• A Ciência Do Pecado

    … means The Science of Sin in Portuguese. This month I spent a week in Lisbon, Portugal to promote the launch of the Portuguese translation of The Science of Sin. I arrived at Lisbon airport on the Monday and was whisked straight to a hotel near the Marquêz de Pombal roundabout – where a huge statue of the former prime minister looks out across the city he rebuilt after the devastating earthquake of 1755. A non-stop carousel of journalists and photographers from Portugal’s most esteemed and popular newspapers and magazines interviewed me one-by-one all day long; blowing me away with how keenly they took to the subject matter.

    The Science of Sin now translated into Portuguese

    It wasn’t until first thing the following morning that a journalist from Diario Do Noticias (more-or-less the equivalent of The Times here in the UK) helped me understand why The Science of Sin was deemed to be of such interest to the readership of so many publications. I knew that Portugal (like Spain) is a deeply Catholic country, but what I didn’t realise was that Portugal essentially lived under a papist dictatorship from 1926-1974. While all people raised in Catholic countries generally feel a strong pressure from various elements of society to regularly attend church and uphold its teachings, a dictatorship that “insisted” upon it no doubt consolidated the stranglehold yet more.

    After the first interview of the day we immediately shot off to do a TV interview for cable channel SIC Mulher, the presenter of which was as ravishingly beautiful as she was fiercely bright. I have never had the pleasure of doing an interview where the presenter conducted a simultaneous translation before. Perhaps what she did during that 10 minute interview was perfectly standard. But as a neuroscientist I found her performance to be truly stunning. A simultaneous translation is not, strictly speaking, simultaneous. It could be argued that serial translation is more accurate: the English-speaking interviewee (me) is asked questions in English, free to reply in English but then the interviewer goes on to immediately translate whatever the the interviewee has said in the native tongue of the land in question, in this case Portuguese.

    Describing The Science Of Sin on SIC Mulher

    My answers are rarely as concise as they should be. At best I manage to capture the answer in about 20-30s, but more often than not my responses lasted for over a minute. Yet Ana Rita Maria was able to not only recall everything I said (my Portuguese is not great, but certainly good enough to follow roughly what she said) but even re-structure it (often translating the last thing I said first, then going back to cover the first point I made right at the end) all the while translating into coherent, conversational Portuguese.

    This was definitely the highlight of the trip for me. To meet someone with such an astounding working memory and such linguistic agility in terms of being able to find the right words to translate some fairly complex concepts and terminology into a different language, on the fly, was truly impressive. It made me want to scan her brain to see if there were any specialisations that might account for her super-skills.

    Ana Rita Maria – extraordinarily talented simultaneous translator. Not keen on ironing 🙂

    We then bombed it back to the hotel to do an interview for a public radio station called Antenna 3. That was hosted by a mischievous and charismatic presenter by the name of Fernando Alvim who did everything in his power to bring the subject matter back to his favourite Deadly Sin: Lust. After a full hour of that there were a few more interviews with print journalists before I got a couple of days off and then on the Friday I did one final interview for the public TV station RTP. The presenter and cameraman kindly picked me up from my Air B&B in the nearby beach town of Carcavelos to convey me to the location of our interview: a small bar embedded in the cliffs, overlooking a small cove.

    Fernando Alvim – concluding an entertaining interview

    Originally from the Azores (a place that I’m told could get hold of all the exciting American products like jeans, hamburgers and Coca Cola that were strictly banned on the mainland during the dictatorship) the interviewer was extremely laid back and full of helpful advice about where I should go to find great beaches and reliable surf next time I find myself back in Portugal. That final interview seemed to go very well and as there was no simultaneous translation I can only assume the translation must have been done in the edit when they got back to the studio later that day.

    So now that I’ve got through all that “hard work” I’m excited to see how well A Ciência do Pecado does in Portugal. Who knows – if it does well enough in Portugal – maybe the publishers will try and flog it in Brazil? If they decide that they want to fly me to Rio de Janeiro or Sao Paulo I might even take a few more lessons in Portuguese to save the interviewers the trouble of having to translate for me! Given how good speaking two or more languages is for slowing age-related cognitive decline, that would definitely be a win-win.

