On the direction of brains

A few months ago I was chatting with my old pal, and top neuroscientist, Adrian Owen.  Adrian and I went to University together many years ago. I don’t want to say how long ago it was, but suffice to say that Charles Darwin was Head of Department. Anyway, I digress.

Adrian and I were chatting about a possible brain-based project and I decided to Google the word ‘brain’. That’s when I noticed something very odd. The vast majority of the images showed a brain looking to its right – that is, the viewer was seeing the left lobe. Adrian pointed out that, structurally speaking, one side of the brain is no more interesting to than the other, and so wondered what was going on.

I was aware that several psychologists – including Professor Chris McManus – have discovered that the majority of people featured in portraits also tended to look to their right. Over the years, researchers have suggested several possible explanations for the effect, including, for example, the idea that the left side of the face is more expressive than the right, or that Westerners read left to right and so would encounter the front of the face first.

But did the bias even extend to images of brains? To find out, Adrian and I downloaded hundreds of brain images, categorized them and discovered that a whopping 80% were indeed looking to their right! It was true regardless of whether the image included a head or not.

We have recently published our findings in the scientific journal i-perception, and you can read the paper here. (P.S. The image in the paper is wrongly labelled – the correct image is shown below).

How to improve your sleep

I recently gave a Funzing talk on how to improve your sleep. A few attendees asked for a summary and so here are 10 main points.  I discuss all of this in depth in Night School, and will be giving another Funzing talk on the topic in London in June.

Avoid the blues: When your eyes are exposed to light, your brain produces less of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin. Light towards the blue end of the spectrum is especially stimulating and computer screens, tablets, smartphones and LED lighting all emit a lot of blue light. Try not to use these devices in the two hours before you go to bed. If you must use them, turn down the brightness or wear amber-tinted glasses designed to block blue light.

Avoid nightcaps: Although a small amount of alcohol helps you get to sleep more quickly, it also gives you a more disturbed night, increases the chances of snoring and disrupts dreaming. Don’t drink alcohol in the hours before bed.

Remember the 90-minute rule: Every night your brain goes through several 90-minute sleep cycles. You feel good if you wake up towards the end of a cycle because then you are closest to your normal waking state. To increase the chances of this, decide when you want to wake up and then count back in 90 minutes blocks to discover the best time to fall asleep. For instance, if you want to wake up at 8am, you should aim to fall asleep around either 11pm or 12.30am.

 

Distract yourself: Research suggests that you will fall asleep quickly if you tire your mind. Try counting backwards from 100 in threes. Or, if you’re not good with numbers, think of a category (countries or fruit and vegetables) and then come up with an example of that category for each letter of the alphabet. A is for Albania, B is for Bulgaria, or A is for apple, B is for banana, etc.

Condition yourself: Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov famously rang a bell each time he presented a dog with food, and eventually found that the sound of the bell alone was enough to make the dog salivate. The same concept can help you to fall asleep. Choose a soporific piece of music that you like, and fall asleep with it quietly playing. Over time, your brain will associate the music with sleep, and simply listening to it will help you nod off.

Get up!: If you’re awake for more than about 20 minutes during the night, get out of bed and do some form of non-stimulating activity, such as working on a jigsaw or a colouring book. This helps to prevent you associating your bed with sleeplessness. And if the problem arises later in the night, climb back out of bed and distract yourself again.

Relax: Lying awake makes many people feel anxious, and this anxiety disrupts their sleep even more, creating a vicious cycle. If you are struggling to sleep, remember that you are probably getting more sleep than you think (research shows that we all underestimate how much of the night we spend sleeping) and that just relaxing in bed is good for you.

Segmented sleep: Preindustrial diaries show that many people didn’t sleep in one solid block, but instead slept for about four hours, woke up for roughly an hour, and then slept for another four hours. The hour between the two periods was spent reading, chatting and having sex. Some researchers have argued that such “segmented sleep” might reflect a natural sleep pattern, and be good for the mind because the period of wakefulness helps to promote the production of a feelgood hormone called prolactin. Try embracing segmented sleep.

A version of these tips originally appeared in an article that I wrote for The Guardian.

London Talks

speaking3I have teamed up with Funzing and am doing London two talks, one about magic and the other about sleep. Just for today you can get a 22% discount using the code ’22funzingagain’ (limited availability)

Here are the details….

Magic and illusion: Step backstage and discover the secret science of sorcery. Learn the hitherto hidden psychology employed by some of the world’s greatest illusionists, how to misdirect the mind, and discover why the hand is rarely quicker than the eye.  It’s a show packed with illusions, misdirection and sleight of hand. Prepare to be amazed and amused.

