Episode 20: Adam Gazzaley on the Distracted Mind During a Crisis

Adam Gazzaley
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Matt Mullenweg speaks with neuroscientist Dr. Adam Gazzaley, co-author of the 2016 book The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World, about how our brains work, particularly during times like the current pandemic. How does the brain handle internal and external stimuli, and what do we know about the effect of practices like meditation, exercise, nutrition, and sleep? 

Gazzaley obtained an M.D. and Ph.D. in Neuroscience at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, completed Neurology residency at the University of Pennsylvania, and postdoctoral training in cognitive neuroscience at University of California, Berkeley. He is currently the David Dolby Distinguished Professor of Neurology, Physiology and Psychiatry at University of California, San Francisco, and the Founder & Executive Director of Neuroscape, a translational neuroscience center at UCSF.

Gazzaley co-authored The Distracted Mind with Larry D. Rosen, and he’s a scientist who enjoys seeing his work solve real-world problems. He’s also founded startups, including Akili Interactive and Sensync, to build technology products that enhance learning, mindfulness, and well-being. More can be found at his website, gazzaley.com

A full transcript of the episode is below.


(Intro Music)

MATT MULLENWEG: Hello everybody and welcome back to the Distributed Podcast. We’ve all had to make so many adjustments in recent weeks and some of them quite radical. I hope that wherever you are and wherever you might be tuning in from this process has been going smoothly for you, or at least as painlessly as one might hope under these circumstances. 

In conversations with my colleagues at Automattic and with people at many other companies, both distributed and not, one common thread I keep seeing is how difficult it has been to stay focused in recent weeks. I have been struggling with this as well. We’ve been dealing with non-stop bad news. Many of us have either been directly affected by Covid 19 or know people who have, either health-wise, financially, or socially. Even more of us have had to learn how to work from a new or dramatically changed environment. 

So for this episode, I wanted to talk to someone who knows a lot about focus, distraction, and changing our work habits. I couldn’t think of any person more fitting than neuroscientist — and my friend — Adam Gazzaley. 


MATT:  Welcome, Adam.

ADAM GAZZALEY: Thank you, great to be here, Matt. 

MATT: Just to set the stage a little bit for listeners who might not be familiar with your work, you have written.. is it over 130 academic papers?

ADAM: Yes, yes. Peer reviewed, more scientific-style papers, correct. 

MATT: Even some on the cover of Nature, which is like Sports Illustrated for scientists.

ADAM: [laugher] Yes. My musician friends would say it’s my Rolling Stone cover. But yes, that was several years ago, but it was an exciting one.

MATT: How would you describe the area of your passion that you’ve devoted your life’s work to?

ADAM: It has migrated, maybe evolved, as I like to think of it, over the last 30 years, but yes, it’s been pretty much exactly… I would say 2020 is 30 years since I’ve been in the neuroscience world. I started grad school in 1990 in New York City at Mt. Sinai. I was trained as both a neuroscientist and a neurologist, so both the clinical and the scientific side. 

And my research has always had some common elements, a focus on plasticity of the brain, or the ability of our brain to remodel and optimize its function in response to the environment. I focused on neural networks, which is the phenomena that our brain doesn’t work as just these isolated islands but really as an interconnected network of communication that’s constantly and dynamically changing all the time. And aging has been a main aspect of my research. 

And I preserved those focus areas through the last 30 years although I’ve moved from animal research, looking under a microscope at the beginning days, all the way to today where I focus on human research using functional brain imaging and tools to understand how the human brain interacts with the environment around us.

MATT: Was there any particular personal experience that brought you to attention and focus?

ADAM: My research focus when I was a graduate student was more on memory systems and how they change with aging. After I finished my residency in neurology and moved to San Francisco to work at Berkeley and study human neuroscience, I became very interested in what I can do as a scientist that was most relevant to people, not just what was relevant to other neuroscientists or was following an iterative path across the field, but what did people actually care about in their lives. 

So this was like mid-2000s, like say 2003-2004, when I was moving my research into cognitive neuroscience, using tools such as functional brain imaging, non-invasive brain stimulation. And I became very fascinated by how people interacted with their environment in ways that were positive for their performance and their mental health and ways that were negative. 

And at that time there wasn’t a lot of understanding about the impact of interference in our performance, things like distraction and multitasking weren’t really in the zeitgeist yet of how they may impair our abilities. At that time it was considered a badge of honor if you were a good multitasker, whatever that may mean. 

And so I was really fascinated by the idea of doing research on a topic that spoke to people so directly about things that were relevant to their lives. And so around 2005, I really turned my own sites full time into studying attention in the brain, specifically how we manage interference successfully and unsuccessfully. 

MATT: At a physical level what happens when we pay attention to something?

ADAM: Well attention is such a fascinating concept and one that is worthy of an hour just to unpack it. But just to not go off on an incredibly long tangent as I try to answer that question, I’ll be very specific by what I mean by attention because attention has many, many different aspects to it. 

