• Resilient Brains

    What is Resilience?

    There are more definitions for resilience than you could shake a stick at. Here we look at resilience from the context of an adolescent’s capacity to endure periods of intense stress without any long term negative impact on their mental health. Some brains are simply better able to weather the psychological duress of having to deal with the types of common childhood stresses known to leave kids vulnerable to mental health issues. These include poverty, neighbourhood violence, struggling schools and mental health problems of the parent(s). If you take a few moments to mull it over, it becomes obvious how these circumstances could leave children frazzled by an overwhelming burden of worry.

    Here’s one perspective. If parents have no room for financial manoeuvre, only just managing to keep up with the bills week after week, then there won’t be any spare cash to help the kids to get their hands on the material goods that they covet; whether it’s clothing, toys or tech. Children from all walks of life can show a spiteful streak when it comes to giving hell to whichever kid happens to stick out in the playground for being different and there are many all too obvious signs of being poverty-stricken that may lead to being singled out. If the merciless teasing becomes relentless then it has the has the potential to become problematic. While the bullying aspect might seem like a relatively minor issue in the stress-inducing stakes compared to going to bed cold and hungry, but the child’s perception in these matters is everything. The social stigma attached to being less well off than everyone else can damage self-esteem, particularly when it’s the source of daily playground mockery.

    If a kid is made to feel ashamed over and over again at school, for whatever reason, then chronically elevated stress levels can be potentially damaging to some of the critical processes of neurodevelopment. And as we shall discover below, brain pathways that connect frontal lobe regions with those on the inner surface of the cortex, appear to be particularly important in the resilient brain.

    The other three sources of childhood stress could also be viewed as relentless, thereby having potential for impeding important neurodevelopmental processes: the ever-present threat of getting sucked into neighbourhood violence, the perpetual turmoil induced by a primary caregiver whose mental illness makes home life a living hell and schools in which teachers struggle to wrestle order from chaos – all can send levels of a child’s cortisol (one of the stress hormones) shooting up on a daily basis over extended periods of time.

    Often there is little hope of making a meaningful impact on the external factors that conspire to send cortisol levels rocketing (poverty, parental mental illness etc) so the focus has shifted to trying to understanding the key factors involved in determining whether a child ends up with a resilient brain or not. Can interventions aimed at helping to build resilience in young people actually work? And what makes the critical difference in the makeup of brains that are able to endure high levels of stress without any long term complications and those brains that succumb?

     

    Building Resilience

    According to Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child, resilience is built up over the course of childhood and involves four special ingredients. Two of these relate to a sense of meaningful attachment – close supportive relationships with specific adults and a broader range of looser connections that embed a child within a defined community. The last two components relate to the development of specific cognitive capacities that improve a young person’s well-being by making them feel both able and in control.

    The first ingredient is supportive adult-child relationships. This might be a parent or relative, but it could also be a teacher, trainer, coach or anyone else that can be relied upon to provide support when it is needed. A person the child knows will take the time to listen to them, offer guidance and essentially help them to feel that they do not have to take on the trials and tribulations of life alone. The second ingredient is feeling a part of some kind of broader cultural tradition, one that might give the child a sense of hope and faith that transcends the mundane goals of normal, everyday activities. Usually groups that provide this are centred around one or other of the mainstream religions.

    As I outlined in my latest book The Science of Sin, while science is great at identifying the critical factors that lead to good physical and mental health, it usually comes up short when finding fixes for the problem of social isolation. Being a part of a sports team or hobby group can provide a sense of being part of a community, but these options pale in comparison to traditions that provide an overarching philosophy on how to live a good life, a dedicated building in which to come together with other members of the community and a policy of encouraging acceptance of well-intentioned strangers. I don’t believe in God myself, but I have seen the capacity for people’s religions to give them a sense of hope and support in the face of inconquerable odds. For this reason I can see why the Harvard Institute on Child Health would have observed that helping children to connect with others from their traditional faith group can help them become more resilient.

    One of the two cognitive facets that needs nurturing to build resilient brains is the development of self-efficacy: feeling able and in control. The other is the ability to adapt to change and self-regulate behaviour. This boils down to being able to maintain a sense of being in control, even when adjusting to changes that are beyond the child’s control. Learning to self-soothe – calming yourself down when emotions start running high – is a key component of this skill. Mindfulness meditation has been identified a great way to develop such skills. It has been implemented in schools struggling with poverty and violence with phenomenal outcomes in terms of improved attendance and scholarship (Read about a compelling example of this here).

