In Sept 2013 I gave my “Brain Coach” talk at both Dulwich College and Sydenham High School. That’s the second consecutive year that Sydenham girls entering their GCSE exam year will get my crash course in applied neuroscience. It covers changes that take place in their brains as they learn and various neuroscience-informed strategies to manage stress better, stabilise mood, boost problem solving and enhance exam performance. It’s the third year in a row that I’ve shared these insights with Dulwich lads about to embark on their A-levels. Nothing quite like repeat business to confirm you have a product that is highly valued and well received!
I’d jump at the chance to give this talk at schools all around the country. Feedback from teachers year on year indicates that students really do benefit from a better understanding of what is going on within their skulls as they learn and acquire new skills. Understanding that all their effort and hard work actually leads to physical changes in the brain is highly motivating – the audience is left to connect the dots themselves – there’s no need to ram it down their throats. Realizing that feeling stressed is a sign that body and mind are being mobilized to deal with the cause of the stress turns a negative into a positive – simply by pointing out the common misunderstanding. And advice on how to reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol when it all starts to become too much to bear gives the students a sense of control over their state of mind. Mnemonic techniques to help them retain important information in mind not just for exams, but for a lifetime – surely the whole point of education after all – has a completely transparent utility. Here’s some feedback from a teacher Lisa Cornell who invited me to speak at Sydenham High School:
The talk .. was inspirational for staff and students alike. The students enjoyed your informal yet informative style. You made difficult concepts easy to grasp. They especially liked how you applied these high level ideas to their everyday lives and studying. You were witty and most importantly not in the slightest bit patronising. You managed to use an array of high level language and technical terms [yet] alienated nobody. I particularly liked how you broke down the latin of long words (eg explaining adrenal).
From a teacher point of view you were engaging, entertaining and a very safe pair of hands for our students to work with. A very good litmus test for any speaker is if students stay behind to speak with you. That you had a ten strong audience of Y11s for half an hour after home time says a lot. Some of those students who stayed I have never seen so enthusiastic about anything!”
The trouble is, popular as these talks are once teachers have actually had the opportunity to witness one, it is extremely difficult to find the right person to speak with in the first place. I’ve tried contacting the registered Heads of PSHE across London and into the Home Counties. This seemed appropriate given that my Brain Coach talk is beneficial to students and teachers from all disciplines, not just those with a particular interest in STEM subjects. But no new opportunities came of it in the long run and so I continue to do 1hr or 2hr talk just a handful of times per year in a few privileged schools.
I would love to get up on stage in front of many more schools each year as I genuinely feel it is one of the best uses of my broad knowledge of neuroscience and aptitude for conveying it in plain english. If you would like me to speak at your or your teenager’s school then please do drop me a line.
You might also consider following me on Twitter. I flag at least 3 interesting pearls of wisdom from the world of neuroscience and psychology research every day.
As we progress through life we inevitably find ourselves becoming increasingly forgetful. It is not as if bouts of forgetfulness never occurred when we were younger. It’s just that it begins to happen more and more frequently – to the point where it becomes much more noticeable; even troublesome . From our mid-twenties onwards we lose more neurons (brain wires) and synapses (connections between the brain wires) than we build. The long term end point of this perfectly natural, gradual process of brain aging is dementia. By which I mean if we all lived to the impossibly grand old age of 200, every single one of us would have developed dementia of one description or another along the way. In reality very few of us will even make it to the grand old age of 100, let alone 200. Of those that do, not everyone will have become plunged into the amnesic fog of dementia. So what is the difference between individuals that do and don’t develop dementia well into their senior years? Is it blind luck? Or is there something we can do to lengthen our dementia-free status?
