Welcome to the Huberman Lab Podcast,
where we discuss science
and science-based tools for everyday life.
I’m Andrew Huberman,
and I’m a professor of neurobiology and ophthalmology
at Stanford School of Medicine.
Today, we’re going to talk all about
how to optimize your workspace for maximum productivity.
Indeed, that means to heighten levels of focus,
to increase levels of creativity,
to improve your ability to task switch.
And this could be for sake of school or for work,
creative endeavors, personal endeavors.
This really extends to everybody.
Most often, when we hear about how to focus
or how to get the most out of our work sessions,
we hear about the biology and the psychology of that.
We hear about dopamine and we hear about serotonin
and we hear about caffeine.
And indeed, those are topics that I’ve covered a lot
on the Huberman Lab Podcast.
Today, we will touch on each of those,
but we are mainly going to focus on
how we arrange our physical environment
and indeed how we arrange ourselves
in that physical environment
in order to bring out the best in our neurobiology.
That is how to put ourselves into a heightened state
of focus by virtue of things as simple
as where we place our screen relative to our eyes
at a given time of day.
Believe it or not, there’s excellent research on this,
and there’s excellent research, for instance,
on whether or not you should or should not listen to music,
whether or not you should use things like binaural beats,
and if so, what frequency of binaural beats.
We are going to cover all of that.
And by the end, you will have a checklist of things
that you can do to optimize your workspace on any budget.
I will mention various products and apps
that some of you might find useful
for optimizing your workspace,
but I want to emphasize at the outset
that none of those that I mentioned are any products or apps
that we have a financial relationship to.
And more importantly, you don’t need them.
I’m going to explain how for zero cost,
you can arrange your workspace in ways
that makes you maximally productive, maximally focused,
and allows you to adapt your workspace
to different environments,
whether or not you’re traveling, working with others,
working alone, et cetera.
Just to give you a little hint of where we are going,
I will mention a zero cost app
that will deliver binaural beats at a particular frequency
that peer-reviewed research has shown
can enhance certain types of learning and memory.
However, peer-reviewed research also shows
that it can diminish performance in other types of tasks.
So stay tuned, we’ll go into all the details
so that you can optimize your workspace
for zero cost and get the most out
of your efforts and endeavors.
Before we begin, I’d like to emphasize
that this podcast is separate from my teaching
and research roles at Stanford.
It is however, part of my desire and effort
to bring zero cost to consumer information
about science and science-related tools
to the general public.
In keeping with that theme,
I’d like to thank the sponsors of today’s podcast.
Our first sponsor is Athletic Greens.
Athletic Greens is an all-in-one
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I’ve been taking Athletic Greens since 2012,
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The reason I started taking Athletic Greens
and the reason I still take Athletic Greens
once or twice a day is that it helps me cover
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It makes up for any deficiencies that I might have.
In addition, it has probiotics,
which are vital for microbiome health.
I’ve done a couple of episodes now
on the so-called gut microbiome
and the ways in which the microbiome interacts
with your immune system, with your brain to regulate mood,
and essentially with every biological system
relevant to health throughout your brain and body.
With Athletic Greens, I get the vitamins I need,
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If you’d like to try Athletic Greens,
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There are a ton of data now showing that vitamin D3
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That means the exact ratios of electrolytes are in Element,
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Now, to be honest, I am not a fan of the term nootropics.
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I do believe based on science, however,
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Let’s talk about workspace optimization.
This is a topic that’s intrigued me for a very long time
because my undergraduate advisor,
my graduate advisor, and my postdoc advisor
had many things in common,
including being great scientists,
being kind people and terrific mentors,
but they had another thing in common,
which always perplexed me,
which is that their offices were a complete disaster.
They had mountains of books, mountains of papers,
mountains of all sorts of stuff,
and yet all of them were extremely productive
and could remain extremely focused
in that incredibly cluttered environment.
Now, I’m somebody who doesn’t like clutter.
I find it very hard to focus in cluttered environments.
And indeed, there’s tremendous variation among people
as to whether or not they can remain focused
or whether or not they struggle to focus
in physically cluttered environments.
There’s no right or wrong to this,
but the question we should ask ourselves
is why were they all able to be so focused?
And it turns out that the reason
they were able to be so focused
is that they all captured one single
and yet fundamental variable of workspace optimization.
And we’ll talk about what that variable is.
In fact, we’re going to talk about
what all the variables of optimizing a workspace are,
things like vision, things like light,
things like noise in the room,
whether or not you listen to music or not,
whether or not you use noise-canceling headphones or not.
We’re going to talk about all of that.
And we’re going to do that in a way
that you can optimize your workspace
regardless of whether or not you are at home,
whether or not you’re on the road, et cetera.
Because the last thing I would ever want to do
is to create a situation
where you find the optimal workspace
and then you are a slave to that optimal workspace.
That’s just not the way the world works.
What you want to do, or my goal for you rather,
is that you will have a short checklist of things
that you can look to anytime you sit down to do work.
And you can think about the underlying variables
that impact your brain and your body
and allow your brain and body to get into the optimal state
in order to learn, in order to be productive,
and indeed to move through your work bout
in a very relaxed and pleasureful way
while maintaining focus
and while pursuing any of the number of things
that you’re doing.
The first variable we want to think about
in terms of workspace optimization is vision and light.
Now, on a previous episode of the Huberman Lab Podcast
devoted all to habits,
I talked about the importance of dividing your 24-hour day
into three different phases.
And for those of you that haven’t heard that episode,
I’m just going to briefly summarize what I described.
From the time you wake up in the morning
until about six or seven or eight,
sometimes nine hours later,
your brain is in a unique state.
It is in a state of high levels of dopamine,
a neuromodulator, and high levels of epinephrine,
as well as hormones like cortisol and so forth.
Without going into the biology of those things,
they set your brain into a state of high alertness.
And this is true whether or not
you indulge in caffeine or not.
I know some of you say,
oh, I really don’t wake up until the afternoon.
I’m much more alert and focused in the afternoon.
We will talk about that phase of the 24-hour day in a moment.
But that early part of the day is a time of day
in which for sake of workspace optimization,
being in a brightly lit environment
can lend itself to optimal work throughout the day,
not just during that early phase.
And so while on many episodes of this podcast,
I’ve also emphasized the importance
of getting morning sunlight in your eyes
within 30 to 60 minutes of waking.
Not as often, but now and again,
I will also mention that it’s important
to light your daytime environment
as brightly as you safely can.
So if you are going to be doing work in this early,
what I call phase one portion of your day,
you want to have as much light
and indeed as much overhead light
shining on you as safely possible.
Now, of course, you don’t want it so bright
that it’s glaring and you have to squint, et cetera,
but you want as much light as is safely possible.
And you can do that a couple of simple ways.
One is if you do own or you’re in an environment
where you have overhead lights,
turn on those overhead lights.
What’s special about overhead lights for setting alertness
is that the neurons in our eyes,
which are called melanopsin ganglion cells,
that’s the fancy name.
Melanopsin ganglion cells are mainly enriched
in the lower half of our retinas.
So when we look in our eyes and view the upper visual field,
those neurons send little wires
to an area of our hypothalamus,
right above the roof of our mouth,
that creates a state of alertness.
Now, early in the day, we want to be as alert as possible.
And this phase one of our circadian cycle
is when we are best at doing analytic detail type work.
So we’re going to go into other aspects
of workspace optimization that are important for phase one.
But during phase one, again,
within zero to about eight or nine hours after waking,
bright lights in your environment,
in particular overhead lights,
are going to facilitate focus.
They’re going to facilitate further release
of things like dopamine and norepinephrine
and healthy amounts of cortisol.
And we want that to happen early in the day
for a variety of reasons.
For instance, we don’t want that cortisol peak
to happen too late in the day.
That’s actually associated with depression and insomnia
and a number of things that we just don’t want.
So one of the things that I’ve done for my workspace
is to make sure that when I wake up in the morning,
I do go get my sunlight.
If the sun isn’t out,
I turn on as many bright artificial lights
as I can manage or tolerate.
And then I go get my sunlight exposure.
But once I set out to do some work
that all the overhead lights in that room are on,
as well as lights in front of me.
And that’s again, to stimulate heightened levels of focus
and further release of these neuromodulators
that I mentioned before,
dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine.
Now, the way that one could do that
could be a very low cost way of having,
for instance, a desk lamp and those overhead lights.
If you’re somebody that wants to take this
to the next level, you can purchase a ring light,
which is, I think those are mainly made
for people doing selfie type videos,
for Instagram posts and things of that sort.
Ring lights can be pretty cost-effective
and yet they’re very bright
and they have the sort of bright blue light
that is going to optimally stimulate
those melanopsin ganglion cells.
So some people I know will have a blue light
or a bright LED on their desk in front of them.
And indeed, I have one of these.
I don’t use a ring light.
I use a light pad.
The particular light pad I use, I bought on Amazon.
I can mention the brand, but again,
I have no financial affiliation to them.
This is the Artograph light pad.
It’s designed for drawing.
And it says on it, 930 lux.
Lux is just a measure of brightness.
So I place that on the desk in front of me
and I turn it on essentially
throughout this phase one of the day.
Even if I walk away from the desk, I tend to keep it on.
It doesn’t consume that much energy.
And in that way, I’m constantly being bombarded
with photons that keep my levels of alertness up
because the early part of the day is when I do
the majority of that focused work.
Again, you don’t need the light pad.
You can use a ring light, or you can simply use
any kind of other lights that you might happen
to have, artificial lights.
For those of you that can place your desk near a window
and even better to open the window,
that would be really fantastic.
I don’t have access to that.
Why would I say open the window?
Well, it turns out that sunlight is going to be
the best stimulus for waking up your brain and body
through this melanopsin to hypothalamus system.
And by looking at sunlight through a window,
it’s 50, five, zero times less effective
than if that window were to be open,
mostly because those windows filter out a lot of the
wavelengths of blue light that are essential
for stimulating the eyes and this wake up signal.
So all of this is rests on the premise that we need
to be alert in order to do our work,
in particular focused work.
And I’ve talked about before in the habits episode,
and I’m saying again now, that first phase of the day,
that first seven or eight or nine hours of the day
is really the time in which our neurochemistry is primed
for getting the most amount of focused
kind of challenging work done,
where a lot of precision and detail is required.
So you want to brightly light your work environment
during that first phase.
Again, from the time you wake up, try and get sunlight,
but then even if you’re going to get exercise
or do other things,
you want to get as much bright light in your eyes
as you safely can.
And then you want to light your work environment.
Now in the afternoon, starting at about nine
and continuing until about 16 hours after waking,
you want to start dimming the lights in that environment.