     

    What Does A Resilient Brain Look Like?

    During the first decade of life various miraculous processes culminate in the reinforcement of one particularly important brain pathway in the corpus callosum – the huge bundle of brain wires that connects the left and right hemispheres of the brain. A recent study by Galinowski and colleages investigated the structural differences in the corpus callosum of adolescents who had all endured significant and prolonged life stresses, yet some were deemed at low risk of developing mental illnesses (resilient) whilst others were at a high risk of psychological complications (vulnerable). But before we get into that, some context…

    Over the course of childhood our brains go through a series of vast and incredible changes. In the womb the outer cortex of every human foetus’s brain starts out as the tip of an extremely narrow and short tube. Over the course of the pregnancy, brain cells in this structure multiply at an astonishingly fast rate, migrating to form a six-layered sheet of densely interwoven brain wires (neurons) and a vast diversity of support cells (glia), eventually taking on its familiar, walnut-like, wrinkly, appearance by the time of birth. Having successfully made it’s way out of the womb and into the big wide world, the infant’s brain cell multiplication steps up a gear to achieve it’s full complement of 86 billion neurons by the age of five. From here on brain growth is mostly a case of making those neurons larger, developing the system of myelination whereby glial cells called oligodendrocytes apply a layer of electrical insulation to the brain wires to speed up the transmission of messages and each of those neurons make thousands of connections (synapses) with other neurons. MRI scans can track both of these processes with serial brain scans conducted at various stages of development – the progression of myelination can be observed by taking measure that correlate with white matter integrity and other measures can be used to track changes in the thickness of the surrounding grey matter. Interestingly, when a human brain reaches adolescence, rather than getting bigger and bigger, creating more and more synapses, the brain shifts gear .

    During adolescence the outer cortex of the human brain doesn’t simply get thicker and thicker. More new synapses are being created as the teen increases their repertoire of skills and abilities, but that is not the only process that is taking place at this stage in neurodevelopment. The synapses connecting together brain areas involved in supporting the improvement of their language, thinking, movement, memory and reasoning skills ARE being selectively bolstered, reinforced with extra synaptic connections to make the communication between relevant brain areas more efficient. Yet another process is simultaneously underway across the whole brain which causes the outer cortex to become thinner, overall, during the teenage years and beyond. The countless unused brain pathways are trimmed away, while those that are being used on a regular basis are maintained. As the former process of “synaptic pruning” progresses at a much faster rate than the latter, the net result is a thinning of the cortex. The rate at which different parts of the brain go through this process of cortical maturation has been tracked by an incredible team of neuroscientists in Paul Thompson’s lab. The process seems to reach completion first in the sensory parts of the brain at the back and sides of the brain, and last in the parts of the frontal cortex supporting higher level cognitive functions.

    Going back to the resilience study, Galinowski and colleagues observed that the integrity of the white matter tracts (NB neuronal brain wires wrapped in myelin are less dense than the outer cortex which is jammed full of synapses and cell bodies so it looks white in brain scans rather than grey) was higher in the front-most part of the corpus callosum in the brains of resilient adolescents versus vulnerable ones. When they ran tracer studies to see which brain areas were connected to each other by these particular information superhighways, the areas in question were frontal lobe regions involved in self-regulation and the anterior cingulate cortex; a brain area that should be familiar to anyone who’s read The Science Of Sin. The dorsal part of the ACC is known to be involved in the perception of physical and emotional pain specifically; and processing “conflict” more generally.

    The upshot is that the critical pathways that were observed to have better integrity (NB better system of insulating myelin to facilitate information exchange) in the more resilient adolescents may well be instrumental in enabling the prefrontal cortex to consciously dampen feelings of psychological turmoil. Presumably when supportive adult-child relationships and connections with the community are fostered in the first 10 years of life, as well as the facilitation of development of self-efficacy and self-control, these are the critical pathways that are protected against the negative impact of chronic stress. Now that we know where to look in the brain for hallmarks of resilience, we should be able to get a better handle on the effectiveness of other interventions that aim to nurture the capacity to endure an excess of stress without incurring psychological damage in the long run. Watch this space…

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  • #SelfishlyHelpful

    One of the main pieces of science that underpins The Science of Sin is that social isolation damages people’s physical and mental health (a fact of life first identified 40 years ago!). I also make the point that the seven deadly sins can be thought of as perfectly natural human inclinations that are useful in moderation, but inevitable damage social connections when they get out of control. Put this all together and what have you got? Well, the way I see it, it should be possible to motivate people to rein in their pride, greed, sloth, lust, gluttony, envy and wrath for entirely selfish reasons – with the primary aim of improving their own health.

