• Superstitions & Conspiracies

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

    Do you believe in the supernatural?

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

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

    Wifi in the home poses no threat to your brain

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

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

    Do you wish upon a falling star?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    I am, of course, joking.

    Or am I…?

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

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

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

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  • Smartphone Overuse and the (Potential) Demise of Civility

    by Dr Jack Lewis

    At least once a month I find myself reading a neuroscience research paper, followed by a passage from a book I currently have on the go (or vice versa) and a novel insight linking the two will blow me away. It happens so often that I’ve toyed with the idea of launching a spin-off blog called Serendipity in Science. This ridiculous notion is soon extinguished by the realisation that, as I only just manage to churn out one brain blog per month for this website, let alone the blogs I should be doing for the sortyourbrainout.com and sciofsin.com blogs, it makes more sense just to keep focusing on getting it all down here. So here goes…

    This month I’ve been spending a lot of time combing through every research paper I can get my hands on that has investigated what over-immersion in technology might be doing to human brains. Concurrently, I’ve been reading a little bit of Prof Steven Pinker’s awesome Better Angels of Our Nature each morning. The former is very much in its infancy and so this ever-expanding body of literature remains a bit patchy. The latter enjoys a much sturdier footing and makes a compelling argument to support the idea that, despite the pervading sense of doom that convinces many people that humanity is going to the dogs, as far as the hard facts are concerned, we’ve never had it so good. Essentially, the odds of a person dying in a violent confrontation were extremely high during pre-history (based on the archaeological record) and has been steady in decline since historical records began, until now each of us are statistically extremely unlikely to meet a violent end. While the various bloody conflicts that raged throughout much of the early 20th century might have seemed unprecedented – something of a crescendo of human suffering – when deaths from bloody conflicts are measured as a proportion of the total population, several wars from earlier centuries of the past two millennia were just as deadly.

    In my experience this is one of the best places to stumble on new combinations of ideas

    The seemingly miraculous process of pacification that resulted in the Long Peace of the present era was driven by several factors. One was that we started cooperating in larger and larger groups that offered greater stability by ensuring that each nation’s best interests overlapped with those of their neighbours. As humans moved away from the historically common arrangement of living within one of a large number of small groups (each with several rival neighbouring groups with whom competition over resources often led to conflict, and still does in some parts of the world to this day), to a smaller number of much larger groups, we gradually became less and less likely to die at the hands, blades or bullets of a bellicose foe. So the lion’s share of the pacification process was the development of stable states that did not just make laws but was also able to enforce them fairly and consistently. Another surprisingly influential part of the overall process has been attributed, believe it or not, to the emergence of etiquette.

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

    Developing commonly accepted standards of etiquette helped us rein in our baser impulses

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

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

    This was passage that knocked me for six, because that same
    week I had been poring over a review of all scientific research to date
    investigating the potential negative impacts of smartphone overuse on cognition.
    While the never-ending flow of scaremongering headlines and (mostly speculative)
    popular science books about the perils posed by overuse of smartphones, the
    internet and screens in general might have led people to suspect the worse, the
    hard evidence is actually rather thin on the ground. That said, two findings
    are supported by a growing body of data:

    Firstly, overuse of smartphones leads to a steeper delay discounting curve – in other words, intensive use of smartphones is associated with greater impatience when it comes to choosing between smaller rewards after a short delay and greater rewards after a longer delay.

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

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

    I’ve often found myself annoyed by the sight of couples out on a date, both head down, endlessly scrolling through the posts on one form of social media or another. Large families around the table in restaurant can often be found squinting into their smartphones while younger kids are mesmerised by cartoons on a tablet. While I can fully understand the practical advantages of the latter scenario, I often wonder whether it might end in tears for kids in the long run. After all, to develop effective powers of self-control this vital skill need to be exercised regularly and kids simply aren’t getting the practice they used to.

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

    In essence, the evidence suggests that overuse of smartphones makes people less able to wait for a better reward later on and temporarily incapable of taking other people’s perspectives. As improving skills of empathy and delayed gratification have been deemed (by Pinker and the researchers upon which he bases his arguments) to be an instrumental part of the process of making people more civilised (and therefore less likely inflict harm on those around them), it seems distinctly possible that those who overuse their smartphones could end up behaving in an increasingly anti-social manner, compared to those who use them in moderation. Could people who overuse their smartphones really be more prone to uncivilised behaviour?

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

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

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

    Personally, I’m all up for embracing new technologies. I’m just strongly averse to surrendering control to them. And I could never be accused of being a modern day Luddite. In fact, I’ve been spending the past months experimenting with Virtual Reality and over the past few weeks have even been starting to build my own games. As with everything, I think the rule of thumb that helps people yield all the benefits of technology while avoiding the potential drawbacks is a simple case of: everything in moderation.

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

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

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

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  • The Fast 800

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

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

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

    Farewell old friend

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

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

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

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

    Great book

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    High Intensity Interval Training is a great way to burn fat

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

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

    Exercise is REALLY good for you

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

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

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  • Changing Brains

    Zazetsky & Luria

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

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

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

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

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

    The Mozart Effect – a load of old nonsense

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

    Sort Your Brain Out

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

    Juggling changes your brain

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

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

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

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

    Keyboard musicians change their brains

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

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

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

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

    Drummers change their brains

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

    Sanskrit scholars change their brains

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

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

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

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

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

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

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  • 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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