• Racing Brains

    KoenigseggI’ve been digging around in the scientific literature recently in search of research investigating racing drivers’ brains. Having stumbled a handful of pretty incredible facts I thought I’d devote this month’s blog to sharing these with you.

    Over many thousand of hours of practice and experience the driver’s brains become honed to perform the incredibly demanding cognitive task of getting round the track, lap after lap, as fast as human possible, without spinning out of control. This is much more physically demanding than most people imagine. For instance, the forces delivered through the steering wheel when travelling at up to 200 mph on a typical track can reach a magnitude equivalent to carrying 9 kg in each hand. Maintaining the intensely focused concentration required to deal with the stream of rapidly changing sensory information also requires razor sharp reflexes and amazingly fast reaction times. In fact, one study demonstrated that there is no overlap in the spread of reaction times between elite and amateur racing drivers (as measured by the Vienna Reaction Apparatus). In other words, the slowest reaction times for the elite drivers across the whole experiment were still faster than the best reaction times logged by the amateurs.

    adrenalsAnother biological specialisation exhibited by the elite drivers is their capacity to produce adrenaline. Their adrenal glands are larger than the rest of us so that they can produce more of this vital performance-enhancing hormone under high pressure racing circumstances. Adrenaline increases blood flow to the brain, heart and skeletal muscles, inducing an elevated heart rate and ventilation, whilst narrowing the blood vessels that feed other organs like the digestive system. This improves reaction times and the strength of muscular contractions to enable fight or flight to take place; or both as is the case in racing drivers. This is not specific to racing drivers. Athletes from many different sports have been found to have an enlarged adrenal gland, something referred to in the literature as the Sports Adrenal Medulla.

    A further study compared the release of adrenaline and noradrenaline (primary neurotransmitter of the sympathetic nervous system) in elite racing drivers as they cycled to exhaustion in a staged bike ride versus whilst racing their cars. They were found to produce double the quantity of adrenaline whilst racing, as measured via detection of metabolites in their urine. I found this finding particularly extraordinary. You might have imagined that exercising to exhaustion would be more demanding on the body, but it just goes to show how cognitively demanding racing is. Presumably the extra adrenaline is required to help the brain deal with cognitive demands.

    retrosplenialSeveral studies have scanned the brains of elite racing drivers using fMRI revealing that there is relatively little activity across the cortical surface compared to amateur drivers. This is thought to reflect the fact that racing is simply less taxing for the elite drivers. Much more of the cognitive processing required to manoeuvre the car around a constantly changing terrain at great speed can be handled subconsciously, freeing up precious conscious resources for dealing with unexpected occurrences.

    Their extensive training also seems to have led to some racing driving-specific brain specialisations as they appear to exhibit greater activation in the retrosplenial cortex. This area is known to be involved in creating a view-independent model of environment being navigated. In other words it enables them to build a picture of the whole track in their mind’s eye so that they have an awareness of what to expect beyond the next turn. This skill is clearly vital to staying on the ideal racing line.

    IMG_8062I recently pitted my own amateur racing skills against Christoffer – the official test driver of the Koenigsegg supercar – in an ultra-realistic simulator of Spain’s famous Ascari race track. The real thing, which he drives on a daily basis, is capable of producing 1,400 brake horsepower! Putting that into context, that’s two and a half times more powerful than a top of the range Ferrari! I don’t think it will come as any surprise to hear that he smashed me out of the park.

    In addition to these monthly blogs you can also follow me on Twitter for a daily download of the most interesting neuroscience research to hit the press. In addition to my first best-selling book Sort Your Brain Out, my second Mice Who Sing For Sex is now available to pre-order and tells the story of over a hundred weird and wonderful nuggets of research from full the length and breadth of scientific research.

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  • Mood Foods to Boost the Movie Experience by Dr Jack Lewis

    I recently did a little digging around in the scientific and medical literature for clues to foods that could boost mood in a way that might enhance various movie viewing experiences. I promised those who were listening to radio interviews I did across the UK that I would post these findings in my monthly brain blog, so here you go… 😉

    The basic premise of these recommendations is that many people these days feed themselves almost exclusively on highly processed foods. Sadly such diets often lack certain vital nutrients that are critical for the production of important brain chemicals. Different neurotransmitters systems are fundamental to the generation of different brain states (i.e. mood / emotional responses to events in the outside world). The idea is that eating the right foods will ensure there is a plentiful supply of all the relevant chemical messengers when the brain requires them to produce the appropriate emotional state.

