Adam Gazzaley takes a deep dive into the brain, why we don’t have the ability to do everything at the same time, and the technologies that will help how your brain functions and focuses.
- The strengths and limitations of the human brain
- Three focus levers that you can learn to control
- Mindfulness practices that train attention
Adam Gazzaley, M.D., Ph.D. is Professor in Neurology, Physiology and Psychiatry at UC San Francisco and the Founder & Executive Director of Neuroscape, a translational neuroscience center engaged in technology creation and scientific research of novel brain assessment and optimization approaches. Dr. Gazzaley is co-founder and Chief Science Advisor of Akili Interactive Labs, a company developing therapeutic video games, and co-founder and Chief Scientist of JAZZ Venture Partners, a venture capital firm investing in experiential technology to improve human performance.
Additionally, he is a scientific advisor for over a dozen technology companies including Apple, GE, Magic Leap and The VOID. He has filed multiple patents, authored over 125 scientific articles, and delivered over 540 invited presentations around the world. He wrote and hosted the nationally-televised PBS special “The Distracted Mind with Dr. Adam Gazzaley”, and co-authored the 2016 MIT Press book “The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World”, winner of the 2017 PROSE Award. Dr. Gazzaley has received many awards and honors, including the 2015 Society for Neuroscience – Science Educator Award.
Items Mentioned in this Show:
- Sponsored message: Haven Life makes buying term life insurance simple
- Adam’s Book: The Distracted Mind
- Adam website: Adam Gazzaley
- Podcast: Brett McKay’s Art of Manliness
- Research: Video game training enhances cognitive control in older adults
- Research: Top-down suppression deficit underlies working memory impairment in normal aging
- Book series: The Foundation series by Isaac Asimov
Adam, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to Be Awesome At Your Job podcast.
Thanks for having me.
I’ve been so excited to have this conversation ever since I heard you on Brett McKay’s Art of Manliness podcast. First of all, I’ve got to know, you said in that show, “Stay tuned to 2018,” because you were working on creating the first prescription video game or digital medicine. Where does that stand today?
Well, we have advanced. At the very end of 2017, we, we being Akili Interactive, which is a company I spun out from my research at UCSF, we announced that we had positive outcomes on our FDA phase three trial that was targeting improvement of attention abilities in children diagnosed with ADHD.
That’s the big piece that we were waiting for to then go ahead and submit to the FDA. That process has just happened. This is a medical device pathway. It’s the first of its kind for this type of treatment. It would be the first non-drug treatment for that condition, for ADHD. We don’t know exactly how long the process takes, but we’re in it now, so hopefully not so long.
That’s cool. Congratulations.
Since I just jumped in there, maybe you can back it up a second. What is the game and how does it make an impact on brains?
Yeah, so maybe I’ll take even one more step back. The idea behind building a video game as a digital medicine really popped into my mind after years of research in neuroscience and as a clinician and neurologist back in 2008. It’s been ten years ago that I started on this pathway that was just sort of reaching this really major milestone now of FDA approval.
The concept is that we can engage our brains at a very high level and a targeted experience. This experience can be adaptive, what we call closed loop, meaning it’s challenging you and giving you rewards at the edge of your ability. It’s pushing you. It’s doing this based on your real-time metrics, your performance, your physiology.
We can use this type of experience as a way of optimizing the brain networks that it activates. That was the general idea that I had.
We built a video game called NeuroRacer. Back in 2008 we started the process. I designed it. Brought in friends from LucasArts to help us develop it. Then we did multiple years of research really showing that we can improve older adults’ ability, which is where a lot of my research background had been focused on, improving their ability to pay attention on very, very different tasks and to also hold information in memory.
That was published in Nature in 2013 and also with neuro-recording showing the mechanisms in the brain that led to that improvement in attention. Then that led to the birth of Akili, a patent behind the technology, and now multiple clinical trials as well as the phase three trial for ADHD treatment that I just described to you. That’s the journey.
That is cool. That is cool. I want to get into the journey and your book, The Distracted Mind and practical things that professionals can do to be less distracted and have more great focus.
