April 3, 2023

Understanding science

#249 ‒ How the brain works, Andrew’s fascinating backstory, improving scientific literacy, and more | Andrew Huberman, Ph.D.

I want to communicate the beauty and utility of biology. I want to do that by being a teacher and a storyteller.” —Andrew Huberman

Read Time 89 minutes

Andrew Huberman is a Professor of Neurobiology at Stanford University and host of the Huberman Lab podcast. In this episode, Andrew begins with a fascinating discussion about the brain, including the role of the prefrontal cortex in adjusting your ruleset to match your setting, the neural circuitry underlying the ability of stress to limit creativity and problem-solving, the effect of belief on physiology and performance, and more. He speaks about vision being our “superpower” and compares this to animals that rely more on other senses. Next, Andrew opens up about his personal journey, the struggles and losses he has overcome, the value of therapy, and the many great people who helped him along the way. He speaks to his love of biology and discovery and the importance of staying true to your passion rather than being driven purely by ambition. Lastly, the conversation includes a look to the future of Andrew’s scientific work and podcast as well as his unique approach to communicating science and tackling the issue of scientific illiteracy.


We discuss:

  • Exercise under blood flow restriction, lactate utilization, and transient changes in the brain function in response to adrenaline and stress [3:30];
  • The role of the prefrontal cortex in governing rulesets [9:15];
  • New discoveries about the circuitry between the prefrontal cortex, insula, and amygdala, and the insights gleaned about brain function in different emotional states [15:30];
  • Comparing human vision and other senses to animals [26:00];
  • A deep dive into vision: evolutionary adaptations, facial recognition, color, and more [39:45];
  • Sense of smell, pheromones, and why evolution developed better vision over smell [46:30];
  • The relationship between visual input and time perception [55:30];
  • Mindset effects: the effect of belief on physiology and performance [1:00:45];
  • Accessing higher levels of creativity with broadening rulesets and the limiting nature of stress and fear on creativity [1:05:30];
  • Stress and fear increase autonomic arousal, limit access to rulesets, and inhibit performance [1:12:15];
  • Andrew’s upbringing, early childhood, and tough adolescent years [1:15:00];
  • Andrew’s time in a residential treatment program and how he benefited from therapy [1:20:15];
  • The beginning of positive changes in Andrew’s young life [1:28:30];
  • Andrew’s decision to turn his life around [1:37:00];
  • A new passion for science and exercise helps Andrew [1:42:00];
  • The difference between a postdoc and a PhD [1:54:15];
  • Staying in touch with the love of biology and not getting pulled into ambition [1:59:15];
  • Andrew starts his own lab, and continues work to overcome his demons [2:07:00];
  • The loss of three mentors leads to deep soul searching [2:12:00];
  • What motivated Andrew to begin his podcast [2:18:00];
  • Looking to the future of Andrew’s scientific work, podcast, and more [2:22:45]; 
  • Andrew’s unique approach to communicating science and the issue of scientific illiteracy [2:30:00]; and
  • More.


Exercise under blood flow restriction, lactate utilization, and transient changes in the brain function in response to adrenaline and stress [3:30]

Morning workout 

  • Andrew always enjoys seeing Peter, he learns from him; and when he trains with him, he always enters a new pained state
  • This morning he warmed up on the assault bike, then started doing some intervals, and he was going to go for a run when Peter suggested blood flow restriction (BFR)
    • Last time he used the blood flow restriction cuffs on his arms, did some curls with light waits, and those were extremely painful
  • This time he put the cuffs on his legs and locally it was less painful; it was more of a whole body pain
    • Pedaling for two minutes at 220 watts with the cuffs on his thighs, he didn’t feel like his legs were going to pop, instead his whole body felt a little bit swollen
    • When you come off of that two minutes and you take the cuffs off, he can’t really describe the feeling ‒ it’s somewhere between bliss, relief, and a supercharge
  • He took off for a run feeling more energized than he had in a long, long time
  • Peter does this sort of BFR 2-3x a week at the end of a leg workout
  • Using BFR cuffs on the arms is different; he suspects because there’s less fat and it’s easier to compress the vasculature so you get more distal occlusion
    • Peter agrees, “Doing bicep curls with those cuffs on, it is really the definition of hell; and it’s much more of a deep, awful pain in the legs”
  • Andrew enjoyed BRF training; this was his third time doing it
  • He noticed that when it’s done on the upper body, the pain can be very localized and it starts to migrate around in interesting ways
  • He actually learned a thing or two about the distribution of sensory receptors in the upper body
    • For instance, immense pain in the hands, and then the moment you think you can’t tolerate it at all, it migrates to your shoulder and away from the hands
    • With the legs, it’s more evenly distributed
  • He thinks it’s incredible training as long as people don’t try and “cowboy it” and just tie tourniquets
    • You need the proper blood flow restriction cuffs

