Monday, April 28, 2008

Fighting jet lag

Greetings from Madrid! Sandra and I are here promoting the Spanish translation, Entra en tu cerebro. We're doing a media blitz, two days here and one day in Barcelona - television, radio, magazines, and newspapers. The Spanish like brain books! It's also a chance for us to put our knowledge of jet lag into practice.

Your brain has a clock in a region called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN for short). This region sets the circadian rhythm, a time-of-day signal that is sent to the rest of the brain and your other organs. The SCN gets its signals from the eye, and is gradually set by changes in the light-dark cycle. In the morning, a dose of light will make you get up earlier the next day ("phase advancing"). Conversely, evening light will make you get up later ("phase delaying"). This suggests several principles.

Sleep while you can. Physical activity does not affect the circadian rhythm. Therefore there's no point in forcing yourself to stay awake at your destination. It will just make you sleep-deprived. If you feel tired, sleep. In addition to natural sleep, I take Ambien to force myself to sleep when it's nighttime.

Get afternoon light. When it's afternoon here in Madrid, it's morning back in Princeton (and early morning in California, where Sandra lives). Light at this time will advance our clocks, getting us up a little earlier tomorrow. Tomorrow, we'll be shifted toward local time by several hours. Then the best time to get light will be mid-day, and so on.

When we go back home, the best time to get light is still afternoon. Why? Because our SCNs will think it's evening, and evening light will cause us to get up later the next day - exactly what we want when we are traveling west.

Melatonin and exercise. Your brain secretes melatonin near bedtime, and melatonin helps you sleep. You can take melatonin. Or, if you don't have any handy, get some exercise. Exercise triggers melatonin secretion. So a workout in the evening may help you drift off.

Now pardon me while I go hydrate (another good thing to do) and take a little nap.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

We're #1 - again

Our second New York Times op-ed has hit the top of the charts - just like the first one. We recently hit #1 most-emailed article of the last 30 days. We were waiting for some older piece to drop off the charts. What was that piece about? Oh, yes, Barack Obama's speech on race in America. Well...all right, maybe that's more important.

At the same time, my recent article on autism in USA Today has inspired a lot of reaction, both positive and negative. A response to those comments is called for, and I'll get to it quite soon.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Myths about autism

I've got a new editorial in Wednesday's USA Today on the subject of the autism-vaccine myth. Check it out, complete with a photo of Jenny McCarthy, myth purveyor. She's telegenic and appealing, but not exactly a go-to person for brain science. So look at her - but then read my article.

Many brain myths are harmless, such as the idea that we only use 10 percent of our brains. But the false idea that vaccines cause autism is actively harmful to children! I am particularly motivated because I am a recent father. I don't want my daughter to get any diseases. Vaccination, both for her and for everyone she meets, is an essential way to keep her safe.

If you are interested in more myths and truths about autism, read these pieces about whether the incidence of autism is increasing (also see this and this), why parents may be prone to believing these ideas, and some interesting truths about autism.

In addition, the vaccine hypothesis has, by now, been thoroughly tested - in the US, the UK, Denmark, Sweden, and Japan - with overwhelmingly negative results. It's time to spend research dollars on other ideas, where they can do the most good.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Winds of change

As of this week, I'm unemployed...or as my husband says, retired. I've left my editorial job to go on sabbatical for the experience of a lifetime. We'll be leaving in June to take our sailboat to the South Pacific islands and New Zealand for 15 months.

I celebrated my freedom by flying south to appear at The Book Works in Del Mar on Monday night, which was tremendous fun. Owner Lisa Stefanacci and her husband Tom Albright are card-carrying neuroscientists, and they run a Brain-Mind series of lectures with a very sophisticated and enthusiastic audience. I got great questions, including a few that I haven't been asked before on the lecture circuit.

My favorite (from a high school senior) was "Do our genes influence how we learn from our environment?" You bet they do - and it gets even more complicated than that. Our genes give us behavioral tendencies that lead us to seek out particular experiences, which in turn can change the way our genes affect brain development. For example, a baby who is naturally cautious may be born into the same family as a child who is enthusiastic about new experiences, but the two children will not have the same environment because their behavior will cause the adults in their lives to treat them differently. As we say in the book, nature versus nurture is the wrong way to look at it. Your genes and environment interact throughout life to make you a particular person.

Tuesday morning, I spoke with David Shipley about our willpower op-ed for the New York Times op-ed podcast, which was posted today. Then I flew home to start getting ready for the sailing trip.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Media buzz and this week's Monday appearances

We recently had an op-ed in the New York Times on willpower training. Like our previous piece on exercise and the brain, it's risen quickly on the most e-mailed list for the last 7 days and for the last 30 days.

Hot on the heels of that, we have a busy Monday:

If you're in the San Diego area, you have a chance to meet Sandra in person at The Book Works in Del Mar, California. She'll be appearing at 7:00pm.

Sam will be on XM Satellite Radio, on Oprah and Friends, in a taped interview by Dr. Mehmet and Lisa Oz. Tune in to XM 156 at 1:00am, 7:00am, or 6:00pm (all times Eastern). We'll be talking about the entire book.

In the afternoon, Sam is scheduled to be on National Public Radio's Talk Of The Nation. We'll be talking about the willpower article. Air time is uncertain: either 2:40pm or 3:40 to 4:00pm Eastern. There will be call-in! Update: if you missed it, here's the audio and transcript.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

A look inside the book

Today our editor Ben Adams sent us a widget of the book. It's a searchable object that lets you look inside. Give it a try!