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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Any environment in which we immerse ourselves on a daily basis will eventually induce changes in the very fabric of our brains. This observation is based on brain scanning experiments investigating the brains of taxi drivers and professional musicians before and after they have acquired their expertise. Intensive training over many months and years physically changes the size of the hippocampus and motor hand area of these individuals, respectively. This occurs as a direct result of repeatedly challenging the brain to perform specific tasks, navigating around London in the first instance and manipulating an instrument to emit the desired sounds in the second, so that the connectivity between areas involved in executing that task is improved. This occurs at the flick of a few genetic switches that increases the number of synapses across which one neuronal brain wire influences the next in line in pathways that are used often and intensively. It seems reasonable to assume that any cognitive capacity that we regularly use over long periods of time will have a similar impact via the same mechanism.
In the past I’ve written about our incredible aptitude for using tools to manipulate our environment. One of the best examples of recent human ingenuity in this regard are the virtual environments we have created – video games, internet, online social networking and the like. Millions of people are immersed in such virtual environments intensively, regularly and consistently over extended periods of time, exactly the pre-requisites for interaction that drives brain changes; occurring whether the environment in question is real or virtual. I’ve written previously about the potential impact of this on the adolescent brain but, of course, adult brains also adapt to the demands of any virtual environments they may be regularly immersed in too, albeit at a reduced rate.
These brain changes occur for better or for worse. Adults who engage in intensive action video gaming for endless hours slowly but surely begin to accumulate cognitive improvements, namely enhancements in certain aspects of vision, memory and rapid decision-making. On the other hand, those who automatically respond to any bleep, buzz or vibration from their laptop or smartphone appear to be training themselves into a state of constant distraction. A recent study has suggested that so-called heavy media multi-taskers are gradually losing their capacity to block out distractions, an unintended consequence of “dual screening” behaviours like surfing the internet and responding to electronic messages whilst watching television.
My message is simple. Technology is neither good or bad, it’s all about how you choose to use it. Stopping to contemplate your habits when it comes to using technology and considering whether the likely changes to your brain will serve you well or badly, might be advisable. Evidence is currently quite sparse, but rapidly accumulating. Just bear in mind the rule of thumb that anything you do intensively, daily, for months on end has the potential to re-wire your brain to perform that task more efficiently. Some behaviours honed in this way do not always serve your best interests when operating in the real world.
A report hit the press this week describing as yet unpublished brain data from Cambridge University demonstrating that people addicted to internet pornography show a heightened sensitivity in the reward pathways (specifically in the ventral striatum) when exposed to sexually explicit images. Results were not dissimilar to that observed in the brains of alcoholics and illicit drug addicts when viewing images of the target of their addiction. How might this hypersensitivity to pornography have developed? I’m sure you can guess what’s coming next… by viewing pornographic images with great scrutiny, regularly and over periods of months if not years – pleasurable sexual responses have become honed to whatever stimuli have been encountered in the virtual environments with which they are regularly immersed.
My concern is the impact that such outcomes of neuroplasticity might have on people’s real life behaviours. Could it be ruining people’s real life sex lives? The anecdotal evidence presented in Norman Doidge’s excellent book: “The Brain That Changes Itself” certainly backs up this notion. From the perspective of basic neuroscience it also seems likely. Once a brain is trained to respond in a manner that results in feelings of pleasure when viewing hyper-sexual body shapes performing wild and gratuitous sex acts, it is likely that less powerful sexual images – a real life sexual partner, for instance – no longer hit the spot. Given how much of a boost a healthy active sex life gives to real romantic relationships it seems a real shame (if not a blight to wellbeing in society as a whole) that sexual relationships might be harmed by unconstrained consumption of pornography.
