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 desire and effort to bring you zero cost to consumer information about science and science-related tools.

In keeping with that theme, I’d like to thank the sponsors of today’s podcast. Our first sponsor is Headspace, a meditation app that makes meditation easy. I’ve been meditating on and off now for about 30 years, although I confess more off than on. Headspace has allowed me to stick to a meditation practice on a regular basis.

I meditate anywhere from five to seven times a week using the Headspace app. The app includes meditations that are backed by scientific peer-reviewed studies, making it easy to start and complete the meditations. I initially started using Headspace meditations on JetBlue flights, and then moved over to the app. If you’d like to try Headspace, you can go to headspace.com/specialoffer and get all the meditations for free for one month.

The first sponsor of today’s podcast is Headspace. Headspace is a meditation app that offers guided meditations for people of all levels. You get all the meditations for free, which is the best offer that they have available right now. So, if you’re interested in it, check it out. The second sponsor of today’s podcast is Athletic Greens. Athletic Greens is an all-in-one vitamin, mineral and probiotic drink. I started using Athletic Greens in 2012 and I’ve been using it continuously ever since. I started using it because I found it rather dizzying to know which vitamins and minerals to take, and Athletic Greens allows me to get the full base of all the necessary vitamins and minerals in one easy to consume drink. It also turns out that the drink tastes quite good. I mix mine with some lemon juice and some water and I drink it once or twice a day. The probiotics in Athletic Greens are also important to me because there is a lot of data now supporting the fact that the gut microbiome is important for the gut-brain axis for various aspects of cognitive function, immune function, and metabolic function.

There’s just a huge number of things that having a healthy gut microbiome has been shown to be important for. By taking Athletic Greens, I have that base covered as well. If you’d like to try Athletic Greens, you can go to athleticgreens.com/huberman. And if you do that, they’ll give you a year supply of liquid vitamin D3 K2.

There are also a lot of data now showing that vitamin D3 is very important for a number of different biological functions. In addition, they’ll give you five free travel packs with your order. It can be difficult to mix up powders while on the road, when in a car, or in a hotel, or on a plane, et cetera. The travel packs make everything really clean and easy.

So you’ll get the year supply of vitamin D3 K2 plus the five free travel packs if you go to athleticgreens.com/huberman. The third sponsor of today’s podcast is Madefor.

Madefor is a behavioral science company that makes learning positive habits and growth mindset easy. I’m the lead of their scientific advisory, which includes the head of the chronobiology unit at the National Institutes of Mental Health, psychiatrists from Harvard Medical School and other institutions, all of whom are passionate about science-related tools for developing positive habits and growth mindset. The program consists of 10 months of activities designed to cultivate positive habits and growth mindset. We also hold a monthly Zoom call to discuss the program, people’s progress, and answer any questions. To try Madefor, go to getmadefor.com and use the code Huberman at checkout to get 20% off the program.

Today, we’re discussing how to change your nervous system for the better. Your nervous system consists of your brain and spinal cord, as well as all the connections they make with the organs of your body. It’s responsible for all our behavior, emotions, thoughts and beliefs.

Movement and balance are at the center of our entire experience of life and who we are. Fortunately, humans have the ability to change our nervous system by taking specific and deliberate actions. Today, we are going to focus on the motor commands, movement, and balance that enable us to change our nervous system in the way we want. We will also discuss the science of neuroplasticity and protocols and tools from the scientific literature that can help us to feel differently about experiences, past, present, and future, as well as learn faster. We will not be discussing hacks or gimmicks, but mechanisms and scientific data that can help us tailor our learning practices to our specific needs and goals.

Yes, the brain and nervous system control our behavior. How does it do this? There are two categories of neurons that are important to consider when talking about neuroplasticity: lower motor neurons and upper motor neurons. Lower motor neurons live in the ventral horn of the spinal cord and are responsible for movement. Upper motor neurons are located in the brain and are responsible for initiating movement.

Neurons in the spinal cord extend a wire, called an axon, out into the peripheral nervous system to connect with muscles. These electrical potentials allow muscles to twitch and contract. Contrary to popular belief, there is no such thing as muscle memory. Muscles are dumb and it is the neurons and their firing patterns that store the information for motor patterns. The lower motor neurons, while smarter than the muscle, are not the most brilliant of the motor neurons.

Central pattern generators are generally involved in doing what they are told and they receive instructions from two sources: circuits in the brainstem and pre-Botzinger neurons. These circuits are located deep in the brain and allow us to generate repetitive patterns of movement, such as inhaling and exhaling without having to think about it. The pre-Botzinger neurons, discovered by Jack Feldman and colleagues at UCLA, send information down the phrenic nerve and control the diaphragm. This results in a pattern of inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale. It is possible to change the durations of inhales and exhales, but the motor neurons that control this are simply responding to what the brain is telling it to do.

