In Sept 2013 I gave my “Brain Coach” talk at both Dulwich College and Sydenham High School. That’s the second consecutive year that Sydenham girls entering their GCSE exam year will get my crash course in applied neuroscience. It covers changes that take place in their brains as they learn and various neuroscience-informed strategies to manage stress better, stabilise mood, boost problem solving and enhance exam performance. It’s the third year in a row that I’ve shared these insights with Dulwich lads about to embark on their A-levels. Nothing quite like repeat business to confirm you have a product that is highly valued and well received!
I’d jump at the chance to give this talk at schools all around the country. Feedback from teachers year on year indicates that students really do benefit from a better understanding of what is going on within their skulls as they learn and acquire new skills. Understanding that all their effort and hard work actually leads to physical changes in the brain is highly motivating – the audience is left to connect the dots themselves – there’s no need to ram it down their throats. Realizing that feeling stressed is a sign that body and mind are being mobilized to deal with the cause of the stress turns a negative into a positive – simply by pointing out the common misunderstanding. And advice on how to reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol when it all starts to become too much to bear gives the students a sense of control over their state of mind. Mnemonic techniques to help them retain important information in mind not just for exams, but for a lifetime – surely the whole point of education after all – has a completely transparent utility. Here’s some feedback from a teacher Lisa Cornell who invited me to speak at Sydenham High School:
The talk .. was inspirational for staff and students alike. The students enjoyed your informal yet informative style. You made difficult concepts easy to grasp. They especially liked how you applied these high level ideas to their everyday lives and studying. You were witty and most importantly not in the slightest bit patronising. You managed to use an array of high level language and technical terms [yet] alienated nobody. I particularly liked how you broke down the latin of long words (eg explaining adrenal).
From a teacher point of view you were engaging, entertaining and a very safe pair of hands for our students to work with. A very good litmus test for any speaker is if students stay behind to speak with you. That you had a ten strong audience of Y11s for half an hour after home time says a lot. Some of those students who stayed I have never seen so enthusiastic about anything!”
The trouble is, popular as these talks are once teachers have actually had the opportunity to witness one, it is extremely difficult to find the right person to speak with in the first place. I’ve tried contacting the registered Heads of PSHE across London and into the Home Counties. This seemed appropriate given that my Brain Coach talk is beneficial to students and teachers from all disciplines, not just those with a particular interest in STEM subjects. But no new opportunities came of it in the long run and so I continue to do 1hr or 2hr talk just a handful of times per year in a few privileged schools.
I would love to get up on stage in front of many more schools each year as I genuinely feel it is one of the best uses of my broad knowledge of neuroscience and aptitude for conveying it in plain english. If you would like me to speak at your or your teenager’s school then please do drop me a line.
You might also consider following me on Twitter. I flag at least 3 interesting pearls of wisdom from the world of neuroscience and psychology research every day.
Rats fed high fructose corn syrup supplement navigate a maze significantly slower than others fed normal rat feed: click here for full article. Researchers suspect that the increase in insulin that results from high blood sugars may be to blame. In the body insulin serves to instigate biochemical process by which the sugar is taken out of the blood and put into storage. Yet although insulin can get into the brain, there no room there for excess sugars to be stored and so its role in the brain is not well understood. It is thought that elevated levels of insulin induced by the ingestion of sugary foods somehow interferes with the mechanisms of learning.
Whatever the cause of this disruption to the brain apparatus for maze navigation – a highly cognitively demanding ability – the study also observed that rats fed flax seed oil, a source of the essential fatty acid: omega 3, were protected from the debilitating effects of a high sugar diet.
And what does this mean to you? Stop stuffing your face with sweets, fizzy pop, cake and other snack foods high in quick release simple sugars. They cause your blood sugars to roller coaster in the following way:
1) large quantities of insulin are released (from your pancreas) to bring blood glucose levels back down to safe levels (by putting it into storage – ultimately as fat surrounding organs and under the skin).
2) Very high levels of insulin will often remove too much glucose from the blood – leading to hypoglycaemia.
3) Very low blood glucose levels detected in the brain (the hypothalamus, if you’re interested) triggers feelings of hunger and food seeking behaviours, which invariably entice modern man into a hunt for snack foods. These of course usually comprise high sugar foods sending blood sugars rocketing (please go back to stage 1).
It has been known for some time that the beta cells of the pancreas, which produce and release insulin, get worn out through overuse and that the insulin receptors doing the bidding of this life-saving hormone become increasingly unresponsive after decades of overuse resulting in diabetes, obesity and ultimately heart complications. What is new here is the suggestion that even before all that damage is even done the high levels of circulating insulin might be blunting our cognitive capacities.
