What is 'Ancestral' Anyway?

Paleo. Evolutionary. Functional. Innate. Native.

Basically, we are genetically walking in the footsteps of our ancestors. Our health is based on how our past (the deep, deep past) is colliding with our present. 


Photo by Christopher Sardegna

Paleo, evolutionary, functional, innate and native all fall into the realm of ‘ancestral’. By viewing health and living through an ancestral lens, we can align ourselves with what we are already:

Homo sapiens.

Homo sapiens is built to move, create, be social and solve problems. And these capacities and needs were created over millions of years of evolution and thousands up on thousands of years of specific experiences: Hunting, raising children, migrating, building communities, knowing the foodscape, understanding weather and the movement of the stars and much, much more. We could easily be called Homo socialis (collaboration is our superpower) or Homo faber (creativity is another superpower). But if we truly want to be wise (sapien), then we need to acknowledge where we came from, what we were built for and how we already function.



Photo courtesy of Dmitry Bayer

Here is one example:

Let's look at the eye. It's a complicated piece of human equipment that developed over a very long period of time. Homo sapiens have excellent long-distance eyesight. And we are the only animal on the planet that show the whites of our eyes. We can also perceive over 500 shades of gray and over 10 million colors. But did you know that myopia (nearsightedness) is at pandemic levels? Nearly 42% of Americans have myopia. One hundred years ago, only about 10% of the population had myopia. It's now very common in children. Why? Simply because we have adopted all kinds of non-ancestral behaviors: Staying inside (not enough sunlight), focusing on screens for a major portion of our day and eating too much sugar and not enough DHA (essential fatty acids) and this is all linked to higher levels of myopia. 

And that's just one organ. 

We have a slow-motion plague happening right now (thanks for the term Chris Kresser!). Rampant, preventable disease from cancer to diabetes is growing in our modern population. We move less, eat more crap and stay inside more than ever before. And it’s not just killing us, but making our quality of life take a dive (chronic diseases are not fun to have).

To be energetic, clear and resilient is to be a healthy, normal human. Great eyesight, good hearing, no pain, high energy, no brain fog: It’s normal for us. Despite the common belief that Paleolithic people lived short lives of starvation and disease - studies show that Neolithic (agricultural) people were sicker and died younger than our older ancestors who were hunting and gathering. Keeping in mind that our oldest ancestors date back about 2.6 million years - that's a lot of evolution (yes, with many gaps that we know nothing about). That said, we can learn from our past, become 'Paleo-Modern' (another great term, Chris Ryan!) and stop this slow-motion plague to reclaim not just our health, but our future too. 

To book a podcast or interview, write for the blog or get more information - just email info@jenniferaguilar.net. 

Six Steps to No-Stress

My life isn't perfect. #surprise

It's good and often, good-enough. But far from perfect. Right now, right this very minute, I am in a shitstorm of stress. Multiple people in my big family are freaking out over various things from big stuff to small stuff. Some of these things affect me personally, others are just peripheral - but these are people I love and they need my support - even while I feel like I might keel over any second. It's big decisions, colliding with small problems, smashing into daily needs, demolishing my sense of peace. 


Sound familiar? 

So how does an 'expert' (moi) handle this shit? What do I do? How do I get from here, back to peace, tranquility, harmony and positivity? 


Do not deny the shit. It's shit. Don't deny it. 


Shit never lasts. Something will be different in a day, in a minute, in two years. Whatever is happening now will change. How do I know this? 



What can I control? What is out of my control? I've lived for awhile, I know the difference. i.e. Other people's reactions and feelings are out of your control. Cross that off your list. Probably some other shit is out of your control too. Cross it off your list. Do only the things you can actually control. You can probably take a day off of work. Maybe you can sign up for counseling with your spouse. You can watch a movie or listen to comedy and get some extra sleep. You can eat better, you can hug people you love. You can write in a journal, you can meditate. You can take a walk. You CAN come up with solutions to most problems. 


Listen to music. Don't be embarrassed - whatever works for YOU in the moment. My husband loves that Limp Bizkit song "Break Stuff". I can relate. I prefer this one. Why? The first line. It reminds me of who I am. #changeyourstate


Take care of yourself. Today, I went to yoga anyway. I hated it. But I did feel better. I'll go again tomorrow. I'll drink a little wine (hangovers suck and solve nothing - I repeat - A LITTLE wine) tonight and listen to John Mulaney. I will talk to people who love ME and can really hear me (that's a short list y'all!). 


Go back to step one. Because...


Can We "Turn Off" Anxiety?

A study was conducted this year that led to some very interesting- if not potentially amazing- findings about anxiety. There may be a way to “turn it off” (in the brain) that doesn’t involve ‘significant drawbacks’ according to this article. That is a gross oversimplification of what I’m about to further explain, but first let us touch on what anxiety is.

The word anxiety is inaccurately thrown around and misused in all sorts of ways, so let’s cover the basics:

  • Anxiety can also be worded as ‘worry’ and sometimes overlaps with fear. It is anticipation of a future threat. It’s an inability to control feelings of worry that can look like restlessness, being easily fatigued or exhausted, irritability, tension in the muscles, difficulty concentrating or having the mind go blank, and sleep disturbances.

  • Feeling anxious in certain situations is normal, such as before taking an important exam or giving birth for the first time. Only the first time. (I’m kidding, I’ve never done that and I’m sure it’s always terrifying. I mean beautiful.)

  •  Feeling persistent or excessive worry for more days than not for 6 months or more is not normal or healthy. This, in addition to other criteria (such as this persistent worry causing severe stress and life impairment) would be considered as Generalized Anxiety Disorder. This is the most common type of anxiety disorder; others are known as separation anxiety disorder, selective mutism, specific phobia disorders, social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and substance/medication induced anxiety disorder.

  • This prolonged and excessive worry can cause severe stress and may manifest as physical symptoms like shaking, vomiting, and dizziness.

  • Anxiety disorders can be extremely crippling.

  • Anxiety disorders are very common- 1 in 5 people suffer. In women- twice as common.

(So, we agree that anxiety is terrible and super prevalent. Now back to the study.)

Researchers studied mice to see if they could control anxiety levels by essentially dialing up or down a specific kind of brain cell that lives in the hippocampus. This “dialing” up and down is a technique of manipulating individual neurons in the brain called optogenetics. Apparently, mice experience anxiety in open spaces, and when scientists dialed down the activity of these specific brain cells, the anxiety levels of the mice not only decreased, but the mice wanted to explore the open spaces more. It goes without saying that what is true for a mouse may not be true for a human, but we have to start somewhere!

This whole business about the hippocampus brings up something worth considering: The hippocampus and the hypothalamus talk to each other, and one of the hypothalamus’ functions is to link the nervous system to the endocrine system via the pituitary gland. Stay with me. Endocrine system = hormones = all sorts of important things like mood, appetite, development, energy, etc. Everything is connected! When we feel anxiety (perceived threat), when certain cells in the brain are lit up and activated, the hypothalamus receives these messages too. Imagine what happens within our systems when those cells are activated and STAY activated. That is a lot of stress for your body to manage. Now imagine if that threat of danger is not an actual threat, but your brain can’t tell the difference.

While the amazing nerds do their thing and fix us all, here are some quick things you can try on your own (without medication) to reduce anxiety levels:

1.     I’ll start with my personal favorite. Let’s say that I’m feeling anxious because I have to give a presentation.

a.     I write down what I’m afraid of or worried about. I start by asking myself, “What is the worst that could happen?” And I literally write down my worst-case scenario: I freeze in front of colleagues and forget what to say. Then, I continue to write down and flush out what could follow.

b.     “Will I die if this happens?” –No.

c.      “Will I get kicked out of my MA program?” –No.

d.     “Will I be embarrassed?”- Yes.

                             i.     “Will your peers lose respect for you?”- Maybe.

ii.     “What would you do if this happened?” – Work extra hard to bring quality thoughts to our future discussions.

e.     “Will I fail the class?” –Unlikely, but maybe.

                                 i.     “Will failing the class kill you?”- No.

                                 ii.     “What would I do if I failed the class?”- Take it again.

As we can guess, freezing during a presentation probably won’t lead to me failing the entire class or losing all respect from my peers, but my brain needs to realize that in order to calm down. If I don’t stop to think about what is really going on in my mind, presentation= possible death.

2.     Breath slowly and deeply from the diaphragm, not from your chest (meaning your stomach is expanding out and your shoulders are not moving). You can find all sorts of research online supporting the calming effects of breath exercises.

3.     Move. Exercise. Be aware of your physical body and take your mind off of your mind.

4.     Interact with someone you love, or just like. Talk to someone who makes you feel good. Give them a hug. Hold a hand.

Our Natural Disaster: A Beautiful Side Effect

Just as the community was coming back from the havoc wreaked by the largest fire in California history, just as we thought the worst had come and gone...rain. The rain, which was nowhere to be found while the flames ripped through our hills, made a short but devastating appearance this week. I have no words for the horror and the loss that our community and its members are mourning, so I won’t make an attempt. However, what I can speak to is a beautiful side effect of our nearly citywide service outage.

When mudslides took out the power lines, Carpinteria lost access to everything. Cable, internet, and cellphone services were down for up to about 5 days in some areas. No watching the news on TV, no receiving updates online, no calling or texting…nothing. Some of us were trapped in our homes for days due to road damages and closures, and some of us could even get into town, where almost every local business was without these privileges as well.


Two days after the disaster, I went on a walk along the street at the top of the hill I live on. The one-way road makes a loop about a mile long and I’ve walked and run this loop for many years passing the same houses, the same flower gardens, avoiding the same potholes, cursing the same upwards slope. In all the years I’ve spent essentially running in circles, I’ve never seen so. many. people. Couples and kids and grandparents peppered the street. They were holding hands, walking their dogs, and talking to each other. It was so surprising that my first thought was that an event was happening somewhere on the hill that they were all going to. They all had to know each other or have planned this. There’s no way all of these people, neighbors I’ve never even seen before, just happen to be outside at the same time.

And then it hit me- they don’t have access to anything. They can’t watch their shows. They can’t work from home. Technology had been taken away all at once, and suddenly talking to each other and going for a walk outside was the only thing to do. It was beautiful to see, and troubling to realize.

The next day I sat and talked with a family member for three hours while the sun went down. What began as a quick hello unfolded into one of the most rewarding conversations we’ve ever had together. Without the ability to watch, send, text, post, scroll, click, etc. we were simply…there. We had time and space to ask each other questions and listen deeply. There was nothing to get back to. There wasn’t anything we could have been doing that we weren’t. All we could do, was be. The absence of technology removed the clutter and noise that surrounds us constantly and what we had left was each other's company. 

Our relationships with people are arguably the most important parts of our lives and greatest sources of happiness. While technology allows more and more efficient communication, how is it affecting the quality? How many moments and conversations and opportunities to connect to the people in our lives have we missed because some sort of screen was nearby? What is this constant distraction from life, the thing happening right now, stealing from us really? After 5 days without it, I had not the one but three amazingly unpredictable moments in conversation with three people I love. I saw the instant shift in quality of communication as a result of no ‘access’. This isn’t just an assumption or a “try this three times a week” idea anymore. It’s fact. Our modern lives of social media and emails and computers and Netflix are taking away from what makes life worth writing about, dreaming about, playing the piano for, laughing until you cry for. We are losing something irreplaceable and precious- our time together. Time we will never get back, moments we can never re-live. So how are we spending our time? Who is sitting near you? How are they? What’s happening in their lives right now? Ask them. 



How Does Your Brain Actually Work?

You would think we know everything about the brain at this point. I used to think that. Until doctors told me there was really no treatment and no cure for the oh-so-common concussions my son experienced.