Maybe could you start us off by sharing – you wear a number of hats all at once these days – could you share a little bit of the story and thread that ties together your professorship, Neuroscape, Akili Interactive Labs and JAZZ Venture Partners, all you’re up to?
Sure. It does seem and it could give the impression that I’m spread thin given that I’ve co-founded several companies, a venture fund, I’m the director of a research center, and a professor at UCSF. I’ve written books and I give a lot of talks, but the reality is I feel like I do absolutely one thing.
They’re all related to each other. They’re all built on the premise that technology can be developed in a thoughtful way with the goal of improving how our brains function.
That could be for people that are healthy and just want to improve their concentration and their memory. It could be part of what we would think of as education, young developing minds on a more positive pathway than we currently see happening. Then, of course, as a type of medicine, which we’ve already been discussing when people have deficits.
The companies that JAZZ invests in, where I’m a partner, the companies I formed like Akili, another company Sensync, a newer one, what we do at our research center in Neuroscape, all of it is built to accomplish that goal of having our technology, our non-invasive, consumer-friendly both from affordability and accessibility point of view, do more than entertain us and allow us to communicate, but actually enhance what makes us human and really improve our brain function.
That’s cool. So much to dig into there. When it comes to brain function, it seems that your brain is functioning pretty prolifically in terms of geez, hundreds of presentations, a hundred scientific articles, and multiple … all at once. Do you have a personal secret for how you’re pulling this off? What’s sort of the key behind this?
Right. One of the keys is what I said. I really do feel like I have only one thing that I do. I don’t have lots of different voices. It doesn’t matter what podcast I am on or what audience I’m speaking in front of. I have one message. I have one way of presenting it. I have one goal.
I always say to especially my lab here when we hire new people or take on new projects that I have one tree and I’m willing to have more branches, but I’m not willing to have a second tree. A lot of it is just figuring out where is that tree, what is part of the core of my mission and where I want to direct my attention. I think that’s one thing that allows me to seem very productive.
I am accomplishing a lot of things, but it’s all in the same framework. When I watch someone else do things that seem really disparate than each other, it just boggles my mind how they hold that all together. That’s one of the things.
Then I’m really passionate about it. I found something that I absolutely love. I wake up thinking about. It’s what I’ll talk about in a bar with friends. It’s just – it’s my life.
I’m always encouraging young people that I might mentor and advise that that’s the secret. That’s what they have to find. If they’re not doing it now, they have to look elsewhere because it will always come back and haunt them if they passed up or miss that opportunity to find their true passion in life.
Okay. Let’s dig into some of the takeaways here. You sort of unpack a number of these discoveries and practical applications for a popular audience in your book, The Distracted Mind. What’s sort of the big idea behind the book?
The book, The Distracted Mind, is sort of a little bit of a mash up between myself as an author and Larry Rosen as an author.
I’m a cognitive neuroscientist. I work in a laboratory where we do functional brain imaging and look at how neural networks underlie different performance metrics like attention and memory abilities, and how interference degrades those abilities. I study really the neural mechanisms of interference through distraction or multi-tasking.
While Larry is really like a field psychologist. He’s out there looking at what real world things, like Facebook and having mobile phones on your bodies might impact your relationships, and your school performance, and things of that nature.
That’s the overview that we try to show. It’s like a deep dive into what’s going on in the brain, why we don’t have the ability to do all the things we want to do all at the same time. It takes a very evolutionary perspective on that.
I sort of dug deep into optimal foraging theories and other views that I think connect our evolutionary path of what has grown in our brains that are strong and what are its limitations and how – then how technology impacts us, largely in a negative way, although the very end of the book is the prescriptive part, how can we change our behaviors to interact with technology in a healthier way.
Neither Larry or I feel that the path is to just abandon it. I always say we’re not putting that tech genie back in the bottle. It is here. How do we live with it in a better way? Then, of course, what I already had told you about, is how do we flip this story around completely. How do we think about technology as a tool to actually help how our brains function and the future of where we can go with that?
