The Huberman Effect

Why this neurobiologist has the hottest podcast in science.

July 2023

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The Huberman Effect

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Photography by Mike Blabac

It was a questionable media launch: a podcast with a professor lecturing on complex biology for hours while his dog snored. But Andrew Huberman, an associate professor of neurobiology at the Stanford School of Medicine, believed he could improve people’s lives. In December 2020, with his beloved 10-year-old, 90-pound bullmastiff, Costello, at his side, he recorded the podcast’s introduction in a studio cobbled together in a closet. He promised he would delve into one topic at a time, such as motivation or focus, explaining the biology underpinning it and offering tools to enhance it. The podcast would also be interactive, allowing listeners to suggest and upvote future topics. Lastly, he pointed out that Costello would be in the studio. Many episodes later, as Huberman Lab soared to the top of the Apple and Spotify charts, some fans complained about the old dog’s labored breathing. On-air, Huberman replied that he and Costello were a package deal. Costello had little time left, and Huberman intended to spend as much of it with him as possible. 

The podcast’s introduction, and the first episodes that launched in January 2021, blended Huberman’s passions: biology, animals, self-improvement, and knowledge sharing. The formula transformed him into a science celebrity frequently mentioned in newspapers and avidly discussed on social media, where he has amassed 4 million Instagram followers and more than 3 million YouTube subscribers. But the podcast’s timing was also significant. In the slow grind of the COVID-19 pandemic, Huberman—who’d conducted groundbreaking research on restoring vision and the biology of stress—was addressing people’s urgent desire to find ways to stay healthy. Unlike many podcasts that cover a topic only once, Huberman revisited previous discussions, reminding listeners how to improve their sleep, nutrition, and exercise. Even as episodes ran three or four hours, his following grew. As months passed, the podcast’s effect became increasingly striking—that this hyper-educated stranger, with his deep, slightly gravelly voice and his seemingly limitless passion for the minutiae of biology, didn’t just care about health; he also cared about you. 

Big Talker 

Had podcasters existed in the early 1980s, Huberman might have announced his intention to become one. Born in 1975 at Stanford Hospital, he grew up in Palo Alto and early on developed a grunting tic that he found two ways to control: either hitting his head while playing sports, or learning something new and talking about it. Complicating his urge to speak was a genetic mutation that earned him the nickname Froggy, after the raspy-voiced character in The Little Rascals. By third grade, he was spending his weekends with the encyclopedia, independently researching topics—often biology or medieval weapons—and drawing up reports with pictures and bullet points. In class, as his teachers tried to provide instruction, he talked to the kids around him in his deep man’s voice, distracting everyone. The solution was to let him lecture the entire class. “They realized that if they let me talk for a half hour or so at the beginning, then I would sit quietly,” he recalls. “Otherwise, I wasn’t going to shut up.”

Those early years, he recalls, were idyllic—soccer and swim team and building forts. His family was close knit, with Huberman and his older sister; their mother, an American children’s book author; and their father, an Argentine physicist who worked for several Silicon Valley tech companies and is a consulting professor in applied physics and in the symbolic systems program at Stanford. Then, when Huberman was 13 and his sister had left for college, his parents divorced. The emotional turmoil derailed him. The boy who catalogued tropical birds and read up on fish-tank chemistry at the local pet store—and who was so outraged at the thought of harming fish that, on his own dime, he handed out DeChlor at the local carnival’s goldfish booth (“You had to listen to a lecture on the dechlorination process first,” he says)—found himself drawn to his more rebellious peers and took up skateboarding. Unlike with soccer or other sports, “parents weren’t involved,” he says. “You didn’t need a mom or a dad to go to the game.” Soon, he was frequently skipping school to spend days in San Francisco. He latched on to what would become known in skateboarding lore as the EMB crowd (after the city’s Embarcadero), from which many celebrity skateboarders emerged. “We were all pretty feral teenagers,” he says. “That became my first nonbiological family.”

