Can You Rewire Your Brain In Two Weeks? One Man’s Attempt…

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Can you rewire your brain in two weeks?  The answer appears to be — at least partially — yes.

The following is a guest post by Shane Snow, frequent contributor to Wired and Fast Company and author of the new book SMARTCUTS: How Hackers, Innovators, and Icons Accelerate Success.  Last year, he wrote about his two-week Soylent experiment, which went viral and racked up 500+ comments.  He knows how to stir up controversy.

In this post, Shane tests the “brain-sensing headband” called Muse.

It’s received a lot of PR love, but does it stand up to the hype?  Can it make you a calmer, more effective person in two weeks?  This post tackles these questions and much more.

As many of your know, I’m a long-time experimenter with “smart drugs,” which I think are both more valuable and more dangerous that most people realize.  This includes homemade brain stim (tDCS) devices (I wouldn’t recommend without supervision) and other cutting-edge tools.  If you’d like to read more on these topics, please let me know in the comments.

In the meantime, I hope you enjoy Shane’s experimentation!

Enter Shane Snow

shane snow muse headband

The electrodes needed to be adjusted to fit my sweaty head, which was apparently the largest size the product could accommodate.

I was sitting on a porch in palpable D.C. humidity, on a midsummer’s morning at Bolling Air Force Base, trying to get a quartet of EEG sensors to connect my brain to my Samsung Galaxy. The purple box on my screen kept blinking in and out of sync.

Inside the house, my friend’s two-year-old was jumping violently on the sofa—the same sofa that the shedding 15-pound cat named Endai and I had shared for the past week. The house was in shambles; movers were busily trucking everything away to my friend’s soon-to-be new home in New Mexico. Hence the porch.

I had been sleeping on said couch due to the abrupt ending of an 8-year relationship, which had left me stunned and homeless for the preceding three weeks.  As luck would have it, the anti-anxiety pills my shrink had prescribed for me to take “as needed” were back in New York in my friend Simon’s living room. Crap. My calendar had just alerted me that I’d missed the Skype call start time for my company board meeting, right before the movers unplugged the Internet. Meanwhile, a platoon of military helicopters had decided to play what appeared to be a game of “who can hover the longest over the neighborhood”. Chuk, chuk, chuk, chuk, chuk. CHUCK. CHUCK.

My stress levels were high.

Seemed like as good a time as any to try out my new gadget: a brainwave-sensing headband called the Muse, and its companion app, Calm.

I placed the band’s centimeter-wide contact strip of electrodes against my forehead and rested the plastic against the top of my ears, fiddling with the fit until my phone finally registered a solid connection for each of the sensors, two on my temples, two behind my ears. I donned my white Audio-Technica DJ headphones and fired up the app, which in a soothing voice instructed me to sit up straight, and breeeeeeeathe.

Aug13muse

Calm is a simple meditation exercise: Count your breaths. Don’t try to force them. Your body knows how to breathe. Simply pay attention, the female voice in my headphones told me. After Muse calibrated to my brain’s “active” state—by making me brainstorm items in a series of topics—I was given five minutes of nature sounds to breathe to. When calm and focused, I enjoyed the sound of lapping waves and birds tweeting; when my mind wandered, sturdy winds picked up and the birds flew away.

At the end of five minutes, the app confirmed: I am not very calm.

Thus began my two week experiment in brain therapy. I’d been planning on acquiring a Muse after having caught wind of its development nearly two years before, but who knew it would finally be released during the most anxious time of my adult life? Two weeks was plenty of time, Muse inventor Ariel Garten told me, for the Muse focus training exercises “to reduce perception of pain, improve memory, improve affect, reduce anxiety, and also improve emotional intelligence.”

Seemed a little good to be true, but I was willing to test it.

firsteeg

Electroencephalography (EEG—the recording of electrical activity emitted from the brain) has come a long way in the last 100 years, since doctors drilled holes in monkeys heads to attach sensors, and eventually glued contacts with cathode ray tubes to intact human skulls to map brain activity. They discovered that the brain emits oscillating signals of variable frequency, and the frequency of the oscillations indicates what’s happening—at a high level—in one’s mind. These “waves” are generally delineated into categories based on frequency ranges:

  • Delta waves: indicate deep sleep. (1-3 Hz)
  • Theta waves: indicate deep relaxation or meditation. (4-8 Hz)
  • Alpha waves: indicate a relaxed brain state, what Garten calls “an open state of mind.” (9-13 Hz)
  • Beta waves: indicate alert consciousness and fire up when you’re actively thinking. (14-30 Hz)
  • Gamma waves: indicate high alertness and are often associated with learning. (30-100 Hz)
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The original purpose of EEG was the study of epilepsy. Over the decades, however, as computers improved, neuroscientists’ increasing capability to process the enormous amount of data the brain throws off allowed them to experiment with EEG for other uses, such as attention therapy.

In his 2007 book, The Brain That Changes Itself, neuroscientist Norman Doidge made mainstream the then recent (and surprising) finding that “the brain can change its own structure and function through thought and activity.” Our intelligence and tendencies are not locked in once we’re no longer children, as popular belief once held. Once our brain was wired, it could still be rewired. Doidge called it, “the most important alteration in our view of the brain since we first sketched out its basic anatomy and the workings of its basic component, the neuron.”

This adaptability factor of the brain is called “neuroplasticity.” You may have seen dubious advertisements for “brain-enhancing games” and other gimmicks that drop the term neuroplasticity in impressive-sounding (but often meaningless) marketing speak. Despite this misuse, the plasticity of our neurons is, in fact, fact. Our brains use it to wire themselves naturally, but in the past several years scientists have developed a simple procedure to “hack” them.

