Meditation – ever more popular as studies pile up proving its benefits. However, how do you assure yourself that you gain the same benefits with your meditation practice? Muse Calm is a neurofeedback device that promises accurate feedback on the quality of your meditation.

In this episode we talk about improving your focus and meditation practice with the Muse Calm app. There are many benefits to meditation. Some find that it helps increase their calm. Other benefits include reducing stress, and changing the structure of the brain.

In spite of these benefits, many find it hard to either start or continue meditating. People wonder if they are doing it right, if they are making progress, or if they are getting results.

Muse is a meditation tech device that tracks your brain waves. Using the Muse Calm app, you get feedback on how focused your mind is. Users can see if they are getting the results they want. It also helps you refine your technique in the moment. This feedback and reward system makes it easier to practice long-term.

When you have the ability to know about your own internal state and your own internal motivators…those subparts that truly are the motivations for your actions, you can live a much better, much happier, much more pleasant, calmer life.
– Ariel Garten

Today’s guest is Ariel Garten. She is the CEO and co-founder of InteraXon, the people behind Muse. She has an unusual background as a neuroscientist, a psychotherapist, and a fashion designer. Called the “Brain Guru,” she’s known for integrating art and neuroscience.

Her research at Toronto’s Krembil Neuroscience Centre focused on regenerating the brain’s hippocampal tissue. She’s lectured about neuroscience and meditation at many events, including TED. Recently, Ariel was selected as one of the nation’s top entrepreneurial women by Ernst & Young.

The episode highlights, biomarkers, and links to the apps, devices and labs and everything else mentioned are below. Enjoy the show and let me know what you think in the comments!

itunes quantified body

What You’ll Learn

  • Ariel help found InteraXon to allow consumers to see into their minds (11:10).
  • The Muse device is a consumer EEG to track brain waves and comes with Muse Calm, a mediation app (12:23).
  • There are numerous other applications being developed for the Muse device, including for anxiety and ADHD (14:00).
  • Doctors can incorporate Muse into their practice to help patients (17:18).
  • The Muse device is easy to use, but electricity and movement can cofound the readings (20:20).
  • The Muse Calm app was specifically developed as a focused attention training tool (22:07).
  • By tracking four types of brain waves associated with different activities, the Muse device can give feedback on your focus (24:41).
  • Brain wave activity depends on the person and the time of day, so Muse has you calibrate your baseline every session (26:55).
  • Focused breathing is essential to developing a better meditation and mindfulness practice (28:35).
  • Muse Calm can benefit both experienced and new meditators (30:25).
  • Long-term data from Muse users show that people get better at meditating, and that the device helps with a variety of issues (33:07).
  • Self-awareness lets you know yourself in a more meaningful way (34:54).
  • The skills learned through using Muse Calm can benefit you in other areas besides meditation (37:46).
  • Caffeine can either increase or decrease your ability to focus (39:10).
  • Athletes use Muse Calm to calm their anxiety and improve their performance (40:27).
  • Ariel personally tracks the time she spends doing certain activities, blood oxygen levels, and heart rate (44:44).
  • Her biggest recommendation on using body data is to focus on your goals and choose data metrics that will let you reach those goals (46:15).

Thank Ariel Garten on Twitter for this interview.
Click Here to let her know you enjoyed the show!

Ariel Garten and InteraXon

Tools & Tactics

Tech

  • Muse Device and Muse Calm: The Muse solution combines the Muse brain sensing headband – a consumer EEG (electroencephalography) device – with the Muse Calm app. The app provides direct feedback on your state of mind as you use either its guided meditation exercises or practice your own mindfulness or other form of meditation. The app is intended to reduce stress, increase focus, sharpen concentration, and relieve anxiety. Muse Calm works best on iPhone 4S or later, IOS 8 or higher, and Android OS 4.0.4 or higher. The app does not work on desktop or laptop computers.

Walkthrough How-to and Tips on Optimizing the Muse Calm Score

Screenshots from Damien’s Muse Calm App Results

Example Muse Meditation Session Stats
muse-score-one-session
Session Overview Stats Screen
muse-screen

Supplementation

  • Nootropics: Sometimes called “smart drugs” or “cognitive enhancers,” nootropics are drugs or supplements that enhance mental function. The most commonly known are stimulants, including caffeine.

Exercise

  • Mindfulness Meditation: Mindfulness meditation is the practice of sitting meditation. The ultimate goal is to be unconditionally present in the moment. Research has shown that mindfulness-based meditation can help alleviate anxiety, pain, depression, anger, and promote well-being.

Tracking

Biomarkers

  • Brain Waves: The brain produces a range of waves, each associated with different activities and levels of consciousness. Delta waves (0.1 – 4 Hertz) are seen when you are asleep, and theta waves (4 – 7 Hertz) are seen during dreaming or relaxed states. Alpha waves (7 – 14 Hz) can be seen during both relaxed and focused states, while Beta waves (15 – 30 Hertz) are seen during focused cognitive processing. Gamma waves (30 + Hertz) are associated with consciousness and potentially cognitive process.
  • Blood Oxygen Levels: Blood oxygen is the amount of oxygenated hemoglobin in the blood compared to non-oxygenated hemoglobin. Blood oxygenation is important for physical performance and cognitive function. The normal range of blood oxygen levels at sea level for a healthy adult is 96 – 99%; anything less than 94% indicates that you may have a health condition.
  • Heart Rate: Heart rate is measured in beats per minute. For most adults, normal resting heart rate is between 60 and 100 beats per minute. Better cardiovascular health is associated with a lower heart rate.

Lab Tests, Devices and Apps

EEG Devices

  • Biosemi EEG: An EEG system designed to be used specifically in research settings.
  • Brain Vision actiCHamp: A research amplifier that combines components for all electrophysiological research into one componenet.

Personal Fitness Trackers

  • Pulse Oximeter: Used to assess levels of blood O2. An example of one of these devices can be found here.
  • Up by Jawbone: This product tracks sleep, activity, and nutritional information.
  • Misfit Shine: A waterproof activity logger, the Misfit Shine can be used to track various activities.
  • FitBit: The company makes a variety of different personal activity loggers, including the Fitbit Charge.

Other People, Books & Resources

People

  • Sam Harris: Sam Harris is a neuroscientist and an author on meditation and spirituality.
  • Brian Orser: A Canadian skating champion and Olympic silver medalist, Brian Orser currently coaches competitive skaters.
  • Javier Fernandez: Winner of the 2015 World Championships and the 3-time European Champion. Javier represented Spain in the 2010 and 2014 Winter Olympics
  • Nam Nguyen: A Canadian figure skater, Nam was the 2014 World Junior champion, 2014 Skate America bronze medalist, and 2015 Canadian national champion.
  • Jon Kabat-Zinn: Dr. Kabat-Zinn is the founding Executive Director of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He is also the founding director of the Stress Reduction Clinic. He teaches mindfulness and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), is the author of numerous scientific papers and books.
  • Daniel Goleman: An internationally known psychologist, Daniel Goleman writes about the brain and brain science, including for the New York Times.
  • Dr. B Alan Wallace: Dr. Wallace writes and lectures on incorporating Buddhist contemplative practices with Western science to advance the study of the mind.
  • Dan Harris : Journalist and author on the topic of his personal journey to understand the benefits of meditation.

Organizations

  • Mayo Clinic: a nonprofit medical practice and medical research group based in Rochester, Minnesota. The Mayo Clinic is currently using Muse Calm to reduce stress in cancer patients.
  • Baycrest Health Sciences: A global leader in geriatric residential living, healthcare, research, innovation and education, with a special focus on brain health and aging. Baycrest is currently doing a study on the effect of Muse Calm on blood pressure

Books

  • Waking Up: Recommended by Damien, Sam Harris’ book talks about spirituality without religion.
  • 10% Happier: A book about Dan Harris’ (described by our guest as a “self-absorbed journalist”) as he changes through meditation.
  • Search Inside Yourself: Chade-Meng Tan, one of Google’s earliest engineers, teaches readers the same skills in mindfulness and emotional intelligence that he teaches Google employees.
  • Emotional Intelligence: Daniel Goleman’s book about the importance of emotional intelligence in success.


Full Interview Transcript

Click Here to Read Transcript

(11:07)[DAMIEN BLENKINSOPP]: Ariel, thank you so much for joining us.

[ARIEL GARTEN]: My pleasure, happy to be here.

[DAMIEN BLENKINSOPP]: Could you share a little bit about how you became part of InteraXon and you got to do what you’re doing today?

[ARIEL GARTEN]: Sure. I’m so lucky to be doing what I do today, I have to tell you, I’m really, really thrilled. I founded InteraXon with my co-founders Chris and Trevor about six years ago, it’s actually our sixth birthday tomorrow. Prior to that I was working in a research lab where we used primitive brain computer interface software to allow people to create comfort with their own mind, so they’re actually creating musical experiences.

From there we went on to allow people to control physical stuff with their mind in a very basic way, and this entire time we recognized that we had this amazing technology that allows you to literally peer inside your mind, connect your mind to a device and then do something. So we created InteraXon to really find out what that “something” is that we could do with it and bring a product to market that was ultimately going to help people by.

[DAMIEN BLENKINSOPP]: So, is the innovation with InteraXon, as I understand, it’s because you’re enabling consumers to get in touch with this, whereas a lot of the devices beforehand have been clinical – they’re not exactly very accessible. Is what you’re doing based on trying to make this more widely available, or are there some other specific innovations involved that you’ve brought?

[ARIEL GARTEN]: There are a lot of innovations involved and certainly being more widely available is one of them. The Muse is – for people who don’t know about Muse – a clinical-grade EEG, its seven centers that deliver four channels of data, two on the forehead and two behind the ears. It tracks your brain activity in real time and sends it to your smartphone or tablet.

From there, the application that Muse comes with is basically a meditation tool – focused attention training tool – that teaches you to improve your attention, decrease your stress and learn to self-monitor and self-regulate.

In terms of the innovation, it uses clinical-grade EEG. It’s a dry system, so it’s very sleek, very fun, very easy to wear, and it’s mobile. Our innovation’s around getting EEG to fit easily on any head, getting something that really is just a part of your daily life and it looks like any other wearable device, like a Jawbone UP or a Fitbit.

It’s a little device that you wear as part of your daily life or at home. I sometimes wear mine to parties and people think that it’s actually part of my outfit!

[DAMIEN BLENKINSOPP]: So are you actually using it to track your brain waves while you’re at a party or is it more for decoration?

[ARIEL GARTEN]: I have to admit that I sometimes do that, yes, because I am a neuro-nerd.

(13:34)[DAMIEN BLENKINSOPP]: Well, I’d be interested if you’ve learnt anything about yourself, because I’ve been using it, of course, just for the meditation, with your app Calm since September now. So I’ve been using it specifically for that.

This is basically a consumer EEG device that you’ve made available to people. I understand that you’re going to be able to add other different applications on top of it. Today we have the meditation app called Calm, but there’s potential to add different apps also?

[ARIEL GARTEN]: Yeah, we actually have an ecosystem of hundreds of developers. The SDK is open so anybody can build on top of the Muse platform.

We have people doing things like drowsiness detection, building simple game-based interactions, using it for more complex healthcare needs that are also game-based. There’s a group out of Europe that is doing beautiful applications for kids with anxiety, there’s two groups that are creating lovely applications for kids with ADHD and through gaming they actually improve their ADD/ADHD symptoms. The first one has gone through the first trial.

Then we have over probably 50 different research institutions that we’re working with that are using Muse. Mayo Clinic for example, are just beginning to study the Muse to decrease stress during cancer care; NYE has been using it to look at learning and memory, so true variation across the board – some of them are just fun gaming things, some of them are really serious medical applications.

Then, of course, there is our application that we’ve built called Calm, that comes shipped with the device, and that is a beautiful experience that helps you to understand and improve your own mind.

[DAMIEN BLENKINSOPP]: That’s excellent, I didn’t actually realize that you had as many projects out there. I guess a lot of these we don’t hear about because they’re done more in very specific niche areas, so unless you’re actually looking into the clinical applications…Are these with doctors or are these in universities primarily that it’s being used at the moment? Are there any doctors taking interest?

[ARIEL GARTEN]: We have quite a number of doctors that actually use Muse as a part of their practice. We have a pediatrician who has a Muse room and when kids come in, she can send them to the Muse room to do focused attention training. We have other doctors that recommend the Muse for issues like sleep anxiety and depression. In North America, if you have a naturopath in your clinic, the naturopath can actually sell Muse at the front desk.

Then we have health care institutions that we’re working with to do broad scale studies. Baycrest, it’s a geriatric care facility in Canada, they’re doing a study on Muse’s effect of blood pressure and affect; Mayo, as I said, is doing their study on stress in cancer care patients; I’m trying to think what other ones I’m allowed to mention, but there’s quite a number of them going on.

(16:13)[DAMIEN BLENKINSOPP]: Yeah that’s a lot. I want to talk more about the meditation one now, because that’s the one that’s more widely available to people right now.

For some of these applications, like some of these things other people would be interested in – just like increasing focus and attention, things like that – will these be more widely available or are they going to stay in these niche applications, like with physicians working with them? I guess you’ve got a more private program working with those or is there somewhere someone could go to download these and use them with the Muse headset?

[ARIEL GARTEN]: These are all in very early prototypes that people are building themselves. So from a year forward, you’re going to start to see these things enter into the Muse ecosystem. Some of these studies that are running, like the Mayo Clinic study for example, they’re fusing Muse Calm, using the existing software that comes with Muse, and they’re applying it to these various health care settings.

When a doctor recommends Muse, he’s recommending the existing application, Muse Calm, to help his patients with sleep or anxiety or depression.

[DAMIEN BLENKINSOPP]: So they’re using Muse Calm and then seeing what the impact is on insomnia and some of these outcomes. Is it mindfulness techniques they’re using?

[ARIEL GARTEN]: Yeah, Muse basically teaches you how to meditate. The doctor, if somebody comes in with heart disease, one of the main prescriptions for them is actually change your diet and learn how to meditate so you can manage your own mind and decrease your stress.

Patients will then say, “Okay, how do I do that?” and they walk away and absolutely nothing happens. So now they can come into a doctor’s office and the doctor will say, “Well you should meditate” and frequently they’re saying, “you should meditate and you should use this device. This device is going to teach you how to calm yourself, improve your focus, manage your urges and your cravings, manage the stress in your life, and I will know that you’ve used it because you can come back, you can show me your data, you can show me how you’re improving, we can talk about how this works for you” and it becomes a really actionable tool.

(18:06)[DAMIEN BLENKINSOPP]: Right. The reason I approach this is as soon as it came out, it was because meditation is one of those things that everyone would like to do and everyone would like to do it properly. I’ve been doing it for many years, and honestly, I found it difficult to know how effectively I’m meditating.

I think this is something that a lot of people struggle with when they’re trying to meditate, so it was really, really an interesting device for that reason for me to get hold of.

I want to talk to you a little bit about, first of all, the EEG, you said it’s clinical EEG; so has it gone through specific tests to show that it’s exactly the same output as the bigger contraptions that people are used to when they go into hospital for example, or are there slight differences? What does it mean that it’s clinical EEG?

[ARIEL GARTEN]: We’ve had third parties, hospitals, go through the processes, comparing Muse to Biosemi and to Brain Vision actiCHamp – these are 30 to 50,000 dollar systems that are clinically used – and their analysis came back that it is not statistically different from a clinical-grade EEG.

To be fair, there are only four channels. In those four channels you’re getting the same readings as you would get from a clinical EEG. We can’t see the rest of your head, where you may in a clinical EEG also have sensors on the top of your head and the back of your head.

[DAMIEN BLENKINSOPP]: Typically how many channels are there on a hospital-based machine?

[ARIEL GARTEN]: It depends. There can be anywhere from 19 channels, 32 is common, or all the way up to 128 or 200 and more depending on the application.

[DAMIEN BLENKINSOPP]: Right. So is it sensitivity? What would be the difference between having more or less channels?

[ARIEL GARTEN]: It really depends on where on the head you need to measure and what you’re trying to do. More of anything is typically better, but we found with four channels you can actually get really great data. We’re able to look at the difference between left to right, back to front, we can do some very basic mapping on focal localization – where is the signal coming from in the head – once you have four channels.

For the applications that we’ve been building, this is the perfect channels for the perfect head for the outcomes, and no goopy gel and no wires and no doctor on the other side of the room looking at your data.

(20:20)[DAMIEN BLENKINSOPP]: Right, exactly. I think that’s the important thing to emphasize here, that it’s a lot more convenient than the standard EEG systems – where you have to put gel on your head and it’s kind of messy; this thing, you can just put it on and take it off as you want.

One interesting thing that I noticed: I was wearing headphones – I don’t know if you know this too; I imagine you do – so obviously with a wire, and I found that sometimes I wouldn’t be able to get a signal when I was wearing the headphones and it was irritating me. Then I realized it was because it must have been an electrical signal coming through the wire in the headphones. I’ve got these other air ones now and I don’t get that, so I don’t know if that’s something you’ve seen before?

I just wondered, what kind of confounders could people come across, or things that they should avoid? I think another one is that you shouldn’t be moving, right? You have to be still.

[ARIEL GARTEN]: Yes. EEG is very sensitive. EMG – muscle activity – is much, much louder than EEG, so in order to use an EEG, you have to remain quite still and relax the muscles in your face and neck. That’s the main confounder.

Then if you’re in an insanely electrical environment, you may find that your signal’s having some issues, but overall that should be fine because the electrical lines would be affecting both the ground and the reading channel, so ultimately that should cancel itself out.

But in most environments, it’s pretty good. You can even do it on airplanes. Sometimes when it starts to get really turbulent, then your signal has an issue, but overall, you can use it on the plane.

(21:47)[DAMIEN BLENKINSOPP]: Great. So it sounds like its best suited for meditation, where you’re really not doing anything. If you wanted to increase your focus, like say attention on a task, are there applications that are potentially coming out later that we’ll be able to use to do that?

