What neuroscience teaches us about learning and creativity

In this week's issue: The Happiness Advantage, Neuroplasticity, A Formula for Creativity, Two Modes of Vision, Video Games for ADHD.

Hey there, greetings from Santa Monica!

I celebrated my birthday on July 4. LA County banned official fireworks displays over the holiday weekend, but the skies were lit up with hundreds of private fireworks displays.

“Californians don’t like being told what they can’t do.”

Amazing Panoramic Helicopter Footage of Legal and Illegal Fourth ...

Mental Health and Neuroscience

This week I’m sharing with you 4 cool things I’ve learned about mental health and neuroscience:

  1. The Happiness Advantage

  2. Urgency + Focus = Learning

  3. A Formula for Creativity

  4. Two Modes of Vision


The Happiness Advantage

“Wake up! If you knew you had a terminal illness―you had precious little time left to make use of your life, you'd not waste time on self-indulgence or fear, lethargy or ambition. Be happy now, without reason - or you never will be at all.” -Dan Millman

I read The Happiness Advantage” by Shawn Achor. The book debunks the commonly held belief that success breeds happiness. The reality is the inverse: Happiness breeds success.

For example:

  • Doctors put in a positive mood before making diagnosis show almost three times more intelligence and creativity than doctors in a neutral state and they make accurate diagnoses 19% faster.

  • Optimistic salespeople outsell their pessimistic counterparts by 56%.

Happiness is not just a state of mind; it's also a muscle that can be exercised. And there's no secret to it. It's just doing small things, such as writing down three good things that happened over the course of a day or three things you're grateful for. Doing this can help rewire your brain to see more possibilities, more insights, and help you see opportunity when it arises.

Amazon.com: The Happiness Advantage: How a Positive Brain Fuels ...

Why now is a great time to learn something new

I spoke last week with Andrew Huberman, Stanford professor of neurobiology. Professor Huberman’s research focuses on neuroplasticity, the development of new connections between neurons.

We’re all in a heightened state of neuroplasticity right now, he says. Our brains don’t stop changing after childhood. While it’s true that neural plasticity is more robust in our younger years, it can be activated again as adults.

Professor Huberman says urgency and focus are what promote the neurochemicals that trigger neural plasticity. The most powerful brain changes happen when we focus, have an internal sense of urgency and get enough sleep to allow changes to brain structure to happen.

Our heightened capacity for self-directed adaptive plasticity means it’s a great time to be learning something new: Cooking, painting, gardening, video editing, a foreign language.

Science shows we can frame stress as a positive or negative. We can leverage the stress we experience to learn new things. Lifelong neuroplasticity evolved specifically to allow humans to adapt to changing environments at any age.

For more information, check out this article: “In pursuit of resilience: stress, epigenetics, and brain plasticity.”

7 Major Developments in Neuroscience of 2017 | NeuroTracker

A Formula for Creativity

Why do we get our best ideas in the shower or on a walk?

Professor Huberman says the brain is typically focused on 3 things: duration, path and outcome. What am I doing, where am I going, and what’s the point?

If you want to increase your creativity, you need to think of new variants on duration, path and outcome. These 3 things are rigidly followed in states of high stress or high focus. All you can think about is: How’s this going to happen? How will it turn out?

These 3 things become loose during deep sleep. That’s why when you emerge from sleep you may have new creative ideas. The transition out of sleep is when creativity arises.

Focus really hard, then tune out. There are different ways to put the brain into states of deep relaxation. Sleep, naps, yoga, or just walking and not thinking about much at all. After 30 minutes in a state of deep unfocus, Professor Huberman says, you’re prepared to have 2 hours of deep focus.


Two Modes of Vision

What part of the brain controls vision?

Why does staring at screens all day make us feel stressed?

Professor Huberman’s research shows we have 2 modes of viewing the world. One visual system is designed to look at particular things very closely, like a computer screen. This close vision is associated with increased vigilance and attention that’s correlated with autonomic arousal (stress).

The other system is panoramic vision. This mode of vision is designed to look at everything around you, on the sides and above all at once. Panoramic vision is associated with lower levels of autonomic arousal.

When we focus our attention on something very closely, a part of the brain called the frontal eye fields get involved. They’re the bridge between your visual attention and your mental attention.

We have the capacity to switch back and forth between different modes of vision and change our level of autonomic arousal. You can relieve stress by dialing out your gaze, looking at everything around you and where you are in your environment.


There are other science-proven ways to manage stress, activate your relaxation response, and reduce your heart rate and blood pressure: Chanting, singing, humming. A hike, a walk in the park, time alone in nature. Gratitude journaling. Cold exposure. Sauna use. Painting. Playing a musical instrument. Intermittent fasting. Meditation and prayer.

My best coping mechanism has been taking time each day for solitude and relaxation in nature. Even if it’s just 15 minutes in the park. Being present, noticing my surroundings, not being responsive to my mobile device. It keeps me grounded.


Digital Health Roundup

Big Health raised $39 million for its digital mental health solution. The startup believes it can help people improve their mental health through technology that focuses on cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) versus medication or the help of human therapists. Its two digital offerings, Daylight, for worry and anxiety, and Sleepio, for poor sleep, are fully automated cognitive and behavioral programs.

Videogames for ADHD and other cognitive disorders

How can video games help kids with ADHD?

Akili Health announced FDA Clearance of EndeavorRx as a prescription treatment for children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Delivered through a video game experience, EndeavorRx has been shown to improve attention function as measured by computer-based testing in children ages 8-12 years old with ADHD.


Australia Quarantine

Journalist Chloe Angyal has been documenting on Twitter her 2 weeks of government-mandated (and government-funded) quarantine in a Sydney hotel room.

A fascinating glimpse at how a functioning government deals with Covid-19.


Photo of the Week

I spent a day volunteering with George from Hunger Action Los Angeles, a nonprofit dedicated to ending hunger in LA. Los Angeles is one of the most food-insecure cities in the US. The pandemic has compounded this problem as malnutrition is associated with worse disease outcomes.

Nonprofits like Hunger Action LA make it easier for low-income communities to buy healthy and nutritious food by subsidizing fresh fruits and vegetables at the farmers market.


Until next week,

Daniel Zahler (aka “only takes off mask in the shower”)


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By Daniel Zahler

I’m Daniel, a healthcare and life sciences consultant based in Santa Monica, California. Every week I write an email newsletter with perspectives on health and wellness trends, and strategies & tactics on how to optimize cognitive, physical and emotional health.