The other central pattern generators include things like walking. The right limb-left limb, right limb-left limb pattern that we normally associate with walking was learned during childhood, and these central pattern generators, sometimes called CPGs, tell our lower motor neurons, “Fire. Now you fire, now you fire.” They are literally saying, “Right, left, right left.”

They are the marching orders from the brainstem to the lower motor neurons. So these lower motor neurons do what they are told. They are obedient little soldiers and they do what they are told, and their job is to make the muscles contract at specific times.

But then there are the upper motor neurons. The upper motor neurons actually reside in our motor cortex, way up on top of the brain. And they are involved in sending signals for deliberate action. Okay. That’s all simple.

Upper motor neurons send very specific signals to the lower motor neurons, which are the effectors that control the muscles. This allows us to deliberately engage in any kind of behavior, such as making a cup of coffee in the morning. Eventually, this information is passed to the circuitry in the brainstem and below the motor cortex, allowing us to make a cup of coffee without having to think about it too much. To change motor patterns, we need to know where in the circuitry changes are possible and where the changes are most likely to occur. Additionally, we need to signal to the brain and nervous system that a change is necessary. Therefore, the answer to the question of whether the brain controls behavior is yes, and now we know how.

This lecture was about motor control and the nervous system, and how plasticity can be leveraged to access changes to our emotional experience, belief system, and ability to remember and use certain kinds of information. I mentioned that exercise is beneficial, but it does not open plasticity unless you do certain things. I also mentioned that exercise can improve cardiovascular function, maintain strength, and bone density, but it will not change the nervous system. The question we need to ask is can behavior change the brain? We already know that the brain can change behavior, but can behavior change the brain?

Can behavior change the brain? Yes, provided that behavior is different enough from the sorts of behaviors that you already know how to perform well. I should have added the word “well” because you can’t perform a behavior that you don’t know how to perform. However, there is a key element to accessing neuroplasticity that is not often discussed in the general discussion about neuroplasticity and learning. I hear many gimmicks about using different ways to remember people’s names, mnemonics, and other methods, which to me feels gimmicky. Super learners, however, tend to have a process of extreme memory, but literature shows that these people are generally poor at other things.

Most of us are not interested in walking around knowing how to remember everything. Studies have looked at humans who over-remember, and they often suffer because they remember small details, like the number at the top of a receipt from a bodega they bought a Coca-Cola from 10 years ago. This information is not useful in most cases and can lead to difficulty in life. Therefore, the goal should be to be selective about what changes in the brain.

When discussing brain changes, it is important to highlight adaptive changes. Traumatic brain injury and dementia are topics for a future episode, as they involve changes to the nervous system and neurons. Today, we want to discuss behaviors to access neuroplasticity, so that we can learn or unlearn specific things. This is especially important to note, as we are not talking about learning a bunch of motor movements. It is not necessary to be an athlete to benefit from neuroplasticity.

Whether you want to learn how to dance or not, learning how to access plasticity can help you improve your memory and language skills, as well as unlearning difficult emotional experiences. Behavior can be used as a gate to access these states of mind and body. There are two types of plasticity: representational and adaptive. Representational plasticity is your internal representation of the outside world. For example, neurons respond when something happens to your right. Adaptive plasticity is the protocols we engage in to change ourselves for the better.

When I do that, there are different neurons that respond to those. We have a map of visual space, meaning certain neurons are seeing things in certain portions of visual space and not others. We also have a map of motor space, which is when we move our limbs in particular directions, we know where those limbs are because even if we can’t see them, we have what’s called proprioceptive feedback. This knowledge helps us to control our motor behavior; however, if certain neurons are lacking in proprioceptive feedback, it can be difficult to control motor behavior and lead to a lot of injuries. Additionally, we have maps of our motor commands, which tell us how much force we need to generate to reach out and grab a pen in front of us.

I rarely overshoot or miss the pen. Our maps of the motor world and our maps of the sensory world are merged. The way to create plasticity is to create mismatches or errors in how we perform things. This is an amazing and important feature of neuroplasticity that is highly underappreciated. To send signals to the brain that something is wrong, something is different, and something isn’t being achieved is the way to create plasticity. This will reframe the way that most people think about plasticity. Most people think of plasticity as getting into an optimal learning state or flow. However, flow is an expression of what we already know how to do and is not a state for learning. I am willing to challenge anyone who disagrees with this. Flow is an expression of nervous system capabilities that are already embedded in us.

Making errors over and over again is the route to shaping our nervous system so that it performs better. This is triggered by the release of certain neurochemicals that signal the neural circuits to change. Experiments support this concept, as making errors not only allows us to learn motor skills such as playing the piano or dancing, but also creates an environment within the brain that allows us to couple or uncouple an emotion to an experience, or learn language or mathematics. This is a fundamental aspect of how we are built.

