Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Revising for exams...

As the weather improves, for many young people exams loom. In the UK, GCSEs, AS levels and A levels are a big reality check for most 16 to 18 year olds over the summer, and many face the prospect with apprehension, knowing that the one word they are going to hear a lot of over the coming weeks is REVISION. But what's the best way to revise?

First of all, understanding that revision really means to revise what is (or should be) already known is helpful, and to understand what this might mean for different subjects. Fact-led subjects like the sciences, history and geography, demand just that - facts remembered that can be drawn on to answer the questions that come up in exams. Other subjects require ongoing knowledge, like maths or languages, which is where practicing these skills is helpful. Identifying what each subject is going to need in terms of revision can be a useful first step.

Then there is the mapping out of a revision timetable that most students find invaluable. Some are able to do this on their own, but for most - and teenagers in particular - this sort of organisation is a learnt skill and requires help, as many can feel overwhelmed.

* Map out what needs to be done, creating a revision timetable with realistic daily goals leading up to the exams, allowing enough time to avoid feeling stressed too close to the actual exams.

* Make sure the notes, past papers, books and other sources from which to revise, are available to revise from. Check with teachers and make sure everything needed is in hand.

* Utilise natural learning styles. Auditory learners find that reading or saying things out loud, recording these and playing them back to listen to, may help things stick. Visual learners find taking notes or making diagrams a useful way to remember as they revise.

* Allow enough uninterrupted time during a revision period to reach a point of concentration where information is actually retained and transferred from working memory into long term memory, from where it can be retrieved when taking the actual exam. Without this process occurring, the possibility of actually remembering what has been revised is limited. This means revision periods of 20-30 minutes minimum, building on this to stay concentrated for up to 90 minute before taking a break (although for most teenagers, this will take practice!).

* Take time to wind down before sleep, however. The brain works best when well-slept, and chronic tiredness just exacerbates feelings of being overwhelmed.

* Cut out distractions - all of them! - during each allocated revision period. This means turning off mobile phones, instant messaging, email, Facebook and other social networking sites, and making revision a primary and exclusive focus. After every interruption, it takes at least 5 minutes to concentrate fully again. Much better to focus exclusively for an hour, then take a 15 minute break, than work for 3 hours with constant interruptions that prevent the brain from retaining information.

* Schools and colleges often run revision sessions which can be a good way of concentrating on subjects that need extra focus.

* Regular exercise in between daily revision sessions - just taking a walk, going for a run, swimming, playing football - are all excellent ways to relieve physical and mental tension, and also increases the brain's ability to work well.

* Eat well - the brain thrives on complex carbohydrates to keep it going, and lots of fluids to stay well hydrated, but avoid highly caffeinated drinks (like Red Bull) that can hype the body up and increase feelings of stress.

* Keep a sense of perspective. Exams are a means to an end, not an end in itself and those who don't achieve great exam results can still go on to live happy and accomplished lives.

For parents, this can be a difficult time as they watch their moody teenager avoid ways of getting down to the revision that they feel is necessary. Wallpaper parenting, as I call it - being around but not too interventionist - can help. Create a calm atmosphere that is conducive to study, keep meals regular, help devise a revision timetable, encourage some time out and bedtime at a reasonable hour, but avoid increasing stress by being heavy handed. 

It can be a tricky time, especially as the teenage years often coincide with a general lack of confidence about life, which can be exacerbated by exam stress, but learning how to revise and work independently in preparation is a useful lesson for later studies at college or university. 

Schools and colleges are very keen to help their students to do their best, so if in doubt about what you can do to support your child, check in with them about what might be helpful.

Further information on how to concentrate from The Art of Concentration, published by Rodale priced £9.99

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Multitasking - just because you can, does it mean you should?

So, you think you’re really good at multitasking, and that you can concentrate just as well doing more than one thing at a time?  Think again.  You may be giving the impression you are doing a lot, but the reality is often something different. Now that we have access to functional MRI scans, we can actually see, monitor and record what our brains are doing while we’re doing it. And what we now know is that multitasking could mean that you are doing nothing well enough to gain any benefit from doing it.

