the Biohack

Where Science Meets Lifestyle.

Redefining Biohacking: It’s All in Your Mind

It’s time we find a new definition of biohacking. It shouldn’t be marginal gains from questionable supplements. It isn’t prescription drugs to aid your concentration with your latest side project. It certainly isn’t ‘hacking’ your sleep schedule with power naps to increase your waking hours. It’s one thing. And one thing only. Our brain.

Thankfully, evolution has blessed us with powerful thinking capabilities. And these appear to be uniquely human, at least to the best of our knowledge. Our frontal lobe, and the connectomics we are still understanding, enables a powerful conscious top down control. This top-down control has the ability to direct thought, action and behaviour. From this stems the trainable asset of awareness.

At the core of true biohacking is the mastery and optimisation of the brain’s potential. Training and optimising your awareness enables this mastery. Enabling self-control and discipline from a strong momentary awareness will give you the power to control the four fundamental pillars of health.

The Four Pillars of Health

My experience in the clinical setting has highlighted a mass failure to grasp the underlying aspects of health. Obesity. Diabetes. Hypertension. High cholesterol. These are the all too familiar high risk factors enabling the majority of western disease. And they’re all preventable. They’re largely reversible too.

The four pillars aren’t particularly sexy. They aren’t going to grab your attention on social media. But often the best advice is the simplest. An adage I try to incorporate into my mental framework when making decisions: any advice that has withstood the test of time is probably the closest to objectively true. And it just so happens that these four pillars have been around far longer than any nootropic you’re likely to come across on your TikTok feed.

The four pillars:

  • Exercise
  • Diet
  • Sleep & Relaxation
  • Social

Exercise regularly. Aim for a minimum of 30 minutes a day. Find a good balance of cardiovascular, mobility and resistance training. Eat a balanced diet consisting of fresh food, plenty of fruit and vegetables. Hydrate. Aim to sleep and wake up at the same time every day. Incorporate periods of relaxation into your day to day routine, particularly before bed. Ensure to spend time out with family and friends. I write this overview as succinctly as I can as these four pillars, and their nuances, will all be explored more deeply in multiple future articles.

What’s more important to note at this stage is that these first principles of health are highly dependent variables. They all affect each other. Its common scientific knowledge that a poor diet will influence your mood, your sleep and your social capability. Want more energy? Introduce a regular exercise routine. Want better sleep? Exercise regularly and eat a balanced diet. Want to improve your current exercise routine? Improve your sleep, your diet and your relaxation protocols. We could go on forever with examples of this interconnectedness. However, without awareness and without top-down control we will be stuck in a loop of habitual choices — often an unhealthy self-sustaining loop.

Now its reasonable for you to be thinking that I’ve entirely missed the point of what biohacking is. Thankfully, that’s exactly the question I want you to be asking. I am essentially arguing for you to view biohacking as a mental model that is a spectrum leading from ‘poor health’ to ‘optimal health’. That way you can follow the road map we are about to introduce to find your way to the optimal health end of the spectrum.

Extreme Biohacking

Let me further clarify: traditional biohacking has its place. But it should be aligned with an end-point of almost optimal health. Not at the start line. Too often I see biohacking posed as a panacea to achieve optimal health…as a response to solving a specific symptom or lifestyle impairment. Those very symptoms are often as a result of poor lifestyle choices. So, from a first principles perspective, biohacking should stem as a natural progression from an already optimal lifestyle. The point I’m making here is subtle, but important.

Popular media has highlighted regimens such as Bryan Johnson’s blueprint1. The 46 year old multi-millionaire is reportedly spending upwards of $2 million per year on reversing his biological ageing. It seems a pretty soul sucking endeavour. No variation. No space for spontaneity. It can only be described as gruelling. He reportedly takes 104 pills a day – most of which can be found in a whole-food diet2.

Johnson is a vegan and follows a strict intermittent fasting protocol. He eats the same meals EVERY DAY, equating to exactly 2250 calories. Additionally, he dedicates an hour a day to exercise. His exercise is a balance of cardiovascular exercise, resistance training and mobility training. As if that wasn’t enough, he has a 30 – 60 minute bedtime routine. He sleeps in a dark, cold, room and sleeps and wakes-up at the same time every day. And there’s much more if you dare to explore that rabbit hole.

Some of the attributes of Johnson’s blueprint are pretty spot on. The scientific literature shows a lot of benefits of intermittent fasting. Sleeping and waking at the same time everyday is the right way to keep the body functioning at its optimum, particularly if it is entrained to the natural light-dark cycle of day-night. However, and let’s be really honest here, if he wasn’t a multi-millionaire would he have the time and resources to complete this protocol every day? Let’s give credit where credit is due though. Johnson is experimenting on himself and providing valuable data to the scientific community and the world for free.

Even more questionable – measures of biological ageing are such new concepts that we are yet to understand how they will translate to actual health span and life span. It will certainly be interesting to see whether all this effort will achieve the desired effect, or whether optimising for the current markers may be akin to optimising for metrics rather than outcome. Of course I wish him no ill-harm, but one has to admit it would be pretty ironic if this blueprint led to no significant gains in his total years of health. Besides, Warren Buffet is going strong at 93 despite a can of coke a day and often eating at McDonald’s.

