CLEARER THINKING

with Spencer Greenberg
the podcast about ideas that matter

Episode 067: How to hack your own brain (with Elizabeth Ricker)

August 22, 2021

Why should we be doing more experiments on our own lives? How should we approach and get started with self-experimentation? Why are such varying dietary changes able to improve people's well-being? What are some measures and interventions for improving executive function, memory and learning, emotional self-regulation, and creativity? Do brain games actually make you smarter? What are some promising nootropics? Should people use neurostimulation and/or neurofeedback devices at home? What sorts of skills can be trained through video games? When is blue light useful?

Elizabeth Ricker is the author of Smarter Tomorrow: How 15 Minutes of Neurohacking a Day Can Help You Work Better, Think Faster, and Get More Done (Little, Brown Spark / Hachette). She's the founder of Neuroeducate, a citizen DIY neuroscience and neurohacking organization, and Ricker Labs, a consultancy that helps organizations unlock mental performance. Ricker's clients have included Silicon Valley venture capital firms, technology startups, schools, and the Fortune 500. Her work has been featured on public broadcast TV, in books, in the popular press, and she's given talks in the US and abroad. Ricker's degrees are from MIT (Brain & Cognitive Science) and Harvard (Mind, Brain, & Education). Her website is ericker.com and her username is @eliricker on Medium, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Instagram.

JOSH: Hello, and welcome to Clearer Thinking with Spencer Greenberg, the podcast about ideas that matter. I'm Josh Castle, the producer of the podcast and I'm so glad you joined us today. In this episode, Spencer speaks with Elizabeth Ricker about interventions for enhanced cognition, self-tracking and self-experimentation, and fostering mental clarity and creativity. Before we get into the conversation, though, I just wanted to apologize in advance. There's some background noise behind Elizabeth's voice, and we weren't able to remove all of it. So I hope you'll be able to forgive us and find something meaningful in the conversation anyway. Thanks! And now here are Spencer and Elizabeth.

SPENCER: Elizabeth, welcome.

ELIZABETH: Thank you. Great to be here.

SPENCER: So I have a pretty extreme passion for trying to improve myself, and I think many of our listeners do as well. And I really want to hear about your take on this and why you think that we should be doing way more experiments in our life and how you think we should be approaching those experiments.

ELIZABETH: I kind of believe that everyone should become a neuro-hacker. And the reason for this is many folds. But one is that it's incredibly fun, it's likely to provide life-altering insights, and it's useful both immediately and long-term. But really, I should define what I mean by neuro-hacking. So when people hear the word hacking, they often think I'm talking about computer hacking. And I'm not. I'm really having the word come from MIT hacks. So where I went undergrad, we did these sorts of pranks. There were sort of curiosity-driven, fun, often engineering-heavy approaches to making some kind of comment on society or just generally making fun. So a common, like a popular hack that happened in the past was putting a police car and then mighty dome, complete with donuts in the front seat, it's just really kind of a playful approach. And that required creating and assembling an entire car on top of the roof of the building. But other hacks were things like programming lights to have particular messages in the windows of large buildings. So it's really just solving problems that can be important or not important but are done sort of for the love of tackling a hard problem, rather than because you're being told that you need to do a thing. So to me hacking is sort of run through with curiosity and playfulness. So that's why I like the word hacking as part of neuro-hacking. And then the neuro just comes from exploring, improving your mental performance. And right now is an amazing time to do that. Because we have historically unprecedented tools that fit in your pocket, on your wrist, on your head, where you can actually use consumer devices that are not quite as good as the tools that I got to use when I worked in neuroscience labs. But they do provide some pretty interesting approximations. So essentially, self-tracking and self-experimentation, which I think of as the two pillars of neuro-hacking can provide you with the ability to make pretty immediate changes, and also long-term changes in your mental performance and really understand something that basically is essentially invisible on a day-to-day life unless you take an extra effort to actually sit down and track or self-experiment. And it's something that can make your life significantly better. But most of us just don't think about it.

SPENCER: So what are some of the benefits you've gotten out of this perch?

ELIZABETH: Oh, yeah. I mean, it's been so many. I've been doing this for so many years. But one thing was kind of on the sort of lower end of things of just solving a problem, rather than going from normal to better than normal, is I intermittently, I struggle with brain fog. And that's something that right now with COVID, people are really becoming attuned to, because that's actually one of the common after-effects, even after people recover from COVID. But really, brain fog is something that affects a lot of people. And many of my early self-tracking and self-experiments – those projects were really aimed at trying to identify when I got brain fog, and also how best to avoid those episodes and how to come out of them, as quickly as possible.

SPENCER: Did you feel just to clarify, when you say brain fog? Did you feel kind of tired out of it had trouble focusing or how would you describe that feeling?

ELIZABETH: Yeah, that's a great question. It's so funny to me. It seems intuitive what brain fog is, but I've talked to so many people and they're like, I have no idea what you're saying. What does that actually mean? So yeah, that's great. It's so brain fog. It does mean different things to different people. But to me, it comes up as slowness of thought. So rather than one thought flowing naturally to the next, it feels kind of like mentally you're struggling through mud. It's hard to pull up memory. It's hard to pay attention. Your sort of consciousness almost feels dim. It's like if you were to now switch my metaphor for no particular reason, it's like you are out in a snowstorm or a blizzard, and you're attempting to walk and see the outline of buildings that you're trying to walk towards. And it's just incredibly hard, the visibility is low. So it affects everything really, I mean, it affects your energy, your attention, your learning ability. And it's incredibly frustrating, because, for me, at least, I tend to be aware that it's happening. And there's a sense of helplessness that comes on. So really, over the years, when these things happened, it tended to be for a variety of reasons. And it took a lot of self-tracking to kind of uncover this. But it turned out that I had some issues with nutrition. And in one case, I had an intolerance of a particular type of food that was causing these brain fog episodes. And another case, I was having something called an atypical migraine, which doesn't manifest in the usual way, but ended up having brain fog associated with it. So it really ended up being a variety of different things. But the process of tracking various components of my cognition, and also various aspects of my biology, ended up being incredibly fruitful because it allowed me to take action that tremendously improved my quality of life. So that's just one example. People do self-tracking and self-experiments for lots of reasons. That's sort of a sad reason some people really do it, because they're trying to bring themselves up from kind of, you know, regular, healthy normal to sort of super versions of themselves. And that's also a completely valid way to neuro-hack.

SPENCER: Yeah, that's a great example. Because I think quite a lot of people experience brain fog at least some of the time and then some people experience it chronic way and can be a really big issue in life. So can you walk us through? How did you approach fixing that issue? Because I think a lot of people even if they don't experience brain fog, might have some issue in their life that's kind of mysterious in the same way, or like, you know, they don't feel right. You know, they struggle with something. So can you walk us through your process of kind of diagnosing that and coming to a solution?

ELIZABETH: Yeah, that's a great question. So I would say that has changed over the years, when it first started off, I didn't really know any of the principles of neuro-hacking. I was a kid.

SPENCER: Maybe you could tell us what you did. And then how you do today, you know, how would you improve it based on your current understanding?

ELIZABETH: Absolutely. Yeah, I think it's probably helpful to know sort of what a untrained neuro-hacker would do, because that's a nice, sort of gentle on ramp to neuro-hacking. And then I can tell you the things that require more tools. So the simplest is just what do you notice it happening, writing down what you're experiencing in a journal, so I would do a two-minute free-write, and I just wouldn't let my hands come off the keyboard for two minutes. And it was just a full brain dump. So the value of that for me was that my brain was often so stalled, that I couldn't really even answer a question of what's going on or what's bothering you, because that required too much effort. So I had to sort of unblock myself. So the first step was really just identifying that issue was there and also marking a timestamp of when it occurred.

