Huberman Lab - Dr. Wendy Suzuki: Boost Attention & Memory with Science-Based Tools

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, my guest is Dr. Wendy Suzuki.

Dr. Suzuki is a professor of neuroscience and psychology

at New York University,

and one of the leading researchers

in the area of learning and memory.

Her laboratory has contributed

fundamental textbook understanding

of how brain areas such as the hippocampus,

which you will learn about today,

how the hippocampus and related brain circuits

allow us to take certain experiences

and commit them to memory

so that we can use that information in the future.

Dr. Suzuki is also an expert public educator

in the realm of science.

A few years back, she had a TED Talk

that essentially went viral.

If you haven’t seen it already,

you should absolutely check it out,

in which she describes her experience using exercise

as a way to enhance learning and memory.

And on the basis of that personal experience,

she reshaped her laboratory

to explore how things like meditation, exercise,

and other things that we can do with our physiology

and our psychology can allow us to learn faster,

to commit things to memory longer,

and indeed to reshape our cognitive performance

in a variety of settings.

As such, I am delighted to announce

that Dr. Suzuki is now not only running a laboratory

at New York University,

but she is the incoming Dean of Arts and Science

at New York University.

And of course, she was selected for that role

for her many talents,

but one of the important aspects of her program,

she tells me, is going to be to incorporate

the incredible power of exercise, meditation,

and other behavioral practices for enhancing learning,

for improving stress management,

and other things to optimize student performance.

Today, you are going to get access

to much of that information

so that you can apply those tools

in your daily life as well.

Dr. Suzuki is also an author of several important books.

The most recent one is entitled,

The Good Anxiety,

Harnessing the Power of the Most Misunderstood Emotion,

and a previous book entitled, Healthy Brain, Happy Life,

A Personal Program to Activate Your Brain

and Do Everything Better.

And while that is admittedly a very pop science type title,

I will remind you that she is one

of the preeminent memory researchers in the world

and has been for quite a while.

So the information that you’ll glean from those books

is both rich in depth and breadth and is highly applicable.

By the end of today’s discussion,

you will have learned from Dr. Suzuki,

a large amount of knowledge about how memories are formed,

how they are lost,

and you will have a much larger kit of tools to apply

for your efforts to learn better, to remember better,

and to apply that information

in the ways that best serve you.

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.

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And now for my discussion with Dr. Wendy Suzuki.

Wendy, great to see you again,

it’s been a little while.

It’s been a while, so great to be here, Andrew.

Thank you so much for having me.

Yeah, delighted.

I’d like to start off by talking about memory generally,

and then I’d love to chat about your incredible work,

discovering how exercise and memory interface

and what people can do to improve their memory

and brain function generally.

But for those that are not familiar,

maybe you could just step us through

the basic elements of memory.

A few brain structures, perhaps.

You know, what happens when I, for instance,

this mug of tea, it’s pretty unremarkable,

but the fact that now I’ve talked about it,

I don’t know that I’ll ever forget about it.

Maybe I will, maybe I won’t.

So what happens when I look at this mug

and decide that it’s something special for whatever reason?

Yeah, well, I like to say there are four things

that make things memorable.

Number one is novelty.

If it’s something new, the very first thing,

the very first time we’ve seen something

or experienced something, our brains are drawn to that.

Our attentional systems draw us to that.

And when you are paying attention to something,

that’s part of what makes things memorable.

Second is repetition.

If you see that cup of tea every single day

and every single time you do an interview,

you talk about your cup of tea, you’re gonna remember it.

That’s just how our brains work, repetition works.

Third is association.

So if you meet somebody new

that knows lots of people that you know,

so you and I share many, many, many, many people

that we both know, it’s easier to remember you,

especially if you were somebody new

that I hadn’t met before, we have met before.

So association.

And then the fourth one is emotional resonance.

So we remember the happiest

and the saddest moments of our lives.

And that also includes funny, surprising things.

That is the interaction between two key brain structures,

the amygdala, which is important for processing

lots of emotional,

particularly threatening kinds of situations.

But those threatening, surprising kinds of situations,

the amygdala takes that information

and makes another key structure called the hippocampus

work better to put new long-term memories in your brain.

So that in fact is the key structure for long-term memory,

this structure called the hippocampus.

Fantastic, so novelty, repetition, association

and emotional resonance.


You can tell us a bit more about the hippocampus.

I think at least for my generation,

well, I’m a neuroscientist,

but for most people in my generation,

I think they first heard about the hippocampus

from the movie Memento,

where the guy says hippocampus.

And for those of you that haven’t seen that movie,

it’s a bizarrely constructed movie,

but an interesting one nonetheless about memory.

But even as a neuroscientist,

sometimes I’m perplexed at how the hippocampus works.

Maybe you could, if you would,

step us through kind of what this structure is,

what it looks like, maybe a few of its sub-regions,

because unlike vision,

the topic that I’ve worked most of my career on,

where we know, okay, the eye does this part

and the thalamus does this part

and the cortex does that part,

I’ve always been a little perplexed

about the hippocampus, frankly.

So, and I’ve read the textbooks and I’ve heard the lectures,

but I’d love to get the update.

What are the general themes of the hippocampus

as a structure and its function?

What do you think everyone, including neuroscientists,

should know about the hippocampus?

Absolutely, so let’s start with the basics.

The word hippocampus means seahorse.

It is shaped, the structure is shaped

like a kind of curly Q seahorse, that is accurate.

Everybody, including neuroscientists,

should know it’s a beautiful structure.

It is visually anatomically beautiful

with these kind of intertwining,

twirly sub-regions within it.

And I think that’s one of the reasons why early anatomists,

neuroscientists got attracted to it

because it’s this interesting kind of twirly structure

deep in the heart of the brain.

So that’s anatomically.

Functionally, what does it do?

Well, it’s easiest to understand what it does

when you look at what happens

when you don’t have a hippocampus anymore.

What if you, what if by some disease

or you have your hippocampus removed by accident,

what happens?

Well, we know this from the most famous

neurological patient of all time.

His initials were HM, so all psychology

and neuroscience students know him.

He was operated in 1954

and the paper was published in 1957.

They removed both his hippocampi

because he had very terrible epilepsy.

And they knew that the hippocampus

was the genesis of epilepsy.

And this was experimental.

His epilepsy was so bad that they decided

not just to remove one hippocampus, but both.

And what happened was immediate loss

of all ability to form new memories for facts and events.

Think about that for a second.

All facts or events, you’re not able to remember.

I can’t remember this interaction between us.

I can’t remember any of the facts

that we were just chatting about in our neuroscience lives.

None of that can move into our long-term memory.

So this hippocampus does something

with all of these perceptions that are coming at us

every single day, every minute of the day,

and not for all of them, but for some of them

that have these features that we just talked about.

Maybe they’re novel, maybe they have associations,

maybe they’re emotionally relevant,

maybe they’ve been repeated.

Some of those things in the realm of facts or events

get encoded in our long-term memory.

And that’s the textbook

of why the hippocampus is so important.

I like to always add, and I mean,

this is why I studied it for so many years.

The hippocampus and what it does

really defines our own personal histories.

It means it defines who we are.

Because if we can’t remember what we’ve done,

the information we’ve learned,

and the events of our lives, it changes us.

That’s what really defines us.

That’s why I wanted to study the hippocampus.

And I think the exciting new ideas

about the hippocampus was, is,

that it’s, you know, hippocampus is important for memory.

So if you say that, you’ll impress all your people

at your cocktail party.

But what people have started to realize

that it’s not just memory,

it’s not just putting together associations

for what, where, and when of events

that happened in our past,

but it’s putting together information

that is in our long-term memory banks

in interesting new ways.

I’m talking about imagination.

So without the hippocampus,

yes, you can’t remember things,

but actually you’re not able to imagine events

or situations that you’ve never experienced before.

So what that says is the hippocampus is important for memory

is a too simple a way to think about it.

What the hippocampus is important for

is what we’ve already talked about,

associating things together writ large.

Anytime you need to associate something together,

either for your past, your present, or your future,

you are using your hippocampus.

And it takes on this much more important role

in our cognitive lives when we think about it like that.

That is kind of the new hippocampus

that neuroscientists are studying these days.

That’s fantastic.

It sounds like it really sets context,

but it can do that with elements from the past,

the present, or the future.


And for neuroscientists, the phrase is domain.

We say the time domain,

meaning as opposed to just evaluating things in space.

It sounds like the time domain of hippocampal functioning

is incredibly interesting.

It is.

And even the fact that we can have short-term,

medium-term, and long-term memories.

And we could go down any of these rabbit holes.

I’ll ask you a true or false,

mostly because I just really want to know the answer.

A few years ago, the theme in various high-profile reviews

seemed to be that the hippocampus was involved

in encoding and creating memories,

but not in storing memories,

and that the memory storage was in the neocortex

or the other overlying areas of the brain.

Is that too general a statement?

That’s a tricky statement

because I think that ultimately, yes,

that long-term memories are stored in the cortex,

but those memories are stored in the hippocampus

sometimes for a very, very long time.

