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April 14, 2020

Podcast No. 69: Dr. Andrew Huberman, Stanford Neuroscientist

Stanford neuroscientist Dr. Andrew Huberman joins the WHOOP Podcast for a fascinating discussion on the function of the human brain.

By Will Ahmed

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As we continue to navigate through these trying times, many people are reporting high levels of stress and anxiety. Dr. Huberman explains how the brain responds to stress and uncertainty, as well as what we can do to counteract that and thrive in the face of adversity.

We discuss tips, tricks, and techniques for optimizing your brain, how dopamine works, why neuroplasticity sets us apart, and how living in the time of coronavirus is preparing the next generation to succeed.

Stay healthy and stay in the green!

Dr. Andrew Huberman Podcast Show Notes:

2:41 – Career & Background. “I got really interested in the brain when I was quite young. My dad’s a scientist. He’s a theoretical physicist, so a very different field, but I grew up in a house where there were a lot of discussions about science. … I think I was 6 when I told my dad I wanted to be a scientist and I asked him what scientist to become. He said, ‘We don’t know that much about the brain,’ so I said, ‘I’ll figure out how the brain works.’ which is kind of a bold statement for anyone to make. I don’t think one individual can do that.”

5:39 – The Master Organ. “The brain is by far, by far, the most important of all the organs we have because it’s the master organizer of all the other organs.”

7:07 – The 5 Phenomena of the Human Brain. Andrew details how the brain operates in 5 steps:
1. Sensations: The ability to detect physical events in the world.
2. Perceptions: Sensations that we are able to recognize and transduce into signals that the brain can understand.
3. Feelings/emotions: How the brain and the body are communicating with one another.
4. Thoughts: The way we organize all the information the brain takes in.
5. Actions: Behaviors.

9:35 – Neuroplasticity. “The machine that is the brain and nervous system is an adaptive machine. It’s not like a car, it’s like a car that changes if you drive on a gravel road to get better at driving on gravel roads. It turns into a Jeep when you’re on a gravel road and it turns into a racecar when you’re on a Formula 1 track. That property of neuroplasticity is, without question, the reason why we are the curators of the planet and the species in charge and not some other species.”

12:43 – Understanding Dopamine and Motivation. “Mother Nature installed this feel-good chemical called dopamine that is secreted anytime that we’re focused on something outside of the reach of our hands and our own skin, literally. It’s about focusing on things outside of our immediate sphere of experience. … It makes sense why Mother Nature would design a chemical like this because otherwise why would we ever go forage for the food that would give us the reward? Or forage for the mate that would give us the reproductive event? Why would we ever do that? It keeps us motivated. … It’s a beautiful mechanism because it keeps us focused on the external goal and feeling good while we’re en route to that.”

14:34 – Epinephrine. “It triggers a quitting reflex.”

16:25 – Finding Meaning. “We have the conscious capacity as humans to self-dose these dopamine rewards in very subjective ways, and I think that’s where meaning comes in. I think of the famous examples of Viktor Frankl or Nelson Mandela, horrible circumstances, super-challenging, but they found internal mechanisms to allow them to push through and not just to survive it but to emerge in a sense of real thriving in the face of adversity. People that push through adversity … they learn how to self-dose the dopamine rewards.”

17:45 – Meaning and Coronavirus. “Right now, we’re in this COVID-19 pandemic and we should all be congratulating ourselves every morning. We’re still alive, we’re breathing, we’re winning. Not just because we want to feel good, that’s a byproduct of that kind of thinking, to reward oneself, but because it pushes back on this circuitry that’s hardwired in us that forces us to quit at the level of immune system, that forces our system to crash at the level of willingness and effort. I see meaning as not a hack, because a hack to me is something that is hijacking an existing thing for a different purpose, these are things that have been installed in us that were probably designed in order to make sure that, as groups, we kept pushing on.”

20:17 – The Letdown Factor. Andrew explains what reward prediction error is and how it applies to situations where an individual feels a letdown after an anticipated outcome. “The amount of dopamine that you get prior to reaching the final goal has to be less than the amount of dopamine that you get when you reach the goal. … You need the dopamine that arrives at the finish line to be greater than the dopamine that you had en route to that.”

23:00 – How Friends and Family Affect Our Brains. “There are a set of chemicals like serotonin and oxytocin that are involved in generating a sense of well-being and reward for things not beyond our reach and that lie in the future or outside of us, but that are within our immediate sphere of existence. These are designed to be released when we hold next-of-kin, when we see close friends, sometimes even when we look at objects that hold meaning for us. They tend to be heartwarming because they trigger activation of some of the neural-circuits that link the gut and brain and they create a sense of warmth in the torso.”