SPENCER: Were you writing down the contacts? What were you doing and other facts about the day?

ELIZABETH: Exactly. It was, what did I do right before? How am I feeling right now? How is this affecting me? What is actually going on in my head, because one of the scariest parts with something like brain fog is it really feels like there's nothing I mean, your brain is just sort of ending. It's everyone. It's different for everyone. But for me, it was almost like there was like a silence. And so it was about restarting that. And so just kind of writing down what was on my mind, and then having a timestamp associated with it was then helpful. Because A, I can, in those moments, if I had enough wherewithal, mentally to go back and reference previous such episodes, it was very comforting, because I would know that they had been brief, and that I had come out of it. And that gave me the hope to just, you know, keep trying and keep trying to figure out something that would get me out. And then the other is that when I was feeling better, I could look back and take a critical mind to it and try to understand what the underlying patterns were so that I was starting with journaling is really helpful, because it's just hard to know exactly what's going on. And the next step would really be looking at what I call, like the usual suspects. So there's sort of there's a core canon of really common culprits that tend to be the problem for people. And the beginning of my book, I have a chapter called debugging yourself, which goes through a lot of common areas that cause issues for people. The first thing you should always do, of course is is go to a doctor and try to find out if there is some underlying medical disorder that's actually giving rise to this because there are neurological conditions and diseases that do go along with us. So you should make sure it's not one of those before you start digging around and trying to solve everything by yourself. So yeah, so that's sort of the first order of this is looking for some kind of a biological cause that a doctor can help you with. Or if you're having mental health issues, anxiety, depression, issues with mood generally can really cause havoc to your cognition. And so that's another place to look for. So there are online screeners that you can do. And of course, you can just get a session with a therapist, there are a lot of online apps that allow you to do teletherapy now, so that's a great resource for people. Right. So if you find that your work with a therapist or with your regular doctor is not resolving into a very clear underlying cause for what your brain fog is, of course, you should keep working with them generally. But you may want to also look into other potential causes that are more lifestyle factors. That's where some of the neuro-hacking tools can be especially helpful. So that's where you want to look into what I would consider the usual suspects. So that's if you start tracking your sleep if you start tracking exactly what you eat. And now, with apps, and wearables, these things are not as onerous as they used to be. It used to be that you'd have to write down every single thing you were doing every half an hour. And that's just a job unto itself. Especially if you're dealing with something like brain fog. It's sort of unreasonable to ask people to do that. So if you use things like sleep apps, if you use, there's a nutrition app that I love that also looks at micronutrients as well as macronutrients. So you can see if you have nutritional deficiency holes in data from USDA databases, especially Canadian company, but it's called Chronometer, there's a free and sort of a paid version as well. So sleep, nutrition, exercise is another big one, you know, are you falling below the recommended amount of exercise each day? And then sort of social health? Are you feeling lonely, that can be a cause of problems that people run into? Are you feeling stressed, because something's going on with your work or with your relationships, there's a bunch of other areas that I look at. So with each of these, they're the kinds of things that like a kind friend might just bring up with you over coffee or over drinks. But you know, as things that you should consider improving in real life, but if you look at it more with a scientist's lens, and you actually track these things, and you get numbers on yourself every single day, and you do this systematically for weeks, that the patterns will start to emerge. And then it becomes it starts to become quite obvious what the real causes are. And that's where it starts to get really exciting.

SPENCER: So let's dig into your specific example. Like, how did you go from, you know, taking notes on each time you experienced brain fog to actually realizing the kind of nutritional issues you're having and the migrant issue?

ELIZABETH: Yeah, so one was a happy accident, I had this rather aggressive but kind roommate, who was convinced that I had a food intolerance, and it was gluten, and I was very faddish at the time. And so I was immediately skeptical. It's like, I think this is just some sort of a hoax. I don't think this is like a real thing that people actually struggle with, which was particularly unkind and uncharitable to me to have that impression. But I didn't know of any science at that point but pointed to so many people having gluten issues. So I thought it was unlikely that was my problem. And just to humor her, I did end up cutting out the amount of gluten and certain types of carbohydrates in my diet for a couple of weeks. And I couldn't argue with the data. So the number of brain fog episodes that I ended up recording in my journal, and sort of my logging system was just much lower than it had been before. And I also had a lot of stomach issues. And so the sort of periods where my stomach was just in excruciating pain to the point of not being able to focus or work or do anything, that also went down. And so I kind of grudgingly had to admit that she'd been right the whole time. And I've since the kind of looked back at the research on microbiome. And there's actually been a lot of really interesting work in that area. And so it does turn out that even for people who don't have full-blown allergies, and have Crohn's disease and a lot of concomitant issues, there is sort of a spectrum. And if you depending on where you fall, you can be quite sensitive to certain types of carbohydrates, especially long-chain or specific length of chain carbohydrates. And it turned out that was one of the things that I was dealing with. And I did end up going to a gastroenterologist who ran some tests and kind of confirmed that was actually what was going on. Basically, wrap that up. I think the value of running an experiment was incredibly helpful in that case of really diagnosing what was going on.

SPENCER: One of the fascinating things I've found with nutrition is it people seem to just differ tremendously in terms of what nutrition works best for them. You know, like everyone needs vitamin C and vitamin D and so on, like to sufficient quantities, right? You don't wanna get scurvy, but we talk about sort of like the broad data that you eat, I've just seen wild things happen. For example, I have another friend who went off gluten and had like dramatic improvements that she now attributes to it. And even though she doesn't really understand why. I've seen people who go vegetarian, and they noticed huge improvements. I know people who started doing intermittent fasting where they'll like eat in a restricted number of hours per day that notice huge improvements. I even know people who've gone on like high meat diet that have had huge improvements. This sort of The only consistent thing I've seen is that sometimes radically shifting your diet makes people feel like way better. Yeah, but it doesn't seem to be consistent. It doesn't seem to like there's like you wish that there were just some amazing diet that if everyone went on it, they'd feel great. But I think that's just not the way our bodies work. I think that different bodies really different from each other. Do people have different sensitivities? People do different well on different sorts of foods. And so it's like, I guess one thing you could say is, if you are feeling not well, or tired all the time, or you're having weird stomach issues or whatever, try some diet that's very different than your [inaudible]. Right, like, just experiment.