Neurofeedback training, or NFT as the scientists call it, is a conditioning method wherein a patient is hooked up to an EEG and shown how active her brain is, thus allowing her to concentrate on exercises that exploit neuroplasticity to build mental muscles that allow her to consciously affect her resting brain activity. Clinical studies have shown that NFT helps the majority of patients to improve their cognitive control and have also helped ADHD sufferers significantly improve their ability to focus.  NFT has even been shown to have a positive effect on depression.

The two prerequisites to being able to pull off NFT are EEG sensors and a computer processor that can turn an EEG scan into real-time feedback. The electricity coming off the brain is orders of magnitude weaker than a standard AA battery, which means sensors must be powerful, delicate, and well-attached to pick anything up. Doctors have found that the skull reduces the signal significantly and thus would prefer if we didn’t have skulls (for examination purposes, that is), but have mostly settled on using wet sensors—electrodes affixed to the scalp or forehead using conductive gel.

The breakthrough that enabled a more practical, portable EEG device like the Muse claims to be, was the advent of dry sensors, or metal contacts that can use the skin’s own moisture or sweat to attain the necessary conductivity.

“Brain waves are very, very, very quiet.  They’ve had to make their way all the way through your thick, thick skull,” Garten says. But sensor technology is improving at a rate that indicates we’re two to three years away from non-contact sensors, she predicts.

And in 2014, processing power is no longer a problem. “Ten years ago we were using fiber optic cable to make sure that you got this extraordinary data into what was like an egg carton and an ancient Commodore computer so that they could do all the processing,” Garten says. “Now, we can just use a phone and Bluetooth.”

The 2013 Muse prototype

The 2013 Muse prototype

When I’d first laid hands on the Muse a year and a half before, it was a chunky slab of plastic and metal. Garten and I met up at a design gallery in Manhattan for a demo of the prototype headband she’d been working on for the better part of the last decade. A Canadian fashion designer turned neuroscientist, she spoke earnestly about the potential applications for measuring one’s brainstate to ameliorate stress and perhaps one day cure ADHD and anxiety.

Garten’s prototype Muse measured the activity of these waves and output them to an iPad like a seismograph. After I donned the plastic headband, I watched in real time as slowing my breathing or concentrating on something or simply talking affected the different wave forms.

“The long term vision is this tool is going to be a regular part of our daily lives,” Garten told me. “You know, like pedometers that help people manage and understand their physical exercise. Brain health is going to be something that is on everybody’s mind. Up until now, there has been no way to, basically, like put a stethoscope up to your brain and say, ‘How is it doing?’”

Ten years ago, a NFT system with Muse-like capabilities (often found in a chiropractor’s office) would cost 5 figures and a closet-worth of space. Now the processing power lives on a standard smartphone, and Muse sensors cost $299.

Eventually, Garten predicted, doctors would actively use it to treat the mentally ill. Programmers would build brainwave-control apps for gaming and smart homes and surfing the Internet on top of Muse’s technology.

But for now it just gives you tweety birds.

My porch session resulted in precisely zero of them:

firstsessionbirds

This session, for which I got a score of “31% calm,” would be the first of many mental workouts in my DYI NFT experiment. Would regular usage of the Muse headband actually change my brain and help fix my anxious life? Or would it turn out to be another wearable that’s more hype than help?

 

THE EXPERIMENT

The 2014 Muse headband

The 2014 Muse headband

The hypothesis (aka sales pitch) was that by using Muse, I’d improve my ability to focus and maintain my cool during my stressful day-to-day.

So for fifteen days, I performed a five-minute Muse Calm session each morning within an hour of waking up and shaking off sleep. I’d sit in a similar setting (straight-back chair in a room alone), in similar clothing (comfortable, shorts and t-shirt, no shoes), with no distractions (accomplished via Bose noise-canceling earbuds) every time.

Additionally, I performed a series of sessions in various random non-comfortable settings, to test whether different mental exercises produced different results, or whether I could remain calm while being assaulted by various outside forces—which is the real goal of NFT, rather than simply getting better at a “game” in quiet isolation.

Though the app would tell me if my brain was getting better at calming itself during the exercise, the less easy-to-quantify result would be to see whether my level of general anxiety would decrease as I got better at the Calm app. (I.e. am I forming these alleged neural pathways?) Garten and Calm each told me that once I completed enough sessions (5,000 points’ worth), the app would unlock insights about how my brain was doing, which could shed some light on my meta-state. But I also tracked my overall emotional and mental state by keeping regular journal entries throughout the two weeks.

For a control—and as a basic BS test—I performed a session while reading a book instead of doing the breathing exercise. I read three pages of Murakami’s new one, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki, and my brain was all sorts of active. Mr. Murakami, your work is stimulating. Science hath proven it:

murakamisession

 

THE RESULTS

Most of my morning sessions took place between 8 and 11 a.m. I keep a somewhat irregular sleep schedule (a source of anxiety, or symptom?), but aim for 7 hours a night. The important part for this experiment was to make sure that I did my Muse session within an hour of waking, but after I had stopped being groggy. In other words: before my morning exercise, after my morning pee.

I kept the morning schedule up with a few exceptions: on August 18, the Muse Calm app caused the headband to think my brainwaves had completely flatlined. I contacted the Muse team, and they confirmed that this was indeed a bug that they were working on fixing that day. On August 20, 22, 24, and 26 I skipped my morning session due to extenuating circumstances. (The 24th, for example, was my birthday, and I stayed out until 8 a.m.. My first session that day was at 4 p.m. and resulted in a hangover-level 31%.) But throughout my 15-day experiment, I never went a day without doing one or more sessions, and I never went two days without doing a standardized morning session.

