The Jay Kim Show #16: Dr. John Ratey (Transcript)
This week we have a slightly different guest on the show. His name is Dr. John Ratey and he’s the Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
You might be wondering why do we have a clinical professor of psychiatry on a show about entrepreneurship. Well, here’s the reason. As entrepreneurs, we know that one of the top productivity hacks that exists is exercise.
Doctor Ratey wrote a book called Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, and in this book he distinctly shows a connection between physicality and a person’s cognitive function. Doctor Ratey scientifically proves in the book that when you exercise, you work more nerve cells in your brain than any other human activity. Basically his point is that exercise is great for the brain.
I think you could enjoy today’s interview. It’s unlike any one that we’ve done before. Hope you’ll enjoy the show.
Jay: Doctor John Ratey, thank you so much for joining us today on the show. This is one of Asia’s first podcasts on entrepreneurship and we’re very happy to have you. And we’re gonna go into why I am having a doctor on the show, because I think that your work is so groundbreaking and so pertinent to entrepreneurship and to what we talk about here.
Why don’t you, if you can, can you just introduce yourself and explain … maybe share with us some of your background and what led you to your groundbreaking work and the brain-fitness connection.
Dr. Ratey: I’m delighted to be here with you. I’m John Ratey, I’m a psychiatrist and Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. I’ve written a number of books and did research, and always have been interested in the brain and how the brain works. And about 30 years ago, I guess, I saw that there was a big connection between exercise and making our brains work better, especially helping us with attention and people who have what we know as attention deficit disorder.
But I always paid attention to articles as they came out, on the listing of new articles, and there were few and then all of a sudden, in the mid ’90s there began a real take off of interest in exercise and the brain. And I picked up on it, had been following it and knew that it helped with our moods, with the stress, with anxiety, with attention, with aging, and that became very a big deal.
I began to research it and look at it and wrote a book called Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, and this has taken me all over the world quite literally, and spend a lot of time, actually, in Asia, because helping people understand it, both for the kids in school but also for companies … Initially I worked with Johnson and Johnson for two years, helping them develop their wellness and prevention company. And then for the five years after that I was a major consultant for Reebok sportswear company, because they adopted my book as something that was their platform to get people moving and to learn. You’re moving not just to make yourself buff or make yourself lose weight, but you make yourself better, you make your brains better.
Dr. Ratey: So that’s why I’m with you.
Jay: That’s … yes. Wow, what a great introduction. So it was only after, I guess, your work studying ADD, which kind of led you closer to this eventual path? Is that right?
Dr. Ratey: Yes, that’s one of the major contributors, because I spent a lot of time writing and talking and lecturing about ADD, and knew right from the beginning that exercise was one way to modify our attention, to keep our attention working better and to keep us on track.
And this led to eventually exploring it very much in depth, as our information exploded in the late ’90s and this century and it continues today.
Jay: Right, right. Well, listen, I’m particularly excited, so I have a confession to make. The way that I discovered you so to speak, is I’m a fan of Tom Bilyeu’s Inside Quest and I saw you on his show and I immediately went out and I purchased Spark, because I’m in the fitness industry … kind of in the fitness industry, and I follow the space a lot, but after I saw you on the show, I was like, “I have to try to speak to this guy,” because what you talk about and what you discovered on the mind and body connection I think is very important.
Back to what we were talking about at the very beginning, why do I have a doctor, a brain specialist on an entrepreneurship show, right? There’ve been a plenty of well known entrepreneurs, such as even Richard Branson, who have come out and said things along the same lines as the number one key to their productivity, or hack if you will, is exercise.
And I, myself, truly believe that. And the days that I work out in the morning are so much more productive than the days that I don’t. So it’s very clear for me the connection there, but for some people that may not be used to exercising, perhaps you can go into a little bit about how strong that connection is and maybe you can talk about Spark for a bit.
Dr. Ratey: Yes. Well, I sort of detailed it in Spark, but what it eventually does, exercise makes us the best that we can be, brings us to the highest state of well being if you will. It makes our brain literally on fire, because we learned that our big brain evolved, to help us be the best movers, to be behaving correctly and to plan, and to sequence, and to imagine, and to evaluate consequences of our movements as we evolved as hunter-gatherers.
And then, as time would have it, we developed language in larger social groups, and we use the same nerve cells that we evolved to be the best movers, to think with.
Dr. Ratey: The two things that people need to know about exercise is when you’re exercising, you are helping your brain regulate your emotions, making your moods better, making yourself more motivated, making you less stressed and more able to deal with stresses in the future if you exercise chronically, or daily, and it optimizes your brain to learn and to remember and to think.
