• 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.

    GET YOURSELF CONNECTED

    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.

    BORN TO MOVE

    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.

    MIND OVER MATTER

    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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  • Covid-19 and The Vaccines

    There is much misunderstanding in the world about vaccines in general. This has been the case ever since a thoroughly discredited piece of dodgy research suggested in 1998 – on the basis of pretty spurious evidence – that there might be some kind of causal link between the combined vaccine for three diseases (Measles, Mumps and Rubella) and autism. For the avoidance of doubt, there is no convincing evidence of a causal relationship between the two whatsoever. But that hasn’t stopped people failing to protect their own children from these preventable, yet potentially deadly, diseases by forgoing the opportunity to immunise them. And as a consequence, the number of children exposed to these diseases has been steadily increasing.

    Fast-forward a few decades and humanity suddenly found itself confronted with a new peril, which threatened to kill large numbers of vulnerable people and cause huge disruption to the daily lives of all humans across the entire globe. While the impacts of CoVid 1 (aka SARS) starting in 2003 and MERS-CoV in 2012 was mostly limited to just part of one continent, what might be known to future generations as the Covid 3 outbreak (aka CoVid-19) rode roughshod across the entire planet.

    When asked by friends in early 2020 whether science would save us from the threat, I usually replied that sometimes science find cures for illnesses and sometimes methods of prevention, but rarely both, and either approach to controlling diseases usually take many years to get right, not months. So to cut a long explanation short, I was of the opinion that we’d probably get on top of it over the course of 2-5 years. How wrong I was.

    Over the course of spring 2021 Lliana Bird (aka Birdy), my partner in the Geek Chic Weird Science podcast who’s also has her own show on Radio X for many years, and I had been casually discussing the possibility of reviving our beloved fortnightly science splurge Geek Chic. After the first 100 episodes she went into the important business of raising babies and I went off to do a Master’s in Virtual Reality. In the meantime, it transpired that we had both missed regularly delving into the latest weird and wonderful science stories.

    Come lockdown, Birdy had been directing her scientifically-curious eye towards the research into Covid-19 and the vaccines that surprised everyone by being invented within 12 months of the virus sending the world into turmoil. Lockdown, incidentally, had also provided a boost to the pre-existing huge enthusiasm for podcasts and other forms of audio only entertainment, so the time seemed ripe to bring back Geek Chic for several reasons.

    Birdy suggested that we embarked on a series of special interviews with someone who’s day-to-day work is entirely centred on creating vaccines. Even better, the young woman in question had played a senior scientific role in the research that led to the Moderna vaccine.

    Chise (pronounced “Chee-Say”) is known on Twitter as Mac ‘n’ Chise (@sailorrooscout) and found herself thrust into the public eye when she decided to share her extensive and up-to-date knowledge of the original clinical trials for all the vaccines that became available with social media. She did so in the spirit of dispensing accurate information to dispel the many myths that endlessly circulate in the echo-chambers of social media. And Birdy being hungry for such information, given her own role as the champion of science among her own friends, social media followers and radio show listeners, naturally stumbled upon her and had been staying glued to Chise’s feed for all the latest news ever since.

    When Birdy mentioned that we might be able to get an exclusive interview with someone at very heart of vaccine research – I was instantly keen. At the time I myself had no idea how they had managed to create a vaccine so quickly. I had no idea of the critical differences between early data from clinical trials and later data from Real World experience with each of the different vaccines.

    And then there was the worrying arrival of the variants – would they scupper the scientific master plan and leave us back at square one after all that hard work? Might these variants, or others that will no doubt crop up in the future, render the immense expense of rolling out the world’s fastest and most extensive vaccine programme completely pointless. With over 37 million of its nearly 67 million inhabitants already double-jabbed, what hope does the UK and all the other nations of the world have in terms of getting our normal lives back?

    Covid-19 weekly average positive cases surge, but deaths stay rock bottom in July 2021

    And look at the impact that’s having already. Whereas previous surges of CoVid-19 positive cases were always accompanied by a mirroring surge in the weekly average CoVid-related deaths, this time round the death rate is staying down despite the rocketing rates of CoVid-19 infection. In short, the vaccines seem to be doing what they were intended to do – stopping accident and emergency units becoming full of people with CoVid-related breathing difficulties. It’s early days yet, but there is certainly room for optimism as we look forward to the rest of 2021 and beyond (in the UK at least).

