A hotel retreat aims to nurture your brain. Here’s what that feels like

    4 January 2017

    Hotels and neuroscience aren’t two spheres that have either natural or immediate overlap. In fact, I have confidence in asserting that hotels and neuroscientists have peacefully coexisted since they began, with the only possibility of interaction being when a neuroscientist has needed a place to kip overnight. Until now. Corinthia Hotel London has just launched a programme with a neuroscientist in residence. And the results are somewhat surprising.

    A what in residence? I hear you cry. But yes, you read it right: a neuroscientist in residence. Dr Tara Swart has ‘teamed up’ (as they call it in the corporate world) with the Corinthia Hotel to help ‘clients’ (guests or visitors, to you or me) improve their brain power. Dr Swart is also carrying out a ‘brain power study’, which involves assessing these clients in order to generate insights that can maximise our potential by building mental resilience at work. ‘It just really made sense,’ Dr Swart says of the collaboration.

    But to begin with it all sounds rather corporate, slightly complicated and a bit odd. In simple terms: life is busy. Our brains need nurturing. Supporting the health of our brains will allow us to perform better in all aspects of our lives. Dr Swart is here to help. She wants to improve our resilience. Resilience, Dr Swart says, is ‘the ability to bounce back from adversity. You can get stressed and have really good mechanisms for bringing yourself back to feel well, but a step further than that is keeping yourself really topped up, really confident, really well, and your brain working at its best.’

    It’s true that we put great emphasis on the health of our bodies — we know to exercise, we bow down to the nanny state and try to gobble up at least five portions of fruit and vegetable a day, we are vaguely aware of drinking guidelines, and smoking is more of a taboo than ever before. But we don’t necessarily designate efforts to improving the health of our brains. Dr Swart echoes this — it’s unusual, she says, that we think: ‘I want to make the best decisions today, I want to be really motivated today, I want to have loads of ideas today so I’ll choose my breakfast based on that.’

    Dr Tara Swart

    Dr Tara Swart

    So if you’re feeling busy, run down, or just curious, you can go and stay at the Corinthia and experience the Brain Power Package, designed to improve your brain performance. The stay involves a two-hour mindful massage which will apparently thicken the prefrontal cortex and lower the levels of cortisol (the ‘stress hormone’), followed by a three-course dinner with platters made up of brain food. Then to bed in a room designed for optimum rest: black-out blinds, a pillows menu, lavender sprays etc. All to lower cortisol and increase oxytocin — the bonding hormone.

    ‘The main thing for me is that people feel empowered to take care of their brain and body health,’ declares Dr Swart, before citing rest, nutrition, hydration, exercise and mindfulness as the five most important guidelines for optimum brain function. In fact, 25 to 30 per cent of what we eat is only used for our brain. ‘It’s worrying if you don’t know about it and it’s amazing if you do,’ Dr Swart tells me.

    And what of this programme? The massage was obviously sublimely relaxing and a total treat. I’m not entirely sure what it did to my cortisol and oxytocin levels, but I definitely felt a lot more relaxed after the treatment and would highly recommend it to anyone in need of some R&R.

    The science behind the menu was perhaps more interesting than the food was delicious. ‘The brain is a very energy-hungry organ. Fuelling it regularly and with high-quality foods is really important. The brain can’t store energy. The highest functions of the brain are regulating emotions, overriding unconscious biases, solving complex problems and thinking flexibly and creatively,’ Dr Swart tells me. Examples of meals include organic salmon with green mango carpaccio, blueberries, toasted almonds and lemon compote, or walnut-crusted baked mackerel with avocado and monkfish liver toast.


    An executive room at the hotel

    But really, the point of the whole package is to understand that for your brain to function well, you need to rest well (seven to nine hours, Dr Swart says), eat well, hydrate well, exercise well, and be mindful. The rest will follow: you’ll be less likely to suffer from Alzheimer’s and various cancers, for example.

    I can’t say whether or not I’ll get Alzheimer’s, but what I am certain of is this: I have never, ever slept so well in my whole entire life. All the obscure ingredients and flowery treatments were worth it for that night’s sleep alone. Whether or not my brain function has improved, I don’t know. I’ll let you be the judge of that.