Many of us think that one area of the brain controls one area of our functioning. It’s nice and mechanical- straightforward. And it’s kind of true - but like most things brain-related, it’s more complicated and nuanced than that.


Even simple tasks involve multiple regions of the brain, and traumatic, difficult or challenging experiences can excite nearly the entire organ. The PET scans below show the activity increase and change between resting, walking, seeing, hearing, thinking and remembering.


Back in the 1920s Karl Lashley, the neuroscientist, determined that facts, skills and other things we ‘know’ are not stored in individual neurons or in the connections between them. Instead, they exist in what he called “cumulative electrical wave patterns” (CEWP). It’s what we think of as ‘brain waves’, and what is measured in an EEG test.


Neurons involved in a specific activity are firing together and wiring together, creating pathways or connections in the brain that tell the nervous system what to do (like ‘move my right hand’).


If you’re a rock climber, every time you chalk up, touch a rock face and start moving your body, the thousands (10s or 100s of thousands- we don’t know) of neurons involved in that activity start firing together so you can climb. By continued repetition of the activity, the rock climber creates stronger and stronger neural pathways, recruiting more neurons to carry out the activity which creates an even stronger electrical pattern that is recognized as ‘rock climbing’. Later, when the rock climber sits down to watch a movie, ‘rock climbing’ is not activated in the brain because ‘rock climbing’ is not a solid, physical structure that exists in the brain. It is a CEWP that USES the solid, physical structures in the brain. Enacting the skill depends on a solid physical structure (neurons, axons, synapses, etc.), but the act itself is an electrical reality.

This is why the brain heals the way it does, which is amazing. It’s why the brain is so flexible. It’s why if you lose the capacity to read because of a head injury, you can probably learn to read again by asking the brain to recruit new neurons, sometimes even from the opposite, undamaged area, to carry out the activity. Research over the last 20 years is showing substantial evidence of cell regeneration, particularly in those under 40 year of age. Even without regeneration, the recovery process continues as a result of brain plasticity.

Plasticity describes the process where other parts of the brain compensate for damaged or destroyed brain matter.  Through plasticity, the brain forms new synaptic connections to reroute information around the damaged areas. What this means is if a certain set of cells are there to do one action, and those cells are damaged, other sets of cells may have to take over that action which is part of will brain heal itself.

Doesn’t sound much like any machine I know! The brain is part of an organism - us. It’s an amazing biological organ. Columbia University neuroscientist, Erik Kandel, said it will take 100 years to actually understand the human brain! So don’t stress if it feels hard to grasp - it is.

Your Brain on Lion's Mane

If you're like me and have been on the internet within the last year or so, you've probably heard of Lion's Mane, or other varieties of seemingly life-altering mushrooms like Reishi and Chaga. Why the sudden burst of hype about mushrooms? Because we're late to the game. Seriously, this stuff has been around for so, so long (as in centuries). Also, because our levels of stress are THROUGH THE ROOF and we generally care more now about our health and what we're doing to our precious vessels.  


So, what is Lion's Mane and why do we care about this mushroom in particular? According to people much smarter than myself, Lion's Mane is the only mushroom CLINICALLY proven to support brain function (excellent for TBI recovery in particular). Research shows it also supports mood regulation, the immune system, and the nervous system. It has adaptogen properties, and supports the production of NGF (nerve growth function).  

(Let's take a quick pause to clarify.)

Adaptogens are incredible. They're a kind of herb that ADAPT to YOU. I read a great example that uses the concept of a thermostat to explain how they work:  

"When the thermostat senses that the room temperature is too high it brings it down; when the temperature is too low it brings it up. Adaptogens can calm you down and boost your energy at the same time without over stimulating. They can normalize body imbalances."  

Whether you're fighting brain-fog, fatigue, stress, or anxiety, a bit of crazy-looking mushroom may get you back to balance. Pretty impressive. 

Now we've come to NGF. Nerve Growth Factor is essential for the survival of neurons, specifically our sensory neurons. As the name suggests, it promotes growth and protects our nerve cells, which means NGF plays a critical role in...everything. A mushroom I can buy at the market and throw in my pasta to boost the growth and connection of my brain cells? Yes, please! 

(Alright. Un-pause.) 

Now that we know what Lion's Mane is and what it can do, where do we get it and how do we use it? 

This mushroom can be found in a variety of forms- capsule, powder, liquid, whole (natural), and probably some sort of oil vapor I haven't heard of yet. Personally, I put a scoop (or two) of Om's organic Lion's Mane powder in my coffee every morning and have been known to sneak it into my partner's breakfast smoothies as well, because we all know the saying, "There's nothing lonelier than watching a movie at 7 PM while your boyfriend falls asleep next to you," is all too true. Our dear Jenni prefers Paul Stamet's brand, Host Defense, which comes in capsule form. Which form of Lion's Mane to use and how much is subjective to each person's needs, but benefits are typically seen after longer-term supplementation.  

How has Lion's Mane helped you? Is there a product you've tried and think we should know about? We'd love to hear from you!  

Find Your Support

While myself and thousands of others are currently forced out of our homes due to fires destroying parts of California, let’s talk about the importance of our people.

There’s a reason we’re seeing the use of social media and screen-time skyrocketing with no end in sight.  Well, there are a number of reasons, but one is that it’s simply easy.  Picking up your phone to watch someone’s Instagram story is easier than taking the ten minutes to speak with them on the phone. Posting a photo of yourself from two weeks ago is much easier than doing that thing again you did two weeks ago that made for such an awesome photo. Scrolling, watching, clicking, staring…it’s easy.  It takes just the tip of your finger to provide a false sense of accomplishment and connection.  

What you’re missing, however, is devastating and dangerous and the alternative is waaay more fun than holding that thing in front of your face all day. Humans are social creatures, not meant to survive in isolation. The whites of our eyes are larger than any other species so that OTHERS can see where we’re looking and therefore read us in real, physical time! Insane, amiright?!

Can you guess what’s holding my attention right now? Probably. 

Might we all evolve into sterile blobs with empty black shark eyes? Maybe.     

This concept, that we need warm, 3-D, blood-pumping bodies near us to interact with is critical for our brain health (i.e. all aspects of our health), especially during any kind of crisis, healing, and recovery.  Whether you’re the one that needs that support system in place or you make up that support system for someone else, it’s crucial to understand the impact that our systems (family, friends, colleagues, etc.) have on our mental and emotional state.  If you believe we are inherently lonely, struggling creatures born to spend a lifetime attempting to fulfill our potential, or you believe we each belong to a unique social system, it’s difficult to deny we have interactions with other humans, likely quite often.

What’s the point, Rio?!

My point is that we need these people, and we’re influenced by them all the time. Your people have an effect on you, and you on them. This means the lack of social interaction has an influence on us as well- when we’re lonely, we’re suffering. Without human interaction, we try to fulfill that need for belonging, connection, and community in other ways.  Helloooo social media! While technology can be a great tool for connecting if otherwise impossible, it is not a substitute for face time (no, not the app- the actual time spent with another person’s face). Technology is propelling us into the future, making many amazing things possible, but let us not forget we live within human bodies and our physical selves are not evolving at the same speed as the iphone. When we hug someone, touch them, have sex (gasp!) we experience physical relief as a result of the mental and emotional relief that authentic connection provides.  Boiled down even more- mental and emotional effects the physical and visa versa.  Make the effort to be with people who you choose to be a part of your system, and be cognizant of what you’re bringing into their lives as well.  

Put down the phone (but make sure you're following @jenniaguilarconsulting), close the computer (but first forward this insightful post to everyone you know), and go look your people in the eyeballs for a few minutes. 

Author: Rio Richards


Let the Gods Arrive

"Heartily know, when half-gods go, the gods arrive." - William James

Photo courtesy of Robert Lukeman

Photo courtesy of Robert Lukeman

This quote really struck a nerve in me. I am not well-read on William James (and he was writing about God in the religious sense - I am not), but I see it this way: In any situation when you let go of low expectations, half-assed attempts, the fear of failing - you get the 'Gods'. To me this is not a literal god or gods, but you get the miraculous results, you get the breakthrough or the assistance of the muses. Instead of resistance, you get resistance's respect. I am referencing Steven Pressfield's amazing book The War of Art  where he teaches that you must break through resistance in order to accomplish your art, and this can be applied to any endeavor. He speaks of resistance as a thing and I feel this similarity between William James' 'half-gods' and resistance. That's why, even though this book (below) is loaded with GREAT info on healing your brain, I HATE the title: 


HATE. IT. Cope means to struggle or deal with. It offers no sense of finality, no sense of winning, no sense of overcoming. Dr. Diane Stoler has some great treatments and ideas for healing the brain. She writes for Psychology Today and, again (to be clear), I like her work

I'm just talking about that word - COPE - and how powerful it is in setting the scene. 

In my work, mindset is everything. In fact, it's a total fad right now! Carol Dweck popularized this term with her famous TED Talk about believing that you can improve: https://duckduckgo.com/?q=carol+dwek+ted+talk&atb=v87-4&ia=videos&iax=videos&iai=hiiEeMN7vbQ

You see, if you want anything, you have to believe you can get it. You really do. There has to be an iota of seeing a way to your goal. This concept is based on our brain's incredible neuroplasticity. The brain is flexible, will change according to demands, environmental exposures or lack of stimuli. You are the lever that turns on neuroplasticity. This is the why mindset matters so much.

If you start with the belief that coping with post-concussion syndrome (PCS) isn't acceptable and that you will find a way to heal PCS by engaging the neuroplasticity of your brain - well, you will. Resistance will be there and you'll have to work through it. The half-gods will beckon you. They will tell you that "you can manage a headache everyday, it's not so bad", or "everyone has sleep problems, afternoon energy crashes and problems with concentration, I'm sure it's nothing" - they will seduce you with coping. You can see this everywhere in our culture. People are seduced into coping with a bad job or trying to manage an abusive relationship. Their mindset is limited, if not fixed. 

But you are meant for - built for - breakthroughs. Evolution made us this way. And you will see results, if and when you persevere. Mindset will get you there. Think giving up sugar is 'too hard'? That's a half-god selling you mediocrity. 'No sugar' is the realm of the Gods, and once you push through the initial resistance, not so hard, not so god-like. It might be the one step that will bring you back from the brink of migraines or low performance at work. 

The thing is, we are afraid. Pressfield says it best. "Fear doesn't go away. The warrior and the artist live by the same code of necessity, which dictates that the battle must be fought anew every day.” We choose the half-god life because it's secure, and we probably won't fail or be disappointed. We can cope with brain-fog, it's familiar - clarity is unfamiliar. Unfamiliar is uncomfortable and it's also where neuroplasticity happens. Uncomfortable is where learning happens. So when the half-gods go, you get the Gods:






What do you want? It's all on the other side of fear. It's behind the curtain of resistance. It's when you kick the half-gods out of your life that the Gods enter. So don't cope, manage, get by or live with. Kick in your evolutionary right - neuroplasticity - and change, grow, learn, challenge, confront, grapple with, push, strive and learn your way into a new reality. 



Feed Your Brain!!!!

So, what to feed your brain? And thinking about it that way IS important. Every time you eat, you're feeding the brain and that food ought to be loaded with brain nutrients so that you feel amazing, energetic and clear. 

1st Rule - EAT FOOD

Seems so dumb, but seriously, take a couple of hours and watch this:

Chris Kresser, and other functional medicine doctors like him, use simple testing and changes in diet, along with a few supplements to solve (SOLVE) big problems. From weight gain, to ADHD to Crohn's Disease, eating real food makes a huge difference in overall health. 

Real food means as close to the source as possible, with as little packaging and as low a shelf-life as you can get. It's vegetable from the fresh veggie aisle and crackers with only 6 ingredients (that you recognize) and butter that is just butter. A dinner plate might look like this:

Image courtesy of AuthorityNutrition.com

Image courtesy of AuthorityNutrition.com

Processed means overcooked with added unnecessaries like excess salt, sugars in all forms and chemical stabilizers, thickeners and preservatives. These things are not food. They are toxic to the brain.


