Study Hacks Blog

On the Neurochemistry of Deep Work

September 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.

A reader recently brought to my attention a fascinating discussion about learning. It’s from a podcast episode Huberman recorded with Joe Rogan back in July.

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.

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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!

40 thoughts on “On the Neurochemistry of Deep Work

  1. Hello! I am currently a behavioral coach working with kids with different kinds of traumas, emotional disturbances and social inequities. I learned in my web class that traumas can harm the kids’ various abilities, such as language development, reasoning, and, your level of expertise, attention.

    What should I do to train traumatized kids to have better attention?

    1. L says:

      I would say that their ability to learn is harmed because their traumas left very strong emotions that impede their learning skills. Meditation can be very beneficial for them as you should have a calm mind if you want to learn anything effectively.

    2. Gran Torino says:

      I think in the under 35 crowd, the role of cortisol and the resulting ptsd and its effects on attention should not be underemphasized. On the good side though, at least kids have more neuroplasticity.

      https://www.samhsa.gov/homelessness-programs-resources/hpr-resources/reducing-toxic-stress-childhood

    3. Vruta Gupte says:

      As someone who currently is dealing with the aftereffects of certain traumatic events, I’d say that it’s very difficult to bypass the effects of trauma to get deep work done, or to focus. Trauma (especially trauma that results in PTSD in children) can be very debilitating as it frequently manifests as dissociation (from reality) and as retraumatizing flashbacks. It is crucial not to force those traumatized to do deep work as this can build resistance to the activities associated with deep work (and thus make it harder to go deep as an adult). I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all method to enable traumatized children (or adults, for that matter) to work deeply, since different people have different types of trauma responses (fight, flight, freeze, fawn etc) which can impact the way they relate to deep work differently. Are you working in conjunction with a therapist? I think that might be a good idea. Also, some of the commenters here have mentioned meditation. That, again, is not a universal solution because some people’s flashbacks can be worsened by meditating. Alternatively, they could have trauma associated with past meditation (like I do, unfortunately. I get flashbacks when I meditate). I think the best solution here would be to consult a therapist separately for each person you are in charge of and see if you can enable each one to perform deep work in a way that suits them. There are no easy fixes here. Every person is different!

    4. Andrea Winchester says:

      That’s an important question. I am certainly no expert in the subject of healing from trauma, but you may find that the act of gardening has been found to be profoundly healing for those suffering from trauma. The current book “A Well Gardened Mind; The Restorative Power of Nature” by Sue Stuart-Smith (a psychologist) gives a full treatment of this very subject.

  2. M says:

    Hi Cal, I’ve been a reader for a long time and I respect your work deeply (even if present circumstances have made it more difficult than ever to practice the principles). I object to promoting Joe Rogan’s podcast, as he is transphobic and seems to let Islamophobia slide as well (by platforming people like Milo Yiannopolous). This is not ok no matter how popular he is. We can discuss and promote Dr. Huberman’s work without giving Rogan more clout.

    1. H says:

      Thank you M, for speaking out about Rogan. We can definitely find other ways of highlighting Huberman and his work that don’t involve divisive voices.

      (For anyone who’s unfamiliar with Rogan’s track record: https://www.menshealth.com/entertainment/a33391944/joe-rogan-abigail-shrier-interview-transphobia/)

    2. Joe says:

      That’s not an issue with Rogan, that’s an issue with you. He “platforms” people he finds interesting from pretty much every political and social stripe. Being an adult, I simply skip the ones I’m not interested in and catch a few clips of the ones I am instead of creating reasons to be offended by things I voluntarily consume.

      1. Kathryn Romero says:

        I agree. Thank you for posting that. Everytime I see a reasonable and mature comment on the internet, I feel like I’ve spotted a unicorn. Thanks! 🙂

      2. M says:

        Wow, ok. Way to make lots of unfounded assumptions.

        I don’t listen to Joe Rogan. I’m not “creating reasons to be offended by things I voluntarily consume,” I’m pointing out that he’s giving these people oxygen/attention that they don’t deserve. There’s a huge difference. Don’t willfully misunderstand me.