Neuroplasticity is a process that is both straightforward and complex. Last episode, we discussed some of the basic principles of neuroplasticity, namely that the brain changes when certain neurochemicals, namely acetylcholine, epinephrine, and dopamine, are released in ways and in the specific times that allow for neural circuits to be marked for change. The change then occurs later during sleep. So the question is, what allows those neurochemicals to be released? Last episode, I talked all about focus and provided some specific tools and practices that can allow you to build up your capacity for focus and release the necessary chemicals for neuroplasticity.

Today, we’re going to talk about the other chemicals in the cocktail, in particular dopamine. We’re going to center our discussion around this issue of making errors and why making errors is actually the signal that tells the brain, “Okay, it’s time to change,” or, more generally, it’s time to pay attention to things so that you change. I want to distinguish this point clearly: I’m going to talk about motor and vestibular programs, not just for learning motor commands and balance, but also for setting a stage or condition in your brain where you can go learn other things.

Let’s talk about some classic experiments that really nail down what’s most important in this discussion about plasticity. The brain is incredibly plastic from about birth until about age 25. Passive experience will shape the brain due to the chemicals, neurons, and other factors. The brain’s job is to customize itself in response to its experience. After age 25, plasticity begins to taper off and different mechanisms are needed to engage plasticity as an adult.

I got a lot of questions about, “What about if I’m younger than 25?” First of all, that’s great. I wish I had a time machine, but I don’t.

When you’re young, your brain is very plastic, but you have less control over your experience. As you get older, you have more control of your experience, but your brain is less plastic. To enhance your brain, the best advice is to get a broad education in a variety of subjects: math, chemistry, physics, literature, music, and learn how to play an instrument. Additionally, emotional development is also important. For both young and older people, knowing how to tap into plasticity mechanisms is very powerful. This requires chemicals to be deployed in the nervous system in order to mark whatever nerve cells happen to be firing in order to bring about change.

People are obsessed with asking what supplements, what drugs, and what conditions will allow for the linking of different maps of experience. However, there is a natural set of conditions that make this possible. When we were born, we learned to take our different maps of experience, such as motor, auditory, and visual maps, and link them by aligning them. An example of this is when we hear something off to our right and look to our right, or if we hear something on the left and look to the left. This is because our maps of visual space, auditory space, and motor space are all in perfect register with each other, which is an incredible feature of our nervous system.

The superior colliculus is a structure located in the brain that is composed of layers of neurons. It is responsible for allowing us to move through space and function in our lives in a fluid way. The neurons that care about sounds and the neurons that look at visual stimuli are aligned so that they are directly below each other when looking in a certain direction. This alignment is powerful and is set up during development. However, experiments have revealed that these maps are plastic and can be shifted according to specific rules. This key experiment has provided insight into how this shift occurs.

A key experiment was done by Eric Knudsen, a colleague of mine who is now retired, but whose work is fundamental in the field of neuroplasticity. The Knudsen Lab, and many of its scientific offspring, showed that when people wear prism glasses that shift the visual field, the representation of the auditory motor maps also shifts. Initially, they looked at young subjects and had them wear prism glasses. For example, if an object was five degrees off center to the right, the prism glasses would shift the visual field so that the object appeared to be far to the right. On the first day, when asked to reach for the object, the subjects would reach to the wrong place because they were seeing it where it wasn’t. This became more complicated when sound was introduced, as the subjects would hear the sound at one location, but see the object at another location due to the prism glasses. As a result, their image of the world was distorted.

People who wear glasses that completely invert the visual world so that everything is upside down experience an extreme example of representational maps being flipped or shifted. In young individuals, within a day or two, they start adjusting their motor behavior in exactly the right way so that they always reach to the correct location. Despite being used to feet being on the floor and people not walking at them by hanging off the ceiling like bats, they are able to navigate this upside down world. This tells us that these maps can move, shift, rotate, and even flip themselves. This happens best in young individuals; however, in older individuals, it takes a very long time for the maps to shift and in some cases they never shift.

This is a very experimental scenario, but it is an important one to understand as it highlights our capacity to create dramatic shifts in our representation of the outside world. To gain plasticity as adults, mimicking the plasticity of juveniles, the Knudsen Lab and other labs have looked into this. The signal that generates the plasticity is the making of errors; it is the reaches and failures that signal to the nervous system that something is not working, and therefore the shifts start to take place.

Practice is fundamentally important because it allows us to access the concept of beginner’s mind, which is the expectation to make errors. This is beneficial because it signals to the brain and nervous system that something is not working. When we make errors, the nervous system releases neurotransmitters and neuromodulators that tell it to change something in the circuitry. This is the basis for neuroplasticity and learning. Unfortunately, many humans do not like the feeling of frustration and making errors. Those who do, however, tend to do exceedingly well in their pursuits.

The ones that don’t do well generally don’t learn much. Why would our nervous system ever change unless there was something to be afraid of, something that made us feel awful? This will signal that the nervous system needs to change, or there’s an error in our performance. When we make mistakes, a number of things are released, such as epinephrine, which increases alertness, and acetylcholine, which increases focus. Frustration that leads to quitting is the worst thing, as it prevents us from focusing on the error margin between what we are doing and what we would like to do.