All this means is that certain foods have more nutrients (vitamins, minerals, per ounce or per pound) than other foods. Dark, leafy greens have more vitamins and minerals than iceberg lettuce (but man, I love an iceberg wedge with blue cheese!). Organic beef liver has more nutrients than chicken breast. Whole foods have more nutrients than processed or refined foods. 


Macronutrients are the big groupings of food we call fats, carbohydrates (starches) and proteins. Micronutrients are what we find inside those macronutrients. Small amounts of calcium, vitamin B, zinc, magnesium, iron, etc. 

We are biological organisms, and that means our cells (our bodies) require specific elements to survive. The brain has needs that must be met, especially if it is working to heal itself. Here are some neuro-critical nutrients (in no particular order):

  • Magnesium - Almost all (80%) modern people are low in this critical compound.

  • Omega-3 Fatty Acids - Found in cold-water fish, some seeds and nuts and grass-fed animal products.

  • Vitamin D - Again, we have staggering rates of low vitamin D (you can eat it, but it's way smarter to get some sunshine).

  • Vitamin E - Found in almonds, some seeds and leafy greens, a powerful antioxidant. 

  • Vitamin C - Found in many fruits and vegetables, critical for multiple functions in the body. 

  • All the B vitamins - B6, B12, Thiamine, Riboflavin (B2), Niacin, Folate - Again, critical for multiple functions and burned off quickly when we are under stress (ahem, that's pretty much everyone). 

  • Saturated Fats - Yes, these fats (mostly from animals) are an important MACROnutrient for your brain, but also a precursor to the production of hormones, which are also important to brain health (I mean, what isn't important to brain health?). 

  • Probiotics - I will post separately about the Gut-Brain Axis, but one affects the other and if you've lived a modern lifestyle and taken antibiotics, you probably need to work on your gut health. 

  • Quality Proteins - Another MACROnutrient that needs to be not only in your diet, but sourced well. Proteins that are laden with antibiotics & chemicals from animals that were raised in a totally unnatural way are doing your brain no favors. #localfarms #localranches #healthymeat

  • Iron - Iron deficiency is the leading micronutirent deficiency in the world and has direct negative impacts on brain development and health. It's easy to get your iron checked if you do not know and easy to supplement (either with pills, liquid or food-based interventions). 

Of course, there are many more! In fact, all required nutrients could be considered critical to brain health and your health in general - which is why eating a wide variety of foods in all categories is great for your brain! You can supplement your diet with vitamins and minerals if you feel or know you aren't getting enough of a certain compound (i.e. low magnesium is a common problem as well as low vitamin D). 

If you don't know where to start do this TODAY:

  • Eat food that is food, that you recognize, with simple ingredients

  • Supplement with magnesium (pretty much everyone needs this)

That's it! One step at a time!

I'm launching a podcast about Brain Health and Performance! Listen HERE!

My 'Why'

**Trigger Warning - Accident Pictures below**

People often ask me how I got involved in brain health.

This picture explains my why. That's my son and I love him. This picture is from his 3rd traumatic brain injury (TBI). Yes, 3rd! He is 14 in that picture (2 years ago). And I was scared. Terrified. Reeling. Shaking. Determined. Bold. Insistent. Angry. 


I've always been interested in health. My mom was a master herbalist (she passed away in March 2017). I learned how to meditate when I was 5 years old, and started doing yoga at age 10. I took courses in Ayurveda and Aromatherapy as a young adult. Before I finished college, I became a Childbirth Educator and Lactation Counselor. After my first 2 children were born (I have 4, ages 24, 21, 16 and 12), I returned to college and earned my BA in Human Development (my focus was Pre and Perinatal Psychology and Health). I finished my MS in Health Education after my 4th child was born. I became a community health and parent educator, furthering my education by taking the intensive Parents as Teachers (PAT) certification and The Happiest Baby on the Block training. At home I experimented with diet and lifestyle, always refining my knowledge through reading, listening to podcasts and watching documentaries. Even now, I am always engaged in studying something - I love learning! I recently finished another certification, as a Brain Fitness Coach (CBFC). #nerd

But this brain journey began when my (at the time) 14 year-old son, Aidan, lay on a gurney in the emergency room, contusions on his face, shoulder separated and brain bleeding after crashing his bike in a skate park (with his helmet on - people always ask). That was the final catalyst, and while it was hellish, it also led to this important work. It was my son’s 3rd (yup, that’s right) traumatic brain injury (TBI) in 2 years, which is an alarming number in that amount of time. The doctors in our rural mountain town were concerned enough to put us on an emergency flight to a larger hospital with a pediatric intensive-care unit (ICU) and neurologist. His 2nd TBI (1 year earlier) caused nearly a year of post-concussion syndrome (PCS) where debilitating symptoms continued long after the injury. I knew he could not tolerate another year of suffering and in that bright, loud emergency room I made a commitment to make sure he wouldn’t suffer like that again. Yes, I was terrified. Yes, I was in shock. But hell yes, I was determined that he could and would be healed. And fast. 

My work is based on what I learned through extensive research and personal experience, including my work as a consultant with numerous clients helping them heal brain injury and increase brain performance. About 2 weeks after this 3rd accident, while following my customized protocol for healing the brain, my son was back in the rock climbing gym (going low and slow of course). At 3 weeks post-trauma, he was able to attend a bouldering competition (not as a true competitor; his goal was to attend - not win).  About 2 weeks after that he was reading books (without symptoms) and finally, after twelve months, he could run again (with no symptoms).

This picture is 2-weeks after the accident (Aidan is outside by the river, visualizing his complete return to health with his little brother there for support): 


He suffered no depression, very few headaches, only mild concentration issues, very few angry outbursts, no ringing in the ears, no visual problems, and only very mild aphasia. All in all, he has recovered from all 3 TBIs. We believed he could heal, were aggressive in his treatment and we followed an ‘alternative path’ that isn’t alternative at all, it’s r-evolutionary. The protocol I use in my work is a more cohesive and comprehensive version of the experimental approach we adopted for Aidan’s healing. My knowledge about how to heal TBI, concussion and PCS comes first-hand through my own experiences.  My experimentation led me to learn about increasing my own brain performance and my husband's as well. Although I was already a health and parent educator, it's my role as a parent myself that motivated me. 

You might assume that the brain is too complicated to effectively learn how to heal it without being a neurologist, but I found this isn’t the case. There is so much you can do at home, on your own, or by working with specific practitioners to heal or to get more functionality from your brain.  Nothing I present in my work is truly ‘alternative’. It’s all based in evolutionary/ancestral biology. Currently, we have many evolutionary mismatches where our modern lifestyles don’t match what we have evolved to do, be or to eat. An evolutionary mismatch is basically where your biology (and what it needs) runs into something that doesn't match that need. i.e. Many of us sit for most of the day working on computer screens. This behavior doesn't match what we evolved to do (move, run, jump, walk) and we suffer for it. 

My approach works because I turned to evolution first. It’s really just a commonsensical approach. I began by assuming that, as your body wants to heal a cut (and it does), the brain wants to heal and has a way. According to much research and data, this turns out to be true. I also assumed that although I didn’t know this particular way, I would be able to figure it out (learn) by 1) becoming a student in various fields of research and 2) closely following the rules of nature. We are biological creatures living on this planet and our optimal functioning happens within the physical laws of Earth. It’s just too easy for modern, industrialized people to forget this simple fact. Consider this note written by Florence Nightingale,

“It is the unqualified result of all my experience with the sick, that second only to their need of light; after a closed room, what hurts them most is a dark room, and it is not only light but direct sun-light that they want….People think that the effect is upon the spirit only. This is by no means the case. The sun is not only a painter but a sculptor.” - Notes on Nursing, 1860

The famous nurse wrote this after observing that men in her care healed faster if she made sure they got to sit in the sun each day. She may not have known about Vitamin D, but evolution did. It plays a critical role in many healing processes, and is highly beneficial to the brain. Unfortunately, the current Western medical narrative about the human brain is limited. It certainly doesn’t include considering sunlight’s effects on brain healing, or how much screen-time might be affecting sleep and mood. Most neurologists don’t ask patients about their intake of sugar or DHA (an essential fatty acid), and most often it’s because Western medical institutions themselves don’t require doctors and neurologists to learn about the effects of nutrition on healing. Or exposure to natural light or how exercise affects the brain. 

We have a symptoms-only approach with modern medicine and it often fails people who need to heal their brain. It fails those of us who want to maximize our potential and it skips over important factors - like emotional stress or hormone levels - when considering which drug might be best to suppress a headache. 

Having a child with active brain injury is terrifying. And now that I've worked with many clients, I can safely say that all people feel terrified by ANY brain malfunction. This is due to these factors: 

1) Culturally, we have been taught that the brain is separate, different, special and unknowable (to the average person)

2) We are unaware of the brain's amazing capacity to heal and the specific ways in which the brain will heal given the proper support

3) Consciously or subconsciously, we all know that the brain is our only tool for being who and what we are. To have that threatened is scary. It's easier to pretend we have no control, that nothing is wrong, that we are 'just fine'. 

Here is Aidan, 18-months post-last-injury, doing a street magic show for a local crowd. At age 16 (after 3 TBIs), Aidan is a magician, artist, blacksmith, rock-climber, dancer and gymnast:


My son's head injuries were only the tip of the iceberg. We ALL live in a neurotoxic landscape and I've learned that we ALL pay a price, via our brain, and this price is getting steeper and steeper. Check out this list of things that are bad for the brain:

  • Excess blue light (from screens and artificial lighting)
  • Lack of movement
  • Too much noise (no silence)
  • Not enough exposure to nature
  • Too much sugar in the diet
  • Lack of sunlight
  • Chemical exposure (via food, air, water, body and home-care products)
  • Excessive and/or long-term stress
  • Stressful relationships/emotional stress
  • Financial stress/poverty
  • Certain sports

That's not a complete list by any means - but ask yourself how many of those factors you have now or have had in the past? This isn't just a list I made up either! I dump research on my website, and when my book comes out (The Primal Brain Solution) you will see a robust section of references - our modern evolutionary mismatch is creating severe problems for the brain. The awesome news though is this: You have the power to change the things that matter can actively heal your brain or improve brain performance. 

You are in charge. 

My book comes out in January. Meanwhile you can listen to my new PODCAST, read more on my BLOG or work directly with me HERE

My son, Aidan, knows something most people will never be aware of: He is in charge of his brain health. He pays attention to how his activities, diet and emotional state are affecting his brain performance. My mission is to bring this knowledge to everyone - whether you have a brain injury or want to prevent brain disease in old age or are launching a start-up and need all the brain-power you can get!

Join my Facebook Group HERE

Follow me on Insta or Facebook 'Jenni Aguilar Consulting'. 




Toxins: The Invisible Invaders

Guest post author: Rio Richards

toxic makeup.jpg

We’ve all heard of the concept of environmental toxins.  We know they’re bad, and for some people, this is pretty much the extent of our knowledge.  Sure, let’s avoid frolicking through fields being doused in pesticides and okay, I guess my cat and I can leave the premises while my home is being fumigated, but what else should we be concerned about?

Let’s start with where environmental toxins are found and why we should care.  Toxins are everywhere, and we’re exposed to thousands of them through various vessels such as our food, the things we cook our food with, health and beauty products, and even the air we breathe. They’re invisible, and they have the capacity to do some serious damage to our health, including our brain which, as we know, is pretty essential to our functioning. Some of these toxins, such as BPA, can even interact with and throw off our body’s natural hormone cycles, creating a host of other health issues.  Mildly to extremely concerned yet? Me too. So, what do we need to know and what can we do? Fighting an invisible army does sound seemingly fruitless, but rest assured, with some knowledge and consistency we’ll be equipped for battle.

