Category Archives: Science

Your Detox-debunking article is Bullshit

It’s that time of year when a lot of folks’ thoughts turn to detoxing. It’s also the time when a lot of other folks’ thoughts turn to rubbishing the idea that detoxing could ever be anything beneficial. As a some-time scientist, logical positivist, gleeful-debunker and proud skeptic, you might hazard a guess at where I stand on this. No. I’m firmly on the side of the detoxers.

My anti-anti-detox-bullshit detectors went into overload yesterday when I saw a friend share a Cosmopolitan (I know, I know, fish: barrel) article entitled Why Your Detox Is Bullsh*t. I’ll happily admit I didn’t read the article – life’s too fucking short. My immediate response to the headline was:
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Mindfulness

A while ago, I posted a brief suggestion on how to be happier. Although I haven’t stuck religiously to my own advice (of finding some positives in each day), and there have been one or two times when my mood has dipped, life on the whole continues on an upwards trajectory. Particularly since Christmas I’ve felt fitter, healthier, happier and more productive. In the interests of sharing (and at the risk of painting myself as some sort of a self-help guru) I thought I’d list some techniques that I’ve been trying, and that are working for me. I will write separate posts on willpower and diet/exercise, but for now I will focus on the practice which I have found most useful: mindfulness.

What is mindfulness? Well, I guess you could just call it noticing things. Initially, noticing things about yourself – your breathing, body, mind and feelings – but ultimately mindfulness can be trained and expanded to help you be more aware of everything going on in the world and the people around you. I won’t go into a detailed explanation here of how to practice mindfulness (other than to say that the starting point involves meditation), because there are other resources listed below which do it far better than I could.

I first came into contact with mindfulness way back in 1989, when I was studying Psychology at university. Some of my fellow students got incredibly nervous about the coming exams, and as a result, one of the lecturers organised regular lunch-time workshops on relaxation and other coping techniques. I learned here that breathing deeply doesn’t mean breathing sharply, it means drawing the air all the way into your body; I learned how focusing on the breathing, and reciting simple mantras, can bring one’s mind back to rest from the hubbub of the everyday; and I learned that my own brain has the power to alter the temperature shown on a thermometer held in my fingers. Over the years I’ve drawn on these techniques to try and calm myself in times of stress, and to put the world in better perspective. More recently, the Sheffield Buddhist Centre (disclaimer: I am not a Buddhist) introduced me to the “mindfulness of breathing” meditation (and also the excellent “cultivation of loving kindness” meditation), and I realised that this practice was connected to the deep breathing I had learned years before in Bristol.

Since then, I have tried to find some time in my daily life for meditation; almost invariably I’ve failed. More recently still, Amazon sent me a book to review: The Mindful Manifesto, and it convinced me that, even if mindfulness is not the answer to every problem in the world, it’s a damn good alleviator of almost all of those problems (and, yes, there is scientific evidence backing this claim up in many fields – for example in one study, when people who had suffered three or more previous episodes of depression were given regular mindfulness exercises to carry out, their relapse rate was slashed from 66% to 37%).

But, finding a spare 20 minutes (which usually seems to be about the recommended length for a meditation) in my daily routine has proved impossible. 20 minutes doesn’t sound like much, but mornings are usually a more-or-less frantic dash to get to work in good time, lunch times are unpredictable, often brief (and anyway there is no suitable space at my work where I’d feel comfortable meditating). And evenings are already far too brief to fit in the bits of personal admin, book reading and socialising that I aim to do. So for months I was left high and dry with no meditatory outlets.

…until I decided to ignore the 20 minutes rule (which was never really a rule in the first place). At some point, I decided to give myself a goal of noticing my breathing at least once per day. Oh, and also of smiling and meaning it once per day. It seems like such a nothing of a goal that it oughtn’t to have any effect on life, but like the water dripping that eventually hollows out a cave or builds up a stalagmite, it has. I started by just pausing for a couple of slow, deep breaths while I was in bed in the morning. Then I started slotting additional breaths and smiles into the minute moments of downtime throughout my day: when stuck at traffic lights, waiting for a bus, or just standing for a moment to admire the scenery. And after just a few weeks, I can feel them solidifying into habits. In the meantime, I have also discovered the excellent Headspace website, which offers free 10 minute introductory guided meditations which you can listen to through your computer or phone, at your desk or on a bus. These have built powerfully on my little habit, and turned it into something which occasionally even makes me feel ecstatic, marvellously unburdened.