    In addition to these monthly blogs I also regularly tweet about interesting brain science research that hits the press each week. And after discussions with various friends, family members and industry professionals I’ve decided to re-name my forthcoming YouTube channel. It’s now going to be called BRAIN MAN VR and is now scheduled for launch in September!

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  • Resilient Brains

    What is Resilience?

    There are more definitions for resilience than you could shake a stick at. Here we look at resilience from the context of an adolescent’s capacity to endure periods of intense stress without any long term negative impact on their mental health. Some brains are simply better able to weather the psychological duress of having to deal with the types of common childhood stresses known to leave kids vulnerable to mental health issues. These include poverty, neighbourhood violence, struggling schools and mental health problems of the parent(s). If you take a few moments to mull it over, it becomes obvious how these circumstances could leave children frazzled by an overwhelming burden of worry.

    Here’s one perspective. If parents have no room for financial manoeuvre, only just managing to keep up with the bills week after week, then there won’t be any spare cash to help the kids to get their hands on the material goods that they covet; whether it’s clothing, toys or tech. Children from all walks of life can show a spiteful streak when it comes to giving hell to whichever kid happens to stick out in the playground for being different and there are many all too obvious signs of being poverty-stricken that may lead to being singled out. If the merciless teasing becomes relentless then it has the has the potential to become problematic. While the bullying aspect might seem like a relatively minor issue in the stress-inducing stakes compared to going to bed cold and hungry, but the child’s perception in these matters is everything. The social stigma attached to being less well off than everyone else can damage self-esteem, particularly when it’s the source of daily playground mockery.

    If a kid is made to feel ashamed over and over again at school, for whatever reason, then chronically elevated stress levels can be potentially damaging to some of the critical processes of neurodevelopment. And as we shall discover below, brain pathways that connect frontal lobe regions with those on the inner surface of the cortex, appear to be particularly important in the resilient brain.

    The other three sources of childhood stress could also be viewed as relentless, thereby having potential for impeding important neurodevelopmental processes: the ever-present threat of getting sucked into neighbourhood violence, the perpetual turmoil induced by a primary caregiver whose mental illness makes home life a living hell and schools in which teachers struggle to wrestle order from chaos – all can send levels of a child’s cortisol (one of the stress hormones) shooting up on a daily basis over extended periods of time.

    Often there is little hope of making a meaningful impact on the external factors that conspire to send cortisol levels rocketing (poverty, parental mental illness etc) so the focus has shifted to trying to understanding the key factors involved in determining whether a child ends up with a resilient brain or not. Can interventions aimed at helping to build resilience in young people actually work? And what makes the critical difference in the makeup of brains that are able to endure high levels of stress without any long term complications and those brains that succumb?

     

    Building Resilience

    According to Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child, resilience is built up over the course of childhood and involves four special ingredients. Two of these relate to a sense of meaningful attachment – close supportive relationships with specific adults and a broader range of looser connections that embed a child within a defined community. The last two components relate to the development of specific cognitive capacities that improve a young person’s well-being by making them feel both able and in control.

    The first ingredient is supportive adult-child relationships. This might be a parent or relative, but it could also be a teacher, trainer, coach or anyone else that can be relied upon to provide support when it is needed. A person the child knows will take the time to listen to them, offer guidance and essentially help them to feel that they do not have to take on the trials and tribulations of life alone. The second ingredient is feeling a part of some kind of broader cultural tradition, one that might give the child a sense of hope and faith that transcends the mundane goals of normal, everyday activities. Usually groups that provide this are centred around one or other of the mainstream religions.

    As I outlined in my latest book The Science of Sin, while science is great at identifying the critical factors that lead to good physical and mental health, it usually comes up short when finding fixes for the problem of social isolation. Being a part of a sports team or hobby group can provide a sense of being part of a community, but these options pale in comparison to traditions that provide an overarching philosophy on how to live a good life, a dedicated building in which to come together with other members of the community and a policy of encouraging acceptance of well-intentioned strangers. I don’t believe in God myself, but I have seen the capacity for people’s religions to give them a sense of hope and support in the face of inconquerable odds. For this reason I can see why the Harvard Institute on Child Health would have observed that helping children to connect with others from their traditional faith group can help them become more resilient.

