• Book Review: The Little Black Book of Data and Democracy

    One of the main aims of this website is to provide resources that help people to get more out of their own brain. There are two key approaches to achieving this: 1) raising awareness of the basic ingredients brains need to thrive, the raw materials, the right kind of physical and mental stimulation etc and 2) pointing the finger at aspects of modern life in the developed world that work against your brain’s best interests, processed food, sedentary lifestyle, too much stress. This month’s blog firmly lands in the latter category.

    This book comes highly recommended

    You’ve no doubt heard about the Cambridge Analytic scandal. But do you fully grasp its ramifications? I certainly didn’t until I read this book. You may have an awareness that all sorts of companies place cookies on your computer or smartphone when you use their websites, but do you actually understand what each type of cookie does? Nope, me neither. You probably realise that Facebook, Google, YouTube and various other social media platforms collect personal data on you (and sell it to the highest bidder) in return for your free use of their technology, but have you ever bothered to ready the lengthy Privacy Notices explaining which data is collected and what they can do with it? No? Well you’re not alone.

    Thankfully somebody has bothered to check all this out for us, a man called Kyle Taylor, who spent lockdown writing this incredibly concise, funny, scary, wonderful book all about it. It takes no time at all to read and the 120 fact-packed pages will make you an instant expert on data privacy the next time you’re in a pub or dining with friends. As soon as I read it I felt it was such vital reading for all adults (and older children) that I got hold of a bunch of copies to give to all my family members and a few close friends.

    The truth is it’s high time everybody takes stock of the world we may well all be mindlessly sleep-walking into. If we don’t, we’ll only have ourselves to blame when it all goes wrong. Perpetually postponing the day when we finally find the time to get to the bottom of exactly what each of us are giving away every time we click “Accept All” rather than “Manage Cookies” when we’re hurriedly trying to do something with our devices is no longer acceptable given the knife edge that we’re on without even realising it.

    I’ve long been suspicious of any friend who thinks that virtual assistants like Alexa, Siri and the like are cool technologies to have around the house. Surely it’s obvious that if you’ve given the device permission to listen in to conversations taking place nearby just once, it will be listening to whatever is being said in your home for the rest of time? How else could it respond to the call of its name when you ask it to search the web for a pancake recipe, start a timer or trigger your favourite tune to unwind to? When I verbalise my concerns I’m invariably met with the response: “the conversations in this house aren’t that interesting!” But you’d be surprised how valuable that data is nonetheless and appalled by the kind of predicaments people can find themselves in on the basis of such seemingly innocent data.

    I already had a sense that half of what I read in this book was the case and was very happy to have it confirmed by someone who has really done their research and, importantly, provided evidence to support his claims. I found the other half, the stuff that I was completely unaware of, both fascinating and concerning. And regarding the threat to democracy in the UK (and every other country on the planet for that matter) deeply disturbing.

    Forgive me for one spoiler. My concern is that if you don’t get round to reading the book (if you do want to pick up a copy then click here and stop reading!) you may never grasp this revelation and I think it is extremely important that everybody is aware of what I consider to be the key takeaway point of the book:

    Social media is wired up to monitor how long we spend engaging with different pieces of content. It can tell when we keep reading or watching to the very end and if we decide to follow more links on a similar subject to find out even more. It can also tell when we get bored by a topic and move on to something more interesting, shocking or sexy. So far, so obvious…

    As the algorithms that track our likes and dislikes are designed to feed us more of what we are interested in (simply to hold our attention for longer so they can get more advertising revenue from our use of their services) and less of the content that we are not that interested in, we each end up getting funnelled into one of many different “information silos.” This means that day in day out, the billions of people who consume lots of social media are exposed to carefully-curated content and a person in one information silo will be consuming a completely different set of information to another person in a different information silo. Now while this might not seem terribly important, it really, really is important. It couldn’t be more important, in fact, because of the way it warps people’s sense of reality.

    If two people sat side-by-side on a train are both using their smartphone to skim through their Facebook feed, each feeding them a completely different version of what’s going on in the world and completely opposing takes on any given news story, then they are not living in the same reality. If they are not living in the same reality then even when they are given the same piece of information, they will likely interpret it differently. And if their perception of reality is sufficiently warped, they may make decisions that go expressly against their own best interests.

    If everybody’s perception of reality is fundamentally different then ultimately democracy will fail. Perhaps it already is failing. And we can’t let that happen because while democracy is far from perfect, the alternatives are all much, much worse. The fresh perspective that this book provides regarding the power social media companies have in warping people’s sense of reality explains several foxing real world phenomena. Why do some people love Donald Trump so fervently despite his bizarre behaviour throughout his time in office? Why did so many people in the UK vote for Brexit when the benefits for doing so were far from obvious? This brilliant book goes a further than any other that I’ve read in recent times in helping people better understand the crazy online world we’re living in and the vital need to create global structures of governance to keep an eye on what big tech is doing to society. Because currently, they’re doing whatever they want.

    In addition to these monthly blogs, I regularly tweet about brain and virtual reality-related topics on Twitter (@drjacklewis).

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  • Reboot Your Brain with SYBO2

    Here in the UK, we finally seem to be emerging from our pandemic-enforced cocoons. Slowly but surely people seem to be getting back in the habit of venturing out into the outside world again. Some are even daring to look to the future with greater optimism. So what better time for the 2nd edition of Sort Your Brain Out #SYBO2) to be released into the wild?!

