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    Dr. Robert Sapolsky: Science of Stress, Testosterone & Free Will

    enAugust 30, 2021

    About this Episode

    In this episode, I interview Dr. Robert Sapolsky, Ph.D., Professor of Biology, Neurology & Neurosurgery at Stanford University. We discuss stress, what defines short-term versus long-term stress, and how stress can be beneficial or detrimental, depending on the context. We also discuss stress mitigation and how our sense of control over stress mitigation techniques, including exercise, determine health outcomes. Dr. Sapolsky explains some of the key effects of the hormone testosterone — how it can amplify pre-existing tendencies for aggression or sexual behavior, but that it does not produce those behaviors per se. He also explains how testosterone impacts our social hierarchies, sense of confidence, and willingness to embrace challenges of different kinds. He also explains how our behaviors and perceptions shape testosterone levels. And we discuss estrogen and the powerful role it plays in brain development, health and longevity. Finally, we discuss free will, what it means to have free will, and if we have any free will, including how knowledge alone might allow us to make better decisions for ourselves and society.  For the full show notes, visit hubermanlab.com. Thank you to our sponsors AG1 (Athletic Greens): https://athleticgreens.com/huberman LMNT: https://drinklmnt.com/huberman Supplements from Momentous https://www.livemomentous.com/huberman Timestamps (00:00:00) Introduction: Dr. Robert Sapolsky  (00:02:25) Sponsors: AG1, LMNT (00:06:30) Stress: Short & Long-Term, Good & Bad  (00:09:11) Valence & Amygdala  (00:11:00) Testosterone: Common Myths vs. Actual Truths  (00:15:15) Behaviors that Affect Testosterone   (00:17:20) Mindsets & Contexts that Affect Testosterone (00:20:28) How Finger Length Ratios Reflect Prenatal Hormone Levels   (00:22:30) Aggression: Male-Female, Female-Male, & Female-Female  (00:24:05) Testosterone: The Challenge Hypothesis  (00:29:20) How Dopamine Impacts Testosterone & Motivation  (00:32:32) Estrogen: Improves Brain & Longevity BUT TIMING IS KEY  (00:39:40) Are Testosterone & Sperm Counts in Males Really Dropping?  (00:42:15) Stress Mitigation & Our Sense of Control  (00:51:35) How Best to Buffer Stress  (00:57:04) Power of Perception, Choice & Individual Differences  (01:00:32) Context-Setting, Prefrontal Cortex & Hierarchy  (01:11:20) How Dr. Sapolsky Accomplishes Deep Thinking   (01:13:17) Do We Have Free Will?  (01:20:50) How to Apply Knowledge & Learning   (01:23:44) Robert’s New Book: “Determined: The Science of Life Without Free Will”  (01:28:27) Reflections, Support of Podcast, & Supporting Stress Research  Title Card Photo Credit: Mike Blabac Disclaimer

