• 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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  • My New Scientist Online Talk on 30th July 2020 at 6pm BST

    To celebrate the launch of The Science of Sin in paperback format, NEW SCIENTIST have invited me to give an online talk, this Thurs 30th July 2020 at 6pm (British Summer Time).

    Online talk for New Scientist at 6pm (BST) on Thurs 30th July 2020

    The subject matter I discovered during the writing of my first solo book has now had plenty of time to ferment into what I strongly believe is an incredibly important message to us all: many of the types of anti-social behaviour characterised in the past by the 7 deadly sins stems from poorly managed inner turmoil.

    I outline what brought me to this conclusion in a 40 min talk followed by a 20 minute Q&A at the end. So, wherever you are in the world, please consider buying a ticket. It will not only give you access to the talk for a full week, but will also help to support a truly important source of high quality science journalism.

    I’ve been reading New Scientist since I was a child and its capacity to constantly scour the countless science papers that are printed in the academic literature every day in search of insights into how the universe works and what makes creatures like us tick never ceases to amaze me.

    In a world that is becoming increasingly saturated in made-up nonsense many people find themselves more confused than ever.

    New Scientist continues to translate complex science into plain English (without giving into the lazy temptation of dumbing it down to the point where it loses its import) and as such provides an invaluable source of information to scientists and non-scientists alike.

    Please do consider picking up a ticket and I’ll look forward to answering your questions on Thursday!

    In addition to these monthly blogs I tweet daily (@drjacklewis) and am in the process of reviewing a different Virtual Reality game or experience on YouTube every single week for a full year (BrainManVR).

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  • Thou Shalt Adapt (To The “New Normal”)

    As the reality that everything is not going to go completely back to normal is sinking in, many people are starting to worry about what life is going to have in store for us when finally reach the so-called “new normal.” The good news, that at least keeps me buoyant when the future starts to look gloomy, is that the human brain has an incredible capacity to adapt to new circumstances. So whatever happens, it’s important to be calm, adopt new habits that help us to adjust to the changes and then try to stay positive.

    Home Office – rarely this tidy

    Many adults are finding themselves staying at home to work, which results inevitably in something of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, many are benefiting from up to ten more hours in bed per week than usual – thanks to the abolition of the commute. On the other hand, the close proximity of the fridge to the workplace leads to overindulgence and the expanding waist-line that results from this.

    In the early weeks of lockdown, the guidance that you could only go outside for absolutely essential activities or to take exercise inspired millions to get outside into uncharacteristic spring blue skies to get fit. Some actually did the full on work-out they would usually have done at the gym. Others simply laid down on yoga mats and stretched, book in hand, for hour upon hour. Now that it has become permissible to go outside without exercising, many who found themselves getting fitter not fatter in early lockdown have reversed the trend as the unlock starts to let us out under less stringent conditions. Where did all those people who were frantically exercising outside every single day in March go?

    Home Schooling – rarely this harmonious

    Most kids are not going into schools, which is not great for the kids, because it robs them of much needed social contact with their peers. It’s also not so great for many parents, because most don’t make good substitute teachers and having kids hanging around in the house all day makes getting a proper day’s work done even more of a struggle than usual.

    For those living in houseshares, the typical disharmonies caused by annoying housemates either making anti-social levels of noise in their bedrooms or simply leaving communal areas in a mess, become even harder to bear than normal. And for those, like me, who live and work alone, there’s a battle to be waged against social isolation. While some have it worse than others (and let’s spare a thought in particular for those suffering domestic abuse with yet more time stuck with their abusers) Covid-19 has caused some degree of chaos in all our lives.

    Much more static than in the early weeks of lockdown

    With the news banging on an on about the unprecedented “this” and the unprecedented “that” you’d be forgiven for thinking that something like this has never happened before; that we’re sailing in entirely uncharted waters. Yet Covid-19 aka SARS-2 is of course the second version of a new wave of viruses that cause the medical condition known as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. So while we’re still getting to know the characteristics of this particular one, we have some experience to draw on with a similar biological agent and humanity as a whole has been dealing with these kinds of threats for aeons. Yes – there are more humans on Earth than ever before and, until very recently, we’ve been flying all over the world at the drop of a hat spreading diseases faster and wider than was previously possible, but coping with infectious diseases on a vast scale is nothing new for humanity.

    Humans have always had to face major obstacles, often much harder and more dauntingly insurmountable ones than those we currently face. Our ancestors were engaged in a perpetual struggle for survival, staring death in the face on a daily basis, adapting their ways in an effort to diminish the disruption to their normal daily activities. Famine, pestilence and war, to name but three, have threatened humans for as long as we have roamed the planet. Yet the generations born from around the 1960’s until now have long acted as if they imagined that we were somehow immune to all these threats? That we had somehow raised ourselves beyond the reach of the catastrophes that have routinely blighted the lives of our ancestors? We’ve all had a bit of wake up call, but will it inspire us to be any less complacent, hubristic and entitled? Only time will tell…

    Science – we’re good at it, but we’re still at the mercy of mother nature to some degree

    The notion that we humans got so good at wielding science and technology that we, in the developed world at least, no longer had anything to fear from mother nature is utterly ridiculous. Yet, at the same time, it is entirely understandable. After all, intuitions derived from personal experience are the primary guiding light of most people’s world view. If the collective experience of a person’s social circles featured little in the way of deep personal suffering, then what reason would they have for suspecting that everything might NOT continue in that vain.

    The testimonies of older generations who personally experienced long term suffering in their lifetimes, and on a grand scale, certainly serve to remind the luckier later generations of how fragile the peace of the past handful of decades might be. Yet exposure to such personal anecdotes dwindle on an annual basis, as their numbers inevitably decline. While such important antidotes to hubris can also be conveyed by powerful films, books and documentaries, they lack the personal touch. Compared to the emotional impact of a dearly beloved grandparent’s own personal testimony of the hardships and horrors of war, reminders from the media pale in comparison.

    Icarus – beware hubris

    Like pampered princes and princesses, the majority of those enjoying the unprecedented comfort and safety of a childhood spanning the late 20th or early 21st centuries in western Europe had never really experienced the kind of suffering considered more or less inevitable by previous generations. Yes, everyone knows what it is to feel pain, or rejection, or disappointment, or guilt, but many previous generations suffered much more deeply and in a prolonged, rather than merely fleeting, fashion. With most people, on average, having had it easy compared to previous generations – we dared to imagine that, beyond the inevitable unlucky few struck down by disease or family catastrophe, we could use science and civilisation to keep the worst hardships of humanity at bay.

    While it might have come as a shock that a disease could cause such huge disruption to our normal lifestyles, we can take heart from the fact that our brains are, and always have been, built to adapt. Even in adulthood, we can physically change the connectivity between different areas of our brain to slowly but surely improve our abilities and develop a new repertoire of skills that might help us to adapt to the various changes forced on us by the callous hand of fate. By adapting our daily habits to bolster certain capabilities we can develop whatever cognitive capacities might help us to thrive in new environments, or indeed the same old environment we’ve always been immersed in, but where the goalposts have since been moved.

    Covid-19 is SARS-2, above is some data relating to the SARS-1 outbreak

    Given that SARS-2 is likely to come in waves, until everyone’s rolled the dice to find out whether it’s going to hit them mercilessly hard, or mercifully gently, we might as well start accepting now that everything is not going to go completely back to normal. Some people will find this more difficult to accept than others. Just to twist the dagger of reality yet further into the heart of denial: even after SARS-2 has run its course, it’s just a matter of time before SARS-3, SARS-4 and SARS-5 come along. So humanity will inevitably find itself spacing out a lot more in general, if it wants to avoid meeting the same fate at the rabbit population of the UK during the myxomatosis pandemic of the late 20th century. Given all of this, and buoyed by the fact that humans have been adapting to such chaos for hundreds of thousands of years, there is no time to waste. The time to start adopting some habits that will allow our brains to more quickly adapt to the new rules of the game is now.

    As well as these monthly brain articles, I also tweet about interesting neuroscience articles (@drjacklewis) and am in the process of reviewing a different virtual reality game or experience every week for a year on my YouTube channel (BrainManVR).

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  • The Science of Sin in VR

    I’ve travelled the length and breadth of the country giving my Science of Sin talk over the past couple of years but sadly, it seems, those days are over.

