Last weekend we spent a fascinating two days at the Bio-hackers summit at a disused power station on the outskirts of Helsinki. A number of people have already asked me what my main takeaways were so I wanted to get some of them down straight away before memory fades too much, hopefully I’ll add to this through time.
One pleasant surprise about the event generally was how practically focused a lot of the speakers were. It was unexpected. I had expected a lot more high-tech focused sessions around apps, gadgets and medical innovation. While there was some of this, a lot of it was much more “ground level” (perhaps the clue was in the word “hack”) and gave me a huge number of immediately actionable ideas – some of which I had already started thinking about myself, which is always nice! It’s helped me progress some of my own thinking on productivity for knowledge work.
Top 5 takeaways –
- Understanding basics of nervous system can give simple insights
The basics of our nervous system have remained essentially unchanged for thousands of years, and evolved to suit a very different environment to that which we now live. This simple insight can unearth a lot of useful thoughts. For example, understanding the basic roles of dopamine, serotonin and cortisol in controlling our levels of motivation, happiness and stress – and the natural triggers to activate each of these can play a key role in helping us modulate our moods and control stress.
Probably the biggest insight I gained on the nervous system was the difference between the sympathetic (fight/flight) nervous system and the parasympathetic (“rest/digest”). As a species we evolved to survive first, then thrive, which means that triggers linked to survival promote incredibly strong nervous reactions. During the day we operate on a spectrum between these two extremes. Ancient humans would achieve balance between the two by resting in their cave following attempts to hunt animals. The modern world is set up to trigger fight/flight reactions more than it is set up to allow rest/digest – environmental triggers play a big role in switching between these modes, and triggers that promoted survival have become deeply encoded. Hence, to achieve the balance we need for optimum wellness and performance we need to work hard to find environments where rest/digest is possible (we need to find our “cave” – this insight helps understand why travel and moving house can both be stressful/tiring). If we are not careful we can set a new baseline at higher levels of sympathetic nervous system usage, which is damaging to wellbeing.
The role of natural light in the way we function and our own circadian rhythm – we are all set up to function optimally for different tasks at different times of the day, and achieving optimal productivity is about understanding this rhythm not trying to control it. For example most morning-people are able to achieve peak mental focus around 10am, best working memory around midday, peak co-ordination around 2pm, reactions around 3pm and peak cardiovascular ability at around 5pm.
- Connectedness to nature is shown to have a variety of positive benefits
Humans spent >99% of evolutionary history in natural environments, which is where nervous system evolved, said Olli Sovijarvi. Connectedness to nature has been scientifically linked to improved cognitive performance and happiness. This can be as simple as “grounding” – walking barefoot on soil or grass. Nature sounds eg birdsong shown to lower stress hormone cortisol. Having just moved away from central London, we now have the luxury of a garden and greater access to nature than we did before – I want to make sure we’re making full use of this everyday (see morning routine below!).
- You can use technology to provide “memory as a service”
Spending time recalling enjoyable events and moments of connection with others can be key positive influences on happiness. Don’t rely on your own highly imperfect memory to recall important and enjoyable events, Chris Dancy explained how social media can play a great role here. Apps like timehop, or facebook can surface previous memories for you each day. It’s possible to add songs, videos and locations to instagram posts to make the memory even richer. It’s even possible to time travel forward using facebook by writing posts to your future self, which will get re-shown to you a year hence (you can arrange the setting such that only you can see it). What better way to help your future self reflect than to pose the big questions or challenges that are occupying your mind today.
We had already started doing this to some extent, using particular hashtags on instagram to record our summer hihglights or information about our visits to particular cities (check our #djfrenglishsummer2017 or #djfrenglishstats if you’d like to see). It’s always interesting when a speaker takes a topic that you have taken the first few steps on yourself, and shows you a load more.
- Think about mindfulness (as part of a morning ritual)
Mindfulness was a recurring theme at the biohacker event, with multiple speakers referring to it. Clearly it’s a big theme in its own right, with plenty of literature and buzz around its usefulness in the corporate world. You might even say it’s being overdone.
I found it helpful to hear about mindfulness from some thoughtful speakers, including doctors, and in particular how people had used it in their own lives. As many others have said, taking the first steps toward practicing mindfulness can be as simple as spending a few minutes each morning focusing on breathing and trying to control the distractions that enter the mind. We have started doing this more consistently each morning.
- The role of a morning routine
Tomi Kokko took us through his morning routine and the logic behind it, which really got us thinking. Since we’ve been back we’ve worked on our own version. Tomi gives himself a minute after waking up to get into a cold shower – while that isn’t quite for us we’ve been thinking about how a combination of mindfulness, breathing, short intense bursts of exercise designed to get oxygen flowing can be combined with being outdoors, barefoot and the right combination of nutrition in the mornings(lemon water for hydration, coffee, fats for brain function and spices for increased blood flow). It would be too early to claim this as a success but I’ll aim to report back in a few months on how this is going. Taking time to recognise things in your life that you are grateful for on a daily basis is also something I aim to get better at.
All in all it was a thoroughly fascinating and engaging two days, with the vast majority of speakers being really engaging and impactful. The timing of each session was well-judged with 40 minute keynotes early in the day falling to 30 and 20 minute sessions later on with frequent breaks, and room to stand as well as sit in the main hall (conference organisers everywhere, take note!). I’d encourage anyone thinking of going to check it out, we are hoping to make it to next year’s event which is in Sweden and the Netherlands.