If you’re working on your computer, you’re moving your head a little bit, from side-to-side, probably not thinking about it much.

[ARIEL GARTEN]: Yeah, actually the best thing to improve your focus on a task is to do the existing application with Calm. It is literally a focused attention training tool; that’s what it’s been built for.

When you Muse, you focus your attention on a single object, and as soon as your mind wanders, you get a notification and then it’s your job to bring your attention back to the single object. The more you’re able to maintain that state of focused attention, the more you’re rewarded by points and birds and all sorts of fun stuff.

I joined a study that we had internally really early on, and after my first two days of Musing, I was doing a long form essay. Typically, these things take me three or four hours to do because I’m distracted, I think about something else, I obsessively check my emails – and this time I started typing and kept typing and I had a slight urge to do something else, now I’m coming back to what I’m doing. It was just phenomenal for my focus.

(22:58)[DAMIEN BLENKINSOPP]: Yeah, there’s a lot of research on the benefits of mindfulness meditation for increasing these things.

I’m wondering, when you wear you device in other scenarios, have you learnt anything interesting from it? You said you would sometimes wear it to parties or anything like that; have you learnt any insights about yourself or anything you’ve learnt from it?

[ARIEL GARTEN]: There’s a couple of really funny examples. I’ve noticed the correlation of my brain activity over the day and with weather. Prior to it raining and when there are changes in pressure systems, I see big decreases in my data activity, decreases in my down activity. I’m like a human barometer in some ways, it’s quite cool.

Another pretty fun story: I was actually on stage and projecting my brain waves live during a presentation that was in Paris. The presentation was in English and then it came to Q & A. Somebody asked me a question in English; my focus spiked a little, I answered, it was not a big deal. I then tried to answer another question in French – being Canadian I marginally speak French and I thought I could show off to the audience – and the audience started to rustle and giggle and I didn’t realize why.

It wasn’t my French, it was my brain activity: my level of data activity had just shot straight through the roof as I was trying to figure out how to answer in French. Then as I started to answer, you could see it come back down again as I’d gone through the processing.

The audience figured this out well before I did – it was behind me, I couldn’t even see it – and so then they started asking me questions in French, playing with my brain activity! Hacking my own brain on the stage, it was really cool.

(24:41)[DAMIEN BLENKINSOPP]: Taking a little bit of a step back; you described a few different waves there, so the Muse is tracking four different types of waves? Could you give a bit of background for the people at home who aren’t used to these different types of waves and what the purposes of them are?

[ARIEL GARTEN]: Sure. The Muse tracks full spectrum EEG activity, from about half a Hertz, which is as low as the EEG is ever going to go, up to EEG that we tend to talk about ending in around 50 or 60 Hertz. 60 Hertz or 50 Hertz when you’re up with activity from the electrical activity in the room, like your lights, etc.

Muscle activity tends to be from 40 Hertz up to hundreds and hundreds of Hertz. EEG is typically broken up into different bands. Delta activity is the lowest wave of activity – that happens predominantly during sleep. Theta activity is from about 3 to 7 Hertz – that happens when you are dreaming or highly relaxed, and also during sleep. Alpha activity is from 8 to 12 Hertz, and that is both a relaxed state and a focused state. Then beta is from 13 up to 35, that’s intense cognitive processing – so if you’re thinking about something, your brain is working.

Then from 35 up, and there’s debate up to how far that up goes – some people say it goes even up to 200 Hertz – we have gamma activity, and gamma is associated with consciousness and a bunch of other very fun things. Sometimes also seen in the meditation literature.

When you go through and you get an EEG, often it’s broken up into these bands. Somebody will say where you’re falling asleep, you know we’re seeing an increase in delta activity, or you’re processing, we can see a lot of beta activity right here, so me trying to speak French, it was very beta. And me relaxing is very alpha.

When we run our algorithms for Muse and we use Calm, what we’re looking for is a state of focused attention and we’re looking a little bit at this band-based activity, but we’re also doing machine learning on your brain activity, and so we’re not saying, “Okay, well, you are in beta activity so you must be focused”; we’re saying, “alright, let’s look closely at what your brain is doing and let’s build a model for your brain that we can then apply much more settled times of thinking and interactions around, rather than just ‘are you in beta? Are you in alpha?'”

(26:55) [DAMIEN BLENKINSOPP]: Right, that’s interesting because I wanted to ask you about how the algorithm worked, just for the people at home. When you first put this application on and you’re going to start a meditation session, it asks you to calibrate, so it asks you to think about some things – so you’re trying to generate beta, I guess, at that time, or the equivalent of beta, like basically, a lot of thinking activity – as a control, and then you try to compare that.

Is it because brains are very personal, is that why you have to take that approach?

[ARIEL GARTEN]: Yes, absolutely. You do a calibration, so we’re looking for the baseline that day. We’re not just looking at beta; we’re looking at all sorts of different things in your brain at that moment. Then we’re seeing how that compares with two sessions that you’ve done previously and to the session that you’re about to do.

We’re able to see a real snapshot of your brain at that moment in time, because not only does your brain differ from day-to-day, it also differs at different points of the day, it differs based on how much caffeine you’ve had, how much sleep you’ve had, the environment around you at that moment.

So we take all of that into account looking at your brain activity, and deciding how you’re going to respond to the algorithm experience.

[DAMIEN BLENKINSOPP]: Basically, it gives you a score – it gives you percentages of calm. Would that vary, would it be relative for each session? Is that what you’re saying – say it was a different time of day or something like that, it will say “for this time of day you’re basically doing well”?

[ARIEL GARTEN]: Yes. Your calm score is relative to your calibration.

[DAMIEN BLENKINSOPP]: The immediate calibration immediately before?

[ARIEL GARTEN]: Exactly, you do calibration every session.

(28:35)[DAMIEN BLENKINSOPP]: Right. I guess the important thing there is like when you’re given the instructions to think about things, you have to do that properly, otherwise that won’t work as effectively?

Mindfulness-based meditation is a type of meditation that has the most research on it. I don’t know if you’ve compared it to mantra or some of the other types of meditations and if you specifically chose mindfulness because there was more research? Could you talk a little bit about why you made the decisions to design the application the way it is?

[ARIEL GARTEN]: Sure. The application that you’re getting is specifically a focused attention training focus, focusing on your breath. This action of focusing on your breath tends to be a really first-line thing that you learn when you learn mindfulness and you learn to meditate.

Once you build your state of focused attention, you can then start to apply it to anything, and you can move your attention around your body and do a body scan for example, or you can move your attention around your environment and do open monitoring, or listen for your own thoughts and put your attention on your own thoughts.

With Muse you’re really doing a core exercise that teaches you this muscle of attention and builds it so that you can then go on through the range of experiences. The application offers a range of teachings that are available in mindfulness and meditation.

The application that we’ve built works very specifically with the focus on your breath, so it doesn’t work with the body scan, it doesn’t work with the mantra meditation, though we will have more exercises like body scans being added to new Calm.

(29:57)[DAMIEN BLENKINSOPP]: Great, and you’ve just actually come out with an upgrade of the original app. The thing I noticed, it used to have difficulty levels, and I think they’ve disappeared now. Is that correct? Or are they still there and I just can’t find them?

[ARIEL GARTEN]: Yes, difficulty levels have disappeared, and I think we’ve replaced it with volume on the wind.

[DAMIEN BLENKINSOPP]: Oh really, that’s interesting. So are there some things you’ve learnt over the past six months that you integrated into the new app which were interesting?

[ARIEL GARTEN]: Absolutely. There are two classes of people who love Muse: one is experienced meditators, and we would hear things from them like, “We don’t want the volume, we don’t want the real time feedback, we just want to see after the fact how we did.” So we now have a volume switch so you can turn off the different sounds, so less to be rewarded by a sound or it’s going to your score at the end.

The other class of people who love Muse are people who kind of know they should meditate but really have no idea about how once they’ve started and it’s really hard to stick to a practice. One of the things that we’ve really learned from that audience is about motivational architecture and what’s required to encourage them into the experiences of meditating with Muse and how you create an experience of motivating and sticking – you just want to come back and do it and you just want to do it every day, and before you notice, you’ve built yourself a meditation practice and that thing that you know you should do is a thing that you’re actually doing.

[DAMIEN BLENKINSOPP]: Yeah, so you’ve integrated a little bit of gaming in there. The birds are still there, as well as the win?

[ARIEL GARTEN]: Yes.

[DAMIEN BLENKINSOPP]: Okay, great. So you had these birds come along when you were being really good and you were being calm for a while and they start chirping, so I think that’s one of the things you’re saying you can turn off the volume on the birds – is that it?

[ARIEL GARTEN]: Yes.

[DAMIEN BLENKINSOPP]: Because some people were saying that was a distraction for them, the way they like to meditate; whereas other people need that feedback to know they’re doing good, as you say, for motivation.

[ARIEL GARTEN]: Exactly, so the vast majority of people love birds, and I will get random texts out of nowhere like, “My grandfather just tried Muse. He got 87 birds,” which is a lot. And people just get very excited about birds. Then every now and again, I hear somebody say, “I hate those damn birds. I’m really, really calm and then they start going.”

[DAMIEN BLENKINSOPP]: Right. Because there is just that little temptation to start listening to the birds, which I guess is starting to interfere with the mindfulness. But in order to add neurofeedback, I guess you need…

[ARIEL GARTEN]: If we’re talking about the birds for a second, because that temptation to listen to the birds is actually part of the experience. Everybody who complained and said, “Those damn birds,” it’s kind of funny because those damn birds are actually part of what’s challenging you.

The goal of mindfulness and meditation, you will ultimately be triggered by something, you might be rewarded by it, and then you get really excited about this reward and then the reward leaves. You’re trying to move to a place of equanimity, where you are not pulled either towards the positive reaction or negative reaction towards something. So these birds are actually there to subtly reinforce these lessons of equanimity.

But if somebody’s not ready for them, you can turn off the volume.

[DAMIEN BLENKINSOPP]: Right. As you get better and you get more birds, you’ll basically be more challenged?

[ARIEL GARTEN]: Yes, and more rewarded, which is also your challenge to not get excited by those rewards.

(33:07)[DAMIEN BLENKINSOPP]: Yeah. I was wondering have you learnt things from using the app, because it’s been out for a while now and I guess you have a lot of data from people. I don’t know if there’s anything you can talk about that you’ve learnt in terms of how people learn and how long does it take to learn to get better at mindfulness-based meditation, or anything like that.

[ARIEL GARTEN]: One of the things that we’ve learned is that people get better. We can see people’s Calm scores and how they improve over time and track those improvements. It’s astonishing; people really stick with it and get better.

We’ve done some fun diagnostics, which is the Calm City. I will check back and send you an email and let you know which city it was. That was a fun little study that we did.

We’ve also learned of the different ways that this can make an impact in people’s lives. I’ve gotten tremendous emails from people. The first one I ever got was a girl who was 27 years old with ADHD. She’d stopped taking medication four years ago and she said within three or four days of using it her parents had noticed a difference. Then within three weeks of doing it, this to her was not a game changer; it was a life changer.

When you give people this small ability to learn that they can actually manage and direct their own mind, extraordinary things start to happen in their lives. If you go and look in our Amazon comments, there’s a woman’s husband with cancer and she was using this to manage the stress of his cancer. There’s another woman who had heart palpitations and was using Muse to manage her heart palpitations and she stopped having them and stopped taking her medication.

When I hear those things, I strictly say, “No, keep taking your medication. It’s not a medical device. It’s not indicated for this.” The things that people are discovering about themselves and how they can learn to manage themselves through non-medical easy to implement tools is pretty amazing.

(34:54)[DAMIEN BLENKINSOPP]: I know from your TED presentation that you’re a big believer in building self-awareness. Could you talk a little bit about that and what it means to you?

[ARIEL GARTEN]: Self-awareness is about being able to know yourself in ways that are meaningful to you. There’s a whole lot of navel gazing that one can do that’s not necessarily useful, and quantified self tends to get very caught up in data. To me, the data is not the important thing, it’s our own human experience. I think data often takes us away from that human experience, which is why we wanted to create a tool that just was based on real time feedback so that you can learn about yourself in real-time in this way that’s really intuitive, really quite emotionally lovely.

As a psychotherapist, and with the [psychotherapist part starting to interact on –??], my job is to help people understand themselves. We have so many things that govern our reactions every day that we have no idea about.

A cliché example, that fight that you had with your boyfriend that comes in and causes you to snap at your boss or your co-worker or your child; you don’t know why is the thing that causes stress and grief and strife and undoes the lovely world that most people are trying to build for themselves. When you have the ability to know about your own internal state and your own internal motivators – these motivators that previously had been secret motivators, hiding deep in your subconscious and below the surface, and just guiding your actions without you even realizing it – when you have the ability to begin to dig in there and to decompose your actions into those subparts that truly are the motivations for your actions, you can live a much better, much happier, much more pleasant, calmer life.

You’re not creating drama and distress and perpetuating discomforts that are your own internal discomfort by putting them on somebody else in ways that you may not have previously realized.

(36:55)[DAMIEN BLENKINSOPP]: Thank you for that because it’s something I feel is very important too, and obviously the Muse device can help to give you these kinds of insights. Do you recommend people do it at a specific time in the day?

One of the things I’ve noticed is that my morning sessions are always a lot calmer than my evening sessions, basically after I’ve been working and doing things like that. Is that very typical? Is that the kind of thing that you would expect?

[ARIEL GARTEN]: Often people’s morning sessions are calmer than their evening sessions, yes. You can do Muse anytime, so the right time to Muse is anytime when it fits best into your day. Some people do it in the morning and set themselves up for the day; other people take it to work and will use it when they have a little break and they need to focus, or when they’ve had an issue and they just need to calm down; and then another set of people do it in the evening to shed the day, or right before bed to improve their sleep.

(37:46)[DAMIEN BLENKINSOPP]: You were talking about it earlier, if something upsets you in your life and maybe you’re not that aware of how much of an influence it’s having on you. Have you heard of case examples where people are using it just to get back in touch with themselves after something? It could be maybe they had a big dose of caffeine and they’re not sure how much of an effect that has on their ability to focus and relax and so on, or maybe it’s when they’re in contact with a certain boss which they find a bit disagreeable – have you heard of examples where people are using it just to touch base with themselves?

[ARIEL GARTEN]: Yes, and to be clear, Muse is not going to tell you that you’re sad, or Muse is not going to tell you that you don’t like your boss; all you’re getting is this feedback of focused or not focused.

But it’s that action of learning to quiet your mind and look inside yourself, and that action of knowing that you can actually observe your own thoughts and take the time and space internally to focus on your own thoughts, that leads to those insights.

And that leads to this state that in the past where your boss had said something really annoying and then you feel the anger rise, you don’t just immediately jump on him and respond the way that’s probably going to threaten your job; you’re able to take the time to then recognize what’s going on internally and respond appropriately.

But we have a bunch of quantified selfers who do fun things like track their neuro response to caffeine, etc.

[DAMIEN BLENKINSOPP]: Are there other thing, like caffeine, which you would say typically disturb it that people should be aware of? Because if they’re using this and they’re upset with their scores because they’re not getting what they should be, are there other things that they could be doing in their life that might be interfering?

[ARIEL GARTEN]: Caffeine – we actually have a relatively personal interactional score. It’s not only the bad thing, and for some people, caffeine really helps you focus. For other people who are over-caffeinated, caffeine makes it very difficult to focus. So it’s not yes or no caffeine, it’s the dose that is actually making you productive.

[DAMIEN BLENKINSOPP]: That would be interesting. Potentially your score in Muse might translate to productivity in some areas as well, so they could tell if caffeine was having a positive.

We all take caffeine and we think it helps, but I think it could help in some situations for some people, and for others it may not be helping – like making us more distracted. So that could be a correlation there.

[ARIEL GARTEN]: Yes, potentially. It’s something to think about. A fun experiment for somebody to run.

(40:11)[DAMIEN BLENKINSOPP]: Great. Are there any others that you can think of offhand, which people could be aware of that might interfere or have an influence?

[ARIEL GARTEN]: Anything that has really aroused you that day, so if your heart is beating and you’re anxious about something, it’s going to show up in your Calm score and that’s what Calm has been teaching you to calm back.

(40:27)[DAMIEN BLENKINSOPP]: How about exercise? Would that have an impact?

[ARIEL GARTEN]: I haven’t run an experiment looking specifically at the effect of exercise on Muse. But, we have quite a number of athletes who use Muse, so we know a lot about the experience of Muse on exercise.

We’ve done programs where you Muse prior to your workout, and people report significantly better workouts – they’re able to push themselves further.

Then we have a good handful of Olympic athletes who’ve been using Muse. Most recently I was talking to you may not know him, he’s a Canadian skater – it’s really valid, and it’s exciting here. Brian Orser is a Canadian Olympic skating championship and he’s been training two amazing young skaters, Javier and Nam. They have been using Muse prior to the World Championships, which just happened a few weeks ago. Javier came in gold in the World Championships after Musing, which is amazing.

[DAMIEN BLENKINSOPP]: It’s competitive advantage!

[ARIEL GARTEN]: Yes, definitely a competitive advantage. And Nam is 15 or 16 years old and I went and I spoke to him after his World Championships. We sat down and he was telling me, I’ve no idea how he’s been using it, but he said that he Mused every day. Prior to Musing and prior to being introduced to me, he would be really distracted and nervous and felt all these incredible social pressures on him being so young and having to perform.

He’d be Musing all the time to get that down and to learn to manage his own anxiety. He’d Mused 15 minutes before every performance, and he Mused 15 minutes before his performance at the Worlds, where he came in fifth at the age of 15 or 16 in the World Men’s Skating Championship.

I heard this a week ago and I was overwhelmed, kind of beside myself.

[DAMIEN BLENKINSOPP]: That’s amazing. There’s so much research on mindfulness proving these kinds of things. It’s great to hear examples where it’s actually happening in the real world.

