“Do your own research” (Re: A Vegan’s Take on my video)

One of my viewers, “Unnatural Vegan” (UV) discussed my video What made the Ancient Egyptians Fat and Sick? on their channel. UV’s response video gained quite a bit of interest, amassing over 60,000 views, so I thought I would comment on it. She gets into a lot of topics that are quite interesting for me, so it’s been fun writing this response and rehashing old videos where I covered these before.

“Do your own research!”

I addressed this video a while back in a kind of lazy way, almost as lazily as saying “Do your own research!” (I referred everyone to look at Dr. Michael Eades’ talk on the subject)

I was having a chat with a friend recently and he was asking me how to deal with the fact that there are so many people pushing one view that goes against another, but they both have sound logic and cite scientific studies. So when people say Do your own research! it’s a cop out in my opinion.

My rule of thumb is: pay attention who is willing to dig the deepest and welcome the most nuance. For example, who is asking and answering the most why-s, what-s, where did that idea come from-s. (And of course relies less on things like ad hominem logic or emoting, as in “As evidence of the incredulous nature of this point, observe my flabbergasted expression.“) Unfortunately, the most thorough argument doesn’t always make the most compelling argument.

So, people who say “Do your own research” either (a) don’t understand the topic well enough to actually explain it themselves, (b) they lack enough correctness to sufficiently explain themselves, or (c) they’re too lazy. (However, they would prefer to spin themselves as “busy.”)

Like in my case, when I wrote this post, I wasn’t being “lazy” by redirecting people to Michael Eades talk instead of explaining how stable isotopes work, I was too “busy!”

If you are one of the few people who watched my video, watched the “debunking” of my video and then went a step further and are now here reading the debunking of the debunking, then I applaud you.

1. (00:00) Squiggly Lines

The video opens with Unnatural Vegan being flabbergasted that I would draw squiggly lines on a graph. Worry not, these squiggly lines in my video were not used to draw conclusions and were only for comic effect. Had I said something like “As this squiggly line indicates…[yada yada] …proving my point that…” –this indeed would be concerning. 

I’m not sure which of my arguments this squiggly would bolster. 

Anyone who watches my channel will know I’m not trying to be PBS Frontline. I use things like Simpsons clips to make the video entertaining …they’re not there to support my claims. 

“This is a complete misrepresentation of the USDA’s Food Pyramid. Joseph seriously needs to get his sources straight. Not to mention everyone knows Dr. Nick Riviera had his medical license revoked in 1994.”

At this point I would like to point out that Unnatural Vegan provides absolutely no evidence that my video directly resulted in her brain being broken, nor does she discuss the nature of the brain injury (not even distinguishing between skull fracture or neural tissue damage) , making this claim even more difficult to verify.

2. (1:07-5:45) – Ancient Egyptian Diet 

The New Food Pyramid

The statement from my video that she is addressing is “Egyptians with their bread based diet were essentially following the 1991 USDA food pyramid.

I presented a study titled Diet of ancient Egyptians inferred from stable isotope analysis[1] which explains that analysis of the hair of Ancient Egyptians indicated they surely got less than 50% of their protein from animals, but more likely around only 19 to 29% of their protein was from animals.

Quote from the paper: “This proportion is similar to that of 32% observed in present-day ovo-lacto-vegetarians and lower than the average of 64% of present-day omnivores.”

Then of course a common reasoning for why we found heart disease in ancient Egyptian mummies is: Mummies had heart disease because they were the ones who could afford to be mummified and therefore could afford to eat loads of animal foods and give themselves heart disease.

To address this, I reference another stable isotope analysis study[2] that says “A rather surprising observation is the lack of differences between isotopic composition of remains of different social classes…”

In response to this study, Unnatural Vegan says around 2:47 that “there’s not a big difference between beef fed on grains and grains themselves …a peasant who’s eating mostly grain and consuming smaller amounts of different meats like meats that royalty aren’t eating could look very similar in terms of nitrogen ratio compared to a pharaoh who’s eating almost exclusively beef. As explained in the study he references.”

(1) No, this is not explained in the study. The study doesn’t say anything along the lines of ‘there is little difference between a bread scarfing peasant and a beef gorging Pharaoh.’ In fact, it would be quite odd if this study said you can’t use stable isotopes to understand the amount of plant versus animal foods in the diet …considering one of the aims of the study was “to determine the amount of plant versus animal food in the diet.”

Yes, there will be a different between the beef and what the cow was eating. The Nitrogen-15 and Carbon-13 content will be different for the cow and what the cow ate. As explained in a study titled Stable Isotope Ratios as Biomarkers for Health Research[3] the Carbon 13 in the animal will be 1% higher than the animal’s food, and the Nitrogen 15 will be 3 to 4% higher than the animal’s food.

To my point, here’s a figure from the study showing a clear difference between vegans and omnivores. (The triangles on the top right are for inuit who we’d expect their data to lie there as they eat a lot of marine food.)

(2) What the study does say, as she shows on screen at 3:13, is: “This does not necessarily mean that no dietary differences existed between the very poor classes and wealthy people but, if they existed, they are not detectable by isotopic analyses.”

This sounds like the authors are being good scientists and admitting it’s possible their methods or samples may not have been perfect. They’re saying it’s possible that there are differences undetectable by isotope analysis, not that isotope analysis is not useful for understanding diet. As explained in the introduction of the study, one point of the study was to understand “whether diets could be related to social classes.” If they knew for certain that you couldn’t determine the difference between a grain eating peasant and a beef eating pharaoh with stable isotope analysis, why would they conduct the study?

In any case, for now, let’s go with the point that Unnatural Vegan is making: Stable isotope analysis is not perfect. Let’s look elsewhere to see if there’s evidence for my claim that “Egyptians with their bread based diet were essentially following the 1991 USDA food pyramid.”

The Worn down Teeth of the Egyptians

First, let’s take a look at Ancient Egyptian Teeth. In an article in a 1972 issue of the Journal of Egyptian Archeology[4], F. Filce Leek was trying to get to the bottom of a puzzling observation on ancient Egyptian skulls: They had terrible teeth. However, it wasn’t necessarily that they all had cavities, but that their teeth were terribly worn down. Even to the point that some people had already worn their teeth down to the dental pulp by early adulthood. 

See where the “Pulp Cavity” is? That’s how far down some of their teeth were worn off.

In fact, a study of 4800 ancient Egyptian teeth found that 90% of them had evidence of tooth wear.[5]

Leek wrote that since bread was such a staple in the ancient Egyptian diet, they would start investigating there. Here he cites a paragraph from the book Food in Egypt that says “The most important food of the Egyptians was bread… …The fondness of Egyptians for bread was so well known that they were nicknamed ‘artophagoi’ , or ‘eaters of bread’; it was the food par excellence, and the word was and has remained synonymous with food in this country.”

The Discovery of King Tut's Tomb

Leek wrote: “Several pieces of bread were found by Howard Carter during his excavation of the tomb of Tut’ankhamūn(King Tut), placed there for sustenance of the resurrected King.” Carter even found a model of a hand-mill for grinding grain in the tomb. 

Since bread was so important to apparently all classes of people in ancient Egypt, maybe the bread itself would hold some clues to what was happening to the Egyptians’ teeth. Since they had actual samples of ancient bread, they conducted a radiological examination of the bread and found clear “presence of inorganic particles in many of the specimens.” They found bits of minerals in the bread. More specifically, sand. 

The principle source, quite understandably, is from contamination with wind-blown desert sand.” Leek explained that the grain and resulting bread could be contaminated with sand at essentially every stage of the bread making process. He wrote that numerous statements from ancient papyri support this claim, with a typical one being ‘… I will repay in the month of Pauni of the present third year, in wheat that is new, pure, unadulterated, free from earth and barley and sifted.’

Leek wrote: “It became quite evident that the abrasive particles found in these samples of bread would more than account for all the attrition to be seen in ancient Egyptian skulls, so much so that further investigation was clearly unwarranted.”

Long story short: Bread was a huge staple of the ancient Egyptian diet, and Egyptians ate so much of this sandy bread that it ground their teeth down. 

Dr. Michael Eade’s talk titled ‘Paleopathology and the Origins of the Low-carb Diet’ is what lead me to this concept and Leek’s paper I just discussed above, as well as some of the concepts discussed in my video that Unnatural Vegan went on to respond to. Dr. Eade’s talk is really intriguing and he’s a great presenter – I recommend giving it a watch. In the talk, Eades was explaining that the bread makers would attempt to sift as much sand out of their bread as possible, but were never entirely successful. What made me laugh was when he said: “There were even ads back then saying buy Joe’s bread, it has less sand.

Too Poor to afford Cavities

So one of the points regarding heart disease found in Egyptian mummies goes something like ‘Only the rich could afford to eat meat and saturated fats, and because only the rich could afford to go through the mummification process, what we’re seeing is a bunch of rich people who gorged on saturated fat and meat and got heart disease because of it.’ 

Mummy scan

Case in point: an article from livescience.com writes of an Egyptian princess in her 40s who suffered from heart disease: “Ahmose-Meryet-Amon likely lived a more active life and ate a healthier diet than the average American today. She would have eaten lots of vegetables, fruit, wheat and barley, along with some lean meat. That makes it difficult to understand how two of her three main heart arteries were blocked.”

From the lens of the ol’ 1991 “eat low fat and high carb to save your heart” advice, indeed this would be difficult to understand. She’s following the food pyramid, …yet had heart disease.

So… they reason: “It’s possible that, as a royal, Ahmose-Meryet-Amon ate more meat, butter and cheese than the average Egyptian.

In my video, I suggested evidence points to the mummies who got heart disease eating a high carb diet. Well, if we’re not too confident in stable isotopes, maybe we can look at the teeth. So the question becomes: Did the rich people who could afford the embalming process have worn teeth as well?

Well, as already discussed above, Leek’s study of 4800 ancient Egyptian teeth found that 90% of them had evidence of tooth wear.[5] But let’s look at another source, this paper titled Dental status of three Egyptian mummies.[6]
The first mummy they looked was the “best model of the embalming techniques.” (I wonder how much he paid for that.) As for teeth wear: “All teeth had marked wear of the incisal edges and occlusal surfaces. This finding is commonly encountered in Egyptian mummies …and most likely results from wear to the enamel due to chewing hard foods… or to the presence in flour of siliceous residues from grinding stones.

They even wrote that the the pulp of the incisors rotted either from trauma to the incisor or “intense incisal wear.” Sounds like people who could afford to be mummified were eating a lot of sandy bread.  

Here’s an interesting bit regarding Mummy #2: “An uncommon finding, indicative of the subject’s relative wealth, was the presence of dental caries(cavities) on the distal aspect of tooth #15 and the mesial aspect of tooth#16, with pulp cavity involvement, most probably a result of the availability of sweet and starchy foods for the wealthier classes.

6 Foods that are Bad for your Teeth — Tulsa Teeth Cleaning | Tulsa Modern  Dental
Cute Graphic from Tulsa Modern Dental

I don’t think you’ll find anyone saying meat and animal fat cause cavities… but it’s been understood since at least 1949 (image to the left) that most agree carbs, and especially sugar, will give you cavities.

So, if royalty had more cavities than the commoners, wouldn’t that mean they ate even more carbs than the commoners?

Cavities do seem to have been prevalent with the rich in ancient Egypt. As explained in Dentists, Dentistry and Dental Diseases in Ancient Egypt,[7] around 2,100 years ago, a young wealthy man from Thebes dying from a sinus infection caused by a mouthful of cavities and other tooth ailments.

That same paper explains how royal mummies’ teeth were so bad that they had to have had brass and wood carved artificial ones.[7]

A 2016 article from the The Times of Israel discusses a 2,200 year old mummified priest going on display in Jerusalem. The author writes that “He still has most of his teeth, but suffered from cavities and receding gums, as well as osteoporosis. Like people nowadays, he indulged in too many carbs and spent too much time indoors.

Another paper 2015 paper says this isn’t rare: “caries decay of the teeth of Egyptian aristocrats is a frequent observation, effect of a copious consumption of processed carbohydrates.”[10]

Comparing individuals from the periods Old Kingdom(OK)(2686〜2181 BC) and Ptolemaic(PP)(305〜30 BC), this paper from 2014 says: “The observed higher frequency of carious lesions in the PP sample could indicate that the individuals’ diet was richer in sugars and starches, the source of the latter being bread and cereals.[8]

Now you being the astute reader, are saying ‘I see where you’re going with this, but did these Ptolemaic mummies even have heart disease?’ The answer would be “Yes.” Not just the Ptolemaic mummies either. A 2011 paper specifically looking at mummies from different time periods says: “Definite or probable atherosclerosis was present in mummies who lived during virtually every era of ancient Egypt represented in this study, a time span of >2,000 years. Conclusions: Atherosclerosis is commonplace in mummified ancient Egyptians.“[9]

Not just Bad Teeth, Bad bones

So, we’ve got decent evidence that mummies who had heart disease also ate a bunch of carbs. Remember that earlier point Unnatural Vegan wanted to refute, that the poor and the rich were both eating high carb diets? Here’s another quote from the 2014 paper:

…only marginal differences in the prevalence rates of porotic hyperostosis observed between the OK élite population and PP lower status individuals from Saqqara-West could suggest that there were no major differences in the diet consumed by different social classes, or that foods of animal origin consumed predominantly by the wealthier in the Old Kingdom became more available to the commoners in the Ptolemaic Period.”[8]

So what’s porotic hyperostosis?

Image result for porotic hyperostosis

Essentially, it’s a pathology that affects the skull and causes the bone to become spongy or porous. The reason the authors from that earlier study are discussing this as an indicator of animal food intake is because porotic hyperostosis is a sign of anemia, which is typically due to an iron deficient diet.

Iron deficiency being the cause is widely accepted, although non-diet factors like infectious diseases and blood loss are suspected to play a role[12]. Megaloblastic anemia is also thought to be a cause, and this is caused by a deficiency in vitamin B12 (which Egyptians would need to have gotten from animal products) or folate (comes from liver, meat or leafy greens). [14]

If the rich are experiencing as much porotic hyperostosis as the poor, this would suggest that the rich are not eating all that much meat. This 2015 study looking at a Royal Cemetery complex in upper Egypt found that 77% of those in the Royal tomb had some level of porosis.[11] Considering the most bioavailable form of iron – heme iron, which comes from meat, they shouldn’t be experiencing iron deficiency if they had been eating gobs of meat.

Wait, wait. We’re “doing our own research,” remember? What if these bone defects are caused by blood loss from schistosomiasis and hookworm, as suggested in the above 2015 study?[11] Well, shouldn’t we expect eating plenty of meat to ameliorate that? I think most people are familiar with the fact that if you need to recoup blood, you should eat some meat. The university of Utah “prescribes”beef liver for women after blood loss during childbirth.[15] In a 2019 study looking at Inuit and levels of Caribou consumption, it explains that blood loss is a possible to contributor to inuit anemia, and more than half of those in the study were affected with H. Pylori (also understood to contribute to anemia[16]). Unsurprisingly, those eating the most caribou experienced the least anemia.[17]

So what’s left? Since Ancient Egyptians weren’t instagramming their food we can’t say exactly what they ate. We can’t say for certain that they didn’t eat tons of cheese and butter.

So, in an agricultural society that led to even to the rich experiencing bone porosis from anemia, in a diet dominated by enough bread to grind their teeth down, and enough starchy/sweet carbs to riddle their mouths with enough cavities, was it some saturated fat rich cheese and butter that caused their health issues?

Did I miss something?

(This ends the discussion of Unnatural Vegan’s video. The rest of it was basically justifying that yes saturated fat is bad and meat is bad – topics I’ve covered before so I’ll leave that.)