4th May Book here

The science of sleep: Explore the new science of sleep and dreaming, find out the truth about  sleep-learning, and delve into the world’s largest archive of dream reports. Join Wiseman as he uncovers the power of the sleeping mind, revealing how you can get the perfect night’s sleep, decode your dreams, and improve your life without moving a muscle.

8th May Book here

Looking forward to seeing you there!

The world’s first mind reading tee shirt is back!

A few years ago we created the world’s first mind reading tee shirt. They were only available for a very limited period of time.  Well, the good news is that they have just relaunched and are available for the next 4 days.  Here is a video about it and the links. Enjoy!

and the video showing this ground-breaking invention in action is here:

How to keep your New Years Resolutions

new-year-s-resolutionsIt’s that time of the year again. Right now millions of people will be making their New Years Resolutions in the hope of creating a new and improved version of themselves.  I am all for it. However, my work shows that only about 1 in 10 people will make their dreams a reality. Why? Because we often don’t know how to change our habits.

In 59 Seconds  I describe a large-scale study that I carried out into the techniques used by people who managed to make change stick.  Here are my 10 top tips, and a little video….

1) Make only one resolution, your chances of success are greater when you channel energy into changing just one aspect of your behaviour.

2) Don’t wait until New Year’s Eve to think about your resolution and instead take some time out a few days before and reflect upon what you really want to achieve.

3) Avoid previous resolutions; deciding to re-visit a past resolution sets you up for frustration and disappointment.

4) Don’t run with the crowd and go with the usual resolutions.  Instead think about what you really want out of life.

5) Break your goal into a series of steps, focusing on creating sub-goals that are concrete, measurable, and time-based.

6) Tell your friends and family about your goals, thus increasing the fear of failure and eliciting support.

7) Regularly remind yourself of the benefits associated with achieving your goals by creating a checklist of how life would be better once you obtain your aim.

8) Give yourself a small reward whenever you achieve a sub-goal, thus maintaining motivation and a sense of progress.

9) Make your plans and progress concrete by keeping a handwritten journal, completing a computer spreadsheet or covering a notice board with graphs or pictures.

10) Expect to revert to your old habits from time to time. Treat any failure as a temporary set-back rather than a reason to give up altogether.

Oh, and if you want to utilise the power of visualisation….

 

10 Quick Puzzles!

questionHere are 10 of my favourite puzzles. The answers are below – see how many you can solve and post your score below (be honest!).  Good luck….

1) A rope ladder is hanging over the side of a ship, with the bottom rung just touching the water. The rungs are 25com apart. How many rungs will be under the water when the tide has risen 1 metre?

2) How many calendar months have 28 days?

3) If you are running in a marathon and you overtake the person in second position, what position are you in?

4) I have many keys but few locks. I have space but no room. You can enter, but you cannot come in. What am I?

5) You enter a dark house in the middle of the night. Inside is an oil lamp, a gas fire and a stove full of wood. You only have one match. What do you light first?

6) What gets wetter as it dries?

7) What is as light as a feather, but even the strongest man cannot hold it for more than a few minutes.

8) What sport begins with a ‘T’ and has 4 letters?

9) What occurs once in every minute, twice in every moment, yet never in a thousand years?

10) The maker does not need it, the buyer does not want to use it, and the user doesn’t see it. What is it?

ukcoverwebAnd just before we get to the answers, here is a picture of my new book, 101 Bets You Will Always Win, which has lots more puzzles. Just thought I would mention it. Anyway, here are the answers….

ANSWERS

  1. None. The ship will rise with the tide!
  2. They all do.
  3. Second position.
  4. A keyboard.
  5. The match
  6. A towel
  7. His breath
  8. Golf
  9. The letter M
  10. A coffinAnd remember to post your score!

The Transparent Man: A new Quirkology video

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Magician Robert Harbin performing his Zig Zag illusion

The lovely folks at Google Making & Science recently asked me whether there was a science-based project that I would love to make happen.

A few weeks before, magic consultant David Britland had drawn my attention to a little-known optical illusion from the 1920s called ‘The Transparent Man’.

The illusion was described in a book written by magician Robert Harbin, and involved just a few sheets of glass and a light. According to Harbin, if everything was arranged in a certain way, a person would appear transparent. It’s an amazing idea, yet no-one had actually built the illusion to see if it worked.