    So, how did they do it? You can find out everything you need to know on this topic by downloading to Geek Chic Weird Science’s “Covid Vaccine Special” parts 1 and 2. That link takes you to Acast, who host our podcast, but you can also find it on the Apple podcasts, Libsyn, TuneIn and Podtail. Part 3, which will cover some of the broader issues that the world is facing over the coming years, follows soon…

    In addition to these monthly blogs, I regularly tweet about interesting brain science articles that hit the press via @drjacklewis.

    https://bit.ly/DrJ_GeekChicVaccineSpecial
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  • Gambling and the Adolescent Brain

    Viddal Gambling and the Brain from GamCare on Vimeo.

    Last month I made a film with the lovely people at Polar Media where we
    scanned someone’s brain while they were playing roulette, imported it into a VR experience and made it light up like a Christmas tree in the brain areas that get most excited when we gamble. The project was commissioned by GamCare – a gambling charity that offer support services to people with gambling problems.

    London-based boxer and YouTuber extraordinaire
    Viddal Riley came along to ask a few questions about the impact of gambling on teenagers brains.

    Whether an adolescent gambles or not, the reward pathway – including the
    ventral tegmental area (VTA), nucleus accumbens (NucAcc) and orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) – gradually reorganises itself to increase a young
    person’s appetite for risky decisions.

    The reason that our brains change like this over the transition from childhood to adulthood is because it helps young people to start experimenting with building alliances with people outside of the family unit to test the waters of independence in preparation for flying the nest. Increases in sensitivity to the reward pathway’s most important neurotransmitter – dopamine – enable riskier decisions to be taken more easily to help teenagers feel bold enough to become more and more independent from their parents. These changes famously create rifts between parents and adolescents, but even that happens for a reason: the disruption helps both parties to psychologically prepare for the young person to one day set up independently.

    With all this in mind, we move onto what happens in the brain when people gamble too often. If a fully grown adult gambles every day, eventually the reward pathway remodels itself in response. When we experience a win it makes us feel good because the win causes an increase in activation across the whole reward pathway. When we experience a
    loss it makes us feel disappointed because the it causes a decrease in
    activation, again across the whole reward pathway. But there’s a type of loss
    that feels exciting (despite the gambled money going down the toilet all the
    same) which is a NEAR MISS – in roulette this would be where the ball lands on the segment adjacent to the number you put a bet on. Still a loss, but oooooooh – so close!

    It is these near misses that seem to get people with gambling issues in a pickle because it generates almost as much excitement in the reward pathway as a win. And it also strongly reinforces the desire to play again, because people tell themselves something along the lines of “next time it will go better for me.” In fact, there is one part of the reward pathway – the lateral orbitofrontal cortex which sits just above the eye sockets to the side of the head (see the dark blue diamond on illustration below) – which lights up more strongly to near misses in people whose beliefs leave them prone to the type of thinking that leads to problem gambling.

    Image showing brain areas involved in all decision making

    These beliefs include the gambling fallacy where people think that if the
    ball has landed on red five times in a row then it is more likely to land on
    black next time. This is not true. It’s always a (nearly) 50/50 chance each and every time the ball spins round the wheel because each spin is completely independent of all the spins that occur before and after. But in our hearts it FEELS like the next time it should come up differently, no matter what the maths says.

    The other thing that happens in the brain of someone who gambles every day is that they slowly but surely become desensitised. If placing bets of £1 per spin created high levels of excitement in the reward pathway in the first few weeks, it will likely not be enough to create the same excitement a couple of months later. So people who gamble regularly end up betting more and more money, more and more often, in an effort to try to get the same buzz as when the experience of gambling was fresh, new and exciting.

    This happens because the reward pathways remodels its connections so that it takes more dopamine release in the gap between brain cells to trigger an electrical message to be sent to the next brain cell in the circuit. A bet of £1 resulting in a win of £36 is easily enough to get the reward pathway zinging at first, but after the dopamine system has adjusted its connections to make it harder and harder to trigger this response, it takes a £2 stake resulting in a £72 win, or a £10 stake resulting in a £360 win to get a satisfying response.

    As gambling regularly causes brain changes in the reward pathway that encourage the brain’s owner to bet larger and larger stakes, more and more often, if that brain happens to be going through adolescence at the same time – making the riskier decisions seem much more enticing than normal – it can cause a double-whammy of chaos. No matter how much money they lose, the excitement of the risky decisions keeps them coming back for more. This is why its illegal to gamble under the age of 18.

