I haven’t had a new TV series on the box for quite some time, but at 9pm tonight on Sky channel 279 my latest series Secrets of the Brain hits our screens. The first episode is all about memory. I take on the reigning world memory champion in a devilishly difficult mnemonic challenge and learn from him the techniques he uses to retain mind-bogglingly large amounts of information in a surprisingly short period of time.
Secrets of the Brain is also available to stream in ultra-high definition at www.insight.tv and the first 3 episode have already been released, available to view at your leisure, anytime. Over the course of each of these 10 x 1 hour episodes we explore the depths of human brain function by meeting people with amazing brains and others with extraordinary brain malfunctions.
I hang out with the Iceman Wim Hoff to understand how we can all plunge ourselves into icy water with minimum discomfort by following a few simple techniques. I meet an amputee whose state of the art prosthetic limb has enabled him to conquer his phantom limb pain. I go car racing around the track at Goodwood as part of my investigation into how our perception of time can expand and contract according to what we happen to be doing at the time. I spend an uncomfortable night wired up in a sleep lab, meet people suffering with narcolepsy and keep some student guinea pigs up all night to gain a better understanding of the importance of sleep. I get hammered to investigate the effect of alcohol on creativity. I interview one of Europe’s leading ophthalmic surgeons as he conducts surgery to implant a telescopic lens into the eye of a patient suffering with macular degeneration. I meet someone with acquired prosopagnosia, who is completely unable to recognise faces, even those of his nearest and dearest. I dine on a delicious multisensory feat with a synaesthetic man to get a handle on how our sense can get cross-wired. Throughout this adventure I’m accompanied by Pete Heat; a man with hundreds of tricks up his sleeve that really help bring the science to life with some brilliant magic.
All this, and more, coming up over the next few weeks in what I genuinely think might be my best TV work to date. The Brighton-based production company who made the series – Lambent Productions – are some of the loveliest TV people I’ve ever worked with. Every single member of staff went above and beyond the call of duty to make this series as good as it could possibly be. I’m very grateful to everyone who gave their absolute best every day and in particular Ollie Tait (co-MD of Lambent) with whom I worked very closely throughout. It’s always great to work with people who make you feel relaxed in front of camera and they really did make me feel extremely comfortable and relaxed. I’d almost go so far as to say a part of the family. And I really hope that comes across…
As well as these monthly blogs you can also follow me on Twitter. Also, in addition to my first book Sort Your Brain Out, my second offering Mice Who Sing For Sex is now available to preorder. It is the book of the Geek Chic Weird Science podcast I do with Lliana Bird, telling the story of over a hundred weird and wonderful nuggets of research to hit the press from many different scientific disciplines.
Have you ever heard of the Iceman? He is a remarkable Dutchman who has developed what seems like genuine superpowers. His many accomplishments include hiking up Mount Kilimanjaro wearing just hiking boots and shorts, swimming underwater for over 50m in a frozen Finnish lake and running a marathon 200m north of the Arctic Circle. However the most impressive thing about this particular real-life superhuman is that far from claiming to be unique, instead he boasts that anyone can do it. In the process of taking steps to prove this to the doubters he has brought the Wim Hoff method under scientific scrutiny which has led directly to an amazing discovery – we really can control our immune systems!!
I choose to write about this now because on 1st Jan 2016 I had to shrug off my hangover to fly to Amsterdam. On the 2nd Jan 2016 I met up with a Professor of Immunology to discuss the latest published scientific studies on the Iceman and his disciples designed to test and ultimately explain the mechanisms though which their impressive abilities to withstand the pain of freezing cold temperatures might be achieved. Then on the morning of 3rd Jan 2016 I finally met Wim Hoff and by midday, after just an hour’s training, I was neck deep in a cold lake in the middle of the Dutch countryside with 300 enthusiasts. Life can be strange sometimes.
What I learned over the course of these few illuminating days in the Netherlands at the beginning of the month is that the Wim Hoff technique essentially involves three key processes: hyperventilation, cold immersion and a meditative mind state. Better still, each stage actually feeds into the next in a scientifically plausible manner.
Hyperventilation – what is it good for?
When we think of hyperventilation most people focus on the fact that it will saturate the blood with oxygen thus enabling more energy to be released when performing some kind of physically or mentally demanding task. Of course by breathing in and out, deeply and rapidly, for prolonged periods of time (in my case 3 sets of 30 full inhalation/exhalation cycles) as well as increasing oxygen input it will also eliminate more of the major waste material of metabolism that is carbon dioxide. And this, it turns out, is the most important part of the equation when it comes to withstanding environmental temperatures that would usually be deemed to be painfully cold.
When carbon dioxide is dissolved in your blood it forms a weakly acidic solution called carbonic acid. So the more carbon dioxide in your blood the more acidic it is. Conversely by removing more and more of this carbon dioxide from solution you can consciously exert control over your blood’s pH by making it increasingly alkaline. In fact, it turns out that a pro like Wim can shift his blood pH from 7.2 right up to a more alkaline 7.85. Now that might not sound like a huge difference, but bearing in mind that on a scale that runs from 1 (extremely acidic) to 14 (extremely alkaline) this make 7.2 more or less bang on neutral and 7.85 is getting into the realms of weakly alkaline.
Alkaline blood – so what?
So what happens if you make your blood weakly alkaline through a few bouts of hyperventilation. I’ll give you a clue, why would women in the process of giving birth to a child instinctively hyperventilate? Pain relief. You see what Wim stumbled upon as he was experimenting with different techniques to try and find the peace of mind he sought during the years after his wife died in 1995 leaving him to raise 4 children single-handedly was that by making your blood every so slightly alkaline you render pain receptors inoperable.
