Episode 56: Dr. Alia Crum: Science Of Mindsets For Health & Performance | Huberman Lab

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Key Takeaways

  • Mindsets are core beliefs or assumptions we have about a domain or category of things that orient us to expectations, explanations, and goals – they come from our upbringing, culture & media, influential people in life & our conscious choice
  • “Mindsets are a portal between conscious and subconscious processes – they operate as a default setting of the mind.” – Dr. Alia Crum
  • Negative beliefs can cause negative consequences the same way positive beliefs can produce positive results
  • “The total effect of anything is a combined product of what you’re doing and what you think about what you’re doing.” – Dr. Alia Crum
  • If you approach a diet with a mindset of restraint, it could counteract the benefit or objective effects of the diet – the brain is telling you to eat more food because you are telling yourself you’re being restricted
  • There’s bad messaging that stress is debilitating, bad, and should be avoided but in reality – stress puts us in a forward motion and propels us toward action
  • To leverage stress: (1) acknowledge that you’re stressed; (2) welcome the stress; (3) use the stress response to connect to the thing you care about (you only stress about things you care about)
  • To train mindset: (1) be aware that you have a mindset and your experiences are filtered (not objective); (2) think about the effects of mindset on life – is it helpful or harmful?; (3) seek ways to adapt a more useful mindset – healthy foods are indulgent and delicious, stress is natural and can help you learn & grow
  • Useful experiment: ask yourself, “What is the effect of my mindset about the experience X?” – ask yourself about the school, work, exercise, nutrition, etc.


Dr. Alia Crum (@AliaCrum) is an Associate Professor of Psychology and Director of the Mind & Body Lab (MLB) at Stanford University. Her research focuses on mindset: how what we think and what we believe shapes the way our physiology reacts to the environment.

Andrew Huberman and Dr. Alia Crum discuss how mindset shapes how we interact and react to the world around us. They break down elements of mindset such as how the nutritional content and satisfaction of food changes, how mindset impacts the effects of exercise and weight loss, how to think about stress in productive ways, and much more.

Host: Andrew Huberman (@hubermanlab)

Note: For full access to publications that are behind a paywall, check out Sci-Hub

What Is Mindset?

  • Mindset: core beliefs or assumptions we have about a domain or category of things that orient us to expectations, explanations, and goals
  • Assumptions you make about a domain – for example, do you view stress as debilitating and bad or motivating and good for you?
  • Mindsets help us simplify complex reality and distill down our core assumptions that shape and orient our thinking and action
  • If you have the mindset that intelligence is malleable, you will be motivated to grow and learn and build from
  • Do you have the mindset that healthy food is good for you and beneficial or disgusting and depriving?
  • Mindset shapes physiological mechanisms by changing what our bodies prioritize and are prepared to do
  • Mindset comes from four main sources: (1) upbringings; (2) culture & media; (3) influential others in our lives; (4) conscious choice

Mindset Shapes How Our Bodies Respond: The Milkshake Study

  • Do our beliefs about what we’re eating change our body’s physiological response to that food? (holding constant objective nutrients)
  • Taking into the consideration placebo effect, the idea that food could have a differential impact based on mindset is not as crazy as it seems
  • Design: participants were given an identical milkshake at two separate time points – once they were told the milkshake was healthy and full of good nutrients; the second time, they were told the milkshake was an indulgent, high-calorie treat
  • Results: when people thought they were consuming the high fat, high-calorie milkshake, ghrelin levels dropped 3x more – when participants believed the food was high calorie and indulgent, their bodies believed they were fuller and satiated
  • Ghrelin pathway is susceptible to thoughts: perceptions about a milkshake affected subconscious processing of the ghrelin pathway
  • This groundbreaking study showed two important things: (1) one of the first studies that showed any effect on belief about nutrition and physiology; (2) ghrelin has an adaptive component – if you believe you’re treating yourself and eating indulgently, you will feel more satiated  
  • Read more: Mindset Over Milkshakes: Mindsets, Not Just Nutrients, Determines Ghrelin Response by Crum, Corbin, Brownell. & Salovey

Leveraging Mindset For Diet & Nutrition

  • It’s possible that the nutritional diet that brings you the most benefit & nutrients is partly based on the belief that it’s the right way
  • Belief, social context, and the body’s natural ability to respond to something affects everything we do and consume
  • “When it comes to what diet you’re eating, it does matter what it is and it matters what you think about that diet – and what others around you and in our culture think about that diet.” – Dr. Alia Crum
  • Social contexts inform mindset, and our mindsets interact with our physiology to produce outcomes