    What’s usually missing from people’s diet, in this regard, is either the basic raw materials from which complex messenger chemicals like the neurotransmitters noradrenaline, serotonin, dopamine and hormones like testosterone are actually built from and/or certain trace elements, such as copper, zinc and magnesium, which are a vital component of the enzymes that enable those raw chemical building blocks to be converted into the relevant neurotransmitters / hormones.

    Below is a brief account of moods that may be enhanced by including certain key ingredients to ensure that all the necessary chemical messengers are available when needed, plus movie genres that I suggest might be boosted if these ingredients are included in a meal consumed prior to watching your chosen film.

    Aim: To enhance the viewing experience of five different film genres by eating specific foods.

    Method: Published research in the scientific literature was reviewed to identify foods that could influence brain states to increase enjoyment of a film by:

    • Increasing excitement – to boost the enjoyment of ACTION movies
    • Increasing happiness– to boost the enjoyment of COMEDIES
    • Increasing focus – to boost the enjoyment of DOCUMENTARY / DRAMAS
    • Increasing anxiety – to boost the enjoyment of HORROR movies
    • Increasing libido – to boost the enjoyment of ROMANTIC films

    Results: Various foods have been identified for which evidence exists to indicate that they impact certain aspects of body and/ or brain physiology in such a way as to potentially influence a person’s emotional state:

    • The following meal may boost excitement of ACTION movies by increasing noradrenaline availability (which mediates the effects of the sympathetic nervous system i.e. increasing heart rate, dilating pupils, dilating blood vessels of muscles in preparation for fight or flight) via a large dose of l-phenylalanine (building block of dopamine) & traces of the mineral copper (vital to the function of the enzyme dopamine-beta-decarboxylasewhich catalyses the conversion of dopamine into noradrenaline), e.g.:
      • Chicken, beef, or tofu pasta with sundried tomatoes, basil and cashew nuts
    • Meal elevating mirth-levels with l-phenylalanine for extra brain dopamine plus nitrates (converted into nitrites by bacteria that live in everyone’s mouth) to enhance nitric oxide release (which dilates blood vessels when you laugh at a funny scene) throughout the brain for COMEDY, e.g.:
      • Beefburger and sweet potato chips served with beetroot, celery & coleslaw
    • Meal enabling sustained focus using slow-release carbohydrates (rather than fast-release carbohydrates which induces the “sugar roller coaster“), powerful stimulating flavours (to activate the reticular activating systems to jolt your brain awake), plus a peppermint dessert (improving sustained attention), ideal for DOCS & DRAMAS:
      • Lemon, chilli fish served with on brown rice, seasonal vegetable, nuts & seeds
    • Meals high in protein/fat and low in carbohydrades (i.e. Atkins diet-esque foods) to eliminate the comforting influence of foods rich in carbohydrate (potato, pasta etc which causes elevated levels of brain serotonin) plus stimulants (e.g. coffee) to get your heart beating faster to provide for a more anxious frame of mind to scare you witless during a HORROR:
      • All day English breakfast fry up (without bread), followed by a strong coffee
      • Scaredy cats may wish to do the exact reverse to make the horror less, er, horrifying
    • Meal rich in cholesterol (raw material from which testosterone is produced) and nutrients (rich in zinc and magnesiumviital for the enzymes involved in testosterone synthesis) that maximises availability of testosterone to make a ROMANTIC film more emotionally-arousing (well, erotic to be precise):
      • Lamb satay with edamame, broccoli, garlic & coriander with egg fried rice
      • or a Creamy (dairy is a good source of cholesterol), Beef (rich in zinc), Curry (coriander is rich in magnesium)

    As you may be able to tell from these suggested dishes – I ain’t no chef! So feel free to re-organise the suggested ingredients to your own taste…

    Please don’t leave a comment because I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve lost the battle against the spambots. I have to wade through 500 spam messages before I find a real one, so if you do wish to comment please do so on Twitter. If you wish to follow @DrJackLewis on Twitter then you will be privy to thrice daily #braintweets – I sift through all the breaking brain news tweeting only those articles that I deem to be reliable, relevant and compelling, thus worthy of your attention…

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  • Brain-Informed Flirting: Dr Jack’s Debut on MTV

    Dr Jack appears on MTV’s Plain Jane, 9pm, Wed 2nd Nov 2011

    On Tues 2nd November a beautifully shot episode of “Plain Jane” airs across Europe on MTV at 21.00 (GMT). British fashion journalist, Louise Roe, takes sweet but slightly awkward, inelegant young women and transforms them into confident, gorgeous divas.