In all, I completed 24 sessions. Here’s how my morning sessions went over the course of the two weeks:

morningsessions

You’ll notice that I did pretty poorly for the first several sessions, then experienced a jump in improvement on August 17. What this chart doesn’t show is that though it was that August 17 was actually the seventh session I’d done in total. So I was getting better, but I’m not entirely sure why such a dramatic jump. You’ll also notice a slight dip on the 25th and 27th. On these days, I was having a couple of particularly anxious mornings (due to personal issues); however, on these days I still maintained double the calm as my first few sessions—which were less emotionally fraught than these days.

My final morning session of the experiment, on August 28, was a serene 89%—my best yet, and just one spike of brain activity away from monk-like zen:

lastmorningsession

More importantly, I attracted a fucking flock of tweety birds:

lastsessionbirds

Here’s how I performed on my random sessions in less-controlled environments:

randomsessions

Clearly, it was harder for me to focus and remain calm when I was tired or emotionally compromised.

Trains made it easier to focus (likely due to the lack of noise and abundance of leg room). Airplanes tend to give me claustrophobia, but it’s also likely that the vibrations of the plane itself caused my muscles to move (generating louder electrical signals than your brain emits) and made my results so poor during the flight. There certainly was a lot of shaking going on during my flight.

Interestingly, listening to calming music (I tend to put Blackmill’s “Miracle” album on repeat when I want to relax or single-task) outperformed no sound (simply trying to calm myself without an aid). On August 27, my regular session with the app’s wind and waves, resulted in 12% less calm than my music experiment immediately after.

As far as the meta, “how am I doing” portion of the experiment went, I eagerly awaited when I could unlock the “Insights About You” page of the app, after racking up enough “calm points”. Disappointingly, though Garten and Muse Calm both promised me these “additional features and special insights into my brain”, once I unlocked the screen, I got simply a blank, broken page:

blankbonus

When asked, the Muse publicist confirmed that the feature “actually hasn’t been developed yet” and relayed the (in my opinion) unlikely explanation that “there was a miscommunication between the product and dev teams.”

My journal entries indicated a general decrease in agitation and worry by the end of the experiment. My ability to focus on tasks (primarily writing) seemed to improve. I have a tendency to get distracted when I’m writing, and in the same way that the waves-and-wind exercise in the app teaches you to power through distractions and focus on your breath, I felt that I already was improving my ability to notice a distraction but keep it in the background instead of indulging it.

Furthermore, as I walked down busy streets or lay in bed—times when I normally would ruminate—I found myself subconsciously slowing breaths and counting them as a means of shoving out bad thoughts and calming down.

“Many smart people who use their brains a lot are ‘high beta,’” explained my therapist (whose name I’ll omit to maintain a shred of personal privacy) when I asked her about this. An award-winning Manhattan psychologist and author, she has used NFT herself.  A few years ago, she used a professional-grade version of Muse to teach her own active brain to be silent. “I couldn’t go to sleep without the TV on,” she said. “The minute it was quiet, my brain would explode with activity.”

With measurement and some mental situps, she calmed her own rumination—as apparently thousands of people have done at clinics that use EEG therapy. That “neuroplasticity” thing that people throw around, it turns out, is real. And it works as fast as one can form a bad habit.

“The brain can be retrained,” she said. “People think it can’t, but it can.”

 

POTENTIAL ISSUES

One of the main limitations of the Muse Calm app—or at least questions that I had from the beginning—was the validity of the wind-and-waves feedback sound system itself, as well as the “count your breaths” mediation exercise. My assistant, Erin, who’s a yoga instructor and meditation expert by night, was skeptical that the Muse Calm exercise was the most effective method the app could have chosen. Why would you have the distracting sounds get worse when you were most compromised? she said. Doesn’t that create a self-defeating cycle?

Garten responded: “We did a bunch of experimentation on positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement and we ultimately built an application with a mix of both. The negative reinforcements of the wind can definitely be distracting, but what you learn over time is also this lesson in not being judgmental when things don’t work.”

A 2010 study by scientists from the University of Pennsylvania and Georgetown found positive links between “mindfulness training”—the popular meditation practice of calmly noticing, but not changing what’s happening to you—has a positive effect on working memory. The Muse Calm’s “notice and count your breaths” exercise is a form of mindfulness training, and appears to hold up under scientific scrutiny, but the wind-and-waves feedback loop (NFT) throws a bit of a wrench into true “mindfulness”, since the act of being mindful ends up affecting your environment, whereas the point of mindfulness meditation is to notice but not affect.

Could a “pure” mindfulness exercise without the instant and self-reinforcing feedback outperform Calm’s NFT/mindfulness hybrid? Beats me, but it’s a question I’d want to test in future experiments.

Other limitations or potential variables that could affect the science behind my two-week experiment include the following:

  • Factors such as the exact time I awoke and what kind of bed I slept in changed slightly from day to day, as I was traveling and couch-hopping. While the course of my experiment showed an upward trend in calm, I wasn’t able to duplicate the time and setting of each of my morning sessions precisely, which could affect the results to some degree.
  • Since I was dealing with the fresh personal trauma, perhaps I was naturally recovering psychologically during the two weeks of my experiment (i.e. regression to the mean). My therapist insists that the relationship wound was too fresh and two weeks is not enough time to work through anything, but it still could be a factor.
  • This experiment was only two weeks, which I was told would be a sufficient minimum for results. More time could certainly help verify the trends I observed in my short experiment. (And I plan to keep using Muse over the next few months to track just that.)
  • And of course, my observations about how I was feeling were, by nature, subjective. (However, if my psychological improvement is all in my head, that’s okay by me—it was in my head to begin with! And actually, I’ve interviewed one scientist who’s studying how placebos actually form neural pathways that can physically cure psychological issues. Very interesting stuff happening in this field.)