It’s still early days, but my meditation habit is growing step by tiny step, and daily I feel that my mood and my outlook on the world gets brighter and brighter. Meanwhile, I am working mindfulness into more and more areas of life – using it to keep me focused on my work, to prevent over-eating and drinking, and to be more present and empathic in my relationships with family and friends. I hope that you can find a spare two breaths in your every day to join me and be happy.

Happier

Last year, I read the book 59 Seconds, by Professor Richard Wiseman. It’s wonderful – ostensibly the first “self-help” book underpinned by science. It’s packed full of tips on all sorts of topics – improving your self-confidence sorting out your love life, reducing stress, getting things done… in fact, it’s so full of handy hints that I did what I usually do: read them all with glee and then promptly forgot about all but a few.

One which sticks in my mind is the art of giving gratitude. This is a little like the “positive affirmations” beloved of other self-help books, but unlike vague and even counterproductive affirmations (“every day in every way, you are getting better and better and better”) it’s a specific and proven way of making oneself happier. The trick (established via a study by Robert A. Emmons and Michael E. McCulloch) is to regularly list things that you are grateful for. Not necessarily big things, just… anything: a beautiful sunset, the taste of pale ale, the love of a partner or parent. The reasoning is that we become habituated to the constants in our life (in the same way that, if you work in a bakery, you will come to blank out the smell of freshly-baked bread). By bringing these small positives to the front of mind, we see them afresh and learn to appreciate them more.

Similarly, bringing to mind recent positive experiences (even if they’re as small as finding a parking space or managing to drag oneself out of bed on time) has the effect of reinforcing those experiences. (Other writing exercises which lead to significantly improved mood include writing out your perfect future – something realistic, but in which all of your choices produce a successful outcome – and writing affectionately about somebody you love or care about)

So, for a short while after reading the book I practiced writing things down, but, as already mentioned, I rarely manage to keep something like this going. It slipped back onto the list of “things I really ought to do if I had the time”. Then, just recently, I had a revelation. And here’s how it came about…

I had started using the web service OhLife to keep a diary (OhLife is a little like a standard blog, but entirely private; it emails you once per day to ask “How did your day go?”; you reply with an email saying what you’ve been up to; a building archive of your responses is kept on the web for you to read back through whenever you feel like it). OhLife has got me keeping a diary for the first time in years. But sometimes I can’t be bothered to write anything, or don’t feel like it, or there aren’t enough hours in a day. It was on one such occasion that I was reminded of the diary schedule recommended in 59Seconds. And while I didn’t have time to write, in any kind of detail, how my day had been, plucking out three vaguely positive things from the previous day and sticking them in bullet-points hardly seemed like a chore.

Since then, I have continued using OhLife, sometimes as a diary, other times just as a brief list of positives, however small (“smiled at the postman; heard a bird singing; enjoyed a TV programme”). And it’s early days yet but it seems to be working: I haven’t had any real black moods since I started doing it, and it seems as though my up-times are swinging even higher up. It takes up so little of my time (perhaps two minutes per day) that even the most time-poor person could easily squeeze it in. And I even get some little joy from knowing that, five years hence, I will be able to look back and know on which day the postman’s smile made a difference to my mood.

Buy 59 Seconds from Amazon UK

The Music of the Primes by Marcus du Sautoy

The Music of the Primes by Marcus du Sautoy is an interesting look at the history of mathematical discoveries surrounding the prime numbers. It’s a tough topic though, and the author’s attempts to make it more palatable to non-mathematicians sometimes backfire.
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Wildwood by Roger Deakin

Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees by Roger Deakin is a highly individual book, unique even. Ostensibly about various types of trees and their wood, it combines natural history, diary and travelogue, and is written with passion, enthusiasm and personal flourishes which make it impossible not to like it.
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British parakeets in Teddington

Decided to investigate UK parrots a bit further (my post about them was of neccesity brief, as I uploaded it via my mobile phone). I often see them in Bushy Park and around Teddington in general. Found this guy’s website – he’s doing a study of the UK parrot population. I thought that this was a recent phenomenon (they seem to have taken off [excuse the pun] in Teddington over the last 5-10 years) but apparently there were first wild parrots in the UK in 1855. They first began breeding regularly in 1969 though – same year as I was succesfully bred.