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…)
As we move around in the world we develop a sense of how to get from A to B. This relies heavily on the hippocampus, a brain structure nestled deep within each of the temporal lobes, responsible for many functions vital to cognition such as memory and navigation. This is the brain structure famed for becoming physically larger as a result of all the practice driving around London that the drivers of London’s famous Black Cabs have to accrue before they can pass “The Knowledge.” Whilst their memory for the 25,000 roads and 20,000 major landmarks that enable them to instantly reel off the route they’d take to get from one place to another is extraordinary, for the 33% of those born in 2015 will live long enough to develop dementia at some point in their lives this situation is reversed. Difficulties with navigation, even familiar routes between places visited many times before, is one of the problems in daily life that can herald the approach of full-blown dementia. Understanding the normal trajectory of changes in navigational ability over the lifetime of a health brain is a vital first step. With or without dementia our abilities to memories complex routes becomes slowly but surely compromised by the normal processes of age-related cognitive decline. We need to know what is normal for each age group before we could be in a position to use a steeper than normal decline in navigational ability as an early warning signal, ideally before any memory deficits have had a chance to rear their ugly heads. As our understanding of the metabolic processes that lead to various forms of dementia improve, this early warning could prove to be a vital mechanism in triggering prophylactic treatments early enough to slow down disease progression.
Hugo Spiers, a memory researcher and neuroscientist at University College London, launched a smartphone game in 2016 called Sea Hero Quest, which aims to do just this. Over 2.5 million people have played this surprisingly fun, engaging and challenging game so far, generating the equivalent of an astonishing 9,400 years worth of lab data. The game involves memorising a map of waterways around which a series of numbered buoys have been distributed. Once you’ve planned the journey you’re going to make and tucked it away in your working memory, the map is then taken away and your job is then to steer your little fishing boat (increasingly customisable as you progress through the game) by tapping the left or right side of the touch screen. The terrain varies from idyllic sandy paradises to rainy, foggy, bumpy rides across perpetually undulating swell. Thanks to the funding from Deutsche Telekom and Glitchers – the tech-gurus who actually created the game – the graphics are beautifully rendered, the gameplay is smooth and unlike most games designed to answer important scientific questions, every aspect of the user experience is highly polished. As was the delivery of the first results announced at SfN 2016 and summarised below by the man himself…
Personally I was surprised by how hard some of the levels were. I play a lot of brain training games (e.g. PEAK Review, BRAIN AGE 2 Review ), just to keep myself up to date on the latest offerings, and am now accustomed to finding myself able to get maximal scores on most categories of games pretty quickly through daily play. Not Sea Hero Quest. Once I got past the easier earlier levels, I often found myself getting lost in the mist, or going round and round in circles having forgotten how to get from buoy 3 to buoy 4. As a consequence, not only did I help scientists like Hugo Spiers and colleagues from the University of East Anglia and Alzheimers Research UK to generate data (anonymously, you only have to give your age) but I also got an insight into what the future might have in store for me should I become one of the unfortunate 1 in 3 that get clobbered by dementia in my post-retirement years. As you progress from level to level you periodically get to chase down one of a large variety of sea monsters. Having dodged innumerable obstacles along the way the monster in question eventually leaps out of the water at you and your task, is to resist the temptation to hit the button on your camera to take a photo of the rare and exotic sea beast in question, until the very last second when the captured image is at its most aesthetically pleasing.
Overall, I found playing this game great fun, very challenging at times and doubly satisfying knowing that it would, in some small but meaningful way, help science to get some much needed answers about how the human brain keeps track of where it is and where it’s going in health, so we can better understand when this system breaks down in disease.
I would just like to take a moment to applaud @HugoSpiers and collaborators for finding a way to genuinely enable people to #gameforgood. Hats off to you all… your Cannes Lion was thoroughly well deserved!