Equal parts delinquent and industrious, Huberman lost interest in school, successfully lobbied the Palo Alto City Council to build Greer Skatepark, and, at 13, forged a work permit to get a job at Susanne’s Muffins and at Palo Alto Sport Shop and Toy World. In 10th grade, he skipped school so often he was sent to a detention center for at-risk youths. After a month, he was released on the condition that he continue the weekly therapy he’d started there. “I was probably depressed,” he says. “I was pretty heartbroken over my home life, which at that time was empty, but I had the benefit of working with this incredibly talented therapist who started teaching me about introspection and self-care.” The therapist emphasized that no one was going to look after him—he had to do so himself. He started focusing on his health and got his first girlfriend. “I heard that her previous boyfriend was a football player. I was like, ‘I’m this skinny dork. I’ll start working out,’” he recalls. “I got really into fitness and nutrition and into taking care of my body and my mind. I built up a lot of stabilizing forces from those.” Enjoying physical exertion, he took classes at Mission College to become a firefighter. When his girlfriend, a year older, enrolled at UC Santa Barbara, he wrote his application essay to the university, describing how he often lived in a car in her dorm parking lot. Admission, however, didn’t increase his interest in school.

Huberman headshot

 ‘Getting sufficient amounts of quality sleep is the foundation for mental health and physical health. Period.’

As a UCSB student, Huberman maintained what he considered a skateboarder mentality—jumping fences at night to swim laps or squatting in vacant apartments to save rent money. On July 4, 1994, after he and his girlfriend broke up, 18-year-old Huberman went to a barbecue at a friend’s house only to find that four young men were burglarizing it, and he ended up fighting them. “Somehow I stayed on my feet,” he recalls. When the police arrived, they congratulated him on preventing the theft, but upon returning to the squat where he lived with his pet ferret, he took stock of his life. “I remember thinking, I’m officially a loser.” He worried that he would end up dead or in jail, as had already happened to a number of his friends. He wrote a letter to his parents, vowing to get his life on track.

He began by asking himself what he was good at. He loved animals and biology, often spending hours reading about them in bookstores. Therapy had also kindled his interest in psychology. Taking a leave of absence from UCSB, he moved back to Palo Alto to attend Foothill College. “Honestly, I was scared,” he says. He put himself on a strict study schedule and discovered that he loved what he was learning. After two quarters, he returned to UCSB a straight-A student passionate about biopsychology, a field that would later be included in the neuroscience academic major. He completed a bachelor’s degree there in psychology, a master’s in neurobiology and behavior at UC Berkeley, and then a PhD in neuroscience at UC Davis. As a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford, where he once congregated with other skateboarders at the front steps of the Quad, he developed genetic tools to study the visual system while moonlighting as a columnist for Thrasher, a skateboarding magazine, to help pay the same therapist he’d had since high school. In 2011, he opened his lab within the division of biological sciences at UC San Diego. Then, in 2016, he returned to his old stomping grounds, taking a faculty position at Stanford.

Broadcasting Biology

At Stanford, the physical Huberman Lab—not the podcast, which is unaffiliated with the university—continued his work on mapping the visual system. The lab made headlines in 2016 when it used light patterns in virtual reality to stimulate regrowth of retinal neurons. During that same period, Huberman also began developing personalized non-pharmacological treatments for anxiety disorders, using VR to expose people to stressors (such as heights or great white sharks), which allowed them to confront fears and build coping strategies. He also explored how specific breathing patterns could reduce anxiety and improve sleep. “Getting sufficient amounts of quality sleep is the foundation for mental health and physical health. Period,” Huberman asserts. Improvements in mood, cognitive performance, immune system function, and more correlated with ample sleep, and higher levels of stress with a lack of it. “There was a tremendous amount of research on stress but very little on tools to mitigate stress that could be linked to specific biological processes,” he recalls.

Huberman headshot

‘One physiological sigh—a big inhale through the nose and then a second sharp inhalation through the nose, in order to maximally inflate the alveoli of the lungs, and then a long, extended exhale until the lungs are empty—is the fastest way to de-stress in real time.’