Earlier this year I interview some of the world’s leading neuroscience researchers at the 2013 British Neuroscience Association’s annual conference at the Barbican Centre. This video is a short extract of the interview I did with the lovely Prof Irene Tracey who is not just an expert in how the brain creates and modulates pain; she is also a brilliant communicator. Here we discuss some basic brain mechanisms involved in reducing pain when the situation demands it. This is one of sixteen interviews with some amazing scientists which I’m slowly but surely editing into a short film. So watch this space…
I reviewed the first Brain Training title on the Nintendo DS a couple of years ago and, to be perfectly honest, the sequel “MORE Brain Training” a.k.a. “Brain Age 2″ is not a great deal different. Dr Kawashima’s floating head is still there in its chunky pixelated glory; guiding, encouraging and chiding you throughout. Even the constant repetition that X, Y or Z game is “great for giving your prefrontal cortex a good work” out is also ever-present. I had hoped he’d get a bit more specific about which task was working out which part of the prefrontal cortex in this sequel. Especially given that, if the crinkly outer surface of the brain was increased to the size of planet earth, the prefrontal cortex would cover an area the size of North and South America put together (at least!). Still there are a few new games, many of which bear a striking resemblance to the old ones, some are plain dull, but others really quite novel / clever. Overall I would say it is a bit tougher on the old synapses than the predecessor; which is a good thing…
You may be aware of fierce debate going on about the effectiveness of these games when it comes to positively influencing cognitive abilities that have:
- a long term impact
- that goes beyond improved performance on the specific games being played to other cognitive functions useful in daily life
I would argue that, purely in terms of short-term arousal (Steady! In your brain.. not your pants), it is really quite effective. Based on personal experience I have found that 10-15 minutes spent taxing various mental abilities with the higher levels of any of these games is a more effective way of getting going in the morning than a slug of strong coffee. So even if the evidence does not mount up to support the claims of Lumosity, Cognifit and Torkel Klingberg regarding long term cognitive benefits for everyday people that might help them in their daily life, I think it would be pretty hard to refute the claim that challenging your brain to solve a few puzzles first thing in the morning can really help you hit the ground running each and every day.
Anyway, I digress (again). What I like about Brain Age 2 is that it is really hard; punishingly hard at times. In one game you have to keep track of a stickman’s position in a running race as other runners are overtaken / overtake you. In another your task is to keep track of blocks that pile up on each other as they fall behind a screen recalling the height of one particular column. Both are good solid working memory training games (and thus have the best potential to boost IQ; read this book for full explanation) and have a nice progression to them in that they start easy on the earlier levels, build the difficulty gradually, but soon end up challenging even the sharpest of brains.
Other new games are not so challenging. “Days and Dates” and “Correct Change” are clearly built with the aim of developing cognitive skills that have an obvious practical application in everyday life. I suspect these might have been included to address criticisms leveled at the brain training market by suggesting that the games only help people get better at the specific task being tackled. Either way, figuring out what the day was 4 days after 2 days ago, or figuring out the correct coins to give as change if a £/€/$1.40 bill was paid with a ten pound/euro/dollar note, are a pretty dull ways to pass the time, if you ask me.
“Missing symbols” – adding the appropriate plus, minus, multiplication or division sign to make the sum work – verges on the dull, but the speed element keeps it challenging. You can always go faster. “Memory addition” takes mental arithmetic to the next level by having to perform a calculation but then keep one of the numbers in mind to use it in the next sum. I must admit to hissing the to-be-remembered number under my breath (recruiting the “phonological loop” aspect of working memory) so as not to get confused with the correct answer for the current sum. “Word Scramble” is cute. Solving an anagram where the letters are not just shuffled but are presented in a ring that slowly rotates. Surprisingly tough, particularly with the longer letter strings!
Anyone who has read my review of Beat City will know I am a fan of games that involve making music. So it will come as no surprise that I think “Masterpiece Recital” is brilliant. A little bit pointless for people that actually play the piano, but great for the rest of us. You have to hit the right note on a piano keyboard as the musical score scrolls past. And you don’t have to be able to read music as it labels both the keyboard and the music notation with the appropriate letter (see left). The reason I found it so satisfying is because in the later levels the tunes are really beautiful pieces of classical music (and I’m no classical music buff, that’s for sure) plus the accompanying backing music makes even the most amateurish efforts sound pretty good; even if you’re a bit late hitting the notes. You get marked down for this at the end, but whilst you’re in the game it very enjoyable to feel like you are actually creating such pretty music.
