Welcome to the Huberman Lab Podcast, where we discuss science and science-based tools for everyday life. My name is Andrew Huberman and I’m a professor of neurobiology and ophthalmology at Stanford School of Medicine. This podcast is separate from my teaching and research roles at Stanford, but is part of my effort to bring zero cost consumer information about science and science related tools.

I’d like to thank the sponsors of today’s podcast. Our first sponsor is InsideTracker, which analyzes data from your blood and DNA to help you better understand your body and health needs. I’ve been getting my blood tested for many years now, as many of the things that are important to our health and wellbeing can only be detected in a blood test or a DNA test. InsideTracker makes that really easy.

Athletic Greens provides essential nutrients that you don’t get from your diet. If you’re looking for a way to get your daily vitamins and minerals, Athletic Greens is a great solution. They have an amazing product that has 75 vitamins, minerals,
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You can visit Athletic Greens at athleticgreens.com/huberman and put Huberman at checkout to get a free travel pack with your first purchase. InsideTracker makes it very easy to decipher what the levels in your blood and DNA mean, and what to do about them. They have a very easy to use dashboard that can inform you about lifestyle choices such as adding or subtracting certain forms of exercise or nutrition, or other things related to supplementation. It’s a really powerful and easy to use program. If you want to try InsideTracker, you can go to insidetracker.com/huberman and put Huberman at checkout to get 25% off any of their programs.

I’ve been using Athletic Greens since 2012 and I’m delighted that they’re sponsoring the podcast. I started using Athletic Greens because it’s very complicated and almost dizzying to figure out which vitamins and minerals I need to take in order to cover my nutritional basis. Taking Athletic Greens makes this much easier and it also tastes very good. I mix mine with water, a little bit of lemon juice, and I really like it. I drink it once or twice a day. The probiotics it contains are also important to me as there is now data showing that the gut microbiome, which is supported by probiotics, is important for things like gut-brain access, mood, endocrine factors, metabolism, and many other biological functions. By taking Athletic Greens, I get the vitamins, minerals, and probiotics all in one.

Athletic Greens is an easy-to-consume, great tasting drink. If you want to try it, go to athleticgreens.com/huberman. As a bonus, you will also get a one year supply of liquid vitamin D three K two. There is a lot of evidence now that vitamin D three is important for immune function, mood, endocrine factors, and other systems in the brain and body. Additionally, when you visit the website, you will also receive five free travel packs of Athletic Greens. These packs make it easy to mix up the powder while on the go, without the mess.

The third sponsor of today’s podcast is Madefor.

Madefor is a behavioral science company founded by former Navy SEAL Patrick Dossett and Toms founder, Blake Mycoskie. I’m the head of their scientific advisory board, which includes the director of the chronobiology unit at the National Institute of Mental Health, members of Harvard Medical School, and other experts in the field. Madefor makes attaining positive changes and growth mindset easy through a simple set of steps and a monthly program.

If you’re interested in learning more, you can go to getmadefor.com and get 20% off their program by entering Huberman at checkout. Additionally, there is a monthly Zoom call with Patrick, myself, and sometimes Blake, where members of Madefor can discuss the program and their personal goals.

Let’s talk about neuroplasticity. More specifically, let’s talk about how we can optimize our brains. Neuroplasticity is an incredible feature of our nervous system that allows it to change itself, even in ways that we consciously decide. That’s an incredible property; our liver and spleen cannot decide to change themselves through conscious thought or through feedback from another person. The cells in those tissues can make changes, but it is our nervous system that harbors this incredible ability to direct its own changes in ways that we believe, or we’re told, will serve us better.

Today’s episode is especially geared toward answering your most common questions about how to leverage neuroplasticity. The previous episodes were about focus and how to achieve focus for the sake of plasticity.

Today’s podcast is directed towards answering your most common questions about optimizing the brain. I’m going to share some of my typical routines and tools, but I want to emphasize that these are not the only ones available, nor do I think everyone should do them just because I do. Everyone is different, but there are some common features of how we are all put together at the level of the nervous system and body that direct us towards particular practices and routines that can be especially powerful for neuroplasticity.

I would like to open up the discussion today by emphasizing something that is fundamentally important: plasticity is never the goal. Plasticity is simply a state or capacity for our nervous system to change. Nothing frustrates me more than when I hear that a pill, potion, or practice can give you plasticity. The real question is what are you trying to change and what end goal are you trying to achieve? End goals can vary from extremely specific (e.g. learning a new language, motor skill, or calculus) to more general (e.g. forgetting bad emotions related to a particular human being or experience).

It is important to understand that plasticity and achieving plasticity is the first step in what we call optimizing our brains. We do not want our brains to be plastic all the time, as this could lead to us forgetting who we are, how to walk, or how to eat. The major unsolved mystery of neuroscience is how each and every one of us wakes up every day and knows who we are, despite the brain’s capacity to change throughout the lifespan. Fortunately, the plasticity is not so robust that we have to restructure ourselves each day.

Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to form new neural pathways and adapt to new situations. It is part of what gives our life continuity. However, it is important to remember that the goal is not to access plasticity, but to use it to direct our lives in the direction we want. There is no rule that we have to leverage this ability, but for those of us who would like to make a positive change in our lives, it can be a powerful tool. There are also those who are content with where they are and don’t wish to change, and that is perfectly acceptable.

There are several forms of plasticity that can be leveraged throughout the lifespan. These include long-term potentiation, long-term depression, and spike-timing-dependent plasticity. These terms refer to the ways in which the connections between neurons change. When it comes to optimizing the brain, it is best to think of plasticity in terms of daily, weekly, and yearly activities. For example, on a daily basis, one might engage in activities that involve learning new information or skills. On a weekly basis, one could practice and review what they have learned. Finally, on a yearly basis, one could take time to reflect on their progress and set new goals.

Short-term plasticity is any kind of shift that you want to achieve in the moment or in the day, but that you don’t necessarily want to hold on to forever. Examples of short-term plasticity include using a protocol such as coffee, breathing, or other tools to become more alert at a time of day when normally you aren’t that alert. This is done with the expectation that when you return home, you will discard the need to do that at 5:30 AM because you’ll be asleep at that time.