    One of the two cognitive facets that needs nurturing to build resilient brains is the development of self-efficacy: feeling able and in control. The other is the ability to adapt to change and self-regulate behaviour. This boils down to being able to maintain a sense of being in control, even when adjusting to changes that are beyond the child’s control. Learning to self-soothe – calming yourself down when emotions start running high – is a key component of this skill. Mindfulness meditation has been identified a great way to develop such skills. It has been implemented in schools struggling with poverty and violence with phenomenal outcomes in terms of improved attendance and scholarship (Read about a compelling example of this here).

     

    What Does A Resilient Brain Look Like?

    During the first decade of life various miraculous processes culminate in the reinforcement of one particularly important brain pathway in the corpus callosum – the huge bundle of brain wires that connects the left and right hemispheres of the brain. A recent study by Galinowski and colleages investigated the structural differences in the corpus callosum of adolescents who had all endured significant and prolonged life stresses, yet some were deemed at low risk of developing mental illnesses (resilient) whilst others were at a high risk of psychological complications (vulnerable). But before we get into that, some context…

    Over the course of childhood our brains go through a series of vast and incredible changes. In the womb the outer cortex of every human foetus’s brain starts out as the tip of an extremely narrow and short tube. Over the course of the pregnancy, brain cells in this structure multiply at an astonishingly fast rate, migrating to form a six-layered sheet of densely interwoven brain wires (neurons) and a vast diversity of support cells (glia), eventually taking on its familiar, walnut-like, wrinkly, appearance by the time of birth. Having successfully made it’s way out of the womb and into the big wide world, the infant’s brain cell multiplication steps up a gear to achieve it’s full complement of 86 billion neurons by the age of five. From here on brain growth is mostly a case of making those neurons larger, developing the system of myelination whereby glial cells called oligodendrocytes apply a layer of electrical insulation to the brain wires to speed up the transmission of messages and each of those neurons make thousands of connections (synapses) with other neurons. MRI scans can track both of these processes with serial brain scans conducted at various stages of development – the progression of myelination can be observed by taking measure that correlate with white matter integrity and other measures can be used to track changes in the thickness of the surrounding grey matter. Interestingly, when a human brain reaches adolescence, rather than getting bigger and bigger, creating more and more synapses, the brain shifts gear .

    During adolescence the outer cortex of the human brain doesn’t simply get thicker and thicker. More new synapses are being created as the teen increases their repertoire of skills and abilities, but that is not the only process that is taking place at this stage in neurodevelopment. The synapses connecting together brain areas involved in supporting the improvement of their language, thinking, movement, memory and reasoning skills ARE being selectively bolstered, reinforced with extra synaptic connections to make the communication between relevant brain areas more efficient. Yet another process is simultaneously underway across the whole brain which causes the outer cortex to become thinner, overall, during the teenage years and beyond. The countless unused brain pathways are trimmed away, while those that are being used on a regular basis are maintained. As the former process of “synaptic pruning” progresses at a much faster rate than the latter, the net result is a thinning of the cortex. The rate at which different parts of the brain go through this process of cortical maturation has been tracked by an incredible team of neuroscientists in Paul Thompson’s lab. The process seems to reach completion first in the sensory parts of the brain at the back and sides of the brain, and last in the parts of the frontal cortex supporting higher level cognitive functions.

    Going back to the resilience study, Galinowski and colleagues observed that the integrity of the white matter tracts (NB neuronal brain wires wrapped in myelin are less dense than the outer cortex which is jammed full of synapses and cell bodies so it looks white in brain scans rather than grey) was higher in the front-most part of the corpus callosum in the brains of resilient adolescents versus vulnerable ones. When they ran tracer studies to see which brain areas were connected to each other by these particular information superhighways, the areas in question were frontal lobe regions involved in self-regulation and the anterior cingulate cortex; a brain area that should be familiar to anyone who’s read The Science Of Sin. The dorsal part of the ACC is known to be involved in the perception of physical and emotional pain specifically; and processing “conflict” more generally.

