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Hacking Your Brain for Happiness: James Doty (Full Transcript)

James Doty

Full transcript of neurosurgeon James Doty’s TEDx Talk: Hacking Your Brain for Happiness @ TEDxSacramento conference. This event occurred on February 12, 2016.


Listen to the MP3 Audio: Hacking your brain for happiness by James Doty @ TEDxSacramento


James Doty – Neurosurgeon

For the last quarter-century, as a physician and a neurosurgeon, my goal has been to prevent death.

But, I will tell you that some of the most profound experiences as a human being that I have had is being with people who have truly lived, but are dying.

For the last decade, as a neuroscientist, my goal has been to understand what it is that stops people from living.

I’m not talking about showing up. I’m not talking about mindlessly going to work every day. You know, somebody sent me a definition of life, and it said: “Life is a sexually transmitted disease that ends in death.”

The life I’m talking about, though, is a little bit different. The life I’m talking about, though, is a life of meaning, purpose, connection, and ultimately, contentment and happiness.

What’s interesting, though, is that in the United States – one of, if not, the most affluent countries in the world, where we consume 25% of the world’s resources, where theoretically we have everything, why is it that we have an epidemic of stress, anxiety, isolation, loneliness, and depression?

What’s amazing is people come here somehow thinking that it will be better, and oftentimes it is not at all; it is only worse.

It’s interesting: 25% of people when asked, will say to you that when they are suffering, when they are in pain, they do not feel that they have a single person who they can go to. It’s horribly sad, but why is that?

I had a cartoon. Do any of you know Snoopy? I had a cartoon that showed Snoopy on his doghouse. It’s interesting, I am a familiar with the dog house, but oftentimes I had been in the doghouse.

But in this case, Snoopy is sitting on top of the doghouse, and he’s thinking, “Where am I going? What am I doing? What’s the meaning of life?”

And today I would like to share with you why I believe, over the last ten years, and have learned, what it is that causes pain to so many of us. And also – in the context of what this meeting is about – of what is next.

And what is next is neuro-hacking your brain for transcendence. Or, hacking your brain for happiness.

How do we do that?

First of all, let me explain how we got into this position as humans. I’m not sure if you realize, our DNA has not changed for the last 200,000 years. So we are the same as we were then in this modern world of science and technology, which has evolved far faster than our evolution. As a result, we have evolutionary baggage, which stands in the way, oftentimes, of us being happy.

The sad thing also is that we have a health care system that is not oriented towards wellness; it is oriented towards illness.

So what happens to that group of people who feel stressed, anxious, depressed, isolated, alone? What is it that they’re given?


Do any of you know Hunter S. Thompson? Obviously, a lot of you take drugs here. Some guys, yeah, yeah!

Hunter S. Thompson said, “I don’t advocate the use of drugs and alcohol, but it works for me.”

But unfortunately, for the large group of people who are prescribed these medications, and remember, it’s 20% of the adult population. If you include the excessive use of alcohol, and some of you may be experiencing that already, it actually increases to over 50%.

And what have we gotten from that?

We have not fundamentally solved the problem. And why? Here is where it gets interesting.

As a species, to have something called “Theory of mind”, to have complex language, to have abstract thinking, has come at a cost. The cost is that unlike other species, our offspring requires us to care for them for a decade and a half, or two decades. In my case apparently three decades.

But, the attribute that makes us want to expend those resources and energy to raise our young is because we are hardwired to care. We are hardwired to recognize the suffering of another – especially our offspring – and alleviate that suffering.

This is where you hear of the term “oxytocin“, which is one of the neurotransmitters associated with affiliative behavior – nurturing and caring – dopamine and other neurotransmitters.

The problem is, although this is our default mode, we have evolutionary baggage that oftentimes interferes with us being our true selves and having connection. The baggage is related to a primitive part of our nervous system, which many of you know is called the “flight, fight, or freeze” response.

When an individual is anxious, when an individual is put in an environment that exceeds his ability to process, put them in an environment that is far, far different than how we evolved as a species on the Savanna in Africa, what happens is this autonomic nervous system switches over from one of, if you will, affiliative behavior – caring, nurturing, calmness – which is called our parasympathetic nervous system, to decrease the tone of a nerve called the vagus nerve, and actually stimulate the sympathetic nervous system.

When the sympathetic nervous system is stimulated, what happens?

You get afraid; your heart rate increases; your pulse increases – those are the same thing. I’m a doctor, I should know this – your blood pressure increases; actually your immune system is depressed; and hormones associated with stress are released and often released on a chronic basis.

This is far different from what the system was made for on the Savanna in Africa, where if you saw a lion, the system would kick in, all of those things would happen, you would run to the tree, and either you would crawl up the tree or you wouldn’t.

But what is the effect of this type of chronic engagement of the sympathetic nervous system?

It is one where people feel anxious, afraid, they withdraw, they pull into themselves, they don’t communicate as effectively, it actually affects their work: they’re not as creative; they’re not as productive.

So what is the solution?

It certainly, today, has not been science and technology, has it? We expend more on health care, have the most sophisticated technology in the world, yet we have this epidemic of stress, anxiety, depression; we have the highest cost of healthcare; the most dissatisfied patients in the world; and we fall in the lowest quadrant of any industrialized country in terms of measures of efficacy or cost effectiveness.

But there is a solution. Interestingly, what I have spent a lot of time doing, and a lot of my colleagues have, is trying to understand the system. And instead of having it hijacked, if you will, which has a profound effect on long-term mental and physical health, and in fact a significant effect on longevity, is to hijack it in the other direction.

I will tell you though, it’s not a pill. So that’s a good thing.

What we have learned over the last decade or so, is that we can actually potentiate our ability to be compassionate, to care for others, and when we do so, it has a profound effect on our own health.

In fact, the Dalai Lama, – have any of you heard of him? – the Dalai Lama has said, “Being compassionate is one of the only times when it’s okay to be selfish.”

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