Okay. Then let’s talk a bit about the brain fundamentally. Where is our human brain strong versus limited and what do we do with that information?
I’d say one of the main strengths in many ways defines us as human, it might be the pinnacle, the most unique thing that our brains are capable of compared to other animals is the setting of very high-level goals. Goals that are very time delayed. You could set a goal a decade in the future. You can have goals, even immediate goals that are interwoven with other goals and other people’s goals.
That type of ability I think is fundamental for all of the achievements that we have as a species, our communities, and our societies, and our languages, our art, our music, our technology, really depends upon that.
These goals, they also challenge us because they lead us to believe we’re almost capable of anything and we are not. We have the flip side of it is that we have these very fundamental limitations in how our brain works.
When it comes, especially to the abilities that enable us to enact our goals, so our attention, our ability to focus it and sustain it, our working memory, holding information in mind for just very rapid periods of time, and then how we deal with having multiple goals that converge in terms of enacting them, how we either switch between them or multitask them.
When it comes to these abilities, what we call cognitive control, which sort of wraps an umbrella term around all of those concepts I just mentioned, they’re limited. In many ways when you push other animals to behave in the way that we do, to multitask and to engage in such a way, you see that we have actually really similar limitations.
We can focus our attention, and even there the filter is not perfect, but we also can’t distribute our attention broadly. We can only take in a very limited amount of the information around us.
When we try to hold information in mind, what we call working memory, there’s a degradation in the fidelity of that information that occurs very rapidly. When we attempt to multitask or switch between tasks, we see that there is a cost for that type of goal setting and enactment.
We do not engage in two goals that both demand our attention as well as if we have only one. That’s because the networks in the brain that are responsible for each goal, they can’t parallel process. They have to switch between each of the tasks you’re trying to engage in and with each switch, there’s a loss of some of that information resolution.
That’s the sort of the premise of the book, that there’s a disconnect between what we want to do, our goal setting, and what we’re capable of doing, our goal enactment. That’s what leads to interference and leads to what we refer to again and again as the distracted mind.
That really sums up kind of the whole, in many ways, human condition in terms of – I remember when I first learned economics in high school and we talked about how they call it the dismal science because we have unlimited desires but finite resources. It was like, yes, this is already my whole life. I’m very intrigued to learn more about this field.
It connected. It resonated. That applies not only to the use of time and money, but in fact just what we can put our brain toward.
Exactly. When it came down to writing this book it was actually a challenge for me because I had sort of moved on from the distracted mind story to my new research focus, which is how do we use our understanding of the distracted mind to build tools to help our brains, make them less distracted. It’s sort of almost like a step back into my history of my research.
But when certain ideas I was able to formulate, like the one I just described to you, other ideas around foraging for information and how it compares to how other animals forage for food, then it felt fresh to me and I was excited about writing that in the book. I think for the most part it’s all pretty logical.
Most people in many ways could sort of just introspectively appreciate these things in their own behavior. But it is – I think it’s helpful and has value to break it down, especially from the neuroscience perspective.
I’d love to then dig into some of this in terms of how can we have more cognitive control to achieve what we want sort of day in and day out. Where do you think is the best place to start in terms of setting some foundation? Should we talk about foraging theory or should we start elsewhere?
Yeah, yeah. I can give you a little bit about foraging theory. It can get pretty heady and long, so we can do it briefly. The reason I bring foraging theories – optimal foraging theories into the book in the first place and into these discussions is because I’m not – I don’t fancy myself as a self-help guru that I could just throw out things that I tried in my life and encourage other people to do them.
The idea was that if I was going to present prescriptive advice about how people should engage in healthier behaviors with technology, I wanted to do so from a conceptual framework and use that to guide the advice.
The framework is really based on how we as humans forage for information in a similar way to how other animals forage for food, that the primate brain has coopted a lot of these ancient reward systems, but instead of being for survival, they are for information. There’s a lot of data to support that.