The nervous system starts to make changes almost immediately in order to try and get the behavior right. When you start getting it even a little bit right, dopamine is released which allows for the plastic changes to occur very fast. This happens naturally in young brains, but in old brains it tends to be slower.

If you are uncomfortable making errors and get frustrated easily, you can leverage that frustration to drill deeper into the endeavor and set yourself up for great plasticity mechanisms. However, if you take the frustration and walk away, you will likely feel miserable as plasticity rewires you according to what happens afterwards.

Continuing to drill into a process to the point of frustration but then staying with the process for a little bit longer is the most important thing for adult learning. The Knudsen Lab did two important sets of experiments which showed that juveniles can make massive shifts in their map representations. Young individuals can shift their representations of the world so that they learn to reach to the correct location.

Children learn very quickly, but adults tend to learn slower and may not be able to accomplish the full map shift. This could be learning a new language or any number of different things. What researchers found is that adults can tolerate smaller and smaller errors over time, and that these errors can be stacked to get a lot of plasticity. To test this, they started making the increment of change smaller by putting prisms that shifted the visual world by seven degrees, then 14 degrees, and then 28 degrees.

Put simply, incremental learning as an adult is absolutely essential. You are not going to get massive shifts in your representation to the outside world, so the key is smaller bouts of focused learning for smaller bits of information. It’s a mistake to try and learn a lot of information in one learning bout as an adult. What these papers from the Knudsen Lab show, and what others have gone on to show, is that the adult nervous system is fully capable of engaging in a huge amount of plasticity, but you need to do it in smaller increments per learning epoch or per learning episode.

So how would you do this? Say for instance, I’m terrible at free throws. Let’s say I wanted to learn free throws. I’m 45 years old, so I’m well past the 25 and under mark. I’m going to make errors, but by breaking down my learning into smaller increments, I can minimize these errors and maximize my progress.

Well, I should be paying attention to the trajectory of the ball, the height of the ball, the spin, and the release of the ball.

I’m going to make a lot of errors when I go into learning free throws. Knowing that errors are the gate to plasticity makes me feel a little bit better. I still have to aim for the rim of the basket or the net, showing how little I know about basketball. However, I am aware of the general themes around basketball, which involves a net, a backboard, and a ball.

When I go to the free throw line, I’ll throw until I reach the point of frustration. To improve some specific aspect of the motor behavior, I should limit myself to 10 to 100 more trials.

I should be paying attention to the trajectory of the ball, the height of the ball, the spin, and the release of the ball.

Focus on trying to get the ball into the basket. Motor learning is a process whereby the circuits for auditory, visual, and motor skills teach themselves. It is not necessary to pay attention to the exact contact of your fingers with the ball or other minor details. The key is to try different parameters until you get better at the behavior you want and then become consistent with it. Through making errors in a particular aspect of motor movement, the brain is signaled that it is plastic. Plasticity is a state of the brain and nervous system that is not only geared toward the specific thing you are trying to learn, but also remains after the learning episode.

There are two aspects to plasticity that we need to highlight. Firstly, plasticity that is geared toward the thing that you are trying to learn specifically. Secondly, states of mind and body that allow us to access plasticity. Toward the end of this episode, I’m going to spell out specific protocols in more detail. An example of this is free throws, which might not correlate with what you want to learn. I don’t have a huge desire to learn free throws, as I have more or less given up on basketball and free throws in particular. However, motor movements are the most straightforward way to access states of plasticity, whether it is for the sake of learning the motor movement or for the sake of accessing plasticity more generally. One very important aspect to getting plasticity as an adult is not just smaller increments, meaning shorter bouts.

I gave an example of shooting 100 free throws or something to illustrate the importance of incremental learning. Going out and shooting 10,000 free throws all at once would not be as efficient for me as shorter bouts of intense learning. This is because the error signals are not as well-defined to my nervous system, and it needs to know what the error is in order to make adjustments. When shooting free throws, there are a lot of different kinds of errors that could happen, such as the way I’m bending my knees, the arc of the ball, and the way I’m organizing my shoulders. The beauty of the motor system is that I don’t have to worry about all of that, I just need to get the reps in a number of times and the nervous system will figure out how far off my motor commands are from the desired behavior. However, as I make adjustments, I need to be careful not to start adding a variety of new errors, as this will confuse the nervous system.

Short learning bouts are essential for learning an instrument as an adult, with 7-30 minutes of focused attention being a significant stimulus to inspire plasticity in the nervous system. The Knudsen Lab revealed a way to get massive plasticity as an adult by setting a serious contingency on the learning. In this situation, subjects had to find food that was displaced in their visual world by using prisms, and the food made a noise through an array of speakers. If people had to adjust their visual world in order to get food, the plasticity would eventually occur, but it was very slow as an adult. However, if they actually had to hunt that food, the plasticity was much faster.