        1. EA says:

          In a good, well functioning democracy, everyone should be listened. Yes, even those with awful ideas. We’re big enough to discern the good from the bad, and often what is considered “bad” one day will be considered “good.”
          If Joe Rogan says some BS, you’re right to call him out; it’s your prerogative and certainly a good things. Saying that we shouldn’t listen to his podcast because of some of his ideas? Asinine at best.

          1. Amira says:

            It’s not a universal truism that awful ideas should be heard in a functioning democracy. That’s a fairly libertarian approach to handle media: just let them be, and the free marketplace of ideas should take over.

            I’m of the belief that that’s often not the case. Marginalized minorities often do not have as much voice as more fortunate individuals, and if we let the latter freely speak of opinions that actively target the former, then the former’s speech is silenced. If you’re at risk of harassment, doxxing, and physical violence for speaking, would you? Much like how your freedom to drive cars is enhanced by legislating road safety laws, some level of moderation is necessary for freedom of speech to function correctly. If we’re always going to silence someone, then we should silence the hateful groups – and those that platform them.

            By allowing hateful groups to voice their opinions, Joe Rogan acts as a gateway drug to those ideologies. We have to weed through some paradox of tolerance and prioritize deplatforming hateful ideologies rather than silencing their victims, methinks.

          2. Indrani Das says:

            Amira – the problem is, how do we decide exactly which ideas are hateful and deserve to have their platform taken away? And isn’t it insulting if people who want to decide for themselves which ideologies are hateful can’t make that call?

            I’m still trying to figure out which sides I agree with on what topics, but I generally believe that a) any ideology left unchecked will turn hateful towards some group, and b) there have to be ways to empower minorities and protect vulnerable voices that don’t involve silencing others. For example, a big boundary is when physical violence or threats are intimated. There can’t be any tolerance for that. I’m not a fan of Rogan, but he takes every person sitting in front of him and treats them as people, and does listen when confronted with ideas he doesn’t agree with. I think having that level of positive intent provides a more analytical platform to survey all ideas.

          3. M says:

            Last comment on this issue –>

            Thanks Amira. I agree with this wholeheartedly.

            To those of you defending Joe Rogan, I urge you to really consider the harm he does to marginalized groups before you wave it away. Not everyone can distinguish between “good” and “bad” ideologies when they both get the same level of attention. See, e.g., the speed at which misinformation spreads on Facebook and the harm that does to our democracy, as well as people in power who refuse to condemn white supremacy. Giving legitimacy to “both sides” for the sake of “neutrality” does real harm.

            White cisgender males often attempt to give off an aura of neutrality or rationality (being the “adult in the room” or “I can let this go, why can’t you?”) when it comes to issues of race or gender and how discourse affects different groups differently — of course it’s easy to seem “rational” and not “overly emotional” when existing systems of oppression do not harm you. (If this makes you feel defensive, I’d like you think about why that is.)

            If you’re a parent, think about how easy it is to calmly tell your child who is squalling at a perceived unfair decision that, no, they CANNOT have that cookie. Even if your reasons for withholding the cookie are totally unjust – for example, you promised it to them – it is quite easy to act like the child is the one being unreasonable and overreacting. After all, why can’t they just accept that sometimes they won’t get what they want? That’s just life.
            And then think about how different the conversation is when you empathize with them and explain why you couldn’t give them what they wanted. They usually calm down. But this ONLY works if you have a good reason for acting the way you did. For kids (and, I would argue, anyone with less power in a given situation), their sense of fairness and bullshit detection is highly attuned.

            Obviously it’s not a perfect analogy but I’m trying to get people here to think about how it would feel to be someone with less power being argued with by the person with the discretion to give or take something away. Anger and frustration are natural consequences of experiencing injustice, and are often valuable tools for gathering support and making progress.