What we do need to keep in mind is that the susceptibility to toxins varies greatly from person to person because of factors such as how much we’ve been exposed and for how long.  However, while we can’t be certain of how we’ll react to toxins compared to the next person, we can agree that any exposure is unwanted.  With that said, let’s look at a few fundamental areas we can start making changes within to combat our daily exposure to environmental toxins:

farmers market picture.jpg

Nutrition- This is a big one. Not only do we need to be choosing organic products to avoid ingesting pesticides and unwanted chemical treatments, but fruits and vegetables naturally contain antioxidants ready to protect us. Farmers markets are a great way to get organic, local, seasonal produce while also soaking up some of that much needed natural light.

Water- Filter it!

Beauty products- Pay close attention to the list of words you can’t pronounce under “ingredients” on all of these.  Most are extremely unnatural and toxic and we’re lathering our poor epidermis’ with them every day. However, there are several credible brands that make shampoos, deodorants, and makeup using only organic, natural ingredients (and they don’t suck! Click here for one of my personal favorites).  If you happen to use minimal products anyways, you might even consider making some of them (like toothpaste with coconut oil) on your own. 

Your Gut- Be nice to it! We now know how harmful antibiotics are to our gut micro-biome, so it goes without saying to avoid this route as much as possible.  Daily intake of fermented foods and probiotics are an easy and actionable way to promote a healthy gut.

Now, let’s put these basics into action and our non-foggy, high-performing brains will thank us later!

To read more about how to eliminate daily exposure of toxins, check out Chris Kresser’s great article here.


Ditch the Fitbit - The Case Against 'Wearables'

Ditch the Fitbit: A Summary of the Book Unplugged

Author: Jenni Aguilar

Research Support: Lance Mann


The book, Unplugged, by Brian Mackenzie, Dr. Andy Galpin and Phil White offers useful insights into our W.E.I.R.D. (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic) culture’s tech addiction and our biased way of viewing physical fitness. In just the 1st quarter of 2016, Americans bought nearly 20 million wearable fitness trackers. Due to our addiction to smartphones and fitness wearables, we are rapidly losing our evolutionary strength and intuition. Don’t think you’re addicted? Check yourself HERE. The average user of a smartphone looks at or uses their device 1,500 times a week. That’s 9 times an hour. Trust me, you’re not that important. I’m not either, I mean, we’re not on call to make sure we stop nuclear war, right?


So what’s the problem with over-use of tech-y fitness things? A lot. Hang in there. To our ancestors, being physically fit wasn’t just about social status or levels of attraction, it was essential for hunting and fending off predators - survival. Our ancestors were alert, looking, listening, smelling, moving, hangin’ with fellow tribe members and enjoying their surroundings, 24/7, outside, navigating the planet. The natural pressures that the Earth dishes out require fast reflexes, a strong immune system and a quick, creative brain. Now compare this to our little time spent outdoors (some people report as little as an hour a week spent outside!) and now so many of us are outside (if we left the gym at all) with our fitness app ‘instructor’ yelling in our earbuds, desperately trying to be heard over “Stronger” by Kanye West.


Kanye may approve but evolution does not.

The multi-million dollar fitness wearable industry offers what seem to be obvious benefits. To have a motivating and goal-setting mini-computer on your wrist seems like a no-brainer. We can now easily know our heart rates, distance traveled, number of reps and our times in relation to friends and past workouts. All this quantifiable data should be super-helpful and make us super bad-ass. But it just might be making us super-bad (at being human). We better #F.E.I.S.T.Y. up. Face it. Evolution is Smarter Than You.


The problem with this form of tech is that it taxes our self-awareness and intuitive knowledge of our bodies which has been biologically passed down through evolution. Not to mention being cut off from our surroundings and staying in a narrowed virtual state of mind. This reeks havoc on our psychology. In one study of women who use the Fitbit device, 30% of daily users felt that the device was the enemy and made them feel guilty. A full 59% felt that the Fitbit controlled their day. Their entire day - eating, walking, where to park their car, when and how to move, when to sleep and more. You see, tech is nearly always liberating and oppressive, at the same time.

Maybe we feel like we are wearing the device, but maybe it is wearing us.

In more ways than one, technology changes the way we release neurotransmitters, our habit-reward systems that release “happy” hormones like dopamine. They are normally released when exercising (and during sex, when sharing a meal and many other activities), hence the term runner’s high. Runner’s high is one name for a peak state, or what is known as flow. During flow states, our brains release multiple neurotransmitters that change how we perceive time, enhance cognitive ability and push us into an altered state of consciousness where we problem-solve faster and perform better, even at our best. Whenever we look down at our smartwatch, smartphone or hear some encouragement from our virtual coach, our brain gives us a small dopamine hit. But these tiny hits of dopamine are nothing compared to a bone fide flow state and these devices interrupt the flow process - pushing flow just out of reach. Because we are driven to seek pleasure and positive feedback and the electronics are unable to satiate the dopamine cravings, we can end up addicted to the cycle of checking and re-checking our devices, to no avail. Eventually, the only thing we are looking for when working out are the dopamine hits from our wearables and the actual activity becomes of little account. The natural feedback loops that creates flow states are blocked and we don’t even know what we’ve lost.


This is a serious problem for the brain. It’s also a problem for the body because physical reality isn’t taken into account by the wearable device. Fitbit doesn’t care if you’re walking on the beach and there is a pod of dolphins you need to stop and watch play. It’s only the STEPS that matter! Fitbit doesn’t care that you woke up this morning and for an unknown reason felt very tired and had a headache - it’s LEG DAY! You have to go to the gym. Fitbit doesn’t track how much time you spend inside lacking essential sunlight, or how shitty your relationships are (which deeply affects your health). Fitbit doesn’t actually give a crap. But you do. Your essential evolved-self knows how to take care of your body. Now that’s FEISTY, baby.


Our online addictions are amplified when we use our smartphones and smartwatches during our physical training and activities. Having fitness trackers tag along on our quest for fitness gives us a great excuse to “stay connected” and obsessively check our texts, emails and social media. Therefore, more dopamine triggers that do not correlate at all with the activity or workout. And more dopamine hits means more dopamine receptors which in turn means, you need to make more dopamine - feeding the addiction to your own brain chemicals. What’s worse is that high-seeking behavior for dopamine can lead to looking for more outside triggers (instead of internal feedback), like legit drugs. Opioid epidemic, anyone?

Awareness of what we are doing, where we are and how we feel is essential to, well, being human. Be smarter than your smart tech. “Your instincts are smarter than your smartwatch”, now that’s super-FEISTY.







Calories, Chemicals and the Brain

I saw this article being passed around on social media - http://physiqonomics.com/eating-too-much/ - "You’re Not losing Fat Because You’re Eating Too Damn Much. Even When You Don’t Think You Are. Let Me Show You". It's on the Physiqonomics blog which is owned by fitness trainer, Aadam Ali. He writes funny, long, science-laced, interesting articles about fat-loss and fitness (and has a coaching business). Another article he wrote is "The Best Fat Loss Article on the Motherfuckin' Internet" (http://physiqonomics.com/fat-loss/). 

Aadam has nearly cornered the market on straight-talking, no bullshit advice on losing weight and being fit. He IS fit. And he's probably 85-90% right. But these two articles nagged at the back of my brain and I couldn't figure out why. For awhile. #dogwithabone

You see, Aadam is a calories-in-calories-out guy. You probably figured that out already. I like his you-need-to-take-responsibility-for-yourself attitude. He's funny! I love this: "I get gazillions of emails and questions from people asking me for the solution to their lack of motivation – well, fuck you. There is no solution." Totally true. 

The bummer about his messaging is that it's atomistic. Overall health and appropriate weight are not the result of one thing, i.e. calorie counting. And 6-pack abs ≠ health. Skinny ≠ healthy. Sexy ≠ healthy. I do not know Aadam, but I do know he lives in the UK, where he won't be facing some of the health problems people in the US face. Like being silently overdosed on Atrazine (especially if you live in the Midwest). Atrazine is one of the most widely used herbacides in the US and Australia. It also seems to be able to cause weight gain, insulin resistance and mitochondrial malfunction without the help of excess calories (link below). In the study, all they did was add Atrazine to the water. The control group of rats and the Atrazine group ate exactly the same diet. The Atrazine rats got fat, the other rats did not. The Atrazine rats had insulin resistance, not due to excess calories, but due to the addition of ONE toxin in their diet. 

Now, Aadam is 100% correct that we live in an obesigenic environment where there is an abundance of shitty calories and people often eat way more than they need of stuff humans were never intended to eat in the first place. And then many modern humans just don't move their bodies. Got it. #truth

But we have an environmental problem that is somewhat horrific in magnitude. And it is affecting our weight, and other health markers (like rates of cancer). The Atrazine study is about one chemical. However, about 100,000 man-made chemicals have been introduced into our environment (food, water, air) and almost none of them have any safety testing. ONE HUNDRED THOUSAND. 100,000. And we have no idea, really, what problems this massive exposure is doing to us. 

So calories-in-calories-out is simple, straightforward (possibly controllable for many) and definitely helpful. But being atomistic, instead of holistic, helps reinforce our blindspots. We don't tend to look at things that are 'invisible' - like chemical, RF or stress exposure, which are undoubtedly powerful in shaping our overall picture of health. 

So what does this have to do with the brain?

Well, keep in mind, everything has everything to do with the brain! There is no health issue that isn't connected to brain health.

Atrazine accumulates in the brain and triggers a host of problems. It activates the brain's immune response, which goes on overdrive. Atrazine also disrupts the process of ovulation (which starts in the brain) by impeding the release of important hormones. Now, keep in mind that Atrazine is ONE of ONE HUNDRED THOUSAND possible chemicals that we humans have exposure to and you might, maybe, get a sense of the potential problem. What happens when Atrazine meets Glyphosate (RoundUp) in the brain (which is also very common), or aluminum (again, very common) - we do not know. 

But we do know that brain injury and diseases are at epidemic levels. We do know that kids are not recovering from concussions very well and we do know that more people than ever are dying from brain injury. And the things we are ignoring might be playing a much bigger role than we imagine. 

I recommend a book called The Metabolic Approach to Cancer (link below) because the authors use the concept of 'terrain' - the whole person, the whole environment, the big picture - to approach the treatment and (hopefully) avoidance of cancer. This approach is exactly what is needed for ALL health issues. It's the entire terrain, not one thing, that causes dis-ease. It's the whole picture and the sooner we dig into that, the sooner we'll have answers to the staggering problems like obesity, brain disease and cancer. 







Time to get F.E.I.S.T.Y.!!!!!


Face it! Evolution is Smarter Than You

(Originally posted at http://mixedmentalarts.co/feisty)

It’s time to get F.E.I.S.T.Y.©™ by recognizing that evolution can help you be healthier, smarter, happier, and more successful if you just align with it. Leslie Orgel, an evolutionary biologist, observed that the products of evolution are ingenious. The whole planet is full of innovative inventions that are a genetic response to evolutionary pressure. Mice and deer have very large ears, the better to hear a predator approaching. Genius! Geckos have a removable tail. Their tail resembles their head, so if a predator bites it, the tail falls off and they grow a new one. Clever! You, Homo sapiens, are always adapting and responding to your environment. Adaptations can help or hinder you. Disease is an adaptation. Muscles are an adaptation. Obesity is an adaptation. Creative thinking is an adaptation. The epidemic of Myopia is an adaptation to a lack of sun. What environment are you adapted to? Don’t like your results? Then F.E.I.S.T.Y. and adjust your environment.