To be honest, I do think I sacrificed some nuance for the sake of the watchability of the video. Dr. Paul Saladino discussed this on his podcast – See here from 42:35.

He says: “I do not believe carbohydrates cause metabolic dysfunction and diabetes. …I believe it’s a long process initially sparked with seed oils in the diet.”

I think this is a good a point. In the video I should have clarified that “benign” carbohydrates by themselves (that is, just glucose) probably won’t cause diabetes. (For example in my Fructose video I paint Glucose as relatively benign compared to Fructose, based on Dr. Robert Lustig’s work.)

Dr. Saladino specifically points to seed oils being the problem (as he explains, Egyptians did have seed oils in that time.) I would agree, and add that excessive fructose or perhaps excessive gluten could also be factors in diet causing diabetes. The Egyptians would have had access to all three. See the following videos for more. (Dr. Knobbe’s presentation is highly recommended.)

Saladino also says that it’s more likely nutrient deficiencies leading to dental issues rather than simply the addition of carbs in the diet. Particularly the lack of fat soluble vitamins being the source of dental issues.

This is indeed well established in Weston Price’s Nutrition and Physical degeneration – highly recommended for anyone interested in the origins of modern diseases. (On that note, another avenue to explore is whether a lack of choline[18] could have helped Egyptians get their diabetes.)

Only one thing from my personal experience is that: Both my brother and I have found that when we get back into carbs, we get tooth pain and our gums get sensitive, even though we get plenty of fat soluble vitamins in our diet. I realize anecdotes are a very low form of evidence (even though I have a whole two anecdotes), but this has been a point of curiosity for me.

I agree with Dr. Saladino that there’s more to the story.

So, is my video bunk because I don’t understand how stable isotope analysis works? No.
Was it actually the saturated fat and butter that caused the Ancient Egyptians health problems? Highly unlikely.

[Pardon the lazy citation format. All numbers above are hyperlinked to the source research]
1 – Diet of ancient Egyptians inferred from stable isotope systematics
2 – An isotopic palaeoenvironmental study of human skeletal remains from the Nile Valley
3 – Stable Isotope Ratios as Biomarkers for Health Research
4 – Teeth and Bread in Ancient Egypt
5 – Dental Health and Disease in Ancient Egypt
6 – Dental status of three Egyptian mummies
7 – Dentists, Dentistry and Dental Diseases in Ancient Egypt
8 – A study of social stratification and physical health in an ancient Egyptian population of Saqqara.
9 – Atherosclerosis in Ancient Egyptian Mummies: The Horus Study
10 – Tutankhamun’s Dentition: The Pharaoh and his Teeth
11 – Variation in porotic hyperostosis in the Royal Cemetery complex at Abydos, Upper Egypt: a social interpretation
12 – The causes of porotic hyperostosis and cribra orbitalia: a reappraisal of the iron-deficiency-anemia hypothesis
14 – Megaloblastic Anemia
15 – After Blood Loss During Childbirth
16 – Helicobacter pylori and iron deficiency anemia: guilty as charged?
17 – Potential impact of restricted caribou (Rangifer tarandus) consumption on anemia prevalence among Inuit adults in northern Canada
18 – Choline, Its Potential Role in Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease, and the Case for Human and Bacterial Genes

What made the ancient Egyptians Fat and Sick?

This is the transcript for my video of the same title published on July 27th, 2020

What was making ancient egyptians fat? The architect Hemiunu’s statue suggests he was overweight with a serious case of man boobs. National Geographic reported that King Tut had large deposits of fat on his hips and breast-like fat clumps on his chest. And the mummy of Hatshepsut was very fat, and probably had diabetes. It was found as early as 1911 that Egyptian mummies had heart disease.[R] In fact more than half of 43 middle aged mummies examined had heart disease.  What was making them so sick?
We’ll get to that story, but first we need to connect a few dots. 

Imagine you’re going on a date with someone you’re really into. You’ve arrived at the restaurant 10 minutes early because you need to use the bathroom. After some time, unfortunately you lose your battle with constipation, you leave the toilet defeated, and off you go to greet your date bloated and gassy.

Now imagine this uncomfortableness being a common occurrence for 10 years straight except it’s far worse. Your gut is inflamed to the point that you have open wounds and polyps on the lining of your intestines. You get stomach pain and cramps, diarrhea, there’s blood in your stool and you’re often drained tired.
This is a disease called ulcerative colitis, which a 71year old man from was suffering through. His health was pretty bad, he was also taking insulin and pills for his diabetes and high blood pressure. 

What’s interesting about this man is the unconventional diet he used to actually put both his ulcerative colitis and diabetes into remission, which by the way are both diseases thought to not have a cure. What’s also interesting is why his endocrinologist recommended he stop that oddly magical diet and do a different one. 

 I learned about this man after interviewing Doctor Paul Mason of Sydney Australia on Skype. 
…the guidelines by and large do not reflect evidence-based science – they’re distorted facts, they’re not based on science and following them does not lead to optimal health.” -Mason

Dr. Mason shared several surprising and somewhat controversial points, but this 71 year old man’s story happens to back up each of those points.
So, let’s look at the new diet that drastically improved the man’s health, and we’ll look at how it came to be that a medical professional – his endocrinologist would recommend that he go back on the type of diet that probably made him sick in the first place.

So, the 71 year old man’s new diet had plenty of saturated fat, yet his endocrinologist recommended he stop that and eat a diet low in saturated fat. You’ve probably heard a lot about saturated fat by now, but let’s look at the logic and history that led to health professionals making this recommendation

At the time, the logic was based on a flawed hypothesis supported by junk science. And that was what we call the diet heart hypothesis – it was by a guy called Ancel Keys, he was a physiologist and an epidemiologist and he had the hypothesis that serum cholesterol and saturated fat were causally related to heart disease and this was based on some experimental data for instance what happens if you feed rabbits which are herbivorous a high saturated fat diet so clearly this has no relevance for humans at all. And its based on an epidemiological study which has now been well and truly debunked called the Seven Countries Study where he basically cherry picked data from some countries that he liked the results of.” – Mason

Before Ancel Keys released the Seven Countries Study, he first presented a graph in 1953 showing data from six countries found the more fat a group of people ate, the more heart disease they had. It made for a very convincing chart.[R]

However, just four years later in April 1957, Biostatistics PhD Jacob Yerushalmy and Medical Doctor Herman Hilleboe presented a strikingly different chart using the same pool of data that Ancel Keys was using.[R

Their chart showed that the more fat people ate, the less heart disease there was. How could that be?
Well, Ancel Keys didn’t have data for only 6 or 7 countries, there was data for 22 countries. When you look at the data for all 22 countries, there’s no convincing relationship between fat and heart disease. 

Regardless, four years later, a 1961 issue of Time Magazine featured Ancel Keys and explained to the public that eating saturated fat raises your cholesterol and this causes heart disease. At the end of the article it says Keys’ cholesterol was 209. 

That’s funny because President Dwight Eisenhower had a much lower cholesterol of only 165 when he had his heart attack in 1955.

A couple years later, in a 1987 New York times article competing for real estate with a women’s summer suit ad, Famous Heart Surgeon Dr. Michael DeBakey said that his 30 years of experience with over 15,000 patients led him to conclude that high cholesterol was not the cause of heart disease.

So if we were to take saturated fat for instance, there’s been more than 10 systematic reviews and meta analyses which is where we actually compile all the data together looking at saturated fat and polyunsaturated fat and on balance, they find in favor of saturated fat. Higher saturated fat consumption is not associated with worse health.” – Mason

Another change that helped the 71 year old man fix his health was a drastic reduction in carbs. His endocrinologist on the other hand after seeing his excellent lab results, recommended instead he eat more carbs like whole grains as well as fruit and vegetables.  

This high carb recommendation starts at least as early as 1977 when Dietary Goals for the United States was released to the public thanks to George McGovern.[R, R2] These goals, driven by the idea that fat and cholesterol cause heart disease, recommended reducing saturated fat to just 10% of the diet and raising carbohydrates to 60% of the diet. However, there was plenty of opposition to this at the time. 

And I have pleaded in my report and will plead again orally here for more research on the problem before we make announcements to the american public.” – Dr. Robert Olson

I said to the professor that I was working with – you know, this is not right – animal fat is not causing this and this is not what the data says.” -Biochemist Mary Enig PhD

You know, there were imminent scientists at the time saying this is nonsense, there is no good scientific evidence that either fat or cholesterol y’know is at the root of heart disease.” -Dr. Mary Dan Eades

Back in the early 80’s[S] Luise Light was the leader of a group of top-level nutritionists specifically hired by the USDA to develop an eating guide. After pouring through all kinds of nutrition data with her team, Luise’s guide recommended at most 3-4 servings of grains per day. Not long after submitting the report, she was shocked to see that they made some drastic revisions like increasing the grains from 3-4 to 6- 11 servings a day.[What to Eat, Luis Light, M.S., Ed.D.

As she wrote in her book[S], Luise told her boss, the agency director that these changes would be “disastrous,” and would mean unleashing obesity and diabetes upon Americans. Despite her objections they decided to stick with their version. What was the reason they gave her? Well, it had nothing to do with health – they said that jacking up the grain recommendation would cut costs for the food stamp program. Fruits and vegetables were expensive. Grains were cheap. 

Despite Luise’s protests, In 1991, the food pyramid was released, recommending 6 to 11 servings of grains every day. Even before this though, the original high carb recommendation from 1977 was taking its toll on people’s health. 

If you look at the obesity trends, people started to get fat pretty much right when George McGovern issued his report recommending low fat high carbohydrate diets. We replaced steak and pork chops for pasta, butter with margarine, eggs and bacon for cereal with skim milk and grandma’s all butter cookies for Snackwell’s low fat cookies. And, we became fatter than ever.

Are there any consequences, you know, domino effects of this idea that you should not eat saturated fat, you shouldn’t eat- you should cut the fat off your steaks, you shouldn’t have full fat yogurt, you need to have skim milk… what are the down stream effects of that?” -Joseph to Mason

Well I mean we only have three main sources of macronutrients. Which is y’know carbohydrate, protein, and fat. And, you can only eat so much protein. …and you cut out the fat in the diet, then that really leaves only one thing – that means you have to increase your carbohydrate intake. And, what most people don’t realize is that carbohydrates are literally molecules of sugar joined together. Even the complex carbohydrates, you know the brown rice, the sweet potatoes, the whole meal bread. They are literally chains of glucose – sugar molecules joined together. And when you ingest them, they get absorbed into your circulation – you end up with what we call elevated blood sugar levels. And long term and high levels of carbohydrate consumption, we know are causally associated with a condition called insulin resistance which eventually leads to diabetes. And what’s the problem in diabetes? Well everybody knows, right? It’s having excess glucose – this particular type of sugar in the bloodstream. And, when we eat more carbohydrate, we put more sugar in the bloodstream – that sugar’s gotta come from somewhere, right? So, if I explain this to most of my patients, they’ll often look at me and say so why don’t I stop eating carbohydrate? And you know what? That is the solution, it’s really that simple, this is treating diabetes 101. And yet this concept that carbohydrates are made of glucose, they cause a rise in our blood sugar, therefore they’re not good for us is beyond the grasp of most doctors.” -Mason

Going back to the fat and sick egyptian mummies – what did they eat? Well, as Dr. Michael Eades explains, a modern nutritionist would say the ancient egyptian diet was just fantastic. 

The basic ancient egyptian diet had some plant oils, they also fished and ate some fowl and had the occasional serving of red meat, but the diet was mostly carbohydrates, primarily bread. They also had fruits, vegetables and honey. As explained in a paper in the Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, “The most important food of the egyptians was bread.” In fact the Egyptians were nicknamed Artophagoi which means eaters of bread.[R

You can find several figurines depicting people grinding wheat, as well as art depicting people harvesting wheat or preparing bread. Egyptians with their bread based diet were essentially following the 1991 USDA food pyramid.
Some people have argued that well it was only the rich who could afford to be mummified or have statues made of their fat selves made and only the rich could afford to buy and eat many saturated fat containing animal foods …so that’s why the mummies hard heart disease.

However, scientists have a really interesting way to determine what ancient people ate called stable isotope analysis. By looking at how much of an isotope of Nitrogen called Nitrogen 15 is in the bones of a person or animal, and then comparing that to the Nitrogen 15 content of plants in that area, they can tell whether an animal or person’s diet had more meat or more plants in it. 
Dr. Eades explains that this kind of stable isotope analysis found that the egyptians got only 29 to 19% of their protein from animal sources – not only was most of their protein coming from plants, but their diet as a whole was mostly grains and plants, which means very little saturated fat. The researchers described it as being close to a lacto-ovo-vegetarian diet.[R] And, as this paper explains, there was a surprising lack of difference in the stable isotope composition between social classes, meaning everyone, rich or poor, was eating a generally high carb low saturated fat diet.[R

I remember when I was planning on doing a low carb diet, a couple of people were saying you can’t just cut a whole food group out, you can’t just not eat pasta, not eat bread… you need carbohydrates. Is that true – do we, is there a biological requirement for dietary carbohydrate?” -Joseph to Mason
So I will say right now and I’ll say it explicitly. There is no need for dietary carbohydrate. In other words, the theoretical minimum consumption of carbohydrate that is consistent with good health is zero. Now this doesn’t mean that some tissues in our body don’t need to use carbohydrate – they don’t need to use glucose – which is a carbohydrate. But it means we don’t need to eat it because if our body needs it, it can make it. It can make it from certain amino acids, it can make it from the glycerol backbone which forms the triglyceride type of fat, so we do not need to eat carbohydrate – the notion that we need at least 130 grams of carbohydrates a day to support or neurological function is based on nothing but junk science. So, I will again say we do not need to eat dietary carbohydrate, it is not an essential nutrient.” -Mason

That might be shocking to hear that the requirement for dietary carbohydrate is zero. Yet, again this 71yo man’s case proves the point: his diet had virtually zero carbohydrates. His diet was in fact an all meat diet – no carbs, no grains, no fruits, not even vegetables. I know that for some of you, saying an all meat diet cured this man’s diabetes and ulcerative colitis might sound like I just said you could cure eczema and baldness by eating Elmer’s glue. 

But bare with me for a moment and let’s look at it in terms of what he’s not eating. As Dr. Paul Mason explained, not eating carbohydrate would be good for lowering his blood sugar which would improve his insulin resistance and improve his diabetes. In fact, the endocrinologist even acknowledged in the report that the reason he wouldn’t need his diabetes medication metformin is because the reduction of carbs improved his blood sugar. 

But this man had a painful, constipating bowel condition, yet we all know fiber is good  for our bowels, it’s good for pooping. Yet, this man’s new, no fiber diet healed his bowel condition.

