How Research Shapes This Cognitive Neuroscience Professor's Day


Cold showers and blue-light blockers... For Joel Pearson, professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of NSW, research informs every moment of his day.


To rehydrate and remineralise after night, I drink two large glasses of water with a pinch of grey Celtic Sea Salt.


Breakfast is precious time with my wife, Moyra, and our two-year-old daughter, Zahana. I have black coffee – no sugar – followed by one gram of nicotinamide mononucleotide or NMN and one gram of resveratrol in a tablespoon of organic plain yoghurt, to help with absorption. I learned about these supplements from Harvard geneticist David Sinclair [author of Lifespan]. They boost a molecule in your body called nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide [NAD], which is vital for life and declines as we age. NAD helps proteins called sirtuins keep our DNA healthy.


Short jog with our Australian shepherd, Picasso, incorporating high-intensity interval training. HIIT has been shown to increase insulin sensitivity and mitochondrial capacity and function more efficiently than other types of exercise – mitochondria are the powerhouses of cells and play a role in producing adenosine triphosphate or ATP, the body’s primary source of energy. Then I do weights and kettlebell swings on the deck.


Data shows spending just five minutes a day writing out what you are grateful for can boost mood and wellbeing. I handwrite my gratitude diary on an iPad.


Hot then cold shower. Cold showers are known to increase the release of norepinephrine, a hormone that works to affect mood, alertness and reaction times.


I dress in a standard work “uniform” of grey or black T-shirt, jeans and thin-soled sneakers. There’s evidence we have finite cognitive resources throughout the day so the more choices you make, the earlier you might run out of steam.


Listen to the podcasts Pivot, about tech and political trends, and Akimbo [on cultural change] in the car.


In the UNSW Future Minds Lab I use a variable-height desk. I start the day standing then alternate between standing and sitting. Research shows that sitting all day is not good for you but neither is standing stationary. I also have a treadmill in front of my desk and I often read or write while walking on the spot. Movement like this boosts cognition and memory.


SEE ALSO: How Many of Australia’s Greatest Walks Have You Done?


Record an episode of my Future Minds podcast with David Sinclair. He has this rogue attitude of getting cutting-edge scientific information and potential therapies out to the general public as soon as possible. That inspires me.


Call with Ed Catmull [former head of Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios] on our Pixar creativity study. Some of Pixar’s top animators have aphantasia, a visualisation capacity of zero. Ed himself is aphantasiac and he’s fascinated by how you can draw these beautiful pictures without first seeing them in your mind.


Work on keynote The Consciousness Lie [for Festival of Dangerous Ideas], listening to binaural beats – combining two different sound frequencies, one in each ear, to create the perception and neural response of a single new frequency tone, typically a much slower one, that can boost focus or relaxation. The app has a good selection you can stream through your laptop; you just need headphones.


Meet with my team and students. We analyse data and find the less neural “noise” in your visual brain, the stronger your visual imagination. I skip lunch twice a week. When I do eat it’s low-carbohydrate and no sugar; a sandwich, pasta or sushi would make me sleepy all afternoon.

SEE ALSO: 100 Inspiring Australians


Client meeting at Google Creative Lab. Two o’clock is also my coffee cut-off time – after that it can disrupt sleep.


Interview on our aphantasia study. When people without visualisation capacity read scary stories and you measure skin conductance, you don’t see the fear response you do in others.



The team and I prepare for in-house workshops on how to apply behavioural nudges to improve safety in the workplace for Lendlease. A classic nudge is a cognitive bias known as the IKEA effect: we like or believe something more when we have a hand in creating it. The same goes for safety rules.


On the way home I stop by a sauna for 20 minutes. Time in a sauna has been shown to have an effect on dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. It’s a great reset.


Playing with children and animals, besides being fun, has been shown to reduce cortisol and stress, aid forms of creativity and even boost brain proteins that help memory and cognition. Tonight we water Zahana’s vegetable garden, pick tomatoes and read her favourite book, Cars and Trucks and Things That Go.


I try to keep to low-carb dinners during the week and go for whatever’s happening on the weekend. Tonight it’s vegetables with haloumi and almonds and then yoghurt with powdered collagen. The ability to produce collagen declines with age so I take this every second day.


I put on my blue-light blocking glasses so my body starts releasing melatonin. Research shows that bright lights, in particular blue and green, can cause our brain to stop producing melatonin (the hormone of sleep) and boost cortisol production – both will disrupt your sleep.


Research has revealed that red and near infra-red wavelengths of light stimulate the mitochondria in cells similar to sunlight, reducing oxidative stress and increasing circulation, which have benefits for tissue. I sit in front of a light panel for skin and muscle health.


Relax watching The Mandalorian wearing my blue-light blocking glasses.


Take magnesium to relax muscles. I stop eating at about 8.30pm as time-restricted eating has many health and longevity benefits, even if you have the same amount as someone who eats all day.


I wear an Oura ring, which tracks my sleep and its stages in detail. Taking low-dose melatonin and chamomile tea helps me get enough deep sleep.

SEE ALSO: How the CSIRO’s Chief Scientist Makes Time to Shape Young Minds

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