How to Improve Brain Power with Daniel Gallucci

February 22, 2022
James Whittaker

Check out this episode on the Win the Day Podcast

“If I die tomorrow or in a year, it is the same – it is the message you leave behind you that counts.”

Rita Levi-Montalcini

If you want to know how to improve your brain performance, and how to turn bad habits into good habits, this is the episode for you.

Our guest today is acclaimed neurologist, Daniel Gallucci. Daniel is a trained functional neurologist, osteopath, and brain researcher. His clinical experience ranges from elite athletes, like Olympians, NHL players, and baseball star Alex Rodrigeuz, to those with neurodegenerative disease, and virtually everyone in between.

Daniel is Co-founder and Chief Innovation Officer at Nurosene, a mental health wellness tech company known for its app that offers exercises and a personalized approach to not only sharpen cognitive skills and prevent diseases like Alzheimer’s, but to also support mental health. 

In 2009, a personal brain cancer diagnosis further fuelled his obsession with peeking behind the curtain and better understanding how the brain functions in both sickness and health.

Check out the YouTube or podcast version where Daniel Gallucci does the Win the Day Rocket Round, answering questions about his favorite quote, what advice he’d give his 18-year-old self, the one thing on his bucket list, and a whole lot more?

In this episode, we’re going to talk about:

  • The simple research-based method to achieving goals
  • How to turn bad habits into good habits
  • Daily activities to optimize your mental health
  • How he helps some of the most elite performers on the planet, and
  • The cutting-edge work he’s doing to improve mental health and treat diseases like Alzheimer’s.

Before we begin, the right bit of inspiration can completely change the trajectory of someone’s life, so if there’s a friend or loved one who needs to hear this episode or could use some help to Win the Day, share it with them right now.

Let’s WIN THE DAY with Daniel Gallucci!

James Whittaker:
Dan, great to see you! Thanks for coming on the Win the Day show.

Daniel Gallucci:
I am so excited to be here, James! This is going to be fun.

To kick things off, take us back to 2009 when you were diagnosed with brain cancer. Can you take us into that moment when you received the news and how that impacted your life at the time?

Yeah, for sure. I had come off of playing soccer at a fairly high level. I'd been going to school. I'd done a bunch of stuff. I was already involved in a functional neurology clinical neurosciences program, so sometimes it seems romantic to think that, "Oh, well, this brain cancer then led to this journey of understanding the brain."

And well, I would say it undoubtedly furthered my obsession with all things brain, I was pretty obsessed by that moment in time. 

I was getting ready for a mixed martial arts competition. I was doing a lot of training in addition to the work and study that I was doing.

Lo and behold, it didn't take a neuroscientist or a functional neurologist to figure it out. We were training at a friend's place, Patrick Côté, who went on to have a great UFC career. Long story short, I suffered a seizure. I was like, "Oh, maybe it’s just stress, a lack of sleep, a change in diet, a host of things." 

I was very lucky at the time because I was working at one of the higher end sports medicine clinics in the world run by Dr. Anthony Gallo. And I understand how lucky I was being up in Canada. Even though we have got this amazing universal health care system, you sometimes wait extensively for imaging and things along those lines. So I was lucky enough to get a pretty quick MRI scan.

And I'll never forget the moment of walking back because I knew these people. I remember the technician, who was basically just the technician that was on staff, it was close to Christmas, almost exactly 12 years ago now to the day.

Being somewhat versed on the brain side, I peeked my little head in and was like, "Oh, what's that? Who's that? Who's scan is that?" 

I'll never forget it, it still gives me chills, the guy just looked at me and said, "We need to call a doctor. Now." And I was like, "Oh, that can't be good."

I'll never forget it, it still gives me chills, the guy just looked at me and said, "We need to call a doctor. Now." And I was like, "Oh, that can't be good."

So that started the journey. They found these astrocytomas, which are these tumors that belong to the astrocytes which are this type of supporting cell. It put me on the opposite end of the table so to speak where I instantly then became a patient and all that meant. 

At the time, it was undoubtedly a kick in the nuts. But in hindsight it’s something that has been a blessing in terms of not only the understanding of what it's like to be a patient, but also more so even, "How do we come up to these conclusions in science? What does data mean? Where does this stuff come from? How do we make these diagnoses?" and things along those lines. It also fostered a journey that I'm still on today.

A lot of the work you do now is based on mental health and peak performance. Aside from receiving that diagnosis, is there a particularly dark day that stands out for you?

It's interesting James – and I would be lying to you if I told you how miraculously I had done and my fortitude that brought me through to these points of self-discovery and things – but my path was a little bit different and in some ways that continues very much today because of different context, having children and things along these lines.