 

EPILOGUE

The electrodes had no problem beaming the signal from my sweaty head to my Android this time.

I was sitting on a set of red bleachers in disgusting New York humidity in the middle of Times Square, Manhattan. The familiar female voice in my headphones instructed me to close my eyes, as she had two dozen times before.

Around me, a trillion stressed-out tourists were busily taking selfies and worrying about pick pockets. A troupe of Chinese activists had just accosted me with pamphlets and signs concerning some “Jesuit Father discrimination” something-or-other, meanwhile a quartet of feather-headressed ladies performed a synchronized dance on the steps below me. A bumblefoot pigeon had taken up residence on my step and didn’t seem to want to leave me alone. My entire body was sweating.

I’d just walked through my old neighborhood, a surprisingly painful reminiscence. Unexpectedly, one of my ex’s favorite songs had begun playing on shuffle as I made my way through the crowd, further dampening my mood. In the back of my head were the several overdue stories for editors of various publications in line with my book launch, and the approximately 200 priority emails stacked up in my inbox. I was lugging my entire life in an overstuffed backpack and had just spilled protein drink all over my shorts—which I just now realized were my only available leggings, because I’d left the remaining two pairs of jeans I owned back in my friend Simon’s freezer (here’s why). I was pensive and hot and frustrated and dripping.

Once again, I donned my brainwave headband, which once again told me to breeaaathe.

About halfway through my five-minute session—the twenty-fifth I’d undertaken since meeting Muse—some nearby tourists began singing “Happy Birthday” so loudly that I could hear them through my noise-canceling headphones. A fire engine blared its siren in place for a full minute, stuck one block away in Times Square traffic. My butt burned on the red steps, in the August heat. My posture was killing me.

At the end of five minutes, Muse confirmed: I was pretty damn calm.

tsquaresessiongchart

The two spikes in active brain activity in this chart were the fire truck and the birthday party, each of which I recovered from almost instantly. Aside from that, my brain state was either neutral or calm the entire time:

tsqsessiontime

Plus I attracted 15 tweety birds:

tsqsessionbirds

Despite the chaos in my life, there was no doubt that this little device had made me a calmer person in just two weeks. I could play through the mental and physical pain with twice the composure as just fifteen days before.

Muse has a way to go before the guy with the electric headband on in Times Square doesn’t just look like an idiot. And the Calm app could definitely use work. (Different meditation exercises, please?) However, the science behind what the Muse team is doing is real, the technology promising, and a bevy of independent programmers are already building fascinating applications on top of Muse.

With the development of cheap and portable EEG monitors like Muse, are we a few lines of code away from controlling light switches and video games with our brains? It’ll take a while.

But I, at least, am a step closer to mind over matter.

Breeeeathe….

###

Question of the day:  What do you think are the next frontiers of self-experimentation and self-tracking?  What would you like me to test for you?  Please let me know in the comments by clicking here.

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The Art of Strategic Laziness

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David Heinemeier Hansson ("DHH")

David Heinemeier Hansson (“DHH”)

The following is a guest post by Shane Snow, a frequent contributor to Wired and Fast Company.  Last year, he wrote about his two-week Soylent experiment, which went viral and racked up 500+ comments.

This post is adapted from his new book, SMARTCUTSand it will teach you a few things:

  • How to use strategic “laziness” to dramatically accelerate progress
  • How “DHH” became a world-class car racer in record time, and how he revolutionized programming (they’re related)
  • A basic intro to computer programming abstraction

Note: the technical aspects of programming have been simplified for a lay audience.  If you’d like to point out clarifications or subtleties, please share your thoughts in the comments!   I’d love to read them, as I’m thinking of experimenting with programming soon.

Enter Shane Snow

The team was in third place by the time David Heinemeier Hansson leapt into the cockpit of the black-and-pink Le Mans Prototype 2 and accelerated to 120 miles per hour. A dozen drivers jostled for position at his tail. The lead car was pulling away from the pack—a full lap ahead.

This was the 6 Hours of Silverstone, a six-hour timed race held each year in Northamptonshire, UK, part of the World Endurance Championship. Heinemeier Hansson’s team, Oak Racing, hoped to place well enough here to keep them competitive in the standings for the upcoming 24 Hours of Le Mans, the Tour de France of automobile racing.

Heinemeier Hansson was the least experienced driver among his teammates, but the Oak team had placed a third of this important race in his hands.

Determined to close the gap left by his teammate, Heinemeier Hansson put pedal to floor, hugging the curves of the 3.7-mile track that would be his singular focus for the next two hours. But as three g’s of acceleration slammed into his body, he began to slide around the open cockpit. Left, then right, then left. Something was wrong with his seat.

In endurance racing, a first place car can win a six- or 12-hour race by five seconds or less. Winning comes down to two factors: the equipment and the driver. However, rules are established to ensure that every car is relatively matched, which means outcomes are determined almost entirely by the drivers’ ability to focus and optimize thousands of tiny decisions.

Shifting attention from the road to, say, a maladjusted driver’s seat for even a second could give another car the opportunity to pass. But at 120 miles per hour, a wrong move might mean worse than losing the trophy.  As Heinemeier Hansson put it, “Either you think about the task at hand or you die.”

Turn by turn, he fought centrifugal force, attempting to keep from flying out while creeping up on the ADR-Delta car in front of him.

And then it started to rain… Read More

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How to Learn Any Language in Record Time and Never Forget It

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Fluent_Forever_Logo

Preface from Tim

Back in 2012, Gabriel Wyner wrote an article for Lifehacker detailing how he learned French in 5 months and Russian in 10, using mostly spare time on the subway.  That article went viral.

