• Der Weg ist das Ziel: how hobbies can help your brain

    (Or in English: The Journey is the Destination)

    Two years ago a friend of mine moved away from the city in which he was born and bred (and where he also spent most of his professional career) to start afresh in Italy. 10 kilometres out of Verona he found an apartment in a building full of musicians; people who wouldn’t be bothered by the sound of his sax.

    The whole point of moving from London to Verona was to make more time to pursue his passion. Having only taken up the sax in his late 30’s, he knew it was too late in the game to become the next Stan Getz. Everybody knows that the greats almost always start playing in early childhood and that true expertise takes decades to achieve. But then again that was never the goal. His aim was a better quality of life and having felt frustrated that life in London seemed to leave him with very little free time to pursue his hobbies, making a life change that increased the available time to invest in a cherished past-time seemed a great way to achieve that goal.

    Some might ask themselves: why practise a musical instrument for 2-4 hours a day if there’s little chance of ever being able to make a career out of it? Well, for one thing, he already had a career teaching English as a foreign language and the move to Verona was also enabling him to earn more or less the same income while working far fewer hours. The other thing is: to ask that question is to miss the point entirely.

    Saxy times are to be had on the outskirts of Verona

    While there’s a clear link between how much people earn and how content they are with life when salaries are low, after it’s grown sufficiently to provide a household with the basic necessities, any positive correlation between income and happiness levels flattens out. In other words, beyond a certain threshold, money can’t buy you happiness. The likely explanation is that, when someone’s being paid the big money it’s usually because whatever they’re doing is more stressful than the lesser paid jobs in that industry. In a very real sense, the more money a person is paid, the more emotional pain from stress they are expected to be willing to endure. And then there’s the increased appetite for material desires. All of this is nicely summarised in a 2018 Nature paper that evaluated a huge amount of representative global data and finding that emotional well being sees no further improvement beyond an income of ~ £50k. With this in mind, perhaps it’s no surprise that these additional negative influences on well-being associated with the higher earning brackets are likely push back against the positive impacts that might be gained via the trappings of yet more wealth.

    Neither can money buy you love. And doing what you love really can have an impact on life satisfaction and happiness levels. If you have a hobby that you love (and actually get to pursue that past-time on a regular basis) then it can dramatically improve your well being – putting the power to influence your mood into your own hands. So while many of our mutual friends thought the sax player might have lost the plot, I immediately grasped the method in his madness. But did it work? Does he feel that the master plan has paid dividends? Well, nearly 3 years later he is still there, the quality of his sax playing has genuinely gone through the roof and the last time we spoke he said he really couldn’t imagine coming back any time soon…

    While I first came across this in Germany, it may well have originated with Confusius

    The Germans have a lovely turn of phrase: Der Weg ist das Ziel. When I first heard this, out in Germany doing my post-doctoral studies on the edge of the Black Forest, I was confused. The journey is the destination (?!)  – went entirely against my experience of countless childhood memories of seemingly endless motorway journeys; driving as a family of five to and from campsites all around coastal France and every corner of the UK in the summer holidays. As I remembered it, the final destination almost always had a swimming pool, table football, beach volleyball, table tennis and arcade games galore. Dozens of kids from all over Europe to befriend and surfeit of activities waiting to entertain us at the final destination, compared to the painfully long journey cooped up in the back of the car for hours on end killing time playing “I spy” and listening to the same five albums over and over again. This was what flitted through my mind at the time and led me directly to the conclusion that Der Weg ist das Ziel was clearly a load of old cobblers. (NB CRS: cobbler’s awls = balls)

    It eventually dawned on me that I was being too literal. Der Weg ist das Ziel describes the pleasure we humans derive from being in the process of achieving something, rather than getting to the end result itself. Finding flow is deeply satisfying, after all. Contented humans whistle while they work. Others get their daily grind done and then move on to spend time doing things they find enjoyable. My friend in Italy seemed to have reached this conclusion, that the journey IS the destination all under his own steam.

    The relevance of this story to this particular chapter in life on Earth as we move into a new decade, is that many people around the world have found themselves stuck indoors with more time on their hands than they know what do to with over the past months. I’ve been counting my blessings that I happened to be doing a Master’s in virtual reality (VR) when it all kicked off. Building VR experiences is an incredibly steep uphill learning curve, swallowing hundreds of hours a month (if you ever want to get anywhere). And as someone who is usually criss-crossing Europe preaching the good word of the brain at business conferences that no longer happen in the flesh, if there’s one thing I’ve had much more of this year it’s time!!

