Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl said that “between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response.” Frankl was talking about our ability to choose our mental responses to what we encounter in life. What if we could also choose how our physiology responds to our environment so that we can perform and thrive on a higher level? My guest today explores that question in his latest book. His name is Scott Carney and he’s the author of The Wedge: Evolution, Consciousness, Stress, and the Key to Human Resilience.
We begin our conversation discussing how Scott’s investigation into the breathing methods of Wim Hof, an extreme athlete, turned him from a skeptic into an intrigued believer who wanted to learn more about our ability to exercise control over our physiology. Scott then explains his idea of “the Wedge” as the ability to consciously put a gap between an external stimulus and the otherwise automatic physiological responses it elicits. Scott and I then discuss his trip around the world to talk to people who have found ways to create wedges in their lives in order to elevate their physical and mental states. We discuss how throwing kettlebells around can be used to overcome fear and experience flow, how lying in a float tank may recalibrate PTSD, how building up tolerance to CO2 can increase your physical performance, how saunas can boost resilience, and why the power of the placebo effect is greatly underrated.
If reading this in an email, click the title of the post to listen to the show.
- What is “The Wedge”?
- The 3 ways your mind experiences the world
- What the fear response does in the body, and how to insert a wedge there
- Kettlebells, flow, and The Wedge
- Breathing as a wedge
- How float tanks can act as a wedge for PTSD
- Heat exposure and saunas in regards to The Wedge
- The intense powers of a placebo
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- How Your Climate Controlled Comfort is Killing You
- A Shot of Cold Water for Health and Vitality
- The Magic Cold Bath
- Kettlebells and the Psychology of Training
- How to Perform 4 Kettlebell Exercises
- Live Life at the Limits: How to Hack Your Flow
- Flow and the Rise of Superman
- Brian MacKenzie
- How to Breathe
- Improve Your Breathing, Improve Your Health
- The Science of Freediving and Breathholding
- Justin Feinstein
- Inflammation, Saunas, and the New Science of Depression
Connect With Scott
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl said that “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response.” Frankl was talking about our ability to choose our mental responses to what we encounter in our life, what if we could also choose our physiology response to our environment so that we can perform and thrive on a higher level? My guest today explores that question in his latest book, his name is Scott Carney and he’s the author of, The Wedge: Evolution, Consciousness, Stress and the Key to Human Resilience. We begin our conversation discussing how Scott’s investigation of the breathing methods of Wim Hof, an extreme athlete, turned him from a skeptic into an intrigue believer who wanted to learn more about our ability to exercise control over our physiology. Scott then explains his idea of the wedge as the ability to consciously put a gap between an external stimulus and the otherwise automatic physiological response it elicits.
Scott and I then discuss his trip around the world to talk to people who have found ways to create wedges in their lives, in order to elevate their physical and mental states. We discuss how throwing kettle bells around, could be used to overcome fear and experience flow. How lying in a float tank may recalibrate PTSD? How building up tolerance to CO2 can increase your physical performance? How saunas can boost resilience and why the power of the placebo effect is greatly underrated? After the show is over check out our show notes at aom.is/wedge. Scott joins me now via clearcast.io.
Alright, Scott Carney welcome back to the show.
Scott Carney: Oh man, it’s so exciting to be here.
Brett McKay: So, we had you on the show a few years ago to talk about your book, What doesn’t Kill Us? , and it was about your exploration, your journey with Wim Hof, the famous breath guy, who can warm up his body and change his immunity system with his breath. We’ll let people check that out, I’ll put a link to the show on that one. You got a new book out that’s sort of in the similar vein, it’s called The Wedge: Evolution, Consciousness, Stress and the Key to Human Resilience. So, how did your experience in your work with Wim Hof lead to this book, The Wedge?
Scott Carney: Yeah, so when I met Wim, I had been writing this book about how meditation can kill you, and I read this article about this crazy Dutch dude in Holland and this was in 2011 when Wim Hof was sort of an unknown. And it said that he could sit in ice water for crazy amounts of time and control his immune system and perform these super human feats of endurance through his quirky meditation method that was a breath protocol and sitting in ice for a long time. And when I heard about him, I was like, “This guy is crazy and he’s gonna get people killed.”
