I recently did a little digging around in the scientific and medical literature for clues to foods that could boost mood in a way that might enhance various movie viewing experiences. I promised those who were listening to radio interviews I did across the UK that I would post these findings in my monthly brain blog, so here you go…
The basic premise of these recommendations is that many people these days feed themselves almost exclusively on highly processed foods. Sadly such diets often lack certain vital nutrients that are critical for the production of important brain chemicals. Different neurotransmitters systems are fundamental to the generation of different brain states (i.e. mood / emotional responses to events in the outside world). The idea is that eating the right foods will ensure there is a plentiful supply of all the relevant chemical messengers when the brain requires them to produce the appropriate emotional state.
What’s usually missing from people’s diet, in this regard, is either the basic raw materials from which complex messenger chemicals like the neurotransmitters noradrenaline, serotonin, dopamine and hormones like testosterone are actually built from and/or certain trace elements, such as copper, zinc and magnesium, which are a vital component of the enzymes that enable those raw chemical building blocks to be converted into the relevant neurotransmitters / hormones.
Below is a brief account of moods that may be enhanced by including certain key ingredients to ensure that all the necessary chemical messengers are available when needed, plus movie genres that I suggest might be boosted if these ingredients are included in a meal consumed prior to watching your chosen film.
Aim: To enhance the viewing experience of five different film genres by eating specific foods.
- Increasing excitement – to boost the enjoyment of ACTION movies
- Increasing happiness– to boost the enjoyment of COMEDIES
- Increasing focus – to boost the enjoyment of DOCUMENTARY / DRAMAS
- Increasing anxiety – to boost the enjoyment of HORROR movies
- Increasing libido – to boost the enjoyment of ROMANTIC films
Results: Various foods have been identified for which evidence exists to indicate that they impact certain aspects of body and/ or brain physiology in such a way as to potentially influence a person’s emotional state:
- The following meal may boost excitement of ACTION movies by increasing noradrenaline availability (which mediates the effects of the sympathetic nervous system i.e. increasing heart rate, dilating pupils, dilating blood vessels of muscles in preparation for fight or flight) via a large dose of l-phenylalanine (building block of dopamine) & traces of the mineral copper (vital to the function of the enzyme dopamine-beta-decarboxylasewhich catalyses the conversion of dopamine into noradrenaline), e.g.:
- Chicken, beef, or tofu pasta with sundried tomatoes, basil and cashew nuts
- Meal elevating mirth-levels with l-phenylalanine for extra brain dopamine plus nitrates (converted into nitrites by bacteria that live in everyone’s mouth) to enhance nitric oxide release (which dilates blood vessels when you laugh at a funny scene) throughout the brain for COMEDY, e.g.:
- Beefburger and sweet potato chips served with beetroot, celery & coleslaw
- Meal enabling sustained focus using slow-release carbohydrates (rather than fast-release carbohydrates which induces the “sugar roller coaster“), powerful stimulating flavours (to activate the reticular activating systems to jolt your brain awake), plus a peppermint dessert (improving sustained attention), ideal for DOCS & DRAMAS:
- Lemon, chilli fish served with on brown rice, seasonal vegetable, nuts & seeds
- Meals high in protein/fat and low in carbohydrades (i.e. Atkins diet-esque foods) to eliminate the comforting influence of foods rich in carbohydrate (potato, pasta etc which causes elevated levels of brain serotonin) plus stimulants (e.g. coffee) to get your heart beating faster to provide for a more anxious frame of mind to scare you witless during a HORROR:
- All day English breakfast fry up (without bread), followed by a strong coffee
- Scaredy cats may wish to do the exact reverse to make the horror less, er, horrifying
- Meal rich in cholesterol (raw material from which testosterone is produced) and nutrients (rich in zinc and magnesiumviital for the enzymes involved in testosterone synthesis) that maximises availability of testosterone to make a ROMANTIC film more emotionally-arousing (well, erotic to be precise):
- Lamb satay with edamame, broccoli, garlic & coriander with egg fried rice
- or a Creamy (dairy is a good source of cholesterol), Beef (rich in zinc), Curry (coriander is rich in magnesium)
As you may be able to tell from these suggested dishes – I ain’t no chef! So feel free to re-organise the suggested ingredients to your own taste…
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MTV is the last place you’d expect to find a neuroscientist, right? Wrong! Tonight (Wed 16th Nov 2011) at 8pm GMT I make my second appearance on MTV’s Plain Jane. Yes, I know, it’s a makeover show. You may well be of the opinion that I should choose the series I contribute to better. And you might be right. However, in my defence I would say that, as my aim is to make neuroscience interesting and accessible to the widest possible audience, contributing to such a show allows me to reach people that are wholly unlikely to tune into anything vaguely scientific whether on the BBC, Channel 4, Sky or Discovery. So I saw Plain Jane as an opportunity to raise the profile of neuroscience in the minds of a new audience and to offer my knowledge of dating behaviour that increases the chances of getting the brain of a young lady’s romantic target into the state we know as love.
