• How hobbies help your brain

    (Or in English: The Journey is the Destination)

    Two years ago a friend of mine moved away from the city in which he was born and bred (and where he also spent most of his professional career) to start afresh in Italy. 10 kilometres out of Verona he found an apartment in a building full of musicians; people who wouldn’t be bothered by the sound of his sax.

    The whole point of moving from London to Verona was to make more time to pursue his passion. Having only taken up the sax in his late 30’s, he knew it was too late in the game to become the next Stan Getz. Everybody knows that the greats almost always start playing in early childhood and that true expertise takes decades to achieve. But then again that was never the goal. His aim was a better quality of life and having felt frustrated that life in London seemed to leave him with very little free time to pursue his hobbies, making a life change that increased the available time to invest in a cherished past-time seemed a great way to achieve that goal.

    Some might ask themselves: why practise a musical instrument for 2-4 hours a day if there’s little chance of ever being able to make a career out of it? Well, for one thing, he already had a career teaching English as a foreign language and the move to Verona was also enabling him to earn more or less the same income while working far fewer hours. The other thing is: to ask that question is to miss the point entirely.

    Saxy times are to be had on the outskirts of Verona

    While there’s a clear link between how much people earn and how content they are with life when salaries are low, after it’s grown sufficiently to provide a household with the basic necessities, any positive correlation between income and happiness levels flattens out. In other words, beyond a certain threshold, money can’t buy you happiness. The likely explanation is that, when someone’s being paid the big money it’s usually because whatever they’re doing is more stressful than the lesser paid jobs in that industry. In a very real sense, the more money a person is paid, the more emotional pain from stress they are expected to be willing to endure. And then there’s the increased appetite for material desires. All of this is nicely summarised in a 2018 Nature paper that evaluated a huge amount of representative global data and finding that emotional well being sees no further improvement beyond an income of ~ £50k. With this in mind, perhaps it’s no surprise that these additional negative influences on well-being associated with the higher earning brackets are likely push back against the positive impacts that might be gained via the trappings of yet more wealth.

    Neither can money buy you love. And doing what you love really can have an impact on life satisfaction and happiness levels. If you have a hobby that you love (and actually get to pursue that past-time on a regular basis) then it can dramatically improve your well being – putting the power to influence your mood into your own hands. So while many of our mutual friends thought the sax player might have lost the plot, I immediately grasped the method in his madness. But did it work? Does he feel that the master plan has paid dividends? Well, nearly 3 years later he is still there, the quality of his sax playing has genuinely gone through the roof and the last time we spoke he said he really couldn’t imagine coming back any time soon…

    While I first came across this in Germany, it may well have originated with Confusius

    The Germans have a lovely turn of phrase: Der Weg ist das Ziel. When I first heard this, out in Germany doing my post-doctoral studies on the edge of the Black Forest, I was confused. The journey is the destination (?!)  – went entirely against my experience of countless childhood memories of seemingly endless motorway journeys; driving as a family of five to and from campsites all around coastal France and every corner of the UK in the summer holidays. As I remembered it, the final destination almost always had a swimming pool, table football, beach volleyball, table tennis and arcade games galore. Dozens of kids from all over Europe to befriend and surfeit of activities waiting to entertain us at the final destination, compared to the painfully long journey cooped up in the back of the car for hours on end killing time playing “I spy” and listening to the same five albums over and over again. This was what flitted through my mind at the time and led me directly to the conclusion that Der Weg ist das Ziel was clearly a load of old cobblers. (NB CRS: cobbler’s awls = balls)

    It eventually dawned on me that I was being too literal. Der Weg ist das Ziel describes the pleasure we humans derive from being in the process of achieving something, rather than getting to the end result itself. Finding flow is deeply satisfying, after all. Contented humans whistle while they work. Others get their daily grind done and then move on to spend time doing things they find enjoyable. My friend in Italy seemed to have reached this conclusion, that the journey IS the destination all under his own steam.