And so I went out with this commission from Playboy magazine to go essentially debunk him as this false guru character, who was probably just in it for the money. And the shocking thing about my experience with Wim is that, I get to his dilapidated training center in Poland, and I sit down with him and he teaches me his breathing method and almost instantaneously, I am getting the sort of effects out of it that he does. It’s one of the things that happens is, when you breathe… His breathing methods basically a hyper-ventilation and then holding your breath and hyper-ventilating and holding your breath. And all of a sudden, I was in like just an hour of doing this, I was holding my breath for three minutes at a time, and then he said, “Go do some push-ups.” And I do some push-ups while holding my breath and I do twice the number that I’d never done before in my life at go and I was again, holding my breath.
And so, this was this eye-opening experience, where I was like, “Well I have to, instead of debunking this dude, write something that was about the science behind what he does.” And I end up repeating the same sort of crazy cold endurance stuff that he does. I run this obstacle course race in Northern England, in basically just a bathing suit. I climb up Mount Kilimanjaro in a bathing suit and I do it really, really fast. It was this sort of total transformative experience. And that book,”What doesn’t Kill us? , is a really… It’s a fascinating read, and it has gotten… I get emails every day about how my journey and has changed their life because people are now learning how to interact with harsh environments in a way that sort of changes their fundamental biology.
And I think, one of the… The things that we have to realize, it’s not like I’m sucking down spiritual energy from heaven and I’m using this to power my body, but there’s actually evolutionary reasons why these things work. If you think about where our ancestors came from 300,000 years ago, homo erectus was running around in the planes of Northern Africa, exposed to crazy amounts of physical stress, things like temperature’s going up and down, wild animals. They had to run, they had to intermittent starvation and we just don’t get those stresses anymore.
So, what the power of the Wim Hof method was, it was like, hey, we’re gonna give your body some stress and some cold stress, that you’ve really, when was the last time you took a ice bath? When was last time you jumped into water that had little ice cubes floating on it? Probably not recently unless you’re sort of into this stuff. And what happens, what we find out is that when we start exposing ourselves to these extreme environments, we find a way to channel anxiety and even autoimmune illnesses and sort of reverse them.
If you think about it, if our archaic ancestors were always combating lions, tigers, bears and starvation and all that stuff, every one of those things required a physical response. It required you to respond with adrenaline, with cortisol, with these energy-boosting things. And we don’t have that anymore. Now, I sit at my house, and I think COVID-19 is coming to get me, I think about how I’m gonna be like quarantined and all of these things that are running around, I think your political environment, the economy and none of these things require a physical response, right? These things require creative thinking and other stuff, but by not having a physical response, we’ve dumped this adrenaline, we’ve dumped this cortisol into our bloodstream and it turns against us and the magic of what doesn’t kill us and the Wim Hof method was that I learned that by exposing myself to cold water and his specific type of breathing protocols is that, I was able to find an outlet for those responses and become a much more resilient person overall.
Brett McKay: And so, after that experience, it led you down this trail of exploring other tactics that you found people using where they’re taking advantage of these evolutionary adaptations we have of adapting to physical stress, and then just exploring this even more, and that’s what this book The Wedge is all about.
Scott Carney: Yeah, absolutely. I was up at the top of Mount Kilimanjaro with Wim. We just sprinted up this mountain and it took us 28 hours to get to the top. And it usually takes about five days. So we were doing this in sort of this blistering or even dangerous pace. And I realized at the top of the mountain, that I was about to have the cheesiest thought that at any human had ever had, which was I had come to the top of this mountain because I am not on the mountain. I thought to myself, “I am the mountain.” This is sort of that spiritual quote that should show up on like a yoga poster somewhere. But it was also this very profound moment ’cause I realized that I didn’t get there just by fighting my way up as this sort of individual, but I was actually cooperating with the sensations from the environment. And through that cooperation, through that connection is why I was able to have this endurance. It wasn’t fighting, it was getting into something like a flow state.
Brett McKay: So what do you mean by this? The book is called, The Wedge. What do you mean by the wedge?