None of us are smarter than evolution. We are a product of evolution.

So what are humans adapted to? Moving, running, climbing, thinking, socializing, eating cooked food, difficulty, evading predators, solving complex problems, working together, and living in diverse environments. For starters. Think we’re going to outsmart evolution during our very short life with the un-evolutionary habit of sitting in a chair upwards of 10 hours a day? How about spending 23 out of 24 hours a day inside? Being too isolated? Or never facing any real danger?


We weren’t built for the world we’ve recently created; it’s an evolutionary mismatch. The core of this Mixed Mental Arts (MMA) task is humility. This is the ‘bowing before the master’ belt of MMA. Here is an example:


Nature designed the amazing and ingenious Wolf. We designed the Pug. #humility

We, like all animals, have specific and unique talents. How did we get so complicated, interesting and amazing? For instance, we are bad-ass long-distance runners. Maybe better than all other animals on the planet. We also have (probably) the highest social intelligence of any animal. Our long-distance eyesight only pales in comparison to birds of prey - but it’s still pretty boss.


And how did we get these gainz? Millions of years of evolutionary pressure. Drug-resistant bacteria are a result of this kind of pressure. Not all bacteria survived the exposure to antibiotics, but the bacteria that did survive the attack by man-made drugs went on to reproduce and now we have nasty things like MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus). This is great for the bacteria, not necessarily for us. We are great runners because we had to move over long distances to outwit other animals, escape danger or migrate. Now back to the gainz:


What the Governator said acknowledges that evolution is the bad-ass boss. Without the extreme pressure of his chosen activity - bodybuilding - Arnold knew he could never be Mr. Universe. But he wanted to be Mr. Universe, so he leveraged an evolutionary fact: If you are a male Homo sapiens and you lift heavy things (over and over and over again) and you increase the weight of these things over time, your body will respond to that pressure by creating more muscle so you can accomplish your task with success. Arnold bowed before the master that is evolution and created the right environment (heavy lifting, the right food for muscle-building and probably some steroids) that would force his body to adapt to that environment, with the resulting strength and look. He wasn’t reshaping his body, he was reshaping the environment and letting evolution work. You can like it. You can not like it. But you might as well:

Face it!






What does that spell? F.E.I.S.T.Y. Evolution is the boss, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be feisty. By challenging yourself, you will force yourself to evolve into whatever challenge you set. It’s the beauty of humans; we are very, very adaptable. Challenges can be physical, they can be intellectual or societal. Whatever the challenge, the raw power of evolution will help make your goals a reality. Clearly, it is pressure and challenge that trigger positive changes, not complacency, inactivity or even abundance.

Let’s look at sitting. Yes, just sitting. We have, quite suddenly, become a species of sitters. And it’s not F.E.I.S.T.Y at all. Sadly, us modernites spend approximately half our time sitting. All that time on our asses increases our risk of death significantly. Why? We didn’t evolve to sit around! We are uniquely human as a result of intense natural pressures, not from having an easy, comfy life. We got here through hard physical work, responding to incredible challenges (predators, natural catastrophes) and lots of movement. So just because we suddenly can sit all day, doesn’t mean we should.

What about getting out in the sun? Humans evolved to not only tolerate the sun, but to need exposure to the sun. Yes, despite all the sunscreen marketing you’ve been exposed to, we need the sun. This is how we create vitamin D and this is an absolute for human health. Your brain soaks up sunlight through the skull, your eyes soak up natural light and your skin senses light and produces vitamin D. Vitamin D is critical for the absorption of calcium and phosphorus, sustains our bones and teeth and helps protect us from cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and MS. We even happen to be fairly hairless, so we can soak up even more of the sun’s light!

So what happens when humans spend 23 of 24 hours inside buildings, away from direct sunlight? You probably already guessed that it leads to disease. One interesting connection is nearsightedness, which has become a common, serious modern problem. Exposure to bright, full-spectrum light helps the eyeballs stay round and this protects our excellent eyesight.

But it isn’t just the lack of natural light, it’s overexposure to the blue-light spectrum emanating from our ubiquitous screens. Exposure to this narrow spectrum of light at all the wrong times creates some real problems for us.


Why? We simply have not evolved to this brand-new behavior that has shifted our biological functions so dramatically. Not so far in our past, nighttime was completely dark. We evolved hand-in-hand with this darkness to function at our absolute best by being exposed to bright light during the day and blackety-blackness at night.


Sorry, but you are not going to win an argument with evolution. Not in your lifetime, anyway. Circadian rhythm is critical to your body - all systems are affected by the natural cycles of night and day. It’s the main reason night-shift workers face serious health problems due to the disruption of normal biological cycles (humans, despite what teenagers claim, are not nocturnal).

You are always adapting to an environment. Adaptations can help or hinder you. Disease is an adaptation too. What environment are you adapted to? Don’t like your results? Get F.E.I.S.T.Y.

Nerd Follow-up: 

Sitting - http://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/much-sitting-linked-heart-disease-diabetes-premature-death-201501227618

Too much time inside - https://snowbrains.com/brain-post-much-time-average-american-spend-outdoors/

Amazing runners -  http://www.slate.com/articles/sports/sports_nut/2012/06/long_distance_running_and_evolution_why_humans_can_outrun_horses_but_can_t_jump_higher_than_cats_.html

Eyeballs -


Night-shift workers -


Disease -


Genes -


The Evolutionary Advantage of Brain Disorders -



You Can Keep Your Creepy Wizard Hat

Elon Musk, Neuralink and the Creepy Wizard Hat

I read a long and interesting blog piece, Neuralink and the Brain’s Magical Future, by Tim Urban on his blog, waitbutwhy.com. Neuralink is a new company, co-founded by Elon Musk of SpaceX fame, with its goal to develop “ultra high bandwidth brain-machine interfaces to connect humans and computers”. I’ve spent the last few years investigating what the brain is and how it heals, so anything brain-related catches my attention. I am not a neuroengineer, neurologist, neurosurgeon, medical device engineer...you get the idea. My interest has blossomed from how to help my son recover from multiple TBIs, to how to help my clients recover from brain injury, to WAIT! This brain-health thing is really important to everyone. (Note: Read here about Elon Musk’s evolution from being anti-AI (artificial intelligence) to founding Neuralink. Thankfully, he is quite fearful of what future AI could do to humanity, so he helped found Open AI).

Mr. Urban starts off with this truth, that “this ridiculous-looking thing [the brain] is the most complex known object in the universe—three pounds of what neuroengineer Tim Hanson calls “one of the most information-dense, structured, and self-structuring matter known.” All while operating on only 20 watts of power (an equivalently powerful computer runs on 24,000,000 watts)”. But then Tim Urban goes on to continually refer to the brain as a machine, which it isn’t. In fact way back in the 1920s, the neuroscientist, Karl Lashley, determined that facts, skills and other things we ‘know’ are not stored in individual neurons, or in the connections between them, but in what he called “cumulative electrical wave patterns” (Doidge, 2015). This is the result of all the neurons involved in a specific activity firing together. It’s important to think that through because our cultural belief is based on this machine metaphor (also known as the IP metaphor) and it’s dead wrong.

Not to gross you out, but does this look like a machine to you? This is what a brain looks like. 

Not to gross you out, but does this look like a machine to you? This is what a brain looks like. 

Say you’re a rock climber (you’d be cooler if you were, bro), every time you chalk up, touch a rock face and start moving your body, the thousands (10s or 100s of thousands, we don’t know) of neurons involved in that activity start firing together so you can climb. And by repeating the activity, a rock climber creates stronger and stronger neural pathways and recruits more neurons into the activity (this is neuroplasticity), creating an even stronger electrical pattern that means ‘rock climbing’. But when the rock climber sits down to watch a movie later, ‘rock climbing’ is not activated in the brain. It’s not a solid, physical structure that exists in the brain. Enacting the skill depends on a solid physical structure (neuron and axons and whatnot), but the act itself is an electrical reality. It’s also why the brain heals the way it does - and it’s amazing. But it isn’t a machine, it’s part of an organism - us. Which poses a problem if Neuralink wants to ‘interface’ a machine into the brain organism, yes?

Say that rock climber falls off his/her bike and slams their head on the sidewalk (dude!). Brain injury. Neurons are harmed, the brain forms a seal around the injury and liquefies the damage. In fact, the damaged cells are designed to die given the right cues (apoptosis). They are extremely resilient to dying (in fact, could be called immortal) and have multiple functions to stop death, but if the injury is bad enough - they die. WHAT?! That is not how we usually imagine healing, certainly not how our body heals other tissue. But your brain knows that any neuron can be used for anything and multiple things. After a brain injury, it’s fairly easy to recruit new neurons and neural pathways to do old tasks that were lost to the injury (neuroplasticity again). In a bad injury, it can mean re-learning to walk, but the brain can relearn if enough of the physical structure is left to do the job. In a minor injury, the shift to new neurons can be almost seamless. You just have to ask the brain to do it.

See, the problem is that by perpetuating this idea that the human brain is a computer (which is a machine last time I checked) this whole ‘wizard hat’ (Tim Urban's phrase) that Elon Musk wants to build seems legit. But it’s probably impossible (now, anyway) because our brain is an organism, not a machine and, we don’t understand it very well. Want to know how sorry our understanding is? Look at fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), a technology that's been used to scan, study and diagnose brains for quite awhile now. Unfortunately, fMRI results took a big hit because a software bug persisted for years and has now cast serious questions on at least 40,000 studies on the brain. It will take a real effort to recoup what was lost. I hope Elon has his new team sorting through the bad data and discarding it. Regarding other diagnostic tools; did you notice in the movie Concussion, Dr. Omalu ended up using tiny slices of the actual brain and a microscope? How old school! Because the imaging of the time did not pick up Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). It’s still lagging because you cannot diagnose a concussion with a CT, fMRI or anything else. Fracture, yes. Bleeding, yes. Concussion, no. So how much do we really know? 

Anyway, in a machine the structure (say, a car engine) and function (the car engine running) have a sharp separation, not so in an organism. What you think and do today (function) changes the brain (physical structure) over time, this could never happen with a car engine. We’ve had some success teaching computer programs to ‘learn’, so they come closer to looking like they function like we do. But the tech isn’t even close, really. Just because Zukerberg lets his Jarvis-bot entertain his baby, doesn’t make it a good idea and it certainly doesn't make Jarvis a live entity. And ‘talking’ to Siri doesn’t make the Siri program a self-structuring organism. It’s still a limited machine-program that doesn’t come close to your own inherent abilities. The parts of the brain are not static, and the functions (thoughts, experiences, actions) affect the structure in an ongoing dynamic process. It’s how long-term, toxic stress can actually shrink certain parts of the brain - rearranging structure to fit the experience of the person carrying that brain. Neuroplasticity again. 

Let’s also talk about nnEMFs (non-native electro-magnetic frequencies, pretty much everything powered by humans runs on this AC-based power) and RFs (high radio frequency electromagnetic radiation emanating from cell phones, radio towers, satellites, etc). Simply put, research (so far) shows that human bodies don’t like either of these. All of our new gadgets and the wizard hat that Elon Musk wants to build use these frequencies that might be (and probably are) harmful to the human body. Take Urban’s example of how deep brain stimulation (DBS) can help the tremors of Parkinson’s Disease (PD). No one knows the long-term effects of the direct exposure of nnEMFs and RFs in the brain that occur by placing an electronic object directly in the brain. And we are just now learning that PD is probably caused by bacteria issues in the gut. Turns out the brain is deeply informed by intestinal bacteria, who knew?! This is a hopeful field of research. So the DBS treats the symptoms (but doesn’t address the disease, a big problem with Western medicine in general), and often at a steep price (see more on that later in the article).

