Dr. Hill is currently the lead neuroscientist at TruBrain, a company that offers nootropics. Nootropics are non-prescription supplements that are intended to improve cognitive function. One of his specialties is hemispheric attention and specialization. As a part of his duties at TruBrain, Dr. Hill makes extensive use of one of our favorite neuromarketing tools, EEG, although not for the typical use of evaluating ads. Dr. Hill shares some of his incredible insights and how you too can take advantage of his incredible research to further your business and your brain.
Welcome to the Brainfluence Podcast with Roger Dooley, author, speaker and educator on neuromarketing and the psychology of persuasion. Every week, we talk with thought leaders that will help you improve your influence with factual evidence and concrete research. Introducing your host, Roger Dooley.
Roger Dooley: Welcome to the Brainfluence Podcast. This is Roger Dooley. Today our guest is Dr. Andrew Hill. He’s a cognitive neuroscientist who has, among other things, studied how attention operates in the brain. He’s a lecturer at UCLA teaching courses in neuroscience and psychology. One of his specialties is hemispheric attention and specialization. He also makes extensive use of one of our favorite neuromarketing tools, EEG, although not for evaluating ads – at least not normally.
Andrew is lead neuroscientist at truBrain, a company that offers nootropics, non-prescription supplements intended to improve cognitive function. He’s also a director at the Alternatives Brain Institute, which uses neurofeedback and meditation to help clients increase mindfulness. Welcome to the show, Andrew. You’ve got a lot going on. Did I miss anything major?
Dr. Andrew Hill: Thanks, Roger. No, I think that pretty much covers it. Sort of have a foot in three worlds: academic, research, and clinical, and I guess commercial so four feet.
Roger Dooley: Have any really amazing hobbies, too?
Dr. Andrew Hill: I do, actually. I do a lot of West African drumming and whenever I can I take motorcycle trips across the country.
Roger Dooley: Great. It’s good. Sounds like you’ve been able to really focus your attention and to get all this stuff done. We’re going to want to hear your secrets about that.
Dr. Andrew Hill: Okay.
Roger Dooley: Just to touch on the neuromarketing side of things since many of our listeners are very interested in neuromarketing, you use EEG, although not to evaluate ads. Typically neuromarketing people who use EEG look at things like emotional engagement and attention to try and figure out which ads are going to work better than other ads. One of the controversies in neuromarketing is the choice of technology, because on the one hand you’ve got FMRI, which at your school UCLA was actually a pioneer in evaluating ads using FMRI, although the problem areas, the cost of the equipment and the small sample sizes. You rarely see a study that’s got more than, say, ten subjects in it, which kind of scares advertisers who like nice big sample sizes.
Then at the other end there are folks who say “EEG doesn’t give me much more than just a simple biometric measurements.” Then there are other technologies too like facial coding and implicit association testing. How do you feel about, say, EEG vs. FMRI or other technologies in terms of what you can see going on and what you’re missing out on perhaps?
Dr. Andrew Hill: Of course Maslow says that to a man with a hammer every problem becomes a nail. My hammer is EEG. It’s more of a window than a hammer here, so I’m slightly biased. But that being said, there are some benefits of EEG over FMRI. Clearly the first one is that the technology is significantly less expensive. You need an MRI magnet to do FMRI work. Those things cost a lot of money to maintain and keep running. Even if you’re a researcher at a university that has an active FMRI program you’re still allocating potentially a thousand dollars an hour to the scanner to run your subjects. That’s probably the largest reason why you have these small numbers, small end studies.
EEG of course you can pick up a very robust 64/128 channel system for research work that is precise and easy to use, and is cheap to run to some extent. Those cost in the range of $25,000 to about $150,000. The argument used to be that EEG had superior timing precision, temporal precision, FMRI had superior spatial precision down to a square couple of millimeters or so in FMRI. EEG is precise in time down to below a millisecond. You would pick whichever tool was more appropriate.
These days, however, EEG is spatially as precise as FMRI. When you get above about 64 channels of EEG … Starting at about 19 channels you can actually un-mix the signals you pick up at the scalp and you sort of back project down into the brain where those generators are coming from of different EEG sources. At 19 channels this is fairly course. You get big giant blobs, but the resolution improvements with every channel you add to the scalp. At about 70 channels it asymptotes and becomes equally spatially as FMRI. There’s some really good studies out there looking at these inverse solution models of EEG that show really robust results that are finding the exact same active locations in the brain, cortical locations compared to FMRI.