Scott Carney: So there are two basic ideas. The book is called The Wedge, and think about that as a capital T and a capital W. And then there’s a lower case version which is a wedge. On a conceptual level, The Wedge with the capitals is that choice that we have to intercede between stimulus and response in the body. It’s like a big picture idea is that when you feel something coming in through your sensory pathways, your body can react without you thinking, or you can be like, “I’m gonna take some time and put some space in between that stimulus and response.” So it’s like this big picture idea and it applies to like everything. A wedge, the lower case version, is when I’m talking about specific techniques like little things you can do to provide yourself that space. And let’s just take the case of an ice bath. In cold exposure, the ice bath is a wedge, it’s that technique to get in there. But The Wedge, the capital Wedge, is that mental trick we use for that when we go into the ice bath, that we are suppressing our urge to clench up and shiver. And you’re trying to create space, so that as that tension comes up in you, you will it to relax and that’s what The Wedge is in that moment.
Brett McKay: Alright. So The Wedge is basically, you are taking what most people think are just automatic reflexive physiological responses and not making them automatic and reflexive and having a bit of control over that.
Scott Carney: Yeah, exactly. That is the heart of it. And you probably should have written the subtitle to my book ’cause that was beautiful.
Brett McKay: Alright. So, to understand what allows us to do, what allows you to not clench up whenever you submerge yourself in cold, or what allows you not to have that reflexive fear response, which we’ll talk about. We need to understand some neurology, some psychology, what goes on when you experience things. And you talk about we’re able to, you’re able to insert a wedge into your existence, or to your experience because there are three parts of an experience: There’s stress, sensation, and mindset. So walk us through this concept and how those things interact with one another.
Scott Carney: Alright. So there’s three basic ways that your body or that your mind experiences the world. To get information from that brain tissue inside your skull from the outside, the information has to first travel from your sensory organs through the neural pathways in your body and then into your brain where the experience actually happens. And stress, sensation, or mindset are the three places where you could insert a wedge. But what this, by this, what I mean, is stress so you get to choose the type of stress that you have. If you never have gone into say, ice water, you’ve never experienced that stress so you’ve sort of factored that out of your life, but you’re always experiencing something ’cause your nerves are always transferring information into your body.
Sensation is the actual thing after that stress occurs, let’s say, ice water, you jump into the ice water. And between your fingertips that are first experiencing it and your brain, we have all these neural pathways that happen. And there’s a certain flavor, I guess, you could say, that your neural pathways imbue to any sort of experience. And if you’re able to alter what information that sensation is gonna transfer to your brain, you have the ability to change your experience of that thing. And usually this is a chemical intervention or a certain breathwork protocol that changes the actual transmission rate of information in your nerves.
And then there’s the third place where you can sort of wedge, which is the mindset you have. For instance, if you jump into ice water and you’re thinking to yourself, “This is the worst experience I’m ever gonna have in my entire life,” it’s gonna be the worst experience you’ve ever had in your entire life. If you go into and say, “I am so excited to be here,” you have a lot better shot of feeling great about that experience. And so, that’s why I’m talking about three different places where you can use this lower case wedge.
And I wanna dig down a little bit here because there’s a really fundamental concept in this book that’s gonna help explain everything that we’re gonna talk about later in this interview, which is what I call, neural symbols. And it’s how your brain encodes information about the world. And we have those three places like stress, sensation in your nerves, and mindset. Well, how does your brain initially, the very first time it senses something, how does it get that information? Well, go from your peripheral nerves and again, let’s use this the example of ice water. You jump in and what happens is your nerves send a really loud signal through your arms and into your spinal column, and up into the very base of your brain, which is where consciousness starts.
When it’s there, it goes into the limbic system. And I think of the limbic system as something of a library. Think about this, there’s a library, and there’s lots of books on it. And this librarian gets this signal and looks at this signal and says, “Huh, I’ve never felt ice water before.” Let’s say you’re a child, or it’s your first time in any sort of sensation, this signal comes in, and she looks at it and says, “Well, have I felt this signal before?” she looks at all of her books, and there’s… She’s never felt anything like this before, so she says, “Huh, I don’t know what to make of this.” So she kicks that sensation up to another part of the brain called the para-limbic system, it’s only about a centimeter away.
And here, there is essentially a book binder who gets this new signal, is like, “Hmm, what is this signal?” looks at it and says, “Well, it doesn’t have any meaning, it’s just data, so I will apply your current emotional state,” so whatever you’re feeling emotionally at that moment, he binds it and connects it so that it can’t be dis-joined and kicks it back down to the librarian who looks at it and says, “Great. Ice water means unmitigated terror and horror,” because that’s what you’re feeling [chuckle] when you get into the ice water, and files that book away.