    The end product might be ugly, but the process of chipping away at it is incredibly satisfying

    While the first six months of pursuing my new-found passion for VR building was like trying to squeeze blood out of a stone, once I’d finally managed to absorb the basics of driving a game engine like Unity I found myself quickly getting into flow state and regularly staying there into the wee hours. In recent years the only other past-times that I could happily engage myself with for hours on end were playing 7-a-side football and pursuing my stone carving hobby. But football got cancelled by the social distancing rules and the piece of stone I’ve been carving was starting to get too fragile to survive the trips down to the Thames and back in one piece. So my VR building exploits have been something of a lockdown life saver.

    The point I’m trying to make here is that hobbies are not just nice to have, they’re an essential component in your brain maintenance toolbox. By which I mean: if you feel glum, because you’re out of work and / or stuck inside being driven crazy by the company of the same people you’ve been bubbled with for far too many months, hobbies can be something of a mental health lifeline. If you’ve already got a hobby that you can happily plough hours and hours of time into, keeping the mantra Der Weg ist das Ziel in mind (i.e. even if the end product is rubbish, it really doesn’t matter if you enjoy the process of doing it), then you can use it as a method to improve your state of mind should you start to feel low.

    Whether you have a hobby you regularly pursue or not, there is always room for one more. That way, if one is taken away from you unexpectedly, then those that remain can fill in the vacuum. And the option to use your hobby strategically to improve your mood, whenever you have some time to kill, can really help to bring the perceived locus of control from the outside in. And that, is unequivocally a step in the right direction, when it comes to improving your mood management skills.

    2020 taught me to bring the outside in by using absorbing hobbies to manage my mood

    In addition to these monthly blogs, I also tweet (@drjacklewis) about the latest neuroscience developments to hit the news that might be of interest or relevant to a non-specialist audience of brain enthusiasts.

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    As the Christmas season fast approaches, let me recommend to you two of the best books I’ve read so far this year.

    Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together documents our rapidly developing love affair with technology over the best part of four decades. Starting with the simple digital and robot toys that required us to nurture them in the 90’s and progressing through to the much more sophisticated versions of the 21st century, the first half of the book is dedicated to our relationships with technologies that create the illusion of needing our care. The second half is all about how smartphones, social media and a distinct tendency to prefer text-based communication over anything to do with the voice might be leaving a generation feeling overwhelmingly hyperconnected, but at the same time entirely alone, in the grand scheme of things. A real page-turner: this book is a story beautifully told, but which might leave you chilled to the bone in terms of the potentially dire prospects for today’s digital natives – those who never knew a world in which the ineluctable lure of technology hadn’t yet reached fever pitch.

    Fast forward 10 years and Mary Aiken’s sizzler The Cyber Effect takes a cybercrime-infused adventure into the dark side of the internet. I found it utterly absorbing, from start to finish. Cyber-migration, the phenomenon where cultural norms establish themselves on the internet and then leak back into the real world, helps to explain why trying to protect yourself from the negative impacts of technology on the world around us by burying your head in the sand is probably not going to pay dividends. So long as the masses are utterly absorbed by the internet then the culture of real life is changing around you, whether or not you yourself participate online. Aiken also provides a pretty thorough account of why giving smartphones to children at a younger and younger age is likely to result in not just tears, but probably also disruption of “normal” brain development through the infant years and beyond. I thought I had already researched this area quite thoroughly a couple of years back, but there is a huge amount of brand new material here. As the author points out: it’s such a fast-moving area and the devices that people use change so quickly, that conventional scientific research techniques simply don’t work, so it’s harder than ever to get a handle on what’s actually happening. If a sketch is all we’re likely to get, then this one threw a lot of things into sharp relief for me. Covering a broad range of fascinating subject matter and daring to dip into topics that other authors might shy away from; this book genuinely blew me away…

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  • Top 50 VR Games on Vive

    As you’ve probably gathered by now I spent a year reviewing VR games.

    I’ve started putting together Top 10 puzzle games, Top 10 flying games, Top 10 immersive storytelling etc etc but for the time being I thought I’d just share with you my Top 50.

    The scoring system takes into account 8 factors that I believe are vital to consider when evaluating a virtual reality experience. These are:

    • Awe (Score out of 7) “That was magical”
    • Comfort (Score out of -7) “I was perfectly comfortable throughout”
    • Agility (Score out of 7) “The game made me move my whole body”
    • Purpose (Score out of 7) “The experience felt meaningful throughout”
    • Elation (5 points, all or nothing) “At times I felt genuinely elated”
    • Love (5 points, all or nothing) “I just love that game, soft spot for it”
    • Aggravation (Score of -5) “Something really annoyed me…”
    • Sensory Experience (3+3+3, V+A+H) “It was aesthetically beautiful”

    Most of the above factors are perfectly self-explanatory but the “Sensory Experience” category might require a bit of unpacking. V stands for “visual”. A stands for “auditory”. H stands for “haptics”. In virtual reality experiences the overall aesthetic is predominantly influenced by these three sensory systems and so the look, sound and feel each get up to three points, totting up to an overall aesthetic rating of 9. So the max score overall, across all rating factors is 40.