For the people at home, I guess there are a few things that could be influencing that. First of all, neuromuscular control is basically driven by the brain, so even people lifting weights, they can do better. Or people using nootropics for example, as well – if you’re improving your brain, you’re going to have more control and you’re going to be basically stronger.

Then you’ve got all the coordination and these complex sports and everything like that, which obviously is a lot more brain driven as well. So, there’s definitely a very direct relationship there.

Thank you for those examples, it’s really interesting. If someone was looking to learn more about your topic, are there any books or presentations on the subject, like your TED talk for instance, or is there anything else related to the Muse and some of its applications we could look up?

[ARIEL GARTEN]: You can always go to our website, choosemuse.com. We’re going to go through a website rebuild pretty soon with more and more information and resources there for you.

Then of course there is the entire canon of mindfulness and meditation research. I’ve loved talks by folks like Jon Kabat-Zinn, he’s got a good-old [unclear 0:43:26] school pep talk that teaches you about learning about mindfulness and the impact it can have in your life.

If you’re looking for something really, really accessible, Dan Harris’ book “10% Happier” is really fun. It tracks a journalist, narcissistic, self-absorbed journalist who changed through mindfulness, so lots of really interesting stuff there.

[DAMIEN BLENKINSOPP]: Right, thank you for that. If people want to connect with you, are you on Twitter? What’s the best way to connect with you and follow what you’re up to?

[ARIEL GARTEN]: You can find me on Twitter, @ariel_garten. If you type in Ariel Garten you’ll find me. And Muse is on Twitter @choosemuse.

[DAMIEN BLENKINSOPP]: Okay, great. Is there anyone besides yourself you’d recommend in this area, basically like you’re saying, I guess those references you already gave out would fit that.

[ARIEL GARTEN]: Yeah, sure. Meng from Google wrote an amazing book, “Search Inside Yourself.” It’s sort of an engineer’s perspective on mindfulness. Alan Wallace is always a great one to look into. Daniel Goleman has a great book on focus that ties neuroscience and mindfulness and focus. I can keep going!

[DAMIEN BLENKINSOPP]: It definitely sounds like you’re passionate about this stuff. I’m also interested in just more general, like whether it’s with Muse and meditation or in more general, are there metrics or biomarkers you track for your own body on a routine basis, and things that you use to keep an eye on yourself and you take an interest in?

[ARIEL GARTEN]: For myself, as I said, I’m not into data-driven quantification in the same way because for me it’s about having an actual human experience and data is there to support it. Definitely I’m aware of the amount of exercise that I do, I don’t count my steps but I count the amount of time that I spend in activities like walking, dancing, ice skating, climbing, etc.

[DAMIEN BLENKINSOPP]: Is that through a device?

[ARIEL GARTEN]: I just have weekly goals for myself, and I just do it on a calendar basis.

[DAMIEN BLENKINSOPP]: Are there any lab tests or anything like blood markers that you look at from time to time? Or is that awkward for you?

[ARIEL GARTEN]: Oxygen levels was one I was having fun with for a while. I began very interested in a relationship between oxygen and both cognitive and physical performance. I have a CO2, just a little blood oxygen reader that you clip onto your finger that connects to my iPhone. I’ve tracked my blood oxygen levels in really fun places, including up in planes, and it’s also interesting to then start to look at people of different ages in the same situation and track their blood oxygen levels and see how they’re doing relative to myself. And of course, I’ve got the ones like heart rate.

[DAMIEN BLENKINSOPP]: Yeah, I’ve played around with that a little bit as well. I didn’t really find a lot of change in myself; did you find some interesting things about that in different situations? I didn’t try on the plane one though, which would be the more extreme one, right?

[ARIEL GARTEN]: Definitely with altitude the change becomes very, very clear. Then when I’m fatigued, I see a change in my blood oxygen levels.

[DAMIEN BLENKINSOPP]: What would be your number one recommendation to someone trying to use data to make better decisions about their health, performance or longevity, whatever they’re interested in?

[ARIEL GARTEN]: I would say focus on your goals and choose data metrics that are going to directly lead you to those goals. If fitness is a goal, your step counting is definitely the easiest and simplest way to start. And for absolutely any individual who wants to motivate themselves to lose a little weight and get a little fitter, get a Fitbit, Jawbone UP, Misfit Shine, any of the above and just start to engage in the understanding of your activity and have an impact on your life and simply be active, beginning that correlation will be motivating you to improve.

[DAMIEN BLENKINSOPP]: Yeah, it sounds like you said the greatest benefit is accountability, like a motivation for a lot of these devices.

[ARIEL GARTEN]: Yes, for level one, yes. If you are an athlete in the 90th percentile, you’re well beyond motivation and you’re really trying to optimize. For the vast, vast majority of individuals, motivation is the thing that’s most required to get you to engage in any these mindfulness activities.

[DAMIEN BLENKINSOPP]: Great Ariel, thank you for that, it’s interesting. I certainly agree; a lot of it’s about motivation and accountability, making sure you’re moving in the right direction.

Thank you for all of your tips on Muse and for giving us some insights into how it works.

[ARIEL GARTEN]: My pleasure. Thank you very much for the time. I’m happy to be on the podcast with you.

Leave a Reply

We strive for the best mental performance but how do you know if your routines (sleep patterns, coffee habits, etc.) are helping or hurting? The Quantified Mind is a web-based project that allows you to quickly check your cognitive function in a few minutes.

In previous episodes, we have discussed and identified ways to improve our mental performance. Most recently, we explored Brain Training with Adrian Owen in episode 27. Many people try to improve their cognitive function with interventions such as caffeine, Nootropics, and different sleep patterns to try and improve clarity of thoughts and performance of the mind.

How do we know that these things are paying off? We could just be misleading ourselves and wasting our time on something which may, at some point, be proven to have little or no benefit. In this episode, we look at a more usable, time efficient tool which could be used to decide whether or not the caffeine in this coffee is helping your mental performance. The Quantified Mind is a way to objectively check the value of our attempts to “boost our brainpower”.

[On using Quantified Mind to Check Mental Performance]
I’d say even just one minute [at a time] and pick one test or maybe two minutes and two tests, and that’s it.
– Yoni Donner

One of the people behind the Quantified Mind project is Yoni Donner. For years he has been interested in life extension and is searching for an answer using science and data. Therefore, he conceived, designed, and currently leads this web-based tool. Yoni and his team (including Nick Winter, developer, and Stephen Kosslyn, Former Professor at both Stanford and Harvard) have created numerous opportunities and experiments through their website which anyone can use to help them analyze their own mental performance and cognitive capabilities in a variety of different ways.
Yoni also works at Google on artificial intelligence and has published a few papers through his work with Stanford University.

The episode highlights, biomarkers, and links to the apps, devices and labs and everything else mentioned are below. Enjoy the show and let me know what you think in the comments!

itunes quantified body

What You’ll Learn

  • There are two stages to be used with the Quantified Mind testing: first a control of normal cognitive decline of an individual and then the effects of intervention on cognitive decline (8:01).
  • There is little to no practice effect involved with these cognitive tests (15:00).
  • Yoni Donner compares his tests with other mental performance tests such as Lumosity (16:35).
  • Yoni Donner shares his opinion on brain training (18:13).
  • The Quantified Mind includes tests that look at reaction time, motor speed tests, visual abilities, working memory, learning and executive functions (23:21).
  • Extra care has been taken to make sure the Quantified Mind experiments and tests are scientifically sound (26:24).
  • Yoni Donner explains the growth of the project and number of users who participate in the tests (27:30).
  • Within the tests, time of day cognitive differences and different intervention effects (such as coffee, etc.) can be analyzed while you test yourself (30:17).
  • Yoni Donner suggests that you only need to do one or two minutes of testing at a time (32:00).
  • Yoni Donner talks about his own personal experiments with the Quantified mind testing, including his suggestion to plan the activities of your day around your cognitive ability during different times of day (33:01).
  • Discussion of coffee as an intervention to improve cognitive performance (40:26).
  • Testing should be individualized for each user; many use these tests to track their aging process (46:04).
  • Discussion of Nootropics, especially Modafinil, and self-testing mental performance when using neuro enhancing drugs (49:20).
  • The Quantified Mind has been very active in the scientific community to help provide data and tools for researchers (51:25).
  • How Yoni Donner tracks biomarkers on a routine basis to monitor and improve his health, longevity and performance (54:37).
  • Yoni Donner’s one biggest recommendation on using body data to improve your health, longevity and performance (57:44).

Yoni Donner and the Quantified Mind

Tools & Tactics

Brain Training

Supplementation

  • Nootropics: also called smart drugs and neuro enhancers. These drugs and supplements are used to improve cognitive function and productivity.
    • Modafinil: A currently popular nootropic that is primarily sold under the brand name Provigil. It is a drug which promotes wakefulness and alertness in an individual and is rumored to be the inspiration behind the film Limitless with Bradley Cooper and Robert DeNiro. It requires a prescription, although generic drugs with alternative brand names are also being sold on the Internet.
    • Piracetam: Piracetam has also used to increase cognitive performance and protect the brain in diseases like alzheimers. It is one of nootropics with the longest history of use and the most research on it.

Diet & Nutrition

  • Bulletproof Coffee: Created by Dave Asprey, Bulletproof Coffee is a combination of low mycotoxin coffee beans, grass-fed butter, and MCT oil (or Brain Octane (a concentrated form of MCT) which is said to improve cognitive performance. In 2012, Dave Asprey and the Quantified Mind paired up to conduct a study to test the components of Bulletproof Coffee, as mentioned in this episode. Some information regarding the study can be found here. The outcome seemed to suggest that the butter had no impact, but that taking ‘low mycotoxin coffee’ as compared to standard Starbucks coffee did have performance benefits.

Tracking

Lab Tests, Devices and Apps

  • Quantified Mind: from this home page you can sign up to use these cognitive tests and join experiments that other users are also participating in through the project.
  • CANTAB: these are alternative neuropsychological tests, developed originally by the University of Cambridge, that were mentioned by Damien in the podcast.
  • Stroop Testing: the Stroop effect is used to process attention and processing speed. The Stroop test is a common tool in psychology used to assess reaction time.
  • Cambridge Brain Sciences: This website offers a battery of free mental and cognitive performance tests. These tests are designed to assess your state of cognitive performance at one point of time and to be done infrequently (requires 15 to 30 minutes to complete).

Other People, Books & Resources

People

  • Stephen Kosslyn: A former Harvard and Stanford psychologist, Kosslyn collaborated with Yoni on the creation of Quantified Mind.
  • Christine L. Peterson: Peterson is the co-founder and past president of Foresight Institute. She is an advocate for nanotechnology and life extension technology. She was an instrumental part of the Personalized Life Extension Conference mentioned by Yoni Donner in this episode.
  • Peter Thiel: Peter Thiel is a billionaire investor businessman. He is the co-founder of Paypal and one of the early investors of Facebook. He has recently taken interest in anti-aging solutions and life extension technologies.
  • Roy Baumeister, PhD: A social psychologist who is currently a professor at Florida State University. He was influential with his work on willpower and has been published over 500 times. In the late 90’s he authored a paper commonly referred to as the “cookie and radish” experiment. He was mentioned by Damien after Yoni Donner discussed ego depletion in the podcast.
  • Adrian Owen: Mentioned by Yoni as one of the first study authors on Brain Training. We discussed brain training with Adrian in episode 27.

Organizations

  • The Human Cognition Project (HCP): this is the home page for the Human Cognition Project which is also associated with Lumosity. This project aims to provide researchers with the data necessary to pursue research questions and hypotheses regarding human cognition.

Other

  • The Science page: this page offers a detailed description of the science behind the Quantified Mind project and cognitive testing. For further information, there is a list of references at the end of the page.
  • Lumosity blog: this is the blog hosted by Lumosity that provides up-to-date information about the science behind brain training and general updates about Lumosity itself.
  • HCP peer-reviewed published papers list


Full Interview Transcript

Click Here to Read Transcript

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Hey Yoni, thanks so much for coming on the show.

[Yoni Donner]: Thanks so much for inviting me. It’s a pleasure.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Great. So, we before we get into it, I wanted to hear a little bit about your first got involved in your interest area. How did the Quantified Mind come about? Was this a mini project? Was it something you were interested in, at first, doing for yourself?

[Yoni Donner]: Yes. It started with a pretty different context. I always wanted to cure aging since I was pretty young.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Nice.

[Yoni Donner]: And I still do.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Yeah, I’m there.

[Yoni Donner]: Turned out to be a somewhat more difficult problem. But no, the original thought was that, perhaps, the most accessible part of aging that we can start working on is the aging of the brain. Especially since that sort of leads everything else and there were all of these reports of these things that might be useful.

And since I had lots of friends who were interested in this, and they often annoyed me when they massively consumed blueberries because they thought they would help, I really looking for some scientific backing of all these potential interventions. And it turned out there isn’t actually much. Most of the stuff that goes into newspapers is completely not validated, and we wanted to do it ourselves.

So, I just looked at “what can science tell us about how to measure cognitive performance,” and it turns out that they’ve been very good at measuring the differences between people, but they’ve done almost nothing to measure the inter-individual variation.

So, it’s very hard to compare a person to themselves under many different conditions for several reasons. So, the tests were not built for this purpose at all so I kind of have to adapt them to make them test the person several times. And also they’re very inefficient so sometimes you take a long time to get the data or you need a psychology student to get the data for you.

And it was a disappointing finding that I realized, if I really want it done, I have to build it myself. Especially since I’ve never really enjoyed building websites or anything of that kind. I really just like analyzing data and writing over convoluted algorithms.

But with some help from some friends in the first stages, we got this going, and since then it has actually been mostly used for other purposes. Namely for people to test more acute interventions rather than long term processes. And that’s fine. Whatever is useful is great.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: So, you’re using it for the long – are you still using it for the aging? You want to maintain, or you want to improve over time, your brain responses?

[Yoni Donner]: There are several stages. The first one is simply to validate that we can accurately track the process of cognitive decline. This would be the control.

Once that is established, we want to start looking at the most promising interventions. So whether they be physical exercise or even jogs. Although I’m not generally a huge fan of jogs, simply because they seem to have more side effects than positive effects. But yeah, so we did make some progress.

Actually, only the last year, I finally managed to get some collaborators to recruit subjects and do a longitudinal study within person aging. So that is all very new now. Now, this is at this stage of trying to get more researchers for a slightly longer pilot study because this was sort of to establish the methods and verify that we get clean data and so on.

What I can say is we definitely have seen, on the data that’s been collected randomly with people who opted in to provide their age, that the classical effects of aging are very, very clearly seen. So, at least in that sense, all of the stuff that we’ve known has been replicated.

But now I mostly rely on working with researchers who can actually do the interventions. So it would be great, for example, to do a caloric restriction study in humans.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Right, and see if that has an impact. But I’m guessing you’re going to have to do this over five years or something to see anything significant?

[Yoni Donner]: So, that is a great question. So the whole point was to not wait five years. So Quantified Mind was built to be so precise that we could actually see effects given a reasonable sample size with a much shorter amount of time. Because, obviously, no single individual will reliably show decline over two months even if they’re over 70 or over 80 years old.

But it’s an average effect that is quite strong. So there is some effect size that you could say over a month of your life there is an average decline. It’s probably very, very small compared to, for example, random daily variation. That’s why, if you have a sufficiently large number of measurements, you could actually see that.

And I have a lot of data by now about the accuracy of this – how well [unclear 10:06] measures the actual observability. So, the reliability of the test is actually very, very high. And you got almost zero noise in the measurement itself so you’re just fighting against the noise in the actual cognitive function. So really people would vary more day to day more than they would on average over a month. But that’s fine since we average over that eventually with enough data.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Right. Well this is really cool because I didn’t know that this was the original purpose of it, and actually, this is what I’ve been interested in lately. I’ve been interested in mild cognitive impairment and I talk about cognitive decline.

And I’ve actually had some scans showing some nasty structural changes due to something I went through a couple of years ago. So I want to kind of repair that and get it back up to speed. So, it’s one of the reasons I’ve – and when you’re say anti-aging, you really think about the brain.

I’ve also thought, for me, the two areas that seem most important to me are energy and the brain. Brain so that we can carry on thinking and walking around. And if you don’t have energy you can’t really get stuff done either. Because once your productivity is gone you can’t work on any of this stuff.

[Yoni Donner]: Yeah, that’s true. Actually, what you said now is almost an exact quote from the first quote I gave in proposing this project in an aging conference four or five years ago.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Oh wow. Cool.

[Yoni Donner]: So yeah, completely agreed on this.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Well you’ll have to tell me afterwards about the anti-aging conferences. Are there any good ones that you like or prefer? Because I’m sure the audience is interested in this stuff too.

[Yoni Donner]: I don’t if it’s still going on. I have seen anything about this in a while, but it was called the Personalized Life Extension Conference. It was run by Christine Peterson who now does Foresight though. Maybe she doesn’t even do that anymore.

It was very cool. I got a slot there to just propose this project that was not even close to existing yet. It was just an idea, but I put on a spiel on all of my belief in why we need a new tool and what’s the problem with existing measurements.

And I have to say, at least I got one thing in my life right, that I did build it exactly the way that I proposed it. But it was nice. I got to talk to Peter Thiel about this right after my talk and –

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Oh awesome.

[Yoni Donner]: He set me up with one of his people to actually discuss funding for the project. Of course that never materialized because I’m not a business person. So I never follow up on business talks.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Oh well it’s a great intro to Peter Thiel as that’s quite a big name. Might come in useful to you later maybe with the tool. So I’d like to talk about what future plans that you have for the tool later. But for now, could we take a step back? Because you’ve said that this tool is quite different to a lot of the others out there. And some of the ones, when I contacted you, I was thinking about, is things like the – we had Adrian Owen who developed the Cambridge Brain Sciences set of tests, if you know those. We had him on the podcast a little while ago.

[Yoni Donner]: They got really famous from publishing in [unclear 12:54].