What I assume you meant by that is what we call top-down attention, goal-directed attention. We also have this amazing ability to pay attention to things that are not in our goals. We call that bottom-up attention. It’s how we survived is that you could pick up a very subtle trace, even if you didn’t intend to, of a threat or food or a mate in the environment. This is largely what drives other animals’ attentional processing. 

MATT: Do those signals make it all the way to the frontal lobe or are they handled some place lower?

ADAM: A lot of those signals are just handled even at the brainstem, some of them even in the spinal cord. You could prick your finger and withdraw without it even going into your brain, a lot of that can happen very local, very reflexive, input-output circuits. 

The frontal lobe, which you mentioned, is the most evolved part of the human brain and it is really the seat of the top-down attention. And other animals have it to some degree but most of what we might look at an animal as goal-directed behavior, many of it is not, it’s really this complex but very reflexive response to environmental stimuli.

But the top-down attention, that very human-based attention, is the one where we decided based upon our goals and decisions that we make about what we pay attention to and what we ignore. And when we do that, you’re right, it is a process that is driven by neural networks that really involve the prefrontal cortex. And when we look at it inside an MRI scanner with EEG  — and this is what I’ve been doing for almost 15 years now, 15 years actually just this year —  is that we see that there is communication between brain areas that involve the prefrontal cortex and whatever other areas are involved in the operation. 

So, for example, if your attentional focus is a visual one, or maybe a visual and auditory one, then we see a network that involves the prefrontal cortex, which allows you to maintain that focus with visual cortical areas and auditory cortical areas. But it may also involve connections with the hippocampus if it involves memory, which it almost certainly does, or the amygdala if it has emotional content. 

And so that’s how we pay attention is that we activate these networks that have all the different component systems associated with whatever you’re engaged in. And what we find is that that network is maintained unless you are distracted or you multitask. But that is essentially what happens physically or neurally, which is a chemical and physical and physiological process in your brain.

MATT: This is a place where I was saying that you have a whole book on this called The Distracted Mind. And one of the things I found fascinating in the book was not just that your prefrontal lobe can activate different parts of your brain that might be associated with what you’re paying attention to, but it quiets the other parts. Can you talk about that?

ADAM: Yeah so we… It is impossible for us to take in all of the elaborate and extensive and diverse inputs that are available around us, even within one sensory modality, even visually you couldn’t, never less the fact that we have olfactory scent information and auditory information. And so we need to selectively process information that’s relevant to us. In this case we’re talking relevant to us based on our goals.

And so in order to accomplish that, our brain doesn’t just focus our limited resources on whatever you consider relevant but it actually actively suppresses the information that has been deemed irrelevant. It’s sort of like a filter system. 

This was a lot of my early work. A lot of scientists thought that maybe the filter was a passive filter, like the active process was focus and then everything else was passively suppressed just because it wasn’t getting the spotlight. What my research in like 2005 to 2008 and 2009 was showing was that the process of ignoring is as active as the process of attending. 

And you could imagine that it creates greater contrast, right? So if you were to be standing on the floor and the floor is your baseline and you jump up, you may add two feet, let’s say, or three feet if you’re really good at jumping. But if the floor also dropped down at the same time you jumped you could imagine that you would be jumping six feet off the floor. 

And so that’s how I picture it. It’s not that the baseline stays the same, the irreverent information actually drops down and becomes muffled and that’s what allows us to create even more precise processing of information that’s relevant. 

MATT: So when with things that can help you improve your ability to focus or not be distracted, like meditation, which part of that is meditation activating? Is it different for different types of meditation, like a mindfulness [meditation] versus a body scan?

ADAM: Yeah, meditation is such a wonderful topic and a complex one. At its core meditation really is attention-training no matter how you slice it, even across all the different types of meditation. I tend to think of meditation in two general categories — open-monitoring meditation and then concentrative, focused meditation. And they are quite different. 

Focused meditation has many, many different practices within it. So the most I would say common and traditional in many ways is breath-focused meditation, but focusing on a mantra, so a word or a phrase in your mind, focusing on a mental image or scanning your body would all fall into that category of concentrative meditation. And then open-awareness meditation is where there isn’t a predetermined focal point but rather you keep awareness to whatever arises and then let it move on and move to something else as that arises. 

And they are both forms of attention that involve maintenance and switching but the concentrative meditation is I would view as the clearest practice that would allow you to fine-tune your ability to control where your attention is because that’s essentially the nature of that practice. 

As a matter of fact, when I talk to meditation thought leaders, like Jack Kornfield, who is a good friend and a collaborator on many of our projects at UCSF, he would say that’s why most meditation, no matter where you wind up, whether it’s meta, like loving kindness and compassion meditation or some type of open-awareness meditation, it often starts with breath-focused meditation because that allows you to have control of where your attention is, and beyond control, it’s awareness of where your attention is. So I’d say that’s a twofold process.