If that’s true, if that premise is true, then could we use the models that describe why other animals forage in the particular way that they do? Can we use that to describe why we engage with technology in a very particular way? Then use that as a basis to say, “Oh these are the areas that we can change our behavior.”
The model that I use is known as the marginal value theorem. It describes how animals forage in patchy environments, like a squirrel in a tree eating acorns or nuts. The resources they have are in a limited space and there’s these empty areas in between those resources.
When a squirrel is in a tree, they’re making an unconscious decision about the benefits of remaining in that tree even though the nuts are getting less and less as they eat them. They’re comparing that with how close the nearest tree is full of nuts. At some point they make the decision to switch and jump from one tree to the other.
I’m creating a comparison that we’re sort of like those squirrels. Our patches are information patches like your mobile phone or a web browser or Facebook. You can stay in there or you can leave to the next one. The influences that drive us to stay and leave are related to how we’re consuming those resources in the patch we’re in now.
One of the premises I make is that we’ve shown, and there’s data to suggest, that we are now accumulating boredom and anxiety, both anxiety of fear of missing out on something else and also performance anxiety, very rapidly. We have this very rapid diminishing return of remaining in a patch, an information patch.
There’s also this force that other patches, those other trees which are links on a website or another browser tab or just having your phone in your pocket, the other information sources are so accessible, so it’s so easy to abandon the one you’re in and just move over to the next one.
That those forces of boredom and anxiety making our enjoyment and our satisfaction of being in an information source last longer as well as the accessibility to the next one, drives this tendency that we all have to just rapidly switch between them and not really engage in a sustained, continuous way in one information source.
Intriguing. Then first I want to talk about the squirrels if I can.
Now when we study squirrels that are engaged in this activity, do they in fact behave in a mathematically optimal sort of a way? It’s like, “Yup, that is indeed the perfect decision to jump to that next tree, squirrel. Well done.”
Yeah, so the marginal value theorem, which is used by not neuroscientists, but more ecological behavioral scientists, have shown that they are able to mathematically predict the behavior of many animals, both in laboratory settings as well as in the wild. That field is really interesting.
There’s other types of behaviors like predator to prey relationship. There’s other optimal foraging theories, but this particular one, the marginal value theorem, is about animals foraging in patchy environments. It has been shown, it’s not perfect, there are factors that influence it that are not always predictable, but it is a pretty interesting field of research.
We don’t have the mathematical relationships of how the marginal value theorem applies to how humans forage for information. It’s essentially a hypothesis in the book that I thought maybe would set up research in that particular direction. But I think it does go a long way, at least intuitively, of explaining why we are so susceptible to this rapid switching behavior that we engage in, especially children.
Right, well because I guess accessibility has just gone through the roof in recent years as compared to where it was before. But are we also seeing trends in terms of we are more easily bored and anxious now than we used to be?
Yeah. The data would suggest, and this is sort of the story we put together in The Distracted Mind, that all of those forces are taking place. They’re both on different sides of the equation.
One is on the diminishing benefits we get of being in a source are not just that you’re using up the information in that source, like a squirrel using up the nuts in the tree, but these very human factors of increasing anxiety and boredom.
You could experience that yourself if you just try to do one thing, which is one of the advice that I do give for a while, you could feel anxiety of not doing something else or checking in on a post or just, “Wow, I’m bored,” accumulate pretty rapidly. This has been well described, especially children feel these forces to a very high degree.
They become very noticeable when you remove their technology away from them. It’s part of the reality of how we interact in the world now. I think it forces us to lose a lot of the control that we want to have over our technology. It is essentially is exerting control over us.
That’s interesting. That idea of being able to stick with something for a long time, it’s intrigued me for ages.
Once again, in high school I remember I always impressed how we did marching band camp. For two weeks, somehow 100 plus of us would endure the pretty hot summer Illinois days for eight plus hour stretches day after day after day.
I just thought, “Wow, it would be so powerful if I could just do this myself,” whatever I wanted to learn or improve or accomplish, whether it’s hunkering down to write a book or whatnot. Yet, it’s so difficult. I guess there’s a whole other element associated with accountability and looking like a slacker if you say, “No guys, I’m out,” which is a lot harder to do in a group setting than individually.
