Hacking Yourself: Dave Asprey (Full Transcript)

Dave Asprey at TEDxConstitutionDrive

Full text of author Dave Asprey’s talk: Hacking yourself at TEDxConstitutionDrive conference. In this informative talk, Dave shares and explains his bio-hacking techniques that he discovered during his journey to be better at everything he does: at work, in family and in life.

Best quote from this talk:

Because if you don’t understand that system and learn how to control it, it will control you. Because it’s faster than you are, even though it’s far dumber than you are.

Listen to the MP3 Audio here:


Dave Asprey – Author & Entrepreneur

I wanted to start out today by announcing something that people have been asking for a while, which is when is your book coming out?

Because this week, I’m really grateful to have gotten a deal with Rodale to publish my book December 2nd on the Bulletproof diet. So that’s coming up.

So I’m an author and then soon to be another author.

We’ve mentioned the podcast. I’ve been around for a while in Silicon Valley but being a human Guinea pig is the reason I’ve actually managed to stay around in Silicon Valley for a while. And we’re going to talk about that today.

There’s also the idea of being a human performance consultant, which what the heck is that?

Because I got really good at helping myself perform when honestly, biologically I’d probably had no right to perform.

When I started this quest, I’ve developed a practice of helping others do the same.

And when I say I didn’t perform very well, this is me. Sorry, it’s so grainy. This is scanned from Entrepreneur magazine because in a bizarre twist of my life, I was the first person to sell anything over the internet.

So I’m not going to say I invented e-commerce because I’m totally not Al Gore. We love you Al.

But I sold caffeine T-shirts out of my dorm room to 12 countries before the web browser was invented and I weighed 300 pounds.

Years later, I lost 50 pounds and I became an instructor at down the street at the University of California, while working full-time at the company that created cloud computing called Exodus Communications.

Google’s first servers were in our buildings, using our network. Way cool!

I was a little fat, little inflamed, not looking so great, but still managing to perform reasonably well.

And then I decided I needed to start paying attention to what was going on?

I was getting brain fog, like serious brain fog. I’d sit in a meeting. I couldn’t remember what happened. And I knew I was there, but it’s just gone.

I started hacking and quantifying myself and I’d say, well, some days I perform well, some days I don’t, what’s the variable doing this.

And the kind of thinking that helped to build the internet. On the internet, you don’t have control or visibility of what everyone else is doing. You just know how to talk with them. So you’re managing complex systems without enough data.

And we started getting data and this is doctor handwriting, so you can’t read it. I’ll zoom in. It says: increased risk for stroke and myocardial infarction.

So I’m 29 or 30. And they’re basically saying you have a pretty good chance of dying. Things are worse than you think they are. I thought, well, maybe I should get some more data.

So I injected myself with radioactive sugar, like anyone would do. And I got, what’s called a SPECT scan, which looks at metabolic activity in the brain. And this is actually, you know, it.

And there were two other pages of things: decreased perfusion, decreased activity. Basically, they said, you look like you’ve been poisoned. You have toxic brain exposure and some other stuff.

And best of all, I was an interesting referral. You could call me a motivated biohacker at this point, right. On one hand, my career is going crazy. On the other hand, maybe I’m going crazy.

And then I realized what they had told me in seventh grade, which was that you’re fat and stupid was actually coming true.

Talk about motivation, so what would you do?

Well, learn yoga, right? So I decided maybe I should explore that. And I did.

And maybe you should go to South America and do aayhuaska with the Shaman and explore that. So I did.

Shave your head. Definitely should do that. And then spend some time at a Buddhist monastery in Nepal and go climb mountains in Tibet. That’s Mount Kailash, the headwaters of the Ganges and the Indus.

So what I did is I explored Eastern approaches when the Western ones largely failed me. Because when I weighed 300 pounds, I worked out six days a week for an hour and a half a day.

I wasn’t eating tons of calories. I was eating a low calorie, low fat diet, and I couldn’t lose the weight. I could get strong, but I was always fat.

And it was only at that point when I realized, wait a minute, I’m an engineer. Here’s what I’m doing. I’m sorry, the assumptions that if I work out more and eat less than I’m going to magically get thin and stay thin or that my brain will work, are simply wrong. My data has disproven that.

If people say something is this way and you can just prove it one time, then the assumptions are wrong. It might be a good model, but the assumptions are wrong.

And that’s what led me to look at the actual causes and the actual assumptions.

You might even try fasting in a cave to understand what’s going on. Yeah, did that too.

