Brain-hacking on the drive from Stanford to San Francisco

If you had 15 minutes to improve your brain each morning, what would you do?

I’ve been in pursuit of this question for somewhere between half a decade and my entire lifetime. This mild obsession has taken me through neuroscience research at MIT and Harvard, tech startups, and ultimately, it turned me into a human guinea pig.

On a recent carpool back from Stanford, Adrian*, a 22 year-old scientist asked me how he might optimize his mental performance. He seemed genuinely curious, so I decided to answer in detail. We lived near each other in the city, so there was plenty of time remaining before either of us had to get dropped off.

“Honestly, I couldn’t really tell you how to improve your mental performance.” Adrian looked confused and a little disappointed. Hadn’t I just said I studied this stuff? “What I can tell you is how you can figure it out on your own. How you could optimize your own mental performance.” He nodded. “More of a teach a man to fish approach, rather than just giving him a fish.”

“Ok,” I rubbed my hands together. “What’s your biggest annoyance when it comes to your brain?” Adrian swallowed. “Attention. I’ve had difficulty focusing ever since I was a kid. I was even brought in and tested for ADHD. I tested positive for having it, but no one believed it because I was pretty high-achieving.” He swallowed again, looked away with embarrassment, and then looked back with an expression that was equal parts determination and curiosity.

It was my turn to nod now. “Just because you are high-achieving does not mean that you are not struggling with attention. There are many, many reasons why you might be struggling with attention, and they don’t even necessarily have to do directly with cognition. Anxiety can masquerade as an attention problem, for instance. To figure out where your attention issues show up, you need to start investigating yourself like you would a subject in the lab. This time, the subject is you. Specifically, you’ll need personal data in four areas.”

As sun-kissed fields passed us on either side, a fog bank loomed in the highway just ahead — a signal that we were leaving the sunny South Bay and approaching San Francisco.

“Ok,” Adrian crossed his fingers. “What are the four areas?”

I began counting on my fingers. “You’ll want to get baselines in mental performance. In productivity — since that’s the output of your mental performance. In your vitals — because that feeds into both mental performance and productivity. Fourth, in your lifestyle habits.

As we drove through the fog, I explained the value of gathering personal data. I admitted to him that I had been surprised many, many times after gathering real data on myself. The size of the gap between what I thought I was going on and what was actually happening was downright shocking at times. Sometimes, it was a pleasant surprise: I was more productive than I expected, my mind was performing better, my vitals reflected exceptional health, my lifestyle habits were not that bad after all. Other times, it was discouraging, but having hard data showed me how and where to focus my improvement efforts.

Four areas feeding into (and out of) mental performance

“Sounds good, but how do you actually measure them?” He asked.

I raised my hand again and began enumerating each of the four areas:

  • Mental Performance: you can measure your mental performance indirectly using brain game-like cognitive tests as well as with specific biological tests. One of my favorites is Quantified Mind, created by a Google AI researcher and a former Harvard psychology professor.
  • Productivity: what you get done while you work, how many hours you work. You’ll need to use apps for this or special spreadsheets I can show you. Two of my favorites are often used by freelancers but they can be used by self-trackers, too: Harvest and Toggl.
  • Lifestyle: you’ll need to measure your sleep, exercise, and diet and track how those affect and are affected by your mental performance and productivity. I created my own Google Forms and put a link in a daily Google Calendar event to remind me to fill them out.
  • Vitals: pulse, respiration, temperature, blood components, saliva, poop…these are all terrific. They both affect and are affected by your mental performance and productivity. One of my favorite new finds is using the smartphone camera to capture your heart rate variability (HRV) and interpret it using Welltory.

Adrian commented, “Interesting that you don’t even need a neuroscience lab to measure those things.”

I smiled. “Yup, no neuroscience lab required. I’ve tried out dozens and dozens of tools, and now I focus exclusively on tools I can access at home because you can capture much more data and much more frequently that way. Even the FDA is acknowledging the value of Real World Data these days. Sometimes, my friends and I make custom tools from scratch, but that’s not strictly necessary.” Adrian looked like he was about to ask a question — about those homemade custom tools or about recommended self-experiments — but we were running out of time. We were entering the city, and my house was first on the drop-off list.

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Notes: I received no financial kickbacks for any of the links above. Unrelatedly, “Adrian” is a pseudonym.

Photo credit: Google Maps