MATT: I wonder if there’s a difference between when you’re focusing on something maybe abstract, like a mantra, versus the type of meditation where I’m trying to focus on a bodily sensation like the feeling of breath or a body scan, like how the top of your head feels, how you face feels? Because that seems more like sensations that are coming in that I was ignoring that I’m trying to pay attention to or be aware of.

ADAM: Yeah, it’s a great question and I have found very little scientific data on that. It’s something that Jack and I talk about and it’s really a great question because it’s an experiment that we’re planning on running. 

We just ran a five-year study and project to build a meditation closed loop experience — and we can break that down a little bit if you’re interested — but essentially a meditation practice that’s very different than people have done previously but one delivered by technology, which makes it more accessible, but also baby-steps you into the focus of breath meditation. And what we found, we actually just had a paper accepted today, I just found out this morning — 

MATT:  Awesome.

ADAM:  — to a nature journal, yeah, Translational Psychiatry, and we had a paper accepted maybe six months ago to another nature journal, Human Behavior. The previous paper was on healthy 20-year-olds and the paper accepted today was on children, actually adolescents from India with adverse life events, really traumatic events that had attentional problems. And in both populations we showed that six weeks of this breath-focused meditation game improves their ability to focus their attention in a goal-directed way and in the children we showed benefits even a year later.

And to bring this around to the question you asked, one of the really interesting future studies that we’re planning now is how would the benefits that we achieved with the breath-focused version compare to a different focal point? And I would go so far as to say how about if that focal point is not even a body sensation but an externally delivered sensory input?

For example, our game is played on an iPad or a phone where you close your eyes and you focus internally on your breath, you monitor your awareness of where your breath is, if your focus deviates from your breath, you return it. We can have the same exact type of method but now you’re focused on a flame that you’re looking at on your device — would that improve attention the same way? Might it have the same advantages for your attention but maybe a different advantage or disadvantage in terms of your stress reductions which is another benefit that we have also determined?

So it’s a great question. We do not know all the different positive benefits that might come from different focal points during a meditative practice but it’s something we are very interested in.

MATT: Awesome. And Neuroscape is the name of your lab at UCSF, correct?

ADAM: Correct. So my lab used to, as most professors, used to be named after me, Gazzaley Lab. And I started that 15 years ago at UCSF. And it’s become so big really with our Nature cover that we talked about before, and other activities that now we’re a center at UCSF. So instead of a lab being pretty much defined by having a single PI, principal investigator, now we have multiple faculty members and we’re almost 40 people. 

So Neuroscape is a not-for-profit research center at University of California San Francisco. And it did evolve from my lab. And what we do is focus on how we can use technology to improve brain function and also assess brain function but in a more real world way than we have accomplished previously. 

MATT: You had four categories of — I don’t want to mess up the terminology — but there was internal, external…?

ADAM: Back in 2005, when I started studying interference, I was frustrated when I read the scientific literature because there was no conceptual framework for how to think about interference. Some people call distraction one thing and other people refer to distraction as something else. 

And I was like, it’s okay, there’s no right or wrong, but we need to just have a common language, semantics, that we use so that we know that we’re talking about the same thing. So I created this taxonomy of interference that I use and I think others have used it since then and that is thinking about interference in two main categories. 

One is what I call distraction and the other is what I call multitasking. And I define them differently based upon your goals. And they both have an internal and an external component. But let’s just start with distraction and multitasking.

So distraction is when you have a singular goal. Like your goal as a listener might be right now to listen to what Matt and I are talking about and that’s your primary goal. And that means that everything that falls outside of that is technically a distraction. So since you’re working from home, if your children are running by, that’s a distraction, if your vacuum cleaner is going off in the next room, that’s a distraction. And your goal is to filter all that information and maintain sole focus on what you’re listening to. So anything outside of the goal of focus is a distraction. 

Now on the other side of the interference coin is multitasking. Now you have more than one goal. So maybe one of your goals is to listen to this podcast but your other goal, which would be, I think, a foolish goal, is to check your email, right? 

So we know very well that you can’t actually accomplish both of those goals at the same time. And the reason people would say multitasking is a myth is because from a behavioral point of view, sure, you’re multitasking, you’re listening to the podcast, you’re going through the email, but if you look at what happens in the brain during this type of dual activity is that you’re not multitasking in the true parallel-processing sense that a computer might be able to run two different processing streams simultaneously without interference. 

What’s happening in your brain is that the network involved in listening to this podcast, involving the prefrontal cortex, your auditory cortex, other regions, when you switch over to reading that email, this network is essentially disabled and a new network is activated. And then when you come back to the podcast you have to deactivate that network and come back again. 

What we do not see in our studies and other research shows is that those two networks that both demand attention can be maintained with high fidelity simultaneously. And so that’s why I and others will sometimes say multitasking is a myth because when it comes down to what occurs in your brain, we are showing that you’re not capable of maintaining them in parallel. 