    The aim: to hone their raw potential into a final product that enables them to win their secret crush.

    In a nutshell: Louise meets “Jane” who explains why she just can’t seem to make a good impression, they go shopping, “Jane” gets some expert date training, confronts phobias via adrenaline sport and then turns up to a lavish date in an exotic location to seduce her man – a man who has no idea who his date for the night will be. Sure, you’ve heard it all before, except that in this particular makeover show they’ve injected some brain science!

    Last summer, MTV invited me out to the beautiful alpine lake town of Montreaux (directly opposite the iconic mountains of Evian bottle fame) to provide a little brain-informed date training.

    Having a neuroscientist provide inspiration to a girl trying to get ahead in the love game may sound a bit odd, but at the end of the day it is the brain after all that produces the experience of love in the first place.

    The “Plain Jane” of this episode goes by the name of Sarah – a tomboy by day and a little bit too slutty by night. Her difficulty essentially boils down to the fact that she simply tries too hard and becomes clumsy when in the company of guys she really likes.

    Once her shopping trip to Geneva and morning at the local Swiss finishing school were successfully completed, I coached her with a few choice tips on how to get the best out of her brain when chatting with the hottest young gentlemen that the Swiss Alps had to offer.

    She was given the opportunity to practice putting this advice into action with a medley of men from the European brat pack in a beautiful hotel that looks out across the serene grace of Lake Geneva.

    Lake Geneva for a spot of brain-informed flirt training

    On a date, if one person perceives the other to be uncomfortable then that makes them feel uncomfortable too, setting up a downward spiral.

    However by thinking about the signals that your body language, tone of voice, enthusiasm with which you embrace certain topics of conversation sends out, an explosion of dopamine and serotonin can be triggered in the other person’s brain to make them feel comfortable and happy.

    I explained to Sarah the mechanisms at work in her brain that lead to her trying too hard to impress and the influence that this subsequently has on her date’s brain state. I spoke with her about how the adrenaline and cortisol release that can put a person on edge can also be harnessed to produce a spark of excitement. I explained ways in which she can wield the power of the oxytocin neurohormone that, when released in the brain, leads to feelings of trust, comfort and bonding; luring that man into her spell.

    How much of this ends up hitting the cutting room floor and how much into the final cut remains to be seen.  Either way I think that MTV deserves a little credit for being forward-thinking enough to employ a neuroscientist as one of their dating coaches in the first place! Personally I’m going to be watching on Wed at 9pm because I’m really keen to find out whether or not she got her guy. She was firing on all cylinders when I last saw her so I’m cautiously confident that it might just have gone her way. Plain Jane, 9pm, Wed 2nd Nov, MTV.

    In addition to these fortnightly brainposts you can also get my daily #braintweet – pearls of brain science that I distil into 140 characters – by following me on Twitter.

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  • Psychology of Travel by Dr Jack Lewis

    32 participants viewed a wide variety of different holiday activities whilst EEG measured the degree to which their brains were engaged by each image

    In Autumn 2010 I was presented with an exciting opportunity: to act as neuroscience consultant for the neuromarketing section of a study that Sparkler, a leading media market research company, were conducting on behalf of Thomson Holidays. Thomson had expressed an interest in understanding the psychology of travel. Up until recently their tag line was: “Holidays built with you in mind”. I immediately envisaged the compelling possibility of changing this to: “Holidays built with your mind“.

    We decided to use EEG (electroencephalography) to measure the degree to which participants brains’ were engaged by photos depicting various holiday activities. This enabled comparison of these objective measurements of brain engagment with participants’ subjective ratings of how much they would like to do the activities portrayed. Prior to the main body of the experiment, participants were run through some preliminary testing that enabled the software to establish the pattern of brain activity that occurs when: 1) the individual’s attention was engaged, and 2) their emotions were stimulated. The degree of “brain engagement” with photos of various holiday activities (described below) was established by comparing the pattern of brain responses to each photo, with these subject-specific baseline measurements of attention and emotional engagement.

