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…)
I’ve now been on the motivational speaking circuit for over 5 years. I’ve traveled the length and breadth of the country to perform at speaking engagements in schools, science conferences and a wide variety of businesses. As of this year, on the business speaking front, I’ve been very happy to find myself in great demand not just in the U.K. but all over Europe. In light of this I thought I’d write a quick update to describe which topics have been most popular with my clients.
There is a huge amount of insight that neuroscience can provide on a wide variety of topics. It’s always satisfying to find that, in tailoring my talks to the specific needs of a client, I’m constantly stumbling upon new areas of neuroscientific endeavour with which I wasn’t previously familiar . No matter what the organisation’s priorities have been in terms of what they want their staff to take away from my talk, a few days of digging around in the neuroscience literature ALWAYS yields some inspiration; shedding an interesting new perspective on virtually any topic. Do get in touch if you have a new challenge for me!
Talks for Schools
Over the past five years I’ve been invited to speak at several different schools across the UK. The aim is to engage young learners, usually in the build up to their big exams, with an upbeat neuroscience narrative that brings to life what exactly is going on inside their brains as they learn. Once students grasp that all their efforts are leading directly to huge changes in the wiring of their brains, adaptations that support the new skills that they are developing through trial and error, their motivation levels invariably rise accordingly.
I give them insights into straight-forward techniques to get brains working better: whether memorising information more thoroughly, managing exam stress more effectively and simply encouraging them to see school as the only viable way (currently) of sculpting young brains in preparation for dealing with whatever adult life might throw at them. The 2015-2016 school year will be my fifth consecutive year of doing my Brain Coach talk at two of the schools I regularly speak at.
Talks For Business: Neuroscience of Decision Making
In the last few of years I’ve been working more and more with senior management teams across Europe to help them understand insights from neuroscience that are relevant to their specific business needs. For example, I helped one of Europe’s “Big Four” auditors win a highly lucrative new business contract by sharing with them my Neuroscience of Decision Making talk in the context of reverse engineering the pitch process in light of the flaws in how the human brain evaluates information when making important choices. By exploiting a large corpus of knowledge generated over the past decade or so from neuroeconomic investigations the realities of how risk, uncertainty and benefit are evaluated in the human brain can be explored in order to concoct strategies that improve the likelihood of developing a successful pitch.
Talks for Business: Neuroscience of Creativity
Since the first outing of my Neuroscience of Creativity talk in 2013 it has evolved into a half-day workshop experience. I’ve been rolling this Innovation Workshop out over the course of 2015 with various members of the Senior Leadership Team at one of the world’s biggest broadcasters by sharing with them everything that science has to offer in terms of techniques that work and those that sound good but ultimately don’t. By assisting them to create an environment that genuinely promotes innovative thinking right at the very top of the organisation and convincing them of the worth of approaches in an evidence-based fashion, the idea is to reduce resistance to some of the seemingly unorthodox strategies in order that they might be allowed to permeate freely throughout the rest of the company.
Sort Your Brain Out
Sadly many people proclaim that their busy lives simply leave no time to read books. So Adrian Webster and I have turned our book Sort Your Brain Out into a live event. Since our first booking late last year we have been enjoying a steady increase in demand for our motivational speaking duet over the past few months and very much hope that this trend continues in the years to come. We are both represented by Gordon Poole Agency and our speaking agent James Poole is always on hand to discuss booking enquiries.
I’ve recently developed a new live presentation on: “The Neuroscience of Creativity,” which I first presented at the Royal Society of Arts in February 2012. The rapidly expanding list of Brain Coach Live topics continues to grow.
I kick off by describing some of the features of modern life that are “Enemies of Creativity.” To help motivate this section I describe a Channel 4 architecture series I contributed to called “The Secret Life of Buildings.” In this show I used EEG to illustrate how the brain responds to a variety of sensory distractions typically encountered in a modern work environment – the open plan office. The presenter, The Independent architecture critic Tom Dyckhoff (pictured left), was wired up with an electrode studded scrum cap and plonked in the middle of a busy open plan office to write up an overdue newspaper article. When a colleague (to his left in the photograph) mentioned the word “pub,” an extensive burst of activity was triggered across his prefrontal cortices (pictured top right). His brainwaves also pulsed in response to movements in the background, conversations going on around him and especially the rattle of the trolley loaded with crockery and cutlery as the tea lady tottered by.
