Debugging Brains on the Drive from Stanford to San Francisco

Elizabeth R. Ricker
Published in
4 min readMay 29, 2018


On a recent carpool back from a consulting project at 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.

“So, you study mental performance. Can you improve mine?” He asked. I looked at him calmly, and, with a straight face, told him: “No.”

He frowned at me. I remained straight faced. Finally, I laughed. “I’m kidding! I’m not saying I can’t help, I’m just saying I can’t do it for you.” He looked relieved. “Ok, so, you’re just saying, you want me to do work, too. You’re doing a ‘teach a man to fish so he can eat for a lifetime, don’t sell him a fish because he’ll just eat for one meal’ kind of thing?”

“Exactly,” I grinned back.

“Ok, ok,” He looked mollified. I rubbed my hands together.

“What’s your biggest annoyance when it comes to your brain?” I asked him. Adrian swallowed and looked away. “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 and people thought I was pretty smart.” He swallowed again, looked away with embarrassment, and then looked back with an expression that was part determination, part self-loathing, and a healthy heaping of curiosity.

Now, it was my turn to nod. I felt for him, regretting my earlier flippancy. “Adrian, just because you are high-achieving does not mean you are not struggling with attention. There are many, many reasons why a person can struggle with attention. They don’t 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 had been surprised many, many times after gathering real data on myself. The size of the gap between what I thought was going on and what was actually happening had been downright shocking at times. Sometimes, I was far 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 sobering: the hard data showed me just how far my improvement efforts would need to go.

Four areas feeding into (and out of) mental performance

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

I raised my fingers 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. The one I use most often is called Firepomo (disclosure: my husband wrote it and I consulted on its design). For time tracking, I’ve also used 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, sleep debt…these are all terrific. They both affect and are affected by your mental performance and productivity. One of my favorites is using heart rate variability, ideally through a reliable and high precision device like the Apple Watch.

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 more data with higher frequency 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: “Adrian” is not his real name.

Photo credit: Google Maps



Elizabeth R. Ricker

Author of “Smarter Tomorrow: How 15 Minutes of Neurohacking a Day Can Help You Work Better, Think Faster, and Get More Done” (Little, Brown Spark/Hachette).