Notes from the Huberman Lab Podcast with Dr. Alia Crum on mindset, health, and performance
Mindset plays a crucial role in our overall health and performance. Our core beliefs about certain things, such as stress, can greatly impact how we respond to them. For example, if we believe that intelligence is fixed, we may not be motivated to improve our minds and memory or to keep learning.
However, if we believe that intelligence is malleable and can change throughout life, we will be more motivated to continue learning, be curious, and not give up as easily. Mindset can also change how our body responds. In this article, I list a few of the takeaways from this episode of the Huberman Lab podcast.
This concept was demonstrated in the famous milkshake experiment conducted by Dr. Alia Crum. The study found that when people believed that a milkshake was more nutrient-dense, their levels of the hunger hormone Ghrelin (the hunger hormone) were lower, effectively suppressing their hunger. This suggests that when we eat, adopting a mindset of indulgence and feeling satisfied with the amount of food we consume directly impacts our body’s response.
Have you ever found it strange that some people live a healthy long life eating a diet you might consider horrible? Could it be that their beliefs about food, the social aspects, and the placebo effect plays a role here? That is not to say we should abandon what science clearly shows as healthy and not, but our mindset about what and how much we eat plays a role we cannot ignore — for example, the stress and anxiety about not eating healthy and our beliefs about the impact of stress can potentially make us less healthy.
Later in the episode, Dr. Huberman brought up influencers and their impact on our perceptions of diet and health. For some, this might seem a good and inspirational thing. We may have created a personal bubble into which the algorithm is feeding. When looking at this topic objectively, the reality is very different.
The norm focuses on unhealthy, high-sugar, highly processed, high-fat foods. The language and imagery accompanying this also revolve around excitement, danger, sexiness, fun, etc. On the flip side of the coin, when talking about healthy food, the language is more around depravity, nutritious food being boring and a necessary evil.
The study further found that when analyzing the nutritional content of the food, 70–90% of it would not pass the legal requirements for advertising what is classified as healthy food in the UK.
The placebo effect is also a powerful example of how our mindset can affect our health. Commonly a drug is deemed beneficial if it outperforms the placebo during trials. Dr. Alia suggests that we should nonetheless not discount the placebo effects role. What we know about mindset clearly shows that the placebo effect, what we believe about the drug’s efficacy, social feedback, and our body’s ability to heal itself all play a role.
This concept also applies to exercise. A study conducted on hotel housekeepers produced some interesting results. The workers spend most of their days climbing stairs, pushing trollies, cleaning rooms, making beds, and other physical duties. These workers were more than likely getting more than the recommended 30 minutes of moderate exercise daily. However, when asked by the researchers how much exercise they believed they were getting, a third said they were getting no exercise. On average, study participants reported a three on a scale of one to ten. Again, this is a clear example of our mindset working against us. Our general belief is that work and exercise cannot happen simultaneously. It could also signal something much deeper. If we do not enjoy our work, we cannot associate it with anything healthy, like exercise.
Based on this, the study randomized the workers into two groups. The one group was the control. The other group was informed about the benefits they should already be getting from the exercise and how it measures up to the surgeon general’s guidelines on exercise.
After four weeks, they surveyed the participants again. Those women who were informed of the benefits of the moderate exercise they were already doing lost weight, lowered their systolic blood pressure by an average of 10 points, and reported feeling better overall.
It is, therefore, important to be mindful of how we motivate people to exercise. We need to acknowledge what they are already doing. There could also be a benefit in measuring activity in relation to one’s peers rather than a single generalized measurement. So, be active, but also take care of, and be aware of your mindset in relation to exercise.
To briefly touch on sleep and mindset. For some people, using a sleep tracker can be beneficial and act as positive reinforcement. Again, we need to be careful here. If the data we get from the tracker causes stress and anxiety, it might be better to self-report based on how you feel when waking up in the morning. If you generally feel tired, demotivated, or groggy upon waking, look at factors contributing to this and make some adjustments. The one adjustment you need to make might be your mindset.
Stress is another area where the messaging is often focused on the negative. However, our bodies and minds respond differently if we view a stressor as a challenge rather than a threat.
In South Africa, we have a failing power grid. This has led to load shedding, a situation that has presented South Africans with immense challenges, stress, and anxiety about the future. With that said, what if we reframe it as a challenge or, dare I say, an opportunity? A challenge to find out how we can be less dependent on a single source for all of our electricity needs. For some, this is not an option as they have financial constraints. Can we be creative and find ways to create local shared utilities that a community can use? How can we do more offline when internet access is impacted by load shedding? Can we work together to identify and report fraud and vandalism? These are some of the topics that spring to mind when we change our mindset around the stressor.
A similar topic was discussed in the podcast (recorded 11 months ago at the time of writing) that is very relevant to the current situation regarding layoffs, especially in the technology sector. A study looking at the impact of mindset on workers facing layoffs found that those with positive coping mechanisms and who embraced the potential for post-traumatic growth experienced less stress than those who were only presented with the negative impacts of stress and losing one’s employment.
The study was done by splitting the participants into three groups. One control, the second was shown 9 minutes of video footage on the negative impact of stress, and the final group was shown a video on the positive effects of stress. As mentioned, the final group experienced less stress, fewer body aches, and were experiencing less anxiety overall.
Interestingly, for the second group, nothing much changed. In other words, the videos that showed the negative impact of stress did not worsen their response. The hypothesis here is that it is because that is the general messaging already out there in the world. So, the brain treats it as just more of the same.
This demonstrates the importance of being mindful of our beliefs, the messaging we receive about stress and change in life, and how it affects our behavior. By adopting a mindset of optimism and positivity, we can improve our mindset and enhance our overall well-being. The language used to describe stress, or any other emotion is also critical. Dr. Huberman caught himself asking the question, “How do we cope with stress better?” and reworded it to, “How can we leverage the effects of stress for our benefit?”. Reframing the question results in a vastly different set of outcomes.
When asked the question, Dr. Crum had a wonderful answer. We experience stress about things we care about, not things we do not care about. She outlines the following three steps to embrace stress.
- Acknowledge and own the stress.
- Welcome it because it is inherently related to something we deeply care about.
- Utilize the stress response to achieve what we deeply care about instead of wasting our energy trying to get rid of the stress.
When I heard this, Dr. Tara Brach’s RAIN meditation method immediately came to mind. RAIN is an acronym that stands for the following.
Dr. Crum puts it very well when asked about instilling a better mindset in our children. Most of us know the dinner table story: “eat your broccoli, or there will be no desert.” If you objectively think about this, what does it tell the child? It says that the delicious, fun, indulgent thing is the desert, and the broccoli is this terrible thing you must push through to get to the good part.
You can see how this does not instill a very good mindset around food, particularly healthy food. This demonstrates another example of how the language we use shapes our mindset and, in return, shapes our choices and what we enjoy and do not.
In conclusion, our mindset can significantly impact our health and performance. By being mindful of our beliefs and how they affect our behavior, we can take steps to improve our mindset and enhance our overall well-being.
I hope you found this useful. I highly recommend listening to the entire episode as there is even more great advice and insights not captured here. Let me know what you think about mindset, how we talk about stress, food, and exercise, and what has worked for you.
Super short personal update
For those who have been following my story here on Medium, thank you! It has been a long time since I last posted anything here. I am doing well, life has its ups and downs, but I have come to accept most of it. Nobody is perfect. 😁
In terms of sobriety. I am today 337 days sober.