    The relevance of this story to this particular chapter in life on Earth as we move into a new decade, is that many people around the world have found themselves stuck indoors with more time on their hands than they know what do to with over the past months. I’ve been counting my blessings that I happened to be doing a Master’s in virtual reality (VR) when it all kicked off. Building VR experiences is an incredibly steep uphill learning curve, swallowing hundreds of hours a month (if you ever want to get anywhere). And as someone who is usually criss-crossing Europe preaching the good word of the brain at business conferences that no longer happen in the flesh, if there’s one thing I’ve had much more of this year it’s time!!

    The end product might be ugly, but the process of chipping away at it is incredibly satisfying

    While the first six months of pursuing my new-found passion for VR building was like trying to squeeze blood out of a stone, once I’d finally managed to absorb the basics of driving a game engine like Unity I found myself quickly getting into flow state and regularly staying there into the wee hours. In recent years the only other past-times that I could happily engage myself with for hours on end were playing 7-a-side football and pursuing my stone carving hobby. But football got cancelled by the social distancing rules and the piece of stone I’ve been carving was starting to get too fragile to survive the trips down to the Thames and back in one piece. So my VR building exploits have been something of a lockdown life saver.

    The point I’m trying to make here is that hobbies are not just nice to have, they’re an essential component in your brain maintenance toolbox. By which I mean: if you feel glum, because you’re out of work and / or stuck inside being driven crazy by the company of the same people you’ve been bubbled with for far too many months, hobbies can be something of a mental health lifeline. If you’ve already got a hobby that you can happily plough hours and hours of time into, keeping the mantra Der Weg ist das Ziel in mind (i.e. even if the end product is rubbish, it really doesn’t matter if you enjoy the process of doing it), then you can use it as a method to improve your state of mind should you start to feel low.

    Whether you have a hobby you regularly pursue or not, there is always room for one more. That way, if one is taken away from you unexpectedly, then those that remain can fill in the vacuum. And the option to use your hobby strategically to improve your mood, whenever you have some time to kill, can really help to bring the perceived locus of control from the outside in. And that, is unequivocally a step in the right direction, when it comes to improving your mood management skills.

    2020 taught me to bring the outside in by using absorbing hobbies to manage my mood

    In addition to these monthly blogs, I also tweet (@drjacklewis) about the latest neuroscience developments to hit the news that might be of interest or relevant to a non-specialist audience of brain enthusiasts.

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  • Working-From-Home Brain Hack: Redefine Borders

    In June’s brain blog I talked about how the human brain is built for change. The process of adapting to change can be difficult, particularly when those changes are forced upon us by circumstances beyond our control, but it’s reassuring to hear that it’s what brains are built to do.

    The experience of adjusting to lockdown has ranged from a bit of a nuisance for some to utterly unbearable for others. One major problem people have faced is trying to stay productive while unable to leave their home. As somebody who’s been working from home more or less full time for a decade, I’ve developed a variety of brain hacks that I’ve found greatly improve my own efficiency. These tips and tricks are all “Neuroformed” – i.e. neuroscience-informed – in the sense that they are ultimately inspired by insights gleaned from the neuroscience research literature.

    With the exception of a few places here and there lockdown is slowly but surely being eased across the UK, Europe and further afield. But for many, the process of “unlock” does not necessarily mean physically going back to the office. For the foreseeable future working practices will continue to be much more remote, with much more working-from-home than ever before. What better time to share the tactics I’ve developed for turning your home into a place where you can actually get work done as effectively (if not more) than in the workplace?

    Working inside the home rather than outside it robs people of the natural boundary between work and home life – the dreaded commute. While its absence comes with benefits – more time than ever to invest in the replenishing, memory forming and emotional management boosting actions of sleep – the lack of a clear boundary between work and play is perilous. It threatens not just psychological wellbeing but also overall productivity, because our brains can settle down to work much more quickly and stay at it for longer if it’s had the chance to enjoy a solid period of downtime.

    When people only work in their workplace, the front door delineates the boundary between a work-centred mindset and the somewhat different brain states associated with home life. Digital devices have already increasingly blurred this line over the past decade or so. The existence of internet-connected smartphones, tablets and laptops do encourage many to feel obliged to continue working when they get home from work. While such practices have become increasingly common, at least some of the stresses associated with the workplace can be “left behind” when a person exits the building.

