How do we get rid of stress? What causes depression and anxiety? Is there a way to actually control what’s going on inside our heads, or does it all depend on the experiences we face in life?
These are the questions that I have definitely asked myself, and I’m sure you probably have too! The mind is a fascinating thing. It is the control center of our bodies, and it determines the way that we interpret the world around us. We make decisions based on thoughts, emotions, and instincts — all of which originate from the mind.
So it’s definitely in our best interest to understand it as much as possible! Thankfully, my guest today is here to help us do just that. Andrew Huberman is a neuroscientist at Stanford University who studies how the brain interprets the world around us. He continuously researches the way the brain works and how we can use that knowledge to live a happier and healthier life!
I am so excited about today’s episode. We had an amazing conversation that is going to blow you away. We dove into how much control your brain has over your emotions and experiences, why subjective rewards are essential to accomplishing your goals, how to overcome depression, and so much more!
I had such a great time talking to Andrew that I split this episode into two parts! Be sure to check out the second half of the episode for more amazing stuff that you won’t want to miss.
We live in a time where understanding the brain is critical to managing the stressors of life. In this climate of political unrest, COVID-19, and the overall stress of living, there are a lot of pressures on our mental health. This episode will help you understand the way your brain works and give you some powerful tools about how to control it. Let’s get started!
Andrew Huberman is a neuroscientist at Stanford University who runs the Huberman Lab, which studies how the brain functions, how it changes through experiences, and how to repair the brain after injury or disease. In his career, Andrew has made many important contributions to the fields of brain development, brain plasticity, and neural regeneration, and repair.
He’s received numerous awards and recognitions for his research and publications, including the McKnight Foundation Neuroscience Scholar Award, the Biomedical Scholar Award from the Pew Charitable Trusts, and the Cogan Award for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology.
In addition to being a tenured professor of neurobiology and ophthalmology at Stanford University, Dr. Andrew is a brilliant neuroscientist and teacher — he excellently explains complicated concepts in a way that everyday people can understand them and use neuroscience to improve their lives!
Andrew’s goal is to understand how the brain allows us to sense, evaluate, and respond to the world around us. He’s actively working on methods to re-wire and repair eye-to-brain connections for people who suffer from blinding diseases, as well as investigating emotions and how they drive human behavior.
He has some incredible knowledge from his research to share with us today, and I am so excited for you to hear it! Let’s dive into the interview.
At the Huberman Lab, Andrew is primarily studying brain states such as fear, courage, anxiety, or calm. The brain moves in and out of those states in different ways, and we can oftentimes consciously control how it does this by using our bodies!
The brain-body connection has been a topic of deep interest for many, including me. Have you ever wondered to what extent the body controls the mind? Or how much the mind controls the body? I asked Andrew what his take on the matter was:
“The short answer is that the body has a huge and profound influence on our mind … The brain and the spinal cord, which make up what we call the central nervous system, are extensively connected with the body … when we think about the nervous system, it’s really important for people to understand that the nervous system is … the brain and body and all the connections back and forth … States of mind include the activity of the brain and the body. Those two things coordinate. The brain and the body and have a sort of what I call a contract.” – Andrew Huberman
So the brain and body are intimately connected, and they both act on each other in many different ways. This brain-body contract that Andrew mentioned is what gives rise to states of mind, such as focus, creativity, or stress.
These states of mind are a product of both the brain and the body. The coolest part? They can be actively measured in a lab! Unlike emotions, which are very hard to objectively measure or describe, states of mind have properties that can be studied and experimented with. Andrew explained two of these properties that help us to study states:
“States have two properties that are easy to study somewhat compared to emotions. And that’s how pervasive they are, meaning how long-lasting they are. States tend to have a beginning, a middle, and an end, whereas [with] emotions are more in combination … And the other thing is that they have an intensity that we can measure. [For example], you can have a state of being very alert or very drowsy or asleep.” – Andrew Huberman
So with states, you could ask someone, “From a one to ten, how are you feeling in this state?” And scientists can objectively measure that experience, correlating it with heart rate, breathing, or levels of neural activity in the brain that control wakefulness!
It’s fascinating stuff. This research is so powerful, and it has some pretty heavy mental health implications as well. After all, the more we can understand the brain-body contract, the better off we are in handling the issues that occur when things are not in balance:
“I think with the current technology, we can understand states. And from there, I do believe that we can make a significant dent into certain mental health issues and optimize performance in certain communities that are trying to optimize performance and in the general public.” – Andrew Huberman
The possibilities that come with really understanding the brain-body contract are truly so exciting. Think about all of the negative stressors in life, including anxiety and depression. These states affect so many people on a daily basis and keep them from living the life they want to live.
Could there be a way that we can defend ourselves against negative stressors and negative emotions by better understanding states of mind? Andrew had the answers I was looking for.
We’ve talked about the idea that the brain and the body have a contract and are closely connected. What does this mean in regards to depression? Well, it means that the body is going to manifest what the mind is telling you. It’s going to react to internal negative thoughts, such as “I’m depressed. I don’t feel good. I’m not good enough.”
Andrew explained that there two forms of depression that are sometimes intertwined. These are anxiety-associated depression states and fatigue-associated depression states. The body reacts differently depending on which form of depression is occurring.
