Hacking the brain’s ‘software’ for better health and confidence

Research Lives: Prof Ian Robertson, co-director of the Global Brain Health Institute

Your research explores how our brain, mind and behaviour are linked. What drives your interest in that?

The early 20th century was the era of physics and the second half was era of biology and amazing genetics. Now the 21st century is the era of the mind. We are escaping the curse of biological determinism, that over-emphasis on “hardware”. We are rediscovering the software, the role that the mind plays in our bodies and behaviour.

What have you seen happen in your area of research?

When I studied psychology, I was brought up to believe that we lost brain cells after childhood and the central nervous system could never regenerate. The big change since then is the discovery that we can form new connections between brain cells in adulthood, and even grow new neurons.

In tandem with that, there is more of an understanding that our education and experiences can shape almost every process in the brain, and that we can decide systems of living which will shape our minds and our bodies.

What research from your career to date makes you most proud?

We know from population studies that high levels of education and social engagement are linked to a reduced risk of developing dementia in older age. Our research at Trinity College Dublin found a connection with noradrenaline, a brain chemical involved in stress and attention.


Education, positive social interaction and optimal stress levels mean that noradrenaline fosters more connections in the brain, and it also seems to protect against the effects of damage seen in Alzheimer’s disease.

And we now believe you can change the activity in a part of the brain called the locus coeruleus, which makes noradrenaline, by meditating and controlling your breathing.

Do you practise mindfulness and breathing?

Yes, I have been meditating for several years and I find it fascinating that we have discovered a potential mechanistic connection between the breath and brain. It’s something we can do every day and I think particularly at the moment it’s important to know that we can have that positive effect on our health.

Speaking of which, how has your pandemic been so far?

Before all this I used to travel quite a bit with work, but for more than a year now I have been at home in Dalkey. It has been a joy – our daughter and her family have been staying with us throughout, and we get to spend all this time with our young grandson. It is a privilege to be part of his life.

Your latest book is coming out shortly. It’s about confidence – why that subject?

My wife, Dr Fiona O’Doherty, is a clinical psychologist and ever since we met - 39 years ago she has always talked to me about how confidence is key. She suggested I write a book about confidence, that human ability to envisage something that doesn’t yet exist and then work to create that thing.

Confidence differs from optimism and self-esteem, in that it is linked to action, with the brain chemical dopamine underpinning the feeling of reward at mastering a challenge.

Any quick hacks to kick-start that confidence?

Set goals to get to where you want to go, especially small goals just outside your comfort zone, and succeeding in those goals drives further success.

  • How Confidence Works: The new science of self-belief, why some people learn it and others don't by Ian Robertson will be published on June 3rd
Claire O'Connell

Claire O'Connell

Claire O'Connell is a contributor to The Irish Times who writes about health, science and innovation