    The house always wins. Which means all the betting companies know for sure that they will always make many millions in profit every year because the whole system is designed to make losing money feel enjoyable. It’s hard enough for fully grown adults to manage their gambling habit. The trouble is, when teenagers start to acquire a taste for placing bets it’s not just hard for them to stop pouring money into other people’s pockets, it’s almost impossible.

    Having a flutter on the Grand National once a year won’t make a gambling addict out of anyone. But the more often you place a bet, the more likely you are to be tweaking the circuitry of your reward pathway to encourage the temptation of more regular betting for higher stakes. And if the person doing this happens to be a teen, then it’s even more likely to start spiralling out of control into a full blown addiction.

    In addition to these monthly blogs I also tweet about brain science and virtual reality on Twitter (@drjacklewis).

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  • Body Scan Meditation

    Mindfulness mediation is scientifically proven to change brains.

    Measurable improvements in your ability to direct attention kick in after just 5-10 half hour sessions. After 10-20 sessions the white matter (brain wires) in an area called the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC) start looking different on MRI scans. By this point people often notice a distinct improvement in their mood.

    It takes a month to create so many new connections between brain wires in this region that the grey matter becomes significantly denser. These changes, and others scattered throughout important parts of your brain, improve people’s physical health and psychological well-being. And for those more preoccupied with success than looking after themselves – it also boosts cognitive performance.

    As someone who’s mind is always on the move I personally find it very difficult to just focus on my breath. The body scan meditation is much easier for me to stick with because somebody else’s voice guides you through each stage of the meditation process. As I found it really helped me to stay focused on the present moment, rather than mind-wandering endlessly into other thought patterns, I started using the body scan script to guide people attending my talks in their first steps into meditation.

    I promised I’d make the Body Scan script I’ve been working with available in this month’s blog so that other people can read it out to those who want to give mindfulness a go, so here it is…

    Kids can meditate too

    It looks like a poem, but it isn’t. I structured it like that to help me get the appropriate pacing; to remind me where to pause before moving on. If the script is delivered at a reasonably slow pace, it should last about 20 minutes. Too long for many children, but just right for busy adults. It can always be shortened to suit kids of different ages by concentrating on specific body parts and skipping the others.

    If some of the words are not the kind of language you’d normally use in your part of the world, please feel free to change it to make it sound more natural. But do try to keep the verb structure. Words like: “moving,” “shifting,” “accepting” – invite the listener to focus on different parts of their body rather than instructing or commanding them to do so. It can sound a bit wishy washy, but it’s important that people don’t feel like they’re being bossed around. Using non-confrontational language like this helps to avoid getting people’s heckles up.

    Body Scan in action in Brighton

    So, here’s the body scan meditation I’ve been working with:

    “This body scan meditation is designed,

    To bring greater awareness to body and to mind.

    We’ll be doing this in a state of physical motionless,

    So try to arrange a time and a place,

    In which you’ll be comfortable,

    And you won’t be disturbed

    Dressing in loose and comfortable clothing

    Which won’t restrict your waist or your breathing

    This meditation is usually done while lying on your back

    But can be done in any position that is comfortable for you

    It can be done on a rug, a mat, or towel laid out on the floor,

    Or even in a comfortable chair or lying on a bed.

    If you are lying on your back

    Position your arms so that they are lying alongside you

    Palms up towards the ceiling, so long as that is comfortable for you.

    Place both heels on the floor,

    And allow your feet to fall away from one other.

    And as you’re lying there…

    Allow yourself to notice whatever pops up into your awareness,

    Simply accepting whatever is happening in your body and your mind,

    Experiencing it with clarity,

    And as it is in the moment.

    Noticing where your body makes contact with the floor, the chair or the
    bed,

    You may feel sensations of touch or pressure

    On your heels…

    Your calves…

    Your legs…

    Your bum…

    Your upper back…

    Your arms…

    And as you’re becoming aware of these sensations,

    Bring your awareness to the fact that you’re breathing [extended pause]

    Noticing the physical sensations of breath,

    Just noticing the rhythm of your breath.

    As it moves your belly,

    Slight movements of your chest.

    You may become aware of how the air enters your nostrils,

                And through your windpipe and into
    your lungs

    Allowing that natural movement of your breath to continue,

    Without really having to do anything about it at all.

    There’s a tendency to
    want to control the breathing when we bring attention to it

    Just noticing how it
    is, is just fine…

    Whether it’s short and
    fast…

     Or long and deep…

    Just allowing it to
    move at its own rhythm……….