    Available for pre-order now

    The National Health Service has cottoned onto the change in the mood of the nation by launching a Better Health campaign, aiming to help us shed the extra pounds made almost inevitable by our relatively sedentary lockdown lifestyles. For many of us, being actively encouraged to stay indoors (and thereby perpetually in close proximity to the fridge) led to both an increase in calorie consumption and a reduction in calorie burning.

    That said, it’s not just our bodies that need freshening up. Many of us have ended up feeling like our brains have got a bit stodgy after all this staying in and that’s got nothing to do with the Long Covid that has blighted many people’s lives of late. What I’m referring to is the impact of all that binging on box-sets, engaging little with cherished hobbies and sporting activities that take place out side of the house, not to mention the limited social contact that the habits of social distancing have actively encouraged.

    The impact of having less social, physical and cognitive stimulation over the past year and a half, than ever before, are bigger than you might ever have imagined. Many people have found themselves inexplicably tired, listless and harbouring a brain that needs reinvigorating. In short, most of us have got into some bad habits and there is a need to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and get our brains in gear. In other words, we all need to reboot our brains. By dint of good fortune, next month sees the launch of the second edition of Sort Your Brain Out – on the 2nd September to be precise – and promises to tell you everything you need to know to do just that.

    If Karl says it’s good it must be. He’s the smartest man I’ve ever met (JL)

    The first edition launched back in 2014 and quickly became a best-seller, much to the happy surprise of co-author Adrian Webster (aka @polarbearpirate) and I. In fact, it spent many months in the top ten of the WHSmith travel outlets’ non-fiction chart. Ever since, more and more fresh, novel, neuroscience research insights have hit the academic press and so an update was long overdue. It wasn’t until the pandemic came along and changed everything that the precious time to write a second edition finally made itself available. Every cloud…

    The 2nd edition of Sort Your Brain Out (#SYBO2) contains even more easy-to-grasp principles of brain optimisation for us all to consider applying to our everyday lives. As ever these are based on the latest insights from the worlds of neuroscience, psychology, medicine, sports and nutrition science.

    All the original chapters have been updated with the new insights into how we can better look after our brains that have emerged over the past 7 years. And there was enough brand new material for three new chapters as well. This means more invaluable tactics and strategies than ever before aimed at helping all of us to reboot our grey (and white) matter as we emerge back into normality. Below I outline some of the insights from the new chapters as sneak preview about what you would have in store if you chose to get a copy.


    No Man Is An Island

    One of the new chapters is called: Get Yourself Connected. It explains why, as one of the most social species on the planet, having regular social contact with people outside of our household is extremely important for both our physical and mental health. Since 1988 medical data has been available to demonstrate that those of us who feel socially isolated live shorter and unhappier lives. Flip this insight and it suddenly looks less bleak, perhaps even inspirational: those who feel socially connected live longer and happier lives. This chapter explains why this is and simple strategies to grow your network of meaningful social connections for a longer and happier life.

    To be of the opinion that friendships are nice to have, but not essential is a load of old nonsense. Sadly this attitude is quite common and means that, all too often, people find themselves drifting apart from childhood friends. Life gets so busy with work and family that many simply don’t find time to actively forge new friendships. From the perspective of optimising brain health this is a perilous trap to fall into.

    Friends aren’t just nice to have, they are vital for our overall well-being. And while social interactions can admittedly be a bit of a minefield, a basic understanding of what causes brains to reliably release neurohormones involved in social bonding and how brains respond to being suffused with such chemical agents can help to explain why friends have such a significant impact on how we feel and behave.

    The Get Yourself Connected chapter help to explain why the physical separation from friends and loved ones throughout the various lockdowns we all had to endure these past recent months had such a huge impact on how we felt and functioned. It explains what we can actually do to proactively broaden our social horizons now that we’re finally allowed to go out again. One of the most powerful messages in the whole book, in my opinion at least, is that the key to the happiness that comes from being towards the centre of a social network is to offer to help others.

    Offering assistance to others is one of the best ways to forge new friendships because multiple cycles of mutual helping is the key to developing trust – the cornerstone of a solid social connection. This may sound a bit like stating the obvious to some, but the importance of this point can’t be overstated, particularly when you consider the evidence that being at the centre (rather than at the edge) of a social network actually makes you happier.

    You can make your way from the edge of a social network, to the middle, by actively creating trust with new people through mutual cycles of helping others. Starting with your local community and spreading your influence yet further by joining common interest groups, ideally where you turn up in person, but virtual participation is also helpful to a lesser degree.

    Actively seeking opportunities to forge new social connections, by joining community sports, music or hobby groups, as well as offering to help people spontaneously whenever the chance arises, is key to leading a happier and healthier life. I can’t argue the full case for this here, in a short blog, so if you haven’t quite grasped the point I’m trying to make here I strongly urge you to grab a copy of the new edition.


    2-5 hours of recreational time outdoors each week boost happiness

    Myokines are released from our muscles whenever we exercise. These substances travel up to brain and trigger the release of Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF). These elevated levels of BDNF cause more brain cells to be born in the hippocampus and increasing the numbers of mitochondrial power houses that actually release energy from glucose within existing hippocampal cells. These processes bolsters all the cognitive functions that the hippocampus supports, including the creation of new memories, moving around without getting lost and imagining the future.