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Publishing, and with the study which showed the brain training wasn’t effective. Was it that one, or something else?

[Yoni Donner]: That may have been that. There was one study that was really famous that I think Adrian Owen was the first author on.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Yeah. It might have been that one. Anyway so, and in this CANTAB, which is supposedly the best validated tool, is the reason it’s not relevant to you as CANTAB is because it’s looking at the differences between people rather than a person in time, as you explained earlier?

[Yoni Donner]: Well each of the existing tools has some substandard features and some that are not. So, I should be more clear. There have been mainly three axes of scaling that the Quantified Mind is supposed to provide that have not been existing altogether in existing tools.

So one of them is just something that Lasuis Claviger [check 13:41] cross experiments. It’s very easy for a researcher to just set up a new experiment and get a very validated and standardized set of tests and tools for analysis.

So, part of this is, for example, providing easy access to the entire raw data through APIs, but in doing things like randomizing subjects into groups or very easily controlling how the experiment is applied. And they also provide all kinds of algorithms for making data analysis easier and distinct outliers very reliably. So this helps scale across experiments.

And then there’s the [unclear 14:13] in person component, which simply was optimized to begin with in this test. So, all the tests have been adapted to be very, very efficient and to be completely repeatable. When I say completely, you could even take the test one billion times if you wanted to, and it would still be effective. Not only that, it would be more effective because the practice effects get weaker over time.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: That’s something we should highlight for people. A lot of these tests you can get better at them over time. So this is what you call the practice effect or the training effect.

[Yoni Donner]: Right.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: And in this case, because you want to see if there’s decline or improvement, you wanted to eliminate that. So you’re saying in these tests there’s not very much of that. As I understand it, after you’ve played it a few times, you’ve done it a few times, there’s not much change in terms of practice or training effect.

[Yoni Donner]: Yeah, that’s generally true. I also have more precise on all of the tests of exactly the practice magnitude. In the worst case it takes about five sessions to get it down to manageable levels. By that I mean that it’s smaller than most of the hypothetical effect sizes that we’re interested in measuring. So just time of day variation and so on.

But I do have exactly the compositions of the variance for all the tests. I’ve got all of this data for my thesis. So, a lot of tests don’t even have practice effects at all. For example, reaction time tests are almost zero. And one way is if you can extrapolate the practice effect and eliminate it.

But I think it is generally better not to make any model based assumptions and not to fit additional parameters. So if it’s possible for any experiments to start with just a few practice sessions just to get this out of the way.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Right. Yeah so, in practice someone should do those tests a few times a few days in a row and then they could consider that in their baseline.

[Yoni Donner]: Right. Yeah. So that’s the protocol that we follow on most experiments now. Four for five practice sessions before.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Does it have to be the same day or could you just spread those out over a week or something?

[Yoni Donner]: Generally, I would say spreading them is a little bit better, but it’s kind of insignificant next to just the value of doing them at all. So often with this kind of thing, I think it’s better to make sure that just people do them and not be too strict about rules because that will just result in losing subjects and –

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Right.

[Yoni Donner]: Or they wouldn’t do it at all.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Excellent. And then I just wanted to bring up the other tools and see how it compares in your mind. There’s Lumosity and there’s BrainHQ Posit Science. How does your tool compare to those?

[Yoni Donner]: Yeah. So Lumosity, we actually became good friends when I built Quantified Mind and we talked about this a little bit, and we really like each other because we are completely complimentary and non-competing at all because they are focused on brain training and also on user acquisition.

Obviously, the whole thing is a big game and they’re huge and they make something that appeals to everyone. We joked about this the other day. Almost everyone’s mother plays Lumosity.

That is very different. They don’t do a very precise measurement of the instruments, but they do try to make arguments about brain training, and they’re very, very good about the gamification effect and user retention.

Quantified Mind is completely focused on being a precise measurement tool and, even more so, a research instrument. So that’s a very different focus. But I should say, I just published a paper with Lumosity last month that used their data since they still have a lot more of it about human learning dynamic.

So, that was a lot of fun. And mostly I did the whole research and they provided their amazing data. But it was a great experience just collaborating with the VP of R&D there – is a great guy.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Yeah. Cool. And I as I understand BrainHQ Posit Science is pretty much the same as Lumosity, but just smaller.

[Yoni Donner]: Yeah. I think there are subtle differences. Posit does stay more focused on some pathologies or specific kinds of improvement. Lumosity, more appeal to the general public.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Great. And what’s your opinion on the whole brain training area? Like I said, we had Adrian Owen on and he talked about his study where they tested a lot of people in the UK and they found no effects at all after they’d been doing some training for a while with the Cambridge Brain Sciences test. Do you have an opinion on that?

[Yoni Donner]: I think it’s very hard to just put a binary result or to say for sure brain training does not work at all. But I think if we consider what work should mean to a reasonable person, we can kind of conclude this question anyway.

Because for something to work, it needs to have, not just a nonzero effect size, but also an effect size that’s big enough to be worth the effort. And even if you do something – I do a [unlcear 18:36] every day. And let’s suppose you even improve your working memory in the general transferrable sense, all the results that we have so far – even the most of the domestic ones, even the ones that say it works – show a pretty small effect size.

And it still takes a lot of your time and a lot of your energy. For example, people told me on Quantified Mind there is a single [unclear 18:58] test, which is not even as horribly annoying as to do an the Quantified Mind, and people still said they fight with their significant others after doing this. [Laughter]

So, it drains a lot of willpower, it drains a lot of energy to do those things, and you get a very tiny effect in the end. So, if you are dedicated enough to do something good for your brain, there is nothing in the literature right now that comes even close to physical exercise, and this has been documented so many times.

So I’d say do some effort to clean up your diet. I don’t know, ditch the caffeine addictions. But if you drink it, in small amounts. Sleep well and exercise a lot. It will be much better use of your time than brain training.

Of course brain training is just appealing to people who like playing video games. So it seems like if you like doing these engaging things with your computer, then you just don’t suffer that much. But it’s still very time consuming and the effects are quite small even according to the most optimistic results.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Right. I went through a phase of using Lumosity and I came to the conclusion that it was just a huge sink of my time and it wasn’t really providing any benefits. But what I did notice was, when I was sick, I would get a huge crash – [Laughter]

[Yoni Donner]: Oh yeah. That’s really true.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: in my data. So that was interesting. But the amount of time to play the games is a lot when you’ve been playing it for a while, the games tend to start taking a long time. Some of them were taking – I felt like it was ten minutes, and that was just too much time at the beginning of the day, I was doing it for this.

So, that’s one of the things that attracted me to Quantified Mind because you said you had a focus on keeping it efficient and minimal. Before we get into that I just wanted to point out something you just said. You were saying the willpower. It drains the willpower. It sounds like we’ve both been thinking about willpower quite a lot and how that impacts. Could you explain what you meant in a bit more detail when you’re saying that doing these kinds of tests could drain willpower and that could have impacts on the rest of your life, right?

[Yoni Donner]: Yeah. Well so I don’t want to say things that are too conclusive in a field that I’m not an expert in, but I actually did – there was a master student who did his thesis project with Quantified Mind on exactly the thing called ego depletion, which is highly related to willpower.

So ego depletion is, for example, when I give you a stroop test and then you’re more likely to eat a cookie after. Because some hypothesis could be that it drains your willpower. And it definitely looks this way with the Quantified Mind test.

So, we actually did an interesting experiment where we gave people a 20 minute long stroop test, which is really torture. And you can definitely see that people just cannot, even within the test itself – within those 20 minutes – they cannot maintain their ability to answer the difficult trials.

So you can divide the test to easy, moderate, and hard trials to pretty rough division, and you could definitely see that they keep getting the easy ones correct. But there are points where they just collapse and they start messing up the hard ones.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: That’s a matter of endurance – the longer you’ve been doing it?

[Yoni Donner]: So, we didn’t get longitudinal data on this, unfortunately, so we don’t know if the same people got better the second time they did the 20.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: I meant in terms of if you’ve been doing the test for ten minutes versus one minute. Was there an endurance effect in terms of willpower potentially?

[Yoni Donner]: Yeah. So that was the main hypothesis. It turned that it’s a bit more complicated like everything in life. So then, in general, yes. You do get less likely over time if you average other people. But there are also times where people seem to sort of get it back together. Actually, towards the end. It seems like they suddenly notice they’re close to the end so they have another bout of energy.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Right.

[Yoni Donner]: But yeah, and we also had these results when people just report as qualitatively. They feel drained after doing a long [unclear 22:33] and it’s fine. I do personally believe that there is also a lot of this classical “willpower is not that important if you don’t believe that it is.”

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: You think there’s merit to that?

[Yoni Donner]: Well it seems to be partly true and partly there is something that does drain. And it also seems to be trainable to some degree. It’s just one other reason not to spend too long doing things that don’t give you much benefit. But there are many other reasons to not spend too long doing things that don’t give you much benefit.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Great. The cookie test you brought up – the experiment of, I think it was, Roy Baumeister?

[Yoni Donner]: Yeah. And actually one of the things really is the stroop test by the way. So this is direct evidence.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: I understand. Could you explain what areas of Quantified Mind what areas of the brain are you testing or what cognitive capabilities are you looking at?

[Yoni Donner]: There are some tests that looking at reaction times and speed directly. So there are few reaction time tests and motor speed test. There’s some visual and spatial abilities. Which I’m going with a somewhat thematic order because these things are a little close to reaction times.

There’s a lot of executive function and working memory stuff. So there’s always the argument of whether working memory and shorter memory are the same thing or not. So there are things for both. There are some verbal learning stuff. So more long term learning. This is the main emphasis.

There have been other tests that people have put in who have collaborated with me on studies. Actually emotion regulation and decision-making, but we didn’t ever get a lot of data for those so I didn’t get to analyze their psychometric properties. But yes, so mainly those things. I’d say the most rough division –

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Yeah. How do these relate to the people at home? If they’re thinking about working area and the executive function area, how is that going to impact their daily life?

[Yoni Donner]: So these are probably the most important ones. Actually more important than speed. Probably speed would correlate to what you’d think of as alertness or even energy – weakly correlate. And executive functions would more correspond to what people would think of as focus or attention, or really getting things done, or even flow, I would dare say.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Getting into flow. The ability to get into flow. Okay.

[Yoni Donner]: And working memory is the best correlator out of these things to intelligence in general. So to be efficiency of work. But again, these are all very rough generalizations in making things interpretable.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Yeah, right. So to connect to the day to day is a little bit difficult. But working memory is basically, roughly how many things you can keep in your mind.

So, I always thought if you’re solving some kind of puzzle or you’re trying to make some kind of decision, if you can have ten variables in your mind – I think it’s seven the amount typical for working memory. But if you can basically play around with those things more in working memory similar to a computer has ram, then it’s easier to make decisions and more complex decisions.

[Yoni Donner]: Yeah, exactly. And of course every kind of work in modern life is full of these multiple things that come at you and if you have too many of them. Even writing code, is one of the most obvious things that depend on working memory, right?

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Well I think pretty much everything I can think of. When you’re problem solving, I think that’s very dependent on working memory. Is that correct?

For most people, if they’re going about their jobs. Most jobs these days, it’s troubleshooting, it’s problem-solving, it’s planning. Would you fit those into the working memory area?

[Yoni Donner]: Yeah. If we were take into just a generalization and not perfect [unclear 26:05], yeah, totally.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: I like that you put the caveat out there. It’s good. [Laughter]

[Yoni Donner]: Yeah. Sorry, I just got my PhD so have to be an uberous careful scientific person. [Laughter]

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: No, that’s great. So in terms of the scientific validation between your tests that you’ve put up there, how strong is it?

[Yoni Donner]: It’s quite good. So, to begin with, everything is building on tests that have been very, very extensively used in the literature. That’s how I selected them to begin with.

But I also did many independent types of validation. First of all, reliability is extremely high. It was higher than I ever hope to achieve. The basic result on reliability in this data shows that a one minute test for almost all tests is sufficient to measure almost perfectly the skill which is being measured. Which is great.

And for validation, I looked at internal structure and external structure. So these mean how the tests relate to each other, and that behavior supports completely psychometric theory and psychological theory. So that suggested they are measuring the right thing.

And the external variables also look exactly correct, so the same we’d expect. There are extensive results on this. I am slowly working on a paper that, hopefully, will eventually bring all of these results out. But for now it looks really good.

So everything that we would predict does seem to behave correctly, and then, of course, there are new results that we had no predictions about so this gives us some confidence to believe in them.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: So, when did this launch and how many users have you had using the system so far?

[Yoni Donner]: This was early 2012, and it grew fairly linearly. I never tried to get users, but it just happened so that’s nice. It grew fairly linearly. We have now over 40,000. I think most people, of course, don’t take many tests.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Right. They do a few and then disappear.

[Yoni Donner]: There was several jumps in the middle where some event happened and then a ton of people signed up overnight.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Great. Do you know how many tests have been taken to date?

[Yoni Donner]: Yes. It would be something like half a million tests. I think I even computed the number of individual trials and it was something like 660 in a million or –

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Wow. I’m guessing you look at that. Do you sometimes look at that data to see if there’s anything interesting that comes out on the averages or -?

[Yoni Donner]: So looking at the aggregates, definitely that’s the way to do psychometric analysis. So without looking at who’s doing what and names at experiments, you can still look at relationships between tests and practice effects and complexity effects. These are real interesting things – and even time of day, which is always there.

I don’t just look at people’s data because that’s a big invasion of privacy. But there are cases where researchers are designing experiments that are run on the platform. Then I give them some access rights. Then everyone who signs to that experiment specifically opts in to having the data available only to that researcher, and often we do the data analysis together. So I do get to see a lot of cool stuff.

And yeah, it looks like these results are pretty encouraging. We definitely knew, to begin with, that the effect sizes to be expected with in-person variation would be rather small, but it’s very nice to actually find them.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Right. That’s cool. One of the things I’d like to make clear about this tool is basically that, in order to do experiments, you’ve added the ability to add variables. And there’s some basic variables you’ve already added in yourself, like “have I had coffee today, have I had chocolate today” that you have tested for. So it enables us to control for different things and see if they’re having an impact on us, on our cognition and at the different test areas.

[Yoni Donner]: Correct.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: So, do a lot of people make use of that function and you can see the differences between say coffee and no coffee?

And you’re saying also the time of day. Do you track that with location? So, I’m in London right now, for instance.

[Yoni Donner]: Yes. People who are moving around and don’t update it in the time zone, I would lose that data. I do not take into account all the data from people who did not demonstrate that they were aware that a time zone field exists and needed to be updated. So, I only include people who explicitly change their time zone at least once to make sure that at least that part will be roughly –

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: So, I’m gone.

[Yoni Donner]: Yeah. There were cool results with the time of day because I think no one has looked at the time of day effects simultaneously across a wide variety of tests, and I’ve done exactly of this. Only a few weeks ago finally got to play around with this. It was cool.

So you can’t actually look at a uniform this time of day because different people have different chronotypes. So there would be owls and larks and all these other names. So instead of uniformly averaging across everyone, I used a nonparametric clustering algorithm to find, automatically from the data, what are the clusters that we can see. It was really cool because you could definitely see that almost all the people are worse at night.

But definitely some people get this afternoon dip and some do not. And some people peak in the late morning where as some others actually slowly improve throughout the day and only collapse late night. It was really cool to see this emerge from the data itself with no prior assumptions.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: That’s interesting because I can make assumptions about those cases. You could probably too. It’s speculation, but a lot of people get slight adrenal fatigue so they could be more tired in the afternoon. I could imagine that it would. It’s said to affect cognitive.

So, it’s funny that your data has pulled out those scenarios, which would be very interesting. So what would be the minimal test? Because we’re talking about efficiency here and we talked about how doing a lot of testing might reduce our willpower and have some impact on our self-control during the day and some other impacts.

So, in terms of someone who wants to do some tests and basically see where they are – track some that are not having cognitive decline or potentially looking at days they drink coffee versus not or some other test – what would be the minimal test you could do once per day to track while experimenting like that?

[Yoni Donner]: Yeah. I’d say even just one minute and pick one test or maybe two minutes and two tests, and that’s it. So, two back or three back or a good test, cover a wide variety. It’s mostly working memory, but you’d also get a component of speed in that.

So if you do that I’d say you don’t really need to measure speed separately or choice reaction time or something. And it’s also valuable to put stroop or what is called sorting on the Quantified Mind.

But definitely one to two minutes and no more. There’s no need it and it just reduces the likelihood of doing this many, many times, which is far more valuable than adding more tests to a single measurement.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Right. So you could basically do this test once per day, control the variables and it’s basically a minute of your time to get potentially something useful.

[Yoni Donner]: Yeah. Or multiple times per day if you’re looking at something that changes across the day or the effect of coffee obviously are not constant across the day.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Right. Exactly. I know that you did a lot of tests in the past. I’m not sure if you’re still doing a lot of tests with this on yourself. What kind of discoveries have you made about yourself?

[Yoni Donner]: That’s interesting. So, I definitely agree with what you said before about getting sick. Fortunately – this is famous last words – that did not happen in quite a long time. So I didn’t get that data point. But last time I measured this the effect was huge. It was unbelievable. It was somewhat that I could compare this to, for myself, something like five days of pretty severe sleep deprivation.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Right. Exactly.

[Yoni Donner]: Awful.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Did you see kind of like a crash and then a slow recovery?

[Yoni Donner]: Even when getting better?

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Yeah, right. Well for me, personally, it took it five days, seven days to get back to baseline after the initial day when you fall sick. Of course it depends on the sickness, so it’s a bit variable.

[Yoni Donner]: I think the recovery was a bit faster, but still we probably had different things going on. But yeah, it was a very strong effect. I actually did a [unclear 33:51]. One of the strangest things I’ve done on myself.