So what happens is you switch between these networks and with each switch there is what we call a cost. There is a loss of some of the high-resolution information that has to be reactivated. And you can feel that in something obvious like listening to this and doing an email, you know that you can’t do both of them at the same time. You could just empirically assess it in your own behavior. But for other things it’s more subtle. You may not realize that you actually have a performance cost, but you do. We see it all the time. 

So those are the two types of interference — distraction and multitasking. And they are different in how they occur in the brain. And we have published multiple papers showing that. 

And then for each of them they can occur internally or externally. So just to quickly summarize what that would be… So, a distraction, you’re listening to this podcast, you could have an external distraction, which is what I mentioned, your child running by, a vacuum cleaner going off, if the TV is on something dramatic might happen that pulls you away. That is an external distraction. 

But you could have an internal distraction too. Like I said, your stomach may grumble and you’re like, “oh I’m hungry,” and now you’ve been distracted from your task by something that essentially arose internally. Or, you may just have a memory of something, like a bad event that happened yesterday. 

For multitasking that could happen externally or internally too. So the example I’ve described about listening to the podcast and multitasking by doing your emails are two external forces. But you could be listening to the podcast and also planning your day. So then you have an external focus but also an internal focus going simultaneously. 

And so that just gives you a little flavor of how complex the world of interference is, is that it occurs across these two different domains but has both internal and external variance.

MATT: What does it mean or why do some people think that they are able to better focus if they’re in a cafe or have some background noise or something like that?

ADAM: Mm, that is a great question that has very little data in the scientific literature. We published one paper on that topic about why do people seek out environments that would almost universally be described as distraction-inducing environments as opposed to low-distraction environments to do something that they need to focus on. I call it the coffee shop effect. I don’t think that’s a name but that’s how we talk about it internally.

It just makes sense that if you were doing something that involved focus you should go to a quiet library rather than a busy coffee shop if you’re just thinking about the brain in terms of interference, what I just described. But humans are complicated and there are several [factors] that I hypothesize are involved there. 

One is the arousal aspect, that being in an environment that is stimulating can help maintain your focus just by maintaining your arousal. So arousal and attention are not the same thing. One is a wakefulness measure, which is arousal and drowsiness and the other is where your resources are directed, which is attention. But they intersect with each other. So if you’re drowsy, it’s harder to maintain attention. So if you’re in a stimulating environment you can have better attention just because your arousal level is higher and it could also affect your mood. Like, you’re in a better mood and that can also have intersects with attention abilities. 

The other thing that’s interesting, and this is what we have started investigating, is that it is possible, and this is still a hypothesis although we’re starting to show evidence, that having external distractions may help you decrease internal distractions. In other words, you’re in a coffee shop and the act of suppressing some of the cacophony that’s around you is also helping you suppress your internal mind wandering, which is the internal distraction. 

In other words, you’ve engaged your suppression system and that’s quieting down your own internal mind wandering and allowing you to focus. So if you’re in a library you don’t have that external need to suppress your environment and so now you may find it harder to focus on… let’s say you’re writing an article or reading an article… you have a harder time doing it because your mind keeps wandering. That’s a hypothesis but it’s one that I think is true and we’re trying to maintain, to get some evidence for that now.

MATT: And do I remember correctly that most internal distractions or interference tend to be negative?

ADAM: Yes.

MATT: So would having positive (external) interference, maybe keep those internal negative from bobbing up?

ADAM: Yes, that may be. That would be an interesting hypothesis. And that could be done in an experiment by presenting both positive and negative external stimuli and seeing how it regulates your attentional focus, which is something that we’re actually planning on doing. I’ll come back to that in one moment.

But that study was not done by us. It was actually published in Science. I’m unfortunately forgetting the last author’s name right now. But what it showed was that if you experience sample, meaning that you have a device — I think it was done by phone — that periodically just pings you and says hey, where is your focus right now, it finds that most people are mind-wandering most of the time and that when they are it’s usually on something negative, which was a really fascinating finding, that that’s where people tend to travel to in their mind-wandering. 

And some of that is occurring even while they should be doing something else, or they’re trying to do something else, like have a conversation with a significant other or have sex or other things that you think should be absorbing their attention completely. So yes, most mind-wandering does fall on the negative side, it seems. 

MATT: To me that’s the most interesting part of meta, or loving kindness meditations. And as you expand that sort of circle of loving kindness, I guess some people put yourself in the beginning and some people put it at the end as it gets harder.

ADAM: Yes. And some people even remove that part of it for beginners because it is in many ways the most complicated. It’s something that I talk about with Jack. We are actually building a meta loving kindness version of Meta Train, which is the app that I described that we just had our second paper published, so moving from beyond breath focus to focusing on words of love and kindness and compassion and empathy. And I think we’re actually not including a self-focus because it is incredibly complicated for all these interesting reasons. It doesn’t mean it should be avoided always but it is really interesting to understand how the act of being kind to yourself is as complicated as it is. 

MATT: So much resistance.

ADAM: Yes. 

MATT: And for listeners who want to learn more, Jack Kornfield, that’s Kornfield with K, right?

ADAM: Correct. 