So how long is too long

where you say, oh, it’s not the hippocampus anymore?

If it’s four years, is that?

Does that mean that it’s not stored in the hippocampus?

I think that’s a tricky question.

And yes, it was coming up a lot

because people were debating it.

And some people did think that you shouldn’t think

about the hippocampus as a storage area,

but I think it’s a long, long, long-term

kind of intermediate storage area,

maybe not the long-term storage area.

That’s why it’s hard to answer that question.


As I recall, H.M. could remember facts

from before his surgery.

He couldn’t form new memories.


And given that he had no hippocampus,

it would at least partially support the idea

that some memories are retained outside the hippocampus.

However, he did have part

of his posterior hippocampus intact.

So that’s the tricky thing.

I think initially, in fact, Scoville, the neurosurgeon,

overestimated the number of millimeters

he intended to remove of the hippocampus.

And then when they did this,

the very historic MRI of H.M. later in his life,

they showed that, in fact,

he did have that posterior hippocampus,

part of the posterior hippocampus intact.

So now it makes it a little bit more complicated

to interpret what’s going on.

Not that it was never uncomplicated.

Any interpretation of a lesion in a patient,

as you know, is complicated.

But H.M. had this mythical role

in neuroscience and neurology.

And now it was complicated

because he does have more of the hippocampus intact.

Got it. I did not know that.

There are some memories that can be formed very quickly,

so-called one-trial learning.

And I’m just looking at this list again,

novelty, repetition, association, and emotional resonance.

It seems like some experiences

can bypass the need for multiple repetitions.

Yeah, absolutely.

And unfortunately, it seems that our nervous system

is skewed toward creating one-trial memories

for negative events,

which has a survival adaptive mechanism.

What is the neural connection that allows that to happen?

Is it the amygdala to hippocampus connection?

I mean, as you and I know,

it seems like every brain area

ultimately is connected to everything else.

It’s just a question of through how many nodes,

just like every city is connected to another city.

It’s just a question of how many flights and roads

do you have to traverse before you get there.

What is it about one-trial learning?

I mean, at a kind of top contour level,

how can we learn certain things so fast

and other things are tricky?

And now every time I look at this white mug,

it’s queuing up something special

that simply by virtue of saying it.

So is that one-trial memory?

But what is it about very emotionally salient events

that allow memories to get stamped in?

Yeah, I mean, I think you’ve already alluded to it.

That is, there is this protective function of our brains

that has evolved over the last 2.5 million years

that you need to pay attention

and remember certain things for your survival.

So some things that get stamped in,

you know, they’re memories, but they’re fear memories.

You know, if I get mugged on the subway

or, you know, there are terrible things

that could happen on the subway as we just learned.

But if something terrible happens,

if something very scary happens,

you remember that and that fear

and that memory of all those things.

I mean, I have one when I lived in Washington, DC,

I went to work at NIH on a Sunday afternoon

and I came back and when I rounded the corner

to my door of my apartment, it was crowbarred in.

Somebody had taken a crowbar, opened up my door

and stole all of the nicest things in my apartment,

which wasn’t that nice

because I wasn’t making that much money.

But ever since then, whenever I rounded that corner,

I still had that memory.

It was terrible because, you know,

it put me in a terrible state when I was just coming home.

That’s a survival mechanism.

Do you want to be alert to possible danger?

Absolutely, yes.

So part of those one trial memories,

I think is often taking advantage

of this evolutionarily developed system

to tamp in things that could be potentially dangerous

to you into your memory.

So you forever will remember this particular corner

or this hallway

because that is where something really bad happened to you.

It seems like a location.

We talk about conditioned place aversion,

which is just a geek speak for wanting to avoid the place

where something bad happened

or conditioned place preference,

wanting to go back to a place

where something positive happened.

We’ve been looking at a photograph

of where you had a wonderful time with somebody

and that can evoke all sorts of positive sensations.

It seems like at some level, as complex as the brain is,

the basic elements of feeling good or feeling lousy

are states within the brain and body.

And linking those to places seems like

it’s a pretty straightforward formula.

Link place to state, link state to place, et cetera,

as your description just provided.

When we learn more complex information,

you know, a poem, a concept,

or we have to ratchet through a set of ideas,

that also involves memory.

I’m sure that we’ll talk more about this,

but is there any way that you are aware of

that state, bodily state, can be leveraged

to enhance the speed or the quality of memories

and memory formation?

Because, you know, so to be clear about it,

it seems there’s something very important

about this fourth, you know,

this emotional resonance component, right?

Novelty, the crowbar into the door is,

thank goodness, sounds like it was novel.

It wasn’t repeated to me, thank goodness.

So repetition is out,

and the association is very, very strong.

But for people trying to learn information

that they’re not that excited about,

or that repetition is hard,

or the novelty is simply that it’s painful.

Yes, I’ve been there, absolutely.

Yeah, as have I.

Is there something that we can do

to leverage knowledge of how the memory system

works naturally to make that a more straightforward process?

So I immediately turn to the things that I’ve studied

that you talk about so beautifully on your podcast,

which are strategies generally

to make your brain work better.

I was just reminding myself of your podcast about cold,

because I use that every morning.

Oh, you do cold?

I do, I do.

Just take a moment and just tell us

what is your cold exposure protocol,

then I’ll take you back to what you’re saying.

So my cold exposure protocol

is at the end of every morning shower that I take,

you know, the shower is warm,

but I give myself a big blast of cold at the end of that.

And it makes me feel so good.

And because I’ve been doing it for several years,

it’s so much less painful.

Okay, I admit it was really painful at the beginning,

but it’s much less painful.

I could handle the cold water

and my pipes give nice, really cold water.

And I could feel the awakeness

kind of come up in me after that.

And so, and I miss it if I forget to do it.

But sometimes I run back in

and give myself that cold blast

because it is upping, you know,

I think you talked about this on your podcast,

what’s happening in the brain?

Basically the cold stimulus, that shock,

that, you know, catching your breath, et cetera,

is adrenaline from the adrenals,

but also from what we understand now,

some new neuroimaging,

there’s epinephrine and norepinephrine

released from locus coeruleus,

which again is a brain structure in the back of the brain,

sprinklers the rest of the brain

with a kind of a wake up chemical.

And there’s a long arc on dopamine release.

This paper back in 2000 showed that

it’s a steady increase up to about 2.5X

of circulating dopamine.

So they weren’t looking directly in the brain, admittedly,

but it goes on for four or five hours.

So the improved mood and the feeling of alertness

is a real thing.

Yeah, yeah.

So I use that, I mean,

so basically I use my morning routine.

What is my morning routine?

So when I get up,

I do a 45 minute tea meditation.

So meditating over the brewing and drinking of tea

that I learned from a monk

who has a institute in Taiwan

where he teaches tea meditation.

Love it.

I’ve learned all about tea,

different kinds of tea.

And then I do a 30 minute cardio weights workout.

Then I take my shower with the hot cold contrast.

And oh, and before that,

key thing, if I wanna learn something,

and I want to be able to get over

the difficulty of repeating things

or just push myself to do stuff, sleep.

So good, good sleep.

I’ve learned that over the pandemic,

I did sleep experiments on myself

and I learned that I was sleeping an hour less

than I really needed.

So I really need seven and a half to eight hours of sleep

and I was getting six and a half.

And so now, you know,

I get that seven and a half to eight hours

every single night.

And guess what?

I come to different difficult tasks

and I am more willing to give it a try,

to try longer, to try harder.

And my brain works better.

And so I think probably if you go back

to all of your podcasts,

you’ll learn exactly why each one of those things that I do,

which I would bet that you probably do too,

is helping my brain.

I guarantee they are.

And I’m impressed that you do all these things,

although not surprised.

And I should say that the extra hour of sleep

is really impressive and extremely beneficial.

I’m curious, do you get that in the early part of the night

by going to bed earlier?

Are you-

Yeah, yeah.


And I should just mention,

because you’re too humble to do it,

but I’ll say it again,

that yes, not only are you a full professor

running a tenured full professor

and running a laboratory,

you teach undergraduates,

you have an important role in public education,

multiple books,

and you’re now Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences

at NYU.

So the extra hour of sleep is benefiting you

and as a consequence, benefiting everybody else as well.

Thanks for sharing with us your protocol.

I took you off the trajectory of what one can do,

but I think that people and I appreciate knowing,

you know, kind of what the practical steps are.

Yeah, yeah.

Because knowing the science is important,

mechanism I do believe is important

for embedding protocols in people’s minds

and why they might want to do them.

But really hearing the mechanics of it is useful.

It sounds like everything together takes about an hour.

It’s not an excessive amount of time,

but it probably gives you an outsized positive effect

on your day.


I definitely notice it if I’m not able to do it.

And when I don’t,

so I do this seven days a week.

It’s also not just, you know, five days,

seven days a week.

And when I can’t do it,

it’s usually early morning flights or things like that.

And I get over it,

but it’s a critical,

critical for the working of my brain.

I love it.