But so how can we sort of work these levers in terms of engaging things so that we are more engaged and interested in what we’re doing, we feel less anxious about what we might be missing out on or we have less accessibility to pull us in another direction. Actionably, how can we pull these levers to do more great focusing?
That was the reason why I went to this path of using a foraging model in the first place so that we have a framework now. We see the influences. On one side accessibility drives us to another source that’s easily obtainable. On the other side, our boredom and anxiety causes us to want to leave the source that we’re in. Those are three levers right there that you can learn how to control.
Accessibility is in some ways a little easier because it’s less abstract. You can just sit down, quit your email program if you’re writing an article, quit Twitter, put your phone on airplane mode, close your door, work in a less distracting environment and really create the type of surroundings that foster a singular focus, where it’s just not accessibility.
I know people that will put their phone in their bag when they drive home from work because if they have it in their lap, the accessibility will make them go to it even when they’re at a light.
If you feel that accessibility is really pulling on you, which I think it is for many people – I mean I feel it myself. I could be there writing an article and if my email program is open, subconsciously I just go over to it and look. Not that I need to look, not that anything pinged me. I was working just fine, but because it was so easy I just sort of reflexively took a look at it or an open Facebook page.
I do quit those programs when I’m writing on something. I think managing accessibility is a real very tangible one that people can wrap their hands around.
The other side of it, decreasing the anxiety that you feel of missing out on things or not being productive because you think productivity is doing a lot of things at the same time, as well as boredom.
To me the first step of those – of dealing with that is to just put yourself in the situation where you decrease accessibility, do one thing and actually feel those emotions, that anxiety, that stress, that boredom accumulate, and just wrap your head around what it is, become a little bit more introspective and realize that it’s not going to kill you.
It’s fine to be bored. It’s fine to be a bit hungry. It’s fine to be a bit anxious. And that these feelings are – they don’t need to necessarily be corrected immediately. You can allow them to just sort of bake in a little bit and you might find that they go away after a while.
I always sort of make the parallel between sitting down for an hour to do one thing, like going out and running a mile let’s say. The first time you do it, it could be unbearable. You can be like, “Wow, I never want to run again,” but over time you actually get a pleasure and reward in doing that one thing. All of the negative aspects that accumulate really rapidly when you’re not used to it start going away.
I would say that these other tricks and apps and ways that you could sort of have people not text you when you’re doing something else so that decreases the anxiety. In the book we talk about lots of fancy tricks of dealing with anxiety and boredom, but the one that – the easier one to talk about that I think is a good start is to just put yourself in a scenario where you experience it and just learn how to manage it.
Even waiting on line at a supermarket – I’m in Whole Foods and I have only two minutes to wait and I still feel the allure of pulling out my phone and checking something. Just leave it away. It’s okay. Just feel a little boredom. Just maybe do some internal thinking or looking around. That’s I think a good starting point.
Certainly. Well, you mentioned tricks, I can’t resist. Can we hear the tricks too?
Yeah. There are basically ways of using technology to help as well.
One of the things that we recommend and others have as well is when dealing with the anxiety of missing out is to have people be aware, for example, when you’re driving or when you’re working so that you don’t think that there’s texts and other communications coming in when you know you should be focusing.
People do similar tricks like that at work, where they’ll put up a sign of ‘do not disturb I’m focusing,’ of that nature.
The other trick that’s less tech, but it’s really about – it’s about breaks and especially true for boredom is instead of going an entire hour, try and go ten minutes and take a minute break and then go right back to ten minutes and work through the hour in those segments. This way the boredom and even the anxiety could be relieved by that break.
But the trick – and then each day you could make – now go 15 minutes, 20 minutes. Learn how to do 20 minutes with just two breaks along the way. But one of the tricks of this approach is to not take tech breaks, especially social media or email in those short breaks because then they could just take you through these sink holes where just an hour later you’re like, “Wow, I just totally failed there.”