ELIZABETH: Yeah, I mean, so much of what you're saying, really resonates with me. And the personal, like the need for personalization, the evidence that there are just tremendous individual differences is so clear. The one thing I would say in terms of just slightly tweaking, or building I guess on what you're saying is, I don't think it's quite as mysterious as a lot of people think what often is going on is sort of one of two things there can be intolerances, or there can be nutritional deficiencies. And I'll take an opposite example, that something I tried that didn't work. I tried being a vegetarian for a year. And then I ended up quite anemic and quite weak at the end of it. That was because I was not being particularly thoughtful or careful about certain key micronutrients that can be missing if you don't have a really carefully constructed vegetarian diet. So one is B 12. And another one is iron. And often what happens when people have these tremendous turnarounds in their diets, and again, it's not the same for each person is actually because unbeknownst to them, they have been developing some severe micronutrient deficiency, or they have actually been developing some kind of intolerance over time, and they're just not aware of it. So as an example of how allergies can change over time, I was recently into my allergist, specialists here at UCSF, and I got a new batch of allergy testing, it's where they prick you, they have these like small needles that they put all over your arms, and you end up looking like a weird patchwork quilt at the end of it. And so they tested me for all these different things that I might be allergic to environmentally. And it turned out that had actually changed over the last few years. So there was a set of things that I used to be alerted to that I'm no longer allergic to. And there was a new set of things as well. And this is because our immune systems also change. And they're adaptive and responsive to our environments. So it is entirely possible that when people are having these varying results with their diets, it's because they're different from one another and they're actually responding to deficiencies or allergies or intolerances that they're unaware of. So it seems like the very first step before you start randomly experimenting, is you should just do a baseline, you should just track what you're eating very closely. And again, I sound like I'm a spokesperson for them. I swear they're not paying me in any way. But apps, like Chronometer, are great for this. Because if you just track not just the macronutrients of what you're eating, like the protein, carbs, sugar, all that, but also the micronutrients. So are you getting sufficient amounts of iron, vitamin D, choline, there's just so many of them. Apps like that can actually tell you if you're systematically low in some area. And for instance, when I was pregnant, I tracked what I was eating incredibly carefully, it allowed me to convince my doctor that I didn't even need to take a multivitamin because she saw my data. And we did blood tests to verify that everything was where it should be. So it's actually very controllable. And you do experience the differences when you're low or high and a particular micronutrient. And I've seen that myself over the years of playing with this as a variable. So I think nutrition seems really mysterious to people. But a lot of it is because they're just not tracking themselves. And they're unaware of the fact that there are some clear areas where you can be higher low and something or you can have an intolerance to things and just be unaware of it. Now big caveat. Of course, like humans, there are 7 billion of us. We're all very diverse in terms of age and ethnicity, and you know, where our ancestors came from, so of course, there's gonna be regional differences as well. But I do think that there is a little less mystery than what people point to, because I think they're not paying attention to the basics.

SPENCER: Yeah, this is a great point and I totally agree, looking for deficiencies is a great starting point. And the standard advice of someone who becomes a chair now is that they should consider taking vitamin B 12, consider taking Vitamin D, in general, women often have deficiencies in iron as I understand it. So yeah, that all makes perfect sense. And I also read about sensitivities, you know, if you're having problems, you should get tested for sensitivities. Oh, tell you about my experience with that, I actually got a blood test for allergies. That told me I have like, seven allergies to things that I eat regularly, which was very surprising, confusing. But I looked at more of the tests. And I discovered that as an extremely high false-positive rate, and they test me for like 40 things. So it turned out it was like actually completely unsurprising that these would occur just by false positives. And then so I got the more accurate stick test that you got, where they poke you with those needles. And I had none, none of the allergies. So be careful about, you know, these tests and just make sure you understand the false positive rate on some of them.

ELIZABETH: Absolutely. Yeah, there's a lot of, especially with the direct to consumer movement. There are a lot of things out there right now that are not super well-regulated. And people it is really a buyer beware situation.

SPENCER: Yeah, but I will add, I agree with what you said. But I will add that I think that there are other factors that can sometimes make people respond poorly to a diet, that even though they are tested for all the allergens, they don't seem to have nutritional deficiencies that can identify and yet they still seem to not do well on certain foods. And I don't I know, obviously, like, I think there's some explanation, I just don't know what it is. And I think sometimes, at that point, you just need to try an elimination diet, where you like, start with really simple foods, and slowly build up or try removing foods to your diet one by one, or just say, okay, screw it on this diet, I'm just gonna switch this totally other diets. If I do better, of course, you have to give it enough time, because it takes time to get used to a new diet. So like, often when you switch right away, you kind of feel weird, because you're like not eating enough, or you know, those kinds of things. So you know, give it at least at least a few weeks to try it.

ELIZABETH: Definitely. Yeah. And I think on top of that, it can be tricky if there are immediate versus long-term effects. So especially with elimination diets, there can be inflammation that's built up in your body. And your reaction to these foods that are causing you problems might not really show up until they've washed out of your system enough for it to really make a difference. So that underscores again, your point about you should wait a few weeks. One thing I will add is, when I went into a specialist many years ago, to try to figure out what's going on with my stomach, he tried to get me to go on this diet called the FODMAP diet, which does work really well for some people. But it was so restrictive that I could not eat out, I couldn't go to a restaurant. And I'm not a particularly good cook. So it was essentially a recipe for starvation for me. So I just lasted maybe a few days on that diet. So I think it's important to take all this with a grain of salt and figure out what works best for you. And now my rule of thumb is I let myself eat the equivalent of like a bagel each day, even though it's technically not good for me. And it is a trigger for these kinds of episodes for me, but my quality of life is important. And I want to be able to enjoy like a croissant occasionally or like, have some cereal, you know, so you, it's easy to go overboard with these things, that you should also make sure that realize that you're not just a test subject, you're also a human and you should be kind to yourself and not force yourself to do things that are really unpleasant. It can be easy to go a bit overboard in trying experiments and go to extremes. With, you know, intermittent fasting or long fasts or elimination diets are all kinds of things that can dramatically change your lifestyle. But if you find that as you're doing all of these tweaks, you're feeling kind of miserable, and you can't hang out with your friends or you can't do other things that give you joy, you should be kind to yourself and you should let yourself make compromises. So for me, the bagels worth of white carbs a day or gluten-free items a day was my way of making peace with that.

SPENCER: Excellent point.

[promo break]

SPENCER: Okay, so suppose someone wants to start tracking and they have some problem in their life, they want to try to resolve it. You know, how do they get started with that?

ELIZABETH: Yeah. So the first thing I would actually do is, this is certainly the approach that I talk about in my book. The first part of it is identifying what the issue is, and then also getting a baseline and a bunch of other areas that may not seem directly related but may actually be the underlying cause. So for that reason, I would say you want to go through the self-assessment. I have an example of one that you can use in one of the chapters of my book called debugging yourself. And you run through and you track yourself for, say, at least a week, ideally, you know better if it would be two weeks, but you track your sleep, your exercise, your nutrition, you assess whether there are particular stress factors that might be occurring in your life. And you look for areas that might be potential, what I call bottlenecks, so areas where it's just causing your mental performance to go down. And you may actually have multiple model bottlenecks that you're not aware of. So that's the first set. And that's lifestyle things. The second one is understanding your own cognition better. And so we're actually pretty lucky to be alive right now, because some of these tools simply didn't exist previously. So you can do self-assessments, so sort of like survey style questions. But you can also do things that are a bit more objective and a bit more biological, that can help you get a sense of where cognition is. So there's four mental abilities that I focus on in the book. And that's because they, all four of them tend to track well, and predict to a reasonable degree in the research literature, people's success in areas like their work, success in school, and happiness in relationships. And so those four areas are actually all trackable and testable. And so just to give, just tell you what they are. The first is executive function. The second is emotional self-regulation. The third is memory and learning which I grew up as a single entity. And then the fourth is creativity. So they're all slightly different mental abilities. But again, you can track them and test them. And you can use these sort of computer based tests that are repeatable, that are built on decades and decades of research in the neuropsychological literature. And they, you know, each one has its strengths and weaknesses, but I've tried to identify ones that are better, that are included in the book. And I'm actually developing tools on my website, too. So those will eventually be available as well. But anyway, the main thing is you want to get an overall sense of where you are across the sort of potential culprits that could be messing with you within your lifestyle. And then you also want to see how you're actually specifically performing in these four mental abilities. Because any one of these areas might be a potential bottleneck. And then once you know what your bottleneck is, then you can design an experiment that will target that. And that will help you hopefully, kind of fix that bottleneck.