And I’ll just highlight one thing that you said

before we move on, which is that you said when,

sometimes if you get out of the shower before the cold,

you’ll get back in.

That’s to me,

a really beautiful example of conditioned place preference.

You know, there’s some,

now the cold shower has become something

that you sort of look forward to.

I should say that nobody is immune

from the adrenaline increase of cold,

no matter how cold,

this is what’s interesting about cold.

It’s one of the reasons why it’s such an important part

of the screening for special operations,

you know, sort of seal teams,

but other branches of military too,

which is that there are very few stimuli

that you can give anyone

and consistently get an adrenaline release from that

without harming them.

You know, with heat,

eventually you need to use so much heat

that you damage tissue.

Or with exercise,

once you exercise, you can damage joints.

You know, and it’s this very kind of brilliant,

I don’t know if it was intentional or not,

it’s sort of an unintentional genius

that special operations has figured out

that by sending people back into the cold over and over,

it never really gets easier.

But over time, people actually start to crave it.

And it provides this reduction in inflammation, et cetera.

So anyway, beautiful practice.

Thank you.

I want to learn more about your tea meditation

later in the episode.

But in any event,

returning to ways that we can improve memory formation.

Maybe if you would tell us your story around this.

I know you’ve told it before,

but like a lot of members of the audience and I

would love to hear how you came to this.

Because growing up in neuroscience,

I knew you as one of the,

I would say one of the three or four,

and they’re all alongside one another,

not, this isn’t a hierarchical statement,

three or four top memory researchers in the world.

Textbook material is Suzuki.

My textbooks are filled with the word Suzuki,

your last name, according to the information

on memory and memory formation.

So you were doing that

and doing the things that academics do.

And then you’re still doing that,

but still at a very high level,

but then things took a different direction.

Maybe we could talk about your story

and how you came to the place you are at now,

because I think it provides a number of tools

that people could implement themselves.

Yeah, yeah.

So this story happened as I was working

to get tenure at NYU.

And as you know, it’s a stress-filled process.

They give you six years to show your stuff

and you are judged in front of all your colleagues

and either they say, okay, you can join the club

or they say, sorry, you are humiliated

in front of everybody.

This was what was going on.

They actually tell people to leave.


If you don’t get tenure, you’re gone.

You have to leave your institution.

And so you work really, really hard.

And so my strategy was,

I’m just gonna not do anything but work

and I’m just gonna work

and I’m going to just work as hard as I can

for the six years.

And what happens when you work

and you don’t have any sort of life outside of work

and you live in New York

where there’s all sorts of really good takeout,

you gain 25 pounds, which is exactly what I did.

And you get really, really stressed.

And you start to ask yourself,

how come I’m living in New York City and I love Broadway

and I haven’t gone to a Broadway show in two years?

And so I, 25 pounds overweight.

I decided to go on vacation

and I went by myself because I had no friends.

And I went to,

I did a adventure river rafting trip in Peru.

And so I go by myself and meet other interesting people.

And I was the weakest person on this whole trip.

Like I was, they were so much in better shape.

It was embarrassing.

And they won’t say this.

They won’t admit this to me, but it was true.

And I kind of came back and I said,

okay, I cannot be the weakest person.

I’m in my late thirties.

I have to do something.

So I went to the gym and I said,

oh my God, I’m 25 pounds overweight.

Let’s try at least to lose this weight.

And so I go to the gym.

I notice how much better I feel

when I go to just a single class.

I remember the very first class I went to

was a hip hop dance class.

I’m a terrible hip hop dancer,

but I still felt good after that class.

And then fast forward year and a half,

I’ve lost the 25 pounds.

So proud of myself, so much happier.

And I’m sitting in my office doing what you and I do a lot,

which is writing an NIH grant,

which is our lifeblood, right?

And I’m writing, writing, writing.

And this thought goes through my mind

that had never gone through my mind before,

which was during this six years of frantic grant writing

when I was trying to get tenure.

And that thought was, grant writing went well today.

That felt good.

I was like, I’ve never had that thought before.

What’s going on here?

This is really weird.

I don’t know that anyone has had that thought before.

No, I’m sure people have had that thought.

But I thought maybe I’m just having a good day.

But when I thought about it, I thought it’s not just today.

My grant writing seems to have been getting smoother.

I’m able to focus longer.

The sessions feel better to me.

And at that point, the only thing that I changed in my life,

it was a huge thing,

but I had become a gym rat rather than a workaholic.

And that’s when my spidey sense for neuroscientists

popped up and I said,

what do we know about the effects of exercise on your brain?

Because if I think about it,

what was better about my writing is

I could focus longer and deeper, very important.

And I could remember those little details

that you try and pull together

for your million dollar NIH grant

from 30 different articles

that you have open on your screen all at the same time.

That’s a hippocampal memory.

I was studying that.

I was writing the grants on hippocampal memory.

And so that’s when I got really interested

in the effects of exercise

on both prefrontal focus and attention function

and hippocampal function,

because of my own observation and this kind of,

I still remember where I was sitting,

which office I was in when I had this revelation.

But the thing that really sealed it for me

that made me think not just, oh, this is interesting,

but I wanna study this,

is right around that time,

I got a phone call from my mom

who said that my dad wasn’t feeling well

and that he had told her that he got lost

driving back from the 7-Eleven,

which was literally seven blocks from our house

that I grew up in.

And I knew that was hippocampal function.

I suspected dementia.

I suspected, though didn’t wanna admit,

Alzheimer’s dementia, which he had.

And it was funny because, I mean, it wasn’t funny,

but my mom and dad are two sides of a very different coin

my dad is the engineer, not so active all his life,

but loved and sit and read books all day.

My mom was the athlete.

She played tennis, team tennis into her 80s.

And it started to show at that point.

And so then I had even a more pressing reason

to think about what the effects of exercise were,

because I noticed that all the things

that were improving in my brain

suddenly went away in my dad’s brain.

Really, really smart guy, engineer in Silicon Valley,

helped that push in Silicon Valley in the 70s happen.

He had no more memory.

He couldn’t focus his attention.

His mood was rock bottom.

He’s a very happy guy.

And everything was the opposite in me.

And I started thinking, this isn’t just something

to help somebody who wants to get tenure.

This is something that could help millions

and millions of people.

Most importantly, our aging population.

What if, what’s happening?

And so the thing that makes me wake up in the morning

is when I realized that every single time

you move your body,

you are releasing a whole bunch of neurochemicals.

And some of them we’ve talked about

that the good mood comes from dopamine

and serotonin and noradrenaline.

But the thing that gets released also,

particularly with aerobic exercise,

is a growth factor called

brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF.

And that is so important because what it does

is it goes directly to your hippocampus

and it helps brand new brain cells grow in your hippocampus.

We all have that.

Even if you’re a couch potato,

you can get new brain cells in your hippocampus to grow.

But it’s like giving your hippocampus a boost

with this regular BDNF if you are exercising,

which means that we all have the capacity

to grow a bigger, fatter, fluffier hippocampus.

And so what I like to give people is this image

of every single time you move your body,

it’s like giving your brain this wonderful bubble bath

of neurochemicals.

What’s going on?

I need my bubble bath of noradrenaline

and dopamine and serotonin and growth factors.

And with regular bubble baths, what am I doing?

I’m growing a big, fat, fluffy hippocampus.

And I’m not gonna cure my father’s dementia,

Alzheimer’s dementia, but you know what?

If I go into my 70s with a big, fat, fluffy hippocampus,

even if I had that in my genes and it starts to kick in,

it’s gonna take longer for that disease to start to affect

my ability to form and retain new long-term memories

for facts and events,

which is my motivation for getting up

and doing my 30 to 45 minutes of aerobic exercise every day.


Quick question about your protocol,

just because, and then we’ll discuss

a few mechanistic things related to what signals

the body might be sending the brain

and a little bit more detail on BDNF and some circuitry.

So 30 to 45 minutes,

it sounds like cardiovascular exercise might be special.

But as I say that, and I think about the literature

that I’m aware of in mice and some in monkeys

and certainly in humans,

looking at the effects of exercise on brain function

and typically the outcome is improvement almost always.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a paper showing that

when animals or humans exercise more

that their brain gets worse.

I just can’t think of a single paper.

It doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

I’m sure someone will put one in the comment section.

They’ll find that one and thank you for,

if you can find that.

But it seems like it’s always cardiovascular exercise

and experimentally in a lab,

it’s a lot easier to get a mouse to run on a treadmill

than it is to get a mouse to lift weights.

Although people have put little ankle weights on mice

and the ways of getting mice to do resistance work

is actually a little bit barbaric

because oftentimes they’ll incapacitate a limb

to overload another limb.

So it’s an asymmetric thing.

It’s not the same as sending them in to do squats

or deadlifts or something.

So, but cardiovascular exercise might be special.

And what are your thoughts on that?

And please first though, tell us your routine.

Your routine is 30 to 45 minutes of,

are you a Peloton cycler?

Does it matter?

I think that the data suggests that

as long as your heart rate is getting up

for these long-term effects on your hippocampus

and prefrontal cortex,

you also get better at shifting and focusing your attention.

