HOW TO GROW YOUR BRAIN (Dalkey Book Festival)

DBF14-side-bar-logo1-150x150Question: If  the  Bord Gais Energy Theatre pitched up in Dalkey overnight, could Sian Smyth fill it?  I suspect she could. Dalkey was thronged this weekend and it was only partly due to the weather, because when it was time to go in and listen to the writers, people abandoned their ice creams and their pints and set off  for their destinations in talkative groups.  Many – if not most – events sold out in advance.  Everything I went to was packed, but it would take a week to write about it all so I’m only going to summarise one more session (the panel on the future of Dun Laoghaire was covered in a previous post).

The Beautiful Mind Ian Robertson and Ruairi Robertson, chaired by Shane Bergin Science wants you. It wants all of us. Horrible puns present themselves but there’s only one way to say it: the enthusiasm of all three speakers is infectious.  Shane Bergin, professor of physics at Trinity, says that it’s crucial that citizens have a voice in science, we should get involved.  He didn’t mention the Science Gallery on Pearse Street, but that institution certainly goes a long way towards making science appealing, surprising and fun – and it could hardly be more accessible.

Ruairi Robertson, a PhD student in nutrition and microbiology at UCC and gold medallist at a recent Famelab, spoke about our ‘Second Brain’: our intestines (should that be singular/collective?)  Apparently 90% of cells in the human body are bacterial – we’re only 10% human: I wonder where that puts us in the food chain?  He spoke persuasively about the power of  food in controlling physical and mental health.  He said that if one mouse is injected with cells from an obese person and another with cells from a person who is not obese and they are both fed an identical diet, the mouse injected with obese cells will put on more weight – which is intriguing, given that no-one is born obese. Ian Robertson Winner Effect

Ian Robertson won me over instantly when he said that books are the biggest brain-changing agent known to man.  He spoke about how to stimulate the brain and while the ideas are not exactly startling, he synthesizes them in an engaging way and offers scientific evidence to back them up:

  • Novelty stimulates the brain.  Surprise will actually change your brain chemistry in demonstrable ways.  This is down to noradrenaline, a hormone which acts as brain fertilizer.  If amyloid plaques are bathed in noradrenaline they become less toxic (with possible implications re eg Alzheimer’s).  Endearingly, he said that the brain normally plods along in predictive mode but a boost of noradrenaline will wake it up – I think we all know the sort of trouble predictive mode can get us into … Challenge has a similar effect to novelty, but challenge has what he calls a Goldilocks zone, or sweet spot. Too little (ie boredom) results in under-secretion of noradrenaline, too much (ie stress) yields too much. Balance is the key.
  • Challenge demands attention, which in turn alters brain chemistry. To illustrate the power of this he read the final passage of “The Dead”: ‘How can you not pay attention to that?’ he asked, when he’d finished.  ‘Art and literature are as powerful as any drug.’ We didn’t need proof:  you can feel the atmosphere change in a room when certain things are read out loud, with intent – and that passage will always do it.
  • A crucial feature of the working mind is to hold information on the one hand while processing information on the other.  Working memory, like a muscle, likes to be extended.
  • Arousal: Sex is good for us.  So is humour.  A good dose of Edgar Allen Poe will also do the trick (fear and excitement, in safe doses)

What I loved was that he used passages from books as illustrative examples.  The Dalkey Archive featured heavily and amusingly, with Flann O’Brien’s theory human/bicycle interchangeability (a personal favourite) being given prominence.   To demonstrate the power of arousal he read ­– what else? ­– Molly Bloom’s soliloquy.  And to get our attention,”The Dead”.

I don’t know if he refers to these examples in his book The Winner Effect or if he chose them specially for the Dalkey Book Festival.  If so, you have to love a speaker so considerate of his audience. And if not, I’d guess the book is worth reading anyway.

Professor Robertson blogs about his theories on the science of success at

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1 Response to HOW TO GROW YOUR BRAIN (Dalkey Book Festival)

  1. Sheila Barrett says:

    What a humane approach to keeping healthy… the last ‘improving’ tome that came in this door provoked tears!!

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