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Huberman's 4-Step Protocol For Learning that Changes Your Brain

Not every experience rewires your brain. Follow these hardwired protocols for optimal learning.

Charlotte Grysolle
Charlotte Grysolle
8 min read
Source: Canva

Is there anything you wish you had learned more about in school?

For me, without a doubt:

Neuroplasticity.

The incredible feature that allows our nervous system to change in response to experience.

I’m convinced I would have approached studying and learning very differently (and appreciated my young, plastic brain a lot more!).


We’re Designed To Change

Neuroplasticity is one of the most amazing yet underrated aspects of our biology.

It's the biological equivalent of having a Growth Mindset: with hard work and good strategies, you can change the physical circuitry of your brain.

Because here's the thing:

All of us are born with a nervous system that isn’t just capable of change but is designed to change.

This allows us to think differently, learn new things, forget painful experiences, and adapt to practically anything life throws at us.

For a long time, it was assumed that only the young brain is plastic and can change. (Something about an old dog and new tricks?)

But scientific research is now very clear: the adult brain is plastic.

And that is the essence of the incredible breakthrough of neuroplasticity: your brain is not fixed. Instead, your brain can change in response to your experiences, thoughts, and actions.

You can rewire your brain so new motor, cognitive and emotional skills are burned into the neural circuitry, no matter how old you are.

While this is hugely exciting, there is one misconception about neuroplasticity that isn’t talked about enough.

Our brains don’t change with every single experience - 24/7. That wouldn’t be very practical.

The best learning happens when you leverage specific systems that are hardwired into your biology.


A Chemical State for Optimal Neuroplasticity

If you’re under 25 — you’re in luck.

Your nervous system is primed for learning. You just live your life, and your machinery will shape and rewire itself simply by interacting with the world. Particular neural connections get refined and reinforced while other connections are lost.

The best thing you can do is to expose yourself to as many people and fields as possible. Be open, interested, and curious.

Because around the age of 25, your brain’s capacity for learning and adapting to new knowledge reduces.

Your brain will not change unless a selective shift in your attention or experience tells the brain it is time to change.

This means we need to know exactly what we want to change.

And this change can be anything:

  • A cognitive skill (e.g. learning a language)
  • A motor skill (e.g. shooting free throws)
  • An emotional skill (e.g. resilience)

This Deliberate Attention is Crucial

When you pay deliberate attention, two neurochemicals are released from several areas in your brain.

Their job is to highlight the neural circuits that need to change, increasing the likelihood of long-term change.

1 - Epinephrine for alertness

Epinephrine will only be released when you’re in a high state of alertness.

It wakes the entire brain to increase the likelihood that neurons will be active.

This neurochemical is chemically identical to adrenaline. The only difference is that epinephrine is released in the brain, while adrenaline is released from the adrenal glands in the body.

So, we have epinephrine sloshing around in our brains, and we feel alert. But that’s only half of the puzzle.

2 - Acetylcholine for focus

We also need acetylcholine, released from two sites in the brain: the brainstem and the nucleus basalis.

This neurochemical acts as a spotlight and creates focus.

The incredible thing you will learn now is you can subjectively control the release of these neurochemicals, to create a chemical state for optimal neuroplasticity.

(Again — why did we not learn this in school?!)


The 4-Step Protocol Based on Your Hardwired Biology

Step 1 - Release epinephrine for alertness

First, to make sure we can achieve a good level of alertness, get the basics right:

Then, there are the mental tricks, and the importance of these shouldn't be underestimated.

You start by identifying a kit of reasons as to WHY you want to learn and change.

What is that you want to accomplish?

What is driving you?

These drivers can be love-based, although fear-based motivators are just as effective. Epinephrine is a chemical so it doesn’t distinguish between positive or negative motivations.

A love-based motivator would be:

  • “I want to learn this language to speak to my family-in-law.”

A fear-based motivator would be:

  • “I have to improve my copywriting skills to get in more clients and keep my business afloat.”

Remind yourself of these reasons before you sit down to work.

Again, this doesn’t need to be elaborate or time-consuming; just a few seconds as you prepare to start.

If you're feeling skeptical, I get it. But this is not the same as the Law-of-Attraction-manifestation-type bogus you find everywhere online. It's not about imagining good thoughts, and those things will happen magically.

You obviously have to do the work.

This is a mental ‘prep’ exercise that will stimulate the release of epinephrine in your system, increasing alertness.

🕑
On a side-note: it’s good to start observing when you naturally feel most alert during the day. Protect those times and use them to work on things that are important and valuable to you.

Step 2 - Release acetylcholine for focus

Many people try to achieve focus through pharmacology, but the better way is through behavioral practices.

The critical insight to remember here is:

Mental focus follows visual focus.

Your visual focus can either be blurry or laser-focused on one location in space. This determines our level of mental focus.

Imagine you're reading a book. You feel distracted and your mind keeps drifting.

Here's what you do:

Spend 1–2 minutes focusing your visual attention on a small window (say the corner of the page , or a particular word).