    🔑 Key Takeaways

    • Short-term stress can provide mental stimulation, while chronic stress leads to negative health effects. Maintaining optimal stress levels through hydration and electrolyte balance can help optimize bodily and brain function. Being aware of the biological and psychological effects of stress can help us optimize our performance.
    • Testosterone does not cause aggression but can amplify preexisting patterns of behavior. It's more of a response than a cause and is influenced by social circumstances.
    • While testosterone does impact the development of neural circuits responsible for initiating sexual behavior, prior history of behavior plays a role in continuing these behaviors even without testosterone. Additionally, the effects of hormones on the brain and other glands are difficult to define in a single sentence.
    • Testosterone affects neural circuits, aggression, and confidence, and can make people more likely to do behaviors needed to maintain their status. It can also influence economic gameplay and alter risk assessment. Testosterone replacement can increase energy, alertness, motivation, and rareness.
    • Testosterone and estrogen have different effects on cognition and health, and natural levels must be maintained. Replacement therapy should only be considered after consulting with a physician, as it may have negative consequences. Caution is advised.
    • Understanding and managing stress is crucial for overall health, while environmental factors such as endocrine disruptors can also impact hormonal health. It's important to interpret stress correctly and mitigate it effectively to avoid harm.
    • A sense of control and predictability can be helpful in managing mild to moderate stressors, but may be harmful when facing major stressors such as terminal illness or refugee crisis. It is important to distinguish between helpful and damaging outlets for frustration, and to seek real social support. Managing stress is not simple and takes work to do it right.
    • Stress mitigation is a personal journey that requires self-initiative. Find a stress management technique you enjoy and make time for it daily. Prioritizing wellbeing and mindfulness can lead to positive outcomes and motivation for further action. Trust yourself to choose the best method for your unique physiology.
    • Our prefrontal cortex plays a crucial role in our perception of the world and our ability to adapt to stressful situations, allowing us to navigate complex social contexts and morality. Its influence can be contradictory and vary from person to person.
    • Our ability to participate in multiple hierarchies can be manipulated by social media, which affects our sense of self and use of primitive systems in modern-day psychology.
    • Our behaviors and choices are influenced by genetics, environment, and culture. But awareness of these factors empowers us to make positive changes. Prioritizing nature time and limiting technology use can enhance creativity.
    • Despite our limited control over our actions, knowledge and circumstances can still be powerful tools for growth and change, leading to a more optimistic and motivated outlook towards being better human beings.
    • Dr. Sapolsky's argument for limited free will challenges traditional beliefs, but acknowledging this reality can lead to a more compassionate and just society, as past examples have shown.

    📝 Podcast Summary

    The Impact of Stress on Biology and Psychology

    Short-term stress can have beneficial effects, such as heightened mental acuity and focus, while chronic stress leads to negative health consequences. The optimal level of stress provides stimulation, and too little or too much stress leads to boredom or stress, respectively. The biology underlying valence is related to heart rate, breathing, muscle usage, and amygdala activation. Electrolytes and hydration play a key role in optimizing bodily function, including brain function. Understanding the impact of stress on our biology and psychology can help us leverage scientific mechanisms to be our best selves.

    Understanding the Complex Relationship Between Testosterone and Aggression

    Testosterone does not cause aggression, but rather lowers the threshold for aggression to occur more easily. It amplifies preexisting patterns of aggression and social learning. The amygdala is not suddenly stimulated by testosterone to promote fear and aggression, but rather increases the rate of neuronal firing and shortens after hyperpolarization. Testosterone levels may be correlated to status within a hierarchy, but individual differences do not matter much. Sexual and aggressive behavior can actually increase testosterone levels, which means that testosterone is more of a response than a cause. It is important to understand how social circumstances affect testosterone levels before making any conclusions about its effects on behavior.

    The role of testosterone in sexual behavior and aggression is complex and multifaceted.

    Testosterone is not the sole cause of sexual behavior and aggression as the brain is not very sensitive to fluctuations in testosterone levels. Prior history of sexual behavior and aggression plays a role in continuing these behaviors even without testosterone. However, during fetal development, testosterone has a significant impact on the development of neural circuits responsible for initiating sexual behavior. The second to fourth digit ratio in hands is a predictor of subtle behavioral differences in adulthood based on prenatal testosterone exposure. Testosterone has a similar effect on both males and females, but at a much lower level in females. Therefore, one should not overemphasize the importance of androgens in females. Hormones have various effects on the brain and other glands, making it challenging to define them in a single sentence.

    The Role of Testosterone in Human Health and Behavior

    Testosterone is a misunderstood molecule in human health that can influence neural circuits, libido, aggression, and confidence. Testosterone is secreted when one's status is being challenged and makes it more likely that you'll do the behaviors needed to hold onto your status. Testosterone can boost and elevate the status that is handed out in different ways, such as being generous and trustworthy in economic gameplay. Testosterone also makes people cocky and impulsive, altering risk assessment and playing a big role in miscalculations. Testosterone and dopamine are close cousins in the brain and are both involved in motivation and goal-directed behavior needed to get rewards. Testosterone replacement can increase energy, rareness, alertness, and motivation.