Medium-term plasticity are changes that you might want to make. This is often referred to as the undergraduate, pre-med phenomenon. It involves changes that you would like to make in the long-term, but that require a lot of effort and discipline to maintain. Examples of medium-term plasticity include changing your diet, your sleep schedule, or your exercise routine.

There is a stereotype that medical students and pre-meds want to know what they need to know for the sake of the exam, but don’t really care about the knowledge itself. I don’t necessarily agree with this stereotype, as I have worked with many pre-meds who are passionate about the knowledge and also want the A. This phenomenon is discussed among professors and TAs, as students want to know what they need to know to get the A, but don’t want the information to be embedded in their memory too long.

Sometimes it is useful to program in information for a short period of time, such as when going on vacation to a foreign place. For instance, if you were to go to Costa Rica, you may want to learn the different towns and routes in the area, but you don’t have any intention of returning. This is known as medium term plasticity.

When discussing optimizing the brain, we usually talk about long-term plasticity. This is when people make changes to their brain so that it works differently without having to think about it. For example, a child learns how to walk and eventually it becomes reflexive.

Long-term plasticity is almost always the big goal. We want to learn how to do a skill or feel a certain way without having to put much effort into it. There are tools and protocols that can help us achieve this. We’ve discussed a few of them in previous episodes, which I will revisit today. I will frame this discussion in the context of daily, weekly, and yearly life, as neuroplasticity and optimizing our brains rides on a deeper foundation of autonomic arousal. Autonomic arousal governs all our life and is the cycle of being asleep for part of the 24 hour period and being awake almost always.

If we push ourselves and stay awake, we’re okay. We can do that for a night or two, but almost always we are asleep for a portion of it and we are awake for a portion of it. I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again: the trigger for plasticity in learning occurs during high focus, high alertness states, not while you’re asleep.

And the focus and alertness are both key because of the neurochemicals associated with those states. But, the actual rewiring and the reconfiguration of the brain connections happens during non sleep deep rest, which we’ll talk more about as always. And, deep sleep. So you trigger the change and in sleep you get the change.

So, some of the things that we’ll talk about today about optimizing the brain, are centered around not sleep, but around the autonomic arousal system. We have this system of neurons in our brain and body that’s just incredible, that wake us up and make us alert.

I wake up each day and usually don’t feel like bouncing right out of bed. I usually don’t feel completely rested, and that’s not because I don’t get enough sleep, but probably because I’m not terrific about timing my sleep so well. This month isn’t about sleep, but I really want to emphasize a few points. Without accessing the system, we cannot access plasticity and optimize our brain. Likewise, if we cannot sleep well and rest well, we will not access plasticity and rewire our brain, because that is when the actual configuration between the connections occurs.

I tend to get up early either because I set an alarm, because I have things to do, or because I naturally wake up early because the light coming in and so forth. This tells me that my natural circadian rhythm, or chronotype, is shorter than 24 hours. This means that getting some light in the late afternoon will help me shift and make my cycle a little bit longer. This will phase delay me, allowing me to stay up a little bit later. If this doesn’t make any sense, see a previous episode for more information.

Paragraph 1: But what it means is that, I’m not really matching my hard-wired needs of going to bed probably at 8:30 or 9:00 and waking up at 4:00 AM. I tend to go to sleep around 10:30, 11:00, lately around 11:30 or 12:00 and then I wake up at 6:00. And so of course, I’m gonna feel groggy. So neuroplasticity will allow me, to optimize my wakefulness but I have to do something in order to access that.

Paragraph 2: And some of you may already be anticipating what I’m about to say, which is, oh, no he’s gonna tell us to get sunlight in our eyes in the first 30 minutes of the day. I am gonna tell you to do that, but I’m gonna also tell you two things that I’ve have not discussed before, which relate to the plasticity, between the melanopsin cells.

Paragraph 3: These sunlight detecting, bright light detecting cells in our eye and the circadian clock. I’ve never said this before in this podcast, but it turns out that the connections between these melanopsin cells and the circadian clock, are plastic throughout the lifespan. There’s a massive configuration of the connections there. And a cell type called the astrocytes which are a glial cell, are actively removing and reinforcing connections between the eye and that clock, every day.

Now this is incredible because other aspects of your brain, such as those that represent you knowing who you are when you wake up in the morning or what your name is, are changing all the time every 24 hour cycle. This provides an opportunity for short-term plasticity. That’s why I view sunlight first thing in the day – it helps me wake up. Additionally, there is a circuit between the circadian clock and our adrenals that triggers the release of cortisol first thing in the morning, which can help us wake up, especially when we view light. If you’re groggy in the morning, viewing light is helpful. But, the interesting thing is that if you start viewing light frequently in the morning, then those connections between the melanopsin cells and the circadian clock become primed or potentiated, and you naturally start waking up earlier, feeling more alert.

So, I get regular light exposure and delay my intake of caffeine for the first two hours I’m awake. This helps my body to naturally adjust to the day and avoid a mid-morning crash. I also know that some mornings I’m just not going to feel very alert and may not be able to access sunlight, so I have a system in place that shifts in the right direction. Although it is short-term plasticity and will shift back after two or three days, it is still beneficial.

Caffeine works by occupying the adenosine receptor, preventing natural endogenous mechanisms for suppressing adenosine from taking effect. This can affect the brain to adrenal axis, which is subject to plasticity. To take advantage of this, I delay caffeine for two hours after waking, allowing me to capture and reinforce the neural circuit between the circadian clock and cortisol released in the adrenals. This also leaves the adenosine receptors unoccupied, so that I can use the caffeine to get a natural lift in alertness and focus two hours later. To readjust these circuits, I delay caffeine for the first two hours of the day, even if it’s painful to do for the first couple of days. This allows me to naturally start to wake up more readily in the morning without caffeine. Additionally, I use bright light to stimulate alertness, as I wake up very early.

I’m not a big believer in mixing coffee with other things. I believe in black coffee.

Coffee is a great way to increase focus and alertness. I’m a big believer in black coffee, and I don’t recommend mixing it with other things. The light board I’ve been using has been about 900 lux. I’m also a fan of delaying caffeine intake. While I’m not saying anyone has to do this, I will be talking today about the use of diet, fasting, timing of foods, and certain kinds of foods to increase focus.