    The EEG cap holds 22 separate electrodes at locations distributed across the scalp surface and the raw signal for each electrode is illustrated above. The pattern of activity when engaged in attentional and emotional pre-tasks is used as a baseline against which “brain engagement” with each holiday photo can be measured

    The photos explored a broad stimulus space, spanning a continuum from pedestrian, unambitious holiday activities like sitting on a deckchair on the beach or reading a book by the pool, to adventurous holiday activities like jungle trekking and abseiling. The activities also ranged across a hedonistic to mind-expanding continuum: fun-packed pursuits like clubbing or indulging in spa treatments to exploring local communities, communing with nature and cultural activities like visiting galleries or monuments.

    We divided our 32 participants up into 4 different personality types, according to whether they scored “relatively high” or “realtively low” on two of the Big 5 personality traits: Neuroticism and Extraversion. Neuroticism is the tendency to experience negative mood states, particularly anxiety, whilst Extraversion is the tendency to be positively engaged with one’s environment. Those that scored high on both scales were our “anxious extraverts” (N+E+), those that scored low on both scales were our “laid back introverts” (N-E-), those that scored high on one measure and low on the other were our “anxious introverts” (N+E-) and “laid back extroverts” (N-E+), respectively. If you’re curious you can try it yourself and see how you score on these measures (PersonalityTest).

    These were the holiday activities that were most consistently among the highest preference ratings (subjective scores) across all personality groups

    The first fascinating insight from this study was that, across the board, all personality types subjectively rated a certain category of stimuli – the adventurous and slightly mind-expanding activities like  jungle cruising, visiting a waterfall and horse trekking – amongst their most favoured activities. Yet for two of our personality types these were the very images that engaged their brains the least!! The “anxious extraverts” (N+E+) brains’ were actually most strongly engaged by images depicting much more relaxing activities such as reading by the pool or watching TV in the hotel room. Similarly the “laid-back introverts” (N-E-) brains’ were most strongly engaged by photos of spa treatments or watching traditional dancers or a band in action. Might this suggest that we are not as adventurous as we would like to believe?

    Brain engagement (in dark grey) data from the “Anxious Extravert” (N+E+) personality group overlaid on their subjective preferences (in red). Activities rated as most liked (e.g. scuba diving and jungle trek) were the very same that induced the least brain engagment, which was instead most piqued by relaxing images of reading by the pool / watching TV in the hotel room etc.

    It seems that only “anxious introverts” (N+E-) know their own minds – they were the only group whose subjective preference ratings matched their objective measurements of brain engagement. And as for the “laid-back extraverts” (N-E+), the very people you would expect to favour a big night out clubbing or pursuing their love for adrenaline sports, they were actually much more engaged by photos of people walking through hills and parks or visiting galleries and cultural sites.

    There are many perfectly reasonable explanations for why we might not have a clear idea of what we really want in a holiday. Kent Berridge has been researching hedonic responses for decades and has established clear differences between liking and wanting. In the context of our study, it is perfectly feasable to like the idea of trekking through the jungle but at the same time not really wanting to waste our precious week’s holiday being bitten by insects, sleeping amidst predators and struggling to preserve our last precious drops of drinking water. There is also the positive illusion of self-enhancement to contend with, whereby the concept of ourselves as an “adventurous-type” falls down when we find ourselves struggling to think of a single example of something genuinely adventurous that we have achieved in the recent past. Not to mention cognitive dissonance, the various potentially conflicting factors that co-exist in our brains as we consider the suitability of each holiday option in terms of whether it suits our wishes and needs, as well as those of our partners and children. In order to reduce the cognitive dissonance all sorts of nonsense can come out of our mouths as we fail to make sense of all these competing considerations thwarting our ability to reach a sensible conclusion.

    This was just the very first step into exploring the Psychology of Travel and credit must go to Thomson Holidays for funding an extremely ambitious and wide-ranging, blue skies pilot study. A journalist from the Independent newspaper, realising that this would make a great story, took us up on our offer of putting him through the half hour experiment to investigate the difference between his stated preferences and brain engagement (read his article here). I sincerely believe that there is great potential for this pioneering sortie into the world of travel psychology to be honed and developed into experimental paradigms that are repeatable and therefore publishable in peer-reviewed academic journals. Who knows, in light of these early findings, perhaps one day, in the not-so-distant future, booking a holiday will be as simple as wiring our personal EEG cap into a computer and waiting for the results of our brains’ responses to various holiday pics to be converted into a bespoke selection of holiday options that suit us down to the ground?

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