The point I wished to convey was that, although we might not consciously register sights and sounds that are constantly being picked up by our senses, they are nonetheless processed in the brain; diverting precious resources away from the task at hand.
This is relevant to the process of creativity because soaking up and considering vast quantities of information from a variety of sources for a prolongued period of time is often the first step towards solving a tricky problem and this requires sustained attention. And it is not just disturbances in our open plan working environments (classrooms fall into this category too, of course) that pull the brain’s attentional resources hither and thither, thus disrupting the intake of information. The demands made on us by our smartphones constantly alerting us to the arrival of endless emails, texts, calls and social networking updates also interferes with creative thinking.
The first tip for boosting creativity is thus to block out distractions by switching off smartphones, closing down email accounts and sticking in the earplugs. Take a tip from french polymath Henry Pointcaré and work in regular two hour sessions from 10:00-12:00 and 17:00-19:00 to get those distraction-free bouts of unbroken concentration in. That way you will be able to take in all the necessary input relevant to the problem at hand. Later, once the subconscious brain has mulled over the possibilities, circumventing the inevitable mental blocks, your Eureka moment will come when you least expect it.
Great thinkers have typically reached their big creative breakthroughs, usually described in the scientific literature as “Aha! moments,” at a time when they were not thinking terribly hard. For instance, Henry Pointcaré cracked one of his biggest mathematical conundrums whilst stepping onto a bus, Kekulé day-dreamed a snake biting its tail to crack the chemical structure of benzene whilst dozing by the fire and Archimedes was famously plonking himself in the bath.
The point is that when a “mental impasse” is reached i.e. you’ve done lots of work on trying to crack the problem, but don’t seem to be getting anywhere – the best thing you can possibly do is walk away from it and do something else. You must leave it to your subconscious to play with all the information you have furiously uploaded into your brain and wait for the solution to percolate up into consciousness once you are between thoughts.
The rest of the talk describes a medley of the latest neuroscientific investigations into the Aha! moment courtesy of the likes of Joydeep Bhattacharya and colleageues at Goldsmith’s University. They discovered that the moment that a problem is solved is associated with activation across the right prefrontal cortex up to 8s before the person registers their response.
I also touch upon Alan Snyder and colleage’s contraversial experiment where transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS) was used to transiently deactivate brain areas over the left anterior temporal/prefrontal areas whilst stimulating right anterior temporal/prefrontal areas resulting in three-fold improvements in finding solutions to creative problems. The idea is based on the theory that, in most right handed people, the left brain controls well rehearsed over-learned behaviours, whilst the right brain is more involved in grappling with novel stimuli and generating creative behaviour.
Finally, I described what modern science knows about the hypnagogic state, where wakefulness drifts off into sleep, well know to be an incredibly fertile ground for creativity. Scientist and engineer Thomas Edison was a great believer in using the hypnagogic state to boost creativity and given his 1,093 patents and inventions that lead to electric lighting, plus the music and movie industries, I would say that his is a testimony we can all believe.
Clues as to how and why this brain state is so enormously innovative arise from very recent studies (Magnin et al, 2010) in which electrodes attached all over the surface of a human brain to measure the neuronal activity as a person falls asleep. This has revealed that the thalamus – the brain’s main junction box through which all parts of the cortex are connected to all other parts – “falls asleep” first whilst other brain areas “switch off” up to 5mins, 10mins, 15 mins and even 20 mins later! Until then these brain areas are still firing away, yet cut off as they from the rest of the brain by the absence of viable cortico-thalmo-cortical connectivity, it is surely this dissociation which leads to those magical sparkles of insight?