But don’t run off! That was nothing but version 1.0.  This post gives you version 2.0 and more.

He’s spent the last two years refining his methods and putting them on steroids. Kevin Kelly, founding editor of Wired, was the one who told me, “You have to check this guy out. His new book is amazing.” Keep in mind that I’d previously told Kevin that I thought most books on language learning were garbage.  I took his endorsement seriously, and I wasn’t disappointed.

This post gives you Gabe’s new blueprint for rapid language learning:

  • A revised and updated version of his original post
  • New techniques from the last two years of experimentation
  • How he learned 6 languages in just a handful of years
  • Tips and tricks you won’t find anywhere else

Read More

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The Art of Learning: The Tool of Choice for Top Athletes, Traders, and Creatives

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This post is about the third book in the Tim Ferriss Book Club, which is limited to books that have dramatically impacted my life. Enjoy!

“I strongly recommend [The Art of Learning] for anyone who lives in a world of competition, whether it’s sports or business or anywhere else.”
– Mark Messier, 6-Time Stanley Cup Champion

“[This book] is a testimonial to the timeless principle of ‘do less and accomplish more.’ Highly recommended.”
– Deepak Chopra

“Josh provides tools that allow all of us to improve ourselves every day.”
– Cal Ripken, Jr., Baseball Hall of Fame Inductee

How do the best performers in the world become the best in the world?

The newest book in the Tim Ferriss Book Club provides the answers and blueprint: The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance by Joshua Waitzkin, the subject of Searching for Bobby Fischer. It’s been one of my constant companions since 2007, and I’m THRILLED to shine the spotlight on it.

  • Want to dominate sports? See the quotes from Cal Ripken, Jr. and Mark Messier above. There are many more.
  • Want to dominate business or finance? Many of the Forbes 100 work one-on-one with Josh. I personally know hedgefund managers, with $10-100 billion under management, who have The Art of Learning on their bedside tables.
  • Want to maximize creativity? Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, says “This is a really superb book, one I wish someone had given to me long ago… It will take a ferocious interruption to make you set this book down.”

Want to up your game, no matter the game? This book is your guide.

The Audible version of the audiobook can be found here.

This post includes several things, including:

  • A brief personal story about Josh
  • A sample chapter, both in audio and text
  • A video overview

But perhaps you’re in a rush. Want the book synopsis in one sentence? Here it is: Through stories of martial arts wars and tense chess face-offs, Waitzkin reveals the inner workings of his everyday methods, including systematically triggering breakthroughs, cultivating top-1% technique in any field, and mastering the art of performance psychology.

The Art of Learning encapsulates an extraordinary competitor’s life lessons into a page-turning narrative.

Download or stream the book here!

My Story with Josh — Love at First F-Bomb

I first met Josh Waitzkin at a coffee shop in Manhattan.

Having just read The Art of Learning, I was as giddy as a schoolgirl that he’d agreed to come. I don’t have many heroes, and he was one of them.

About 15 minutes into sipping coffee and getting acquainted, I realized that he dropped as many f-bombs as I did. He was no Rain Man, and I felt silly for half expecting him to be. 15 minutes turned into nearly three hours, and he’s since become one of my best friends.

If you’ve read the bestselling book Searching for Bobby Fischer (or seen the movie), then you know of Josh.

Wandering through Washington Square Park with his mom at age six, he became fascinated with the “blitz chess” that the street hustlers played at warp speed. He watched and absorbed. Then he begged his mom to let him give it a shot. Just once! Soon thereafter, dressed in OshKosh overalls, he was king of the hustlers.

Josh proceeded to dominate the world chess scene and become the only person to win the National Primary, Elementary, Junior High School, Senior High School, U.S. Cadet, and U.S. Junior Closed chess championships before the age of 16. He could easily play “simuls,” in which 20-50 chessboards were set up with opponents in a large banquet hall, requiring him to walk from table to table playing all of the games simultaneously in his head.

He was labeled a “prodigy” (more on this shortly).

But how did he really become so good?

Partially by breaking the rules. Bruce Pandolfini, Josh’s original chess teacher, started their first class by taking him in reverse. The board was empty, except for three pieces in an endgame scenario: king and pawn against king. Memorizing openings was forbidden at the start.

Learning chess in reverse?

Yes, and this is just one of the many accelerated learning techniques Josh has refined and perfected over the last 20 years.

Calling Josh a “chess prodigy” is a misnomer because Josh defies pigeonholing. He has a PROCESS for mastering skills — one you can use yourself — and he’s applied it to many fields, not just chess.

He tackled Tai Chi Chuan after leaving the chess world behind. 13 Push Hands National Championships and two World Championship titles later, he decided to train in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Now, a few short years later, he’s a black belt under the Michael Jordan of BJJ, Marcelo Garcia.

As Josh has put it: “I’ve come to realize that what I am best at is not Tai Chi, and it is not chess. What I am best at is the art of learning.”

If you want to get the most out of life, you need to get his book.

You won’t regret it.

I’ll also be creating a message board so we can discuss this book and others.

Download or stream the book here!

Sample Chapter — The Introduction

[Below is just one of 20 chapters in The Art of Learning.  Audio is embedded first, followed by text for the same chapter.]

Finals: Tai Chi Chuan Push Hands World Championships
Hsinchuang Stadium, Taipei, Taiwan December 5, 2004

Forty seconds before round two, and I’m lying on my back trying to breathe.

Pain all through me. Deep breath. Let it go. I won’t be able to lift my shoulder tomorrow, it won’t heal for over a year, but now it pulses, alive, and I feel the air vibrating around me, the stadium shaking with chants, in Mandarin, not for me.

