.”
Writer for The Observer and other publications
This book explores the kind of topics we all think and talk about: Is the internet making us stupid? What do alcohol and caffeine really do to our brains? It provides you with kind of fascinating nuggets of information you end up reading out to whoever you happen to be with, as well as practical tips on how to maximise what we all have between our ears. Forget brainstorming, it’s all about brainshaking and dunking now. Neuroscience demystified and simplified without being patronising; a must-read.”
A really great book that explains in layman’s terms how the brain works and how you can then translate that knowledge to enhance your own performance. Thought-provoking and insightful, it will add considerable value to anyone still willing to learn, irrespective of which rung of the success ladder they are on. It’s an enjoyable and extremely useful read.”
Sort Your Brain Out is a must-read for everyone. It is a clever and thoughtful book designed to help the lay reader understand more about the brain’s most intimate workings but most importantly it provides erudite yet easily consumed bite-sized gobbets of information on how to improve one’s lobar lot. The fascinating examples are eminently readable and marvellously memorable; the reading of this book will stretch the brain in exactly the way the authors have devised. This is mental stimulation at its best.”
Head of Programming and Branded Content
As someone who has spent their life reviewing neuroscience material, I was struck by how the overview on offer contextualises some aspects of brain function in a novel and refreshing way. In short, this is a delightful and illuminating read – it is the book that I would (will) give my family, when they ask searching questions about neuroscience – and what it means for them.”
Professor Karl Friston FRS
Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging
University College London
Sort Your Brain Out is has clarity of purpose and many features that puts it ahead of its competitors in an expanding area of interest. Making the best use of the amazing brains we all inherit, even though they are destined to operate in a world far removed from the environment that shaped their evolution, is crucial. There probably is no more important a task for us as individuals or for the groups we live and work in than this. Help and the chance to expand our insight is at hand.”
Head of Strategy
Advertising Planning firm Vizeum
Engaging, accessible, demystifying.”
Dr Daniel Glaser
Science Gallery London
If you do decide to purchase a copy we’d be really grateful if you’d find time to review it on Amazon.
From time to time the peripatetic life of a freelance neuroscience broadcaster and consultant can lead to some fantastic moments of serendipity.
Last December, at the annual BNA Christmas symposium, I screened a 10 min teaser of a series of interviews I conducted at the British Neuroscience Association Conference in the Barbican last Spring. The aim of these mini-films is to make the impressive work done by some of the world’s leading neuroscientists interesting and accessible to all by discussing the latest revelations from the world of neuroscience in plain English. Having to learn to use editing and 3D motion graphics software on the fly has made this a slow-moving yet intensely rewarding project. The teaser is *very nearly* ready to go up on the BNA website. Eventually, it this project will comprise a series of 8 x 3 min films that will enable any curious mind to get a sneaky peek at the fruits of several globally renowned scientists’ thoughts about the latest brain research direct from the horses’ mouths. Here are three snippets from the first cut to give you a taste.
After the inaugural screening of the “British Neuroscience Conversations” teaser, a Ph.D. student who had been in the audience kindly took the time to engage me in conversation about her research. In so doing she introduced me to the wonderful world of psychoneuroimmunology. In a nutshell, it turns out that music can accelerate healing not by just making people feel happier upon hearing the music, but by actually impacting upon the immune system. For the scientifically literate amongst you here is her excellent review paper, hot off the press (published earlier this month). In a previous blog I described research showing that healing times after routine gall bladder surgery were significantly sped up simply by giving patients a view from their sick bed of grass and trees (rather than a brick wall). And given the robust increases in certain immune cells (immunoglobulin A) and decrease in stress hormones (cortisol) outlined in the Fancourt et al (2014) review paper – it seems likely that soothing low tempo music could be added to the mix to create an even more effective healing environment.
At the Chelsea and Westminster hospital, where Daisy Fancourt and her colleagues are based, they have a regular program of live music performed in a fantastic space at the very heart of this beautifully designed building. The aim is not just to allow the patients to benefit from the mood and health promoting properties of music, but the staff too. Doctors, nurses and other health care practitioners can often be found stopping by to listen to the live music for a few minutes whenever their snatched opportunities to wolf down a sandwich or gulp a cup of coffee happens to coincide with a performance.
In a second coincidence the very next day I met up with my cousin for a couple of beers. He is an acoustician – a physicist who consults for property developers and re-developers on how to manage the acoustics of living spaces, working spaces, learning spaces, healing spaces and musical performance spaces. I mentioned what was going on down at the Chelsea and Westminster and he responded by introducing me about The Essex Study. In a school in Essex three different classrooms were kitted out with “re-verb dampening” panels that attenuate certain acoustic features known to make hearing the voices of other people more difficult over the background noise. In untreated rooms the unattenuated echos tend to lead to a positive feedback loop – students find it harder to hear each other over the reverb so raise their voices to be heard – which upon multiple iterations gradually increases the overall volumes levels, making teaching very difficult and teachers very hoarse!