    The Complex Roles of Hormones in the Body

    Both testosterone and estrogen play a crucial role in the human body, and their effects depend on the context. Testosterone can have immediate activating effects on the body, but too much can negatively impact cognition and health. Meanwhile, estrogen can enhance cognition, protect against dementia and cardiovascular disease, and stimulate neurogenesis in the hippocampus. However, postmenopausal estrogen replacement therapy can have negative effects on health due to shifts in estrogen receptor patterns. Therefore, it is important to maintain physiological levels of hormones and to talk to a physician before considering replacement therapy. The effects of these hormones on the body are complex and context-dependent, and it's important to proceed with caution.

    Hormones, environment and stress: The complex impacts on health

    Understanding the complexities and effects of hormones, such as estrogen and testosterone, on health is challenging due to the various types and ratios that exist. Endocrine disruptors in the environment can impact sperm and hormone levels, but the extent and effects of these are still being studied. Stress mitigation can have significant impacts on health, but forcing oneself to mitigate stress can be just as harmful as severe stress itself. The interpretation of stress plays a critical role in its effects on the body, with ambiguous social interactions and other gray zones being major sources of stress for some individuals. Overall, the literature suggests that managing stress is necessary for maintaining overall health.

    Managing Stress: The Importance of Context

    A sense of control and predictability makes stressors less stressful. However, this only works for mild to moderate stressors and for situations with a positive outcome. Arbitrary sense of control in the face of major stressors can lead to a false sense of self-deception. Outlets for frustration and social support are also protective factors against stress, but it is important to distinguish between damaging outlets and real social support. It is not simple to mitigate stress and it takes work to do it right. Stress management techniques of control and predictability can be far worse than neutral for people going through a real hell such as terminal illness, homelessness, or refugee crisis.

    Taking Charge of Stress Management: Finding Your Own Path

    Stress mitigation has no single solution. One must choose a method they enjoy, make time for it daily, and not trust anyone claiming a specific technique is scientifically proven. Entry points into the autonomic nervous system and stress system are numerous, and it's the one that an individual selects that will work best for them in terms of physiology. Making space for stress management and prioritizing one's wellbeing can have positive outcomes and activate motivation for further action. It's also crucial to be mindful of the effects that the perception of events has on brain circuitry and biological responses. Ultimately, stress mitigation requires self-initiative and action that works for the individual.

    The Power of the Prefrontal Cortex in Our Perception and Reality

    The prefrontal cortex is the thinking machinery that is the most interesting and powerful area of the brain. It is what powers the perception of things and can influence the reality of what is coming into our lives. The prefrontal cortex deals with social context, moral relativity, and situational ethics. It is responsible for cognitive flexibility, and we can tell ourselves that something is good for us even if we are not enjoying it. The individual differences in stress and stimulatory amounts are huge, and it accommodates the fact that not all people have the same stress tolerances. The prefrontal cortex is the area of the brain where we can draw contextual information for fear or love responses, and its varied influence can be mutually contradictory.

    The Intersection of Human Psychology and Social Media

    Humans have the ability to select multiple hierarchies to participate in, which helps play psychological games and is important in excusing ourselves from bad things. Social media has expanded our prefrontal cortex and our sense of where we exist in multiple hierarchies into infinity, which interacts with our primitive systems and other aspects of biology. We tend to use the exact same blueprint, hormones and receptors to abstract stuff over space and time. We can do it by feeling inadequate compared to a movie character or a person driving an expensive car. Therefore, we can use the same primitive systems for modern-day problems and psychology.

    Balancing Technology Use and Nature Time for Personal Empowerment

    Our social networks, including social media, can influence how we feel about ourselves. Choosing to limit exposure to technology and spending time in nature without distractions can enhance creativity and insight. The concept of free will is debated, with some arguing that our behaviors and choices are the result of intertwined genetic, environmental, and cultural factors. However, recognizing these influences can empower individuals to make positive changes in their lives. While change is possible, it is important to understand the complex factors that contribute to our behavior and choices.

    Change is Possible with Knowledge and Circumstances

    Change is possible despite our mechanistic neurobiology, as we can be changed by circumstances, and knowledge itself can be a powerful tool to reshape our brain circuits. Understanding that change is possible can lead to a more optimistic and motivated outlook, enabling us to strive towards being better human beings. The concept of free will is complex and controversial, but science suggests that our control over our actions is much less than we think. Despite this, knowledge can still be a powerful tool for growth and change, and we should embrace it as such. So, don't give up on trying to change because you think you can't. Circumstances can change, and so can we.