    I’m not publishing the scores just yet, for the time being I’m just going to share the ranking. I’d really like to hear your opinions, but please don’t leave a comment here. If you strongly agree or disagree with the ranking of any of these games please search for them on YouTube “Brain Man VR NAME OF GAME” and leave your comments there. That will really help me to keep track of your feedback. Below the Top 50 list is some footage of the reviews of a handful of games that made it to the Top 10.

    My Top 50 VR Games on the VIVE

    Rank 1: Nobody quite does time like SUPERHOT – so they take first place because, quite frankly, who doesn’t want to feel like Neo from The Matrix?!

    Rank 2: A FISHERMAN’s TALE is an aesthetic tour de force, convincing story line, wonderful voice acting, ingenious scale play, genuinely taxing to solve.

    Rank 4: Beat Sabre is an oldie but a goodie. Nothing quite like it for casting off stress, getting your adrenaline going and moving your body to the beats.

    Rank 6: Curious Tale of the Stolen Pets. Another game that might raise eyebrows for inclusion in a top 10. For one thing it seems like a kid’s game. But don’t be deceived by its outward appearances. It’s devilishly tricky to complete, yet the exquisite aesthetics exude an aura of calm and delight.

    Rank 9: Angry Birds might seem like yet another odd choice for the Top 10, but there’s no more reliable game to delight guests – both young and old – who’ve little experience of Virtual Reality. It requires very little explanation. When people find a catapult in one hand and a projectile (a cute but angry little bird) in the other, they instinctively know what to do, whether 7 or 70. And no stone has been left unturned in ensuring it looks and sounds great.

    In addition to these monthly blogs, I also regularly tweet about the latest neuroscience research (@drjacklewis) and build Virtual Reality worlds that improve cognitive abilities.

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  • 1 year later: 52 episodes of VR Reviews on YouTube

    A year ago I set myself a challenge.

    Film, edit and upload one episode of Brain Man VR Reviews per week.

    I chose to do this because I think VR has the potential to change our lives in a positive way, if only we can use it wisely.

    I wanted to track how my brain adjusted to the demands and opportunities presented by lots of different types of VR experience.

    What better way to achieve that than film myself exploring VR worlds over the course of several years!

    75% of episodes in this first series have reviewed games played in virtual reality. Tasks like moving objects, exploring rooms, solve puzzles, moving to the beat of a tune, hitting targets, flying through space, racing skydivers over mountaintops, creating inventions and so on..

    But 25% are reviews of VR “experiences” – where you are inside the story, with actors, animated characters and dancers physically in the space with you, each scene appearing at a different compass heading as the narrative unfolds.

    It has been a brilliant journey. I have learned so much about VR. And so I wanted to share some of my favourite episodes with you here.

    Over the next few months I’ll be sharing my top picks from the series.

    Starting with the last ever episode of Brain Man VR Reviews in which I handed the reins over to a couple of brainy friends who set out to tackle: Keep Talking And Nobody Explodes

    One of my favourite TV series of the last couple of years is called Britannia. It tells the story, with huge creative latitude, of the Roman invasion of Britain. When I heard that one of London’s finest VR companies, with a reputation for producing not just outrageously high definition virtual reality environments, but also dropping real actors into your midst while in VR, I just had to review this one… BRITANNIA VR

    When I watch movies set in space, or see astronauts on the International Space Station on the news, I often wonder what it’s like to float around in a gravity-free environment. I’ve always been particularly envious of those rich enough to do the NASA experience where a jumbo jet flies in a way that recreates zero gravity, if only for a few minutes.

    This envy evaporated immediately when I realised I could do it in VR. Better still, with thrusters in your wrists, START SHELTER enables you to zip through space to raid nearby space junk for the raw materials you need to survive. You bring these salvaged resources back to the lab – in your very own miniature space station – to build equipment to prepare food, repair asteroid impact holes in your spacecraft and get various jobs done. I’m always on the look out for VR experiences that have the potential to provide a convincing illusion of being able to get away from the stresses of everyday life for a while. This one fits that bill very well…

    Some VR experiences are like watching a film but better, because you are actually inside the film and the action appears all around you. Being fully 360-degree immersed in a story is incredibly exciting but sometimes its frustrating to just be a passenger; watching and listening to what happens around you, but not able to actually do anything.

    Other VR titles, as mentioned above, are pure games. There’s not much in the way of a coherent storyline to follow, but plenty of things you can do to earn points, hit targets, crack puzzles etc.

