• Little Drummer Boy

    If you were to spend two years memorising every major road
    and noteworthy landmark within a six mile radius of central London – your brain
    would change. The rear-most part of your hippocampus – a brain area shaped like
    a seahorse, one in the left hemisphere and one in the right, absolutely vital
    for memory and navigation – will get larger.

    If, instead, you were to learn to play a string or keyboard instrument
    to a professional level, your hippocampus would remain more or less the same,
    but the part of the motor cortex responsible for sending messages to the
    muscles of the fingers will enlarge to a significant degree. In order for a
    person to improve their ability to manipulate an instrument accurately, with
    the appropriate tempo and rhythm, to make pleasant sounding music the
    connections between brain cells in the most relevant brain areas must become more
    refined and efficient in their function, by trial and error.

    If we practise our navigational or music making skills on a daily basis, tackling challenges of increasing difficulty and maintaining the discipline to keep up the practice over several years our brain will change in a manner commensurate with the provision of more skilful application of the ability in question. The brain invests more and more resources into whatever brain pathways are most regularly and intensively used in order that we might become able to perform that ability with greater aptitude.

    The brain’s ability to adapt its connections to improve skills is called neuroplasticity. And this month a scientific paper was published that illustrates the neuroplastic changes that occur in a drummer’s brain. As this is the season of new year’s resolutions and my own new year’s resolutions often include musical ones – e.g. practise the bass, join a choir, pick up the harmonica every day – I thought I’d dedicate this month’s blog to how to thicken up the brain wires that connect the left and right parts of your frontal brain.

    The results of the Diffusion Tensor Imaging MRI paper published by Schlaffke et al, based at the German universities of Bochum and Essen, showed that pro drummers’ neurons were fewer, but wider, in the first segment of the corpus callosum, which connects frontal regions of the left and right brain hemispheres. The wider diameter of these neurons suggests faster transmission of electrical messages. The brain areas in question coordinate a wide variety of brain functions. One of the key tasks overseen by such brain areas in the context of drumming is to ensure that the movements of one hand don’t interfere with those of the other.

    In drumming, the movements performed by each hand are often very similar, yet each hand needs to follow a slightly different rhythmical pattern and make contact with drums or cymbals arranged in different parts of the physical space. Preventing interference between the two target drumming patterns is not as straightforward a task as it might seem, requiring commands sent to one hand to simultaneously inhibit similar movements in the other. (The classic school yard challenge of patting your head while rubbing your tummy with a circular movement is testimony to the existence of a natural instinct to match movements of one hand to the other; something that must be overcome to drum properly).

    Schlaffke also published evidence of a correlation between the structural differences observed in the corpus callosum and the amount of inhibitory GABA neurotransmitter present in the motor cortex. In other words the wider and less numerous each professional drummer’s corpus callosum neurons, the more inhibitory neurotransmitter was available in the part of the brain that send messages to muscles of the arms, hands and fingers; the implication being that this enables more accurate drumming control.

    The upshot is that the 10+ hrs of practise these professional drummers were getting through each week, over the course of many years, actually increased the size of their corpus callosum neurons. This allows faster and more efficient communication between left and right hemispheres which is apparently a prerequisite for their superior drumming skills. The intensive training also increases inhibitory control in the motor cortex to ensure that the signals that instruct one hand to move are not accidentally relayed to the other hand, hence the greater concentration of inhibitory neurotransmitter in the motor cortex. And the point of all this is: if they can do it, so can you!

    For those who got a drum kit for Christmas this year, then you can get cracking on modifying your corpus callosum right away! But even if you don’t have real drums to play with, it’s still possible to get the requisite training in and without annoying the neighbours! I just happened to reviewed a virtual reality drumming game last week on my YouTube channel (Brain Man VR, it’s embedded below if you want to take a look) called Drums Hero. It enables anyone with a VR kit to play a virtual drum kit along with a handful of rock songs without even needing to be able to read music. And, unlike real drums, they are completely silent to anyone in the real world, as the drums and the cacophony of sounds they produce only exists in virtual reality.

    When it comes to the idea of brain training, there are often (perfectly reasonable) complaints that while it might enable “near transfer” (getting better at that particular task), evidence of “far transfer” (improved abilities that carry over into real life tasks) is very rare. That said, practising with VR drums in Drums Hero will undoubtedly translate directly into a greater aptitude with a real drum kit. I’ve started to get good enough to unlock the hardest versions of some of the songs and already the syncopated rhythms I’m now able to pull off with a reasonable degree of accuracy have gone from highly cognitively challenging to more or less instinctive. I can almost FEEL the myelination of my corpus callosum taking place. No, but really, I have genuinely come on in leaps and bounds in just 1-2 hours of game play. I’m genuinely blown away by what I can now do and have no doubt that if I was wearing my headset, but using real drums and real drum sticks, I could do a pretty decent job of hitting the drum line for those particular songs.