    People who take regular exercise in their middle-aged years have longer telomeres (the protective strand at the end of each DNA molecule in the nucleus of all your cells – like the plastic tips at the end of your shoelaces) and longer telomeres are a hallmark of a brain that functions better in the short term and stays cognitively sharp well into old age. There is even evidence to suggest that regular exercise, that is 30 minutes of moderately intensive exercise daily, or 60 minutes every other day, is actually responsible for making telomeres longer. So we all have it in our power to impact how well the cells in our body and brain can be replaced when when they get damaged.

    On that topic, this new chapter Born To Move also describes how and why regular exercise not only makes our brains healthier, happier and more cognitively capable, but it even makes our bones stronger. So if you’re out of the habit of regular exercise, start by getting outside for 10 minutes of fast walking that gets you a little bit out of breath each day (that’s 1% of your waking day, everyone can spare 1%) and increase your dose by a minute each week. A painless way of getting back on the wagon of pursuing a healthier body and brain.


    Mindfulness – taking an objective peak at what’s going on inside your brain

    The third new chapter is called Mind Over Matter and describes the power we all have to make a heaven or hell out of our own existence according to what we do and do not spend our idle time dwelling on. It describes the huge impact that the media can have on our overall well-being and, in particular, the tremendous influence of how we consume the news (and how much) in increasing our tendency to view the world through sh!t-tinted glasses.

    The latest neuroscientific evidence compiling numerous investigations into the daily practice of various types of mindfulness meditation shows that, in just a few weeks, we can strengthen the white matter (neuronal cabling connecting different brain areas) and increase the density of the grey matter (regions where connections are made between different neuronal cables) in brain areas that have a fundamental impact on our capacity to find peace of mind.

    Over a decade’s worth of relevant scientific studies indicate that not only does daily mindfulness meditation improve physical and mental health, it also boosts cognitive functions. Cognitive functions like being able to focus attention for longer. This is something that many people are currently in great need of given the tendency of our technologically-enhanced world, with its information overload and an online environment that moves at 200mph, to erode our ability to sustain attention for longer than a few minutes at a time (if that).

    It also seems to be an effective method for bolstering our capacities to think positively by taking specific steps to steer our imaginations in a direction that makes us more likely to feel happy and upbeat for no particular reason. A more positive disposition can be actively nurtured by taking measures to guide our sensory systems away from sources of information that make everything seem utterly bleak and futile (which promotes catastrophic thinking and erodes our very motivation to try to improve matters) and towards more productive patterns of spontaneous thought processes that help us boost our mood and self-esteem. And if that’s not enough, this chapter also describes some heart-warming anecdotes that support the idea that nurturing an optimistic outlook seems to significantly improve survival in the context of some pretty nasty diseases.

    Sort Your Brain Out 2 (#SYBO2) is now available to pre-order online and will hit the shelves of all good book shops on the 2nd September 2021. In addition to these monthly blogs, I regularly tweet about any interesting neuroscience studies that might be relevant to our everyday lives (@drjacklewis).

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  • Book Review: WHY WE SLEEP by Matt Walker

    By his own admission my dad is not a great reader of books. Yet he devoured Matthew Walker’s WHY WE SLEEP in no time at all. As he sped through this tome I received regular updates, sometimes on an hourly basis, summarising the parts he found most inspiring, shocking and illuminating. The goal was to get me to read it as a matter of urgency so that I might disseminate the countless invaluable insights contained within, describing the vital importance sleep in improving every aspect of brain health, as far and widely as possible. Fast forward a few weeks and this month’s blog was born…

    While the accounts in this book of the brain benefits associated with getting plenty of sleep on a regular basis are as fascinating and detailed as they are numerous, I must admit to finding the writing style a touch irritating. Emancipated from the rigid constraints of authoring important scientific studies in peer-reviewed journals, many life-long academics seize the opportunity to wield the English language with greater freedom of expression when they finally get the chance to write something for general consumption. The trouble is, just as it’s annoying to be in the audience of a presentation that’s packed with interesting facts, yet conveyed in context of overly-cluttered slides, liberally sprinkled with too many animations and transition effects, it can also get a bit much when an author indulges themselves with too much latitude in the creative language department. I found myself cringing at many of Professor Walker’s linguistic flourishes, which impeded my progress in getting through this otherwise excellent book. This is a great shame because the contents of this book are as awesome as his personal contributions to the world of sleep neuroscience have been immense. That said, aside from the writing style not being to everybody’s taste, I still agree with my old man’s contention that everyone should take the time to absorb the wisdom that is found within the pages of this book. For many people it could be lifesaving. Literally.