The types of things I that I think help especially with anxiety and boredom when you’re taking those breaks are like some meditation and mindfulness to get better at that type of internal focus, exposure to nature, even light physical exercise in your office, wherever you are. Those are things that can help fill those breaks. Then you just bounce right back into your singular focus.
That’s excellent. I’m thinking here just in my experience like if I’m on vacation, I feel so much better having the out of office email reply up and going than not going just because it’s sort of like, “Oh, that’s handled. They know.”
Yeah, exactly, exactly.
They’re not expecting anything from me. They even have other resources they can turn to to get whatever they’re asking about in that.
Exactly. That’s a perfect example of using technology to reduce that anxiety. That anxiety is really strong when you’re on vacation. There used to – there was a time in the past when vacation meant that you were actually completely inaccessible and not actually working. That’s gone.
Many people are still communicating with their work every single day and they feel that anxiety that even a short period away is going to be incredibly disruptive. But as you described, there’s a way of structuring your time when you leave your work environment or study environment that is set up to give you success and actually disengaging from it.
Yeah, I also just like the little bit about the boredom lever here because sometimes I just marveled at how I could hunker down and play my favorite computer game from 1993, Master of Orion, for like six hours straight, but then I’ve got sort of an email inbox backlog and I have never successfully been able to crank at it for six hours in one day. I think my max is like three and a half. It just – the boredom is I guess overwhelmed me.
One tool you mentioned, just practice, train it. Get better like you would in training for a marathon. Is there anything else we can do to somehow find excitement and engagement in the things that are currently seem boring to us?
It could be really challenging. I’m not going to claim that you could turn email into the most fun activity in the world.
Video games are a hard thing to compete with. They are designed by very clever people to have reward cycles at multiple different time scales that really keep you engaged. They’re doing exactly what email doesn’t do frequently, which is mix it up and challenge you at a high level and give you constant feedback on how you’re doing.
This is one of the core challenges. It’s really hard to compete with a lot of modern day media that is designed to appeal to people because of these rapid reward cycles.
Sure, you can do things to try to gamify doing email and compete and things of that nature, but personally, I don’t really feel like they work that well.
I would – how I’ve done it myself, it’s always easier for me to describe what I do myself, is really just to learn and to retrain that ability to sustain attention and not be totally derailed every time you try to do it.
Like anything else, like going to the gym, running, it takes practice. It doesn’t necessarily come the first time. You have to work through it and just get better at it. Don’t try to bite off too much and then just be completely disillusioned.
The boredom goes away when you engage in something. Then you might find that, “Wow, I actually am liking doing this.”
Maybe it’s not email, but certainly having a conversation with your significant other as opposed to interrupting it every three minutes to check your phone or writing an article that you’re really excited about or reading a book that you do find engaging. You can get more enjoyment out of it if you just train yourself to sustain your focus for a longer period of time.
All right. We talk about training, you mention mindfulness and meditation. Are there some other – what would be sort of your top recommended practices in terms of – I’m thinking about learning about some Buddhist practitioners who stare at a wall for months and you’re like, “Wow, that’s really impressive.”
Are there particular mindfulness practices or can we play some of your video games or what are some of the other kind of activities we can engage in to strengthen our capacity here?
Yeah. The basic practice of concentrated meditation doesn’t require a lot of fancy tools. It’s where you learn over time to focus usually on your breath. It could be words. It could be a visual image in your mind. Hold the focus. Be aware when your mind wanders and without judgment just bring it back and hold it again.
That’s like one of the most ancient practices. It appears in many, many different forms of meditation and has a long history of success in helping with attention but also stress and mood. It’s quite valuable. Essentially at its core it’s an attention training exercise.
Some people have difficulty with it. They might be pushed to do too much and feel like they don’t get it, they can’t find their breath.
We actually designed a video game. That’s what we do. We take principles from other practices that have benefits in the real world, like meditation, like rhythm and music, physical fitness, then we build algorithms that can allow you to baby step into it so that it’s adaptive to how good you are at it. You’re getting feedback on how you’re doing and you can extend and improve your performance gradually over time.