SPENCER: Elizabeth, as an aside, you mentioned book a few times do you want to just like save the name of it? Because I don't think you've actually said what it's called.

ELIZABETH: Oh, sure. Yeah. So it's actually coming out in two weeks now, which is crazy. It's called Smarter Tomorrow: How 15 minutes of neuro-hacking a day, can help you work better, think faster, and get more done. And it's published by Little Brown Spark, which is an imprint of Hachette. And it's been my work baby for close to 10 years. So it's really excited. It's very exciting to be sharing that with everyone.

SPENCER: Okay, so digging into these four areas, executive function, emotional self-regulation, memory, learning and creativity. So executive function that would include things like working memory, she'd be doing kind of mental tasks to measure how many numbers and keeping your mind that kind of thing?

ELIZABETH: Sure, yeah, yeah. So the executive function is this really big, kind of hairy ability to define a lot of people argue about exactly what goes into it. But yeah, working memory is for sure part of it. The areas that I think are best represented by the data are working memory, inhibition, and mental flexibility. But kind of colloquially, what people tend to think of when they're actually thinking about executive function, our attention and ability to make decisions, ability to kind of organize your thoughts and plan, those are all tasks that executive function enables you to do.

SPENCER: And so how do you measure that?

ELIZABETH: So you've measured in a number of different ways, a sort of a basic way, and you're kind of you alluded to that is for working memory, specifically, you can do something like, give someone a series of numbers and force them to sort of update what their mental representation representation of those numbers are. So an example of a working memory task would be the end back. This is a task where you're given a sequence of stimuli. And you have to mentally update as you get more information. So for example, you are given a set of, let's say letters, and you have to say whether the letter that you're looking at right now is the same as the one that was presented to you, one slide back or two slides back or three slides back. But the challenge is that the screen is changing as you're going as you're going through this. So, you actually have to mentally update as the stream of information is going by. It's honestly quite hard to explain properly, I'd be happy to provide it. I guess a simpler example of a working memory task would be having to do mental arithmetic in your head. So like, let's say you have someone tells you to multiply two digit numbers or three digit numbers in your head without a calculator. And without a pen and paper, the process that you're having to go through of holding on to all the previous steps, as you add additional numbers to those steps, is working your working memory. And your ability to do so accurately and quickly, would be predictive of your working memory overall. And there's of course tricks and ways to make yourself better at this. But the overall idea is, how much can you hold in your mind? How easily can you manipulate those items? And how easily can you update and adapt your mind to changing information in the world and these kinds of things end up being predictive of your ability to make decisions, pay attention in different circumstances, and kind of move through the world with an internal organization that makes it easier for you to function?

SPENCER: So I've heard of this website called Quantified Mind that helps you track this kind of mental performance things? Is that one you used?

ELIZABETH: Yeah, exactly. So you Yoni Donner is a friend. So that site has been around for a while, they've done a great job of taking neuro-psych tasks that are used in research studies and kind of gamifying them and making them available for people. So I definitely recommend you can check out Quantified Mind. It's not super user friendly for everyone. And it's also not really being updated these days. But I think it is a great resource. And it's definitely out there. There's also a company called Cambridge Brain Sciences. that's run by Adrian Owen, and he's a neuroscientist, who's been working on this kind of thing for a very long time. And he has a set of tools that are available as well, I believe you have to pay for that one, though. So that's potential blocker. So yeah, there are a number of these things out there. There's also brain games generally. But the problem there is that you don't necessarily know what their underlying algorithm is. And they often change the scoring system on the fly. So it's a little harder to compare your old scores to your new scores if they've changed the game algorithm itself.

SPENCER: Also, with the brain games, generally speaking, the whole point is if people improve it, I mean, that's why people do that, and they want to get better. And then, you know, so you're going to be improving over time, if you just play them. And then the question is okay, but what does that actually mean. Right? Am I just practicing the test?

ELIZABETH: Yeah, exactly. And the truth is that, I mean, one of the beautiful things about the human brain is that we tend to get better at whatever it is that we do. So that is certainly criticism that has been leveled against brain games as their ability to be an intervention. And we can talk a lot about why that is, and what that is. But I think what you should really keep in mind, if you want to be running tests on yourself is you should assume you're going to be improving at whatever task it is that you're doing. In other words, you should assume that there's going to be practice effects and a learning curve associated with, honestly, any task you do. And so that's, again, why it's really important to do a baseline period, because what you should do is you should model your learning curve in that baseline period. And then when you do an intervention, you should see whether your learning curve has changed significantly. And whether you're improving at a rate that is faster than you were before. Because that's just the nature of the beast. That's just how these these tools work, you are definitely going to keep improving, you do tend to hit sort of a plateau after a little while you Yoni Donner actually the creator of quantified mind. He actually had a poster on this at Stanford a few years back. And he showed that after about five tests, people tend to have their scores stabilized, at least on the tasks that he had on his site. And I think that's probably right on average. But to be honest, for myself, I found that I often for many of the tasks, I do keep improving, and it's just you don't improve as much. So you should really pay attention to what your learning curves are. And this goes back again, to personalization, like, individual differences are so important. And you need to baseline yourself on all these things before you take your test data and your experimental data seriously.

SPENCER: Yeah, great point. So let's talk about emotional self-regulation. What is that? And how would you actually measure that?

ELIZABETH: Yeah, so emotional self-regulation is it's kind of what it sounds like. It's kind of your ability to regulate your emotions on the fly. So like, let's say, for example, something really disappointing happens to you and you're feeling kind of bummed after, say it's a bad meeting or you had a fight with a friend or family member, or just feeling a bit sad about something, your ability to, first of all, recognize that you're in this down state and then secondarily, figure out what to do to get yourself out of it, that is your emotional second self-regulation system at play. So some people are extremely, have incredible learning and memory abilities. And they have great executive function in various ways. But they may really struggle with emotional self-regulation. And it's an incredibly important skill because it shows up, not just in the places that you would imagine, like mental health, of course, but it also shows up in relationships. And in school and in the workplace. In fact, there's been long-term studies that have looked at people's ability to emotionally self regulate, and it actually can be quite predictive of people's success in a variety of different areas. So yeah, so I mean, an example of something you could do to emotionally self-regulate is, let's say, you're about to give a performance like a musical performance, or you're about to go in and give a presentation, if you notice that your heart is beating really fast, and that you're sweating, that could if you didn't have good emotional self-regulation, trigger, even more anxiety, because you'd be like, "Oh, no, I'm too anxious, I'm gonna mess up, I'm gonna forget what I was gonna say." But instead, if you reframe it, and you say, "Oh, I'm excited," there's data that can help you get back in the driver's seat with respect to your emotions, and allow you to function and perform better. So basically, a lot of people have these tools that they're not even aware that they're using to kind of manage their emotions throughout the day. But as a general category, this is this is an ability and people vary in in their skill level at it. And what's actually kind of cool is that older adults, on average, tend to be much better at emotional self-regulation than younger people. So it does seem like it improves with age on average, and like executive functions, very trainable. So this is a this is all good news, because it's important, and it's trainable.

SPENCER: So how would you actually measure your self-regulation over time?