And now we know even more, lately, that when we’re exercising we’re more creative, so a la Richard Branson who was walking meetings, he does it for a reason.
Dr. Ratey: Here in Silicon Valley we have a lot of industries that have walking meetings, to keep themselves sharp and going, and to talk about things, and to think about things, but we actually have a study showing that this really helps, it really helps you move around ideas if you will, as we move in space.
There’s an awful lot that has transpired and people are into it in a much bigger way than every before.
Jay: Right. There’s a part where you mentioned earlier, where our brains are meant to move and that was the original purpose, and then now, the physical manifestation is the evolution of our brains, is that right?
Dr. Ratey: Yes. No, you know, when we were hunter-gatherers, which we were for about eight million years, we were moving 10 to 14 miles a day, we were jumping, we were climbing, we were moving weird and having to avoid the big cats, as well as to run down antilope and get ourselves to the next food source, so we were forging all the time, moving all the time.
And that’s only been 10,000 years since we’ve been off the plains and savannas and we’ve been farming. So that’s when our civilization popped up and grew very big, but we had these brains that evolved to help us be the best movers. And the problem is today that we’re seeing with all the epidemics of obesity, of diabetes, of Alzheimer’s disease, of heart disease, all that are really fed by our sedentary lifestyle that we have. And being addicted to our screens, which puts us usually in our chairs, and this is a big problem, and we’re not made to sit. We’re made to move and we’re not doing that.
Jay: Right. You talk about how exercise can literally ignite your brain on fire and I personally, like I said, I work out in the mornings and my shower, after I work out, is perhaps the time, that small window of time, when literally my brain’s on fire and I’m just thinking a mile a minute and I have so many thoughts, it’s creatively, as you also mentioned. I just have so much running through my brain that I have to … as soon as I get out of the shower, I have to jot things down on a notepad. So I’ve experience it first hand. I think it’s so powerful what you … your work and what you’ve discovered.
I want to take a step back and talk a little bit about your work on ADD and ADD patients, or ADHD I guess it’s called now. I was reading in Spark, and you do a couple of case studies and I have to say there was some … I can relate to some of the … you talk about … some of your case studies talk about perhaps an individual that had trouble focusing, but that when they do focus they’re hyper focused and they’re very active. And then when exercise was introduced into their daily life, it would balance them out.
My question for you is … I feel like you almost describe entrepreneurs in a way. When I was reading through that chapter and the case study I was like, “Oh, this sounds like a lot of people I know, including myself,” where … maybe not to the extreme of clinically prescribed, whatever ADD, but the way that the behaviors and the periods of hyper-focus and then just the distractions and being able to manage all that.
Is this quite common and at what level is it characterized as this person is ADHD? And then also, on top of that, living in the digital age that we are living in now, with the flood of information available at a fingertip for everyone, does that actually help contribute negatively to this type of behavior?
Dr. Ratey: Well, it can be positive or negative just to answer your last question, but when we go back and look at my other books, Driven to Distraction especially, you will find a lot of stories about our ADD people that are entrepreneurs. In fact, many of our entrepreneurs are ADHD and you could list off the computer giants if you will …
Dr. Ratey: … Steve Jobs, even Branson and people that did come up with ideas, people that go in to uncharted territories, which is part of what ADD people do. They think outside the box, so then everything’s a little too boring, they’re always looking for the novel. And if they are brilliant or have the drive, can see something and say, “We’re gonna take this to the next level,” and then begin a company.
But as the creator of JetBlue showed us a long time ago and we wrote about him in another book, Delivered from Distraction, he started his company and got up to be very big, but should’ve given somebody else the responsibility of running it, because ADD people are great creators and get things going, but keeping things going, they get bored and they forget things, they mismanage things. When it gets to be too big, there’s too many meetings, they hate meetings and they love to keep being creative and that’s what drives so many of our entrepreneur patients.
In fact, at the beginning, most of our patients were very much high fliers in industry and venture capitalists, people …
Dr. Ratey: … people in the computer industry. We spent a lot of time at MIT with their students and faculty literally, helping them understand their brains a little bit better, because so many of those people are the perfect ADD types, and it’s just being able to handle a lot of details if you’re hype-focused, but getting bored if it gets too ordinary. So that people have to recognize that and move on.
And what we know is that exercise acts very much like our ADD medicine, like our stimulants, because it immediately releases these neurotransmitters that we release when we’re using Adderall, or Ritalin, or some of the other drugs that increase the concentration of dopamine and norepinephrine and exercise does it holistically and it does it fairly quickly.