Now, here’s the very, very important thing about neural symbols, is to remember, which is the next time you jump into ice water, it comes in as straight data, and the librarian realizes she’s seen this book before, and she pulls off the old neural symbol off the shelf, and you re-experience the old emotional state, you re-experience that unmitigated terror, and she never kicks it back up to the para-limbic system. It just goes on, and that’s what forms your experience. Now, neural symbols are the bits and bytes of all human experience. Since your brain is locked away in your skull, the only way it’s ever gotten information at any time in its entire history is through your sensory pathways, and every one of those sensory pathways goes through the limbic library into the guy who makes the books and kicks it back down, and that forms all lower cognition and higher cognition. I couldn’t be talking to you right now on this podcast without using billions of neural symbols. I could… You just cannot think without them. So emotion, especially past emotion, is locked into your brain.
Brett McKay: So yeah, so it sounds like emotions and sense… Every sensation we have is tied up with an emotion?
Scott Carney: Yes, everything, every ennui and hate and love and the texture of light and you waking up in the morning under your covers, every one of those sensations is bonded to an emotion, and we experience the world through an emotional lens.
Brett McKay: And this idea of symbols can help explain anxiety or fears. And you actually went to a guy, this is what he studies, is phobias and extreme anxiety. Basically, there’s an encoding problem there, they’ve encoded just a regular, every day experience with a super-negative emotion.
Scott Carney: Totally. So, I went to Stanford University where I met Andrew Huberman, who’s this really amazing neuroscientist there who really wants to understand the basis of what fear is. And if you think about it, fear isn’t about being in the moment. Like if you think about that lion who’s gonna be chasing us throughout this entire podcast, right? This lion’s 100 feet away or half a mile away, and you look at that lion, and it’s looking at you, and fear is the anticipation of that lion charging you and eating you. And you sort of race your mind forward to the lion eating you, but it’s not eating you, it’s just that prediction of the future.
Now, if we go back to neural symbols, sometimes this sort of propensity to anticipate really, really bad events is actually hard-wired into your brain. And people who get phobias, for instance, may have had an experience that somehow wired a really, really intense neural symbol for, say lions on the Savanna, or snakes, or whatever it is that scares you. And merely the appearance of a lion in the distance, or appearance of that stimulus at a distance is enough to trigger that old neural symbol and make you super-anxious right away. And so what Huberman does is he throws you into this, a virtual reality simulator where he has been hanging out; he wanted like a standard stimulus to study the fear response. And when you have fear, you have all these automatic reactions; you release adrenaline, you release cortisol, your eyes open up or shut closed. And so he puts you… These VR goggles on you that are measuring the dilation and contraction of your irises and your eye movements to see how you respond to the stimulus.
So, he put me into this virtual shark dive where I’m swimming with these great whites in order to trigger fear. And I figured that if I was in the stimulus of the fear, I could try to insert a wedge to create space between that stimulus of the shark and then my response, which I would be able to choose a response. So I thought this would be great way to train my fear response, but, “wah, wah,” I get into the [chuckle] shark dive, and it turns out I’m not afraid of virtual sharks, even if they’re really realistically depicted. So in a way, what the… His setup is really good for is people who have predisposed to anxiety. But I actually didn’t find a way to insert my own wedge in his protocols.
Brett McKay: Well, how would you insert a wedge with that? Would it just be a matter of exposure therapy, where you’re just exposed to it over and over again, then you are rewiring a new emotion to that sensation?
Scott Carney: Yeah, that’s… So that’s the trick in general, is if you want to, if you wanted to create a fear, for instance, you would bond an event or a stress to a really, really bad emotional response. And if the event was really, really loud, you, like, let’s say you’re a soldier in Afghanistan, you’ve a roadside bomb go off after you, that’s gonna wire all of the previous sensations you were having before that roadside bomb into this trauma and create this horrible anxiety of even generalized things that might… That are similar, like a garbage truck or something similar like that. But alternately, you can try to minimize those fear responses by try to create new associations with certain sounds and with certain stimuli to sort of drown out and file new neural symbols that are sort of similar with different emotional variances to them.
Brett McKay: So this experience here led you to another guy. I think it was in the San Francisco area, who was throwing kettlebells around. Like, tossing them around, dancing at the same time. And you found this… At first, I’d be like, “This is weird.”, but then you also discovered this was a wedge you could do to use to basically hack what people call flow.