“Well, on the topic of carbohydrates, what about fiber, isn’t that a carbohydrate that’s good for you – it’s good for your digestion…?” – Joseph to Mason

Well, technically yes, Well yes it is a carbohydrate but no it’s actually not that good for you and that’s going to surprise a lot of people. So the definition of fiber is that it’s an indigestible carbohydrate – indigestible as far as your body goes, it can’t be absorbed or broken down by your body. And there’s a lot of myths surrounding fiber… It only comes from plant foods, and it’s often thought that it can prevent and treat constipation which is the most common belief around it and it would surprise a lot of people to know that there’s an absolute parcity of studies that actually support that. So, to my knowledge, there’s been no randomized controlled studies on the effects of fiber on the symptoms on constipation. And I say that very precisely – so the symptoms of constipation means things that bother people – things like pain and bloating and bleeding. So, there has been some evidence that shows that having fiber can actually increase the bulk of your stool. There have been some studies that show that having fiber can actually increase – well, reduce the transit time, meaning things transit through the intestinal tract a little bit quicker. But when you have a look at the symptoms that patients come and ask me about – they say:‘doc I’ve bloating – it hurts. I’ve got pain.’ Y’know,‘I have some bleeding, can you help me?’ There’s been no evidence at all that demonstrates that fiber is beneficial. In fact, when we have a look at the best available evidence on this – there was an experimental study that was performed in 2012 and subjects with constipation found that complete elimination of dietary fiber – that is, an intake of 0 grams of dietary fiber led to complete improvement in all the symptoms of constipation in 41 patients. So, this is absolutely staggering. The statistical significance of this study was through the roof. And, these people were compared to people on various other levels of fiber intake from high fiber to moderate fiber and low fiber diets and you could see a clear dose response relationship between the symptoms of constipation and the amount of fiber intake. And when you think about it logically, so, what is constipation? So effectively constipation is trouble passing fecal matter. You’re trying to pass something through a small hole. So, is it really logical that making that something bigger is going to make it easier to pass through a small hole? When you think about it, that’s like adding more cars to a traffic jam and expecting the traffic to suddenly clear… it just defies logic.” -Mason

Many people can handle tons of fiber in their diet,  but some people just can’t process fiber as well, and in fact we shouldn’t expect high fiber to be the norm for humans. 

If you dig into our evolutionary past, you’ll see that our gut shrank significantly around the time that we got these huge brains.[R] The brain is a very energy expensive organ, so we needed to make things more efficient. To achieve this efficiency, the gut shrank. And the idea is that this happened as began hunting animals for nutrient dense meat and energy dense fat. More calories and more nutrients in a smaller package means we can sacrifice all that gut real estate and use resources on building a huge brain. 

The reason gorillas for example have these gigantic bloated bellies is because they are packing their guts with difficult to digest fiber all day. Gorillas have a huge colon that is specifically for fermenting fiber to produce short chain fatty acids. These fatty acids are an energy source. In this way, a lowland gorilla will get 30-60% of their energy needs just by fermenting fiber in their big colon. The human digestive tract shrunk so much that the small human colon on the other hand can only provide at best 2-9% of our energy needs from fermenting fiber.[R]

“I guess this raises another important point – we’ve often put plants up on a pedestal as being uniquely nutritious and uniquely healthy and yet they do contain things like oxalates, and phytates and tannins that actually impair nutrient absorption – they’re literally called antinutrients and they can cause these other problems within the body, so y’know, we have a look at wheat based products and we know that gluten actually increases what we call intestinal permeability in everybody. Now, people with celiac disease are more susceptible to the side effects because of the degree of intestinal permeability that they already start with, but everybody is vulnerable to these.” – Mason

Now I realize how blasphemous it sounds to question the greatness of plants. But oddly enough this 71 year old man went on a diet that had literally no plants and his health dramatically improved. In contrast many people do fine with tons of plants, look at vegan triathlete rich roll for example. He seems to be doing pretty well. But plants do have substances in them that not everyone can handle. You wouldn’t give wheat bread to a celiac patient, you wouldn’t give a peanut to someone with a peanut allergy. Some people are very sensitize to oxalates – a compound found in many plant foods for example leafy greens. Sally Norton had been struggling with chronic pain, fatigue and other mysterious symptoms for 30 years since the age of 12. She finally went on a low oxalate diet – simply cutting out unsuspecting plant foods like spinach and almonds finally resolved these terrible problems she had been struggling with for decades. 

Oxalate poisoning is actual something farmers have to deal with[R]. They have to prevent their herds from eating too many oxalate containing plants. The animals can develop issues as serious as kidney failure from this. 
Humans are told the brassica Kale is a superfood, but ranchers caring for a herd of grazing animals are told to beware of the health risks of Kale.[R]
Now personally, I find that I get a little queasy every time I eat too much spinach, but I suspect I’m not as sensitive to oxalates as certain people. The point is to say we shouldn’t expect all people to perfectly be able to  handle all plants. 

“When we actually have a look at a lot of the nutrients in plant foods, we have to have a look at biological value. So if we take iron for instance, we get heme iron from animal foods and we get non heme iron from plant based foods like spinach but there’s really no comparison in terms of how effective they are – able to be utilized by the body. So non-heme iron in spinach is very difficult for our body to actually assimilate and to deal with. And we see this across the board – we have vitamin A, that comes in different forms and the form of vitamin A we have from animal foods is so much more biologically useful than what we get from plant foods.” -Mason

Then, we’re often told this or that fruit or vegetable is chock full of this or that nutrient – leafy greens have folate and calcium, carrots have choline, avocados have vitamin B6, beans have iron, nuts have zinc, mushrooms have riboflavin. That’s great, but an egg yolk has all of those. 

Sometimes the vitamins in plants aren’t what we think they are. For example, people think carrots have vitamin A because they refer to the beta carotene in carrots as vitamin A, but the reality is that that beta carotene needs to be converted in the human body into vitamin A. So, take a look at my Mom’s blood test. 

Her beta carotene level is very high where her Vitamin A is actually in the low range. What’s going on? Well, again beta carotene in plants isn’t vitamin A. How well you convert that beta carotene into actual Vitamin A depends on your genes. Some people say carrots are a good source of vitamin A, but at least when it comes to my Mom and probably myself, carrots are not a good source of vitamin A. 

“We’ve got in our head that plant based foods are more nutrient dense and essentially more nutritious than other foods and if we don’t have a side of vegetables or fruit on our plate, then we must be missing out. The simple fact is that is not the case. Animal foods are more nutrient dense than plant based foods…”-Mason

By the way, aside from those other nutrients I already mentioned, an egg yolk also has Vitamin A, I mean actual vitamin A. It doesn’t need to be converted.
Not to mention egg yolks also have vitamin D, and E, and Thiamin and B12 and Pantothenic acid and Betaine and phosphorus and selenium. Oh wait but we’re not supposed to eat eggs, especially not egg yolks because of cholesterol…
So, to recap, this man went on an all meat, that is- high saturated fat, no carb, no vegetable diet. This strange diet mysteriously healed his diabetes, ulcerative colitis and high blood pressure. Despite the drastic health improvements though, his endocrinologist recommended he go back on a high carb reduced fat diet and limit his red meat consumption. Essentially the recommendation was to do the opposite of the diet that solved his health problems. Fruits and vegetables are perfectly fine for most people, but it was surprising to me that the endocrinologist didn’t at least investigate why the new low carb high fat high protein diet was so effective and instead gave him the same high carb low fat diet advice that people have heard since the 1970’s.

This wave of bad advice and close mindedness seems to stem entirely from Ancel Keys diet heart hypothesis – the idea that saturated fat causes heart attacks. This poorly supported idea is still taught as fact to doctors today. 
You were saying that essentially the foundational teaching that people are given when they are on their path to become a medical doctor – they are taught this right, that the diet heart hypothesis is correct and this is what causes heart disease?” -Joseph

This is accepted as fact. Certainly it was when I was in medical school and I was actually provided with some of the curriculum notes from a local university here a couple of years ago, and I was quite surprised to see the lipid heart hypothesis still going strong, so unless things have changed in the last 2 years and I am almost certain that they have not – then that would be the status quo today. 
Here’s the problem: If you start to understand the root biochem, the root cause biochemistry of all of this, you then have to understand that saturated fats are not dangerous for our health and then the whole house of cards falls down. I think in a way, this – the situation we’re in with such atrocious dietary guidelines could never have occurred if doctors had a better understanding of biochemistry.” – Mason

Less Breath: Better Health? (Mouth Breathing vs. Nasal Breathing)

The following is the transcript for the video by the same name on my channel “What I’ve Learned
,” originally posted on April 12th, 2017.

The hit Netflix series “Stranger Things” has done a great service to its viewers. While it has an excellent story with a good sense of mystery, humor, horror and a loveable cast, what I’m talking about is…

Mike to Eleven: “mouthbreather – y’know, a dumb person?”

This phrase actually only comes up 3 times, but hopefully it made viewers more aware of how they are breathing throughout the day. As the character Will Mike explains, Mouth Breather refers to a “dumb person,” 

But is it because leaving your mouth open just looks dumb or you could say the person is dumb for not being aware of their own face, or does breathing through the mouth actually decrease intelligence somehow? Actually, there is evidence that simply taking air into the mouth rather than the nose can result in reduced IQ.

A systematic review of medical literature done by the Federal University Sergipe in Brazil found that after applying certain criteria Overall, 80% of the articles showed a higher incidence of learning disabilities among mouth breathers,” concluding that “This systematic review has shown that mouth breathers are more likely to have learning difficulties than nasal breathers.”

In the book “Adenoids and Diseased Tonsils: Their Effect on General Intelligence” by Margaret Rogers, she quotes a H. Addington Bruce saying “… mouth-breathing means difficult breathing, and this in turn means deficient [oxygenation] of the tissues, with a resultant lowering of vital activities generally and of the activity of the brain in particular. “

Shut Your Mouth and Save Your Life : George Catlin : Free Download, Borrow,  and Streaming : Internet Archive

George Catlin, author of the 1869 book “Shut your mouth and save your life” stresses the importance of breathing through your nose at all times, while awake or sleeping. He says “there is no perfect sleep for man or brute, with the mouth open; it is unnatural, and a strain upon the lungs” and he describes how impressed he was to see a Native American woman gently press on the lips of her baby to keep its mouth closed while sleeping. 

But how could simply getting Oxygen from one route rather than another be so important that it affect your cognitive ability or anything else for that matter? 

The nose is extremely complex and takes up much more space than just the knob in the middle of your face.  That’s only only 30% of it and the other 70% of the nasal cavity is deep in the skull. While smell is a very important sense, it wouldn’t be necessary to allocate all that real estate unless the nose had other important responsibilities. 

When someone breathes through the mouth, they are bypassing several critical functions of the nose. To name a few, the nose filters, warms and moistens the air you breathe to make it more suitable for your lungs. Nasal breathing also increases levels of nitric oxide, a key signaling molecule used throughout the body. Another very important function of the nose is that it regulates airflow and helps prevent overbreathing. 

So how can you ‘over breathe’? Well, breathing in and out more air than is necessary results in hypocapnia, or a state of reduced carbon dioxide in the blood. This is why people breathe into a paper bag when hyperventilating from intense stress or an anxiety attack. The excessive breathing depleted too much carbon dioxide, so the bag helps trap the carbon dioxide they are exhaling and keep it in the body until their carbon dioxide blood levels and breathing rhythm return to normal. And this is a key point in why mouth breathing can affect people’s intelligence.

Breathing through the mouth during the day or while you’re asleep not only means the air is not conditioned by the nasal cavity, but you tend to exhale too much carbon dioxide, meaning your tissues are actually getting less oxygen. And, lower carbon dioxide within the blood causes a constriction of the carotid artery, the main blood vessel going to the brain. “Each 2.5% drop in the partial pressure of arterial carbon dioxide reduces blood flow to the brain by 2%.

The loss of carbon dioxide from improper breathing isn’t drastic enough to be easily noticeable, but over time the habit can take its toll on the brain and body.

But this is a bit counter intuitive. How could taking in more air through a bigger passage – the mouth, lead to less oxygenation of your tissues?  People mainly think of oxygen when discussing breathing, but Carbon Dioxide is a key factor in this equation.

Amazon | The Oxygen Advantage: The simple, scientifically proven breathing  technique that will revolutionise your health and fitness | McKeown,  Patrick | Sleep Disorders

As Patrick McKeown, author of the Oxygen advantage explains, “The amount of Oxygen, your muscles, organs and tissues are able to use is not entirely dependent on the amount of oxygen in your blood. Our red blood cells are [almost always] saturated with between 95 and 99% oxygen and that’s plenty for even the most strenuous exercise.” So, since your red blood cells are already saturated with oxygen, taking in more oxygen with big breaths isn’t going to do anything. 

What is important, is getting that Oxygen out of the red blood cells so it can be used by the body. And Carbon Dioxide is what allows the release of oxygen from the red blood cells. This physiological phenomenon is called the Bohr effect, it was first described in 1904 by Christian Bohr and it states that “hemoglobin’s oxygen binding affinity is inversely related both to acidity and to the concentration of carbon dioxide.” Hemoglobin is the protein inside red blood cells that carries oxygen. An increase in carbon dioxide decreases blood pH and hemoglobin proteins release their load of oxygen so it can be utilized by the muscles and organs.  A decrease in carbon dioxide increases pH and causes haemoglobin to hold on to more oxygen. That is, the oxygen stays stuck to the hemoglobin so it’s not available for your tissues to use. 

Carbon dioxide is created as an end product of metabolism. So, the Bohr effect helps oxygen be released to the tissues most in need of oxygen. For example when you’re running, your thighs are going to be using a lot of energy, the metabolic rate will increase and the thighs will produce more carbon dioxide. This extra carbon dioxide will then let the hemoglobin supply more oxygen to these hardworking muscles.

However if you’re taking large breaths through the mouth, you’re going to exhale and lose a proportionally large amount of precious carbon dioxide.

Patrick McKeown explains that if we breathe a lower volume of air by breathing in a slow controlled fashion through the nose, we increase the amount of carbon dioxide inside us and can deliver more oxygen to our muscles and organs, including the heart and the brain.

So what’s important is not having enough oxygen, but being able to use that oxygen. Unless you have some serious pulmonary problems, your red blood cells will always be almost fully saturated with Oxygen. If you don’t have enough Carbon Dioxide in the blood because you’re breathing too heavily or through the mouth, you can’t use oxygen efficiently and bringing more Oxygen into the lungs with a big breath won’t help you. 

Ironically, most people will start gasping for air through their mouths in the middle of a long run,  but this only makes matters worse.

Eat and Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness: Jurek, Scott,  Friedman, Steve: 8601421057493: Amazon.com: Books

Scott Jurek is one of the most dominant ultramarathon runners in the world, winning many of the sport’s prestigious race events multiple times. He won the 100-mile Western States Endurance Run seven consecutive times. In his memoir “Eat and Run” he says: “One of the most important things you can do … is to breathe abdominally, and a good way to learn that skill is to practice nasal breathing.”

The Tarahumara native Indians of Mexico are able to run up to 62 miles a day, twice that of a typical elite athlete. Studies of the Tarahumara show that they breathe almost entirely through the nose. The tarahumara are better able to utilize nasal nitric oxide, and have more CO2 in the lungs.

Of course there are other factors that allow them to accomplish such impressive feats of endurance, but this is an excellent display of nasal breathing during athletic performance.

Anthropologist Wade Davis has studied and lived with fifteen groups of indigenous people, including tribal hunters of the Amazon. While staying with the tribe, Davis was allowed to accompany them on hunting expeditions. Hunts began in the morning and they would persistently chase animals at a jogging and running pace over many hours, possibly even days. After a while the animal would collapse from exhaustion and they would kill it at short range. Davis was most impressed by the fact that the hunters never opened their mouths to breath during the excursion. 

While you may have been told in gym class that you should breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth while exercising, it’s best to inhale and exhale through the nose for more controlled breathing that lessens the volume of air you take in and out. There are some exceptions where you’d want to breathe through the mouth like very high intensity training, but in most cases nasal breathing is the best option. 

To maintain proper carbon dioxide levels and better facilitate the oxygenation of the body, you’ll want to lower the volume of air you take in and out over time. What that means is while taking deep breaths can be good, taking deep breaths quickly is not. Some well meaning yoga instructors may teach that you should take deep breaths that expand the lungs, but fail to stress the importance of having the breath be slow and controlled.  

