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Maintain your brain….

Train Your Brain

Should you drink more coffee at work? Would your boss let you nap at the office and what’s the best office environment to optimise brain function? Dr Jack Lewis, brain scientist and author talks to Steelcases’ Serena Borghero and outlines ways in which to keep our brains fit and healthy and working at their peak – for maximum productivity.

Serena Borghero : Good morning, Jack. So, here’s your coffee. And I’ll have a tea.

Dr. Jack Lewis: Ahhh…my fifth of the morning.

Serena Borghero :  I’m addicted to tea. So, what happens then when you have so many coffees, to your brain?

Dr. Jack Lewis: It’s protecting my brain against Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, cancer and liver disease. This is sort of a little-known thing about coffee in particular. It seems to have a neuroprotective effect and if people drink three to five cups of coffee throughout middle age, when they get into the older post retirement years, they tend to get horrible diseases, like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, between five and 10 years later than those who don’t drink coffee.

Serena Borghero : And that taps indeed into the topic of our conversation because it will be about the brain and how the brain works. So, Good Morning. Welcome to 360 Real Time, a Steelcase podcast with behind the scenes conversation on the research impacting the places where people work and learn. I’m Serena Borghero and I’m here today with Dr. Jack Lewis, brain scientist and author. So, Jack, it’s a real pleasure to see you again. I know that you aim to bring science to people. What do you mean by that?

Dr. Jack Lewis: As a neuroscientist, who did an undergraduate degree in neuroscience at the University of Nottingham, then I did a PhD and my doctorate from University College London and then I went on to the Max Planck Institute in Tubingen in Germany to do some post-doctoral research.

I got really frustrated that there’s loads of really fascinating, interesting titbits in the neuroscience literature that’s actually relevant to all of our everyday lives, but it didn’t seem to be anyone’s job to extract those pearls of wisdom and share it with non-scientists.

And so, I’ve been collecting these little pearls of wisdom, these are sort of little ‘brain hacks’, if you like, that I’ve been applying to my own life for the last 20 years, since I first started learning neuroscience.

Serena Borghero: That speaks, I think also to the topic of your book title, ‘’Sort Your Brain Out’’, where you aim to provide some powerful insights into how to get the most out of our brains. That sounds fascinating. How can we achieve that?

Dr. Jack Lewis: There are loads of things you can do. I always start my talks and end them with the importance of sleep.

In our busy lives, sleep is one of the things that really gets compressed. People tend not, on the whole, to find eight hours every night in which to be asleep.

It’s overnight when your brain does the repair and maintenance and when your temporary memories, reverberating around your brain, become permanent memories. Proteins are laid down in the pathways of your memory and they actually enable you to retrieve that memory at a later point.

And it’s also when toxins are actively eliminated from your brain. So, while you can get away with a little bit of neglect of your proper sleeping patterns for a while, you absolutely mustn’t do it for an entire lifetime, because the consequences are pretty dire in the long run.

Age related cognitive decline happens at a much faster rate if you’re chronically sleep deprived. The brain needs to shut down and do some housework and get everything ready for the future.

Serena Borghero : We actually encourage people along the day to take breaks and don’t ask the brain to keep on working at the maximum level all day long.

So that works for the night I understand, but if I understand well what you’re saying, it also should be a good rule to apply all along the day to let the brain rest here and there.

Dr. Jack Lewis: The most creative state of mind is what’s called the hypnagogic state. It’s when you’re just nodding off, you’re not fully awake, you’re not completely dead to the world asleep, but you’re in that, in between subliminal world, where your conscious thoughts are starting to subside.

Your mind almost stills, becomes calm, sufficiently to hear the kind of ideas and notions bubbling up from your deep subconscious parts of your brain that you don’t normally have any conscious access to. And that is where a lot of the solutions are to the big problems, personal problems, professional problems. That’s where they live.

If you regularly nap throughout the day on top of the eight hours that you sleep at night, it sounds bonkers to sort of recommend this as a way to boost cognitive agility, to thrive in the workplace, but napping is incredibly important.

Serena Borghero : You and I met indeed at a panel conversation with Microsoft where we were talking about creativity in the workplace and how space design can foster creative thinking. I remember you were sharing some very interesting insights about that.

Dr. Jack Lewis: Obviously, your audience knows this better than most, but that whole open plan office world is very cost effective.

But in terms of sort of raw neuroscience, that creates an awful lot of noise, sensory noise, visual noise, people moving around in your peripheral vision, distracting you, perhaps at a moment where you’re about to make a breakthrough or you’re really making progress and getting some work done.

You don’t want to have a situation where the workplace can only allow people to work in constantly disturbed state of mind.

I suspect that in a lot of workplaces, whilst for example, there might be a sleep pod on one floor of the building, whether people are judged or not if they go into use that sleep pod is another matter. And there’s always this temptation of people to take advantage of the sort of freedoms that companies offer them, by having an hour of sleep when you haven’t really turned up to work, ready to work.

But at the same time, if you don’t trust people to use, the facilities for the reasons that you provide them, then it means that there’s a lot of making provisions for things, but not actually giving people the freedom to use them, which seems silly to me.

Serena Borghero : I was also curious about one blog post that you have on your website, which is about resilient brains and what makes some people resilient and other people more vulnerable.

Dr. Jack Lewis: Some people are naturally more resilient than others. Some people are very, very sensitive to stress and when we talk about stress in science, we mean high levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. The thing with cortisol is it was designed by the hand of natural selection and evolution. But it’s for use in short bursts. 

Now the trouble with stress is all about chronic stress. It’s that the person never allows their cortisol levels to dip down back to low levels. There’s always some kind of anxiety inducing thought that comes along and causes more cortisol to be released, which causes those energy levels to be very, very high the whole time. Just like an engine that’s always running on extremely high revs. If you do that, it damages the engine. If you’re always moving around with the engine racing between 5,000 and 8,000 revs, you’re going to end up with a broken engine.

And it’s a similar kind of concept with the brain and stress. The key difference between those who are resilient and those who are not resilient is in one particular pathway, which enables the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which is a bit of a mouthful, but it’s behind the forehead, right at the front of the brain.

It doesn’t matter whether a human is experiencing physical pain of a stubbed toe or a paper cut to the finger, or whether it’s mental pain, emotional turmoil, anxiety, these kinds of things – anything that could constitute a painful stimulus always seems to cause this DACC brain area to light up.

The connections, the pathway, that connects that part of the brain behind the forehead, to that part of the brain on the centerfold, seems to reduce the level of activity in that brain area that produces the painful aspects of experience.

But resilience in the workplace is about, in my view, having developed techniques, having developed capacities to use that pathway that was involved in resilience, because essentially what you’re doing is self-soothing.

You might do that popularly these days through mindfulness meditation, which according to a paper published just three years ago now, concluded, unequivocally, that mindfulness is good for physical health and mental health and the part that I always find really captures people’s attention, is that it also boosts cognitive performance.

It’s not just good for your physical and mental health, helping you to control stress, helping you to be more resilient, but it actually makes you sharper in your thinking. It helps you to sustain your attention for longer. It helps you to be more fluid in your problem-solving approaches.

So, rather than being a waste of time, to do 15 – 20 minutes of mindfulness a day, it’s well worth finding a space for it in your life because there are so many advantages and so other people, it might be positive self-talk, there are a number of ways of reaching this goal of better managing the inevitable, in a conflict that happens in all our lives.

You know, quite often it’s only a crisis point where people think, right, I’m going to change these habits. Don’t wait for the crisis point. Do it now, today.

This is an edited version of the Podcast. To listen to the full version, click on the following link: