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.’

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Teenagers... a work in progress

Recent press coverage has once again focused attention on teenagers, and the news that their brains might not mature as quickly as once thought will come as no surprise to those parents who have already lived through this turbulent transition.

And transition it is. One that we have all been through, although most adults have amazingly short memories of their own experience when considering their adolescent children!

Where once your child was happy, equable, outgoing and biddable, overnight he or she seems to have morphed into a monosyllabic, lethargic, resentful individual whose only interest is Facebook, incomprehensible music lyrics and conspiracy theories. And just when they need to focus on schoolwork they seem incapable of concentrating on anything at all, indulging instead in what looks to us like thoughtless, demotivated and risk-taking activity.


Primarily it's to do with a lot of necessary reorganisation of the brain's structure that needs to occur. Now, instead of a continuing proliferation of brain cells, there is an increase of mylenation, the fatty tissue surrounding brain cells that allows for better connectivity and transmission, especially in the frontal cortex which is responsible for executive planning - our capacity to direct our attention, plan future tasks, process more than one thing at a time and control impulsive behaviour. But this is happening at the same time as a vigorous pruning of less useful grey matter, ensuring that the frontal cortex is strengthened. There is a temporary state of flux, and it takes time to settle down.

What's the effect of all this internal activity? One of the temporary side-effects of this remodeling of the frontal cortex is a reduced ability to recognise other people's emotions. What parents experience is an increase in the sort of self-conscious, self-absorbed and apparently selfish behaviour that drives them nuts! Wet towels left on the bathroom floor? Hopeless time-keeping? Constant snacking? The sort of forgetfulness usually associated with Alzheimer's? Inability to get up in the morning? They almost can't help it....

Throw in a sudden and unsettling surge in sexual hormones, is it any wonder that your teenager is all over the place for a while?

What can you do to help them through this transition? A few pointers...

  • Remember, it's temporary and it's not personal, whatever it feels like to you - it will pass and you will eventually recognise them again.
  • Never discuss anything important if they are hungry or thirsty or overtired - remember how they couldn't cope when they were 3 years old? It's similar scenario now.
  • Keep rules essential and minimal. Just because they don't answer, doesn't necessarily mean they haven't heard you.
  • Keep in mind that their instinct for survival is usually greater than their inclination toward self-destruction.
  • Try not to dismiss their mad ideas as stupid - they are often just trying them on for size. Offer feedback, not dismissal.
  • They often have to learn the hard way - just as we did - about the consequences of their behaviour. It's not always easy to watch and you may have to pick up the pieces: that's a parent's job.
  • Whatever energy you've put into the parenting pot over the years will pay off - trust it.
  • Your almost grown-up child needs to know that in a pretty scary world, come what may you are basically on their side and their number one port of call in an emergency

Good luck!  And remember, the proud parent moments generally outweigh it all. In the end.

Sunday, 15 April 2012


Tenacity... Grit. Determination. Persistence.

Four words that mean pretty much the same, but tenacity wins hand down when it comes to the sort of consistent application that takes and shapes an idea and makes it a reality.

Buzz words come and go. Happiness was around for a while. And then Resilience. During difficult, recessionary times resilience certainly has its place but it's tenacity that could make all the difference to whether or not you succeed with your idea. Not letting go, but holding on to it, exploring it, shaping it, developing it and believing in it is the only way to transform the abstract into reality. Otherwise it remains just an idea.

Reading about David Karp, the man who created the blogging website Tumblr (36 million users, 40 billion views a day) I am struck not so much by his idea for the website he produced, but by his tenacity in exploring its possibilities, developing it and staying with it while others might have thought... what's the point of another blogging website?

Whether you take an existing idea and make it better or dream up something completely new, whether it's Tumblr or Spanx, the difference between the ideas we know about and the ones we don't is that someone, often an individual, just kept plugging away with it until it became a reality. The original idea may come in and out of focus, but it remains at the core to be explored, shaped, developed and kept alive, coming to fruition often just slightly ahead of the market curve. Then you hold your breath. But along with that first 1% of inspiration came 99% of perspiration: it seems the old cliches hold true. Tenacity works.

It doesn't really matter what you want to do - create a new product, run the marathon, compose the next Bohemian Rhapsody, improve an exam grade, write a book - out there are a whole host of things that seem somehow so obvious now, it's hard to imagine a time when they didn't previously exist, but all it takes is the first step, and the next, and the next... And the next.

That's tenacity.

