Episode 73: Dr. Wendy Suzuki – Boost Attention & Memory With Science-Based Tools | Huberman Lab

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Key Takeaways

  • Three essentials to improve learning, focus, and retention: exercise, meditation, sleep
  • Four things make something memorable: (1) novelty; (2) repetition; (3) association; (4) emotional resonance (we remember the happiest & saddest moments)
  • If you have trouble incorporating a cold protocol, try Dr. Suzuki’s method: blast yourself with cold water at the end of your warm shower
  • Exercise can allow you to focus longer and deeper, reduce stress and anxiety, and enhance mood (among many other benefits)
  • Don’t overcomplicate exercise! Shoot for getting your heart rate up 30-45 minutes per day in any way you like
  • “Our brain is an organ that requires a signal to maintain its function.” – Dr. Andrew Huberman
  • Our brain responds to increases in exercise: the more days of exercise, the better our mood and the greater our hippocampal memory becomes
  • Even on limited time, consider exercising or stretching for even 5 minutes to maintain the habit
  • Intimidated by an hour of meditation? Just 12 minutes per day can enhance cognitive performance, reduce stress, and improve mood
  • “The ability to focus and attend is the distinguishing feature between those that will succeed in any endeavor and those that won’t.” ­– Dr. Andrew Huberman


Dr. Wendy Suzuki, Ph.D. (@wasuzuki), Professor of Neural Science and Psychology and (soon) Dean of New York University, whose research focuses on memory, attention, brain plasticity, and simple, daily habits that can be leveraged to improve learning, focus, memory, and cognitive ability.

Andrew Huberman and Wendy Suzuki discuss the role of cardiovascular exercise, weight training, deliberate cold exposure, meditation, verbal affirmations, sleep, and other behavioral practices for enhancing learning, mood and stress management, and increasing attention span. Dr. Suzuki shares the mechanisms by which these practices change our brain in order to improve cognitive function fast and reduce age-related cognitive decline.

Host: Andrew Huberman (@hubermanlab)

Books: Good Anxiety by Wendy Suzuki

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

Memory & Related Brain Anatomy

  • Four things make something memorable: (1) novelty; (2) repetition; (3) association; (4) emotional resonance (we remember the happiest & saddest moments)
  • The hippocampus is the key structure in the brain for long-term memory
  • Importance of hippocampus: associating things together and creating a context for events from past, present, and future
  • Without a hippocampus, you would have no ability to form new memories of facts and events
  • Hippocampus puts together information from our past and actively puts together memories from our past in new ways which allow you to imagine new experiences
  • “We don’t remember as much in highly stressful, highly anxious states.” – Dr. Wendy Suzuki

One-Trial Learning

  • The nervous system is skewed towards creating one-trial memories for emotionally charged events
  • One-trial learning: very strong act activation of neurons one time that lasts forever (usually associated with intensely negative or positive events) – such as animal studies in which the animal receives a shock and learns immediately
  • One-trial learning takes place for positive and negative events
  • Emotionality and emotion experienced after an event dictates whether you will learn it quickly
  • Memories are formed because of a neurochemical state (release of adrenaline, cortisol, epinephrine, norepinephrine) that takes place following an emotion – not because something evokes emotion itself

Using Cold & Exercise To Enhance Learning & Memory

  • Strategies to increase alertness and generally make your brain work better: cold exposure, high-quality sleep, exercise
  • Wendy’s cold exposure protocol: a big blast of cold water at the end of every (warm) shower
  • Cold exposure doesn’t get easier, but you will start to crave the feeling you get after
  • Exercise can help offset age-related memory decline
  • Exercise can allow you to focus longer and deeper, reduce stress and anxiety, and enhance mood (among many other benefits)
  • Physical activity releases dopamine, serotonin, and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) which gives the brain a boost
  • Exercise dosing & tips: cardiovascular exercise is particularly important for brain health (specifically hippocampus and prefrontal cortex) –anything as long as heart rate is going up for 30-45 minutes per day
  • The least amount of exercise to get something useful: just 10 minutes of walking (ideally outside) can shift your mood  
  • Anecdotally, diet tends to improve when you adhere to an exercise program
  • It’s a controversial topic but it does seem that new neurons can be born in the adult brain well into your 90s

Specific Effects Of Exercise On Memory

  • How exercise increases BDNF through the blood-brain barrier: (1) protein released by muscles (myokine) stimulates the release of BDNF; (2) release of beta-hydroxybutyrate ketone released by liver stimulates BDNF
  • Immediate effects of exercise (up to 2 hours post-exercise): mood boost, improved prefrontal cortex function (focus), improved reaction time, increased energy
  • Exercise early in the day may be beneficial for setting the tone for the day, mood, and learning
  • “The best time to do your exercise is right before you need to use your brain in the most important way you need to use it every day.” ­– Dr. Wendy Suzuki
  • In a longitudinal study (40 years) that categorized women as “low fit”, “mid fit”, “high fit” – women who were “high fit” gained 9 years of good cognition later in life (in the 80s)
  • 30-50 years old and unfit or “low fit”? For cognitive effects, just 2-3x 45 minutes sessions per week are the minimum amount of exercise that improves mood state, body image, motivation to exercise, improved performance on recognition memory and spatial tasks
  • Our body’s response is enhanced the more we move: the more you increase your exercise days (i.e., from 3 to 7), the better your mood becomes (lower depression and anxiety, higher affect) and the better hippocampal memory becomes

Habits, Affirmations, Meditation

  • In a time crunch, consider stretching or exercising in some way for even 5 minutes to maintain the habit
  • Make it easier on yourself: daily behaviors performed at the same time of day allows our nervous system to anticipate when things will happen and plan accordingly
  • One’s belief about behavior will impact the outcome of that behavior – if you think exercise is good for you, you will derive more positive benefits
  • So much of our inner dialogue is negative – positive self-affirmations can provide a mood boost
  • Meditation builds the habit and facilitates time to focus on the present moment
  • Minimum threshold of guided meditation for benefit: 12-minutes per day provided enhanced cognitive performance, reduced stress, and improved mood

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