    The Illusion of Free Will and its Consequences

    Dr. Robert Sapolsky argues that there is much less free will than people typically think, and that the belief in free will can be problematic in areas where it doesn't make sense. While it may be challenging to function with the belief that free will is an illusion, we have subtracted agency from realms of blame before, such as the historical belief that witches caused hailstorms. Sapolsky cautions that grappling with the concept of no free will will be a difficult process, but it is possible, and it has led to a more humane society in the past. His upcoming book, Determined for the Science of Life without Free Will, explores this topic further.

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    AMA #17: Making Time for Fitness, Top Sleep Tools & Best Learning Strategies

    AMA #17: Making Time for Fitness, Top Sleep Tools & Best Learning Strategies
    Welcome to a preview of the 17th Ask Me Anything (AMA) episode, part of Huberman Lab Premium. Huberman Lab Premium was launched for two main reasons. First, it was launched in order to raise support for the main Huberman Lab podcast — which will continue to come out every Monday at zero-cost. Second, it was launched as a means to raise funds for important scientific research. A significant portion of proceeds from the Huberman Lab Premium subscription will fund human research (not animal models) selected by Dr. Huberman, with a dollar-for-dollar match from the Tiny Foundation. Read our Annual Letter 2023. If you're an existing Premium member, you can login to access the full episode. If you're not a member, you can join Huberman Lab Premium to enjoy exclusive content, including monthly Ask Me Anything (AMA) episodes, AMA transcripts, podcast episode transcripts, early access to live events and help advance human scientific research. Resources Foundational Fitness Protocol Timestamps (00:00:00) Introduction to AMA #17 (00:00:14) Exciting Announcement (00:02:16) Diving Into the Foundational Fitness Protocol (00:09:37) Flexibility in Your Fitness Routine (00:17:12) Optimizing Workout Times & Prioritizing Health (00:23:31) Closing Thoughts & Huberman Lab Premium Benefits In the full AMA episode, we discuss: Periodization & the Philosophy of Fitness Unlocking the Secrets of Sleep: Insights & Tools Chronotypes and Personalized Sleep Strategies The QQRT Formula: Quantity, Quality, Regularity & Timing of Sleep Exploring Naps & Non-Sleep Deep Rest (NSDR) Effective Learning & Note-Taking Strategies The Power of Teaching & Self-Testing in Learning Title Card Photo Credit: Mike Blabac Disclaimer

    Protocols to Strengthen & Pain Proof Your Back

    Protocols to Strengthen & Pain Proof Your Back
    In this episode, I explain how to strengthen and build a stable, pain-free back and how to reduce or eliminate existing back pain. I explain the anatomy and physiology of the spinal cord and vertebrae, intervertebral disks and nerve pathways, and the abdominal and back muscles that together can be leveraged to stabilize the back.  Then, I describe protocols: “McGill’s Big 3” exercises, a highly effective psoas stretch, abdominal stabilization, breathing techniques, and protocols to reinforce essential supports for the back, including the neck, pelvis, feet, and toes.  I also explain how you can reduce and potentially eliminate back pain and sciatica using a specific type of bar hang, “cobra push-ups,” medial-glute strengthening exercises, and more.  Back pain greatly impedes one’s ability to enjoy daily activities; this episode provides zero-cost, minimal time-investment protocols to improve your back strength and stability and allow you to move through life pain-free and with ease and mobility.  For show notes, including referenced articles and additional resources, please visit hubermanlab.com. Thank you to our sponsors AG1: https://drinkag1.com/huberman AeroPress: https://aeropress.com/huberman Joovv: https://joovv.com/huberman Waking Up: https://wakingup.com/huberman Plunge: https://plunge.com/huberman Momentous: https://livemomentous.com/huberman Timestamps (00:00:00) Back Health (00:03:47) Sponsors: AeroPress, Joovv & Waking Up (00:07:57) Back Anatomy: Spine, Vertebrae, Spinal Cord (00:12:07) Spinal Cord & Nerves; Herniated Discs (00:19:50) Build Strong Pain-Free Back; Bulging Discs (00:24:26) Back Pain & Professional Evaluation; Tool: Spine Self-Assessment  (00:34:58) Sponsor: AG1 (00:36:29) Tool: McGill Big 3 Exercises, Curl-Up (00:44:40) Tool: McGill Big 3 Exercises, Side Plank (00:53:13) Tool: McGill Big 3 Exercises, Bird Dog; Back Pain (01:04:10) Sponsor: Plunge (01:05:37) Tool: Back Pain & Oreo Analogy, Bar Hang (01:10:34) Time & Back Pain; Tool: Reversing Disc Herniation, Cobra Push-Ups  (01:21:28) Sciatica, Referred Pain, Herniated Disc (01:24:21) Tool: Improve Spine Stability, Strengthen Neck (01:29:23) Tools: Strengthen Feet, Toe Spreading (01:34:35) Tools: Belly Breathing; Stagger Stance (01:42:03) Tools: Relieve Low Back Pain, Medial Glute Activation; Rolled Towel (01:50:59) Tool: Psoas Stretching (01:57:00) Tool: Back Awareness; Strengthen & Pain-Proof Back (02:05:49) Zero-Cost Support, Spotify & Apple Reviews, Sponsors, YouTube Feedback, Momentous, Social Media, Neural Network Newsletter Disclaimer