Now you don’t want to make it dark
because you don’t want to get sleepy at two o’clock
in the afternoon unless you’re going to take a brief nap,
which I do and is perfectly fine
as long as it doesn’t interfere with your nighttime sleep.
But the idea is that in this so-called phase two
of the 24 hour cycle from about nine to 16 hours
after waking, you want to bring the level of lights
down a bit.
And when I say down, I literally mean down.
Having lights that are in front of you is fine,
but overhead lights at that time are not going to be optimal
for the sorts of neurochemical states
that your brain wants to be in.
The states that I’m referring to are a shift
from the dopamine and norepinephrine
that’s highest early in the day
to increases in things like serotonin
and other neuromodulators that put your brain
into a state that’s better for creative endeavors
or for more abstract thinking.
Now, as we’ll soon see,
there are other things you can do to improve
creative thinking and abstract thinking.
And in fact, there are things you can do
to improve analytic thinking.
We will talk about those,
things that are distinct from light,
but right now we’re just focusing on light.
So what I recommend doing and what I personally do
is I will turn off overhead lights in the afternoon.
It’s not completely dim, it’s not completely dark,
but I will start to reduce the amount of overhead light
and just simply keep the light pad on
and whatever other lamps I happen to be using.
Now, one thing we haven’t talked about is screen brightness.
This is highly individual.
People have different retinal sensitivities.
What I mean by that is everybody differs
in terms of how bright they can tolerate
their visual environment and their screen.
And whether or not you are sensitive to light or not
will depend on a lot of factors.
Some of it is eye color.
Indeed, people with darker color eyes
generally can tolerate more bright light than others.
I have green eyes.
I am very, very sensitive to light.
If I’m outdoors at a cafe or something
and the table has any kind of reflective properties
and it’s a sunny day,
I can barely see the person across the table for me
unless I’m wearing sunglasses.
Some people, other members of my family, for instance,
have dark brown eyes and can just sit there
and have a conversation without the need
for sunglasses at all.
So there’s tremendous variation there.
One or the other isn’t healthy or advantageous necessarily.
Just understand that you never want to be in an environment
where it’s painful to maintain looking at whatever it is
that you’re looking at.
If something’s painful to look at,
it could be damaging to your eyes.
So you do want to protect your eyes.
Now, in this second phase of the day,
since most of us are working indoors,
but even if you’re working outdoors,
you want to try and get the amount of light
reduced overall, but in particular that overhead light.
And you also want to start reducing the amount of blue light
that you’re being exposed to.
So somewhere around four or 5 p.m., which for me is,
about 12 hours after I’ve been awake
or 14 hours after I’ve been awake,
I will turn off that light pad and start to transition
the lights in my environment to more yellows and reds.
Now I can’t always do this.
I have friends that actually have converted
their entire homes from blue light early in the day
to red light late in the day.
That’s really cool and fantastic.
I haven’t done that.
There’s a cost to doing that and it is optimal
in terms of optimizing productivity and sleep and so forth,
but it’s not feasible for a lot of people.
But what I do is I simply switch to using yellow lamps.
I will turn off that LED in the later afternoon,
again, around four or 5 p.m.
And I tend to wake up around 6 a.m. or so.
I’ll turn those off.
And what I’ll try and do also is I’ll try and dim the screen
that I’m working on so that I can still manage
to see everything that I need to see,
but it’s quite a bit dimmer than it was early in the day.
So that’s phase two of the day.
And that’s how we want to think about light.
And then I’ll just mention,
because I know there are people who are working
in the middle of the night,
there’s phase three,
which is about 17 to 24 hours after waking.
And I realized that for shift workers
or for people that are pulling all-nighters
or for students, oftentimes,
you need to be awake and studying in the middle of the night.
I myself am somebody who for years would pull anywhere
from five to 10 all-nighters per year.
I still pull an all-nighter now and again
because of deadlines and so forth.
I don’t recommend it.
If you can avoid it, great,
but many people just simply have to do this
for sake of shift work or because of impending deadlines
or procrastination or all of the above.
If you’re going to be doing work
in that third phase of your circadian cycle,
you really want to limit the amount of bright light
that you’re getting in your eyes
to just the amount that allows you
to do the work that you’re doing.
Because if you get light in your eyes
that’s any brighter than that,
you’re going to severely deplete your melatonin levels.
You’re going to severely shift your circadian clock
and it’s effectively like traveling to another time zone.
So if you stay up from 3 a.m. until 6 a.m.
or 2 a.m. until 4 a.m. working on a term paper
or something of that sort
and you’re getting bright light in your eyes,
you are effectively flying six hours
to a different time zone,
or at least that’s what your body registers it as.
And it can really throw your sleep and your metabolism
and a number of other things out of whack.
Now there’s an exception to this,
which is if you really want to be awake,
it can often be beneficial to flipping on all the lights
in the room and keeping them really bright.
One of the hardest things to do is to stay up all night
studying when you’re in a dim environment.
So you have to determine the trade-off
between whether or not you want to shift your clock
or whether or not you want to get the work done.
And I would say the ideal situation is to sleep at night
and to do your work during the day and in the afternoon.
But if you do have to be awake in the middle of the night,
do understand that you want to dim those lights overall.
You would not want to use that LED.
You would not want to have overhead lights on
unless you’re really struggling to stay awake,
in which case you want to get
as many bright lights on as possible.
So there are a couple of tricks to all-nighters.
I don’t really want people pulling all-nighters
unless they have to,
but there are a few things that you can do
without taking stimulants in order to stay up all night
that can be beneficial that maximize on your biology.
One of them that’s a little less commonly known
is you can drink 32 ounces of water
and commit to not going to the bathroom
for 90 minutes at least.
Turns out that there’s a circuit
that goes from your bladder,
literally neurons that go from your bladder
to your brainstem.
And when you have to urinate, it makes you very alert.
As many of you have probably experienced,
this is actually what wakes us up
in the middle of the night
when we have to use the bathroom
is this circuit for alertness that goes from full bladder.
It’s signaled by the bladder being full to the brainstem.
And this is the circuit that is disrupted
in kids that have bedwetting issues.
And there are a number of cognitive behavioral approaches
Sometimes bedwetting in very young kids
is because the circuit hasn’t developed yet.
Most adults fortunately are not bedwetting,
but you can increase the amount of alertness in your system
and remain awake in the middle of the night
by drinking a little bit more water
than you normally would.
And then refraining from going to the restroom.
That certainly will lend itself to alertness.
You know how difficult it is to fall asleep
when you have to use the restroom, for instance.
So that’s one tool.
The other thing is again, to flip on as many bright lights
in the environment as possible.
And then of course, people will rely on stimulants
like caffeine or even more aggressive stimulants.
That’s not something I necessarily recommend.
You’ll each have to determine that for you.
But if you do in fact have to use all-nighters
for any reason, you can maximize this bladder
to brain approach and the bright light approach.
Okay, so that more or less covers
how bright to keep your overall environment
and how bright to keep your screen.
If you really want to get nerdy about this,
there is a free app called Light Meter
where you can start measuring how many lux,
how many photons are in a given environment.
It’s actually measuring reflectance of photons and so on.
If you can look up what a lux meter does, if you like.
I don’t necessarily recommend doing that.
I don’t want to set a critical threshold by which,
you know, for instance, we say once your environment
is more than 1500 lux, then it’s too bright
or not bright enough, et cetera.
Everyone has different retinal sensitivities.
Everyone will find that different levels of brightness
will cause them to be alert.
Different levels of dimness, if you will, in the room
will cause them to feel sleepy.
You really want to just modulate across the 24-hour cycle
where it’s very bright.
As bright as it safely can be early in the day
so that you are alert.
You can do your focus detailed work in that first phase.
And then in the afternoon, as you move into
more creative type works or abstract thinking
or working with other people in kind of a brainstorming mode
that you would shift to dimmer lights, yellow lights,
eliminate the blue lights as much as possible.
Now that’s light, but there’s another aspect of vision
that has been shown to be critically important
for how alert we are going to be
and how well we can maintain that alertness.
And that has to do with where our visual focus is
in a given environment.
So I’m not talking about overall brightness.
What I’m referring to now is simply where you place
your phone or your tablet or computer screen or book,
whatever it is that you happen to be looking at.
There’s a very underappreciated and yet incredible aspect
of our neurology that has to do with the relationship
between where we look and our level of alertness.
And it works in a very logical way.
We have clusters of neurons in our brainstem
and those clusters of neurons control our eyelid muscles
and they control our eye movements up and down
and to the sides.
And indeed, if you were to look at an eyeball,
I’ve looked at a lot of eyeballs in my lab
and I teach neuroanatomy.
So we do this from time to time.
We would see that there are six muscles
attached to your eyeball.
Now, four of them are located at the top, the bottom,
and the two sides of your eyeball.
So we’ve got the 12 o’clock, six o’clock, three o’clock
and nine o’clock of your eyeball.
And those muscles can move your eye in the socket
from side to side and up and down.
And then we also have some muscles that can actually
pull the eyeballs at angles, okay?
So there’s, we have different muscles that can move
the eyes at different angles as well.
That’s why we can look up into the side
or down into the side,
not just from side to side or up or down.
Now, the neurons that control those muscles
have a very interesting feature,
which is that when we are looking down toward the ground
or anywhere below basically the central region of our face,
the neurons that control that eye movement
are intimately related to areas of the brainstem
that release certain types of neuromodulators
And they activate areas of the brain that are associated
with calm and indeed even with sleepiness.
And there’s an active inhibition or prevention of neurons
that increase alertness.
Now, the opposite is also true.
We have neurons that place our eyes into an upward gaze
above the sort of level of our nose and up above our forehead
literally looking up while keeping the head stationary.
Or if you tilt your head back and you look up,
these neurons are still active.
Those neurons don’t just control the position of the eyes
and cause them to move up.
They also trigger the activation of brain circuits
that are associated with alertness.
Now, this is a fundamental feature
of the way that our eyes and brain are wired together
and how they relate to what we call autonomic arousal.
And there are a bunch of details there.
We will actually have a guest in a few weeks
who has learned to exploit these neurons
and the fact that they control these different states
of calm or alertness in order to generate hypnotic states,
to place people into very atypical states
in which they’re both very alert and very calm.
Save that for a future episode.
But the important thing to understand
is when you are looking down below the level of your nose,
you are essentially decelerating your alertness.
You’re reducing your amount of alertness.
It might be subtle, but it’s happening.
Whereas when you look straight ahead
or in particular, when you look up,
you’re increasing your level of alertness.
Now, this has some obvious implications.
