15 Learnings From a Conversation Between a Neuroscientist & Navy SEAL Officer
Leverage your hardwired biology with these science-backed findings.
I listened to a 5-hours podcast between Andrew Huberman, a neuroscientist and professor at Stanford School of Medicine, and Jocko Willink, an ex-Navy Seal officer.
From this conversation, I’ve noted 15 physiological tools and tricks we can all use to improve willpower, focus, sleep and moods.
As Andrew says, “we’re more than a bag of chemicals, but this stuff is all hardwired”, meaning:
There’s so much value in learning about our nervous system and how it works.
Once we understand how these biological systems function, we can use them to our advantage.
Here they are, in no particular order.
1. Optic flow
To reset the eyes and nervous system, go for a walk, jog or bike ride.
This forward movement creates ‘optic flow’, where visual images go by you on all sides while you’re in motion.
As your eyes move to engage with this optic flow, the parts of your brain involved in fear and threat detection become quiet.
This has a calming effect, reducing levels of stress and anxiety.
The key here is that the optic flow is self-generated — so treadmill or Peloton don’t count.
2. Caffeine intake
If you regularly experience afternoon dips, feeling foggy and unfocused, it might have something to do with your morning coffee.
Timing your first coffee is important, and the advice is to avoid caffeine for the first 60–90 minutes after waking up.
Adenosine is a molecule that builds up in your brain and body the longer you’re awake, creating that drive for sleep towards the evening.
While we sleep, adenosine is pushed down. So if you’ve had a restful sleep, the molecule will be low in your system but not completely gone.
Now, caffeine is considered an ‘adenosine antagonist’.
That means when you ingest caffeine, it binds to the adenosine receptor. This blocks the sleepiness signal, making you feel alert & awake.
Imagine it like caffeine stealing adenosine’s parking spot. Adenosine can’t get to work until caffeine leaves.
Once the caffeine wears off, adenosine will bind to the receptors, often with greater strength—kind of like an angry driver with screeching tires.
That causes the feeling of the afternoon crash.
So, the solution is to give your body time to clear the adenosine surplus in the morning.
You do this by:
- Waiting 60–90 mins after waking up before having your first cup of coffee
For anyone experiencing afternoon dips, this should have tremendous benefits.
3. Limbic friction
Limbic friction is the friction between your limbic system and your forebrain.
The limbic system is the parts of your brain that control the primitive, reflexive states and impulses. This system is focused on the now.
The forebrain, or the prefrontal cortex, is the rational decision-maker. This system can draw on a memory bank and make decisions based on the past and the future.
You know there’s a conflict happening when you’re negotiating with yourself in your head (“do this, don’t do that”).
It’s possible to train yourself to overcome limbic friction by:
- Doing things you don’t want to do (i.e. get out of bed, go to the gym)
- NOT doing things you want to do (i.e. pick up the phone, finish the bags of crisps)
Recognise the impulse or urge and let the forebrain take over.
By consistently doing this, you are strengthening the ‘go’ & ‘no-go’ neural pathways — the neural circuits involved in motivating you to do something (self-disciple) or not do something (self-control).
Huberman said he is constantly testing his ‘no-go’ circuit, even for trivial things such as picking up a paper clip or playing with a pen in a meeting. Of course, it wouldn’t matter if he did, but it’s about strengthening willpower.
4. Expand your visual field
When you need to make an important decision or you feel stressed, it’s helpful to take a moment to step back.
Pause, take a deep breath and broaden your visual field.
Without conscious effort, we spend most of our days in tunnel vision and rarely go into panoramic vision.
By consciously shifting into panoramic vision, you activate the part of your nervous system associated with relaxation and calmness.
Think about how it feels to look at a beautiful vista or horizon. It’s relaxing because you naturally go into this wide field of view.
The thing is — you don’t need a beautiful view to do this. You can do this anytime, anywhere.
Simply expand your visual field and soften your eyes. Focus on what’s in your peripheral vision. You might notice your breathing slows down. The muscles in your face and body relax.
This technique allows you to calm down physiologically and improve your thinking.
5. Deliberate decompression
Try 10–30 mins of deliberate decompression every day, especially after intense bouts of learning or deep work.
This means zero sensory input.
No phones, no screens, no books, no journaling. Basically, nothing that requires you to look, hear, think, feel or talk.
Not even meditation, as that still requires focus and effort.
Just sit still or lie down and close your eyes.
You might fall asleep, and that’s fine, but even if you don’t, you’re still resetting your nervous system by relaxing the sensory system.
Remember the ‘go’ / ‘no-go’ circuits from #3? The more you push yourself to do / not do things, the more you deplete these circuits.
Deliberate decompression allows you to restore your abilities to do this.
6. Negative visualisations
Setting goals is important, but motivators based on real-world fears are even better.
We shouldn’t only rely on positive visualisations.
Consider the negative consequences of doing X/not doing X. Write them down. What is the cost of not doing what you said you’d do? What would happen if you failed?
We don’t tend to do this because it’s discomforting. It feels better to come up with ideas and images of how great things will be, the differences it’ll make in our lives, the envy of our ex-colleagues, etc.
Fantasy is easy.
The problem is we can get so wrapped up in thinking about all the positives that we fail to take any meaningful action to make those fantasies come true.
So, write down the negatives and the fears. This can be just a few words, but the emotional reaction to this can be enough to push you into action.
7. Morning sunlight
Go outside for 10–30 minutes, as close to waking up as possible.