Roger Dooley: That’s really interesting. I know a few years ago Knudsen at Stanford, who’s an FMRI guy so I guess that’s his hammer, made a comment somewhere, something along the lines of EEG is like trying to figure out what’s going on in the football game by standing outside the stadium and listening to the crowd. From what you’re saying it’s a bit more precise than that.
Dr. Andrew Hill: It is these days. With computing power you can do things to analyze the EEG that you couldn’t do even ten years ago. There’s of course many things. When we say EEG it’s not one tool. ERPs are event-related, things that happen in the brain that are specifically related to engaging with internal or external stimuli, making decisions, preparing to act. These even-related markers in the EEG are robust, powerful, and happen in the order of tens or hundreds of milliseconds.
From neuromarketing perspectives the idea that you can show it ads and look at the amplitude of the P300 waveform which is about how biased your attention is to notice something, for instance. That would be a really relevant ERP in neuromarketing. You’re just not going to see those kind of incredibly rapid responses in the brain for single trials that are spaced across time. Your listeners may know that FMRI relies on what’s called the BOLD response, the blood oxygen level change essentially, the metabolic change in the brain when you tell cells to do something. It causes a surge of blood to meet the metabolic demand. The BOLD response in FMRI in several seconds long. That’s your temporal window.
Roger Dooley: Right. It is sort of real time-ish but it’s not nearly as precise from a time standpoint because you can look at the EEG. SANS Research does some great brain movies where they show EEG activity and they display it graphically while a commercial is playing. The speed of data collection is really great and the changes in the brain activity are so rapid.
Dr. Andrew Hill: That’s really important for this kind of stuff because to get focal changes in FMRI you need to do what’s called a block design where you’re repeating multiple of the same stimulus again and again and again to create a consistent change over time in the BOLD response. But that’s not how entertainment or advertising or the world works. It doesn’t present the same thing again and again. EEG allows you to test in a more naturalistic, environmentally valid kind of environment.
Roger Dooley: You brought up attention. That’s a topic that’s really important I think to marketers and advertisers. Some of the EEG studies, they measure attention, whether people are paying attention. There’s also test data showing that our brains are still logging data and building preferences even when they aren’t paying attention, and even when they may not consciously process, say, a brand impression or something like that. If we’re studying calculus attention is pretty important. I’m curious whether you’ve had any experience with that sort of inattentive mode where stuff is still happening or changing, and whether that can be measured at all.
Dr. Andrew Hill: It can certainly be measured to some extent, although it’s a little hard to get people to either reply what they’re not expressing and still of aware, not cognitively experiencing, so it might be tricky to test. I have this experience. I ride a motorcycle as I mentioned earlier. I’ll be parked at an intersection and some sort of word will pop into my mind. I’ll look around and realize that there’s that word on a billboard. I’ll not be trying to look around and read but have some sort of signal if you will that’s from the environment. It happens, and the degree to which we’re aware of it I think is variable. There’s a lot of phenomena here and directed attention, overt vs. covert vs. almost unaware attention.
I think to a large extent you want to try to capture as much engaged attention as possible because the resource allocation when you bring attention resources to bear is night and day in the brain in terms of passive …
Roger Dooley: Right, it’s still better to have somebody’s attention than to rely on this sort of subliminal branding effect. It’s been shown that it exists, but also it is not as strong as when people are paying attention. There are studies showing that people can fast forward commercials and still get brand preferences forming from the flickering little images and even subliminal things that they do not consciously see can create-
Dr. Andrew Hill: We extract information and patterns at a conscious level, but certainly at every level otherwise. We’re always trying to make sense of what’s around us. The human brain, I often say, is a pattern matching machine. That’s its job. Its job is to go “What’s going on? Where’s the pattern?”, towards the goal of minimizing threats or pains or loss, and maximizing gain and pleasure and things like that.
It’s always trying to find patterns. So much so that newborn babies can distinguish their native tongue from a foreign tongue simply by the patterns they’re hearing in the womb, just the rhythms of speech. There’s probably some attending going on but it’s not robust attention management certainly anyway. The brain is able to extract information. It will do so given really any opportunity to extract information it will try to.