For that, you need cardiovascular.

And what I use is a video workout that I started

even before the pandemic, it’s called daily burn.

And it’s just thousands of different workouts,

but I love, they are 30 minutes that I sometimes add on

a 10 to 15 minute stretch at the beginning or at the end.

But I love the variety.

Sometimes I do it with weights.

Sometimes I do it without weights.

I love kickboxing.

So they have a lot of kickboxing in there.

It just fits my routine and it’s always there.

And I don’t have to get all dressed up

to go to the gym to work out.

So that’s what I do.

And that’s a daily thing, seven days a week.

Seven days a week, fantastic.

So in terms of the way that some of these changes

are being conveyed from the body to the brain,

that fascinates me.

And I mean, as you and I know,

and I’m sort of a repeating record on the podcast,

always saying, you know, you got a brain,

but you also have a spinal cord

and then your nervous system connects everything.

Every organ in your body is basically signaled

to by the nervous system and back to the nervous system,

your spleen, everything.

But so let’s imagine your morning routine,

you do your cardiovascular exercise.

Okay, so you’re pumping more blood.

That’s the definition of a higher heart rate.

Stroke volume of the heart goes up over time.

You’re getting fitter.

So blood flow to the brain is increasing.

Do we know how that gets translated to a signal

to release more BDNF?

You know, and then it raises this other question,

which is, does it matter where your mind is

when you exercise?

Because ultimately the brain, of course,

you can anchor your attention to the exercise

or you can be listening to a podcast or something else.

I’ve always wondered about this.

Can we enhance the effects of exercise

by combining the enhanced blood flow

with cognitive work during exercise?

Or is it simply a matter of just getting more blood flow

up to the hippocampus?

Yeah, I wish I had the answer to that question too.

My instinct is yes, it matters,

partially because of the work of your colleague,

Aaliyah Crum on mindset and the power of that to change

how physiologically our body is responding.

So how could it not work in her experiments

and not work for my morning or our morning exercise routine?

So, but are there studies point to a study?

I don’t know of one.

So exercise neuroscientists out there,

I’d love to see that study done.

So yes, it works.

Before I go into the aerobic thing,

I always like to start with the least amount of exercise

to get something really useful

because I don’t want people to say,

oh God, I hate sweating.

I don’t wanna listen anymore.

So I always like to start with studies have shown

that just 10 minutes of walking outside

can shift your mood.

That is part of that neurochemical bubble bath

that you’re getting dopamine, serotonin, noradrenaline

and anybody can walk for 10 minutes.

And so that is for all of you thinking that out there,

what is the minimum that I could get

some of these brain effects?

10 minutes of walking, anybody can do it.

Is outside important?

I’m a big believer in getting photons into the eyes.

I think that that study was done indoors on a treadmill.

So, and the comparison wasn’t done,

but moving your, which is great.

I, you know, some in the middle of the pandemic,

I walked around my apartment for 30 minutes sometimes

just for some variety, felt like a rat on a running wheel,

but yes.

So that minimum amount of movement in your body

can get you those mood effects.

But what about the big, fat, fluffy hippocampus?

What about the better performing prefrontal cortex?

That’s where you start to need the cardio workout.

And from my reading of the literature,

there haven’t been enough studies, you know,

directly comparing, contrasting, kickboxing with running,

with whatever other cardio that you need to do.

But any cardio workout that is done

has these positive effects.

So I’m gonna say my interpretation of that

is that whatever way you get your heart rate up,

including a power walk,

a power walk can get your heart rate up,

that is beneficial.

And what is happening,

there are two pathways that have been studied

about how you go from moving your body

to more BDNF, that neurotrophin

that’s increasing the growth

of new hippocampal brain cells.

The two pathways are the following.

One is a myokine, which is a protein released

by the muscles, and not your heart.

These are striated muscles in your body.

And so by running, these were studies done in rats

on running wheels.

They showed that the running rats

had more of this myokine release.

The myokine passed the blood-brain barrier,

so it got into the rarefied,

very protected bloodstream of inside the brain.

And that myokine stimulated the release

of BDNF in the brain.

That’s pathway number one.

Pathway number two comes through the liver

because exercise is a stress generally.

How do we know that?

Well, cortisol is released whenever we exercise.

We need that sugar in our blood,

and so that’s how the physiological mechanisms work.

And so there is a ketone, beta-hydroxybutyrate,

that we’ve known for a very long time

that gets released by the liver during exercise.

And we also know that that particular ketone

passes that blood-brain barrier,

and it’s another stimulant for BDNF.

So kind of the final common pathway

seems to be BDNF stimulation in the hippocampus.

Is it the only one?

Probably not, but that’s the one

that has been studied most clearly.

So it comes from all of our physiological systems,

our muscles working,

our liver responding to the stress of exercise.

And what is it doing?

It is giving more BDNF precursors to get into our brain

to cause the up-spike of BDNF,

which is part of your bubble bath

that you’re getting every time you move.

I love that description of a factor from muscle

and a factor from liver,

because anytime we’re thinking about movement of the body

and translating that to the brain,

as you so clearly pointed out,

that needs to be,

it needs to traverse the blood-brain barrier.

Not everything that happens in the body

is communicated to the brain.

And these seem like really important signals.

Beta-hydroxybutyrate, you mentioned, is a ketone.

I just want to underscore,

that doesn’t mean, folks,

that you need to be on a ketogenic diet.

I think people hear ketone and they think,

I know some people are, most people are not, I imagine.

There are ketones that are released in your brain and body

that can function,

even if you’re ingesting carbohydrates and not ketogenic,

just for a point of clarification.

This issue of new neurons is one that you hear a lot.

Neurogenesis, you’re going to grow new neurons.

And my understanding is that the rodent literature

is very clear,

that animals that run on wheels more often,

it turns out rodents love to run on wheels.

Do you know these studies by Hoppe-Hofstra,

which are pretty funny?

They’re very cool, by the way, Hoppe,

Howard Hughes investigator.

I’m not making light of them.

They put running wheels in a field

and wild rodents will run to the running wheel

and run on that running wheel.

So there’s some, they really enjoy it,

which I find amusing for reasons

that probably only a neuroscientist would find amusing.

In any case, in rodents,

it seems that running more on a wheel

can trigger neurogenesis,

literally the birth of new neurons

and the addition of new neurons to the hippocampus.

In monkeys, this has been controversial.

It seems it does happen in the hippocampus

in the olfactory bulb,

probably not in the neocortex,

thinking back to the decades of controversy

between Liz Gould and Pashko Rakesh.

I hope they settled their differences there.

Neuroscientists love to argue.

It’s what we do.

And in humans, I think it’s been a bit controversial.

Some people say absolutely yes.

Other people say absolutely no.

There are new neurons added to the adult brain.

I haven’t followed that literature down to the detail,

but I do remember one study

that I don’t think is contested,

which is the work of Rusty Gage at the Salk Institute,

where they actually injected a sort of dye-type marker

into the brains of terminally ill humans

who very graciously offered to have their brains

removed and dissected after death.

And in some cases, very old, terminally ill humans,

they did see evidence for new neurons

being born in the hippocampus.

Can I trust that idea still?

Is that generally accepted?

Well, so after that study, which was quite a while ago,

there are more recent studies, still controversial,

but showing and demonstrating using even new

and better techniques than were used

in that original Rusty Gage study,

which was groundbreaking at the time,

that suggest and I think show

that there are new neurons born in adult human brains

into the ninth decade of life.

So they not only did this,

I think those patients were in their 60s,

then they died of cancer,

but these new studies looking across the timeline,

can we see?

Because the other thing was,

yeah, maybe you have some when you’re 20,

but by the time you’re older

and you might need these new neurons,

you have no new neuron growth.

And so these studies seem to suggest that yes, yes, you did.

Yes, you do.

And we all do even into old age.

So, yeah.


And I’ll just take a moment to say that

I am personally not aware of any studies

looking at other forms of exercise

besides cardiovascular exercise for sake of brain health.

And this I think is an important gap in the literature

that ought to be filled,

whether or not, for instance,

high intensity interval training,

or whether or not weight training,

which has other effects on the musculature.

So you can imagine perhaps the myokine to BDNF pathway,

the pathway one that you mentioned might be signaled,

but maybe not the liver pathway.

Maybe, yes, I’m speculating here.

Those studies need to be done.

To my knowledge, they just haven’t been done yet,

but they should be done.

If you would,

could you tell us about some of the more specific effects

of exercise on memory?

Memory is a broad category of effects and phenomena.

So things like,

what comes to mind is short-term, medium,

and long-term memory, reaction time.

Learning math, at least for me,

is quite a bit different than learning history.

Although there’s certainly overlap

in the neural underpinnings.

What has been demonstrated in the laboratory

in animal models, but especially in humans?

And if you want to share with us any results

from your lab, published or unpublished,

I’m sure that the audience

would be delighted to learn about them.


Let me start with kind of the immediate effects,

acute effects as they’re called, of exercise on the brain.