My teammates are kneeling above me, looking worried. They rub my arms, my shoulders, my legs. The bell rings. I hear my dad’s voice in the stands, ‘C’mon Josh!’ Gotta get up. I watch my opponent run to the center of the ring. He screams, pounds his chest. The fans explode. They call him Buffalo. Bigger than me, stronger, quick as a cat. But I can take him — if I make it to the middle of the ring without falling over. I have to dig deep, bring it up from somewhere right now. Our wrists touch, the bell rings, and he hits me like a Mack truck.

Who could have guessed it would come to this? Just a few years earlier I had been competing around the world in elite chess tournaments. Since I was eight years old, I had consistently been the highest rated player for my age in the United States, and my life was dominated by competitions and training regimens designed to bring me into peak form for the next national or world championship. I had spent the years between ages fifteen and eighteen in the maelstrom of American media following the release of the film Searching for Bobby Fischer, which was based on my dad’s book about my early chess life. I was known as America’s great young chess player and was told that it was my destiny to follow in the footsteps of immortals like Bobby Fischer and Garry Kasparov, to be world champion.

But there were problems. After the movie came out I couldn’t go to a tournament without being surrounded by fans asking for autographs. Instead of focusing on chess positions, I was pulled into the image of myself as a celebrity. Since childhood I had treasured the sublime study of chess, the swim through ever-deepening layers of complexity. I could spend hours at a chessboard and stand up from the experience on fire with insight about chess, basketball, the ocean, psychology, love, art. The game was exhilarating and also spiritually calming. It centered me. Chess was my friend. Then, suddenly, the game became alien and disquieting.

I recall one tournament in Las Vegas: I was a young International Master in a field of a thousand competitors including twenty-six strong Grandmasters from around the world. As an up-and-coming player, I had huge respect for the great sages around me. I had studied their masterpieces for hundreds of hours and was awed by the artistry of these men. Before first-round play began I was seated at my board, deep in thought about my opening preparation, when the public address system announced that the subject of Searching for Bobby Fischer was at the event. A tournament director placed a poster of the movie next to my table, and immediately a sea of fans surged around the ropes separating the top boards from the audience. As the games progressed, when I rose to clear my mind young girls gave me their phone numbers and asked me to autograph their stomachs or legs.

This might sound like a dream for a seventeen-year-old boy, and I won’t deny enjoying the attention, but professionally it was a nightmare. My game began to unravel. I caught myself thinking about how I looked thinking instead of losing myself in thought. The Grandmasters, my elders, were ignored and scowled at me. Some of them treated me like a pariah. I had won eight national championships and had more fans, public support and recognition than I could dream of, but none of this was helping my search for excellence, let alone for happiness.

At a young age I came to know that there is something profoundly hollow about the nature of fame. I had spent my life devoted to artistic growth and was used to the sweaty-palmed sense of contentment one gets after many hours of intense reflection. This peaceful feeling had nothing to do with external adulation, and I yearned for a return to that innocent, fertile time. I missed just being a student of the game, but there was no escaping the spotlight. I found myself dreading chess, miserable before leaving for tournaments. I played without inspiration and was invited to appear on television shows. I smiled.

Then when I was eighteen years old I stumbled upon a little book called the Tao Te Ching, and my life took a turn. I was moved by the book’s natural wisdom and I started delving into other Buddhist and Taoist philosophical texts. I recognized that being at the pinnacle in other people’s eyes had nothing to do with quality of life, and I was drawn to the potential for inner tranquility.

On October 5, 1998, I walked into William C. C. Chen’s Tai Chi Chuan studio in downtown Manhattan and found myself surrounded by peacefully concentrating men and women floating through a choreographed set of movements. I was used to driven chess players cultivating tunnel vision in order to win the big game, but now the focus was on bodily awareness, as if there were some inner bliss that resulted from mindfully moving slowly in strange ways.

I began taking classes and after a few weeks I found myself practicing the meditative movements for hours at home. Given the complicated nature of my chess life, it was beautifully liberating to be learning in an environment in which I was simply one of the beginners — and something felt right about this art. I was amazed by the way my body pulsed with life when flowing through the ancient steps, as if I were tapping into a primal alignment.

My teacher, the world-renowned Grandmaster William C.C. Chen, spent months with me in beginner classes, patiently correcting my movements. In a room with fifteen new students, Chen would look into my eyes from twenty feet away, quietly assume my posture, and relax his elbow a half inch one way or another. I would follow his subtle instruction and suddenly my hand would come alive with throbbing energy as if he had plugged me into a soothing electrical current. His insight into body mechanics seemed magical, but perhaps equally impressive was Chen’s humility. Here was a man thought by many to be the greatest living Tai Chi Master in the world, and he patiently taught first-day novices with the same loving attention he gave his senior students.

I learned quickly, and became fascinated with the growth that I was experiencing. Since I was twelve years old I had kept journals of my chess study, making psychological observations along the way — now I was doing the same with Tai Chi.

After about six months of refining my form (the choreographed movements that are the heart of Tai Chi Chuan), Master Chen invited me to join the Push Hands class. This was very exciting, my baby steps toward the martial side of the art. In my first session, my teacher and I stood facing each other, each of us with our right leg forward and the backs of our right wrists touching. He told me to push into him, but when I did he wasn’t there anymore. I felt sucked forward, as if by a vacuum. I stumbled and scratched my head. Next, he gently pushed into me and I tried to get out of the way but didn’t know where to go. Finally I fell back on old instincts, tried to resist the incoming force, and with barely any contact Chen sent me flying into the air.