At the moment, it's ingrained somewhere, my underlying networks of cells here where I could almost not process being in that appointment with the doctor, where they were going through what was happening. I'll never forget just the smell of the room, the greyness of the walls, and then I left and probably just walked for three or four hours through Toronto, Ontario. It was in January, so it was so cold.

I was reflecting on how many things in life I wanted to do. Again knowing a little bit of statistics on the backend in some of this stuff, that knowledge could be more of a curse where I really was faced with my own mortality in a way that was troubling. 

But I'll be totally honest with you, what was the worst part of it was for some reason, my brain was playing this evil, evil trick on me where I would go to sleep and then I would wake up the next morning, and for the first 20-30 seconds, I just felt like I was just normal. And then I would be hit with this wave of reality.

That probably stayed with me every day for over a year. We'd almost be like being re-diagnosed over. It was Groundhog Day. It was being re-diagnosed over and over again.

Before I went to bed, I was terrified to go to sleep because then I was going to wake up with this reality the next day and I couldn't fathom understanding why is it that this is happening and I've spoken to other people about it. It was just a weird way that on some level, maybe my nervous system was trying to protect itself, so then hitting me with this reality on a daily basis.

But that by far was the worst part of that entire journey.

It gives me chills when you talk about that, because a lot of people might think there are these people who have been able to overcome a lot of these really significant adversities through – not necessarily a click of the fingers – but a lot smoother than many other people yet.

A lot of the interviews I do have included moments like yours. One that really stands out for me was Janine Shepherd who was hit by a truck and endured a whole horrific host of injuries. At her lowest point, she clasped her hands together, looked up at the sky and said, "Show me a way through or show me a way out."

And I really appreciate you sharing your journey so candidly. It's important for people, especially after two years through covid, to understand the struggles of others to find meaning and survive that mental health journey.

One of the saving graces – and this goes back to something that I learned from a coach, which is why I almost view myself as a coach more than anything else. I was with the Canadian under 20s at the time and this guy profoundly affected my life, Hannibal Najjar.

We had some issues with my father who really struggled with mental illness, a few suicide attempts, and also trying to play high-level athletics at the time. And as tough as it was, he just was there almost as a support person for me. 

And I'll never forget it. Something that stuck with me that I still think about literally every day was like, "There's so much uncertainty in this world, Dan, but you have to focus on being clear. So you need clarity amongst that uncertainty."

We had some issues with my father who really struggled with mental illness, a few suicide attempts, and also trying to play high-level athletics at the time.

And really it enabled me to focus on, "Okay, what can I be clear towards today? Okay, well, I can still move. I can still get up and walk. I can still do this. I can still go to work. I can stil..." Regardless, there were so many factors that I would not be able to control and I, unfortunately, obsessed over, "Okay, is it going to grow by 2 millimeters? Is it down?" to the point that it becomes overwhelming. 

It was focusing on the things that I can just have a level of clarity towards and keeping that perspective. And it's still now because again you still go for follow-up scans. Your children, your wife ... These are things that in some way, I would say, are always sort of present and there, although hopefully it just stays as if behind-the-scenes operating system, but focusing on those things that I could control, or I did have better sorts of abilities to create an environment around myself that could maybe cater from where I was to where I needed to go, became very important steps in the overall process.

You spoke about what's in your control versus what’s out of it. I’ve never shared this publicly before, but about six years ago, I went for a back scan after hurting my back by being too aggressive in the gym. 

The radiologist, a good friend of mine, called me and said, "Look, I've got some news for you." 

The scan had revealed a schwannoma [tumor] in the nerve sheath of my spine. You would know a lot more about this than I would, but it was in a very difficult position to be operated on, and the way it would eventually manifest is that I would eventually lose feeling down my right foot and other areas.

As someone who's very active, plus now I have two young children, it’s scary. I have routine spine and brain MRIs every six months, and everytime you’re waiting for the results it’s a weird feeling. 

And it’s daunting when the doctor says, in a grave tone, "Are you noticing any lost feeling in your right foot or on the right side of your body?”

It certainly makes you think, but I can't dwell on that. I'm in there and I'm intrigued, but the moment I leave, I immediately forget about it because I don’t want it to negatively impact my actions, since it’s something I can’t really control.

100%. And the interesting thing is, bringing it back full circle – also being a clinician where there's a wonderful amount of people that can do exactly what you have done in those sorts of scenarios there – and what I'm super interested in and super focused on moving forward is, "What is it in James' underlying biology that enables him to do that, or if you're on the flip side, not do that?" 

And this gets to that point where it's a bit of a weird thing because it can be a paradox. It’s something that we even internally struggled with even in  the company itself in terms of trying to understand how we're trying to create messaging moving forward.