How about this idea that brain is the overlord and commands the body to do its bidding? From Dr. Doidge’s paradigm-shifting book, The Brain’s Way of Healing, we learn that “a brain cannot think without motor function”. Wait, what? Simply, the brain evolved after the body and it is there to serve the body (you know, so we can physically survive and stuff). Without movement, some parts of the brain fall into non-use, the brain can even shrink, and slowly lose function. Additionally, the brain takes in impulses from the body, it’s not a one-way system. It's not a even a two-way system. We are sensitive to light, electro-magnetics, social interactions, the air we breathe. We are constantly responding to our environment and our own internal cues, simultaneously, all the time. In his article, Tim Urban says, “[the motor cortex is] one of the major areas of the brain in charge of our output. When a human does something, the motor cortex is almost always the one pulling the strings (at least for the physical part of the doing)”. Well Tim, kinda, not exactly. Because we are an organism, and we function in whole - unlike machines which function using pieces that work together. Exercise doesn't just make your muscles stronger, it also makes the white matter in our brain more compact and fibrous (stronger, more efficient). Moshe Feldenkrais worked out a system of body movements that help the brain heal itself and proved his work via some incredibly difficult cases. Body teaches the brain, brain reorganizes, teaches the body. 

In his outstanding essay on Aeon, The Empty Brain, Robert Epstein points out that, “we are not born with: information, data, rules, software, knowledge, lexicons, representations, algorithms, programs, models, memories, images, processors, subroutines, encoders, decoders, symbols, or buffers – design elements that allow digital computers to behave somewhat intelligently. Not only are we not born with such things, we also don’t develop them – ever”. We are born with senses, reflexes and learning mechanisms. And while computers operate on a symbolic representation of the world, we operate quite differently, in the actual, non-representative world. So in case you’ve spent a tad too much time on your computer, playing games, on your phone Instagramming or programming your 3D printer - remember we live on a planet, that is ruled by laws of nature. There are no caveats to this. You cannot escape this fact. As much tech as we’ve created, we are still here on planet Earth; biological creatures with biological needs and we function as organisms.

Does this look like a brain to you? 

Does this look like a brain to you? 

We have used metaphors for the brain (6 different ones over the past 2,000 years) because we do not understand it. And that’s OK, it’s how we learn. But from the humors (bile! phlegm!) to levers and knobs, we haven’t really gotten it right. Yet. Our metaphor needs to evolve, get better, so the path we take forward is actually aligned with what we ARE. Maybe a place to start is looking at mycelium networks. Or trees

Also, not a brain. 

Also, not a brain. 

Let's add a new definition to the term ‘native intelligence’, which generally means common sense. I pose that our inherent native intelligence (NI) is the complete set of capacities we are born with - the entire spectrum of possible human capacity - expressed in as many ways as there are people. I will make the claim here that we haven’t really explored or potentialized our own NI, and to go a step further, we are reducing our own capacity right now - making the future of AI (which I call UI, unnatural intelligence) not just a sci-fi dream but necessary. A self-fulfilling prophecy! Did you know that a human toddler’s screen time is linked to slower language development (link below)? Humans and nature had already worked out an awesome way to learn language and it wasn’t from a screen. Our big uptick in technology use is causing a pandemic of sleep problems, weight gain and lower social-emotional functioning. It’s not too hard to imagine a future where physically and mentally unhealthy humans that would have never survived in the past are propped up by pharmaceuticals and UI, not for optimization but because we forgot how to be fully human, aligned with the laws of the planet, digging deep into our own NI.

These newly augmented humans are not super-beings, like we imagine when we think of cyborgs - cool, super-intelligent, vibrant, machine-beings. But cyborgs they are. Elon Musk even says so (so it has to be true); “you’re already a different creature than you would have been 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago. I think people — they’re already kind of merged with their phone and their laptop and their applications and everything”. But Mr. Musk is thinking about the super-intelligent, awesome cyborgs, not what is readily observable in our culture right now. This may already be headed in a direction we haven’t considered. Modern humans interact less and less with the planet, ignoring the laws of biology which insist that a healthy human have plenty of sunlight, clean air, dark nights, healthy, unpolluted foods and fats, lots of physical movement and very close relationships with other humans, creatures and maybe even plants (biophilia). This is how we got so powerful, so successful. Sadly, while the technauts plan an incredible future (haven’t they always?), modernized humans are less and less healthy, with skyrocketing rates of disease, including stuff we don’t understand, like autism. Modern (especially W.E.I.R.D - Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) humans are mostly overweight (74% in the U.S.) if not obese, they are sedentary, and eat a diet high in sugar and chemicals, spend very little time outside and the brain is damaged by this sorry state of affairs. The brain is deeply affected by modern disease, like diabetes (being a very sugar-sensitive organ, this makes sense). It’s also sensitive to toxins and we have a big problem with chemicals. Glyphosate (RoundUp) is particularly neurotoxic and it likes to bind with aluminum causing a big immunoexcitotoxicity event in the brain that can be next-to-impossible to calm down. In fact, many modern humans may be suffering from Diminished Brain Resilience Syndrome (DBR) (Morley and Seneff). Let’s add exposure to nnEMFs and RFs with a we-don’t-know outcome. And despite the fact there are 7.5 billion of us, modern humans report being lonely, and have high suicide rates. What is our current answer to this? Drugs, surgery, technology, ineffective institutions and entertainment (distraction). Some modern humans wouldn’t have lasted a week 15,000 years ago, but are augmented now and so they 'survive', just not in that cool, cyborg way we all imaged.

I am not here to 'judge', it's an anonymous picture - and I do not have the backstory.  But here is the current version of an augmented human . I travel a lot and see this all over the states. Disability and illness is being normalized by our culture - at what price? 

I am not here to 'judge', it's an anonymous picture - and I do not have the backstory. But here is the current version of an augmented human. I travel a lot and see this all over the states. Disability and illness is being normalized by our culture - at what price? 

The concept behind Neuralink is “a super-advanced concept where essentially all the neurons in your brain are able to communicate seamlessly with the outside world”. And by outside world, Neuralink means the digital world. But hey, we already do this, just with the natural world (remember, Earth?), not the built world. Our brain is perfectly built to navigate the actual world. But the human-built world of computers, televisions, cell phones, satellites, smart buildings or businesses we don’t navigate so well. Our health and social lives suffer the more digitized we get, and I am not sure how closely Neuralink is even looking at our need to make this leap (see Ada Palmer’s work to understand how progress destroys what is before we know if the progress we are creating will even make a better future).

Neuralink aims to “...bring something to market that helps with certain severe brain injuries (stroke, cancer lesion, congenital) in about four years”. Cool - I hope you do! Please show me the awesome tech-based answer we have to concussion, TBI and post-concussion syndrome right now! Because with 1.6 - 3.8 million (and that doesn’t include the military) concussions per year - we should at least have diagnostic tools for concussion. Oh, we don’t have that? But we are going to make a wizard helmet that can interface the entire brain with the world of computers here ASAP? Hmmmmm...

Neuralink expects this interface to be an implantable chip of some sort. Not a helmet at all, Tim Urban, but a creepy brain chip. Let’s refer back to the problem with fMRI software, the constant bugs they are fixing in your current smartphone and the issue with exposing humans to a ton of nnEMFs and RFs. What if the implantable chip has a recall because some of the rare earth metals turn out to be toxic to the brain? What if it leaks? Will it be the DAPL of the brain? Neuralink co-founder Flip Sabes said, “we have deep brain stimulation [DBS] to alleviate the symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease, we have early trials of chips to restore vision, we have the cochlear implant—so to us it doesn’t seem like that big of a stretch to put devices into a brain to read information out and to read information back in”. Again, Mr. Sabes misses the point that PD is probably preventable and definitely treatable via bacteria therapy. Dr. Perlmutter (one of his books is Grain Brain) has been on this gut-brain link for a long time. 

Also, (and this is crucial) the number one rule in new tech is never talk about how other tech has failed. Mr. Sabes mentions cochlear implants, which is a piece of technology that has serious side effects when it doesn't work (the total failure rate is about 3%, which is pretty damn good for tech). Possible issues with these implants are loss of hearing (that seems ironic), nerve damage, balance issues, ringing in the ears and (predictably) leaking of fluid from the brain. Yikes. The risks for deep brain stimulation (DBS) are as high as the risk of brain surgery (um, because it is brain surgery). There is also a 20% hardware failure rate in DBS treatments leading to “prolonged antibiotics, in-patient hospitalization, repeat surgery” (Carole, et al, below). There are zero studies that I could find regarding the high nnEMF/RF exposure DBS patients endure (multiple MRIs - not to mention the effects of the actual hardware). Did you catch the irony that malfunctions of DBS, aiming to control PD symptoms, lead to long-term antibiotic use (which destroys good bacteria along with bad). Because PD stems from gut dysbiosis, this is a tragically ironic state of affairs. This is where tech fails miserably - the religious belief that some piece of machinery can deliver us from illness, actually creating more illness. The people developing tech and Western medicine (in general) don't have a great understanding of how we actually operate and so our paths to healing are littered with massive, horrific mistakes. How about all that time we spent not understanding germs (childbed fever anyone?)? What about the emerging proof that dietary intake of sugar is at the root of heart disease, not fat? And now more information is coming out that statins are really, really bad for your brain. What about the link between artificial light at night and breast cancerObsolete medical theories abound, so why are we always so dang confident we've got the final answer?  

Mr. Sabes goes on to further blow my mind (pun intended) by saying “if it were a prerequisite to understand the brain in order to interact with the brain in a substantive way, we’d have trouble. But it’s possible to decode all of those things in the brain without truly understanding the dynamics of the computation in the brain”. So basically, we can put all kinds of electronics and crap in the brain, but we don’t really need to know how it works (the brain doesn’t ‘compute’ being the first thing he is OK not understanding). Mr. Sabes, please see above notes on obsolete medical theories. The reason why we do need to understand is that when we don't, we hurt people. 'Can we do it?" always needs to be accompanied by 'should we do it'? 

Finally, Mr. Urban notes another big problem in his blog: “...biocompatibility. Delicate electronics tend to not do well inside a jello ball. And the human body tends to not like having foreign objects in it. But the brain interfaces of the future are intended to last forever without any problems. This means that the device will likely need to be hermetically sealed and robust enough to survive decades of the oozing and shifting of the neurons around it. And the brain—which treats today’s devices like invaders and eventually covers them in scar tissue—will need to somehow be tricked into thinking the device is just a normal brain part doing its thing”.

  1. Tech that lasts forever? Really? I just spent 2 hours on the phone with Verizon and have to restart my modem 2-3 times a day. Just for a reference point on how ‘forever’ tech is now.

  2. The brain doesn’t really make scar tissue (it creates lesions), not like your arm would anyway. It liquefies damaged tissues, forms a seal of glial cells around the damaged area and turns on the brain’s very interesting immune system.

  3. This process (#2) is what causes symptoms in people who have brain injury. And because people are very neuro-individual, it is next-to-impossible to predict reactions from person-to-person or even injury-to-injury. We aren't machines, so we cannot assume that all people could get a chip implant in the same area of the brain and all have the same reaction. 

  4. Immunoexcitotoxicity is the result of the brain-immune response and it can kill other areas of the brain (check out secondary progression in TBI for examples). When we think of neuroplasticity we imagine the brain being flexible in learning or re-learning, but neuroplasticity can also be seen in action when damaged neurons recruit other neurons to die.

I think it’s time to use our B.R.A.I.N. It’s a simple acronym to assist in making decisions. What are the, benefits, risks and alternatives? Do I need more information? What does my intuition say? Should I do this now? Not now? Never?





Now? Not now? Never?

Using this tool, I would say there are possible benefits (unknown at this time), definite risks, many alternatives, we need more information, my intuition is screaming NO! (thus the long blog). I would say not now, and maybe never. Maybe.

