On the Neurochemistry of Deep WorkSeptember 29th, 2020 · 40 comments
Andrew Huberman is a neurobiologist at Stanford Medical School. His lab specializes in neuroplasticity, the process by which the human brain changes its neuronal connections.
Around the two minute mark of the clip, Rogan provides Huberman with a hypothetical scenario: “You’re 35, and want to learn a new skill, what is the best way to set these patterns?”
As someone who is in my thirties and makes a living learning hard things, I was, as you might imagine, interested to hear what Dr. Huberman had to say on this issue. Which is all to preface that I was gratified to hear the following reply:
“If you want to learn and change your brain as an adult, there has to be a high level of focus and engagement. There’s no way around this…you have to lean in and focus extremely hard.”
As longtime readers know, I made this same argument in Deep Work, where I noted that “the ability to learn hard things quickly” was one of the two main advantages of training your ability to concentrate.
But Huberman blows past my simplistic explanations and dissects the complex neurochemistry behind learning. I won’t try to replicate all the details of his impromptu lecture, but I’ll elaborate one particularly interesting point.
Huberman notes that to attain significant brain rewiring requires that you induce a sense of “urgency” that leads to the release of norepinephrine. This hormone, however, will make you feel “agitated,” like you need to get up and go do something. It’s here that you must apply intense focus to fight that urge, ultimately leading to the release of acetylcholine, the neurotransmitter that in combination with the norepinephrine can induce brain growth.
I’m probably bastardizing some of these biological details, but regardless, they point to a narrow example of a broader point. The ability to focus is more than just an anachronistic novelty. It’s at the core of how us humans adapt and thrive in a complex world.
Speaking of Deep Work, as I write this, it’s currently one of Amazon’s Daily Deals, meaning that the Kindle version is available for only $3.99. If you haven’t yet taken a deep dive into deep work, now is a great time to do so!