Black coffee is a simple choice that has always worked for me. I also make sure to hydrate first thing in the morning. Studies have shown that even a slight increase in dehydration can lead to headaches and photophobia in those prone to migraines. Bright light can trigger migraines, but dehydration can compound the vulnerability to migraine and headache. To this end, I drink water or black coffee or mate (a high caffeine drink) two hours after I wake up. This allows the circuits between my eye, circadian clock, and adrenals to be functioning in a particular way, so that the caffeine later adds more alertness.

Many people who wake up quickly and naturally feel like bouncing out of bed are envied. These people will do just fine by going into a learning bout or taking care of whatever tasks they need to complete, such as emails.

There is a general rule about how the brain functions in regards to focus, learning, and creativity. This rule will be discussed more in future episodes. Generally, states of high alertness are great for strategy implementation when we already know how to do something and it is simply a matter of plugging the correct elements into the correct boxes.

Duration, path and outcome are the three things that the deliberate, conscious brain is trying to figure out in order to perform certain tasks, even cognitive tasks. This is something that we are very good at when we are well-rested and focused, particularly when our alertness is at a high level. However, it is not necessary to do the hardest or most critical tasks throughout the day. Sometimes the hardest and most critical tasks require creativity and the brain is best at achieving these when we are in states of calm or even slightly drowsy. For example, when I wake up, I am not terribly alert so I try to just get my brain and my thoughts organized.

Mid-morning is when many people tend to achieve their peak in alertness and focus. Now, I often get asked: should I use background music in order to learn? Should I have construction noise next door? Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Is it better to be in complete silence, et cetera? The answer to this will vary from person to person. Some people are able to tolerate their own noise within their head much better than others.

Background noise can be very helpful for allowing us to focus. However, if our lack of focus is due to having too much coffee, sleeping too long, or being stressed and activated, then eliminating background noise and trying to get silence is going to be best for learning and implementation of tasks. This is because learning is a focus linear task. On the other hand, if our lack of focus is due to a lack of alertness, then having some background noise can help cancel that out.

Last time we talked about making errors. As a rule of thumb, if you’re too keyed up, then silence and quiet is going to be helpful. In fact, if you’re very keyed up, a particular circuit related to the basal ganglia starts getting triggered more easily. This circuit is called the go, no-go circuit. It connects our forebrain to the basal ganglia, which is a collection of structures. The forebrain is involved in rational thought, thinking, planning, and action. It is always trying to plan what should be done and then implement that action.

The basal ganglia and cortex have a reciprocal loop of communication that facilitates go. There are connections from the basal ganglia to the cortex, and from the cortex back to the basal ganglia.

The molecule dopamine facilitates action by triggering the activation of “go”. It tends to make us want to do more things and bias towards action. This is due to dopamine binding to something called the D1 receptors. On the other hand, the “no-go” pathway in the basal ganglia and cortex that suppresses action involves dopamine binding to the D2 receptor. We cannot consciously decide which receptors to activate; instead, we must consider which states of mind and body facilitate “go” and which ones facilitate “no-go”.

This is critically important because doing focused work, accessing plasticity, and learning involve doing certain things and not doing others. Here’s how it works and how I apply it on a daily basis. I tend to be most alert first thing, mid-morning or so, and then I generally will have my caffeine mid-morning. My peak of alertness in the early part of the day is occurring for me sometime between 9:30 and 11:00 AM. Other people might experience that immediately after rolling out of bed and they might be wide awake and ready to go. In which case they should be cautious about throwing caffeine in the mix as it’s gonna make them very, very alert.

There are three levels of autonomic arousal of alertness that bias us towards go, no-go, or both. This relates to a question I have received hundreds of times in the comment section of this podcast: is it better to listen to music in the background while working and learning, or should one have complete silence? The answer depends on the individual’s overall level of autonomic arousal. Autonomic arousal level of alertness determines the extent to which we are more prone to go or no-go responses. Dopamine is the molecule that influences these responses.

For example, if one has had a good night’s sleep and has had a bit too much coffee, they may be very alert and prone to go to action. However, they are also not prone to no-go. Therefore, it is important to know one’s level of alertness and adjust accordingly.

I’m not gonna be very good at suppressing action. Being biased toward action and being biased toward suppressing action are two different things. This is why when people say, “Should I just take a drug that will increase my level of epinephrine and alertness? Will that help me learn better?” The answer is no, because it will make you do things, but it will also make you less good at suppressing actions that you need to suppress.

When you’re very alert, the tendency is for everything to be a stimulus. If I’m very alert, particularly alert for me, and I recognize what that state is, of course ’cause everyone will be different.

I know what it is for me. I want silence for learning, so I shut down my internet. I sometimes use a program called Freedom, which is a free program that locks you out of the internet for a particular time. They’re not a sponsor of the podcast, I just happen to use it. There’s another version of Freedom where you go to the wireless thing and you turn it off. You disconnect from the wireless, although many people have a hard time not reactivating it.

I’m trying to shut down the go pathway towards distraction. To do this, I generally turn off my phone and put it outside in the car, or in extreme cases, throw it up on the roof. This prevents me from accessing it and allows me to stay alert and aware of my bias towards action. I’m able to suppress non-action, but also have the willingness to pursue action, which may not always be physical action, but can be hard bouts of learning. This is due to the way dopamine competes for dopamine one receptors in the go pathway and dopamine two receptors in the no-go pathway, creating a sweet spot between the two.

The sweet spot for learning is not flow, where things come naturally to us. Rather, it is a state of optimal energy and focus, where we have the ability to pursue and suppress action. This is achieved through the basal ganglia working in a sing-songly manner, in a parallel pathway. However, as we get tired, our mental fatigue accumulates and these pathways start to falter, making it harder to engage and go towards a goal. In order to combat this fatigue, silence is best when alert, and background chatter and noise can help when feeling low arousal and tired.

Our auditory and visual systems are linked and form part of the salience network. This network is constantly scanning our environment and when there is a lot of information to take in, our alertness increases. Environments with few objects or little clutter tend to make us feel calm because our salience network is not being activated. People can experience anxiety when in these environments as their autonomic arousal is high but there is nothing to occupy their attention. This can cause the salience network to turn inward and move from exteroception to interoception.