And to put a finer point on it, let’s be clear as to how high-level, powerful people are thinking about these next-level technologies, and more specifically about you and me. Elon Musk said, “we’re going to have the choice of either being left behind and being effectively useless or like a pet — you know, like a house cat or something — or eventually figuring out some way to be symbiotic and merge with AI”. I’m sorry, what? Left behind like a useless pet! That’s an impressive jump. So if only half of the world’s population today even have access to the internet (which has gotten pretty damn cheap and accessible). More people have a cell phone (but not smartphones) or access to another person’s cell phone (possibly around 6 billion). DBS costs between $30,000 and $50,000 and it’s usually covered by insurance because it’s for a disease. Neuralink will not be covered. Now let’s imagine that when this impossible brain-chip is finally ready it will cost an incredible amount of money and only a very few and privileged people will have access to it. Making them, supposedly, even more superhuman and ultra-powerful (but also maybe giving them terrible side-effects and multiple surgeries). So by his own statement the rest of humanity will be “useless pets” which smacks a little too close to ‘not-human’, ‘slave’, or maybe a ‘a lower life form’. Maureen Dowd, in her Vanity Fair (below) piece on Musk says, “...there’s a creepy feeling underneath it all, a sense that we’re the mice in their experiments, that they regard us humans as Betamaxes or eight-tracks, old technology that will soon be discarded so that they can get on to enjoying their sleek new world”.

And by 'they', I mean all these old white guys. (A cute chart on the who-is-who from Not So Fast on AI to Hit the Gas - found on Pinterest, cannot find the creator of the image). 

And by 'they', I mean all these old white guys. (A cute chart on the who-is-who from Not So Fast on AI to Hit the Gas - found on Pinterest, cannot find the creator of the image). 

Look at nature - flowers, black holes, the ocean, animals hunting, landscapes, the moon, clouds - it’s infinite. From the dinosaurs to meteors, glow-in-the-dark fish to panthers, water in all its forms, weather, outer space and the brain of a human being, nature is downright insanely creative. We are a part of that. Our NI is not limited, we do not have to merge with machines to move forward into a bright future, and we may well be better off without a creepy brain chip. We have our own magic, we just need to move towards actualizing more of what we are already. 


Supportive reading, in no helpful order:

Neuralink and the Brain’s Magical Future - http://waitbutwhy.com/2017/04/neuralink.html


Your brain is not a machine -


fMRI has a serious problem -


nnEMFs are not good for human brains -



Your brain is not an overlord to the body, quite the opposite really -The Brain’s Way of Healing, by Dr. Norman Doidge

Exercise and your brain -


Metaphors of the brainIn Our Own Image, George Zarkadakis

Babies, screentime and language -


Maybe tech isn’t that great -




A tiny bit on nnEMFs and RFs -


Oh, and artificial light -

https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2FBF00584704?LI=true (1983 y’all!)

Deep Brain Stimulation Problems -


Just four examples of how pharmaceuticals are often dangerous (at least as often as they are helpful), used off-label by a multitude of physicians and have consequences that are never studied:

Neurontin - http://medicureusa.org/2017/04/21/clinical-research-finds-neurontin-and-lyrica-are-a-death-sentence-for-new-brain-synapses/

And Statins - http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/827675

And Cytotec - https://www.midwiferytoday.com/articles/cytotec.asp

Cold medicine - http://www.oregonlive.com/today/index.ssf/2016/04/common_allergy_and_cold_medici.html

And for a deep dive, check out the implications of Glyphosate and aluminum exposure (as well as other issues) related to Diminished Brain Resilience Syndrome  - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4093745/

Vanity Fair piece on Musk http://www.vanityfair.com/news/2017/03/elon-musk-billion-dollar-crusade-to-stop-ai-space-x

© - Jennifer Aguilar - 2017 - All Rights Reserved

We are the fire, we don't have to steal it

We are the fire, we don't have to steal it. 

I read The Rise of Superman (by Steven Kotler) when it first came out. It was a compelling read, exploring the altered states extreme athletes reach when they do the impossible. Kotler used these examples as a lens to explore how important these shifts in consciousness are and how we reach them. The idea that we (humans) have an internal shortcut to perform and feel better - not just better, our best - is tantalizing. Steven Kotler (founder of The Flow Research Collective) and Jamie Wheal (founder of the Flow Genome Project), a bold initiative that aims to understand altered states, how they relate to achievement and to teach people how to access flow 'on demand'. They co-authored a book, Stealing Fire, and that's why we are here.

9-15-2019 Update - Since I wrote this piece, Steven Kotler has resigned from the The Flow Genome Project and founded his own research collective.

I think Steven and Jamie have created a body of thought that is interesting and intelligent - piggy-backing the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who created the modern term and investigated its origins. But I've got a beef with this book and I'm going to lay it out here - and hope that it diffuses into the flow-space to increase people's access to and understanding of flow.

The authors define flow as an "optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best". It's a moment where our focus is intense, we lose track of time, things just make sense and we find answers to problems, connect deeply with others or find a streak of creativity or athletic ability we didn't think was there. It's the zone. Csikszentmihalyi first found this experience happening in people who were experts in their field. Their deep knowledge, combined with intense focus led to a place where the expert could see patterns or make physical moves that would never come easily to a novice, that might even seem superhuman to an outsider. Flow started as a theory of expertise. The image below explains where flow exists within the scale of effort and skill. 

Unfortunately, the titles of both books imply that flow is hard to reach, The Rise of Superman and Stealing Fire (they wrap the book around the myth of Prometheus stealing fire and giving it to humanity). And, to be fair, their focus is peak human performance, not average performance. Which is why they spoke to SEAL Team Six, Google executives, uber-elite Burning Man participants, Richard Branson, Red Bull executives, Nike, Dave Asprey of Bulletproof (biohacking) fame and United Nation's advisors. The book relies heavily on appeal to authority (i.e. multiple references to the military), technology (i.e. swooning passages over Google) and celebrity (OneTaste [possibly a cult], The Summit Series and a romanticized, drooling, homage to Burning Man*). To be blunt, I think that if you frame flow as hard to reach, then shore that idea up with logical fallacies that appeal to authority, technology and celebrity, it's much easier to sell services, supplements and exclusive technology to us commoners (with just enough money to even access this stuff) and I don't buy it. 

Noah Berlatsky says it well in his critique of Stealing Fire, "if success is a predictable algorithm, hackable through skill and knowledge, then it follows that those who are most successful are also most skillful and knowledgeable". Keep in mind this is circular logic (a favorite logical fallacy of mine). Basically, if everyone in Silicon Valley is micro-dosing LSD this must be a component of their success, and therefore critical to my success. And while there are a lot of articles and guides on how to do this, there isn't much on why and almost no research. (That said, psychedelics do seem to have some legitimate healing powers, MAPS is a good place to look for current info). 

Even though the authors state that "...the responsibility to democratize ecstasis falls squarely on us" nearly every single example of flow is in the extreme category: extreme sports, the upper echalon of tech, or a crazy lab scientist creating the next wonder drug (oh and Burning Man, Burning Man, Burning Man). I find this curious because a healthy human being can easily reach flow (mild, moderate definitely, maybe extreme needs a push). That's right: EASILY. You do not have to suffer the lottery of Burning Man, put on an nnEMF VR helmet or attend an EDM festival. You do not have to throw yourself off a mountain. You CAN, but you do not have to. 

I claim that ecstasis (flow) is normal, our right and easy to access. Why? Evolutionary biology, that's why. Have you ever seen a mountain lion run? A buffalo stampede? An intense thunderstorm? It's hard for modern people to imagine the evolutionary pressures that got us here. It's actually not superhuman at all to get a huge dump of brain chemicals that gives you an advantage when attempting to outwit a large, dangerous animal or climb a tree to get away from a flash flood. It's survival. But these big dumps are neurologically expensive. Any ancient human would know that after taking down a water buffalo, outwitting an angry bear or crossing 80 miles of frozen tundra you need a meal and a nap. 

But that's big flow. Most of our (and I mean all of us non-Google, non-famous, regular people) time in the zone is little flow. Gardening, nursing a baby, singing with our friends and sharing a great meal all put us in little flow and this also has an evolutionary advantage. These mild states of altered consciousness make us feel good, and reinforce all those important little behaviors that help us raise healthy children, make strong bonds and keep our wits sharp. Basically, it's all the little stuff that made us a successful species. So far. 

The authors dutifully avoid mentioning all the common flow triggers for your average person. B-O-R-I-N-G and also, will not get you a keynote at the Healthcare Marketing and Physician Strategy Summit or an invite to DEVGRU or Summit Series or Apple and it certainly won't make you any money. But, accessing these non-extreme zones is our best "training for non-ordinary states" (another term for flow). This is important because the last part of the book recommends "hedonic calendaring" using the formula (yes, math) of Value = Time x Reward/Risk. The fastest way to get me out of flow is 1) load up my calendar with obligations and 2) make me do math! The reason we want to access mild/moderate flow via common activities (i.e. forget the calendar and build a life based on regular, mild flow) is that it trains us to crawl before we walk. We are not a culture that values or encourages the non-ordinary state. Most of us have little or no practice. So before you take mushrooms, jump out of airplane or buy a new app, try being a biological human - we are BUILT for this. That's why we chase it at every opportunity - it's normal. If you have great body/brain health** (and you must for the cascade of hormones to happen easily) ecstasis is available to you via many average and boring channels. There is also no downside (or dark side) to this level of flow engagement. 

Now that's democratic. 

Here is a short list of activities that will get most humans into at least mild flow: 

  • Sharing food with others (dinner with wine and people you like)

  • Sex

  • Gardening

  • Being outside, in nature, for any period of time beyond 20 minutes doing almost anything

  • Yoga or almost any kind of body movement, Tai Chi, etc.

  • Team sports

  • Playing with children

  • Nursing your baby (if you're lucky enough to be a nursing mother)

  • Making things with your hands (any expert stonemason or glassblower will report flow in their work)

  • Childbirth (possibly one of the most extreme flow states)

  • Art - any kind

  • Writing

  • Music - listening, playing, learning

  • Helping animals, humans or the environment

This list could be hundreds of items, easily. And we are all triggered by different things. It's not a math formula you need, it's 1) knowledge of self, 2) time and 3) access to nature. Sorry, but you don't need to steal fire. It lives inside you, waiting for more oxygen - YOU ARE THE FIRE, breathe. I love that there is a conversation about this, largely due to Steven and Jamie's efforts. However, the current conversation is elitist and maybe a bit fantastical. The rarified air these guys (and it's almost all guys - another issue with not just the book, but the body of work - where are the women?) are breathing just isn't in the realm most of us operate in. 

Jamie and Steven have excellent warnings on the stickiness (addictiveness) of these big states, and also a great section on keeping an eye on authority and 'the state' because these triggers are already being deployed against us (and have been for a long time). People's deep and dangerous addiction to sugar and cigarettes is an example of purposeful deceit by corporations to hack that bliss state to make money. Do you think Google wouldn't pull the same bullshit? Listen to Tristan Harris, a former technological ethicist, and you quickly learn that this knowledge is being deployed for monetary gain by any company with the power to do so, especially the tech industry. Why do you think they needed an ethicist in the first place? 

Basically, if you don't have some time everyday with a little awe of nature, a sweet connection to your kids or partner, work you love or a meaningful conversation with a friend or stranger then you are missing out on flow and all the benefits. We don't need to force altered states, we can gain access to them easily, because they are our biological heritage. You're the fire, just light it up, big or small, you own it. 