When we get sleepy, our eyelids tend to close
and we tend to nod down.
When we’re wide awake, we tend to be wide-eyed.
We don’t tend to blink as often.
And we tend to be chin up
and kind of on vigilance and alertness.
So this has a evolutionary
or at least an adaptive component to it.
This can be exploited and indeed it’s been researched
in terms of how it can be used to optimize work environments.
Contrary to what most people do,
which is to look down at their laptop, tablet, or phone.
If you want to be alert
and you want to maintain the maximum amount of focus
for whatever it is that you’re reading or doing,
you want that screen or whatever it is
that you’re looking at to at least be at eye level
and ideally slightly above it.
Now, I haven’t seen many workspaces
that take advantage of this
very hardwired neurobiological fact.
So what should you do with this information?
Well, if you’re somebody who sits down to do work
and starts to feel sleepy or simply unfocused,
unable to attend to whatever it is that you’re doing,
I highly recommend that you take your laptop or tablet.
I do hope that most people aren’t doing serious work
on their phones because it’s such a small visual window
and we can talk about why that’s an issue later.
And the idea would be to place that screen of your tablet
or your laptop or other computer
and try and get it elevated at least to nose level,
your nose level, or even higher.
Now, I realize that can be complicated to do.
I’ve long just used a stack of books
or I’ll sometimes take a box and turn it upside down
and set it there.
I do use a mixed standing seated desk.
I’ll talk about that in a few minutes.
There are a number of different ways that you could do this.
You could wall mount a monitor.
I think many people are working with laptops.
It’s a little bit harder to do that with a laptop.
Some people though will configure a second screen.
You have to decide what’s right for you and your budget.
But again, in addition to having a brightly lit room
to be able to focus and attend
to whatever it is you’re working on,
you want to have that screen position high
in your visual environment.
Now you wouldn’t want it on the ceiling necessarily.
Oh, that would be pretty cool.
But you do want it above you.
Now, there are a couple of solutions to this
that don’t involve a wall mount or stacking books or boxes.
For instance, you could be one of those people
that likes to lie in bed or on the sofa
and get your screen up above you
by putting pillows on your knees.
I used to actually do a lot of my writing and work
in the middle of the night.
I don’t do this anymore and I don’t recommend it,
but I used to do a lot of work from bed.
Now I no longer bring electronics for work into the bedroom.
I just really try and keep the bedroom for sleeping
or whatever else.
But in terms of lying down on the couch,
it is somewhat easier to get that screen up above you.
You can kind of slide underneath that screen and get typing.
But there’s a problem with that.
And we’ll talk about this a little bit more in a moment,
but it turns out that your posture,
literally the position of your body relative to gravity
also has important implications for how alert you are.
So ideally you would be standing or seated.
I would say the ideal would be standing.
Second best would be seated.
And your screen will be either directly in front of you
or slightly above you.
Or if you wanted to get really fancy,
you could create a situation where it was above you
and slightly tilted toward you
so that you actually had to maintain
kind of proper neck posture.
This accomplishes a number of things.
In addition to making you more alert,
you also get away from the so-called text neck.
You know, people are starting to look more like C’s
nowadays, the shape of the letter C,
because we’re constantly looking down.
I do every once in a while sees somebody
who’s texting in public with it at eye level.
It always looks a little odd that they’re doing that,
but I always admire their posture at the same time.
So we shouldn’t give them a hard time.
So this is another feature that you can arrange
into your physical workspace.
Again, whether or not you’re seated
or you’re standing throughout the day,
try and get that screen elevated.
Now, with reference to posture,
there are beautiful data illustrating
that when we are standing up,
those same neurons in our brainstem,
locus coeruleus neurons, which release,
I should mention things like norepinephrine and epinephrine,
those neurons become active when we are standing.
They become even more active when we are ambulatory,
when we are moving, and we will talk about treadmilling
and cycling at your desk and so forth in a little bit.
But when you sit, they become a little less active.
And when you lie down, and indeed,
anytime that you start to get your feet
up above your waist or your head tilted back,
those neurons fire less, and neurons in your brain
that are involved in calming and indeed putting you to sleep
start increasing their level of firing.
It’s a really beautiful system.
So beautiful, in fact, that there are studies that show
that as you adjust the angle of the body back,
you actually get a sort of dose-dependent increase
in sleepiness and calmness,
and a dose-dependent decrease in alertness.
And so as we were all told to sit up straight
or even better to stand up straight,
and now I’m also telling you to get that visual thing
that you’re attending to screen or otherwise up
in front of you or ideally above you,
those things combine to generate maximum alertness.
So you can think about how you might work this
into various aspects of your homework environment
or office work environment.
But as I described this, many of you are probably thinking
what I’m thinking, which is, gosh,
most of what we do is in complete opposite direction
to all of this neurobiologically grounded advice.
Most of us are looking down at our laptop while seated,
or we are lying down, which is going to make us more sleepy,
or we are positioning our computers in front of us,
but we really aren’t in an environment
that’s bright enough and so on and so forth.
So as you can tell, we’re starting to layer in
the various things that you can do.
First, brightness in the room.
Second, get that screen up and try and put yourself
into a posture for work that lends itself
or promotes alertness.
If indeed you want to be alert for that work.
If your goal is to take a nap,
get your feet elevated about 10 to 15 degrees
above your head, maybe put a pillow underneath it,
lie down and take a nap.
But that’s not what we’re talking about today.
We’re talking about workspace optimization.
And I suppose you could also exploit that all-nighter trick
that I talked about earlier.
I actually did this when I was an undergraduate.
I was a little bit masochistic in this way.
I would drink coffee and water at fairly high volume.
I wasn’t, you know, forced drinking or anything like that,
but I actually wouldn’t allow myself to get up
and use the bathroom except on a timer.
So I think the longest I ever went
was like three and a half hours.
It was kind of excruciating.
I actually don’t think that’s necessarily a healthy advice,
but again, you can use slight,
I mentioned slight over-consumption of fluids
in order to generate alertness.
That was just me really trying to get as much work done
as I could.
I had a very, very demanding class schedule,
and it was just the only way that I could get work done.
If I was getting up every few minutes to use the restroom,
I found it hard to re-engage in that work
and maintain focus,
which is what I just want to briefly mention now.
I talked about this in the episode on focus,
but one thing that is completely unreasonable
and that you should never ask yourself to do
is to sit down or stand up
and immediately focus on something
unless you’re stressed about what you’re looking at
or you’re very, very excited by it.
If you’re very stressed about some sort of information
or a deadline,
or you’re very, very excited about something,
you’ll find that you can focus instantly,
just within a moment.
And that’s because of the deployment of neurochemicals
like dopamine and norepinephrine
that bring about our levels of alertness.
However, most of us, including myself,
will go to begin a work bout
and we’ll find that our mind doesn’t quite engage
at the level of depth and focus
that we would like right off the bat.
I’ve timed this and other studies have timed this
in a more rigorous way.
Mine is just what we call anic data,
but so I’ve timed it for myself,
but there are studies that have looked at this.
And the data point to the fact that
even at our most heightened levels of focus,
most people can only maintain focus
before switching tasks for about three minutes,
which is depressingly short period of time.
However, you can extend that period of time.
And I’ve talked about that in the episode on focus,
but more importantly,
when you sit down to start a work bout of any kind,
expect that it would take about six minutes
for you to engage these neural circuits.
You wouldn’t expect yourself to walk into the gym
and do a PR lift or start running and do your best sprint
or just head out the door without warming up at all.
You know, a little walk jog at first,
or, you know, a few warmup sets.
I mean, that’s, we expect that.
We are not surprised that we need that.
And yet we sort of expect that our brain
should be able to lock on and do work
in a very focused way immediately.
And that’s just a ridiculous assumption.
It’s an unfair assumption, I should say.
So assume that it will take about six minutes
to engage in your work bout
and that those neurochemical systems
will take some time to rev up and engage.
The other things that I’m describing
about lighting and screen positioning and posture,
those will also help maximize your focus
and will limit that ramp up time into a focused state.
And I think what you’ll find is that
as you maximize your workspace, the time,
the latency, as we say, to get into that focus
will start to shorten.
It’ll especially start to shorten
if you use tools to limit distraction.
We will talk about distraction, but things like Freedom,
which is an app, a free app that allows you
to lock yourself out of the internet
or turning off your phone, for instance.
But even if you’re doing work on your phone
or that involves your phone or the internet,
as many of us, including myself do,
expect there to be a ramp up time for you to focus.
There’s another aspect of our vision
that’s absolutely critical for optimizing our workspace.
And that has to do with this really interesting feature
of our visual pathways in that it has two major channels.
Those two major channels have names,
although you don’t have to remember the names.
The first one is the so-called Parvo cellular channel,
which is involved in looking at things
at specific points in space
and at high resolution or detail.
And then there’s the so-called Magnocellular channel
that’s involved in looking at big swaths of visual space
and at lower resolution.
So you can think of the Parvo cellular system
as kind of a high pixel density.
Think about your most modern smartphone,
the recent smartphone with the best, best camera,
and think about the Magnocellular system
as being lower resolution,
kind of an older smartphone, lower pixels, et cetera.
You might ask, why would you want a system
that’s low resolution?
Well, the low resolution system is better
at things like detecting motion
and not so much at detail and vice versa.
Now, again, you don’t have to remember the names.
What you do have to remember, however,
is that you’re going to create the maximum amount
of alertness in your system,
the maximum amount of ability to focus
when your system is in that Parvo cellular mode.
When you’re bringing your eyes to a common point,
what we call avergence eye movement, V-E-R-G-E-N-C-E.
I’ve said this before on the podcast
and people said virgin eye movement.
No, vergence eye movement, as in convergence.
Bringing your eyes to a single point in space
will create a narrower aperture of a visual window,
meaning your visual world actually shrinks,
at least perceptually.
Whereas when you relax your eyes and dilate your gaze,
you can do this now by whatever environment you’re in,
trying to see without moving your head,
off to the side, above, below you, as broadly as possible.
Maybe you can dilate your gaze so much
that you can see yourself, your body,
in that visual environment.
And you’ll notice that your resolution of vision
isn’t nearly as high as when you do
that vergence eye movement.
Vergence eye movements are incredibly powerful
for creating heightened states of alertness and focus.
And indeed, they create heightened states of cognition,
And that’s because your brain follows your vision
in terms of focus.
When we say, I can’t focus,
what we often are experiencing is an inability, excuse me,
to not focus visually.
Whereas when we are in a very focused state,
we are in a state often where we can focus visually.
Now we can also do this with our auditory system
or to touch, et cetera,
but right now we’re just talking about the visual system.