So I like doing things that they also keep me engaged by their own right. So an experiment which is not boring because it gets you to keep doing it. We had this funny discussion about a little odd result in the literature. You may know this one. Glycogen depletion followed by glycogen overcompensation resulted in a significant improvement in cognitive functions.

They did this on rats and this was a long, long time ago. I may not get the details right away. I think they basically let them run to exhaustion until the poor rat just collapsed. And then they fed them a ton of sugar, more than they needed to refill the glycogen. And then killed them and witnessed abnormally huge amount of glycogen in their range.

And then they hypothesized that this would also translate to a behavioral output. So I did this on my poor human self for like several days.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Okay. So could you explain how you did that to yourself?

[Yoni Donner]: Yeah. So without the killing part. So a lot of exercise. I think that was also a good excuse to get myself back into exercising. So, it was a lot of cardio and then some weight lifting.

I read what you’re supposed to do to do some glycogen depletion. So a lot of many, many, many sets with relatively low weights. That seemed, at least by subjective experience of wanting to diet, seemed to do the job. And then trying to do some calculations of what exactly would be the glycogen overcompensation, and then take cognitive tests about several hours later.

I don’t remember the exact numbers. It was a few years ago. But it was a hypothesis based on a minimal amount of existing data. That seemed to work great. It’s totally not worth it. It’s like brain training. But definitely I got some of the highest scores I’ve ever seen in my life.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Cool. That sounded like a huge effort actually. That sounded like it was a couple of days to do that.

[Yoni Donner]: Yeah. So I only did like five times, but it was pretty significant. This is definitely not something that I want to do in life, and it’s not worth it to get this benefit. But it was just interesting.

Again, this is the kind of thing you want to know or you or you want to test. And if there’s some open question, why not just settle it with science?

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Right. And who knows? If you had a really, really difficult decision to make or some kind of planning session or something, you might to do that as a one off to solve that life decision that you have or –

[Yoni Donner]: It’s true. Or if you have an exam at 3:00 PM or something and you decide to waste your time on doing this crazy stuff instead of studying. You might at least know that you’ll be quite pumped up when you get there.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: What other experiments have you done that have had some significant impact? Are there any you feel you’ve integrated into your life because they’re worthwhile because the time expense for actually doing these things isn’t too much to get some kind of benefit.

[Yoni Donner]: The biggest impact one is time of day and I think that would apply to a lot of people because you don’t really need to do strange manipulations or interventions for this. So just design the activities that you do such as they fit with your natural rhythms.

I’m currently at the point where I’m way more productive in the early part of the day. So, I leave all of the stuff that doesn’t require too much mental power to the later parts of the day. But that’s a very easy one.

And an interesting one that we’ve seen that’s not on me, but an actual study that was done quite recently was that the effects of temperature are not what people would expect. Which is also a little consistent with existing literature, but there’s not that much existing literature on this.

This was a great study where several hundred subjects and everything was perfectly controlled in terms of temperature and humidity. They did all the practice stuff perfectly so the data was very, very clean and very, very good, and it showed that people do not actually predict correctly when they function at their best.

So most people would report being more comfortable at a slightly lower temperature than the temperature which their brains worked the best behaviorally. This seems like a little counterintuitive, but I looked into this and it turns out that this is actually consistent with results that were previously known. But I think we brought a better resolution to this question.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: It’s always interesting when it goes against our own sense of wellbeing. As you’re saying it’s a little less comfortable, a little bit hotter than maybe we feel is comfortable is when we’re working best.

I was also wondering if you think a lot of people might try to guess their rhythm during the day. I’ve always been a morning person and I’ve always told people I’m a morning person. Over time, I think I’ve got some more stamina now so I can work for longer periods. I can work maybe 10 to 12 hours and I don’t feel so bad if I’m not doing it too many times a week.

So basically, people should kind of test this kind of thing with the test. But would you expect them in [unclear 38:36] you mean speaking to people about their time stamp test and does it kind of reflect what they thought?

[Yoni Donner]: That’s interesting. I think most people have a good sense of this, especially who are workaholics because they actually try to use their brain at all times of the day. So they really discover what it’s like.

Of course you mix in all effects. Obviously you get a little tired just by doing mentally exerting work. So it’s not a perfectly controlled study because then you would have to be lazy the whole day and see if you still function not quite as good in the night.

But most people don’t do this and they are accurate. There aren’t that many people who have shared their results or given me access to their data explicitly.

But there’s at least one person who said he actually did change his routine based on these results. Because he used to do a lot of intellectually engaging work for the evening and it turns out his results were very strong biased towards morning strength.

So he moved everything around and moved, for example, his physical workouts to the evening because he found that he didn’t need much willpower to get started. So he would do the workout and didn’t feel that it matters too much if he lifts a little bit less weight because that also changes during the day and it might not be correlated too.

So that was a cool example of changing things accordingly. And that’s really, again, the easiest experiment to do. You don’t need an intervention at all. You just get the data.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Yeah. Great. Are there academic studies that you can talk about that have been done with The Quantified Mind? Because I noticed some of them are restricted.

[Yoni Donner]: Yeah. It’s true. So there are a lot going on. There’s always someone somewhere doing yet another kind of coffee study. Which is funny, but it’s nice because it always works.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Let’s talk about coffee because I think – did you do a bulletproof coffee study? Was that where it was done because -?

[Yoni Donner]: That’s not really academic, but it was a study. Yeah. It had problems. It was definitely not blind and there was a selection effect by the [unclear 40:35] class.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Just for the people at home, that means that the people had opted in big as like they like bulletproof coffee basically.

[Yoni Donner]: Yeah. They were actually recruited through the Bulletproof Coffee website.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Instead of being randomly given Bulletproof Coffee.

[Yoni Donner]: Yeah. And this in combination with not being blind means that the placebo effect would be huge. Because you’re exactly telling the people who would believe that this would work on them that they are currently under the condition that would work for them.

Having said that, the results were more interesting than just a pure monotonic improvement. So Bulletproof Coffee has this as a component of the coffee and the butter. So even in our data, butter had zero effect, but coffee had a large effect.

This means coffee, like Bulletproof compared to Starbucks, not Bulletproof compared to no coffee, which would obviously have an effect.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Okay. And the quality of the coffee basically or something about the coffee that was better. It’s interesting –

[Yoni Donner]: Or the placebo of the coffee, yes.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: The facts that people were using the Bulletproof versus the other. Yeah, that’s cool. Well in coffee, in general, because everyone thinks of course that we’re performing better when we’re on coffee. You certainly feel good.

I’ve had an interesting – because when I started using this tool I thought coffee would make a difference. I’m drinking Bulletproof Coffee in the mornings because I feel like it gives me a ton of energy. So I’ve been doing that for a long time and I’v found that it makes no difference to my score so far.

[Yoni Donner]: Oh interesting. Even when you are slightly sleep deprived?

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: I really make an effort to sleep well. So I wouldn’t say that I’m – today maybe is the only day in a long time that I didn’t sleep great, and I know why that is. It’s because I took a few things yesterday. But that doesn’t really happen to me that I’m sleep deprived. So is that the one situation where coffee has the biggest impact? You’ve seen that?

[Yoni Donner]: Yeah. The literature definitely shows this that the effects of coffee are – I think there is still evidence to suggest they exist in non-sleep deprived individuals. But those are actually very rare in modern society.

It’s great that you take care of yourself, and I wish everyone did the same. But definitely the literature shows that the more sleep deprived you are, the more difference coffee would make.

There’s this famous study with Marines or Navy Seals or something where it showed that even the effect of the dose keeps improving after 300 milligrams, which seems like a gigantic dose to me. But that was still better than 200.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Wow. So, for the people at home, how many coffees is that?

[Yoni Donner]: That’d be like five espressos.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Wow.

[Yoni Donner]: I’m not a huge coffee expert really, but I think that sounds right. So yeah, this was still better than 200.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Okay. Yeah.

[Yoni Donner]: So I think it depends. But in general, whenever you use something chemical, even if coffee and it’s safe and it’s not that bad and it feels nice, you’re still playing with stuff that we don’t fully understand. I do firmly believe that, if you can first improve your life by sleeping better, then this is a better approach to do than optimizing coffee intake.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Right. I think one of the interesting things about this is when you feel good, you do more work. I find personally you tend to take on more bigger tasks and things like that.

And what I would say is I think coffee – I don’t know if I’m an addict – coffee makes me feel good. And so, I think I do more, but that wouldn’t necessarily show up in a cognitive test that I know of. Is that correct?

[Yoni Donner]: It might show in an indirect way if only by showing that you did more tests because this is a big effect when you’re not actually in a controlled study. You could just decide you don’t feel like taking the test now, and that would usually show that you’re a little weak on willpower or something.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: You were saying it would show up for sleep deprived people. So, have you seen that coffee makes quite a big impact on people in general for the aggregate later? So, basically then you would be saying like a lot of people are sleep deprived who are taking a test to some degree.

[Yoni Donner]: Well so, first of all, you can never know. You can know if you ask every single person and if you believe all their answers, but that’s definitely not the case in an internet-based testing environment.

Coffee definitely seems to have a real effect in aggregate. It is not huge. I think it is the order of magnitude or time of day variations and then, of course, this is correlation that most people would consume coffee at this specific time of day. So these are confounded.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Right. A lot of people have it in the morning and, as you were saying, a lot of people, because of the time, that’s when they’re going to be performing better.

[Yoni Donner]: But we are now actually doing – this is happening this last week and this week. There’s a collaborator at Harvard who’s doing an in lab coffee study with Quantified Mind. So we’ve done a million coffee studies, but this is probably the most rigorous one.

So, they actually bring everyone to the lab and they randomize them. They don’t tell them what coffee they are getting, and they did the practice before and they have a crossover design. So hopefully we’ll see something.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Great. So when these studies are published, you list them on the site or you put references somewhere?

[Yoni Donner]: I would. I don’t think anything has been published in a journal yet because all of this stuff is fairly new in academic publishing takes years and years. There have been things I didn’t list that have been published informally. Like a student did a project and submitted it, and it was approved and they have a PDF somewhere. I guess I should look into putting some more of those.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Great. So are there other tactics that you seen, whether it’s the number of hours slept or anything else that you’ve seen, that people could think about testing?

If you had a priority list of tests worthwhile doing for people, experiments to see if it helps improve their cognitive capacities a bit, which ones would you list? If you were starting from scratch, which would be the top five you would start with having seen what you’ve seen that might have some potential uplift?

[Yoni Donner]: Right. I think this should be very individualized and people should start with their biggest suspect for, not what might make them better, but rather what might make them worse because these things have a much larger effect in practice. For example, someone who is good and sensitive would see a much stronger decline by consuming fruit than someone who just takes pure [check 46:28] to try to be a little bit better.

So, in general, effects of improving over the healthy well functioning baseline are much smaller than effects of fixing something that’s broken. I guess a lot of people do have somethings that they are sensitive to or that are broken in some weak sense. Like someone who is chronically sleep deprived, you could say that something is broken in their lifestyle.

And of course, this is not a moral judgement, but it just says that they might be able to see a larger improvement by fixing this and if they know that there is something they suspect. If someone suspects all kinds of food sensitivities, or even allergies, pathogens, anything that they feel hurts them, it will be useful to try to test exactly what it is using factorial designs and cognitive testing to fix this.

The other thing, I find it cool that a lot people are using this to really track their aging process. So this takes a lot of discipline to repeatedly take a test once a month, for example, for years and years. But this is admirable when people are doing this and it can maybe give you serious suggestions to when your brain is no longer that of a very young person and you should start taking more care of yourself because when you’re young you can get away with much more. So that seems also useful.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: And I think sleep’s one of the ones that most people are guilty of. I’ve been guilty of it for a very long time. Especially driven workaholic type people. We just don’t want to sleep.

Have you seen any number of hours? A lot of those tests as you for the – well the standard ones I’ve been doing ask you for the number of hours you slept the night before. I’ve certainly noticed straight away – for instance, today, because I slept six and a half hours, it was lower. So for me, that’s low. Normally, I’m seven and a half hours.

Have you noticed anything in terms of the number of hours slept that you see some dips and dives or anything?

[Yoni Donner]: Yeah. So again, there is not that much data, and again, I don’t look into people’s data. So this is only people who ask me to look at their data and conversations with that and so on, which filters a lot.

But the most interesting result I can remember is that it seemed we actually did see a skip one day effect where the strongest effect would be with a delta of one day. Which was also interesting because one person also shared their result with me that suggested that it was the same with drug use.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: So you’re saying there’s a lag effect,so it hits you the day after?

[Yoni Donner]: Yes. It’s a lag effect, yeah. It seems to be and it’s hard to say if it’s exactly two days, but it seems that the effect, when skipping a day, was stronger than the next.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Okay. Of course I have to ask you about Nootropics because it’s one of the biggest topics right now. You mentioned Piracetam and of course it is many others.

Have you got any anecdotal effects? Anecdotally have you gotten any information from it all about people taking Nootropics and getting any benefits based on the test results?

[Yoni Donner]: Yeah, a little bit. So people seem to like Modafinil, which is a strong one.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: It is, yeah.

[Yoni Donner]: And you never know. You’ve seen the one where Dave goes on Nightline and talks about Modafinil?

Yeah. That was quite a while ago, right?

[Yoni Donner]: Yeah. So there’s like a minute there when they talk about Quantified Mind and the experiment he was doing. So I trust him when he says he got a strong result. But of course, one should always be careful.

For example, here’s a study design that I don’t like. You take Modafinil. You do cognitive testing, you get your scores. Then you stop taking Modafinal for a week and get back on it and you see that your scores during that week were much worse. This is controlling for practice so that’s fine.

But the problem here is that you might as well just show that you became addicted to Modafinil. You don’t actually know if this performance on Modafinil is better than what you had before you started. You just know that now it hurts you to get off it. So this, I don’t think they built control for.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Right. The other thing is people talk about Modafinil kind of feels like you’re running high speed gear or something and you get a lot done that day. But I wonder if maybe the days after you could pay for it with slightly lower cognitive capacities as in, when you come off of it, you’re basically trying to catch up or something.

[Yoni Donner]: Right. This is the borrowing from your future self.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Right. Basically, it is that thing you’d have to control for too.

[Yoni Donner]: Yeah. It would be great to have some other more controlled study or some more centralized resource of good practices when designing those studies. It is definitely something to look into and might be, and I asked before about, points for improvement for the future.

But definitely, self-explanatory limited by the fact that it is complicated and not complicated in an intractable way. But complicated in way which just in practice most people don’t take into account because it takes a lot of experience and thinking about these things.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: You mean to set up a proper experiment?

[Yoni Donner]: Yeah. So, for example, the effects you just described are these lag effects and –

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Great. Do you have any future plans to expand the functionality of Quantified Mind? It sounds like there’s quite a few academic projects starting to run with it.

[Yoni Donner]: Yeah. So this is great and I got a count quite recently since I put it on some presentation. It was around 30 that are either being done or have been concluded, and they’re either a stage of planning a follow up or writing up or just kept for internal use or something.

So I definitely want to figure out what gives researchers the most value and how we can improve that and provide that. I do want to also make users who are not researchers happier, but that’s just a slightly lower priority simply because it has a lower impact on the overall progress of science, which sounds pompous.

But I hate saying things like this, but it is in the end about impact and I do think that it will help more in the longer run if we have more general human knowledge about, even individual variations, but the effect of things we just don’t even know right now. And when people just learn something and they are the only ones who gain knowledge, it’s a small impact.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: All right, I understand. If people want to learn more about this, where should someone look first? If they wanted to learn a little bit more about – we’re talking lament terms here. I don’t know if you’d have good references, like presentations or books or anything like that where people could learn more about cognitive, basically, testing and assessment and basically the tests that you have on the Quantified Mind.

[Yoni Donner]: That is a great question. You’re right, in predicting that I don’t often think about how to present information in lament terms. We still have the science page on Quantified Mind, which is kind of readable. Maybe even too readable because people might not get enough information.

This is a little silly, but there is my thesis which has two entire chapters about this and it’s probably also not very readable. It’s also not published yet. So this science page would be a good place to start and for specific questions, everyone’s always encouraged to write to me and it’s always fun to talk about cognitive testing and so on.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Great. What would be the best ways for people to connect with you? Are you on Twitter – Quantified Mind? Where are you most active?

[Yoni Donner]: The contact page on Quantified Mind is a good way. I’m a not a social media person.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Is there anyone besides yourself that you’d recommend to learn more about cognitive testing or running experiments for cognitive testing?

[Yoni Donner]: That is a good question. I know some people who are local and you meet them in all kinds of conferences. I don’t know if there’s one resource. Definitely Lumosity is not bad because, even though the main tool is the commercial game product, they actually have a large group of people who are more into the data analysis and resources.

They publish all the results in a human readable form as well on their blog, which is a good practice. So that’s nice to look at. There’s the Human Cognition Project which is to give more researchers access to this data and to generate more results. And then, of course, all the papers in science and nature also have popular interpretations.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: All right, great. Thank you for those. Now just a little bit about you and what you’re doing these days. Are you tracking any of your metrics or biomarkers, like blood or cognitive tests or anything, on a routine basis?

[Yoni Donner]: Not really. My habits that are I start tracking something when I think there is something to learn. And I insist on not tracking it anymore when I’m not learning anymore. This is nice because sometimes you discover that you can predict.

You just know things that you didn’t know before. You know your heart rate. You don’t need to measure it. I’m sure you’ve experienced this after years of doing this stuff. And so it seems to be true for a lot of measurements.

I wouldn’t say that I can predict cognitive performance because that has that funny property, which is why we need this. As your brain changes, its ability to predict itself also changes accordingly so that’s why you have these wrong conceptions. So this I would still use, but I want an important question to have when doing this.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Right, yeah. It sounds like you basically do little projects on something you’re interested in and then you kind of move on. You’re just saying that basically builds self-awareness by doing these things with each one so you can kind of tell yourself where you’re at also.