    The upshot is that the critical pathways that were observed to have better integrity (NB better system of insulating myelin to facilitate information exchange) in the more resilient adolescents may well be instrumental in enabling the prefrontal cortex to consciously dampen feelings of psychological turmoil. Presumably when supportive adult-child relationships and connections with the community are fostered in the first 10 years of life, as well as the facilitation of development of self-efficacy and self-control, these are the critical pathways that are protected against the negative impact of chronic stress. Now that we know where to look in the brain for hallmarks of resilience, we should be able to get a better handle on the effectiveness of other interventions that aim to nurture the capacity to endure an excess of stress without incurring psychological damage in the long run. Watch this space…

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  • Tech Companies that Bolster (or Harm) Feelings of Social Connectedness

    As my new book The Science Of Sin essentially argues that increasing a person’s sense of social connection improves their health (compared to social isolation), it occurred to me that we should start to label tech companies according to whether their overall impact on the depth of people’s sense of being socially embedded in a supportive community is improved or harmed by regular engagement. I’ve invented some hashtags in the vain hope that people might start playing the game of thinking about the impact of the technologies they use on their own sense of social connectedness and use #socialXplus to denote an opinion that it is a force for increasing the sense of being meaningfully connected with others (e.g. Twitter #socialXplus) and #socialXminus to tag those social media companies that despite seeming to promote social connections actually have the opposite effect (e.g. Facebook #socialXminus). That said, I won’t be holding my breath waiting for it to go viral! Anyway, let’s consider the cases of Hotels, Hostels and AirBnB.

    Hotels DO NOT foster a sense of community

    In a hotel you are, by definition, crammed in with all the other guests, many of whom you wouldn’t want to get stuck talking to for very long, if you could possibly avoid it. For these reasons, and others, the average guest is likely to hurry by in any given corridor, do their best to avert their gaze while stuck in a lift with you and carry on with their business with as little actual direct communication as possible. Sure, there’s the occasional exchange of pleasantries, but rarely do these result in what might be described as a meaningful social interaction.

    Hostels DO foster a sense of community

    Backpacker hostels across Africa, Asia and South America are a completely different offering. With everyone brought together by relative poverty compared to other visitors to the country who can actually afford to stay for an extended period in a hotel, the banter tends to be lively and all-inclusive. (That their relative poverty is positively lavish by the standards of most local people’s annual income is another matter for another day.) The point is: the usual sharp invisible borders wordlessly drawn between people from different levels of socioeconomic status in the developed world become blurred when you’re all bunk-bedded up in a 16-man & -woman dorm at the mercy of other people’s common decency regarding night-time emanations of light, sound and odour, breaking down many of the usual social barriers as a direct result.

    I’ve done a lot of traveling in my time, doing my best to stray from Lonely Planet recommendations wherever possible, in an effort to maximise my interactions with locals and the more intrepid adventurers. When I’ve been lucky enough to be put up in nice hotels by my bigger clients I try to wear the comfort of the facilities and the obsequiousness of the staff lightly. Don’t get used to it, I tell myself, focusing instead on directing my attention to how my fellow guests interact with those they encounter.

    I very much subscribe to the idea that you can glean much more about what a person’s really like from observing their interactions with others, rather than relying just on how they comport themselves with you. I’ve noticed that those who take the time to be polite and friendly to all, even those employed to serve them, are not as common as they once were.

    Comparing the incidence of positive social connection experiences in backpackers’ hostels to a wide variety of hotels, from one star holes right up to the full five star luxuriance, the backpacker hostels win hands down in the pro-social stakes. So I would say that, in my humble opinion, if I had to choose which of the two is a force building a sense of social connectedness (#socialXplus) and which ultimately reduces a person’s sense of social connectedness (#socialXminus), the categories would have to be:

    BackpackerHostels #socialXplus
    Hotels #socialXminus

    Then along came AirBnB, dutifully disrupting (as all good tech firms are wont to do) the whole traditional approach to finding a place to lay your weary head. And it is much more #socialXplus than any of its recent predecessors. Not only does the traveler get to meet a local who is incentivised by the ratings system to be helpful and friendly and do their best to provide the basics, but you become physically embedded in the local community. You see things that a relatively isolated hotel or hostel dweller would never see. As you’ll more often than not just be given the keys and told to leave your keys on the side on your way out, you usually have no choice but to ask local people for help and advice. Which is a good thing, by the way. Let me give you an example…