In an experiment carried out at the University of California, Los Angeles a group of 20-something students were asked to sort through index cards in two trials.  The first time, the students worked in silence and during the second exact same task they were asked to listen out for specific tones in a series of randomly presented sounds.  The way their brains coped with this was to transfer from the hippocampus, the part of the brain that stores and recalls information, to the striatum, which handles repetitive activities.  They had no trouble doing the same task while distracted, but they found it much more difficult afterwards to remember what, exactly, they had been sorting.  So their ability to do the task in a way that meant they later remembered what it was they were doing was compromised. What this tells us is that if you are trying to learn a new skill, you won’t do it as well, or as easily, if you are distracted while you are doing it.

The neuroplasticity of our brains means that they are built to manage a variety of tasks at once, but only up to a point.  It seems that this physiological balancing act we ask of our brains comes at a cost. By constantly switching back and forth, and by stimulating parts of the brain that are concerned with visual processing and physical co-ordination, as in the experiment described above, we appear to distract from the higher areas of the brain related to memory and learning. We can end up concentrating of the process of concentrating rather than on what we were supposed to be concentrating on!  Much of the time, it probably won’t matter much, but it’s easy to see how inefficient a way of learning it is.  Concentrate well, do it once: distract yourself and you may have to do something several times before it’s learnt. And when it comes to storing information that you want to recall later, perhaps when revising for an exam, you just won’t learn it so well if you don’t concentrate while you’re learning.  Focusing or concentrating well means that you store information in the part of the brain necessary for later recall.

True, there are some forms of multi-tasking that do work, but this usually involves only doing a maximum of two things at once, one of which is done automatically, i.e. washing-up and listening to the radio.   Washing-up doesn’t really take much thought, so 95% of your concentration can be given over to the other task in hand.  This wouldn’t apply to doing three tasks, though: washing-up, listening to the radio and reading a book.  It’s just not possible to absorb either the book or the radio adequately, so – along with the practical difficulties of doing all three at once – you probably wouldn’t bother.  

However, there are some activities that appear automatic, but actually require good concentration to be safe, as the ban on driving while simultaneously using your mobile phone now recognizes. It may appear to be an automatic skill but driving is a complex activity, requiring excellent concentration and good reaction times, both of which will be impaired if focusing on something else.  Talking on a mobile phone, while driving, is now illegal in the UK and many other countries and with good reason since fatal accidents have been the result. Many experts also believe that talking on a hands-free phone is also too distracting to be entirely safe.  “Multitasking is always going to slow you down, increasing the chances of mistakes,” says David Meyer, a cognitive scientist and Director of the Brain, Cognition and Action Laboratory at the University of Michigan, in the US.  “Disruptions and interruptions are a bad deal from the standpoint of our ability to process information.”

It is impossible to precisely measure lost productivity, caused by multi-tasking, but in 2007, Jonathan Spira, chief analyst at Basex, a business-research firm, estimated the cost of interruptions to the US economy at nearly $650 billion a year.  This figure was based on surveys and interviews with professionals and office workers, which concluded that 28% of their time was spent on what they considered to be interruptions (and recovery time) before they returned to their main tasks. Spira conceded that $650 billion is a rough estimate, and work interruptions will never, and shouldn’t be eliminated, because this is often how work is done and ideas are shared.  But even if half of all those constant interruptions at work are worthwhile, it still represents a lot of money lost,
There may also be another cost to distraction resulting from multitasking.  The process of constantly switching, multi-tasking, call it what you will, carries with it a degree of stress.  Not necessarily one that you would even notice, but one that requires the key stress hormones, (cortisol and adrenaline), to be secreted at higher levels to help you stay on top of what you are trying to do. These are the same hormones that are secreted when we need short, rapid bursts of energy necessary for ‘fight or flight’, but they are not designed for long-term use. 
In the short term, feeling constantly “hyped” by high levels of stress hormones can result in a persistent ‘brain fog’ many of us experience, and in the long-term, bombarding the brain with stress hormones that are neuro-toxic when secreted in large quantities, may cause premature ageing and other brain damage. Interestingly, cortisol is what is known as a universal donor which means it can attach to any receptor site and block the feel-good hormones, dopamine and serotonin, which help us feel calm and happy. So, not only are we stressed when we multitask, we are also missing out on the more positive effects of the body’s own, natural antidotes.  
Hyper-vigilant, over-alert and anxious, it’s hardly surprising we feel too stressed to concentrate. 