    I realised that my love affair with virtual reality positions me extremely well to simply switch my usual science communication activities over to the virtual so here are the fruits of one of my first few experiments: performing The Science of Sin in front of a live global audience of 3 people!

    (One audience member in Canada, one in Europe and one in South Korea)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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  • 2-5 Hours in Nature each Week Improves Brain Health

    On the basis of an analysis of nearly 20,000 people’s feedback, a recent paper concluded that just two hours of outdoor recreation per week is sufficient to yield a significant improvement in health or well-being, compared to people who get no recreation time in green spaces at all. In fact, the more time people spent engaged in outdoor recreational activities, the more happy or healthy they reported to be; an effect that peaks somewhere between 200-300 mins of weekly exposure to mother nature.

    Many previous papers have reached similar conclusions. A meta-analysis of 21 studies suggested that a person’s chances of developing a mood disorder were increased by 28% if they lived in urban as opposed to rural areas, where nature is more easily accessed. There are of course other possible explanations for urban dwellers being more likely to encounter mental health issues than rural ones. Perhaps humans are just more vulnerable to such disorders in a densely as opposed to sparsely populate environment? Or is it really something to do with the presence of trees in the environment?

    This possibility has been addressed by studies using high-resolution satellite imagery to plot tree density against various measures of well being in a huge sprawling urban area in Toronto, Canada. One such study (by Kardan et al, 2015) concluded that people who lived in an area with a higher density of trees in their neighbourhood had a significantly higher perceived health level and a lower incidence of cardio-vascular conditions.

    This complements the earlier study mentioned above that compared the mental health outcomes of people who moved from more green to less green urban areas and vice versa. Alcock and colleagues analysed 5 consecutive years worth of data from 1,084 British households, finding that those who moved from less green to more green urban areas enjoyed fewer mental health complications over the following three years.

    In a previous blog I described the classic study of patients who were recovering from a straightforward hernia operation in adjacent rooms, one that had a view of a brick wall and one that had a view of a small patch of grass with a tree growing in it. The patients who ended up in the room with the view of the tree recovered faster (as evidenced by the number of days they stayed in hospital post-surgery) and even required lower doses of analgesic medication to help them cope with the pain. Other studies have gone on to suggest that just being able to look out the window to catch sight of a slice of mother nature reduces aggression and criminal activity.

    So what is is about plants and trees that seems to have such a profound impact on how we feel? Hartig et al (2016) suggest that viewing a natural scene helps us to put things in perspective, to create a healthy psychological distance between the day-to-day grind by actively engaging our attention in features of the natural landscape. This can help us to repeatedly gain the positive and reinforcing experience of feeling our mood lift and stress subside, both of which naturally occur when we turn our back on the hectic urban world and engage with the more relaxed pace typical of open green spaces. Beyond these important factors, trees also improve air quality and aesthetic appearance of an environment.

    Across many studies, having access to green spaces has been shown to promote mental health, reduce accidental death and even mitigate against the negative impact of economic struggles on various health measure. It also reduces blood pressure and stress by promoting physical activity and reducing sedentary leisure time.

    Even before I read all about this body of research attesting to the physical and mental health benefits of spending leisure time in natural settings, my behaviour over the last few years suggests that I knew this innately. Since I moved into my flat a few years back I’ve spent countless hours watching our neighbourhood sparrows, blackbirds, blue tits, goldfinches, crows and wood pigeons flitting around the communal gardens (see above) that I can see from my balcony. When I taking breaks from researching and writing books and blogs while surveying this green scene, I can feel the stress drain out of my body. Then when I get back to work, I feel significantly better able to crack on after the ten to fifteen minutes spent watching the natural world do its thing; an observation supported by research indicating that attention and memory resources get a boost from even a brief exposure to nature.

    Beyond engaging with mother nature as a spectator, one of my favourite recreational past-times is to go running around Richmond Park with my mate Nathan. We’ve been doing it once a month for the past eight years. We talk almost non-stop during these 10km runs, mostly about nonsense just to reduce our perceived exertion (i.e. to distract ourselves from the bodily discomforts of keeping up a brisk jog for a solid hour), but we also regularly find ourselves commenting on how life just seems much better, easier, less daunting when you get outside, running cross-country through woods, fields of fern and grassy plains studded with herds of deer. It seems that the academic research data supports these views and backs the idea that communities benefit hugely from improved access to green spaces.

