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7 July 2020

Activating High Performance: Interview with Dr. Andrew Huberman of Huberman Labs

Jairek Robbins

Dr. Andrew Huberman is the founder and main researcher at Huberman Labs. He is involved in some cutting-edge research about how people can activate high performance by influencing their mental and body states. Jairek Robbins picked his brain during a recent Instagram Live interview and we captured the highlights.

Can’t Watch – See The Highlight Transcripts Below:

I am excited to be having this conversation with you, Dr. Huberman, because it will be hinged on the tools that people can use to literally move themselves through this chaos going on right now (the COVID-19 pandemic and the protests after George Floyd’s death, for example). The tools you study are crucial in moments like this.

Yes, my lab has been really obsessed about what sets our minds and bodies. The reason is we all want to wake up in the morning feeling rested and motivated to tackle whatever challenges that lie ahead of us. At times this requires being soft and listening, while at other times it requires being hard-driving. We want to easily fall asleep at night and we also want to be able to focus. 

So really, states of mind and body drive what we call successful performance in life. And we are talking about success from a broad perspective ranging from purely financial, occupational and also relational, emotional, etc.

What defines the states of mind and body?

About a decade ago, I asked myself that question and it is really like a contract between the mind and the body to be aligned a certain way to attain a common purpose in that moment. This may be to meet the demands of listening, or the demands of being empathetic, being aggressively in pursuit of whatever goal you happen to be after.

We wanted to know how we can impact states of mind and body. As you may know, people currently do things to achieve certain states of mind and body, such as drinking caffeine, exercising, meditating, etc.

However, all those activities are rather indirect in impacting the system that is responsible for our states of mind and body, and that is the nervous system (which includes the brain, the spinal cord and the connections between the brain, the spinal cord and the body).

I don’t distinguish between the mind and body; when we are talking about states, they are one and the same thing. However, there is a contract. The mind can’t be in one place, and the body in another place if your goal is to align your state towards a particular action or state of mind. There has to be congruence. 

If we want to be really efficient in getting the mind and body into a desired state, we have to obey what I call the contract. So the tools that science has revealed to us obey that contract of mind and body communication.

Just to poke on the nervous system a little bit, why is it that someone can “sleep” for 7-8 hours but still wake up when the nervous system hasn’t recovered, especially as regards prolonged stress?

When the nervous system perceives a threat, and stress is a threat, it signals to the immune system to start cranking out the stuff that protects us. In the short term, stress is good, and I say this because I hope it will relieve people of the concern that there is a spike in stress levels. Stress was designed to be cyclic in our lives and you don’t want it to be chronically high or low.

Humans, and our nervous system, are well equipped to deal with the things going on right now (the pandemic, the protests, etc.). What we should really be concerned about is the chronic stress.

I’m a big believer that everyone should have two kinds of tools for stress at a minimum. First of all, we need real-time or “online” tools for stress. One of the things that my lab has been obsessed about is to come up with tools that can enable us to calm down our nervous systems quickly.

Is meditation a real-time tool?

Meditation is a terrible real-time tool for dealing with stress because if you and I are in the midst of a stressful interaction, I can’t run off to go and meditate so I can calm down. So we need tools that are fast, and can work for us in the moment.

The other type of tool that we need are the “offline” tools that increase our threshold for when we hit stress. This is like raising our lowest point for when a stress response is triggered. 

What is the real-time tool you have worked on?

The real-time tool that we have spent a lot of time working on is based on the neural science of breathing. Throughout sleep, and sometimes during the day, we all do what is called a “proper sigh;” we inhale, and then we inhale again, before exhaling long. We do that subconsciously, and the reason that is triggered is that we have neurons around the back of the neck that evaluate the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in your bloodstream and lungs, and when that balance this off, the neurons force one of these sighs.

But you don’t really have to wait for this unconscious reset to happen because it typically occurs far into the stress cycle. So what I recommend is that when people want to calm down quickly and in the moment, is that they should breathe in through the nose, and again, and then slowly breathe out through the mouth.

And just repeating that one or two or sometimes three times will bring someone quickly down to a more relaxed state. What is important to note is that the heart rate is always going to take about 40 seconds to come down. The neural circuits that control the heart work a little more slowly than those which control the lungs, so you shouldn’t expect your heart rate to come down immediately you do the breathing pattern I have just described.

For people who find it hard to breathe through the nose due to congested sinuses, it is okay to do the “proper sigh” through the mouth. 

One more thing about the nose which I haven’t spoken about publicly because the discovery is from another lab, not mine, is about the gut microbiome and how important it is to maintain a healthy gut microbiome for a healthy mind and body; there’s new research showing that we have a nasal biome. In that microbiome found in our nose, there is beneficial bacteria called lactobacillus. 

When we breathe a lot through the nose, the lactobacillus in the nasal biome proliferates and keeps the nasal passage healthy and improves immunity. So there’s lots of reasons for you to do the double inhale through the nose and long exhale through the mouth while you are going about your day and find yourself getting stressed. That is one real-time tool for you. 

What is the science in this?

The science in this is that when you double inhale, you inflate and fill the sacs in your lungs with air, and this forces carbon dioxide out of your blood and into the lungs so it can be removed when you breathe out. Breathing in isn’t only about taking in oxygen, it is about responding to the sensors in your brain detecting that carbon dioxide levels have gone up. Stress causes carbon dioxide to spike, and doing the “proper sigh” lowers that CO2 level so that your mind and bodily stress can go down. To the best of my knowledge, this is the fastest way to de-stress.