    And when you’re ready,
    on your next in-breath,

    Allowing the breath
    that comes in to fill up your lungs, move your tummy up

    Imagine that your
    entire body is hollow

    …and accepts the air
    as it comes in through the lungs

    accepts the air as it
    comes in through the nostrils

    … in through the
    lungs…

    … imagining that it
    goes all the way in, down into the belly, into the legs

    … all the way down
    into the toes

    You may notice
    tingling, or warmth, or coolness, or pulsing…

    … or you may not be particularly
    aware of anything at all

    If that’s the case,
    just be aware that that’s where your attention is…

    And as you breath out,
    allowing your awareness to move from your toes

    … to the balls of your
    feet

    Allowing your
    awareness of the balls of your feet to dissolve…

    … as you move your
    awareness to the whole sole of your foot

    … all the way down to
    your heel

    Spread your awareness
    across the whole triangular part of your foot…

    … the areas that make
    contact  with the ground when you walk

     And noticing where your heel is touching the
    floor…

    … and the floor is
    touching the heel, right now

    And whatever you might
    be noticing,

    Is just what you
    happen to be noticing right now.

    There’s no right or
    wrong feeling or sensation to have.

    And allowing your
    awareness to move to the ankles.

    All the way from the
    surface of the skin to the inner parts.

    The bones and tendons
    inside that support your body when you walk.

    And on your next
    out-breath, moving your awareness to the calves of your legs

    … including the part that
    is making contact with the floor

    … and the muscles and
    tendons that run alongside the shin bone

    And when you’re ready,
    moving your awareness to your knees,

    … including the back
    of the knee

    … the kneecap itself

    … the joint inside

    …. the skin around the
    whole circumference

    And moving from your
    knees to your thighs

    … the quads on the
    top, to the hams on the bottom

    … bringing your
    awareness to the whole circumference of your thighs

    The muscles and
    tendons right down to the bone…

    … seeing what it’s
    like to have your awareness on this part

    You may feel
    heaviness, or your pulse, or tingling, or pressure…

    … whatever comes to
    awareness is right, there is no wrong…

    And as you’re ready to
    do this, bringing your awareness higher to the hip

    … the pelvic area

    … buttocks where they
    touch the floor

    And moving your
    awareness from the pelvic area to the lower back

    … right the way round
    to your abdomen, all the way round the circumference

    … & being aware of
    how your movement of breath affects this part of your body

    On each in-breath your
    tummy expands a little

    On the out-breath it
    flattens somewhat

    And seeing if it’s
    possible to maintain awareness of your breathing through a whole cycle

    And how it’s
    physically moving with your abdomen

    All the way through
    the in-breath, to the pause between in- and out-breath

    As you’re ready to go
    in the other direction – through the out-breath

    Noticing how the
    expansion and contraction affects the sensations on your skin…

    … from your clothes,
    or pressure from the floor…

    Moving your awareness
    higher up your body..

    …to the area of the
    diaphragm, deep inside the base of the ribcage

    Including the areas
    both on top and below the diaphram

    …where some of the
    internal organs are

    …and bringing your
    awareness into rib cage … and your middle back

    If, as we’re doing
    this, you’re noticing any holding or tension…

    …in any part of your
    body…

    …just noticing that
    that’s there

    Letting your breath
    move through that part of your body…

    … if your breath is
    affecting it

    Imagining your breath
    going into that part of your body

    Imagining it leaving –
    in it’s own rhythm

     And when you’re ready bringing your attention
    and your awareness

    … inside the cavity of
    your chest

    … your ribcage

    … round to your upper
    back

    … where it touches the
    mat or the floor

    Noticing how the chest
    is expanding and contracting…

    just slightly with
    each breath…….

    Being aware of how the
    entire torso area moves ….

    … very slightly during
    each in-breath and out-breath ….

    … being aware of how
    your shoulders are affected by each breath….

    … including the upper
    parts of your shoulders

    …. the sides of your
    shoulders

    … the upper back

    Moving your awareness
    from the shoulders themselves

    To where they attach
    to your neck

    And sensing into those
    areas of connection

    Starting from a broad
    base at the top of the shoulders…

    … and narrowing to the
    neck itself

    With your next
    in-breath,

    … allowing your
    awareness to move back into your shoulders…

    … through your upper
    arms

    … through elbow to
    your lower arms

    ….. all the way down through
    your hands

    …. to your fingertips

    Imagining your breath
    moving in / out of that area…

    … and shifting your
    attention now to the back of your hands….