Sunday, 26 January 2014

The secret to improving your concentration

If you want to improve your ability to focus you should eat well, take breaks and connect to your inner Buddhist

A recent survey by the University of California estimates that we are bombarded with 34gb of information a day, twice as much as 30 years ago. Office workers, meanwhile, are interrupted on average every three minutes. Small surprise, therefore, that our concentration spans are shrivelling. "The internet has made us very fragmented in our way of working," says Harriet Griffey, journalist and author of The Art of Concentration. "The digital generation considers constant interruptions normal and these days we expect to multitask, which spreads concentration very thin and can be counterproductive."
Research by psychologist Dr Glenn Wilson found that workers who were constantly distracted by phone calls and emails experienced a 10% drop in their IQ. Meanwhile, Richard Nisbett, a psychologist at the University of Michigan, found that a Chinese-American with an IQ of 100 achieves the same academically as a white American with an IQ of 120. "This is a direct result of their more focused attitude when it comes to their schoolwork," he says.
It's a relatively simple process to discipline the brain, but the effects of that effort on our achievements, relationships and self-fulfilment are incalculable. "If you could just stay focused on the right things, your life would stop feeling like a reaction to stuff that happens to you and become something that you create," reckons Winifred Gallagher, author of Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life.
Fuel your mind. If you skip breakfast, adrenaline will kick in and make you feel stressed, warns Griffey. What's good for the body is good for the brain so combine proteins with carbohydrates to stabilise blood sugars and drink plenty of water as dehydration impoverishes concentration.
Get the rhythm. If you can fit your work schedule around your circadian rhythms you'll harness your brain at its best. Most of us reach peak alertness at 10am, coordination is best at 2pm, reaction times are fastest around 3pm and muscle strength climaxes at 5pm. Deepest sleep occurs around 2am so make sure you're tucked up well before then for maximum focus the next day.
Organise your mind. A deadline looms but memories of your unemptied washing machine/untelephoned mother/unpaid car tax are undermining you. Before you start work make a list of everything you have to do and prioritise them so that you can empty your mind without fear that you'll forget something. Save tasks that need less concentration for your mental low points such as straight after lunch.
One thing at a time. Multitasking leads to a state of continuous partial attention which, in the end, achieves much less and makes more mistakes than a fully focused mind. If possible take a brief mental break between one task and another.
Eliminate distractions. If you check emails while writing a report, your brain will not process the information from the short to the long-term memory, says Griffey. Close down your emails and your Twitter page and put your phone on silent before focusing on a project. If office bustle distracts you, take a walk to think the task through.
Take a break. A natural environment relieves a cluttered mind whereas an urban one stresses it. A survey conducted by the University of Michigan asked one group of students to walk around an arboretum and another around a city. The latter group scored significantly lower in concentration tests. If you have a local park, take a stroll in it. Exercise also increases brain power and reduces anxiety.
Five more … If you are tempted to give up on a task just do five more pages/minutes/sums, suggests Sam Horn, communications consultant and author of ConZentrate: Get Focused and Pay Attention. "Just as athletes build physical stamina by pushing past the point of exhaustion, you can build mental stamina by pushing past the point of frustration," she says.
Learn to meditate. Meditation techniques can help shield you from the excesses of modern life. Ten minutes a day can reduce stress, channel concentration and brighten your outlook. Try T'chai or yoga if you can't naturally connect with your inner Buddhist.
This originally appeared in the Guardian newspaper The secret to improving concentration

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Winnie the Pooh goes digital

News that Egmont children's books publisher has launched a digital form of the famous Winnie the Pooh, in the form of an iPad and iPhone app, has ruffled a few feathers.

