Wednesday, December 8, 2010


Many people are familiar with the idea of going to the gym to keep your body in good shape. But, as yet, there are no local gyms for the mind. The closest we have are adult education institutions, and perhaps certain clubs and day centres. This means that it is largely up to the individual to organize his or her own ‘training programme’ for their most important internal organ – the brain.

Like body, like brain
The brain is very similar to the rest of the body in its responsiveness to training. When you go to the gym and exercise, you are putting demands on your muscles. In response, your body rushes oxygen to the area needing support, and, even after exercise has finished, continues to build up the body parts that have been challenged. Your body, over weeks and months, changes shape to meet the new demands. The brain works in the same way. If you challenge it, it will physically change to meet the demands you place on it. As well as challenge, interest and stimulation are important: the richer and more varied you make your environment, the more alive your brain will be in response.

As with the body, adequate nutrition, exercise and sleep help enormously. A low-calorie diet containing oily fish (i.e. rich in omega-3 fatty acids), along with plenty of vegetables (especially leafy green ones), is likely to slow cognitive decline, and hold back the onset of Alzheimer’s and dementia. Avoiding hydrogenated fats (found in fast food, biscuits and crisps) will prevent your brain’s arteries from clogging up, and a low cholesterol diet prevents the build up of amyloids – the bad substances behind much brain disease. In terms of alcohol, red wine (and only red wine) - in moderation - can benefit the brain.

Those wishing to keep their brain healthy are well-advised to invest in physical exercise. Regular exercise increases blood flow to the brain, enhances mental focus, and promotes the formation of new brain connections. In addition, contrary to a previous belief that the brain does not make new cells in adulthood, it is now known that exercise causes your brain to make brand new memory cells for future use.

Sleep not only restores the brain, but also develops it selectively in response to recent mental challenges. During sleep after activity, your brain chooses, and develops, the areas found to be most in need of enhancement. Good quality sleep at night, and short naps during the day, are both beneficial.

Sensory memory
A healthy brain can handle a broad range of sensory inputs, whereas a less healthy brain has diminished ability to process stimuli from the immediate environment. You can work on your sensory memory by giving yourself challenges in processing what you see, touch, smell and hear. Photography and art encourage visual observation. Attentive cooking or wine-tasting will stimulate the olfactory sense (could you identify unlabelled wines or spices?).

In particular, activities requiring fine finger control are helpful – the brain gives more resource to the hands than any other part of the body. Learning to read and play music provides a rich burst of visual, tactile and aural stimulation. In addition, using new instruments and equipment develop additional kinesthetic sense (the instrument becomes a ‘part of you’, and your brain develops new structures to accommodate it). Tai chi enhances the body’s ‘peripersonal space’ in much the same way, developing your ability to visualise and manage your own position.

Informational memory
Your informational memory has two aspects. First, you need working memory – this enables you to hold immediate information in your mind, and make quick calculations and judgements. This type of memory uses the front of your brain, which atrophies through disuse as you age. It can be developed by activities which require you to retain a number of items in your mind while you perform a related task. Games such as chess and bridge develop this type of memory. In day-to-day life, try to rely less on paper and electronic devices, and more on your own brain – for example, maintaining a short list of shopping items in your mind while you plan your journey around the shops.

Secondly, you need long-term memory – recall of what you learned or experienced a while ago. The pathways supporting long-term memory can be developed by encouraging focus and sensory visualization. For instance, you can try to memorize a longer shopping list by creating a lively story involving all the items; or to remember people’s names by associating the words with personal characteristics. These techniques not only help your present ability to remember – they also act as exercises to keep your brain more healthy and active.

Develop a hobby and practise, practise, practise
If you have a hobby which interests you, then use that motivation to push you to hours of practice. The intense focus required for improvement – whatever the activity – leads, even in adulthood, to dramatic changes in the brain’s structure and function. The important thing is to be always stretching your capacities, and finding new ways to develop your skills.

Use action video games
Action video gamers have better visual search and attention skills, short-term memory, and response times. One hour a day is enough to make a noticeable difference. Your visual fine-tuning will improve, as well as your ability to respond to simultaneously occurring events. Surgeons who play video games for more than three hours per week make fewer errors, and work faster, in the operating room. Elderly subjects do better in intelligence tests after only one hour of gaming per week. So, rather than regarding action video games as the preserve of the ‘young’, join the fun… just watch out for the addictive nature of many of them!