[Yoni Donner]: Yeah. That’s exactly right. There’s a time cost and there’s an effort cost in tracking anything. So you’ll never track everything so might as well make sure that you track the things that count.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: And what are the biggest changes you’ve made in your behavior over the years with experiments if any?

[Yoni Donner]: Yeah. I probably realized that I’m not actually built for short term rewards. All things that normal people call fun I don’t find them fun, and I don’t find them useful.

And for my longer term happiness, the things that make me the most satisfied are creating value. Being productive, learning, developing. So with time, I guess I put much more of an emphasis on really building my future self and not so much doing satisfying things in the short term.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Great. Because you find that satisfying as well.

[Yoni Donner]: Yeah. So there are two things.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: It sounds like you find – the same way it makes you happy, the same way.

[Yoni Donner]: Yeah. And data can help you reach that conclusion in two ways. One is when you do this not very precise. But I try to make those subjective measures as precise as possible by just breaking them down to so many individual categories that can be scored and then getting numbers and doing something.

But also just, in the sense that if you are tracking things that matter to you in the short term, and you’re witnessing their anti-correlation with things that are supposed to be short term rewarding as opposed to long term benefits, then this is a good way of actually making change. Because you can’t deny from yourself a change that you can see in the numbers.

This was a very abstract thing so I’ll try to get more concrete. If you are tracking your fitness and you noticed that you are not paying that much attention to your stoop [check 57:15}, it goes down. This hurts.

If you know I lifted this much weights a few months ago and I can’t reach that anymore, it really sucks and this makes you change some things. And to me those health things, those performance related metrics have a huge impact in making me change behavior.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: All right. So last question. What would be your number question – we ask this of everyone – to someone trying to use data to make better decisions to improve any aspect of their health, performance, or longevity? Just something about themselves.

[Yoni Donner]: So there are many aspects of using data. So definitely one of them is make sure that they are collecting the right kind of data, and in a consistent way, which makes for a valid experiment. But also not try to overdo it.

I’ve seen so many people just fail because they’ve tried to do too much and got lost in the details or in the process itself. Focus on the highest value thing at a time and do it properly and win, really win, and then move on.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: All right. With the minimal effort, right?

[Yoni Donner]: Yeah. Passive tracking is great. Some people do a lot into tracking and getting data, but then don’t do the minimal effort in just learning data analysis. Some people still don’t actually feel that comfortable playing with raw data. I feel it’s worth learning for almost everyone because it’s not that complicated.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Thanks. That’s a great point. And do you got a tip? Where would you start? Would it being using Excel statistical correlation or what would be the first thing someone could try that would add a lot of value?

[Yoni Donner]: I think that is not bad. But if you’re at the point where you get weird files from tools then Excel won’t help you with this and you can’t always load giant data into Excel.

So, I would suggest try to learn Python OR. These are not so complicated, and they’re extremely powerful. And of course, this day, there are so many tutorials. All of this stuff is very easy with some reasonable effort. But people who can learn to play guitar can also learn to us Python.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Right. It seems really, really complicated when you look at programming languages. But I’ve done a bit of programming in my time and I’m not a programmer at all. I’m a business guy. But yeah, it looks much worse than it is. That’s what you’re saying, right?

[Yoni Donner]: Yeah. And also, trying to answer a very concrete question about your data is very different than building Gmail or something. You’re not building it. It’s not programming in the sense of building giant tools.

It’s really doing something very, very specific. There would be 50 lines of code maybe, if it’s complicated and involves reading files. But you just want to generate your graphs the way you like them.

And then throw out some bad data points and maybe combine data sources. It’s very hard to use some general tools that shield you away from programming. And often you get to a level of complexity, which is akin to actual scripting.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Well Yoni, thank you so much for your time today. Really enjoyed talking to you about all of these and setting some of the science straight on what we can’t really look at and decide that it’s going to work or not. So thanks for your time.

[Yoni Donner]: Yeah. Thank you! This was great and I admire what you’re doing. So good luck with all of that.

Leave a Reply

Have you been using Dual-N-Back or other braining tools? A look at failed brain training experiments and how to assess real mental performance improvement with Dr. Adrian Owen.

In today’s fast paced, technologically advanced world strong mental performance is of utmost importance. From our abilities in the work place to our interactions in social situations we are expected, and constantly asked, to be able to perform with the highest level of mental function. Therefore, it is important that we both protect and improve our minds in order to get the most out of life and increase our overall satisfaction.

In the last few years, brain training apps, such as Lumosity and Dual-N-Back, have become increasingly popular as a way to improve cognitive performance and working memory abilities over time.

However, there is a bit of controversy surrounding the use of these apps:

Does brain training improve mental performance?

This episode addresses this question and more as we discuss some of the research that has been conducted to try and assess our mental performance. Whether it is brain training, diet changes or just sleeping better, these tools might help us decide if we are actually getting the bang for our buck so we can make a positive impact on our lives and mental performance.

Just because a lot of people believe in it and are sure that it is true, if it hasn’t been scientifically proven, then it’s very likely not the case…I think that the commercial brain training is a very good example of that
– Dr. Adrian Owen

Today’s guest is Dr. Adrian Owen who has looked specifically at the effectiveness of brain training on a broad population to see if it is actually having an impact on our mental capabilities. Currently, he works as the Canada Excellence Research Chair in cognitive neuroscience and imaging at the Brain and Mind Institute, University of Western Ontario, Canada. Previously, he worked at the Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit at Cambridge, UK and has published more than 200 peer-reviewed scientific papers over time.

The episode highlights, biomarkers, and links to the apps, devices and labs and everything else mentioned are below. Enjoy the show and let me know what you think in the comments!

itunes quantified body

What You’ll Learn

  • The Cambridge Brain Sciences was set up to research and assess brain training tools (06:59).
  • Previously, brain function was researched by testing brain damaged participants (10:30).
  • In the 1990’s brain imaging techniques (PET scans and fMRIs) became important tools for brain assessment (11:40).
  • Dr. Owen explains further the definitions of fluid intelligence and crystalised intelligence (17:56).
  • Research using these brain training tasks, games, exercises, etc. usually focuses on fluid intelligence (20:22).
  • Dr. Owen describes further the brain-based tests used by Cambridge Brain Sciences (20:52).
  • Damien and Dr. Owen discuss the use of these cognitive tests to assess your own brain performance on a regular basis (22:43).
  • Cambridge Brain Sciences is hoping to encourage people to use their tools to assess whether brain training and interventions (such as coffee, etc.) can affect their own cognitive performance (25:12).
  • If you are going to run your own “experiments” to test the training or interventions, be your own scientist and carefully employ “good” research techniques (26:16).
  • Remember, what works for you may not always work for another (27:24).
  • Dr. Owen begins discussing “transfer” of training: to improve upon many aspects, not just the one (29:06).
  • The Cambridge Brain Sciences study also compared the lifestyles of the participants as related to their performance on the different tests analyzed in the study (36:18).
  • Damien and Dr. Owen discuss the damage that occurs to the brain from aging, injury, etc. and the fact that these cognitive declines are specific to each individual person (41:07).
  • Neuroplasticity is defined and discussed as a “change in the brain” following the learning process (45:04).
  • Dr. Owen discusses the use of EEG, a cheaper alternative, to analyze aspects such as consciousness that have previously been assessed with an fMRI, a more expensive machine (51:51).
  • Dr. Owen shares his thoughts for the future of cognitive performance including brain training and a short description of neuroenhancers, often called “smart drugs” (55:00).
  • Dr. Adrian Owen’s one biggest recommendation on using body data to improve your health, longevity and performance (1:00:10).

Thank Dr. Adrian Owen on Twitter for this interview.
Click Here to let him know you enjoyed the show!

Dr. Adrian Owen

Tracking

Biomarkers

  • Electrical activity: is assessed by electroencephalogram (EEG). When enough concurrent electrical activity is generated by neurons firing, simple periodic waveforms are distinguishable. Rhythms generated by electrical activity are measured by their frequency and amplitude. Frequency is expressed in the unit Hertz (Hz) while amplitude is recorded in microvolts (μV).

Labs and Tests

Tools & Tactics

Interventions

  • Brain Training: This episode is all about evaluating the effects of brain training, and more specifically the daily effects that may occur after the use of cognitive games. There is an incredible variety of these types of exercises available, produced by a number of companies and organizations.

Other People, Books & Resources

People

  • Jessica Richman: Dr. Richman studies citizen science and crowd sourcing. She did a podcast about the microbiome and crowd science with The Quantified Body which can be found here.
  • Aubrey de Grey: A scientist, author, and activist who was featured on a recent episode on The Quantified Body where he discussed longevity and anti-aging techniques.
  • Randy Engle: A research scientist known for his work with brain training.
  • Barbara Sahakian: Dr. Sahakian is a researcher who studies “smart drugs” and neuroenhancers.

Other


Full Interview Transcript

Click Here to Read Transcript

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Adrian, thanks so much for joining us on the show.

[Dr. Adrian Owen]: Thanks for having me.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Excellent. How did you yourself get into this whole of area cognitive science—assessing performance, Brain Training and all these areas? What was the thing that first stimulated you to get interested in this area?

[Dr. Adrian Owen]: Actually I’ve been interested in cognitive assessments since my PhD. Back in the late 80’s, I was working on assessing frontal lobe function. In those days, it was pre-brain imaging; we just used to test patients who’d had part of their brain removed and then designed cognitive tests to try and work out what it is that they couldn’t do, so I’ve been in the area of assessing cognition for 25 years now.

The move into Brain Training actually came much more recently, in about 2009, I got very interested in the amount of attention that was being paid by the general public to whether Brain Training could make you smarter and I got in involved with a study with the BBC to test that.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Well, give us a quick overview of that so that everyone can hear about it because it was quite a big project at the time.

[Dr. Adrian Owen]: It was. It started because the BBC came to me and said, “Well we want to do a programme, we’d like to do a huge study to promote public understanding of science. Could we get a lot of people involved in this, and obviously Brain Training works, right?” I stuttered, “Well hold on, stop. What do you mean ‘Obviously Brain Training works’? Let’s talk about that,” and they said, “Well, this company or that company have sold a 100,000,000 units this year, the whole world is training their brains,” and I said, “Well, is the whole world getting smarter?” I was very intrigued by this idea because I thought it’s funny, out there in the world we’ve got perhaps one of the largest public science experiments running right now—at the time I was living in London, England, and there were people sitting on trains with their handheld devices all training their brains and I thought, “Well, I haven’t seen any evidence that any of them are getting any smarter,” and certainly looking around among my friends, it wasn’t the case that those who were super smart would say, “Well, it’s because I’ve been using this device.” So I thought, “Well there is something interesting in there that a lot of people believe it and trusted in it and it would be a fun thing to try and test.”

So we set up a BBC programme called Bang Goes the Theory. We advertised this as a way of assessing whether Brain Training worked. We got people to log into a specific website that we’d set up; the website had a lot of training games on it.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: So is this the current website that is up today or is it different to the Cambridge Brain Sciences website?

[Dr. Adrian Owen]: That is actually entirely different but did feature in that study. What we use Cambridge Brain Sciences for, was to assess whether the training had worked because we wanted something truly independent to look at pre-imposed testing scores. Cambridge Brain Sciences is not a training site; it’s a cognitive assessment site that I’ve set up with one of my colleagues out of Hampshire. We got everybody to log into Cambridge Brain Sciences to get a sense of their cognitive performance before they started training and then everybody would log into one of the BBC sites.

I split them into three groups, basically. There was a group who trained specifically on reasoning tests, things to improve your ability to reason and think through the solutions to problems. Another group, a second group, which were randomly assigned obviously, would log in and do memory tests and attention tasks, things that emphasised other aspects of cognition that weren’t necessarily problem solving and reasoning. The third group, basically, just had to do a simple exercise that involved using a computer for about the same amount of time. They would look up the answers to complicated questions on the web and that was just to make sure that the control group used the computer for the same period of time over the six-week training period. We had people log in several times a week for at least ten minutes per session for six weeks, and a lot of people took the challenge. We had tens of thousands of people logged in; only about eleven and a half thousand people survived, did the distance, did the pre-testing and the six weeks of training and the post-testing, but nevertheless, twelve thousand was a fantastic result and an enormous uptake.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: So we have discussed a bit previously on this show about crowd sourcing of science, like crowd science and citizen science, so this is basically like an early example of you leveraging the crowd to get some science done and some validation.

[Dr. Adrian Owen]: It was great. Actually it was a lot easier than I thought it would be. We’ve used the same method subsequently to connect a number of scientific studies. The secret I think really is if you can engage people in something that they are actually interested in, and clearly there was a lot of public interest in Brain Training and whether it worked. Having the BBC, obviously, was enormously helpful because it was a popular science programme and they used it as a vehicle to promote this, but I think it’s great if you get people interested and they feel like they are part of something and they’re helping to answer a question.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: We had Jessica Richman—I don’t know if you know her work? She is really into citizen science and crowd sourcing of science. She gets up in presentations and talks about that. A new biomes project looking at the microbiome: they are getting lots of data from lots of different people around the world and feeding into that to try and start understanding the microbiome.

We discussed it and seems like it’s going to be an exciting time for crowd science. It’s already started; it’s the internet; it’s also that people, as you said, are interested in these things now—whether it comes to cognitive performance, which is a big thing when it comes to everything in our lives; if you think about it, it’s your work, your relationships, everything.

Just to take a step back, how would you look at our brains and what areas would you split it into in terms of performance? It’s also been a little while since you did that study, what do you see as the important aspects of performance for us cognitively in our lives?

[Dr. Adrian Owen]: I think that’s a really great question and actually, it speaks to a much bigger question about how psychology and brain science have evolved over the last fifty years. When I started working in this area, doing my PhD, 25 years ago, we didn’t have any direct ways of accessing brain function. We would basically assess behaviour, and as a consequence, we had many so-called cognitive models that were based on things that we all think we can do. We know that we can remember stuff, so we would have memory models; we know that we can attend to different things and some of us can attend to multiple things at the same time, so we would have models of attention. The only way we had of actually testing these models in terms of the brain, was to assess patients who had damage to one or more of the modules that were assumed to be involved in these models. So we would test brain damaged subjects, participants who had had tumours removed from their brains, for example, and a bit of healthy tissue had gone at the same time and we could try and work out whether the model really worked. Looking back, it’s a rather awkward way of investigating brain function because you are continually looking at people who are impaired in order to try and work out how the rest of us actually work.

In the late 1990’s, brain imaging really took off. In the beginning it was a technique known as positron emission tomography, or PET, and that soon gave way to FMRI or Functional Magnetic Resonance Imagining, which has absolutely exploded and is really the tool of choice for many now-called cognitive neuroscientists. Many psychologists now think of themselves as being what we call cognitive neuroscientists because they take brain-based models on board as well as cognitive models.

Brain imagining has allowed us to access the brain in a different type of way, which is principally to look at the brains of healthy participants. So now, instead of trying to work out how healthy brains work based on how unhealthy brains work, we can actually look at healthy brains doing their thing, and what this has done has changed, in many ways, how we think about behaviour and how we think about cognitive functions. Certainly, in my lab, a guiding rule has really been, “Well, let’s only really start to stress about this or fret about this if this is biologically plausible.” Even if there are things that we feel that we have in life and we can achieve in life, if it’s not something that by looking at the brain you could see how that could be accomplished, then my first guess is usually that we are barking up the wrong tree.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Could you give an example just to clarify that? It seems like something a little bit harder to visualise.

[Dr. Adrian Owen]: Well, unfortunately most of the examples I would give you would be things that I don’t work on and I don’t work on them because they are good examples of this. I suppose an illustration of the sorts of thing I’m talking about is that there are many things that people have attempted to look at with brain imaging that I think probably are not easily explained in terms of networks within the brain, like how we fall in love or why we trust each other or where do we get a sense of justice from, these big, squishy, emotional things that are not easily reduced down into measurable components within the brain. Whereas memory, how is it that we lay down memories for words or how is it that we acquire language, or how is that that I can attend to two things at the same time, these are things that are much more easily thought about in terms of what we know about the structure of the brain and networks within the brain. Not everybody agrees with me: there are certainly a lot of people out there that think we are going to solve the riddles of love by using brain imaging, but that’s not the way I work.

So, this is a very long-winded answer to your original question, but it’s just to really tell you about how we tend to think about cognition now, and it’s almost a bottom-up approach, we use the brain: we use the brain; we look at the brain and we say, “Let’s look at different areas within the brain and try and work out what they are doing,” rather than trying to explain what it is we are able to do in the world in terms of areas of the brain. That is an interesting approach because it turns out that the brain isn’t really organised how we imagined it would be organised. There isn’t a bit of the brain that lays down your memories, so spending a lot of time looking for that area of the brain isn’t a very rewarding thing to do. There are certainly many areas of the brain that are involved in laying down memories, and they work together as a network, and they play really quite different roles and some of those roles are overlapping. As you have probably guessed, it’s really complicated.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: It’s a lot more complicated than some of the jargon we have learnt. When we think about cognitive performance and the standardised testing and also some of the apps like Dual N-Back, which was the brain training app that we’ll come back to which was supposed to increase working memory and so on. So we have things like working memory, fluid intelligence versus crystalised intelligence; for you, do those things still exist today? Are they still effective ways of explaining our performance in the real world—Whether it’s work or whether it’s problem solving?

This world is getting more and more complex and faster and faster and, obviously, some people are pushing the edge, some people are taking new tropics or they are trying to do all sorts of things to stay on top of where they are in performance, in their jobs, and everything. Are these still terms that we can think about or is it moving away from that? Because we’ve taken the lid off the brain and we realise that it is much more complex that we thought and we can’t really reduce it to these ideas anymore.

[Dr. Adrian Owen]: The answer is yes and no. To take your question backwards, we definitely can’t reduce the brain in terms of those ideas anymore. I don’t think that thinking about the brain in terms of fluid intelligence is a very sensible way to go about it.