Now, in terms of workspace optimization,
what this means is we never really want to be looking
at a square or rectangle or target area for our work
that is too far beyond our ears.
How far is too far?
Really, you want to try and keep the blinders on,
or I should say the invisible blinders,
so that whatever you’re looking at
falls within the region of visual space in front of you
that is present if you were to cup your hands
and put them right next to your eyes.
Now, this is a rough estimation, but I’m doing this now.
For those of you that are watching on YouTube,
I’m doing this now.
I’m trying to simulate it like a horse with blinders on.
For those of you that are listening,
just imagine me looking silly
with my hands cupped near my eyes.
But if we are to, for instance,
look at a screen that’s very, very big
and we’re too close to it,
or even if we’re standing back from it,
it’s going to be hard for us to attend
to everything within that screen space.
So this is actually support for the idea
of using a phone or a tablet or a laptop.
My laptop is about 15 inches in diameter,
I think is the one that I have.
Some are 13, some are 17.
Some of you like to use big monitors.
Make sure that whatever it is that you’re looking at,
if you want to remain focused,
it doesn’t extend too far beyond where your eyes are,
the size of your head that is.
So just think blinders on a horse.
And actually that’s the reason they put blinders on a horse
so that they’re not looking off into the periphery.
Horses, unlike humans, don’t have the same shaped pupil.
They don’t have a visual system
that’s organized in quite the same way.
They mostly see in panorama, in magnocellar vision.
And so those blinders are designed
to keep their visual focus straight ahead.
So they physically restrict it.
Now, some people will actually go to lengths
to further restrict their visual focus.
They will do things like putting on a hoodie
or wearing a hat, for instance,
to restrict their visual window.
And indeed that works quite well.
But as we’ll talk about in a moment,
when you really restrict your visual window
down to a very, very narrow portion of visual space,
that actually changes the types of information
that you are best at processing.
And we’ll talk about that in terms of something
that’s called the cathedral effect in a few moments.
But for now, here’s the principle.
Make sure that whatever you’re looking at
is directly in front of you
and doesn’t extend too far out to the side.
Once you get out to say six or 12
or certainly 18 inches on either side of your eyes,
you are dilating your gaze.
By definition, you’re dilating your gaze.
It’s completely subconscious.
And it becomes very hard to maintain attention.
Now, the caveat to this is that
if you are going to look at a narrow space,
a narrow window for any period of time,
whether or not it’s a book or a laptop
or a tablet or a phone,
those virgin’s eye movements not only create alertness,
but they also require energy.
And they also can fatigue the eyes
because there’s a process called accommodation
whereby the shape of your eye literally has to change
so that the lens can move
so that you can focus at that location.
Accommodation is an incredible process,
but it is a demanding one.
And that’s the reason that your eyes get tired
when you focus on something for too long.
So here’s a principle extracted from the ophthalmology
and neuroscience literature that you can adopt.
For every 45 minutes in which you are focusing on something
like a phone or a tablet or a book page
or your computer,
you want to get into magnocellar panoramic vision
for at least five minutes.
And the way that I suggest to do this
is actually to take a walk, ideally outside.
We’re going to talk about ambulation, about movement,
and about how that can maintain alertness
throughout the day.
So for every 45 minutes or so,
try and get five minutes of relaxing your eyes.
This is something that’s not often done,
especially in today’s homeschooling
and where kids are going to school by Zoom
and adults are working by Zoom.
This is a serious problem.
People are getting eye fatigue.
They’re getting headaches.
Indeed, some people are getting migraines.
They’re having all sorts of issues, neck pain.
Much of that, if not all of that in some cases,
can be alleviated by this 45 to five rule.
For every 45 minutes of focused work that you do,
get five minutes where you get outside
or if you have to be indoors,
where you can dilate your gaze.
Now, some of you may be saying,
well, that spits in the face of your 90 minute rule.
You’re trying to, you’ve told us before
that we should focus for 90 minutes.
I would still want you to take breaks
within those 90 minutes.
If you’re looking at a narrow piece of visual world,
meaning at a phone or a laptop or so forth.
And again, the best way to do this would be to go outside,
just relax your eyes, look off into the distance.
Looking at a horizon will automatically trigger
this panoramic gaze, which is very relaxing to the eyes
and will allow you to go back into a focused work bout.
The one thing you absolutely do not want to do
is to go outside and check your phone
because if you’re outside checking your phone
or you’re taking a break and checking your phone,
you’re still in that virgin’s eye movement, okay?
So this is very, very important
because virgin’s eye movements increase focus and attention
and you can exploit that to increase focus and attention
when you want to,
but you absolutely need to relax the system.
Again, for every 45 minutes
in which you’ve been in that focused mode,
you want to get at least five minutes of panoramic vision.
If you can take a 15 minute walk, even better.
Next, I’d like to talk about an aspect
of workspace optimization that can actually bias
whether or not our brain and nervous system
are better suited for detailed analytic work
or more abstract work.
In fact, there’s a way that you can arrange
your work environment, or I should say,
there’s a way that you can place yourself
into certain environments that will allow abstract thinking,
creative thinking, and indeed expansive thinking to emerge.
There are other environments
that you can put yourself in
that will make your brain shift towards more analytic work,
toward more detailed and precise types of work.
Now, I just briefly want to mention something
that was covered again on the habits episode
that I did a few weeks ago,
but again, you don’t need to see that episode
in order to digest this information.
It goes back to this issue of three phases
within the circadian 24 hour cycle.
Phase one, which as I mentioned,
is about zero to eight hours after waking.
Phase two, nine to 16 hours after waking.
And phase three, 17 to 24 hours after waking.
Phase one, being ideal for analytic,
precise, detailed types of work.
Phase two, better suited for most people
for creative kind of abstract thinking,
expansive thinking, brainstorming, et cetera.
There are some exceptions to that,
but most people follow that pattern
because of the different neuromodulators
and hormones and so forth
that are released into the brain and body
at those different phases.
What I’m about to tell you
is a way in which you can use your physical environment
to further shift your brain and nervous system
into a mode that’s either primed for analytic
or abstract and creative thinking.
What I’m about to describe is called the cathedral effect.
The cathedral effect has been discussed,
well, really for many, many decades,
maybe even hundreds of years,
but formally has been discussed since the early 2000s
in which it seemed that people
who were in high ceiling environments,
hence the phrase cathedral,
would shift their thinking and their ideas
to more abstract and creative lofty type thinking.
So literally higher ceiling, loftier thinking,
higher aspirations that this was observed
in terms of the language that they use,
but also the sorts of ideas that they would generate.
that people that were in lower ceiling environments
would be more oriented toward using language
that was more restricted, literally more detailed,
analytic about things in their immediate space.
Now, this seems kind of wild on the one hand,
but actually if we go back to our understanding
of the neurobiology of the visual system
and the way that our brains and bodies evolved
in different environments,
it actually makes a lot of sense.
We don’t have time to go into a long lecture
about evolutionary neurobiology,
but we have to remember that our nervous system
has a number of features
that are adapted to different environments.
And indeed we are able to go from big open prairies
or mountaintops or large cathedrals or concert halls
into small environments and everything scales with it.
When we’re outdoors in a big expansive space,
our vision tends to go long.
We tend to be in panoramic, magnocellar vision.
Our hearing tends to extend long.
Even if we’re having a conversation with somebody,
we tend to also be attending somewhat
to the screech of hawks off in the distance
or to the rush of a river.
Whereas when we were in small spaces,
everything, our vision, our hearing,
and indeed even our physical movements
become more restrained,
even if we can still extend our hands out as far as we want.
What do I mean by that?
Let’s say you’re in an elevator.
That’s a small space compared to outside on a field.
This has been measured over and over again.
People’s, the size or the amplitude
of people’s spontaneous movements
actually scales down in smaller environments,
even if they aren’t completely restricted
from extending their limbs all the way.
Whereas when we were outdoors,
we feel a natural impulse to move further away
from our body, our torso with our limbs.
This is just feels like more appropriate behavior.
And when I say appropriate,
I don’t mean in any kind of social context necessarily.
There’s actually a reason for this.
The visual system and the so-called vestibular motor system
are intimately linked.
And I can just tell you briefly one way
in which you can test this and observe this
and even use this.
It’s a little off topic from today’s episode,
but let’s say you have a certain amount of flexibility.
You can extend your arms off like wings
is what I’m doing for those either listening, not watching,
off to your sides with arms straight.
And you have, you reach a maximum positioning of flexibility.
You can do a quick experiment where you sit still,
you would bring your arms in for a moment.
You can put them on your knees if you like,
or in front of you.
And you can move your eyes very far off
into the periphery of your visual field.
So you actually, I’m going to do this now.
It looks kind of silly, but moving my eyes
without moving my head off into the periphery,
all the way to the right, then all the way to the left,
all the way up, all the way down,
but especially all the way to the left,
almost looking over my shoulder without turning my head
all the way to my right.
And you will find that you actually can extend
your arms further back subsequent to that.
And that’s not magic.
It has to do with the ways in which your cerebellum,
which actually means mini brain,
and your eyes, your visual system are connected,
and the way in which your cerebellum controls
some of the spindles and other aspects
of the neuromuscular architecture of your nervous system,
because your nerves control your muscles,
and allow those muscles to move further out.
So for those of you that lack flexibility,
you can actually exploit your visual system for this.
Now that’s, again, a bit of a tangent,
but it’s a fun one that relates back
to this so-called cathedral effect.
The cathedral effect is a way in which our thinking
becomes more restricted and restrained in tighter,
smaller, more confined visual environments.
Or if the ceiling is higher, we are in expansive space
with a lot of distance above us, or space above us,
and out to the sides, maybe even out on a field,
our thinking goes into these more broad, abstract,
and kind of loftier future thinking in particular.
This has actually been measured.
There’s a really nice paper.
I will post a link to this.
The authors are Joan Myers Levy and Rui,
and then in parentheses, Juliet Zhu.
I’m going to assume that they go by Juliet.
The title of the paper is the influence of ceiling height,
the effect of priming on the type of processing
that people use.
And I won’t go into all the details of this paper,
but what’s really cool about this paper
is they looked with very rigorous statistics,
and they have a fair number of subjects,
everything about this paper looks solid to me,
at the difference in cognitive processing,
and abstract thinking, and detailed analytic work
that people are able to perform in environments
that have a 10-foot ceiling versus an eight-foot ceiling,
which is not that much of a difference.
It’s just two-foot difference there.
And what they found were significant effects
whereby high ceilings activate concepts
related to abstraction,
whereas low ceilings prime confinement-related concepts,
but promote the kind of detailed thinking
that lends itself well to sort of spreadsheet-type work
or accounting-type work,
whereas abstract creative work
was supported by these higher ceilings.