    This is where the inspiration for #SelfishlyHelpful came from. Something that I hope could motivate even the least likely people to start behaving more benevolently towards other. And for those who are already charitably-inclined, it might help them to find ways to motivate the more self-centred people they come across in life to look for opportunities to help other people in their community. As the weeks have gone by since this thought first occurred to me, the more I think about it – the more I stumble upon evidence of my own #SelfishlyHelpful behaviour. It turns out I’ve been doing it for years. I was just thinking of it more in terms of how intrinsically-rewarding acts of apparent altruism are. For example…

    It occurred to me recently that for many years now I’ve been tweeting about interesting neuroscience articles I come across on a daily basis and writing a monthly blog for entirely #SelfishlyHelpful reasons. Yet I have never received a penny for the many thousands of hours of effort I’ve invested in these exploits, so clearly any reward I might gain is intrinsic (feels good) rather than extrinsic (for material gain).

    I initially started doing these things because the TV agent that represented me 8 years ago told me that anyone who wants to be a successful TV presenter needs to have two things: 1) a Twitter account and 2) a website. When I asked why, she replied that she had no idea (!), but that people whose advice she trusted had told her so. The received wisdom was that these activities were vital to any 21st century broadcaster’s survival. That was good enough for me.

    I arbitrarily set myself the goal of tweeting three brain-related articles that hit the lay press each and every weekday, plus one blog per month on a brain-related topic that had made me sit up and take notice. After a few years I started asking myself why I was bothering to stick to this quota like my life depended on it. There seemed to be no tangible return on my investment of time and resources.

    Retrospectively I realised that what kept me at it was the impetus to keep checking the neuroscience newsfeeds on a daily basis as this habit helped me to stay abreast of the latest developments across many neuroscience sub-disciplines. And what kept me blogging was the opportunity to regularly explore certain areas of neuroscience in greater depth.

    My tweets help others by drawing attention to brain-related articles that are usually a) interesting and relevant to people’s daily existence b) well-written and c) factually accurate. I know people find these articles helpful because people occasionally take the time to get in touch to thank me for making them aware of a tasty nugget of neuroscience. There is clearly a selfish benefit for me as well because, while I don’t get any financial remuneration for this kind of work, always being up to date on what’s going on across a wide range of brain research topics often comes in handy. When I’m asked a question by a client about the latest developments in neuroscience, whether it is a TV production company developing a series idea, a PR company I’m working with on a project for one of their clients, a host during a live TV or radio interview, or an audience member after one of my many annual keynote speeches, I can answer the vast majority of questions off the top of my head.

    Similarly with the blog: people sometimes drop me an email out of the blue (usually when I’ve removed something they’ve come to rely on!) to say what a useful resource it is – so they clearly find it helpful. The selfish part is that, as I was effectively forcing myself to stick to a schedule of writing a science story once a month for 8 years, by the time I got the opportunity to write a book, not only did the publisher have a sense of what the end product would look like – but it also gave me the opportunity to develop my writing style so that, through trial and error, I could do the job adequately well.

    My aim from here on is to encourage others to do the same, but in a wide variety of different contexts. Whether it’s volunteering in their local community with the express intention of helping others to improve their own social connections – with other volunteers, those that they benefit from their charitable enterprises and others they meet along the way. The basic premise is that the act of helping others naturally encourages those on the receiving end of the freely-given assistance to try to reciprocate: to do something to return the favour. If they’re unable to return the favour in some material sense, they should at least be willing show their gratitude in other ways. This gratitude is useful in the sense that it will go some way towards reducing the recipient’s baseline levels of psychological pain or, in more common parlance, the inner turmoil that we all experience each day.