In the world of high-level performance, in the world of healthcare, in the world of medicine, there are so many interesting things that we're able to find. You can go do that scan on the schwannoma. I can go do this thing on the MRI that I have a lot of now experience with as a professional as well.

Yet, on the flipside, there's the total opposite. It's the behavioral focus. So it's about, "Okay, well, what do we do here? The world of healthcare does this. The world of mental wellness does..." And there was this chiasm that was continuing to emerge that I was seeing in clinic, which was like, "Oh, there's all this information over here, but now there's all this behavioral stuff over here. And how do you kind of pull it together in a way that makes sense for people and you can act on for people?"

Because, on the one hand, nobody cares about a science project and the stuff that's happening over here. Yet on the flip side, on the purely behavioral side, this is what I was seeing over and over and over again, then getting into the roles as a clinician and as a researcher. 

In the world of high-level performance, in the world of healthcare, in the world of medicine, there are so many interesting things that we're able to find.

If people did not have the underlying fundamental tools in their brain to do what we were asking them to do, what we were pleading for them to do, what we wanted them to do, family members wanted them to do, I just couldn't do it. 

So if I was like, "Okay, James was able to make this amazing transition and he's been able to do these amazing things in his life." And I go and put James in the scanner and we do this fancy functional MRI, and overlap that with DTI so we can see function of the brain, we can see every neuron and how it's wired in the brain. And I can put a mask on James to see how his brain adapts in real time as I hit him with this stimuli. 

So on that behavioral side, we'll just do more of this, just do more of this, this maximizing sense of control and it's like, “Yes, well, what about if that child that's in there has an amygdala that's twice the size that it should be because he grew up in an adverse situation and his mother was suffering from this?”

There's so many things that need to be contextualized in the aspects of behavior and they think that we need to do a better job of pulling biology along with it to say, "Okay, well within the context of what's happening in the biology of this person right now, how do we address these things moving forward? What is it that we need to be able to do moving forward?"

Give us a broader overview of what you do with Nurosene and the problem that you want to solve, and why you felt like it fell on your shoulders to do it?

It's interesting, James, because  on one level, it goes back to that clinical chiasm that was emerging, which was like, "Oh, wow, I realized I'm one of the luckiest people on the planet because of some of the environments that I've been in," and that counts for a ton in terms of understanding that, "Okay, you're running this clinic. You're doing this high-level neuroscience and performance and all this stuff and it's great."

And then once you start layering in the research side and it's like, "Okay, I can get lucky just through some of our network. We can bring high-level professional athletes in, but we could also bring in different regular people." These are people coming right out of stroke surgeries. There were people that were having tumor repairs. There were children with developmental issues, so this diaspore of people that you could look at in the scanner.

In my mind, in theory, I'd been trained to say, "Oh, well, it's the brain that's going to generate the mind and it's the neurons and it's how they work and it's how they fire and not fire and all this sort of stuff." Even myself, I had been failing on some level because then I would just try and will certain things to happen or will patients to do things in certain ways and try and very militaristic about my approach in some ways and sometimes that would work.

But the reality of it is, I'll never forget it, there was a young 15-year-old that had suffered, and not recently, had suffered from, which we only found out later, he was having typical sorts of learning issues, anxiety issues. His parents were worried about depression. He was a family friend.

We went in and scanned this kid, and once you start then digging into the history, you saw not only were there adverse situations in that child, the way they've grown up, there was a multitude of a history of traumatic brain injury.

So there was all this stuff in there that was like, "Wow, we could tell this kid until the cows come home to meditate, be socially better at school and do all these things. He does not have the tools at this moment to do it. So how do we just go back to those fundamentals? How do we go and understand that this brain is this amazing, self-organizing, dynamic, interconnected organ and yet what we're doing is we're just treating it from a behavioral perspective, not so much a biological one?"

And again, I'm not against the behavioral side. There are some phenomenal people who are working on that behavioral side, but my choice was to say I'm taking a very mechanistic, almost very fundamental, sometimes we'll call it radically fundamental approach to saying, "How do we give these people the tools that they need to be able to be successful from wherever they are to wherever they need to go?"

So a lot of that was from the clinical side into then the really research-based side and then realize there's a ton of low hanging fruit there, especially because that underlying biological narrative isn't one that's focused on. You don't need to do a ton of things all at one moment in time, but just being able to provide direction and say, "Okay, well, there may be an understanding as to why this is happening that could be based on biology and let's put a plan forward together to be able to address it."

That's where Nurosene had emerged from, funny enough, prior to the pandemic, and then because of the pandemic and things along those lines, people have been a lot more open to the idea of technology being this amazing little bridge into the world of healthcare. But it's still something that a lot of us really struggle with, and something that we're working towards trying to address.