There is a special “trimer” protein inside your skin’s nociceptors – the specialised receptors embedded in your skin that send electrical messages to the brain that end up being perceived as painful whenever a potentially damaging stimulus (like extreme cold) is detected in the environment. Trimers are so-called because they are formed from three separate strings of amino acids that wrap around each other to form a complex structure with a very specific function – signalling pain. But in the presence of slightly alkaline blood these three parts separate rendering the pain receptors unable to send any signals. Therefore the invigorating cold can be experienced in the absence of an associated perception of pain! So simple, but so clever.
How Cold Immersion begets a Meditative State
As I discovered on that cool day in early January, once you’ve got your blood alkalinity up through hyperventilation you can immerse yourself in cold water without feeling any pain. You do feel the cold, just with the aversive component of this experience switched off. And it was this experience of cold without pain that helped Wim to focus his mind not on the horrors of the past, not on the worrying aspects of the future, but to be centred entirely on the present. The exhilarating feeling of having the cold pressing in from all sides whilst in a state of undress. Getting into a meditative state through cold immersion was the only technique that reliably helped him to stay “in the moment” sufficiently to achieve the peace of mind he was looking for.
Wim Hoff is a lively character. Sitting still in peace and quiet is simply not his style. He is almost perpetually in motion. Any spare moment he will take the opportunity to do some chin ups, balance his body on his elbow like some kind of breakdance fiend or simply do the splits. And this is a part of the overall process of becoming the Iceman. In addition to the cytokines released in response to regular cold exposure, Wim’s body is also thought to release myokines – messenger proteins released from active muscles. The combination of these influences means that his DNA is being read differently from the rest of us more sedentary modern humans.
Hyper Life versus the Easy Life
It’s almost as if Wim has managed to trick his body into reverting to caveman mode. There is scientific evidence to support the hypothesis that after decades of leading a hyperactive, hyperventilated life including daily exposure to extreme conditions, every single one of his cells has started to read off a different set of genes to the rest of us. I’ve never met anyone with more energy, yet he doesn’t eat breakfast or lunch, just one (presumably huge) meal in the early evening, which is probably how our ancient ancestors dined having spent the whole day hunting and foraging for the evening meal. We modern men and women on the other hand spend our days ensconced in centrally heated / air conditioned homes and workplaces, spending the vast proportion of our days sedentary with packed fridges just a few steps away and so our bodies switch on genes that adequately support this easy life.
A New Perspective
Many diseases that used to kill off our ancestors in huge numbers are now firmly under control thanks to the marvels of modern medicine. Of those which still place our lives and quality of life in peril, several involve and element of over-activity in our immune systems; so-called autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis, to name but few. Wim’s brave auto-experimentation, combined with his profound desire to bring his discoveries firmly under the scrutiny of science have enabled the revelation that he has incredible control over his immune system. He (and volunteers who have followed his approach under clinical conditions) can bring down the levels of pro-inflammatory IL-6 and IL-8, whilst boosting levels of anti-inflammatory IL-10 to the point where he doesn’t get sick when exposed to bacterial endotoxins. Whilst control subjects respond to the toxic injection by shivering feverishly within about half an hour, the Iceman sits there unperturbed by the nasties in his bloodstream. The potential to learn his technique in order to reduce overactive immune systems and thereby defeating various autoimmune diseases is bringing hope to many whom had previously lost faith in prospect of a cure.
In addition to these monthly brain blogs, you can follow me on Twitter (@drjacklewis) for daily updates on breakthroughs in neuroscience, buy my first book Sort Your Brain Out at all good bookshops and see me back on your TV’s very soon in two brand new series on insight.tv and Red Bull TV!
I used to think that the practice of “mindful meditation” was exclusively the preserve of yogis, Buddhists and New Age hippies fresh back from an extended voyage of self-discovery around Asia. If you’ve ever found yourself caught up in a conversation with an over-enthusiastic traveler fresh back from their adventures you’ll know what I mean. Such folk have usually undergone a wholesale transformation from fairly conventional individuals into barefoot, sandalwood-scented, Thai-dyed, hemp shirt and trousers wearing, bead bracelet bedecked eccentrics who preach the stupidity of capitalism and the supremacy of the compassionate mind-set at any and all available opportunities. My attitude has changed fundamentally in recent months.
A recent review paper (in Nature Reviews Neuroscience, no less) evaluating the flurry of scientific investigations into the possible benefits of practicing mindfulness that have accumulated over the past ten years or so, has given me a fresh perspective. To my surprise it turns out that there is plenty of early evidence attesting to “beneficial effects on physical and mental health; and cognitive performance.”
WHAT IS MINDFULNESS?
Mindfulness is actually a very simple concept to grasp, if only we’d give it a half chance. From the moment we wake to the moment we go back to sleep our minds are cluttered with innumerable thoughts.
These thoughts tend to focus on the past and the future: conversations, experiences and interactions that occurred in the past and hopes, ambitions, fears and other concerns regarding the future. Mindfulness encourages the development of attention directing and emotional regulating capacities that enable us to focus on the present moment. Ultimately, by getting in the habit of focusing on what we target with our conscious awareness, rather than just allowing ourselves to be buffeted by whatever stimuli, thoughts or feelings happen to flicker through our minds, we can achieve a greater self-awareness.
