Episode 88: Focus Toolkit – Tools To Improve Your Focus & Concentration | Huberman Lab

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Key Takeaways

  • Epinephrine/adrenaline, acetylcholine, and dopamine work together to facilitate the ability to get focused, direct focus, and stay focused over time
  • Binaural beats (40 Hz), white noise, pink noise, and brown noise can enhance focus & more importantly, decrease the amount of time it takes to get into a focused state by ramping up neurochemicals
  • Blocking time: use ultradian cycles (90-minute bouts) for intensely focused sessions; assume it will take about 5-10 minutes to ease in and then ramp up; when finished, spend 10-30 minutes to deliberately defocus
  • Both things are true: fasted states and fed states (sufficient glucose but not overly stuffed belly) stimulate neuronal activity – leverage this and try one focused 90-minute bout in the morning (fasted) and another in the afternoon (fed)
  • Tip: leverage benefits of stress through cold exposure try a cold shower (uncomfortably cold but safe to stay in) 1-5 minutes to increase epinephrine and dopamine in the brain and body to get the body into a focused state – the positive effects of epinephrine last up to an hour or more
  • Focus will drift unless you are an experienced meditator – the most important component of meditation is refocusing back to meditation and back to the breath – try 13 minutes per day
  • Meditation caveat: focused meditation in the 4 hours prior to bed actually hindered the ability to fall asleep and stay asleep
  • Using visual field to improve focus: set a timer for 30 seconds per day and try to focus on one object; keep adding 5 seconds per day looking directly at the location (be sure to blink!) – you can use this to help onramp into 90-minute focused bout
  • As always, start with behavioral tools (and dialing in sleep), then focus on nutrition, try supplementation – when all else fails and you’ve consulted a doctor, lean on prescription drugs
  • Really sleep-deprived or having trouble focusing? Stack tools – for example, take a cold shower, leverage the visual field, and take alpha-GPC

Introduction

Dr. Andrew Huberman, Ph.D. is a Professor of Neurobiology and Ophthalmology at Stanford University School of Medicine. His lab focuses on neural regeneration, neuroplasticity, and brain states such as stress, focus, fear, and optimal performance.

In this special episode of the Huberman Lab podcast, Andrew Huberman reviews his “focus toolkit.” A full review of behavioral, nutritional, and supplement-based tools to improve your ability to get into a focused state to do mental or physical work.    

Host: Andrew Huberman (@hubermanlab)

Mechanics Of Focus & Concentration

  • Epinephrine/adrenaline are released in the brain and body and increase energy and alertness (but not focus)
  • Epinephrine is necessary but not sufficient for focus
  • Acetylcholine released in the brain highlights specific neurons that should be active at certain timepoints
  • Acetylcholine directs attention and focuses to a specific spot
  • Dopamine is necessary for ongoing focus
  • Modulation: the ability of chemicals, cells, circuits, etc. to adjust how things work in the brain and body
  • Mediation: how specific types of chemicals, cells, circuits, etc. control specific things in your brain and body
  • Sleep modulates almost every process in the brain and body: hormones, metabolism, energy, focus, etc.

Using Sound To Enhance Focus

  • Listening to particular sounds and in particular, conditions can improve cognition
  • Focus is dynamic – you go in and out of levels of focus; don’t expect yourself to snap into or out of states of focus
  • Sometimes we want more background noise, sometimes we want less: our auditory tolerance can change from one day to the next and even fluctuate within the same day
  • Even if we’re not registering background noise, our auditory system is processing
  • Working with white, pink, or brown noise can help in spurts of about 45 min but not for hours on end – you’re better off walking or getting sunlight for a few minutes
  • White noise, pink noise, and brown noise can amplify the activity of the prefrontal cortex related to directing and maintaining focus
  • Binaural beats place the brain into a state that is better for learning
  • Binaural beats: playing one sound in one ear and a different sound in the other ear
  • Low-frequency waves put the brain into a relaxed state versus high-frequency soundwaves which put the brain into more alert states
  • Binaural beats (around 40 Hz) have been shown to increase cognition, relaxation, creativity, pain reduction, anxiety reduction
  • Tip: don’t use binaural beats the entire time you’re working; try for about 5 minutes prior to focus and then as needed if you’re in a loud place, somewhere you’re not used to working, or even before lifting sessions

Leveraging Ultradian Cycles To Increase Focus

  • The rhythms in our body are generally broken up into 90-minute cycles
  • Sleep: for every 90-minute cycle, REM occupies more time – the more sleep you get, the more REM you have
  • The 90-minute time block continues throughout the day and governs our focus and brain cycles even during waking hours – after 90 minutes there’s a drop in our ability to focus on hard things
  • When does 90-minute cycle begin after waking? You can initiate them whenever you want (unlike circadian rhythm which is hardwired) – when you want to start, tune out all distractions and get to work
  • You must take breaks between 90-minute cycles of productivity (focused, hard work), not exceeding 2-3 per day
  • Accept the fact that occasionally focus will stray – your ability to get back into focus is the key
  • The number of focused bouts you perform throughout the day will depend on how well you slept, how long it takes to get into a focused state, etc.
  • If you are good at getting into a focused state faster, you will need more deliberate decompression time – expect to hit 2-3 focused bouts per day (do less focused things in between)
  • The more deeply you can concentrate, the fewer bouts you can perform because it’s exhausting