    GUEST SERIES | Dr. Matt Walker: Using Sleep to Improve Learning, Creativity & Memory

    GUEST SERIES | Dr. Matt Walker: Using Sleep to Improve Learning, Creativity & Memory
    This is episode 4 of a 6-part special series on sleep with Dr. Matthew Walker, Ph.D., a professor of neuroscience and psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of the best-selling book "Why We Sleep." In this episode, we discuss the relationship between sleep, learning and creativity.  We explain why and how sleep before and after a learning bout can improve memory and performance for both cognitive tasks and physical skills. We also discuss how to use time learning and sleep, how to use naps, non-sleep deep rest states, and caffeine to optimize learning, and the mechanisms for sleep and memory consolidation.  We also explain the critical role that sleep plays in creativity and one's ability to discover novel solutions to challenges and problems.  This episode is filled with actionable information on using sleep to enhance skill learning and improve memory and creativity.  The next episode in this guest series explains how sleep benefits emotional regulation and mental health.  For show notes, including referenced articles and additional resources, please visit hubermanlab.com. Thank you to our sponsors AG1: https://drinkag1.com/huberman Helix Sleep: https://helixsleep.com/huberman  WHOOP: https://join.whoop.com/huberman  Waking Up: https://wakingup.com/huberman  InsideTracker: https://insidetracker.com/huberman  Momentous: https://livemomentous.com/huberman Timestamps (00:00:00) Sleep & Learning (00:00:59) Sponsors: Helix Sleep, Whoop & Waking Up (00:05:48) Learning, Memory & Sleep (00:09:32) Memory & Sleep, “All-Nighters”, Hippocampus (00:13:46) Naps & Learning Capacity (00:16:59) Early School Start Times, Performance & Accidents (00:26:38) Medical Residency & Sleep Deprivation (00:29:35) Sponsor: AG1 (00:30:49) Tool: Sleep Before Learning; Cramming Effect (00:35:09) Tools: Caffeine; Timing Peak Learning; “Second Wind” (00:44:25) Memory Consolidation in Sleep (00:55:07) Sleepwalking & Talking; REM-Sleep Behavioral Disorder (01:00:16) REM Sleep Paralysis, Alcohol, Stress (01:07:41) Sponsor: InsideTracker (01:08:46) Skills, Motor Learning & Sleep (01:17:03) Tool: Timing Sleep & Learning, Skill Enhancement (01:20:00) Naps; Specificity & Memory Consolidation, Sleep Spindles (01:27:21) Sleep, Motor Learning & Athletes; Automaticity (01:34:10) Can Learning Improve Sleep? (01:39:13) Tool: Exercise to Improve Sleep; Performance, Injury & Motivation (01:44:38) Pillars of Health; Dieting & Sleep Deprivation (01:49:35) Performance & Poor Sleep, Belief Effects, “Orthosomnia” (01:57:03) “Overnight Alchemy”, Sleep & Novel Memory Linking (02:05:58) Sleep & Creativity (02:11:09) Tools: Waking & Technology; Naps; “Sleep on a Problem” (02:20:51) Creative Insight & Sleep (02:26:18) Zero-Cost Support, Spotify & Apple Reviews, Sponsors, YouTube Feedback, Momentous, Social Media, Neural Network Newsletter Disclaimer