And then you get into the technology, because there’s no data about what happened in the cave. Well, I sat there for four days. It was hungry and drink some water and generally it was hot.

And yeah, I learned some more about the inner awareness – what’s going on inside your head.

But when you hook electrodes up to your head and you learn in seven days to do what an advanced Zen meditator takes 20 to 40 years to do, computers make things a little bit easier. It’s like having bumpers and lights on the side of your meditation pathway.

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So if you’re meditating, you have no idea if you’re doing it right. But if a computer tells you, ‘Hey, that wasn’t good’. Suddenly you can do things that really were not available without an enormous investment of time and energy. 

You can even get data about how your brain is performing right then. I’ve had an EEG machine at home since 1998, you don’t?

And I met some of the leaders in various fields of psychology, trying to understand, not just the physical parts of this, but what are the motivational parts? What makes you perform really, really well?

And where I ended up after that, after spending $300,000 and 15 years and becoming a bio-hacker, I’ve had an amazing career. I’ve run strategy for companies with billions of dollars in revenue.

I’ve been a spokesperson for companies. That a startup we sold for $600 million. All of this kinds of crazy stuff.

I became expert at managing this though, which is what led me do that. And I’ve upgraded my intelligence. I can pay attention all day long. I have tons and tons of energy. I went on five hours or less of sleep for two years straight, eating 4,000 calories a day without exercising and grow six-pack.

I thought I was going to gain a few pounds and just disprove the calories in, calories out thing. But I did not expect to go to the six-pack and I didn’t expect to do it for two years. I just felt so awesome that it was worth doing.

And most of all, what grows when you understand biohacking is effortless willpower. When you have enough energy, you can apply the energy in all the right places.

Biohacking? This is the art of controlling yourself and the things that affect your biology are the things outside your body, the things inside your body and the software in your head.

The problem is that if you don’t get an understanding of what’s going on out here and in here, you’re not going to have what it takes to really work on what’s going on up here.

So what kind of technology would you use here?

Quantified-self. Measuring what’s going on in the body. So you can have a picture of it because you probably, unless you’re very odd, don’t know how to measure the spacing between your last heartbeat and this heartbeat and make a ratio of the two.

But there’s great data in there. And if you show that data to your nervous system, you can change your stress response.

Little things like that could never be done without ubiquitous, cheap sensors and big data, and knowledge of biochemistry to understand where the energy in your cells come from.

And most of all, real-time feedback to tell your body to behave itself. 

So how do you biohack?

This is really the meat of what I want to share with you all today.

When you have enough energy in your body, in the cells themselves, the body will first take care of the oldest system in the body. This is the reptile part of your body. Very, very old stuff, a slug and a snail and a lizard have some of these basic things.

Once that happens, you start to take care of the mammal part of your body. And this is where we get in trouble.

This is your midbrain. Let’s think about everybody’s favorite mammal, a Labrador retriever is a good example, nice floppy dog, only vaguely related to the wolves we just saw.

What does a Labrador do?

“Look a stick!” There’s your distractibility, bit of a problem for you maybe, it is for most humans.

And “Look spoiled meat. I think I’ll eat it.” You ever say, “You’re not going to eat the bagel and then eat the bagel.” There’s your Labrador in action. 

And best of all, ‘Look a leg. Let’s go hump it.’

Those would be the three behaviors that they get people in trouble the most. And all of those are coming from your mammal brain.

Because we are amazing survival machines designed to survive locusts, plagues, earthquakes, probably comets, if you go back far enough. We can survive entirely as mammals.

The species will propagate. We will still have sex. We will still eat. And we will still avoid things that kill us, without really having to do any thinking at all.

And if you don’t believe that, accidentally lean on a hot stove and pull your hand away and then realize how hot it was.

If you think you’re in charge of your body, you simply aren’t, because some system that you don’t own and control made you move. And that honestly should scare the crap out of you. 

Because if you don’t understand that system and learn how to control it, it will control you. Because it’s faster than you are, even though it’s far dumber than you are.

And the scary thing is that this energy that you get from eating things and from breathing. First, it feeds the reptile. Then it feeds the Labrador. And only after that’s done, does it feed the human part of your brain, your prefrontal cortex.

So if you want to spend time in the state where your brain works the way you want it to work, you better pay attention to how things are fueled and how you maintain the hardware system, because it eats first, you eat last.