Scott Carney: Yeah, absolutely. And you know the funny thing was is that I was actually walking out of Andrew Huberman’s lab being sort of like bummed out that I wasn’t having a great fear experience there. When I got this text from a friend of mine, which said, “Dude, Scott, you gotta go throw kettlebells with my friend Michael Castrogiovanni. He has a way to make you experience flow instantaneously with kettlebells.” And when I saw this text, and of course, I’m using like sort of my own voice with it. I thought of like, “That sounds so lame.” ‘Cause I’m not a gym guy, like I don’t… Kettlebells to me just sound like just weird, I guess. But I was in the mood to try something, and I thought the word flow sounded sort of cool. So, I met Michael up on this hill in San Francisco, and I drove up from Palo Alto to meet him. And you know, Michael is this just gorilla of a dude. If you see him, he’s sort of hunched over, these giant shoulders, and these biceps that are as big as my legs. Just a real big guy. And picture this, you’re standing… I’m standing right across from him, and he’s got this freaking iron ball in his hand, and he’s gonna throw it at me. And he says, “I want you to catch it.”
And in just about any instance where two men are facing off against each other, and they’re gonna throw essentially a weapon at each other, this is an adversarial position. And honestly, it’s scary. Probably everyone who just heard that there’s gonna be… You’re gonna be throwing kettlebells is like, “Well, you’re gonna land… That’s gonna land on your foot, and that’s really bad.” But what is amazing is that he throws it, and you’re supposed to do this ritual in the beginning where you’re looking at each other’s eyes as he swings the bell. And then you look at the bell, and as you transferred your attention to the bell, he releases it, and then you catch it. And when you do this, the really fascinating thing is that instead of being adversaries, you realize that you have to cooperate in order to bother to get anything out of this thing, you’re gonna hurt each other.
So, the real presence of the danger in the kettlebell is what forces both people to coordinate their movements. And instead of being sort of like a bro-ey workout on this mountain, we are suddenly dancing, and our movements are totally coordinated because of the danger of throwing this. And so, I found my wedge instead of the sharks which were virtual and didn’t do anything to me. Just the thought of possibly breaking my foot becomes this thing where I can move so easily. And what kettlebell throwing is about at its heart, is about connection and developing trust with another person. And I did it almost instantaneously with this guy named Michael just by sort of giving into this experience and flowing with it.
Brett McKay: Well, that section really stood out to me because I’ve read the books about flow and how you can access flow. But in my experience, when I read that, I started thinking all the experiences where I can remember experiencing that flow state, there was always that element of danger. Like, there’s some sort of risk involved. I mean, it’s hard to get flow when I’m riding or doing some sort of pedestrian sedentary thing. But whenever I’m doing something whether it’s like working, a construction where you’re using tools that could kill you or maim you, it’s easier to get in that flow state when you’re doing that.
Scott Carney: Yeah, isn’t that so fascinating that in order to connect to that thing, ’cause flow feels amazing, right? Flow feels like everything is just working out so perfectly. But in order to get to that there have to be stakes, right? You have to have actually something to push up against even if it’s something as minor as possibly getting your foot slammed with a kettlebell and breaking your foot. I guess that’s not that minor, is it? But it’s more minor than a great white shark, but you need something to push against or else you cannot get there.
Brett McKay: Yeah, how have you… Have you been able to transfer this idea to other aspects of your life of adding the element of danger to enter the flow state with your other activities you do?
Scott Carney: That’s a really, really good question. Ultimately, what usually happens, it’s sort of the opposite, is where you start to engage in things that are dangerous, or stressful, as what I talk about in The Wedge and you find that you can actually function in more areas than you could before. You find that you can gain mastery of things that are dangerous. And it’s just like when you just talked about construction, you’re hanging with these dangerous tools. And the first time that you use a chainsaw or any sort of thing that could cut your hand off, it’s terrifying. But then you get over it, because you realize how the tool works, and how to use it, and you become a more capable and overall competent person. And that’s really what I see more. I guess though, once you start doing some dangerous stuff, you realize that you can gain competence in other areas too. So there is that element, it’s like you can find that you can take on more difficult challenges because you’re not gonna be overruled by your anxiety.