There are many different ways of achieving a mindful brain state but typically the beginner is encouraged to start by focusing on their breath. They are asked to breath deeply, in and out, right into the belly to ensure their diaphragm is being used to full effect. Whilst performing these simple actions they are regularly reminded to bring their attention back to their breath whenever the mind wanders elsewhere, to notice the cool air passing in through the nostrils on the inhale and the warm air passing out again on the exhale. After a few minutes of this, you are usually instructed to re-direct the focus of your attention on different body parts, moving systematically around the body. Notice the feeling of clothing on skin, upward pressure of the floor (or the chair) on your buttocks – move your mind’s eye from your toes, gradually up through the legs, into hips, up your back, across your shoulders and down your arms to your finger tips.
FOCUS AND RE-FOCUS YOUR MIND
When thoughts pop into your head, as they invariably will, the idea is not to block them or force them out, but simply to acknowledge them without engaging too deeply; focusing attention back on your breath, or touch sensations in a certain body part.
It sounds extremely simple (too straightforward to result in any meaningful benefits surely?!) but most of us are ingrained with deeply entrenched habits of thought such as worrying about events in the past or future or perpetually seeking some form of stimulation that it can take a while to achieve the goal of quiet contemplation of bodily sensations for more than 20 or 30 seconds at a time. But for those who stick at it – regularly, intensively and consistently over many weeks and months – and gradually build their ability to stay in this mindful state for 5, 15, 30, 60 mins at a time, a wide variety of benefits are achievable. And the latest neuroscience studies into mindfulness are homing in on what it going on inside the brain as a result of all this practice.
To find out about how mindfulness changes the brain please click here.
If you love science geekery then my weekly science podcast Geek Chic’s Weird Science may well be right up your alley. It’s available on iTunes, audioboom, libsyn and podbay, with the delectable Lliana Bird who presents every Fri and Sat nights on Radio X.
I also regularly share the best of the day’s neuroscience breakthroughs on Twitter so if you’d like to follow me, please click here –> @drjacklewis
In part 1 of this blog I broadly described the benefits of mindfulness and what it involves. Here I dig into the detail, outlining the parts of the brain that appear, on the basis of a recent review of many brain scanning studies, to be most consistently impacted by the regular practice of mindfulness.
NEUROPLASTICITY IN ACTION?
Using MRI scanning to focus on differences in the physical structure of brains has revealed that the anterior cingulate cortex (highlighted in yellow in the below image), often implicated in studies of attention, is physically thicker and the underlying white matter denser in practitioners of mindfulness who are highly experienced as opposed to those who are relatively inexperienced.
Moderate to severe stress is associated with high levels of circulating cortisol (a “stress” hormone). This is associated with increased density in the amygdala (highlighted in red in the below image) – a structure deep within the tips of the left and right temporal lobes and vital for orchestrating rapid responses to perceived danger. Decreased tissue density is observed within several prefrontal regions and the hippocampus – which also resides within the core of the temporal lobes – serving several memory-related functions and vital for many aspects of cognition. Regular practice of mindfulness appears to reverse this. Cognitive impairment is reduced and presumably an increase in synaptic connectivity accounts for the increase in tissue density within the hippocampal / prefrontal cortex. The enlarged amygdala shrink – presumably due to reductions in the number of synaptic connections between neurons in this region – which is also associated with a reduction in anxious feelings / the attenuation of heightened perception of threat, back down to normal levels.
The default mode network (DMN) describes a group of brain areas that are activated in MRI brain scanning studies when participants are “in between tasks”. At first these activations were thought to reflect the brain at “rest” or in “default mode.” After a few more years of research, during which this same set of activations cropped up under circumstances that couldn’t reasonably be described as “restful” the original conclusion was revised. Considering all the studies in which the DMN kicked into action it seemed much more likely that it relates instead to “mind-wandering.”
In the original studies, when the participant was instructed to “rest” they would invariably use this period to self-reflect or daydream about something completely unrelated to the experimental task (I certainly did when I volunteered for various MRI studies – it’s impossible not to – anyone that’s seen Ghostbusters should know that).
A couple of years ago when I conducted a series of interviews (British Neuroscience Conversations) with various big hitting neuroscientists at the British Neuroscience Association’s conference, neuropsychopharmacologist Prof David Nutt pointed out that, if our “ego” or the “self” lives anywhere in the brain the Default Mode Network is the best candidate.
The medial prefrontal cortex (labelled DMPFC for the dorsal/upper part and VMPFC for the ventral/lower part) and posterior cingulate cortex (PCC), i.e. the core DMN regions, were less active in experienced versus inexperienced mindfulness practitioners. As one of the primary aims of many mediation practices is to selflessly accept thoughts and feelings in a non-judgemental, compassionate way – the reduction in these neural correlates of “ego” may well reflect a degree of success in this endeavour.
So inspired have I been by these revelations of fairly solid early evidence attesting to a likely neuroplastic impact of regular practice of mindful meditation on brain areas involved in modulating attention, emotional responses and perhaps even ego that earlier in the year I went to Mykonos for a retreat to immerse myself properly (opening the invitation to anyone who faniced coming along).
Since then I’ve gone on to develop a #brainboost campaign for Weight Watchers in order to help tackle the obesity epidemic by getting people’s brains ready for healthier eating by practising mindful eating, performing a bit of daily brain training to boost their working memory and learning some simple brain hacks, all with a view to eating more strategically.
During my research for this project I came across a nice little book on mindful eating that I would highly recommend: it’s called Eating Mindfully by Susan Albers. Personally I find a lot of books on this topic extremely cringeworthy, but Susan Albers describes the practical tips on how to avoid mindless / emotional eating through mindfulness in a very straightforward manner.