Are we at the point now where we can reverse the onset of things like dementia and Alzheimer's?

It's a good question. It's such a loaded question. When you look at Alzheimer's, it’s one form of a dementia disorder and you're looking at primarily this amyloid plaque which then looks to be able to form into tau tangles.

We have done one of the greatest failures ever in the history of medicine, which is the therapeutic interventions to Alzheimer's disease because they basically do not work. And for the foreseeable future, I'm not telling people not to buy stocks and companies that are making them, but for the foreseeable future, I do not see them working either.

We have done one of the greatest failures ever in the history of medicine, which is the therapeutic interventions to Alzheimer's disease because they basically do not work.

Oftentimes, people are still looking at Alzheimer's disease in a way of thinking that's almost 500 years old. It goes back to the Christian conquest of linear reductionism. So it's basically like I had just said, "Well, what's Alzheimer's disease?" "Alzheimer's is amyloid beta. It's tau tangles. Well, then in my very linear reductionist Western medical way, let's look at these things and let's be able to develop some drugs against them." 

But again, when we look at it, it's actually not that difficult to be able to dig down. It's not hard to swim with the tide and be able to reduce down to the tiniest little level and we need to do it. Undoubtedly, it's not that we don't need to do it.

The problem is, and I'm sure you could appreciate, because I know you surf and you do things like this, it's like nature and biology and everything, let's just even say your brain is so massively chaotic and dynamic that linear form of reductionism is in no way going to give you a representation of what's actually happening at the brain.

So by the time you see that amyloid beta, by the time you see that tau tangle that then develops after, there's so much disease process that's already taking place. So again, there's companies that will continue to do that and we'll see what happens there.

Our focus, as well as many others and people that are in the space, is about understanding, “How do you not get that pathology there to begin with? Are there things that we can do to not have that initial conversion over to amyloid beta?"

And again, what you're starting to see is that these are now what you used to think of as a 10-year progressive disease or a 15-year progressive disease, these are 20, 30, 40-year progressive diseases. So on some level, it's why I'm so passionate about working also with youth, is because it's easy now to be able to say, "Well, let's go back 20 years and this is all the stuff that's gone all shitty for why people are really suffering now." 

It's like, "Okay, understood. So this is what we need to do, is start fixing this now for the next two decades." So yeah, there's some very interesting things out there in the world of prevention and trying to stop the disease process at the very beginnings, but it's still very early days. And then on the opposite side, it's still a massive failure.

For someone who wants to improve their cognitive abilities each day – maybe they're a regular business person, an athlete who wants to get to that next level, someone who's overcoming trauma, or maybe there's someone who wants to prolong or remove the probability of the onset of things like Alzheimer's and dementia – what can they be doing on a daily basis?

That's a good question. On one level, you're right, and it's fascinating because again we have a lot of tools at our disposal. There's a lot of stuff out there that you can see in the world of brain training and this and that and all these cognitive devices and stuff like that out there. 

While if anybody digs into any of the research, you'll see that a lot of those results are not really looking very promising at this moment in time. And it goes back to those very same basics. It's like we have a real problem still in modern neuroscience, which is like you have a frame of thinking. 

Steven Pinker calls it the tabula rasa where the brain is this blank slate. And then what we need to do is we need to throw stuff on top of this blank slate. "So James wants to perform better, he wants to think better, he wants to cognitively be more engaged, so we're going to throw stuff on top of James's brain to enable him to be able to do so." 

The problem is that biology has been solving complex problems way, way, way before brains ever existed. We can go back 2 billion years to when cells were first coming together in the dawn of aerobic respiration which was this little bacterial cell coming into an archaea cell and now all of a sudden we have breathing. So now all of a sudden, they have respiration via this mitochondria and it's like, "Wow, this respiratory mechanism is enabling the cell to now survive and proliferate."

And then we take obviously many steps of evolution through the process, yet we now want to think of this only top down, "Let's do this with the birth." And to be honest with you, it just doesn't work that way. So I feel like what we need to do is understand that the brain is this amazing, again, self-organized entity that's dynamic and interconnected. And almost as you said there, what we need to do is often just step out of the way. Let's remove the things that could be hindering us from having that level of cognition or that level of performance that we need.

I can promise you any success that I've had in the level of professional sport, and I’m lucky enough to have been to the Olympic Games, the World Series, the NHL playoffs. It's not about what can I add in for these people. It's about what can I remove, so they can just be as great as they inherently are. And it's no different for somebody coming off of a surgical repair, somebody that's getting ready for the World Series.

It's not about what can I add in for these people. It's about what can I remove, so they can just be as great as they inherently are.