Let’s talk about a couple of techniques, the ones that are really risen to the top in biohacking:


The first one is sleep. I mentioned that I slept only five hours a night. How is that possible?

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Well, it turns out the world’s largest sleep study with 1.2 million people, so much data when they did it in the 80s, they couldn’t crunch the numbers. So someone figured out a little bit later that the data was available and they crunch the numbers on their iPhone.

Okay, Maybe on Amazon.

But the cool thing there is they found the people who lived longest slept six and a half hours. People who slept eight hours died more often than people who slept six and a half hours.

So obviously this means you should only sleep six and a half hours to live a long time, right? Oh, that whole causation problem.

No, what that data actually tells us is that people who are healthy need less sleep. People who sleep nine hours a night and need nine hours a night die more often than people who sleep six hours a night, interesting.

And the death curve for people who slept only five hours a night was not that different from the six and a half.

So I’m not saying five hours a night is optimal. It’s not for a lot of circadian reasons, but I’m saying healthy people can do it, and do it… and do it all day long and all night long, and they totally don’t die. They don’t get sick. They don’t stop performing. That’s just what they do.

And I did it. If you’re going to do that though, you better eat for sleep.

And I’ve read a lot about sleep hacking on the site. I’m not going to tell you all about how to do that.

Make for a calmer sleep environment, reducing electromagnetic fields. If you don’t believe me, use any of the available sleep monitoring technologies.

My two favorite ones are sleep cycle, it’s an app that’s like two bucks on your iPhone. Or beddit, which is an embedded sensor that you can put under your mattress. I love beddit. Do that and put a Wi-Fi router next to your head and watch what your sleep quality does. It’s not that hard to tell. 

Also, stop staring at bright white and blue lights before bed. The last time you look at a bright light, whether it’s from fluorescents overhead, or just from the screen you’re staring at before bed with the brightness turned all the way up, that is going to mess with your sleep.

So when you do that, you have a four hour window where you don’t make melatonin. So you can change these things easily and track the results.


Let’s talk about exercise. Well, over-exercise is an endemic problem with the clients I work with.

Walking isn’t exercise, that’s called moving. Workouts actually push the body’s limits. So to work out 15 minutes, once a week is enough. And that sounds like a big claim.

There’s lots written up on my website about that. You might want to do that twice a week if you’re really into it, but the more you exercise, the more you must recover.

So if you think you’re going to be a hedge fund manager and an Ironman triathlete at the same time, you probably can do it and it’s probably going to take years off your life because the real pro athletes do two things: They exercise and they rest.

And if you’re going to exercise like a pro athlete, work like an entrepreneur, 50 hours a week, be a family person and somehow sleep and recover, probably not going to work.

Less workouts, more useful workouts.

You can cheat, whole body vibration can give you the effects of a long walk in a shorter period of time. 

And electricity works. In fact, I am 42. I don’t really exercise very much right now, but this is all from electricity. I’ve done a CrossFit workout in the last few months and twice a week, I stick electrodes to my body.

Is it the optimal way to live?

I’m not really sure, but I’m having fun.

In terms of fuel, the bulletproof diet infographic is free. You can download it. There’s extensive research into this, but what’s different about it is its stack ranked.

So you’re going to eat some fat. These are the ones that are less inflammatory that contribute more to human performance. And these are the ones that don’t, you don’t have to eat perfectly.

And there is no one perfect diet, but if you have a roadmap that says, these ones are likely to work pretty well, start there, and then degrade things from there until you like your level of performance that works. 

And the thing that’s most important that is not talked about in most nutrition and most human health and performance blogs, and all the magazines you read are the effects of toxins.

Effects of toxins

And toxins come from things like lectins. If you’re a plant, you evolved not to be food, you evolve to reproduce. So you build toxins in to your roots, into your seeds, especially and into your tissues. So that animals won’t eat too much of you.

Well, those have an effect on us. For instance, 20% of rheumatoid arthritis comes from one class of plants. Phytates are there to keep animals who eat those seeds from getting the nutrients.

Gluten reduces blood flow to your brain and causes all sorts of other immune havoc. And mold toxins, which are a particular area of expertise for me are now commonly found in low doses in our food supply, but we didn’t evolve to have constant chronic exposure to those.

And remember that stack, feed the reptile, feed the Labrador, feed the human. Well, the toxins take away energy because now you have to work on detoxing them. So they remove the energy first from the human brain. This is why small changes in the levels of toxins equals large changes in human performance. 