When people experience anxiety-associated depression, their body feels agitated, and their mind races. On the other hand, when people experience fatigue-associated depression, their body feels exhausted and overwhelmed. The body is recruited in different ways to reflect what the mind is doing!
So the body is closely involved in the state of depression — does that mean we can use our bodies to defend ourselves against it? The answer is “yes,” but to a certain extent.
“Depression is wired into us as a possible state that we can all fall into. It’s very important, in my opinion, that humans have tools to remove themselves from that state of course to avoid tragedies like suicide. But also because when the baseline on someone’s life goes down far enough, they find it increasingly hard to do the sorts of things that can get them out of depression.” – Andrew Huberman
This means that we can use our bodies as tools to fight depression! But we have to do it before a certain point. As Andrew mentioned, when the baseline of someone’s life becomes too low because of depression, it can be too late to use the body as a tool to intervene.
Think about it this way — when you eat healthier, your body feels better, and depression decreases. But if you get to a certain level of depression where your baseline of life is too low, you do not have the energy or motivation to change your eating habits. Your health decreases, your depression increases, and you are stuck in a vicious cycle.
This doesn’t just happen with food. The same cycle can be seen in staying up until 4:00 AM, remaining in a toxic relationship, or avoiding social interaction. Andrew explained this pattern in regards to getting out of bed in the morning:
“If someone is depressed, what they need to do is get up early and get some light in their eyes and get some movement … You get that dopamine release early in the day. That’s antidepressive — you time your sleep better. When you get sun in your eyes and you get movement early in the day, for most people that’s accessible and they absolutely should be doing it … But for people who are far enough down that path of depression, because the body and the mind have this relationship that’s so close, there is a crossover point where they really can’t do those activities because they’re so far deep into depression. The body won’t do what they decide to do.” –Andrew Huberman
So it’s very important to use our bodies to prevent depression before it decreases our quality of life to the point where our bodies cannot intervene. Creating routines of eating healthy and getting sleep can help us use the brain-body contract to create routines to keep us out of those negative states of mind.
But there are other less common tools to intervene in your thoughts and feelings, and Andrew shared them with us today!
Have you ever had a negative thought and tried to tell it to go away? I’m guessing that probably didn’t work out too well. Controlling negative thoughts directly by trying to suppress them doesn’t usually do the trick. Negative thoughts are like geysers — they can pop up randomly, and trying to push them away often makes them stronger.
But don’t worry — that doesn’t mean that you can’t fight them! Although it is difficult to suppress a negative thought, it is much easier to introduce a positive one. Introducing positive thoughts is the key to controlling stress because it unlocks a pathway using dopamine:
“There is actually a neurochemical basis for controlling stress and making stress more tolerable, extending one’s ability to be in bouts of effort. It relates to the dopamine pathway. The molecule dopamine is a reward released in the brain when you win a game, close a deal, share a photo, complete something. But most of our dopamine release is not from achieving goals. It’s actually released when we are in route to our goals — when we’re in pursuit of our goals and we think we’re on the right path.” – Andrew Huberman
Have you ever gotten depressed after achieving a big goal? A lot of people do, and they get the sense that they’re supposed to feel something greater. It feels anti-climatic. That’s because most of the dopamine is released on the way to a goal instead of at the finish line!
What does this have to do with decreasing depression? Well, it means that you can actively increase dopamine release! If you learn to attach dopamine to the effort process — to the pursuit of a goal and the day to day growth along the way, you can increase the amount of dopamine in your bloodstream and be happier and more motivated.
This is why people who have a growth mindset are oftentimes more successful. They learn to attach a sense of reward to the effort process itself:
“The cool thing about dopamine is that it’s very subjectively controlled. We can all learn to secrete dopamine in our brain in response to things in a purely subjective way … if [someone] can reward the process … the brain circuits that are associated with building subjective rewards, and dopamine gets stronger.” – Andrew Huberman
Fascinating, right? Your subjective interpretation of events can make a difference in the neurochemical release in your brain! You can attach positive thoughts to the little things that you do each day, such as not staying in bed all day or making yourself lunch. By practicing rewarding the small daily efforts, you can increase overall dopamine release and be happier!
I was honestly blown away by everything I learned from talking to Andrew. He shared so much more great information, so be sure to go listen to the rest of the episode to hear it. And remember, this is only part one of the conversation!
Be sure to check out the second half in Episode 1016. We dive deeper into the science of teamwork, where go-getters go wrong, and the value of gratitude. There’s so much science and research backing up what Andrew has to share, and I know it can change your life for the better.
If this episode impacted you, Andrew and I would love to hear from you. Tag Andrew, @hubermanlab, and me, @lewishowes, on Instagram with a screenshot of the episode and your greatest takeaways. And if you know someone who could benefit from hearing this message, don’t hesitate to share it with them!
I want to leave you with a quote from Marie Curie who said, “Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood.” Now is the time to understand more so that we may fear less. That includes understanding the way the mind works so we can take advantage of its incredible potential, and Andrew is an incredible resource to help with that.
Remember: you are loved, you are worthy, and you matter. I’m so grateful for you. Thanks for joining me today — it’s time to go out there and do something great.