We actually had our most recent large-scale study, which we published in a journal called Neuron at the end of 2012, that involved 44,000 members of the public, and there we specifically addressed this question. We got everybody to do a fairly large number of cognitive tests online and then we tried to look at whether we could estimate people’s fluid intelligence, or IQ as it’s often referred to, using these different, specific cognitive tests. It turns out that you cannot explain the variance; you cannot actually explain everybody’s performance in terms of a single factor. Whichever way we cut up the data, there was no way of explaining or reducing people’s data to a single factor, say an IQ factor or fluid intelligence factor. It turns out that there are at least three different components in performance, I’m sure it’s not just three but there are at least three.

That paper was really designed to take a swipe at the community who are still looking for evidence of fluid intelligence or IQ in the brain, because we accompanied it with a brain imaging study that produced exactly the same results. It said that if there is something like IQ, there is a way of comparing one person to another person in terms of a single measure then we should be able to find evidence of it in the brain somewhere, but actually we weren’t able to do that.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: So it’s really the dynamic relationship between different parts of the brain, so just focusing on developing and aspect—if we can actually do that—is potentially erroneous.

I just wanted to make sure that people at home understood the difference between fluid intelligence, IQ and crystallized intelligence and how it relates to their lives. Can you just give a quick overview of what that means when people are talking about that?

[Dr. Adrian Owen]: I’m certainly not an IQ expert and I think maybe the best way to think about this is that these are measures that are out there in the world that clearly measure something, but they measure something in the same way as having a driving test measures something: you take a driving test and you pass or you fail, but you probably get a score on it as well. That score means something but it doesn’t tell you everything about somebody’s ability to drive. If I got a 94 and you got a 96, how much would that really tell us about the likelihood of you causing a collision on the road or me causing a collision? That doesn’t mean it’s useless having a driving test; it’s a measure that we have constructed to measure something out there in the world that, an aspect of people’s abilities, and we use it for a purpose, which is to determine whether people should be allowed out on the road in a dangerous vehicle or not. IQ is a little bit like that. It is a measure that has been around for many years. It’s often divided into two components: crystallized intelligence and fluid intelligence. Crystallized is really the stuff that you’ve learnt, the stuff that you have acquired since your childhood, stuff you know.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: So is it that the harder you studied the more you tend to have?

[Dr. Adrian Owen]: Well, that may be true; it may be that the more of it you had to start with the harder you study, I don’t know. But fluid intelligence is more related to problem solving, reasoning, our ability to work through problems, plan for the future; that is assumed to be something that is not necessarily as related to what we have learnt and the knowledge that we have acquired over time, but it’s—I’m going to choose my words very carefully here—something that many people think of being an innate ability that some people have a very high fluid intelligence, an ability to reason their way out of problems, and other people have a rather lower fluid intelligence.

The whole concept of IQ is often divided into those two things. I think for obvious reasons, most people are more interested in fluid intelligence than they are in crystallized intelligence because fluid intelligence gets wrapped up in arguments about genetics and whether one person is better than another person. It’s not just because they have had more education, it’s because they’re somehow inherently smarter. All these arguments about brain training and smartness and how intelligent you are, are actually usually referring to some measure of fluid intelligence, rather than crystallized intelligence.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: That is the thing people tend to work on. These brain training aspects are trying to change that because we already know that crystallized intelligence can be changed.

[Dr. Adrian Owen]: Exactly, you can learn more stuff.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Yes, exactly. So to look at what you did at Cambridge Brain Sciences, what were you actually looking at in terms of assessing people there? Was it relating to these concepts we have been talking about?

[Dr. Adrian Owen]: You mean the study with the 44,000 people?

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Yes, what is the assessment that Cambridge Brain Sciences does when you take that test or when they did it?

[Dr. Adrian Owen]: I think what’s interesting about Cambridge Brain Sciences, and is perhaps a little bit different to many other online testing studies, is that, basically, it’s brain based. These are all tests that we’ve either devised or have been based on tests that other neuroscientists have devised to assess specific brain functions; these aren’t tests that are set up to assess a cognitive ability. We don’t have a memory suite thats designed to test your memory; we have essentially groups of tests that are assigned to assess specific brain functions. Most of these tests now have a 25-year history of being used in my lab and in other labs around the world. A lot of them were based on patient studies that we did in the late 80s and early 90s, or on non-human studies that other neuroscientists have conducted to look at how the brains of monkeys perhaps compare with the brains of humans. So all of these tests have been used in many neuroscientific studies, so they are genuine scientific tools, if you like. We’ve dressed them up slightly to make them a little bit more appealing to the person in the street, but basically, what they are testing is something that addresses a specific scientific question about the role of particular brain regions’ in cognition. In that context, I think they are very useful for trying to understand how different people’s brains function compared to one another.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Before we spoke—I took the test about a year ago—so I just wanted to revise it and I took it again today, and was horribly disappointed to see that one of the areas had declined quite specifically.

[Dr. Adrian Owen]: Well, you are obviously getting a bit older, you are just going to have to deal with this.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Does that actually mean that my cognitive… sometimes will it be an off day? Let’s talk about practice first; what would you suggest people use these for? From my own perspective, if I’m hoping, as you just brought up, not to have an aged brain, you know a brain that’s aging too rapidly, I might want to do it once a quarter, once every six months, just to check where things are. Is that a reasonable use of that?

[Dr. Adrian Owen]: It’s perfectly reasonable use of it. I think it’s a very good way of assessing your current cognitive performance based on using the same tools that cognitive neuroscientists are using these days. I think you have to be very careful, there obviously is variance. We try and take account of practice effects by making sure that novel problems are served up each time. So in all of those tests, you won’t have seen exactly the same things that you saw a year ago, they’ll be different and there are algorithms built into that to make it infinite; you could test yourself as many times as you want and you won’t encounter the same problems. But saying that, there is obviously an initial practice effect. The first time you sit down and do them, the entire concept is novel. You’re sitting and doing an online test you’ve never seen before, you’re trying to work out where the instructions are, so there is going to be a difference between your very first time and your second time. We generally suggest that people have a go once and then start testing themselves once they are familiar with the environment.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: I think I’ll just put my bad score today down to that then.

[Dr. Adrian Owen]: I think that would be entirely reasonable; that’s something that we can deal with. But people also need to be careful about the circumstances in which they test themselves: if you didn’t get any sleep last night, then the chances are that your cognition is going to take a hit. You’re going to be less attentive, less able to focus, your memory might be slightly impaired. In some senses, the downside of having people test themselves at home is that they could be intoxicated, they could have had a few beers beforehand, there are all sorts of things that might have affected.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Or you could be a bit under the weather, as you said not having slept. I actually experienced that with another tool, Lumosity; I don’t know how similar it is to Cambridge Brain Sciences, or if you are up-to-date on that, but it is a brain training tool that is quite widely used.

[Dr. Adrian Owen]: It is. Lumosity is actually very different to Cambridge Brain Sciences, in that they have gone much further in trying to turn things into games and entertainment, and of course their focus is on training. Although you can use Cambridge Brain Sciences to train, we’ve never made any claims about training, we are not encouraging people to try and train their brains using Cambridge Brain Sciences; we are trying to encourage people to use it to assess whether training works or assess whether any form of intervention works. If somebody wants to know whether a cup of coffee in the morning makes an effect, take Cambridge Brain Sciences twice, once before your coffee and once after and see if there has been a change.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: So you think it could be useful for those small interventions? A lot of people are taking nootropics or coffee—you’ve heard of bulletproof coffee, where you put butter in it? All sorts of people are trying different things at the moment, including myself. If we have a standardised tool to assess ourselves and you think it can make the difference between one… could we test ourselves once each day at the same time? Are there are a lot of things we have to control for if we were going to run our own little experiments, in terms of getting realistic information out?

[Dr. Adrian Owen]: I think it’s the perfect tool for doing those sorts of things; it’s extremely sensitive, by that I mean it will pick up small changes. Because of the way that we measure performance in these various tests, it’s designed to pick relatively small changes. I would encourage people to try their own experiments at home with it but, of course, you should try and do it scientifically. Try and do it the way that we would do it in the lab, which is control as much as you can except the variable that you are looking at. So, try and do it at approximately the same time of day, try and make sure there are no huge confounding factors like you haven’t had any sleep for one test and you did for the other; keep as much as you can the same and then vary what it is you are interested in, whether it is in drinking coffee or taking your regular sleeping pill or whatever it is that you are particularly interested in, then do it.

Repetition is the corner stone of scientific enquiry. I don’t think that one single participant performing one manipulation pre-imposed coffee does not make a Nature or a Science paper, I can tell you that. If you are interested in it and see that you have promising early results, then try to repeat it, maybe try it on somebody else to make sure it works on multiple people. But these are all basic principals in science really.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: I think there is an interesting aspect here when it comes to an n=1 experiment, is that we have personal biologies which are different: caffeine is metabolised differently, for instance. Some things, which in the world of science, because we are not aware of them, they won’t work; when we test ten people, we get a variance of results because we aren’t aware of a specific aspect of biology which varies in people quite differently. But when we’re doing an n=1 experiment, if we do control it well and we do it at the same time of the day, and we try to control for these things, we can see some repetitive thing that happens in us, and maybe it’s not going to happen in our friends, but we have that ability to see, “I wanted to improve my brain performance; this apparently does. I don’t know why it doesn’t work for other people but there you go.”

[Dr. Adrian Owen]: That is a very interesting point. The problem is when people then make claims based upon things like that. This is the problem with the whole brain training literature really is that people are making extremely broad claims, and I think that if you really boil it down, what the person in the street is hearing or is interested in is brain training—whatever that is—makes me smarter—whatever that is—and actually, the devil is in the detail, because brain training obviously works in a sense that if I teach myself to ride a bicycle, I have trained my brain. My brain is now able to operate all my limbs to ride a bicycle when it wasn’t able to do that before, so in that sense, brain training works; but that’s not news. If I practice long division, I’m going to get better at long division; again that’s not news, that’s learning. But in a sense, it’s brain training.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: You’ve touched on basically the aspect of why everyone focuses on brain training. The point is not to get better at one thing; it’s to improve your ability to deal with new things.

[Dr. Adrian Owen]: It is and actually, that’s where the science gets really complicated and controversial because a lot of people, and I don’t think it’s uncontroversial to say that a lot of people with commercial interest, would like to claim strongly that there is so-called transfer: if you practice this one test, you are going to get better at all of these other things. Scientifically, that’s actually been something that is extremely difficult to demonstrate unequivocally that you really do get better at all those other things, because often all of those other things are quite closely related to the thing you’ve been training on, which is a bit like learning to ride a bike and then suddenly finding out that you are also better at spin class; it is not that surprising.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: The biggest example that I can think of, I don’t know if you know other ones, is the Dual N-Back, or even the N-Back applications, which you will find on iPhones. I think a lot of people have come into contact with them these days. I played around with it for a while until I started reading some of the conflicting research and I thought I’m not sure this is such a great use of my time. The idea there is that you play this game and then it increases your working memory and your ability to solve problems and, basically, we are talking about the fluid intelligence that we mentioned before, which everyone wants to be able to do. What is your viewpoint on the effectiveness of these types of things and what kind of brain training did you test when you were looking at this?

[Dr. Adrian Owen]: I’ll answer the second part of your question first, so we actually used various types of brain training tests and some of them were similar to the N-Back tasks, they certainly involved a lot of working memory and, as you know, we didn’t find any significant transfer effects. Even when people had trained for six weeks for ten minutes several times a day, they clearly got better at everything they trained at, every single test that was trained people got better at, but they didn’t transfer to other tests, and actually in our hands, they didn’t transfer to other tests that were quite similar.

So for example, we had what’s called a spatial span task, where you simply remember the locations of various boxes on a computer screen, and in many ways that is very similar to a commonly used psychological test known as digit span, where you just remember a series of digits, in the sense that these are very discreet things that you have to remember one after the other and you repeat them in the order that they were presented—one of them are blobs in different places on the screen and the other one are numbers.

I think it would be reasonable to hypothesise that if you got better at one of those things, you might be improving your performance at the other one because there is quite a lot of overlap between them. Lots of brain processes are likely to be the same in both, but actually that wasn’t the case. We found that even with tests that were reasonably closely related to one other, like that, working hard at one didn’t actually improve your performance at the other. But again, that is one study; that’s the study that we conducted, that’s the results that we reported; other people have certainly reported other results and have suggested that training on working memory is beneficial.

I think one of the really big problems here is working out what is working memory, and what tasks do and don’t involve working memory. It’s very easy to say, “Well, this is a working memory task that has been designed by cognitive neuroscientists to assess working memory. We’re going to assess the effects of training on this other task, which is not called a working memory task; it’s called a fluid intelligence task. That must mean that if there’s an effect, there’s transfer,” but what people need to understand is these are just names that we assign to things. For a very simple example, working memory is involved in absolutely every single aspect of our life. You and I having this conversation, a working memory is absolutely essential to have this conversation because you are listening to what I’m saying and you are trying to accommodate what I’m saying in order to generate your next question, and I’m doing the opposite to you, and all the time we are remembering what each of us is saying and that’s how we are having a conversation.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: It’s a bit like a computer ram. Everyone’s got computers; they need ram to have things working. It’s like working cash flow, working ram and it’s actually being used versus the stuff we have stored in long-term.

[Dr. Adrian Owen]: Exactly, that’s a perfect analogy. But would we, based on that comment I’ve just made, conclude that language involves working memory. Most people who work on language—psychologists and cognitive neuroscientists—don’t think of working memory as being a component of language, but they recognise that in the process of using language, and us talking to one another or even just generating speech, we need to use our working memory system. So, that is just an example where you need to look very carefully at the test because just because it’s called a fluid intelligence test doesn’t mean that it doesn’t involve working memory, and certainly it does; any cognitive test involves working memory because you have to remember the instructions of how to do it. You have to implement those instructions, you typically have to remember where you are in the test—Am I half way through? Am I near the end? It doesn’t matter what the test is about. I can’t easily think of a cognitive test that wouldn’t require working memory. That’s not a complete answer to the question, it’s not a complete explanation to why it is that training on working memory appears to improve fluid intelligence, but it’s just one example I think of the problems that arise when people try and make claims about transfer from one thing to another without really exploring the components of the individual test and saying, “Have I just trained up something that’s helping this person to do this other test?”

There is a lot of discussion/argument in the cognitive literature about exactly that. That’s why we’ve taken the Cambridge Brain Sciences’ approach, which is to not just rely on one test, but to have a whole array of assessment tools. Now, I guess our position on brain training would be that if brain training works, then you should be able to train on this one test, whatever it is, this magic brain training task and, in general, your performance on this whole slew of other tests, which brain sciences should get better. I honestly think that is what most members of the public would expect and are expecting from what they read about brain training. It’s not that if I train on my working memory, my performance on this one test of fluid intelligence is going to improve; they are thinking, apparently, if I train on working memory I’m going to get smarter. The best way we have of measuring am I smarter is to do an entire battery of different cognitive tests that assess planning and memory and attention and all these different aspects, so I think you do have to look at the big picture and when you look at the big picture, the data are really far from equivocal. It’s not clear that training on any one test or even any one battery of tests will generally improve you on most aspects of cognition.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Is that to say that every time say I’m doing the Cambridge Brain Science test, or you are, you’d expect to get roughly the same scores, unless you’ve had some injury, something negative, you would expect some age decline as you referred to earlier, but you wouldn’t expect there to be jumps? Even if beyond brain training we’d been exposed to new environments perhaps, a new job, perhaps we’ve taken on a new course, we’d taken on some new studies, a PhD, whatever it is, I’m assuming that you wouldn’t really expect those measures to change much?

[Dr. Adrian Owen]: Actually, in the study we published in Neuron in 2012, we looked at a lot of these different components. Because we had 44,000 people logged in, we also asked them a lot of questions about their lifestyle. That obviously doesn’t directly address your question in that people weren’t assessed at different time points, but we had an awful lot of people that had an awful lot of different lifestyle and behavioural characteristics. We had young people, we had old people, we had smokers and non-smokers, drinkers and non-drinkers, gamblers and non-gamblers, brain trainers and non-brain trainers. We could do some of these comparisons and try and look at what difference things make, and it’s actually surprising. A lot of things that I wouldn’t have thought would necessarily affect performance really did make a difference: your general level of anxiety, for example, affected performance, but it didn’t affect the performance across the entire battery; it had selective performance on a subset of tests. Similarly smoking, whether you were a smoker or not I should say, didn’t affect cognitive performance across everything; it had specific effects on clusters, on known groups of tests. I think that’s more likely what people are going to see if they repeatedly test themselves, perhaps pre and post to brain injury or using one of these interesting manipulations we discussed earlier, like whether you had a cup of coffee or whether you’ve lost a night’s sleep. They won’t see a global deterioration of cognition; they’ll see specific problems in various areas. Perhaps your memory would be affected or your ability to attend or problem solve would be affected.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: One of the main things I’m interested in looking at is a lot of the things are hyped. A lot of the things that we consider spending time in, so some of the big things at the moment are mindfulness meditation. You’ll see most executives today doing some form of mindfulness or transcendental meditation, basically repeating a syllable versus just focusing on being mindful. Me myself, I try these things and my friends were all trying these things to increase our performance because we are all entrepreneurs and we are just trying to do better at life and get more out of life and so that’s what everyone wants these days.

But the question is, really, could we potentially test what you just said about anxiety because I’ve always of anxiety as like a distraction. If I’m trying to problem solve on a test or problem solve at work, I know for a fact that if I’m distracted I feel more anxiety and it feels like it’s harder work because I’m not really focused. It is like half of my working memory is taken up by whatever the distracting mechanism is. Meditation, yoga, things like this are supposed to improve that, so it would be interesting for people to do interventions at home and for people to do scientific studies on this to see if this has far more impact than brain training if you want to enhance your cognitive performance.

[Dr. Adrian Owen]: I come from very much the same philosophy that you do. I am always intrigued by what the current trend is; what is it that people are doing and believing. I would strongly encourage people to go out and try these things.