ELIZABETH: Yeah, so this is one of these things where it's like, for me, as a research-minded person, it's a little frustrating because a lot of the assessments out there are self-report, which makes me a little squirmy inside. But there is sort of an increasing amount of data, that biological measure, which is HRV, which stands for heart rate variability, can be at least nicely correlated with emotional self-regulation. And so there's sort of an early but promising body of research on that. So basically, the idea is, if you wanted to look at your resilience, which is essentially a core part of emotional self-regulation, you can look at what your HRV levels are. And you can start to get a sense of whether you're likely to be generally resilient on a given day, or not. So every morning, for instance, I check my HRV levels, which comes from heart rate, and a lot of smartwatches. Now do this, you can use a chest strap, heart rate monitor to do this as well. And it's measured in sleep, it's ms, I think it's miliseconds have to check that but it's basically you're looking at this number, and you actually want it to be higher. So you want to have high heart rate variability, to be more resilient. And if your heart rate variability falls particularly low, you're also more likely to get sick. And so it's something that you can track while you're, say, doing athletic training as well.

SPENCER: So I think I get how one might measure memory and learning, which is the third item on your list. So let's just talk about creativity. What would you do for that?

ELIZABETH: Yeah, so creativity is one of these really thorny things. And I honestly didn't even want to include it in my book, just because the research literature is so polarized internally. But there are a few definitions of creativity that feel more robust, and some tests that feel a little more robust. And they will certainly piss off a lot of people, because they'll say that's not creativity. But it's at least measurable. So things that you can look at are, there's a task called The Alternative Uses Task. And that's one where you're given some everyday object, say, like a brick, and you have, say, a minute to come up with as many uses for that everyday object as you possibly can. And then at the end, you're rated on the quantity and quality of your ideas. So are they original? Are they potentially useful? And are there a lot of these ideas, and so that ends up being the definition of creativity that I settled on, which was quantity and quality of ideas, and novelty and usefulness. And so that's just one example of a creativity task that has fallen out of the research literature. But on a kind of more real world basis, you can measure your creativity in a particular domain by just your sheer output. So when you look at some of the most creative individuals in history, they tended to be really marked by how prolific they were. And that is definitely a big part of creativity. So if you want to track your creativity over time, one of the best things you can do is just how many of whatever the area is, how many of those items am I producing so if you're a writer, let's say you're a poet, how many poems am I producing, on average during this period versus this period? And then if you want to run experiments, you can say, "Okay, well, during this period of time, I was, say, exercising, right before I sat down, and I wrote my poems. And I did this for, like, let's say, a month, at the end of that month that I produce more poems than I did the previous month where I wasn't doing that." So that's sort of a lightweight way to test that hypothesis for yourself.

SPENCER: So it seems like you're saying, measure your productivity and use it as a proxy for creativity, I feel like I might want to add a quality measure, they're like, okay, measure your productivity, also maybe just subjectively rate, how high quality you think that the work was, and then multiply them together, quantity times quality or something like that?

ELIZABETH: Absolutely. Yep. That's exactly right. So that's, at the end of my creativity chapter, I have an assessment that leads you in that direction, where you're both tracking your output, and also it can be even a subjective self-assessment, like what you said, or it could even be something like, if you're part of an academic program, that could be how your instructors were evaluating your content that you were producing, or if you're a professional, what kinds of awards or what kinds of press you were getting, or even those things can get pretty squirrely and subjective. But you should just pick some metric that you think is a reasonable indicator of quality, and then stick with it and track that over time. So you can get a sense of what interventions are working well, and what's not for your experiments.

SPENCER: The academic literature, my problem with measures of creativity that I've seen is that they tend to fall into either the sort of relatively trivial camp where it's unclear to what extent are really tracks what we care about in creativity, like the object use test is a cool idea. But it's sort of like, well, how close is that really, to what we really care about when it comes to creativity, like coming up with as many ways to use a gingerbread cookie as you can pick over whatever. And then on the other end of the spectrum, there are things that are seemed like pretty good measures of creativity, but they're really hard to measure, like, for example, look at how physicists rate the creativity of different physics papers, right? It's like, okay, that's maybe it's pretty good. But it's just really expensive and time-consuming and difficult. And so yeah, I think creativity is one of these interesting ones, where it may be hard to do better than just sort of subjective measures. Like, okay, how creative did I feel? And how much output did I produce or something like that?

ELIZABETH: Totally. And I think you've nailed two of the biggest problems with this area. And like, a big part of why I initially didn't want to include it in the book. But I think there is another part that I forgot to mention earlier, which is worth including, which is your quality of experience, as you're producing the piece of art or whatever the creative output is. And that is, how often do you hit flow. And that's something that you can actually track. And so for instance, when I'm writing, I have a timer that goes off, it depends on which part of my writing but it could be every 25 minutes, or it could be every 10 minutes, or it could be every hour. And then I record on a scale from one to four, what kind of state I was in, and whether or not ultimately a four is is, is hitting flow. And so if you look back over a period, within your time working on a project, and you see wow, I was in flow a lot on that project, maybe the result of your product was not that great. Like maybe you produce something that just wasn't very creative, elegant or interesting or useful at the end of it. But part of the goal of being creative as a being creative, as a person should I think also be quality of life. I mean, flow is one of the most pleasurable and quality of life-enhancing activities that we do as humans. And people who study positive psychology have found just so many benefits to it. So even though it doesn't fall directly under the usual definitions that we would have of creativity in terms of quantity or quality, I think the process can be as important as the product when you're running these experiments yourself. So that's something that I would add to the checklist of things that you track is just how often do I hit flow?

SPENCER: So as I understand it, you've got a set of interventions for trying to improve these four abilities that we've been talking about. You want to walk us through those interventions.

ELIZABETH: Yeah, sure. When I first started this project, like 10 years ago, I initially was looking for a silver bullet, I thought I would find one panacea that just worked extremely well for everyone and improved cognition overall. And that would be the end of it. And so I interviewed tons of professors and researchers and built devices myself, and it did all kinds of different things. And what I kept running into was, while there are just so many different interventions that could potentially help people, and that there is some data on this thing, improving some aspect of cognition. It's kind of frustrating because I was just not getting the answer that I wanted. And so ultimately, I ended up picking the seven that I ended up picking. Because I narrowed my constraints, sorry, I picked really tight criteria. And I ended up picking these seven because they fulfilled this really strict criteria list. But I mentioned the process because even if there are interventions that I did not include in that list of seven, it's entirely possible that would be a useful thing for you to try as a person because there are such significant individual differences. Person-to-person, and even the same person over time, can benefit from very, very different things. And I'm not answering your question, but I promise I'll get to it in a second. I just kind of want I want to harp on this individual differences thing, just a little bit. There's been a whole field of connectomics research that's been kind of growing and thriving, and flourishing over the last decade or so. And there's been some really cool findings from it that have illustrated how significant individual differences are. So there's a relatively recent paper that looked at wiring differences across people and within the same person over time. And they found that this was a relatively small group, it was under 100 people, but they found that they could identify exactly which person to the same degree as like a fingerprint, they were looking at within the dataset, just from looking at the brain wiring. So the brain wiring was sufficiently the researchers were able to identify individuals at nearly 100% accuracy, because the brain wiring was so unique. So this is using different types of brain imaging, it's MRI, and then you're you're kind of moving through different layers of tissue. And yeah, so there's different ways that you measure wiring, when you're looking at a person versus what you could do if you're working with an animal because you want to leave the person alive at the end of it. And some of the things that we do with animals, they don't necessarily require that the animals alive at the end of it. So yeah, it short answer your question is imaging methods as opposed to like histochemistry, or things where you're actually slicing up the the tissue itself. So anyway, in that in a study, if you looked at the same person over time, on average, they were changing, like 12%, over the course of a year. So they were sort of person different in terms of their wiring at the end of the year than they were at the beginning of the year. So anyway, our brains are very, very dynamic. And we are quite different from one another. So I'm kind of harping on this. But that's, that's really, really why I think self experiments are so important, where you can't just say, "Oh, this research paper came out and found that this intervention was useful. I'm sure it will be useful for me." You really have to test it on yourself. So okay, anyway, I thought I would answer the question about what the seven interventions were that I picked. So basically, they range from pretty cheap to about $500. And they're all things that you can do in less than 15 minutes a day and get a pretty quick improvement, potentially, that could be measurable. And so they also to pass my criteria for being included in the set, they have to have randomized control trial data behind them, that was at least moderately promising. And the studies have also been published in peer reviewed research literature. So there's a lot of things that fall outside of those criterion that I didn't include, and they have to be usable at home, so they can't be invasive. So like Elon Musk's neural link tools are definitely not gonna be candidates for a while. So generally things that are non-invasive, whereas there are neuro tech companies that are focusing on providing invasive technologies for people. So anyway, to finally answer your question, on the lower on the sort of easy end, there's things like exercise, and there's actually strategic use of the placebo effect. So placebo is actually considered a nuisance variable for most researchers. But there's a increasing body of research that's looking into how to actually use it intentionally. And when I was at Harvard, I got a chance to go to dinner with or have a dinner talk by Ted Kaptchuk, who's the head of the Center for Placebo Studies. And he's done really cool research along with a lot of researchers at other universities, looking into exactly how to quantify the effects of placebo. And showing that actually, people can benefit from placebo even when they know they're getting the placebo. So you don't actually have to lie to people to benefit from the mind body connection.