And so for me, it goes back to basic fundamentals. What are the things that we can do to mechanically and fundamentally stimulate the brain to do these amazing things? So one would be things like in the context of where we're living right now in the world of covid and stress. it's like, if we can model stress on an individual person-by-person basis, that level of personalization and say, "Okay, nobody cares."

I shouldn't say nobody cares, but when you go to these parties and conferences, people care, but when you speak to actual patients or actual users, do they care about glucocorticoid releases and cortisol timescales and things like that? No, they just need to know, "What are you going to do for me?"

So this whole idea of what is stress for you becomes ultimately important and this is something that we can now model using technology in real time and be able to understand, "Okay, well, how do we put people in a zone?" The great – and unfortunately he passed away a couple of years ago – Bruce McEwen, this neuroendocrinologist inverted-U stress curve which I use all the time, it's like, "No, stress is no good. So you're under stressed." 

Then you have this what you call allostatic overload. You have too much stress. That's no good either. There's a zone in the middle. That's like caution, you could go one way or another. And then there's a nice little flow zone, a nice little sweet spot where it's like, "Oh, you have all the nice amazing wonderful things that the stress system is designed for, which is primarily acute in nature."

And so you get the learning, the adaptation and so how do we then just manage these sorts of variables around to be able to put people in that zone where they can inherently be productive, so then it goes to, "Are they moving enough? Are they sleeping well enough? What is their nutrition like? What is their social environment?" 

Again, back to the research of McEwen, you can tell people to do all the Sudoku, Lumosity, and all the brain games, and things along those lines. If that person is in an environment where their basic needs are being challenged and they are maybe in a weird sort of relationship where there are so many things – again, because biology is so dynamic – that are not going to enable them to perform.

You can actually be building new neurons, and this can be in your seventh or eight decade of life.

So for us, oftentimes, it's like, "How do we start by stripping some of the stuff away that could be impeding on somebody from getting from where they are to where they want to go?" And then very basics, "How are you moving?"

Because movement again, aerobic exercise, let's say you're going out one intensity at a pace that you can keep a conversation where you're using oxygen primarily as a fuel source and not too much lactate, you can actually make new neurons there. You can actually be building new neurons, and this can be in your seventh or eight decade of life. You can be building new neurons that can be useful in these areas that you need to be able to mitigate stress.

So I would say if we had to choose, you can just tell somebody to exercise versus go on this cognitive brain training up, 100%, because the brain doesn't work top down. It works inside out. So there's a host and we can go through more, but there's a host of things like that, but it's an approach that's based pretty fundamental, but it's about restoring those basic things that have enabled us to evolve to get to where we are right now.

Those people who are the absolute best performers, whether they're athletes or top surgeons or special forces, is there anything they do different consciously in terms of being able to harness that peak performance over time?

That's another obsession of mine. Yeah, I would say that there are a few things that they do amazingly well. One would be able to understand the context of behavior, and again, it seems like, "Oh, yeah, well, that's obvious…”

But the reason I have it is, it's so difficult in the moment to really appreciate that. And again,    that so much emphasis is put on behavior and it's so contextual that people need to be able to understand and these high level performers are able to understand the context of behavior at that moment in time.

So saying, "Listen, it's totally normal for me to be feeling this way, as I'm going to go up to bat with 60,000 people here and I've just gone zero for eight," but I can separate that and I can then still put the mental process in place to be able to say, "What are the actions that I need to perform right now that again I have that clarity towards that's going to enable me to increase my chances of being successful?" 

And we play around with it, but we almost play these little, it's almost like Game Theory. We play these little games back and forth because what we need to understand is that even this idea, like Horatio Alger's method of, "We just pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and rah-rah-rah and I'm maximizing the sense of control," I've never actually seen that work at the highest level.

What I've seen is backing down, not so much hubris and appreciation for where I am in relation to my environment at this moment in time, understanding that what my mind may be thinking could be combined of so many different minds that have led me to this moment in time and with all that stuff, I'm still going to be able to put the pieces in place to be able to focus on certain action items.

"What are the things that I need to focus on and how do I move forward?" rather than being, again so reactionary to, "Oh, the pressure. Oh, this. Oh, that." That's something that at least in my experiences has been something that's very interesting.

How do we start by stripping some of the stuff away that could be impeding on somebody from getting from where they are to where they want to go?

Some of these people, we've been able to then put – and I can't say who on this side [medical confidentiality, but they’re the most elite athletes in the world] – but some of these people we've also been able to put into the brain scan, so we can see what it looks like under the hood.

And then what I would say, if we're separating the behavioral side, and again I'm more biological in nature in trying to say, "What is the brain look like?" it almost still gives me goosebumps, it is such a wonderful level of efficiency that it's insane.