Over time, Master Chen taught me the body mechanics of nonresistance. As my training became more vigorous, I learned to dissolve away from attacks while staying rooted to the ground. I found myself calculating less and feeling more, and as I internalized the physical techniques all the little movements of the Tai Chi meditative form started to come alive to me in Push Hands practice. I remember one time, in the middle of a sparring session I sensed a hole in my partner’s structure and suddenly he seemed to leap away from me. He looked shocked and told me that he had been pushed away, but he hadn’t noticed any explosive movement on my part. I had no idea what to make of this, but slowly I began to realize the martial power of my living room meditation sessions. After thousands of slow-motion, ever-refined repetitions of certain movements, my body could become that shape instinctively. Somehow in Tai Chi the mind needed little physical action to have great physical effect.

This type of learning experience was familiar to me from chess. My whole life I had studied techniques, principles, and theory until they were integrated into the unconscious. From the outside Tai Chi and chess couldn’t be more different, but they began to converge in my mind. I started to translate my chess ideas into Tai Chi language, as if the two arts were linked by an essential connecting ground. Every day I noticed more and more similarities, until I began to feel as if I were studying chess when I was studying Tai Chi. Once I was giving a forty-board simultaneous chess exhibition in Memphis and I realized halfway through that I had been playing all the games as Tai Chi. I wasn’t calculating with chess notation or thinking about opening variations…I was feeling flow, filling space left behind, riding waves like I do at sea or in martial arts. This was wild! I was winning chess games without playing chess.

Similarly, I would be in a Push Hands competition and time would seem to slow down enough to allow me to methodically take apart my opponent’s structure and uncover his vulnerability, as in a chess game. My fascination with consciousness, study of chess and Tai Chi, love for literature and the ocean, for meditation and philosophy, all coalesced around the theme of tapping into the mind’s potential via complete immersion into one and all activities. My growth became defined by barrierlessness. Pure concentration didn’t allow thoughts or false constructions to impede my awareness, and I observed clear connections between different life experiences through the common mode of consciousness by which they were perceived.

As I cultivated openness to these connections, my life became flooded with intense learning experiences. I remember sitting on a Bermuda cliff one stormy afternoon, watching waves pound into the rocks. I was focused on the water trickling back out to sea and suddenly knew the answer to a chess problem I had been wrestling with for weeks. Another time, after completely immersing myself in the analysis of a chess position for eight hours, I had a breakthrough in my Tai Chi and successfully tested it in class that night. Great literature inspired chess growth, shooting jump shots on a New York City blacktop gave me insight about fluidity that applied to Tai Chi, becoming at peace holding my breath seventy feet underwater as a free-diver helped me in the time pressure of world championship chess or martial arts competitions. Training in the ability to quickly lower my heart rate after intense physical strain helped me recover between periods of exhausting concentration in chess tournaments. After several years of cloudiness, I was flying free, devouring information, completely in love with learning.

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Before I began to conceive of this book, I was content to understand my growth in the martial arts in a very abstract manner. I related to my experience with language like parallel learning and translation of level. I felt as though I had transferred the essence of my chess understanding into my Tai Chi practice. But this didn’t make much sense, especially outside of my own head. What does essence really mean anyway? And how does one transfer it from a mental to a physical discipline?

These questions became the central preoccupation in my life after I won my first Push Hands National Championship in November 2000. At the time I was studying philosophy at Columbia University and was especially drawn to Asian thought. I discovered some interesting foundations for my experience in ancient Indian, Chinese, Tibetan, and Greek texts — Upanishadic essence, Taoist receptivity, Neo-Confucian principle, Buddhist nonduality, and the Platonic forms all seemed to be a bizarre cross-cultural trace of what I was searching for. Whenever I had an idea, I would test it against some brilliant professor who usually disagreed with my conclusions. Academic minds tend to be impatient with abstract language — when I spoke about intuition, one philosophy professor rolled her eyes and told me the term had no meaning. The need for precision forced me to think about these ideas more concretely. I had to come to a deeper sense of concepts like essence, quality, principle, intuition, and wisdom in order to understand my own experience, let alone have any chance of communicating it.

As I struggled for a more precise grasp of my own learning process, I was forced to retrace my steps and remember what had been internalized and forgotten. In both my chess and martial arts lives, there is a method of study that has been critical to my growth. I sometimes refer to it as the study of numbers to leave numbers, or form to leave form. A basic example of this process, which applies to any discipline, can easily be illustrated through chess: A chess student must initially become immersed in the fundamentals in order to have any potential to reach a high level of skill. He or she will learn the principles of endgame, middlegame, and opening play. Initially one or two critical themes will be considered at once, but over time the intuition learns to integrate more and more principles into a sense of flow. Eventually the foundation is so deeply internalized that it is no longer consciously considered, but is lived. This process continuously cycles along as deeper layers of the art are soaked in.

Very strong chess players will rarely speak of the fundamentals, but these beacons are the building blocks of their mastery. Similarly, a great pianist or violinist does not think about individual notes, but hits them all perfectly in a virtuoso performance. In fact, thinking about a “C” while playing Beethoven’s 5th Symphony could be a real hitch because the flow might be lost. The problem is that if you want to write an instructional chess book for beginners, you have to dig up all the stuff that is buried in your unconscious — I had this issue when I wrote my first book, Attacking Chess. In order to write for beginners, I had to break down my chess knowledge incrementally, whereas for years I had been cultivating a seamless integration of the critical information.

The same pattern can be seen when the art of learning is analyzed: themes can be internalized, lived by, and forgotten. I figured out how to learn efficiently in the brutally competitive world of chess, where a moment without growth spells a front-row seat to rivals mercilessly passing you by. Then I intuitively applied my hard-earned lessons to the martial arts. I avoided the pitfalls and tempting divergences that a learner is confronted with, but I didn’t really think about them because the road map was deep inside me — just like the chess principles.