MATT: And Sharon Salzberg is another great proponent of loving kindness meditation.

ADAM: Yes, she has some great books as well.

MATT: One of the things I’ve noticed for myself is that sometimes these bottom-up interference distractions are mixed up. So sometimes I’ll think I’m hungry or I have the feeling of being hungry, but actually I’m anxious or I’m procrastinating or things like that.

ADAM: Mhm.

MATT: So what’s going on there?

ADAM: I think that what you’re describing is just like what I always think of as the tip of the iceberg. We have the 90% bulk of the iceberg, like a whole internal milieu, which is a combination of the sensory inputs, our own memories and reflections that exist below awareness. And then what we experience as our consciousness is really that tip where it bubbles up into our ability to be introspective about it. 

And because it’s not singular, it’s not like it’s just 100% anxiety, 100% hunger, 100% joy, it’s complicated, it’s really difficult to understand what is the content of our consciousness at any moment. I think a lot of what comes from a meditation practice is a better ability to be able to make sense of that, that internal space that is now in your conscious awareness. 

So the act of being meta, not the same meta that we were just talking about, or loving kindness, but the meta in terms of awareness of your own awareness, right? The understanding of your own world, of your own understanding, is a complicated one. It’s one that I think we take for granted. It’s like, oh, it’s my brain, I know what’s going on. But it’s really not very easy and it takes years of practice to be able to distinguish between things that may have very similar physiological responses, like anxiety and hunger. They are very ancient forces, like fear, that really are trying to capture your bottom-up attention because there is a survival advantage in your attention being drawn to them. 

But the way that they do it is not necessarily so sophisticated. So there’s lots of overlap. It’s not like there is a perfectly discrete signal for fear that has no overlap with that signal for hunger or even excitement. So yes, it takes time to be able to distill out all the components of what may be the subject of your awareness at any moment. 

MATT: And the more you think of something does it strengthen those neural pathways, make it easier to think of it in the future or more likely to?

ADAM: It does so through memory. So there is this really amazing description of memory that you only have one perceptual event, which is when it occurs. And everything after is just a reactivation of the memory, which is why memories change all the time. You’re really not remembering the original perceptual event but every subsequent memory is the memory of the memory. There was only one chance for the perceptual event to be sort of laid into your brain as an event. 

So yes, if you keep returning to them… And this happens for good things and it happens for bad things, right? It’s part of what post-traumatic stress disorder is and why it is so debilitating is that very, very salient events that have high emotional content get repeatedly embedded in your networks and then they return both when you want them to and when you don’t want them to. So yes, that is both a positive and negative aspect of how perception and attention and memory intersect.

MATT: What do we think is the evolutionary reason for emotions? I think I can guess it for attention and goal-setting and everything but what about emotions?

ADAM: Emotions is the tagging of both memories and perceptual events that gives our attentional abilities some sort of rationale for its direction. If you imagine interacting with the world without any emotional content, all of your decisions would be based completely on… I guess I’m going to use a term here that is not devoid of emotion… but based on intellectual decisions — right — based on pure logic, like the Star Trek, Vulcan way. And the emotional elements of it definitely give it a different flavor, they may override some of the more logical decisions in a way that has survival advantages. 

So all of these aspects of our internal space and consciousness that we currently experience all had at some point some evolutionarily driven advantage. And you can imagine before we maybe even had sophisticated logic processing, I’m not saying that it’s sufficient right now, but the emotional content is what drove our decision making. Things that led to stronger fear responses led to a more consistent behavioral response of not engaging in whatever caused that fear and things that led to great joy and pleasure and happiness become reinforced and allow you to pursue it again.

So it’s a very ancient process that tags different perceptual events as being either positive or negative and allows you to engage in them repetitively or avoid them. 

MATT: It would be amazing to understand that better as well, like why meditation can provide that very pleasant feeling or sensation.

ADAM: Yeah. I mean, emotion and its intersection with other aspects of cognition, like attention and memory and perception and decision making, is what gets me so excited about modern-day neuroscience. 

I think that it’s true for all of science, in my perspective, is that us humans, we really like to put things in categories and study them, in like this chapter and that book. It just doesn’t work like that in the real world and in the brain. 

These phenomena are incredibly dynamically interactive. There is no such thing as emotion devoid from attention and perception and memory and decision making and all these other aspects. And I feel like neuroscience is reaching that stage now where we have accepted that the isolated focus approach is not really helping us understand the brain in the real world. And so it’s more complicated and it takes a whole different type of multivariate analytical approaches to understand complex systems in that way but that’s where I think neuroscience is arriving. And I think a lot of good will come from us thinking about the brain and cognition and behavior in that manner. 

MATT: Well you are a scientist but you also run an organization. What professionally has changed for you since COVID-19 started?

ADAM: Well it’s been quite complicated, as it is for everyone. I mean we all have our own stories and they are all important and fascinating in their own ways. And we have multiple stories. We have our personal story, how are you interacting with your family or your co-shelter-er or by yourself, with yourself, if you are… certainly if you are sheltering alone. 