            Regardless of how racist or bigoted screeds may or may not affect you personally, we have to recognize that with influence comes responsibility. Some use it well; others wield it in a way that emboldens racists and bigots. I obviously don’t have the power to “cancel” anyone and I don’t support that tactic anyway, this was an attempt to gently call Cal in and let him know about Joe Rogan if he didn’t already.

            I deeply believe in people’s ability to grow and learn from their mistakes and am grateful to those who have challenged me in the past for creating those teaching moments for me. I think we should all remain open to this kind of learning, but I reject the notion that bigoted ideas deserve our collective attention.

        2. Joe says:

          You’re pointing out nothing and refusing to post a real name in the comments. That says plenty. I wouldn’t be surprised if you and “H” are posting from the same IP address.

          I regularly consume content that I vehemently disagree with instead of virtue signaling whatever the outrage porn of the moment is. That’s what reasonable adults do.

          I also go to places that I usually wouldn’t to hear from people whom I know will give great insight into topics that interest me. The only time I’ve come close to listening to a full episode of Rogan’s podcast was when Jonathan Haidt was on. I knew going in that Rogan’s biggest weakness is that he’s not educated enough on most topics to offer a genuine rebuttal, but his biggest strength is challenging and drawing out depth from those he interviews. With Haidt, that allowed him to better and more fully express some of the ideas he’s talked about elsewhere while even responding to some of the critiques that have been made about his work.

          It’s really simple, try to consume the best stuff you can on whatever topic, then look for the best critique of whatever position or theory you settle on, and then look into the best alternative. Where those things are located is mostly irrelevant. The last 20 or so minutes of the conversation between Cal and Ryan Holiday on episode 31 of the podcast is about exactly that point. Blathering on about someone “platforming” another person is utterly useless and ultimately is backfiring on those who can’t/won’t deal with the real world.

          1. Kathryn Romero says:

            Well, I think the real problem is that this is not about Rogan. The post is by Cal (who, I assume we all like and respect) and he is citing the research by Dr. Huberman (who, most of us are probably neutral on). If we wanted to watch the things he said on Rogan’s show we could but if we don’t like Rogan’s show we could still look up Dr. Huberman to see what he says/writes elsewhere. There have been a few instances here where Cal writes cites a source without necessarily advocating for their every political position (i.e. Jordan Peterson or Jocko Willink), and someone in the comments gets upset by the fact that someone they don’t like was mentioned. I mean, you could just read the blog post, get the gist of what point Cal is trying to make, and move on with life. You don’t have to take him to task because he used an example or a source that you don’t 100% like or agree with. I would venture to say that Cal doesn’t 100% agree with a lot of these people either, but the examples he finds fit the point that he is trying to make.

          2. Joe says:

            Agreed. Cal does what adults do. He finds smart people making good points and applies them to the areas he’s interested in. Where those points are made really doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things, and an argument could be made that it’s better to make those points on the most popular podcast in the country where it hopefully spreads to the largest number of people.

        3. V says:

          Who are you to say who deserves attention? Think about this question deeply. Who are you to determine that? Consider that at some point some other person might think YOU dont deserve to have a voice, that YOUR opinion is the wrong one, and decide to shut YOU up. Would you like that? Would that be fair? Try to really imagine how belittled and humiliated would you feel for being shut up like that. This is what you are doing, or trying to. You are the little tyrant, drunk with the tiniest notion that you are in the right side of history. You are not.

      3. Maria says:

        Well said.

    3. Vruta Gupte says:

      Was looking for a comment saying this, thank you! Rogan has also platformed Elon Musk in the past, who appears to also be a transphobe. As much as Rogan claims he is impartial, he suspiciously promotes transphobes like Jordan Peterson, Musk, etc, which is unacceptable in 2020. Anyway, Dr Newport, if it’s not too much trouble, could you please replace this video of the person whose work you are mentioning with another video? We shouldn’t be providing Rogan with the oxygen of amplification, so to speak. Thank you.

    4. Jeff says:

      I am very disturbed about the current practice of labelling any opinions we disagree with as “hate”. We need to be able to talk about these things without dismissing. Silencing and deplatforming will lead to an Orwellian future where only “approved” speech is allowed. No thank you. It takes courage to ignore these calls to censor people. Kudos for keeping this post up!