    While the VR motion controllers and real life drum sticks are not the same weight and shape (and in VR the motion controllers never make contact with a surface, as opposed to the drums sticks that helpfully bounce back off the skin of the drum after each contact), Drums Hero still enables a complete beginner to improve their competence at initiating the appropriate movement at the correct time. I genuinely believe that people who play the VR drums on a daily basis will end up considerable better at playing a real drum kit than a complete beginner. I would anticipate that the haptic adjustment to the sticks bouncing off the skin of the drum would make it easier, not harder, to play than striking thin air in VR. So if you have ambitions of joining a band as a drummer, and want to get started on modifying segment 1 of your corpus callosum without running the gauntlet of ruining relationships with your neighbours by getting a real drum kit, Drums Hero comes very highly recommended.

    In addition to these monthly blogs I regularly tweet (@drjacklewis) about brain research that hits the lay press. Brain Man VR is a weekly virtual reality review show that lands every Tuesday. Wishing you a very happy, healthy and hobby-filled 2020!

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  • Virtual Reality Arcade coming soon…

    Please forgive the brevity of my recent brain posts.

    I’m working non-stop on my new book – due with the publishers at the end of the month.

    When I’m not writing, I’m finishing filming / voiceover for the new series of Secrets of the Brain.

    Haven’t had a day off for weeks!!

    I expect no sympathy, only  patience: normal service will resume later in the summer…

    In the meantime, I just wanted to share this small update:

    Four years ago I asked Mel Slater, Professor of Virtual Reality Environments and all-round legend, if he thought there was any chance that recent advances in VR technology might lead to the return of the video arcade …

    As it turns out, London’s First Virtual Reality Arcade opens this summer…

     

     

     

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  • Game Over for Reality? by Dr Jack Lewis

    SandmanBinocularImmersive virtual reality gaming is good, frighteningly good. So good that it makes me worry that people will increasingly choose the excitement of virtual worlds over the relative mundanity of the real one. Recently I was walking through the British Film Institute (under Waterloo Bridge in London) on my way to the library when I stumbled upon something rather marvellous. The experience I had was so wonderful (it genuinely filled me with wonder) that I quickly reached a chilling conclusion: immersive virtual reality (VR) gaming is now so good that it seems clear that in the not too distant future it will be a miracle if parents ever manage to get their kids to leave their bedroom and venture out into the real world.

     

    Last year I interviewed Prof Mel Slater, a widely respected guru of VR technology formerly of UCL and now at the University of Barcelona, in which he stated in no uncertain terms that immersive virtual reality gaming is now affordable enough to be accessible to everyone.

     

     

    Chancing upon a computer gaming conference at the BFI gave me the opportunity to get into the demonstration suite ahead of the delegates, which meant I had the computer game programmers all to myself and discovered first hand exactly how good these games have become already. The experience of actually being inside the computer game is incredibly compelling.

     

    hmdI made a beeline to a game called “Sandman” that made use of a Head Mounted Display (HMD). An HMD creates a truly immersive 3D VR experience via two key features that trick the brain into feeling as if you have been physically transported into the game. Firstly, a different image is presented to the left and right eye, slightly offset in terms of perspective (in a manner identical to real life circumstances) from which the brain can create 3D vision. Secondly, and this is critical to the illusion of being physically immersed in the 3D world, the HMD also tracks the movements of your head so that the image presented to the eyes changes as it would do in the real world. If you look up, you see the sky. As you move your head to the right the images presented to the eyes scrolls across to give a view of whatever is to your right in the 3D environment. Twist all the way round and you can see what is directly behind you. Look down and you can see your own computer-generated body. This creates an extremely compelling illusion that you really are “inside” the game.

     

    “Sandman” involves paddling a canoe along waterways within an enchanted forest. It was absolutely magical. Meditative even. I immediately felt calmer having been transported into this alternate gaming universe. The images provided at the top of this post simply don’t do it justice (even when you click on it to reveal the full high def image). It looks so much better when you are wearing the HMD. The colours of the forest canopy were so vivid. The sounds of the water lapping at the boat and from the oar as it pushes against the water each time you paddle is very realistic.

     

    ready-player-oneUsing a normal Sony Playstation controller you can paddle on the left or right side of the boat and even paddle in reverse to guide the canoe just as you would a real one in the normal world. Of course the controller doesn’t give you the usual haptic feedback – but just wait – it soon will. If you can’t wait that long read READY PLAYER ONE by Nathan Cline – it’s a fantastic science fiction account of how good this kind of technology is likely to get in the not-too-distant future. Patrolling the perimeter of a lake I eventually stumbled across a narrow stream and slotted my virtual boat between the rocks on either side I navigated the chicane they created and came across a small boy on the bank to my right. Behind him an old man was calling him back from the waters edge. As I turned to look at them the sound of their voices in the headphones shifted from just the right ear to both ears equally, demonstrating that not only was the visual world updated according to my head movements but so too were the acoustics.

     

    As I shot down the white water rapids encountered a short while later I giggled and whooped like a boy half my age. I was really enjoying myself and have never been one to hide my emotions. After about 20 mins I took off the HMD and headphones only to find, to my slight embarassement, that the room was now packed full of delegates (having been completely empty when I started the gaming experience). And there was a queue of about a dozen people behind me waiting to play!

