Swim for better brains

For all the reasons one normally hears, I am a long-time fan of regular workouts in the swimming pool. Not the least of these is the old joke about how it’s the second-best exercise known to man – and woman – that can be indulged in the prone position. And the killer reason for many of us whose childhood was lived largely on an ice hockey rink is the low impact experience of slicing through water as against pounding your crumbling knees into oblivion on a frozen lake.

The brain gets its fair share of the benefits of swimming, right up there with the aerobic benefits for the heart and lungs, the suppleness for the musculo-skeletal system, and as an aid to better digestion. Just about everyone who has developed a swimming habit will be familiar with the “yoga for the brain” idea: the calming, meditative benefits of the sounds of the rushing water, and the endorphin effect as the “feel-good” chemicals are released into your system as the aerobic effects kick in.

But how about the process of “hippocampal neurogenesis”? With a little rooting around this turns out to be one of those things you probably know something about, but just didn’t know that it was called that. Yet there remain millions of reasonably well-educated people – and being one of them, I know – who were brought up on the notion that we get doled out our birth-ration of a few billion neurons and then proceed over our three score years and ten to bash them about, pickle them and just generally manage to lose so many of them without any of them ever being replaced that we end up with no hope of finding our car keys.

More recent work in brain plasticity and neurogenesis generally – the process by which new neurons are created in at least part of the brain after birth – has shown that new neurons are created throughout life in the hippocampus: that part of the brain largely responsible for learning and memory. And while the neuroscientific community would declare it still to be early days in understanding precisely the relationship between exercise and the rate at which neurons are created or lost, two points are emerging clearly:

First, exercise studies with rodents have shown greater rates of cell production in the hippocampus, as well as enhanced cognitive performance in those rats that had been exercising; and

Second: almost as important as creating new cells is anything that can stop existing cells from dying so quickly. We know that prolonged stress can increase rates of neurodegeneration, and that swimming is one of our best de-stressors.

For decades now I have been thinking while swimming while not thinking too much about how swimming specifically assists thinking. Hippocampal neurogenesis makes perfect sense.

Drones and depression

Of all the many troubling aspects of the Americans’ emerging policy of waging war via drone missiles, what leaps out and grabs the attention of BAMblog is the impact upon the hearts and minds of the pilots who control these drones, meting out destruction from distances unimaginable just a few decades ago.

For the generations that have grown up since the advent of television, an issue steadily thrumming beneath the surface of the worlds where media and child psychology meet has been the question of the long-term effects on developing brains of prolonged exposure to violence portrayed on television and in films.

From the cartoon calamities of Tom & Jerry through Peckinpah westerns to slasher and snuff movies to the modern phenomena of the darkest video games, the debate has raged. On the one side: concerns about emotional detachment and the diminished capacity for empathy. On the other hand: cries in defence of the freedom of speech along with accusations of insufficient evidence to back up the claims of the other side. And each side disses the other with all the tricks of the rhetorical trade: “they would say that, wouldn’t they!” and so on and on it goes.

That issue remains at best unresolved. But here is a worrying wrinkle, and it’s part of another human foible that is many centuries older than the voyeuristic attractions of onscreen death and dismemberment. The phrase “lions led by donkeys” was coined precisely one century ago this summer and describes the manipulation of keen and fit young men in serving the bidding of embittered old generals whose egos suppurate through the medals they wear on their chests.

So what’s happening? It’s as if these old guys have rationalised that while the question of “video violence” and its effects on young brains remains an open question, why don’t we employ these highly skilled gamers in watching “terrorists” on satellite cameras and, when we have identified a sufficiently credible threat, obliterate it with a drone-mounted missile! Simples . . .

Then out comes the whole Orwellian lexicon of euphemism: the technical-sounding “surgical” strike, the putative absence of “collateral damage”, the no-muss, no fuss elimination of a dangerous insurgent carrying a rifle in some foreign sandpit.

Round about now the truth starts leaking out. The highly pixelated image on the drone pilot’s monitor may as easily have been a young child carrying a shovel as a “terrorist” carrying a rifle. The possibility does not play well in the mind of the pilot. Stories are emerging of diagnoses of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and studies – not only independent but some by the US Air Force itself concluding that several of these stressed pilots are “clinically distressed” – suffering levels of anxiety and depression that is severe enough to spill into their personal lives.

So while the old problems of understanding onscreen violence remain unresolved and therefore uncosted, we have the additional problem of a new variation in the way that old donkeys can put their young lions in harm’s way, along with whatever other collateral damage emerges in the equation.

Ghosts, faith and the presence of mind

One of many glorious lines in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” occurs in the early visit to our hero, Ebenezer Scrooge, by the ghost of his ex-business partner. Old Jacob Marley, “dead these seven years this very night” struggles to convince his old chum that he has actually managed to return from beyond the grave to begin the process of Scrooge’s redemption.

“Why do you doubt your senses,” Marley asks the understandably sceptical Scrooge.

He scoffs in reply that “…a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheat. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”

Scrooge is onto something here. As the novel unfolds, he will discover that his following the evidence of his senses can be an unsteady guide to living a good life when there is a far wider spectrum of phenomena and stimuli from which to determine what is actually sensible. But he is right to begin with a sceptical line.

However much he might be naturally disposed to considering the desirability of being redeemed by this spirit who has just pitched up unannounced, looking passably like someone he hasn’t seen for all these years for the very plain reason that the guy had died way back then, his brain has to process in a very short time a literally frightening array of discomfiting data: what we know about death and dying, about wishful thinking and coincidence, about the efficacy of locked doors and indeed, even the power of adulterated food to cause hallucinations.

To digest all of that data as the ghost clanks into your sitting room and then have the wit to pun on grave and gravy shows a quite considerable presence of mind. And while we all might hope – should hope – that we do not lose our sense of what defines love and human goodness as Scrooge so famously did (until the world of Christmas ghosts appeared to facilitate his redemption), we should celebrate this distinction of mind from brain, and bear in mind that so much of what makes us human, and gives us hope, is the power to take what the brain processes and then reflect, and balance, and judge, and reflect: and apply this simple distinguishing test to any question that puzzles us about the way the world appears to be.

Can we imagine how something might have evolved into a seeming to be, and then having imagined it, should we then believe that the mere seeming makes it so? Or do the tests of evidence and reason demand that we progress – as individual minds, and as a collective culture – beyond believing in things simply because we can imagine them?

For example: for how long can the modern mind allow itself to be imprisoned by an embarrassingly pre-medieval imagining of how the world was created and then allow itself to be bullied by the neo-medievalists into professing belief in this ancient imagining as an act of . . . faith?

What sort of blossoming of neurological evolution is that?