As well as subjectively rating various aspects of the rooms with the greater re-verb reduction more highly, teachers also found it much easier to teach classes in rooms with the larger degree of sound dampening; stating that in normal classrooms those same groups of students were usually much more unruly. Although the students’ academic outputs were (unfortunately) not tested in the four different environments with varying degrees of echo dampening, the teacher’s anecdotal testimonies regarding how much easier it was to teach in the acoustically tweaked classrooms were compelling nonetheless (see Appendix B, p29).
I wonder about the potential for crossover between these two distinct areas of research. Might excessive reverb caused by the acoustical properties of hospital ward architecture could potentially impede healing? Perhaps by increasing cortisol, high levels of which suppress the immune system? Mozart Effect notwithstanding might musical activities, perhaps between lessons, potentially promote learning by helping students reduce high levels of cortisol that might be induced by social strife (bullying, the inclusion / exclusion roller coaster of teenage friendships) not to mention exam-related anxiety? Is anyone out there looking into these things? If so, please do drop me a line and let me know about it.
In addition to these monthly blogs I tweet on a daily basis about articles in the lay press that give a neuroscience-informed (#neuroformed) insight into human behaviour and brain health. If you’d like to follow me then please click here.
2014 has kicked off with a brand new weekly radio feature every Sunday on XfM dubbed “Geek Chic” (#geekchic). Birdy, as the delectable presenter of the Sat 4-7pm and 4-8pm slots is affectionately known, has been marshalling the XfM (UK 104.9FM) afternoon/early evening airwaves every weekend for the last few years and, it transpires, is a bit of a closet science geek. She kindly invited me to join her in the studio every Sunday afternoon to discuss the week’s most fascinating/quirkiest scientific discoveries.
For me it’s an opportunity to extend my remit beyond the wonderful world of human brain research into other realms of science. So far we’ve had caterpillars that eat tobacco leaves in order for their fag breath to keep their natural predators (wolf spiders) at bay, Argentinian eco warriors harnessing cow burp energy and a festival friendly gadget that can be fitted to a camping stove that enables you to charge your phone whilst boiling water for a hot drink.
On the brain side of things we’ve had people pitting their emotion generating powers against each other to blow up balloons in the Emotion Arcade. The aim is to generate a given emotion as powerfully as possible. Competitors scalps are wired up with EEG to measure the strength of the emotional state, which is then translated into an air pressure value that governs the amount of air forced into a pair of balloons. First person to pop their balloon wins!
We’ve also covered the discovery that a conventional mood stabilising drug appears to have the tantalising side effect of boosting neuroplasticity back to a level long thought to be impossible beyond the age of 7. Valproate is an anticonvulsant typically used to treat conditions such as bipolar disorder, anxiety attacks, post-traumatic stress disorder, epilepsy and migraine to name but a few. A recent experiment demonstrated that adults treated with valproate, but not those treated with placebo (a pill containing no active ingredients) could learn perfect pitch – the ability to name the specific sound frequency of a musical tone. Previously it was thought that if a person had not acquired perfect pitch during childhood then it would be impossible to acquire in adulthood. This is because the “critical period” has passed, a time when areas of the brain involved in musical were particularly malleable in the years leading up to our 7th birthday. Valproate is an inhibitor of an enzyme called histone deacetylase which, when not blocked by valproate, makes it harder to switch genes on and off – a critical aspect of neuroplasticity. The theory is that by blocking this enzyme with valproate during perfect pitch training, genes can be switched on and off more easily, allowing the relevant neuronal networks to re-wire with the level of super-malleability required for the ability to accurately identify musical pitch to be acquired.
Last week we talked about the relevance of new brain imaging research investigating the impact of the drug Ecstasy (MDMA) on the brains of healthy volunteers in light of it’s potential for use in helping people with Post-Traumatic Brain Disorder benefit fully from psychotherapy. And away from the brain front we described research accompanying the reintroduction of the northern bald ibis into the natural habitat from which it had become extinct that enabled scientists to explain why flocks of birds give us the V – that is fly in beautiful V-shaped formations. It turns out that whilst cyclists line up in a straight line to benefit from the drag of the bike in front, this is a bad idea if you’re a bird because you get caught up in the down draft from the bird in front. To benefit from the upwash created by the tip of the wing of the bird in front you need to be behind and to the side, making flying easier (as evidenced by a decreased heart rate when flying in V-formation). They even time their wing beats to optimise this process! Clever birds…
As the first three weeks of the Geek Chic feature seem to have gone down very well, I’ll be back in the Xfm studios every Sunday for the foreseeable future. So make sure you tune in to Birdy’s show on 104.7fm from 4pm to catch the latest and greatest science breakthroughs of the week.