* Re: Burning Man - The authors state that "the hardest and grittiest lessons of building a city from scratch" in the desert is what makes Burners so incredibly special. I pose that it's possible many of these people are highly educated and have access to money, resources and power as well. Many people spend a lifetime in the harsh desert (jungle, large city, frozen tundra) living on practically nothing and are not able to accomplish what Burners have. It's not the 'harsh' experience, it's the environment they spend the rest of their time in. To miss that this is a self-selected group of people that are incredibly advantaged is a blind spot of huge proportions. Please tell any U.S. Marine that a Burner, who spent a week in Nevada without running water, has incredible survival and problem-solving skills. I spent 16 weeks a few summers ago camping (in CO, AZ and CA) with no running water or electricity with TWO CHILDREN but you won't catch me claiming some kind of 'new intelligence' from the experience. Humans have done this forever. If someone was bombing Burning Man and everyone had children and then they had to survive (i.e. Syria) - I'd be more impressed. I am glad they are doing good things with their experience, but it doesn't make them a new breed of human with superhuman capacity.  

** Re: Brain Health - Our culture is also incredibly unhealthy, taken as a whole, and that explains why people are so indiscriminate in their flow-chasing. Booze, drugs, too much screen time, random promiscuity, violence, etc are all an outcropping of our need for non-ordinary states being sought after by a sick population. 

Additional Reading




Funny Note: After this was published, someone in a large, private Facebook group that Jamie W. administers posted my article. Jamie W. was NOT pleased. We did ‘talk’ (via FB messaging) and he wouldn’t even consider, for one second, that there was any valid point to my article. He was SO enamoured of his own work, so certain there could be no flaws and was actively encouraging this FB group to nominate Stealing Fire for a PULITZER. It was a funny interchange, to be sure. It definitely underscored and confirmed my sense that he living in such a narrow and rare ‘universe’ that he isn’t seeing his own blind spots. Power corrupts - and actually changes the brain - check out this piece from the Atlantic about THAT. I don’t know if that led to he and Steven falling out - but I would bet a little money on the possibility.

The 3rd Wave of Psychedelics - A Paleo Perspective

Please see the original article HERE

The Paleo Connection

Nothing like the word “psychedelic” triggers taboos and cliches, conjuring images of hippies dancing at a music festival, tripping on mushrooms. The psychedelic culture of the ’60s left on us an impression, both positive and negative, that still frames our understanding of psychoactive plants today. But those days were already the second wave of psychedelics—the first wave came long before that.

There is nothing new about human interest in perception-altering substances—a wide-ranging category, including not only psychedelics, but also alcohol, caffeine, coca, tobacco, cacao, etc. Evidently, we seem to enjoy mood- and perception-altering substances. Indeed, archeologists have dug up fossil evidence confirming the use of hallucinatory plants dating to at least 10,000 B.C. These archeological findings attest the first wave of psychedelic use, and some scientists believe ancient cave art was inspired by the ritualistic use of hallucinogenic plants.

Dr. Ronald Siegel, a mindfulness expert, claims that the human urge to intoxicate is so strong that it follows as the fourth most-primal urge after thirst, hunger, and sex. In an article on the current resurgence of psychedelics, Mark Sisson reminds us that, throughout human history, “all-night drumming-and-dancing sessions, extended fasts, exposure to extreme temperatures, steam lodges, week-long wilderness forays, and other rituals have all been used to produce visions and transcend normal waking consciousness.”

Currently, we are in the midst of a third psychedelic revolution in the West, even as these substances remain completely illegal in the United States. Though the recent opening of a legal ayahuasca (a South American psychedelic brew) church in Washington state confirms the increased acceptance of perception-bending substances. Peyote, a hallucinogenic cactus, is also legally used in the Native American Church.

Recent data indicates that the intake of these plants (and chemicals like LSD) is equal to usage levels of the 1960s. However, today’s third wave of psychedelic exploration is defined by a thoughtful and informed use for creative and therapeutic purposes, not just to “trip out.”

This third wave isn’t countercultural, but is deeply embedded in culture, in the tech industry specifically, where microdosing (taking very small amounts of substances) is a secret weapon that purportedly increases creativity. Popular personalities, from famed-podcaster Joe Rogan to author Tim Ferriss (The 4-Hour Workweek), tout the benefits of these experiences in a serious and thoughtful manner. “Getting high” isn’t the same as an interest in altered states of consciousness. People have varied reasons for wanting to use psychedelics, from healing trauma to increasing creativity and gaining a better understanding of the natural world.

What is a ‘Psychedelic’ Anyway?

Psychedelic plants produce changes in perception that result in visual or auditory hallucinations, enabling a temporary suspension of normal, waking consciousness. Each plant is unique in its use, in its effects, and in the duration of the experience. Such plants produce their special effects via the compound families of tryptamine, phenethylamine, and the beta-carboline.

Descriptions of psychedelic experiences include terms as disparate as luminous, geometric, terrifying, unifying, revealing, mortifying, and reassuring. The temporary psychedelic-enabled change in consciousness varies widely, depending on the plant, dose, culture, psychology, physiology, expectation, and setting.

Ancient Social Constructs

Specific hallucinatory plants were always used within a particular social culture. In Siberia and northern Europe, for example, psychedelic amanita mushrooms were used in spiritual ceremony under the care of a shaman (a spiritual guide). Though not always, the shaman was often the one to use the plants on behalf of the community’s members.

Along the Amazon, shamans used a psychoactive snuff for thousands of years (dated to at least 5,000 B.C.), before ayahuasca made its debut. Often within a ceremonial context, the shaman’s role was to enter a trance and travel through the spirit world. The specific trainings, rituals, and beliefs of the shaman (and the community at large) were a protection for problems that might be encountered along the psychedelic journey.

Modern culture has lost touch with these past rituals, and has forgotten preparation methods for these plant journeys. As such, each year thousands of Western people travel to South America to take part in ayahuasca rituals with Amazonian shamans. For many of these adventurous soul, such trips are enlightening. Unfortunately, a few also have psychological breaks, and others still take months to fully recover. And a few experience-seekers have even died.

Though for the most part psychedelic tourism infuses much-needed money into poor areas of the world, the donors do so with little understanding of the culture they are visiting. Predictably, problems arise from cultural and spiritual misunderstandings.

As Westerners, we generally do not grow up acknowledging alternative dimensions, spirit beings, or plant entities. Many people who ingest ayahuasca meet a female entity, often referred to as “Mother Aya,” which natives believe is the actual spirit of the plant. A belief that couldn’t be further from the typical Western belief system—and perhaps this stark clash in worldviews is exactly why we are so attracted to psychedelics; substances that reveal a direct experience of the natural and unseen world that our modern culture so aggressively disconnects with.

Physical, Mental, Emotional—Paleo Past and Present

Paleo theory suggests that we haven’t changed much compared to our ancestors, which is why we modern cave-people try to live in a way that resonates with the Paleolithic past. However, our built and cultural environments still exert a massive influence on us. While there is yet no scientific proof suggesting this, it is reasonable to assume that our experiences of psychedelics are qualitatively different than those of our ancestors—just consider that lowered vitamin D levels, overexposure to electromagnetic fields, heightened levels of chemicals in the blood (like BPA), and changes in our gut biome could all affect the nature of a psychedelic experience.

Consider also that what we watch in movies and on television, and much what we encounter in our daily life, all affects our construct of reality, and this reality remains at the forefront during hallucinogenic experiences. In the past, were psychedelic journeys maybe easier to integrate because the reality-matrix of earlier civilizations was simpler? We simply do not know—though it is tempting to speculate.

Cautious and Purposeful Use

Thanks to the incontestable nature of the scientific method, we can today determine the benefits and risks of psychedelic plants with tremendous accuracy. If, for example, psilocybin mushrooms are effective in curbing alcohol addiction, as the Heffter Research Institute demonstrated, we can indeed use this information to help those suffering.

Other researches reveal low-risk and high-reward outcomes from psychedelic therapy for people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and psycho-spiritual issues (like the fear of death).

Make no mistake, psychedelic therapy is a far cry from individual or shaman-guided use. Modern therapies are highly structured, have long follow-up periods, and the research teams are knowledgeable about the substances and human behaviors. The disadvantage of primitive psychedelic therapy is that anyone can call themselves a shaman (or guide, or facilitator). And when people are willing to pay for a night of journeying, there is no doubt that sometimes unprepared and ignorant people will be leading the “ceremony.”

That said, most of our understanding of psychedelic experience comes from outside formal settings. In the online blog Reality Sandwich, Patrick Dunn observed, “it must be acknowledged that the vast majority of successful psychedelic experimentation throughout human history has been carried out independent of scientific, medical, and state oversight.”

Before setting out on a psychedelic voyage, a careful consideration of your personal purpose and drive is critical. There are so many effective nonpsychedelic interventions that can help alleviate many health and psychological issues. Luckily, the Paleo community knows this!

Increased sunlight exposure, dietary changes, more-natural movement outside, and less stress—all these positive adjustments offer powerful solutions to real problems. And altered states are within reach via meditation, extended time outside, and intense physical activity. Stephan Beyer, author of Singing to the Plants, warns that many Westerners want “a neon-pink buffalo” experience when they choose to take psychedelics.

The psychological work required to weave together psychedelic experiences can be intense. The pink-neon-buffalo vision might leave you feeling vulnerable and unstable for some period of time. Then again, even a blissful journey can be hard to integrate back into your regular routine.

However, seasoned psychonauts (recurrent psychedelic travelers) will say there are no bad trips, that it’s all in the integration process. In the right setting with supportive people, a scary experience can be helpful to personal growth. Psychedelics hold a mysterious power to assist us along our human journey, and with reverence, preparation, and care, we too can discover our human potential through these magical plants.


Phones, Babies and Depression

Dear New Parents, 

I've been watching you. I know, that's so creepy! However, I limit my observations to the public sphere, only taking notes when I see you all at the park, beach, grocery store or restaurants. I hate to get on your case, but you have a problem. 

You have GOT to put down the cellphones. 

I know you're good parents and I know you have seamlessly, like the rest of us, included the smart phone in your daily life. The only problem is that you are hurting your kids. The good-but-interrupted attention kids (especially babies) get when we use our cellphones all the time harms their long-term development. Young humans need prolonged eye contact and responsive and repetitive attention. Without this, normal human emotional processes go haywire. Kids with highly distracted parents tend to engage in more dangerous behavior (this goes in the duh category - 'Mom - look at me!'). Also, did you know that when parents are engaged with the phone instead of the kids, they are more likely to respond harshly? 

It's not a pretty picture. Add this emotional toll to the fact that most scientists recommend keeping kids off of screens and physically away from phones, and this is a real problem. 

I think we can compare cell phone use while parenting to what happens to babies who have depressed mothers. It's not an exact match, but similar. Moms with maternal depression are often withdrawn and don't hold eye contact or talk as much to their babies compared to non-depressed moms. They can, in turn, also be intrusive (harsh). These babies then suffer from internal disregulation, a science-y term for being emotionally unable to respond normally. Additionally, babies of depressed mothers don't get as much attention or help from their moms and therefore learn less because the mom is less involved with them on a minute-by-minute basis. 

Sound familiar? The situation is comparable at least. And thank goodness maternal depression has multiple levels of treatment and is seen as something that the mom cannot necessarily control. However, we don't see consistent and constant cell phone or screen use as a problem (guaranteed, we will, and soon). It's just what everyone is doing. 

Well, everyone is doing Oxycontin too (207 million scrips written in 2013), but that doesn't make it normal or right. Luckily, there is a simple solution! And it's way easier than treating depression. Just turn the phone or iPad to silent and put it down when you are with the kids. Use it when they are asleep, or otherwise occupied. The deeper connection you will experience from uninterrupted time with baby or kids is a huge reward, far more compelling than whatever new Facebook meme is making the rounds. The illogic of throwing away important developmental behaviors to check on 'status updates', see how many 'likes' a picture got or to shop on Facebook marketplace is, in fact, insanity.