And then there’s the professional story — how are you still engaging in your work if your work even exists during this phase? And these stories obviously intersect more than they ever did now — holding meetings with your baby on your lap would be an example. 

In my particular case I am sheltering with one other person, my wife, who I also happen to work with, so that helps. So my story is already interwoven between professional and personal. 

I’m in a situation that I find very challenging because we have almost 48 employees at my research center, at Neuroscape, and I feel a personal… I don’t know, burden is not the right word… a personal responsibility, although sometimes it does feel burdensome, to make sure that everyone is okay, that they are safe and that they are happy and of course that they are productive. And that is a weight that I guess was always there but didn’t feel quite so in my face or in my brain as it does right now. 

So personally that has been a really challenging journey over the last… now we’re in our sixth week… of really making sure that every one of these human beings and their families are as safe, in all the ways that we think of as safe, as they can be. So that’s a lot of my burden. 

From being the director of this center I also have an obligation to make sure that not only are we safe and healthy and happy but that we are productive, that we are meeting the obligations and the mission that we’ve set to understand the brain and help people, that we are meeting the obligations that we have to our funders, whether they are philanthropists or the government, like the NIH, and that we are doing the type of work that gives us satisfaction and feel a sense of personal growth, not just productivity.

And so that’s the world that I have been in is trying to both maintain my own personal self-care and make sure that I’m feeling both happy and capable of being a leader and then making sure that my team is and that we are also still doing research in this really challenging time. 

MATT: Let’s start with you. So, being one of the world experts, having read probably thousands of papers about the brain and everything, what have you found are the most important things that you do to bring your best to your work?

ADAM: I think I keep having this mental image, because I haven’t flown in a long time, but I fly a lot, I know you fly a lot too, Matt, and I wrap around the world pretty continuously largely giving lectures in various countries for the last decade. 

And, you know, you go on the plane and you try to ignore that message about how to fly because you’ve heard it thousands of times. But this one part of it that has stuck in my brain now, which is the part where they describe that you put on your mask before you put on the mask for your child, which feels so counterintuitive but obviously they tell it every time because you can’t protect your child if you haven’t made sure that you’re going to survive enough to do so. And I feel that that is sort of the message that I try to embody right now, that if I don’t have my own self-care and make sure that I’m physically, mentally, emotionally healthy I can’t help my team at all.

And so I do pay a lot of attention to make sure that I am maintaining the routines, even enhancing the routines that I have taken from my own self-maintenance, through this period. So my diet, my exercise, my sleep, my quality time with my significant other and friends, even if it has to be done virtually, those are super important for me now. They don’t feel superficial or frivolous or that I’m not doing my work or that I’m not taking care of my team. Because if I fall in any of those capacities, I’m not going to be able to function at the level that I think my team needs me to.

So I would say that’s the first message, is like self-care has never been more important than it is right now. 

MATT: Wow. And do you have anything specific around food, sleep, exercise that you find works really well for you, that you would recommend?

ADAM: Oh yeah, I have too much for us to cover in this one podcast. [laughter] It’s like my obsession right now. So okay, I’ll just tell you a couple from my own life. These are not necessarily recommendations for anyone. I haven’t vetted these with careful research. 

But I schedule in my calendar my workout times. I have found… and I did this actually beforehand but now I even do it more… I find that these are the things that disappear if they’re not there. My assistant, who does a lot of my scheduling, will just… She will literally fill any unoccupied space. And so I put these in there as important as any podcast that I’m doing or any research or any important meeting.

So I think that it is very important to make sure that you treat your exercise as prioritized as anything else. So I put them in there and I never miss them.

MATT: What effect does exercise have on the mind? 

ADAM: Oh, exercise has more data for preserving the health of our mind, especially with aging, than I would say any other intervention that we have ever studied. And some of that is because it happens to be very well studied, not that nutrition is not important but it’s a lot harder to do the type of randomized control blinded studies on nutritional interventions as it is on physical exercise. But physical exercise, both in terms of resistance training and aerobic training has a plethora of really, really convincing data throughout the lifespan, especially on children and older adults, but it’s there throughout. 

And so it has benefits both acutely on your mental functioning and chronically, so long term. So it is incredibly important both in the moment and the sustained benefits in terms of how your brain functions, even in terms of how it intersects with things like the onset of dementia. So it’s incredibly important for older adults that may not have the ability to do heavy weight training or running, even walking in the neighborhood has shown to be beneficial. 

I know it’s all complicated now in terms of what’s appropriate to do outside and what isn’t and it depends on where you’re living. But as much as possible using physical exercise to help your mental state and the function of your brain I would give almost the highest checkmarks to. 

MATT: You mentioned nutrition. Any strong connections there?