People who tend to be on the high level of alertness and anxiety will benefit more from learning to go as well as activate the no-go pathway. This requires a lot of energy and when there are a lot of distractions in the environment, it is more likely that the person will be distracted from the learning. On the other hand, people who are naturally more calm and clear, such as my bulldog Costello, are less likely to be yanked around by background noise or bothered from their learning by a clanging pot from the kitchen.

So, each one of us generally tends to ride up and down this autonomic ladder, so to speak, at different times a day. For most people, three hours after waking is the period in which they’re most alert throughout the day. Except, right before sleep, you’re also very alert, naturally. That morning three hours is quite vital.

Many of you might ask about exercise and when to exercise. Research shows that, at least for performance, afternoon exercise might be better in terms of avoiding injury, et cetera. But, in terms of rising body temperatures, and matching body temperature to have mental alertness, et cetera, it’s pretty clear that exercising early in the day not only biases us towards waking up earlier, but also triggers the release of things like epinephrine and other neuromodulators, that lend itself to a situation where we have heightened levels of arousal and mental acuity in the late morning and even into the afternoon.

Exercising early in the day can set a neurochemical context or mill you for “go”. It tends to trigger activation of the go pathway and can help those of us who have a hard time engaging and getting into action early in the day. Ideally, exercise should occur within the first hour of waking and no later than three hours after waking. This will give you more energy throughout the day and make you feel more biased for action. Additionally, delaying caffeine two hours after waking can also help with energy levels. If exercise is very intense, however, it can lead to a crash afterwards due to the depletion of glycogen stores.

Fasted states and low carbohydrate states lend themselves to alertness. This is because carbohydrates are rich in tryptophan, which tends to lead to sleepiness. Ingesting large amounts of any kind of food, regardless of its carbohydrate content, will divert blood to the gut and lead to sleepiness. Many people use food to modulate their levels of autonomic arousal, with eating typically shifting us more towards a state of calm and fasting shifting us towards a state of alertness.

I personally rely on water, mate, and black coffee first thing in the day, in order to exercise and get into the first round of work. Our bodies are hard-wired with two systems that govern our needs and desires: the need to find food, which requires action, and the so-called rest and digest system which helps us to feel calm. If I find I’m too alert, I will tend to eat in order to bring down my level of alertness and continue working.

This is a personal thing, and I’m not dictating that people should follow it exactly, but I will tell you what I do. It is possible to dehydrate yourself if you’re drinking black coffee or mate and ingesting a lot of water, due to excretion of sodium. Provided you don’t have hypertension, salt is a really good thing. Many people think they are low on blood sugar when they are actually low in sodium, particularly if they are drinking a lot of caffeine.

I’m a big believer in salt. Every morning I drink salt water to help keep my levels of alertness high. I used to think I had messed up blood sugar, as I had shaky hands and I didn’t know what was going on. When I drank coffee, I felt too amped up. It turns out that it was a sodium issue and if I drank water with a little bit of sea salt or table salt, I felt rock solid in terms of my blood sugar. I’m not a physician, I’m a professor, so I don’t prescribe anything, but I do profess lots of things. I don’t want people with diabetes or blood sugar issues to go off the rails.

You are responsible for your own health, not me. It is an interesting parameter to think about and experiment with, provided your doctor says it is okay. Many people probably ingest too much sodium, while some may be sodium deficient, particularly those who are fasting. I typically eat my first meal around mid-day, regardless of whether I have exercised or not. The food content is important to me, though I don’t have a scientific mechanism for this. If I eat hot food for lunch, I get sleepy after lunch, so I generally rely on a low carbohydrate meal, such as meat, salad, nuts, fats and other variations. This is because of the [indistinct] content for focus, and because protein is good in my belief.

I believe in eating fruits and vegetables, and I do that too. If I’ve exercised hard early in the day, I ingest starches like oatmeal or rice and fruit. This leads me to the question of whether fasting is good for focus. Fasting can increase alertness, but if you’re so hungry or preoccupied with food that you can’t focus well, then it’s not going to be good for learning. It will only lead to agitation. This is my experience, but some people may be different.

I find that around 2:00 or 3:00 PM, I start getting a little groggy and sleepy. To keep myself productive, I shift my work from tasks that require a lot of duration, path, outcome, and careful analysis, to tasks that require less cognitive load. This is why I don’t respond to text messages or emails until the early afternoon. These tasks are more mundane and can be done in and out of sequence. For example, I can answer a couple emails here and there.

I don’t have to do my work in a pure linear fashion. Any kind of linear work or learning work requires a lot of focus. Around 4:00 PM, I do two things: I make sure I hydrate, as exercise and eating require water to digest. I also try to refrain from drinking coffee in the afternoon.

I’m new to this, but I sometimes do a non-sleep deep rest protocol in the afternoon. This typically involves listening to a script, either a 10-minute yoga nidra type protocol, or a 30-minute yoga nidra type protocol. I have no business relationship to these protocols, but I have been doing them for years now. We will provide the links to these protocols again, or I will do a hypnosis protocol from Reveri Health, which is my colleague David Spiegel’s website that has free hypnosis apps or scripts that you can listen to. These scripts take me into a state of really deep rest.

I typically take a nap around 4:30 in the afternoon. This usually lasts for around 30 minutes, although I always set an alarm to make sure it doesn’t go longer than 90 minutes. I do this because by 4:30 in the afternoon, I am usually incapable of doing anything productive. I am just completely drained of energy and can’t think, do, or respond to emails. Instead of trying to power through with a double espresso, I find it more effective to take a nap and reset my energy levels.

I end up disrupting a lot of different things, so I do the non sleep deep rest protocol to help me later when I need to fall asleep. It helps with all sorts of things, as I mentioned before, but I usually emerge from that a little groggy or feeling like I have another whole day, second wind. Like I could just work. Then I’ll do a second bout of learning, usually involving linear analysis of something, such as numerical work or learning something. I generally try and really use those bouts of 90 minute focus energy after the non sleep deep rest.

