Psychologist, author, and Great British Bake Off finalist Kimberley Wilson is on a mission to help us understand and protect our greatest assets – our brains
After a long day of clients, it would be completely understandable if psychologist and Great British Bake Off alumna Kimberley Wilson was a little low on energy for our interview. But from the moment we meet it’s non-stop natter – brain health facts and research, and a dash of baking chat thrown in for good measure.
Kimberley is deeply passionate about psychology, an area that’s been of huge interest to her since she was a child. “Thinking back, it’s no surprise that I became interested in psychology and mental health, in a bid to understand what was happening in the brains around me,” she says, explaining that a number of mental illnesses and neuro-degenerative diseases, including multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, schizophrenia, motor neurone disease, run in her immediate family.
Now, as a chartered psychologist with her own clinical practice, Kimberley specialises in the overlap between food and psychology. Through her work to date, including a book and her Stronger Minds podcast, she’s become a leading UK advocate for brain health, and is always keen to promote what we can do to protect our most precious asset.
The brain, Kimberley insists, needs a lot more attention than we’re collectively giving it, and it’s time to stop separating what happens in our heads from the rest of our body.
“It’s almost as if we say: ‘Something’s happening in your head, so we’re only going to look at your head.’ But as we now know, the body has a huge influence on the brain.
“Your brain is an organ and, like your heart, it needs proper nutrition. It needs adequate rest, it needs adequate exercise,” Kimberley says. “Of course it’s going to be affected by the things that you eat, the things you drink, whether you smoke or not, and how much exercise you get. The chemistry of your body, your immune function is all going to be influencing your brain health.”
Her unrelenting enthusiasm for the subject is evident. “I’ve always been very curious and I’m fascinated by the processes around psychology. Partly I just want to share that curiosity like ‘Oh my God, did you know this is how this works? Isn’t it amazing?’ I worry people just aren’t curious enough,” she laughs.
Along with concerns about our collective rate of curiosity, Kimberley has a healthy preoccupation with the internet, explaining that she’s seen the good, the bad, and the ugly from influencers sharing information about mental health, and how to feed our brains and bodies.
“The internet and social media have been incredible in democratising information,” she says. “People in remote parts of the world now have access to information in a way that is completely unprecedented, and can participate in social life in ways they never could before.
You can’t just say things and not understand that your words have meaning, and that people who believe you, and who trust you, may act on them
“At the same time, the internet has enabled the spread of nonsense and misinformation in a way that feels convincing. It makes me angry because we have a responsibility to each other. You can’t just say things and not understand that your words have meaning, and that people who believe you, and who trust you, may act on them. And that action could have serious consequences for their health.
“That’s one of the reasons why I want to put good information out there. I can try to make information engaging, interesting, and accessible. So I try to be that ‘middle man’ between the researchers doing the incredible work, and the audience who perhaps don’t have access to that.”
With so much of her own energy dedicated to promoting mental wellbeing in the public sphere, it would be understandable if Kimberley’s own wellbeing practises slipped down the priority list. However, she has a very special place and time for her own wellness at home.
“My kitchen is my happy place,” she beams. “It’s where I relax. I will always find excuses to cook – I procrasti-bake! I think I could do my taxes, or I could make some blueberry muffins...”
Kimberley has quite the history with baking, and competitive baking at that. In 2013 she was a finalist in the legendary Great British Bake Off, and it’s a time she has both fond and physically painful memories of.
“I fell out of baking for a while,” she reflects. “I think it happened after the intensity of the Bake Off. I remember one week we had to make breadsticks, and I was practising them every day. I must’ve made about 200, and it felt like I was getting like carpal tunnel syndrome from rolling out all the dough!”
Kimberley maintains the show was massive fun, albeit a big time commitment alongside her already busy full-time job. However, the impact of being on the Bake Off lasted well beyond the programme airing, she says, and her kitchen life afterwards required some ‘adjustment’.
“It was about eight months of intense baking – it takes over your life,” Kimberley says. “So at the end of it, I was a bit shell-shocked and had to do what I called ‘rehab bakes’. I started off with a lemon drizzle cake, very gently, very slowly reminding myself no one was timing me, no one was going to ask me any questions. It took me about three hours to bake!”
As our time chatting about brains, baking, and being aware of the information we ingest comes to an end, I can’t help but wish our conversation could continue. Kimberley’s amazing mix of passion, research, knowledge, and personality, makes the public health and wellness messages she’s working so hard to impart, very easy to digest.
Listen to Kimberley on Happiful's podcast, I am. I have
‘How to Build a Healthy Brain: Reduce stress, anxiety and depression and future-proof your brain’ by Kimberley Wilson, published by Yellow Kite (£16.99), is out now.