To mark Science Week 2020, Professor Ian Roberston joined Jennifer Zamparelli on RTÉ2fm to share some handy lifehacks whereby we use science to deal with our everyday problems. From dealing with the daily traffic jam to coping with Level 5 lockdown, the neuroscientist believes that we are in control of our own brains.
"We need to feel in control," Ian told Jen on Monday morning. "Not feeling in control tends to make us feel anxious. For some, it will make them feel angry but for most, it will make them feel anxious."
"That anxiety can affect our body - twisting our stomach, making us sweaty, it clouds our thinking - and when we're in that frame of mind, it's very easy to think that worse things are going to happen."
When it comes to sitting in bumper to bumper traffic, for example, Ian says that it can be harder to be objective or dispassionate because we feel helpless at that moment even though, logically, we know it will probably be over in 20 minutes.
"Surely swearing helps, Professor?" Jen asked.
"Absolutely, I'm a great believer in swearing," he laughed. "The important thing to remember is that getting angry at a situation you can't control is actually not good for you because it is mixed up with anxiety and makes you worse."
So, stick on a podcast, listen to the radio or have a think about what you want for dinner but, whatever you do, don't give in to your road rage. You're only making it worse for yourself.
Speaking of another situation that can leave us feeling helpless, Jennifer and Ian discussed how the on-going pandemic may be affecting people's moods, and what they can do about it.
"Change can make us feel anxious," said Ian. "We're used to having our routines - going out on a Friday night, going to work - and suddenly, we're stuck at home with nowhere to go. Yes, that can make us feel out of control and that feeling can make us feel anxious, and maybe angry as well."
So, what's the solution?
"It's important to try and create control. Small amounts of control in our daily life - planning our exercise routine, planning to Skype or Zoom with a friend, structuring your work in a way that doesn't consume your whole day.
"Packaging our time in that way, creating artificial goals for ourselves in the day, and rewarding ourselves when we achieve these goals - that can make us feel more in control when the wider world feels out of control."
"We are in control of our own brains," Ian insisted. "That's the most amazing thing about being human beings and being conscious. We can control our thoughts, our emotions, and even the chemistry of our brain depending on what we do with it."
Using the example of someone in solitary confinement in a prison, Ian says that we have the capacity for so much control thanks to our imaginations.
"We have this amazing capacity to time travel back, time travel forward, and to create situations that we've never been in. We always have some control, it's just a question of not allowing ourselves to believe we don't."
To listen back to the full interview and find out how we can build good habits to gain more control over our brains and emotions, listen back to The Jennifer Zamparelli on RTÉ2fm here.