In order to eat at all, they needed plasticity, and what happened was remarkable. The plasticity as an adult can be as dramatic and robust as it is in a young person or animal, provided there is a serious incentive for the plasticity to occur. This is important to understand, as how badly we need or want the plasticity determines how fast it will arrive. This study, published in the journal of neuroscience, shows that if we have to accomplish something in order to eat or get our ration of income, we will reshape our nervous system very quickly. The nervous system has a capacity to change at a tremendous rate and to an enormous degree at any stage of life, provided it is important enough for that to happen.

For most people who are trying to learn how to learn faster or learn better, they are likely hitting a limit because the need to change is not crucial enough. This has important relevance in the case of people battling addiction. I sympathize with the fact that addictions have a biological component and that it can be hard to change one’s behavior. However, when people have an internal belief and desire to change, massive change is possible. Studies by Knudsen show that incremental learning can create a huge degree of plasticity in adults, and that when the contingency is high (e.g. we need to make an income), plasticity can happen in enormous leaps. This points to the fact that there must be an underlying neurochemical system at work, rather than sticking a wire into the brain or taking a particular drug. All the chemicals necessary for this change are released from chemical stores that already reside in our brains.

We can tap into these stores of plasticity by engaging in behaviors that liberate particular categories of chemicals. These behaviors allow us to make the most of incremental learning and set the stage for plasticity that is similar to high contingency states such as the need to get food.

We have previously discussed ultradian rhythms, which are 90-minute rhythms that break up our 24-hour day and help us learn best within 90-minute cycles. To apply this to learning, we can sit down and decide to learn something, such as conversational French. It is likely that we will not already know French, so we can set aside 5 to 10 minutes to focus on the material in front of us. After this, our focus should kick in and we will be able to tap into our stores of plasticity.

When it comes to learning, you’re likely to get an hour of focused attention before your mind starts to drift. Towards the end of this hour and 10 or 20 minute cycle, your brain will start to flicker in and out, and you might start thinking about other things. After 90 minutes, it’s time to take a break and do something else, like take a nap, to enhance the learning. During this 90-minute block, you’ll go through a cycle of learning. Additionally, when you’re trying to accomplish something and keep making errors, it’s important to recognize that you’re in a mode of repeating errors and not deliberately failing. An example of this is trying to learn sign language alphabet, where you keep repeating and repeating until you reach a point where you keep making errors.

It is exceedingly frustrating to make errors for a period of time that can last anywhere from 7 to 30 minutes. However, this frustration liberates chemical cues that signal that plasticity needs to happen and that activate particular neurons. For example, in sign language, this could be the neurons that control hand movements and thinking about the different letters. This signals different opponents within the networks between the brain and body, and attempts to identify where the errors are coming from. This highlights the pathway for change, and after taking a nap or a night of deep rest, it can be seen that motor pathways work and that we remember certain things and don’t always get it perfectly, but get a lot of it right, as opposed to getting it wrong before.

Learning about intense topics within the ultradian cycle can be done by some people for many cycles per day, but most people can only tolerate one to three. This type of learning is intense work, and requires making errors in order to accelerate plasticity. It is not about coming up with hacks or tricks, but rather about cueing the nervous system that something needs to change. Additionally, it is also possible to learn quickly when something bad happens.

Negative experiences can be wired into us quickly because our nervous system’s main job is to keep us safe. This is because negative experiences cue us to the fact that whatever is happening is very different than the other things that tend to happen before. This deploys high levels of norepinephrine and acetylcholine, which makes us on the lookout for it. This has a number of negative effects in terms of psychological and emotional effects, but it is really a process designed to keep us safe.

Besides making errors, we can also learn more quickly when something really surprises us. If we’re positively surprised by something or flooded with dopamine, then there’s a great opportunity for plasticity. Dopamine is a molecule that’s almost always associated with pleasure and with the accomplishment of a particular goal, but it’s really also a molecule of motivation.

Dopamine is a molecule released inside of us when we think we’re on the right path. It has the capacity to increase neuroplasticity, motivation, and other natural behaviors. These behaviors include food, sex, and social connection (although serotonin has a more significant effect on plasticity). Dopamine is released when we think we’re on the right path towards an external goal, and it tends to give us more motivation toward that goal. To enhance the rate of learning, we should learn to attach dopamine to the process of making errors. This combines two modes of plasticity in ways that can accelerate the plasticity. Making errors can be frustrating, but the frustration itself can be a cue, and epinephrine will be high under these conditions.

But also, it can be released when we subjectively tell ourselves that something is good. If we can associate the experience of learning something new with something good, and tell ourselves that we want to continue down that path, even when we hit the point of frustration, we can create a synergy between the dopamine that is released when we think something is good,
and the situation of making failures. By engaging in specific behaviors and telling ourselves that these failures are good for learning and good for us, we can accelerate the rate of plasticity. Dopamine is like a performance-enhancing drug for learning and motivation.