SPENCER: Presumably, you have to at least believe that works though, right?

ELIZABETH: Correct. Yeah. And so well, I mean, kind of, it's funny what they did is the beginning of the study, they just said, you're going to be receiving a placebo. We have found that due to a mind-body connection, people who receive a placebo tend to get benefits. And you may get that that's kind of what they told them. It was a fairly modest humble intervention. And it actually delivered results. So one of the studies that they published was on irritable bowel syndrome. And they found that people had a reduction in symptoms with a placebo group, even when it was a so called Honest placebo.

SPENCER: I love that study design. It's quite funny. It would also be funny if it turned out that it work because they didn't believe the researchers are like these tricky researchers or is lying to you about what they're giving you. It's probably a drug.

ELIZABETH: Yeah, that's funny. Actually, I haven't seen any follow-up on that, that's a great question. They should go back and dig into that. But I think there's been a number of honest placebo studies where that's been the case with a bunch of different research groups. So it's entirely possible that everyone just distrust researchers. But maybe with enough replication, we could check whether or not that's the case.

SPENCER: One of the great things about placebos is that whether you believe they work for you or not, you're right.

ELIZABETH: Yeah. And actually, there's also the nocebo, which is, if you think that something is going to have a negative side effect, it really does tend to so there's this egregious and ridiculous but oddly verifiable stories of people being told that there are side effects to placebo drugs, that they don't realize it's a placebo, but they're taking this drug, and then they're told oh, you're gonna have headaches, and you're gonna have fatigue, and you're gonna have upset stomach, wherever and people come in, and they tell you, "Oh, yes, I had all these things, but it was a sugar pill." Yeah, the mind is wild. In that way. The expectation is really powerful. So yeah, so exercise, placebo, other interventions on the more kind of exotic and are nootropics. So that's substances or pills or compounds that you ingest to enhance cognition. So like, caffeine is a really common one that we're all very familiar with. But there are more exotic ones, too.

SPENCER: What are some of your favorite more exotic nootropics, you think are most promising?

ELIZABETH: Yeah. So it's funny, this is such a, like a weird area. It's very complicated. So I have an entire chapter on this topic. Part of my challenge in answering this question is that in the US, the supplement industry is not at all regulated. And so when I say that the research data for a particular nootropic is promising, I hesitate, because people's ability to get that exact compound that worked well in trials is really limited. And so when you so for instance, I talk about a few nootropics that have a really long history in Chinese medicine or in Indian medicine, and-

SPENCER: Like Tulsi, for example.

ELIZABETH: So for example, Bacopa monnieri, or Rhodiola rosea, or kava, which actually comes from the South Pacific. And there's a tea that I like to drink, which is why use a tea, which comes from the Amazon, all of these things do with the exception of guayusa, so there's less data on guayusa. The previous things I mentioned, do have some actually pretty cool randomized control type trial data on them. But the problem that we run into in the US is that let's say you buy some Rhodiola rosea in pill form from like Walgreens, the likelihood that you're going to get exactly the same amounts as what people took in that study, even if it says that it contains such and such percent rosavins or whatever the underlying ingredients are for that particular nootropic, it may or may not actually have that. So, just because there's just not good regulation of the label, relating directly to what's actually in the bottle. So there are some third party watchdog organizations that have tried to help with this. So for instance, there's a website called labdoor.org. or maybe it's labdoor.com. And they do random tests of some commercially available supplements, vitamins, minerals, etc. And so you can go and you can see whether on their random tests, that particular brand of that particular variety, ended up having a pretty decent ratio between what they said, the bottle contained and what it actually contained. But unfortunately, those ratios are pretty wild. I mean, there are a lot of cases where you're going to get like 50% more or 50% less of whatever the active ingredient is.

SPENCER: Or even get other additives you would not expect.

ELIZABETH: Exactly which is even scarier.Yeah, the additional additives. So that's why I'm, honestly of all the included nootropics in the books just because everyone always asks about it. But honestly, it's not the go-to intervention that I would recommend, because there can be really weird side effects. For instance, I had a friend who was just taking CBD oil, which is seemingly very innocuous. But she had this bizarre interaction with it, and cold medication and she ended up in the hospital for over a week. It's most likely because there was something else in the CBD oil than just CBD oil. Right? And it's because we don't have a regulated supplement industry. So that's why I think it's very sad because this is an area that could have some very, very cool research and could potentially help people a lot and clearly the tradition of Chinese medicine and of Ayuverdic medicine in India, and like there's so many beautiful cultural traditions of groups of people historically who've paid a lot of attention to exactly how herbs work and their effects on people, I think it's just our current way of dealing with this, at least in the US, is not super conducive to having a safe, controllable self-experiments. So, again, you can try it for sure. And I do talk about some ones that have decent data behind them. But it's very, very, very much like a buyer beware situation.

SPENCER: Yeah. I actually have a situation where I ordered a supplement online, and then actually ended up getting notified, the company was required to notify all their customers because they had led or something like this in the supplement. Fortunately, I hadn't actually taken it. So few I dodged a bullet there. And it probably wouldn't have killed me, but not great. You don't want to just lead. So yeah, it's it's can be scary stuff. How unregulated. This is, or how you don't really know what you're buying, and you got to do your due diligence.

ELIZABETH: Oh, yeah, yeah, I mean, and heavy metals are another big big thing. Like with protein powder I used to put whey protein in my oatmeal every morning. And I loved it. Because it really like when I was looking at brain fog for in particular, that combination of things was really helpful. But then I started digging into the research on just like the accuracy and purity of these compounds, on average, when you buy them from the store, and it's just appalling. I mean, it's just really, really scary. So I just I don't take any protein powder anymore.

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SPENCER: Okay, so we got nootropics. So what's next on our list?