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As an example, here, we’ll use coffee. And I’m well known for bulletproof coffee. I’m not here to tell you all about that. I’m just going to talk about what happens in a bean:

During processing, when bacteria ferments protein and there’s protein in all beans, including coffee, biogenic amines are formed. Some of these are neurotransmitters. Some of these are very toxic. Different people have different sensitivities to different levels.

By minimizing biogenic amines in your diet, you oftentimes experience far more mental clarity effect.

There’s a study that I didn’t fund or have anything to do with, just one I found, that found 91.7% of coffee in this study was… from South American coffee, had mold toxins in it. Other studies have found 60%, 40%.

I’ve got nine studies linked in my most recent post on just one of the 26 toxins that I look at.

And what you get from these kinds of toxins in coffee is adrenal stress, headaches, inflammation, sore joints, frequent urination, and that jittery, cranky feeling that comes when you need another cup of coffee. 

So you go boing, boing, boing, boiling coffee improves mental… All coffee improves mental performance, but if it then degrades mental performance and then it raises it up again, and it goes down again, you end up with substantial problems.

Part of the Bulletproof diet, part of the biohacking recommendations that are free on the Bulletproof executive website is about how do you just make slightly easier choices in your food to reduce the odds of this happening?

And what results is you change what you did for breakfast and suddenly that lull you felt after lunch or at 11 o’clock in the morning just went away. And all of a sudden you performed well all day long because your body wasn’t switching all of your attention to the liver to deal with the crap that was in the food you just ate and switching it back.

So by eating a cleaner diet with less processed foods and following the techniques that are all free like that, you actually get a lot more capacity.

And what this gives you is willpower. And your willpower can be used for anything you want, including things like gratitude, which is the final bio-hack that I’ll offer you today.

And gratitude, even if you’re eating really, really bad food, or if you have no food at all, if you can find a way to build gratitude into every single day, whether it’s just sitting down, like I do with my children and saying, “what are three things you’re grateful for today?”

If you build that in, that’ll change your hormone levels, it’ll change your brain. It’ll improve everything. So gratitude is the most important biohack of all.

And thank you all for listening. 

Question-and-answer session

Anchor: Thank you so much, Dave. We are going to take a short Q&A. We’re about to break for lunch, but you know, there’s some questions out there. Dave’s available to answer some of them. 

Audience: What are your opinions on alcohol?

Dave Asprey: There’s a free infographic on the site where I stack rank alcohol from the one that causes the least brain fog, which should be highly distilled purified potato vodka to the one that causes the most brain fog and detox reactions, which is beer followed by red wine.

Sorry. That said you can make wine much safer. There are techniques to do it. And I actually write about some of those on the blog.

Also, if you’re going to drink alcohol, there are things you can do in your biochemistry to change the way your body processes it. And even to bind some of the toxins that naturally occur, so that you can enjoy alcohol without paying the costs that so many people pay without knowing it. 

Audience: You’re working on a computer late at night, what do you do?

Dave Asprey: If you’re working on a computer late at night, what do you do. Well, first of all, you sign up with one, to be training for rockstar status, or you install free software called flux, get flux.com.

Flux will turn down the brightness and remove a lot of the blue spectrum from your computer. It is so simple and easy. I’ve been using it for, I think almost a decade now. It is remarkably good, and it doesn’t cost a nickel.

You can also get blue blocking glasses for about six bucks on Amazon. They’re yellow. And if you put those on, you might look a little dorky in the evening, but you will sleep deeper. You’ll sleep better. You’ll sleep more efficiently. You’ll feel better in the morning.

And people with problems like depression and other psychological issues, oftentimes experience huge improvements just from getting rid of bright blue light in the middle of the evening and before bed. It’s just amazingly cheap.

Anchor: We have time for one more question. All right. Well, Dave, thank you so much.

Dave was generous enough to donate the time of his barista and Bulletproof coffee in the back, so those of you that want to try it, make sure you go get some. And then, thank you, Dave. You’re going to hang out for a little bit?

Dave Asprey: Yeah, I’ll be around for a little while.

Anchor: Okay. Awesome.

Resources for Further Reading:

The Science of Sleep and the Art of Productivity: Dr. Matthew Carter (Transcript)

Sleep is Your Superpower: Matt Walker (Full Transcript)

Dan Gartenberg: The Brain Benefits of Deep Sleep – and How to Get More of It (Transcript)

Penny Lewis on Sleep-Engineering: Improve Your Life By Manipulating at TEDxGrandRapids (Transcript)