    A more ambitious set of VR creations try to fuse the two together. They have you solving puzzles while fully immersed in a compelling storyline. In the case of PROZE you are in a Soviet laboratory, hacking into computers, tuning satellite frequencies and connecting cables. If you manage to complete the first set of challenges, the story suddenly takes over and you are whisked away in to a mesmerising adventure of suspicion and intrigue. (NB this was filmed after several failed attempts!)

    By now, artists have been beavering away in VR for decades. Finally they have a place to exhibit their 3D, interactive, scale-defying works of art. It’s called the MUSEUM OF OTHER REALITIES

    Substances like psilocybin (in the juice from magic mushrooms) and LSD (created in a lab) have been studied for their medicinal properties for years. Recent neuropsychopharmacological investigations have shown that pscilocybin in particular has great promise for treating major depression. Wouldn’t it be great if you could trigger a similar psychedelic experience using just light and sound?! That was the aim that the creator of SOUND SELF had in mind, when he coded it to respond to sounds made by the person wearing the VR headset by changing the trippy visuals seen through the goggles and playing back some, but not all, of the sounds you make at a later point in time. It’s like an audio looper on steroids and is probably the best, most engrossing, run and rewarding way of doing mindful meditation that I’ve ever experienced.

    Next month, I’ll be recommending some more top virtual reality experiences so WATCH THIS SPACE.

    In addition to these monthly blogs I also tweet about the latest neuroscience research to breakthrough into the lay media on a regular basis (@drjacklewis).

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  • Working-From-Home Brain Hack: Redefine Borders

    In June’s brain blog I talked about how the human brain is built for change. The process of adapting to change can be difficult, particularly when those changes are forced upon us by circumstances beyond our control, but it’s reassuring to hear that it’s what brains are built to do.

    The experience of adjusting to lockdown has ranged from a bit of a nuisance for some to utterly unbearable for others. One major problem people have faced is trying to stay productive while unable to leave their home. As somebody who’s been working from home more or less full time for a decade, I’ve developed a variety of brain hacks that I’ve found greatly improve my own efficiency. These tips and tricks are all “Neuroformed” – i.e. neuroscience-informed – in the sense that they are ultimately inspired by insights gleaned from the neuroscience research literature.

    With the exception of a few places here and there lockdown is slowly but surely being eased across the UK, Europe and further afield. But for many, the process of “unlock” does not necessarily mean physically going back to the office. For the foreseeable future working practices will continue to be much more remote, with much more working-from-home than ever before. What better time to share the tactics I’ve developed for turning your home into a place where you can actually get work done as effectively (if not more) than in the workplace?

    Working inside the home rather than outside it robs people of the natural boundary between work and home life – the dreaded commute. While it’s absence comes with benefits – more time than ever to invest in the replenishing, memory forming and emotional management boosting actions of sleep – the lack of a clear boundary between work and play is perilous. It threatens not just psychological wellbeing but also overall productivity, because our brains can settle down to work much more quickly and stay at it for longer if it’s had the chance to enjoy a solid period of downtime.

    When people only work in their workplace, the front door delineates the boundary between a work-centred mindset and the somewhat different brain states associated with home life. Digital devices have already increasingly blurred this line over the past decade or so. The existence of internet-connected smartphones, tablets and laptops do encourage many to feel obliged to continue working when they get home from work. While such practices have become increasingly common, at least some of the stresses associated with the workplace can be “left behind” when a person exits the building.

    This is a psychologically healthy way to go about things because we all need to give our bodies and brains a break from the high cortisol levels (the most famous of the “stress” hormones) typically associated with being in “work mode”. Cortisol acts on our cells to increase energy availability for that brain to keep us motivated, focused and able to get our work done. But with many people finding themselves with no alternative but to cram home offices into bedrooms and living rooms, it’s harder to feel psychologically distanced from work-related stresses than ever before, given all the evidence of the day’s unfinished business cluttering rooms at the end of each working day. Just a glance at the home office space, when unwinding on the sofa or moving into the bedroom in preparation for sleep, can be sufficient to trigger a jolt of cortisol to wind us up when getting off to sleep (and staying asleep for a solid 7-8 hours) actually requires the opposite.

    The key thing to keep in mind is that our brains switch gears, so to speak, when we move from one environment to another. Brain states relevant to one environment are replaced by others appropriate and useful for whatever other environment we might find ourselves moving into. Factual memories, procedural memories and relevant events that previously occurred in that particular space will be triggered by sensory cues present in the new environment; priming your brain to perform actions and readily bring to mind thoughts that are most pertinent to that particular place.