My own book “Sort Your Brain Out” includes a chapter on the kind of foods and eating habits that are good and bad for the brain. In addition, I do a weekly science podcast available on iTunes, audioboom, libsyn and podbay, with the delectable Lliana Bird who presents every Fri and Sat nights on Radio X. And I regularly share the best of the day’s neuroscience breakthroughs on twitter (@drjacklewis).
A new Vodaphone advert hit our screens recently and I hate it with a passion. My gym seems to have it on a loop at the moment and every time I see it I progress through a variety of emotions ranging from mild disappointment to abject rage. It starts innocently enough, depicting a bus weaving it’s way across a patchwork quilt of luscious fields. England’s green and pleasant lands, we might assume. The driver is keeping a kindly eye on his customers through the rear view mirror, a young woman is dozing on her man’s shoulder, a suited middle-aged businessman is reading his newspaper and a teenage girl is listening to music on her headphones. One row in front of our lovers a mum finds herself unable to pacify her crying toddler. We’ve all been there. It’s not a pleasant experience when the calm and tranquility is pierced by the ululations of an irate infant child. One-by-one the cast make faces betraying their discontent over the bawling nipper. In such situations – what can you do? Other than grin and bear it?
On this particular bus, in this particular locale, a hero is at hand. In a bid to bravely defend his belle from her rude awakening, that self same man (one row behind the squalling squib) unsheathes his smartphone. And using the “Power of 4G” summons a cartoon to his screen with which to mesmerise and thus pacify the aforementioned disconsolate child. Miraculously the tears dry up immediately, the sobbing quickly replaced by smiles and giggles of joy. Peace reigns over the bus once more and glances of appreciation ensue.
The boyfriend/man/husband presumably earns himself a family-sized haul of brownie points from girlfriend having demonstrating not just a strong capacity for empathy but a clear aptitude for child wrangling (what a great dad he could be!). Mum is palpably relieved that the blight to everyone’s day has been appropriately dealt with by this marvellous stroke of genius (so embarrassing when he plays up like that!). Even the stressed out businessman seems to have gone a few shades of purple lighter. The teenage girl goes as far as taking off her headphones, momentarily, to revel in the delicious, unexpected peace and quiet before breaking into a private smile. In the estimation of these fine bus passengers, the holder of the phone is clearly nothing less than an absolute legend.
Dora the Explorer is the chosen cartoon and it’s a good choice (a much better choice than Teletubbies, for example). Inexplicably, the language she utters in this British version of the ad is Spanish. I may be showing my ignorance here. Perhaps Dora the Explorer is always aired in it’s original tongue. But it occurred to me that just maybe the ad was cheekily alluding to possibility that the kid might even start to pick up a new language as a fortuitous side effect of this timely intervention. Such is the “Power of 4G”. It’s just a shame that the evidence from several studies indicates that too much screen time spent goggling at idle entertainment displaces valuable time doing other things in the real world that really facilitate a child’s neurodevelopment. Surely encouraging the habit of endlessly distracting kids with smartphones, tablets and laptops throughout their entire childhood is only going to perpetuate this problem, not to mention fueling a boom in short-sightedness.
It’s not just Vodaphone who are at it. Nissan have also released a TV ad recently for the Pulsar. Excitingly it has automatic braking. For those unfortunate circumstances where the driver’s brain is distracted away from the road at precisely the moment the vehicle in front decides to slam on the brakes without warning. The vital milliseconds saved by circumventing the pesky human can make the critical difference between a dangerous fender bender and safely completed journey.
The key message throughout is that the car is carefully built around the driver and therefore every conceivable problem has been anticipated and addressed. In the closing scene two children appear in the back seat fidgeting, shouting and generally being… well… children. In the blink of an eye technology has magically teleported into their midst – the rowdy boys instantly transformed into well-behaved, docile and, most importantly, silent little angels: one absorbed by a tablet, the other gazing out of the window listening to something on a pair of expensive looking headphones (let’s hope it’s my podcast). That’s right kids. Do not interact with each other. That would just cause a disturbance to your father, or whoever he is. Communication must be discouraged when in ear shot of your elders and betters. And remember: silence is golden!
My issue with these ads is not Susan Greenfield-esque. I don’t believe that technology is good or bad. But I do think that to unquestioningly consume limitless hours of screen entertainment at the expense of all other activities would have negative consequences for brain development across childhood. My objection to these ads revolves around that fact that they are normalising, if not positively encouraging, child-rearing behaviours that are likely to be deleterious to the best interests of the next generation.
Study after study has demonstrated that what kids really need if their brains are to develop optimally throughout childhood is lots of interaction with other people. Ideally in the context of unstructured play. Keeping them perpetually spell-bound by computer games, films or cartoons is very much against their best interests.
Infants plonked in front of Teletubbies for hours on end are measurably retarded in their language development and verbal expression in comparison to those rarely exposed to screens in their first 2 years of life. This is ironic given that, allegedly, a large team of child psychologists were assembled by the BBC to consult on what elements should be included in order to optimise neurodevelopment.
Admittedly endless hours of interacting with young kids are shattering. And undoubtedly the most effective method of conjuring some much needed peace and quiet from the endless barrage of questions, perpetual motion, mess, mood swings and tears are screen-based innovations designed specifically to captivate young minds. But the easiest route is rarely the best path and whilst this approach may well be very convenient for frazzled parents it is demonstrably not best for the child.
Advertisers will jump on any scenario that their intended market might be able to relate to so the theme of pacifying noisy kids with tech is not surprising. Yet it supports the proliferation of lazy, unhelpful parenting tricks that ultimately work against the best interests of a whole generation of humans. Whether or not this amounts to a whole hill of beans in the long run is yet to be seen. Yet from what is known with any certainty so far, there are clear indications that screen time should be monitored and possibly limited, or else it will displace the human face-to-face interactions that so beautifully sculpt young brains in preparation for a long life of interacting with other humans.