Brett McKay: So as you discovered in your book, What Doesn’t Kill Us, breath is a very powerful tool to access the wedge or to put a wedge. So we talked about Wim Hof and his method. But then you found a guy who would use Wim Hof’s method with his athletes, he trains runners. But then you discovered if you follow that method exactly, it actually gives you the results you’re not looking for. So he modified it a bit. So talk about how this guy used breath to insert a wedge with his athletes.
Scott Carney: Yeah. So this is Brian MacKenzie. And I wrote about it, he has a whole chapter in What Doesn’t Kill Us where he was using the Wim Hof method. Now, remember how I said I did Wim’s hyper-ventilation technique, where you’re breathing really, really fast and holding your breath and then you do a bunch of push-ups. And I blew out my push up record. That’s sort of a well-known anaerobic boost that happens when you’re doing the Wim Hof method. And what McKenzie was thinking, ’cause he trains athletes, he trains Olympians, he was like, “Well, what if I could use that on the field?” If you get this boost, if I have these hyper-ventilating athletes, maybe I’m gonna see… And I use their hyper-ventilation in training, maybe I’m gonna see a huge boost in their athletic performance in general.
Well, at that point, he was… In What Doesn’t Kill Us he was sort of experimenting with this idea. And I wrote in that book, I was like, “Isn’t this great? Are Aren’t we gonna see these great results in a few years?” Well, fast-forward a few years and I meet MacKenzie again. He’s like, “Yeah, that didn’t really work out.” It turns out that fast breathing where you blow off all this carbon dioxide gives you a really, really strong boost in a moment, but it doesn’t translate to training benefits. So if you were gonna sprint, if you hyper-ventilate and you sprint, you’ll actually sprint much better than you would do normally. But if you’re trying to look for long-lasting changes, it doesn’t work. And so what MacKenzie did is flipped the script.
Instead of hyper-ventilating, he tries to get people to build up the CO2 in their lungs. Now, when you breathe air, air comes in as mostly oxygen, that oxygen goes around your body and it releases as carbon dioxide or CO2. And CO2 is the waste product of respiration. And for whatever weird biological reason our body cannot detect oxygen, it only detects the poisonous byproduct of respiration which is CO2. And in the Wim Hof method, when you blow off all your CO2, you’re able to hold your breath for a really long period of time, ’cause you have to re-build back that level. And what MacKenzie says, this is like blowing off the roof of your athletic training. But what he wants to do instead is instead of blowing off the roof, he wants to build up your tolerance to CO2 so that you can breathe really slowly, instead of really deeply and fast. So that you build up more CO2 and over time you expose yourself to enough CO2 that you’re able to function in a high CO2 environment, and this is what he calls blowing off the floor.
Brett McKay: What is remarkable about this is that over time… And the way he does it is you can use oxygen restriction, the other thing he says is just so useful and so hard is to do a workout, but instead of breathing through your mouth like we all do all the time, breathe just through your nose, and it kicks your ass. But at the end of it, you start learning that you’re training your body to develop really high CO2, so that when you do switch-to-mouth breathing, you are like a rocket. And this is where he’s seeing this huge performance boost to his athletes. It also has this really interesting anxiety connection is that with CO2, as you build up more CO2 in your body, you feel more panicked and anxious and actually, you’ll see cognitive behavioral therapists give people masks that dose them with 30% CO2, which is a high dosage of CO2, and when you do that you’ll have a panic attack. You’ll start breathing really heavily, you’ll feel claustrophobic, it’ll feel horrible.
Scott Carney: The CBT therapists use this to give you a panic attack in a clinical setting where you are safe, so that you get used to these sensations and you can be then less anxious of panic attacks in the future. Well, the amazing thing here is that as you build CO2 tolerance your anxiety levels drop and go, and they don’t go away entirely, but you have much more control over your sensations of anxiety and that’s the other thing that Brian MacKenzie found that was so amazing.
Brett McKay: And he has this protocol that he calls apnea breathing. And this is what deep sea divers, those guys who are crazy and they use no oxygen, they actually do this too. They had to develop their tolerance to CO2 and they do this breathing method where they just build up CO2 progressively in their system so their body gets used to having that much CO2 in it.
Scott Carney: Totally. And when I was meeting Brian, he actually gave me… He said, “Download this app, it’s called apnea trainer.” Which is the free divers app, to build up CO2 tolerance. They are basically the same exact technique.