    This happens outside the home when you move from the street – where your brain is primed to dodge other pedestrians and navigate effectively, into the café – where your brains navigational networks will be dampened down and social interaction / decision making networks will be primed to enable you to queue, order and pay for your coffee and cake, almost entirely on autopilot. This happens in the workplace, when you move from your desk to the meeting space your brain temporarily ditches the thoughts and memories relevant to your “to do” list in favour of cognitive set pieces that enable you navigate the hypercomplex world of group social dynamics. When you later go back to the table and chair where you typically get your work done, those social brain networks are switched off and cognitive networks dedicated to prioritising tasks on your “to do” list switch on again so you can get back to work.

    Incidentally, this phenomenon of mindset switching explains why we can often find ourselves scratching our heads trying to figure out what the hell it was that we were looking for when we move into a different room to get something. Crossing the threshold from one room to another can be sufficient to wipe your short term memory buffer clear. (NB you can thwart this process by simply repeating to yourself silently in your head – or out loud if you don’t care what think of you – exactly what you’re intending to do in that other room. The active rehearsal helps to keep the objective clear by keeping the explicit goal in working memory as you cross the threshold. Singing it helps too because if you get distracted, the tune can help you recall what you were chanting!).

    Our brains have such a broad repertoire of skills and knowledge that it’s impossible to keep it all in mind simultaneously, so we use cues in the environment to prime the information and actions most relevant to what we are likely to do in that particular environment. If you’ll permit me another brief tangent, this is also why people who sleep badly are advised to banish all electronic goods from the bedroom. The aim is to ensure that there are no associations with that particular space and stimulating activities. If recent memories of the bedroom environment feature only relaxing activities like reading a book or sleeping, rather than ramping up brain activity in preparation for an exciting episode of the latest box-set, or a late night survey of social media on your phone, tablet or laptop, the brain instead starts shutting down in preparation for sleep state as soon as you cross the threshold into your bedroom.

    The first step in this first brain hack involves doing everything in your power to keep the parts of your home in which you work-from-home as separate as possible from those in which you rest, unwind and sleep. If this means packing away your whole home office into boxes at the end of each working day then do it. The sequence of movements involved in packing the equipment away will become a ritual that helps you to psychologically move away from the stresses of work. And unpacking everything the following day will help you get your brain into “work mode”. For those of you reluctant to engage with such a daily “start of work” / “end of work” ritual, at the very least throw a sheet or blanket over your work office if it is visible when you are in the living room or bedroom.

    The next step in availing yourself of this first working-from-home brain hack is to get yourself into different work-related brain states while still in whichever location you’ve designated as your home office. For example, boring, administrative work requires a different brain state to creative problem solving. Trying to do creative problem solving work in exactly the same environment that you do the boring, administrative stuff is much less efficient than having two different spaces reserved for each endeavour. This is why using the boardroom for brain storming activities usually doesn’t result in much innovation – an environment associated with scary meetings with senior management is likely to stifle everybodies’ creative potential. If, like me, you only have one physical space in which you do all your work, you might want to get a bit creative with the arrangement of your furniture to make the same space look and feel different according to what kind of work you need to get done.

    Over the past couple of years I’ve done some consultancy work for a company called Steelcase. They’ve been making office furniture for nearly a century now and had recently launched a new breed of furniture for offices and educational establishments designed to be moved around more easily. They got me involved when they heard me speak about the Neuroscience of Creativity and How To Fostering Genuinely Innovative Workplaces on a panel for a Microsoft event. They were particularly motivated by what I had to say about how the human brain creates associations between certain environment and certain brain states. A central tenet of my argument was that if a person only performs activities known to get the brain into a more open-minded creative state when they are in a certain space, then soon enough they will find they can improve their capacity to be innovative simply by moving into that space. There are certain cafes, libraries and hotel lobbies that I work in around London when I’m doing creative work (and even certain spaces within those cafes and libraries that I aim for where I’ve previously had my best ideas) and in order not to sully my brain’s associations between that space and innovative thinking I always move elsewhere to do boring work; even just to take a business call.

    I was inspired to take this approach by some brilliantly imaginative research that came out of the University of Southampton in 1975. The researchers got people to memorise some information under two very different sets of circumstances: while scuba diving underwater or on the poolside. They were also tested to establish how accurate their recall was above versus below water. It turned out that those who learned the information underwater were more accurate in remembering the information below the waterline compared to above. And those who learned the information above water demonstrated better recall above the waterline. I figured that if the environmental association was strong for memorised information, then why not apply the same logic to creative thinking.

