On the 3rd January I went for a dip in a freezing cold lake in the Dutch countryside with a man who has learned to control his immune system using breathing techniques in combination with cold water immersion.
Between January and May I wrote a book Mice Who Sing For Sex with my Geek Chic podcast co-host Lliana Bird. That hit the shelves in October and flew off them in the run up to Christmas.
I flew out to the USA to work with a pair of NFL superstars and a supercar test driver to talk about how high performance athlete‘s brains work compared to the rest of us.
An unexpected opportunity to appear on the sofa with Rylan for Big Brother’s Bit on the Side gave me the opportunity to use five brightly coloured jelly brains as colour code for different brain functions and used them to explain the cause of various errant behaviours exhibited by some of this year’s contestants.
Participating in a debate organised by the Wellcome Trust on the Latitude Festival’s Literature Stage opened my eyes to the Porn Perspective.
My TV highlight has to be a very enjoyable weekend that I spent spy on some unsuspecting guinea pigs with the BBC’s Michael Mosley a TV presenter of considerable experience and acclaim. Meet The Humans (working title) will be broadcast at some point on BBC Earth throughout the world in 2017. I learned a huge amount about what being a TV presenter is really all about and felt truly privileged to work with him and a crack team of Science TV producers and directors from BBC Bristol. Seeing how they all handled what was a huge logistical undertaking, with so many moving parts that innumerable things could have gone wrong, was a real privilege. All hands on deck performed with tremendous competence, efficiency and good humour throughout; even when the pressure was on and Sod’s Law threatened to tip the apple cart.
The most notable achievement of this year career-wise is that, for the very first time, a show I’ve presented has been deemed worthy of a second series; not to mention a runner’s up prize for Best Science Series of 2016 at the Association for International Broadcaster’s Awards. Not bad considering we were pipped to the post by a documentary about a near perfectly preserved 5,000 year old man thawed out from a melting glacier. That’s pretty steep competition and I was only too happy to concede defeat to a series documenting such an extraordinary scientific discovery.
Looking forward to 2017 there’s already plenty of exciting projects in the pipeline. My third book Science of Sin, scheduled for publication next autumn, is coming on leaps and bounds. I’ve wanted to write a book about the light neuroscience might be able to cast on the topic of Why We Do The Things We Know We Shouldn’t for ages. I’m very grateful to Bloomsbury Sigma for the opportunity to immerse myself in such a fascinating and diverse body of science.
Filming for Secrets of the Brain 2 is already underway and, after the intensive period of filming, editing and voiceover ahead in the next four months, that particular seires scheduled to be ready for broadcast on www.insight.tv (ch 279 on Sky) over the summer. Happily it seems we’ve been able to re-recruit most of the team from series one. It is fortuitous that we could get almost everyone back because there really is no substitute for prior experience with this kind of show.
The speaking circuit this year has taken me all over London, to Cheltenham, the Midlands, Barcelona, twice to Cologne courtesy of ITV Global / Germany and as far East as Berlin. My Neuroscience of Creativity talk always seems to go down particularly well and the C-HR festival of Creativity and Innovation, which took place in a beautiful architectural space – an abandoned department store slap bang in the centre of Berlin – was no exception. I must have hit a new Personal Best by answering questions from the audience for longer than the actual duration of the talk itself (90min talk, 150min Q&A)!
Of all the ways I communicate the fruits of neuroscience research to the world, it’s the face-to-face contact with live audiences that I get the most personal satisfaction from. People always seem to have burning questions about their own brains, their kids, their ageing relatives and it gives me great pleasure to share what I know with others. So if you have an event coming up for which you have need of a motivational speaker that brings something a little different to the event, why not get in touch? I’ve got five 60-90 min talks, I can take off the shelf: Boosting Performance, Neuroscience of Decisions, Neuroscience of Creativity, Dealing with Change and even one on Gender Neuroscience that has turned out to be pretty effective at encouraging greater equality in the workplace.
That said I’m always happy to make something bespoke to fit the specific event. I’m always happy to stick around afterward if the crowd fancies making the Q&A a bit more informal.
All that remains to be said is to wish you happy holidays and a fantastic 2017.
If you’d like to follow me on Twitter (@drjacklewis) you’ll get my daily tweets that flag the best of the neuroscience news that hits the lay press. The Geek Chic Weird Science podcast is still going strong after nearly three years, which can be accessed through iTunes, Podbay, Libsyn and many other podcast providers so if you fancy taking a lighter look at the world of science, that’s your badger. And finally, you’re at a loose end over the holiday season and fancy a break from the usual TV fare, then why not catch up on the (nearly) award-winning Secrets of the Brain by pointing your internet towards www.insight.tv (my parents are actually doing that right now…)
Last summer I was invited by the lovely people at the Latitude Festival to participate in a debate at the Literature Tent on the impact of online pornography on society.