25:49 – The Importance of Gratitude. “Gratitude practices are immensely powerful. … Gratitude should not be confused with complacency.”

27:17 – How Gratitude Can Change the Brain. “PET (Positron Emission Tomography) studies support the idea that a period of stillness each day, anywhere from 5 to 10 minutes of physical stillness, combined with some gratitude, creates a neurochemical signature in us that involves dopamine release as well as serotonin and oxytocin release. It’s kind of like MDMA or ecstasy is designed to do but obviously without ingesting anything. That combination is very powerful because it is, at once, this feel good, feel capable, feel like you can kick ass and take names kind of sensation and it gives you this feeling of possibility, and yet you’re happy with yourself.”

29:23 – Stress and Coronavirus. “Some people are feeling overwhelmed and exhausted and that’s because we’re doing a lot more what’s called ‘serial processing’ every day. It used to be you’d get up, you’d brush your teeth, you’d check your phone, you’d tackle your day. Now, you need to think about whether or not you can touch a door handle, how you’re going to get groceries. There’s a lot more planning … we’re thinking a lot harder about stuff that we just didn’t have to think about before.”

30:41 – Trying Times. “We are in deep, deep, deep modes of uncertainty. The brain wants to figure out 3 things: Duration, path, and outcome. … The nervous system is working 100x or 1000x for most people trying to figure out what’s going to happen next and what can I do in order to control my own behavior to navigate through this?”

33:31 – The Brain’s Role in Immunity. “The nervous system organizes the immune system. There are signals from the nervous system that say ‘Hey, there’s a threat’ and signals the immune system.”

34:23 – Tracking with WHOOP. “I love it … I gave it to a kid that I mentor who’s a young athlete and student here cause his mom tested Covid-19 positive. He wanted to monitor his sleep.”

35:06 – Tips for Persevering. “Periods of gratitude, periods of sleep, obviously physical activity, and I think just really understanding that navigating a period of uncertainty is itself a growth experience. We’re either in growth mode or glide mode, right now we’re in growth mode. This is the longest period of growth and strain that most people have ever experienced. … Everyone has the capacity to get through this.”

38:08 – A Breathing Technique to Create Calm. Andrew details why inhaling twice through your nose and then exhaling through your mouth can calm you instantly. “It immediately balances the ratio of carbon dioxide and oxygen in the lungs and bloodstream properly, and it triggers activation of the sighing neurons, which have a direct and fast route to what we’re calling the calming circuit (the parasympathetic arm of the autonomic nervous system).”

41:22 – Pressure to Sleep Well During the Pandemic. “There’s a lot of anxiety around sleep because now everybody knows how important sleep is so they’ve got sleep-related anxiety. One of the things that can really help with that is five minutes of stillness practice. Learning how to slow down your nervous system is powerful. It’s like a car, you’ve got an accelerator and you’ve got a brake, but one other way you can slow down is just by coming off the accelerator.”

44:06 – Embracing Uncertainty. Will and Andrew discuss being invigorated by uncertain times and embracing them as a challenge. “Virtuosity only can arrive when you invite uncertainty back in.”

47:52 – Optimism. Will suggests that a “new age of optimism” could emerge in the post-coronavirus world. “All of a sudden you’re at that restaurant that you used to eat at twice a week again but you’re so deeply appreciative of that moment of being able to eat there.”

50:05 – The Next Generation. “Kids are in a heightened state of [neuro]plasticity. They are building in such resilience from this. They’re going to come out of this with the capacity to sit in a house for a month or more without engaging in a lot of their normal pleasures, and that’s what they’re going to bring to their adult jobs, their college experiences. I think we are going to grow from this.”

53:00 – Find Andrew on Instagram @HubermanLab or at hubermanlab.com

54:09 – Your Questions. Will answers this week’s listener questions. Check out our latest WHOOP Q&A.

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Will Ahmed

Will Ahmed is the Founder and CEO of WHOOP, which has developed next generation wearable technology for optimizing human performance. WHOOP today works with everyone from professional athletes to fitness enthusiasts to executives. Ahmed has raised nearly $100 million from top investors and has an active advisory board that consists of some of the world’s most notable cardiologists, technologists, and designers. He wrote “The Feedback Tool: Measuring Fitness, Intensity, and Recovery,” which sparked the underlying physiology and engineering for his work today. Ahmed was named a 2011 Harvard College Scholar for finishing in the top 10% of his class and a CSA Scholar Athlete; he captained the Harvard Men’s Varsity Squash Team. He was also recently named to Forbes 30 Under 30 and Boston Business Journal 40 Under 40.

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