Not so much because it introduces the much-loved character and stories to a new, digital-savvy generation, but because of the words of the app designer Kristian Knak who said, "The attention span and patience of today's children is obviously different than in 1926. If children are not engaged in the storytelling almost instantly, they'll just move on to the next app. On one hand, we really want to preserve the integrity of the original work by Milne and Shepard, but on the other hand, when you want to reach out to children you need to adapt the storytelling, you need to enhance it."


OK, so maybe the way in which we access and utilise information has changed, and we seem to be more able to shift between things with speed and greater ease - in itself a form of concentration - but has the ability to pay attention for long enough to enjoy the original Pooh bear stories really become so diminished that we can no longer sit peaceably, immersed in a book?

I think not. I see children concentrate all the time, from a baby playing with its toes to the toddler with a balloon, or a four year old absorbed in building Duplo. And I also see children who are exposed to so many distractions at one time, their ability to concentrate becomes eroded, and multitasking becomes the norm. But I don't think this means they have lost the ability to concentrate, just the opportunity to do so. Remove distractions and, perhaps with some gentle prompting, sit back and watch the engagement and motivation that follows.

To be fair, Egmont also publish the full book version of Winnie the Pooh, so they are - cannily enough - extending their market which may, in turn, lead young readers back to the original books. Books that can be read aloud, read alone, returned to time and time again, shared and treasured - and in that, I don't think children have changed since 1926.

But rest assured, children are smarter than you think - give them a book and the time and opportunity to read it and they probably will! 

Sunday, 19 May 2013


There’s really no such thing as a detrimental food, but there is definitely such a thing as detrimental quantities of different food substances.   

Take sugar.  

 In its natural form it can be used to improve the flavour of lots of different things from fruit to cereals, but the use of convenience and highly processed foods means that our consumption of refined sugar has, over the years, rocketed to around 150lb per person per year - in 1830 consumption was only about 11lb a year.

The downside of this is not just higher obesity rates, increased diabetes and possible cancer diagnoses, etc. but the fact that such high rates of sugar consumption knock out other good nutrients – like vitamin B, for example, which is very important for the effective functioning of the nervous system – and our brains!   

So it’s really worth thinking about reducing sugar intake, not just from specific sugar use – substitute sugar on your breakfast muesli with a handful of blueberries to sweeten and ensure one of your five a day, for example – but also from cutting out refined and processed foods. 

"We all weigh 25lbs more than we did 25 years ago," says endocrinologist and paediatrician Robert Lustig, author of Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and DiseaseSugar, he says, was always meant to be a treat, a reward. "The last time I checked, birthday cake was for birthdays, and birthdays come once a year."
Fat Chance by Robert Lustig

And you should hear what he has to say about that world famous soft drink in the red can…
Sugar: The Bitter Truth

Sunday, 23 December 2012


Mindfulness, as a tool for living rather than a spiritual practice, is a process of bringing purposeful attention to bear and can be applied to any activity. It is about being 'in the moment' whether you are washing the dishes or performing brain surgery, walking the dog or reading a book.

Why is it beneficial to us? It is the exact opposite of multi-tasking and allows us to focus properly on one thing at a time, to the exclusion of other distractions or interruptions. As it is a more productive way of working - it makes the carrying out or completion of a task more efficient - it is also a less stressful way of working, too because you are using your energy, mental or physical, in a way that is most constructive to the task at hand

Small children tend to achieve mindfulness naturally: programmed to absorb every last drop of experience, their focus and concentration can be total, from watching a ladybird slowly walk along a twig to playing with a much-loved toy or dropping a pebble into a puddle to see the water ripple. They are absolutely, as we say, 'in the moment'.

As we grow and learn to manage multiple stimuli, we juggle and multi-task and, eventually, pay the price through the stressing our abilities in order to do so. We can all multitask when necessary, for sure, but often do each task less well, or with less appreciation, as a consequence. Interruptions and distractions are accommodated, but at a price.