It was chaired by Dr Suzi Gage (@soozaphone) of Bristol (and by now Liverpool) University, known for her popular Guardian science column and podcast Say Why to Drugs. The other panelists were Martin Daubney (@MartinDaubney), former editor of lad’s mag Loaded for eight years and theatre-maker Christopher Green (@Kit_Green) creator and player of comedy Country ‘n’ Western heroine Tina C.
My role was to bring the neuroscience perspective, Martin the media perspective and Chris was taking the arts angle. I got prepared quite a few weeks in advance and was stunned by what I found lurking in the academic literature. So I thought I’d share my main findings with you here in this month’s blog.
When people think of addictions, compulsive consumption of various psychoactive substance is usually the first thing to spring to mind. Much research has demonstrated a hyper-responsiveness of the reward pathway – the ventral tegmental area in the midbrain and nucleus accumbens in the ventral striatum in particular – to drug-related images in the brains of people addicted to recreational drugs like, for example, cocaine. This body of research also demonstrates that the activity generated in the reward pathways of drug addicts to pleasant images of scenes unrelated to drugs, is somewhat diminished compared to non-drug takers. In other words, excessive consumption of drugs seems to subtly rewire the reward pathway so that it becomes more sensitive to visual scenes relating to their preferred recreational drug and less so (than normal) to everything else. It seems this is not just limited to drugs, a similar impact on brain function is seen in people who over-consume porn too.
It is important to bear in mind that the reward pathway is not only important for generating feelings of happiness when we participate in pleasurable activities, but it’s also instrumental in predicting what choices might bring us rewards in the future, which means it is critically involved in decision making. It’s role in helping us evaluate the benefits of one option over another extends to the point where this system, in combination with other nearby brain areas, can be thought of as providing the very drive that motivates us to pursue one course of action over another.
In recent times, research into excessive consumption of various products accessed through the internet – online gaming, gambling and pornography, to name but a few – also leads to behaviours that have all the hallmarks of addiction, not to mention the altered neurological responses outlined above. There has been some resistance to this idea in various academic communities, but the movement to have these “arousal” addictions included in handbooks of psychiatric illness symptom classification, and in particular the DSM-5, is starting to gather momentum.
On the basis of a huge survey investigating the pornographic consumption and sexual experiences of 28,000 Italian teenagers it seems that, for about one in ten boys who consume explicit online pornography on a daily basis, the habit is interfering with their ability to engage in real life sexual activities:
Carlos Forsta, President of the Italian Society for Andrology and Sexual Medicine.
This may at first glance seem to fly directly in the face of the stereotype of the ultra-horny teenage boy, brimming full of the very sex hormones that would usually ensure a hair-trigger sexual response to any possibility of coitus. But in light of research conducted many years ago by joint winner of the 1973 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, Nikolaas Tinbergen, it starts to make a lot more sense. In experiments conducted with “supernormal” stimuli, he observed that birds preferred to sit on larger than normal and / or more colourful eggs constructed from plaster, rather than their own real eggs. Similarly, herring gull chicks would peck harder and more often at a fake adult herring gull beak with brighter or more numerous red spots than the real thing, in a vain effort to elicit a regurgitated dinner. The point is that the larger than real life stimuli seem to have short-circuited the birds’ primal instincts leading to a preference that would ultimately be deleterious to the survival of the bird’s progeny.
It seems that the ubiquitous availability of explicit internet pornography is leading to a similar scenario in modern day internet addicted teenage boys. A subconscious preference for artificial, supernormal, explicit porn over actual sexual partners seems to be occurring with alarming regularity in adolescents who let their penchant for titillating pornographic films get out of control. In his TED talk entitled “Why I stopped watching porn” Ran Gavrieli gives an excellent and compelling account of some of the key differences between what pornographic films actually show and the relatively tame sensory stimuli involved in genuinely satisfying, intimate sexual behaviour between consenting adults.
Essentially, he points out that themes typically conveyed on free online porn sites, such as female subordination and extreme close ups of penetration to name but a few, are the human sexual equivalent of the brightly coloured, super-sized eggs and beak markings from Prof Tinbergen’s experiments (just not in so many words!). Porn is a supernormal stimulus, dominated by explicit close ups of penetration that you simply can’t reproduce in reality (the penis and eyeballs will always be separated by a set distance, unless you are exceedingly flexible, of course). Inevitably the real thing pales into insignificance by comparison after sufficient daily use of explicit porn of virtually infinite variety. No wonder boys are struggling to get it up!