ELIZABETH: So neuro-stimulation would be the next sort of sexy area that people get excited about. So there are really big like refrigerator-sized devices that we used to use in like neuroscience labs. And that would be a TMS or transcranial magnetic stimulation device. And there's other kind of related things. Those are not available for at home use. So I didn't include that in the book. But TDCS, which is stands for transcranial direct current stimulation is something that essentially is like a nine-volt battery that you then pass through a circuit, and then you send the current through, typically two electrodes, so that they act as an anode and a cathode on your head. And then you're literally you're sending electricity into your brain. That's one. So that's a fun one. I've built TDCS devices myself, they're not that hard to build, you can buy the relevant parts for under I think we got it for like under 80 bucks. And we just built it at a group of friends, we just built one in an afternoon. And they're fun. It's what's interesting about them is that they work at all, the amount of current that you end up actually sending into your head is the typical protocols are two milliamps at most. So it's a really small amount of current. And it's so little, especially as it goes through your skull, because you're losing a lot of like your skull sort of ends up backing, it has a damping mechanism. You're losing so much current as it moves through that there's sort of a question of whether it's doing anything. But the underlying theory behind it is that if you add just a little bit of current at the right location in your brain, that it's going to increase the likelihood that the neurons underneath are going to fire. And so if you're doing a task that you want to cause those areas to fire more than you sort of increase the likelihood that you can engage the relevant population of neurons by adding that extra little pizzazz, little spark. And the research data is actually kind of interesting. There's now been decades, and 1000s of research papers that have been conducted on this. And it's surprisingly, I mean, it's mixed. But I would say that there are studies that have had some surprisingly good results. And it's not that surprising when you look at the particular locations and the brain that they were targeting. Because those are areas that are A, closer to the surface. And so the underlying function is easier to get at. And also B, those are areas that we understand a bit better than some other areas of the brain where we're just kind of like, I don't know what's going on. Like, if we maybe if we throw some electricity in there, maybe it'll help me it'll make things worse. So yeah, I would say that it's an interesting area, it's relatively simple to use. There are surprisingly few side effects that have been reported in the research literature. It's pretty cheap. I know it's going to scare people. And I think that's reasonable, it is electricity. But it is certainly something that you can play with as a neuro-hacker.

SPENCER: Hmm, I've also heard about vagus nerve stimulation, I don't know whether that's available at home, or if that's something that like needs to be prescribed.

ELIZABETH: That's a great one, unfortunately, the consumer devices were not available yet. Right. As I was finishing my books, I couldn't include them. But that is a really interesting area. And I'm going to keep watching that for the next few years. The underlying science is pretty solid. So the idea is that you're tapping into something called the HPA, which is the hypothalamic pituitary axis, which essentially is kind of regulating your fight or flight behaviors, and just generally relaxation and sort of stress responses. And if you can manipulate those, and you can actively control those yourself, that has a lot of really interesting downstream effects on your ability to pay attention, and be generally alert, which of course, is then kind of the gate way to all subsequent cognition. So your alertness level is sort of step one in anything cognitive. And so controlling that and controlling your sort of relaxation levels are really big levers. And so I'm actually pretty interested in what's going to happen in that area in the next few years.

SPENCER: Cool. Okay, so let's do rapid fire last last three interventions.

ELIZABETH: Yeah. So let's see, where were we had exercise, placebo, video games is a fun one, there's actually an increasing body of research there that's showing that depending on what you're targeting, you can actually improve it significantly. So for each intervention, I talk about the evidence that we have and the particular approaches to improving the for mental abilities that we talked about before. So executive function, emotional self-regulation, memory, learning, and creativity. And so with video games, there are very specific video games that have been demonstrated to help with each of those four mental abilities. So for example, executive function, if I was going to be recommending a video game, self-experiment for people to try and see if it works for them. A cool sort of head to head battle that you could do is between Brain HQ, which was sort of one of the leading brain games, and Lumosity which is another leading brain game. And another cool one for emotional self-regulation is oh, and I should mention that I did work on the research team at Lumosity A while back, but I don't have any existing, like, tie to them financially. So I've no particular, I'm not like advocating that anyone use them for emotional self-regulation. Using Tetris after a traumatic event was kind of a cool study that was done where people had experienced had survived car accidents. And they had a much lower likelihood of developing PTSD afterward if they played Tetris intensely, right after the car accident.

SPENCER: I'm just imagining the paramedics get to smash some Tetris.

ELIZABETH: Yeah, exactly. So they that is kind of how they did it. They ran this study, I believe it was published in Nature. They ran the study, and they recruited and they recruit patients in a hospital, and they did the whole thing in the hospital. And I think the thing I would have guessed, would have been Oh, they're just distracting people. And that's why they're less likely to end up with PTSD, after so they're just like, calmer. But that's actually not what they ended finding. What they found was that, or at least the researchers interpreted the data to be more about their visual systems. So they were less able to kind of visually consolidate the episode of the car accident because their visual systems were so busy solving problems with Tetris. And so the consolidation of the memories actually ended up getting strategically disrupted. And that's probably why they didn't end up with PTSD later on. So it's kind of fascinating is not the mechanism was not what I would have expected doing. So Tetris was one. Yeah, so video games. Oh, also, there were some other ones like Dance Dance Revolution for creativity. That was kind of fun. And then the last few for the interventions. Let's see where were we? Oh, neurofeedback, that's key. That's one of my favorites. That's one that I've used myself. And I've actually found a lot of personal benefit from it.

SPENCER: So that's where you have some kind of brain monitoring device, and you're essentially trying to think a certain way or change your brain state and you can get feedback from the monitoring device in real-time.

ELIZABETH: Yeah, that's basically right. So depending on the particular type of neurofeedback, and what the protocol is, you're either going to be actively trying to change what you're thinking, or you may just sort of let yourself go into whatever state and allow the feedback mechanism to guide you kind of in this kind of weird subconscious way. So the typical setup is you have the electrodes on your head, you can either have eyes closed or eyes open, depending on if you're getting visual or auditory feedback. And then the electrodes are measuring your typical brainwaves. So it's going to be EEG but there are other types of neurofeedback. Like, you can do it in an MRI machine, it's just a lot more expensive. And there are way fewer of those types of Neurofeedback interventions available. But so yeah, the machine is then basing the feedback that it gives you, you're going to get positive reinforcement or potentially negative reinforcement on whether or not you're sort of in the target mental state. So let's say so a lot of a very large percentage of the research literature is devoted to looking at whether Neurofeedback helps with ADHD. And so let's say, you have the classic ratio of two different types of brainwaves. So you've got like, very high, so your theta:beta ratio is also what that means is there's sort of two different types of brainwaves. And having high theta is quite common for people with ADHD. So you want to increase the amount of beta relative to the theta. And in the neurofeedback session, that's sort of what the treatment has been found to be that works relatively well. And so what the neurofeedback system is doing is positively reinforcing, you say with like, nice music whenever you accidentally go into that state. And so over time, your brain learns, oh, if I produce a bit more of this brainwave, and a bit less of this, then I get positively reinforced. But it's really interesting when you're actually experiencing it yourself. And I've done this both in clinic and I've done it at home, you tend to not really be doing anything consciously, you find yourself sort of drifting into this meditative state. So your brain is really kind of doing it automatically. I almost didn't believe it until I was looking at the EEG readout after the session, and I saw the changes happening. But yeah, it is pretty remarkable. And the effects are often quite quick. Like, after I finished my first session, I felt like I just come back from a Caribbean vacation, like I was just very relaxed and energized and refreshed. I mean, for many people, it does work quite well. In my case, it actually helped quite a bit because I was having some issues with attention. And within about eight sessions, so the ratio of certain brainwaves had resettled. And both the biological manifestation of the challenge, and also my behavioral change, my behavioral measures, both had improved at the end of that. And I'm not unique in that there's a lot of people who benefit even as adults from this. But again, individual differences are really, really important. So you should test this for yourself.

