• How Virtual Environments Shape Your Brain by Dr Jack Lewis

    London_Black_Cab wikiComAny 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.

    VR wikiComIn 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.

    Cell_phone_use_while_driving wikiComThese 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.

    porn_star wikiComreport 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.

    brain that changes itselfMy 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.

    Quiet carriageI’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.

    In addition to these monthly blogs I also tweet daily about interesting brain-related articles that hit the press. If that sounds good to you then please consider following me by clicking here.

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  • Gyms of the Future – Good for Body, Good for Brain by Dr Jack Lewis

    healthy brainExercise is good for health, we all know that. That said it is also clear that the whole world is utterly fixated on the benefits to the body. The considerable benefits of physical exercise for the brain are invariably overlooked. As proof of these benefits continues to trickle in and the exact mechanisms by which exercise improves brain function gradually makes itself apparent, I’m guessing we’ll find ourselves increasingly inclined to take regular exercise for our brain’s sake. This article reveals insights from a recent report I wrote about why using high tempo music can naturally stimulate the brain to help you exercise harder with a lesser perception of exertion. I also argue that we might as well further enhance this effect by distracting ourselves with on screen activities that give the brain a work out whilst we’re at it.

    lactic 1When it comes to keeping motivated in the gym, the name of the game is distraction from the discomfort caused by lactic acid building up in the muscles when the capacity of aerobic exercise is exceeded and anaerobic metabolism takes over (releasing energy without oxygen). If you are not distracted, each minute of moderately intensive exercise can seem to take an age to tick by. If, on the other hand, your mind is elsewhere, then the minutes can fly by and you can clock up a decent amount of time doing continuous exercise without really noticing the burn in your muscles so much. The bottom line is: if the brain’s attentional resources are focused intently on something in the outside world – listening to upbeat music or watching an engaging TV programme, for instance –  then it limits the amount of brain resources available for sensing what is going in inside your body. This results in a decrease in “perception of exertion” for any given workout as a direct consequence and boosts your mood (so long as it’s music that suits your personal tastes).

    CountdownI gave a talk at last year’s Fitness Industry Association annual conference in Rotherham’s amazing MAGNA Centre (ex-steel works) where I suggested that if people work out harder when their mind is elsewhere – why not go for a double whammy and actually give them some brain teasers to do to as the distraction from the pain associated with moderately intense exercise? All it would take is to have one of the screens in the cardio section of any gym displaying a series of number / word / logic puzzles.

    This vision was inspired by my own experience of playing along with Channel 4’s Countdown whilst pounding the treadmill – I completely lost track of time and clocked up a much longer-than-normal running session (for the benefit of non-UK citizens: Countdown is a British game show where a pair of contestants must create the longest word possible from a sequence of 9 randomly selected letters and a bit of mental arithmetic with randomly selected numbers). I did this three times a week and within a month I was regularly able to find words as long as those found by the on-screen contestants.

    basal_gangliaLast month, brain & fitness became the hot topic yet again when I was unexpectedly commissioned to write a report on the evidence for and against the anecdotal observation that fast tempo music seems to do something to the brain which enables people to get more out of their workout. Part of the effect boils down to plain old distraction, as discussed above. But delving deeper into the neuroscience literature revealed that whenever the brain perceives a regular beat, the basal ganglia become activated, increasing the amount of connectivity between other brain areas: those involved in creating the sound of music (auditory cortex) with those that trigger bodily movements (motor cortex).

    The basal ganglia are the brain structures that are compromised in Parkinson’s disease, which involves difficulty initiating movements, resulting in a shuffling gait and jerky limb control. So with this in mind the responsiveness of the basal ganglia to a music beat is a likely mechanism through which the sounds impact upon exercise to produce the “ergogenic” properties.

    swimming to musicThese ergogenic properties of music, particularly effective in the 162-168 bpm range, enable people to exercise faster, stronger, harder and for longer whether they are running, doing weights, cycling, circuits and even swimming. If the part of the brain involved in initiating movements (basal ganglia) is responsive to the beat, then when that beat is rapid, the muscles of the body are presumably primed to match the pace set by that beat. Creating an exercise playlist where successive tunes gradually increase the tempo should allow you to enjoy a harder work out but with a reduced perception of exertion. More gain for less pain!

    To find out the bpm of your favourite tunes I would recommend using this free, simple, but ingenious, web resource: BeatFinder. Just position your cursor over the big red button and then click along in time with the beat of the tune.

    Catch me on Twitter to hear of amazing breakthroughs in brain research every day.

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