    The book kicks off with a lovely quote from Charlotte Brontë that everyone can surely relate to:

    “A ruffled mind makes a restless pillow”

    It is goes on to detail the many benefits of sleep for our physical and mental health. The stories are told with authority and in a manner that is entirely accessible. My favourite parts include research demonstrating that:

    • When a person falls asleep at the wheel while driving, their perception of what is going on around them is not merely degraded but actually switched off. During the few lethal moments of a micro-sleep, a person is completely unconscious. This would explain why drowsy driving is to blame for more road deaths than drink and drug driving together.
    • ‘Night owls’ suffer from higher rates of several serious physical (stroke, diabetes, heart attacks, cancer) and psychological (anxiety and depression) illnesses compared to the average ‘early bird’ sleepers. Yet stone-aged man almost certainly benefited from having a mixture of night owls and early birds in any given community to minimise the length of the period during which everyone is unconscious and so vulnerable to attack from predators and/or enemies.
    • The specific roles played by particular sleep stages in reviewing and consolidating memories (NREM: non-random-eye-movement) and the mechanism by which upsetting events from each day are revisited at night in order to emotionally detoxify them so that they can be more comfortably recalled in the future with less anxiety than at the time (REM).
    • The contribution of adenosine accumulation in the brain to feeling of needing to sleep, i.e. sleep pressure.
    • The accelerating rate of cognitive deficits that accumulate over successive nights of sleep deprivation.
    • The accounts of why pregnant women should avoid alcohol if they don’t want to disrupt the slumber of their (mostly sleeping) foetuses, why exactly it is that children need more sleep than adults and the compelling arguments to suggest that it is folly to have adolescents getting up extra early in the morning for pre-school sports, tuition, music or hobbies when their time would actually be much better spent in bed!

    On balance this really is a very important read and I thoroughly encourage everyone to get hold of a copy of this book by a fellow graduate of Nottingham University’s Neuroscience B.Sc. undergraduate degree, who went on to take the Ph.D. earned from the same institution over to the other side of the pond where he became a Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School (although how he pulled that off without a medical degree I have no idea!), finally settling into his current job as a Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology at Berkley.

    Prof Walker is on a mission to inspire the world to get more sleep and I for one am thoroughly convinced. Now I can actually feel my adenosine levels, which have been steadily rising over the course of the morning, tipping me over into sluggishness, so I’m off to catch forty winks. That way I’ll be able to come back to this article with a sleep-refreshed brain, ready to get it published as efficiently as possible and enabling me to get on with the next job on my To Do list with greater verve and relish.

    If you struggle with sleep, help is out there. Websites like www.sleephelp.org contain plenty of info to help you find that much craved good night’s sleep that might just change your life.

    In addition to these monthly brain blogs, I regularly tweet about brain-related research that hits the lay press (@drjacklewis), I do a fortnightly podcast about the more unusual scientific breakthroughs (Geek Chic’s Weird Science) and on 12th July 2018 my new book The Science of Sin will hit the shelves in the UK (11th Sept in the USA).

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    As the Christmas season fast approaches, let me recommend to you two of the best books I’ve read so far this year.

    Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together documents our rapidly developing love affair with technology over the best part of four decades. Starting with the simple digital and robot toys that required us to nurture them in the 90’s and progressing through to the much more sophisticated versions of the 21st century, the first half of the book is dedicated to our relationships with technologies that create the illusion of needing our care. The second half is all about how smartphones, social media and a distinct tendency to prefer text-based communication over anything to do with the voice might be leaving a generation feeling overwhelmingly hyperconnected, but at the same time entirely alone, in the grand scheme of things. A real page-turner: this book is a story beautifully told, but which might leave you chilled to the bone in terms of the potentially dire prospects for today’s digital natives – those who never knew a world in which the ineluctable lure of technology hadn’t yet reached fever pitch.

    Fast forward 10 years and Mary Aiken’s sizzler The Cyber Effect takes a cybercrime-infused adventure into the dark side of the internet. I found it utterly absorbing, from start to finish. Cyber-migration, the phenomenon where cultural norms establish themselves on the internet and then leak back into the real world, helps to explain why trying to protect yourself from the negative impacts of technology on the world around us by burying your head in the sand is probably not going to pay dividends. So long as the masses are utterly absorbed by the internet then the culture of real life is changing around you, whether or not you yourself participate online. Aiken also provides a pretty thorough account of why giving smartphones to children at a younger and younger age is likely to result in not just tears, but probably also disruption of “normal” brain development through the infant years and beyond. I thought I had already researched this area quite thoroughly a couple of years back, but there is a huge amount of brand new material here. As the author points out: it’s such a fast-moving area and the devices that people use change so quickly, that conventional scientific research techniques simply don’t work, so it’s harder than ever to get a handle on what’s actually happening. If a sketch is all we’re likely to get, then this one threw a lot of things into sharp relief for me. Covering a broad range of fascinating subject matter and daring to dip into topics that other authors might shy away from; this book genuinely blew me away…

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  • Paperback Edition of The Science of Sin – Out Now!

    Today, Thurs 2nd April, the paperback edition of my latest book – The Science Of Sin – was launched. Since the release of the hardback edition I’ve toured the length and breadth of the UK giving talks at science festivals, educational establishments and even at Warner Music during their well-being week. I’ve also done interviews on many TV and radio shows across the UK, Ireland, Portugal, USA and Australia. With each telling of the story of The Science Of Sin my understanding of the subject matter has deepened yet further. Based on this and the feedback I’ve received has led me to conclude that my efforts to integrate the ancient wisdom of religion with the latest neuroscience research genuinely can guide us towards a happier and healthier life.