    During lockdown, of course, I’ve had no access to my usual creative spots. I’ve had to adapt the approach I described above to the interior of my home. Most people would work in room and relax in another. That isn’t an option for me because I live in a studio! With only one room to work with, for several years now the cue that the work mode is finished and relaxation mode has begun involved shuffling the furniture around. The big table that I work from is also my dining table. When this table is moved away from my computer monitor, it signals that work is done for the day. When it is in the very centre of the room, that tells my brain that I’m hosting. When it is tucked away into the corner, that tells my brain it’s time for a session of Virtual Reality. When it is pushed against the window – I’m in writing mode.

    Using this technique, the cues that my brain gets from the same room are completely different when I’m in relaxation mode versus work mode. While ceremonially packing away all the work-related materials at the end of each working day, only to have to set it all out again the following morning in exactly the same place may seem like a complete waste of time, I view this as an important part of my switch on / switch off ritual. It is time and energy wisely invested when it comes to managing a work / life balance when your work and leisure time all takes place in the same space.

    In addition to these monthly blogs I regularly tweet (@drjacklewis) about interesting neuroscience research that hits the press and review a different Virtual Reality game or experience every single week (Brain Man VR Reviews).

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  • My New Scientist Online Talk on 30th July 2020 at 6pm BST

    To celebrate the launch of The Science of Sin in paperback format, NEW SCIENTIST have invited me to give an online talk, this Thurs 30th July 2020 at 6pm (British Summer Time).

    Online talk for New Scientist at 6pm (BST) on Thurs 30th July 2020

    The subject matter I discovered during the writing of my first solo book has now had plenty of time to ferment into what I strongly believe is an incredibly important message to us all: many of the types of anti-social behaviour characterised in the past by the 7 deadly sins stems from poorly managed inner turmoil.

    I outline what brought me to this conclusion in a 40 min talk followed by a 20 minute Q&A at the end. So, wherever you are in the world, please consider buying a ticket. It will not only give you access to the talk for a full week, but will also help to support a truly important source of high quality science journalism.

    I’ve been reading New Scientist since I was a child and its capacity to constantly scour the countless science papers that are printed in the academic literature every day in search of insights into how the universe works and what makes creatures like us tick never ceases to amaze me.

    In a world that is becoming increasingly saturated in made-up nonsense many people find themselves more confused than ever.

    New Scientist continues to translate complex science into plain English (without giving into the lazy temptation of dumbing it down to the point where it loses its import) and as such provides an invaluable source of information to scientists and non-scientists alike.

    Please do consider picking up a ticket and I’ll look forward to answering your questions on Thursday!

    In addition to these monthly blogs I tweet daily (@drjacklewis) and am in the process of reviewing a different Virtual Reality game or experience on YouTube every single week for a full year (BrainManVR).

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  • Thou Shalt Adapt (To The “New Normal”)

    As the reality that everything is not going to go completely back to normal is sinking in, many people are starting to worry about what life is going to have in store for us when finally reach the so-called “new normal.” The good news, that at least keeps me buoyant when the future starts to look gloomy, is that the human brain has an incredible capacity to adapt to new circumstances. So whatever happens, it’s important to be calm, adopt new habits that help us to adjust to the changes and then try to stay positive.

    Home Office – rarely this tidy

    Many adults are finding themselves staying at home to work, which results inevitably in something of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, many are benefiting from up to ten more hours in bed per week than usual – thanks to the abolition of the commute. On the other hand, the close proximity of the fridge to the workplace leads to overindulgence and the expanding waist-line that results from this.

    In the early weeks of lockdown, the guidance that you could only go outside for absolutely essential activities or to take exercise inspired millions to get outside into uncharacteristic spring blue skies to get fit. Some actually did the full on work-out they would usually have done at the gym. Others simply laid down on yoga mats and stretched, book in hand, for hour upon hour. Now that it has become permissible to go outside without exercising, many who found themselves getting fitter not fatter in early lockdown have reversed the trend as the unlock starts to let us out under less stringent conditions. Where did all those people who were frantically exercising outside every single day in March go?

    Home Schooling – rarely this harmonious

    Most kids are not going into schools, which is not great for the kids, because it robs them of much needed social contact with their peers. It’s also not so great for many parents, because most don’t make good substitute teachers and having kids hanging around in the house all day makes getting a proper day’s work done even more of a struggle than usual.

    For those living in houseshares, the typical disharmonies caused by annoying housemates either making anti-social levels of noise in their bedrooms or simply leaving communal areas in a mess, become even harder to bear than normal. And for those, like me, who live and work alone, there’s a battle to be waged against social isolation. While some have it worse than others (and let’s spare a thought in particular for those suffering domestic abuse with yet more time stuck with their abusers) Covid-19 has caused some degree of chaos in all our lives.