We did that with meditation. We have a game called Meditrain that we’re writing up our first paper on our results right now showing that we have been able to improve sustained attention abilities in Millennials, in 20-year-olds engaging in this app for six weeks.
We’re super excited about it. It’s not publically available yet. We’re very conservative with how we release things into the market. We want to know that it actually does what we say it’s going to do. We’ve been working on this for many years now. The data is quite convincing. These are some of the things that you can do right now and that will be coming out soon.
That’s great. Now are any of your games available for the public to do now and how can we get there or they’re all not yet there?
They’re all not yet there. This is sort of one of the more frustrating points. The one that’s closest is the ADHD treatment, which I hope arrives in 2019. Maybe by the end of this year. We’ll see. The process is unclear because it’s a new treatment, a new device. But that will be the first to arrive.
That is clearly, as I described, the medical route. It will be a prescribable treatment by doctors to children that have ADHD. The only thing right now that’s – the only thing that will be FDA approved that’s not a pharmaceutical or drug, so very exciting.
It doesn’t mean that all of our technologies are going to go down that medical pathway. For example, the meditation training game I’m now looking at other companies that build more consumer facing meditation and mindfulness apps as partners so that’s happening now. Hopefully next year you’ll start seeing things that we’ve been working on for a decade start appearing in the world.
That’s cool. Can we also touch on exercise for a bit? There’s many forms of exercise: yoga, high intensity intervals, steady state cardio, strength training. Are there any particular exercise interventions that seem to go farther in molding the brain to make it able to focus for longer periods?
Well, most of the data on how exercise improves attention and cognitive abilities more broadly, focus on aerobic exercise, sometimes high intensity interval training, sometimes just long endurance aerobics training. The data is quite convincing, especially in aging, in older adults and even in children as well.
There’s lots of great data, many meta-analysis that have put together results from many different papers to reach that conclusion, but there’s also data about strength training as well that’s often frequently ignored. I would say both strength and aerobic training.
I’m not as familiar with the literature on yoga, but more and more researchers are exploring these practices, as I said, that have been around for a long time and are training to put them in more randomized control trials.
I would even just add one thing that with older adults even the act of just getting out and walking has been shown to be beneficial as well.
Cool. Adam, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?
I think that is it. I guess I always like to sort of conclude this part of the discussion by saying there’s a lot of things you can do as far as lifestyle changes that are shown to be good for your brain. I put it into five pillars.
Physical exercise, we just talked about that. Cognitive challenge, we’ve been talking about that, some of the things we’re creating. But just the types and way of engaging in the world around you that push you out of your comfort zone. Travel, learning music, even complex social interactions, which also has the benefit of reducing isolation and loneliness, which is also not good for your brain.
Physical challenge, cognitive challenge, nutrition, sleep management, and stress management. By stress management I don’t mean the elimination of all stress. Our brains and our bodies actually like some stress. The challenge is what it responds to, pushes it into a more dynamic phase, but it’s that helpless, chronic stress that really induces damage in the brain that should be avoided.
While you do those things in your daily lives, we’re working on technological implementations that aren’t meant to replace them, but just act as tools to help optimize abilities that might not be potentially optimized otherwise.
Well, Adam, now to open up a whole rat’s nest. You said nutrition. Could you give us the one minute do’s and don’ts on nutrition for the brain?
Sure. Nutrition is as complicated as it gets when it comes to research because the types of randomized control trials that are easy, not necessarily easy, but very doable with pharmaceutical drugs, more challenging to do with video game treatments, but doable – we’ve shown that now – are even more difficult to do with nutrition.
Those randomized double blind placebo controlled trials are hard to pull off. There’s not a lot of data. We’ve constantly seen as professionals, health professionals, change our recommendations, which I think a lot is due to this challenge that I just described.
But the data, at least on the aging perspective of living long, not just long, but long well with a healthy brain, I would say the data is strongest for the Mediterranean diet, so nuts, legumes, fruits, vegetables, olive oil, even red wine finds itself on that list.