This isn’t to say that there is no place for pornography in society. Regardless of your attitudes on this topic, it certainly isn’t going away any time soon. However it may be useful for porn fans to bear in mind the concept of everything in moderation. Once one genre of porn is no longer arousing there are many other categories to choose from. Once the relatively soft porn is no longer stimulating, casual browsing will always yield more explicit options. Eventually the kind of sexual activities we are likely to have access to in real life become insufficient to yield an erection for long enough to reach climax, which will inevitably lead to relationship problems. And nobody wants that.
The good news is that abstinence from pornography is usually sufficient to enable normal biological sexual function to eventually return. Interestingly, in older men this takes two months, whilst in younger men it can take much longer: four to five months. Find out more in the Latitude Podcast of the Porn Perspective Debate.
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.
I’ve been digging around in the scientific literature recently in search of research investigating racing drivers’ brains. Having stumbled a handful of pretty incredible facts I thought I’d devote this month’s blog to sharing these with you.
Over many thousand of hours of practice and experience the driver’s brains become honed to perform the incredibly demanding cognitive task of getting round the track, lap after lap, as fast as human possible, without spinning out of control. This is much more physically demanding than most people imagine. For instance, the forces delivered through the steering wheel when travelling at up to 200 mph on a typical track can reach a magnitude equivalent to carrying 9 kg in each hand. Maintaining the intensely focused concentration required to deal with the stream of rapidly changing sensory information also requires razor sharp reflexes and amazingly fast reaction times. In fact, one study demonstrated that there is no overlap in the spread of reaction times between elite and amateur racing drivers (as measured by the Vienna Reaction Apparatus). In other words, the slowest reaction times for the elite drivers across the whole experiment were still faster than the best reaction times logged by the amateurs.
Another biological specialisation exhibited by the elite drivers is their capacity to produce adrenaline. Their adrenal glands are larger than the rest of us so that they can produce more of this vital performance-enhancing hormone under high pressure racing circumstances. Adrenaline increases blood flow to the brain, heart and skeletal muscles, inducing an elevated heart rate and ventilation, whilst narrowing the blood vessels that feed other organs like the digestive system. This improves reaction times and the strength of muscular contractions to enable fight or flight to take place; or both as is the case in racing drivers. This is not specific to racing drivers. Athletes from many different sports have been found to have an enlarged adrenal gland, something referred to in the literature as the Sports Adrenal Medulla.
A further study compared the release of adrenaline and noradrenaline (primary neurotransmitter of the sympathetic nervous system) in elite racing drivers as they cycled to exhaustion in a staged bike ride versus whilst racing their cars. They were found to produce double the quantity of adrenaline whilst racing, as measured via detection of metabolites in their urine. I found this finding particularly extraordinary. You might have imagined that exercising to exhaustion would be more demanding on the body, but it just goes to show how cognitively demanding racing is. Presumably the extra adrenaline is required to help the brain deal with cognitive demands.
Several studies have scanned the brains of elite racing drivers using fMRI revealing that there is relatively little activity across the cortical surface compared to amateur drivers. This is thought to reflect the fact that racing is simply less taxing for the elite drivers. Much more of the cognitive processing required to manoeuvre the car around a constantly changing terrain at great speed can be handled subconsciously, freeing up precious conscious resources for dealing with unexpected occurrences.
Their extensive training also seems to have led to some racing driving-specific brain specialisations as they appear to exhibit greater activation in the retrosplenial cortex. This area is known to be involved in creating a view-independent model of environment being navigated. In other words it enables them to build a picture of the whole track in their mind’s eye so that they have an awareness of what to expect beyond the next turn. This skill is clearly vital to staying on the ideal racing line.
I recently pitted my own amateur racing skills against Christoffer – the official test driver of the Koenigsegg supercar – in an ultra-realistic simulator of Spain’s famous Ascari race track. The real thing, which he drives on a daily basis, is capable of producing 1,400 brake horsepower! Putting that into context, that’s two and a half times more powerful than a top of the range Ferrari! I don’t think it will come as any surprise to hear that he smashed me out of the park.
In addition to these monthly blogs you can also follow me on Twitter for a daily download of the most interesting neuroscience research to hit the press. In addition to my first best-selling book Sort Your Brain Out, my second Mice Who Sing For Sex is now available to pre-order and tells the story of over a hundred weird and wonderful nuggets of research from full the length and breadth of scientific research.
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