I would like to emphasize that the tools we are talking about focus on using the body to control the mind. It is very hard to control the mind using the mind. Remember the contract between the mind and the body; the body provides a lever that we can use to influence the mind so that both are in sync. Telling yourself to calm down won’t work because you haven’t respected the contract; you are appealing to a stressed mind to calm down yet you have not paid attention to the body which is experiencing stress as well.

What about tools to deal with long term stress?

Well, that brings us to what I call offline tools. These are tools which equip you with a better capacity to deal with stress, and here we will talk about two kinds of tools.

There is this debate in the self-help and psychology community about whether we need to teach ourselves how to calm down or we need to train ourselves to have a higher ceiling for what we regard as stressful. 

It turns out that those are two different approaches to dealing with the same problem. Things like mindfulness meditation, yoga nidra and other such practices teach your nervous system to relax and you will find it easier to sleep. Most importantly, they will make it harder for stress to be triggered in you. There’s actually science in support of this since it has been found that such exercises reset your serotonin, dopamine and other biochemical which determine your mental state.

However, there are other activities that can make you less susceptible to being stressed, and these include “super oxygenated breathing” which involves doing 25 big inhales and exhales in quick succession and then stopping while holding your breath. Why does this work? When you do that rapid exhale, you are getting a release of adrenaline, and when you stay calm despite the bunch of adrenaline coursing through your system, you raise the ceiling for the next time when a potentially stressful event occurs.

This is like driving on a bumpy road for the first time; it is disturbing because you haven’t experienced anything like this before, but when you are on these roads several times, you go along with the bumps because you are now used to them and they no longer stress you. Same thing with doing the exercises that raise your threshold for what you call stress.

So, for people who are going through chronic stress, you might want to ask yourself whether you are going to do things that lower your stress in the moment or those that raise the bar for what your body and mind regard as stressful things. 

Personally, as soon as I wake up in the morning, I do a yoga nidra practice, it is a deep relaxation session that involves an intention, I focus my mind, and I swear I come out of it feeling that my state of mind and my positivity has made a huge shift. There’s lots of data to support yoga nidra as a practice to restore neurochemicals in the brain, so I recommend it highly. It is cost-free, it is quick, and it is a great practice to do first thing in the morning or when you go to sleep at night if you have trouble falling asleep.

But I also do about five days a week a super-oxygenated breathing protocol. Advanced warning; super-oxygenation breathing shouldn’t be done near water or while driving because it can make you feel more agitated. 

How is super-oxygenation breathing done?

It involves breathing in deeply, and then exhaling briefly, and then repeating the deep breath and short exhale about 25 times. By the twenty-fifth time you are going to be tingling and frankly, lots of people aren’t going to feel great at this time. They are going to feel like this is stressing them out. But then you can take a long exhale and just sit there for 15-30 seconds until you feel the impulse to breathe. Don’t force it.

What happens for most people is that the first round doesn’t feel good, but by the second round you begin to feel alert yet calm and by the third round, they report feeling pretty darn good. However, they also say, and the preliminary results of our ongoing research bear this out, that the threshold for stress is raised so that the next time something stressful occurs on the news or in your mind, you are able to stay calm amid the storm.

This is intentionally stressing yourself out so that you are then better able to deal with stressful situations should they ever arise.

How is this exercise related to neuroscience?

What I am interested in at my laboratory is coming up with a unified theory of how breath affects states of mind. These can only be understood by looking at the ratios of carbon dioxide and oxygen, the levels of neurochemicals, etc. yet all people are interested in is getting the tools to achieve the desired mental states!

The thing is, parts of the brain are constantly communicating with each other through neural connections. Chemicals called neuromodulators, such as dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin broadly group several brain areas into segments. These are normally 4-6 areas, such as the circuit for focus, another for relaxation, etc.

A lot of focus has been placed on the individual brain areas, but the reality is that different areas work together to achieve a certain effect. The neuromodulators are the cords which bring these different parts together, like cords on a piano.

Is there a correct way to breathe when doing the proper sigh or super oxygenated breathing?

 Actually, there is no science that says belly breathing or breathing without moving your ribs is superior to any other way of breathing. There is a system of nerves connected to the diaphragm, and this is the only organ that you can deliberately control. You can’t control your liver or spleen for example, but as you regulate your breathing, you exert a tremendous influence on your body chemistry. So, be deliberate about how you breathe from time to time, and you will reap the benefits of resetting your mental state.

So how can people stay in the know about what you are doing at your lab?

Well, my Instagram handle is hubermanlab. I also periodically do podcasts, and there are several up on YouTube. My lab is constantly coming up with new science and I try to translate that into material that the public can digest through things like Instagram live sessions. I am also working on a book that will be out probably in 2021. 

My mission is generally to discover and translate science that people can learn and apply, then teach it to other people. This brings me to a gentle request that I would like to make. I am a strong believer in watch one, do one, teach one. If you learn a technique and you like it, you don’t have to name me, but do teach it to someone else. I feel there’s a serious need for tools that are cost-free, fast and are grounded in physiology and neuroscience. 

Thanks for that! My own philosophy is learn it, live it and give it, so I am so glad that without talking about it, we happen to think along the same lines. Thanks for coming. When your book comes out, we will be glad to have you come back and tell people what is in it. For everyone who tuned in, use what you have learned every day and stay tuned for more!

To Your Success,

Jairek Robbins

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