SPENCER: And what's the final, the seventh intervention?

ELIZABETH: Yeah, so the last one is blue light. And this is a funny one, because a lot of us have this negative reaction to thinking about blue light, because it's the thing that keeps us up late, and messes with our sleep, because we're staring at our phones and our screens all day, and way too late into the night. But the funny thing with blue light is that it can actually be used to help you to energize you. And so you can use it strategically. And it's been used therapeutically for things like SADs, so seasonal affective disorder, and also for kind of for other types of depression has been used as well. So really, it's funny when it's been examined in a head-to-head battle in studies with caffeine, it tends to perform similarly. So the test that I did is I looked at if I flip coin, and I do blue light, or I could do a cup of coffee, they're kind of similar, but with blue light, you don't get the jitters it's a beautiful intervention because it's very cheap. It can help quite quickly I actually was dealing with seasonal affective disorder myself a few years back and I did not expect to be helped as quickly as I did as I experienced the benefits so it is a really nice one.

SPENCER: I have a life that I think is intended for SAD sitting on my table right here. I don't use it for SAD I just use it for like it jolted me awake in the morning when I turn it on.

ELIZABETH: Yeah, exactly. I mean, that's exactly I suppose I mean you don't need to have SAD. The two groups of people that I would say, you should be extra careful. That are people have an eye condition. Because if you're sending a lot of blue light into your eye, you could potentially damage yourself if you already have some kind of degenerative or other diagnoseable eye conditions. So that's something to watch out for. And then also, if you have a mood disorder, like if you have specifically if you have bipolar disorder.

SPENCER: Yeah, sometimes it makes me feel slightly manic when I would stare at it. So I would definitely caution on that front. Yeah.

ELIZABETH: That's the one caveat where I would say if you feel yourself getting a little too wild and like excited, then maybe just try to be mindful, and maybe don't ever do it.

SPENCER: I just want to add that I think you're not gonna stare directly at it. Right? You kind of like, it seems to be the side of your vision, kind of.

ELIZABETH: That's precisely right. Yeah, yeah, definitely don't want to stick directly into like, that's kind of like, not quite as bad as staring directly into the sun, but definitely not a great idea.

SPENCER: Awesome. So to wrap up, I just wanted to ask how you think about these things, from an evidence point of view. I'm someone who tends to be pretty skeptical. That being said, I think a bunch of things you mentioned, I suspect that there are aspects of a bunch of them that do help people in a bunch of different ways. Whereas some of them may be won't work, although it's kind of hard to say, which is which? So I'm just wondering, how do you think about it overall, like using the use of these things as a proven intervention? Or you just say that they're promising? And then you can use it, you really needed to do your own experiments to see if it works for you? Or how would you advise people move forward?

ELIZABETH: It's a great question about the evidence-based. So the short answer is I picked these seven interventions very carefully. It's a big part of why my book took 10 years to researching, right. So that being said, it is up to each individual to test each intervention to figure out which one works or which ones work best for their particular bottlenecks. And, of course, to work with their doctors. A bit more on how the seven interventions got into my book, each got its own chapter for the simple reason that it seemed the most worthy of the time to test it out for each person. So how I came to that was after evaluating dozens and dozens of alternative interventions, and reading literally hundreds of research papers, I also traveled to meet with scientists around the world. And I tested all seven intervention categories on myself. So at the end of all, that they really did seem to be worth a self-experimenters time. And the evaluation criteria was looking at was really between benefits and costs, expected cognitive benefits, and mental performance benefits and costs in terms of side effects time, and of course, financial expense, as well. And then finally, to check my assumptions, I sent my manuscript to a science fact checking team that was composed of over a dozen wonderful neuroscience students, professors, and professional researchers that were hailing from Stanford, Harvard, Google, UC Berkeley, NYU, and other wonderful research institutions. So they actually contributed terrific insights they sent in corrections that I incorporated as well into my final minister for my book. So does all this mean that I think that all seven interventions will work absolutely perfectly for every single person. Of course not. I mean, the whole point of a personalized approach is that each of us is different. And we need to use proper self-experimentation methods to make those methods but by sizeable and my book breaks it down into 15 minutes a day for 12 weeks, and a simple schedule, so that you can actually try to be as scientific about this as feasible, within your daily life. And then finally, the end notes of my book actually does have references to all the peer reviewed articles that I cite throughout my book. So anyone who decides to read my book is absolutely welcome to pick up the notes section and check out any papers and come to their own conclusions, of course, but yeah, I mean, really, these seven interventions are really are quite exciting, Spencer. So I think every single one is not going to work perfectly for every single person. But again, that's not the point. The point is personalization. The point is to use self-experimentation to find the things that work best for your particular bottlenecks.

SPENCER: That makes sense. Well, I do appreciate your caution. I think it's worth being aware of different interventions that they can experiment with. But I appreciate the caution which you give recommendations, because I agree with you that this stuff is hard to say the stuff is proven, although, definitely some of it is promising. Also, just to add that, if you're doing self-experimentation, I think it can be very hard to find small effect sizes, you might need to do a lot of either, if you're randomize yourself doing an A-B test, you might need to do a lot of trials to find a point one, Cohen's d effect size, right. But if there's a large effect size, you might see a pretty quickly when you start feeling, that really does seem to to make me feel better, I think faster. Yeah.

ELIZABETH: Exactly. And then the program that I described, that I recommend that people try in the book is like a 10 or 12 week program, where you're going to be running an intervention, like an A-B test between two interventions, and that's typically for seven to 10 weeks, because you have you start off with a baseline period and then you also have a washout period at the end. And so what you want is to have an end that is for each subset for A versus for B, you want A to have 15 to 30 sessions associated with it, and B to also have 15 to 30 sessions, so that you have a large enough sample size that you can actually detect, even if it's not a massive effect size. And then I should also say that I've used these seven interventions, I did pick them because they're reasonable effect sizes, they do vary. I mean, it depends on the study, like neurofeedback, for instance, has had studies where people have reported a certain deviation, there's like a full standard deviation improvement, which is for these kinds of things, it's pretty big. And then placebo effects can actually be relatively large. So a lot of things I'm describing, exercise can as well, all these things are ones where you don't have to do it for a year, in order to see the effect like you should, if it's working for you, you should see the effect within a few weeks of actually doing it. And actually, the way that I've designed it is that you test yourself right before you do the intervention. And then right after so literally, when I say it's neuro-hacking for 15 minutes a day, I mean that very literally, you take the first two and a half minutes to do your pretest, then you do 10 minutes of your intervention. And then you do two and a half minutes for your post test. And at the end of your experimental period, you're looking to see if on average for your randomized trials, you did better with intervention A or with intervention B. Does that make sense?

SPENCER: Yeah, sounds like a great protocol.

ELIZABETH: So that's kind of that's the idea. And, again, you could do something with a really small expected effect size. But like, as you pointed out, Spencer, that's kind of a recipe for having to develop a level of patience that I personally don't have. But maybe other people do.

SPENCER: Elizabeth, thanks so much for coming on.

ELIZABETH: Yeah, this was really fun. Spencer, thank you so much.

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Credits

Host / Director
Spencer Greenberg

Producer
Josh Castle

Audio Engineer
Ryan Kessler

Factotum
Uri Bram

Transcriptionist
Janaisa Baril

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Lee Rosevere
Josh Woodward
Broke for Free
zapsplat.com
wowamusic
Quiet Music for Tiny Robots

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Please note that Clearer Thinking , Mind Ease , and UpLift are all affiliated with this podcast.