And if you have a good bout of exercise you’ll have that really like taking a little bit of medicine, I’d say it’s like taking a little Ritalin and a little bit of Prozac, because you feel calmer, a bit more focused, more alive, more aroused and ready.
Jay: Right. That’s so powerful. I mean, it’s clear that there is a connection between exercise and your cognitive performance.
Now, on the flip side of that, you also talk about how exercise is essentially … you can avoid cognitive decline due to exercise. So is exercise a prevention, potentially to Alzheimer’s?
Dr. Ratey: Yes. That was the root cause of why there was such this huge revolution in the mid ’90s, when a big international study was done to look at what prevented the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and there were three factors. One, ideal weight. Two, continuous learning. Three, exercise.
This promoted one of the main authors on the study to go back and study what exercise did to the mice brain. And he found when he got the mice running, that their SAT scores went up 20% over seven to 10 day period and their brains were thicker, their top part of their brain, their cortexes were thicker.
Dr. Ratey: There were more cells and then they weighted more, their brains weighed more. And then we discovered that we were making new brain cells every day and this led to the whole concept of neurogenesis, where we make new brain cells every day and there’s nothing that encourages our brains to make new brains cells more than exercise.
Dr. Ratey: And we have tremendous number of studies about this. And this all then led to us learning about the brain as a muscle, and that if we use it … and the best way to use the brain is to exercise. All kinds, whether it’s yoga, whether it’s Tai Chi, whether it’s martial arts, whether it’s playing, whether it’s running, or swimming, or climbing, when you’re moving, your brains are turned on, you’re using more … we’re using not just muscle cells but you’re using more nerve cells than in any other human activity. And this makes them tougher. Just like your muscles, you build your muscles to make them tougher, make them stronger, make them last longer.
The same thing happens to our nerve cells. When we use them, we make them tougher, we create more good stuff in our brain, especially a big factor that everybody’s excited about and has been for 20 years, factor called BDNF, or Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor, which is really brain fertilizer. And I called it a long time ago, “Miracle grow for the brain,” because it really acts like brain fertilizer, so it helps our brain cells stay young and perky, it promotes them to be at their best in terms of ready to grow, because the only way we learn anything is when our brain cells grow.
Dr. Ratey: We literally have to grow in the information. As well as preparing us to think about things and all that, we improve our memory, we delay the onset of cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease.
All the studies have shown this now and it’s been a tremendous boon to people who began to exercise even, or stay with it, through their middle age, and on into their elderliness day will prevent them from losing cells, from losing function, from losing their memory and they get better and better.
Jay: That’s so interesting. Just real quickly, you mentioned three ways where they’re studying Alzheimer’s disease and you mentioned that continuous learning, exercise and I can’t remember what the first one was. Was there one of …
Dr. Ratey: The first one is ideal weight, okay?
Jay: Ideal weight, like body weight.
Dr. Ratey: Body weight, yes.
Jay: Okay. So was there one of the three that was asymmetrically-
Dr. Ratey: Yes. And that’s why exercise stood out.
Jay: Got it. Okay.
Dr. Ratey: Because that, even when they factored out its positive effect on lowering blood pressure, lowering stroke risk, improving blood flow to the brain, improving the cardiovascular system as a whole, it still had this magical property it seemed, over and above that.
Then we really began to study it, because hey, here was something that everybody could really hop on. So you had a lot of departments in neuroscience especially and aging as well, who began to really study exercise and what it’s doing. It helped us really unpack all the huge benefits we have with exercise.
Jay: Fascinating. I want to take some time now to talk about … to ask you to talk about your following book, which is Go Wild, and you talk about how nature actually improves our lives. And what is your central thesis for that book?
Dr. Ratey: Well, what we did is, we looked at our genetic givens, looked at our hunter-gatherer past, because again, our genes from the hunter-gatherer period they’re only 10,000 years old, they’ve only evolved for 10,000 years, so we essentially have hunter-gatherer genes.
So we looked at the kinds of things we did as hunter-gatherers and what we can do today. We looked at diet, we looked at exercise of course, we looked at sleep, we looked at mindfulness and we looked at being in nature, something called, “Biophilia.” All these things we really need to make our brains function optimally. And what’s most important, even moreso than exercise, and I’m so whetted to exercise, is community, is being connected, is being involved with others.
And we did a big conference on aging this past weekend and the big news is that when you are involved in community, you will keep your health and your mental health and your brain working better than anything else that we know of, that it is so important. And especially as you age, you tend to withdraw and this is most powerful of course when you’re connected in a group together in the same room, or in the same …
Dr. Ratey: … outdoor space, rather than just being connected virtually, which so many of us are into.