ADAM: Yeah, the best data for nutrition and the brain really is around a diet known as the Mediterranean Diet. And many of your listeners may be familiar with it. I would say it’s not because it is the perfect diet necessarily, I think it has a lot of great things, but I think it has been the best studied diet in terms of the brain, especially related to aging. And you’re probably familiar with it, it’s fish and olive oil, nuts and legumes, vegetables, red wine falls in the diet, which makes a lot of people happy. Yeah, so that’s how I try to eat most of the time. 

I would say that some of the unique COVID challenges are the fact that you’re now a lot closer to your refrigerator than you ever have been before and using food as a stress reliever or as something to do when you’re bored is not the best idea. I think just like we schedule our workouts, I think food and eating should also be quite diligently scheduled. 

MATT: And finally sleep was one you mentioned.

ADAM: Yes, sleep is an amazing, amazing field of research. It has become more in the awareness and fortunately the public zeitgeist than ever before. A good friend of mine, Matthew Walker, wrote an amazing book, Why We Sleep. I actually wrote a recommendation for it on the back of that book because I really enjoyed and felt that the message is so critical. 

We know that sleep is important for all of our functioning but when it comes to the brain, our memory consolidation and our ability to maintain focus, it’s critical. So finding the right conditions that lead to both time of sleep, being seven hours plus, as well as the quality of sleep, is also critical. And this intersects with technology, like not necessarily engaging in technology late at night.

I would add again another COVID-specific piece of advice is that I don’t think it’s healthy to listen to the news all day. I’m not saying that you should be uninformed but just like all other distractions, like in the context of the Distracted Mind, I think that there is a diminishing return in having a cluttered workspace and having a cluttered mind. And that this act of being attached to a news source is likely not going to help any of the things that you need to stay healthy, especially doing it right before you go to sleep.

So at least personally I have set, just like I have scheduled times for exercise and eating, I also schedule time for news consumption. It is not something that I do all day long and it is not something that I use as a break. Breaks are really important but breaks are not all created equal. So the break of going on social media or listening to the news I would say is not a great break. It leads to a lot of emotional distress, it could take you through a wormhole where it pulls you away from your goals. 

I would say much better breaks are looking at nature, even if you can’t see nature from your window, but looking at even a screensaver of nature. I would say meditation, maybe doing some light physical exercise, some pushups or some squats, these are the type of breaks that are better to take to give you some restoration when you’re working rather than going on to news or social media.

MATT: Like I mentioned, there’s a lot of people struggling with this environment right now. Is there any other practical advice you would give for others or that you have given to your teammates for how to operate in this very stressful and anxiety-inducing time?

ADAM: Yeah, those are a lot of them. I think that… I mentioned this before but I’ll mention it again… is clutter. In the context of the Distracted Mind and the concepts that we talked about, that our brain has an inability to take in everything at the same time, decisions have to be made on where we direct our limited resources, it helps to have a clean workspace externally. 

I have a lot of things around me right now. I use an iPad, a desktop, I have my headset that has its own interface, I have a camera. But I also have flowers and candles around me, things that help maintain a mood that feels very positive to me. And then pretty much everything else I get off the table and outside of my visual space. I think that that’s important for the external environment and definitely a challenge for people at home but it’s important, I think, to try to keep a clean environment when you’re engaged in a focused activity.

I would also say it’s important to try to reduce the clutter in your mind. And that’s where the breaks come in. There’s only so long that we can really go before you fatigue mentally. Like, we know a lot about fatigue and there is so much research on fatigue in the physical world, right? Muscle fatigue, even Olympic athletes and professional athletes have embraced the fact that although they are the best in the world they fatigue and they need to restore in order to be able to re-engage at the top of their abilities.

It’s the same thing for the brain and the mind. We will fatigue and it’s not a sign of weakness to recognize that. It’s a sign of good-quality introspective abilities to know that you have now reached a point where your productivity has declined and you are more vulnerable for all of these types of interference where you’re just going through the motions of working. So keeping your mind clutter-free involves having the insights to know when you need a break and have an appropriate break, as we talked about, in order to allow for you to re-engage again. 

So I would say clutter both internally and externally, being aware of it, is really important. And just like meditation, how you become better at maintaining focus over time, this is also a skill, this idea of introspection, of knowing your emotional and focus-oriented space in your brain, is something that can only come with practice. But I think that it’s always critical and it’s more so now than ever before.

MATT: Yeah, the environment makes such a big difference. One thing I have found is that when I get a little stuck, when I’m feeling unproductive, sometimes just moving. I have a laptop, I might go to the couch or against a wall or outside or something. It can help unblock me, get me past whatever the productivity version of writers’ block is.

ADAM: I agree. I do that as well. And it can be something really, really easy. Like sometimes I will just do some pushups. It may be more awkward to do it in an office, this might be the ideal time to do those type of things, but yeah, ya know, just ten pushups, ten sit ups, a couple squats, just really reorients your whole brain and that’s a nice simple way of just taking a restorative moment. 