There is a lot of evidence that these non-sleep deep rest protocols can enhance and accelerate plasticity. We referenced a study in the caption notes of a Cell Reports article which showed that these 20-minute shallow naps and non-sleep deep rests can facilitate sensory motor learning. I tend to do a work bout or learning bout in the clear common focus regime after coming out of this non-sleep deep rest, without ingesting caffeine so that I can sleep well later that night. This tends to be more when I do creative type work. Creativity is a topic that we will spend the entire month on coming up soon.

Creativity is a very interesting state of mind in which we take existing elements – things that we already know – and rearrange them in ways that are novel. It has two parts: a creative discovery mode, where we are shuffling things around in a relaxed, playful way, and an implementation mode, where we take the idea or design we have come up with and create something robust and concrete. The first part of actively exploring different configurations, sometimes in a playful or almost random way, is facilitated by being relaxed and almost sleepy.

I personally find that not a state that I can access very well early in the day. I’ve tried to access it coming out of sleep, but it just doesn’t work. Most of what I write down or do during this time is complete garbage. However, I have found that there is a 90-minute block in the afternoon where I can do creative type writing or imaginative work, such as coming up with scientific ideas or experiments. Science may not seem like a creative endeavor to many, but it is and requires a lot of imaginative “what ifs” and thinking of novel concepts or ways of arranging things. When I find myself in a clear, focused mode, creative work tends to come about very well. I know there are a lot of people who rely on substances to access creative states, but I’m not one of them.

I’m not a drinker, so alcohol is not the drug for me for a variety of reasons. I’m not here to tell people what they should or shouldn’t do, but the problem with using substances to access creativity is that they are good for brainstorming, but not so good for linear implementation. The other day I was remarking with a friend about some amazing advertisements, specifically a perfume ad that Spike Jones made, which is just amazing.

I have a link to an advertisement that I think is really cool. It has a feature of it that is particularly interesting to me as a neuroscientist. I grew up in the skateboarding thing, and I knew a little bit about Spike’s movies and skateboarding. He has made a lot of impressive, popular movies as well. This advertisement is a collection of things that you would never think would be combined and involves different speeds of motion and all sorts of effects. It is a real classic like Spike Jones kind delivery. What’s incredible is when you think about not just the fact that someone had to imagine that, but to actually implement the steps in order to create that. When you see this, you’ll realize that was a ton of work and it can’t just be put together randomly.

Many people have an incredible mind for ideas and novel arrangements of things, but are not as good at accessing the implementation state. Additionally, some people who tend to fall on the Asperger’s or autism end of the spectrum are very good at linear implementation. It is important to note that there are many forms of autism, and this is not to imply that all forms are the same. To access a freer, looser mindset associated with fatigue later in the afternoon, I try to work in the afternoon block. However, for some people, the state that favors creativity and creative learning may be better in the morning. Ultimately, it is up to the individual to decide.

Some of you are going to be late shifted, some of you are going to be morning shifted. We are generally good at linear implementation, activating the no-go pathway, suppressing action, and pursuing particular goals and strategy implementation. When we are more relaxed and almost in a kind of sleepy mode, we tend to be better at novel configurations of existing elements, which is creativity. This brings about a question that I get all the time – what about psychedelics? To answer this, I am going to talk to some experts on psychedelics and I hope to bring some of them in to speak on the matter.

Costello is definitely not on psychedelics. He just arrived in a sleepy state and seems to remain in this state most of the time. When asked how he was doing, he simply responded with a “yep”. He works on his 15th sleep deep rest episode of the day, which is generally followed by a 10 to 12 hour deep rest episode, almost exclusively comprised of REM. His eyes are so droopy that he can’t close them all the way and he is going down for the count. To be clear, Costello is definitely not on psychedelics.

I am neither a proponent nor a rejecter of the potential role of psychedelics. However, I believe that psychedelics can be hazardous for people with psychological issues and for children, as the young brain is naturally in a psychedelic state. Drugs like psychedelics can be detrimental to the developing brain. That is my stance, and I am open to polite discourse if anyone disagrees with me. I am mentioning psychedelics because many of you asked. Here is how they work.

Psychedelics were thought to unleash sensory processing and make it less filtered. We have a lot of different inputs from our eyes, ears, nose, and taste coming in all the time in parallel. Our mechanisms suppress some of these inputs and allow us to only focus on important things. Generally, we don’t have synesthesia, and we know what’s making sounds and what is a visual stimulus.

On psychedelics, people report being able to smell colors or hear trees, which is due to a lot of sensory blending. This has led to the misconception that sensory blending itself is a creative process, when in reality, it is not.

The essence of a creative process is the novel configuration of elements, whether they be notes on a piano, words on a page, numbers, or movements. This configuration must make sense to the observer. When people report their psychedelic experiences, it often makes more sense to the person who experiences it than to the observer. Creative works are new ways of configuring things that lend themselves to a greater understanding on the part of the observer. Psychedelics do not just work by allowing for more sensory blending. They activate certain serotonin receptors and allow for more lateral connectivity between different brain areas, creating more novel associations.

In principle, psychedelics allow different areas of the brain, and even the two sides of the brain, to communicate more broadly than they would normally. This has certain elements that speak to creativity, but it cannot be the case that psychedelics are the only portal to creativity. Creativity involves not only novel associations and a breaking of space-time rules, but also reconfiguring things in a way that is interesting, stimulating, and delightful to the observer. This is why many claims that psychedelics open plasticity or increase creativity are not sufficient for me personally. I am curious if psychedelics not only open the creative thinking process, but also lend themselves to the implementation of creative works. The answer is no.

I don’t take psychedelics to access creative states. In most cases, it has nothing to do with creative implementation. I believe that clinical trials are currently happening where psychedelics are being used to achieve particular clinical goals. I want to acknowledge the fantastic work being done at Johns Hopkins, where early data and papers suggest that certain psychedelics may have an excellent role in certain clinical contexts. These studies are being conducted with a psychiatrist present and can help people with depression, trauma, and other issues. We will be discussing this further in upcoming episodes, including interviews with those running the studies. Ultimately, I don’t think psychedelics will be primarily used to access creative states, but rather for other important roles for humanity.