In The Hathapradīpikạ, a seminal text of Hatha yoga, compiled in the 15th century, one of the passages says:.

Just as lions, elephants and tigers are calm and controlled, the breath must be controlled by slow degrees. Hasty or forceful breath kills the practiser himself.” 

In the animal world, mouth breathing is a rarity to the extent that it is usually a sign of illness. Farmers know this; they will immediately know if an animal is sick not by noticing whether it breathes through the mouth. Aside from dogs, who pant to regulate their body temperature when they’re hot, most all land mammals breathe regularly through their nose except in times of distress. 

In humans, chronic mouth breathing can lead to cavities, gum disease, lowered immune function, digestive disturbances, poor sleep quality, and  can result in crooked teeth and even poorly developed facial structure.  

“During the 1960s, dentist Egil Harvold conducted a number of experiments where young monkeys’ noses were blocked with silicone nose plugs. 

This caused these monkeys to breathe through the mouth and they gradually acquired a facial appearance different from the control monkeys. The mouth-breathing monkeys developed crooked teeth, a lowered chin and other facial deformities.

Essentially mouth breathing leads to a longer face with a set back jaw, less pronounced cheekbones and restricted airways.

I’ve sometimes wondered why most athletes usually tend to be pretty good looking. I figured there would be an equal amount of facially challenged athletes as there are attractive ones.

Top 15 Most Handsome Athletes in the world 2020: Checkout!

Patrick McKeown argues that breathing plays a role here too. Because the athletes had been breathing properly, it set them up for better physical conditioning as a child meaning better sports performance, and proper breathing supports the development of good facial structure. 

Now I’ve covered only some of the important aspects of nasal breathing, Check out the book The Oxygen Advantage for an impressively thorough exploration of this topic. But I’ll leave you with one important tip to help get the most out of your breathing. Just put some micropore tape on your mouth when you sleep. As weird and slightly scary as that may sound, the quality of sleep you get from ensuring that you breathe through your nose, will definitely be worth getting used to the tape. This has helped me personally, and even people with asthma report that this drastically improves their quality of their sleep. Of courcse it’s best to avoid this if you have certain medical conditions, or in certain situations like after drinking alcohol. After wearing the tape for about 3 months, it should have you naturally breathing through your nose during sleep and improve your breathing pattern during day. 

The Science of Internet Addiction & Willpower

The following is the transcript for the video by the same name on my channel “What I’ve Learned,” originally posted on April 12th, 2017.

In September of 1848, a 25 year old named Phineas Gage was working on a railroad in Vermont when some explosive powder ignited prematurely and sent an iron rod flying through his cheek and out the top of his skull- demolishing his prefrontal cortex. The rod was later found about 30 yards from the explosion, smeared with blood and… brain. Remarkably he was able to get back to his life only two months after the accident, reporting that he felt better in every respect with no lingering pain. 

His personality however, was not the same. The physician that attended to him, said: the balance between his intellectual faculties and animal propensities seems to have been destroyed. Devising many plans for future operation which are no sooner arranged than they are abandoned. Before the accident he was described as having an iron frame and iron will, but the damage to Gage’s prefrontal cortex resulted in a total loss of social inhibitions and self control. 

Virtually anybody without brain damage would have better self control than Phineas Gage, but most of us are not always 100% in control of ourselves. If we were, life would be significantly easier. Going on a diet? All you need to do is make the decision to no longer want or like cheesecake. And come tax season, just dial up your excitement to make a due diligence checklist. 

Let's Honor the Best Cheesecake Moment in Pop Culture History - E! Online
Cheesecake scavengers afflicted with the pathological desire for cheesecake – 2001

Most of the time, we wish our prefrontal cortex would call the shots. The prefrontal cortex’s job is essentially to bias the brain toward doing the harder thing. It’s your prefrontal cortex that pushes you out of your warm bed to go to the gym. 

One of the reasons things like this aren’t always that easy is that your brain’s reward center tries to get you to do what it has decided is excellent for survival or reproduction. The general message from the reward center is “Do what feels good!” So while your prefrontal cortex may be trying to keep you on the diet you committed to, the reward center brings up the strong argument of “Yea but Pizza tastes good right now.” Your reward center is kind enough to supply you with cravings that lead to impulsive action. 

In a continuum with willpower on the left and impulsiveness on the right, Phineas Gage would be on the far right, and on the left you’d have people like disciplined athletes, accomplished writers, or well trained musicians. Then, it’s safe to say that those with a drug addiction would be quite far to the right. This is because one of the effects of addiction is that it simultaneously gives more power to the reward system and decreases functionality in the prefrontal cortex, undermining willpower and enhancing impulsive behavior. That is, long term goals begin to suffer at the expense of instant gratification. 

Anything that isn’t quickly rewarding takes some level of motivation, willpower or focus. For example, you need to be more to the left on this continuum to read a book than watch a TV show, and you’d have to be even farther to the left to start practicing the piano. So, the question of this video is: can certain aspects of the internet lower prefrontal cortex function and enhance the reward system just enough to make you less able to do certain challenging things? 

Narcotics are so strongly addictive that the negative effects are obvious. But what about things that are less addictive and cause more subtle changes? For example it might be hard to realize that where you could sit still and read a book for two hours before, now you get fidgety and bored after 45 minutes. Or you could slowly have more and more days where you feel like you’re too tired to do personal projects after getting home from work.

But why? 

Well the key neurochemical behind addiction is dopamine as all addictive drugs cause a massive rise in dopamine. And as we’ll talk about later, certain ways of using the internet can cause a particularly strong release of dopamine. You’ve probably heard about dopamine as it is a key player in the reward center. What isn’t explained too often is the fact that dopamine isn’t mainly for pleasure or “liking,” it’s responsible for “wanting” and the two don’t always go hand in hand. 

In 1989, Kent Berridge and his colleagues did an experiment to test the hypothesis that dopamine demonstrates wanting and therefore liking. A chemical compound was used to destroy dopamine neurons in rats’ brains, and this destroyed the rat’s capacity for motivation or “wanting.” The rats had no interest in food even if it was right in front of them, to the point that if the researchers didn’t feed the rats through a tube, they would starve to death. 

Like humans, Rodents actually make facial expressions which researchers can monitor to understand whether a rat enjoyed the taste of something. They found that chemically destroying the dopamine neurons in the brain had destroyed all motivation, but Berridge and his team were surprised to find that rats showed all the signs of liking when they got a sugar solution, even after depletion of nearly all brain dopamine.  The conclusion was that the dopamine system controls  “wanting,” but not “liking.”

A follow-up study in 1991 that used electrodes to stimulate the dopamine system found that they could quadruple a rat’s “wanting” to eat food, but their “liking” of the food stayed exactly the same. 

In certain situations however, dopamine is released in response to receiving a reward. However, the purpose of this dopamine is not to make you feel good, but to learn how to get that reward again. Dopamine is released in response to receiving unexpected rewards. When an unexpected reward comes along, the brain says “Whoa I didn’t see that coming. Hold up, what did we do to get that reward? And how can we get it again”  

In a 1993 experiment in Switzerland, monkeys were put in a situation where if they pressed the right lever after a light came on, they got rewarded with some apple juice. At first, dopamine went up when they got the juice. After they got the hang of the task however, dopamine began to rise when the light came on. What was happening was that the monkey’s brain took note of everything that happened before getting the juice. The monkey understood that the light indicated that it could press a lever to get a reward, and dopamine was linked to the light- the cue for the reward.

In this way, dopamine is important for learning and motivation. Dopamine keeps track of what behaviors done in what situations will get you rewards, and then motivates you to do those behaviors. And If you block the dopamine rise, you won’t get the behavior, even if the cue is present.

This way of initiating learning when getting an unexpected reward was very useful for say remembering how to get back to a water source or a berry bush you stumbled across by accident.  This also explains why cues like seeing a bar where they drank alcohol before can trigger strong dopamine rises and therefore strong cravings in addicts.  

While the prefrontal cortex’s job is to get you to do the hard thing, the main job of the brain’s reward center is to get you to do the thing that produces the most dopamine.

Neurotransmitters like dopamine work by binding to a certain receptor which will produce an effect or feeling. Drugs work by causing an artificially strong activation of these receptors. For example, the feeling of runner’s high comes from the natural neurotransmitter endorphin activating your opioid receptors. (*Update December 2020, anandamide may also be at play here) The drug heroin works by very strongly activating these same opioid receptors. People who have experienced runners high and have used heroin will report that while the effect of heroin is of course much stronger, the experiences are somewhat similar. 

Our bodies are constantly trying to remain in a state of balance- this is called “homeostasis”. Things like your blood sugar levels, ph level, your temperature and blood pressure are all finely regulated. Stimulation is also something your body tries to regulate. For example, heroin users constantly activate opioid receptors to get a euphoric body high. To maintain balance and regulate stimulation, the brain “downregulates” or decreases the number of opioid receptors available and the user gets less and less of a high. 

One particular receptor frequently found to be down regulated as a consequence of addiction is the dopamine receptor. Less receptors available means less dopamine signaling and it becomes harder for everyday activities to provide enough dopamine to motivate the addict. The loss of motivation of course isn’t as bad as the mice who wouldn’t exert the energy to walk to their food, but the drug user becomes primarily motviated by what will lead to that strong dopamine rise.

Because of this, they will start to lose interest in hobbies and long term goals which require much more effort and don’t provide as much dopamine. Receptor downregulation decreases general wanting and motivation to do everyday things. However, craving or wanting for the drug drastically increases.

Precisely why motivation to obtain the drug increases despite dopamine receptor downregulation is unclear, but as Dr. Kent Berridge explained to me in an email: “some targets win more at the expense of others. In many nucleus accumbens and amygdala stimulations in rat studies, what was ‘wanted’ most before becomes winner takes all, and much more intensely ‘wanted’  while competing targets decline in attraction.” Essentially the brain comes to favor the thing with the highest dopamine payout. 

From an evolutionary perspective, this phenomenon of most dopamine wins makes sense. If say a hunter gatherer found a new stimulating area with much more food, it would be best for his brain to raise its standards and much prefer that new area. If his old hunting or foraging grounds with less food could still excite him, he wouldn’t capitalize as much on the new area. It would be in his best interest to be motivated only by the food-rich area and ignore other areas.

Now you see dopamine receptor downregulation appear in cocaine users, alcoholics, obese people, and… behavioral addictions can cause this same downregulation even though the person didn’t actually ingest anything. Documented cases of internet addiction have shown the same dopamine receptor downregulation like you see in substance addiction. 

But how can simply using the internet cause changes in the brain similar to that of substance addiction? Well, as mentioned earlier a property of all addictive substances is that they cause an abnormally strong release of dopamine. Everytime you use the drug, the brain interprets this dopamine rise as an unexpected reward signal. That is- the brain continues to misinterpret the drug experience as having been much better than it predicted, and the brain begins to value that experience more and more. 

Depending on how you use it, the internet can also elevate dopamine to unnatural levels. This is because the internet is a novelty machine, and novelty is something dopamine is particularly reactive to. We are wired to crave new information, and new information is interpreted like a reward. If we weren’t curious about new things, we wouldn’t find new sources of water, food or shelter. This is why it’s so easy to find yourself scrolling through social media websites, swiping through apps like imgur or tinder and clicking through reddit for way longer than you intended. Each of these reward you with some level of novelty for a very easy behavior – scroll, swipe or click. 

Like the monkey reacting to the light switch and getting a rise in dopamine which motivates him to press a lever, your brain interprets your smartphone as if you were in a specific environment where moving your thumb gives you the reward of new information. So being in that environment acts as a cue which stimulates dopamine release and your thumb moves. But… it doesn’t end. You can still swipe for the chance to get another cool picture so your dopamine remains elevated. This never ending novelty is what leads to the abnormal elevation of dopamine. 

Ironically, the aspect of this that raises dopamine the most is that you might get a new interesting piece of information. As Robert Sapolsky explains – with monkeys if you go from “light goes on, push lever, get reward” to “light goes on, push lever, maybe get reward” – you get a much higher dopamine rise. In the case of the internet, every swipe means maybe you’ll see something funny or interesting. The first ten tweets on twitter might be boring, but the 11th one might be something good. And that keeps you going. 

The addictive nature of these content platforms  is no accident. Nir Eyal points out in his book ‘Hooked’ that the key to a successful content platform is having the cue to use the website or application come from within the user. For example when the user feels a specific feeling, they’ll reach for their phones and open the app. In particular, a negative feeling is most effective – being bored might be a trigger to use reddit and being lonely would be a trigger to use tinder or facebook. This is very powerful because the cue can come at almost any time . 

The effort necessary to acquire drugs and the risk associated is very high, which shows how powerful drugs are: they can train the brain to release enough dopamine to motivate the person to perform risky behaviors in pursuit of the drug. Each time they use the drug, this circuit is strongly reinforced and motivation to get the drug becomes greater and greater causing the person to do more and more reckless things to get the drug. While the dopamine elevation you get from the internet can’t compete with the massive surge of dopamine that narcotics provide, smartphones allow you to very frequently engage the loop of dopamine – behavior – reward. Moving your arm a bit and flick of the wrist are all that is necessary to gradually reinforce to your brain that using the net is a valuable experience .

The other important consequence of drug or behavioral addiction, is inhibition of the prefrontal cortex, the same area of the brain that was damaged in Phineas Gage.  So the reward center provides the addicts with strong cravings for the addictive substance or behavior and the poorly functioning prefrontal cortex can’t provide the willpower necessary to resist these cravings.  

This loss of function in the prefrontal cortex is seen in all types of addictions. Studies found that the dendrites in the prefrontal cortex of rats were actually misshapen and deformed after regular cocaine use. And this kind of effect isn’t limited to substances. Executive function, the type of function the prefrontal cortex is responsible for has been consistently shown to be severely inhibited in people with pathological internet addiction. 

In Gary Wilson’s book “Your Brain on Porn,” he explains the science behind why internet pornography can lead to a pathological addiction. In the book he says prefrontal cortex inhibition “weakens willpower in the face of strong subsconscious cravings. Alterations in the prefrontal regions’ grey matter and white matter correlate with reduced impulse control and the weakened ability to foresee consequences.” 

Gary makes the case that pornography wasn’t particularly addictive until the advent of high speed internet. Again, the big factor here is novelty. Now that high speed internet means videos and pictures load almost instantaneously, users can find themselves constantly clicking and chasing novel pornographic media for hours at a time. The exciting sexual nature of pornography enhances activation of the dopamine system, but again it is the hunt for novelty that keeps dopamine levels elevated as long as the clicking continues. Studies of internet addiction consistently show that it is this constant novelty at a click that can cause addiction and the negative brain changes associated with addiction.

So this is how letting yourself be controlled by the internet’s novelty appeal can take power from the prefrontal cortex and give it to the brain’s primitive and impulsive reward center. In short the brain becomes wired to seek out instant gratification, and becomes less capable of pursuing long term goals which require the willpower to delay gratification.  

As Robert Sapolsky points out in this lecture, what is unique about humans is the ability to tolerate more delay between behavior and reward. You can get a monkey to pull a lever to get a banana, but a human can work hard for four years to get a degree. It’s our prefrontal cortex’s ability to stay vigilant in the face of impulsive demands from our reward center that allows us to accomplish such things. 

If you use your smartphone for several hours a day but are comfortable with how you operate – great. There are functioning alcoholics and addicts, of course people can function well despite heavy use of their smartphones. However if you’re not satisfied with your level of general willpower, productivity or focus, you may want to simply try modifying your smartphone usage rather than looking for the next productivity hack. 