    A #SelfishlyHelpful act of community volunteering should not only reduces social pain (which I argue is generated in the dorsal Anterior Cingulate Cortex, an area implicated in many of the seven deadlies) but also fosters an increased sense of feeling socially accepted as a member of a community. It doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll make a new friend every time you help others, but it increases the chances that someone might smile and wave from the other side of the road the next time your paths cross, which can bolster feelings of social connection in small but meaningful ways. Increasing a person’s sense of being socially connected to people in their community is the secret sauce that leads to incremental improvements in physical health and psychological wellbeing that have lead several recent meta-analyses to emphasise the importance to taking steps to reduce social isolation.

    As someone who just received an email from a teacher from an East London state school I gave a talk at last week, saying that all the students were “really buzzing with enthusiasm” after the talk and that I’d “undoubtedly changed the path of many of their lives”, I can personally attest to the benefits of being #SelfishlyHelpful in terms of making people feel like trying to help others for zero remuneration is entirely worthwhile on a number of different levels. So as you mull over what you’ve just read, think to yourself… “where could I volunteer my services in the local community”? And bear in mind that, when you come to giving your time freely to others, it is you, not they, who will be the one that benefits the most…

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

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

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

    Hotels DO NOT foster a sense of community

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

    Hostels DO foster a sense of community

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

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

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

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

    BackpackerHostels #socialXplus
    Hotels #socialXminus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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  • SOS Soapbox Specials

    The tradition of exercising freedom of speech down at Speakers’ Corner in London’s Hyde Park dates from 1196 when Tyburn Gallows were first erected nearby. Those condemned to hang from the neck until dead would be given the opportunity to speak to the gathered crowd before they met their maker. In 1872 this tradition was officially sanctioned by an act of parliament and of the hundreds of sites where speakers could get up on a soapbox and speak their minds freely, only Speakers’ Corner now remains.

    A couple of months ago I followed in the footsteps of Karl Marx and George Orwell by trying to start a revolution down at Speakers’ Corner. I talked about what I discovered when digging around in the neuroscience literature to find research that might illuminate the root causes of the stereotypical excesses of human behaviour branded as The Seven Deadly Sins (#SciOfSin). I used this evidence to motivate a different way of thinking about what these seven sub-types of anti-social behaviour does to our social circles, our health and our wellbeing.

    Ever since I’ve been loading up a 5-6 min excerpt each week of my hour-long speech. It’s a bit rambling as I hadn’t planned exactly what I was going to say and there are quite a few interruptions from a trio of hecklers, but my hope is that this all makes it feel more authentic and akin to what Speakers’ Corner is all about …

    Part One – Roll up, Roll up

    Part Two – The Seven Deadly Sins (Queen of Pride Rules Over Them All)

    Part Three – Brain Areas implicated in Wrath and Envy

    Part Four – Greed (The Root Of All Evil?)

    Part Five – Lust

    Part Six – The Trouble With Internet Porn

    Part Se7ev – Gluttony I

    Part Eight – Gluttony II

    Part Nine – Watch This Space

    Part Ten – Watch This Space

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  • The Science Of Sin

    This month’s blog is dedicated to a major milestone in my life.

    My first ever solo effort as an author hit the bookshops across the UK on 12th July

    It has it’s own dedicated site, so you can find all about it here: www.sciofsin.com

     

    A few days later, on 17th July, I did a sell out gig at Bart’s Pathology Museum (between St Paul’s Cathedral and Smithfield’s Market). I was delighted to find that 2 clergymen had trekked all the way from west London to hear what I had to say.

    The event was hosted by Carla Valentine – with whom I’d worked last year on a Vampire Special of my Geek Chic’s Weird Science podcast recorded live at Soho Theatre – and who insisted that we pose for this: my favourite photo ever…

    The Priest, The Mortician and the Neuroscientist

     

     

     

     

     

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  • Online Gaming Bilingual Boost

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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  • Book Review: WHY WE SLEEP by Matt Walker

    By his own admission my dad is not a great reader of books. Yet he devoured Matthew Walker’s WHY WE SLEEP in no time at all. As he sped through this tome I received regular updates, sometimes on an hourly basis, summarising the parts he found most inspiring, shocking and illuminating. The goal was to get me to read it as a matter of urgency so that I might disseminate the countless invaluable insights contained within, describing the vital importance sleep in improving every aspect of brain health, as far and widely as possible. Fast forward a few weeks and this month’s blog was born…