There are some examples of other people beating Johnson at his own game while spending a fraction of the cost. Julie Gibson Clark, a 55-year-old Mum, is beating Johnson’s biological ageing metrics despite living on a salary of $100,0003.

So, while extreme protocols are available, the less severe middle ground can lead to similar gains. Otherwise, how would the populations of the so-called Blue Zones consistently beat the average? Well, as it just so happens, the populations of the Blue Zones have nailed the four pillars4.

Mastering the Basics

So, what can we do? Focus on the four pillars. Master your mentality. Keep your goals front and centre. Besides, for Bryan Johnson and Julie Gibson Clark to be dedicated to following their protocols, they must have mastered the fundamental tenets of mentality: self-awareness and deliberate goal-oriented behaviour.

And by all means—once you have optimised these four pillars, hack away at those marginal gains. In the meantime, master your mind, train your self-awareness, and use the uniquely brilliant brain that we humans possess. To do just that, we need to understand a little bit more about the brain.

The system of awareness includes several parts of the brain. The frontal lobe. Some central structures, often considered control centres. Awareness involves active promotion of some brain areas, and active suppression of others. Importantly, though, awareness should be considered an extension from consciousness itself. However, consciousness remains one of the most debated and poorly understood pearls of our nervous system. Current scientific literature says that consciousness is not localised to a single region. It seems to emerge from the interactions of various brain networks, including those within the frontal lobe.

Interestingly, conscious thought and behaviour are preceded by neural activity. An example of which is the ‘readiness potential’ prior to movement. BUT…conscious control can intersect & overcome the subconscious automatisms that these preceding spikes of neural activity prompt. This process requires awareness. This leads us straight back to the point of this article: despite all of this complexity, harnessing the brains power through self-awareness remains simple to those dedicated enough.

Therefore, my fundamental hypothesis is that the first step in biohacking is to focus on the most important controllable variable — awareness.

The Chimp Model

Professor Steve Peters’s popular book The Chimp Paradox has the perfect three-part analogy that will help you understand how we can best use our ultimate biohack, our awareness, to retrain our system. Here, we’ll borrow his ‘chimp model’ to help you learn and understand what I’m proposing5. This model is a powerful mind management tool.

  • The first part of the mind is you, the human. You work with facts, objective truths and logical thinking.
  • The second part is the Chimp, an independent, dynamic, free-thinking brain that is not under your control.
  • The third is the computer. This part acts as memory with both automatic and subconscious processing, thinking, and acting. It is programmed to take over if the Chimp or human is asleep or (most importantly) if the human allows it to.

How can we use this model to achieve our goals? Well, its essence is simple. Use your human to train your computer, and use your human & computer to work with your chimp.

What does this mean? Well, using conscious awareness and logical planning, we can pinpoint our goals—the lifestyle we want to achieve physically, socially, professionally, and even spiritually. But without repeated action driven by the human mind, we are left in a sort of stasis. And stasis is where the computer thrives. It will just keep running the same habitual programmes.

The human mind isn’t often able to brute force its way out of these automatisms without conscious awareness. This is the fundamental challenge. Train your awareness. Catch your automatisms. Override the computer with the human mind. And reprogram. But note carefully: re-programming will take repeated effort. It will force you to replace these automatisms with conscious effort over, and over, and over, and over again. That’s thanks to the mechanisms behind neuroplasticity.

Neuroplasticity

Leaving the chimp part of the model in the background for the moment, it’s essential to understand the concept of neuroplasticity. This term is thrown around social and popular media despite a fundamental need for more understanding.

Imagine the brain’s neuroplasticity as a vast, intricate garden, where neural pathways are represented by paths trodden across it. Initially, the garden is wild and unformed, with potential paths in all directions. As we learn and experience, we walk certain paths repeatedly, and those paths become more defined and easier to travel, much like well-worn trails in a forest. These are our habits, skills, and familiar ways of thinking.

However, as in any garden, the landscape can change. When we decide to learn something new or change a habit, its like deciding to carve a new path through a previously untamed part of the garden. At first, its challenging and overgrown; our steps are unsure, and progress is slow. But with persistence, the new path becomes clearer, more accessible, and eventually, just as easy to walk as the old ones. Meanwhile, the paths we stop using start to overgrow again, slowly fading back into the garden’s array of possibilities.

So yes, the brain responds, adapts and changes. However, it’s more complex to trigger than some may lead you to believe. There are a few fundamental points to understand:

  • Neuroplasticity peaks in childhood and adolescence. It still occurs throughout life, but its potential diminishes as we age.
  • There are requirements for neuroplasticity: attention, sustained and repeated engagement, effortful processing, challenging tasks to trigger neuroplasticity, novelty and complexity.
  • Adequate sleep, exercise and a healthy, balanced diet are all necessary for optimal neuroplasticity.

