Here in the UK, we finally seem to be emerging from our pandemic-enforced cocoons. Slowly but surely people seem to be getting back in the habit of venturing out into the outside world again. Some are even daring to look to the future with greater optimism. So what better time for the 2nd edition of Sort Your Brain Out #SYBO2) to be released into the wild?!
The National Health Service has cottoned onto the change in the mood of the nation by launching a Better Health campaign, aiming to help us shed the extra pounds made almost inevitable by our relatively sedentary lockdown lifestyles. For many of us, being actively encouraged to stay indoors (and thereby perpetually in close proximity to the fridge) led to both an increase in calorie consumption and a reduction in calorie burning.
That said, it’s not just our bodies that need freshening up. Many of us have ended up feeling like our brains have got a bit stodgy after all this staying in and that’s got nothing to do with the Long Covid that has blighted many people’s lives of late. What I’m referring to is the impact of all that binging on box-sets, engaging little with cherished hobbies and sporting activities that take place out side of the house, not to mention the limited social contact that the habits of social distancing have actively encouraged.
The impact of having less social, physical and cognitive stimulation over the past year and a half, than ever before, are bigger than you might ever have imagined. Many people have found themselves inexplicably tired, listless and harbouring a brain that needs reinvigorating. In short, most of us have got into some bad habits and there is a need to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and get our brains in gear. In other words, we all need to reboot our brains. By dint of good fortune, next month sees the launch of the second edition of Sort Your Brain Out – on the 2nd September to be precise – and promises to tell you everything you need to know to do just that.
The first edition launched back in 2014 and quickly became a best-seller, much to the happy surprise of co-author Adrian Webster (aka @polarbearpirate) and I. In fact, it spent many months in the top ten of the WHSmith travel outlets’ non-fiction chart. Ever since, more and more fresh, novel, neuroscience research insights have hit the academic press and so an update was long overdue. It wasn’t until the pandemic came along and changed everything that the precious time to write a second edition finally made itself available. Every cloud…
The 2nd edition of Sort Your Brain Out (#SYBO2) contains even more easy-to-grasp principles of brain optimisation for us all to consider applying to our everyday lives. As ever these are based on the latest insights from the worlds of neuroscience, psychology, medicine, sports and nutrition science.
All the original chapters have been updated with the new insights into how we can better look after our brains that have emerged over the past 7 years. And there was enough brand new material for three new chapters as well. This means more invaluable tactics and strategies than ever before aimed at helping all of us to reboot our grey (and white) matter as we emerge back into normality. Below I outline some of the insights from the new chapters as sneak preview about what you would have in store if you chose to get a copy.
GET YOURSELF CONNECTED
One of the new chapters is called: Get Yourself Connected. It explains why, as one of the most social species on the planet, having regular social contact with people outside of our household is extremely important for both our physical and mental health. Since 1988 medical data has been available to demonstrate that those of us who feel socially isolated live shorter and unhappier lives. Flip this insight and it suddenly looks less bleak, perhaps even inspirational: those who feel socially connected live longer and happier lives. This chapter explains why this is and simple strategies to grow your network of meaningful social connections for a longer and happier life.
To be of the opinion that friendships are nice to have, but not essential is a load of old nonsense. Sadly this attitude is quite common and means that, all too often, people find themselves drifting apart from childhood friends. Life gets so busy with work and family that many simply don’t find time to actively forge new friendships. From the perspective of optimising brain health this is a perilous trap to fall into.
Friends aren’t just nice to have, they are vital for our overall well-being. And while social interactions can admittedly be a bit of a minefield, a basic understanding of what causes brains to reliably release neurohormones involved in social bonding and how brains respond to being suffused with such chemical agents can help to explain why friends have such a significant impact on how we feel and behave.
The Get Yourself Connected chapter help to explain why the physical separation from friends and loved ones throughout the various lockdowns we all had to endure these past recent months had such a huge impact on how we felt and functioned. It explains what we can actually do to proactively broaden our social horizons now that we’re finally allowed to go out again. One of the most powerful messages in the whole book, in my opinion at least, is that the key to the happiness that comes from being towards the centre of a social network is to offer to help others.