    While the accounts in this book of the brain benefits associated with getting plenty of sleep on a regular basis are as fascinating and detailed as they are numerous, I must admit to finding the writing style a touch irritating. Emancipated from the rigid constraints of authoring important scientific studies in peer-reviewed journals, many life-long academics seize the opportunity to wield the English language with greater freedom of expression when they finally get the chance to write something for general consumption. The trouble is, just as it’s annoying to be in the audience of a presentation that’s packed with interesting facts, yet conveyed in context of overly-cluttered slides, liberally sprinkled with too many animations and transition effects, it can also get a bit much when an author indulges themselves with too much latitude in the creative language department. I found myself cringing at many of Professor Walker’s linguistic flourishes, which impeded my progress in getting through this otherwise excellent book. This is a great shame because the contents of this book are as awesome as his personal contributions to the world of sleep neuroscience have been immense. That said, aside from the writing style not being to everybody’s taste, I still agree with my old man’s contention that everyone should take the time to absorb the wisdom that is found within the pages of this book. For many people it could be lifesaving. Literally.

    The book kicks off with a lovely quote from Charlotte Brontë that everyone can surely relate to:

    “A ruffled mind makes a restless pillow”

    It is goes on to detail the many benefits of sleep for our physical and mental health. The stories are told with authority and in a manner that is entirely accessible. My favourite parts include research demonstrating that:

    • When a person falls asleep at the wheel while driving, their perception of what is going on around them is not merely degraded but actually switched off. During the few lethal moments of a micro-sleep, a person is completely unconscious. This would explain why drowsy driving is to blame for more road deaths than drink and drug driving together.
    • ‘Night owls’ suffer from higher rates of several serious physical (stroke, diabetes, heart attacks, cancer) and psychological (anxiety and depression) illnesses compared to the average ‘early bird’ sleepers. Yet stone-aged man almost certainly benefited from having a mixture of night owls and early birds in any given community to minimise the length of the period during which everyone is unconscious and so vulnerable to attack from predators and/or enemies.
    • The specific roles played by particular sleep stages in reviewing and consolidating memories (NREM: non-random-eye-movement) and the mechanism by which upsetting events from each day are revisited at night in order to emotionally detoxify them so that they can be more comfortably recalled in the future with less anxiety than at the time (REM).
    • The contribution of adenosine accumulation in the brain to feeling of needing to sleep, i.e. sleep pressure.
    • The accelerating rate of cognitive deficits that accumulate over successive nights of sleep deprivation.
    • The accounts of why pregnant women should avoid alcohol if they don’t want to disrupt the slumber of their (mostly sleeping) foetuses, why exactly it is that children need more sleep than adults and the compelling arguments to suggest that it is folly to have adolescents getting up extra early in the morning for pre-school sports, tuition, music or hobbies when their time would actually be much better spent in bed!

    On balance this really is a very important read and I thoroughly encourage everyone to get hold of a copy of this book by a fellow graduate of Nottingham University’s Neuroscience B.Sc. undergraduate degree, who went on to take the Ph.D. earned from the same institution over to the other side of the pond where he became a Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School (although how he pulled that off without a medical degree I have no idea!), finally settling into his current job as a Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology at Berkley.

    Prof Walker is on a mission to inspire the world to get more sleep and I for one am thoroughly convinced. Now I can actually feel my adenosine levels, which have been steadily rising over the course of the morning, tipping me over into sluggishness, so I’m off to catch forty winks. That way I’ll be able to come back to this article with a sleep-refreshed brain, ready to get it published as efficiently as possible and enabling me to get on with the next job on my To Do list with greater verve and relish.

    If you struggle with sleep, help is out there. Websites like www.sleephelp.org contain plenty of info to help you find that much craved good night’s sleep that might just change your life.

    In addition to these monthly brain blogs, I regularly tweet about brain-related research that hits the lay press (@drjacklewis), I do a fortnightly podcast about the more unusual scientific breakthroughs (Geek Chic’s Weird Science) and on 12th July 2018 my new book The Science of Sin will hit the shelves in the UK (11th Sept in the USA).

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  • Three Brain Hacks

    Earlier this month I gave a talk in an achingly cool studio space in Wapping; a short distance east along the Thames from Tower Bridge. This future-proofing healthcare event seemed to be a great success and I even got meet a hero of mine. I’m happy to report that not only is Henry Marsh a well-regarded neurosurgeon and fantastic author (whose book Do No Harm I reviewed here back in 2015), but he is also a brilliant speaker!