Brett McKay: And it’s interesting that CO2 build-up is connected to anxiety. ‘Cause whenever you have tactical guys like army guys, police officers, one of the things they talk about whenever you are in that stressful situations is to breathe. And that’s probably just to calm you down, to get that CO2 out of your system. Is it getting the CO2 out of your system or are you… What are you doing when you’re breathing that causes you to have less anxiety or stress?
Scott Carney: Oh, man. You are doing… Breathing does a lot. And to say it’s just one thing would be really, really mean to breathing. But one of the things you do, if you are, let’s say you’re in a stressful situation, you’re a cop with a gun facing down a potentially dangerous, but you’re not totally sure how dangerous criminal. That deep breath, taking a deep breath in will fill your lungs with oxygen. And then more importantly, when you exhale, you exhale the CO2, which gives you at least a little bit more space, a little bit more of a wedge into taking control and separating that stimulus from response.
But breathing is one of these things that just all… It’s this automatic process in your body, like you’re just breathing right now and you’re not thinking about it. And then you think about it and then you can do… You can hold your breath, you can exhale, you can do anything. And it’s this really interesting liminal point between your autonomic physical processes and where your consciousness comes in. And you find that if you can alter your breathing in multiple ways, breathing fast, breathing slow, holding your breath, and using your breath with your movement and lots of things like that, you find that you’re able to control the automatic things in your body. So you could slow your adrenal release, or you could ramp up your adrenal release depending on the situation.
Brett McKay: Alright, so another tool, another wedge tool that you found that can access the wedge are float tanks. Now, these have gotten a lot of press, Joe Rogan, Navy Seals, like they’ve made him popular. I didn’t know this until you emailed me that, but some of the best research about float tanks has happened here in my hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma. So tell us about that, how does that… How can float tanks and sort of wedge into our experience?
Scott Carney: Tulsa, there’s the Laureate Institute for Brain Research where this guy named Justin Feinstein is the only neuroscientist in America who is really doing clinical studies on flotation and what he’s doing is he’s taking people with PTSD, major depression and anxiety, and putting them into float tanks as a treatment protocol. The thing that I’ve been studying so far in this conversation is like, “What do you do in the presence of a really, really intense stress? And then how can you control yourself in the stress?” But the float tank is the opposite of that, right? The float tank is, let’s say we take out all of the external world, we remove that external sensory stimulus of those three parts that I was talking about earlier. What happens now? What is just your body? What Justin Feinstein at the Laureate Institute discovered is that our sensations of our body also carry with them all sorts of neural symbols that reinforce every sensation that we have and what is so amazing about flotation tanks is that they can actually really, really help with anxiety and depression.
To explain this, let’s go back to that proverbial soldier, right? Who’s in Afghanistan, who just had this like… He was walking down the street, there was a certain quality of sunlight on him, there were some children playing, a tea seller, some flowers around him and then boom, all of a sudden there’s an explosion, and it’s really traumatic and horrible, and maybe some people die. And it wires that entire event into his head as, in the language of neural symbols. So, that when he’s on the ground, his heart is pounding, he’s feeling that like full body sensation of adrenaline, cortisol, and also the damage on his body. And it all gets wired up and connected.
When he comes back home, you know, this apocryphal soldier gets PTSD when he’s walking around, and that certain quality of light happens, or he smells flowers, or there’s children’s voices in some way and these can actually all trigger post-traumatic stress. And even more interestingly, the first time a lot of people really, really become aware of their heartbeat and their blood pressure is in a very traumatic event. Because that stuff goes haywire, ’cause you’ve dumped all this adrenaline into your body. And that wires neural symbols too.
What happens with Feinstein is he says that when you put yourself into a flotation tank you’ve drowned out all of the external symbols, so that you become aware of your body again and when you’re aware of your body, it’s so quiet that you can hear your heartbeat, and you’re able to form a new neural symbol with your heartbeat. So, that when you experience it again, even sub-perceptually, ’cause we’re always sub-perceptually experiencing our heartbeat, you don’t have that constant reinforcement. You’re able to break those loops that cause PTSD. Now his study that he did was amazing, because he found that, and I think he’s tested about 25 people in float tanks, he had them float for an hour sensing their heartbeat and he did questionnaires before and after to sort of sense their protocols, and then a month after, and he found that 100% of people who floated for just one hour had significant decreases in their anxiety symptoms and depression symptoms that lasted and persisted for over a month.