Roger Dooley: A lot of your personal focus is on helping people think better what a couple of business involvements along with your research. I think this is a pretty interesting topic, because I know that most of our listeners are business people, entrepreneurs, who are often fighting a lot of challenges to the way they think, in particular the distractions, things that try and pull you away from focus.
Some weeks ago I had Steven Kotler on here and he talked about flow. It seems like that highly desirable state of thinking is really hard to achieve when you’ve got email popping up and various social media prompts and so on. Let’s talk a little bit about how people can think better. I just saw some research come out, a Scientific American article that talked about brain training games. Despite the fact that the games are somewhat based on research about neuroplasticity, it seems like the studies so far, if you look at them in aggregate, really don’t show that those brain training games transfer to broader skills. You certainly can get better at the game but the fact that you’re good at a particular game doesn’t mean that you can drive your car better or pay attention to what you’re working on or something like that.
Dr. Andrew Hill: That’s really true. The vast majority of these cognitive training games, sort of Sudoku and everything from basic things up through really high-end online websites that have batteries of neuropsych tests that are recreated in fun versions, you’re absolutely right. The task transfer or the ability to take the skill you learn in one task and use it elsewhere is just not there. People seem to get better at the games and not be able to use those skills anywhere else, so they’re not really creating skill. They’re getting better at the game.
Roger Dooley: It’s unfortunate because it would be nice if there was a shortcut where you could play a game for a few minutes a day and find that your cognitive skills broadly improved. Now let’s talk about truBrain a little bit, which makes nootropics. First of all, why don’t you define nootropics for our listeners.
Dr. Andrew Hill: I have a pretty narrow definition of nootropics. I use the original definition that was coined in the early 70s, and it includes criteria for the category of being either neuroprotective or protecting against damage in some way. Also having long-term benefit like protecting against some effects of aging. More importantly, or certainly for the healthy user this is very important, that there should be low to no side effects in this category of substances.
We’re even talking about things like caffeine might not be truly a nootropic. I would call it a cognitive enhancer. Something like a psychostimulant, a prescription drug, I would call a smart drug maybe or another cognitive enhancer. Nootropics are things that really shouldn’t produce any dramatic alteration in your experience but they should allow you to keep performing at a high level, your normal high level, even a little bit better. I don’t know. Supporting continued performance, long-term performance output, learning and memory, focus, attention; but over not minutes or hours but over days of years or decades. The idea is that these things are safe enough and subtle enough and supporting enough long-term to bring health. That they make you have a healthier brain that works a little bit better moment to moment is the goal of these substances.
They’re not necessarily trying to remediate a specific illness or deficit. If you’re trying to fix a problem you might tolerate some side effects or the risk of side effects to deal with the issue, but if you’re trying to just get a little bit more out of your already good brain I think the bar for tolerating the risks and side effects of things should be much, much higher.
Roger Dooley: What kind of ingredients are there in these? are they herbal or natural, or are they more synthesized chemicals?
Dr. Andrew Hill: There’s a combination. There’s amino acids; there’s supplements; there are synthesized compounds; there’s thing that used to be natural compounds that are now synthetic versions of them. One of the first thing that I consider truly nootropic would be a compound and amino acid called L-theanine. L-theanine is naturally existing in tea leaves. I’m sure that the Britishism of keep calm and carry on, the keep calm part is really all about the L-theanine that they were drinking huge amounts of in their tea. It tends to produce a calming, smoothing focus.
L-theanine seems to be gabaergic, meaning that it boosts gaba metabolism in the brain. Gaba is the only universally inhibitory or relaxing neurotransmitter. It tends to produce this calming effect. When you combine that with a slight stimulant of the caffeine in tea you get this beautiful buffered effect where you’re aroused a little bit but not too much. You’re focused a little bit but you still have some softness in that focus.
This is actually the key about performance in general. We perform best in moderate amounts of stress, moderate amounts of demand, moderate amounts of challenge. If things are too easy or too low-key we just aren’t engaged enough. There’s not enough environmental press to have us marshal our resources. If things are too stressful then performance is impaired and we start getting damaged from that stress.