    My brief was to open the event with a quick overview of what the brain is, how its building blocks are arranged to accomplish all the marvelous things our brains can do and then offer a handful of tips and tricks that everyone can use to get their brains firing on all cylinders. When I give these talks there is always hard science behind whatever I share with the audience. It occurred to me that flashing up the relevant references on screen is probably not sufficient if people wanted to go back to the original science papers at a later date. In this month’s blog I thought I’d provide a few links to research articles summarising some of the research that motivates me to recommend three brain hacks to help people keep their grey and white matter in tip-top condition.

    SLEEP

    Many people consider it a nuisance to spend 1/3 of life unconscious. In our increasingly busy lives, spare time tends to get squeezed mercilessly and the time we spend sound asleep in bed usually suffers as a result. This is a travesty because it is when we are asleep that the brain does all its running repairs and maintenance work. It is when temporary memories reverberating around the brains neural highways are re-visited, the superfluous ones deleted and more important ones consolidated into long term memory by the laying down of proteins. According to a brilliant study published in the journal Science the metabolic waste materials that build up in the brain over the course of the day are also removed at a much faster rate when we are asleep compared to when we are awake.

    If these metabolic waste materials are allowed to accumulate in brain tissue it can have a negative impact on brain function and can potentially build up to levels that are neurotoxic, hence prolonged sleep deprivation being deadly for all animals. So a huge part of the reason it’s vitally important that we all try to get at least 7 and ideally 8 hours of sleep each night is to give the brain an opportunity to banish as much of these potentially toxic materials from the brain as possible. While the 2013 study was in mice, a paper published this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science also demonstrated that sleep deprivation has a similar impact on the clearance of toxic substances from the human brain too.

    I’ll not go into further detail here as next month’s blog will be a review of Matt Walker’s book Why We Sleep, but I’ll conclude with one more sleep-related tip. It is perfectly normal to feel drowsy in the mid-afternoon. Acting on the urge to have a 15-20 min nap is not just restorative, enabling you to continue your daily activities with greater efficiency but, perhaps even more importantly, it also vastly improves memory retention and creative problem solving. Personally, I take a nap most days. In fact, I’m feeling the urge right now, so I’ll complete this blog once I’ve taken 40 winks (1 nap-wink = 30s ;-)…

    … that’s better! (I genuinely did). Not only do I practice what I preach but I regularly urge businesses to encourage their staff to take an afternoon nap every single time I speak at a business conference. On many levels it is flagrant false economy to allow the myth  that napping is tantamount to laziness to be perpetuated. It simply couldn’t be further from the truth.

    HYDRATION

    Every single morning we wake up dehydrated. That’s because we have to keep breathing 24/7 to stay alive. This is the only way we can keep our oxygen levels topped up (to maximise the release of energy from glucose to keep our vital biological processes ticking over) and to eliminate the carbon dioxide that is a key waste material of this process, which would otherwise increase the acidity of the blood with potentially catastrophic consequences. To keep these gases moving in and out of the bloodstream, the inner surface of the lungs must be kept moist, which means that every time you exhale you are blowing away a little bit of water vapour.

    Assuming we stay asleep for 7-8 hours, we will always wake up a little bit dehydrated, which knocks all sorts of biological mechanisms out of kilter. From the brain’s perspective the most important impact of this dehydration is that it has a negative impact on neural transmission – the capacity for each of your 86 billion neurons to efficiently send electrical messages along their wire-like axons and thereby influence other brain cells. People usually wake up a little bit grumpy because the first thing to go awry when people are dehydrated is mood. The cognitive impairment associated with dehydration also explains why you’re likely to find yourself prone to getting mixed up in the process of executing straightforward tasks. Accidentally putting coffee in the saucepan with the porridge instead of the cafetiere where it belongs is a personal favourite, as is the struggle to find everything needed for the day ahead in the daily rush to get out the door on time.

    Do yourself a favour: make drinking a glass of water (laying in wait on your bedside table) the first thing you do after switching off the alarm to help you minimise the amount of time you spend lacking a sense of humour and unable to perform the simplest of tasks effectively each morning due to a dehydrated brain. Having started the day well, monitor your mood and when you feel irritable, before you try and blame others for being so annoying, think to yourself – when was the last time I drank water? (NB not coffee, fizzy drinks or juice, but just plain, old-fashioned, H2O).