Food & Focus

  • The ability of neurons to encode information is related to blood glucose level
  • When we have fasted or blood glucose is low, we can’t perceive and think about things as clearly
  • Unless you are fully in a ketogenic state, neurons thrive on glucose
  • Food shifts the nervous system into a “rest and digest” parasympathetic mode
  • A fasted state can help with focus because there is less parasympathetic activity taking place
  • Two ends of a U-shaped glucose/focus spectrum: (1) on one end if you’re very fasted you will experience a high degree of focus and concentration; (2) full belly = focus and concentration is reduced; (3) having sufficient blood glucose will increase cognitive function
  • Tip: workout and one 90-minute bout of focused work fasted, then do lighter work in the middle of the day, then have another 90-minute bout of focused work a few hours after lunch
  • True states of ketosis can enhance brain function and cognitive state because ketones can be used by neurons
  • ADHD: reducing simple sugar and highly processed foods improves symptoms of ADHD in children and adults
  • Foods high in tyrosine (meat, parmesan cheese, certain vegetables) can lead to an increase in dopamine and can improve focus but dosing is difficult to dial in

Caffeine

  • Caffeine increases wakefulness and alertness via adenosine and epinephrine systems
  • Caffeine can improve mental and physical focus – dosage will depend on caffeine tolerance but generally falls 200-400mg – remember, delay first caffeine intake 90-120 minutes after waking to give natural hormones levels a chance
  • If using yerba mate, avoid the smoked version as they have carcinogenic compounds
  • Huberman uses Anna Park Yerba Mate
  • Caffeine enhances the density and efficacy of dopamine receptors
  • Caffeine and sleep: don’t ingest caffeine after about 4 pm! The depth and architecture of sleep are disrupted – even if you fall asleep and stay asleep

Leveraging Stress To Improve Performance

  • Dilated pupils = amped up; small pupils = relaxed
  • “Stress itself can increase the ability to focus and concentrate.” – Dr. Andrew Huberman
  • Stress deploys epinephrine which narrows vision to tunnel-like focus and improves concentration
  • When we’re stressed, we’re usually thinking about one specific thing we fixate on
  • Acute stress is good for the immune system
  • Signs of short-term stress: dilation of pupils, changes in optics of eyes, increase in heart rate, sharpening of cognition, narrow but sharp focus to respond at the moment
  • Tip: leverage stress through cold exposure try a cold shower for 1-5 minutes to increase epinephrine and dopamine in the brain and body
  • The positive effects of epinephrine last up to an hour or more

Meditation

  • Three essentials to improve focus: exercise, meditation, sleep
  • Meditation builds the habit and facilitates time to focus on the present moment
  • Minimum threshold of guided meditation for benefit: 13-minutes per day, focusing on location 1-inch inside of head (prefrontal cortex) for enhanced cognitive performance, reduced stress, and improved mood
  • Use nasal breathing for meditation purposes (and really as much as possible)
  • Focus will drift unless you are an experienced meditator – an important part of practicing meditation is refocusing back to meditation and back to the breath
  • The repeated return to a state of focus from a state of non-focus is the key to a focused meditation practice
  • Timing of meditation is critical! If meditation is done too late, it can impair sleep because it actually requires a high attentional load – it increases attention back to your body and breath

Non-Sleep Deep Rest (NSDR)

  • Non-sleep deep rest (NSDR) and naps (28-90 minutes) after an attempt to learn can enhance memory and learning
  • Meditation puts us into a calm, focused state – but non-sleep deep rest and Yoga Nidra allow us to enter a calm state without high attentional focus
  • Non-sleep deep rest and Yoga Nidra is a powerful tool to access sleep, clam, and neuroplasticity – similar to hypnosis
  • The Hallmark of Yoga Nidra and non-sleep deep rest is a self-directing state of calm
  • Apps for Yoga Nidra: Kamini Desai (no cost), Liam Gillen (no cost), Reverie (paid)
  • Check out the guided 8-minute hypnosis with Reverie to improve your focus
  • Reverie also has a specific meditation for falling back asleep if you wake up in the middle of the night (just be sure to dim your phone light)

Leveraging Visual Field

  • Vision involves eyesight but the eyes are responsible for mood and level of alertness as well
  • Much of our cognitive focus is directed by the visual system
  • The cognitive focus tends to follow overt visual focus (literally what we’re looking at)
  • Eyes and pupils are indicative of things happening deep in the brain
  • Mental and physical endeavors are grounded in visual focus
  • Intentionally direct gaze to enhance overt visual focus: by focusing on a particular location, you encourage systems of focus to get better and better at focusing and refocusing – start with 30 seconds per day then add 5 seconds each day
  • Covert visual focus: gaze is focused on one location but the peripheral vision is focused on something else (this is how you can obtain information without directly staring at something)

Compounds, Supplements, Pharmaceuticals

  • EPA (1-3g per day) can modulate neural circuits which support focus and concentration
  • Creatine (5g/day) can improve cognitive performance, tapping into the creatine phosphate system in the brain and modulating prefrontal cortical networks
  • Choline (500mg-1g per day) also supports brain health and focus by ensuring a substrate that creates acetylcholine
  • Alpha-GPC: more acetylcholine is synthesized after ingesting; a dose of 300mg prior to workouts or work bouts – 10-20 minutes prior to when it’s needed
  • Note, there are some studies that show that people who chronically take alpha-GPC may be at increased risk of stroke – but the risk-benefit profile is still worth it; TMAO will also increase with chronic use and have adverse effects on the heart (offset with 600mg of garlic)
  • L-tyrosine (500mg early in the day) leads to an increase in dopamine and can improve focus but dosing is difficult to dial in
  • Sometimes, phenylethylamine (300-600mg) pushes a little harder on the dopamine system
  • Tip: you can combine supplements but it gets intense, be choosy; also take supplements before noon to avoid disruptions to sleep
  • If you have ADHD or a neurocognitive disorder, prescription drugs are suitable; otherwise, stay away

Resources

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Notes By Maryann

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