Monday, 2 April 2012


Sleep... that knits up the ravell'd sleeve of care, the death of each day's life, sore labour's bath, balm of hurt minds, great nature's second course, chief nourisher in life's feast.

So said Shakespeare and a new study just published by Vielife, the health and productivity company that carried it out, suggests that a third of UK workers suffer from poor sleep and are putting their jobs before their health, counter-productive though this might be.

This is echoed by the US's National Sleep Foundation's 2012 American poll, cited recently on the Huffington Post, and as long ago as 2008 the online health site NetDoctor identified lack of sleep, and its causes, as a perennial problem.

Sleep is essential to restore the body and mind. Deep slow-wave sleep, when our brain moves into delta waves, is imperative: this is the restorative sleep that we all need and without it, we suffer both physically and mentally. In order to compensate for chronic lack of sleep, we produce more stress hormones (adrenalin and cortisol) which revs us up and consequently makes it more difficult to sleep. Stress hormones are designed for short, sharp (fight or flight) responses, not for sustaining you against chronic levels of sleep deprivation caused by your lifestyle.

Stress caused by chronic sleep deprivation is also inflammatory (hence the secretion of anti-inflammatory hormone cortisol) - which causes damage to the cells of the body, and permanent long term damage over time. Consistently high levels of circulating cortisol are also a neurotoxin, which may go some way to explain the increase in degenerative brain damage that results in diseases like Alzheimer's. There's also a correlation between chronic sleep deprivation and heart attacks and strokes, not to mention weight gain and diabetes.

It's not easy, though, to reverse those habits that cause chronic sleep problems. Once your stress thermostat is set at high, and you have adjusted to it, it takes time to turn it down to the point where your adrenalin-fueled, pounding heart rate no longer keeps you awake at night. So used are we to the anxious, 3 am thoughts that keep us awake, we are somehow loathe to let them go and our incredible ability to adapt can even make bad habits possible. It's insidious, this slow glide towards a chronic sleep problem and, at first, the lifestyle changes you make may not immediately yield the results you seek. Give yourself time - but persevere, you will benefit greatly from better sleep, both in the short and long term.

To improve your sleep, and consequently your health and productivity, check out the following top tips:
  • physical exercise - factor in a daily dose, even if it's only a 20 minute walk - but avoid excessive exercise late in the day
  • reduce your daily intake of caffeinated drinks - coffee, colas and ban Red Bull - it takes time for an exhausted liver to rid your circulation of caffeine, so cut down gradually but get to a point where you have seriously reduced your intake and nothing caffeinated after 3pm
  • eat regularly and eat slow-release carbs - hungry bodies go into stress mode more easily which equals more stress hormones, which will aggravate sleep problems
  • take time off from work before you go to bed and keep your bedroom work, TV and mobile phone (turn if off, so that 3 am text from a well-meaning 'friend' doesn't wake you!) free
  • keep regular hours - going to bed and getting up the same time every day helps set your internal clock - at least 5 nights out of 7 - you may have to adjust this over time to adapt, but it's worth it - and so are you
  • aim for 7-8 hours which, for most of us, will mean we need to go to bed earlier...

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

What the Dickens?

"Today's children have very short attention-spans because they are being reared on dreadful TV programmes. They are not being educated for long attention-spans." So says Charles Dickens' biographer, Claire Tomalin in yesterday's Independent newspaper.

I disagree. The ability to concentrate is innate, but like a muscle has to be flexed to extend its use, and reading Dickens is in fact a good way of helping our kids to do this.


Because Dickens writes in brilliant, episodic bursts designed to grab the attention with his larger-than-life characterisations, lots of dialogue, vivid descriptions and emotionally engaging plots. He wrote for the ordinary person, not the intellectual or the academic, and his storytelling reflects this making it more accessible than might be imagined at first glance. And, in spite of the possibly daunting extent of his books, the length of each chapter is actually quite short.

Great Expectations, for example, may be 440 pages long, but it's divided into 59 chapters, averaging 7.5 pages for each chapter. Any young person who can sit through a 30-minute episode of the BBC soap EastEnders will have no trouble romping through a few chapters, as a 15 year old I once coached found. He had to read Great Expectations for his English GCSE and was daunted by the task. How are you going to go about this, I asked? A chapter a day, was his initial, doeful suggestion. Pointing out that, given the number of chapters, this would take a while I suggested he read for as long as an episode of EastEnders a day, 30 minutes. Which he did, and discovered that he could easily do it and completed the whole book in his half term (7 day) break. He was delighted with himself, not least because he had enjoyed reading, and reading a classic like Dickens, and consequently found his GCSE work much easier having read the whole book. An additional pay-off.

