Category Archives: Science

The promises of Brain science

In the last 15 years (or so), brain science has significantly improved our understanding of how the brain really works and is capable of from an adaptability standpoint.

One of the most interesting discovery, I think, was that what used to be thought as a fixed-capabilities organ, always getting worse after 18-20 years old, is actually an extremely plastic one. Recently again (December 2013) an Ideacast episode (the Harvard Business Review podcast) on reducing stress with mindfulness – i.e. mediation-, and how it can also help in business settings, was highlighting how mediation can physically changes how the brain is wired.

It would have been thought as heresy to think the brain could have such plasticity even 20-30 years ago. At least for the non-specialists.

For those interested in learning more, here are a few books I read on the topic the last 5 years that are definitely worth reading.

For instance, Brain Rules, talks extensively about how the brain works and how this could be used to change the way classrooms and office are designed. The key elements I got from this book were that:

  • The brain is wired to work better when exercising (think about our ancestors walking in the savanna for hours to find a prey to hunt), hence exercise is good for the brain… and we should be working at our computers while being on a treadmill! You can even buy these workstation treadmills on Amazon now
  • It takes up to a decade for short-term memories to become genuine long-term memory
  • Emotions and feelings heighten our learning and memory capabilities (do you remember where you were and what you were doing on 9/11? I certainly have a vivid recollection of this meeting room in Eindhoven I was in when I learned the news).
  • and many more interesting facts

Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School
ISBN: 0979777747
ISBN-13: 9780979777745

Another one, Management Rewired, although a bit long winded and going through many detours, uses what has been learned about how the brain works to come with interesting points about why feedback and praise don’t actually really work and then contributes some thought-provoking ideas. For instance, it advises to let someone do something we know is a wrong approach or idea, then cut the reward associated with it thereby indirectly demotivating the person to do this again.

Or, on the flip side, that the best way punishment works is by not giving it. That the positive impact of not giving it when the person expects it was much more important that the one coming from a praise or reward (unless the reward keeps on increasing, which is a tough one to achieve!).

Management Rewired: Why Feedback Doesn’t Work and Other Surprising Lessons from the Latest Brain Science: Charles S. Jacobs: Books
ISBN: 159184262X
ISBN-13: 9781591842620

A third one, Buyology,  examine the human brain mechanics as it applies to the science of selling and advertising. Also based on the latest research on brain science and a little bit scary sometimes as advertising and manipulation can easily become close cousins in the wrong hands.

Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy: Martin Lindstrom, Paco Underhill: Books
ISBN: 0385523882
ISBN-13: 9780385523882

Finally, moving from books to marketing consultancy, a company like Studio B, also leverages these developments in brain science to help company develop better white papers, leaflets or even PowerPoint presentations.

Interestingly enough many of the points they advocate on their website, match with the philosophy of presentations that Jerry Weissman has been teaching for 20 years. The difference being that his teaching are based on experience as a TV producer not brain science. Still the conclusions are very similar in many aspects.

I find this change from a “computer” modeling of the human brain I grew up with, to the re-discovery of its very special way of functioning fascinating. I can’t wait to see what the next 20 years we teach us in that front. What I’m sure of is that Ray Kurzweil and his assumption (in his book “The singularity in near”) that within 20 to 30 years computers will be able to simulate a human brain, and even the whole humanity, in a computer the size of today’s laptops is totally unrealistic.

Top 18 things to do for a healthier and longer life

WebMD published a list of top things (“secrets”) that were scientifically proven as helping live a healthier and longer life.

Most are not new so take this more as a check-list as you’re preparing for your next new year resolution… The slide show is here, but here is the short version of it.

Obvious ones:

  • Don’t smoke
  • Drink in moderation
  • Eat lots of vegetables, fruits, whole grains and little meat and dairy.
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Exercise
  • Use safety gear (e.g. helmet when motor biking)
  • Sleep enough

Fairly well known “secrets”:

  • Be social, make close friends (and ones that make wise choices) and spend time with them
  • Get married
  • Nap
  • Get spiritual (religion, mediation, whatever fits you)
  • Manage stress

Less well known ones:

  • Be conscientious
  • Don’t hold grudges, learn to forgive
  • Maintain a sense of purpose

Is your check-list complete?