When your eyes move inward toward a particular target, your visual world shrinks. You get so-called tunnel-vision.

This activates a set of neurons in your brainstem, triggering the release of norepinephrine, epinephrine and acetylcholine.

The finer your visual image and the more you can hold your gaze (by blinking less), the higher the level of attention.

You might think you’re already doing that, but if you don't consciously hold your gaze on one particular spot, your eyes are constantly darting around.

So keep them focused on that particular spot for a couple of minutes.

The more you can do this, the more you can maintain a cone of mental focus, and the higher your focus.

👁️
The cool thing is that this also works in reverse. When you broaden your visual field and soften your eyes, you activate the part of your nervous system associated with relaxation and calmness. It's the best physiological trick I've discovered to instantly feel calmer. More details here.

Step 3 - Work in 90-minutes sessions

You don't want to be engaging your brain at maximum capacity all the time. You might feel like you're getting stuff done but it won't be having a long-lasting impact on the wiring of your brain. In other words - the knowledge won't stick.

Instead, organise your day into 90 minutes bouts of concentrated deep work.

And of course, there's a biological reason for that.

Everyone’s nervous system functions in biological cycles:

  • Circadian: 24 hours
  • Ultradian: 90 minutes

Broadly, the 24 hours circadian cycle defines our waking and sleeping states.

Then on a finer level, all our waking and sleeping states are broken into ultradian cycles.

All night, you’re going through these ultradian cycles and they continue when you wake up in the morning. This means we’re optimised for focus and attention within these 90 minutes.

A typical work bout would look like this:

For the first 5-10 minutes, the brain will not optimally attend to what you’re trying to do. See it as a warm-up.

Eliminate all distractions.

As you go deeper into the cycle, your ability to focus and learn increases. You should be able to maintain deep focus for about an hour or so.

Your attention will drift, and that’s entirely normal. Practice to re-anchor it.

You‘ll feel tempted to look away from what you're working on, but as we discussed earlier, you want to practice maintaining that visual focus.

You’ll naturally pop out of the focused state at the end of the 90 minutes cycle. Ideally, you don't try to force extending the learning session.

I'd say the most important thing to take away from this is:

It’s normal to feel friction and discomfort at the beginning of starting a task or exercise.

Be aware of this and allow yourself to sit through the feelings of frustration (that only means it's working!)


Step 4 - Prioritise Sleep or Non-Sleep-Deep-Rest

If you made it this far, I’ll let you in on the real secret to neuroplasticity…

The trigger for neuroplasticity and learning happens during high focus and high alertness states.

But neuroplasticity is just a state or capacity for our nervous system to change. It’s never the end goal.

What we want is rewiring and reconfiguration of the brain, and that happens during deep sleep and non-sleep-deep-rest.

After bouts of focused learning, it’s important that you step away and get proper rest.

During the night and the following nights, the neural circuits that were highlighted (by acetylcholine) will strengthen while others will be lost. You're burning the new knowledge and skills into your neural circuitry.

If you have a poor night of sleep after a bout of learning, the learning can still occur as long as you get the needed deep sleep very soon after.

Now, you can bypass the need for deep sleep partially by engaging in NSDR protocols in between work sessions.

This can be as simple as going for a walk or a run, where you’re creating self-generated optic flow.

Try not to listen to podcasts or music, or call a friend. You want to let the mind drift after a period of very focused effort.

You can also take a light nap, or listen to a yoga nidra session (essentially the lying down bit of a yoga practice where you consciously relax your mind).

As we said - don't try to engage your brain at maximum capacity at all times. If you're worried you're losing valuable time, just keep in mind that your brain needs recovery and renewal in order to function optimally.


Bullet-Point Recap

  • Your brain is not fixed. You can change, learn new skills and knowledge, no matter how old you are. That's the essence of neuroplasticity.
  • When you’re younger than 25, this happens naturally without much deliberate effort. Your brain is primed for change.
  • When you’re older than 25, you need to follow certain protocols in order to rewire your brain and get long-term change.
🔄
1 - Increase alertness -> deliberate attention to WHY
2 - Increase focus -> practice your visual focus
3 - Divide your day into 90-minutes sessions of deep work
4 - Prioritise sleep and non-sleep-deep-rest in between sessions
  • The trigger for optimal neuroplasticity and learning occurs during high focus and high alertness states (not while you’re asleep) — both are because of the release of neurochemicals acetylcholine and epinephrine.
  • Work in 90 minute-sessions, and don’t get discouraged when the beginning feels difficult. This is normal.
  • We rewire our brains, processing what we’ve learnt during the day, in deep sleep and other forms of rest – which is why they are so vital. Don’t try to engage your mind at maximum capacity all the time.

Thanks for reading!

If you found this valuable and want to learn more about how to use your nervous system for everyday improvements, sign up for my bi-weekly Stretch Letter.

I’m on a mission to listen to all Huberman Lab podcast episodes, take detailed notes, and write about what I’ve learned.


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