“Word Blend” is a good idea, but poorly executed. It’s loosely based on the dichotic listening test (usually different information is presented to each ear) – straight out of the psychology textbooks – whereby 2 or 3 voices simultaneously say a single word and your job is to recognize the words and write them down. Personally I just found this game irritating. Despite having the option of hearing them repeat it five times or so (but you only score points for words identified without hitting the repeat button) it can sometimes be quite impossible (for me at least) to hear one voice over the other. I suspect it is the fault of the game rather than the player because there was no improvement. So I’m either acoustically challenged, or this particular game is a bit crap.
The game I liked the most, despite upon first encountering it that it was a bit remedial, is a game that seemed to be inspired by exercises developed to help people overcome learning disabilities. “Determine The Time” is reminiscent of an cognitive development technique invented by Barbara Arrowsmith-Young (whose book: “The Woman Who Changed Her Brain” is as amazing as it is inspirational). She developed this simple clock reading task, first to help overcome her own difficulties learning relationships between symbols (like the relationship between the big hand and little hand of a clock) and then started to roll it out as an entry level exercise for kids and adults with learning disabilities (making a dazzling impact on improving their cognitive abilities).
It quite literally involves reading the time of a clock, but the twist in this particular game is that the clockface is rotated. This requires you to do a “mental rotation task” – imagining in your mind’s eye what the clock would look like if it was the right way up – so that you can give the right answer. Such spatial rotation tasks stimulate the parietal cortex (finally something that benefits a brain area other than the prefrontal cortex!!) and, presumably, improvements in these mental rotation tasks will enable the parietal cortex to manipulate all sorts of other information in space.
Incidentally, Einstein’s brain had a larger-than-normal parietal cortex and, given that this lobe is also critically involved in mathematical abilities, it is thought to account (in part at least) for his tremendous contributions to physics. As well as rotating the clock in the harder levels Dr K becomes particularly devious by mirror reflecting the images as well. So your parietal cortex has to perform two sequential transformations reflecting it back and then rotating it the right way up again. It is a very simple idea, but genuinely, in my opinion, a tremendous work out for the parietal cortex.
I am aware that so far the brain games I’ve reviewed are all on the Nintendo DS. I am also conscious that it may seem that I am in some way biased in favour of the Nintendo DS. Both are perfectly reasonable observations. For the record the true reasons that, so far, I have only reviewed titles on the Nintendo DS are quite simply that a) I happen to own one, b) positive outcomes from brain training is only possible if you play it regularly and intensively and c) the smartphone I happen to own is not optimized for gameplay.
Convenience Lends Itself To Regular Training:
For brain training to have even the slightest chance to yield genuine benefits it must be undertaken regularly, intensely and for long periods of time. In my opinion convenience is therefore a prerequisite of any good brain training game, thus I favour options that enable people to fill dead time in their daily routine with gameplay wherever they happen to be. I am aware that there are many home computer-based brain training games but as I personally feel that when I’m at my computer I should be working, not playing games – I suspect others feel the same way. This is why I haven’t reviewed the various online brain training offerings, instead focusing on those that enable you to brain train on the move. Not only is the Nintendo DS extremely portable and therefore convenient, I also happen to own one, so it is currently my device of choice for gameplay on the move (the only time I personally get the chance to get stuck in).
Why No Smartphone Based Brain Training Reviews?:
I’ve been using a Blackberry for the last few years purely for the slideout keyboard which enables me to type without looking at the buttons. Once I’ve got over my distaste for touchscreen smartphone technology (I’m nearly there) I’ll start reviewing iOS / Android brain games. In light of this avowed intent I would be grateful if anybody out there would suggest any games marketed as Brain Training so I can give them the once over (rather than leaving a comment please drop me an email by clicking here instead).
I’ve been meaning to read this book for a very very long time. I spied it on a friend’s bookshelf and wasted no time in negotiating the borrow. I’d heard about it long ago from a mate from university who studied psychology and now works for a major record label. He had left me with low expectations saying that the hype that greeted it’s launch onto the market was unwarranted. In fact, he said, Mr Gladwell contradicts the point he makes throughout the book, right at the end.