Keep educating yourself
In general, people with more education are less likely to be diagnosed with dementia in their lifetime. Education trains more efficient use of available brain networks, and is thought to compensate for the loss of resources associated with dementia. It may not stop dementia taking hold eventually, but it significantly delays the effects of its onset by developing ‘cognitive reserve’ – your brain’s equivalent of a savings account.

Reduce stress
A final, more emotional recommendation: stress is known to make the brain less efficient, and to hasten its decline. So avoiding stress, at all ages, makes sense in terms of preserving brain function.

A comfort – an advantage of having an older brain
Finally, psychologists acknowledge one important capacity of the mature brain which is deficient in younger brains. While young brains are better at ‘fluid intelligence’ (solving new and unpredictable problems), older brains have better ‘crystallized intelligence’ (using expertise and judgement to solve predictable problems). Finding a social use for any special expertise you have will maximise your self-esteem, as well as reinforcing your memory.

In summary, make sure you eat well (a Mediterranean diet is a good guide), and keep giving yourself physical and mental challenges, developing new and interesting hobbies, until the day you drop. That’s not rocket science. But it is brain science!

Think Smart, a book by neuroscientist Richard Restak, contains tips for keeping your brain healthy throughout your life. This article is a short summary of the book’s main recommendations for maintaining good brain performance in old age.

Thursday, December 2, 2010


I always thought so! Results from Ohio State University support the idea that sugar intake reduces aggressive behaviour.

Winning competitors in a game were given the chance to punish the loser with a blast of noise. Those given sugared lemonade were less aggressive in their punishment than those given unsugared lemonade.

So next time you are caught with a can of coke, just say you're doing the world a favour and keeping the peace!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Never forget you have two brains in one head

Ian McGilchrist is a psychiatrist who has written a book on the two sides of the brain. He contends that the left brain does narrow thinking, whereas the right brain looks at the big picture. On Radio 4 this morning he pointed out a dual task evolution gives birds: trying on the one hand to eat a piece of food, and on the other hand trying to avoid being eaten. The first task needs a narrow, analytical view to solve a given task; the second task needs broader vision, and an understanding that something might 'come from nowhere'.

Philosopher A C Grayling has suggested that the state of brain science is not sufficient to prove the scientific case about the function of each hemisphere. And McGilchrist himself admints that in fact both sides of the brain are involved in most thought in highly complex ways. However, McGilchrist's point, apart from the science, is that western culture has spent too long on narrow, logical analysis, and too little time on wide, imaginitive thought.

The book is called 'The Master and His Emissary'. The name comes from a story in Nietzche's writings, in which a wise master trusts an emissary to help rule his kingdom. The emissary, however, becomes contemptuous of his master, and takes over, only to create a tyranny which eventually collapses. McGilchrists suggests that the 'wide-thinking' master is the right hemisphere, and its somewhat grandiose 'narrow-thinking' emissary the left hemisphere. McGilchrist suggests that the history of ideas in the western world show a struggle between the two 'thought types', with the left hemisphere in danger of successfully, but disastrously, usurping the right.

More info at:

Friday, November 12, 2010

Do you live in the past, the present or the future?

Present-orientation: the problem of temptation

As psychologist Philip Zimbardo points out, when making a decision, we have three cognitive options. Firstly, we can focus on the past, attending to our memories. Secondly, we can attend to the present, responding to the stimulus of the immediate situation. Thirdly, we can attend to the future, and think about the anticipated consequences.

In the ‘marshmallow experiment’, a study by Walter Mischel, pre-school children (about 4 years old) were offered a dilemma: one treat now, or two treats later. Some children waited for two treats later; whilst others didn’t wait, and took the treat now. Mischel interviewed these 4-year-olds much later, when they were 18. He found that the children who had resisted temptation did better at exams, did better under pressure, and were more confident; whilst those who did not defer gratification were more moody, indecisive and prone to jealousy and envy.

This kind of behaviour is not just something we are born with. Zimbardo argues that outside influences - such as culture, social class, and education - affect such time-related behaviour.