So let's not patronise our young people and say they don't have what it takes to make reading Dickens possible. Instead, let's actively encourage them to read Dickens' novels for enjoyment and see them extend their ability to concentrate and improve their attention span.

And even if you've not read Dickens by the age of 11, there's still time. Dickens is one of those authors that can be read time and time again. His books are timeless in spite of their historical settings, because like any great fiction it is the lie we give to truth.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

The Whitehall ll study - what to do?

The recently published Whitehall ll study, which focused on 7,000 British civil servants over a 10 year period, showed that amongst this group mental dexterity and brain power deteriorated earlier than was once thought.

There is no doubt that here in the Western world we are, on average, living longer, which creates an associated risk of age-related decline in our mental powers – but the news is not all bad. It was once thought older people lose thousands of brain cells every day, but this has now been contradicted by more recent studies. While neurons in some areas of the brain, like the basal forebrain, do decrease in number as we age, most neurons in the cortex are retained – while the hippocampus is capable of generating new cells until the day we die, if stimulated. Cell process can change, but this fine-tuning may result in gains in wisdom and patience.

While there is a sense of ‘use it, or lose it’ there are some effects of ageing on the brain that we can’t escape, because our bodies are deteriorating too. Our sensory organs – eyes and hearing, in particular – tend to deteriorate, too and with it the inclination to expose ourselves to new stimuli. The decline of other body systems will also have a similar effect. Our digestive system, for example, becomes less efficient at absorbing the nutrients we need from the food we eat, while the endocrine system becomes less efficient at responding to hormonal messages. Brain cells are also extremely sensitive to oxygen levels and, with a degree of arteriosclerosis typical of the ageing process, a reduced blood supply to the brain reduces the oxygen supply. A low-level but continuous oxygen deficiency will lead to a decline in neurons.

Without continuous external stimulation, new brain cell production slows down and with it brain plasticity because, as research has shown, it is the plasticity of the new brain cells that helps old brain cells function better. Neuroplasticity refers to the continued changes that can occur in the brain as the result of exposure to new experiences and learning opportunities, referred to by neurologists as ‘experience-dependent plasticity’. This was seen to occur after injury to the brain, where plasticity allowed new functional and structural changes to take place to compensate for the damaged area. This is what makes rehabilitation so important, and creates the possibility for regaining some, if not all, previously damaged function.

It was previously thought that the adult brain was hard-wired and no longer capable of new development. It had been thought that after critical periods of development, there would be no more change and that the sensory pathways were fixed, even while areas like the hippocampus – concerned with processing memory – continued to produce new neurons. Exposed to enough opportunities, it seems, we go on learning, process what we learn, and apply that learnt experience – all of which encourages the formation of new neurons in the hippocampus.

As we age, we tend to be exposed less to new experiences, become less active, and become less sociable so our opportunities, unless actively sought, for brain stimulation quite naturally decline. We are just less likely to try new things, so overall our opportunities for external stimuli decrease. But when older people are given tests that depend on vocabulary, general information and well-practised activities, they show negligible age-related deterioration. So while both low response times and short-term memory impairment contribute to lower scores on standard tests of intelligence for the elderly, removing this difference equals this out.

The Whitehall study shows that reasoning, memory and verbal fluency were the three main areas of cognitive ability affected. But when I read the following from India Knight’s piece in the Sunday Times on January 8th 2012, describing what she was trying to do all at the same time, one could perhaps see why: “How can we be expected to remember anything at all, when we are multi-tasking to such an insane degree?” she wrote. “As well as wondering what to write about, I was also thinking about my elder son’s university offers; my younger son being late for school; how to re-hang the door of a kitchen cabinet that has come off its hinges; where to collect my daughter from… what to make for supper… I was also on Twitter, having six conversations at once and reading hundreds more, and the doorbell rang twice…” and so she goes on.

Six things that might help:

· stop multi-tasking, focus on one thing at a time

· eat nutritiously 3 times a day, sit down and relax while eating

· exercise – even a daily, 20 minute walk in natural daylight will help

· anxiety & depression create additional stress hormones that are neurotoxic: so address the worries in your life & learn to let go

· maintain good relationships with people you actually see & talk to

· sleep – good restful sleep is restorative, make it a priority every night