    One of the main conclusions I’ve reached from mulling over The Science of Sin is that we should all do more to keep in check the primal urges that lead to excessive levels of pride, greed, lust, gluttony, sloth, envy and wrath; regardless of whether we believe in God and the afterlife or not. If we let any of these seven aspects of human behaviour reach extreme levels, we’re likely to find ourselves shunned by others. The problem is that if we were to find ourselves socially isolated for protracted periods of time, it would inevitably damage our physical health (lonely people die sooner than those with healthy social connections) and mental health (lonely people suffer a higher incidence of a variety of psychological complaints).

    Taking steps to protect against the anti-social impacts of the perfectly normal (and in moderation healthy and adaptive) behaviours described by Christianity as the seven deadly sins is not, by itself, sufficient to maintain meaningful social bonds with other people. Anybody who wants to maximise their overall well-being should also be keeping an eagle eye peeled for opportunities to help others in their local community. This is partly because every small act of altruism not only triggers a jolt of activation in brain’s reward pathway, making us feel good, but more importantly it helps us to reinforce our social bonds. It promotes gratitude from those on the receiving end of the kindness and also the urge to reciprocate. The knowledge that another person is keen to repay the favour is psychologically reassuring even if an opportunity to do so never actually arises.

    There are two observations within the pages of The Science of Sin derived from MRI brain imaging studies, that upon further reflection I now believe are of particular relevance to how we conduct our daily lives. Firstly, that anti-social urges pertinent to several of the deadly sins (specifically Wrath, Greed, Envy and Pride/narcissism) trigger activation of a brain area implicated in the experience of pain, whether physical or emotional. Secondly, that people who regularly practise mindful meditation end up physically changing the structure of brain areas involved in reducing activation levels in this brain area. Putting these two revelations together leads to the conclusion that those who take meditation seriously and commit to doing it on a daily basis over long periods of time should experience a significant improvement in the quality of life for several reasons. Not only will they find themselves better able to self-soothe, but it will also reduce the likelihood that their suffering might inspire the type of anti-social behaviour often leaves people socially ostracised from their local communities and probably has done since humans first started roaming the Earth.

    Given that half the world is currently experiencing social isolation to slow the proliferation of Covid-19, I would argue that The Science of Sin is now more relevant than ever. People have more time to read and reflect. Those lucky enough to enjoy good, healthy social connections will likely be experiencing some of the negative consequences of social isolation first hand. This will, for the time being at least, increase their appreciation of the vital role that regular contact with others makes in terms of improving mood and feelings of contentment. As a consequence they may find it easier to empathise with the suffering endured by people who’ve been feeling socially isolated for long periods of time; rather than just the temporary isolation we’re all enduring at the moment for the greater good.

    Any success in increasing empathy for the suffering of those prone to behave anti-socially because of the emotional turmoil their long term isolation triggers, will not only remind people of the importance of keeping their own anti-social demons in check (to avoid a similar fate), but perhaps more importantly it may encourage them to treat such people with compassion rather than spite.

    If we respond to other people’s anti-social behaviour by contemplating the emotional pain they are probably experiencing, rather than trying to fight fire with fire, then how we react to their antics is much more likely to address to the cause of their pain rather than its symptoms. By aiming to diminish rather than exacerbate their suffering, the other person is placed in a better position to manage their own belligerent inclinations. And, of course, this in turn should also help to mitigate against the emotional suffering that their unpleasant behaviour might be causing us.

    The paperback edition of The Science of Sin is now available across the whole world in all good bookshops and online (UK buyers can get 30% off by buying direct from the publisher). In addition to these monthly brain blogs I also tweet about interesting neuroscience articles that hit the lay press and review a different virtual reality experience every week on YouTube at Brain Man VR.

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  • 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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  • Endure

    If Malcolm Gladwell (author of Blink, Outliers, Tipping Point and several other best-selling pop-science books) says of someone else’s work: “This book is AMAZING” then there are two likely explanations. Either he is just being kind and supportive to a friend and compatriot, or he genuinely meant it. I firmly believe he meant it, it really is an excellently researched and brilliantly written book.

    Great book

    Personally, I can’t think of anything worse than doing a marathon. My body isn’t built for long distance running. I’ve done a couple of decathlons in my time and the last event of the weekend – the 1,500m – was among the most unpleasant experiences of my life. On the final straight I was desperately willing my legs to respond to the cheers of the supporters, but I felt like I was running in treacle; I could barely tell whether my strides were propelling me forwards or backwards. And that’s just a mile! Decent marathon runners manage to keep up that pace for the full 26 miles. Those decathlons are probably the closest I have come to pushing my body to its absolutes limits and that is the subject of Alex Hutchinson’s great new book published last year.

    Marathon Runners

    The full title of the book is Endure – Mind, Body and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance. As a seasoned sports journalist and excellent long distance runner, Alex is extremely well positioned to write THE authoritative account of the current state of international efforts of sports’ scientists, physiologists and neuroscientists to help elite athletes squeeze yet more out of their bodies. And he really does write beautifully. As someone who has written a few popular science, I found myself awe-struck on his ability to quickly, concisely and effortlessly convey quite complex scientific ideas; clearly conveying the basic principle without allowing the explanation to be cluttered by too much pedantic detail. It seems easy to write that way, but if you know the full science story behind the compelling narratives, you realise how deftly he has whittled it down to the bare essentials.