Exercise & Placebo Effect: The Hotel Study

  • Study question: is it possible that the results of exercise are in some part due to placebo?
  • Mindset and reorientation can help people reap the benefits of the exercise they’re already doing
  • Design: randomized hotel housekeepers into two groups – one group told the type of exercise they are getting is good and beneficial for their body & one control group
    • After 4 weeks both groups were surveyed as metrics taken such as weight, body fat, blood pressure
  • Hotel housekeepers are objectively very active (walking upstairs, pushing carts, changing linens, etc.) but don’t consider themselves as exercising – or at least don’t consider their fatigue to be beneficial exertion
  • Results: housekeepers in the group who were told their physical activity is beneficial lost weight, decreased blood pressure and started feeling better and more confident about themselves and their bodies
  • We have to be thoughtful in how we motivate people to exercise & the benefits of exercise – it needs to be beyond a handbook telling people the requirement of minutes (i.e., 150 minutes per week)
  • In another study, there was a strikingly higher risk of death rate based on a self-reported perception of amount activity (i.e., people with a low perception about how much exercise they’re getting (regardless of reality) had a higher risk of death)
  • Read more: Mind-set Matters: Exercise And The Placebo Effect by Crum & Langer

Sleep Deprivation & Mindset Effects

  • Does your perception of how you slept the night before impact how well you function the next day?
  • Study: Participants in a sleep study who were told they had gotten poor sleep performed worse on cognitive tasks than those told they slept well
  • There are important benefits of sleep we don’t want to compromise but it’s possible that mindset can help us cognitively and physiologically push through a bad night or a couple of bad nights of sleep
  • This could really impact your judgment of using a sleep tracker which tells you how you slept
  • Read more: Placebo Sleep Affects Cognitive Functioning by Draganich & Erdal

Conceptualizing Stress For Good

  • The public health message is that stress is bad and harmful for our health, productivity, relationships, fertility, cognition, etc.
  • The reality is that the body is designed to have an enhanced response to experiences of stress and encountering adversity in goal-related efforts
  • Benefits of stress: narrows focus, increases attention, speeds the rate of processing information, anabolic hormones which help the body grow muscle & learn
  • Stress can also enhance a sense of connection to values & connection to others
  • Stress is paradoxical and complex but we should question the role of mindset about stress in shaping a response to stress
  • If you view a stressor as more of a challenge and less of a threat, brain and body response is more adaptive
  • Ask yourself: at the core level do you view stress as something that’s bad and should be avoided or as natural and going to enhance us?
  • People who view stress as an opportunity for growth, experience better health outcomes, better well-being, higher performance
  • You can change your mindset about stress if you reorient your perception and change in mindset about stress, physiological symptoms related to stress, improved performance
  • Unsurprisingly, most Navy Seals view stress as a source of strength when studied
  • The key isn’t that you have to view stress as a good thing and embrace a cancer diagnosis, poverty, etc. – it’s that the experience of the stress can lead to enhancing outcomes
  • If you view stress as bad, you’ll be inclined to want to deal with it and get rid of it or just freak out – instead of using stress to realize enhancing outcomes (improved priorities, building strength, improved performance)

Leveraging Stress To Our Advantage

  • Clarify your definition of stress: decouple stress from its negative associations and realize it as a neutral effect of adversity in goal-related efforts
  • We only stress about things we care about so it’s two sides of the same coin – stress is connected to what we care about
  • Three steps to adoption stress as an enhancing mindset:
    • 1. Acknowledge that you’re stressed – own it, see it, be mindful of it
    • 2. Welcome the stress – in that stress is something you care about so use it as an opportunity to connect with what you care about
    • 3. Use the stress response to achieve the thing you care about, not spend your effort getting rid of the stress
  • We all have the stress response, what you do with it and how you leverage it is up to you

Intersection Of Mindset & Medicine

  • The reality of side effects can be linked to the body learning how to tolerate or manage allergens with positive orientation to symptoms of medication, treatment, allergy
  • In reading side effects, you are in part priming yourself to receive those side effects – people who read warning labels, side effects, packaging labels, etc. have a greater rate of experiencing those side effects
  • Medicine should consider the mindset instilled in the patient when saying something will or won’t work

How Can We Learn & Teach Mindset

  • 1. Be aware that you have a mindset: your view of the world is filtered through your framework, interpretation, expectation, etc.
  • 2. Think about the effects of mindset on life: is the mindset helpful or harmful?

3. Seek ways to adopt a more useful mindset: healthy foods are indulgent and delicious, stress is natural and can help you learn & grow

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