Past, present and future-oriented behaviour

Some people live in the past - for some this is a happy place, and they will value the continuity that memory brings. But for some (e.g. the depressed) memories are negative, and living in the past is a kind of constant repetition of the same negative experiences. People who live in the past can be loyal with a strong sense of identity, but can be change-resistant.

For some the present is for the impulsive gathering of immediate pleasure – the classic person who lives in this way is the hedonist who does not think about consequences. Manifestations may include the party person always surrounded by their friends, or (Zimbardo argues) the gambler who loses their sense of time in a casino without clocks or windows. Present-oriented people tend to seek novelty and immediate stimulation, but have less consistency and self-control, and can be prone to addictions.

For some, the future is so important that they will do tomorrow’s work before they take today’s pleasure – they will defer immediate pleasure for future goals. Future-oriented people tend to be very conscientious and better able to control themselves, but can be overly performance-focused, anxious and socially isolated.


Present-oriented people do not take into account the risks involved in present action. Extreme cases don’t imagine getting caught out in the future for anything they do now. In practice, then, extreme present-orientation is less likely to be sustainable.

In contrast, future-oriented people are more likely to respond to environmental programmes, more likely to save money for the future, less likely to fall prone to addiction – in short, more likely to show many behaviours considered desirable for sustainability of the person or the environment. Statistically, for instance, conscientious people live longer (Kern and Friedman, 2008).

Changing behaviour

Is it possible to generate future-oriented action in present-oriented people? Zimbardo suggests education can help, but only education that engages constructively with present-orientation. With regard to influencing individuals, another psychologist, John Boyd, points out a technique often used by sports psychologists: ‘mental simulation’, where people are led to imagine achieving a near-future goal, and then encouraged to achieve it… and then the time-lag is increased. This seems to be a technique that can cause progressively better planning ability, and deferral of immediate pleasure, in individuals.

But, Zimbardo argues, we must remember that all views are important, and a balance is good: the past view gives you roots, the future view gives you wings to improve your environment, and a present-orientation gives you energy to enjoy, and be creative with, what you have.

To view the full lecture that prompted this article, go to:

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Me, I come from my muzza!

Where do you come from?

This morning, a radio journalist asked that question to a group of Ethiopian kids. He was trying to show how the football World Cup had reached every corner of the globe. Some answered with the name of their remote village.

And then one little boy gave such a simple answer.
"And you - where are you from?" asked the journalist, full of professionalism, emphasising our differences.
"Me, I come from my muzza!" said the boy, without hesitation.
"From your mother?"
"A good answer," said the journalist, a little deflated.

A good answer indeed.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Have a little faith

I often wake to the radio and a cup of tea. This morning, to the background of the song 'Have a Little Faith', author Mitch Albom told a story. It was the story of how he had come to speak at the funeral of a rabbi.

Albert Lewis had been the rabbi at his local synagogue when he was a child, but Mitch wasn't particularly religious any more. But he was honoured when the rabbi, at 82 years old, asked him to write a eulogy for his funeral. In the coming years, he often spent time with the rabbi, in order to have the right things to say when the time came.

When the rabbi finally died - later than expected at around 90 years old - Mitch had to rush to the funeral to get there on time. He could not collect all the prepared notes he had made. But he found, strangely enough, that, by heart, he was able to give the speech that the rabbi would have wanted.

Perhaps the rabbi knew, in some way, that asking Mitch to write the eulogy would have that effect - to instil into Mitch's heart something of faith, through listening, through observing. Whatever the case, I'd say it was a 'wise event', and so beautiful.

Friday, May 28, 2010


On Radio 4 this morning, they were discussing 'free time stress'. Apparently there is a new German term, 'Freizeitstresse', to describe the generally-felt inability to switch off; and around 75% of the German population have difficulty enjoying free time in a stress-free way.

How do we get rid of that awful feeling that we 'should' be 'doing' something? Why do we often feel as though we have to report back our lives to other people? And why is it so hard to shut out the demands of the world?