    The scientist in me found the structure of the book very appealing, progressing as it does systematically through all the systems of the human body that could be letting an athlete down as their legs go to mush. The integrity of the muscle tissue, the supply of glucose and oxygen, the build up of lactate and, last but not least, the brain. These chapters are sandwiched between the compelling tale of the incredible efforts (not to mention expenditure of huge sums of money) that have gone into trying to get the world’s elite marathon runners through the fabled distance in a seemingly impossible time of 2 hours or less. And along the way we encounter free-divers, cyclists, triathletes, Antarctic explorers and platoons of military guinea pigs. But that’s not all. It has an additional attribute that may not have been foreseen by either its author or its previous reviewers.


    I noticed that, on days where I had read a few pages from this book, merely reading about the many seemingly illusory limits of human performance was sufficient to boost my own endurance at the gym, playing 6-a-side football or running 10km cross-country around Richmond Park. Just by priming my mind with the knowledge that the main influence in limiting human athletic performance is the brain applying the brakes – well in advance of the real breaking point – seemed to be sufficient to reduce my perception of exertion. When I warm up in the gym, I usually start with 20 minutes on the cross-trainer, alternating between 60 seconds of slow strides with high resistance to warm up my arms and 60 seconds of fast strides (200+/min) at low resistance to warm up my legs. By the half way point I’m inevitably dripping with sweat and wishing for it to all be over. But on days where I’d been reading in ENDURE about the science of athletic performance, my perception of exertion was extremely low. I found myself wanting to push myself harder – with a 2 min sprint rather than 1 min – and even then it didn’t hurt. When playing football on ENDURE days I was sprinting up and down the length of the pitch so much that the people trying to mark me just gave up. And on the 10 km runs, for the first time in nearly a decade, rather than my usual constant refrain of “can we go slower” to get my running partner, whenever an adrenaline surge sent him upping the pace and pulling away from me, it was him putting in the request to ease the pace down a notch or two.

    Running in Richmond Park involves a lot of this

    For many years I’ve been spreading the message during my brain talks that just knowing the basic neuroscience of memory, decision making, nutrition, hydration, sleep etc can really help to Sort Your Brain Out. So it’s extremely gratifying to come across a new string to my bow. I usually never re-read books, so now that I’ve finished ENDURE I might have to scribble down some of the key insights on post-it notes and stick them on the wall of my bathroom. That’s one of the strategies my brother-in-law uses to keep his own athleticism up at incredibly high levels. And given that he’s on the verge of competing in the Olympics next year, if it works for him, I’m sure it could help me achieve my own much more modest athletic goals: which is simply to keep by body fit enough to keep exercising, injury free, to avail myself of the mood boosting benefits of endorphins and endocannabinoids until my dying day.

    In addition to these monthly brain blogs I regularly tweet
    about interesting neuroscience research to hit the lay press and, I know I’ve
    been promising this for ages, but I really am getting very close to launching
    my first YouTube channel: Virtual Vive Sanity. You’d be amazed how much work
    goes into filming, editing and launching a weekly 60-min episode of
    neuroscience-enhanced Virtual Reality game reviews. The reason for the delay is
    I’m reluctant to launch until I’ve got all the bugs and gremlins eliminated
    from my workflow in order that I can release a brand new episode every Tuesday
    for at least a year. Watch this space. It will definitely have been launched by
    the end of the summer…

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  • The Fast 800

    For most of my life I’ve pursued a policy of eating a relatively healthy diet most of the time, but availing myself of most opportunities to eat fast food, gorge on the most delicious options when enjoying a restaurant meal and painting the town red when out for drinks with friends. To compensate for the excessive calorie intake I’ve always hit the gym more regularly and more intensively than most of my friends. Consequently, throughout my twenties and most of my thirties I managed to maintain a healthy weight. However, towards the end of my thirties this approach seemed to become less and less effective. My Body Mass Index (BMI) score started creeping up, from the upper region of the “healthy” values into the early digits of the “overweight” category.

    My BMI was always in the 23-24 region, but in my late 30’s it crept up to 25-26

    I responded to this worrying observation by cutting out certain foods. No longer would I perpetually have a loaf of bread, ham and cheese to hand when I was at home, so that I could munch on cheese on toast or ham sandwiches whenever the fancy took me. Out went the full fat milk and in came a 50/50 mix of semi-skimmed and soya milk whenever I ate a bowl of cereal. No longer would I habitually keep biscuits, cakes or chocolate in my kitchen cupboards. I reasoned that if it is readily available then it will get eaten, so the only way I was realistically going to win the battle against my gently ascending BMI scores was to be more disciplined in my purchasing decisions when at the supermarket. If only lower calorie foods were available to snack on then those are what will end up inside me when I find myself hunting for edible treats late at night.

    Farewell old friend

    Sadly, these simple calorie intake reduction steps were sufficient stop the increase in BMI score, but not to bring it back down to into the healthy zone. While I wasn’t overly concerned about the impact of this on my health right now, as a scientist who has read much of the relevant literature, I have become acutely aware that as a person progress from the first half of life into the second, the metabolic goalposts shift. Our organs’ innate capacity for self-repair are not what they once were when we proceed from a young adult into middle age. In my younger years a cut would heal miraculously fast, usually in less than a week. As the decades have rolled by I’ve noticed that my skin heals slower when I cut myself. These days the process is still ongoing even a couple of weeks later. The skin is an organ that is conveniently visible to the outside world so it’s possible to observe the differences in healing timelines from one decade to the next. But of course the same thing goes for every organ, even those hidden deep within our bodies. Given these insights it should have come as no surprise that a few brain hacks to reduce calories would not be sufficient to keep my aging body and brain in good nick. I needed a new regime.