And the way they analyzed this was really interesting.
Again, we don’t have time to go into all the details,
but they asked people to sort of generate word sets
related to particular topics like sports.
And, you know, so people would talk about soccer, football,
baseball, golf, et cetera,
and talk about some of the equipment and other things.
And then they had a kind of a challenge,
a cognitive challenge,
whereby people had to link different concepts
along different dimensions
so that you depart from the dimension of sport
and you start thinking about, you know,
sports that involve teams
or sports that involve a ball, et cetera.
And so in the same conditions,
you can, except for the fact that the ceiling height
is different, eight feet or 10 feet,
what one finds is that the kinds of language
and the kinds of associations that people start to create
are vastly different.
And there are actually two experiments in this study.
You’re welcome to go look at it.
So it wasn’t just about sports.
There were some other things that were analyzed as well.
And in the references of this paper,
it also points to other examples now
of the cathedral effect,
which I find very interesting
because as a vision scientist
and someone who spends his life thinking about
and indeed talking about the nervous system,
we know that our cognition follows our vision.
For low vision or blind people,
it will follow mostly their hearing
and to some extent their touch.
But for most people who are sighted,
as most people are sighted,
our cognition follows our visual environment.
So what does this mean for workspace optimization?
Well, most of us have a fixed ceiling level in our home,
but you might have rooms in which the ceiling is higher
and rooms in which the ceiling is lower.
If that were the case,
I recommend if you want to do creative work during phase two,
the nine to 16 hours of your circadian cycle,
nine to 16 hours after waking that is,
that you do that in the high ceiling room
or maybe even outdoors out on a deck or on a patio
because the highest ceiling of course is the sky.
Whereas if you’re going to do detailed analytic work in,
I would suggest doing that during phase one of the day,
but even if you’re going to do it during phase two
of the day, for whatever reason,
scheduling or other sorts of constraints,
that you do that in the lower ceiling environment.
Now, if you are interested in controlling
the height of your visual world,
but you don’t have control over the ceiling height
of the environment that you’re in,
there’s another way to do that.
And I used to observe this in the cafes
and around Stanford in the Bay Area,
where you would see somebody who,
despite the weather would be in a hoodie,
maybe with a baseball cap or other form of hat
or some sort of blinder above their eyebrows,
which is actually another way of just lowering
the ceiling height very, very low
and restricting your visual field.
Not unlike blinders that we talked about before
that one would put on a horse
or one would put on themselves
by restricting their visual angle of focus
to directly in front of them,
but not too far out beyond the sides of their head.
So these cathedral effects I think can be leveraged
toward doing particular types of work best.
And again, the lower the ceiling
or the lower your visual environment,
the more that one tends to do,
or I should say performs detailed analytic work accurately.
And the more that one’s thinking is oriented
towards detailed sort of correct answer type work.
Whereas when the ceiling is higher or there’s no ceiling,
the more that the brain and the rest of the processing
that we call cognitive processing
is related to abstract reasoning, brainstorming,
and indeed can pull from broader swaths of memory resources.
Because really what abstract reasoning is,
is it’s taking existing elements and maneuvering them
or arranging them into novel ways.
So you can think about like notes on a piano,
playing a particular song, learning scales.
That’s very analytic.
There’s a correct answer that you’re trying
to arrive at or generate.
Whereas writing music or writing poetry
or generating new material of any kind
involves taking existing elements, right?
You’re not going to use words
that you don’t have committed to your memory
or that you’re not aware of
and arranging them in novel ways.
So I think the cathedral effect can be leveraged.
And again, you don’t need to move into a different home
or build a slanted roof and work at one side of the room
at one part of the day
and the other side of the room at the other.
Although if that’s the way you want to swing it,
Most of us don’t have that flexibility,
but it’s very clear that the height of the ceiling
of the visual environment that we’re in
has a profound effect on the types of cognitive processes
that we are able to engage.
Now, I’d like to shift our attention
to the auditory environment or the noise in the room
or the music in the room
or the music or noise in the headphones,
because it turns out that there is a lot
of quality scientific data out there
that speaks to whether or not listening to particular sounds
can enhance our cognition.
And indeed the answer is yes,
but there are very particular types of things to listen to
under very particular types of conditions
that allow one to do that.
First off, I want to say that people vary tremendously
in the extent to which they can tolerate
background noise for work.
In fact, individuals will vary tremendously
from one day to the next or even within the same day
in the extent to which they can tolerate background noise.
I’ve experienced this myself.
There’ve been times in which I’ve been working at home
and I felt like for whatever reason,
I just could not engage in focus.
And what worked to generate more focus for me
was to go to a cafe or to a library
or someplace where there’s actually more commotion,
more people moving about, maybe even more noise,
maybe even music in the room.
And we have to all be in touch
with when we want more background noise
or when we want less background noise.
There is no hard and fast rule.
If you look across the literature
for studies that involve complete silence or white noise
or binaural beats or music or classical music
or rock and roll,
you can find results to support any type of environment
as being more beneficial.
However, as we’ll talk about in a moment,
there are a few types of environments to really avoid
and a few types of sounds that really can
enhance the cognition and your ability to focus
in your workspace environment across the board
that really seem to work for all people.
Let’s talk about background noise to avoid.
And here we’re talking about background noise to avoid
because it actually can cause
some pretty severe deficits in cognition.
There’s a paper, first author, Jordan Love, cool name,
last author, Alexander Francis.
The title of the paper has to do
with psychophysiological responses
to potentially annoying heating, ventilation
and air conditioning noise during mentally demanding work,
which is a mouthful.
But basically what this paper identifies
is a large data set in which workplace
and environmental noise,
mostly the humming of air conditioners that’s very loud
or the humming of heaters that’s very loud
and ongoing, just incessant, doesn’t let up,
can really increase mental fatigue
and can vastly decrease cognitive performance.
And if you’re interested in looking
at the cognitive performance data,
the authors are Banbury and Berry, 2005.
That paper is the one that supports the fact
that cognitive performance is worse
when there’s just the hum of an air conditioner
in the background or the hum of a heater
and otherwise complete silence.
There’s also evidence,
which I discussed on the episode about hearing,
which is that in young children,
white noise can cause some impairments
in the development of the auditory system.
Now, I don’t want parents to freak out.
And if you’re exposed to white noise as a sleep aid,
as a child, which I know many of you were, don’t freak out.
But it turns out that white noise,
especially if it’s loud white noise,
can cause some disruption in the auditory maps,
the representation of different frequencies of sound
in the brain that can lead to some deficits
in auditory and even language processing.
So we really have to be careful about long-term exposure,
extended exposure to white noise
or kind of a air conditioning noise
that’s really at a high level.
I wouldn’t worry if it’s in the background
and it’s shutting off and turning on again
as the thermostat kicks off and on,
but really trying to avoid work in loud fan-filled
or ventilation generating or heat generating environments,
because it really can cause damage
to the auditory system long-term.
And as we described, it can impair cognitive performance
and overall increased fatigue.
I think we’ve all experienced that when you’re in a room
and there’s some ongoing background noise
and all of a sudden it stops
and you just feel this enormous relief.
And the reason for this is that our auditory system
has a parallel to our visual system.
In our visual system, that light entering the eyes
triggers the activation of those melanopsin cells,
which triggers activation of the hypothalamus,
a particular area of the hypothalamus,
which generates alertness,
generates the release even of cortisol, a stress hormone.
In the auditory system, when there’s ongoing sound,
your auditory system hears that
even if you’re not paying attention to it.
If you’re paying attention to something else,
it still registers those little hair cells
as they’re called in your inner ear
are fluttering the eardrum is beating
and in concert to that sound frequency.
And there’s a brainstem mechanism that generates alertness
and a kind of vigilance.
So when you have a sound that’s ongoing in the background,
it shuts off.
All of a sudden you experience that piece,
which is the turning off of those brainstem circuits
that are associated with vigilance.
The locus coeruleus, which we talked about earlier,
which release epinephrine and norepinephrine
and generate that heightened state of alertness
in your brain and body.
Those neurons then can turn off
and you experience that as relaxation.
So does that mean that we shouldn’t listen to white noise
or pink noise or brown noise while we’re working?
Certainly a lot of people do.
In fact, if you want to know what white noise,
pink noise and brown noise are,
they’re just different constellations
of auditory frequencies that are played together.
Most of us think of white noise as the shh on a screen,
you know, all the black and white pixels going all around,
like they call it visual snow.
But pink noise has certain sound frequencies
notched out, taken out.
Brown noise has others.
It has different frequencies that are included
at higher amplitude, et cetera.
You can look this stuff up on YouTube if you want.
You just put brown noise.
None of it sounds terrific.
It doesn’t sound like music.
It’s literally just noise, mixed frequencies
and no particular arrangement.
There is some evidence that playing white noise
in the background or on headphones or pink noise
or brown noise can facilitate cognition,
but it’s mainly through an increase in this overall alertness
as a consequence of areas like locus coeruleus
and other brainstem areas that are associated
with autonomic arousal from that noise.
So it’s a lot like the air conditioner effect.
And I think done in a restricted way,
meaning not for hours and hours,
but maybe if your focus is waning
and you’re having a hard time engaging in work,
you might put on some brown noise or white noise
or pink noise and work that way for 45 minutes or so
before you go to your panoramic vision walk
and get some sunlight.
That should be fine.
There’s really no reason to suspect, however,
that those particular patterns of noise
are going to optimize particular mental functions.
So what I’d like to turn to next
are particular patterns of sounds
that indeed have been shown in peer-reviewed studies
to optimize certain types of mental processing,
because you can incorporate these
into your optimized workspace environment
through headphones or through speakers,
whatever mechanism that you want
in order to get more out of your work efforts.
If you were to search for apps or go online
and try and find sounds that can improve thinking
or change your emotions,
you’re generally going to find three types.
One are called isochronic tones.
These are tones usually of a common frequency.
So it might be a beep and then a pause
and then a beep of the same frequency
and then beep, forgive my terrible beeping.
I don’t know what good beeping would sound like,
but contrast isochronic tones with monaural beats.
Monaural beats would be repetitive,
almost percussive-like beats delivered to just one ear.
Toon, toon, toon, toon, do, do, do, do, do, do, do, do, do,
this kind of thing, okay?
You can find apps that can deliver monaural beats.
You can find also apps that deliver so-called binaural beats.
You can also find YouTube scripts or channels
that will deliver binaural beats.
Binaural beats, as the name suggests,
are beats delivered to the two ears.