I can see how this book might be a bit “Marmite” for some people (this is a spread that we Brits either LOVE or HATE to put on our toast in the market – and it really does split people into two distinct camps at opposite ends of the spectrum). It takes an interesting point: that the expert brain is capable of making very accurate judgements in a blink (or two) of the eye – and then hammers it to death with examples from many different walks of life.
Personally, having read hundreds of pop science books now with an eye on writing my own (in fact I have finally scored a book deal – only took 5 years!), I thought Blink was great. In my talks at business conferences and training employees in the worlds of Public Relations, Market Research and Advertising I find myself discussing the neuroscience of decision making at great length. The role of instinct, gut feeling, call it what you will has long been overlooked by economics in its first few decades and the brain sciences have been filling in the gaps in the last decade or so. What I’ve found is that lay audiences NEED concrete examples to really drive the message home. And Malcolm Gladwell is not only a great story teller but he has found many wonderful examples to put flesh on the scientific skeleton.
From art experts evaluating the authenticity of a priceless statue, to police evaluating the threat posed to them by a potential criminal, the power and weakness of instant judgements are thoroughly dissected in a very compelling manner. This book may not be to the taste of those already well versed in neuroeconomics and psychology, but for the layperson my instinct tells me this is a must read.
What I like most about this book is that, admittedly with a fair degree of repetition, it makes one point clear and true – if you have developed considerable expertise then you can make sound judgements in the blink of an eye, but if you haven’t got much experience then your instincts will probably misguide you and lead to potentially catastrophic consequences.
I have many more book reviews in the works for this blog and recently reviewed Phil Barden’s “Decoded” elsewhere. In the meantime, you might also consider catching my daily brain twitterings on Twitter.
A short film describing neuroscientist Dr Jack Lewis’s first 3 years in television. As well as science consultancy for the Emmy award winning documentary “The Living Body” on National Geographic / Channel 4 and primetime quiz show Britain’s Best Brain on Channel 5, Jack has presented several TV series. His most recent roles do not feature in this showreel, but are described briefly in italics below. This showreel features highlights from Dr Jack’s broadcast output up to and including 2010:
- Dr Jack co-presented a prime-time SkyOne series called Body Language Secrets (aired 2010-2011) exploring the themes of selling, attraction, winning, laughter, power, lying and money.
- Jack’s first big break as a presenter came with People Watchers (aired 2008), a BBC2 series exploring the quirks of social psychology via a wide variety of different hidden camera experiments set throughout London.
- In his role as the Face of Faraday 2008 Dr Jack presented 4 short films which aired on Teacher’s TV and were centred around the theme Technology for Life. These films were specifically created to be played during science lessons across the whole United Kingdom in an effort to encourage 12-16 year old pupils to pursue careers in STEM subjects (i.e. science, technology, engineering and maths.)
- Jack hanging out with David Ginola and scenes from the modelling shoot were Naked Britain – another prime time SkyOne series that took a lighthearted look at British attitudes to nudity. Nothing to do with science, but a good opportunity to hone the old interviewing skills.
[Coming soon: Dr Jack is now the resident neuroscientist on ITV1's flagship magazine show This Morning where he presents live monthly items for the brand new "Don't Be A Slave To Your Brain" strand. Jack has also recently appeared in two Channel 4 documentaries presented respectively by Tom Dyckhoff (Secret Life of Buildings) and Tony Robinson (Superstition). THE TECH SHOW on Discovery Science is Jack's first solo presenting gig to air across multiple continents; beaming out across Europe, Africa and the Middle East throughout 2011]
Since the success of Dr Jack’s inaugural live speaking events in late 2010 and early 2011, he is now represented by Britain’s largest speaker bureau. The Gordon Poole Agency has been running for almost half a century and they represent most of the biggest names on the live speaking circuit. From celebrity after dinner speakers to business and motivational speakers, they provide corporate clients with a wide variety of options to choose from.