Offering assistance to others is one of the best ways to forge new friendships because multiple cycles of mutual helping is the key to developing trust – the cornerstone of a solid social connection. This may sound a bit like stating the obvious to some, but the importance of this point can’t be overstated, particularly when you consider the evidence that being at the centre (rather than at the edge) of a social network actually makes you happier.
You can make your way from the edge of a social network, to the middle, by actively creating trust with new people through mutual cycles of helping others. Starting with your local community and spreading your influence yet further by joining common interest groups, ideally where you turn up in person, but virtual participation is also helpful to a lesser degree.
Actively seeking opportunities to forge new social connections, by joining community sports, music or hobby groups, as well as offering to help people spontaneously whenever the chance arises, is key to leading a happier and healthier life. I can’t argue the full case for this here, in a short blog, so if you haven’t quite grasped the point I’m trying to make here I strongly urge you to grab a copy of the new edition.
BORN TO MOVE
Myokines are released from our muscles whenever we exercise. These substances travel up to brain and trigger the release of Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF). These elevated levels of BDNF cause more brain cells to be born in the hippocampus and increasing the numbers of mitochondrial power houses that actually release energy from glucose within existing hippocampal cells. These processes bolsters all the cognitive functions that the hippocampus supports, including the creation of new memories, moving around without getting lost and imagining the future.
People who take regular exercise in their middle-aged years have longer telomeres (the protective strand at the end of each DNA molecule in the nucleus of all your cells – like the plastic tips at the end of your shoelaces) and longer telomeres are a hallmark of a brain that functions better in the short term and stays cognitively sharp well into old age. There is even evidence to suggest that regular exercise, that is 30 minutes of moderately intensive exercise daily, or 60 minutes every other day, is actually responsible for making telomeres longer. So we all have it in our power to impact how well the cells in our body and brain can be replaced when when they get damaged.
On that topic, this new chapter Born To Move also describes how and why regular exercise not only makes our brains healthier, happier and more cognitively capable, but it even makes our bones stronger. So if you’re out of the habit of regular exercise, start by getting outside for 10 minutes of fast walking that gets you a little bit out of breath each day (that’s 1% of your waking day, everyone can spare 1%) and increase your dose by a minute each week. A painless way of getting back on the wagon of pursuing a healthier body and brain.
MIND OVER MATTER
The third new chapter is called Mind Over Matter and describes the power we all have to make a heaven or hell out of our own existence according to what we do and do not spend our idle time dwelling on. It describes the huge impact that the media can have on our overall well-being and, in particular, the tremendous influence of how we consume the news (and how much) in increasing our tendency to view the world through sh!t-tinted glasses.
The latest neuroscientific evidence compiling numerous investigations into the daily practice of various types of mindfulness meditation shows that, in just a few weeks, we can strengthen the white matter (neuronal cabling connecting different brain areas) and increase the density of the grey matter (regions where connections are made between different neuronal cables) in brain areas that have a fundamental impact on our capacity to find peace of mind.
Over a decade’s worth of relevant scientific studies indicate that not only does daily mindfulness meditation improve physical and mental health, it also boosts cognitive functions. Cognitive functions like being able to focus attention for longer. This is something that many people are currently in great need of given the tendency of our technologically-enhanced world, with its information overload and an online environment that moves at 200mph, to erode our ability to sustain attention for longer than a few minutes at a time (if that).
It also seems to be an effective method for bolstering our capacities to think positively by taking specific steps to steer our imaginations in a direction that makes us more likely to feel happy and upbeat for no particular reason. A more positive disposition can be actively nurtured by taking measures to guide our sensory systems away from sources of information that make everything seem utterly bleak and futile (which promotes catastrophic thinking and erodes our very motivation to try to improve matters) and towards more productive patterns of spontaneous thought processes that help us boost our mood and self-esteem. And if that’s not enough, this chapter also describes some heart-warming anecdotes that support the idea that nurturing an optimistic outlook seems to significantly improve survival in the context of some pretty nasty diseases.
Sort Your Brain Out 2 (#SYBO2) is now available to pre-order online and will hit the shelves of all good book shops on the 2nd September 2021. In addition to these monthly blogs, I regularly tweet about any interesting neuroscience studies that might be relevant to our everyday lives (@drjacklewis).