      1. Rakesh Gupta says:

        I agree, Jeff. In the past, there have been objections to Cal referring Jordan Peterson, for example. I’m from India and Cal has also given examples of Winston Churchill’s work ethic in few of his blogs. Now Churchill is majorly responsible for the great Indian famine of 1943, which caused the deaths of anywhere between 1.5-3 million people in the state of Bengal. If one were to start objecting to the real life examples from the lifetime of anyone and everyone, soon there won’t be anything to point out!

  3. Paul Freeman says:

    I have that exact response when trying to start deep working. I sit down, prepare as best I can, gather my thoughts, have whatever it is I’m trying to start to work on ready and start thinking. As soon as I get a good thought/idea in my head, at that exact moment, I feel the urgent need to stand up and walk around.

    When I do not resist that urgent, I find myself walking around my room and have lost the purpose I set out to think about.

    To have the neurochemistry of this explained is incredibly useful. I just need to fight the urge until the acetylcholine kicks in. I’ll need to listen to the podcast in full to understand this in more detail

    1. Study Hacks says:

      I’m wondering if this neurochemistry helps explain some of the effectiveness of productive meditation? The walking channels the agitation while you’re still able to focus your mind…

  4. Loyal Famme says:

    Hey Cal, I have a question.
    Children who grew up in unstable homes with dysfunctional parenting.
    Can this hinder their ability to work deeply considering the amount of trauma that these children have been through ?. How can they benefit by your ideas considering many of them might have stumbled upon one of your books ?

    1. Study Hacks says:

      This is a good question. It’s quite similar to the question Richmund asked above as well.

      I can absolutely believe that trauma impacts concentration. Something like the neurochemistry Dr. Huberman summarized might help explain why (e.g., the involvement of norepinephrine system, which can be severely impacted by trauma; as seen, for example, in PTSD cases).

      I don’t have a learned answer on the best way of cultivating depth in this circumstance. But I can say, however, that concentration is definitely trainable. Good initial steps in developing this skill include: spending time on a regular basis without distractions (activities without your phone), and finding activities that require un-stimulated concentration (reading; collecting; building/craft).

      1. Levi B says:

        “The Body Keeps the Score” by Bessel van der Kolk would probably have great information on this (haven’t read it yet, but it’s on my reading list)

  5. Joseph Lightfoot says:

    It’s extremely helpful to me to know this. That agitation happens to me nearly every time I take on a demanding task. I usually give in to it, but this gives me some ammunition to fight it. I’m looking forward to seeing how that plays out.

  6. Jeff Hess says:

    Cal,

    Great post. In recent weeks I (and my wife) finished reading “Deep Work” (a reread, for me), “Digital Minimalism” and “So Good They Can’t Ignore You.” Like you I’ve long been a devote of Anders Ericsson and a week ago I decided to test the concept of deliberate practice by taking on a task that is, and will be (at 65), a very difficult one for me: Learning Latin. My goal is to be able to read book six of The Aeneid.

    1. raphi14 says:

      I wish you the best in your project 🙂

      I am currently reading the Aeneid myself, but in French (my Latin is a bit rusty, to say the least).

      What i liked with Latin when i was learning it as a 7th grader was how logic this language was.

  7. Jeff Hess says:

    Cal,

    I listened to the clips—the whole podcast will have to wait for this evening—and I was struck by the mention of “ice baths.” One of my personal heroes is George Smith Patton. Years ago, while reading Porter B Williamson biography of Patton, I learned of his routine of always turning the hot water off at the end of shower and “jumping about” in the cold water for as long as he could. Patton, according to Williamson, found the practice enhanced his quality and clarity of thinking.

    I adopted the practice and now wonder if Patton was onto something that Dr. Huberman might endorse.

    1. Jared Wyllys says:

      I’ve actually been trying something like this for a while. I start off with a hot shower but end with as cold as I can and focus on my breathing while it’s cold. There’s something to it, for sure.