I think that having creative work as an important role in the clinical context, provided it is done legally and safely, is best served by having a two-stage process. The first stage is a non-linear exploration of concepts. This work should be set aside and revisited the next day or even the next day to see if it is ready for a deliberate linear implementation, which should be done during a highly focused state. When we are alert, we should do linear type of operations, and when we are more relaxed and sleepy, that is when creative works can be conceived. However, their implementation requires high levels of alertness. Finally, I am a proponent of getting sunlight in the evening as well.

Getting light in the evening is critical. It accomplishes two things for me. Firstly, it makes sure that I don’t wake up too early, like at 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning. This is important to keep my schedule on a regular 24 hour cycle, so that my circadian rhythms of sleep and wakefulness don’t drift. Secondly, it helps to optimize learning and performance as it provides predictability to how my mind will work.

Morning light and evening light are important for regulating our circadian rhythms. The morning light advances our clock, making us want to get up earlier. The evening light delays the clock, allowing us to go to sleep at the same time each night and wake up at the same time each morning. This is a hardwired mechanism, not something we tell ourselves. It is important to get both morning and evening light for our circadian rhythms to be regulated.

In the evening, I generally get that light by going outside or sometimes by turning up artificial lights brightly, and then I’ll start to dim them for the evening. I’ve mentioned many times before that it’s important to minimize light exposure, especially overhead bright light exposure, from 10:00 PM to 4:00 AM. Some people asked if it was 11:00 PM to 4:00 AM, and it is, but 10:00 PM to 4:00 AM is even better. I turn off screens and dim the lights as this is what helps me fall asleep for a good night’s sleep.

My evening meal tends to be more carbohydrate rich. If I have proteins, they are usually eggs, fish, chicken, or something of that sort.

I eat high carbohydrates so I’m not one of these people that’s keto or high meat only, or anything like that. Remember, fasting and low carbohydrate states facilitate alertness. Carbohydrate rich foods, however, facilitate calmness and sleepiness. They stimulate the release of tryptophan and the transition to sleep, which is why I do them late in the day.

If you’ve exercised early in the day, especially if it’s weight bearing exercise, you need to replenish glycogen. This is true for all weight bearing exercises, unless you’re an astronaut in space!

I realized that the ketonisters out there are going to say that gluconeogenesis will allow you to replenish glycogen, etc. To this, I want to call out the lie right now. Not everyone, but a lot of the people that are proponents of high meat keto diets are fine doing that. I, too, do a relatively ketogenic diet during the day, for alertness or fasting. However, a lot of those people can replenish glycogen really well without ingesting carbohydrates (so-called gluconeogenesis) and enhance protein synthesis because they are hormone enhanced. I have been around a while and I know what this looks like.

People who are either thyroid-enhanced or hormone-enhanced often look amazing on keto and have a lot of energy. This is because they are taking exogenous hormones, which allow them to synthesize and repair muscle in ways that those who are not taking such hormones cannot. This is true for both men and women. However, one problem arises when people are following ketogenic diets all the way through to sleep and have trouble with sleep or are doing long bouts of fasting and have difficulty falling asleep. This is because their autonomic arousal is tilted towards epinephrine, norepinephrine, and dopamine release, which leads to a lot of energy but makes it hard to calm down and get into deep sleep.

I tend to achieve a state of satiety using carbohydrates in the evening. This also replenishes my glycogen stores. I’m not trying to draw any fire, but if I do, I’m happy to have a conversation about all that. There is no judgment; however, I think most people are not aware of some of the other variables. Good science is about isolating variables and what we often see in social media is single variables being presented without the full context of the other variables being manipulated. Therefore, I eat pasta, rice, vegetables, and other things in the evening. I hope there are others out there like me, as the literature speaks to the fact that carbohydrates not only provide satiety, but they also help maintain healthy thyroid function, etc.

I do avoid caffeine and whatnot in the evening. I do take supplements and I’ll be happy at some point to put out the complete list of supplements that I take out there. But in general, these are the core things that I do and they relate to a lot of the questions that you’ve been asking over time.

The next piece of scientific data that I’m gonna describe is a very important piece of scientific data for sake of understanding how to optimize your brain and access sleep. It also can help avoid a lot of anxiety issues and these relate to data from Charles Czeisler, doctor. He’s an MD Charles Czeisler’s lab at Harvard Medical School.

Dr. Charles Czeisler, from Harvard Medical School, has conducted impressive work in his sleep lab for a long time. He has shown that the peak of our wakefulness and the suppression of the sleep signal occur very late in the day. During this time, our body temperature is lowest right before waking, and then increases as we wake up. It continues to rise into the afternoon and then falls in the evening and towards bedtime. However, there is a brief blip of release of peptides and other substances from the sleep centers in the brain and the suprachiasmatic nucleus, which is located near the circadian clock that signals the peak of alertness and wakefulness about an hour before bedtime. This was a surprise to Dr. Czeisler, and explains why many people are wide awake when they are ready to go to sleep.

Many people think that feeling alert and active late in the evening is unnatural or wrong. However, this is actually a signal that is helpful for humans, as it prepares us for a night’s sleep during which we are vulnerable to attack from other humans and animals. It is a natural blip that usually passes after 45 to 60 minutes. People can start to worry about not being able to sleep and this can cause a cascade of other issues. Knowing that one will be alert during the early day and sleepy in the afternoon can help to anticipate the evening peak in alertness and activity. During this time, it is best to do mundane tasks that require little effort, such as cleaning or organizing.

I hope cognitively knowing about the blip of alertness right before sleep will be helpful to people. Moreover, physiological mechanisms such as changes in alertness and using breathing tools to shift our levels of autonomic arousal are concrete, biological phenomenon, as is fasting. These topics, and more, will be discussed in future episodes.

Fasting and caffeine are two methods that can be used to increase alertness. Caffeine affects people differently, but it works by binding to receptors and stimulating the release of cortisol and epinephrine. I personally use these methods to optimize my brain activity and wake up early in the day. However, working out late in the day can cause difficulty falling asleep.

The use of activity and temperature to shift our clocks can be an effective way to wake up later the next day. This is known as phase delay. Visualization is often asked about as a subjective tool for plasticity, and there is some evidence that it can help us get better at particular activities. However, I personally do not do much deliberate visualization, as there is an important distinction to keep in mind.