    In addition to these monthly brain blogs, I regularly tweet about the latest neuroscience research to hit the lay press and review a virtual reality game or experience every week on my YouTube channel Brain Man VR.

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  • Dr Jack Lewis – Motivational Speaking Update

    DrJackLewisKeynoteSpeakerI’ve been on the motivational speaking circuit for over 10 years now. And throughout that period I’ve noticed that the demand for talks that explain how our brains work and how we can get more out of them only increases!

    During the first 5 years the demand came mainly from the British mainland. I travelled the length and breadth of the country to speak at schools, science festivals and businesses. But since then I’ve been invited to speak all over central Europe, western Europe and the USA.

    Talks in educational institutions used to be primarily aimed at students, helping them to understand how best to get their brains into gear as they prepared for examinations. Yet in more recent times this work has extended into promoting a brain-focused approach to improving well-being at all levels of education. In particular I’ve found it particularly rewarding to help teachers, lecturers and other support staff to understand what they can do, in practical terms, to help students develop greater resilience (i.e. to cope with stress without it spilling over into mental health issues).

    Over the first few years, the keynote talks I gave across various industries tended to be focused on increasing productivity at all levels of the business by sharing practical tips (backed by scientific evidence) regarding everything the human brain needs to function at an optimal level. Increasingly these brain optimisation tips (or BOPs) are just used at the beginning and end of each talk, with the main, middle segment focused on a more specialist subject matter developed for the particular audience in question.

    While the neuroscience of decision making and science of creativity have been two firm favourites for a decade, clients have increasingly been requesting talks on bespoke subject matters. For example, last year the National Trust asked me to do a talk about unconscious bias and empathy, THRIVE asked me to cover the neuroscience of meditation and run some mindfulness workshops, while Siemens and a couple of other major engineering firms working on huge infrastructure projects asked me to deliver the neuroscience of decision making talk with a specific focus on matters relevant to health and safety.

    One utilities company in the north-west of England whose Health and Safety record is very nearly perfect even commissioned me to do some research on strategies that might help them promote better mental health throughout their organisation.

    There is a huge amount of insight that neuroscience can provide on a wide variety of topics. It’s always satisfying to find that, in tailoring my talks to the specific needs of a client, I’m constantly stumbling upon new areas of neuroscience and psychology with which I wasn’t previously familiar. No matter what the organisation’s priorities have been in terms of what they want their staff to take away from my talk, a few days of digging around in the neuroscience literature ALWAYS yields some inspiration; shedding an interesting new perspective on virtually any topic.

    Another interesting development has been that content from The Science of Sin – a book I wrote in 2018 that looked at modern neuroscience and psychological studies relevant to the concept of the seven deadly sins – has proven to be very useful in talks focused on improving well-being. Warner Brothers asked me to do a talk as a part of their well-being week and my whistle-stop tour of why our brains make us do the things we know we shouldn’t, stimulated a fantastic debate that extended well beyond the 10 mins of Q&A. It seems that everyone struggles to control one temptation or other (humans always have) and grasping the role of psychological pain in bringing out our worst behaviours was deemed as illuminating as understanding the techniques that can help to successfully reduce it in order to improve our self-discipline was deemed useful!

    Here’s a list of some of the most popular, “classic” talks that I’m asked to return to again and again.

    Talks For Business: Neuroscience of Decision Making

    In the last few of years I’ve been working more and more with senior management teams across Europe to help them understand insights from neuroscience that are relevant to their specific business needs. For example, I helped one of Europe’s “Big Four” auditors win a highly lucrative new business contract by sharing with them my Neuroscience of Decision Making talk in the context of reverse engineering the pitch process in light of the flaws in how the human brain evaluates information when making important choices. By exploiting a large corpus of knowledge generated over the past decade or so from neuroeconomic investigations the realities of how risk, uncertainty and benefit are evaluated in the human brain can be explored in order to concoct strategies that improve the likelihood of developing a successful pitch.