    Dr. Bonnie Halpern-Felsher: Vaping, Alcohol Use & Other Risky Youth Behaviors

    Dr. Bonnie Halpern-Felsher: Vaping, Alcohol Use & Other Risky Youth Behaviors
    In this episode, my guest is Dr. Bonnie Halpern-Felsher, PhD, FSAHM. She is a professor of pediatrics and adolescent medicine and a developmental psychologist at Stanford University School of Medicine. Dr. Halpern-Felsher is a world expert in adolescent decision-making and risk-taking behaviors. She explains the huge increase in vaping (e-cigarettes) by young people. She explains why vaping nicotine and cannabis is particularly dangerous to the developing brain. We discuss the rise in vaping addiction, the unique social pressures and social media influences faced by youth that make quitting challenging, and interventions to aid them in quitting or reducing use. We also discuss the role of technology and social media. And, the use of alcohol, nicotine pouches, fentanyl, and other risky behaviors that adolescents face now. This episode should interest parents, teachers, coaches, teens, and families. It covers the current youth substance use landscape and also covers resources and ways to quit these addictive behaviors.  For show notes, including referenced articles and additional resources, please visit hubermanlab.com. Use Ask Huberman Lab, our new AI-powered platform, for a summary, clips, and insights from this episode. Thank you to our sponsors AG1: https://drinkag1.com/huberman Eight Sleep: https://eightsleep.com/huberman  Mateina: https://drinkmateina.com/huberman  LMNT: https://drinklmnt.com/huberman  Waking Up: https://wakingup.com/huberman Momentous: https://livemomentous.com/huberman Timestamps (00:00:00) Dr. Bonnie Halpern-Felsher (00:01:40) Sponsors: Eight Sleep, Mateina & LMNT  (00:05:38) Adolescence (00:09:19) Household Conflict, Parents; Smart Phones (00:12:35) Smart Phones & Social Media (00:18:25) Vaping, E-Cigarettes, Nicotine & Cannabis (00:23:46) Adolescent Nicotine Use: Marketing, Flavors (00:30:41) Sponsor: AG1 (00:32:13) Nicotine Initiation, Freebase vs. Salt-Based Nicotine, Concentration (00:41:35) Addiction & Withdrawal; E-Cigarette Access (00:48:48) Vaping Health Hazards, Aldehydes, Flavors (00:56:32) Sponsor: Waking Up (00:57:48) “Just Say No”, Adolescent Defiance (01:04:21) Cannabis & Potency, Blunts, E-Cigarette Combinations (01:10:30) Psychosis, THC & Adolescence (01:14:11) Quitting Nicotine & Cannabis; Physical & Social Withdrawal Symptoms (01:23:05) Social Pressures, Quitting Vaping, Environment Concerns (01:30:08) Teen Activities, Social Media, Autonomy (01:36:28) Risky Behaviors, Alcohol, Driving, Sexual Behavior (01:43:27) International E-Cigarette Use, Regulation (01:46:10) Nicotine Pouches, Health Risks; Tolerance (01:53:25) Tools: Vaping Interventions, Decision Making, Harm Reduction (02:02:37) Fentanyl, Drug Testing, Recreational Drug Use (02:13:45) Tool: Organic Conversations & Risky Behavior (02:17:20) Long-Term Goals & Teens; Vaping, Pornography & Teens (02:24:08) Mental Health Crisis & Substance Use (02:29:11) Zero-Cost Support, Spotify & Apple Reviews, Sponsors, YouTube Feedback, Momentous, Social Media, Neural Network Newsletter Disclaimer