I’m not an advocate of censorship. It doesn’t work anyway. I believe in freedom of informed choice. I am an advocate of encouraging people to think carefully about what their habitual behaviours might be doing to their brains from the perspective of neuroplasticity. This I hope will enable them to make choices that benefit them in the long run as well as in the short term. Carving out periods of the day when emails are ignored and phones switched to silent will preserve the ability to sustain attention, engage in deep thought and enable people to remain the master rather than slave of technology. And actively avoiding indulging in online pornography on a daily basis might help people to evade brain adaptations that set the bar of satisfaction ever higher so that the real thing can maintain its lustre. “Everything in moderation” will steer us all clear of unwanted brain adaptations.
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Every single day of my life starts with a 20-30 min read in the bath. I call it going back to the womb. Just prior to crinkle o’clock I emerge wide awake, refreshed, head brimming with pearls of scientific wisdom.
I’ve found that regular consumption of popular science books stimulates my own thinking. Furthermore, I’ve found that having a few books on the go at the same time can enable a beautiful thing to occur. That delicious coincidence when you can draw together themes and concepts from completely different fields: fact and fiction/ science and art, opposite sides of the spectrum, that nonetheless all share a common thread. The moment of realisation, when connecting the dots is totally effortless, can be extremely intellectually rewarding and is promoted by having more than one book on the boil at any one time.
So anyway, I get through a fair few books. In fact I stumble across excellent tomes at a rate that far exceeds the time I have to review them. So now I’m going to take the opportunity to briefly review 5 in one go. I felt immensely enriched by the broad knowledge base these great writers accumulated over several decades and brought together in each and every one of these books.
Lifelines by Steven Rose
I’m choosing this one to top the list largely because I recently hosted a post-film Q&A after the film screening of a great neuroscience themed play called “Broken Bridges, Stunted Trees” put together by the OneKX crew. On the panel of this particular audience discussion, along with several other distinguished guests, was Prof Steven Rose himself. A man who “retired into full time research” in 1999 having been the Open University’s Head of Biology for three full decades!
Every now and then I have the opportunity to thank an author for fundamentally altering my thinking about a subject very close to my heart. LIFELINES truly changed the way I think about biology. When I thanked Prof Rose for writing LIFELINES he was chuffed as it was a book felt particularly proud of when he finished it back in 1997. And I can see why.
I loved biology throughout secondary school and have specialised in neurobiology at university and beyond. But it wasn’t until I read LIFELINES that I realised biology is not about nature and it’s not about nurture, but a jaunty waltz between the two. You simply cannot consider one in isolation of the other. Evidence of the cyclical interplay between genes and environment abounds in this wonderful book.
Imagine by Jonah Lehrer
There’s something magical to me about the way Jonah Lehrer writes. I’ve reviewed one of his books before: The Decisive Moment a.k.a. Why We Buy – was also extremely well written. I find his writing extremely compelling. He never labours the point too much. And so reading what he has conjured up in IMAGINE is effortless. He has a great knack for finding great stories to tell that really bring the scientific research to life by placing it in a familiar context. In IMAGINE he collates the latest research investigating how human brains do creativity and the types of environment that do and don’t foster it. He intertwines this science with genuinely fascinating anecdotes describing milestones in the creation of many products that we have all had experience of in some way, shape or form.
For the insights into how the most innovative companies in the creative industries stoke creativity so effectively alone it would still be in this list. These beautifully written, fact laden, tales of creativity-in-action are insightful, useful and have great retell value. Creative people will probably recognise some of the strategies already. Indeed, many people stumble on these behaviours going solo, through trial and error. Yet what lies between the covers of this particular book are all the effective strategies in one place, along with a little de-bunking of the common misunderstandings for good measure.
Better Than Human by Allen Buchanan
I’ve written articles about smart drugs and prosthetic devices in the past. This book is all about the long term ethical implications of both. Often neuroethics books are so dense with information that the reading of it can be really tough going. This isn’t one of those books that leaves you drowning in confusing terminology. On the contrary, it is an extremely easy read, conversational almost, yet it makes complex concepts crystal clear. It really makes you think hard about the powerful impact differences in access to technology have on the lives of various groups of people around the globe. But this isn’t just about any old technology, this is a new technology fit for the 21st century – technology that enhances your brain, boosting it’s capacities, going beyond good – BETTER THAN HUMAN.