    …… and the palms of
    your hands

    …. The base of the
    thumb, where it connects to the hand itself

    …. And shifting your
    awareness to your wrists

    Moving to your lower
    arms …

    …. Extending all the
    way from your wrists to your elbows

    And moving your focus
    from your elbows to your upper arms…

    … and back up into the
    shoulders

    And the base of the
    neck…

    … and moving from the
    base of your neck round to the sides and the throat area

    … and up into the jaw

    … now including the
    sensations you might have in the inside of your mouth

    When you’re ready
    shifting your attention into your tongue

    … shift your attention
    into your gums and your lips

    … and being aware that
    your lips have both an interior and exterior surface

    … and then into the
    cheeks

    To the nose…

    … noticing how the
    cool air comes in through the nostrils

    … and noticing the
    warmer feel of the breath as it passes back out again

    Moving up into the
    eyes…

    … and the muscles
    around the eyes …

    … including the upper
    cheeks and the eyebrows…

    … and the corners of
    your eyes

    And moving to the
    forehead …

    … and the surrounding
    scalp area

    …. From the crown of
    your skull to the ears

    …. And on to the back
    of your head where it makes contact with the floor

    And when you’re ready,
    sensing into the entire body

    From the top of your
    head

    To the bottom of your
    feet

    All at the same time.

    Allowing and noticing
    whatever sensation may appear…

    … as you include all
    of the body

    Head and shoulders…

    Arms, torso…

    Bum and hips…

    Thighs and calves…

    Feet …

    … allowing things to
    be just as they are:

    Beyond the tendencies
    of the mind to want everything to be a certain way…

    Beyond liking and
    disliking…

    Seeing ourselves as
    complete… And whole …

    Right here … Right now
    … Just exactly as we are…

    Noticing and
    experiencing… the fullness of life

    Acknowledging our
    ability to be present… with whatever presents itself

    And as this meditation
    ends… you might want to wiggle your toes and fingers…

    Stretch in whatever
    way feels comfortable to you right now …

    If your eyes have been
    closed, allowing them to let the light in, little by little …

    And as you’re ready,
    re-establishing contact…

    … with the entire
    world outside your body.

    Thus ends the body scan meditation!

    I hope you find this useful.

    I’ve also recorded an audio file of me reading out the script in case people would find it useful. I haven’t quite figured out how to upload it yet but as soon as I do I’ll update this post.

    In addition to these monthly blogs I regularly tweet about any interesting neuroscience research that hits the press (@drjacklewis) and next month I’ll finally be launching my new YouTube channel BRAIN MAN VR!!

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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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  • Booze, Weed and the Human Brain

    A study by Rachel Thayer and colleagues from the Universities of Boulder, Colorado and Portland, Oregon, published recently in the journal Addiction revealed some fascinating differences between the impact of recreational alcohol and cannabis use on the structure of the human brain.

    It was known from previous research that the more alcohol an adult regularly drinks the greater the degree of shrinkage of the brain’s grey matter. The grey matter is the folded outer surface of the brain that makes it look a bit like a walnut. This is where neurons interface with each other by means of synaptic connections at which one neuron can exert an influence on another. It is the networks of neurons bringing information together within the grey matter that allows computations to be performed so that we can perceive the world via the senses, feel emotions based on our interactions with other people and execute purposeful behaviours like decision making, problem solving and voluntary movements. So, as a rule of thumb, the lower the volume of space occupied by a person’s grey matter, the greater the reduction in computational power.

    This new study looked at not just the link between boozing and grey matter but also investigated whether it had any impact on the white matter too. White matter is the neuronal cabling along which electrical messages are ferried to and from different patches of grey matter in different parts of the brain’s cortex. Grey matter in the occipital lobe at the back of the brain, which crunches sensory information coming in through our eyes, can send messages to the prefrontal cortex via white matter pathways, and vice versa. Grey matter in the left side of the brain can send information to and receive information from right hemisphere cortical areas via white matter connections that run through the corpus callosum (this is a thick bundle of white matter connecting the left and right halves of the brain).

    These white matter pathways contain the neuronal axons, which is the cabling through which electrical pulses (called action potentials) are passed between neurons. These axons are wrapped in electrically insulating myelin fibre which speeds up the transmission of action potentials. Damage to this insulating layer can be detected with a certain type of MRI scan and is formally described as ‘reduced white matter integrity’. Thayer and colleagues’ findings showed that the more alcohol people routinely drank the greater the impact on grey and white matter. High alcohol consumption is associated with reduced grey matter volume AND white matter integrity.