If you want a child’s neurodevelopment to proceed optimally you should, in my humble opinion, forego the lure of using technological paraphernalia to distract them – unless you are carefully restricting its use at other times – and instead encourage them to engage in some form of play in the real world. And whilst we’re at it you should ensure that as much as possible you give them your full attention. Having your eyes on your smartphone whilst talking to your child is a terrible example to set. So much of communication happens via eye contact and active (as opposed to partially distracted) listening, so if you rob your children of valuable experience with this mode of interaction then their communication skills and social dexterity will suffer.
I’m not saying people should consign their tablets to the rubbish, nor permanently ban children from using all tech. I’m merely encouraging parents to avoid using these tactics habitually. Save it for when you really need it and you will help your kid to develop the full range of skills, both hard and soft, to give them the best possible start in life.
And if you think I’m a luddite after this rant you’d be wrong. If you explore my blog further you’ll find plenty of articles relating to the brain benefits of various computer games. Everything in moderation I say (unless we’re talking about working memory training using the Dual N-Back task or reading books in which case I see no harm in overdoing it so long as combined with a healthy social life :-))
In previous articles on this blog I’ve described some of the many long-term brain benefits of regular exercise. These have mainly focused on the benefits that regular exercise offers to older people in terms of reducing the rate of age-related cognitive decline. But the brain benefits of taking regular exercise are applicable to everyone, young and old.
Do It For Your Brain’s Sake
People who exercise regularly have lower rates of anxiety and depression. They even boast greater cortical thickness in parts of the prefrontal cortex and the medial temporal lobe. Specifically brain scanning studies have demonstrated that the left and right hippocampus, fundamental both to creating memories and knowing where we are in space, are a little larger than in sedentary people. This increase in tissue thickness is thought to be indicative of a denser meshwork of synaptic connections reflecting a greater complexity of neuronal network. In other words several brain areas fundamentally involved in memory and cognition are able to perform better. What’s more regular exercise leads to improvements in mood and even helps you sleep better. And there is little better than a good night’s sleep for helping brains to reach peak performance.
Exercise leads to increased levels of nerve growth factors like BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factors) that promote the birth and survival of new brain cells, synapses and development of new blood vessels. So this is thought to a likely mechanism for the changes in the thickness of various brain regions in people who take regular exercise and quite possible the long term benefits in cognitive ability and mental health.
In my talks, workshops and first book (Sort Your Brain Out) I urge people to move away from thinking about exercise as a pastime motivated by the desire to improve the appearance of our bodies and more as something we should get in the habit of doing regular exercise to manage our mood / productivity in the short term and brain health in the long term. When people are feeling stressed out their motivation to hit the gym is often at rock bottom levels. A huge shame because exercise is exactly what would make them feel much, much better almost immediately.
Athletes often talk of the “runner’s high.” This has long been explained as a result of endorphins released in the brain in response to moderate to intense exercise. It makes good theoretical sense because endorphins, the brain’s natural opiates, have the twin effect of numbing pain and making us feel good. The trouble is that up until 2008 there was little if any hard evidence to back this notion up. Yet further doubt was cast on the whole endorphin hypothesis when a study demonstrated that the runner’s high still occurred even when the effect of any released endorphins was blocked with a drug called naxalone.
Looking elsewhere for a mechanism through which the runner’s high might be achieved researchers started to focus on a possible role for endocannabinoids. Similar in structure to the hundreds of cannabinoid chemicals found in the Cannabis sativa plant smoked recreationally in pursuit of a mood-enhancing effect, endocannabinoids are naturally produced throughout the brain.
Subsequently, elevated endorphin levels were observed in a brain scanning study that compared brains that had recently completed a 2-hour endurance run compared to other brains that hadn’t (Boecker et al, 2008). So consensus now is that the anxiolytic effects of exercise are mediated by a combination of endocannabinoid and endorphin release in the brain.
From an evolutionary perspective pain signals clearly should be switch on and off-able because they can be helpful or disabling depending on the context. Pain signals from damaged body parts helps us to avoid worsening the injury when at rest or engaging in gentle exercise, clearly an advantage when the priority is to allow a twisted ankle, strained knee or inflamed muscle to heal properly. But in the context of evading a predator or attempting to catch prey, such pain signals could lead to the huge potential disadvantage should it lead to getting caught and killed by the predator, or failing to catch the very food that might keep us, and our dependents, alive. The benefit of the analgesic / hedonic effect is that if a person is running to save their skin, then switching off the pain signal and inducing a light high to further compensate for any residual pain resulting in an unimpeded getaway makes perfect sense. Better to endure minor tissue damage if it is the only way to ensure you’ll live to see another day.
There is a huge amount of evidence to support the concept that regular exercise is extremely good for body and brain. The trouble is, we all know this but few actually get around to taking regular exercise. In my view the main reason for this is partly feeling overwhelmed by their busy lives but also probably involves exercising in the wrong way: when people do finally get around to exercising they often overdo it. Spending the whole of the next day aching all over will do little to incentivise them to take the trouble to exercising again any time soon.
I would argue that little and often is the best policy. Even at the frantic pace of modern life everyone can fit in 20-30mins of exercise a day. That way, even if some weeks you only hit 50% of your target, you’ll still be getting your heart rate and breathing rate up, flooding the brain with highly oxygenated blood, endorphins, endocannabinoids and BDNF, 3-4 times per week – exactly the recommended dose!