In addition to these monthly blogs you can get daily brain tweets about other amazing developments in the world of neuroscience by following me on Twitter (@DrJackLewis). And for a fortnightly appraisal of the latest quirkly stories from the wonderful world of science on general there’s always the totally free Geek Chic Weird Science podcast available from iTunes, Podbay, Libsyn and many others.
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.
In my 8 years of presenting / contributing as an expert to TV shows I’ve appeared on every British terrestrial television channel and half a dozen or so international cable and satellite channels. My most recent series Secrets of the Brain is available to be streamed for free from anywhere in the world on the dedicated ultra high definition digital channel insight.tv (also on sky channel 279 in the UK). It’s without a shadow of a doubt the best presenting work I’ve done so far and it even got shortlisted for an AIB award.
Here’s my brand new showreel dedicated entirely to SotB.
Hope you like it…
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.
I love Channel 4’s Gogglebox. In case you’ve never had the pleasure – it’s a TV series where everyday British people’s living rooms are fitted out with TV cameras to capture the spontaneous conversation that arises as they sit together watching the week’s big shows on their own television. Watching people watching television may not sound like a particularly interesting way to pass the time but I personally find it absolutely fascinating. In fact, I’ve tried on several occasions to convince my friends to be filmed watching Gogglebox with me so that we can launch a YouTube channel where friends and families all over the country can post their own videos of their own running commentary as they watch people on television who themselves are watching television. That way, viewers of this meta-Gogglebox channel can amuse themselves by watching people on the telly who are watching people on the telly who are watching telly.
Am I the only one to find this prospect tantalising?
Apparently so. Nobody’s ever taken me up on the offer…!
Gogglebox has a strange way of making me feel connected to my fellow Brits up and down the length of the nation. Why? I think it’s because for such a wide diversity of households, featuring such a variety of people who seem, at first glance, to be completely different yet deep down clearly share a very similar set of values. It’s surprisingly satisfying to find that you share certain strong opinions, make similar observations and perhaps most tellingly read between the lines in a similar way to people of a completely different age, regional dialect, sex, ethnicity, socioeconomic status and/or sexuality. For example, I find myself agreeing with most of the observations made by the father and two sons in Nottingham, yet the slang that the Brixton girls use are the words most familiar to my ear. So, bizarrely, I find myself identify most closely with three guys of south Asian origin and two girls of Afro-Caribbean origin.
It reminds me that being British ain’t so bad after all and that feeling proud of my nation (rather than a little bit apologetic, as our default setting seems to be under normal circumstances) is not such a terrible thing. Jeremy Paxman’s brilliant book: “The English” started this process in me many years ago and now Gogglebox has picked up where he left off but applying this newfound pride to the whole of Britain rather than just England. I like my weekly reminder that the average, everyday, normal British person can be both amusing and insightful. I enjoy contemplating that, despite our varying outward appearances, accents and slang, scratch the surface and we’re actually much more similar than we are different deep down, on the grand scheme of things. It genuinely warms the cockles of my soul…
Anyway, I digress. The main reason I wanted to blog about Gogglebox this month was not just to sing its praises in terms of it’s capacity for promoting a much needed sense of national togetherness, but rather to point out a simple tweak to a common habit that takes place in living rooms all over the UK. This could genuinely help each and every one of us to take some simple steps to avoid developing Type II diabetes. So you could view this as my small offering in the battle against the rising global obesity epidemic.
Greater Manchester’s contribution to Gogglebox – the Malones – are a family unit comprising a husband and wife accompanied by two teenage sons and several huge dogs that are clearly an intrinsic and dearly loved part of the family. One ever-present feature in their segments of the show is a huge box of sweets or plate of cakes and biscuits placed slap bang in front of them on the footrest siting between them and the television. Every single time I see this I think to myself: bad idea. It may seem perfectly harmless, hospitable even, but in a world defined by the overabundance of sweet, fatty, delicious foods it’s already hard enough to reduce calorie intake to a reasonable level without having temptation permanently within your field of view! With a couple of simple tweaks a scenario that actively promotes the mindless nibbling that inevitably leads to weight gain can be converted into one that helps us to limit intake of foods that are naughty but nice.