    2. Carl says:

      I have adopted the cold shower practice also. Among other things it definitely re boots your outlook and attitude. Done in the evening, it also helps me to sleep a lot better.

  8. Carl says:

    Interesting points made about agitation, trauma, and its effect on learning. Einstein is noted to have said that two key ingredients to learning were curiosity at frustration.

    David Goggins talks in his book, ‘Can’t Hurt Me” –the effect that intense childhood trauma had on his ability to learn, and how he overcame that.

    1. Sonia says:

      I second Goggins’ book. It was a game changer on what I thought was possible to overcome in childhood trauma and personal obstacles. I’ve limited my social media to 3 days a month, and Goggins is the one guy I check in on since he is legit and still follows a very disciplined, focused life. He also “follows” no one, but has over 3 million followers. 🙂

      Thanks for tying this in to one of my favorite books.

  9. Sani says:

    I agree Cal, hard focus on difficult things. In addition I recommend you look in to a vegan/vegetarian diet rich with fruits like blue berries and vegetable like kale. Coupled with a daily intense workout, and your brain will be in optimal level for a while.

  10. Amira says:

    Cal, in response to your Ryan Holiday podcast, there’s a reason why you’ve never heard of young 20-something nonfiction writers: they’re all on Youtube. They rely on the Youtube algorithm to get their name out, so of course you haven’t heard of them. That’s the main medium in which young essayists operate these days.

    For a quality-controlled supply of curated Youtube video essayists, I deploy the digital minimalism principle and watch videos from a platform called Nebula (watchnebula.com), a streaming site owned by Youtubers to cultivate a curated platform without the bad parts of Youtube. It has no algorithm, respects my privacy, and doesn’t send me any emails, which I like.

    1. Daniel says:

      Amira, great advice on the watchnebula.com. quite helpful indeed
      .thanks….

      To your earlier thread of response to deplatform others like joe rogan ( without getting argumentative here) ..Noam Chomsky covered this 50 years back, and still does this summer, in fact, that nobody- can- be deplatforned ( in non- violent debate amd learning on issues, discussion) precisely to preserve liberties…Stephebn Pinker, et all and Chomsky signrd that Harper’s magazine declaration emphasizing this in the summer during covid crisis.Yes, it handily adresses the Cancel Culture woes that evolved and festered by left- rxtreme Dem politics…( disruptive “cancel culture” terminoligy adresses the whole thing)
      And therefore of course a neurochemistry huberman – rogan video warrants coverage and fits with Prof Cal Newport’s work…( not arguing here, just reminding how this was a major summertime media thing above)

  11. I perked up on the mention of releasing epinephrine as part of the process in engaging neuroplasticity. In late spring I injured my foot, which took away my morning jogs. I was telling my wife recently that I sometimes feel like my brain is fighting longer periods of concentration despite my use of timely breaks. The idea that physical exercise has a part in neuroplasticity is now making a lot of sense. I’m going to see if I can get morning exercise back into my routine. Also makes me contemplate if getting periodic exercise throughout the day might be better for overall learning. Maybe my old highschool PE teacher had it right all along? Getting that exercise in might make a better overall student.

  12. Lisa says:

    I recognise this response – the really strong urge to get up and do something else. It was usually at some part of my PhD where I was feeling very creative and sometimes I was on to something and other times I’d just lost the plot and was going off on a tangent. I often used to get up and walk to the fridge and come back with food – not a great response. I found if I made a huge bowl of unsalted popcorn I could stay in my chair and continue working and by the time I’d got through the popcorn the agitation had usually gone away – without too many calories. An entire head of celery works too if you can face it. More recently I’ve been playing “white noise” music – mostly waves breaking on beaches and I find that helps. I get distracted but my mind only drifts as far as the music, I listen for a few seconds and then I can go back to my focus. It’s really good to know that the urge to get up is a natural part of learning and perhaps even a signal that you’re learning – I think that will really help me to lean into the feeling in future and not run to the fridge. Thanks

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