Dopamine is a pleasure molecule that is released in response to certain behaviors and activities. It is highly subjective and varies from person to person. It is associated with reward, motivation, and pursuit, and is subjectively controlled. To learn more about dopamine, a book entitled “The Molecule of More” is recommended. To make the most of dopamine, make lots of errors, keep learning bouts short if you’re an adult, and think of it as a performance-enhancing drug for learning and motivation.

Some drugs may enhance performance by increasing red blood cell count, but they also allow athletes to recover faster, allowing them to do more work. Being a child is like being in a performance-enhanced brain milieu due to natural, healthy neurochemicals. This leads to the advice that young people should learn as much as they can about as many things as possible and specialize in something they are passionate about. It is suggested that by age 30, they should have some sense of what excites them and try to get really good at it, if it serves the world for better.

While I don’t have any specific parenting advice to offer, I may have an episode in the future devoted to youth and learning. When it comes to the tools and application of learning, it’s important to identify the times of day when you naturally have the highest mental acuity. This could be 10:00 am or 4:00 pm, but it will vary depending on your sleep and natural chemistry. Once you have identified this time, engage in learning bouts for 7 to 30 minutes and make sure you make errors in the process.

Just keep making those errors and drill through it. Seeking frustration and finding pleasure in it can create an optimal neurochemical milieu for learning. This also creates an optimal milieu for learning other things afterward. For example, if you practice free throws, tennis or some other skill, your brain is in a heightened state to learn and retain information for an hour or so. This can include cognitive information, language information, or even working on something in a deliberate way in therapy.

Limbic friction is the state of arousal that exists when two parts of the brain, the limbic system and the neocortex, are in competition. This state of arousal allows us to powerfully access states of error that are surprising but also kind of fun. These states are important mechanisms of plasticity. Three key elements that help to open up neuroplasticity are balance (the vestibular system), and the two sides of limbic friction or autonomic arousal. Limbic friction is not a term found in textbooks, but it captures a lot of information from both neurobiology and psychology. It is more nuanced and mechanistic than stress and has important implications.

We typically think of stress as a state of being too alert or too tired. This is known as limbic friction, where our limbic system takes control of our autonomic biology. We attempt to control this through top-down mechanisms, such as calming down to reduce the level of arousal. This is called the stress response. However, we also experience stress when we are trying to engage and be more alert than we are. This can also be seen as limbic friction. The word stress does not accurately describe what most people experience as stressful, as it can be either too tired or too alert. This is relevant to a discussion about neuroplasticity, as it highlights the fact that stress can take different forms.

This is actually a scientifically proven method to reduce stress.
We will talk about stress and tools to deal with it. In order to access neuroplasticity, we need components of focus, attaching subjective reward and making errors. Many people find it difficult to get into the state to access these things, and are too tired or anxious to focus. To help with this, we can use the double inhale exhale technique. This involves inhaling twice through the nose and exhaling once through the mouth. This is a scientifically proven method to reduce stress.

A physiological sigh is a way to offload carbon dioxide from the lungs, and has a number of different effects. These effects have been described in textbooks dating back to the 1930s, and numerous laboratories have explored the neurocircuitry underlying these sighs. It is said that this technique can calm a person down faster than anything else. Another way to reduce anxiety is to remove tunnel vision, which is done by releasing epinephrine and dilating the field of gaze, also known as panoramic vision. This allows a person to move up and down their level of autonomic arousal, which should be matched to the task they are trying to perform or learn. If a person is too anxious and their muscles are too tight, they won’t be able to perform the task successfully. For example, they may be able to throw a free throw, but they will miss 95% of the time, unless the basket is very low and they place it in directly.

Laughter is a great way to reset your limbic system and get into a state of alertness but calm. To achieve this, you need to have ways to calm yourself down when you are too amped up. On the other hand, if you are too tired and can’t focus, it will be impossible to engage in neuroplasticity or incremental learning. In such cases, you can use a non-sleep deep rest protocol or have a cup of coffee or do super oxygenation breathing, which is inhaling more than exhaling on average. This will help trick your nervous system into waking up and deploy norepinephrine if you breathe very fast.

There are things that you can do to move up or down the so-called autonomic arousal arc. Before engaging in any learning, it is important to ask yourself how much limbic friction you are experiencing. Are you too alert and need to be calmer, or too calm and sleepy and need to be more alert? Engaging in behaviors that bring you to the starting line in order to learn is key. Besides incremental learning, there are other things that you can do to learn better and faster, which center on the vestibular system. This involves motor activities and high dimensional skill activities, such as sports, jumping, diving, rolling, and gymnastics.

The vestibular system is hardwired for balance, and is based on three main planes of movement. When moving through space, or even when stationary, these planes of movement help us maintain balance. Furthermore, for those watching on video, visual cues can also be used to help maintain balance.

