Ever wonder how the brain works? This expert shines a light

Research lives: Shane O’Mara, Professor of Experimental Brain Research at Trinity College Dublin

Professor of Experimental Brain Research and author of In Praise of Walking Shane O’Mara. Photograph: Dara MacDónaill

Professor of Experimental Brain Research and author of In Praise of Walking Shane O’Mara. Photograph: Dara MacDónaill

 

How did you become interested in brain research?

“When I was a teenager my parents went to America on holiday and they brought back the book Broca’s Brain by Carl Sagan. That sparked my interest and I studied psychology at NUI Galway. Then I went to Oxford to do post-graduate research in the 1990s. It was the decade of the brain and I became fascinated by what we can learn from measuring activity in the brain, particularly about stress and depression.

One of your popular science books is about how torture does not work. Why did you write that one?

I wanted to write about how the human brain reacts to the extreme duress of torture and how unreliable torture is for getting the truth from someone. The research was out there, but I was surprised that it had not been brought together in a book. So I wrote it.

What kind of reaction did it receive?

Very positive, if that is the word. I have been invited to give talks about it around the world and there is now a paragraph in a United Nations document on investigative interviewing based solely on that book.

Your latest book is about the benefits of walking. That’s a bit of a pivot from torture why walking?

I think when you write books about the brain, you can either focus on the functions of the brain, and many others have done that well, or you can write how the brain works in the world, which is the approach I take. Walking helped to enable humans to spread around the world as we evolved and there is a lot of evidence about its benefits for our brains creatively, socially and physically. I wanted to write a book about the journey of our brains and walking.

Have you changed your own lifestyle based on what you found while writing about walking?

I have always been a walker, I find it a great way to unwind and organise my thoughts and also to get to know new cities that I visit. So now that I am armed with more evidence of its benefits, I walk with greater purpose. What did surprise me though is how our bodies respond to exercise and how we are suited to walking for long distances and conserving energy accordingly. In general, humans don’t outwalk a poor diet, so I have made changes to what I eat.

Have you an idea for your next book?

I want to write about how we think about our memories of ourselves and our behaviours and how we often misremember for social reasons the things we do that we think are good for us – such as eating broccoli – and do the same in the other direction for things we do that might not be so healthy, like smoking or drinking alcohol.

Finally, what is your advice for researchers about communicating their work to wide audiences?

Data is silent. So rather than just presenting data, it is up to you as the expert to get the insights from the data, to bring together the story and to tell it in an engaging way.”

  • In Praise of Walking: The new science of how we walk and why it’s good for us is published by The Bodley Head.
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