So this is asking,

what does a one-off exercise session do for your brain?

And there are three major effects that have been reproduced.

I’ve seen it in my lab.

Many labs have reproduced this.

So what do you get with a one-off?

This is usually an aerobic type exercise session,

30 to 45 minutes.

What you get is that mood boost, very, very consistent.

You get improved prefrontal function,

typically tested with a stroop test,

which is a test that asks you to shift

and focus your attention in specific ways.

It’s a challenging task

and clearly dependent on the prefrontal cortex, largely.

And significant improvements in reaction time.

So your speed at responding,

often a motor kind of,

but cognitive motor response is improved.

Over the pandemic,

one of the unpublished studies that I did,

looking at the effects of 30 minutes

of age-appropriate workout in subjects

ranging in age from their 20s all the way up to their 90s.

So what are the things that I saw most consistently?

Irrespective of your age,

everybody got a decreased anxiety and depression

and hostility score, which is very important.

So it’s not just decreasing your anxiety and depression,

but decreasing your hostility levels.

Making the world a better place.

Making the world a better place.

Energy, the feeling of energy went up.

And what we found is in the older population,

even more than in the younger population,

we saw improved performance on both Stroop

and Erickson-Flanker task,

which is another task dependent on really focusing in

on different letters and paying attention

to what letter is being shown.

So these are consistent effects.

How long do they last?

One of the studies that I did publish in my lab

showed that the immediate effects of exercise

lasted up to two hours.

Unfortunately, that was the longest that we lasted.

We’re still there at two hours.

So that’s a pretty big bang for your buck.

That is.

One 30-minute.

Sorry to interrupt.

I just want to make sure I understand.

So when you say the effects lasted up to two hours,

does that mean up to two hours after you finished exercise

or up to two hours of memory-challenging work?

Yeah, just to be clear.

Yeah, that’s a great question.

So my study looked at

two hours after you finish your workout,

we gave you these cognitive tests.

During that two-hour period,

you were free to do anything except exercise or eat.

And so there was no extra load on people.

But two hours later, you did do significantly better

on these focused attention tasks

compared to a group that watched videos

for the exercise period.

This was an hour of cycling that they did.

These were young subjects in their 20s.

Okay, so if I finish my exercise at 9 a.m.,

even if I start this cognitive work,

this mental work at 11, I’ll still see benefits.

Yes, at least by 11,

because I didn’t go farther than two hours.

So it could last even longer than that.

But I have evidence that it lasts for two hours.

And perhaps if I had started the cognitive work

at 45 minutes after my exercise ended,

it would also be helpful.


So there’s no reason I think that you have to wait

before starting cognitive work.

Yeah, no reason at all.

I’m asking questions of the sort

that I get in the comments

that we are going to get in the comments section.

We always strive for clarity here.

So what this tells me is that exercising early in the day

may have a special effect.


I realize that some people cannot exercise

until later in the evening.

But you mentioned something earlier

that I want to cue people to.

It’s very, very important.

I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned this on the podcast,

which is any kind of physical activity

will increase cortisol to varying degrees.

And so sometimes it’s a healthy increase.

Sometimes it’s an unhealthy increase

if you do two hours of really intense exercise

and you’re not prepared for it.

That’s a big spike in cortisol.

Probably not a good thing for most people.

But if you are going to do your cardiovascular

or weight training later in the day,

that increase in cortisol

can promote too much wakefulness for sleep, et cetera.

Shifting that cortisol spike early in the day

is associated with a number of important things

related to mood, et cetera.

But more and more, what I’m thinking and hearing

is that exercise early in the day is key.

Our former dean of the medical school, Phil Pizzo,

was and is kind of famous still

for jogging between the hours of like four and 5 a.m.

or five and six and then running the medical school.

So, and you’re up early doing your exercise

and cold shower and meditation.

We’ll talk about meditation.

But this is more and more of a push,

I feel like, or a stimulus for us to think about

moving our exercise earlier in the day.

Yeah, I mean, I like to say that,

I know there are moms and dads out there

and they just say, look, I have a kid.

The kid’s more important than my doing my exercise.

So you will get benefits if you do it whenever you can.

So that’s great, more power to you.

But what all the neuroscience data suggests

is the best time to do your exercise

is right before you need to use your brain

in the most important way that you need to use it every day.

And so that is why the morning for most of us is beneficial.

That’s why I do it in the morning.

I’m lucky enough to be able to do that.

But yeah, it makes sense with everything we know

about how this works and how it benefits our brain.

I think about our colleague, Eric Kandel,

who not incidentally has a Nobel Prize in studies memory.

And rumor has it that he’s been a swimmer for a lot of years

that he’ll put in, I think nowadays, he’s in his 90s now,

he’ll put in half a mile,

but he used to swim a mile a day or something of that sort.

I heard that too, that he was a swimmer

and he does it very, very religiously.

Okay, so there are a few other neuroscientists that do that.

I can think of a lot of neuroscientists

that probably should exercise more.

And I don’t say that to poke at them,

I just would love to see them doing their incredible work

for many more decades.

And everything that we’re talking about today

indicates that if one doesn’t,

unless you have incredible genetics,

we all experience age-related dementia, right?

I mean, the story of your father is a salient one

and we should remember that as we go forward.

But I also wanna emphasize,

I’d love to get your thoughts on just memory

and memory loss in general.

It seems we all get worse at remembering and learning things

even if we don’t get Alzheimer’s.

When does that typically start for humans?

You know, I think there’s so much variability,

not only because we are individuals,

but because our stress levels are different.

And, well, everybody’s anxiety level has gone up

in the last couple of years, but that also has an effect.

We don’t remember as much in a highly stressful,

highly anxious situation.

So, as you know, it’s hard to answer that question.

People say, okay,

just tell me how much exercise I have to do.

Okay, just-

30 to 40 minutes a day, but I love the per day.

I’ve been doing this whole thing of telling people,

oh, the data say 150 to 200 minutes of zone two cardio,

which is kind of moderately hard, but not excessively hard.

But I love this every day theme

because whenever I do that, the questions that come back are,

well, what if I take a long hike on the weekends?

And so people start negotiating.

There’s something that’s very powerful

about non-negotiable every day.

Sun in your eyes every day, even through cloud cover.

Exercise for 30, 45 minutes.

Cold shower every day.

Every day, yeah.

You know, my understanding of the literature

is that somewhere in our 50s or 60s,

we start noticing little hiccups in memory.


For some people younger, for some people later.


But I have to imagine that doing the exercise

throughout one’s entire life

is going to help offset some of this,

simply because of the BDNF and other downstream effects.

Yeah, yeah, I mean, that’s what it suggests.

One of my favorite studies,

and then I want to get back to,

you wanted, you invited me to share

some of my unpublished data

on the effects of long-term exercise.

But first I want to share one of my favorite studies,

which is a longitudinal study done in Swedish women.

And this was published in 2018.

And what they did was, back in the 1960s,

they found Swedish women,

300 Swedish women in their 40s.

And they characterized them as low-fit, mid-fit, high-fit.


And then 40 years later,

they came back and found these women.

They let them live their lives.

And they asked what happened to these women

as a function of whether they were low-fit, mid-fit,

high-fit in their 40s.

They’re now in their 80s.

And what they found was that,

relative to the low-fit or mid-fit women,

the women that were high-fit

gained nine more years of good cognition later in life.

Now, this is not a randomized control study.

This is a correlational study.

But does it agree with everything

that we’ve been talking about today?


Does it agree with this idea that, you know,

the women that were high-fit were giving their brains

this bubble bath, you know, maybe not every day,

but very, very regularly for that entire 40 years.

And that built up.

That beautiful hippocampi, yes, it does.

So that’s one of my favorite studies.


Another cause for getting the exercise in consistently.


Yeah, I am impressed by this 10-minute walk

and the improvements in mood from just a 10-minute walk.

But again, I think that daily repetition,

also, I have to imagine,

has effects on the very pathways that allow plasticity.

This is something we, in the realm of neuroplasticity,

we don’t often hear about or think about,

even as neuroscientists,

which is that the pathways for engaging in plasticity

probably can be, probably, I’m speculating here,

can be made better by engaging in the sorts of behavior

that stimulate plasticity.

In other words, if one gets better

at calming themselves down under stress,

those circuits get better at doing that, right?

There’s a, neural circuits gain proficiency.

Because blood vessels can grow,

capillaries can grow in the brain,

you can imagine that more pumping of blood to the brain,

delivery of these various muscle and liver factors

would also establish larger or more efficient portals

to getting that stuff there.

So you could imagine a kind of an amplifying effect

of exercise.

And again, I’m speculating here,

but I’ve seen this over and over again in colleagues.

The ones who exercise consistently

seem to be really, really smart and doing amazing work

well into their 80s and 90s.

And the ones who aren’t,

some of whom actually pride themselves

on how little they exercise,

they get worse over time.

You see them each meeting each decade

and I’m not poking fun at them at all.

It’s actually quite hard to see.

And they’re kind of a fading light.

They’re starting to flicker.

