How often do you think about your brain? Besides the hundreds of thousands of thoughts we have, our brain is responsible for running our entire body — it’s interpreting the signals from your eyes right now to translate and understand these words.
Today’s guest understands the brain intimately as both a surgeon and a neuroscientist and is here to help us understand how to optimize our brain to help us.
In today’s show, I talk with Dr. Rahul Jandial, a doctor operating out of the City of Hope Hospital in Los Angeles. We talk about why we stay stuck in life, some lessons he has learned from dealing with thousands of cancer patients, how to optimize your brain, three pieces of wisdom for parents to optimize their children’s brains, and so much more!
I’m excited to bring Episode 1,249 to you, so let’s jump straight in!
Rahul Jandial, MD, Ph.D., is a dual-trained brain surgeon and neuroscientist at City of Hope in Los Angeles, California. Before finding his calling in the operating room, Dr. Jandial was a college dropout and worked as a security guard. As a surgeon, he now provides complex surgical treatment to patients with cancer. As a scientist, his laboratory investigates the biology of the human brain. He has authored ten books and over 100 academic articles throughout his career.
His latest book, Life on a Knife’s Edge: A Brain Surgeon’s Reflections on Life, Loss, and Survival, is a beautifully written account of the resilience, courage, and belief he has witnessed in his patients and the lessons about human nature he’s learned from them. Ripped straight from his own personal experiences, Dr. Jandial pulls back the curtain to reveal the depth of a surgeon’s psyche that is continuously pushed to its limits.
Let’s start with understanding why we stay stuck in life.
Dr. Jandial has studied both the brain and the mind and has a unique perspective on what factors hold us back from thinking in terms of abundance and positivity.
“The simple answer is that the stories we’ve been told about what’s going on in our skull — they’re just wrong. All the pictures [we see of] the brain [show it] as gears, and we’re starting to think about [the brain] as wired. ‘I’m wired for this. I’m wired for that.’ You’re not wired for anything — it’s an ecosystem filled with throbbing hundred billion microscopic jellyfish sparking electricity at each other, trying to approach each other, shaving down, pruning branching, arborizing.” – Dr. Rahul Jandial
When Dr. Jandial uses words like “arborization” and “pruning” — those are neuroscience words in rigorous neuroscience journals that haven’t made it into cultural language yet. Without these words and a deep understanding of them to guide us, we are stuck thinking about being wired like an on/off switch, and Dr. Jandial explains how that leads us astray.
“It’s not [a] freeway from A to B; it’s the way you see a [flock] of birds flow and roll over each other — that’s our thoughts. That’s how feelings float through the ether of our minds. When you start to understand it like that, then you know every day something new is possible. Is it easy? No, but it’s possible. So that’s the real way to think of your brain, mind, and behavior. You’re never the same person from a moment ago since we’ve met.” – Dr. Rahul Jandial
Dr. Jandial explains that because our thoughts are not static and “stuck” in wires of the brain but rather flow coherently in all directions, we can change from moment to moment. He has experienced this by seeing severe brain trauma.
“I had a guy come in, he’s a framer, and when a nail recoils back, they’ll pop a nail into their frontal lobe. [He] drove in [to the hospital!] You can have a penetrating injury to certain parts [of the brain, and] I realized there isn’t a region in the brain for creativity. … [Our brain] is working as an environment, as an ocean filled with a kelp forest and jellyfish. If you drop something into the ocean, you [don’t] disrupt the [ecosystem].” – Dr. Rahul Jandial
I love the idea of thinking of our brain as an ecosystem instead of a circuit. It’s fascinating to hear of such trauma where a person can still function and drive to the hospital. Even if a part of the brain is hit, death or severe injury is not guaranteed.
What’s infinitely powerful is understanding that we are new every day. That gives us the responsibility to hold onto our positive attributes and shows us that we can choose to spiral downward or upward any day.
Having seen thousands of cancer patients, Dr. Jandial has learned a lot while treating them.
Cancer is a devastating disease from start to finish; Dr. Jandial has seen how patients process and handle their journey.
“It doesn’t all end well; some suffer — many suffer — in their own ways. Those that have coped well invariably say, ‘I wish I lived my life the way I am now after a cancer diagnosis.’ They wish they made quality of life a priority throughout life, not after the cancer diagnosis.” – Dr. Rahul Jandial
Seeing our own finish line on the horizon makes people implement drastic changes and focus on things they enjoy. Patients get to the business of living in the way they want to deep down inside but often have been burdened by relationships or careers. Seeing so much, though, hasn’t been a walk in the park for Dr. Jandial.
“I can’t say I’ve always dealt well with it. The human stories were important, but I was [focused on] perfection of the craft. I was in a rhythm and enjoyed the challenge. That’s what [a patient] wants — a cancer surgeon trying to be the best for you and be the best for them at this craft. That’s an interesting intersection. They want me to be the best. They want me to have [the] ambition [of] being the best surgeon. The people who choose me to perform their surgery have the fewest complications. That’s a personal ambition that aligns with what the cancer patients want.” – Dr. Rahul Jandial
Dr. Jandial’s ambition drove him to become the best and saved patients with challenging prognoses. That meant he saw mostly stage four cancer patients — the last stage before death.