    That’s not all. They also looked at the differences between adult brains (20-55 years old) and adolescent brains (14-19). While high alcohol intake way associated with reduced grey matter volume in the adolescent brains, they didn’t find any evidence of reductions in white matter integrity. Presumably if those teens carried on their high alcohol intake, they would end up damaging their white matter like their older counterparts.

    Perhaps the most surprising thing about this study is that, across over 400 teens and more than 800 adults, they found no evidence of any link between the amount of cannabis consumed in the 30 days prior to brain scanning and the grey matter volume or white matter integrity. This suggests that despite alcohol being legal in the UK and cannabis being illegal, from the perspective of the impact of these commonly used recreational drugs on two different important aspects of brain structure, the relevant laws may well be working in direct opposition to the degree of harm caused, both to the individual and society as a whole.

    If you enjoy these blogs then you’ll love my 2 series of Secrets of the Brain in Ultra High Definition (www.insight.tv / Sky Channel 564). This story was covered on episode 90 of my fortnightly Geek Chic’s Weird Science podcast available on iTunes, Acast, Libsyn and Podbay. I dig around on the internet on a daily basis for articles on the very latest breakthroughs in neuroscience research and, when I find something interesting, well-written and relevant, I post it on Twitter (@drjacklewis). Most excitingly of all, from the 12th July 2018, my new book – The Science of Sin: Why We Do The Things We Know We Shouldn’t – will be available in all good bookshops.

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  • Mystery of the G-Spot by Dr Jack Lewis

    In this month’s blog I’m going to take you on a whistle-stop tour of the female orgasm. Every woman is wired up slightly differently, so for the avoidance of doubt please remember that this article is just designed as a primer, merely to open people’s eyes to some sensory structures they might not be entirely aware of, and to showcase some of the additional variety of orgasmic options women have available to them compared to men, generally speaking. I don’t claim to be an expert on sex biology, just a keen amateur…

    The G-spot was named in honour of the gynaecologist Ernst Graefenberg M.D., who first proposed the presence of an “erotogenic zone” (an area of tissue that swells and evokes erotic sensations in response to touch) just inside the vagina alongside the urethra, in a paper published in 1950. Despite the testimony of thousands (millions?) of women that a particularly sensitive region of the vagina resides at this location, its existence is still contested in the medical literature. How can this be?

    About a decade ago, an academic paper was published claiming to have finally confirmed the existence of the fabled G-spot (on the basis of a post-mortem dissection of a 83 year old cadaver). The author was promptly pounced upon by colleagues with numerous objections. The dispute continues to bubble with medics and scientists continuing their debate over whether or not a distinct anatomical structure exists close to the opening of the vagina in its anterior wall (that is: the front-facing part).

    Stimulation of the clitoris – or the glans clitoral to be specific – nestling directly beneath a hood of tissue protecting this often extraordinarily sensitive sensory structure – is regarded to an effective way of stimulating the female genitalia in the pursuit of orgasm in many but not all women. Effective as this may be for many women in reaching climax efficiently, the orgasm that results tends to be highly localised to the immediate vicinity of the clitoris itself. Vaginal stimulation, on the other hand, can result in an orgasm that manifests itself throughout the entire body.

    Taking a closer look at the illustration above, the glans is clearly just the tip of the clitoral iceberg. It also extends to incorporate both the left and right crus clitoris (dark pink) and the bulb of the clitoral vestibule (light pink). Considering the close proximity of the bulb of the clitoral vestibule to the anterior (upper, in this diagram) wall of the vagina – it is clear to see why pressure upon this region (location of the highly contested G-spot) is thought by many experts in the field to actually mediate its effects via stimulation of the clitoral bulbs. The paraurethral glands (a.k.a. Skene’s glands or female prostate) are also unavoidably stimulated by this same pressure and from which an ejaculatory fluid may be expelled at climax in some women.

    Orgasms resulting from stimulation of the vagina tend to involve muscular tension that gradually builds up throughout the whole body, culminating in an intense euphoria and muscular convulsions that cause involuntary spasms in the limbs, torso and face at the moment of climax.

    Yet another different type of orgasm altogether can be elicited by stimulation of the cervix; the “neck” of the womb or uterus which lies at the far end of the vagina and has its very own system of nerve fibres carrying touch information to the brain. Touch information is relayed to the somatosensory cortex –  a strip of brain tissue dedicated to processing tactile sensation from all over the surface of the human body. Although the different brain areas dedicated to processing touch at the tongue/mouth/throat, face, hand, arm and trunk are located in a strip on the outer surface of the brain, those that receive tactile information at the leg, foot and toes are positioned on the part of this strip that spills over onto the inner surface of the brain where the two hemispheres face each other.