One pattern of kind of percussive beat to one ear
and a different pattern,
or at least a pattern that’s out of phase,
that’s not synchronized, delivered to the other ear.
So on one ear, you hear do, do, do, do, do, do, do,
and in the other ear, you’ve got doon, doon, doon.
And what happens is because of the way
that the auditory system converges in the brainstem
and generates what are called intraoral time differences,
I’ll explain what that means in a moment,
intraoral time differences,
the difference between the two patterns of beats
that are heard by each of the two different ears
leads to a third pattern that the brain entrains to
and kind of maps onto
and generates particular types of brain waves, okay?
So without going into a lot of detail,
intraoral time differences are the ways in which
if you were to hear something off to your right,
like I just snapped my finger
just to the right of my right ear,
that a signal arrives in my right ear
before that sound signal,
those sound waves arrive in my left ear.
So there’s an intraoral between ears time difference.
And there’s a brainstem area in which signals from one ear
and signals from the other ear converge,
and there’s literally a math done by your nervous system
that says this signal arrived before the other signal.
And the difference between those signals
is the intraoral time difference.
So if I were to snap my fingers on both sides,
on my left and on my right side at the exact same time,
and they arrive at the same time,
the intraoral time difference is zero.
Whereas if one goes first on the right and then the left,
I’m terrible at snapping on the left,
it’s a weak snap, but it was there.
Then there’s a delay in the intraoral time difference
has a particular value.
Okay, you get it.
It’s almost ridiculously simple.
Binaural beats have been generated in ways
that create a particular pattern
of intraoral time differences that then cascades
up to the rest of the brain and puts the forebrain
and other areas of the brain that are involved
in cognition and action into a particular rhythm.
And some of the rhythms or waves of brain activity
are ones that you may have heard of,
things like alpha waves or theta waves or gamma waves.
Now, I don’t like to get too attached
to particular brain waves as excellent
for particular kinds of thinking.
This is something that was really popular
in the nineties and two thousands,
when ways of measuring brain activity non-invasively
with electrodes on the outside enabled people
to identify the indeed alpha brain waves are associated
with alertness states and some are other brain waves
that are kind of larger amplitude slow waves
like delta waves are associated with kind
of sleepiness or relaxation.
But in general, the way that the brain works
is that different brain waves are generated
in different structures at different times.
And those combine to give us a sense of happiness
or give us a sense of focus
or give us a sense of creativity.
Nonetheless, if you look across the board
at the studies of binaural beats and you ask
what sorts of binaural beats appear to be useful
for people to enhance their brain function
for particular kinds of tasks,
we arrive at some very interesting answers.
So we’ll review what those are now.
The frequency of binaural beats that appears
to bring about improved cognitive functioning
at the level of memory, improved reaction times
and improved verbal recall seems to be 40 Hertz.
Now, is it exactly 40 Hertz?
We don’t know.
But if one wants to look up a great reference on this,
the reference Colzatto, C-O-L-Z-A-T-O et al. 2017
describes in here, I’m quoting.
So this is a direct quote.
The present findings are in line with those
of a recent study, which also found faster reaction times
in participants that listened to binaural beats of 40 Hertz.
And you can find many examples of this in the literature
where binaural beats of about 40 Hertz
or exactly 40 Hertz in some cases,
somehow brought the brain into a state
that made it optimal for learning, for memory
and for certain types of recall, including verbal recall,
math learning, et cetera.
So for those of you that are interested in binaural beats,
there are a number of free apps out there.
I’m not going to recommend any in particular.
You just have to search for one that you happen to like.
One thing that you will find is that many of those apps
superimpose binaural beats onto raindrops or ocean sounds,
or rather they superimpose ocean sounds
and raindrops onto the binaural beats.
That does not appear to be as effective
as pure binaural beats.
There has been an exploration
of lower frequency binaural beats.
So for instance, seven Hertz,
which is theta binaural beats done for 30 minutes
with an overlay of rain sound or rain sounds only,
that’s been analyzed.
And believe it or not,
that showed immediate recall memory
was significantly decreased, okay?
So that’s a negative effect of binaural beats on memory.
So the idea that binaural beats are just great
for us across the board, I think is wrong.
It does appear that the higher frequency binaural beats
as one moves up toward 40 Hertz
are going to be the most beneficial.
There are instances in which, for instance,
15 Hertz binaural beats increased response accuracy
on a spatial verbal memory task.
This is a complicated working memory task.
Working memory is the kind of memory
of remembering a phone number.
So if I say, for instance, 4932931,
and you have to remember that number,
keeping it online is what we call your working memory.
It’s likely that you would forget
that two or three days later.
You can get improvements in working memory
with 15 Hertz binaural beats.
Whereas the other control conditions,
five Hertz and 10 Hertz binaural beats
all decreased accuracy of working memory.
However, when I look at the literature
and I examined a number of different studies,
what I always seem to come back to
was that 40 Hertz or so, plus or minus five Hertz
seem to be optimal for generating improvements
in cognition, in math performance,
and even in various types of memory recall
and even in musical performance.
You might wonder, well,
how can people do musical performance
that are listening to binaural beats?
Here’s another surprise.
Many of the studies that I looked at
didn’t have people listening to binaural beats
while they were doing the tasks,
the memory task or the music learning, et cetera.
They would do it beforehand for 30 minutes.
There were instances in which people
were listening to binaural beats during the task.
But if you decide to employ binaural beats,
I recommend this 40 Hertz as a great place to start.
I don’t recommend doing it for all of your work bouts.
I think there’s a good reason to believe
that you could attenuate to it.
But if you are going to try it,
you might try it both ways.
You might try listening to binaural beats
for about 30 minutes while doing something else,
and then maybe eating lunch or something of that sort
or taking a walk and then going into the work bout.
Because remember, the moment that you start listening
to these binaural beats,
the brain doesn’t immediately switch
into a particular pattern of oscillation or brainwaves.
It takes some time.
Neural circuits, again, take time to engage.
The only neural circuits that are going to engage instantly
are going to be the ones
that are of a sort of reflexive sort.
Like you step on a sharp object
and you have to retract your limb,
or you suddenly are stressed by a distressing text message,
or you’re suddenly delighted about a delightful text message.
But when it comes to shifting your whole brain state
toward optimizing work, it takes a little bit of time.
So again, 40 Hertz, binaural beats, many, many apps,
many YouTube scripts out there,
probably other resources for binaural beats,
hopefully zero costs.
You can access those without any need
to shell out any money.
If you find one that you particularly like,
maybe put it in the comment section
so other people can find it.
YouTube would be the best place to do that.
Feel free to put a link or just a description.
That would be wonderful.
And again, you don’t need to listen to binaural beats
at the exact same time that you’re doing the work,
although that could also enhance your productivity.
Some of you out there might be craving
a little bit more mechanism by which binaural beats
can influence things like focus or reduced reaction time.
This has actually been explored.
This 40 Hertz binaural beats pattern
seems to have an effect on what’s called striatal dopamine.
We have dopamine as a neuromodulator, of course,
involved in many things in motivation.
It’s actually involved in adaptation to light in the retina,
something that most people don’t know,
but it’s involved in movement,
which is why people with Parkinson’s
who have a depletion of dopamine neurons
actually have movement deficits and so on.
But striatal dopamine is closely related
to motivation and focus.
And 40 Hertz binaural beats
appears to increase striatal dopamine release.
And this has actually been measured indirectly
by what we call spontaneous blink rate.
I’ve been accused in various Instagram posts
and even on this podcast of being a non-blinker,
let’s call it, or a minimal blinker.
And as an important aside,
there is no evidence whatsoever
that people that don’t blink very much are sociopaths
Also, you will hear that people who blink a lot
are sociopaths and are lying.
There is absolutely no evidence that blink frequency
correlates with anything except alertness.
Now, longer blinks are associated with less alertness.
As we get tired, we tend to blink longer and longer
until we take the long blink that is sleep.
I guess the long blink would be death,
but the long-ish blink would be sleep.
But it turns out that the more firing
of striatal dopamine neurons that’s occurring,
the more frequently we blink.
And so it is associated with a resetting
of our visual window.
That’s what happens when we blink.
And there’s a whole relationship
between blinking and time perception
that we covered in the episode on time perception.
But here’s the bottom line for sake of this discussion.
40 Hertz binaural beats appears
to increase spontaneous blink rates
because it increases dopamine transmission
in the brainstem and in the striatum,
in several locations, in fact.
And so the way in which these binaural beats
set a rhythm in the brain recruits dopamine release
that dopamine release leads to heightened levels
of motivation and focus.
Why motivation and focus?
Well, dopamine is actually the substrate
by which epinephrine is made.
Dopamine, the molecule is actually converted
into epinephrine, adrenaline.
And they work together like close cousins,
dopamine and epinephrine,
in order to put us on a path of movement
or if we are doing work of mental movement toward a goal.
So that’s a little bit of mechanistic meat
to explain at least part of the reason
why 40 Hertz binaural beats can enhance our focus,
reduce our reaction times
and improve indeed learning and memory.
Next, I’d like to talk about the role of movement
in optimizing our workspace
and whether or not standing, sitting,
lying down, treadmilling, or even believe it or not,
cycling can enhance our work output and performance.
Before we do that, I want to touch on two aspects
of optimizing workspace that will come up at some point
in your work or school life.
Alas, there isn’t a lot of science around this,
but I think they are worth mentioning.
And I think I can offer a little bit of advice
in terms of how to navigate these
in a way that would be beneficial to you.
The first one is interruptions.
You know, if you go online and you ask about,
you know, how to avoid interruptions,
people will say, okay, well, if you have kids at home,
or even if you don’t, or at work,
you’ll have a light like a recording,
like we’re recording is on, we’re busy now,
or have a sign on the door that says,
bother only in the case of emergency or fine to knock
or don’t knock at all.
I’ve used a different policy throughout the years.
I am somebody who works pretty hard
to control my time and focus.
But of course, as a laboratory director,
I have people coming by and who want to talk about things.
And of course we have phones and we have computers
and people’s opportunity to reach us.
Interruptions really are deadly
to our ability to generate focus.
And it’s not just about the distraction
that occurs of say a minute or two minutes or five minutes
when we were interrupted.
It’s also about the additional time
to get those brain circuits re-engaged to a mode of focus.
So it’s really kind of a double whammy.
Now, none of us, including myself,
want to be harsh or cruel or shut off from the world.
And oftentimes interruptions bring incredible insights
and people are providing support
and very useful things that are essential to my workday
and presumably to your workday and school day as well.
But there’s a simple method that I learned
from my graduate advisor that works very, very well.
Again, no peer review data support it.
This is just my experience.