Uniquely, Dr Jack’s live talks centre around revealing the mysteries of the most complex organ in the known universe – your brain. By casting light on the hidden mechanisms by which we perceive the world, communicate, think and decide, human behaviour is thrown into sharp relief. Understanding how the brain generates behaviour is extremely valuble to anyone trying to make a success of themselves in the business world. Understanding what makes others tick, how they make decisions and give away clues to what they are really thinking through subconsciously-orchestrated, subtle body language, really gives those privvy to this valuable knowledge the competitive edge.
As businesses struggle to remain successful in an increasingly competitive and difficult marketplace, they have an unfortunate tendency to squeeze more and more out of their existing workforce. The increased pressure and working hours elevate stress levels to a point where they can be debilitating to a person’s health and their productivity. Dr Jack’s Brain Coach Live talks provide the audience with a complete toolbox of brain tips and tricks that enable them to get the most out of their brains each and every day. This includes practical advice regarding how you can ensure your brain receives all the nourishment, rest and exercise it requires to operate at full potential throughout the day. Strategies to improve memory, alleviate stress, enhance communication skills and boost creative thinking are suggested and consolidated with an explanation of why these techniques enable our brains to work better. This helps employees rise to the challenge of the business world’s ever-moving goalposts, every single day.
If you wish to book Dr Jack to speak at a conference, meeting or dinner please don’t hesitate to get in touch with Gordon Poole to check his availability:
Tel: 01275 463222
Fax: 01275 462252
Gordon Poole Agency Ltd
Bristol, BS48 3BB
In addition to these weekly BrainPosts you can catch Dr Jack’s daily #braintweet by following him on Twitter.
Dr Jack will be MAKING YOUR BRAIN BETTER FOR LONGER live on ITV1′s THIS MORNING
Over the summer I’ll be making a series of contributions to ITV’s THIS MORNING. The aim is to get the nation interested in how their brains work and ultimately to help YOU get the most out of YOUR brain. I’ll offer easy-to-follow advice on how to get your brain firing on all cylinders each and every day.
I’ll be answering the questions that YOU want answered. Is your brain not what it used to be? Want to know what you can do about it? Bad with money? Ever wondered why you can’t kick your habits? Ever worry about your children’s development? You can either get in touch with your questions directly by clicking here, or get in touch with THIS MORNING via The Hub.
Topics I’ll be covering in detail will range from money management to memory, from love to hate, from happiness to sorrow, and all the way from child development to holding onto your marbles in old age. You most definitely CAN teach an old dog new tricks and it is never too late to start getting more out of your brain!
Each item will kick off with a discussion with Phillip Schofield and Co. on the sofa to explore ways in which they feel their own brains’ work well and not-so-well. We’ll then be asking members of the public to participate in experiments live in the studio. And we’ll meet some extraordinary people who’ll either demonstrate some amazing abilities or some shocking disabilities. Each item will be packed with useful tips, nudges and strategies for optimising your brain function. So, each week, you’ll be able to put my advice to the test to see how it can benefit your life by boosting your brain power.
Most people would agree that their memories are far from perfect. So, on Monday 13th June 2011, I’ll be showing you what part of your brain creates a MEMORY for people, places, facts and faces. I’ll be putting some members of the public through their paces to see how much information a noraml “working” memory can hold. You’ll even be able to join in the fun and play along at home. I’ll reveal a classic memory trick that is virtually guaranteed to boost anyone’s memory for lists of facts or any other kind of information you might need to remember.
So tune into ITV1 from 10:30-12:30 and SORT YOUR BRAIN OUT!
- Jack has studied Brain Biology for nearly 20 years
- Jack has a First Class batchelor’s degree in Neuroscience from The University Of Nottingham
- Jack earned his PhD in the Laboratory of Neurobiology at University College London
- Last year, Jack published a paper in the prestigious Journal of Neuroscience describing human brain scanning experiments that investigated multisensory perception; carried out during a post-doc at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics
- Despite Jack’s extensive knowledge about the human brain, he is NOT medically qualified and so will not be able to answer questions relating to medical care.