    Talks for Business: Neuroscience of Creativity

    Since the first outing of my Neuroscience of Creativity talk in 2013 it has evolved into a half-day workshop experience. I’ve been rolling this Innovation Workshop out over the course of 2015 with various members of the Senior Leadership Team at one of the world’s biggest broadcasters by sharing with them everything that science has to offer in terms of techniques that work and those that sound good but ultimately don’t. By assisting them to create an environment that genuinely promotes innovative thinking right at the very top of the organisation and convincing them of the worth of approaches in an evidence-based fashion, the idea is to reduce resistance to some of the seemingly unorthodox strategies in order that they might be allowed to permeate freely throughout the rest of the company.

    Sort Your Brain Out

    Sadly many people proclaim that their busy lives simply leave no time to read books. Adrian Webster and I have turned our best-selling book Sort Your Brain Out into a live event. Since our first booking late last year we have been enjoying a steady increase in demand for our motivational speaking duet over the past few months and very much hope that this trend continues in the years to come. We are both represented by Gordon Poole Agency and our speaking agent James Poole is always on hand to discuss booking enquiries.

    Talks for Schools

    Over the years I’ve been invited to speak at many schools across the UK. The aim is usually to engage young learners, usually in the build up to their big exams, with an upbeat neuroscience narrative that brings to life what exactly is going on inside their brains as they learn. Once students grasp that all their efforts are leading directly to huge changes in the wiring of their brains, how memory works and adaptations that brains undertake to support new skills acquisition, motivation levels invariably rise.

    I give them insights into straight-forward techniques to get brains working better: whether memorising information more thoroughly, managing exam stress more effectively and simply encouraging them to see school as the only viable way (currently) of sculpting young brains in preparation for dealing with whatever adult life might throw at them.

    If you’d like me to do a talk for you, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

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  • Exercise Cleverer

    All forms of exercise do not yield equivalent benefits. While brains do profit from taking any kind of exercise on a regular basis, getting your heart rate up to triple digits is not enough, on its own, to get the full spectrum of possible brain benefits. To gain the greatest neural benefit from aerobic exercise, running cross country is better than plodding along on a treadmill, pounding a cross trainer or even hitting the track. And it’s not just that our brains benefit from spending plenty of time each week in the great outdoors. Exercising at the athletics track shares with gym based exercise the absence of another important factor that would otherwise yield an additional cognitive benefit: having to choose stable footing on an uneven terrain at a glance. Running on uneven surfaces, i.e. natural terrains not man-made ones, can supercharges the brain benefits of a workout.

    For some years now we’ve known that mice and rats that exercise regularly create more new neurons in the part of the brain important for navigation and memories than those who don’t. This increase in hippocampal neurogenesis is entirely logical if you think about it. A mouse who exercises more is likely to cover more ground and so have a larger territory to neurally map in order to later remember where the food is (F), where the dangers are (D) and how to navigate from A to F avoiding D.

    However humans are not mice. For one thing we stand up on two legs rather than four, and so locomotion is a tougher computational challenge which requires a handful of brain modifications to support it. Furthermore our methods of acquiring enough food for everyone to eat is more cognitively demanding. Our ancestors had to make up for their relative lack of speed and agility by tracking their prey across many tens of kilometres if they wanted to get their hands on the larger quarry that promised to provide many weeks worth of food for the homestead. This meant that they had to become masters of multitasking.

    Walking on two legs is more cognitively demanding than
    walking on four legs. If you trip on a branch with four legs, you’ve got three
    others to catch you before you fall. If you trip on a branch with two legs,
    you’ve got fewer options available to stay upright. Accelerate from walking to
    running and the computational problem of staying upright after a trip, rather
    than potentially smashing your skull on a rock, is much harder still; there’s
    simply much less time available to move a limb in time to break your fall. Add
    into the mix the need to process the visual world at great speed to choose a
    stable footing while traversing an uneven terrain, scanning for obstacles in
    the near distance, monitoring dangers in the immediate periphery AND verbally
    communicating with other members of the party, and the challenge of staying
    upright becomes even harder still.