One tool his lab investigated was by no means new. In 2017, while visiting a Florida trauma-recovery center with high success rates, Huberman learned that participants were guided in daily yoga nidra (yogic sleep)—a state between sleep and wakefulness. “I was struck by how restorative it was,” he says. He learned of Eastern traditions using it to heal trauma and found research showing significant dopamine increases after a single session. Some data suggested it could replace lost sleep. Concerned that the spiritual framework of yoga would deter some people, he coined the term non-sleep deep rest (NSDR) to describe the aspect focused on the body. “I’m not trying to erase the contributions of yogic communities,” he says. “Rather, there are billions of people who suffer the ill effects of minimal sleep, who suffer from trauma, who suffer from stress, and the idea was that we could use a name to describe what the practice accomplishes—non-sleep deep rest.” Work on NSDR from other labs has since shown that it boosts learning and neuroplasticity. 

Another stress mitigation tool that drew Huberman’s attention was even more ancient, wired into mammalian biology. Huberman’s lab, in conjunction with that of professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences David Spiegel, “found that one physiological sigh—a big inhale through the nose and then a second sharp inhalation through the nose, in order to maximally inflate the alveoli of the lungs, and then a long, extended exhale until the lungs are empty—is the fastest way to de-stress in real time,” Huberman says. Such sighing occurs naturally in all mammals when their oxygen levels are low—even during sleep—but done for five consecutive minutes, it relieves stress, decreases resting heart rate, and improves sleep and mood, with effects that can last around the clock. Unlike many stress mitigation tools that require setting aside large chunks of time, even one physiological sigh can be effective, he says.

Wanting to share such zero-cost tools with the public, Huberman began posting clips on social media and noticed that most publicly available health and science information was terrible. “It’s either not actionable, talking about some mouse study that may or may not be relevant, or it’s some ‘biohack’—a word I loathe—with no clear mechanistic basis,” he says. “What about all the cool actionable stuff that we know exists for humans now and that people can make great use of and that don’t require buying a product?” In 2019, a friend introduced him to Robert Mohr, a New York publicist specializing in health and fitness, who was producing The Fight with Teddy Atlas, a boxing podcast. When the pandemic began, Huberman became increasingly frustrated by what he considered health authorities’ exclusive focus on the virus and lack of holistic guidance to improve public well-being. “Mental issues were at an all-time high. Abuse in the home—all-time high. Depression, anxiety, suicide, alcoholism,” he says. He shared his concerns with Mohr, who arranged for him to be a guest for major podcasters such as Joe Rogan and Rich Roll, ’89. Huberman’s focus on harnessing biological research for health rapidly attracted a social media following. Toward the end of 2020, he was a guest on a top technology podcast—that of Lex Fridman, an MIT researcher working on artificial intelligence. Fridman encouraged him to start his own. “Just make sure it’s not just you blabbing at the camera—you should have a guest,” Huberman recalls him saying. 

In January 2021, Huberman released the first episode. “The timing was right,” he says. “The pandemic did many things, but it cued people to the fact that they needed to take some control over their own mental and physical health.” The podcast also offered a voice of authority in a noisy internet where a Google search can bring up myriad competing health claims. “People don’t know who to trust, and I have the great benefit of a lot of formal training under my belt in terms of how to read and interpret data, but also how to read and interpret sources.”

The Formula 

Huberman’s podcast episodes discuss an ever-expanding variety of topics, including fitness, learning, creativity, hormones, fertility, grief, trauma, and happiness. The website features free newsletters with “tool kits” that offer guidelines, such as those to improve sleep or neuroplasticity. “I mostly talk about topics that have nothing to do with the specific work in my laboratory,” Huberman says, “so that’s good in the sense that I’m not vested in any particular outcome.” Since he is not a specialist in every topic, he creates episodes where he interviews leading experts—“shining light on the work of other academics,” says Anna Lembke, MD ’95, a Stanford professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences who appeared on the podcast to discuss her book Dopamine Nation. Similarly, Spiegel, another guest speaker, who has investigated the therapeutic benefits of hypnosis, says that the podcast “has been helpful to the acceptance of hypnosis as a scientifically grounded and effective treatment technique.”