    In a happy coincidence, while visiting friends who had decided to forgo their exciting, unhealthy, fast-paced life in London for a much more laid back, healthy and holistic lifestyle in the mountains of northern Thailand, Michael Mosley asked me to review his new book The Fast 800. This is what I had to say about it:

    “In this fast-paced, no nonsense, easy-to-read book, Michael
    Mosley draws upon decades of experience as a self-experimenting, expert science
    communicator to deliver a comprehensive plan for improving health; in
    plain English.
    An overabundance of food, in combination with messages from
    advertising that make overeating seem perfectly normal, means that even those
    who look healthy from the outside are often carrying too much fat around their
    We all know that shifting fat involves a better diet and more
    exercise but most people struggle to put this received wisdom into practice on
    a consistent basis for one reason or another.
    In this book Mosley supplements
    the latest science – on which of the numerous approaches to dieting and
    exercise we hear about actually work best – with inspiring accounts into his
    and others experiences of using such strategies to vastly improve their health.

    This book is a triumph in terms of providing just the right
    balance of practical advice, scientific reasoning and ultimately hope – that
    when armed with the right information, it is completely within all of our
    powers to shift excess body weight for good.”

    Great book

    The reason it was particularly serendipitous to have been asked to review this book at that particular time is that I was staying with a good friend who happened to be doing most of the things that Dr Mosley’s book recommends. And as a guest who always tries to adapt my own behaviour to the habits and lifestyle of my host, I joined him in his intensive daily workout (see video below) and took the opportunity to eat the extremely delicious vegetarian dishes available for extremely reasonable prices throughout the nearby town. Four weeks later (and despite plenty of sunset beers) my BMI score has finally dropped into the healthy zone. Hooray!!

    Right now I am sitting in my local coffee shop having eaten nothing all morning save for a couple of black americanos. My stomach is rumbling, which normally I would deal with immediately by stuffing one of the delicious pastries I can spy up on the counter from where I’m currently sat. Today, however, rather than feeling alarmed by my feelings of hunger I’m actually thinking: this is great news, lets see how long we can keep this ketosis rolling!

    Ketosis kicks in when carbohydrates are in short supply and body fats are burned instead

    What is ketosis? Well I had always known, since GCSE biology lessons, that ketosis is a process the body uses to extract metabolic energy from fats when there are no carbohydrates swimming around in the bloodstream. Yet because my biology text books told anecdotes of the role of ketosis in causing illnesses relating to starvation in the developing world, I had always assumed it was a bad thing. Indeed, even today, if you do a Google search for “ketosis” the following result is top of the list: a metabolic state characterized by raised levels of ketone bodies in the body tissues, which is typically pathological in conditions such as diabetes, or may be the consequence of a diet that is very low in carbohydrates. Yet in the context of enduring ketosis just for an hour or two each day, the latest evidence provided by Dr Mosely’s book indicates that it is a great way to lose the excess fat that tips people into the overweight or obese BMI categories.

    Excess body fat is usually responsible for overweight or obese BMI scores

    During my time in the mountains of northern Thailand, whenever my host caught me putting sugar or milk into my coffee prior to our morning workouts I would inevitably hear something along the lines of: “What are you doing? That’ll ruin your ketosis.” For me, this was the critical part of the maintaining-a-healthy-body-weight equation that I had been overlooking all my life. I’ve spent very little time in ketosis mode because I always saw being hungry as a bad thing. Recently I’ve become increasingly aware that hunger, in short daily bursts, is not such a terrible thing after all.

    My host put me onto the idea that ketosis is desirable (in moderation) for the average person living in the developed world (whose eating habits have been carefully manipulated by a constant barrage of advertising that leaves us with the general impression that overeating is “normal”). Michael Mosley provided the scientific evidence suggesting that maintaining a healthy body weight is not just about what you eat, but when.

    It’s not just what you eat, but when you eat it, that makes the critical difference in weight loss

    The longer you go without food the greater the chance that you will have used up all your reserves of carbohydrate. Once your body has finally switched into fat-burning mode, you want to keep the ketosis burning fat for as long as possible before succumbing to the desire to end those feelings of hunger. As soon as you eat something, you stop burning body fat and start burning whatever you’ve put in your stomach instead. It really is as simple as that.

    I’ve always thought that “breakfast” was a funny word because I always thought of fasting as something that people did over many days. The concept of breaking a fast that only happened because you were asleep seemed inappropriate because I had got it in my head that fasting must necessarily involve mental discipline and conscious restraint. But it doesn’t really matter what it is that extends the period of zero food intake. If you want to maximise your fat-burning opportunities each day, the timing of your breakfast can be critical to your overall success. This is because our brain’s reserves of disciplined decision-making are limited. Consequently, it is much harder to resist the temptation of delicious foods towards the end of the day, compared to earlier on. So the average person is likely to enjoy greater success overall by delaying their breakfast until later in the morning, as opposed to starting the day with breakfast and then trying to resist eating in the evening.