Trying to maintain that more whole food diet, which I think probably a lot of your readers already locked into this type of advice. I would say that’s where the strongest data lives.
All right. Now can you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?
I have a quote that I actually came up with that some of my friends like to share back to me at certain times, especially when I might not be following it is as much as I should. I once said, “All of life is a celebration of life.”
I do think it’s a good reminder because many times we’re always sort of seeking this like peak experience that is like the culmination of what you’ve been working for. You tend to sort of just drive right by all the little wins and all the little joys that happen.
I experience that as well. But I do try to pull myself out of that pattern and really just celebrate it all, all of life. That’s one that I try to keep dear and close to my heart.
From all your research, do you have a study that is a favorite or something that comes up again and again, either your own or from someone else?
Probably our most – definitely our most cited paper is our Nature paper in 2013 where we showed that our video game improves cognitive control in older adults.
I would say the other paper that I am really proud of that helped influence my career a lot, including The Distracted Mind, was a study I guess like 15 years ago now showing that when older adults have senior moments, what they feel like are memory challenges, they’re really attentional in nature. They’re more attention driven than memory per se specifically.
Even there the attention is not that they’re not focusing on what’s relevant to them, but they’re not ignoring or filtering the irrelevant information.
That attending and ignoring are not just two sides of the same coin. If you focus more, you’re not necessarily ignoring more. You can be focusing – and we found that six-year-olds focus like 20-year-olds, but where they fail is the filtering of irrelevant information.
When that gets in through the fortress gates, it creates interference with what they’re trying to remember and creates this degradation that’s experienced as these sort of memory losses.
I quite like that work. That study set off a whole series of studies showing more and more detail what was going on neutrally when these suppression deficits occur.
How about a favorite book?
I mean I really was incredibly influenced by books that were written in the ‘50s by Isaac Asimov called The Foundation series. It’s sort of in my mind the birth of science fiction.
I read a little bit of science fiction every day pretty much around the year because I – it pushes me to think about the future and outside of the box of what we’re experiencing right now. I feel like I go back to The Foundation every several years, read it again because it just sort of set the pace for how you look into the future in a way that’s not just about technology, but really about humanity.
How about a favorite tool, something you use that helps you be awesome at your job?
I have to say I use tablets a lot. I think I use them more than most people do. I use them in the gym. I use them on flights. I find it less burdensome a lot of times than laptops and more accessible than my phone. That’s something that I use for notes, for my calendar reminders. Yeah, I think that I probably engage in tablet use more than most people.
All right. How about a favorite habit?
I mean the habit that I’ve been doing since I’ve been 17 years old is going to the gym pretty much every day. I do a bit of aerobic exercise and a bit of weight training. I’m completely addicted to it.
When I don’t do it, if I’m just travelling and can’t and I even do it on the road, I don’t feel just the physical effects of it, but the entire full stack, like from the concentration to my mood and so I would say that habit, which has its burden – I’m a little bit of a slave to it – has much more benefits. I would say that would be the one.
Adam, if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?
That’s a fun one for me to answer because I have lots of entities as you just – as we talked about. But around just a couple days ago I finished putting together with my wife’s assistance – she’s an amazing web programmer – a website Gazzaley.com, so just my last name dot com.
There I sort of aggregate all the different things in my life from nature photography and wine making to all the things that we already talked about. That’s my new home base online.
Cool. Do you have a final challenge or call to action you’d issue to folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?
I think that the challenge is really to get to know yourself better. It sounds trite maybe, but it’s a process. It doesn’t come for free. It takes time and patience and honesty. But it goes a long way.
It’s not the full distance that you could go with just insight. You do have to have a plan and a strategy and work to break habits, but it is something that I have found really valuable to get in the practice of understanding how your brain is working and why you do certain things.
Perfect. Well, Adam, this has been such a treat. Thank you so much for taking this time and the great stuff you’re doing in the world. I’m looking forward to playing your games when they’re available. Just wish you all the best of luck.
Thank you so much. It was nice talking with you.