So there is this incredible relationship

between body vitality and brain vitality.

That is, of course, is not an excuse

to be running all day in the gym, right?

The gym rats, I enjoy working out.

So I could imagine doing that,

but that doesn’t make us smarter, unfortunately.

You actually have to do the cognitive work also, right?

It’s not just exercise.

So I’d love to hear about some of these new unpublished data.

Yeah, yeah.

Okay, so when I jumped into the exercise work,

everybody was studying people 65 or older

because that’s when cognitive decline begins.

And if the idea is exercise can help you

with your cognition, then makes sense.

However, I thought, well, you know, it’s great.

There’s lots of work there.

I wanted to know what happens in people

in their 40s and their 50s,

maybe even their 30s and their 20s.


Because that’s when we as humans are able,

ready, willing and able to increase our exercise

and gets us set up to build our brains

as we go into our 60s.

And so the first study that I did looked

at low fit participants from their 30s to mid 50s.

And we wanted to ask this question,

how much exercise do you really need

to start seeing benefits?

Do you see benefits?

Or maybe you have to wait

until you start seeing cognitive decline to get benefits.

That was one of the theories out there.

And so that’s what I wanted to do.

And so what we did was three months

of two to three times a week cardio.

It was a spin class.

So spin classes are great for cardio.

And the comparison group was two to three times a week

of competitive video scrabble.

So no heart rate change,

but they had to come into my lab

and be in a group just like they were in a group

for the spin class.

We tested them cognitively

at the beginning of the end of the session.

What we found was two to three times a week of cardio.

In these people, they were low fit,

which means specifically that they were exercising

less than 30 minutes a week

for the three months previous to the experiment.

So they went from that

to two to three times a week of spin class.

And what we found was changes in baseline rates

of their positive mood states went up

relative to the video scrabble group.

Their body image got more positive

because they were exercising, which is great.

And really important,

their motivation to exercise went up significantly

compared to the video scrabble group, which is great.

So the more you exercise,

the more motivated you are to exercise.

What about cognition?

What changed in the cognitive circuits of their brain?

Number one, we got improved performance on the Stroop task,

but we’re headed towards my favorite structure,

which is the hippocampus.

What we found was improved performance

on both a recognition memory task,

which was a memory encoding task,

and that is, can you differentiate similar items

that we’re asking you to remember?

And spatial episodic memory task,

where we had them play one of those Doom-like games

when they went into this spatial maze

and they had to do things in a virtual city.

Their performance there got better,

which is very, very classically dependent

on the hippocampus.

So this, it was so satisfying to do this study

because I’ve been wanting to answer this question.

What is a minimum amount

or doable amount of exercise

that will get you these cognitive benefits?

And now I can say, in 30 to 50-year-olds

that are low fit two to three times a week,

is that doable?


Will it be hard if you’re low fit?

Yeah, it’s gonna be challenging, but absolutely doable.

And so that is, it makes sense

with all of the mechanisms that we are,

I didn’t study the mechanisms, just to be clear,

but with all the mechanisms we are imagining

are playing a role here, that absolutely makes sense.

And it is doable.

This is not like you have to become marathon runner

to get any of these benefits.

This is, you have to start moving your body

on a regular basis, two to three times a week.

And so I love that for its realness.

How long are those sessions again?

45 minutes.

45 minutes.

45 minutes, it’s a typical spin kind of class.

There’s a warmup for five minutes

and a cool down for five minutes.

So it’s really 35 minutes.

35 minutes of, you know, they’re really pushing you.


And so they’re breathing reasonably hard.

Heart rate is up.

Heart rate is definitely up, yeah.

I find that all of those results are really interesting.

The result showing improvement in motivation to exercise

is interesting, because it gets back to this issue

of kind of a self-amplifying effect.

And the neuroscientist in me wants to think about

kind of pre-motor circuits and the fact that,

you know, we have a motor system that can obviously

do things like lift cups and walk and run

if we want to or need to,

but that it’s possible to create a kind of anticipatory

activity in our nervous system,

where our body craves a certain stimulus.

You mentioned the cold and how you crave the cold.

Now, whether or not that’s the adrenaline

and the dopamine, et cetera,

or whether or not somebody who exercises

started going from zero, less than 30 minutes per week

to two to three times a week, 45 minutes,

as you described for this study.

I’ve had that experience before of,

if I’m, the cardio that I tend to battle the most,

and I love lifting heavy objects, at least heavy for me,

I’m happy to go to the gym every other day

and just lift heavy objects for an hour.

It just makes me happy.

I like the way it feels.

And I’ve been doing it since I was in my teens,

so 30 years.

Cardio is a little bit trickier.

I like to run, but if I stop running for a little while,

I find it very hard to get back into.

But if I start running three times a week

for 30 to 45 minutes and I do this pretty consistently

on the days I don’t weight train,

I find that I start to crave it.

It’s almost as if my body needs that in order to,

I always say clear out the cobwebs,

but it’s like if my mind doesn’t function as well,

clearly now I understand why and why exercise helps.

But also my, physically,

I almost feel like my body needs to engage in that movement.

Like the pre-motor circuits are kind of revving,

kind of like revving the engine on your car

while it’s in park.

Yeah, yeah.

So the motivation to exercise

obviously could be multifaceted.

It could be purely psychological.

But do you think there’s any reason to speculate at least

or believe that we can build an anticipatory,

reverberatory activity into our nervous system?

Yeah, yeah.

You know, I agree with that

because I also have those same kinds of thoughts

and I do have anticipatory exercise when I can’t do it.

So I just got back from a week and a half in Paris

where I got to do a book launch of my last book,

Good Anxiety.

And I really, I walked around a lot

but I did not do my exercise for that whole week and a half.

And, but there was a lot of stress

because I had to do all these interviews in French.

So I gave myself a break.

You speak French?

I speak French, yes.

I was gonna say, otherwise it would be really stressful.

Yes, that would be really stressful.

Then I’d be really impressed.

Then I would definitely start exercising.

Actually, I would follow your morning routine to a T

but okay, very impressive nonetheless.

But I got back and, you know,

coming back this direction from Paris,

I live in New York, is much easier.

And so I was able to get up at a normal time the next day.

And that exercise session, that first day,

it’s like, okay, I’m back in my home.

I’m back in my environment.

And it felt so good.

It’s like, I wanted to come back.

And I know it’s because I worked up over years.

Now I could truthfully say seven days a week,

but it was, you know, first it was four to five,

then it was five to six.

And yeah, seven, but that includes a yoga day

or sometimes I have to do it for 10 minutes

instead of 30 because I have to leave.

But that habit of you do that, even for five minutes,

you do either the weight 10 minute thing

or a five minute thing or a stretch.

That is a tiny habit.

Is that somebody at Stanford

that invented this idea of tiny habits?

I thought it was.

Well, we’ve got a number of people there.

There’s, and I apologize in advance

to all the people I neglect in this statement,

but I’m happy to put it in the comments, folks.

BJ Fogg is there, has done.

Yes, that’s who I.

Yeah, BJ has done really great work.

And then James Clear wrote a book about habits

and has a very popular newsletter about habits.

We’ve done an episode about habits

that cover some of their work

and some of the more laboratory-ish,

not ish, laboratory science, peer-reviewed work on it.

Daily behaviors, also daily behaviors performed

at roughly the same time of day.

I mean, one thing we know for sure

is that the circadian system

is part of our nervous system’s way of anticipating

when things will happen, not just what will happen.

I’m telling you things you obviously know already,

but for the audience performing your exercise

at roughly the same time each day will make it easier.

As opposed to just saying,

I’m gonna do it seven days a week sometime today.

But of course, getting it done sometime

is better than not getting it done.

Yes, absolutely, absolutely.

Well, those are impressive effects.

And I love that you’re starting to look in populations

that are a bit younger,

not because some of these older populations aren’t important

but I think that building good habits

in across one’s entire life is really what it’s about.

As I always say, with anything related to longevity

or offsetting an age-related decline,

we don’t know, it’s hard to know if things work

because there’s no within-subject control.

But what we also know for sure

is that you don’t want to be the control experiment.

Right, exactly.

You absolutely don’t want to be the control experiment,

especially for something that’s purely behavioral.

I mean, you’re not talking about

ingesting a particular supplement.

You’re not talking about changing your diet in any way.

But I am curious,

do, you know, diet is a very barbed wire topic

on the internet,

which diets, whether or not they work, et cetera.

But in general, in any of these studies,

do they evaluate whether or not

people change their eating habits

when they start to exercise more?

Yeah, I think I’ve seen one study that controlled for that

but I feel for them because it’s hard enough

to get people to exercise at the level

and at the time that you need for your study.

If you also ask them,

okay, fill out this survey

to tell us exactly what you ate all day,

they’re gonna say, forget you.

I’m not joining your study.

So it’s a critical question.

And again, there’s only been one that I’ve seen.

And the evidence was that diets got better

when they, you know, less processed foods

when they did adhere to this exercise.

But a lot more information needs to be gathered

in that realm.

