• 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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  • Top 50 VR Games on Vive

    As you’ve probably gathered by now I spent a year reviewing VR games.

    I’ve started putting together Top 10 puzzle games, Top 10 flying games, Top 10 immersive storytelling etc etc but for the time being I thought I’d just share with you my Top 50.

    The scoring system takes into account 8 factors that I believe are vital to consider when evaluating a virtual reality experience. These are:

    • Awe (Score out of 7) “That was magical”
    • Comfort (Score out of -7) “I was perfectly comfortable throughout”
    • Agility (Score out of 7) “The game made me move my whole body”
    • Purpose (Score out of 7) “The experience felt meaningful throughout”
    • Elation (5 points, all or nothing) “At times I felt genuinely elated”
    • Love (5 points, all or nothing) “I just love that game, soft spot for it”
    • Aggravation (Score of -5) “Something really annoyed me…”
    • Sensory Experience (3+3+3, V+A+H) “It was aesthetically beautiful”

    Most of the above factors are perfectly self-explanatory but the “Sensory Experience” category might require a bit of unpacking. V stands for “visual”. A stands for “auditory”. H stands for “haptics”. In virtual reality experiences the overall aesthetic is predominantly influenced by these three sensory systems and so the look, sound and feel each get up to three points, totting up to an overall aesthetic rating of 9. So the max score overall, across all rating factors is 40.

    I’m not publishing the scores just yet, for the time being I’m just going to share the ranking. I’d really like to hear your opinions, but please don’t leave a comment here. If you strongly agree or disagree with the ranking of any of these games please search for them on YouTube “Brain Man VR NAME OF GAME” and leave your comments there. That will really help me to keep track of your feedback. Below the Top 50 list is some footage of the reviews of a handful of games that made it to the Top 10.

    My Top 50 VR Games on the VIVE

    Rank 1: Nobody quite does time like SUPERHOT – so they take first place because, quite frankly, who doesn’t want to feel like Neo from The Matrix?!

    Rank 2: A FISHERMAN’s TALE is an aesthetic tour de force, convincing story line, wonderful voice acting, ingenious scale play, genuinely taxing to solve.

    Rank 4: Beat Sabre is an oldie but a goodie. Nothing quite like it for casting off stress, getting your adrenaline going and moving your body to the beats.

    Rank 6: Curious Tale of the Stolen Pets. Another game that might raise eyebrows for inclusion in a top 10. For one thing it seems like a kid’s game. But don’t be deceived by its outward appearances. It’s devilishly tricky to complete, yet the exquisite aesthetics exude an aura of calm and delight.

    Rank 9: Angry Birds might seem like yet another odd choice for the Top 10, but there’s no more reliable game to delight guests – both young and old – who’ve little experience of Virtual Reality. It requires very little explanation. When people find a catapult in one hand and a projectile (a cute but angry little bird) in the other, they instinctively know what to do, whether 7 or 70. And no stone has been left unturned in ensuring it looks and sounds great.

    In addition to these monthly blogs, I also regularly tweet about the latest neuroscience research (@drjacklewis) and build Virtual Reality worlds that improve cognitive abilities.

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  • 1 year later: 52 episodes of VR Reviews on YouTube

    A year ago I set myself a challenge.

    Film, edit and upload one episode of Brain Man VR Reviews per week.

    I chose to do this because I think VR has the potential to change our lives in a positive way, if only we can use it wisely.

    I wanted to track how my brain adjusted to the demands and opportunities presented by lots of different types of VR experience.

    What better way to achieve that than film myself exploring VR worlds over the course of several years!

    75% of episodes in this first series have reviewed games played in virtual reality. Tasks like moving objects, exploring rooms, solve puzzles, moving to the beat of a tune, hitting targets, flying through space, racing skydivers over mountaintops, creating inventions and so on..

    But 25% are reviews of VR “experiences” – where you are inside the story, with actors, animated characters and dancers physically in the space with you, each scene appearing at a different compass heading as the narrative unfolds.

    It has been a brilliant journey. I have learned so much about VR. And so I wanted to share some of my favourite episodes with you here.

    Over the next few months I’ll be sharing my top picks from the series.

    Starting with the last ever episode of Brain Man VR Reviews in which I handed the reins over to a couple of brainy friends who set out to tackle: Keep Talking And Nobody Explodes

    One of my favourite TV series of the last couple of years is called Britannia. It tells the story, with huge creative latitude, of the Roman invasion of Britain. When I heard that one of London’s finest VR companies, with a reputation for producing not just outrageously high definition virtual reality environments, but also dropping real actors into your midst while in VR, I just had to review this one… BRITANNIA VR

    When I watch movies set in space, or see astronauts on the International Space Station on the news, I often wonder what it’s like to float around in a gravity-free environment. I’ve always been particularly envious of those rich enough to do the NASA experience where a jumbo jet flies in a way that recreates zero gravity, if only for a few minutes.

    This envy evaporated immediately when I realised I could do it in VR. Better still, with thrusters in your wrists, START SHELTER enables you to zip through space to raid nearby space junk for the raw materials you need to survive. You bring these salvaged resources back to the lab – in your very own miniature space station – to build equipment to prepare food, repair asteroid impact holes in your spacecraft and get various jobs done. I’m always on the look out for VR experiences that have the potential to provide a convincing illusion of being able to get away from the stresses of everyday life for a while. This one fits that bill very well…

    Some VR experiences are like watching a film but better, because you are actually inside the film and the action appears all around you. Being fully 360-degree immersed in a story is incredibly exciting but sometimes its frustrating to just be a passenger; watching and listening to what happens around you, but not able to actually do anything.

    Other VR titles, as mentioned above, are pure games. There’s not much in the way of a coherent storyline to follow, but plenty of things you can do to earn points, hit targets, crack puzzles etc.

    A more ambitious set of VR creations try to fuse the two together. They have you solving puzzles while fully immersed in a compelling storyline. In the case of PROZE you are in a Soviet laboratory, hacking into computers, tuning satellite frequencies and connecting cables. If you manage to complete the first set of challenges, the story suddenly takes over and you are whisked away in to a mesmerising adventure of suspicion and intrigue. (NB this was filmed after several failed attempts!)

    By now, artists have been beavering away in VR for decades. Finally they have a place to exhibit their 3D, interactive, scale-defying works of art. It’s called the MUSEUM OF OTHER REALITIES

    Substances like psilocybin (in the juice from magic mushrooms) and LSD (created in a lab) have been studied for their medicinal properties for years. Recent neuropsychopharmacological investigations have shown that pscilocybin in particular has great promise for treating major depression. Wouldn’t it be great if you could trigger a similar psychedelic experience using just light and sound?! That was the aim that the creator of SOUND SELF had in mind, when he coded it to respond to sounds made by the person wearing the VR headset by changing the trippy visuals seen through the goggles and playing back some, but not all, of the sounds you make at a later point in time. It’s like an audio looper on steroids and is probably the best, most engrossing, run and rewarding way of doing mindful meditation that I’ve ever experienced.

    Next month, I’ll be recommending some more top virtual reality experiences so WATCH THIS SPACE.

    In addition to these monthly blogs I also tweet about the latest neuroscience research to breakthrough into the lay media on a regular basis (@drjacklewis).

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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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