Neuroscientist Andrew Huberman on Changing Your Biology With Behavior | Rich Roll Podcast

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Key Takeaways

  • Where safe, try behavioral tools first: though pharmaceutical intervention will change your chemical balance, it won’t help you change your behaviors and train the tools you need
  • The field of science is shifting toward seriously studying previously “fringe” topics acupuncture, breathwork, effects of temperature regulation, the brain-gut connection
  • Cyclic physiologic sighs seem to have the greatest effect on the greatest number of parameters – to try: two inhales through the nose followed by long exhale through the mouth for 5 minutes
  • Clinical hypnosis grabs both states of arousal – a high degree of focus and a high degree of relaxation in a way that enhances neuroplasticity
  • Guided clinical hypnosis has been successful in the treatment of trauma, ADHD, and eating disorders
  • “Much of how we are gauged in terms of who we are is on our behavior and how calm people perceive us to be or how stressed people perceive us to be in certain contexts.” – Dr. Andrew Huberman
  • To really optimize your output, anchor your biology to our natural 24-hour cycle: get sunlight in your eyes the first hour of waking (or bright overhead light if not accessible) and maintain some exposure in the early part of the day, avoid bright light in the early evening, avoid napping if it interferes with nighttime sleep, maintain a regular sleep/wake schedule
  • Key is doing self-exploration to find ideal timing of meals, light exposure, and sleep that align with circadian rhythm – start by manipulating light exposure because that’s the most powerful driver of the other pieces
  • Major stimuli for setting brain states: light, temperature, movement, food, social interactions
  • The number one support for learning is deep sleep – even a 20-minute nap or non-sleep deep rest after learning can significantly improve information synthesis
  • Tips to enhance performance state: raise your stress threshold, incorporate gaps/pauses, try 1-3 physiologic sighs, foreshadow failure, sleep

Introduction

Dr. Andrew Huberman, Ph.D. (@hubermanlab) 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. He is also the host of his own podcast, the Huberman Lab with new episodes every Monday.

In this episode, Rich Roll and Andrew Huberman discuss how to leverage behavior to change your biology They cover wide-ranging topics from hypnosis, breathwork, and meditation – to questions such as are behavioral tools more powerful than pharmaceuticals in some cases?

Host: Rich Roll (@richroll)

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

Improving Focus & ADHD

  • There’s speculation whether ADHD is increasing with social media or we’re more vigilant about diagnosis
  • An estimated 10-11% of youth are diagnosed with ADHD
  • Dispelling myths about focus and attention:
    • (1) we are actually very good at splitting attention and can multi-task on two things (more than two is difficult) – you can also weigh your attention between those tasks depending on which is more important;
    • (2) people with ADHD can actually focus very well so long as the task or item is related to something the person likes and is excited about;
    • (3) for people with sight (AKA not blind), mental focus follows visual focus
  • A lot of ADHD medication is focused on leveraging the dopamine system to enhance enjoyment having a downstream effect of improving focus
  • In the past, we weren’t trying to split our attention with so many different gadgets, electronics, things to do, etc.
  • Tip to improve focus: some people benefit by restricting visual window by wearing a hood when trying to focus on a task at hand – similar to the way horse blinders are used
  • Breathing, focus, and the body: if you slow down breathing, brain and body will shift into a more relaxed state; if you speed up breathing, your brain and body enter a more aroused state
  • We’re in a seesaw of arousal states and calming states
  • Tips for improved reading comprehension: some people who have trouble with attention benefit from reading the book while listening to the audiobook simultaneously
  • Most people are visual learners
  • People retain information better when reading from a physical paper copy versus reading on a phone because people stop physiological sighs when reading on the phone

COVID Shifted Study Design

  • The fact that everyone was home during COVID presented a lot of challenges and opportunities in science
  • Labs distributed – or performed observational studies on existing users – of wearables (such as Whoop bands, Oura ring)
  • These types of studies allow monitoring people of people who may have been historically more difficult to reach: different ages, backgrounds, geographic areas who aren’t close to universities

