When was the last time you took a walk just to relax and admire the beauty around you? 

When was the last time you listened to bird song with your headphones off and no blaring music? We live in a very hectic society, which is fast paced, competitive and busy. 

Many people now have electronic health trackers to monitor the number of steps they take. This is a good thing, as exercise is good for you physically, mentally and cognitively. We are very aware that we have to look after our physical health, but much less so in terms of looking after our mental wellbeing. 

As a society, we need to consider mental wellbeing as every bit as important as physical health. What can we do to boost our mental capital and wellbeing? Some years ago, together with my colleague Martin Orrell, we wrote an article on brain health entitled 'Use it or Lose it'. There are ways we can boost our brain power through training. In my lab, we are currently doing this training through games on an iPad.

Learning and exercise both promote the growth of new brain cells.

Another great way to boost your brain power is through lifelong learning. Education builds up cognitive reserve for the future, so that the impact of any disorders, such as schizophrenia or Alzheimer's disease, are less damaging. Importantly, learning and exercise both promote the growth of new brain cells, a process known as neurogenesis.

What do we mean by cognition?

In my book with Jamie LaBuzetta, 'Bad Moves: How decision making goes wrong and the ethics of smart drugs', we discuss the two types of cognition: cold cognitive processes, such as planning and problem solving, and hot cognitive processes, such as risky decision making. In healthy people, these cold and hot processes are well balanced. 

An example of cold planning and decision making might be formulating a business plan, where you decide in a non-emotional way how much of the product you plan to produce, what it will cost and who you plan to sell it to. Hot cognitive decision making is more akin to the sorts of decisions made in the TV programme 'Dragon's Den'. 

The investors have to emotionally read the business pitchers. The investors have a lot to gain financially if they make the right decision, but a lot to lose if they do not, and the decision has to be made reasonably rapidly. What if we could make these decisions much better, even optimal or perfect? Keeping our minds fit will help us to do that. 

We need to boost our brain power through good nutrition. Obesity is associated with increased risk of physical illnesses, such as type 2 diabetes, but also with cognitive decline with ageing. Bad habits can change our brain for the worse. For example, persistent cannabis use is associated with cognitive decline, and there are also indications that it may have neurotoxic effects on the adolescent brain. 

Similarly, excessive alcohol intake can result in brain damage. Together with Sir John Beddington, the previous UK Government Chief Scientific Adviser, and other colleagues, we published a paper in the journal Nature entitled 'The Mental Wealth of Nations'. This article focused on methods for ensuring that we had good mental capital and wellbeing throughout our life course. It featured 5 ways to mental wellbeing. These are:

  • Exercise – Be active
  • Keep Learning
  • Mindfulness – Take notice: Be aware of the world around you and what you are feeling. Reflecting on your experiences will help you appreciate what matters to you.
  • Connect: With the people around you. With family, friends colleagues and neighbours. At home, work, school or in your local community. This helps build social support and resilience.
  • Give: It's rewarding! Donating to societal causes activates brain areas involved in reward and social attachment.

These are excellent tips for keeping us enthusiastic and positive in a pressurised world, and for shaping the kind of society which can help us all flourish. 

These topics and others will be covered at the University of Cambridge Science Festival by myself, Dr Jennifer Wild from the University of Oxford and Allison Pearson, the author of 'I don't know how she does it' and columnist for The Telegraph Newspaper. There will also be a panel of these speakers and the Psychiatrist Dr Muzaffer Kaser and GP Dr Angus Stewart to discuss and answer any questions. 

This event is taking place on Thursday 12th March from 8pm-9.30pm.