I first get my best ability to visualize things when I’m in a sleepy state. I don’t know why, but I am able to direct my brain towards internal visualization with my eyes closed. Generally, I fall asleep and can’t remember anything I was thinking about before. Work done by Roger Shephard and others many years ago involved rotating objects physically in their mind as a way of improving the speed of spatial calculations. Some people are very good at visualization and can close their eyes and see objects and rotate them deliberately. For people like me, our minds drift too easily. However, I like to think I’m a reasonably focused person in the waking state. Visualization is interesting because people are attracted to the idea that they can just think about something and get better at it.

I can have a mirror box in front of me and move my right limb, but I’m actually seeing my left limb move.

Visualization does have certain power if you can remain very linear and deliberate and focused in the visualization. However, many people, including myself, who are challenged with maintaining a linear focus with eyes closed in visualization, don’t get much out of visualization. The data on performance supports this. There are examples where people will injure one limb and then exercise the non-injured limb, or visualize the opposite limb. Mirror boxes are sometimes used, where the person can move their right limb but see their left limb move.

I’m maintaining activity with my right limb, but I’m using a mirror box so it looks like my left limb is working well. Yes, there’s some top-down or feedback mechanisms that support the idea that the injured limb can rehabilitate more quickly, et cetera. However, these are fairly elaborate schemes and I don’t want a mirror box around my house. I think these are specialized circumstances, similar to the examples we see in the news where someone has a stroke and spontaneously speaks a new language. I don’t know what the answer to that is, but it shows that the brain has associative networks that are typically suppressed and can be unleashed. However, you certainly don’t want to go out and give yourself a stroke deliberately to try and unmask some skill, because there’s no concrete way to do that in a way that you could really know you were offsetting the detrimental effects of the stroke. In fact, I think it would be a terrible idea.

I tend to have a typical day where I wake up somewhere between 5:30 and 7:00 AM. I then do a focused period of hard work, activating both the go and no-go pathways to help me stay focused. In the afternoon, I tend to get sleepy and out of it, like most people, but I recognize the opportunity of this state for creative work and thinking in novel ways. I usually go to sleep around 10:30 or 11:00 PM.

I get light a couple of times a day and eat low carb during the day. In the evening, I eat higher carbs and starches to help me sleep. I anticipate the late afternoon peak and alertness that many people confuse for insomnia or other challenges, when it is actually quite normal in their circadian cycle. I typically fall asleep and stay asleep for three or four hours, but I wake up during the middle of the night. My colleague at the Stanford sleep lab tells me that every hour and a half or so, we all wake up.

Some of you even look around, believe it or not, and go right back to sleep. Waking up periodically during sleep is the norm, not abnormal. I don’t know why this hasn’t been discussed more prominently. I tend to wake up if there’s a bright light coming through the blinds, noise upstairs, or if Costello is snoring particularly loud. I might get up, use the restroom, pick up a book and read under low light, and then generally fall back asleep and wake up between 5:30 and 7:00 AM.

This waking up in the middle of the night thing, as I mentioned at the beginning of the podcast episode, is not necessarily abnormal. It likely reflects that the real time meaning, the time that I should go to sleep, is probably closer to eight o’clock. The word midnight was literally supposed to mean mid night.

We, many meaning all of us, were meant to go to sleep and wake up with the rise and setting of the sun. This was proven in a study from the University of Colorado, where people were taken out into the wilderness to reset their circadian clocks. These clocks were measured by way of melatonin and cortisol, and were out of whack from interacting with screens and staying up too late. The participants were asked to view the sunrise and view the sunset each evening, and almost all of them got onto a schedule where they naturally wanted to go to sleep at sunset and wake up around sunrise.

Waking up at 3:00 AM or 4:00 AM does not necessarily mean that there is something wrong with you, or that you have anxiety, although you might. It likely means that you were supposed to go to bed much earlier, as it is much easier for us to push and delay our sleep time than it is to accelerate our wake-up time. It is easier to stay up and hang out at the party even if you don’t want to be there than it is to wake up when you’re exhausted and your fast asleep.

Most people are pushing through into the late hours of the evening and night, going to bed much later than they naturally would want to. I personally don’t want to go to bed at 8:00 PM, as a lot of good things happen between 8:00 PM and 11:00 PM. As a consequence, I’m running out of melatonin, with my melatonin release subsiding by about 3:00 or 4:00 AM, which is why I wake up. I don’t take melatonin, but instead rely on things like magnesium glycinate or magnesium threonate, and theanine. I’m not saying any of you need to take these.

I take a supplement in order to facilitate my sleep. It has been of great benefit to me. When I wake up in the middle of the night and I’m anxious or my mind is looping, I have a couple of rules. One is, I don’t trust anything I think about. Unless I’ve had a magnificent dream and I want to write it down, I will do that every once in a while. However, when I go back and read it, it’s usually not as magnificent as I thought. I can’t ever remember coming up with anything really fantastic in one of my dreams. Therefore, I don’t trust the kind of thinking that happens in those wee hours of the circadian cycle. There is usually nothing creative or worth linear implementation at that time.

One thing that has been very helpful is to sometimes do one of these non sleep deep rest protocols (e.g. a hypnosis app, scripts by Michael Sealey, Reveri Health, or a yoga nidra protocol) as a way to go back into sleep. These have been very useful for me at helping me turn off my looping thinking in the middle of the night and fall back asleep.

In reviewing my schedule for you, I want to provide context for how to implement certain types of tools for optimizing learning. It may give the impression that there are two 90 minute bouts of learning and work in the morning and afternoon, but there are many hours in between that are occupied by tasks that are not mundane, but rather random (e.g. email, Zoom meetings, meeting with colleagues and students, reading for enrichment). The two 90 minute bouts are when I am trying to expand on my mental capacities.

I’m trying to stretch and grow what I’m able to do on a regular basis reflexively. To do this, I emphasize that the whole day doesn’t just consist of two 90-minute bouts. This is fortunate, as I enjoy all the other things I do. For those of you with school, family, or other demands, the key is to slot in brain optimization segments of about 90 minutes, one or two, or maybe more per day. This should be done in an intelligent way that is anchored to your biology. You should also do a number of things to optimize these sessions and get the most out of them. Lastly, I have discussed how to optimize learning, brain change, and mental performance in the context of biological mechanisms such as the basal ganglia, go-no-go pathways, the circadian autonomic system, and the relationship between food and fasting and alertness or sleepiness.