The second study that I wanted to share,

unpublished, we’re writing it up right now,

is part two of that study that I just described,

which was the low-fit people.

Next, we moved to mid-fit people.

Like, what about us?

You know, we’re already exercising.

How am I gonna benefit from increasing my exercise?

So here again, we collaborated with a great spin studio

that had a whole bunch of mid-fit people

that, by our definition, were exercising

two to three times a week on a regular basis.

That’s great.

All you people out there that are doing that,

you should know you’re already benefiting your brain.

But our question was, what if we invited them

to exercise as much as they wanted at the spin studio

for three months, from, you know, two to three times,

all the way up to seven times a week?

And let’s just see what happened.

And the control group,

we asked them not to change their exercise.

And so what we ended up with was a nice big array

of starting with mid-fit people

that exercise between staying at two to three times a week

all the way up to seven times a week.

And the bottom line from that study

is every drop of sweat counted.

That is, the more you change

and you increase your workout up to seven times a week,

the better your mood was.

You had lower amounts of depression and anxiety,

higher amounts of good affect,

and the better your hippocampal memory was

with the more you worked out.

Again, this was for three months.

So I love that too, because it gives power

to those of us that are, you know, regularly exercising

and wondering, do I really need to,

I mean, is it really gonna help me?

And the answer is yes.

Not all of us can exercise,

go to a spin class seven times a week.

But I love the message that our body is responsive to that.

And you can get better hippocampal function,

better overall baseline mood affect with a higher level.

So it works for the mid-fit people as well.


The more I learned from you,

the more I’m starting to conceptualize the brain

as an organ that is privileged in so many ways.

You know, it has this unique blood brain barrier,

has this incredible quality of being able to predict things.

And its job mainly is, of course,

to predict things among other functions, of course.

But that our brain isn’t necessarily going to stay stable

or get better over time, that it needs a signal.


That it isn’t sufficient to just say

that we can’t take it for granted,

that our brain is actually an organ

that requires a signal

in order to maintain its own function.

And it sounds like enhanced blood flow

and these pathways that you described earlier,

these two pathways,

are at least among the more critical signals.

I’m tempted now to move my frequency

of cardiovascular exercise from,

I confess it’s about three days, 35 minutes lately,

and it should be more, to daily.

There’s something really, again, really special about daily

because it’s non-negotiable, you just do it.


And it sounds like if one were to do

higher intensity exercise,

you know, in a spin class,

I’ve never taken a spin class,

but I’ve seen there are times when they’re standing up

on the bike and pedaling very hard.

So that is included in these kinds of workouts, right?

Absolutely, yeah.

I mean, that’s what the instructor is doing.

I cannot control.

We did monitor heart rate of all the subjects.

And it was clearly, compared to the video Scrabble,

it was highly significant.

I would hope so.


I guess it depends on how intense that game of Scrabble is.

Could we just briefly talk about mindset and affirmations?

Yeah, sure.

You’ve talked a bit before about affirmations.

And as you mentioned the beautiful work

of my colleague at Stanford, Aaliyah Crum,

and we can summarize her work pretty simply,

although we won’t do it complete justice by it.

She’s already been on the podcast.

Just to say that one’s beliefs about a behavior

also impact the outcomes of that behavior.

If you learn a lot of true facts

about stress being good for you,

then you will experience stress as better for you

than if you only focus on or learn

about the negative effects of stress.

If you learn about the positive effects of exercise,

you actually derive greater benefit from exercise,

believe it or not.

It’s incredible, incredible effects,

but they make sense when you understand

what the brain is doing,

which is a lot of this predictive coding

and mindsets don’t seem as mysterious

anymore once you understand what the brain is really doing.

But what is, if any, the value of affirmation,

of telling yourself something positive

about yourself or of exercise on not the exercise itself,

but on mood, self-image, memory, and brain function?

Yeah, so I looked into this

because I am also a certified exercise instructor

and the form of exercise that I teach

is called Intensati,

that it’s a form of exercise

that was developed by this amazing fitness instructor,

Patricia Moreno, and she combined physical movements

from kickbox and dance and yoga and martial arts

with positive spoken affirmations.

So each move, if you’re punching back and forth

as you would do in a kickbox class,

you don’t just punch,

you say something like, I am strong now,

which every punch is associated with a word.

And you can create your own series of affirmations

with the moves that you put together.

And the first time I did it,

I just wandered into her class, I didn’t know what it was,

and I felt idiotic.

It’s like, I came into the wrong class,

I don’t wanna come into this class.

But then I saw they didn’t care

whether I thought they looked silly,

saying these affirmations,

not saying, yelling these affirmations out loud

while doing the choreography at the same time.

And then I tried it.

Okay, I didn’t yell out,

I kind of whispered it at first.

But by the end, I was really yelling it out.

There’s something about the declaration,

using your own voice,

of saying things that you don’t often say to yourself,

like, I’m strong, I’m inspired, I believe I will succeed,

are all the kinds of affirmations you say.

And you walk out of that class,

or I walked out of that class,

thinking, oh, I feel really good now, man,

I can’t wait to come back to this class,

which is why I ultimately took teacher training

to be able to teach that class.

And so I started to look into

what was known about affirmations.

And they were never combined with physical activity,

but it was clear that there was a literature

showing that positive affirmations,

saying them or reading them,

could change mood in the same way

as we’re talking about Aaliyah Crumb’s work.

If you have this, it’s a belief.

Once you start saying these things,

these are not difficult things to believe,

but it’s amazing how much you don’t say

these kinds of things to yourself or with your own voice.

You might say them about somebody else.

Oh, you’re strong, you’re so smart.

Do you say that about yourself?

And that’s the thing about the self affirmations.

It really gets you into a habit

of saying good things about yourself.

And then you start to realize,

oh my God, I’m so mean to myself.

I have lots of negative thoughts going on

about myself in my head,

and which was part of the other reason

why I loved this particular form of exercise.

So what you get in Tensati is the mood boost

from the positive spoken affirmations

together with all the other brain and affect boosts

that we’ve been talking about

for this whole podcast from the exercise,

because it’s a sweaty workout as well.


There’s a book, I confess I haven’t read it,

but I have had the pleasure of having a discussion

with a psychologist from,

I believe he’s at University of Michigan in Ann Arbor,

Ethan Cross wrote a book called Chatter,

which focuses on the fact that

so much of our inner dialogue, it is indeed negative.

He certainly wasn’t the first to point that out,

but that explicit statements to counter

that negative chatter, I believe,

is one of the hallmarks of readjusting one’s own,

not just internal reference frame,

but actually self-image generally.

And it’s a fascinating and I think a very important area

of psychology and neuroscience,

because, and I acknowledge this,

we’re talking about this too,

laboratory neuroscientists who record from neurons

and label neurons and look at stuff down the microscope,

we are now deep in the territory,

in the deep water of what some of our colleagues

and people who think about neuroscience would consider

like really out there on the kind of subjective edges.

And yet I think it’s worth pointing out

that the brain does all these things.

It’s responsible for simple reflexes and motor behaviors,

but also high-level conceptual ideas about the universe

and what it might look like in 10 years

or a hundred years or a thousand years,

but also high-level conceptual understanding

of who we are and what we are about.

And so even though it might seem a little bit out

on the fringes, dare I say,

I think that these are some of the more important

untried landscapes of neuroscience.

And I just wanna acknowledge my appreciation

for the fact that I’m gonna connect the dots here

and say, you went from somebody who didn’t exercise,

who went on this rafting trip,

that discovered exercise and its benefits

for your grant writing and then on and on and on,

and then became a certified instructor.

So you don’t do anything halfway either as it’s clear.

I’d like to touch on something you mentioned earlier,

but we haven’t dove into it all in any depth,

which is meditation.

You mentioned this tea meditation.

You had a publication recently

on a 10-minute meditation, right?

Maybe you could tell us about this 10-minute meditation.

It seems like such a tractable amount of time.

And then if you would,

maybe tell us a little bit about the tea meditation,

but it sounds like you’ve discovered

a close to minimum threshold of meditation

that can really benefit us.

Maybe you could tell us about that study.

So the study was, as you very astutely pointed out,

very practical study, just 10 minutes,

not 30 minutes, not an hour meditation.

That’s too hard.

10 minutes guided meditation.

They logged into a site,

so we can tell that they logged in

and they listened to a, it’s a body scan,

very basic, but easy to follow kind of meditation.

And we asked them to do it, how often?

Daily, seven days a week, just 10 minutes a day.

And the most shocking thing about this study

is that we got more adherence

to the 10-minute daily meditation

than the 10-minute daily podcast listening,

which was our control.

So the highest retention rate I’ve ever gotten

in any this kind of study

that I’ve done exercise or meditation,

they wanted to do it 10 minutes a day.

It was great.

I’m gonna just start leading meditations

for three hours as opposed to doing a three-hour podcast.

So we looked at cognitive effects

before and after this.

It was eight weeks of daily,

it was actually 12-minute meditation,

12 minutes of body scan meditation.

And what we found was significant decreases

in stress response.