There’s a sweet spot, and managing that sweet spot is I think one of the things nootropics should be used for. Certainly I drink a lot of coffee. I wouldn’t call coffee a nootropic because again, side effects. It’s appetite-suppressing and habit-forming and everything else. For me it’s a pretty good combination with L-theanine and I get just enough of the boost from the caffeine and just enough calming from the gabaergic effects of the L-theanine to really ride a smooth flow state. It makes the flow state more accessible.
There’s some evidence that gaba also mediates the alpha brain waves, which are an idle or relaxed brain wave. The faster alpha, there’s an alpha that’s slower and there’s one that’s faster, the ten to 12 hertz alpha, seems to be involved with that flow state and a mind that is prepared to react and prepared to turn on a dime and engage with stimulus after stimulus after stimulus.
Roger Dooley: Looking at the research on these various compounds, how much of it is in the actual supplement form vs. various other things? I’m not really familiar with these compounds but I’m thinking of stuff where it’s been … people who eat a lot of fish that are high in omega-3s have various health benefits. But then they test the omega-3 supplements and maybe those aren’t quite as effective as eating lots of fish. What’s the research on these products that go into your supplement?
Dr. Andrew Hill: Fats, which is really what you’re talking about when you’re talking about fish and brain health, it’s really about the DHA. It’s omega-3 fatty acids in fish, especially deep sea water cold fish. The brain is significantly composed of fat. Whenever you eat whatever fats you eat, the brain will incorporate it into cell walls and membranes. Bad fats create poor cells to some extent that oxidize quickly and don’t perform that well and break apart.
In good fats, DHA is among the best fats for the brain. The brain is composed to a large extent of DHA. It’s involved with development as well for children and babies when their nervous systems are doing all that huge surge development it requires a lot of DHA. That’s really about nutritive support. Some of the nootropic compounds have this nutritive or nutriceutical strategy use, and I would include fish oils and fish in that category. I think deep sea water fish is really nootropic. I’m not sure that most people could eat enough fish to get all the benefits of omega-3 acids. Lots of other dietary sources are probably worth thinking about for omega-3s, including grass-fed butter and meats.
That being said, there are other compounds as you’re alluding to that are not really things you would get in the diet. One example, one of the common nootropic compounds is choline, some form of choline. Choline’s also used in cell walls and it’s like a B vitamin almost. It has many uses. There’s a couple different forms of choline that have the most nootropic us. What makes them that is that they tend to get into the brain and have a high conversion rate or involved in some way with actual choline metabolism, not simply adding more raw materials. There’s some forms that aren’t terribly useful.
You could eat a lot of eggs and get a lot of choline in your diet but you’re not necessarily going to have the nootropic effect because you’re aren’t targeting the brain with sources that are more active for cholinergic metabolism. Of course choline is used in building the neurotransmitter, acetylcholine, which is the primary neurotransmitter involved with attending a memory. Choline is a real key ingredient and you probably should be getting a bunch dietarily. You’re still not going to get a huge brain-focused dose if you will.
Roger Dooley: Does truBrain have more than one product or is it one product?
Dr. Andrew Hill: We have two now. About 18 months ago, a little more, Chris Thompson and I launched the original truBrain 1.0 and that’s a capsule form. I alluded to it earlier that I think nootropics are best taken on a regimen routinely as opposed to get some specific spot effect. For about a year and a half now truBrain’s been shipping a subscription box that essentially has 20 days, four or five-day work weeks plus some boost packets to get you a regimen of nootropics.
Then a couple months ago in response to customer requests and us trying to push the envelope we released a drink format so we’d have boxes of one ounce drinks that come with pretty much the same formulation as the original truBrain. We couldn’t include DHA in the drinks because of shelf life stability. The drinks are also flavored. We have a little bit more complexity to them.
Those have been shipping only for a couple of months and people love them. It’s mostly the same product, just in a different delivery mechanism to a large extent.
Roger Dooley: Are you testing these at all to demonstrate their effectiveness?
Dr. Andrew Hill: We are. We’ve done a bunch of things I think of setting stakes in the ground in this new industry that have been unusual. We’re not a multi-million-dollar drug company so we aren’t doing clinical level trials with these things but I’m doing smaller research. We initially did a pilot study on the original formulation looking at about eight people. It was unblinded just looking at their brains on and off truBrain. There were some dramatic differences. It was very, very highly significant within subject but it washed out across subject because everyone changed themselves a little bit differently.