But this is somebody who had immense powers of focus,
had a very, very demanding life, a long commute,
two children, extensive laboratory, et cetera.
And what she would do was if I came by and asked a question
or if anyone came by and asked a question,
she would acknowledge their presence
but would not shift her body toward them.
So she purposely did not position her computer
facing the door, which I think is a deadly,
or I should say deadly to focus way
of positioning your workspace.
So her computer was facing the wall.
The door was perpendicular to that.
And I would come by and I say, I have a question.
And she would say, yes.
So she would acknowledge my presence,
but she wouldn’t actually orient her body toward me,
which told me that this conversation
was not going to last very long.
And no matter how long I stood there or what I asked,
she would never orient toward me,
which generally kept these conversations very, very short.
We had other designated meetings
where we would be face-to-face.
The other approach, which I confess colleagues of mine
have used before, not necessarily at Stanford,
but elsewhere is to simply say no
to everything that somebody requests or comes by.
So if someone would knock on the door,
they would just shout no through the door.
Or if someone would say, can I bother you for a second?
They would say no.
Or if someone would say, I have something I want to tell you,
they would just say no.
And they would just continue doing this
until the person went away.
That was actually very effective.
These were some of the most productive people I know,
not always the kindest people,
but some of them were very kind.
The other approach that I’ve seen,
and actually this is an approach that was used
by someone who has been a guest
on the Huberman Lab podcast,
someone who’s immensely productive,
was that he, so I’m constraining who this might be
by saying he, he actually,
despite having the option to have a very large office,
would place himself in a workspace
that was literally a coat closet,
cleared out with a desk, small lamp, completely dark.
So this violates everything that I’ve talked about before
or prior to this,
everything about high ceilings, bright light, et cetera,
and would work, still works,
underneath a desk lamp in a completely dark closet,
This is my definition of hell.
And yet is one of the most productive people on the planet.
Also very, very hard to find.
I actually know where his closet is.
And it turns out he has several of them
that he migrates from in order to avoid distractions.
So I mentioned these as kind of extremes.
I think that most of us exist on the other extreme.
And that’s why I mentioned it,
which is that most of us like some social engagement
and kind of welcome,
or at least set our work environment
in a way that welcomes interruption.
And we have to be very, very careful about this.
Now in the digital realm,
I already mentioned a few of the things that we can do
as practical tools to limit interruptions.
One is to use the program Freedom.
The other would be to simply turn off the Wi-Fi.
If you do need to be online and navigating,
you’re doing research of any kind,
that’s not going to be possible.
Turning off one’s phone.
I’ve at times put my phone on airplane mode.
If that didn’t work, I’ve locked it in a safe.
I’ve done that.
I’ve left it in the car outside.
It all depends on one’s levels of self-discipline,
which as you probably know from your own experience,
tends to kind of wax and wane.
Sometimes we are better
at avoiding these distractions than others.
So if you find yourself in a place
where it’s very hard to reduce those distractions,
you may need to go to more elaborate lanes.
I will say that a graduate student in my lab,
who was immensely productive and focused,
had the habit of coming in each day.
She would take her phone.
I don’t know if she turned it on, off or not.
And she would just place it in a door, excuse me,
in a drawer and would then go start doing experiments.
We do experiments all day, attend courses,
engage in discussions avidly with the rest of us.
And then would take her phone out
at the end of the day and leave.
And I don’t think that behavior was not correlated
with her immense productivity.
I think the ability to untether ourselves from the phone
is going to be the way in which many of us
are either going to succeed or fail in our various pursuits.
I’m somebody who engages with the phone
on a regular basis throughout the day for various reasons.
But I do try and have large swaths of the day
in which it’s either on airplane mode
or it’s completely physically separated from me.
And when I mean large swaths,
I might do every other hour with the phone on airplane mode
or even a two or three hour bout
where I just am simply not engaged with the phone at all.
So is it better to sit
or is it better to stand when doing work?
At least as it relates to focus and productivity.
And the answer is both.
There’ve been a number of systematic studies
exploring what are called sit-stand desks.
So these are desks that can be set to a height
that makes standing the best practice.
And then they can be lowered to a height
that makes sitting the best practice
or the easiest practice, I should say.
And it turns out that just sitting is terrible for us.
And there’s an enormous number of studies out there
that have pointed to the fact that people who sit
for five or six or seven hours a day doing work
have all sorts of issues related to sleep, neck pain,
cognition suffers, a number of cardiovascular effects,
There may even actually be some almost pressure effects
on the pelvic floor and things of that sort,
depending on the chairs that one uses.
But that people who stand
are in a slightly better situation
where many of those health metrics improve,
but that people that do a combination of sitting
and standing at the same desk throughout the day
or move from one desk to another,
if they don’t have a combination sit-stand desk,
that’s going to be best.
The good news is it’s very easy to convert a sit desk
into a stand desk.
You can just stack some boxes.
I’ve done this at times or stack books.
There are also some pedestals
and things that you can purchase if that’s your preference
in order to set your computer at a particular height.
And of course, there are desks that have motors
and there are ones that have cranks
and there are all sorts of variations,
both in terms of the types
and whether or not they have motors
as well as the cost to these things.
So they can go from very low costs,
like placing boxes or books to create a standing desk
to very high cost in some cases.
Now, what’s interesting,
if you look at the scientific literature,
is that people who decreased their sitting time
by about half each day.
So they took, let’s say they were working
for seven hours a day,
three and a half hours of that day,
they decide to stand.
And it’s not even clear that it matters
that they do all those three hours in one bout
or they divide that up into shorter bouts of a half an hour
and then sit for half an hour, et cetera,
alternating back and forth,
showed incredibly significant effects
on reduced neck and shoulder pain,
increase in subjective health,
vitality in work-related environments,
and perhaps most importantly,
for sake of today’s discussion,
improvement in cognitive conditioning
and the ability to embrace new tasks
and cognitive performance.
There are several studies that if one wanted to explore,
they could explore this in more detail.
I’ll put a link to this as well.
The article that I’m referring to
is called effect of workplace sit-stand desk intervention
on health and productivity.
And I like this paper
because many of the papers out there
focus on the effects of sit-stand desks on health
and trying to get people to burn more calories,
improve their posture,
relieve neck pain, slumped over, et cetera,
but not on productivity.
And this particular paper focuses also
on the metrics of productivity.
It has its own study
and also references a number of important studies.
What does this mean for you and me?
Well, I’ve long used a standing desk
or some variation thereof.
What this means is that we should probably spend
about half of our work time standing
and about half of it sitting,
but not all sitting or not all standing.
If you had to do all one or the other,
standing is going to be better than sitting.
What happens if we just stand?
Well, that can also generate some postural issues
in terms of stabilization and fatigue.
I have a good friend who’s in the movement
and physical rehabilitation and physiology space.
His name is Kelly Starrett.
He’s very impressive in all those domains.
And he always says,
we weren’t designed to sit all day,
but we also weren’t designed to stand all day.
And I think that’s true.
If we were to look back at our species over tens
or hundreds of thousands of years,
we would find that indeed we did sit down.
We did lie down.
It wasn’t that we were standing all day long.
That said, most everybody, at least in the US,
is not getting sufficient cardiovascular exercise
or movement throughout the day.
And standing at one’s desk can improve
some of those health metrics
and again, can improve productivity,
probably because of those postural effects
that I talked about earlier,
that when we lie down,
there tends to be less alertness in our brainstem,
if you will.
There’s less activation of those brainstem circuits
involved in alertness.
And indeed, the circuits that involve a kind of a
calming effect on the body get activated.
And as we become upright, standing or sitting,
but especially standing,
then those brainstem circuits for alertness kick on,
which are going to make it easier to remain focused.
If you are going to start standing
for half of your work time,
you will notice that it takes a few days to adapt.
You’ll notice a lot of shifting from side to side.
You definitely want to wear comfortable shoes.
Some people will do this on a wooden floor.
Other people feel uncomfortable unless they’re on carpet.
You have to figure out what works for you,
but it can take a little bit of time to adapt.
I have to say, after now about 10 years of working
at a sit-stand desk,
I find I can’t sit for too long before I want to stand.
And my standing bouts can be anywhere
from 30 minutes to two hours,
although two hours would be a little bit long.
And then I catch myself kind of leaning on the desk
off to the side.
So again, the idea is to stand,
but not be leaning on the desk.
Obviously, if you’re typing or you’re writing,
there’ll be some leaning involved,
but that’s what the literature support.
There is also a literature on whether or not
physical movement under your desk,
meaning treadmilling, or in fact,
there are now bicycles that allow people to pedal.
It’s kind of a unicycle like thing,
although not a unicycle,
under the desk can be beneficial for workplace performance.
So let’s take a look at what those data say.
The study that I’m referring to has a first author,
Frodsham, F-R-O-D-S-H-A-M, Frodsham et al.
This is a research article published in PLOS One.
And the title of the article is,
does type of active workstation matter?
A randomized comparison of cognitive and typing performance
between rest, cycling, and treadmill active workstations.
It’s amazing that people do this science.
I think it’s great.
Where else would we get peer reviewed data
on these types of questions?
First things first, there were no significant differences
between cycling or treadmill workstations
on any cognitive or typing outcomes.
So it does not seem to matter
whether or not people are treadmilling under the desk.
So these would be stationary treadmills.
It’s like a little conveyor that people are walking on,
sometimes very slowly.
I’m guessing some people walk more quickly.
The New Yorkers probably treadmill quicker.
The Californians probably treadmill a little slower.
I’m a Californian, so I can make that quote unquote joke.
But nonetheless, there were no significant differences
between that and a cycling station where people are sitting
and pedaling as they type away,
or as they work or as they’re on phone calls, et cetera.
So it really doesn’t seem to matter.
So if you’re going to embrace these active workstations,
as they’re called, just decide
what you would prefer to use.
It doesn’t seem to matter in terms of outcomes.
Now, this study involved looking at 137 young adults.
They had multiple sessions where they at first
completed cognitive and typing tests.
These tests have different names
and you’re welcome to look those up if you like,
as well as flanker tasks.
So these are tasks of attention and things of that sort.
And then they either engaged in treadmill or cycling
and then there was a comparison.
And the statistics were run.
And basically what they found was there was a statistically
significant improvement in attention
and cognitive control scores during any kind of active
session, as opposed to just a mere seated session.
Okay, so they compared seated to cycling to treadmilling.
However, verbal memory scores actually got worse
during active sessions.
So I’ll repeat that.
Treadmilling or the cycling workstations
improved attention and cognitive control scores
as compared to people that were just seated and working.
However, verbal memory scores got worse
during the active sessions.
And again, just to repeat,
there was no difference between cycling
and treadmill workstations.