     

    In addition to these monthly blogs I also tweet every day so if you would like to follow me on Twitter please click here. If you wish to leave a comment please email me rather than leaving a comment below because I’ve been outpaced by the spambots!

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  • How Virtual Environments Shape Your Brain by Dr Jack Lewis

    London_Black_Cab wikiComAny environment in which we immerse ourselves on a daily basis will eventually induce changes in the very fabric of our brains. This observation is based on brain scanning experiments investigating the brains of taxi drivers and professional musicians before and after they have acquired their expertise. Intensive training over many months and years physically changes the size of the hippocampus and motor hand area of these individuals, respectively. This occurs as a direct result of repeatedly challenging the brain to perform specific tasks, navigating around London in the first instance and manipulating an instrument to emit the desired sounds in the second, so that the connectivity between areas involved in executing that task is improved. This occurs at the flick of a few genetic switches that increases the number of synapses across which one neuronal brain wire influences the next in line in pathways that are used often and intensively. It seems reasonable to assume that any cognitive capacity that we regularly use over long periods of time will have a similar impact via the same mechanism.

    VR wikiComIn the past I’ve written about our incredible aptitude for using tools to manipulate our environment. One of the best examples of recent human ingenuity in this regard are the virtual environments we have created – video games, internet, online social networking and the like. Millions of people are immersed in such virtual environments intensively, regularly and consistently over extended periods of time, exactly the pre-requisites for interaction that drives brain changes; occurring whether the environment in question is real or virtual. I’ve written previously about the potential impact of this on the adolescent brain but, of course, adult brains also adapt to the demands of any virtual environments they may be regularly immersed in too, albeit at a reduced rate.

    Cell_phone_use_while_driving wikiComThese brain changes occur for better or for worse. Adults who engage in intensive action video gaming for endless hours slowly but surely begin to accumulate cognitive improvements, namely enhancements in certain aspects of vision, memory and rapid decision-making. On the other hand, those who automatically respond to any bleep, buzz or vibration from their laptop or smartphone appear to be training themselves into a state of constant distraction. A recent study has suggested that so-called heavy media multi-taskers are gradually losing their capacity to block out distractions, an unintended consequence of “dual screening” behaviours like surfing the internet and responding to electronic messages whilst watching television.

    My message is simple. Technology is neither good or bad, it’s all about how you choose to use it. Stopping to contemplate your habits when it comes to using technology and considering whether the likely changes to your brain will serve you well or badly, might be advisable. Evidence is currently quite sparse, but rapidly accumulating. Just bear in mind the rule of thumb that anything you do intensively, daily, for months on end has the potential to re-wire your brain to perform that task more efficiently. Some behaviours honed in this way do not always serve your best interests when operating in the real world.

    porn_star wikiComreport hit the press this week describing as yet unpublished brain data from Cambridge University demonstrating that people addicted to internet pornography show a heightened sensitivity in the reward pathways (specifically in the ventral striatum) when exposed to sexually explicit images. Results were not dissimilar to that observed in the brains of alcoholics and illicit drug addicts when viewing images of the target of their addiction. How might this hypersensitivity to pornography have developed? I’m sure you can guess what’s coming next… by viewing pornographic images with great scrutiny, regularly and over periods of months if not years – pleasurable sexual responses have become honed to whatever stimuli have been encountered in the virtual environments with which they are regularly immersed.

    brain that changes itselfMy concern is the impact that such outcomes of neuroplasticity might have on people’s real life behaviours. Could it be ruining people’s real life sex lives? The anecdotal evidence presented in Norman Doidge’s excellent book: “The Brain That Changes Itself” certainly backs up this notion. From the perspective of basic neuroscience it also seems likely. Once a brain is trained to respond in a manner that results in feelings of pleasure when viewing hyper-sexual body shapes performing wild and gratuitous sex acts, it is likely that less powerful sexual images – a real life sexual partner, for instance – no longer hit the spot. Given how much of a boost a healthy active sex life gives to real romantic relationships it seems a real shame (if not a blight to wellbeing in society as a whole) that sexual relationships might be harmed by unconstrained consumption of pornography.

    Quiet carriageI’m not an advocate of censorship. It doesn’t work anyway. I believe in freedom of informed choice. I am an advocate of encouraging people to think carefully about what their habitual behaviours might be doing to their brains from the perspective of neuroplasticity. This I hope will enable them to make choices that benefit them in the long run as well as in the short term. Carving out periods of the day when emails are ignored and phones switched to silent will preserve the ability to sustain attention, engage in deep thought and enable people to remain the master rather than slave of technology. And actively avoiding indulging in online pornography on a daily basis might help people to evade brain adaptations that set the bar of satisfaction ever higher so that the real thing can maintain its lustre. “Everything in moderation” will steer us all clear of unwanted brain adaptations.

    In addition to these monthly blogs I also tweet daily about interesting brain-related articles that hit the press. If that sounds good to you then please consider following me by clicking here.

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