Edison even invented a clever device for capturing creative thoughts before they are forgotten. If you want to know more about this then you can click here to book me in to give this talk at your school, university or firm!
If you’d like to leave a comment below, please do, but so that I can find it amongst all the spam comments would you please email me to tell me on what day and at what time you left it so that I can find and approve it.
In addition to these brainblogs you can also follow my regular #braintweets by following me (@DrJackLewis) on Twitter.
I gave my inaugural Brain Coach Live talk at the Chilton Trinity Technology College in Somerset for students about to take their G.C.S.E’s in the 2010-2011 academic year and another for their teachers. The students went on to score the best results the school had ever produced. Clearly I cannot take sole responsible for this brilliant achievement – the lion’s share of the credit must, of course, go to the fanastic work of teaching staff and determination of their pupils, alike. That said, there is every reason to suspect that the hour of Brain Coaching I gave those 200 or so bright young minds may well have contributed to this record breaking performance in some small but fundamental way.
“Dr Jack’s presentation was thought-provoking and engaging. With great clarity he reviewed the core functions of the brain and the implications for us as professional in terms of motivating student to learn. He provided both teaching and support staff with very useful, practical tips for engaging students and helping them “boost their brain power”.
Dr Jack also ran a brilliant workshop for students who took on board the messages he gave them about how to learn, revise and generally get ready for their GCSEs in the most effective way. Feedback from students collecting their examination results in the Summer highlighted the impact he had had on their attitudes to learning and their preparation. Indeed, a number said that they had gone into the exams feeling much more confident about how to show what they knew. They were certainly inspired!”
Understanding the hidden processes at work deep inside our brains as we acquire skills and learn a wide variety of information helps to motivate people, whether young or old, to stick to their guns for long enough to make a difference.
Being able to visualise the very brain areas that are physically changed by the cumulative mental exertion across many hundreds of hours can really capture the imagination of young minds – making the imperceptible, and often frustratingly gradual, improvements that their efforts ultimately result in, much more tangible.
A firm grasp of the key ingredients required to make a memory truly stick in the neural networks dedicated to storing and recalling information is captured by a variety of mnemonic techniques that make revision more fun, more effective and less of a grind.
And the 10 Brain Optimisation Principles (BOPs) that top and tail every Brain Coach Live presentation provide hints and tips that help everyone in the audience keep their brain firing on all cyclinders each and every day, for the rest of their lives.
On Tues 7th February 2012 I will be giving a Brain Coach Live talk at London’s Dulwich College as part of a new Buy One Get One Free Buddy Scheme (“BOGOF Buddy Scheme”) launched this year to enable all schools to get Brain Coach Live in front of their pupils.
This system simply allows any school who chooses to book a Brain Coach Live presentation at their school to elect another nearby school where the very same talk will be given for free. The concept is based on the idea that fee-paying schools, more likely to have funds for such extra-curricular activities, might cover costs both for themselves and a local non-fee paying school as a gesture of good will.
Dulwich College have chosen Kingsdale Foundation as their Buddy School, which was featured in episode 2 of Channel 4’s “The Secret Life of Buildings” to showcase its innovative architecture. So I’m particularly glad to be giving a talk at Kingsdale so that I can see for myself how their innovative use of space helps the school to function better.
Coincidentally, this was exactly the same episode which I contributed to by performing an EEG experiment in an open plan office to demonstrate how our brains are constantly processing the sensory distractions around us regardless of whether we are aware of it or not!
If your school would like me to come and give this talk I would be more than happy to consider your application. To get in touch please email me by clicking here.
If you wish to leave a comment below it would be happily received but you must also email me to let me know you have done this immediately afterwards. The reason for this is that I have lost the battle against the spambots. I currently have 15,000 comments waiting for approval and it simply takes too much time to go through them all to find the 1 in 200 that was actually generated by a real human being. So long as you email me to let me know what time your comment was posted I can identify and approve it straight away.
In addition to these regular brainposts you can get my daily #braintweets, which draw attention to recent breakthroughs in brain science and related subjects, by following me on Twitter.