Tonight’s candidate, Jamie from Chicago, is a lovely girl with a big crush on a young man by the name of Adam. She lacks nothing but a bit of self-confidence and few fashion tips from Louise. As part of the preparation for her big date in Lake Como (lucky girl) we met in Spitalfield’s Market one windy Sunday last summer in trendy London’s favourite shopping/nightspot – Shoreditch.
I set her the rather unusual challenge of offering unsuspecting passers by a hand massage to give her the opportunity to practice some flirting tactics. Sounds a bit odd admittedly but my thinking was this. Number 1: if she was physically holding onto them then they couldn’t get away until she was done with them. Number 2: physical contact between two humans causes the release of oxytocin in the brain.
If you’re trying to get someone to fall in love with you oxytocin-release is what you’re after. It is a vital neurohormone for creating a social bond between two humans as it makes a person feel safe, happy and secure. There are many things you can do to increase release of oxytocin in a person brain: offer words of support when a person is scared or vulnerable, do someone a favour in their time of need – pretty much any altruistic gesture of support will do it. But physical contact is certainly one of the most potent ways to achieve this goal when standing in the middle of a pedestrianised shopping precinct.
The other tip was to avoid typical topics of conversation that flit into a person’s head when they haven’t really thought about it: like what a person does for a living, what they had for breakfast etc. Of course, the aim of effective flirting is to excite the date not bore them to death.
On the whole people love nothing more than to hear the sound of their own voice; ideally talking about themselves. So I encouraged her to give them ample opportunity to do so by steering them onto subject matters that are likely to boost their self-esteem. Using a simple mnemonic technique using the Palm of the hand, Thumb and Forefinger I suggested that she try and steer them into topics involving their Passions, Talents and Fantasies. That way the brain areas involved in creating feelings of excitement and pleasure should be maximally stimulated. The idea is to forge subconscious associations between being in your presence and positive emotional states to make them want more of the same.
I have no idea whether she employed any of that advice in her luxurious date on the banks of Lake Como. Regardless, my main aim was that these neuro-informed brain tips would help viewers find romance in their real lives and realise that knowing how the brain works can be both interesting and come in useful from time to time. The very artificial and impersonal set up Jamie had to endure was always going to make her job of kindling love under the bright lights and watchful eye of cameras very difficult. My fingers are crossed that, despite the tough circumstances, she manages to get her guy tonight at 8pm GMT on MTV.
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On Tues 2nd November a beautifully shot episode of “Plain Jane” airs across Europe on MTV at 21.00 (GMT). British fashion journalist, Louise Roe, takes sweet but slightly awkward, inelegant young women and transforms them into confident, gorgeous divas.
The aim: to hone their raw potential into a final product that enables them to win their secret crush.
In a nutshell: Louise meets “Jane” who explains why she just can’t seem to make a good impression, they go shopping, “Jane” gets some expert date training, confronts phobias via adrenaline sport and then turns up to a lavish date in an exotic location to seduce her man – a man who has no idea who his date for the night will be. Sure, you’ve heard it all before, except that in this particular makeover show they’ve injected some brain science!
Last summer, MTV invited me out to the beautiful alpine lake town of Montreaux (directly opposite the iconic mountains of Evian bottle fame) to provide a little brain-informed date training.
Having a neuroscientist provide inspiration to a girl trying to get ahead in the love game may sound a bit odd, but at the end of the day it is the brain after all that produces the experience of love in the first place.
The “Plain Jane” of this episode goes by the name of Sarah – a tomboy by day and a little bit too slutty by night. Her difficulty essentially boils down to the fact that she simply tries too hard and becomes clumsy when in the company of guys she really likes.
Once her shopping trip to Geneva and morning at the local Swiss finishing school were successfully completed, I coached her with a few choice tips on how to get the best out of her brain when chatting with the hottest young gentlemen that the Swiss Alps had to offer.
She was given the opportunity to practice putting this advice into action with a medley of men from the European brat pack in a beautiful hotel that looks out across the serene grace of Lake Geneva.
On a date, if one person perceives the other to be uncomfortable then that makes them feel uncomfortable too, setting up a downward spiral.
However by thinking about the signals that your body language, tone of voice, enthusiasm with which you embrace certain topics of conversation sends out, an explosion of dopamine and serotonin can be triggered in the other person’s brain to make them feel comfortable and happy.
I explained to Sarah the mechanisms at work in her brain that lead to her trying too hard to impress and the influence that this subsequently has on her date’s brain state. I spoke with her about how the adrenaline and cortisol release that can put a person on edge can also be harnessed to produce a spark of excitement. I explained ways in which she can wield the power of the oxytocin neurohormone that, when released in the brain, leads to feelings of trust, comfort and bonding; luring that man into her spell.
How much of this ends up hitting the cutting room floor and how much into the final cut remains to be seen. Either way I think that MTV deserves a little credit for being forward-thinking enough to employ a neuroscientist as one of their dating coaches in the first place! Personally I’m going to be watching on Wed at 9pm because I’m really keen to find out whether or not she got her guy. She was firing on all cylinders when I last saw her so I’m cautiously confident that it might just have gone her way. Plain Jane, 9pm, Wed 2nd Nov, MTV.
In addition to these fortnightly brainposts you can also get my daily #braintweet – pearls of brain science that I distil into 140 characters – by following me on Twitter.