So we did the Stryer stress test

to see how you responded

to an unexpected stressful situation.

The meditators did much better.

Their mood was better

and their cognitive performance was also better.

And this was my first little foray into meditation

after I had started my personal tea meditation

that really shifted my relationship with meditation.

And, but it’s consistent with many other studies

showing the beneficial effects of meditation.

But the unique thing was we tried to make it doable

that many, many people out there

could actually follow this typical regimen.

And so we’re continuing that.

In fact, my research in my lab right now

is all about those doable, short things

that NYU college students will do,

not just at the beginning of the semester,

but at the end of the semester,

when the stress and anxiety levels

are now at record breaking high levels

and they need something to bring that level down

so that they could show their professors

what their brains can actually do.

And so it includes very short meditations,

sound meditations, visual meditations, walking,

things that any college student,

but we’re obviously focused on NYU students, will do too.

And I want to get at graduation rates.

I want to get at class performance

with these kinds of interventions.

But it started with that study

that I just described, meditation.

That’s great.

If you would, and here’s where we can highlight this again

as some highly educated speculation that’s coming from you.

What do you think is going on during meditation?

I mean, so a body skin involves

a kind of an interoceptive awareness,

like interoception of course being an attention

to what’s going on on the surface of

and within the confines of our skin

as opposed to the outside world.

Drawing our attention to anything inside us or outside us

involves forebrain function, prefrontal cortex,

presumably, and other things.

Typically, eyes are closed.

Typically, it’s relaxing.

So there are a lot of variables that could be feeding

into a number of different effects.

But as a neuroscientist,

what do you think is going on that this period

of kind of a self-induced, somewhat unusual state,

what do you think is going on in terms of network behavior

and networks within the brain

that it can have these long-term effects?

Because we got to some of the ones

who relate downstream of exercise.

And I think there’s so much evidence,

I know there’s so much evidence

that meditation is beneficial.


How do you think it’s working

or what do you think it’s doing?

Yeah, I think that one of the most important things

that gets worked when we are doing a simple 10 minute

or 12 minute body scan meditation regularly,

that’s 10 minutes a day, 12 minutes a day,

is the habit building and the practice

of focusing on the present moment.

I think that is very hard for us modern humans to do

because I’m worrying about the thing that’s due

at the end of the week that I need to do

and how many hours am I gonna have to be able to do that?

Or I’m worried about whatever,

the email that wasn’t as polite as it should be that I sent

and what were the repercussions for that?

Instead of focusing on this moment, which is fun.

I get to talk to you.

It’s a beautiful day outside.

I’m feeling good right at this moment.

And I think that those,

all of the meditative practices that I’ve done,

and this one also, whether you know it or not,

is getting you to focus on this moment.

And I think it’s even more important in this day and age

where anxiety levels and the next variant might come out

and what are the repercussions there?

And I have a mother who’s older

and she’s more susceptible to it and there’s a war

and what’s gonna happen there.

Those are all future possibilities.

And we should be worried about that.

That is a possibility.

You need to plan for that.

But you also need to focus on this moment right now.

I’m healthy.

I can breathe.

I get to have this interesting conversation

right in this moment.

If I start thinking about other things,

then it takes away from this moment.

Do I know what circuits are involved?

Not exactly.

That is not my area.

I think there are some studies that have focused

on that present moment kind of activity.

But that is what I think is most important

about the practice of meditation

or one of the important things that calms us down.

Because if you know how to do that,

that gives you this powerful tool for the rest of your day.

You’re not locked into that fearful future thinking

that so many of us have

or that just reliving of a terrible past,

but you could enjoy the present moment.

Yeah, that really resonates.

I think that going back

to the earlier part of our conversation,

the hippocampus has this incredible storage capacity

and ability to set context about past, present, and future.

And that’s a beautiful thing

because as much as I like to think

he had some semblance of a healthy life,

none of us want to be HM.

None of us want to be in the position

of not being able to form new memories

and have no context to the past or the present.

So we’re grateful that,

we should all be grateful that our hippocampus

can draw from past, present, and future

in various combinations,

and we should support it through the daily exercise

and other habits, let’s call them habits

so that people make them habits that you’ve highlighted.

But if we are not deliberately anchoring

within past, present, and future according to what we need

and we’re just shuffling between past, present, and future,

that is not a good way to live.


It’s not effective.


It sounds like meditation can really help us

go to the right stacks.

I guess people don’t go to libraries anymore,

but in the old days you would go,

you need to go to the right location in the library.

You actually can’t get distracted

by the books that you’re interested in

if you need to go just reflexively,

if you need to go study a particular topic.

So that’s kind of how I think about it.

It makes us more linear perhaps in our way of being.

I think so.

And it actually counteracts,

not that I’m against technology,

but having our phones and being connected

to every good and bad thing going on in the world today

is incredibly distracting

and takes you away from the present moment

virtually 24 hours a day.

And so we have to work extra hard right now

compared to in the 40s

when we didn’t have all this technology

or at the same level.

So yeah, it becomes even more important practice

I think for everyday life.

Yeah, or even 10, 15 years ago

it felt like smartphones weren’t as intrusive.

One final question and maybe a request

as the new incoming Dean

of College of Letters and Sciences.

And I must say I’m delighted,

thrilled actually to hear that

a lot of the practices that we’ve been discussing today

and that you’ve pioneered

are going to be incorporated into undergraduate education.

I predict and I’d be willing to wager

that that will become a template

for how universities and non-university systems

should function.

Because if indeed, and it is true

that there’s this incredible relationship

between physical movement

and mental deliberate practices and performance,

any corporation, school, household would be crazy,

would be self-limiting and even self-destructive

to not incorporate those.

So I’m so happy that you’re going to do this

and collect data.

Please, we’ll have to touch back with you

and hear what comes to that.

But one of the main things that I hear so much about today

are issues with attention.

And we haven’t talked about attention.

We’ve mainly been talking about memory and cognition.

But you know a lot about attention.

And here I’m not being disparaging.

I think people have done what I’m about to say

as a consequence of need and lack of other resources.

There’s an immense amount of Adderall use,

Ritalin use, modafinil use, and caffeine abuse.

Now I happen to like caffeine.

I don’t use the other compounds I described.

But it’s just incredible to me how the data on this are,

a colleague of mine at Stanford claims

that something like two thirds or more of college students

use these without prescription for ADHD.


What can we expect in terms of the effects

of regular exercise on attention?

And are there any other things

besides exercise and meditation

that you would like to see people do

in terms of trying to increase their powers of attention?

Because I think the ability to focus and attend

is really the distinguishing feature

between those that will succeed in any endeavor

and those that won’t.

And that’s a scary thing for a lot of people to hear

because a lot of people think they have ADHD.

They may or may not.

But I bet that a number of students at both Stanford

and NYU feel challenged with holding their attention

to the thing that they need to hold their attention to.

Yeah, yeah.

So I would say the top three tools

that everybody right this minute today

can use to up their capacity to attend

where they want to include exercise

for the reasons we’ve talked about.

It has a direct effect on functioning

of the prefrontal cortex.

Meditation also, clear clinical studies

showing improved ability to focus

and particularly focus on the present moment.

And the third has to be sleep.

So sleep is, you can’t,

it’s out of the three, it is the most physiological.

I mean, I could live my whole life

without meditating one minute.

Could I survive without sleep?

No, none of us could.

So it’s more basic physiological,

but it is so important for all core cognitive functions,

including attention, including creativity,

including just good basic brain function.

That is why it’s so critical to get that information,

that basic neuroscience information

into the heads of these students

that are trying their best to show us how their brain work,

but being hampered because they’re not moving enough,

they’re not meditating.

And there’s all these distracting things

that they include in their lives.

Some of which a little bit is good,

but 24 hours a day on your phone and LinkedIn,

not LinkedIn, but linked to your phone

is damaging to your attention.

So exercise, meditation, sleep can help you learn,

retain and perform better

than if you do not have these three things in your life.

Wonderful, music to my ears.

And also either very low cost or zero cost,

considering that the exercise doesn’t require a class.

Use the freely available resource of gravity

to do jumping jacks or burpees or pushups or whatever,

or sit-ups or all of those in combination.

And don’t forget YouTube,

the freely accessible millions of YouTube videos.

If you don’t want to do your jumping jacks by yourself,

I always say this, I talk about breath meditation

for my book, Good Anxiety.

And if you don’t like the one that I suggest,

there’s only about a million more on YouTube

with ratings from one star to five stars.

So use that resource.

It is a wonderful resource.

And you’re an amazing resource.

Wendy, thank you so much for coming here today

to have this discussion and share your knowledge

about not just existing data,

but new data coming out soon.

And for your leadership in the university system,

for your leadership in public education,

for the decades of important work

on memory and neural circuitry,

which we’ve got to learn about today as well.

Thank you ever so much.

Thank you, Andrew.

Fun conversation.

Thank you for joining me today for my discussion

about learning and memory and how to get better

at learning and remembering with Dr. Wendy Suzuki.

If you’d like to learn more about Dr. Suzuki’s work,

you can go to

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