Bright light (ideally natural sunlight) triggers a sequence of hormone releases in your body:
• Immediate: release of cortisol, promoting wakefulness & focus
• 12–14 hrs later: release of melatonin, stimulating feeling of sleepiness
You want this cortisol pulse to happen early in the day, acting as your wake-up signal.
A few considerations:
- It’s 50–100 times less effective through a window.
- Don’t worry about clouds; you’ll still get the light energy coming through the cloud cover.
- You don’t need the sunlight beaming into your eyes directly. There are a lot of photons scattered around from sunlight.
- Don’t wear sunglasses.
So, go for a quick morning walk.
Then, ideally, view natural light again in the afternoon before the sun goes down. This will adjust your retinal sensitivity in a way that allows you to see more artificial light in the evening (i.e. computer screen) without disrupting your sleep patterns.
Giving your nervous system these anchors of natural light allows you to balance your sleep and wakefulness cycles, so you sleep better and feel more alert during the day.
I wrote in more detail about the importance of our light viewing behaviours here.
8. Dopamine peaks
Dopamine is a non-infinite yet renewable resource.
The challenge is we have unlimited access to effortless dopamine in our modern society.
You can go below baseline after a huge dopamine peak, which means you lose all drive for motivation and pursuit.
So it’s vital to guard your dopamine peaks carefully — whether that dopamine comes from high potency stimuli like drugs and porn or more ‘socially acceptable’ inputs like food or YouTube.
It’s not about removing all pleasures.
It’s about putting effort in front of pleasure.
9. Physiological sigh
The physiological sigh is a proven method to push back the stress response in real-time.
- 2 short inhales through the nose
- 1 long exhale through the mouth
- 1–3 times
Try it to feel the difference:
When you inhale, the skeletal muscle inside your body moves down. Your lungs expand, and the diaphragm moves down. Your heart gets a bit bigger in that expanded space. Because of the larger space, the blood in there is now moving slower than it was before you inhaled.
Neurons in the heart pay attention to the rate of blood flow, so they signal to the brain that blood is moving more slowly to the heart.
The brain sends a signal back to speed the heart up.
So, if your inhales are longer than your exhales, you’re speeding up your heart.
To slow your heart rate down, you need to do longer exhales.
When you exhale, the exact opposite happens.
The diaphragm moves up, which makes the heart smaller. Blood moves more quickly through the more compact space. The heart neurons register the blood is moving faster, so they send a signal up to the brain. The brain sends a signal back to slow the heart down.
Conclusion: if you want to calm down quickly, you need to make your exhales longer and more vigorous than your inhales.
10. An unusual focus exercise
An unusual exercise I haven’t come across anywhere else for training your focus muscles:
Sit still, and take the time to think or journal in COMPLETE sentences.
It’s true — most of our thoughts and messages are incomplete, a garbled collection of words.
Operating in complete sentences takes real effort.
11. Re-frame friction
Learn to think about friction like a Navy Seal (like Jocko) would.
Friction = discomfort = growth = good.
It’s a simple mental shift.
Embrace the suck. Many rewards in life will elude you if you’re not willing to be a little uncomfortable at first.
This reminds me of the importance of re-framing frustration when learning something new. That’s also a simple mental shift with profound consequences for how you learn.
12. Work according to ultradian cycles
Everyone’s nervous system functions in cycles:
- Circadian: 24 hours
- Ultradian: 90 minutes
Broadly, the 24 hours cycle defines our waking and sleeping states.
Then on a finer level, all our waking and sleeping states are broken up into 90 minutes segments.
All night you’re going through ultradian cycles.
They continue when you wake up in the morning, meaning we are optimised for focus and attention within these 90 minutes cycles.
For the first 5–10 minutes of each cycle, the brain is not going to optimally attend to what you’re trying to do. As you go deeper, your ability to focus and learn increases. You naturally pop out of that state at the end of the 90 minutes cycle.
This means it’s normal to feel friction and discomfort in the beginning of starting a task. Be aware of this and allow yourself to get past it without getting frustrated. If you immediately quit because “it’s not working”, you don’t let yourself to get into a state of deep focus.
So, for optimal learning, work in bouts of 90 minutes followed by 20 minutes of decompression (see #5).
13. Making mistakes is key for learning
When you’re learning a new skill, whether that’s a motor skill or a cognitive skill, it’s important to balance the difficulty level.
When the task is too easy, your nervous system is not learning from trial and error feedback.
Making errors is key for learning, because it cues up the forebrain. It makes the nervous system pay attention to what’s not working, and adjust accordingly.
Research shows that the proper ratio for success vs errors is 85%-15%. This means that when are learning or teaching, we should set the difficulty level in a way that there is a roughly 15% error rate.
14. Evening alertness
An hour before natural bedtime, you’ll suddenly feel very alert.
This is entirely normal and seems to happen to everyone.
We’re evolutionarily wired to use this hour of sudden energy to make sure everything around us is ready and secure before we go to sleep, which is when we’re most vulnerable.
We shouldn’t stress or worry about not being able to go to sleep, or feeling like we should use that time to do more work.
Instead, relax into the feeling and let yourself get sleepy.
15. Random intermittent rewards
In #8, we spoke about dopamine peaks.
Dopamine is a non-infinite yet renewable resource, so how about we don’t spend it at all?
Keep your dopamine pathways healthy by applying random intermittent rewards.
Don’t celebrate every single win with an external reward (i.e. dessert after exercise).
Train the circuitry to see the work & the learning as the reward.
Reward yourself once in a while, randomly.