I think the problem is the best tool that we have for assessing anything is science and we have a scientific process, and we have a very well worked out system for what is acceptable science and what is not acceptable science and what scientists have to do to make sure that their peers agree with this, and these sorts of thing. People do need to be slightly careful I think on relying too much on just running their own experiments and finding out about stuff and assuming that it’s the whole story. But I think as long as people try and remain scientifically rigorous and go out and test these things, I think they are all perfectly plausible things to investigate.

A rule of thumb I always have is just because a lot of people believe in it and are sure that it is true, if it hasn’t been scientifically proven, then it’s very likely not the case, for whatever reason. I think that the commercial brain training is a very good example of that, where tens of millions of people clearly believe in this because the large manufacturers of these things sell tens of millions of units of these things, so there are a lot of people who think it might work, but the scientific evidence doesn’t support it and most people should be able to see that by looking around them in the street. Talk to your smartest friends and find out why they think they are smarter, I bet you can’t find somebody who says, “Oh, it’s because I’ve been using this brain training system for six months.” It’s not that all of our smart friends are brain trainers and all of our less smart friends are not brain trainers. The evidence is out there in society that brain training in a commercial big sense clearly doesn’t work, that all the smart people aren’t the brain trainers and the less smart people the non-brain trainers. Again, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing in there and no type of brain training could have any effect, it just means that the sorts that most people are buying into at the moment, it isn’t doing what they believe it’s doing.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: We don’t have any concrete scientific studies saying, without conflicting studies coming up a couple of years later, “Well, actually this isn’t repeatable.”

An aspect I wanted to relate back to is, because I hear this a lot, I hear about the brain aging and how we have got to protect ourselves. A lot of people are concerned about Alzheimer’s of course, it’s is one of the biggest fears of people, and losing our brain is something that obviously we care about a lot. When we are talking about aging of the brain, what does that actually mean? What’s going on there?

[Dr. Adrian Owen]: Again, it really depends on who you are; if you are dementing, by that I mean you have something like Alzheimer’s disease, then your brain is generating abnormal clusters or groups of cells within the brain that are seriously detrimental to performance and are affecting your memory and your attention, your ability on many tasks. If you have Parkinson’s disease then basically you have a reduction in a particular neurotransmitter known as dopamine, which we know is important for many tasks and for the normal functioning of many parts of the brain, and that again will have really rather specific effects. For the rest of us, maybe a lot of us have had small strokes during our life that we are not aware of. We are all very familiar with people who have had a major stroke that may have affected a large portion of their ability to move a part of their body, but there is a school of thought that over the course of our life, many of us have small strokes that don’t have measurable effects, but by the time you get to your 70s and 80s, that stuff is all adding up, you’re starting to see impairments.

Head injuries; I spend a lot of my time working with very severe head injuries, but of cause concussion is very much in the news these days. Over the course of most of our lives, most of us sustain a fair number of bangs on the head. It may not have resulted in a clinical concussion, but the brain, in spite of the fact that it is well protected by the skull, is an extremely vulnerable organ. We know that a blow to the head can have a serious effect. So I think all of these things, along with what most of us assume as aging, this non-specific atrophy of the brain, brain cells just shutting down or dying; all of these things can add up to the aging process and this is why aging is such a mystery because of course it’s all so different in each and every one of us, because we’ve all had different experiences and been exposed to different things in life.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: What you’re saying is that it is very complex. Aging is this name we give to lots of biological changes, like damage accumulation. We’ve recently had Aubrey de Grey on, and he talks about aging and he splits it into seven different areas, so it’s quite interesting for him to break it down and say well, actually, it’s because you have cellular garbage building up and to actually break it down and describe it. So it’s interesting to talk and clarify a bit because everyone talks about brain aging, and as you say, it can be different for different people. If we are trying to prevent this, since you brought up the injuries, have you been able to improve the situation of people with injuries beyond just kind of assessing what stage they are at? Are you able to at least get them to recover somewhat, so it kind of gives up some hope for the aging process as well?

[Dr. Adrian Owen]: There is obviously a big difference between mild brain injury and severe brain injury. Some of the work we are trying to do now is to look at concussion, and again we are using Cambridge Brain Science; we are assessing concussion in people like American football players, who often suffer many serious concussions within the course of one season, and looking at whether by carefully measuring their cognition pre-imposed concussion and we’re coupling that in some cases with brain imaging studies to see what the actual impact of the brain is. We are trying to look at ways in which that sort of damage can be mitigated.

For very, very serious brain injury, I do a lot of work in patients who are in coma or a vegetative state, and there the damage is often so severe that it is very hard to work out where to start as far as rehabilitating people is concerned, or getting them back to a normal life. That doesn’t mean that there won’t ever be any answers or that there aren’t any potential answers on the table, but it’s a much harder problem to solve.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: So when people talk about neuroplasticity, because that’s one of the things that gave people a bit more hope there, what does that refer to?

[Dr. Adrian Owen]: It’s a very broad term which has slightly been taken out of context. Two ways in which it is used often is in studies of healthy participants who are taught to do something that they couldn’t do previously. There was a very well publicized study a few years ago about people being taught to juggle. They were non-jugglers to start with, they were scanned at various points during the learning process, they were expert jugglers at the end, and there were changes in their brain that had occurred as a result of them learning to juggle; those changes were, I suppose, why they were able to juggle. Neuroplasticity had occurred in the brain and they had acquired a new skill. It’s a great study; it’s very well carried out and they use some beautiful new technical methods, but in a way, the result isn’t surprising because of course the brain has to change to do stuff and to learn stuff and that is how we retain these abilities to do things for many years. Once you have learnt to juggle you can usually do it for years and years after, even if you don’t continue to practice. So there is that kind of neuroplasticity, which I think, again, some people have taken out of context and said, “Okay, so the brain is totally plastic. We can all just move things around and learn to do new things,” and it’s not quite as simple as that.

The other way is, again, very good studies that have looked at the results of things like strokes, patients who have had a stroke and have learnt to do things that they lost as a result of the stroke. Perhaps they couldn’t move an arm, and through a process of continued rehabilitation, they regain the ability to move that arm. In some cases it’s been shown that it’s not that the bit of the brain that was damaged has been fixed, it’s that a different part of the brain has taken over the role that was carried out by the damaged part of the brain. Things have shifted around and, again, it is another example of neuroplasticity. There is no doubt that this happens; I don’t think anybody is questioning that this is something that the brain is able to do, the question is how widely can it be applied? It doesn’t mean that any of us can just reallocate resources within our brain, because we happen to have a large frontal lobe, let’s shove it all up the font and do it with our frontal lobe; things aren’t quite as easy as that, but neuroplasticity is an interesting idea and it is, as you, say something that is gaining a lot of attention.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: It sounds like it’s potentially a zero sum game, the reallocation of what you have rather than being able to re-build capacity that was lost for whatever reason.

[Dr. Adrian Owen]: I think so, certainly in the case where there has been a specific type of brain damage. It is very rarely the case that part of the brain that has been seriously damaged can be repaired. I can’t think of examples where that part of the brain has been made to work again. It is usually about reallocation of existing resources, but there’s a lot of truth in the old saying about how much of our brain we are using at any given time. We have quite a lot of brain and it is an extremely complex organ that is very, very well interconnected, so I think most of us do have a lot of potential for neuroplasticity, as long as the damage that you’ve received is not too severe. So although it’s a zero sum game, I think there’s plenty of potential there.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: I just did want to bring up one study that I saw recently, which was a bit more optimistic. You might have heard of it, I’m not sure, it was a reversal of cognitive decline. A novel therapeutic programme, it was in September 2014, and it was basically a multidisciplinerary approach. They had ten people do ten different things at the same time, so it wasn’t one of these controlled experiments where you’ve just got one thing going on. They just wanted to see if we throw everything at these people, can we help them? And it seemed like it was pretty positive: nine out of ten had some objective and subjective improvement and six out of six who had stopped working, went back to work. I don’t know if you saw that study, it was on Alzheimer’s and other patients; it was published in the Journal of Aging.

It’s with things like that you wonder, potentially, there are way to improve our situation. Maybe it’s not regrowing capacity, but there are ways of allowing our brain to work better in the conditions that it is in and continue to live the life or improve our performance as per whatever we are looking to do.

[Dr. Adrian Owen]: I think that is a really great example of where the point is to just not move too far away from the data. So I don’t doubt for a minute the results of the study, but what’s important is that you stick to that result and you say, “Okay, so when people of that kind, patients in this case, perform multiple tasks at the same time, their lives improve and they go on and live better lives than they did before,” and that’s the important message; that’s what that paper measured, that’s what it set out to measure, that was the result that it demonstrated and that’s what you should take away from it. Rather than say thinking, “Ah, so brain training works then!” which is, as we have been discussing, it is just a much bigger issue and, actually, that study doesn’t show that brain training works; it shows that a specific group of tests in a specific type of patients can improve their lives in specific ways. So that suggests that some aspects of brain training work, but one shouldn’t take away from that that if, “Okay, I go and buy this product to make me smarter, it’s going to make me smarter.”

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Maybe I should have been clearer here. It wasn’t brain training; it was ten different interventions in terms of exercise, meditation and yoga to de-stress, basically doing everything you can think of that people say we should do to live healthily. So that’s what I meant when they threw everything at them, they were just like, “Have a programme and you have to do everything that we are supposed to do to be healthy. Now, is this going to make any impact in terms of your brain cognitive performance?” Again, I guess the same point remains: are you an Alzheimer’s patient? But it might be an interesting test to do yourself, if you are willing to do ten little interventions and then to use something like Cambridge Brain Sciences test to see if it has had any difference after a month or something.

[Dr. Adrian Owen]: I think so. I think you would get a pretty good pre-intervention assessment and a post intervention assessment with something like Cambridge Brain Science, it would be a perfect way to test that. As you say, it could be different in healthy participants. We know a lot about the difference between patients and healthy participants. Patients, in a sense, have much more to gain. There is an argument that those of us who can claim to be healthy are already doing as good as we can, we’re working at our cognitive optimum levels and maybe we can’t get any better, whereas somebody who is already declined 20% from their best, has that opportunity to climb back up to the top again. These are all important factors that may produce differences in the so-called healthy population versus any kind of patient.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Great, great, thanks for that. Just to bring up, it is interesting that you have been looking at EEG and the use of that. We spoke about functional MRI technology, which of course is extremely expensive and limited to research studies primarily because there is not so many of them. So you have been doing some work with EEG, which is interesting because it means that potentially some of those applications could be used broader because EEG is more accessible. So could you give us an overview of how you used it and where it could be applied potentially, this kind of approach?

[Dr. Adrian Owen]: Again, just to sort of qualify something that you have said, although EEG is much cheaper than FMRI, there’s EEG and there’s EEG. The EEG systems that we use actually cost more than 100,000 pounds each, so these are not things that you are going to be able to go and buy down at Radio Shack or Best Buy; these are extremely sophisticated, expensive pieces of scientific technology. But of course, the potential of EEG is that if we get it right with these expensive tools, we can make it cheaper; one could reduce the number of electrodes—instead of the 128 that we use, perhaps you can answer that question with just five or six. Those are all scientific and technical questions that we are trying to solve. FMRI, for various technical reasons, is not going to get a lot cheaper at any time soon. We’re not going to be having portable MRI scanners that we can all take home with us very soon, so there isn’t the potential for things getting much cheaper or more portable with MRI in the way that there is with the EEG.

What we have been trying to do is to use the EEG systems to achieve many of the same things that we have done with the MRI, mostly this is with the very serious brain damaged patients, it’s trying to determine whether some patients who appear to be in a vegetative state might actually be conscious but locked inside their head. We’ve had quite a lot of success with that over the last ten years using FMRI, and we are now pretty good at detecting something like one in five patients who appear to be entirely vegetative, and sometimes have been that way for many years, when we put them in the scanner we can detect that they are actually there, they are conscious, they are aware of what is going on around them, they are laying down memories and if they could, they would probably express opinions about the situation that they’re in. That is something that we have been trying to replicate with the EEG, and technically, it’s much harder, it’s proved to be much harder with the EEG. We’ve done it, we’re about at the same stage with the EEG that we were with the FMRI. But even though it’s simpler, it’s a portable technology, you can take it to the patient in their hospital, scientifically in terms of what you are measuring in the brain, it’s a little bit harder to actually analyse the data and interpret the data, so it’s had it’s own difficulties, but we are continuing to work in that area to try and improve things.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: I wish you success there, it sounds like a very useful application that is going to help a lot of people.

So to round off the interview, what are you expecting in the next five or ten years in terms of our ability to assess cognitive performance or cognitive abilities? Are you expecting any big exciting changes or interesting things that might be helpful in this area?

[Dr. Adrian Owen]: I’ll tell you what I’m not expecting, I don’t think that we are going to suddenly get a brain training magic bullet. I really don’t think we are suddenly going to find that doing a particular task three times a day, six times a week is suddenly going to improve cognitive performance. The reason for that is you just have to look out there in the world and we would have worked this out by now if that was going to be the case. If there was some reasonable thing that one could do to boost one’s cognitive performance in terms of practice or brain training, then I think we would know about it by now. So that’s not what is going to happen.

We are learning an awful lot of information about things like the effects of drugs on the brain, how drugs affect different brain regions; there’s a whole area that we haven’t touched on here about so-called neuroenhancers, drugs that one can take to up your performance, to improve your cognitive abilities, and we are starting to learn much more about how those drugs work, the neurochemical systems that they work on in the brain, and I think it is entirely plausible that new drugs, so-called smart drugs, will be developed that will have specific and perhaps reasonably large effects on cognition.

I think the other thing is that people are waking up to the importance of trying to keep your brain healthy, trying to preserve what cognitive function you have, and we are seeing changes in society. Society is generally getting healthier, people are stopping doing a lot of things that are now pretty clear weren’t good for us and are affecting our brain in various ways, so I think that will also feed into public knowledge about ways of preserving function during aging for example. I’m not anticipating any huge revolutionary changes except, potentially, in the smart drug area.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Great, thanks. That’s good to hear. Is there anyone besides yourself you would recommend to talk about these subjects, like cognitive assessment or potentially, the brain training area, that they have looked at it in detail and assessed the potential of it?

[Dr. Adrian Owen]: Randy Engle in Georgia has published a lot on the so-called brain training, and he is an extremely smart and approachable individual who has a lot of very intelligent things to say about some of the statistics that have been used, some of the controls that have been used. His is a largely negative view, I would say, about the effects of brain training. You won’t have to go very far to find somebody who would be happy to talk to you about the positive aspects of brain training, so I won’t promote that by dropping any names in.

As far as smart drugs are concerned, somebody like my former PhD adviser, Barbara Sahakian in Cambridge, UK, is doing a lot of work on smart drugs and the effects of cognitive enhancement. She is certainly very knowledgeable in that area and I’m sure she’d be happy to talk to you.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Great, great. Thank you very much.

Just to round off, I’d like to get a view into your personal life and if you are using any type of data. Are you tracking any type of data in a routine manner or looking at anything in your life from time to time, maybe once every six months, or anything to assess your health, your performance or your longevity?

[Dr. Adrian Owen]: I’m just afraid to do that. I do, of course, log into Cambridge Brain Sciences every so often just to check how I’m going.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Out of interest, did you get a decline similar to me?

[Dr. Adrian Owen]: Well, when you get to 48 years old, it is inevitable that some things are just not working quite as well as they used to. Sometimes I’m surprised that I’m as cognitively preserved as I am, but I’m not the sort of person that monitors my performance on a regular basis. I, of course, get to scan my brain very often, and I guess that’s one answer to your question. Because of the context of my brain imaging research, I get to go inside the MRI scanner to test out various new things we are trying and to test new sequences in the scanner, etc., so I do get the opportunity to see my brain really quite frequently. I’m always on the look out for anything that looks a little bit abnormal, any sort of accelerated atrophy or lumps and bumbs here and there. It is impossible not to be intrigued by these things if you are a neuroscientist.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Right, especially if it’s your brain you’re looking at. I guess it is like the whole medicine thing, when you start googling stuff, you get the whole placebo effect of, “That sounds like something I have.” We’ll call it the anti-placebo effect, you should never start googling if you have some little random symptom because you’ll end up that probably google will say you have cancer or something.

[Dr. Adrian Owen]: Google always says you have cancer.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: One last thing; we have spoken a lot about data today and controls, what would be your one big recommendation to people that are using data in their lives—they are trying to make some sort of decision, use data to improve their lives on any dimension, whether it’s longevity, performance or health—what would be your one recommendation in terms of what they do with data or how they use it?

[Dr. Adrian Owen]: I think there’s a scientist in everybody. We are all interested in questions about the world, about our lifestyle, about the effects of our lifestyle on our brains or on our ability to think. I think my one recommendation would be for people to try and stick to the scientific method. We’ve homed this idea over hundreds and hundreds of years now, we know how to conduct rigorous scientific experiments; you don’t have to be an expert in statistics, you just basically have to follow a few simple principles. Make sure when you test something, you are controlling as much as you can about other factors, try and make sure that the effect is reproducible, try and make sure that it’s reliable. There are many fairly basic scientific principals that one can apply to everyday life. Don’t just google something or read about something in a newspaper and assume it’s true. Go out and test it, but when you do that, test it using as many basic scientific principals as you can and I think you won’t go far wrong if you do that.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: That’s a great bit of advice. I don’t know if you know if there’s a book or something that would give someone a basic introduction to the scientific method? I don’t know if that exists.

[Dr. Adrian Owen]: I’m sure it does exist, but off the top of my head I can’t think what would be a good place to point people, but I can send you something that you can accompany this podcast with.

[Damien Blenkinsopp]: That would be great, I’d really appreciate that, that would be very helpful.

Adrian, thank you so much for your time today and all the questions and answers you’ve been giving us. It’s been really interesting.

[Dr. Adrian Owen]: That’s my pleasure. It was a lot of fun. Thanks very much.

Leave a Reply