    Much more static than in the early weeks of lockdown

    With the news banging on an on about the unprecedented “this” and the unprecedented “that” you’d be forgiven for thinking that something like this has never happened before; that we’re sailing in entirely uncharted waters. Yet Covid-19 aka SARS-2 is of course the second version of a new wave of viruses that cause the medical condition known as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. So while we’re still getting to know the characteristics of this particular one, we have some experience to draw on with a similar biological agent and humanity as a whole has been dealing with these kinds of threats for aeons. Yes – there are more humans on Earth than ever before and, until very recently, we’ve been flying all over the world at the drop of a hat spreading diseases faster and wider than was previously possible, but coping with infectious diseases on a vast scale is nothing new for humanity.

    Humans have always had to face major obstacles, often much harder and more dauntingly insurmountable ones than those we currently face. Our ancestors were engaged in a perpetual struggle for survival, staring death in the face on a daily basis, adapting their ways in an effort to diminish the disruption to their normal daily activities. Famine, pestilence and war, to name but three, have threatened humans for as long as we have roamed the planet. Yet the generations born from around the 1960’s until now have long acted as if they imagined that we were somehow immune to all these threats? That we had somehow raised ourselves beyond the reach of the catastrophes that have routinely blighted the lives of our ancestors? We’ve all had a bit of wake up call, but will it inspire us to be any less complacent, hubristic and entitled? Only time will tell…

    Science – we’re good at it, but we’re still at the mercy of mother nature to some degree

    The notion that we humans got so good at wielding science and technology that we, in the developed world at least, no longer had anything to fear from mother nature is utterly ridiculous. Yet, at the same time, it is entirely understandable. After all, intuitions derived from personal experience are the primary guiding light of most people’s world view. If the collective experience of a person’s social circles featured little in the way of deep personal suffering, then what reason would they have for suspecting that everything might NOT continue in that vain.

    The testimonies of older generations who personally experienced long term suffering in their lifetimes, and on a grand scale, certainly serve to remind the luckier later generations of how fragile the peace of the past handful of decades might be. Yet exposure to such personal anecdotes dwindle on an annual basis, as their numbers inevitably decline. While such important antidotes to hubris can also be conveyed by powerful films, books and documentaries, they lack the personal touch. Compared to the emotional impact of a dearly beloved grandparent’s own personal testimony of the hardships and horrors of war, reminders from the media pale in comparison.

    Icarus – beware hubris

    Like pampered princes and princesses, the majority of those enjoying the unprecedented comfort and safety of a childhood spanning the late 20th or early 21st centuries in western Europe had never really experienced the kind of suffering considered more or less inevitable by previous generations. Yes, everyone knows what it is to feel pain, or rejection, or disappointment, or guilt, but many previous generations suffered much more deeply and in a prolonged, rather than merely fleeting, fashion. With most people, on average, having had it easy compared to previous generations – we dared to imagine that, beyond the inevitable unlucky few struck down by disease or family catastrophe, we could use science and civilisation to keep the worst hardships of humanity at bay.

    While it might have come as a shock that a disease could cause such huge disruption to our normal lifestyles, we can take heart from the fact that our brains are, and always have been, built to adapt. Even in adulthood, we can physically change the connectivity between different areas of our brain to slowly but surely improve our abilities and develop a new repertoire of skills that might help us to adapt to the various changes forced on us by the callous hand of fate. By adapting our daily habits to bolster certain capabilities we can develop whatever cognitive capacities might help us to thrive in new environments, or indeed the same old environment we’ve always been immersed in, but where the goalposts have since been moved.

    Covid-19 is SARS-2, above is some data relating to the SARS-1 outbreak

    Given that SARS-2 is likely to come in waves, until everyone’s rolled the dice to find out whether it’s going to hit them mercilessly hard, or mercifully gently, we might as well start accepting now that everything is not going to go completely back to normal. Some people will find this more difficult to accept than others. Just to twist the dagger of reality yet further into the heart of denial: even after SARS-2 has run its course, it’s just a matter of time before SARS-3, SARS-4 and SARS-5 come along. So humanity will inevitably find itself spacing out a lot more in general, if it wants to avoid meeting the same fate at the rabbit population of the UK during the myxomatosis pandemic of the late 20th century. Given all of this, and buoyed by the fact that humans have been adapting to such chaos for hundreds of thousands of years, there is no time to waste. The time to start adopting some habits that will allow our brains to more quickly adapt to the new rules of the game is now.

    As well as these monthly brain articles, I also tweet about interesting neuroscience articles (@drjacklewis) and am in the process of reviewing a different virtual reality game or experience every week for a year on my YouTube channel (BrainManVR).

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  • The Science of Sin in VR

    I’ve travelled the length and breadth of the country giving my Science of Sin talk over the past couple of years but sadly, it seems, those days are over.