Also, functioning addicts function well as long as they can get their fix. You might want to try not using your smartphone for just a couple days. If you feel restless or irritated when you can’t immediately dissolve uncomfortable feelings like boredom with quick shots of entertainment, that’s a good sign that maybe you should change how you’re using your smartphone.

Earlier I mentioned how a monkey came to understand that a light turning on was an indication that it could do something to get a reward. With smart phones in our pockets, it’s like that light is always on. 

What I’d I’d recommend is to limit this kind of aimless checking or looking at novelty at a click websites to certain times of day. You want to stop boredom being a cue to get your phone out. If you set certain times of day for using these kinds of websites or applications, that time of day will become the new cue instead of those very frequently occuring feelings of slight boredom. The point is to simply make the conscious effort to engage less and less in this type of instant gratification. While the appeal of “maybe” I have a new notification or “maybe” there’s a new update on such and such app is very enticing, chances are you will survive if you wait until your next designated internet time. If you need to do something purposeful like contact someone or read that blog post you bookmarked then go ahead, using the internet with a specific purpose is very different from passively absorbing information.

The internet has made positive changes in the world that we couldn’t even have imagined 20 years ago, so the message of course isn’t to just give up the internet. You don’t necessarily even have to give up things like twitter either, a couple scrolls isn’t going to put a figurative rod through your head. However understanding how it affects you makes it easier to adjust the way you use the internet to avoid getting caught in the gears of the novelty machine. And you’ll be able to walk away willpower and focus in tact. 

Improve Willpower in 5 Mins | How Heart Rate Variability helps Brain Function

The following is the transcript for the video by the same name on my channel “What I’ve Learned,” originally posted on April 2nd, 2017.

On March 3rd , I found myself in a quite ironic situation: 

While listening to “The Willpower Instinct,” by Kelly McGonigal, I was lining up to buy something that would end up undermining my willpower. 

The problem was that the new Zelda game was way better than I anticipated.

I would set aside 30 minutes to play which would quickly turn into an hour then two hours and so on. I was still able to fulfill important obligations of course, but I started to think it was affecting my focus when I was trying to read a research paper about internet gaming addiction, but couldn’t focus because the words “gaming” kept giving me a craving to play Zelda. Now you could probably break down what makes this particular game potentially addicting like…  the endless unpredictable novelty of the game environment stimulates an abnormal release of dopamine, leading to similar changes in the brain as addictive substances. But it’s easier to say the game is just too good. It’s like what Louis CK said about drugs. 

Louis C.K. telling his kids not to do drugs : standupshots

OK So after investing way too much time into finishing the game and finally starting to shift back into my creative and productive mode, I noticed I had less capacity for willpower in general. It wasn’t so much that Zelda was preoccupying my mind, it was just more difficult to get to work and stay focused in general, and a lot of times I would diffuse that uncomfortable tension by zoning out on my smartphone or on social media websites.

So, in these uncomfortable moments of really not wanting to do the harder thing, I started using this breathing technique I picked up from the Willpower Instinct. Basically you just breathe in one breath for 10 seconds and breathe out that breath for 10 seconds. This slows your breathing down to about 4 to 6 breaths per minute. Five to ten minutes of this was usually enough to dissolve that tension and give me the willpower to focus on work. This kind of breathing is significant because it improves something called heart rate variability. 

When people talk about heart rate they are actually talking about the average heart rate over one minute. You know the kind of scene on House where they inject the dying patient with some unexpectedly effective thing like snake venom and then the heart monitor shows a pulse and you hear a ping ping ping. The ping is when the heart contracts, this generates a bit of electricity which the machine can read. So heart rate variability refers to variations in the time between these pings. If there is precisely one ping every second, your heart rate is 60 beats per minute but you have virtually no heart rate variability. If there’s .85 seconds between the first two pings and then 0.90 seconds between the second two and then .95 seconds then .90 seconds again and so on, then you have some heart rate variability. This is a good thing. 

Everybody’s heart rate changes throughout the day and even moment to moment. Your heart speeds up a little bit when you inhale. It slows down again when you exhale. A smooth variation of heart rate is good and means that your heart is getting signals from both branches of your autonomic nervous system: one is the sympathetic nervous system, which speeds you up and is responsible for things like the fight or flight response, and the other is the parasympathetic nervous system, which promotes relaxation and engages during processes like digestion. 

Studies show that people with higher HRV are better at ignoring distractions, delaying gratification, dealing with stressful situations and are less likely to give up on difficult tasks. HRV has been called the body’s “reserve” of willpower.

This is because Heart rate variability is the single best physiological measurement of something called the pause and plan response.

Pause and plan is essentially the opposite of the body’s fight or flight response. 

When your environment presents you with stressful situation, the brain switches on the fight or flight response, and as much energy as possible is directed to the body to help you run or fight. This means energy is directed away from the brain.  

The pause and plan response starts when the prefrontal cortex identifies that another part of your brain is asking you to do something that may benefit you now but is not helpful for long term goals. It could be something like wanting to drink a beer at lunch or eating cake for breakfast. To generate the self control to slow down and make the decision to not do these things, energy needs to be transferred from the body to the brain. To do this, your prefrontal cortex will communicate the need for self-control to lower brain regions that regulate your heart rate, blood pressure, breathing and other automatic functions. Then all these processes slow down and self control improves. 

When people successfully exert self control, the parasympathetic nervous system steps in to calm stress and control impulsive action. Heart rate goes down, but heart rate variability goes up.  

Suzanne Segerstrom, a psychologist at the University of Kentucky, observed this physiological signature of self-control when she asked hungry students to not eat freshly baked cookies in front of them. As they sat there resisting the cookies, their heart rate variability went up. Variability in other participants who were free to eat the cookies stayed the same.

HRV is such a good indicator of willpower that you can use it to predict who will resist cravings. For example, recovering alcoholics whose HRV goes up when they see a drink are more likely to stay sober. Recovering alcoholics whose heart  rate variability drops when they see a drink – have a greater risk of relapse. 

In fact, your body, brain and mental willpower are so well connected that people with strong self control can actually stay a bit more sober on the same amount of alcohol when they need to.  A report from the University of Kentucky compared alcohol metabolism in a group of men with similar body compositions. The men went through an evaluation process to assess their ability for self control, then they drank the same amount of alcohol and their blood alcohol content was measured afterwards. They found that the men who ranked higher in self control were actually less drunk. 

The study gives an example where two men with different levels of self control each have two drinks “Then, their supervisor from work arrives unexpectedly, and they spend the next 30 min regulating their behavior so as to appear sober. All else being equal, the present results suggest that the man with high trait self-control will likely have a BAC around .026, and the man with low trait self-control will have a BAC around .032 – approximately 20% higher.”

 So why do some people just have better heart rate variability and better self control than other people? Many factors influence your capacity for self control- things like anxiety, anger, depression, poor sleep, loneliness and even poor air quality are all associated with worse heart rate variability. Things like regular exercise and proper diet can improve HRV. 

Practicing meditation or the controlled breathing technique I mentioned earlier also increases heart rate variability. One study found that a daily twenty-minute practice of slowed breathing improved HRV and reduced cravings and depression among adults recovering from substance abuse and PTSD. 

But whether you’ve been practicing this or not, at any time you can take a moment to slow your breathing down to manually improve your heart rate variability and self-control in the moment.

In this presentation, Dr. Alan Watkins actually demonstrates how breathing like this can quickly improve your HRV.  A volunteer is hooked up to a device that measures the change in his heart rate and as you can see when he first walks up on stage his heart rate is quite erratic, but after he begins to breathe in a slow rhythmic fashion, you start to see nice smooth waveform. 

The main thing that’s happening when you breathe like this is: you’re simply destressing yourself and creating the physiology of calmness. As mentioned earlier, the stressful fight or flight response diverts energy from the brain to the body. When this happens activity in the prefrontal cortex decreases- that is the cautious, rational, planning and thinking part of the brain begins to shut down. This is good in some situations, you don’t want to have to slowly decide to run from a bear, but some situations you really don’t want your prefrontal cortex shutting down. It lowers your willpower and you become more impulsive, but other forms of self control suffer. With less prefrontal cortex activity, you may yell at your spouse, forget how to use words during a job interview, and you might find yourself saying “Hi, my name is come here often?” to an attractive woman at the bar. 

This slow and controlled breathing engages the pause and plan response and directs more energy to the prefrontal cortex giving you better control over yourself. 

This brings me to my favorite point in Dr. Watkin’s talk: At the root of behavior is physiology. If you want to improve your behavior, you need to change how you think- and if you’re in a negative emotional state, you’re angry, worried, sleepy, anxious, it’s quite hard to change your thoughts. This is why telling someone don’t worry doesn’t do much and why telling someone not to be angry would just make them angrier. 

And Most emotional states are determined by feedback between the brain and the body- your physiology influences emotion. This is why you feel jittery or anxious when you drink too much coffee, you don’t just calmly observe your heart rate rising. 

The hard thing about having a powerful imaginative human brain that comes with abstract thought is that we can turn anything into a source of stress. An offhand comment from your boss or simply the absence of a text message from a person you’re attracted to can be interpreted by your brain as a threat to survival. This causes your body to express the physiology of stress which affects your emotional state which affects your thoughts which affects your behavior. If you want to better control your behavior, one thing you can do is invest a couple minutes into controlling your breathing and changing your physiology which is the root of your behavior.

How the Internet Redesigns your Mind

The following is the transcript for the video by the same name on my channel “What I’ve Learned,” originally posted on March 10th, 2017.

Imagine for a second that everyone had a magical cube in their pockets. With the right permutation, you could materialize all kinds of food or drink.

At first there was only one cube in existence and nobody knew what it did until after about a year of fiddling with the thing, someone found the permutation for water. After that, they started to quickly figure out how to make more things like tea and avocados and all kinds of vegetables.

Over several years, they figured out how to manufacture the cubes efficiently and inexpensively and with a lot more cubes and plenty of people to play with them, things rapidly progressed to the point where they were making more complex things like kimchi, butter or yogurt. Cube users were increasing exponentially and the whole world was excited about this- it was going to cure world hunger, standard of living would increase across the globe, everyone would have infinite access to healthy foods! Along the way people figured out how to make snacks like oreos. A couple days later beer was added to the list, and discussions began about whether or not to let minors have a cube. Then a bunch of hard liquors came out and a few people became slightly worried about the whole situation. Then a couple weeks later two guys from Virginia show up and say “Hey uhhh we just made cocaine with the cube.”  Most people thought it might be better if everyone didn’t have infinite supply of cocaine at all times, but at this point millions of people already had cubes and it was drastically improving their lives.

For the first time in most of these people’s lives, they were in a situation where they had access to a huge variety of choices at all moments during the day . They could do anything from having the highest quality nourishing meal, to deciding to add just one or two cookies to their lunch, or they could say “Work’s not going so well, maybe a spot of cocaine would help.” And that’s kind of what we have with the internet.

It’s unrealistic to say you get pathologically addicted to the internet as fast as you would to cocaine, but just as the mystical cube people can choose to nourish or poison their bodies at any point in the day, the internet allows us to subject our brains to information that enriches our intellect and gives us new perspectives, OR we can choose streams of information that leave us thinking “What I have been doing the last 30 minutes?”

The thing is, the problem goes deeper than just the minutes you lost to twitter, facebook or reddit. The way you use the internet literally changes your brain’s default way of operating, and part of it has to do with how intimately your brain interacts with tools. A 2010 research article from the association of psychological science found that when you are using a tool, your brain understands the tool not as something you are manipulating with your hands, but as an actual part of your body.

For example if you have someone hold a marker and then you could ask their brain to describe their right hand, the brain might say something like “I have 6 rods coming out of a meat filled slab. 5 of the rods are bendable and 3 of them are attached to a rigid, meatless rod.” Kind of like you are what you eat, from your brain’s perspective you are what you use.

Amazon | The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains | Carr,  Nicholas | Neuroscience

But what about more abstract tools? In Nicholas Carr’s book “The Shallows,” which is about how the internet affects your brain, he explains how different tools change our perception of the world and the the actual way we think, and not just what we think about.  One example is the very simple and useful tool that is the map. Without the map people would rely on their sight as well as their understanding of intricate smells and sounds to create a 3D landscape in their minds. The map then simplifies this complex process down to just visualizing your position in space as a point on a 2D plane. 

Another example is how originally our perception of time was an understanding of how cycles and rhythms of the natural world relate to each other. With the advent of the mechanical clock, we began to look at our day as just a compilation of neatly segmented slices of time.  

Even something as simple as the spaces between words can be considered a tool that changes the way we use our brains. Forawhile,therewerenospaces betweenwordsandeverythingwasjustjammedtogether,soyouhadtoreadthetext outloudtoseewhereonewordbeganandanotherended. This complicated and tiring task of pronouncing everything out loud meant people didn’t read for very long periods of time. Putting spaces between words made the task of reading much easier to the point that people could read silently to themselves for much longer stretches of time. Because people now had something they could engage with and stay concentrated on for hours at a time, deep focus became a more widespread skill. 

Naturally, we are wired in a way that our default state is to be always alert to new stimuli or pieces of information. From your brain’s perspective, being ready to rapidly switch your attention from gathering berries to examining the noise of a snapping twig is much more helpful for survival than the ability to contemplate one story or one subject for hours at a time. Getting distracted was useful. While there are some situations like hunting in which the ability to focus was necessary for survival, the book acted as one of the first tools that developed the contemplative and creative mind by rewiring the brain for enhanced concentration.

However, the recent internet environment is one that wires peoples’ brains for enhanced distractibility. At all times you have multiple streams of information in the form of notifications, advertisements, suggested videos, and messages from your friends and even something as innocent as a blog post or text article is usually peppered with hyperlinks you can choose to click on. Our brains are naturally on the alert for new information, and the more we’re exposed to this kind of virtual interface, the more our brain decides to rewire itself to respond to and even crave these internet distractions. Try and think about how long you usually stay on one tab, one application or one video at a time. Might be no
longer than a couple minutes or even a few seconds.

How many tab switches does it take to get a proper email written? If you’re on your computer, how many tabs do you have open right now? You might have flipped over to facebook in just the course of this video without even realizing it. I’ve even found myself opening up reddit on my phone while watching a movie on my TV that I’m enjoying. I’m already entertained, so what am I doing? 

Amazon | The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the  Frontiers of Brain Science | Doidge, Norman | Neuroscience

Findings in neuroplasticity research are consistently showing that the brain has the remarkable ability to literally rewire itself to be more suited to its environment. In stroke patients, because paralyzed limbs were a result of damage to the the area of the brain that controlled that limb, the assumption was there would be very little room for recovery. But, by doing things like putting a patient’s good hand in an oven mitt and taping it up with duct tape, they had no choice but to try to use the dysfunctional limb. In response their brains reconfigured themselves to map different areas to controlling that and remapped themselves to assign different neurons to the task of operating that limb. This produced remarkable recoveries of function in their dysfunctional limbs.

By the same token, you can exercise or let atrophy different modes of thinking. Maybe at some point you finally set some time aside to work on that big project you’ve been meaning to do, only to find yourself feeling uncomfortable and asking yourself “Why can’t I focus?”
The reason is the same as why most people can’t sign their names with their left hand. You don’t usually 

Alright, so what if we are gearing our brains to be distracted? Maybe things take a bit longer to do- that’s not that terrible.  