Mindfulness can also foster creativity. When we are mindful of what we are doing, involved with the process on every level, it can help us to stand back from preconceived ideas, from which we are liberated and enabled to create new connections, thoughts and ideas.
For many, we have got so out of the way of it that achieving a state of mindfulness needs help. Instead of moving naturally into this state, as we once did as a small child, we often need to relearn how; we need to practice it and once we have become reacquainted with what being mindful feels like again, to access it at will. Breathing exercises are often a help in this because, by focusing on a gentle, physical activity of breathing, we quieten and focus our minds

I thought about mindfulness recently when I was avidly watching the TV series The Killing, known as Forbrydelsen in its original Danish. Utterly gripped, I couldn't take my eyes from the screen - and with good reason. Transmitted in its original language, I had to read the sub-titles to follow the complicated plot. I had to actively watch the TV in a way that I seldom do. Often I only half-watch the television. It's on as I read the newspaper, talk to someone, do something else... I don't watch it very actively, or mindfully.

I realised then that I had got out of the habit, generally, of mindfulness and it was worth thinking about reinstating the practice so that it could benefit my other activities... and not just my TV watching!

Thursday, 7 June 2012


One of the great discoveries of the late 20th century was that the brain was also capable of generating new brain cells: neurogenesis.   

Previously, it was thought that we were born with every last brain cell we would ever have, and that no more could be created. This turns out not to be the case.  Neurogenesis is the creation of new brains cells from pre-cursor cells that occur in the hippocampus, which is so important for memory.    

Although there had been some evidence of this from work done on bird brains and other animals, it was eventually identified in human brains from the tenacious work of a Swedish stem cell neuroscientist Peter Eriksson, from the Sahlgrenska University Hospital, Gothenburg.  The biochemical marker that had been used in animal experiments couldn’t, ethically, be used for human experimentation for this purpose at this time.  However, elsewhere, approved medical studies were being carried out in terminal cancer patients – where new cells are created by the cancer – this same biochemical marker was being used to try and evaluate the effectiveness of treatment, because it would flag up neurogenesis.  Eriksson’s scientific assumption was that if the brain was capable of neurogenesis, these new cells would show evidence of the same biochemical marker that was being used to identify new cancer cells.  So he asked if he could have the brains of these patients, after their death, to examine and see if there was – as he thought there may be – any evidence of neurogenesis.

This work was also being explored by the eminent neuroscientist Professor Fred Gage, at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, California. After extensive study, and ruling out the possibility that new cells in the brain could be secondary cancer cells, the scientists finally got their ‘Eureka!’ moment in 1998.  The brain was capable of neurogenesis. 

‘All the brains had evidence of new cells exactly in the area where we had found neurogenesis in other species,’ said Gage.  ‘And we could prove through chemical analysis that they were mature neurons.  The neurons were born in the patients when they were in their fifties and seventies, and these neurons stayed alive until the people died.  That was the first evidence for neurogenesis in the adult human brain.  So now we know that in some areas of the brain, new neurons are being made all the time.  It was a surprise because we thought the brain was stagnant.  But in this region of the hippocampus, there are these little baby cells that are dividing, and over time, they mature and migrate into the circuitry and become a full-blown adult neuron with new connections.  And this is occurring throughout life.  The finding brought us an important step closer to the possibility that we have more control over our own brain capacity than we ever thought possible.’

What was also becoming clear from continuing research with mice was that voluntary exercise was as crucial to neurogenesis as environmental enrichment.  So not only did the old adage, ‘use it or lose it’, apply to neurogenesis, physical activity is crucial too.  

‘We think that voluntary exercise increases the number of neural cells that divide and give rise to new neurons in the hippocampus,’ says Gage.  ‘But we think it is environmental enrichment that supports the survival of these cells.  Usually, 50% of the new cells reaching the dentate gyrus of the hippocampus die.  But if the animal lives in an enriched environment, many fewer of the cells die.  Environmental enrichment doesn’t seem to affect cell proliferation and the generation of new neurons, but it can affect the rate and the number of cells that survive and integrate into the circuitry.’