In addition to these monthly blogs you can catch my weekly podcast Geek Chic’s Weird Science (on iTunes, audioboom, libsyn, podbay) and subscribe to @drjacklewis on Twitter where I share at least three good brain news related articles every day.
Feeling stressed? Need a break? Fancy spending a few days in paradise to learn how to meditate?Better still would you like to learn more about how your brain works AND simple things you can do every day to be more creative, make better decisions, manage your mood?The SYBO retreats might be just the thing for you!!The venue is the beautiful Greek Island of Mykonos.Your hosts are the beautifully-bendy Jasmyn (see photos) & yours truly: the brain-besotted Dr Jack LewisWe are now offering a fantastic, luxurious, Stress-Busting, Yoga & Meditation Retreat by day with a selection of intellectually-stimulating Brain Talks just before lunch each time, freeing up the afternoons for exploration of the island’s many beaches.Meditation is clinically-proven to reduce stress. So if you’re feeling washed out after a particularly tough start to the year this really will help you to Sort Your Brain Out. It might just change your life. Jasmyn talks everyone through the various yoga moves, in a mixed group of beginners and advanced practitioners, and then concludes with a guided meditation session. These dawn and dusk sessions are complemented with several talks that explain, amongst many other things the science of meditation and why it’s so good for brains. Once a person truly grasps why mindfulness meditation is so good for health of body and brain they naturally become motivated to incorporate it into their daily routine back in the “real world.What to expect from the Neuro-Infused Art of Peaceful Living Retreats this spring / summer?The villas are in a very private neighborhood in Mykonos, Greece.The properties have 4-5 rooms each, sleeping maximum 10 per house.These neuroscience-infused Art of Peaceful Living™ programs lasts 5 days and includes:
- 21-25th May (now fully booked)
Vegetarian breakfast and lunch
Twice daily yoga and meditation practices
Either a treatment at a local day-spa or an in-room massage
All for £1,550 (€2,120) for the Spring retreat during 21st-25th May (SOLD OUT)Did I mention there is a pool?Also please bear in mind that if you want to arrive a few days early or leave a few days later we may be able to arrange accommodation for you at the villa during this time.The rooms each have a queen bed and most have private bathrooms.Every morning, as the host (Jasmyn) prepares your breakfast and lunch, she gives instruction on how to prepare these “plant-based” meals in your kitchen at home as part of the included Look Alive™ Nutrition workshops. These workshops will have recipes, and detailed explanations about why eating a plant-based is beneficial to brain-function and chemistry, physical performance, treatment of psychological disturbances and disorders, as well as a know-how to have your kitchen prepped and ready for easy to make and quick recipes.Yoga classes are all multi-level and while the morning classes can be vigorous exercise, the evening classes are relaxing and recuperative. The morning Vinyassa Yoga classes are more dynamic for beginners to advanced practitioners, and are immediately followed by a meditation class to settle the minds before the day’s activities. And of course there is no obligation to attend classes, so whether you just fancy a lie in or want to go off one afternoon for a wander, that’s totally up to you!Activities include additional excursions on the island, lounging by the on-property pool, or venturing to any of the island’s other many delights.Yoga-Nidra sessions are given at sunset following a gentle Yin-Yoga Flow class incorporating techniques of thai-massage, to restore you and prepare you for the next day’s Vinyassa Yoga sessions or for going out that night! Dinners are not usually included to give attendees freedom to roam in the evenings (unless you request to have a special dinner prepared instead of lunch).Sort Your Brain Out Retreats are 5 days of true luxury living. Treating the body and brain to wholesome, delicious food, body balancing exercise and gentle meditations, all in the privacy of the Maera Villas – with the endless view of the Mediterranean from each of the properties.Bespoke Corporate Retreats for groups of 5 or more people can also be discussed.For enquiries about availability please feel free to drop Jack an email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Daily brain talks from Dr Jack on:
Changing Your Brain
Neuroscience of Creativity
Neuroscience of Meditation
Neuroscience of Temptation
As 2014 draws to a close my thoughts have recently turned to pondering the greatest neuroscience discoveries of the year. For me I’ve been struck by several developments in an area of biomedical science that during most of my lifetime has been considered beyond the powers of medical therapy to provide a decent remedy.
Ever since Christopher Reeve (the actor who played Superman in the much loved films of the late 70’s and 80’s) became paralysed from the neck down during an equestrian accident in 1995, the plight of people who suffer traumatic spinal damage has seemed utterly futile; despite the huge amounts of money various benefactors have ploughed into research. However this year we have seen huge leaps in scientific advancement enabling previously wheelchair-bound people to stand up and take some small but important steps forward under their own volition.
A paralysed person kicked off the 2014 World Cup in Brazil during the opening ceremony using an EEG-controlled robotic exoskeleton. But given that the person in question had to be carried onto the pitch on a golf buggy, as opposed to rising up out of their wheelchair as promised, that feat should only really be considered a drop in the ocean compared to the much more remarkable progress in paralysis rehabilitation we’ve seen over the course of 2014.
At the beginning of the year I was invited to make an appearance on “Newsround” – the Children’s BBC channel’s daily news show – to explain a totally unexpected and extraordinary breakthrough in rehabilitation research with paralysed army veterans in the USA. A chip was surgically inserted into their spinal cord, below the sites of damage, to apply weak currents of electricity in an effort to reinvigorate the involuntary spinal reflexes that enable us to maintain our balance whilst standing (no input from the brain necessary).
This unexpected development occurred when, after a few weeks of further intensive rehabilitation exercises, several people regained voluntary movement of their legs for the first time in 2-4 years. Can you imagine how good that must have felt for the people in question? As someone who personally spent three weeks of 2014 with an almost completely paralysed arm after complication during routine surgery, it brings tears to my eyes to think how amazing it must have been to have control over legs that had previously seemed utterly useless for so many long months. It seems that the current injected by the chip had unexpectedly boosted signal strength across the area of damaged spinal cord sufficiently for the electrical messages (action potentials) to get all the way down to the leg muscles.
In 2004 whilst I was doing my PhD at University College London, I attended a talk by Prof Geoff Raisman, now chair of Neural Regeneration at the Institute of Neurology in Queen Square. He presented brand new data that he was clearly extremely excited about in which he showed data that clearly depicted new neuronal growth across the site of a spinal lesion. I cannot remember whether the experiment involved rodents or non-human primates but he made it clear that it would be many years before this pioneering research could ever be used to help paralysed humans. Today, in 2014, this dream is a reality.
Darek Fidyka was paralysed from the chest down for several years after a knife attack that severed his spinal cord. The 8mm gap that prevented messages sent from his brain to reach the muscles of his leg, penis and bladder were bridged using stem cells extracted from his brain. Mr Fidyka first underwent surgery to remove one of his two olfactory bulbs – the antennae like structures that extend forwards from the brain’s limbic system, running above each nasal cavity and extending smell receptors across the skull and into the nasal epithelium. Because the olfactory receptors come into contact with so many volatile compounds (just think of how potent the gases are that get into your nostrils when you’re downwind of a bonfire) a fair amount of damage happens to these brain cells and so they must be constantly replenished. This means that the olfactory bulbs / neurons of the nasal epithelium are a great source of stem cells.
Once sufficient numbers of Olfactory Ensheathing Cells (OECs) had been cultured and several million of them injected into the gap in his spinal cord a period of intensive rehabilitation exercises got underway. 6 hours per day 5 days per week. A few no-doubt-frustrating weeks later he graduated from walking with the assistance of parallel bars in the rehabilitation gym, to walking with a frame outside the hospital in Wroclaw, Poland where the surgery took place. Perhaps as important he regained some bladder control and sexual function. An incredible achievement for Mr Fidyka, but an absolutely triumph for Prof Raisman and the hundreds of people that have contributed to the groundwork that led to this unbelievable feat of brilliance.
This story was covered in episode 10 of the podcast Geek Chic’s Weird Science – co-presented by yours truly and the gorgeous Lliana Bird – which you can subscribe to on iTunes, absolutely free of charge, by clicking here.
For daily news on the latest advances in neuroscience research you can follow me on Twitter by clicking here.
As a neuroscientist who spends much of his working life giving brain talks at events all around the country (at schools, conferences and science festivals) I’ve noticed that one theme catches public imagination over and over again: How does caffeine work? What does it do to my brain? How long does it stay in my system? Is it really that bad for me? This is one reason why it became one of the key topics in the “Smart” Drugs chapter of my book: Sort Your Brain Out. In this blog I’ll cover some of the most regularly asked questions.
How long caffeine takes to leave your system?
It depends what other drugs you’re on. If you’re on the contraceptive pill it can take up to twice as long for your liver to remove caffeine from your system. So people “on the pill” can find themselves particularly sensitive to its effects because consecutive doses stack up and are not cleared out as swiftly as in everyone else. But if you’re a smoker it is the other way around. Caffeine is removed from your system at double the speed of a non-smoker.
If you’re neither a smoker nor on the contraceptive pill the concentration of caffeine in your bloodstream is halved every 5-6 hours, but it really does depend on the individual as this “half-life” varies greatly from person-to-person.
Is it beneficial to have caffeine before a meeting / presentation / to improve concentration?
Caffeine blocks the receptors of an inhibitory neurotransmitter called adenosine, which under normal circumstances reduces overall activity across the brain. By blocking these receptors and removing the dampening influence on brain activity, caffeine increases activity across brain pathways involved in alertness, focusing attention and initiating body movements. This why people dosed up on caffeine can get quite jittery.
Whether or not caffeine is beneficial for you in a meeting / presentation or to improve concentration whilst working depends on how much you’ve already had. There’s a sweet spot where you will feel more alert and switched on at moderate levels, but beyond that you can become so wound up that it has effects that are deleterious to performance (see description of caffeinism below).
However the increase in feelings of alertness and ability to focus attention only gets regular coffee drinkers up to levels enjoyed by non-caffeine drinkers everyday. This is because once you’re a caffeine addict the brain tends to increase the numbers of adenosine receptors to compensate for the fact that there’s loads of caffeine swimming around in your brain on a daily basis. This means that your average coffee drinker has more inhibitory receptors in their brain dampening activity levels to a greater degree – so they will feel more sluggish whenever they don’t have caffeine in their system.
Is caffeine good or bad for you in the long run?
There seem to be some long-term benefits to drinking caffeine even if the short-term benefits don’t amount to a whole hill of (coffee) beans. It has been observed that regular drinkers of moderate amounts of caffeine (3 cups / day) have a lower incidence of Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, liver and heart diseases. This may be due to the increased numbers of inhibitory receptors triggered by ever-present levels of caffeine dampening activity levels in body and brain. The decreased activity levels across the brain caused by the larger numbers of inhibitory receptors in the caffeine drinkers’ brains may relieve the pressure on dopamine neurons that are compromised in Parkinson’s disease and the acetyl choline neurons that get clogged up with various proteins in Alzheimer’s disease. In other words caffeine seems to slow down the process of cell death so that symptoms of these diseases kick in several years later than in your average non-caffeine drinker. At the moment this mechanism is purely speculative. The jury’s still out on the precise mechanism that might account for these observations, but the evidence supporting the concept of moderate amounts of caffeine having a neuroprotective influence on the brain is steadily increasing.
