At last week’s Luxury Futures Forum 2017, The Future Laboratory welcomed Dr Tara Swart, leadership coach and neuroscientist in residence at the Corinthia Hotel London, where she uses her scientific expertise to create brain power packages for the hotel’s clientele.
What is brain performance and how can it be improved?
There’s a cleansing process in the brain called the glymphatic system. Similar to the lymphatic system in the body, it forcibly flushes out the toxins that, if they build up, lead to dementing diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, which is why we need seven to nine hours of uninterrupted sleep every night. The day after a disrupted night’s sleep, your intelligence quotient (IQ) drops by five to eight points. Although you can keep doing your job with five to eight IQ points fewer, if you lose a whole night’s sleep, such as on a flight, IQ on average drops by one standard deviation, which would put all of us at below the normal level. In terms of energy, your brain weighs only two to three kilograms, a tiny proportion of your body weight, but it uses a quarter to a third of what you eat. A lot of people are weight-conscious, but I haven’t yet heard of anyone who says ‘what should I eat today so that I can make good decisions?’.
What is the potential of enhancing our cognitive abilities through neuroplasticity?
We used to think that you were stuck with the brain personality you have at 18 years of age, but we now know that your brain actively moulds and shapes itself in response to everything that you experience until you’re about 25. From 25–65, there are things that you can do to keep it more plastic and flexible, and if you start between 36 and 43 you can stave off the inevitable decline that starts around age 65. With neuroplasticity, we’re moving away from saying that you need to change your behaviour to saying you need to build a new hardware in your brain. I always say that this would take about as long and be about as difficult as it would be for you to learn a new language.
If you lose a whole night’s sleep, such as on a flight, IQ on average drops by one standard deviation, which would put all of us at below the normal level.
What are the different elements of your recent collaboration with Corinthia?
I was travelling a lot for work, and I was coaching people who travel a lot and experience jet lag, so it made sense to work with a hotel. I have designed a brain power menu with the Corinthia’s chef, which is full of all the things that I always try to eat, like salmon and other oily fish, eggs, avocados, nuts and seeds, and oils like coconut oil or olive oil. I also designed four mocktails, Dopamine Double and Brainiac for spring/summer, and Serotonin Sling and Mox-ytocin for winter. The Corinthia was already doing really good sleep-inducing and mindful massages, but I have backed up the spa treatments with more science. If you stay overnight, you get cashmere bed socks, blackout curtains, two pages of tips on how to tackle jet lag, and a drink delivered to your room at bedtime made from nut milk, which is full of magnesium, manuka honey for immunity, and turmeric for its anti-inflammatory properties.
Brain optimisation is emerging as part of the wellness zeitgeist. Why are we becoming more aware and more open to expanding the potential of our brains?
We’re tending to live longer – there’s the 100-year life phenomenon – and although we’ve learnt how to beat heart attacks, certain cancers and other threats to our physical health, research into mental health and dementia has not increased. It makes me worry that while we may live to 100, we may be demented or depressed, and that’s not a life that I think anyone wants. That’s why we need to be much more proactive now about optimising our brains. There’s also the rise of artificial intelligence (AI), which means that if we don’t have our mental faculties, those that differentiate us from machines, like intuition, creativity and empathy, I think we’re going to have social problems.
What treatments and methods are currently available, and what do you believe will enter the market in the near future?
I think we’ve already seen mindfulness become much more popular. Only five years ago people were saying that free meditation at work is going to be like having a gym at work, and I would say we’ve almost reached that. The future is very exciting. To me it’s about food. So I would say nutrigenomics, nutraceuticals and nootropics. Nutrigenomics is personalising food medicine, getting your DNA tested and knowing from the results which foods are likely to prevent certain diseases. Nutraceuticals are foods that can treat or prevent certain diseases, such as Alzheimer’s. And nootropics are cognitive enhancers. Currently, there are drugs being used that improve wakefulness such as Ritalin, but they don’t boost your cognitive powers. We already know that if you take a teaspoon of coconut oil your cognitive power improves within 20 minutes.
Beyond optimising brain performance, what is the potential for neuroscience to create a stimulating experience?
Earlier today we heard about how people are going to pay for silence, and we heard about a little gadget with a texture that proves that you have spent money. Those things are already neuroscience engaging with our sensory experiences. Those that haven’t been talked about, which I’m most keen on, are visualisation and smell. For your brain, visualising something is almost as good as having been through that experience, and anything new is like a threat. So you can imagine how virtual or augmented experiences will help in the future. Then there’s smell, which is the most emotive sense because the nerves that connect the eyes to the visual part of the brain and the ears to the auditory part of the brain travel all around the skull before they make the connection, but our smell nerve, or olfactory nerve, comes straight out of the emotional part of the brain to the top of your nose. I think using smells to anchor things like sleep or relaxation, or rev you up for a meeting, will become much more common.