Mind productivity

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. 

Mind productivity

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.

Health sleep

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. Sleep Smarter: 21 Essential Strategies to Sleep Your Way to A  Better Body, Better Health, and Bigger Success (English Edition) 電子書籍:  Stevenson, Shawn, Gottfried, Sara: Kindleストア

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 |

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?”