Despite the long expositions (“I’m not known for being succinct—I’ve never been succinct,” Huberman says), he has a formula. “I always wear the same black shirt. I always explain the mechanism and then tools and then how those tools emerge from the mechanism. I always offer zero-cost behavioral tools, and I give options and considerations for people who need to talk to a physician.” Sadly, one of the elements of the formula has changed: Costello the bullmastiff passed away in April 2021—one of the few subjects, Huberman says, that makes him cry.

Spiegel, who regularly listens to the podcast, attributes its popularity to Huberman’s ability to merge “abstract intellectual investigation” with a “common man, plain-talking, here’s-what-you-need-to-know-about-this kind of thing.” Mohr, who says that his own life has been transformed by using the protocols, sits in with Huberman on every episode. He recalls a three-day period when, filming a 4.5-hour podcast on fertility, he didn’t notice that the camera’s memory card was full and an hour of recording was lost. Huberman responded in a way that Mohr sees as emblematic of his approach. “‘It allows for me to do that section better,’ ” he recalls Huberman saying. 

In 2021, Huberman and Mohr established Scicomm Media, which produces science-related content in its Los Angeles studio. Huberman Lab now offers a premium-level subscription that lets people send questions directly to Huberman. A portion of the proceeds raised, matched dollar for dollar by the Tiny Foundation, funds biology research at Stanford and elsewhere, and Huberman is increasingly committed to philanthropic efforts that support science. 

Huberman headshot

Waiting 90 to 120 minutes after waking to drink caffeine, Huberman points out, helps avoid the afternoon crash in energy so many people otherwise experience.

Lab work still commands much of Huberman’s time. This year his lab published the paper on stress mitigation in collaboration with Spiegel, as well as a study on visual system regeneration. He also guest-lectures to undergraduates in human biology and is part of the team that teaches The Nervous System, mostly to medical students. He splits his time between the Bay Area and Los Angeles and has someone drive him back and forth so he can work en route. His wellness advice, of course, shapes his daily schedule. Upon waking around 6:30 a.m., he goes outside to view morning sunlight (to set his circadian rhythm), hydrates, walks or skips rope for five minutes, and then reads a science manuscript or writes ideas for projects or podcasts for an hour. At that point, he drinks his morning caffeine (he prefers unsmoked yerba maté tea); waiting 90 to 120 minutes to do so after waking, Huberman points out, helps avoid the afternoon crash in energy so many people otherwise experience. He then does a cardio or resistance workout for 45 to 60 minutes, eats a meal while reading, rehydrates, and handles emails before plunging back into data analysis, writing, work calls, and reading more papers. Once fatigued, he does NSDR, takes a quick walk, has a snack, works more, posts on social media, and then has dinner. Once a week, he spends hours—“Yes, hours,” he says—alternating between sauna and ice bath. “It makes my mind stronger so other things in life seem easier.” Saturdays he dedicates to family or friends, and Sundays he works no more than half the day and spends time outdoors so he can start the week refreshed. 

Today, 32 years after Huberman began therapy in detention, he meets with the same therapist twice a week. “Therapy is hard work, especially if you’re trying to gain real insights,” he says. “It’s like going to the gym and doing an effective workout.” It has also shaped him to see the importance of having tools to navigate a core set of challenges that he believes everyone contends with. “There were times over the years when I felt really alone and really lost, where people around me seemed to either do everything easily or be completely incapable of healthy living,” he says, “and in those times, having some sense of positive control over my mind and body in a way that would allow me to show up in the world again and again was everything.” These experiences have, in many ways, inspired him to share accessible tools and to research them in his lab. Though he frequently hears from listeners who are sleeping, eating, and exercising better, his favorite compliment is “I can’t believe this is free.”

As for the work of researching a weekly podcast and speaking for hours—pleasure alone doesn’t drive him to do it. He feels compelled, as when he was a child, to learn and share the knowledge with everyone. “I really believe, in a completely nonmystical way, that when we fall in love with some aspect of life and incorporate that love into our daily routine, the amount of energy and the quality of work and attention and presence that we can bring to something or to someone increases exponentially,” he says. In fact, he believes there is no upper limit. For him, everything he does is inspired by this love: “I just want to share the beauty and utility of biology.” 

Deni Ellis Béchard is a former senior writer at Stanford and the author of eight books. Email him at stanford.magazine@stanford.edu.

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