Episode 1: How Your Brain Works & Changes | Huberman Lab

Key Takeaways

  • The nervous system (connections between brain, spinal cord, and body) governs all biological systems of the body
  • The five main functions of the nervous system are: sensation, perception, feelings/emotions, thoughts, actions/behavior
  • The nervous system can be reflexive (top-down) or deliberate (bottom-up)
  • Neuroplasticity is the process in which neurons change connections so you can go from things being challenging to things being reflexive
  • Young brains are incredibly plastic but adults can take actionable steps to improve plasticity
  • Sleep is a critical piece to optimize neuroplasticity: plasticity doesn’t take place in real-time, it happens during sleep and deep rest – get better at falling asleep and staying asleep
  • Steps to improve neuroplasticity: approach learning in 90-minute blocks, knowing the first 5-10 minutes will be difficult but improve over time- our bodies continue the rhythms of our 90-minute sleep cycles throughout the day
  • Test learning new information at different times throughout the day to see when you are most optimal


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 inaugural episode of the Huberman Lab Podcast, Dr. Huberman provides an introduction to how the nervous system works and how we can change our nervous system – also known as neuroplasticity.  This discussion establishes a baseline understanding and paves the way for future topics covering neurons, synapses, brain chemicals, focus, stress, sleep – and much more!

Host: Andrew Huberman (@hubermanlab)

What Is The Nervous System?

  • The nervous system includes your brain, spinal cord, and connections to organs and the rest of the body
  • Nervous system is way you function at every level: continuous loop of connections between brain and spinal cord to body, and vice versa
  • Nervous system governs all biological systems of the body
  • Neuron: nerve cell
  • Synapses: gaps between neurons which pass chemicals between neurons
  • Our body is essentially an electrical system, passing nerve cells to direct movement, feelings, and experiences
  • Mechanism behind Déjà vu sensation: neurons that were active in one circumstance are becoming active again in the same circumstance
  • Speech and language are controlled by separate parts of the nervous system
  • Our brain is a map of our experience
  • Nervous system can be reflexive or deliberate in action
    • Reflexive = bottom-up; automatic steps
    • Deliberate = top-down; takes into consideration duration, path, outcome  

Five Main Functions Of The Nervous System

  • Sensation: life experience is filtered by sensory receptors – or neurons that filter and generation feeling in body parts (e.g., fingertips detect heat, ears detect sound, etc.)
  • Perception: ability to take what we’re sensing and make sense of it; perception is under the control of your attention
  • We can place “spotlights” of attention on a few different things at one time – this is multi-tasking
  • When rested, attention is absolutely under our control
  • Feelings/emotions: release of neuromodulators (e.g., dopamine, serotonin, etc.); receptors on different organs of the body
  • Feelings and emotions are contextual
  • In trauma: memories don’t get erased but the emotional load of memories can be reduced
  • Thoughts: draw on what’s happening in the present, things we remember from the past, and what we imagine the future to be; thoughts can be reflexive and deliberate
  • Actions/behaviors: conversion of sensations, perception, feelings, thoughts into action  

Neuroplasticity: Our Ability To Change Nervous System

  • Requires top-down processing and feeling of agitation and strain because you are trying to shut down a circuit
  • Impulsivity is a lack of top-down processing
  • Neuroplasticity: neurons change connections so you can go from things being challenging to things being reflexive
  • Most neuroplasticity is self-directed
  • Two important questions to consider: (1) What particular aspect of my nervous system am I trying to change? (2) What is structure/regimen to engage neuroplasticity?
  • We can direct neural changes in the brain more than other organs in the body – e.g., we can become less reactive to certain situations but can’t control how well we digest a food
  • Young brains are incredibly plastic – young children can learn multiple languages much easier than adults
  • In children born with blindness: area of the brain that would light up for vision, reprograms and lights up for brail reading
  • Adult brain can change in result to experience  
  • Plasticity in adult human nervous system is controlled by neuromodulators (dopamine, serotonin, acetylcholine)
  • When something bad happens we release epinephrine (makes us feel agitated) and acetylcholine (intense, perceptual spotlight)
  • Epinephrine creates alertness and increased attention; acetylcholine highlights or tags neurons active in that event so they become active again in that instance in the future

Importance Of Sleep & Focus

  • No neuroplasticity occurs in real-time during the event – strengthening of synapses occurs during sleep and non-sleep deep rest
  • In sleep, we are only in relation to what’s happening inside of us – deliberate processes are not on
  • Periods of non-sleep, deep rest are key where we turn off duration path and outcomes and attention drifts from strain to reflexive
  • Sleep cycles occur in 90-minute rhythms – you are not in deep sleep immediately, it takes a few minutes of agitation before the body relaxes
  • Just 20 min of deep rest (turning off deliberate thoughts) accelerates neuroplasticity
  • To optimize neuroplasticity: get better at falling asleep, staying asleep, and keeping the brain in the idle state

Role Of Autonomic Nervous System In Neuroplasticity

  • The autonomic nervous system controls unconscious bodily functions
  • It governs the transition between alert and focus
  • Sympathetic: associated with alertness, “fight or flight” system
  • Parasympathetic: associated with calmness, “rest and digest” system
  • To engage neuroplasticity, direct transition between wakefulness and sleep, and sleep and wakefulness

Action Steps To Improve Neuroplasticity

  • Context: 90-minute rhythms of sleep cycles continue throughout the day
  • Engage in a focused bout of learning throughout the day: first 5-10 minutes will feel unnatural but improve as 90-minute block progresses
  • Test learning blocks at different times – do you do better in the morning, afternoon, or at night?
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Notes By Maryann

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