Jay: Interesting. And you also talk about meditation, is that right?
Dr. Ratey: Yes. Mindfulness is now a huge area that’s getting a lot of attention in terms of its benefits. Most people think of meditation and being mindful as having our minds clear, but actually your brains are very much on fire, much like they are with exercise, only different. But very much on fire and using a lot of your brain.
It is becoming the thing in many places that you wouldn’t think that, amongst people that I’m working with in artificial intelligence. That’s their big goal, is to find a way to get everybody into their greatest meditative state. Or one of the groups, the robotics people that I’m working with.
And then you come to find out that that’s the biggest activity in MIT, in Massachusets Institute of Technology, that people are meditating much more than ever before and …
Dr. Ratey: … they’re doing it to make their brains work better, to make their lives better, more balanced, but also to improve their brain’s ability to think and do things that they need to do.
Jay: Right. It’s like brain exercise. I mean, I personally don’t meditate on a regular basis, but I’ve read so much about … and again, it’s one of those things like a lot of successful entrepreneurs, they swear by it and they make it part of their daily ritual, Tony Robbins and what have you, they’re huge advocates of meditation. So I definitely think that there is something there, it’s just a matter of the individual going to explore it more.
You’ve written eight books, published, and you are working globally, you’ve been to Asia as you said many times, and you do a lot of work in Taiwan and Japan. What do you have coming up in the future, in 2017? Do you have another book on the way, what can we look forward to?
Dr. Ratey: Well, yes, I’m writing and I’m going back to ADD. We’re writing another book called ADHD 2.0, looking at ADD in our modern world, just as you suggested earlier about all this streaming, constant streaming of information, what does it do …
Dr. Ratey: … and it makes us all ADD-like, because we can’t wait for anything, just start again, do a Google search, figure it out, rather than [inaudible 00:25:48], whatever, you know?
Jay: Right, right, right.
Dr. Ratey: We’re not thinking for ourselves nearly as much as we need to.
And we’ll talk about the new treatments, a new understanding, not so much about medicine, because that hasn’t really gone anywhere really since 1950s. Just everything that we use is old stuff, rejiggered so that it looks like it’s new. And also some antidepressants that work similarly, that work pretty well for ADD.
So it’s not medicine, it’s really gonna look at ways that people are finding that are very, very useful. Training your brain, using people more, connecting with people more in a way that makes it work for you. That’s where we’re going.
Jay: And when is that book due to be out?
Dr. Ratey: That will be 2018. We’re not …
Jay: I got it, okay.
Dr. Ratey: … we’re not in a rush with that, because we’re busy.
Dr. Ratey: Yes, yes.
Jay: We’re gonna look to wrap up here John and I’m respectful of your time, but I have two final questions for you. The first is, what is one parting piece of advice that you could give based on all your knowledge and all your studies with the brain and fitness?
What’s one piece of advice that you can leave for our audience of young, aspiring entrepreneurs, that will be actionable, that will help them, will help their productivity, or will just help them in life in general?
Dr. Ratey: Well, I think there’s a lot, but one thing is to exercise when you can, get a standing desk if you don’t already have one. That’s very actionable. And also, for your diet, stop eating sugar and starch. You’ll keep your brains longer and you’ll keep your health longer if you pay attention to your glucose level that’s really packed into all of our starches.
And to add more to that, sleep enough and stay connected to others. If you’re not connected, join up with others and do things that are meaningful to you, and you’ll find meaning in just being with people.
Jay: Fantastic. That’s such good advice. I really appreciate that.
Final question is, where can people find you, follow you, connect with you?
Dr. Ratey: Okay. The best way is, I have a website, JohnRatey.com, and then on Facebook we have a page, John Ratey MD and we post a new article every day, that’s out in the news somewhere, about the benefits of exercise, or today it was meditation. We follow both and try to spread the word to our people and we typically have about 8,000-10,000 people viewing our page, because it’s been there for a while and it’s now passed around and people know about it.
A big focus is on schools, but also on keeping our brains active as we age and making our brains better throughout our lifetime.
Jay: There we go. Awesome. So you get your daily dose on the Facebook page.
Well, Doctor Ratey, thanks so much for your time, I really appreciate it, I enjoyed the conversation and we’re really glad that you were able to be on the show.
Dr. Ratey: I’m glad to be here, it was fun.
Jay: All right, thanks a lot, take care.
Dr. Ratey: Okay, bye bye.
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