I think that it’s really going to be interesting how… I am always fascinated, you know this Matt, by how technology that has entertained us and allowed us to communicate in certain ways may be used to unlock new potential in our brain, to elevate us, not just when we’re impaired and have a clinical diagnosis of depression or anxiety but just everyone that suffers from many types of roadblocks in terms of their thinking. And so I’m always exploring technological tools that allow us to connect more deeply both with ourselves and others and also restore. So I think that’s an area that the COVID crisis right now will help accelerate hopefully is to think about technology in that way. 

MATT: We’ve talked a lot about meditation but what are some other trainings that people can do to strengthen their mind muscle?

ADAM: Meditation is such a good one because it is just pure attentional focus but it is very hard for people to do at the beginning because the signal that we’re focusing on, like your breath, is very subtle. It’s one of the reasons why we’re working on — especially for children — we’re working on other types of meditation and mindfulness using technologies where you focus on sounds as opposed to your breath. Because we could regulate the sound volume depending on how well you’re maintaining it. So I think there is a real great potential to be able to use technology to unlock new types of meditative processes that are more accessible to some people than traditional meditation has been. 

The other big type of attentional training is physical exercise. We did talk about that but I do want to connect those things directly. The data is quite convincing both acutely and in the long term that physical exercise helps attentional abilities. 

I would say another one that helps with attention is this aspect of introspection that we’ve been talking about. It’s not enough to be introspective. You actually have to find a way of using the data that you gather about your own internal space and making it actionable, but it starts with some awareness, right? So in other words, knowing that smoking is bad for you is really not enough to quit but it’s a good starting point because if you don’t know it, you’re unlikely to do any of the things that are difficult in order to get there. 

It’s the same thing with the distracted mind. Once you realize how susceptible you are to be pulled by these influences, whether it’s just quickly jumping on social media all the time, it gives you then the building blocks to make decisions about how to modify your behavior, not that it’s going to be easy, but at least you now have a little bit of motivation.

And then it comes down to routines. We are really great at habit-forming. Not that habit-forming is easy, it takes a certain amount of exposure, but a lot of what we’re doing with our behaviors are really forming new habits. Hopefully those habits that you’re forming are healthy ones and hopefully they are based on your goals and not just based on your environment. Because a lot of the habits we form are not healthy and they’re not based on our goals, right? That is a very common way to form a habit.

But I think that if you’re thinking about exercises for attention it’s to start understanding what it takes for you to form a new habit and then try to do those habits and to understand how hard it is to form them. But once you form them it’s really interesting to follow that in an introspective way.

Like, for example, I decided that I wanted to use moisturizer,  [laughs] because I don’t. And especially when I go outside in the sun, I’m like, really, should I not put on a moisturizer that has some sunblock? And what I was struck… So I say okay, I’m going to do that in the morning. Like I brush my teeth every morning, I’m just going to add that on. And it was amazing how difficult it was to just add that one practice on to my morning routine, so much so that I literally would have to put the moisturizer right by the toothpaste, which was part of my routine, and risk the  problematic issue of brushing my teeth with moisturizer, which actually happened one unfortunate time. [laughter] Yes. 

But it’s really fascinating to follow yourself through a simple aspect of creating a new habit and then realize that it is not trivial but once it happens, it’s in there. And that is a good thing and a bad thing because a bad habit is just as hard to remove as it is to create. So that’s another thing that I would mention. 

MATT: For someone listening to this who might be like, “Hey Adam, I’m an old dog, you can’t teach me new tricks,” do we have neuroplasticity even when we’re in our thirties, forties, fifties, sixties?

ADAM: Undoubtedly. That was the first research that I did as a graduate student. As a matter of fact, some of my papers in the ‘90s are on that topic, and that topic is aging and plasticity. For a long time, I mean like hundreds of years, neuroscientists really thought that after critical stages of development the brain was basically static and the only changes it made was degradation. [laughs] 

Now we do change in a lot of negative ways as we age, and it’s true for every organ system. Our hair changes colors, the calcium in our bones changes, the elasticity in our muscles, but our brain changes in a lot of ways as well. But one thing that it retains throughout our life is plasticity, which is the ability of our brain to remodel itself at every level, the structure, function, chemistry of the brain, all in response to experiences. It is not gone. 

And we have many, many papers. If you go on Neuroscape you’ll see our publications. For me they go back 30 years showing that the brain is capable of really amazing plasticity throughout our lives and that is something that we should embrace. And it may decline with aging, I have some data that suggests that, but it is there and finding new ways to unlock and harness plasticity with aging is one of my main research focuses.

MATT: Well I’m glad you’re working on that and that is a beautiful and hopeful I think place to end this up. Adam, thank you. Where can people find you? I heard you have an awesome WordPress site.

ADAM: So, yes, so Gazzaley.com is the website that acts as a source of all my aspects of my life from my photography to Neuroscape to some companies that I started to bring the tools that we created into the real world. So that’s a really beautiful place for you to visit to see the scope of activities that I’ve been engaged in.

MATT: Awesome. And that is Gazzaley. Adam Gazzaley, thank you again for taking the time to speak with us today. 

ADAM:  Thanks so much.

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