    Just below the area dedicated to processing tactile sensations in the toes are three separate but overlapping areas that produce the sense of touch at the clitoris, vagina and cervix.

    Stimulation of the clitoris is primarily carried to the brain via the pudendal nerve, vaginal stimulation mainly by the pelvic nerve and cervical stimulation mainly by the hypogastric, pelvic and vagus nerves. Simultaneous stimulation of the clitoris, vagina and cervix can result in a “blended” orgasm incorporating the various qualities of each.

    If you found this interesting and are interested in doing some further reading, I’d highly recommend the “Science of Orgasm” by Komisaruk, Beyer-Flores and Whipple.

    In addition to these monthly brain blogs, I also flag brain-related articles on Twitter.

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  • Muddy Shoes: Better That Way

    This time last year I wrote a blog about the brain benefits of regular exercise. I mentioned the idea that taking your exercise off-piste, i.e. avoiding any hard pavement or tarmac surfaces, is not just easier on the body (joints, ligaments, bones etc), but actually better for your brain. I’m going to expand on this theme here.

    If you’re jogging round the park and stick to the paths, you’re going to cross paths with many people also out exercising. Sticking to the grass, ideally by going right round the perimeter of your biggest nearby park, is likely to mean not having to come into close contact with other people who might be breathing Covid-19, flu or the common cold into the air you’re breathing. So there’s one good reason to exercise off the beaten track right there. You’ll be doing your civic duty in terms of reducing the spread of various diseases.

    By now you’re probably aware of the huge brain benefits of taking regular moderate to intense levels of cardiovascular exercise – in other words giving your heart / blood vessels plenty of work to do and getting out of breath to stretch those lung tissues. The better your heart functions, the more effectively it pumps blood to the brain. The better your lungs function, the more oxygen is added and waste gases removed as that blood passes through the brain.

    Exercise every other day and both these systems adapt to the high levels of activity so that, little-by-little, day-by-day, week-by-week, they slowly-but-surely become stronger and better coordinated when working together. That’s a reason to keep as active as possible because that way you’ll live longer and enjoy a better functioning brain. Exercise day. Rest day. Exercise day. Rest day. This kind of rhythm keeps brains happy. Not to mention the mood boosting impact of the adrenaline and endocannabinoids that are released into your bloodstream to help you keep going.

    Put exercise together with being outside and off-piste, THEN you have something even better: vestibular and cognitive training; to improve your kinaesthetic and information-handling intelligences, respectively. This is why I do a 6-10km run around Richmond Park at least once a month and have done for many years. It’s partly just the joy of being outdoors in all seasons. Usually I really feel the cold deep in my bones. I’m always the one wrapped up in more layers than anyone else; from autumn to spring. But when you’re out running you generate so much heat you always feel nice and toasty as you pick your way up hills, through woods, along the water’s edge and, in particular, after the killer climb towards the end.

    Note the puddles in the background on the right – a very slippery affair: Southwark Park 2021

    The fresh air clears out your lung holes, the exercise-triggered hormones make you feel high as a kite and the up-and-down bouncing motion even compacts all the food in your gut (helping whatever is in there to sit more comfortably; in my experience anyway). It’s almost as if our bodies were designed to do precisely that. Through millennia of careful natural selection, evolution expertly crafted our bodies and internal organs to have the capacity to run down much larger and stronger prehistorical animals. These animals were usually faster than us in a sprint, but jogging after them for hours and hours as a groups was thought to enable our ancestors to keep up until they ran out of puff making it easy to stick them with a spear. Jogging might seem a bit dull, but our bodies are very well adapted to it.

    When I say “vestibular training” – this isn’t a term you’ll find elsewhere. I use it to describe the type of workout that pushes the brain systems devoted to balance and coordination of body movements particularly hard. To picture what the vestibular system does it can be helpful to imagine yourself being thrown around on a roller-coaster. When your head (and body) fly though space on track weaving through space in three dimensions, a pair of special sensory structures inside the inner ear detect acceleration in the forwards <-> backwards and upwards <-> downwards directions. The sensory device that picks up acceleration in the upwards <-> downwards direction is called the saccule and for the forward <-> backward direction we have the utricle; both of which are a bit like a seed rattling around in a hair-lined pea pod inside your inner ear. They’re constantly broadcasting to the rest of the brain whether you are stationary or accelerating in one direction or another.