Spiegel Hypnosis Versus Stage Hypnosis

  • Stage hypnosis: what we stereotypically think of – someone performing with a pen or hypnotic tool trying to alter the state and actions of others for entertainment, basically making fools of people
  • Clinical hypnosis: enhances control of mind and body by inducing cognitive flexibility and allowing you to shift set easily and change the way you evaluate events
  • Hypnosis allows you to enter a state of deep calm but a high degree of focus in a limited context
  • Self-hypnosis provides an avenue to lean into phobia and trauma and reconnect the events or objects to more positive associations so other centers of the brain are activated
  • Hypnosis allows you to confront phobia and restructure your understanding of it: if you avoid your phobias or things you fear, the only association you have of those things/events/objects is tied to being afraid without any good experiences
  • Are you hypnotizable? Try the Spiegel eye-roll test
    • There’s a correlation between the capacity to keep eyes up and hypnotizability
    • Tilt your chin back so you’re looking up toward the ceiling
    • Direct eyes upward while open
    • Close your eyes, trying to keep the eyes up while closing the eyelids
    • If eyes roll back and you see the whites of your eyes, you’re highly hypnotizable; if eyes roll down and you see the iris (colored part of the eye) you’re less hypnotizable
  • Hypnosis grabs both states of arousal, a high degree of focus and a high degree of relaxation in a way that enhances neuroplasticity
  • A paid app that can assist access of self-hypnotic state: Reverie

Trauma

  • There’s no clear answer on where trauma originates in the body
  • “I think of trauma being an extreme example of not just something that happened to you but a story you tell about who you are.” – Rich Roll
  • Without intervention, trauma takes on a life of its own and we tend to cause ourselves a lot of suffering a pain
  • For many people, if you experience something terrible as a child you tend to seek out the same types of experiences in hopes of changing the outcome and making it better
  • “It’s very clear that relief from trauma in some way or another almost always involves deliberately going back to the state of mind and body that occurred during the trauma.” – Dr. Andrew Huberman
  • Trauma often involves a deep confusion about who’s responsible: whether it happened to you, or you created the event
  • Deliberately accessing states of high autonomic arousal in non-traumatic ways (ice bath, hard exercise) can be useful in helping people attain comfort when accessing high autonomic arousal related to trauma
  • Detailed recounting or retelling or fearful or traumatic event is key to unpairing threat reflex and changing the narrative, which will diminish stress response over time

Behavior Versus Biology

  • Actions change your nervous system over time: the nervous system can change in response to experience
  • If you want to transcend whatever loop you’re in, take action in contrast to whatever the narrative is and your nervous system will catch on so it’s habitual
  • It’s through behaviors that people gauge us, and we gauge ourselves
  • Habits and the gradual shift in personality and personal narrative: initially we may be motivated by external people and influences and ascribe our behaviors to their inspiration until, over time, we realize it’s us taking those actions and changing our self-perception
  • “The information we consume sets the internal context of our subconscious and sets the internal context of what we decide to do consciously. In many ways, it’s garbage in, garbage out, and if it’s positive stories and inspiration in – that’s how you’re basically going to react in the world.” – Dr. Andrew Huberman
  • The nervous system has a tremendous capacity to learn consciously and subconsciously
  • Sleep rewires our nervous system: the brain is designed to access states subconscious states and rewire them during sleep
  • Social media is a free-for-all in terms of context – it’s an endless firehose of information
  • Tip: set constraints on what type of information you consume – why bother with all the noise?