As you can see, neuroplasticity is powerful, but to truly harness its potential, we must learn to engage the requirements above.

Never Neglect the Chimp

Back to the chimp – a metaphorical representation of the emotional, primal, parts of the brain. Its powerful. It acts quickly without thinking. It is driven by basic impulses and feelings. The chimp often perceives situations and reacts to protect, or attack, leading to irrational or unhelpful responses. How can we successfully biohack our way to optimal health if our chimp is wreaking havoc? We team up with our chimp.

First, we employ the wisdom of our human mind to train the computer. Repeatedly. Then, through self-awareness, we can catch when our chimp is about to throw a tantrum. Intervene and reprogram for future similar situations. From time to time, in a safe and controlled manner, let the chimp out to play. This can be through physical exercise, creative expression, mindfulness, meditation, play, fun, and even structured ‘worry time’.

The point? Harmonising our emotional whims with our logical ambitions ensures we’re fulfilled yet on track. The alternative is allowing the chimp to build up and outburst damagingly.

We can strike a delicate balance by understanding when to let our chimp play and when to guide it with our human sensibilities. It’s about nurturing our emotional selves without letting go of the reins, ensuring that our inner chimp can romp and rest whilst keeping us in harmony and purpose.

TLDR;

As we’ve discovered — every part has its role in this symphony of self. We can see that the human mind can be utilised and optimised to train the computer. The chimp can be a powerful playmate, not a master destroyer. Most importantly, self-awareness must become our north star. And that training it requires a maestro’s finesse and a saint’s patience.

Ultimately I’m here to fight the traditional definition of biohacking. I’m here to turn biohacking into the route we can all take to achieve optimal health. More than just that, I’m a doctor that lives by what I preach. And alongside many other clinicians, I’m frustrated at how much of what I treat day to day can be prevented by mastering these basics.

This article serves as a modus operandi for what TheBiohack is here for. And if you stick around for the journey, there will be plenty of actionable wisdom and resources that enable you to find your own path to optimal health.

For now, I’ll leave you with the proper roadmap for biohacking:

→ Train mindful awareness to catch unhealthy behaviours directed by our subconscious

→ Turn these into opportunities to train the conscious mind

→ Retrain the computer

→ Form new healthy habits

→ Optimise the 4 pillars

→ Only then can you explore the extremes of the old definition of biohacking

In future articles, we’ll explore specific aspects of training the mind, diet, exercise, sleep, relaxation and social optimisation. In the meantime, try out some mindful meditation exercises. Learn to train your awareness. Accept that you may be at the beginning…but remember that you can and will achieve all your goals with consistent effort.

Further Reading

“Lifespan: Why We Age—and Why We Don’t Have To” by David A. Sinclair and Matthew D. LaPlante: This book delves into the groundbreaking science of aging, presenting the reader with both the biological mechanisms that contribute to longevity and practical advice on how to slow down the aging process. Sinclair’s research on gene therapy and diet offers a fascinating look into how we can influence our biological age.

“The Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest” by Dan Buettner: Buettner explores regions of the world where people live significantly longer lives, known as Blue Zones. This book provides insights into the diets, lifestyles, and community structures that contribute to their remarkable longevity. It’s a compelling read for anyone interested in practical steps toward a healthier, longer life.

“The Mind Illuminated: A Complete Meditation Guide Integrating Buddhist Wisdom and Brain Science for Greater Mindfulness” by Culadasa (John Yates), Matthew Immergut, and Jeremy Graves: For those interested in training awareness and cultivating mindfulness, this guide offers a comprehensive approach, blending ancient teachings with modern neuroscience. It’s structured to support beginners and advanced practitioners alike, making it a valuable resource for enhancing mental clarity and focus.

“The Chimp Paradox: The Mind Management Program to Help You Achieve Success, Confidence, and Happiness” by Prof Steve Peters: This book divides our cognitive processes into three main parts: the Human (rational thinking), the Chimp (emotional and impulsive reactions), and the Computer (the storage of habits and behaviours). This analogy helps readers grasp why they respond in certain ways under various circumstances, providing a roadmap for managing one’s emotional responses and behaviours for better personal outcomes.

References

  1. https://blueprint.bryanjohnson.com/ ↩︎
  2. https://fortune.com/well/2024/02/17/bryan-johnson-blueprint-protocol-aim-death-optional/ ↩︎
  3. https://fortune.com/well/article/reverse-aging-habits-daily-routine-single-mom-budget/ ↩︎
  4. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/35128993/ ↩︎
  5. https://chimpmanagement.com/books-by-professor-steve-peters/the-chimp-paradox/ ↩︎

[NB. All images created using Midjourney]

Welcome to The Biohack – Where Science Meets Lifestyle.

The Biohack: a unique fusion of medical expertise, neuroscience insights, and athletic excellence, dedicated to guiding you on a journey toward optimal health and well-being. Our mission is simple yet profound: to provide reliable, scientifically-backed health and lifestyle resources that challenge the misinformation often found in today’s digital landscape.