    And that’s why I do a 10km cross-country run at least once a month with my old mate Nathan Flutebox Lee…

    In addition to these monthly blogs I tweet interesting, accessible articles about neuroscience research on a daily basis (@drjacklewis) and post a new virtual reality review every week (http://bit.ly/BrainManVR)

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  • Drumming Up Some Neuroplasticity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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  • Slight Hearing Loss Means Cognitive Impairment

    My best mate’s dad is stubborn to say the least. Two heart attacks didn’t convince him it was time to stop smoking. And when his hearing started to go he refused to wear a hearing aid. That was 10 years ago. Today this has progressed to the stage of being really hard of hearing. He’s a quiet man by nature, usually on the edge of a discussion rather than at the centre of the debate, but his comments were always incisive and insightful when he chose to contribute. With four kids and five grandkids there were always plenty of other voices clamouring for centre stage, so he was happy just to listen in from the fringes.

    Over the past decade, when I accompany them on their annual family holiday, I’ve noticed that his contributions to the conversations were becoming less frequent. At first I just thought he was becoming more melancholy in his post-retirement years, but then in the last few years it became apparent that he simply couldn’t hear what people were saying, whether they were speaking to him or each other.

    Well into his seventies now he still manages all the accounts for the family business and had mentioned once or twice over the years, when I drop in to say hi on Christmas Day, that simple invoicing jobs were taking him much longer than usual. Straight-forward office management chores were taking all day rather then just being a few hours work in the morning or afternoon.

    He puts it down to the inexorable processes of ageing, which seemed perfectly reasonable. But research published this month in JAMA Otolaryngology makes me question this assumption. I now suspect that his dogged resistance to getting hearing aids may have done him a disservice. When it comes to the important task of holding onto your marbles in your 50’s and beyond, pouncing immediately on hearing loss is vital. Eliminating hearing loss not only fights against age-related cognitive impairment, the latest estimates indicate that it could even lead to a reduction of 9% in the diagnosis of new cases of dementia.

    It turns out that just a small decline in hearing ability predicts a fairly alarming drop in cognitive power and even more so for every additional 10dB reduction in hearing. Bearing in mind the concept of neuroplasticity, when mild hearing loss leaves a person unable to catch everything that is being said, less information will end up being pushed through the areas of the brain that extract meaning from and mull over the words that have been uttered. The less information that is pushed though any given brain network, the less the brain will selectively reinforce those pathways.

    The study under consideration here was published by Justin Golub and colleagues at Columbia University in New York City who evaluated the level of hearing loss and cognitive abilities of over 6,000 people in their fifties and upward. It provides strong evidence that the hearing impairment-related cognitive decline occurs with a drop of just 10 dB from the level considered to be perfect hearing.

    As someone that spent the early part of his teenage years standing too close to the speakers at gigs and raves, I’ve know for a long time that the hearing in my left ear is not as good as my right. For the time being this isn’t a major problem because I rarely find myself unable to hear what people are saying. When it does happen, usually only in very noisy environments, I simply switch sides. But I never miss out completely on what is being said to me. I remain deeply involved (some would say too much) in any conversation.

    Thanks to Golub and colleagues, over the next few decades I’ll be paying extra close attention to any deterioration to the hearing in my right ear to ensure I maintain my cognitive capabilities for as long as possible. Who knows, thanks to these insights I might even dodge dementia. As I described in my last book The Science Of Sin – it’s vitally important to our physical and mental health to stay socially connected to other people in our communities. Anti-social behaviour is one thing that can leave people socially isolated, but even mild hearing loss can distance people from the cognitively nourishing impact of interaction with other people. In the words of Golub himself:

    people with hearing loss believe they can go about their lives just fine
    without treatment, and maybe some can. But hearing loss is not benign. It has
    been linked to social isolation, depression, cognitive decline, and dementia.
    Hearing loss should be treated. This study suggests the earlier, the better.”

    In addition to these monthly blogs I regularly tweet about the latest fascinating titbits of neuroscience research I find in the lay press (@drjacklewis) and now have a YouTube channel called Brain Man VR where I review Virtual Reality games and experiences every week. Currently there are 9 to choose from, but as a new episode is released every Tuesday, there’ll be more than that by now…

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