Linear focus and strategy implementation is best served by states of high alert, but not too alert. Creative states, which begin with the creative arrangement or brainstorming stage, are supported by states of relaxation or even slightly sleepy. I described how I do these things to give context, and while these are not rigid times and ways of doing things, my approach has a circadian logic and is grounded in concrete biological mechanisms, neuro-transmitters, and emerging understandings of creativity from neuroscience.

There is certainly still a lot more work to do. There are a lot of different ways to arrange one’s routine, but hopefully the tools and practices I described will be useful to you.

A lot of people ask me about specific tools and practices, such as Wim Hof Breathing, ice baths, binaural beats, and similar modulations or measures of the nervous system. The way to look at any tool is to ask whether it will move you up or down the state of autonomic arousal. Will it make you more alert or more calm? More focused or less focused?

That’s kind of the two axes here that we need to think about. Sometimes you wanna be more alert than you are. And indeed, things like cold showers, ice baths, super oxygenation, and Wim Hof type breathing will bring your level of alertness up.

There’s some cautionary notes associated with each of those. You need to read and understand those cautionary notes, for yourself. Everybody’s different and some of those carry certain dangers, under certain conditions. Others have huge margins for safety.

An ice bath generally wakes you up, whereas a warmer, hot bath generally calms you down. Binaural beats, there aren’t a lot of data and quality peer-reviewed journals.

I put in the effort to go search out binaural beats, which are listening to frequencies of sound that slightly differ offset for the two ears. It has been shown that this can shift the brain into particular states. Today, I didn’t talk about alpha, theta, or gamma rhythms. After reviewing the literature, I don’t think it’s fair to say that alpha states are great for one thing and theta states are great for another. Most of us don’t have EEG machines or wires down below our skull, so we don’t know when we are in those states anyway. The most valuable tool to recognize if we are alert or calm is the subjective reading. If we need to be alert and we are exhausted, then there might be tools we can use to wake up.

It might also speak to the fact that I might not have slept as well as I could have or should have the night before. It’s really about a match between where we are on that autonomic arousal scale and what we’re trying to achieve. There are a lot of tools, including supplements and other prescription drugs, that can help move us along that autonomic continuum, up toward more alertness or toward more calmness. Ultimately, it’s about tailoring that alertness and calmness to the specific types of learning and activities that we are going to do and perform. It’s reciprocal, meaning some of those activities like exercise early in the day will increase our level of autonomic arousal and alertness. Certain foods will tend to wake us up, while other foods will tend to make us more sleepy, and the volume and timing of food is also a factor. It’s a huge parameter space, with a huge set of variables that impacts whether or not we’re feeling well, performing well, and learning great, or not.

Becoming an observer of your own system and recognizing the two bins of tools for optimizing, learning, and brain performance are key. The first bin contains tools that are anchored in biological mechanism, while the second bin contains more subjective tools, such as visualization. For example, one song might wake someone up because of the associations they have with it, while it might put someone else to sleep. Volume is a universal tool, as loud music tends to wake people up.

Soft music doesn’t tend to wake people up quite as much, so part of today is getting you to think in a scientific and structured way about the non-negotiables of having a period of every 24 hour cycle when you tend to be more awake and a period when you tend to be more asleep. Leveraging these periods can help you to not fight an uphill battle to wake up when you should be sleepy, and not trying to go to sleep when you are naturally more awake. This anchors back to the core mechanisms of biology, and then different protocols such as food and supplementation can be layered on. It is important to recognize that some people are just more go and no-go, and some people are calmer and have a harder time getting into action. The autonomic nervous system can be more geared towards parasympathetic, calm states. For example, bulldogs make no spontaneous movements unless there is something to respond to.

I find that incredibly relaxing. Other animals, like pit bulls (who I also really like and enjoy) and other species, have tails that are always wagging. They tend to ride at pretty high levels of autonomic arousal, and can pop up quickly when it’s time to go for a walk. Costello, on the other hand, does it one limb at a time and sometimes he just goes back to sleep. This is a reminder that there are people like that too – we have to know where we are and what particular goals we’re trying to pursue. As a final closure to this, I want to emphasize that today, as always, I have strived to be accurate. I’m sure if I made mistakes, some of you will point them out and I appreciate that.

I’ll post a correction, if we agree that I indeed misspoke or misguided something. By no means was the information I provided exhaustive. I might have exhausted some of you, but there is no way I could cover all the ways we can optimize learning and performance. I hope you will find value in the topics we touched on and explore them in your own lives.

We are continuing with this theme for this podcast. We stay on one theme for an entire month. For the next episode, we’re going to explore two very essential aspects of neuroplasticity that relate to learning: pain management and neural regeneration.

For those of you that don’t have injuries or don’t suffer from chronic pain, the discussion is still going to be an important one. It’s not just going to be about pain that you’re trying to get rid of, but also about how certain sensory experiences within the pain network can become amplified and how we can use top-down modulation to suppress the pain response. We will also talk about hardwired mechanisms that exist in our periphery to control pain, as well as interesting interactions between the pain system and the learning system. Even if you’re not interested in pain per se, it is still a valid conversation for optimizing brain performance and neuro-regeneration. Lastly, I suppose I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Costello has been snoring extremely loudly today.

He had a good long walk this morning, which included going up and down the driveway. He is an old dog, so if you have been hearing him in the background and it has been distracting, now you know why. It probably relates to your level of autonomic arousal, which is something you need to answer for yourself.
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We have a Patreon account at patreon.com/andrewhuberman. In previous and future episodes, I’ve mentioned supplements as a way to modulate our nervous system for better sleep, learning, alertness and other things. We’ve partnered with Thorne because their supplements have high stringency and have been partnered with major sports teams and the Mayo Clinic. If you’re interested in checking out the supplements I take, you can go to Thorne.com/u/huberman and get 20% off any of the supplements listed there, as well as anywhere else on the Thorne website.

Thanks to Thorne, you can now get 20% off any of their supplements at thorne.com/u/huberman. On behalf of me and Costello, we want to thank you for your time and attention today. We also appreciate your interest in science. [upbeat music]