    High Intensity Interval Training is a great way to burn fat

    Having kick-started the process in Thailand, I’m determined not to let my BMI score creep back up again. Having finished writing this month’s blog over the course of the morning, during which time only calorie-free black coffee had entered my stomach, I headed to the gym to do my normal hour-long cardio-stretching-cardio session (less my customary bottle of energy drink) followed by my first ever High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) class. Only then did I finally break my fast. This meant that I went 14 hours without eating (since dinner last night) and now I can relaxing knowing that I’m allowed to eat what I would normally eat in the remaining 10 hours of my waking day.

    Michael Mosley managed to reverse his Type II diabetes through a combination of periodic fasting, calorie counting and high intensity interval training, not to mention eliminating the visceral fat packed in around his organs in the process which is known to be particularly dangerous to the health. For me, now that my BMI is back in the healthy zone, I’m now aiming to get back the six-pack that I took completely for granted in my twenties, but which has been mysteriously absent for a few years now!

    Exercise is REALLY good for you

    Vanity aside, my ultimate goal in keeping my BMI in check from here on is a healthy brain. Not only does a healthy BMI throughout middle age and beyond predict a lower incidence of various cardiovascular complications, but it is also associated with a slower rate of age-related cognitive decline. Add into the mix the excellent evidence that high intensity exercise can actually actively increase the length of our telomeres (found at the tips of every strand of DNA in your entire body), thereby facilitating the body and brain’s capacity to replace old cells with new ones and who knows – maybe I’ll be enjoying a healthy brain and a lucid mind right up to the age of 100!

    In addition to these monthly brain blogs, I regularly tweet about articles describing the latest breakthroughs in neuroscience research (@drjacklewis). The Geek Chic Weird Science podcast I’ve been doing with Lliana Bird is about to launch the 100th episode. And in the next couple of months I’ll be launching a new YouTube channel: Virtual Vive Sanity – where I showcase some of the best Virtual Reality games to hit the market for the HTC Vive and share some insights from neuroscience research that can help to how to maximise the overall experience.

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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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  • A Book Pairing for Summer 2017

    Certain restaurants like to suggest specific wines that go well with particular dishes. The crisp, citrusy, Sauvignon Blanc to go with a dish of lemon sole, or the full bodied, smokey Malbec to go with a sirloin steak. The flavours of the wine and the dish are often said to mutually reinforce each other, such that the combination is greater than the sum of its parts. Passing through an airport bookshop earlier this month I made a lucky spontaneous decision that demonstrated a similar effect is possible in the literary world. So I thought I’d share my discovery with you: I picked up two books, one fiction, one non-fiction, and they complemented each other perfectly. I would wholeheartedly recommend the following pairing.

    Over the past twelve months or so I’ve seen lots of people wielding a copy of Yuval Noah Harari’s SAPIENS – A Brief History of Humankind in planes, trains and automobiles. When everybody seems to be reading a certain book it always piques my curiosity. Either the marketing campaign was particularly effective or, more likely, each person who chose to buy it had been recommended it as a good read by a handful of people. As regular readers of this blog will know: I’m a sucker for Wisdom of the Crowd. And it did not let me down on this occasion because SAPIENS is an absolute cracker.

    A huge volume of well-packaged, condensed, easy-to-assimilate information that touches on the major milestones in our species’ prehistory including our encounters with other, now extinct, human species, the agricultural and industrial revolutions, and a wide variety of human empires that rose and fell through the ages is presented with great speed, style and finesse. The most gob-smacking revelation for me, overall, was mention of the genetic evidence suggesting that a fair chunk of European human DNA is of Neanderthal origin and a sizeable portion of Asian human DNA originated in the Homo erectus species. We’d covered a science story on the fact that Neanderthal’s were to thank for the keratin in our hair and nails on the Geek Chic Weird Science podcast, but I’d presumed that this was the case for all Homo sapiens, not just the European ones. The concept that the human species with which our ancestors had sexual dalliances differed according to whether the Homo sapiens in question happened to reside to the east or the west of the Eurasian land mass came at me like a bolt from the blue.

    Jean M Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear is the first book in a series of works of fiction describing an orphaned Homo sapiens girl being adopted into a Neanderthal tribe. Access to evidence regarding how Neanderthals behaved, what they believed and the extent of their knowledge is inevitably scant given how long ago they were wiped off the face of the planet. But Auel’s account of their superstitions, social organisation and rigid thought processes seemed entirely plausible. I’ve always been a great fan of Bernard Cornwell’s books. I love his approach of sticking faithfully to the historical record regarding the Saxon and Viking invasions of Britain wherever it is available, but filling in the gaps with reasonable fictions that are entirely compatible with what is known from those times. I got the distinct feeling that Jean Auel takes a similar approach. Even when the storyline became slightly fantastical as the tribal witch doctor communes with the ancestral spirits to seek advice on the best course of action, the brews concocted by their medicine woman were certainly based in fact. And speculations regarding differences in the cognitive abilities of Homo sapiens and Neanderthal’s also seemed reasonable given what we can glean from the skulls in the archaeological record.

    Frustratingly, the further back into the history of our species we peer, the greater the uncertainty regarding the actual facts. I personally found the pairing of the facts presented in Sapiens A Brief History of Humankind with the fictional accounts of the nature of interactions between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens in The Clan of the Cave Bear to be an absolutely delicious antidote to this problem. And I hope you do too!

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