The problem with getting distracted has to do with how your short term memory processing works. Your brain, ironically, can be compared to a web browser. For example, when you’re shopping on Amazon, you might want to go back a couple pages to double check the price of something. You can do this by clicking the back button because the web browser stores those pages in its recent history. When you’re doing something like reading a book, your brain is processing and storing the information in short term memory so it can relate the paragraph you’re reading to the last couple paragraphs you just read. If you get distracted by a text message while you’re reading, you might find that when you go back to the sentence you were just on, you’re asking “Wait, who are they talking about?” This is because getting distracted and shifting your attention to the text message is like clearing your recent browser history. Your brain can’t hit the back button to review what it just read because it dumped what was in the short term memory to focus on the text message, so you have to reread the last paragraph or two. 

Being distracted like this gets in the way of the insightful, creative thinking necessary to complete fulfilling and ambitious tasks. You process information in the short term memory like this when you’re doing anything from working on a business idea, to practicing piano or writing an article. With enough time and uninterrupted focus, the information slowly trickles from your conscious short term memory to your subconscious long term memory.  And it’s only when information is in the long term memory that you can make insightful connections with other pieces of information you’ve picked up in the past. The reason you get those Aha! Moments and creative insights out of the blue is because in the background, your subconscious long term memory is processing new and old bits of information and making connections between them. This is also why you might not feel any improvement while practicing piano, but you’re suddenly better the next day. It’s because you focused and practiced long enough that the information went from your short term memory to your long term memory and the long term memory then did its processing job. 

When something distracts you and pulls your focus from the task at hand, this transfer of information from short term to long term memory gets interrupted. Unfortunately you can’t really be aware of this subconscious long term memory process is being disrupted. The reason you didn’t come up with any good ideas during the brain storming session or are having trouble grasping the material for a class could be that you’re clearing your brain’s recent browser history too often by getting distracted and you’re not letting your long term memory connect the dots for you.

The primary message of Cal Newport’s book “Deep Work” is that the ability to focus and concentrate deeply is crucial for being successful in fulfilling endeavors, whether it’s learning a new skill, writing a book, developing a business plan for a new company or creating a piece of art. To be truly productive and successful professionally or creatively in this competitive and fast moving world, you need to set up long blocks of time where you can work completely uninterrupted and you’ll need to have developed a mind where distraction is not the default mode.

When people are picking out what to eat they kind of have it in the back of their mind how that piece of food is going to change their body. They can expect that while processed junk food does taste good, it will make them gain weight and have less energy. But I don’t think enough people are thinking “Is the way I’m about to use my smart phone right now going to change my brain’s default setting to be more focused or more distracted?” 

Looking at a couple memes for 5 minutes when you need a quick break from work probably doesn’t feel like a big deal and it probably isn’t. Then again, your brain has the annoying ability to quickly habituate towards activities that provide enjoyment for very little energy. Have you ever been in that situation where it’s 4PM, you’ve been working pretty hard and you get the idea to go get a cookie. You figure just one cookie isn’t going to make you fat and it will help you get through the last bit of the day, so you get the cookie. But then the next day, 4PM rolls around and you suddenly have a craving for something sweet…

Looking back on my cube analogy, cocaine may seem like too intense of an example for the bad aspects of the internet. Well, research has shown that the difficulty with cocaine isn’t just that it rewires your pleasure center to make you addicted to it, cocaine actually damages the dendrites of the neurons in the prefrontal cortex- this is the area of the brain that is responsible for executive control. Executive control is essentially the ability to stay rational, maintain focus and exert willpower in order to achieve some sort of long term goal. This means that at the same time one area of the addict’s brain is wired to crave cocaine, the area that he needs to rely on to resist these cravings is damaged. So, it’s this kind of rewiring of the brain in a way that interferes with your ability to reach your personal potential that I’m pointing to when I make the comparison to certain negative aspects of the internet. 

While it happens slowly, these quick or instant bursts of new and interesting information from the internet can become a slippery slope into a brain that enjoys and desires distraction and prefer instant gratification. Also, consider this: in cases of people truly addicted to the internet they also have severely reduced executive function, similar to the cocaine addicts.

In many ways, the internet is an incredibly useful and helpful tool. But a deeper understanding  of which aspects of the internet affect your brain in what ways is necessary to modify your usage in a way that keeps your brain functioning the way you want it to. We’ll be looking at this more in depth soon, so stick around.

Science of How OCD Works (Dealing with Brain Lock)

The following is the transcript for the video by the same name on my channel “What I’ve Learned,” originally posted on February 23rd, 2017.

My first encounter with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder was Nicholas Cage’s character in the movie Matchstick men who apparently has a combination of OCD and tourette’s syndrome. The jerking motions and vocal outbursts were due to the tourettes and the obsessive cleaning and things like locking the door multiple times was due to the OCD. Though we only see these behaviors when he forgets his medication, and otherwise he’s a smooth and successful conman. 


Now, I personally don’t have OCD and frankly the term seems to be used lightly too often. Anyone who actually has OCD most likely does not openly admit it. A lot of people don’t realize how serious OCD can be. Lightheartedly saying “I’m so OCD!” because you like to keep your desk really tidy is almost like like saying “I’m so leukemia!” because your nose is runny. 

What I’m interested in is how the brain of somebody with OCD works so I can figure out how to deal with a less dire but very annoying behavior of mine.

Some mornings, I’ll already be 5 minutes away from my apartment and will suddenly think “Wait, did I lock the door?” usually followed by “Oh crap I probably left the coffeemaker on too.” I know I just have to rush back and check or it will bother me for at least the next hour or so. This happens maybe three times a week and every single time I go back to check, the coffeemaker was off and the door was indeed locked. 

Luckily going back and checking like this is enough and I can get on with my day after that. But I was curious, what happens in my brain that makes me do this, and how is it different from someone who has for example the compulsion to lock and relock their door 50 times just so they can feel comfortable?

Well, there are three parts of the brain that come into play here. A part of the frontal lobe called the orbital cortex is responsible for detecting when you think you’ve done something correctly and when you think you’ve made a mistake. E.T. Rolls, a behavioral physiologist at Oxford University found that the cells in rhesus monkeys’ orbital cortex would fire when the monkey performed a task properly and was expecting some juice as a reward. However, when the monkeys performed the task properly as they were instructed but got salt water instead, the orbital cortex lit up much more intensely and stayed lit up longer. The conclusion was that the orbital cortex is your brain’s error detection system: In general the strong firing of the orbital cortex gives you a feeling of “something is wrong”.

After the orbital cortex fires, it sends a signal to another area called the cingulate gyrus which triggers an anxious feeling that will make you uneasy until you do something to correct the mistake. Then, once the mistake is corrected, a third area called the caudate nucleus activates and acts like an “automatic gear shift,” allowing you to switch gears, forget about it and get on with other activities. In my case, I thought something was wrong and felt anxious until I went back and checked on the door, then my gear shift and I got on with my day. 

Brain scans of OCD patients show that all three of these brain areas are hyperactive. This means the “something is wrong” feeling and the anxiety that comes with it are abnormally strong. So even with incredibly trivial imperfections in something like say the fibers on a carpet, the OCD afflicted person feels that a terrible mistake has been made and the consequences will be absolutely horrible unless something is done. This is why OCD can result in such irrational obsessions like “If I don’t vacuum the carpet 5 times, my parents will die.”  

As Norman Doidge explains in The Brain that Changes Itself, what happens in people with OCD is that their gear shifter, “the caudate [nucleus] becomes extremely ‘sticky.’ “ He says that “The malfunctioning caudate [nucleus] is probably overactive because it is stuck and is still being inundated with signals from the orbital cortex.” This means that even if the person does something to correct the mistake their brain is detecting, that feeling doesn’t go away – their brain can’t shift to the next gear and they stay very anxious. Most people who have OCD are actually aware of the fact that their worries and behaviors are completely illogical, but since the orbital cortex and cingulate gyrus are stuck in the ON position, they are strongly compelled to repeatedly attempt to correct the imaginary mistake.

UCLA Research Psychiatrist Jeffrey Schwartz calls this situation “brain lock,” and in his book titled Brain Lock he describes a very effective behavioral therapy for OCD. 

To understand it, let’s look at hand washing, a common OCD obsession. In someone without OCD the caudate nucleus will register that you have solved the problem of dirty hands by washing them and will then automatically “shift gears” so you can forget about it.

In the behavioral therapy, when an OCD patient has the urge to wash their hands again even though they’re already clean, they are to first mindfully acknowledge that the urge to do this is simply a result of a faulty circuit in their brain, and that nothing bad will actually happen if they don’t wash their hands again . They then have to manually shift their gear by right away doing some other constructive activity for as long as they can. The urge to give into a compulsion is usually overwhelming so Dr. Schwartz recommends to start by waiting at least 15 minutes before giving into it and then expanding that time day by day. With consistent practice, this manual gear shifting becomes an automatic habit to where when the urge to do some compulsive behavior arises, their immediate reaction is to first identify the compulsion as simply the result of brain lock and then move on to another activity. 

Brain scans of OCD patients’ who used this behavioral therapy showed that after a while the problem causing hyperactive caudate nucleus in the brain had actually become less active compared to before therapy. As Dr. Schwartz says “We can now say we have scientifically demonstrated that by changing your behavior, you can change your brain.” 

I didn’t realize it at first, but this was essentially the strategy I used back when I was quitting sugar. Whenever I got an urge to go buy some sweet garbage from the convenient store, I stood up, set a timer for 20 minutes and started reading something. Sometimes I would give in and buy the snack after the 20 minutes were up, but I just made sure to increase the time on the timer each day. Pretty soon I was setting the timer for an hour; and after a while the immediate message in my head transformed from “I want sugar, time to get some snacks” to “I want sugar, time to stand up and read”. 

Alright, so back to my door double checking issue. As someone with a properly functioning caudate nucleus, what’s the solution to keep me from wasting my time? As Norman Doidge explains, “we often check and recheck [things] without really concentrating,” so he suggests to perform the very first check with the utmost care. 

If you’re moving so fast during your morning routine without paying attention and being distracted by something like an audiobook as I often am, the “problem solved” circuit doesn’t get processed when locking the door the first time and the gear in the brain doesn’t turn. By simply taking a moment to slow down and be aware of what I’m doing as I check the coffee maker and head out the door, I now no longer get the urge to go back and check again later. Getting my lost 15 or 20 minutes a week back is nice, but more importantly for me it’s nice to no longer be asking “what the hell is wrong with me?

How to get more quality sleep | (Science of Sleep Part 2)

The following is the transcript for the video by the same name on my channel “What I’ve Learned,” originally posted on February 10th, 2017.

I assume you’re here because you already understand that sleep is a top priority for good health. But in either case let me first quickly point out just one thing about sleep. Before you stay up late to get just little bit more work done, or to watch that movie newly added to netflix, think about the things you need to do or the decisions you need to make tomorrow, and decide whether all that is OK to do after a couple beers in the morning. 

alcohol: 2019 beer round-up: Hoppy ales, lagers and other brews that ruled  this year - The Economic Times

There are several studies that compare sleep impairment to drunkenness, and this one in particular found that just 17 to 19 hours of going without sleep ( a normal day for most of us..)“was equivalent or worse to a Blood Alcohol Concentration of 0.05 percent.”

In this talk Chris Barnes discusses how after 4 days on 5 hours of sleep, you’re almost the equivalent of too drunk to drive, and then in 14 days on 6 hours of sleep you are as bad as if you had stayed up an entire night.

Alright so how do we get more quality sleep?

We live in a very cyclic world. We have 4 seasons, stars have annual patterns, some birds migrate annually; and of course circadian rhythms are very important for most living things, even bacteria have circadian rhythms. Humans are no different. We have a daily dose of cortisol in the morning to wake us up and a rise in melatonin at night to put us to sleep at night. We also have ultradian rhythms- rhythms shorter 24 hours where we experience oscillations in alertness, concentration, and physical performance throughout the day.

Unfortunately nowadays we’re either moving so fast or medicating these rhythms with caffeine to the point that we’re no longer aware of them. However if you can act in sync with these rhythms, falling asleep and getting up in the morning can be as smooth and seamless as a rower hitting a good stroke. 

What we should strive for, and what our bodies would like for us to do, is to fall asleep just a few hours after the sun goes down. This differs depending on where in the world you are, but for most people it’s around 10PM. As Russell Foster explains in this talk, as you’re awake throughout the day, adenosine builds up in the brain and you develop a sleep pressure. Then during the night, physiological processes such as melatonin secretion work to set up a “sleep window”. If the buildup of sleep pressure and the sleep window are in alignment then you drift off to sleep without a hitch. However if the sleep window is out of sync with the sleep pressure due to using caffeine too much, having a wonky sleep schedule or because you’re stimulating yourself with your phone before bed, then you’ll miss your chance. After the sleep window closes, usually around 11PM your body is programmed to give you a second wind of energy in the form of cortisol which can keep you awake until as late as 2AM. 

Now, if you have the flexibility in your schedule to go to sleep at 2 and wake up at 9 that might not sound like such a big deal, but the anticarcinogen and antioxidant melatonin as well as Human Growth Hormone- the  “youth hormone” are secreted in their strongest doses between 10PM and 2AM. As Neurologist Kulreet Chaudhary says, “If your body is chronically deprived of the regenerative sleep between 10:00 p.m. and 2:00 a.m., then you may still feel fatigued when you wake up in the morning.” 

An easy way to set yourself up to fall asleep at this time is by resetting your biological clock by getting some sun in the morning between the hours of 6AM and 8AM. Research from the journal “Innovations in Clinical Neuroscience” found that exposure to sunlight in the morning significantly decreased cortisol levels later in the day. By getting some sunlight when you wake up, you set up cortisol and melatonin to be at optimal levels for getting a good night’s sleep and falling asleep at the right time. 

You will want to get this morning sunlight as often as possible. The human circadian rhythm is actually more like 24 hours and 10 minutes, so if you aren’t resetting it, then within a week you could end up on a sleep schedule that is an hour later than usual. 

A caveat here is that your body is very good at latching on to whatever rhythm it can, so if you for whatever reason your schedule does not allow for you to go to bed by 10PM, try and at least keep the same bedtime each night.

We’re a lot more like Pavlov’s dogs than we’d like to think. Your body will anchor whatever physiological processes it can to certain times of day and to your environment and even to objects. For example: While this baby’s association of water with sleep is cute, I’m sure no one wants to have to have water running on them to sleep. This is one reason why it’s imperative to keep the phone and laptop out of the bed. If you like watching movies or playing games at night, fine, but you don’t want your brain saying “Oh we’re in bed, it must be time to play flappy bird.” If you can train your mind to understand that 10PM is the time for sleep, and your bed is the place for sleep and only sleep, it will do the work for you. Then, if you can establish a pre-sleep routine that always happens in the same sequence- take a bath, make some herbal tea, read a book (whatever), that will create even more anchors associated with sleep and it will be even easier to pass out quickly after your head hits the pillow. 

Now this might not be all that compelling, but your brain really is good at automating processes like this.

Taking advantage of this automatic processing and establishing simple positive associations like “bed” only with “sleep” is called Cognitive Behavior Therapy and it’s used as a method for treating insomnia. Dr. Vyga Kaufmann explains in this talk that Cognitive Behavior therapy or CBTI is so powerful for treating insomnia that in the short run it is as good as medication and in the long run, “CBTI is the clear winner.” 

I said that you don’t want to associate the bed with using your phone, but there’s another big reason for this. The light and dark cycle perceived by the eye is  the most important regulator of your biological clock. You have something called Photosensitive Retinal Ganglion cells in your eyes that are highly sensitive to blue light in particular. Originally, the light from the sun was the only blue light that made it to our eyes, so having specialized cells in the eye to look for blue light was very effective for regulating our biological clocks. 