    I realised that my love affair with virtual reality positions me extremely well to simply switch my usual science communication activities over to the virtual so here are the fruits of one of my first few experiments: performing The Science of Sin in front of a live global audience of 3 people!

    (One audience member in Canada, one in Europe and one in South Korea)

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  • Paperback Edition of The Science of Sin – Out Now!

    Today, Thurs 2nd April, the paperback edition of my latest book – The Science Of Sin – was launched. Since the release of the hardback edition I’ve toured the length and breadth of the UK giving talks at science festivals, educational establishments and even at Warner Music during their well-being week. I’ve also done interviews on many TV and radio shows across the UK, Ireland, Portugal, USA and Australia. With each telling of the story of The Science Of Sin my understanding of the subject matter has deepened yet further. Based on this and the feedback I’ve received has led me to conclude that my efforts to integrate the ancient wisdom of religion with the latest neuroscience research genuinely can guide us towards a happier and healthier life.

    One of the main conclusions I’ve reached from mulling over The Science of Sin is that we should all do more to keep in check the primal urges that lead to excessive levels of pride, greed, lust, gluttony, sloth, envy and wrath; regardless of whether we believe in God and the afterlife or not. If we let any of these seven aspects of human behaviour reach extreme levels, we’re likely to find ourselves shunned by others. The problem is that if we were to find ourselves socially isolated for protracted periods of time, it would inevitably damage our physical health (lonely people die sooner than those with healthy social connections) and mental health (lonely people suffer a higher incidence of a variety of psychological complaints).

    Taking steps to protect against the anti-social impacts of the perfectly normal (and in moderation healthy and adaptive) behaviours described by Christianity as the seven deadly sins is not, by itself, sufficient to maintain meaningful social bonds with other people. Anybody who wants to maximise their overall well-being should also be keeping an eagle eye peeled for opportunities to help others in their local community. This is partly because every small act of altruism not only triggers a jolt of activation in brain’s reward pathway, making us feel good, but more importantly it helps us to reinforce our social bonds. It promotes gratitude from those on the receiving end of the kindness and also the urge to reciprocate. The knowledge that another person is keen to repay the favour is psychologically reassuring even if an opportunity to do so never actually arises.

    There are two observations within the pages of The Science of Sin derived from MRI brain imaging studies, that upon further reflection I now believe are of particular relevance to how we conduct our daily lives. Firstly, that anti-social urges pertinent to several of the deadly sins (specifically Wrath, Greed, Envy and Pride/narcissism) trigger activation of a brain area implicated in the experience of pain, whether physical or emotional. Secondly, that people who regularly practise mindful meditation end up physically changing the structure of brain areas involved in reducing activation levels in this brain area. Putting these two revelations together leads to the conclusion that those who take meditation seriously and commit to doing it on a daily basis over long periods of time should experience a significant improvement in the quality of life for several reasons. Not only will they find themselves better able to self-soothe, but it will also reduce the likelihood that their suffering might inspire the type of anti-social behaviour often leaves people socially ostracised from their local communities and probably has done since humans first started roaming the Earth.

    Given that half the world is currently experiencing social isolation to slow the proliferation of Covid-19, I would argue that The Science of Sin is now more relevant than ever. People have more time to read and reflect. Those lucky enough to enjoy good, healthy social connections will likely be experiencing some of the negative consequences of social isolation first hand. This will, for the time being at least, increase their appreciation of the vital role that regular contact with others makes in terms of improving mood and feelings of contentment. As a consequence they may find it easier to empathise with the suffering endured by people who’ve been feeling socially isolated for long periods of time; rather than just the temporary isolation we’re all enduring at the moment for the greater good.

    Any success in increasing empathy for the suffering of those prone to behave anti-socially because of the emotional turmoil their long term isolation triggers, will not only remind people of the importance of keeping their own anti-social demons in check (to avoid a similar fate), but perhaps more importantly it may encourage them to treat such people with compassion rather than spite.

    If we respond to other people’s anti-social behaviour by contemplating the emotional pain they are probably experiencing, rather than trying to fight fire with fire, then how we react to their antics is much more likely to address to the cause of their pain rather than its symptoms. By aiming to diminish rather than exacerbate their suffering, the other person is placed in a better position to manage their own belligerent inclinations. And, of course, this in turn should also help to mitigate against the emotional suffering that their unpleasant behaviour might be causing us.

    The paperback edition of The Science of Sin is now available across the whole world in all good bookshops and online (UK buyers can get 30% off by buying direct from the publisher). In addition to these monthly brain blogs I also tweet about interesting neuroscience articles that hit the lay press and review a different virtual reality experience every week on YouTube at Brain Man VR.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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