Long time trend forecasting

The human mind can only really comprehend linear changes. When it comes to exponential ones, very few can grasp what this means. (maybe Jules Vernes in his time managed to, but this is more an exception than the rule for sure)

Truth being told, in most cases, exponential evolution seldom lasts long. As the saying goes, even the tallest building never reaches the sky (or something like this).

However, it’s fascinating to read these books from futurologist like Ray Kurzweil or James Canton. They give you a great perspective of what could be vs. what you could think of. Even if I’m myself very technologically oriented, it’s mind boggling to see what they come up with by interpolating current trends and connecting dots.

Take for instance this Nokia video on what nanotech, one of those megatrends, could bring to the world of mobile phones (though one could hardly call this a phone). Really amazing and possible.

Nokia “Morph” concept


Anyway, if this is something of interest, here are a few books I can advise. I read the first one and I assisted at a talk by the author of the second one a few years back. I prefer the first one as I think Kurt is discounting a bit to quickly the complexity of the human brain that one could be able to model it completely that quickly (and even less be able to simulate the brains of the whole human brain in 1 laptop sized computer by 2040-ish). There is so much in the interactions between our brain-cells that go beyond a simple electrical signal model (hormones…) that I think it will take a long time (if ever) to really be able to model a real human brain with enough accuracy.


The Extreme Future: The Top Trends That Will Reshape the World for the Next 5, 10, and 20 Years: James Canton: Books






The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology: Ray Kurzweil: Books






Megatrends 2010: The Rise of Conscious Capitalism: Patricia Aburdene: Books

Grass-fed beef better for health than regular corn-fed one

If you are like me into trying to eat good as in tasting good and good for your health you must be already aware of 2 things:

  1. Fat comes in 3 sorts:
    • Saturated fat: not good, help grow the "bad" cholesterol
      • ..with trans-fats being hydrogenated fat (non-naturally occurring fat, at least not at large scale) industrial foods tended to use a lot until recently and being the worst of all
    • Mono-unsaturated fat: the "good" fat one find in Olive, Walnut, Rape seed/Canola… oils
    • Poly-unsaturated fat that are somewhat in between.
  2. Beef fat is bad for you, even worst than pork.

So, here is the news:

First, Poly-unsaturated fat are split into Omega 3 and 6 (at least mostly). Our current diet is too low in Omega 3 (roughly 1:40 ratio vs. Omega 3 vs. Omega 6, while it should be 1:1 !).

Second, beef fed with corn -which mostly contains Omega 6- is not only loaded with saturated fat but also with Omega 6 we already consume too much of.

However, grass, as all dark green leafs, is full of Omega 3 so when beef is fed grass vs. corn… their fat will be much more balanced as far as Omega 3 and 6 are concerned! This also holds true for pork, lamb, chicken….

Here is an extract of this book (summarized):

The Ultimate Omega-3 Diet: Evelyn Tribole: Books
ISBN: 0071469869
ISBN-13: 9780071469869





Most people consume fats their ancestors never ate. This means you probably consume about 20 times more omega-6 fats than your great-great-grandfather. You probably also do not consume enough omega-3 fats, whereas your ancestors most likely did. Before 1850, cattle grazed for years on grass that was naturally rich in omega-3 fats. People who ate that beef regularly got full helpings of omega-3 fats unknowingly. Today, cattle are slaughtered at about a year old. In their short life spans, they accumulate less omega-3 in their meat than cows did 150 years ago. Today, commercial growers feed cows and commercially raised chickens, pigs, lamb and fish a diet rich in omega-6 fats but poor in omega-3 fats.”

As far as I am concerned this was an interesting development as I’m already feeding my family solely with grass fed (and without anti-biotic or growth hormones) beef for the last 6 years.

I buy it in bulk (but pre-cut and frozen) from Amy and Mark Ramsden’s Mountain Beef farm who are small local growers in Oregon. Not only I was doing this because it was a small local farmer, diminishing my beef CO2 emission (little travel), tasted really good (their hamburgers have nothing in common with regular ones, even "Angus" ones), healthier (no hormones, no antibiotics), not helping GMO corn to expand even more but now I even know it’s better for our Omega 3 intake.