However, our technology has advanced dramatically, but our human hardware is still relying on these blue light sensors in our eyes to determine whether it is day or night and whether we should be alert or resting. When it comes to sleep, looking at a bright blue light is as alarming to your eyes as a loud barking dog is to your ears.

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As Shawn Stevenson explains in his book “Sleep Smarter,” “The artificial blue light emitted by electronic screens triggers your body to produce more daytime hormones (such as cortisol)” and suppresses the secretion of the key sleep hormone, melatonin. 

Researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston compared two groups, one reading on an iPad and another reading a printed book. Nighttime iPad readers secreted less melatonin, ended up taking longer to fall asleep, felt less sleepy at night, and had shorter REM sleep compared to those using printed books. What’s interesting is that they were also more tired than the book readers the next day, even if both got a full 8 hours of sleep.

iPhone、iPad、iPod touch で Night Shift を使う - Apple サポート

Try and stop looking at screens at least an hour before you go to bed so that your cortisol and melatonin levels can normalize. If you absolutely must get on the internet, make sure to at least get f.lux on your computer, and use the nightshift feature on your iPhone or get a blue light blocking app on your android. Blue light blocking glasses are great as well, but in any case, not looking at any bright screens is the best choice.  

You’ll also want to get your bedroom as dark as possible. There’s a light-sensitive chemical found in the retina called rhodopsin, which is also produced by the skin. If something is emitting light in your bedroom, it can interfere with your sleep even if your eyes don’t pick it up. 

Establishing a proper circadian rhythm is one of the best things you can do for your sleep as it will have you falling asleep faster and balances your hormones to give you higher quality sleep. 

As for enhancing sleep onset specifically, you can take advantage of the thermoregulation step of the sleep process. When it’s time to turn in for the night, there is a drop in your body’s core temperature to help initiate sleep. If your room is too hot, falling asleep can be a physiological challenge.  

    Studies have found that the optimal room temperature for sleep is around a cool 60 to 68 degrees fahrenheit. 

A study at the University of Pittsburg School of Medicine wanted to see if cooler temperatures could assist insomniacs with falling asleep. During the study, test subjects were fitted with “cooling caps” that contained circulating water at cool temperatures. What they found was that when the participants wore the cooling caps, they fell asleep even faster than people without sleep disorders. With the caps, the insomniacs took about 13 minutes to fall asleep, compared to 16 minutes for the healthy control group. The insomniacs also stayed asleep for 89 percent of the time they were in bed, which was the exact amount of time the healthy control group slept in bed. 

You can take advantage of this phenomenon by setting your thermostat lower of course, or you can take a cold shower or bath or take a warm bath. The relaxing nature of a warm bath is helpful and it doesn’t interfere with the thermoregulation step because your body starts to rapidly cool after stepping out of the bath, leaving you at a cooler temperature than you started with. Just make sure you get out of the bath at least a half hour before getting in the bed so you have time to cool off. A cold bath isn’t near as pleasant, but if you can handle it, it is really effective. I tried an ice bath twice recently and both times I fell asleep on the couch in my towel with the lights still on. 

Another thing I can say about sleep onset is to have the right expectations and try not to psych yourself out. As Psychology Professor Allison Harvey of Berkeley University says, you have to keep in mind that sleep is not a light switch but more like a dimmer switch. It takes most people on average about 20 minutes to fall asleep. Once you have the lights off, and you’re in bed there’s really not anything left for you to do so there’s no point in stressing out about how long it takes you to fall asleep. And actually it’s particularly  harmful for you to look at the clock. Clock watching is actually a well known exacerbator for insomnia. There’s even a phenomenon called placebo sleep where simply thinking you got more sleep the night before leads to better cognitive functioning. We can’t always trick ourselves into thinking we got good sleep but checking the time and saying “Shit it’s already 1AM!” is an easy way to make yourself anxious, secrete a little bit of cortisol and keep yourself up later. 

The best thing to do is to think about things unrelated to the consequences of everyday life, don’t review your embarassing moments, don’t think about your to-do list, while you’re laying in bed try and practice some form of meditation.

The other thing here is to improve the efficiency of the sleep process. Like we talked about last time, sleep is when your brain is shifting into waste cleanup mode. A specialized system called the glymphatic system floods the brain with cerebrospinal fluid and flushes out toxic waste products that have accumulated during the day. The cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) is produced by ependymal cells in the brain and in the central canal of the spinal cord. As well as CSF, the flow of blood to the brain increases during sleep.  1/5th of your circulatory blood goes to the brain to facilitate the sleep process. 

You want to make the process of routing your blood and CSF to the brain as smooth as possible. For this, the integrity of your spine is key. Going to bed with a stiff back or sleeping in the wrong position can be compromising your sleep quality. Since the spine is connected directly to every major organ in the body, your spine integrity can affect many other things like hormone production, muscular function, tissue repair, blood pressure as well as metabolism and digestion.

I was never too keen on Yoga until I tried a sequence before bed that is directed at loosening up the spine. The next morning I woke up about 45 minutes before my alarm clock feeling fresher than I had all week. The yoga may not have been the only factor, but taking a few minutes to loosen up my spine each night has generally improved my sleep recently. 

Why Top Performers Use Teeter Inversion Tables | Teeter.com

Tim Ferriss recommends trying “gravity boots” or an inversion table to decompress the spine before bed. Doing a bit of stretching or yoga as well as rolling your back out on a foam roller is also very effective. 

The other thing you’ll want to do is make sure you’re in a decent sleeping position. The most common problem with people’s sleeping situation is that they are using too many pillows which hyperextends their neck, or they are sleeping on a worn out mattress which doesn’t support the natural curvature of the spine. 

As long as you’re not putting a kink in your back while you sleep, it seems that being on your back, stomach or side are generally fine. However, sleeping on the side is known to lessen sleep apnea by reducing snoring, and there is some compelling evidence that suggests sleeping on your side may be the best choice.

A 2007 study in The Journal of Allied Health Sciences and Practice, found that most people favored the side-sleeping position, and were less likely to wake up bothered by neck pain.

Then, Another study from 2015 in the Journal of Neuroscience looked at how sleeping positions affect the glymphatic pathway. Rodent models were used to see what sleeping position allows for the most efficient glymphatic transport, that is- how easily fluid could flow around so the brain could complete its cleanup job during sleep. Rodents slept on either their side, back or stomach and were monitored via magnetic resonance imaging. They found that glymphatic transport was the most efficient  when the rodents slept in the lateral position- on their side.

In the news release, Dr. Maiken Nedergaard said: “It is interesting that the lateral sleep position is already the most popular in humans and most animals — even in the wild — and it appears that we have adapted the lateral sleep position to most efficiently clear our brain of the metabolic waste products that built up while we are awake.”

There are some other very important factors that contribute to sleep quality like your body fat percentage or muscle mass, but for now these simple steps like changing your sleeping position or going to sleep a bit earlier and waking up earlier can have a profoundly positive impact on your sleep.

If you haven’t already, make sure and check out my last video which is all about why sleep is so important. If you’d like to improve your sleep, understanding what makes sleep so critical is the first factor in getting you to make the necessary changes.

*Two years later in July 2019, I made another video titled “What’s the Best Position to Sleep in? Do we even need a pillow?”

Why Sleep is Critical for the Body and Brain

The following is the transcript for the video by the same name on my channel “What I’ve Learned.”

After reading The Sleep Revolution which is all about the importance of a good night’s sleep… I found it really hard to… fall asleep. Before that I didn’t have much difficulty with it, but after being bombarded with endless statistics and research results illustrating the detriments of inadequate sleep, I became very anxious about how long I was lying awake in my bed. 

When we’re trying to get more out of life, sleep is usually the first thing that gets cut to make room in our schedules. Ironically, it can be hard to realize that by cutting back on sleep, we are decreasing productivity, creativity, concentration, patience, communication skills and a lot of what makes a good… human. That’s because less sleep results in a less effective brain and less healthy body. Pretty much whatever you’re doing, you end up doing it worse.

Of course there are some cases where you have no choice but to stay up late or wake up early. But I’d like to spend this video looking over why sleep is so important. By getting a new perspective on sleep, hopefully you’ll enjoy getting more of it rather than just feeling like you’re wasting 8 hours of your life. First, let’s take a look at what happens to your mind when you’re not completing the process of sleep properly. 

In 1999, two professors at Loughborough University wanted to test how sleep affects the brain’s ability to react to changing conditions. They developed a computer game set in the business world, and MBA students had to promote sales of a virtual product. Then, halfway through the game, the dynamics of the virtual marketplace suddenly changed. Now strategies that used to work resulted in terrible sales. Only students who could quickly change and adapt could survive. 

 Students were split into two groups, one with restricted sleep and another where they could sleep as much as they liked. Most of the students who slept well quickly adapted to the changes and maintained their sales. On the other hand, the sleep-deprived students were unable to modify their strategy appropriately and very quickly became bankrupt. 

The conclusion was that without sleep, their brains lost the ability to consider alternative solutions to problems. Brain scans have shown that when you’re lacking sleep, the neurons firing in the prefrontal cortex begin to slow down. The prefrontal cortex is particularly important for the behaviors that make us… human. This region is associated with planning, personality expression, decision making, attention control, reasoning, and problem solving. When you lack sleep, it’s harder for us to complete a thought or see a problem in a new way. 

In a talk on the role of sleep in learning and creativity, Robert Stickgold discusses an experiment where subjects were supposed to come up with a string of numbers based on a different set of numbers they were provided with. The instructions were complicated, but after several trials everyone got the hang of it and could slowly but consistently solve the number puzzle. However, there was a trick to make the process much faster. The last three numbers in the sequence always ended up being a mirror image of the 3 numbers before it. They wanted to see how long it would take people to pick up on the trick. So, after everyone got a hang of the instructions, they had them wait 12 hours and then try it again. But, they were split into three groups: those who learned how to do the puzzle in the morning and got tested at night, those who learned how to do it at night and then stayed awake all night before trying in the morning, and those who tried in the morning but had gotten a good night’s rest. 

The first two groups showed about the same chance of discovering the trick in the puzzle. But with the 3rd group, again the only difference is that they got to sleep, they were 2.5 times more likely to gain the insight into the puzzle and catch the trick.

[Robert Stickgold] “So you can gain these insights when you didn’t even know there was an insight to find, just by sleeping on it. It’s an amazing phenomenon, it really is. It’s like… how does it do it?

Two big things on the sleep to-do list that allow for such insights are memory consolidation and information processing. While asleep, your brain looks at the information you picked up throughout the day, prunes out the useless junk and keeps the things worth remembering. Of the four stages of sleep, slow wave sleep and rapid eye movement have been shown to move electrical impulses between the brain stem, hippocampus, thalamus and cortex. These four areas serve as relay stations for memory formation. During this process, your brain takes the information in the short term memory and moves the important bits to long term memory.

In this World Science Festival program, Neurobiology professor Matthew Wilson describes an experiment designed to gain insight into this information processing step. They analyzed the brain activity of rats while they were making their way through a maze, and then compared that to their brain activity while sleeping. What they saw was that as the rat went into non-REM deep sleep, its brain was lighting up as if it was actually back in the maze… except it was replaying the information about 10 times faster than normal, and it was playing the events backwards and forwards and skipping around. The idea is that during this non-REM deep sleep phase, your brain is quickly reviewing the information you’ve gained throughout the day and taking notes. It’s kind of like flipping around in your textbook before your test the next day.

REM sleep however is played out at normal speed. This is why your dreams, however ridiculous, will follow some sequence of events. While you dream, your brain is seeing how unrelated pieces of information fit together and simulating scenarios you might need to be prepared for. What if my boss turns into the monster from Pan’s Labyrinth, what would I do! Because your brain is playing around with information like this, some of our most creative insights can come to us in the form of dreams. August Kekulé in 1865 came up with the structure of the Benzene molecule in a dream. Elias Howe owes the invention of the sewing machine to a dream. Paul McCartney came up with the melody for Yesterday in a dream, and there’s all kinds of examples like this. 

Because of the timing at which these processes happen, it’s suggested that you should go to sleep 3 hours after acquiring declarative knowledge like after studying from a book, and you should go to sleep 1 hour after working on procedural knowledge like playing an instrument. Also if you’re trying to learn or remember something, you should definitely avoid alcohol. It’s thought that the reason we don’t remember much after drinking alcohol is that alcohol interferes with memory consolidation. 

So insufficient sleep interferes with creativity and memory, but it can also interfere with your personality and competence in general. As mentioned earlier, the more “human” part of your brain, the prefrontal cortex shows less activity when you’re sleep deprived. The Amygdala on the other hand, shows more activity. The amygdala is associated with processing emotional information and, as this study has found, “a lack of sleep inappropriately modulates the human emotional brain response to negative aversive stimuli.” Essentially, the less sleep you get, the more likely you are to interpret situations negatively, overreact to things and be more moody in general. This can manifest itself as more fights with your spouse as illustrated by this article, or as much more drastic behavior. 

In 2009, a band of American soldiers from the 172nd infantry found themselves in court martial for murdering two men in Baghdad against a superior’s orders. Their lawyers’ defense was that the soldiers were too sleep deprived to make rational decisions.

David Randall’s book Dreamland discusses several how in the early 80’s military studies found that sleep deprived air force pilots “changed their vocal patterns, no longer enunciating or speaking loudly enough [to be understood]”  by their co pilots. Maybe that didn’t bother the military that much because in 1996 ”…crew fatigue was blamed for thirty-two accidents that destroyed American military aircraft, including three F-14 jetfighters that cost $38 million each.” The military has spent millions of dollars testing all kinds of methods to keep soldiers awake longer, but in 2007 they concluded that the only way to recover from lost sleep was to …sleep.

One issue is that it’s “cool” to not sleep so much. Getting by on less sleep is the mark of a “hustler,” a hard worker who will stop at nothing to achieve their goals. During a speech, Arnold Schwarzenegger said “We sleep 6 hours a day, so that give you still 18 hours. There’s someone shaking their head out here in front and say probably ‘I don’t sleep 6 hours, I sleep 8 hours.’ Well, just sleep faster.”

Now some of you may say “I’m operating just fine on my 6 hours of sleep a night.” And you could be one of the 5% of the population with the genetic mutation that lets you get by on only 6 hours of sleep.  But as we discussed earlier, activity in the prefrontal cortex lessens when you lack sleep. And The prefrontal cortex is the only part of the brain that has the power of self-assessment, ….to think about how it is thinking. So if you’re not getting enough sleep, would your prefrontal cortex properly recognize that it’s working at sub-optimal capacity? Let’s put it this way: If your  brain was operating at say only 85% of its performance capacity, could it make the mistake of thinking it was performing at 100% capacity? 

It’s not only your brain that needs sleep, also on the sleep to do list is tissue repair, maintenance of metabolic pathways and the balancing of hormones. Sleep is very important for your body too. 

A study at the University of Chicago put participants on a calorie restricted diet and then randomly assigned them to sleep 5.5 hours or 8.5 hours each night. Those who slept only 5.5 hours lost 55% less body fat. Again, they were on the same diets. The sleep deprived group did lose weight, but they were losing more muscle. They lost 60% more fat-free mass compared to those who slept well. They also reported feeling hungrier. An important factor in this was that the sleep deprived group were shown to have much higher ghrelin levels. Ghrelin is a hormone that causes you to retain fat and feel more hungry. It has been shown that just one night of poor sleep leads to a 15% increase in this “hunger hormone.” 

Our bodies are very complex dynamic systems so usually it’s not only one hormone that gets disrupted. Lack of sleep also means lowered levels of the satiety hormone leptin, and less melatonin. Melatonin has some very powerful anti-aging and anti-cancer properties, and as the Journal of pineal research found, melatonin increases weight loss by increasing brown adipose tissue. Brown adipose tissue or BAT Fat actually acts a lot like muscle in that it increases your metabolic rate and burns white adipose tissue- white adipose tissue is the fat you don’t want. 