    I’m in Copenhagen as I type, staying in an AirBnB, tapping this into my laptop with the rare September sun streaming through the window and a swirling wind violently whipping the leaves of the plants on the balcony in time with the drum ‘n’ bass beats streaming from my laptop (Goldie, Strictly Jungle, 1995 – in case you’re curious). Earlier today, I had to ask three people where the nearest cash machine was until I finally tracked it down. And I also ended up asking a woman in the supermarket whether the carton I had in my hand was milk (because late last night, starving hungry, I ended up having a very sickly bowl of cereal because I’d accidentally bought a carton that looked very much like milk, but was in fact full cream!). My point is, as much as I wasn’t relishing the prospect of having to rely on the kindness of others to get what I needed doing done, it was ultimately great to have had some interactions with local people. I felt buoyed each time and it made me feel more at home as a stranger in a foreign country.

    These are minor moments of #socialXplus but ones that are worth mentioning all the same. The main boost this trip is giving for my sense of social connectedness (#socialX) is that I’m here to give a lecture as an excuse to spend time with two neuroscience buddies from my PhD days who are based here in Denmark. AirBnB quite literally made the trip financially viable, whereas if I’d had to stay in hotels I’d have flown in and out with one overnight stay, as the hotels in Copenhagen are outrageously expensive!

    There are also important #socialXplus opportunities on the other side of the equation. My host this time is staying at her boyfriend’s place so her interaction with me has been minimal. But the last time I stayed the night in an AirBnB it was on the outskirts of Bristol and the circumstances of my host were very different. We were in her spare room and it quickly became apparent that she often forged friendships with guests that she “clicked” with. She was a bouncy, vivacious, 45-year-old, full of West Country hospitality, enthusiasm and charm. She immediately invited us to have a cup of tea and join her on the sofa to watch the tennis (Wimbledon was on). Later that night my girlfriend came back to our AirBnB at midnight (while I continued on at the party hosted by another bunch of old university friends) and they ended up having an hour-long chat over a glass of wine. In the morning we tiptoed down to the kitchen / lounge to find the patio doors had been pulled back to reveal a beautifully-kept, wide, lush garden complete with pond, rock garden and seating area. She was up a ladder trimming the hedge in glorious sunshine, but immediately beckoned us to sit down and have some lemonade. She made us feel very welcome and all parties benefited from the social intimacy that the arrangement evoked.

    It is for these reasons that I offer AirBnB as a technology company that is a clear and unequivocal source of #socialXplus … helping humans to form social connections, helping them feel embedded in a community. And by bolstering their sense of being socially connected, albeit briefly, it should reduce their feelings of social isolation which might otherwise have increased their chances of getting cancer, cardiovascular disease, psychosis and depression according to a series of peer-reviewed scientific articles that have been accumulating in the literature since 1988.

    In addition to these monthly blogs, I tweet interesting brain articles (@drjacklewis), do a regular science podcast with the divine Lliana Bird (Geek Chic’s Weird Science) and am on the verge of launching a brand new YouTube channel where I take people in Virtual Reality adventures….

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  • The Science Of Sin

    This month’s blog is dedicated to a major milestone in my life.

    My first ever solo effort as an author hit the bookshops across the UK on 12th July

    It has it’s own dedicated site, so you can find all about it here: www.sciofsin.com

     

    A few days later, on 17th July, I did a sell out gig at Bart’s Pathology Museum (between St Paul’s Cathedral and Smithfield’s Market). I was delighted to find that 2 clergymen had trekked all the way from west London to hear what I had to say.

    The event was hosted by Carla Valentine – with whom I’d worked last year on a Vampire Special of my Geek Chic’s Weird Science podcast recorded live at Soho Theatre – and who insisted that we pose for this: my favourite photo ever…

    The Priest, The Mortician and the Neuroscientist

     

     

     

     

     

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