Have a look at their slide show, how their beef is raised:

The secret to raising smart kids?

Scientific American had this very interesting piece on children’s development and how to best, as a parent, foster their long term growth.

The full article is there:

The basic premise from this article is that if you reward children for being smart versus from trying to learn and grow, you’re not going to -or at least not as well as if you were doing it- maximize their long term growth and intelligence potential.

What the article highlights is that if you congratulate your kid because (s)he had a good grade in math while (s)he is good at math, the day (s)he will fail it will be the perception of a failure of his or her intelligence vs. just another obstacle to conquer.

I like this view because it really matches well with things I’ve seen growing up in France and now leaving in the US:

  • Praise: French culture does not promote praise, much more criticism. The article states that praise is important
  • When to give it: In the US praise if often given (too often to mean anything? Yet another debate), but indeed the praise is most often given for the result not the effort although…
  • In little league baseball I see kids being praised even if they fail however…
  • They also get praised when it’s not obvious they tried their best. e.g. a kid being scared will be told "It’s OK, you’ll do better next time" (i.e. praise although neither result nor effort was achieved)
  • There are countless examples of people of decent intelligence but who never give up and keep on trying and learning that achieve great successes. There are also examples of smart people that end-up with mediocre lives or even mental collapse at their first failure. (obviously when you get both the brain and growth ethics you reach amazing heights: Bill Clinton, Bill Gates…)

This is also corroborated in the studies on time spent on tough math exams by westerners children vs. Asian children that Malcomm Gladwell refers to in his book “Outliers”. Westerners often gave up quickly (i.e. “it’s too hard for me, I’m not good enough for this”) while Asia (Singaporeans in the book I think I remember) keep on trying (and often succeeding) much longer (i.e. “I can do it if I work enough at it”).

Another great book that came out after this article, Nurture Shock also points to the same need to focus praise on efforts and results vs. intelligence and results.

To the parents reading this: what’s your take on this? I had a comment this was a very American culture centric view and I tend to disagree. I think the whole reasoning (promote effort and resilience over sheer brain power) works across cultures.

Thanks you dairy much… for nothing!

(updated version of a 2008 post that got lost in the migration to WordPress)


As any good French man I must admit that thinking if living without dairy, cheese in particular, seems really unnatural.

That being said when I heard one of the co-authors of "lait, mensonge et propagande" (Milk, lies and propaganda) on the French radio in fall 2007 and I became really intrigued. His book is however only available in French:

Lait, mensonges et propagande: Professeur Henri Joyeux,Thierry Souccar: Livres
ISBN: 2916878025
ISBN-13: 9782916878027





In this book, the authors explain how recent studies (and attempt by the dairy industries on both sides of the pond to minimize them) show that dairies are not as good as one may think.

In a nutshell:

  • We don’t need the extra calcium from the dairies, and dairies actually increase the chances of osteoporosis rather than decreasing them!
  • Lactose (present in most dairies but Cheese) increase chances to get prostate or breast cancer
  • Milk don’t help you lose weight
  • Dairy protein (aka whey) is not as good for health than "regular" proteins from vegetables or meat
  • And a few other points.

The authors refer to many studies in France but also here in US (Harvard!) and other parts of the world.

Here are a few links, in English, if you want to learn more and understand why, even if I’m still eating some (preferably stinky smile_regular) cheese, I have cut off most of my other dairy intakes since early 2008: milk, cream, butter…

For instance, the china study, by Colin Campbell, was mentioned in the book:

Other interesting articles are:

Enjoy and decide for yourself…

July 2012 update:  A recent article by a New-York Times journalists adds yet another data point to the story:

The science behind hangovers

I wondered why the smart advice the Bed & Breakfast owner gave me in early 1990’s about always drinking a lot of water when one was drinking a lot of other things was really working. Likewise, I also wondered why these hangover headaches felt so different (and unpleasant)

Here comes the answer: a small video from National Geographics explains (amongst other things) that to clean up the blood the liver takes the water where it can find it easily: the brain. This then shrinks the brain that then "detaches" from the skull. Ouch!

Check out the 3’20” mark.