Inadequate sleep also increases Cortisol, which has been shown to increase the worst type of fat -visceral fat, the stuff that surrounds your organs. Cortisol also encourages your body to break down muscle for fuel through a process called gluconeogenesis. 

Whether you are trying to make some “gains” or just want to lose a bit of fat, your time in the gym needs to be complemented with proper sleep.

One more key hormone secreted during sleep is Human Growth Factor (HGH), otherwise known as “the youth hormone”. As the name suggests, it stimulates growth, cell reproduction and cell regeneration, which means increased muscle, more fat loss, and other things like improved skin elasticity. Human growth hormone even plays a role in  improving cognitive function and a deficiency in it has been linked with depression. At the University of Berkeley, lack of sleep was the top predictor of depression symptoms among graduate students. 

It’s important to get enough sleep, but also to get it at the right time. While it depends on each individual’s circadian rhythm, in general 10PM to 2AM is when your body secretes the most growth hormone (that is- IF you’re asleep at that time). 

Thomas Edison, a famous opponent of sleep, said that “Sleep is a criminal waste of time, inherited from our cave days.” Did him dying of type 2 diabetes in an era when the disease was exceptionally rare have anything to do with that? Maybe.

The other thing on the sleep to do list is waste cleanup. The brain takes up 2% of the body’s mass yet burns up one quarter of the body’s energy supply. Throughout the course of the day, the brain produces a decent amount of waste.

The brain handles this waste cleanup task during sleep via something called the glymphatic system in which brain cells shrink to allow for cerebrospinal fluid to flood into the brain and flush out the waste. Kind of like a dishwasher. One thing that needs to be flushed out is the compound adenosine. Adenosine is a byproduct of your neurons and other cells when they burn up adenosine triphosphate, the main molecule that our bodies use to store energy. As adenosine builds up, you start to slow down and accumulate a “sleep pressure”. When your adenosine levels reach a certain point, your body sends you signals to go to sleep.

Caffeine works by bonding to the same receptors as adenosine, tricking the body into thinking it’s not tired. While caffeine will wake you up, it will interfere with your sleep cycle if taken too late in the day. Cristopher Drake, associate professor of behavioral neurosciences at Wayne State University School of Medicine led a study that found that taking caffeine even 6 hours before bed can lead to a measurable objective loss of 1 hour of sleep. What this means is that it may seem like you got say 7 hours of sleep after having a coffee mid day, but a sleep monitor would show that you’re not properly dipping into the normal ranges of REM and deep sleep, leading to an actual sleep total of 6 hours. For this reason it’s recommended to finish your caffeine at least 8 or more hours before you go to sleep. 

Like adenosine, Amyloid beta is another waste product that is created in the brain as a consequence of being alive. Unfortunately, excess amyloid beta is toxic to the brain and Amyloid plaques have been thoroughly linked to Alzheimer’s disease. It’s understood that Alzheimer’s patients don’t create significantly more amyloid beta than other people, but they simply were not clearing it out enough. Of course other lifestyle factors like diet play a role here, but sleep could be particularly critical for avoiding neurodegenerative disease.

Artificial intelligence, robots, and all kinds of automation are already replacing jobs nowadays and the technology is only expected to get better and better. Machine intelligence may be the last invention humanity will ever need to make, but at least until that point we need to set ourselves up access our creative insights and take advantage of the more human faculties of our brains. As Daniel Pink says in A Whole New Mind, it’s the “creative and emphatic ‘right-brain’ oriented thinkers whose abilities mark the fault line between who gets ahead and who doesn’t.” Without enough sleep, our bodies as well as these creative, insightful and emotionally adept human faculties of our brains suffer. 

Why Exercise is so Underrated (The Link between Brain Power & Movement)

This is the transcript for my video published on my channel on December 28th, 2016

To understand the injustice that has been done to exercise, let’s pretend we’re back in 1995 and Nintendo is advertising the Nintendo 64. When marketing, they talk solely about the technical aspects of the machine and how it has a 93.7 megahertz processor compared to the Super Nintendo’s measly 3.56 megahertz processor. The N64 flops and the entire marketing team is fired since they failed to promote any relevant information like the actual nature of the new games or even that an entire D was added, making the games 3D instead of 2D. 

Of course in reality, the Nintendo 64 did quite well. This hypothetical marketing strategy is just a parallel to the poor marketing strategy for exercise.  The sales points of exercise up until now were that it’s good for the heart and it will make you lose weight. First off, while these are good benefits, they’re not nearly as compelling as the other benefits of exercise. “Good for the heart” is a vague notion that’s encouraging only if you happen to be older and worried about a heart attack. Then, data is showing that exercise isn’t even that effective for losing weight. A review of exercise intervention studies published in 2001 by Queen’s University in Canada found that after 20 weeks, “the amount of exercise energy expenditure had no correlation with weight loss

I’m not saying that exercise doesn’t affect your body. The right kind of exercise increases muscle mass and improves your insulin sensitivity, setting you up to have a healthier body composition. However, if you begin exercising without managing other factors like diet, you may be very discouraged by poor weight loss results.

Pediatric Endocrinologist Dr. Robert Lustig said at UCSF Osher Mini Medical School for the Public in 2013:
Does exercise work? So, here are studies of exercise – as you can see when compared with no treatment, exercise resulted in very small weight loss across the board. Exercise does not cause weight loss. What does exercise do? It causes muscle gain. Muscle have mitochondria, mitochondria burn energy. So, exercise is the single best thing you can do for yourself, but if you think it’s gonna show up on the scale, think again.” 

In a September 2016 issue of TIME magazine, Dr. Mark Tarnopolsky said that “If there were a drug that could do for human health everything that exercise can, it would likely be the most valuable pharmaceutical ever developed.

To understand what makes exercise  so great, we need to understand how it affects the brain. First off, what is the brain for? Some may say “we have brains to think! To create art and to come up with creative solutions to complex problems!” but Neuroscientist Daniel Wolpert argues that is not the case.

As Daniel Wolpert said in his TED talk:
 “ We have a brain for one reason and one reason only and that’s to produce adaptable and complex movement. There is no other reason to have a brain.” 

 To illustrate this, Daniel uses the example of a sea squirt. Early in its life, the sea squirt has a nervous system. It will use this nervous system to move around and find a suitable rock to attach itself to, then it will spend the rest of its life there. At that point, movement is no longer a necessity for survival, so the very first thing the sea squirt does is it digests its brain for energy. 

A more relatable example is the Koala. The Koala has adapted its digestive system to derive all the energy it needs from eucalyptus leaves. It really doesn’t need to move that much as it can just sit in the tree, eat, and watch the world go by. Earlier in the Koala’s evolution, it used to have a much bigger brain. However, once its diet became less diverse and required less movement to survive, its brain shrunk. Less movement meant less brain was necessary. From an evolutionary perspective, it’s the same as not wasting your money on a 4000 dollar laptop if all you need to do is run some simple software like your web browser and email client. 

What research on exercise is suggesting, and a better understanding of neurochemical mechanisms is proving, is that there is a very powerful connection between the brain and movement. A big brain is necessary to facilitate complex movements, and executing such movements and getting your heart rate up bolsters your  brain power. 

Exercise  has been shown to help people learn much more efficiently, better deal with stress, and drastically reduce anxiety. It improves mood to the point of lifting people people out of depression, and it strengthens focus to the point that some ADHD patients elect to throw out their prescriptions. And that’s not even the full list. 
The California Department of Education has consistently shown that students with higher fitness scores have higher test scores. Former President Ma of Taiwan increased the occurrence of Physical Education in schools nationwide from twice a week to three times a week for this reason. The minister of education, science and technology in South Korea extended the school day by 1 hour to add more time for PE and sports. This decision was made after reading Dr. John Ratey’s book “SPARK” which is all about the brain benefits of exercising.

The reason the Taiwanese and South Korean school systems don’t just have students study for another hour is because exercise actually primes the brain to learn faster. A 2007 study showed that subjects who did high intensity exercise beforehand could learn vocabulary words 20% faster than those who remained sedentary.

The key to this phenomenon is a protein called Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor, or BDNF for short. In order to learn something, the brain actually needs to grow and modify its cellular infrastructure to allow neurons to fire more easily. Researchers found that “if they sprinkled BDNF onto neurons in a petri dish, the cells automatically sprouted new branches, producing the same structural growth required for learning.” This impressive result had John Ratey nickname BDNF the “Miracle-Gro for the brain.”

“BDNF improves the function of neurons, encourages their growth, and strengthens and protects them against the natural process of cell death. …BDNF is a crucial biological link between thought, emotions and movement.”

A 2013 study in the journal of sports science and medicine showed that just 20 to 40 minutes of aerobic exercise increased BDNF in the blood by 32%. Rather than stocking up on coffee before you sit down to study, you might want to try jogging around the block instead. 

One way to understand why exercise would trigger your brain to initiate “learning mode” like this is to think of your body as the world’s most intricate “IF THEN” system. Your body has triggers for almost every physiological process. For example, IF cold THEN shiver. IF hot THEN sweat. Most of your body’s physiological expressions can’t be induced just by force of will, certain triggers must be present. [“Alexa, increase my testosterone by 50%.” “I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.” ] By understanding which physiological triggers influence which physiological expressions, we can start getting our brains to do what we want. 

The reason exercise is a key trigger for all kinds of positive effects in the brain, particularly learning, is because movement signals to the brain that something important is happening. Maybe not in modern times, but originally, when we were moving, it was for the sake of survival. You move to escape a predator, to forage for food, to hunt, et cetera. While moving, it’s in your best interest to learn the lay of the land so you don’t get lost and can locate forageable food again. You had better remember how an attacking animal moves and what path was most efficient to escape so you can prevent yourself from becoming a carcass next time. When you’re loafing around, you’re not convincing your brain that learning is necessary. From your brain’s perspective, being sedentary means you’re safe, nothing important is happening, and it’s time to rest.

When you think of Arnold Schwarzenegger, you might not associate him with intelligence. You might say he talks funny, and that his success only comes from him being a novelty when musclebound guys were rare. However, no matter how much attention your arms get you, you’ll need a lot of motivation, learning capacity, and focus to become a bodybuilder, businessman, actor, investor, and politician. By the way it wasn’t his physique that made him rich, he became a millionaire through real estate before he even began acting. Oh and all this while he was speaking in his second language. 

There’s a good chance that Arnold can thank his fitness for such an impressive display of focus and motivation. We owe our motivations and entire ‘will to live’ to the brain’s reward center. With almost any activity we choose to do, we do it because we expect some sort of reward. We strive for success in life because we expect the reward of fulfillment, we eat candy bars for the rewarding taste and we do taxes for the reward of not getting audited by the IRS. Without reward, our brains don’t have much reason to do anything.

An anti-obesity drug called Rimonabant was a tragic example of this. Rimonabant is an endocannabinoid antagonist- it’s an “anti-marijuana” medicine, which also means it’s “anti-munchies” medicine. It gets you to stop eating by inhibiting the sense of reward from food, and unfortunately everything else. 20 percent of users experienced serious depression and there were several suicides. Kill the reward system and you just might want to kill yourself.  

Dopamine is a key player in the reward center. Dopamine is all about motivation and attention, and is responsible for that feeling of satisfaction when we accomplish something. It makes you want to do things, and reassures you that that thing was worth doing. 

So if your dopamine is not working properly, you can find it hard to get things done, because you’re not getting enough fulfillment to justify doing them. One of the ways the ADHD drug adderall works is by mimicking the action of dopamine in the reward center of the brain. Adderall users can get so focused on mundane tasks and blast through their to-do lists because everything becomes interesting. But you don’t have to go the pharmacy to get your reward center going. Studies show that exercise boosts motivation by increasing dopamine storage and triggering the creation of dopamine receptors in the reward center. Exercise won’t have you staying up all night in a studying frenzy like adderall, but it will give you more willpower and focus to do those little things that don’t usually feel rewarding.

Aside from its positive effects on dopamine, exercise also elevates levels of norepinephrine and serotonin. When these three neurotransmitters are in deficit, people become depressed. 

In a 1999 study, James Blumenthal compared exercise to the anti-depressant Zoloft in a 16 week trial. They found that just thirty minutes of jogging, three times a week was just as effective as Zoloft. But that’s only looking at depression. A 2006 study of over 19,000 Dutch twins and their families showed that exercisers were  less depressed, less anxious, more socially outgoing and less neurotic. I guess it wasn’t hyperbole when Dr. Mark Tarnopolsky said that if exercise were a drug, it would be the most valuable one ever developed.

The last point about exercise and the brain has to do with stress. Let’s take a look at the original stress scenario: You’re chilling out eating berries or whatever and then you see a tiger advancing towards you. Your fight or flight response switches on, the pituitary gland secretes adrenocorticotropic hormone, cortisol is released, your heart rate shoots up, your digestion turns off and you really start moving. You will exert an immense amount of effort, after a couple minutes you will come to rest, then your physiological processes will calm down, and your cortisol will quickly drop and stay down for the rest of the day. 

This is another example of the body’s IF THEN sequencing: IF See tiger, THEN jack up cortisol. After that, it becomes: IF You have exerted sufficient effort THEN lower cortisol levels. Unfortunately for most people they activate the first part of this a lot, but they don’t activate the second part. Which means for most of the day, you’re sitting around with a bunch of cortisol in your system.

We’ve heard that stress makes you fat, and indeed it does. Research shows that cortisol specifically increases the accumulation visceral fat, which is linked to cardiovascular disease and metabolic syndrome. But there’s a much more important area affected by stress. Brain imaging has shown that people with frequently high cortisol levels degrade their brain tissue much faster than normal. As cortisol rises, electrical signals in your hippocampus deteriorate. The hippocampus is associated with learning, memories, and of course stress control. However, by exercising in the morning, you can dial down your cortisol levels and keep them down the rest of the day. Frequent exercise allows your body to become much better at reacting to stress.

I mentioned that exercise is as good as medication for treating some issues, but exercise isn’t just for correcting  health. Even if you are confident that you feel great, have good focus, and you are happy with your ability to learn new things, you could still improve all of these areas.

If you’ve replaced say your headphones recently, you probably were satisfied with the ones you had… until you tried better ones and thought “Whoa! I could have been hearing in high quality this whole time!” Then those new headphones become your new standard. If you later put on your old headphones, you think “God these sound like crap.” Starting an exercise routine feels like putting on those new headphones. 

When someone mentions they don’t have time for 20 minutes of exercise in the morning, it reminds me of one of my favorite Brian Regan skits about eyeglasses:

How can instantly improved vision not be at the top of your to do list? ‘Ah I’ll see tomorrow. I don’t- I don’t have time! I don’t have time. To see clearly. No. ” 
Sometime about two years ago, I was dissatisfied with my productivity and thought I had a touch of ADHD, so I got a prescription for modafinil. Modafinil has been compared to the magical productivity pill NZT in the movie “limitless”. Some users said colors look brighter and that they instantly felt “switched on.” For me, not so much. There was never a particularly striking contrast in how I felt on modafinil, just at some point during the day, I would look back and think “Wow I really got a lot done today.” I stopped taking modafinil after just a few weeks of trying it as I didn’t like the idea of relying on something for productivity. Now that I’ve finally made a habit of consistently exercising first thing every morning, I have a lot of those moments where I look back and say “Wow I really got a lot done.But, any time I skip the exercise, it feels like I’ve put my shitty old headphones back on.