Natural Brain States: Phases Of The Day

  • To build new habits & behaviors, leverage your body’s natural brain and body rhythms
  • Phases of the day will invoke a shift in mood and mindset that are more conducive to building and keeping habits
  • Phase 1: 0-8 hours after waking up
    • This phase comes with a more alert state which can be heightened by sunlight viewing, caffeine delaying, fasting, etc.
    • Norepinephrine, epinephrine, and dopamine are elevated during this phase
    • Healthy cortisol is also elevated in the brain and bloodstream
    • This is when you want to take on new habits and behaviors that are challenging for you – you are naturally more readily able to engage in activities with a high degree of limbic friction
  • Phase 2: 9-15 hours after waking up
    • Levels of dopamine, epinephrine, and cortisol start to come down
    • Serotonin starts to rise and lends itself to a relaxed state of being – can be enhanced with a warm bath, yoga nidra, ashwagandha
    • Taper the amount of bright light (unless it’s sunlight) & start dimming house lights a bit
    • This is when you want to taper stress level and take on habits and things you are already doing that don’t require a lot of override of limbic friction – e.g., journaling, music
  • Phase 3: 16-24 hours after waking up
    • Keep environment very dark or dim & room temperature low
    • The body needs to drop in temperature to fall asleep & stay asleep
    • If you wake up in the middle of the night, use as little light as possible
    • Deep sleep is critical to wiring neural circuits required for building habits
  • Our cognition follows our visual environment: for detailed analytic work (ideally in Phase I 0-9 hours after waking), work in lower ceiling environment or put in hoodie or hat to restrict visual field; for Phase II (9-16 hours after waking creative work), work in high ceiling room or outdoors
  • In the first 0-8 hours after waking, your brain and body are more action and focus oriented – you can more easily overcome things with high limbic friction

Importance Of Light Exposure And Circadian Rhythm

  • The more we deviate from intrinsic rhythm, the more we see increased rates of depression, anxiety, adverse mental health outcomes
  • Daylight saving has a negative impact on sleep & wake cycles – it’s not just an hour per day, it’s a cumulative effect on the rhythm
  • Light exposure has an unconscious influence on the level of the cell, behavior, circadian cycle
  • Sunlight exposure adjusts circadian rhythm and associated behavior to 24-hour periods
  • One of the strongest adaptations of survival is the adaptation to and anticipation of light
  • Light allows animals to anticipate seasonality
  • Landmark discovery in 2000 that cells in the eye communicate day and night to the brain
    • Even blind people benefit from viewing light for regulation of circadian rhythm
  • Cones in the eye see color and adapt to varying intensities of light
  • Best way to interact with light: get outside (even on cloudy days it’s enough) 15 minutes daily shortly after waking, ideally without sunglasses
  • The circadian system needs to be synchronized to light/outdoors to know where you are in time
  • There is not enough research on artificial light to know the correct intensity – but it’s likely helpful to have exposure during the day
  • Sleep-wake cycles will suffer if you stay indoors and are not getting natural light
  • Camping experiment: studies have shown that camping for two days with no screens, sleeping and waking whenever feels natural – can adjust circadian rhythms
  • Can’t determine whether you are naturally an early bird or night owl? Get light exposure in the morning and see how you feel
  • Animals have a ‘light hunger’
  • Consider avoiding blue light blocking glasses because it’s changing natural optics of the eye and adaptation properties of the retina – just dim the blue and increase the warmness of the light
  • Evening light viewing tip: keep your home dim/dark, to the minimum amount of light you need to see comfortably; explore using red light

Enhancing Performance States

  • We all have moments in life we want to execute to the best of our ability
  • A lot of performance stress is the anxiety over what we want to happen but maybe can’t control
  • We can exert some control over the autonomic nervous system – we can adjust our breathing, visual field, etc.
  • Sleep is one of the most important factors in how well we can balance or tilt the seesaw of arousal and calmness
  • Realtime tools to enter or maintain an optimal state of alert but calm:
    • Physiologic sigh: two inhales through the nose and long exhale through the mouth for 1-3 repetitions
    • Raise your stress threshold: get comfortable at high levels of autonomic arousal, even as little as 11 minutes per week can make a difference – practice through intense breathing (e.g., Wim Hof style – active inhale and active exhale 20-30 times), cold shower, ice bath, submersion
    • Foreshadow failure: thinking about failure or what will happen if you don’t achieve a goal is actually the best way to motivate towards goal pursuit – in other words, use failure as motivation to lean into correct behaviors
    • Incorporate gaps: for example every 10 minutes of intense learning, pause for 1 minute
  • Sleep: rewiring and relearning of the nervous system happens during sleep – even non-sleep deep rest or napping for 20 minutes after learning something new can help rewire your brain and improve information synthesis
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Notes By Maryann

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