The first thing you should do if you’re keen to reduce the amount of food you eat late at night, whilst unwinding in front of the telly after a tiring day, is to never eat straight out of the packet. When our mind’s are distracted by a TV show or film we simply don’t notice how much food we are eating and so we eat lots without really appreciating it. Whilst the Malones nearly get this bit right, they take the approach of emptying the entire tray of Mr Kipling’s pies onto a large plate for everyone to help themselves to. I would argue that a better strategy would be to put just one or two out on a small plate. That way if they want more then they have to put in effort to go and get it from the kitchen. Several studies have shown that the smaller the plate, bowl, serving spoon etc used to hold the food, the less of it ends up being consumed. Better still, cut these small cakes in half or quarters and empty them directly onto the plate to further encourage a lesser calorie intake by reducing portion size.
The second brain hack is to move the plate or bowl out of your field of vision, rather than having it sat directly in front of you. Out of sight, out of mind. The more frequently your eyes catch sight of the snack food, the more temptation you have do resist. If you move it out of view you’ll have less temptation to fight.
Thanks to the Malones, I have started applying these simple brain hacks in my own life. I’ve always been partial to Cadbury’s chocolate fingers. But I’d often go through a whole packet in a night without really remembering munching through them. Having been reminded by the Malones of my tactical error, I now load up a shot glass with half a dozen fingers and put the box back in the freezer (yes, in the freezer). I then place them outside my line of vision directly to the right of my head where I can only see it if I turn my head 90 degrees.
The result of using this simple brace of brain hacks on a daily basis is that, when I switch off the box to hit the hay at the end of an evening of being a “sofa sloth”, I’ll typically find that that there are still a couple of uneaten chocolate fingers left in the shot glass. That’s something that simply never happened when I ate straight out of the box. By dishing out a small portion I set the maximum dose to a modest number of calories. And by positioning them out of sight, I ended up completely forgetting that they were even there, reducing the amount of fast-release carbs yet further!!
Instead of eating a couple of dozen chocolate biscuits in one sitting, this simple tweak to my daily habit means that I’m now only munching my way through four, five or six of them. The best bit of all? It requires no mental discipline from me whatsoever to resist the temptation.
I’m even starting to see a comeback of something whose days I thought were long gone – my six-pack is mysteriously beginning to re-emerge (well, to be honest it’s only really visible when I’m stretched out in the bath or on the beach, but it’s a step in the right direction!!
In addition to these monthly brain blogs you can follow me on Twitter for a daily dose of breakthroughs in brain science. My new book – Mice Who Sing For Sex is now available to pre-order. It’s a compilation of the strange and wonderful science stories to emerge in the press over the past two years in the Geek Chic’s Weird Science podcast presented by Lliana Bird and I. And finally my brand new series “Secrets of the Brain” will soon be available to stream from the Insight TV website.
Since its inception as a three-minute science splash on Lliana Bird’s Sunday show on XFM (now known as Radio X) Geek Chic’s Weird Science has gone from strength-to-strength. After 9 months of brevity we moved, in September 2014, to podcast format and promptly rocketed up the iTunes science podcast chart all the way to 4th place by the 31st October! I still can’t quite figure out how that actually happened. We were getting 20,000 downloads per month after just a couple of months. Weird. (Must be something Birdy did!) That said, we clearly owe a great debt of gratitude to all those who embraced us with such enthusiasm right from the outset. So ta! Gracias! Danke! Terima kasi! Grazie! Konnichiwa!
Now that we’ve crossed the 50-episode milestone we can safely say that we’ve had tens of thousands of downloads. Looking back at the strangest, most curious, thought-provoking, limits-of-mankind’s-knowledge-pushing science stories we’ve covered over the months is quite mind-boggling. Rainbow universes, panda’s feigning pregnancy, lab-grown human penises, discovering a new 9th planet to replace Pluto, boozy chimps, underwater cities, quantum teleportation for instantaneous communication across interplanetary distances (one day), musical marmosets, a paralysed woman flying fighter planes with thought alone, the imminent mini-ice age, a 6th mass extinction (this time it’s our fault), futuristic hover boards and a handful of dinosaurs thrown in for good measure – we’ve had it all.