    The saccule and utricle get much more of a workout when running across open plains, meadows, hills, woods or even just muddy tracks. When there’s no path to follow, leaping across puddles and picking your way across a wooded inclines causes a lot of up and down movements as you dart around trying to make sure each footfall strikes a firm surface. When running on flat smooth surfaces, on the other hand, the information these sensory systems send to the rest of the brain is very basic, simple and straight-forward – too predictable to offer much of a challenge for the brain to integrate with the other sensory information. In other words, what I’m proposing is that our vestibular system thrives on being adventurous.

    Another part of the vestibular sensory system are the semi-circular canals (superior, posterior and lateral canals; see below). These three semi-circular fluid filled tubes are responsible for monitoring rotations of the head (and, by attachment) the body. These are the three types of rotation, each of them dealing with in terms of common head gestures: Nodding to say “yes” – that’s “pitch” rotation. Shaking your head to say “no” – that’s “yaw” rotation. (If you’re Greek, please reverse that ;-)) If you try to touch your ear to each shoulder in alternating fashion – that’s “roll” rotation. These semi-circular canals are also in the inner ear and broadcast any changes in the signal they detect to the rest of the brain too.

    The inner ear

    What does the brain do with all the info on acceleration and rotation (from saccule, utricle and semi-circular canals) as you pick your way around a puddle on the slippery canal tow path? One important role for it is as feedback on how well the brain is steering your movements. If you don’t find firm footing, and slip, the saccule / utricle will detect the unexpected changes in acceleration, and if your body has twisted in the slip this will be detected by the semi-circular canals, so the cerebellum (at the back of the head) has the information it needs to instruct various leg muscles to contract in the right order to catch our fall, in the blink of an eye. This is exceedingly good brain training. And you don’t get the same bang for your buck if you’re just doing laps of the local athletics track.

    Cerebellum (in red) hanging off the back and underside of the cortex

    This approach is not without its jeopardy. Rolled or sprained ankles can happen if you lose concentration and take you’re eye off the uneven terrain. But take it slow and easy on the more treacherous stretches and you can get away with it; even in middle age. And then there are the added challenges posed by man’s best friend.

    In any London park (and I’m sure it’s the same all over the UK) every time you step from tarmac to grass you run the risk of stepping in dog shit. Unpleasant yes, but every cloud has a silver lining. I’ve found it’s possible to harness the power of disgust to push yourself harder in terms of increasing focus and concentration. Recall how disgusting it is to realise you’ve stepped on a turd by getting a whiff of that foul stench and feelings of repulsion that come with the knowledge that you’re now bringing it with you, can be used as an incentive to become a full-on dog poo ninja.

    It may sound ridiculous, but constantly keeping a keen eye on precisely where you put each foot fall is really taxing on a variety of sensorimotor and cognitive abilities. In other words, not only do you get really good at dodging the doo doo, but you end up with abilities that are helpful in everyday life even when you’re not exercising. The kind of far transfer I’m talking about stems from the fact that doo doo dodging requires a high level of vigilance, stretching the brain pathways of attentional control to their limit, placing greater time pressure on the brain to think quickly the faster you go. You have to be ready to change direction and veer off from your chosen foothold at the drop of a hat. The concept of poo dodging might not be pleasant, but I’m convinced it speeds up your reaction times, improves your running gait and ultimately leads to a more nimble running style.

    Running on the flat encourages a very uniform gait. It becomes a matter of developing muscle density, stride cadence and boring things like that. Running on all terrains requires you to develop the brain capacities of a mountain goat: sure-footed even on uneven slopes scattered with slippery scree. The brain has to work out how to deal with all sorts of unexpected obstacles that you often don’t notice until you are right on top of them: branches to hop over, tree trunks to swerve around, streams to fjord, fern-filled valleys to scramble up and down. A richer, undulating terrain provides a greater challenge for the various brain regions receiving the vestibular sensory information to sink its proverbial teeth into.

    And then there’s the evidence – outlined in a previous blog – indicating that being outside in mother nature doing any kind of recreational activity for 2-5 hours per week has a demonstrable impact on happiness and well-being. What are you waiting for? Slip on that thermal underwear, a tracksuit and a pair of old trainers you don’t mind running through puddles in and get out there!

    In addition to these monthly brain blogs I also tweet the occasional bit of excellent brain science that I stumble on via Twitter (@drjacklewis).

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  • 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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  • BOOK REVIEWS 2020

    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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