Benefits of BFR training 

  • Growth hormone increase, minimal soreness despite getting quite a lot of metabolic activity
  • It provides less trauma with more metabolic benefit
  • One reason Peter likes doing the set Andrew did today is he likes exposing his legs to lactate
    • The more lactate you’re exposed to, the more MCT the cells will upregulate
    • Basically you want your cells to become more and more efficient at taking lactate and getting it out of the cell
  • Ultimately lactate is an amazing fuel
    • Its role in neurons is just starting to become appreciated
      • We typically think of neurons as only accepting glucose and ketones, but there is emerging evidence that lactate is a fuel
    • Of course the liver can turn lactate right back into glucose via the Cori cycle
    • The more efficiently our cells can get lactate out and start processing, the better
  • Lactate is not a poison
    • We once thought of lactate as kind of a bad thing
    • It’s only bad if you don’t know what to do with it

Lactate utilization in the brain 

  • Andrew’s understanding of neurons that preferentially use lactate as a fuel, they do so under conditions of high stress or high exertion (it doesn’t have to be stressful)
  • The hypothalamus and areas of the brainstem that control breathing and more primitive functions preferentially utilize lactate first
    • This is evident when you get into an ice bath or any kind of adrenaline shock environment
  • The little neuroimaging that is out there tells us that the prefrontal cortex essentially shuts down because there’s a preferential shuttling of glucose and lactate to other regions of the brain (simply to keep everything online); it’s not shutting down because of a lack of electrical activity
    • The prefrontal cortex is involved in rule-setting and decision making, but really rule and contingency setting

Translated into plain English ‒ if you get into an ice bath or get a shot of adrenaline, your forebrain quiets for 20-30 seconds and all the other systems ramp up to provide survival function; then the forebrain can come online 

The autonomic response associated with hypothalamus and brainstem activation 

  • A lot of people feel hijacked by the autonomic response associated with hypothalamus and brainstem activation 
    • Heart rate goes up, breathing goes up, pupils dilate, tunnel vision;  all of that happens immediately
    • Most people aren’t familiar with those states
  • The more familiar we can become with those states and the fact that they are transient, the lower the probability we get hijacked by them
  • This is classic stress inoculation, but it’s nice to see that nowadays a number of people are doing this outside the military and outside of sports training, and just teaching themselves to be comfortable with that pulse of adrenaline and doing it through deliberate cold exposure or blood restriction cuffs
  • Once you feel that first shot of pain, “How am I going to make it through two minutes of this?” That’s another place where you just keep going and then all of a sudden your brain comes online, then the forebrain comes online

Peter’s takeaway ‒ we evolved to sacrifice the most advanced part of the brain temporarily for the parts of the brain that are absolutely essential (the midbrain, the brain stem)

  • Resources are shunted away from a somewhat gratuitous part of the brain that is the most evolved
  • Realize though, it’s using a broad brush when to say that the forebrain shuts down 


The role of the prefrontal cortex in governing rulesets [9:15]

A powerful discovery made by Nolan Williams  

  • The prefrontal cortex is the brain real estate right behind the forehead; it’s involved in rule-setting by context
  • There’s this classic Stroop task ‒  give people a bunch of cards with words or numbers written on them in different colors, and then you ask them to read the words or the numbers (see the figure below)
    • Or you ask them to tell you the colors and ignore what the words say
    • It sounds easy, but it’s actually pretty hard to do when going fast

{end of show notes preview}

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Andrew Huberman, Ph.D.

Andrew Huberman earned his Bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Santa Barbara. He went on to earn a Master’s degree in Neurobiology and Behavior from the University of California, Berkeley, and a PhD in Neuroscience from the University of California, Davis. He completed his postdoctoral training at Stanford University. 

Dr. Huberman is currently an Associate Professor of Neurobiology and an Associate Professor (by courtesy) of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University. His laboratory studies neural regeneration with the goal of developing treatments to prevent and reverse vision loss. They also study neuroplasticity and circuits for anxiety and visually-driven autonomic arousal. 

In 2021 Andrew started the Huberman Lab podcast where he discusses neuroscience and the connections between the brain, our organs, our perceptions, our behaviors, and our health. This has become one of the top-10 podcasts on Apple Podcasts and Spotify. [Stanford]

Twitter: @hubermanlab

Instagram: hubermanlab

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  1. As an accomplished young competitive swimmer, many years ago, I was able to tell how fast I was going to a tenth of a second.

    If you are interested in any of this, I am happy to communicate. I have long been fascinated by this.

  2. As someone with a milder version of face blindness (prospagnosia), I was reminded of well-known writer/neurologist, Dr. Oliver Sacks, when Peter asked if such patients can recognize themselves in the mirror.

    From Sacks’ article in about his own face blindness in The New Yorker (Aug 30, 2010)

    “Thus, on several occasions I have apologized for almost bumping into a large bearded man, only to realize that the large bearded man was myself in a mirror. The opposite situation once occurred at a restaurant. Sitting at a sidewalk table, I turned toward the restaurant window and began grooming my beard, as I often do. I then realized that what I had taken to be my reflection was not grooming himself but looking at me oddly.”

    For those interested in face blindness, “60 Minutes” had a good story on it in 2012, part of which was replayed in 2021. They also discuss “super recognizers.”

  3. The discussion on vision was very interesting. I was waiting for and wish Peter would have asked, if vision is so fundamental to our experience and interconnected to so many things, what are the implications for a person who is blind? Either from birth or becomes blind at some point in a person’s lifetime? That would be a great question for a follow up episode.

  4. Loved your episode with andrew huberman! His work and your are right at the top of my list of high quality listening – learning stores of information. Thanks for what you do!

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