For the most part we’re seeing more of the frequencies involved with the aspects of attention that are useful like high frequency alpha, the faster alpha, the attending alpha; and the next frequency up which is beta. Those two frequencies increase it looks like when truBrain is onboard. Then we brought in some stock traders about six months ago from New York City, about 25 folks who did a double-blind study and we’re performing under load. I didn’t have quite enough again to get significant numbers at group levels but within subject there were some really good changes, again showing more alpha and beta frequencies.
We’re not trying to prove per se that these things have any specific function. That’s really in the realm of the clinical trial. We’re trying to look at the research. There’s decades of research on everything we’ve put in truBrain. That was a conscious choice. When I was experimenting with nootropics my threshold for cost benefit and risk was pretty high. I only chose things to experiment with that have a very long history of safety and efficacy and a lot of research already on them.
What that means when we’re creating a commercial product, or a consumer product rather, for truBrain is there’s a really rather robust research body for everything we’ve put in truBrain. But there’s no research on the combination of the seven or eight ingredients that are in the blend. Now what I’m doing is just trying to quantify to some extent what brain changes we are seeing on truBrain.
Roger Dooley: Let’s jump over to a different topic. I know that you do some sleep work. Our listeners include many entrepreneurs and one of the challenges of being an entrepreneur often is getting as much sleep. Now it seems like there’s tons of research that shows getting seven-plus hours of sleep is important in so many ways. It affects your body, your brain, everything else. On the other hand you’ve got folks like Donald Trump who says the key to his success is that he only needs a few hours of sleep a night. He thinks that that gives him basically more time to get more done compared to his competitors that are sleeping all night.
If you’re an entrepreneur engaged in this struggle, how do you know if you’re getting enough sleep, and is there any trick or secret for doing better at that?
Dr. Andrew Hill: There certainly are lots of tricks to hack your sleep. I would say Trump, if he needs less sleep than the average person, sure he gets a few more hours a day. That’s probably not as important as using the hours that you have maximally. Because Trump has lots of assistants and a giant machine that he runs, I’m guessing that he gets to leverage his own personal time very aggressively and a few more hours means a lot of productivity.
For most of us that’s probably not true to the same degree, and just being able to perform better during the hours we are awake is probably more important than trying to squeeze an extra hour out of our day. That being said, there are some things you can do to try to maximize the quality of your sleep.
The most important thing is probably getting up at about the same time every morning regardless of how much sleep you get. A lot of ways in which we marshal energy and engage with cognitive load, a lot of the metabolic processes that come online when we’re working hard cognitively, a lot of other rhythms in our body tend to be driven to some extend by the sleep-wake cycle, the circadian rhythm.
Circadian rhythm performs best as it were in the world when it’s lined up with the daylight cycle of the planet and not just arbitrarily. If your own circadian rhythm is out of sync with the photo period of the planet, your mood, your energy, everything is off. You probably aren’t sleeping all that well when you’re sleeping and your body wants to be sleeping when you’re awake, and you’re not performing at a key level.
Getting up at the same time every day helps keep that entrainment tight. Ideally when you get up is in the first hour after sunrise. Go outside or sit by an open window and get some light in your face. The re-entrainment signal, there’s one that’s available to us in early morning light that is largely absent when the sun gets a bit higher in the sky and the angle of reflection and refraction changes. In the first hour or so after dawn there’s a frequency that’s pretty prevalent and it tends to go in and reset our circadian rhythms. It’s a trick you can use. Instead of sleeping in when you’re tired, get up and get out there in the first hour after dawn.
Roger Dooley: Interesting. Very good. I unfortunately tend to get up long before sunrise so …
Dr. Andrew Hill: But still getting that light. If you’re up at 4 AM and work a couple of hours, getting five minutes of light in your face at 5:30 or 6 when the Sunday does come up will help you entrain tightly. It’s a useful hack just to get you … so that when 11:00 or 10:00 at night comes around your body is preparing to sleep already.
Roger Dooley: Good advice. Let me hit one other topic pretty quickly here before we run out of time. That is meditation. Now that sounds kind of new-agey but …
Dr. Andrew Hill: Right..