No wonder Little Brown wanted to turn it into a book!
The illustrious Lliana Bird (@LlianaBird) and I (@drjacklewis) have just submitted the middle third of our wonderful tale of Geekery and Chicery to our publishers. Our book will take our readers on a carefully carved narrative that takes in the very best of all of the bizarre scientific endeavour and technological innovations we have encountered on our merry way through the last two years of science.
Best of all it will be illustrated by Dyna’s fantastically-talented, comedic, arty friends. [Dyna, by the way, is what I call Birdy in private – don’t ask].
So I wanted to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has supported the Geek Chic cause so far. Whether it’s subscribing to our podcast feed at iTunes, streaming us each week from Libsyn, Podbay etc or simply following us on Twitter (@GCweirdscience) to catch the interesting stories that didn’t quite make the cut for the show, plus supplementary information on each of the stories we do cover each week – THANK YOU!
Without you, there would be no point in doing any of it. Okay so it would still be nice to know these things but if you hadn’t kindly taken the time to…
- Download it.
- Listen to it
- Let us keep you company whilst:
- partaking of exercise
- going to the shops
- loafing around in bed, or
- Mulling the stories we tell you over in your head.
- Discussing them with your friends, family and colleagues
- And choosing the steadily growing family of regular weird science listeners.
…we would soon have found ourselves not bothering any more. If you stopped being interested in what we had to say we would simply have lost the impetus to keep it up. The research, the preparation, the recording, the editing, the re-listening, the final edit notes, the sound production and the releasing of this podcast, month after month, year after year, was for love not money. So if nobody was loving it, then there’d have been no point in doing it.
A handful of generous benefactors have kindly covered the podcast hosting costs (by contributing at Patreon; so at least we have been saved the indignity of losing money despite working unpaid on this for the past 2 years!). We are particularly grateful to them for opting to give something back to this enterprise.
As for the rest of you… it’s not too late! If you’ve enjoyed any of our podcast over the years then you can show us some love by picking up a copy of The Mice Who Sing For Sex when it’s release at the end of this year – just in time for Christmas. Hey, why not pick up two copies – one for yourself and another as a gift. That is the kindest way you could say thanks for all our hard work.
Last but not least Birdy and I would like to thank Richard Boffin for two years of impeccable support as our sound guru and also Kate McLoughney for being sweet enough to look after our @GCweirdscience Twitter feed.
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!
As my regulars will know I like to keep abreast of movements in the brain training game market. I’ve reviewed Nintendo DS’s titles from the Dr Kawashima, Lumosity and even some that weren’t specifically designed to improve cognitive functions, yet arguably do. Christmas before last I subscribed my parents up to Lumosity on the iPad. 24 months later my dad still plays on a regular basis. He’s up to 99.9% for his age group in every category bar 1 (where he is up to 99.7%!). This year I’ll be subscribing them to PEAK instead, because having regularly used it on my phone to kill time whilst in transit (or on the throne) for the best part of a year I genuinely think the (relatively) new kid on the block wipes the floor with Lumosity.
All the major players tend to include a core set of “classic” brain training games that are clearly inspired by neurological tests that have been around for many decades e.g. Go/NoGo, Stroop, N-back etc. Unlike their rivals who seem to be happy with the basic versions, PEAK seems to continually evolve each game by adding a twist or making each game a little bit tougher.