There are three main modes of movement: pitch (nodding), yaw (shaking the head from side to side) and roll (like a puppy looking from side to side). Pilots will be familiar with these terms. The brain knows the orientation and position of the body relative to gravity, depending on which of these movements the brain is engaging in. Combinations of these movements can also occur, such as leaning down. This is due to the semicircular canals in the inner ear.

Our ears have two main roles: hearing, to perceive sound waves, and balance or vestibular function. Sitting in our ears are these semicircular canals, which contain little bits of calcium that roll back and forth like little marbles. This sends signals to the rest of our brain and body to tell us how to compensate for shifts relative to gravity. Errors in vestibular motor sensory experience, when we are off-balance, cause an area of our brain called the cerebellum to signal deeper brain centers that release dopamine, norepinephrine, and acetylcholine.

The inner ear and cerebellum are hardwired circuits that are designed to recalibrate our motor movements when our relationship to gravity changes. This is essential for survival, as it prevents us from falling down, missing objects we reach for, and running in the wrong direction when something is pursuing us. These circuits are connected to chemical pathways, which are the gates to plasticity.

To learn effectively, it is important to ensure that the level of autonomic arousal is correct. The ideal state is clear, calm, and focused, with a slight heightened arousal. It is important to understand limbic friction and to recognize when one is too tired or too alert, and to adjust accordingly.

At the starting line, you want to start making errors in order to open up plasticity for all kinds of learning. Disrupting your vestibular motor relationship can deploy or release neurochemicals in the brain that place you into a state that makes you much better at learning and makes making errors much more pleasurable. Some people may think of flow states, which is an expression of what you already know how to do, but not how you learn. It is important to note that flow states are not how you learn, but rather how you express what you have already learned.

It’s been presented as a highly desirable state that we can all reach for. However, it’s important to note that this is only achievable once you already know how to do the things I’m describing. Engaging the vestibular system and creating errors within the vestibular motor operations can create a neurochemical state that makes you very good at learning quickly, regardless of age. What does this look like? It could involve doing inversions, yoga, taking corners faster on a road bike, or swimming different strokes. It depends.

By introducing novel gravity-related motor behaviors.

The parameter to consider when trying to improve plasticity is how regularly you perform a particular motor behavior and how novel it is. For example, when someone jumps out of a plane for the first time, their body and brain are flooded with neurochemicals due to the novel experience. On the other hand, if someone has done thousands of jumps, the experience has become routine and they are not in a buzzed out, excited state afterwards. To bring novelty to the vestibular motor experience, introduce novel gravity-related motor behaviors.

Well, it’s all about your orientation relative to gravity. If you can’t do handstands, don’t try and do them, freestanding and whatever. If you are good at handstands, doing them for half an hour won’t create any plasticity for you as your body is already comfortable walking on your hands. Cirque du Soleil performers are very comfortable with being upside down and inverted. To use motor practices to open up plasticity for learning, we need to create a sense of novelty relative to gravity. Not just motor practices, but also cognitive skills and other things in the period that follows.

Being in a new position or slightly unstable can signal the cerebellum to signal the deep brain centers that release neurochemicals, indicating that something is very different and needs to be corrected quickly. Earlier, I was talking about high contingencies for learning and avoiding a “survive this or die” experience. I don’t suggest taking part in dangerous activities like parkour videos on YouTube, as some of those people have died. Instead, find safe ways to explore the sensory motor vestibular space, such as through yoga, gymnastics, handstands, or biking. If you’re not very skilled in an activity, there is more opportunity for you to learn.

Unfortunately, stationary bikes do not provide the vestibular feedback necessary to deploy dopamine, epinephrine, and other important hormones. To achieve the heightened or accelerated plasticity necessary for learning, one must be in a state of clear and focused autonomic arousal. However, it is not necessary to be in this state all the time. If one is a little anxious or tired, it is still possible to make progress. The key is to be in a relationship to the gravitational pull that allows for the vestibular motor sensory mismatch.

Setting a contingency can help accelerate learning, even if there are failures. There are four things adults need to do for plasticity, and these same rules apply to young people too. Children often move in different relationships to gravity than adults, and this can be seen in the sports they play or even when they are just playing. As we age, however, we become less good at engaging in neuroplasticity.

Part of the reason why brain function can decline with age is due to changes in the way neurons are structured, their molecular components, and so on. This can lead to a self-degenerating cycle, where older individuals become more linear and regular in their movements. For example, they may always take the same route when going for a walk or use the same stairs. This lack of variety reduces the opportunity to engage with the gravitational pull through the vestibular motor sensory convergence.

This could mean that the chemicals needed to maintain plasticity are not being deployed due to a lack of engaging in certain behaviors, or it could be that people can’t engage in the behaviors because the chemicals aren’t being deployed. It is likely that there is a reciprocal relationship between the two. However, it is important to note that this does not mean that everyone should start doing inversions or other exercises that require muscle stabilizing skills or bone density.