When I looked at the plans, I realised that Harbin’s illusion used the same general idea that’s currently employed by physicists trying to make objects invisible! I contacted the world’s leading expert on invisibility – Professor Ulf Leonhardt – and asked if he would like to be involved in the project.

Ulf was amazingly generous and recorded an interview about this little-known optical illusion, his research into invisibility, and how Harbin’s illusion was years ahead of its time. In addition, magician Scott Penrose (President of The Magic Circle and a huge fan of Harbin) kindly agreed to be interviewed about Harbin’s most famous creation – the Zig Zag Lady.

The illusion took a long time to get right because it is a bit of an optical nightmare, but eventually the Quirkology Ninja and I managed to pull it off.

Here is the short documentary showing the illusion……

And here are the related interviews by Ulf and Scott….

Loads of people were kind enough to help with the project, and so my thanks go to…Professor Caroline Watt, David Britland, Professor Ulf Leonhardt, Joe Pavlo (I still have no idea how you did that), Mat White, Scott Penrose, Darren Martin, The Magic Circle, Jim Steinmeyer, Cameron Watt, Peter Lamont, Helen Keen, Simon Gage, and Sarah Angliss.

We have just launched a Quirkology Mind Games set!

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For the past year I have been working with the good folks at Marvin’s Magic to create a Quirkology box of goodies. The exciting news is that today we are launching Mind Games at the QED conference and online everywhere.

The set is crammed full of jaw-dropping illusions, surprising science stunts, and bets that you will always win. And all with a quirky twist. Within a few moments of opening the box you will appear to move objects with the power of your mind, transform anyone into a zombie, defy gravity and lots lots more. The box contains everything you need to astound your friends and family, and even has a specially filmed Quirkology DVD. Have fun!

Available at Amazon UK UK here.
Available in the UK, US, Europe and Canada here.

With huge thanks to Marvin’s Magic, Water Closet Press and QED.

A little pile of (mostly unwanted) things.

jastrowjA few days ago I visited the Joseph Jastrow archive at the David M. Rubenstein Library (Duke University, North Carolina).

Jastrow is one of my favourite psychologists, and I have frequently been inspired by his work. Born in 1863, he built America’s first psychology laboratory at the University of Wisconsin and investigated several intriguing topics, including dreams of the blind, optical illusions, and the psychology of magic. His work laid the foundations for modern-day psychology and two of his illusions – ‘Duck/Rabbit’ and ‘Boomerangs’ – still appear in most psychology textbooks.  Jastrow was also passionate about popularizing science and regularly gave public lectures, wrote newspaper articles, and broadcast on the radio.

jastrowillusions

I visited the archive in the hope of learning something new about his life and work. The staff were very friendly, and kindly allowed me to look through all the great man’s letters, scrapbooks and photographs.

The letters provided a fascinating glimpse into Jastrow’s personal life. In one box I found a letter from Jastrow containing a light-hearted description of himself – ‘Will wear any kind of clothes and eat anything…Is a good deal of a nuisance but doesn’t mind being told so’.  In another box I came across a small card tucked inside a diary.  Jastrow had created a clever little joke about Hitler and typed it up – I suspect no-one had seen the joke for over 50 years.

jastrow2a

And then I came across the final letter in the archive.  At first, I didn’t understand what I was looking at.  The letter was dated 1944, contained a short list of Jastrow’s possessions, and asked recipients if they were interested in any of the objects. ‘A wool coat’ (‘English worsted, navy blue’), ‘4 pairs of spectacles’ (‘Can any one use the rims?’), ‘a curious collection of hand-made collar pins’,  ‘a signet ring’ (‘Unsentimental though I pretend to be, I should rather like to keep it’).  And then the penny dropped. Jastrow had just died.

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In life he investigated the dreams of Helen Keller, was a personal friend of Harry Houdini, and created a complex psychological profile of Adolf Hitler. In death Jastrow was reduced to a little pile of (mostly unwanted) things.

Feeling somewhat sad, I started to look through the photographs in the archive. Once again, it was the final item that caught my eye. Right at the back of the last box was a wonderful photograph of Jastrow sitting by a radio microphone. I have never seen the image before and I think this is the first time it has been made public. I love the photograph because Jastrow looks so relaxed, absorbed and happy. He is doing what he loved to do, and did so well.  Sitting there resplendent in his spectacles, collar pin and signet ring.

jastrowa

The whole episode felt like a momento mori – a brief but striking reminder of the importance of enjoying life because soon we will all be reduced to a small pile of (mostly unwanted) things.

And that’s what I learned in the Jastrow archive.