Since I decided to write this book, I have analyzed myself, taken my knowledge apart, and rigorously investigated my own experience. Speaking to corporate and academic audiences about my learning experience has also challenged me to make my ideas more accessible. Whenever there was a concept or learning technique that I related to in a manner too abstract to convey, I forced myself to break it down into the incremental steps with which I got there. Over time I began to see the principles that have been silently guiding me, and a systematic methodology of learning emerged.

My chess life began in Washington Square Park in New York’s Greenwich Village, and took me on a sixteen-year-roller-coaster ride, through world championships in America, Romania, Germany, Hungary, Brazil, and India, through every kind of heartache and ecstasy a competitor can imagine. In recent years, my Tai Chi life has become a dance of meditation and intense martial competition, of pure growth and the observation, testing, and exploration of that learning process. I have currently won thirteen Tai Chi Chuan Push Hands National Championship titles, placed third in the 2002 World Championship in Taiwan, and in 2004 I won the Chung Hwa Cup International in Taiwan, the World Championship of Tai Chi Chuan Push Hands.

A lifetime of competition has not cooled my ardor to win, but I have grown to love the study and training above all else. After so many years of big games, performing under pressure has become a way of life. Presence under fire hardly feels different from the presence I feel sitting at my computer, typing these sentences. What I have realized is that what I am best at is not Tai Chi, and it is not chess — what I am best at is the art of learning.

This book is the story of my method.

Video Overview

Below is a short video overview of The Art of Learning. Don’t miss the hilarious outtakes starting around 4:45:

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Download or stream the entire book here!

Alternatively, the Audible version of the audiobook can be found here, but the author earns lower royalties than purchases through the link above.

QOD: If you’ve met or studied any world-class performers, what did you learn from them? What lessons have you learned from observing the greats? Please share in the comments!

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How to Cure Anxiety — One Workaholic’s Story, Six Techniques That Work

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Charlie Hoehn was a full-time employee of mine during the making and launch of The 4-Hour Body. It was an intense period.

In this post, Charlie will share his M.E.D. (Minimum Effective Dose) for overcoming anxiety and managing workaholism. There are six techniques in total.

If you haven’t already, be sure to read his previous post on preventing burnout.

Enter Charlie

Do you feel a constant sense of dread? Do you have trouble breathing, relaxing, and sleeping? Do you worry that you’re losing control, or that you’re going to die?

In other words: are you trapped in your own personal hell?

I’ve been there (here’s the backstory), and I know what it’s like. Shallow breathing, tension in the gut, chest pains, rapid heartbeat… Every moment is exhausting, crushing, and painful. Anxiety destroys your confidence, your productivity, your relationships, and your ability to enjoy life.

For a long time, I thought I was going crazy. I was convinced that something horribly wrong was about to happen. I tired and afraid all the time, and I didn’t know how to shake it. One half of me pretended to be normal while the other half tried to keep it together.

I tried everything: meditation, yoga, high-intensity workouts, long runs, therapy, therapy books, keeping a journal, super clean diets, extended fasting, drugs, deep breathing exercises, prayer, etc. I even took a six-week course, made specifically for men who wanted to overcome anxiety.

What I discovered is that the most effective “cures” for anxiety are often free, painless, and fun. When I was doing the six techniques I cover in this post on a daily basis, I was able to get back to my normal self in less than one month

It’s my sincerest hope that this post helps you eliminate your anxiety, once and for all. Surprisingly, it’s not as hard as you think… Read More

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The Odd (And Effective) Routines of Famous Minds like Beethoven, Maya Angelou, and Francis Bacon

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Wine is part of my creative process. How I use it has been influenced by other writers. Why reinvent the wheel?

Sometimes, peculiar routines are the key to sanity… and productivity.

For years, I wrote from 11pm-4am or so, fueled by carefully timed yerba mate tea, Malbec, and Casino Royale left on repeat in my peripheral vision.

But who am I? Let’s explore the odd and effective routines of several creative icons: Maya Angelou (author), Francis Bacon (painter), W.H. Auden (poet), and Ludwig van Beethoven (composer).

Here’s an appetizer, before we get to the full routines:

Maya Angelou rented a “tiny, mean” hotel or motel room to do her writing;
Francis Bacon preferred to work with a hangover;
W.H. Auden took Benzedrine the way many people take a multivitamin; and
Beethoven counted out 60 coffee beans (exactly!) each morning, and developed his compositions through walking and obsessive bathing.

Enjoy the detailed profiles below.

All were excerpted from one of my favorite books–Daily Rituals: How Artists Work–which contains nearly 200 routines of some of the greatest minds of the last four hundred years: famous novelists, poets, playwrights, painters, philosophers, scientists, and mathematicians… Read More

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Jony Ive’s Secret Coffee Ritual

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Jony Ive and his elite design team at Apple are coffee snobs. And rightfully so.

Coffee is the fuel that drives their brainstorming sessions, which are arguably the most important meetings in the design department. These sessions are where Apple has birthed some of the greatest products of all-time: the iMac, the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad.

In this guest post by Leander Kahney (author of Jony Ive: The Genius Behind Apple’s Greatest Products), you’ll learn the secret coffee ritual performed by Jony Ive’s design team.

Remember: Apple’s standards are notoriously high.  As is the case with their products, Apple’s coffee is not for those with meager budgets…or without Monk-ish tendencies.

HOWEVER, for almost every uber-expensive ideal, I’ve indicated the Poor Man’s alternative that I personally use.  It’s not hard to cheaply get it about 90% right.

Enjoy the obsessive detail… Read More

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