Regular exercise, including load-bearing activities, is beneficial for cardiovascular health, bone density, and muscular strength. Resistance exercise also trains nerve to muscle connections. Engaging the vestibular system in novel ways can be done safely and can be experienced through activities such as surfing, which involve orienting the body differently according to the gravitational pull and changing the pitch, yaw, and roll.

If you’re very skilled at surfing, you’re not going to open up plasticity just by surfing. It’s in the learning of these new relationships to gravity that the windows for plasticity are enhanced. I want to underscore the fact that this vestibular thing is a way to really accentuate plasticity. It taps into an inborn biological mechanism where the cerebellum has outputs to deep brain nuclei associated with dopamine, acetylcholine, and norepinephrine. However, you don’t want to endanger yourself in the course of pursuing these activities.

High contingency is also a powerful mechanism to amplify plasticity. If you need to learn something quickly, the chances are you’re going to learn it. There are limits to the extent to which one can accentuate or accelerate plasticity, although we don’t know how high it goes. If someone put a gun to my head and said, “Learn conversational French in the next 120 seconds,” the conversational French would likely be limited to one word – probably oui.

The dream of a brain-machine interface is to be able to download knowledge all at once. Currently, this capability does not exist, nor is there a specific pill or chemical that can increase the speed at which knowledge is acquired. Nootropics can increase focus by increasing acetylcholine and dopamine transmission, however, these should be used with caution. Caffeine and Adderall can increase epinephrine, however, these should not be taken without consulting a physician.

Today I focused almost exclusively on behavioral tools and ways of structuring learning bouts that will allow you to access more plasticity regardless of age. These tools and ways center around evidence of incremental learning being powerful and the vestibular system being a valuable portal into neurochemical states that favor plasticity. I want to make clear that I have tremendous respect for the yoga community and the practices they have developed, and while they have a lot of practices with specific names, there is often little understanding of the mechanisms behind them. My goal is to bridge the gaps between various disciplines, mainly those of neuroscience and related fields, and to look at things mainly through the lens of science, but not to say that it exhaustively explains everything about anything.

I have great respect for all different practices and communities, and believe that in many cases, they are targeting the same goals or outcomes. Science and neuroscience, through understanding of mechanism, can help us gain a common understanding of these practices and how to access things like neuroplasticity, sleep, etc. Furthermore, understanding mechanism affords us a flexibility – if we are unable to engage in a particular behavior, we can adapt our circumstances. I gave the example of sleep, where if we are too rigidly attached to one protocol, we can use the understanding of mechanism to adapt. Life is very dynamic, and understanding mechanism allows us to be more flexible and adapt to external conditions.

Understanding the mechanisms of neuroscience through the lens of neuroscience can be very powerful. There are multiple ways to access dopamine and adjust limbic friction, such as respiration. My goal with this podcast is to provide understanding of the mechanisms and insights into the underlying biology to tailor foundational mechanisms to suit individual learning needs. I thank you for your time and attention today and encourage questions in the comments section on YouTube or Apple/Spotify. I do read them.

This entire month is all about neuroplasticity. There’s a lot to cover, but I’m very excited to delve deeper into this topic as it relates to your particular interests. Many of you have asked how you can help support the podcast. The best way to do so is to subscribe to the YouTube channel if you haven’t done that already, as well as to place questions in the comments section below or leave comments if you’d like to give us feedback. Additionally, you can subscribe on Apple and/or Spotify. Apple allows you to leave a five-star review, if you believe we deserve one, as well as leave comments about the podcast. Furthermore, if you can suggest the podcast to your friends, family members, or anyone that you think might be able to use and appreciate the information, that’s a great way to support us. Lastly, check out our sponsors that we mentioned at the beginning, as this is another terrific way to support us.

Throughout today’s episode, as well as on previous episodes of the podcast, I’ve talked about various supplements that can be useful for enhancing sleep, neuroplasticity, and more.

I want to emphasize that behavioral practices are the place to start. I don’t think supplements should ever be the first line of entry for people looking to enhance these aspects of their nervous system and life. For those of you who are interested in supplements, I’m pleased to announce that we partnered with Thorne, a company that makes supplements of the very highest stringency in terms of what’s listed on the bottle is actually what you’ll find in the bottle. If you’d like to take a look at the supplements that I take, you can go to thorne.com/u/huberman and get 20% off your order. In the next episode of this podcast, we’re going to continue to explore neuroplasticity. This is the way that we go about things here at the Huberman Lab Podcast, which is to really drill deeply into a topic for three or four, or even five episodes so that by the end of those episodes, all of you have a very firm understanding of how to apply the principles of neurobiology to the specific practices and endeavors that are most important to you.

I very much thank you for your time and attention. It takes a bit of focus and attention to learn all this information, which will trigger plasticity. I want to encourage you and remind you that you don’t have to grasp it all at once, as it is here archived and available if you want to return to the information. I appreciate your interest in science and thank you so much.