I think there are three things going on here:

Firstly, we are dependent on feedback from others for our sense of identity. A workaholic gains constant reinforcement of their identity by always working; when they stop, they get scared, because there is no reinforcement, so they don't know who they are. Whatever we do most of the time, there is our identity. When we stop, we can find it painful, because there is no context telling us who we are. In that sense, we actually find demands quite comforting, because they give us an identity as 'the person fulfilling the demands'. And in that sense, not having demands can lead to a temporary loss of identity. Many people feel happy again when they 'get back into the swing of things', i.e. their usual routine, because it gives them a place in the world.

Secondly, many of us live in an environment where anyone can contact us at any time - we are 'hyper-connected'. We are not sitting in villages waiting for the next letter to be brought over the hill by horses. We have instant messaging. The faster we can communicate, the more we do so. Therefore, even though we may take 'time out', our context follows us into our personal space, and haunts us there.

Thirdly, we have a natural preference to 'answer the external' and 'ignore the internal'. The 'external' is all the urgent requests we receive for action, all our obligations to others, perceived or real. Because they feel more real, we give them more status than our obligations to ourselves (i.e. to rest sometimes, to do nothing sometimes). And if we are always answering messages, always making things right for others, we will never have time for our own priorities.

So maybe there are three things we can do:

1. Be comfortable with doing nothing useful. When we are dead, our bodies will be doing nothing for ever. So a bit of practice seems reasonable. And back in the womb, our job was to do nothing and grow. So a bit of nostalgia sounds reasonable. (That's why some of us love baths, maybe!) It is actually part of our justifiable identity to mess about sometimes, without trying to achieve anything in particular. Just to play. We need it.

2. Turn the world off sometimes. If your mobile was a person, they would be very rude to interrupt you with such noises all the time. Keep your need for contact to a manageable minimum, and go for a walk, or a swim, or a sunbathe, or to the sea... just disappear!

3. Treat your 'appointments with yourself' as equal in importance to your 'appointments with the world'. When we have meetings, why do they have to be with other people? If it's important to get time for you, you can book it in the diary and say 'I have a meeting'. You mean that you have a meeting with yourself.

In summary, we need to create a relaxed identity, turn the world off sometimes, and value ourselves. Then maybe free time can be more of a pleasure.

And if none of that works, we can turn to friends. Because that's what friends are for - to relax with, to distract us, and to give us a value independent of the busy, demanding world we live in.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

What's a monster?

Yesterday's Daily Mail (the fountain of al knowledge, obviously) had a headline 'Artificial Life Created In Lab'. The story is that a team led by billionaire Craig Venter has created a synthetic cell 'from scratch' (well, he copied the DNA from a bug). The commentary on page 4 was entitled 'Has he created a monster?'

What does 'monster' mean? It's often used nowadays, especially in the press, to indicate one or more of the following:

1. I don't understand it
2. It's nothing to do with me
3. It's out of my control
4. It threatens me

When the press describe a person as a monster, they are suggesting that they are not quite human, not as we know it. The result, if we call a person a monster, is:

1. We don't have to understand the person fully
2. We don't have to take responsibility for the person or their condition
3. We don't have to try to influence the person's actions for the better
4. We have the right to hurt or diminish this person to defend ourselves

Those last four points describe the attitude of Daily Mail journalism quite well, don't you think?

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Sharing money and blood supplies

Greece is in danger of defaulting on its debt. Because Greece uses the Euro, Greece's danger is, in part, passed on to other countries using the same currency. The big problem with Europe's strategy of strength in numbers, is that it causes the corresponding weakness of inflexibility.

To give a strange example: supposing my friends and I decided to unify our bodies into one. The advantages would include the free flow of blood across individual boundaries. If one friend is short of a nutrient, another can make a contribution. But what if one friend gets an infection? Because we have got rid of our individual skins, we no longer have control over how rapidly an illness affects us all. One friend cannot run to the shops for medicine while the other gets some rest.

And this is the climate of Europe for the moment. Whether Greece's illness becomes Ireland's, and then Portugal's, and leaks across Europe, remains to be seen. What is certain, is that it is hard for stronger economic powers, such as Germany, to avoid being bound up in their neighbour's struggle; Chancellor Merkel may appear reluctant to commit to too much financial help for Greece, but, if part of a body is infected, the rest of the body is already committed to a fight.