    COFFEE

    There is pretty good evidence to suggest that people who drink a moderate amount of coffee each day have a lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease and also (in men at least) Parkinson’s disease. We still don’t know what exactly it is about the magic bean that confers these neuroprotective effects – the most popular hypothesis is that the benefits arise as a result of all the antioxidants contained in the coffee bean helping to soak up all the free radicals that would otherwise interfere with our DNA.

    Despite these benefits, there are drawbacks to a voracious appetite for coffee. One broadly overlooked peril of the coffee habit is that caffeine has a very long half-life. It takes 6 whole hours to reduce the concentration of caffeine in the bloodstream by half (NB this takes much longer if you’re pregnant or on the contraceptive pill, but less time if you’re a smoker). This means that if you have the equivalent of 4 cups of coffee’s worth of caffeine in your bloodstream at midday, then it will take until 6pm before this has been reduced to 2 cups-worth and 6 hours after that – at midnight – this will finally have been halved again: down to 1 cup of coffee’s-worth of caffeine. Clearly anyone who is in the habit of drinking coffee throughout the afternoon is going to have so much stimulant swimming around their system come night time that it will inevitably interfere with their sleep. We’ve already covered the reason’s why this is bad news for brain health.

    The upshot is this: to avail yourself of the neuroprotective benefits of coffee, without suffering negative impacts on sleep in terms of onset, duration and/or quality, then get all your coffee drinking out of the way in the morning and if you absolutely must take caffeine onboard in the afternoon, then at the very least try to switch to green tea instead (15% of the caffeine in a cup of coffee). The next time a waiter or waitress offers you an after-dinner coffee, feel free to inform them that they are effectively tempting all their customers to play roulette with the health of their brain.

    NEXT UP

    I’m giving another talk at the end of this month – at 1pm on Sat 28th April – at the Leeds International Festival on the topic of how technology impacts our brains. If this is of interest, then tickets are available here – it’s free!

    In addition to these monthly brain blogs, I regularly tweet about brain-related research that hits the lay press (@drjacklewis), I do a fortnightly podcast about the more unusual scientific breakthroughs (Geek Chic’s Weird Science) and in July 2018 my new book Science of Sin will hit the shelves in the UK (11th Sept in the USA).

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  • Booze, Weed and the Human Brain

    A study by Rachel Thayer and colleagues from the Universities of Boulder, Colorado and Portland, Oregon, published recently in the journal Addiction revealed some fascinating differences between the impact of recreational alcohol and cannabis use on the structure of the human brain.

    It was known from previous research that the more alcohol an adult regularly drinks the greater the degree of shrinkage of the brain’s grey matter. The grey matter is the folded outer surface of the brain that makes it look a bit like a walnut. This is where neurons interface with each other by means of synaptic connections at which one neuron can exert an influence on another. It is the networks of neurons bringing information together within the grey matter that allows computations to be performed so that we can perceive the world via the senses, feel emotions based on our interactions with other people and execute purposeful behaviours like decision making, problem solving and voluntary movements. So, as a rule of thumb, the lower the volume of space occupied by a person’s grey matter, the greater the reduction in computational power.

    This new study looked at not just the link between boozing and grey matter but also investigated whether it had any impact on the white matter too. White matter is the neuronal cabling along which electrical messages are ferried to and from different patches of grey matter in different parts of the brain’s cortex. Grey matter in the occipital lobe at the back of the brain, which crunches sensory information coming in through our eyes, can send messages to the prefrontal cortex via white matter pathways, and vice versa. Grey matter in the left side of the brain can send information to and receive information from right hemisphere cortical areas via white matter connections that run through the corpus callosum (this is a thick bundle of white matter connecting the left and right halves of the brain).

    These white matter pathways contain the neuronal axons, which is the cabling through which electrical pulses (called action potentials) are passed between neurons. These axons are wrapped in electrically insulating myelin fibre which speeds up the transmission of action potentials. Damage to this insulating layer can be detected with a certain type of MRI scan and is formally described as ‘reduced white matter integrity’. Thayer and colleagues’ findings showed that the more alcohol people routinely drank the greater the impact on grey and white matter. High alcohol consumption is associated with reduced grey matter volume AND white matter integrity.