“Stage four is the most advanced cancer. All my patients live a few years. But that means after a while, I [realized] I’ve cared for over a thousand people, and they’re no longer alive. It started [to] mess with my head. Stage four, by definition, other than in blood cancers, is not curable. The question is, ‘Can we extend life? Yes. And quality [of] life during that time.” – Dr. Rahual Jandial
I can’t begin to imagine the difficulty of knowing someone has months, maybe a year, left to live. As Dr. Jandial’s work draw started to pile up with invitations to funerals, he had to take a step back, especially as he struggled with his own life.
“For those involved in cancer care, make yourself vulnerable to go on their difficult journey with them; it can be hurtful. It was raw, the last five years. I’ve been able to take that and write about it, and I have been fortified by letting them teach me and the privilege of them saying, ‘Come along with me. … This airplane must crash, and you will ride with us. We choose you to ride with us, but you have the parachute at the end.’ I was telling my kids that I just feel like I’m crashing a lot of planes. It went from not noticing it to noticing it and having it mess with me, to, ‘Wait a second, the biggest gift of my craft is to learn from the people in their most difficult times and how they remain optimistic in the face of calamity.’” – Dr. Rahul Jandial
Dr. Jandial’s own journey with cancer and treating patients led him to become open to learning from the patients instead of just treating them.
It’s fascinating to hear Dr. Jandial’s insights into what his craft has revealed and taught him. With so much talk these days about performance, I want to know his perspective on how we optimize our brains and minds to live a more abundant life.
“[Some people] want a wild life or take risks — they climb mountains. They like the thrill; I don’t, but to optimize brain function, I think whichever direction you steer it is to first look at the flesh — keeping the arteries open and irrigating that garden [because] that flesh is important. Things [that are] good for your heart keep the arteries open in your brain [too]. You want blood flow going. Exercise has [a] double benefit. If you’re my age, 49, [whether it’s] cholesterol pills, keep the plumbing open, exercise, eat right, keep your cholesterol down [you get told], so you don’t get a heart attack. Keeping those arteries of your heart [open] also keeps arteries open [for] your brain.” – Dr. Rahul Jandial
We always hear about heart health but not much about brain health. What is excellent to understand, though, is that all the positive elements we do for our heart health will also be beneficial for our brain health.
While talking to Dr. Jandial, I had an epiphany that it’s more than just brain health, but thinking health too.
Dr. Jandial has three boys, and he now shares his wisdom with other parents to help optimize their children’s brains.
As a parent of three boys, Dr. Jandial has a tremendous amount of information learned personally from life experience. Parents have a difficult time raising children these days, and I’m curious what Dr. Jandial’s top three pieces of wisdom to optimize their brains and life are.
“I’d love to equip [parents] with mind health tools. Regardless of your weight, [there are foods that] can help preserve the flesh [of] your brain; the Mediterranean diet [is an excellent example]. I would add salmon a couple of times [a week], and if you’re vegan, [some] vegetables add omega threes.” – Dr. Rahul Jandial
I appreciate that Dr. Jandial’s approach is to tell you what you can add to your existing diet instead of telling you what not to eat. Even if you eat french fries every day, he will recommend foods with vitamins for your brain.
“I would [teach] the emotional coping skills and [explain that this is a] multi-decade [and] glacial process. It’s not, ‘Can I take this pill and fix everything?’” – Dr. Rahul Jandial
I appreciate this deeply. I don’t believe in shortcuts, and building discipline in our behavior and choices will supersede any promises made by “quick fixes,” whether a pill or otherwise.
Dr. Jandial’s next suggestion involves coordination.
“Some sort of sporting exposure [is important] so [children are] fully coordinated with their bodies. The full integration of [the] brain to physical coordination [is] an interesting one, [because whether children are] using the mouse, [or]the fork with their left hand, [they’re] forcing those neurons to stay relevant.” – Dr. Rahul Jandial
Interestingly, developing coordination isn’t only with sports, and children less interested in sports can get the same benefit from using their less dominant hand for daily activities.
I find the third suggestion interesting too, all about the diversity of our life experiences.
“The human brain in kids will go through pruning, and people [ask], ‘What does that mean?’ We are born, can’t walk, and then we learn to walk, so some changes are going on. You’re born with a lot, and you’re shaving certain things down. Diversity of experiences is very important, [which is why] I took [my kids] traveling with me around the world. Each of them [had] eight trips, [and] we did all that vibing, bonding, and talking, of course, but the diversity of experiences [helped optimize their brain].” – Dr. Rahul Jandial
I love the three pieces of advice for parents nicely summarized:
Guys, there was such great wisdom shared in this podcast, and I just couldn’t fit it all in here. I highly recommend you head over to Episode 1,249 to listen to it all and hear Dr. Jandial share his wisdom in great detail.
It’s been a fascinating conversation with Dr. Rahul Jandial, and I asked him the final question I pose to all my guests: What is his definition of greatness?
“That elusive goal that no one achieves but keeps you striving for more.” – Dr. Rahul Jandial
If you liked this episode, we would love it if you could tag Dr. Jandial, @drjandial, and me, @lewishowes, on Instagram with what stood out most to you. Also, please consider giving us a 5-star rating on Apple Podcasts because they help spread these messages even further!
This episode is for you if you’re looking to start authentically expressing yourself! So join me for Episode 1,249 of The School of Greatness, and start your journey toward discovering what you’re capable of!