Roger Dooley: There was just some recent research showing that it actually changes the gray matter in your brain so there’s some hard science behind meditation.
Dr. Andrew Hill: Sure..
Roger Dooley: Tell us a little bit about that and how business people and entrepreneurs can incorporate that into their daily life.
Dr. Andrew Hill: Now there’s a couple things that are key here. One is, like you said, incorporation into daily life. A practice of meditation is the goal, not how much you do. Ten to 20 minutes every morning is key in terms of an ideal amount to start with. You will develop brain changes in that little amount of meditation.
The other thing that people often need to hear is that meditation is not getting to a state of blanking your mind. It is not that new age, woo-woo, I am one with the universe. That is not the goal. Actually, that is not the practice of meditation. You do end up with more spacious thoughts, more control over your thoughts, less reactive mind by meditating; but that isn’t the act of meditation. The act of meditation is actually an attention training exercise in most forms of meditation. Vipassana, Samatha, those are two common forms of meditation. In modern language we can call those present time awareness and single point awareness, or insight and concentration practices.
They’re about picking something to place your attention on, be it the sensation of breath or a sound or a color spot on the wall. Whatever is, doesn’t really matter what form of meditation you’re doing; there’s always an object or a focus or an anchor of that meditation. You place your attention on that anchor and you just know and be aware of what you’re focusing on. Since you have a mind sooner or later it drifts and you get distracted, daydream, fantasize, realize your knee hurts, whatever.
The act of meditation, the practice, is noticing when your mind has drifted away from the object of meditation, letting it go, and bringing your attention back. That’s it. Now you do it again and again and again because you keep getting distracted. But in ten or 20 minutes you have lots of opportunities to keep bringing your mind back to the stable focus. If you keep practicing this you will find the quality of your mind starts to shift off the cushion when you aren’t meditating.
It conjures this image of sitting there with your eyes closed and chanting and incense and candles and a sort of woo-woo reaction from a lot of people who are more hard science and business types. But no, the goal is not to get there. You’re not trying to get to a Zen state and blank your mind. You’re really just trying to learn to focus your mind. That bleeds into every aspect and really affects resources in everything. It improves attention management in kids with attention problems as well as adults without attention problems.
In people that are high-powered individuals, as I’m sure many of your listeners are, who have been very successful for many, many years, developing a meditation practice will actually spare you the loss of cortex that comes when you age, especially in some of the frontal lateral areas involved with executive function and body positioning, body awareness. Those areas appear to be spared the atrophy, the cortical thinning that happens in age – if you develop a practice.
A lot of your listeners are probably very happy with the brains they have, and I would encourage you to develop a meditation a practice even if you’re satisfied with who you are just so you can keep that person.
Roger Dooley: If anybody wants to try meditating, are there any good online resources? I’m sure there’s plenty of books and so on they can find at Amazon or wherever, but is there any good online resource to give them a few pointers?
Dr. Andrew Hill: Of course there’s lots and lots of things, lots of podcasts, lots of talks n guided meditations, but I put a little cheat sheet on one of my websites, the Alternatives Brain Institute. That’s at alternativesbraininstitute.com. There’s a short little 20-minute meditation cheat sheet there called “Don’t just do something. Sit there.”
Roger Dooley: We’ll include a link to that in the show notes.
Dr. Andrew Hill: Okay, great.
Roger Dooley: We’re just about out of time. Let me remind our listeners that we are talking with Dr. Andrew Hill, a cognitive neuroscientist who is lead neuroscientist at truBrain. Andrew, how should our listeners find you online and connect with you?
Dr. Andrew Hill: I’m on Twitter @AndrewHillPhD or they can go to either trubrain.com, t-r-u brain.com, or alternativesbraininstitute.com.
Roger Dooley: Great. We will link to all of those on the show notes page, which can be found at rogerdooley.com/podcast. Andrew, thanks very much for being part of the show today.
Dr. Andrew Hill: My pleasure, Roger. Thanks for having me.
Roger Dooley: Thank you for joining me for this episode of the Brainfluence Podcast. To continue the discussion and to find your own path to brainy success, please visit us at rogerdooley.com.
Thank you for joining me for this episode of the Brainfluence Podcast. To continue the discussion and to find your own path to brainy success, please visit us at RogerDooley.com.