    This is a psychologically healthy way to go about things because we all need to give our bodies and brains a break from the high cortisol levels (the most famous of the “stress” hormones) typically associated with being in “work mode”. Cortisol acts on our cells to increase energy availability for that brain to keep us motivated, focused and able to get our work done. But with many people finding themselves with no alternative but to cram home offices into bedrooms and living rooms, it’s harder to feel psychologically distanced from work-related stresses than ever before, given all the evidence of the day’s unfinished business cluttering rooms at the end of each working day. Just a glance at the home office space, when unwinding on the sofa or moving into the bedroom in preparation for sleep, can be sufficient to trigger a jolt of cortisol to wind us up when getting off to sleep (and staying asleep for a solid 7-8 hours) actually requires the opposite.

    The key thing to keep in mind is that our brains switch gears, so to speak, when we move from one environment to another. Brain states relevant to one environment are replaced by others appropriate and useful for whatever other environment we might find ourselves moving into. Factual memories, procedural memories and relevant events that previously occurred in that particular space will be triggered by sensory cues present in the new environment; priming your brain to perform actions and readily bring to mind thoughts that are most pertinent to that particular place.

    This happens outside the home when you move from the street – where your brain is primed to dodge other pedestrians and navigate effectively, into the café – where your brains navigational networks will be dampened down and social interaction / decision making networks will be primed to enable you to queue, order and pay for your coffee and cake, almost entirely on autopilot. This happens in the workplace, when you move from your desk to the meeting space your brain temporarily ditches the thoughts and memories relevant to your “to do” list in favour of cognitive set pieces that enable you navigate the hypercomplex world of group social dynamics. When you later go back to the table and chair where you typically get your work done, those social brain networks are switched off and cognitive networks dedicated to prioritising tasks on your “to do” list switch on again so you can get back to work.

    Incidentally, this phenomenon of mindset switching explains why we can often find ourselves scratching our heads trying to figure out what the hell it was that we were looking for when we move into a different room to get something. Crossing the threshold from one room to another can be sufficient to wipe your short term memory buffer clear. (NB you can thwart this process by simply repeating to yourself silently in your head – or out loud if you don’t care what think of you – exactly what you’re intending to do in that other room. The active rehearsal helps to keep the objective clear by keeping the explicit goal in working memory as you cross the threshold. Singing it helps too because if you get distracted, the tune can help you recall what you were chanting!).

    Our brains have such a broad repertoire of skills and knowledge that it’s impossible to keep it all in mind simultaneously, so we use cues in the environment to prime the information and actions most relevant to what we are likely to do in that particular environment. If you’ll permit me another brief tangent, this is also why people who sleep badly are advised to banish all electronic goods from the bedroom. The aim is to ensure that there are no associations with that particular space and stimulating activities. If recent memories of the bedroom environment feature only relaxing activities like reading a book or sleeping, rather than ramping up brain activity in preparation for an exciting episode of the latest box-set, or a late night survey of social media on your phone, tablet or laptop, the brain instead starts shutting down in preparation for sleep state as soon as you cross the threshold into your bedroom.

    The first step in this first brain hack involves doing everything in your power to keep the parts of your home in which you work-from-home as separate as possible from those in which you rest, unwind and sleep. If this means packing away your whole home office into boxes at the end of each working day then do it. The sequence of movements involved in packing the equipment away will become a ritual that helps you to psychologically move away from the stresses of work. And unpacking everything the following day will help you get your brain into “work mode”. For those of you reluctant to engage with such a daily “start of work” / “end of work” ritual, at the very least throw a sheet or blanket over your work office if it is visible when you are in the living room or bedroom.

    The next step in availing yourself of this first working-from-home brain hack is to get yourself into different work-related brain states while still in whichever location you’ve designated as your home office. For example, boring, administrative work requires a different brain state to creative problem solving. Trying to do creative problem solving work in exactly the same environment that you do the boring, administrative stuff is much less efficient than having two different spaces reserved for each endeavour. This is why using the boardroom for brain storming activities usually doesn’t result in much innovation – an environment associated with scary meetings with senior management is likely to stifle everybodies’ creative potential. If, like me, you only have one physical space in which you do all your work, you might want to get a bit creative with the arrangement of your furniture to make the same space look and feel different according to what kind of work you need to get done.