So one example I would give is you could take one of the best NHL hockey players on the planet and you could take another pretty good NHL hockey player that's still making $3 million or $4 million a year and when they're performing certain tasks and you ask them to visualize certain things in terms of how they do certain things on the ice and you watch this light up in real time, the guy that is making $12 million a year has this amazing ability to almost shut off. It's the ability to inhibit.

Because the brain is this amazing compressive tool. It's got 85 billion neurons and it does what it does generating 20 watts of electricity. When you have IBM Watson doing the same thing like IBM Watson is going to go beat James in a game of Jeopardy, it takes 85,000 watts. You're powering a small city to be able to have that level of computation, "So how efficient is this person's brain?" And then go to the flip side, they've done this with orthopedic surgeons and brain surgeons, the same thing exists.

So with that high level surgeon versus a guy that's on surgical residency, that well-revered surgeon can almost act with a certain level of automaticity where his brain is just so efficient, whereas the young guy or girl is like, "Oh, am I doing this right? Should I cut this? At the brain level, there's almost this beautiful level of efficiency which goes back to that self-organizing, interconnected, dynamic flow that's just so wonderful to see when you see it.

What is the role of repetition in getting out of your comfort zone gradually to eventually thrive in that competitive environment?

Whether it's athletes like the NHL players you mentioned, or a Conor McGregor who seems to thrive off that energy when he's at the weigh-in in front of 50,000 people, or even people who are speaking on stage. 

Does doing reps in discomfort lead to what you're talking about?

I'm going to say both which is an annoying answer and I apologize, but on some level, it's necessary because there's no doubt, there is no doubt that repetition is needed.

A good old Canadian surgeon way back in the day coined this term, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” So this idea of neuroplasticity, this idea of being able to create these paths, that trail in the sand that just gets solidified over and over, the more you want it. And unequivocally, that is true.

What I would still say on the opposite side when it comes to, let's say, aspects of behavior. So let's say we're trying to get somebody to do something new and we want somebody to do something new. And because it's new, it's just the behavior, but our goal is to turn that behavior into a habit. So it's now habitual that James is going to go and do his exercise every day. It's now habitual that James is going to balance his blood sugar and do these sorts of things every day.

It is actually not repetition that leads to that habitualness. It's the emotional reward. So how do we reward James emotionally for being able to make these sorts of decisions and how do we then continue that process?

It is actually not repetition that leads to that habitualness. It's the emotional reward.

So when it's about creating these new habits, it's like, "Okay, what's the motivation?" "Okay, James really wants to do it." "Okay, what's the ability?" "Okay, he's got the ability to do these sorts of things. He's not asking to be able to run a three-minute mile right now. Okay, so he's got the ability to do these sorts of things."

How do we then tie that into something that's existing? So when it's coming to like, "Okay, well, how do we build this performance module moving forward?" 

Then we want to anchor it to things. So we want to say, "Okay, well, James is already brushing his teeth every day. So we're just going to say, 'James, after you brush your teeth, that's when you're going to go see Jeff.'" So we're going to anchor it to something that already exists to increase that odds, and then again, that important side is we're going to reward him after that. 

And again, it could be society rewarding James, this could be his family rewarding, friends, wife, spouse. Whatever it's going to be, usually those things that get rewarded are able to become a little bit more habitual in nature.

And then on the flip side, those things that get ... Sometimes the word punished can be a little bit harsh, but we need to be able to almost create that negative association on the same side as well.

In 2021, I began a daily journaling practice. I started using an app called the Day One Journal, and I use that every single morning. But when I started it, I said to my wife, "I'm only going to do this if I commit to 100 days of consecutive journaling." 

And I do it with my morning coffee. And if there's one part of my day that I'm not missing, it's my morning coffee! As an Australian, we love our coffee. 

I haven't missed a single journal entry and I’ve now done 190 consecutive days. The power of anchoring in goal achievement is huge.

The anchoring also then leads to part of that emotional reward that you get. Again it's this amazing dynamic feedback because I would also go to the opposite side. It's like I can see a lot of people that have put in a ton of repetition. They don't necessarily get better. 

So there's something else in there that needs to be thrown on top of the ... This Anders Ericsson 10,000 hours and things like that, I get it, I understand it. That's not necessarily true because you can also create a habit. 

Again I have the other ones in here now just because I trust them a little bit more for this moment, but it's like, "I can easily go from this to that. I can change that habit in a day. No problem because now I've got this emotional reward of being able to get up and move around."

Check out the YouTube or podcast version where Daniel Gallucci does the Win the Day Rocket Round, answering questions about his favorite quote, what advice he’d give his 18-year-old self, the one thing on his bucket list, and a whole lot more?