Take for instance working memory training – the only games for which there is any half decent published data in the peer-reviewed science literature supporting claims that it can actually improve cognition (and even that evidence is hotly contested!). The spatial working memory training games like PERILOUS PATH (memorise the position of the mines whilst they’re briefly displayed and then trace a path around them from random start to finish points), MEMORY SWEEP (remember and reproduce the position of illuminated blocks in larger and larger grids) and BOUNCE (guess the finishing point of a laser beam sent bouncing across angled mirrors distributed across the grid after a brief glimpse of where they are) have all been done before, but these are all great versions.
PEAK also takes simple versions of classic brain games and takes steps to improve them. For example, RUSH BACK involves simply answering whether each presented image is the same or different as the previous one. A 1-back task like this hardly challenges working memory because you can use iconic memory (the visual impression left in the mind’s eye for a few tens of milliseconds after any object disappears from view). They quite rightly class this as a test of “focus”, because if you lose concentration then it is easy to accidentally push the wrong button. Particularly when you’re trying to go as fast as possible to maximise points. Yet over the months they’ve introduced RUSH BACK PLUS – which is a 2-back task and two other aesthetically appealing variations on this game:
TUNNEL TRANCE – progresses from the 1-back task to the 2-back (same as the image before last?) to the 3-back (same as the one before the one before last) – this really has the potential to genuinely help people hold more information in mind when they are performing a real life task. It probably goes up to 4-back and beyond… if so, I simply haven’t performed well enough at the 3-back task to get promoted to the next level.
PARTIAL MATCH – the task is to rapidly decide whether the image is identical to the last image, completely different, or partially the same (i.e. same colour but different shape or same shape but different colour). This I have never seen anywhere before. I appreciate that PEAK are putting in the effort to innovate and that it took me a surprisingly long time to get the hang of. I’m always mindful that the harder something is to get the hang of, i.e. the more a brain finds it to be a challenge, the more resources are likely to be invested in reinforcing the relevant neural pathways in an effort to adapt the brain to improve that particular mental function. Speaking of which another game that was introduced very recently definitely deserves a special mention… HAPPY RIVER
A common symptom of depression is the tendency to ruminate over negative thoughts or emotions. An effective but simply remedy is to develop the habit of dwelling instead on the positive whilst disregarding the negative. Bear this in mind as you read on because I’m convinced that HAPPY RIVER can only be a power for good, which suggests that PEAK really are keeping an eye on the latest developments in psychology and neuroscience to find inspiration for their new game pipeline.
HAPPY RIVER involves reuniting a baby elephant with its mother. They are on opposite side of the banks of a river that have several rows of words streaming across it either from left to right or right to left. Each of the individual words acts as a raft. By tapping the screen the baby elephant hops forward. Your timing has to be accurate or else you’ll fall into the gaps between each word raft. You also have to be strategic because only those words with positive emotional overtones provide safe passage. Step onto a negative word and you’ll be tipped over into the rapids. So to successfully reunite the baby elephant with its mother you have to focus on the positive and avoid the negative – hence PEAK have created a game that could well encourage a habit that could ever so slightly nudge players towards a more positive outlook and greater mental health.
FLIGHT PATH challenges many different cognitive capacities. You start with a bird’s eye view of some lush green fields at the middle of which are 4 landing spots for airships that fly into view from top, bottom, left or right of screen. Each airship has a different letter and moves at a different velocity. Your task is to plot the movement of each airship so that they line up on the ground in an order that spells a 4-letter word. The airspace can get pretty crowded so half the challenge is to do what all air traffic control professionals do so well – stop the aircraft from smashing into each other and showering the sky with debris. For this game you need to think strategically, flexibly, linguistically, constantly updating the flight paths for a steadily increasing number of craft whilst simultaneously keeping your eye on an icon in the top right corner to win extra points. Although there is no published data yet to prove it, my hunch is that having to divide your attention across so many competing concerns and continually re-evaluate your priorities, will tune up brain pathways that would surely come in useful for any high pressured professional.
In addition to these monthly brain blogs, you can subscribe to my weekly science podcast (or get it on libsyn) and follow me on Twitter (@drjacklewis) for a daily dose of news articles describing the latest breakthroughs in brain science.