    Over the past couple of years I’ve done some consultancy work for a company called Steelcase. They’ve been making office furniture for nearly a century now and had recently launched a new breed of furniture for offices and educational establishments designed to be moved around more easily. They got me involved when they heard me speak about the Neuroscience of Creativity and How To Fostering Genuinely Innovative Workplaces on a panel for a Microsoft event. They were particularly motivated by what I had to say about how the human brain creates associations between certain environment and certain brain states. A central tenet of my argument was that if a person only performs activities known to get the brain into a more open-minded creative state when they are in a certain space, then soon enough they will find they can improve their capacity to be innovative simply by moving into that space. There are certain cafes, libraries and hotel lobbies that I work in around London when I’m doing creative work (and even certain spaces within those cafes and libraries that I aim for where I’ve previously had my best ideas) and in order not to sully my brain’s associations between that space and innovative thinking I always move elsewhere to do boring work; even just to take a business call.

    I was inspired to take this approach by some brilliantly imaginative research that came out of the University of Southampton in 1975. The researchers got people to memorise some information under two very different sets of circumstances: while scuba diving underwater or on the poolside. They were also tested to establish how accurate their recall was above versus below water. It turned out that those who learned the information underwater were more accurate in remembering the information below the waterline compared to above. And those who learned the information above water demonstrated better recall above the waterline. I figured that if the environmental association was strong for memorised information, then why not apply the same logic to creative thinking.

    During lockdown, of course, I’ve had no access to my usual creative spots. I’ve had to adapt the approach I described above to the interior of my home. Most people would work in room and relax in another. That isn’t an option for me because I live in a studio! With only one room to work with, for several years now the cue that the work mode is finished and relaxation mode has begun involved shuffling the furniture around. The big table that I work from is also my dining table. When this table is moved away from my computer monitor, it signals that work is done for the day. When it is in the very centre of the room, that tells my brain that I’m hosting. When it is tucked away into the corner, that tells my brain it’s time for a session of Virtual Reality. When it is pushed against the window – I’m in writing mode.

    Using this technique, the cues that my brain gets from the same room are completely different when I’m in relaxation mode versus work mode. While ceremonially packing away all the work-related materials at the end of each working day, only to have to set it all out again the following morning in exactly the same place may seem like a complete waste of time, I view this as an important part of my switch on / switch off ritual. It is time and energy wisely invested when it comes to managing a work / life balance when your work and leisure time all takes place in the same space.

    In addition to these monthly blogs I regularly tweet (@drjacklewis) about interesting neuroscience research that hits the press and review a different Virtual Reality game or experience every single week (Brain Man VR Reviews).

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  • #SelfishlyHelpful

    One of the main pieces of science that underpins The Science of Sin is that social isolation damages people’s physical and mental health (a fact of life first identified 40 years ago!). I also make the point that the seven deadly sins can be thought of as perfectly natural human inclinations that are useful in moderation, but inevitable damage social connections when they get out of control. Put this all together and what have you got? Well, the way I see it, it should be possible to motivate people to rein in their pride, greed, sloth, lust, gluttony, envy and wrath for entirely selfish reasons – with the primary aim of improving their own health.

    This is where the inspiration for #SelfishlyHelpful came from. Something that I hope could motivate even the least likely people to start behaving more benevolently towards other. And for those who are already charitably-inclined, it might help them to find ways to motivate the more self-centred people they come across in life to look for opportunities to help other people in their community. As the weeks have gone by since this thought first occurred to me, the more I think about it – the more I stumble upon evidence of my own #SelfishlyHelpful behaviour. It turns out I’ve been doing it for years. I was just thinking of it more in terms of how intrinsically-rewarding acts of apparent altruism are. For example…

    It occurred to me recently that for many years now I’ve been tweeting about interesting neuroscience articles I come across on a daily basis and writing a monthly blog for entirely #SelfishlyHelpful reasons. Yet I have never received a penny for the many thousands of hours of effort I’ve invested in these exploits, so clearly any reward I might gain is intrinsic (feels good) rather than extrinsic (for material gain).