Is it important to control and monitor your caffeine intake?
A dose of 10g is deadly – 100 cups and a human may well find themselves popping their clogs as a typical cup of brewed coffee contains 100mg of caffeine. (NB you may notice that in the above video from the lovely people at ASAPscience they say 1 cup of coffee has 150mg – presumably they brew it stronger over in Canada 🙂 For the non-coffee drinkers out there here are some average caffeine contents of some other popular drinks. There are 80mg in a can of Red Bull, 75mg in a cup of instant coffee, 50mg in a cup of tea, 30mg in a can of Coca Cola.
Very high but not deadly doses can lead to a quite severe psychiatric condition known as caffeinism: “which is characterised by restlessness, agitation, excitement, rambling thought and speech, and insomnia.” (Winston et al, 2005). It is important to control and monitor caffeine intake because too much can interfere with appetite, make people anxious or depressed, not to mention the fact that anything that interferes with sleep will have a deleterious effect on the brain. Everyone’s sensitivity to caffeine is slightly different, but if you have trouble sleeping then you’d be well advised to avoid caffeine at least 5-6 hours before bedtime – for your brain’s sake.
3 cups of coffee per day is considered a “moderate dose” for most people. Get these in early enough to avoid any potential for them to interfere with sleep and you should get the apparent long-term brain benefits without the negative consequences associated with excessive consumption (DISCLAIMER: this should not be interpreted as medical advice – it is just the science-based opinion of the author who has a Ph.D. in neurobiology i.e. not a medical degree!).
I don’t like tea or coffee, are there any other sources of caffeine?
Caffeine is also found in kola nut (one of the original ingredients of coca cola) and guarana – a wonder berry from the Brazilian rainforest; it’s also found in low quantities in chocolate. Caffeine is also included as a stimulant in many cold and flu remedies – so beware what you reach for when you wake up in the middle of the night with a bunged up nose!
By the way: if you study the picture on the left very carefully you’ll find a face amongst the coffee beans – can you find it?
Keep looking… he’s definitely there and you’ll kick yourself for doubting me when you find him!!
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Parks and open spaces improve health and quality of life by incentivising people to get out and take some exercise, which is extremely good for brain health. Just being within eye shot of some greenery can accelerate healing – so even if you can’t get outside, all you need is a room with a view! If it wasn’t for the armies of parkies and council cleaning staff who clean up after members of the public who routinely leave their litter behind, these green spaces would soon become the last place you would want to spend your spare time. The question is: why do people leave their litter behind for somebody else to clear up in the first place?
All human behaviours are governed, more-or-less, by the brain’s predictions of reward and punishment. We are subconsciously guided towards actions that maximise rewards whilst minimising punishments. The pleasure pathways of the brain, in particular the nucleus accumbens, are involved in attaching a reward prediction to a certain course of action based on past experience. Drinking water when thirsty or eating food when hungry are examples of behaviours hardwired to produce powerful sensations of pleasure because they help to keep us alive. However the sense of pleasure that people get from putting rubbish in the bin is not innate, like drinking and eating, but instead it must be learned.
Nonetheless, even in the absence of a sense of reward from putting rubbish in the bin, if littering is consistently punished then that too can steer people away from anti-social and towards pro-social behaviours. Whilst most parents are still apt to discipline their children for littering, which provides valuable experience of the punishments that follow such anti-social behaviour, parents aren’t always around. In the past adults felt at liberty to scold, or even physically punish, any child that they happened to see dropping litter, but in the modern climate of political correctness this has become a thing of the past. Young people no longer learn that punishment reliably follows the act of dropping litter and so their brains do not generate the sense of discomfort, anxiety or unease (generated, if you’re interested, by the anterior insula) that would precede acts of anti-social behaviour that they know through experience is likely to be punished. So in the absence of any negative emotions associated with the act of littering, nor positive emotions associated with the act of putting litter in the bin, rubbish ends up being lobbed around willy nilly, even when a bin is conveniently located just a few steps away.
When children are brought up with a strong sense of social responsibility then in later life they may get sensations of what might be called “righteous” pleasure from doing the “right thing.” The point is that to get a feeling of satisfaction from performing pro-social behaviours you must have been trained over prolonged periods of time by parents, carers, teachers and/or peers in order to get a kick out of it. If society wants to encourage pro-social behaviours we’ve either got to praise young people more for putting litter in the bin, or make them very uncomfortable when they just drop it for someone else to deal with. Or, take a leaf out of the Texan’s book. They had great success in reducing littering on the highway (after many years of failure with several different approaches) by adopting a campaign that would appeal to young men’s sense of pride and bravado (see left).
A fascinating study, again from the journal Science (Keizer et al, 2008), indicates that evidence of other people’s antisocial behaviour can make others more likely to be antisocial themselves. This would suggest that the problem with litter goes beyond just rubbish on the streets and in our parks. In one of their experiments they demonstrated that environments in which anti-social behaviour was evident, e.g. litter strewn around on the pavement, graffitti sprayed on the walls or fire crackers set off in the background, not only makes people more likely to litter themselves, but also to commit more serious anti-social behaviours like theft. It seems that people modulate their own behaviour according to cues regarding the degree of anti-social behaviours committed by others. So if you really want to stop other people dropping litter, you might consider reducing the evidence of other people’s anti-social behaviour by picking it up yourself!
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