Willpower and Vigilance: June’s Bulletproof Bullet Points
Bulletproof Bullet Points offers a monthly look at cool new science and technology in the biohacking world. Here’s the installment for June 2016.
How you sleep in new places
Do you ever feel groggy when you travel, even if you get a full night’s sleep in? Scientists just figured out why.
Your brain is divided into two hemispheres: a left and a right. During normal sleep, both hemispheres calm down to an equal degree.
That’s not the case if you’re sleeping in a new place. When you spend your first night in an unfamiliar environment, one hemisphere of your brain snoozes like usual – but the other one stays more alert, acting like a night watchman. Even minor stimuli cause it to wake you right up, and your reflexes are sharper than usual to deal with whatever pulled you out of slumber.
This makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint. Way back when, if you found a nice cozy cave to sleep in, there was a chance you were intruding on its previous owner. If its previous owner was, say, a cave bear, your brain wanted you to know about it.
It’s good that your brain is trying to keep you safe, but very few hotel rooms contain cave bears. When you travel, a good way to keep your hypervigilant hemisphere at ease is by eliminating every possible stimulus at night. Unplug that bedside alarm clock from 1994. Set your phone to airplane mode. Draw the curtains and put electrical tape over any residual light sources. Take a sledgehammer to the ice machine.
Sleeping in a quiet pitch-black room will make your brain much less likely to wake you up. You can add in a few other sleep hacks, too.
Hack your brain – without smart drugs
If want to hack your brain but you’re wary of experimenting with various pills and potions, neurofeedback may be more your style.
Neurofeedback uses sounds and visuals to train you to influence your brain in real time. It’s a popular way to improve focus, reaction time, recovery from psychological trauma – and now motivation, according to a recent study.
Participants used neurofeedback to learn how to turn on their ventral tegmental areas (VTAs) – that’s the center of willpower and motivation in your brain. By watching their brains light up in real time, participants could train themselves to think their way into VTA activation, enhancing their willpower and focus. The effects lasted, too – once they’d learned the skill, members of the study could light up their VTAs at will, without any visual cue or reward. The exercise also strengthened neural connections in the brain region surrounding the VTA.
Neurofeedback gives you more control over your mental state, along with increased cognitive power. It’s an uncommonly potent brain hack, particularly for willpower and sustaining attention. You can find places that offer neurofeedback in most major cities or buy your own unit to use at home, although the latter will cost you a pretty penny. A less expensive introduction to neurofeedback is an HRV monitor, which teaches you to control stress and curb your fight-or-flight response at will.
The social media blues
There’s a strong connection between social media use and depression in young people, according to a new study.
First things first: correlation is not causation. This study doesn’t say whether social media makes people unhappy or unhappy people gravitate toward social media. But the link is certainly interesting, and it invites thought.
This study isn’t the first of its kind. Research from Sweden has linked cell phone and computer use to sleep disturbance (probably from blue light exposure), depression, and increased stress. Social media is also a poor substitute for face-to-face company. People do bond over social media, but it’s to a much lesser degree than they would in person, and digital interaction takes away the non-verbal cues like body language and face reading that are so crucial to happy social connection.
If you’ve been feeling down or isolated lately, try calling a friend for coffee instead of logging onto Facebook. You may get more out of it. This guide to social hacking can help too.
Stem cells reverse brain damage
An experimental study looking at the safety of brain stem cell injections returned surprising results. The researchers injected stem cells into brain-damaged people. The goal was just to see if such a procedure is safe, not to see whether it would work.
It turns out it’s a lot more than safe. 18 patients with brain damage from strokes received stem cell injections in areas with dead neurons. 7 of the 18 patients showed dramatic improvement within a year of the injection. One 71-year-old wheelchair-bound man began walking again. Another patient, a woman who struggled to walk and speak, greatly regained her ability to do both.
What’s most interesting is the way the brain cells regrew. The stem cells themselves didn’t turn into new neurons. Instead they seemed to stimulate existing, damaged neurons to repair themselves. This challenges previous wisdom that dead cells were dead and that was it. It marks an exciting turning point in neuroscience – and biohacking.
Stay tuned for more about stem cell biohacking in the coming months…
That’s it for July. Thanks for reading and subscribe below for more biohacking articles!
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