So this is interesting.
I suggest that as the author say that active workstations,
whether walking or cycling are not only useful
to improve caloric output and physical activity,
circulation and so on,
but particularly when completing tasks like cognitive tasks
that require focus that do not require
verbal memory recall.
Now, why verbal memory recall was negatively impacted?
We don’t know.
Could be because people were breathing
a little bit harder.
It could be that there’s something about walking
and talking that seems incompatible in the nervous system.
Although I’m not aware of that.
I know a number of people who can walk and talk
at the same time.
But if you are going to explore these treadmills,
or you’re going to explore the cycling stations,
you probably wouldn’t want to do that
for highly verbal work,
maybe more for mathematical work or for analytic work
or even creative work,
but anything that involves very precise
or detailed verbal recall,
sitting or standing seems to be the better option.
And if you’re wondering why cycling or treadmilling
would enhance various aspects of cognition,
we can speculate.
I’ve talked before about this,
but anytime we are generating forward movement
through our own actions, our own efforts,
typically if we are outside, we’re not on a treadmill
or we’re on a bicycle or we’re running
or even on a motorcycle or in a car,
we have what’s called optic flow.
And that optic flow is known to quiet certain areas
of the brain that are associated with vigilance
and indeed fear.
This is the basis of things like EMDR,
eye movement desensitization reprocessing.
However, the mere act of engaging what are called
our central pattern generators,
the neurons in our brainstem and in our spinal cord
that engage repetitive movements
also can reduce some of the areas of the brain
that are associated with anxiety and vigilance.
So one pure speculation, but nonetheless grounded speculation
would be that treadmilling or cycling at a desk
would reduce anxiety that would allow performance to improve.
The other, what I think is more likely explanation
is that anytime we are in ambulation,
we recruit the release of neuromodulators
like epinephrine, dopamine, and things of that sort
that further increase overall levels of alertness.
I think that’s the more likely explanation
because it’s hard to imagine how just a reduction
in anxiety could lead to these improvements in cognition
in a direct way.
Whereas the subjects in the study I just mentioned
on average experienced an increase in cognitive performance
merely by movement, okay?
And this does not include any optic flow
because it’s stationary,
the treadmill or the cycle is stationary.
And so we can rule out that optic flow.
And that points to the idea that when we are in movement,
we recruit neuromodulators associated
with the so-called reticular activating system,
the striatal system and so forth
that would place the brain into some pattern.
We don’t know, we only can speculate some pattern,
perhaps it’s gamma waves or some other wave pattern
that would engage heightened levels of focus and attention.
Nonetheless, treadmilling, cycling at a desk
does improve cognition.
So we’ve been discussing workspace optimization
with the understanding that you’re not always going to work
in the same place every day.
What I’ve tried to do is give you a set of high potency
tools that can improve your focus and cognition
and to place that within a framework
for particular kinds of work.
Let’s just review some of the basic elements
of what we’ve covered today.
First of all, in the first part of your day,
that zero to nine hours after waking,
you want bright lights, especially overhead lights,
as bright as you can keep them
without feeling uncomfortable
or certainly not without feeling any pain in your eyes
or elsewhere in your body.
Bright lights make for the maximum state of alertness.
In addition, try and place whatever it is
that you’re focusing on directly in front of you,
but not have it extend too far out
to either side of your eyes.
Try and generate a fairly restricted visual window
as we call it.
And if you can, try and place whatever it is
you’re focusing on at least at nose level or above.
It might take some engineering or some ingenuity
and creativity in order to figure out how to do that,
but that’s going to be most beneficial.
Try and avoid reclining.
Try and avoid sitting.
Try and stand for at least half of your workday.
That’s a good goal.
And it may take some time to work up to that goal.
In addition, if you’re going to use sound
as a stimulus for increasing focus and alertness,
try and avoid exposure to white noise, pink noise,
or brown noise for extended periods of time
for more than an hour or so.
That might actually be damaging to the auditory system.
And at the very least, it’s kind of stressful,
even though you might not notice it.
It’s kind of a background level of anxiety and stress
that is not going to serve you well.
Rather, if you’re going to pursue particular types
of sound frequencies, consider using 40 Hertz binaural beats,
not monaural beats, but 40 Hertz binaural beats
done during a particular work bout
or for 30 minutes prior to that work bout.
I would not rely on binaural beats all the time every day.
I think that could cause them to lose their potency
just because of the way the auditory system attenuates.
And actually you’ve experienced that attenuation,
the mere fact that you can go into an environment
where there’s an air conditioner blowing,
blowing, blowing, and then it stops
and you feel that relaxation,
but you weren’t thinking about the air conditioner before,
tells you that your auditory system
had kind of attenuated to it,
and yet it was still impacting your system.
You were sensing it, we would say, but not perceiving it.
There are other things that you can do
to improve your workspace optimization,
such as standing for half the day, as I mentioned before.
But if you’re interested in this,
or you feel like it suits you, to treadmill,
find a stationary treadmill that you can walk on.
I’ve never tried this before, maybe after this episode,
given what I’ve read in the peer-reviewed research,
and it’s pretty compelling,
that treadmilling seems like an interesting way
to increase alertness and cognitive performance.
I’m not sure that I would do the cycling method
because I can’t imagine just cycling
and typing at the same time.
That sort of feels like, you know,
like I actually can do the rub your tummy,
pat the top of your head kind of thing,
but it still feels like a little bit
of a sort of a cognitive motor collision for me,
for whatever reason, but that’s just my bias.
I do know how to ride a bicycle,
but anyway, you pick your preference.
Some other things that you could do
in order to improve your workplace performance
would be to consider the cathedral effect.
If you’re going to do analytic work
for any part of the day, phase one or phase two,
as I described them, but really in any time of day,
that detailed analytic work
for which there is a correct answer,
learning scales of music, learning mathematics,
trying to figure out the solution to a problem
where there is indeed a solution.
It could be an interpersonal problem as well.
Then try and get into an environment
with a relatively low ceiling.
If you don’t have access to a low ceiling environment,
you might consider using a brimmed hat or even a hoodie,
or even just facing down,
or even putting your hand above your eyes, as you will,
as at the level of your eyebrows.
In other words, lower the ceiling.
That’s the basis of the cathedral effects
on analytic performance.
In contrast, if you’re interested in doing brainstorming,
creative work, you’re writing new things,
you’re creating new things of any kind, artwork,
consider getting into a high ceiling
or no ceiling environment.
Or if you’re wearing a brimmed hat
or you’re wearing a hoodie, maybe peel that back.
Again, the data within the peer reviewed literature
are there to support these sorts of practices.
And if you’d like to start layering these protocols
by all means, please do that.
There’s no reason why you couldn’t do one
or just two of these protocols.
There’s no reason why, for instance,
you couldn’t use binaural beats
and try and get into a low ceiling environment
to do detailed work a couple of times a week,
but you could also employ all of these.
Now, of course, there are an enormous number
of other things that you can do
to improve work performance and productivity.
And I’ve talked about those in previous episodes,
in particular, in the episode on focus
and the episode on motivation.
There are supplements you can take
that can increase dopamine, for instance.
There are tools that you can use to increase your focus,
for instance, focusing your visual attention
on one location for 30 to 60 seconds
prior to entering a focused work bout.
This has been shown again and again
through work from Emily Balsettis at NYU.
In the episode on focus, I cited a number of studies
where this has actually been tested
and deployed in various schools,
having kids do a focus task
where they look at a particular visual target
for 30 to 60 seconds, then doing some mathematics
and seeing pretty impressive improvement
in focus and attention,
even in people that have attention deficit
hyperactivity disorder and so on.
So there’s no reason why you can’t and shouldn’t combine
the sort of practical workspace optimization solutions
that we talked about today
with the kind of neural optimization solutions
that we talked about in the episode on focus
and the episode on ADHD and the episode on motivation.
By all means, layer those together.
That’s how you’re going to achieve the optimal focus bouts.
That’s how you’re going to achieve
the optimal creativity bouts.
I do want to acknowledge again,
the fact that I realize people are showing up
to this challenge of workspace optimization
with different budgets, with different constraints.
Some people have kids at homes.
There are a lot of interruptions.
Some people do not.
Nonetheless, I hope that the information
I was able to provide today will allow you to make subtle
or maybe even drastic rearrangements
in your workspace environment.
There’s one other point related to that
that I did not cover
and that I’d like to cover just briefly,
which is that there’s nothing to say
that you have to always work
in the same location all the time.
You can move from house to cafe if that works for you.
You can move from office to home.
You can also move from different locations within your home.
I have a brief anecdote about this.
I used to attend a lot of scientific meetings
when a lot of scientific meetings were in person.
And there were always a few individuals
that seemed to stay engaged
throughout these very long meetings.
And we’re talking seven, eight hour days,
sometimes evening sessions.
And sometimes these meetings would go on
for four or five or even six days.
These were long meetings.
And the quality of talks varied tremendously.
And I always noticed the individuals
that managed to stay engaged and awake
for the entire meeting.
And I noticed that people
that could maintain high levels of alertness
in this one conference room
had a habit of moving to a different seat
after each session, sometimes even between talks.
And I actually discussed this
with one of my colleagues who was doing this.
I said, is this conscious?
Are you always moving from place to place?
And they said, yeah, if I just stay in one place
and I just look from this one particular visual angle,
I find after one or two talks,
regardless of how interesting the talks are,
that I start to kind of drift.
My mind isn’t as engaged
and indeed sometimes can fall asleep.
And so I started this practice
of moving from space to space,
or I should say seat to seat within an auditorium.
And it works quite well.
And I think it works quite well
because again of the relationship
between our visual system driving
the majority of our cognition, right?
Our visual system drives our thinking
and that novel visual environments
are going to lend themselves
to heightened levels of alertness.
You don’t want things to be so novel and scary
or threatening or anxiety provoking or loud
that they draw your attention away from your work.
But I think this is part of the reason why
turning on music or moving to an office or a cafe
or an outdoor environment from an indoor environment
or vice versa, maybe even within a single day
can bring about more heightened levels of productivity.
I’d also like to acknowledge that what I covered today
is most certainly not exhaustive
for all the types of workspace optimization tools
that one could create.
For that reason, I’d love for you to suggest
any of your workspace optimization tools
that you found useful.
Please put those in the comment section on YouTube.
That would be the best place then other people can see them.
Also read through those.
And perhaps in a future episode,
I’ll call about some of the ones that I’ve tried
on the basis of your suggestions.
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Once again, thank you for joining me for this discussion
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on workspace optimization.
I hope some, if not all of the tools
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And as always, thank you for your interest in science.