It even explains why neuroethics is important. If you’re wondering – t’s important because current innovations in neuroscience could, in a very short time, fundamentally change human life on earth. Now you don’t want to get that kind of thing wrong. Once something has been invented, it cannot be uninvented. Neuroethics helps to establish what kind of research should be on and off limits. And if someone’s going to invent it anyway – what in the world are we do about it? BETTER THAN HUMAN make me glad that wise men and women have been thinking this all through, calmly and clearly, future gazing looking out for problems on the horizon. They predict which technologies are likely to come to fruition and identify solutions to certain potential problems before they happen. This book makes all this potentially foxing information very digestible, it brings the fruit all that experts’ deliberations to the table in finger bowls. A light meal of neural sustenance. Most importantly, it leaves the readers’ eyes wide open to the broader issues that may well face society in the not-too-distant future if the “haves” get all the benefits of technological enhancement whilst the “have nots” get left behind. Society needs to close the gap between rich and poor, not widen it – for everyone’s sake.
The Social Conquest of Earth by E. O. Wilson
Drugs, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond was the first book that boggled my mind in terms of the staggering breadth and width of knowledge that was drawn upon to tell the story of how we got where we are. The trajectory of mankind’s development through the ages was plotted via compelling accounts drawing from evolution, palaeontology, archaeology, natural history, anthropology and modern science to explain how the global power balance is skewed, for the time being at least, towards “western” countries. E.O. Wilson’s book THE SOCIAL CONQUEST OF EARTH takes an equally broad perspective on how in the world we came to be the most dominant creature on planet earth out of billions of species. The depth and breadth of E. O. Wilson’s knowledge is staggering. His ability to boil such a diverse spectrum of information down into punchy little chapters is remarkable. His understandable desire to draw parallels between human and insect social behaviour/evolution can, I must admit, become tiresome. Particularly when he digs down into real detail, presumably to settle a score with academic competitors, of insect behaviour. However for me, as a person obsessed with the human brain, by skim reading the dense passages of entomology and slowing down when the discourse becomes mammalian centred again – I found this to be, overall, a great read. Wilson consistently manages to condense the debate down to meaty little mouthfuls of insight regarding what our ancestors had to go through to survive / evolve into us. And the insect stuff really does add some context, despite being too detailed for my tastes in many place. As for the non-insect heavy chapters, every page is a pleasure due to a clear effort to cut back all but the most relevant information required to make his deeply insightful points.
Decoded by Phil Barden
This is the most accurate and coherent account of how neuroscience and psychology can contribute to marketing that I have read to date. Phil Barden has over twenty years experience in the marketing world, having worked for some of the world’s largest and most influential firms. In DECODED he explains, with great clarity, insights that he and the team of scientists he works alongside have brought to their clients’ attention that have helped them communicate more effectively with their customers. Many books aimed at this market – like Martin Lindstrom’s “Buyology” and AK Pradeep’s “Buying Brain” have a distinct tendency to veer into the realms of wildly over-inflated claims. More sales than substance. DECODED is a book of substance. It does it’s job of clearly communicating various ways in which marketing can gain extra leverage on the basis of properly executed science.
Even if you have no interest whatsoever in marketing you should still read this book. Why? Well I think that if a person wishes to protect themselves against increasingly influential marketing ploys, then surely a book that takes you through the favoured tactics may be very helpful in terms of facilitating the process of dreaming up countermeasures? When a consumer becomes aware of that tactics being used, whether in the context of TV / radio / billboard ads, or shop floor merchandising and promotions, merely spotting them can defuse their potency. Stopping briefly to contemplate what that particular message is designed to get you to do can be very empowering. Rather than just allowing it to happen you can take a stand, be determined not to give in to the path of least resistance and take steps to evade falling into those psychological traps.