    That’s not all. They also looked at the differences between adult brains (20-55 years old) and adolescent brains (14-19). While high alcohol intake way associated with reduced grey matter volume in the adolescent brains, they didn’t find any evidence of reductions in white matter integrity. Presumably if those teens carried on their high alcohol intake, they would end up damaging their white matter like their older counterparts.

    Perhaps the most surprising thing about this study is that, across over 400 teens and more than 800 adults, they found no evidence of any link between the amount of cannabis consumed in the 30 days prior to brain scanning and the grey matter volume or white matter integrity. This suggests that despite alcohol being legal in the UK and cannabis being illegal, from the perspective of the impact of these commonly used recreational drugs on two different important aspects of brain structure, the relevant laws may well be working in direct opposition to the degree of harm caused, both to the individual and society as a whole.

    If you enjoy these blogs then you’ll love my 2 series of Secrets of the Brain in Ultra High Definition (www.insight.tv / Sky Channel 564). This story was covered on episode 90 of my fortnightly Geek Chic’s Weird Science podcast available on iTunes, Acast, Libsyn and Podbay. I dig around on the internet on a daily basis for articles on the very latest breakthroughs in neuroscience research and, when I find something interesting, well-written and relevant, I post it on Twitter (@drjacklewis). Most excitingly of all, from the 12th July 2018, my new book – The Science of Sin: Why We Do The Things We Know We Shouldn’t – will be available in all good bookshops.

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  • Next Time You See Your Parents Make Sure They Eat Their Greens

    How often were you urged to eat up your greens as a child? In my childhood this was a mantra uttered on a weekly basis. At least. I don’t know where my mum and dad got the idea that leafy green vegetables might be good for the health but, according to a recently published study, it turns out they may have been bang on the money. It never ceases to amaze me how often conventional wisdom ends up being proven true.

    A study conducted by Martha Morris and colleagues at Tufts University in Boston and Rush University in Chicago, published in January of this year in the journal Neurology detailed a prospective study of nearly a thousand participants who were followed across a period of ~5 years during which they periodically filled questionnaires about the food they ate and took a cognitive assessment. These individuals were aged 58 and upwards, all the way up to 99 years old. Analysis of the data suggested that: the more often leafy green vegetables were consumed, the slower the rate of cognitive decline.

    Those who ate at least one serving of greens per day achieved scores on the cognitive assessments equivalent to those 11 years younger. So it seems that greens don’t just help youngsters grow up into strong and healthy adults, but they can even help us hold onto our marbles during the post-retirement years.

    This study also tried to establish which of the many ingredients in the leafy greens might be responsible for these impressive cognitive benefits. Greens rich in folate, phylloquinone (aka vitamin K), lutein and kaempferol all seemed to make a big difference, as did alpha-tocopherol, albeit to a lesser degree. Let’s dig a little deeper into which vegetables contain these various goodies so you can start incorporating them into your diet pronto.

    Folate is found not just in dark leafy greens like spinach, collard greens and romaine lettuce, but also asparagus, avocado, broccoli, beans, peas, lentils, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, beetroot, berries (strawberries > rasberries) and citrus fruits.

    Similarly, Vitamin K is found in plentiful quantities in leafy greens like spinach and kale, but also in basil (get your pesto on), spring onions, cabbage, pak choi, chili (hooray!), leeks, pickled cucumber, olive oil and okra (aka ladies’ fingers).

    There’s plenty of lutein in egg yolk, sweetcorn, kiwi fruit, grapes, orange juice and courgette, as well as greens like spinach, kale and lettuce.

    As for kampferol, there’s a huge quantity in capers per 100g relative to that found in kale, and a good dose in dill, cress, chives and broccoli. That said most people will find it an easier and more appetising experience to eat 100g of kale or broccoli, than the same mass of capers, dill, cress or chives.

    The take away message here is that there’s nothing magical about the leafy greens in terms of the chemical ingredients that, once absorbed into the body and brain, lead to cognitive benefits. They do, however, serve to simplify matters. Rather than struggling to recall which of these nutritional goodies are found in which fruits, vegetables and pulses, by making sure you get a good dose of greens on a daily basis, you can be pretty sure that you’re getting most of the vitamins and minerals that will keep your brain ticking over nicely.

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