So a lot of that research on how these things change and how do you create that, it's a little overstated and I often think it's just very basic in nature. It goes back to the basic biology of reward systems. And if you can reward that system, and it often goes a good way in terms of being able to re-incentivize it and keep it going moving forward.

Does that need to be an external reward or is there some way that you can reward yourself to build that feeling?

I actually think it's both. We talked about in the world of modern neuroscience and you think about these internal dopaminergic reward system, it's like, "Okay, well, now, this person is doing this and this and they are going to get this little internal hit of dopamine," and that's super valuable and understood. 

That also becomes potentially, I don't mean all the time, but potentially, that also becomes a bit of a dangerous proposition in terms of if you look at a dopamine sort of reward based curve, what you'll see is just like stress, it's by phasing.

So what happens is, "Well, I got that reward today and maybe I got that reward tomorrow, but now, a few days later, I don't have that same level of reward, so I need a greater stimuli. I don't have that same level of reward. Now I need a greater stimuli." 

That's okay, but we just need to understand that this is exactly how this system works when we're looking at things like behavior because then what was a surprise yesterday is expected today and then it's not enough tomorrow. And we need to understand that basic biology in terms of the context of how we behave.

So again, I still look at it from those very fundamental sorts of basic principles, but it's super helpful because then it helps me dictate sort of the behavioral response. It helps me show, "Okay, well, let's steal this brain that's generating mind on that level there."

Your app, Nuro, is making big waves. What's unique about it, and what are you hoping to do to disrupt the mental health industry?

Thank you for saying that. It's very early days at this moment in time. Shortly, when we release our first commercial version of the app, I'm hoping it'll change the conversation around mental health. Our goal is to put you at the center of your own healthcare journey.

Back to stress, for example, stress is 600 million years old, maybe even older than that. So stress has been in existence way before humans were ever around, right before our brains were around.

The thing is, we're living in a society right now that's incompatible with that ancient system because it was meant for an acute, "Hey, I'm going to eat something or I'm going to be eaten," or, "I've been gorged by a lion and I better figure out how to get out of here pretty quick."

Today’s society is incompatible with how our brains were created to deal with stress.

The stress system was not made in a way to be able to think of like, "Okay, well, should I go here for vacation? When are my kids going to school? Did I do my taxes?" So we're the only species that can bring that level of stress for purely psychological reasons, which is amazing because it gives us the flexibility to plan to go to the moon and do all these things and create a podcast which is also unique to us, but the context of that needs to be understood.

So our goal is to say, "Listen, there's a lot of great mental and physical health apps and companies and stuff out there. What we want to do is put you at the center of your own healthcare journey. We want to be able to give you the tools to say that, "Hey, in very simple ways, we can democratize some of the basic things that everybody should have access to on the planet," which is why it's free, that says, "Okay, listen, you need these things." 

Back to myself as a kid, when, unfortunately, my father is going through mental health-related issues and we're struggling financially and things like that, even in a universal health care system, we only have access to certain resources.

Everybody should have the basic fundamentals of, "Hey, listen, let's understand things in development, that there are some things that are going to affect the neural architecture of your brain no matter what and that's irreversible, but that doesn't mean it's not changeable." 

So what do we then do to give people the tools to be able to navigate that moving forward? Okay, yes, maybe in a shitty situation can be really shitty. That usually doesn't mean there's no option. And how do we take, again, where you're at and give you a very fundamental way forward? And yes, maybe it just starts with movement. "Oh, really? It starts with movement? That's going to get me out of this crisis right here?"

And it's like, "Not at that moment, but putting these things in place, become self-affirming in nature and these little micro actions lead to results later down the road." So again, it's no different than that guy showing up at the Superbowl, and all of a sudden making a one-handed catch like Odell Beckham. 

It's like, "What are the things that went in place to put that person in that position?" and the same thing here, put yourself in control. Give yourself the tools to be able to do a lot of these things. Yes, we could dig into nuance and you can do all this other stuff later or those basic fundamentals.

I ask people, you go into clinics, you go into ... "I have no idea I could grow new neurons here. I had no idea I could control this. I had no idea that using my eyes in certain ways could help balance out the way certain areas of my brain were functioning," and these are all things that science knows. 

Nurosene needs to begin where science ends, which is like science are these amazing little snapshots of a moment in time, but how do we build on those snapshots? Life is a movie in 8k, so how do you take those amazing little snapshots and put it together into something that's actually hopefully helpful for people moving forward?

You're doing a lot of work with AI and you're very much on the cutting edge of that technology. What future innovations are you most excited about that are just around the corner?