How to avoid the sugar roller coaster?
Slow release carbohydrates. Eat porridge for breakfast and vegetables, fruit, wholegrain-rich meals for lunch and dinner so that all the carbohydrates aren’t dumped immediately into your blood stream – but instead are gradually released over the course of hours rather than minutes.
Not only will this help to protect against diet-related diabetes and obesity, but it will stabalise mood AND it seems from this latest research – improve your cognitive abilities to boot.
In addition to these brainblogs you can follow me on Twitter and if you like the sound of this Brain Optimisation Principle then why not book a Brain Coach Live seminar so I can share the other BOPs I’ve accumulated over 15 years of studying the brain.
Over the last few years that I have been heavily involved in science communication, whether writing up ideas for a television series, articles for newspapers, book proposals, #Braintweets and so on, I’ve stumbled upon a great variety of neuroscience-informed pearls of wisdom that can help everyone get the most out of their brains. A few months ago I decided to put together a series of hour-long presentations packed with general tips on maximising brain performance through improvements in diet and exercise, strategies for improving memory retention, dealing with stress and a highly visual and animated crash course in neuroscience. I figured that, as everyone has a brain, but take for granted all the amazing things that our brains are able to do, it was high time that people started hearing about what neuroscience and psychology have discovered about what goes on inside these skulls of ours when we see, think or move. In particular, I wanted to convey some of the many things that can be done to improve our memories, increase alertness and concentration, harness rather than worry about stress and to adopt habits that enable us to get the best out of our brains.
Earlier this month I took the first version of this talk, aimed specifically at teenagers, to a school in Somerset where I presented to a couple of hundred kids who will be taking their GCSEs next year (click here for the overview: BrainCoachLiveOverview). I demonstrated that they had already been using a a mnemonic technique for many years: BrainCoachLiveMy1stMnemonic and described another, more powerful technique that would make their revision more interesting, entertaining and effective: BrainCoachLiveChainMnemonic. I explained why stress is important (in small doses) to mobilise body and brain to deal with stressful situations and suggested various strategies that they could use to prevent stress spilling over into panic. I described why practice makes perfect in terms of processes that occur within the brain as a direct result of to regular training in any particular skill. I explained why regular exercise is not just good for the body, but also for the brain, and ways to avoid the peaks and troughs of the sugar roller coaster. In a nutshell the “sugar roller coaster” results from regular doses of sugar in the form of sweets and fizzy drinks, which produces an unhealthy alternation between too much and too little blood glucose throughout each and every day. This causes peaks and troughs in energy levels that play havoc with an adolescent’s ability to concentrate and are easily remedied with some simple dietry changes. I intend to roll this seminar out to schools throughout the UK and am planning a seminar tour for 2011, so if you are interested in having me give this talk at your school, please do click “Contact” in the top right corner and drop me a line.
On the 15th February 2011 I’ll be giving a lecture along similar lines at University College London’s School of Biosciences and intend to roll this out to other universities, in the first instance around London, but ultimately all over the UK and beyond. I am also developing a version tailored to various sectors of the corporate world. In January 2011 I’ll be putting together a bespoke seminar and workshop for a large team of pharamaceutical sales representatives at an offsite meeting in Tenerife. I have also previously given a talk tailored to the needs of an older audience, this time for regulars at an Age Concern social club in South West London, where my tips on how to Hang Onto Your Marbles well into old age went down very well indeed.
I am happy to consider any public speaking engagement where the audience might wish to better understand how their brains’ work and what they can do to optimise brain function in a wide variety of contexts. If you wish to suggest a brain-related theme that you would be interested to learn more about please do consider leaving a comment below. Perhaps you would be interested in learning the various methods that have been invented over the years for stimulating creativity. If there is a subject matter that several people would like to learn more about then I will consider creating a presentation to explain what neuroscience can tell us about the matter. I could then either deliver this to you in a live presentation, or alternatively I could film the presentation and post it on YouTube. In the past, when readers of my posts have asked to learn more about a certain subject matter, I have written a post especially for them (please see my chronic pain post).
My overall goal with these Brain Coach Live seminars are really very straightforward:
- to illuminate the secret world inside our skulls in a manner that is comprehensible and relevant to everybody’s day-to-day life
- to illustrate the mechanisms by which we learn, get stressed and make decisions
- to improve brain health and brain function with a variety of simple adjustments to our daily routine and the adoption of good brain habits