    I initially started doing these things because the TV agent that represented me 8 years ago told me that anyone who wants to be a successful TV presenter needs to have two things: 1) a Twitter account and 2) a website. When I asked why, she replied that she had no idea (!), but that people whose advice she trusted had told her so. The received wisdom was that these activities were vital to any 21st century broadcaster’s survival. That was good enough for me.

    I arbitrarily set myself the goal of tweeting three brain-related articles that hit the lay press each and every weekday, plus one blog per month on a brain-related topic that had made me sit up and take notice. After a few years I started asking myself why I was bothering to stick to this quota like my life depended on it. There seemed to be no tangible return on my investment of time and resources.

    Retrospectively I realised that what kept me at it was the impetus to keep checking the neuroscience newsfeeds on a daily basis as this habit helped me to stay abreast of the latest developments across many neuroscience sub-disciplines. And what kept me blogging was the opportunity to regularly explore certain areas of neuroscience in greater depth.

    My tweets help others by drawing attention to brain-related articles that are usually a) interesting and relevant to people’s daily existence b) well-written and c) factually accurate. I know people find these articles helpful because people occasionally take the time to get in touch to thank me for making them aware of a tasty nugget of neuroscience. There is clearly a selfish benefit for me as well because, while I don’t get any financial remuneration for this kind of work, always being up to date on what’s going on across a wide range of brain research topics often comes in handy. When I’m asked a question by a client about the latest developments in neuroscience, whether it is a TV production company developing a series idea, a PR company I’m working with on a project for one of their clients, a host during a live TV or radio interview, or an audience member after one of my many annual keynote speeches, I can answer the vast majority of questions off the top of my head.

    Similarly with the blog: people sometimes drop me an email out of the blue (usually when I’ve removed something they’ve come to rely on!) to say what a useful resource it is – so they clearly find it helpful. The selfish part is that, as I was effectively forcing myself to stick to a schedule of writing a science story once a month for 8 years, by the time I got the opportunity to write a book, not only did the publisher have a sense of what the end product would look like – but it also gave me the opportunity to develop my writing style so that, through trial and error, I could do the job adequately well.

    My aim from here on is to encourage others to do the same, but in a wide variety of different contexts. Whether it’s volunteering in their local community with the express intention of helping others to improve their own social connections – with other volunteers, those that they benefit from their charitable enterprises and others they meet along the way. The basic premise is that the act of helping others naturally encourages those on the receiving end of the freely-given assistance to try to reciprocate: to do something to return the favour. If they’re unable to return the favour in some material sense, they should at least be willing show their gratitude in other ways. This gratitude is useful in the sense that it will go some way towards reducing the recipient’s baseline levels of psychological pain or, in more common parlance, the inner turmoil that we all experience each day.

    A #SelfishlyHelpful act of community volunteering should not only reduces social pain (which I argue is generated in the dorsal Anterior Cingulate Cortex, an area implicated in many of the seven deadlies) but also fosters an increased sense of feeling socially accepted as a member of a community. It doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll make a new friend every time you help others, but it increases the chances that someone might smile and wave from the other side of the road the next time your paths cross, which can bolster feelings of social connection in small but meaningful ways. Increasing a person’s sense of being socially connected to people in their community is the secret sauce that leads to incremental improvements in physical health and psychological wellbeing that have lead several recent meta-analyses to emphasise the importance to taking steps to reduce social isolation.

    As someone who just received an email from a teacher from an East London state school I gave a talk at last week, saying that all the students were “really buzzing with enthusiasm” after the talk and that I’d “undoubtedly changed the path of many of their lives”, I can personally attest to the benefits of being #SelfishlyHelpful in terms of making people feel like trying to help others for zero remuneration is entirely worthwhile on a number of different levels. So as you mull over what you’ve just read, think to yourself… “where could I volunteer my services in the local community”? And bear in mind that, when you come to giving your time freely to others, it is you, not they, who will be the one that benefits the most…

    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 will soon be launching a brand new YouTube channel where I take people on a variety of Virtual Reality adventures….

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