That's a good question. There's too many things. I will go at it from both sides, one on the clinical side is the best thing about this opportunity – again, building on the healthcare system of old which was just very crude.

We can use Parkinson's disease, for example. Unfortunately, we all probably know somebody that's been afflicted and affected. It's like, "Okay, we're going to give this person L-DOPA because it's the medication that they need." And then all of a sudden, you give that medication and you don't see that person again for 60 days. But over those 60 days, you could be acquiring tons of data in terms of how that person is moving, how that person's not sleeping.

And then when that person comes back 60 days later, your medical decision is based on, "Oh, what did they do again. I'm going to tap this little thing here." It's just so basic and crude because we're emitting all this information that we could particularly gather. So the problem with that is like, "Oh, now you want to collect movement data on people and you want to collect behavioral stuff and you want stress scores?" "I do. I want it all. I want all that data because you're going to have terabytes of new information that I need to make decisions from."

The problem with that, James, is that you now need the high level analysis to get rid of all the stuff that's garbage – because most of it is garbage. It's massively expensive and you really don't know what to do to act on it.

We've now acquired this company called NetraMark, this gentleman, Dr. Joe Geraci, who you should again speak to him on a separate thing. He's a mathematical genius but also in the world of medicine and oncology. And, sometimes, as you know, you can broad sweep AI and machine learning. It sounds like the same thing. The reality of it from a clinical perspective, it's so hard to make sense of all this very, what you call heterogeneous or ugly, messy, noisy data.

The most exciting part for me is being able to understand disease on a person-to-person level. 

And they just have a system that is able to look through problems at multiple levels of organization, which for me was like, "Ah, this is why I like these guys. This is what I need in these guys. They're not just going to show me a variable. They're not just going to show me amyloid beta and model that and then come back to me." 

And it's like, "No, I want to look at all this ugly stuff. I want to see how you model that. I want to see how you cluster people in a certain way. I want to see how that works." The most exciting part for me is being able to understand disease on a person-to-person level. It’s going to be magnificent because cancer is a disease that's on a person-to-person level.

Coming from a traumatic brain injury and working with concussions and all this neuro pathologic sort of these conditions, these are very different from on a person-to-person basis. So you almost need the medicine, you need the system in place, you need to build a map around these levels of disease that can happen on an individual basis as well. 

That's part of the potential in the world of AI and machine learning. When you think about it, it's the first time in human history that we're really handing over our powers of decision making to machines.

I'm a football fan. If I'm watching my Liverpool and they go and get pumped on the weekend, I'm going to say, "Yeah, but I'm a clinician. I'm going to show up Monday morning and I'm going to do a great job." But now we start to see that these things start to affect our performance. So again as you would appreciate – and I've heard you speak about on the podcast before – so much of what's happening in our brain is subconscious. So we're processing all this subconscious stuff and there's bias and noise.

While there's no replacing humans, it's only natural that we've evolved to be able to build informational architectures from one generation to the next and we need to leverage technology to be able to do it now. 

On your best day, what's an affirmation that you would write on a flashcard to show yourself on your worst day?

Ooh, that's a good one. They call me Danny Downer on the team and you'll see why! And again I'll have to then explain it a little bit, but we’ll go as far as to say, you don't matter, but I will say, it doesn't matter, but I'm basically referring to myself.

I can say, "Well, I have every reason because I have brain cancer and I have this and this," but we can all say these things in different levels.

When you look at the grand scheme of things, and yes, of course, hopefully, my family loves me and all this sort of stuff, the grand scheme of what's happening in the world right now, what's happening in the universe right now, there's so many things that are just not as important as we would like to think that they are.

And I'm the worst at it. I manifest these things on a daily basis. So that would be one of those things in terms of just that little snippet of just recognizing the importance or not of certain things.

Final question, what's one thing you do to Win the Day? 

Keep moving. Just keep moving.

Daniel, so great to see you, my friend. Thanks for coming on the Win the Day show.

James, this was so much fun. Thank you so much.

I hope you enjoyed that interview Daniel Gallucci!

As you heard, our guests love to hear positive feedback, no matter where they’re at in their careers. Share a comment on the YouTube version of this episode with your favorite takeaway so Daniel knows he made a difference in your life today.

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That’s all for this episode! Get out there and #WinTheDay.

Until next time…

Onwards and upwards always,
James Whittaker

Resources / links mentioned:

⚡ Nurosene website.

📝 Nurosene on Facebook.

📷 Nurosene on Instagram.

🌎 Nurosene on Twitter.

📙 Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst by Robert M. Sapolsky.

📚 A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and Its Evolution by Samuel Bowles.

🎬 Subscribe to the Win the Day YouTube channel.

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