Brett McKay: That’s crazy, and for those who aren’t familiar with what floating is, it’s like you’re basically in this warm bath, bath tub. It’s about the same temperature as your body. It’s filled with salt, so you float. It’s completely dark usually, and there’s no sound. So it feels like you’re literally floating on air sometimes.
Scott Carney: Yeah, it is as close as you can get to isolating your body and your mind from the rest of the world as is possible right now.
Brett McKay: Did you have a good experience floating?
Scott Carney: I generally did. So I’ve floated quite a few times, maybe about 10 or 15 times in total and I would say all but one of them was a great experience. But there was this one experience that was pretty bad, and I can tell you about it, where my wife and I, and my wife is like actually the hero of this book, it’s not really me. She has accompanied me on almost all of these things that I get up to. And I say, “Hey, why don’t we go and float at this float center that’s right near my house?” And as we were getting there to the float center, we got in this argument, just like a marital argument that you’ve maybe had before. That happened up until we got to the door of the float center, and it wasn’t a very important argument. But then we get into the float tank and almost immediately after having that sort of negative experience, we jumped into the float tank, and all we did in this sort of echo chamber was roll on that horrible thought and it rolled and rolled in our mind, so that it was like this mean experience. When we got out our fight erupted again, and we were sort of grumpy with each other for like a week afterwards and I think this is a very, very important thing to note is that all of these things with the wedge, your intentions and your mindset as you get in there is super important to the results that you’re gonna get as you come out. So we brought our argument into the float, and then we just amplified it.
Brett McKay: I was telling you before the show I floated… I floated twice, both times I just had to pee really bad while I was floating. That’s all I thought about. So it wasn’t… I didn’t…
Scott Carney: Did you? Did you?
Brett McKay: No, I didn’t wanna… See, it stressed me out ’cause I didn’t wanna be the guy that peed in the flow tanks. If someone else is gonna use it afterwards, you can’t do that.
Scott Carney: I’m glad it was out of altruism that you’re thinking, you’re like think about the next man, that you weren’t thinking about yourself. [chuckle]
Brett McKay: I wouldn’t have mind that. It’s like, “Okay, whatever.” It’s like peeing in the pool, it’s just me…
Scott Carney: Oh good point.
Brett McKay: But I didn’t wanna be that guy. Alright, so…I don’t pee in the pool. I remind you not to come to my house and pee. Alright, or swim. So another wedge tool you discovered were saunas. So how can exposing ourself to heat help us access the wedge?
Scott Carney: Right. So, heat is the opposite of the cold, obviously. When we think, talk about the cold, you’re controlling your sympathetic responses which is, basically, you jump in the cold and then it’s like, your fight or flight just comes on immediately. You release adrenaline, you release cortisol and what you’re doing, the technique in cold water, is to relax in that cold water and then you start to learn the tools and the sensations to focus on to control your stress responses. The heat is the opposite. It’s the para-sympathetic responses where your natural reaction is to calm down and cool yourself off and what we’re doing in the heat is trying to train… Well, we can actually train two things: One, you could get into the heat and then have a really intense work out. This is the idea of doing a hot yoga, for instance, and that is super beneficial. But what we’re doing in a sauna is, we’re trying to relax and feel those sensations and control ourselves against the sensation of claustrophobia because the sign of your overheating is this sense of the world closing in, and it’s this feeling that you have to just go run and get out of there.
And so, I flew to Latvia to a traditional sauna called a pirts, with my wife, and we did a five-hour sauna with two shamans, they called them pirtnieks. But it’s basically, think about these people as druids. They show up and they are in green felt hats. There is all of these ritual brews and teas that they’re giving us and they put us in the sauna for five hours. It’s about 180-220 degrees in that sauna at various points. And what they’re doing and what a shaman… This type of shaman really is, is somebody who can sense your sensations and I don’t mean that in some sort of telepathic way, I mean that like a sort of a more mechanical way.
We’re lying on these benches, we’re nude, and they’re standing over us. And as we’re getting to the point where we can’t take it anymore, where we’re getting that really hard place, they take a sprig of cold water and douse it on our feet, and it give us and keep us just below the red line and in this way, we’re able to spend five hours in this crazy hot sauna and they’re sensing us by literally putting their hand on various parts of our body like our feet, or head, or whatever. And if we feel hot to their touch, they know that we must be having a more intense experience than they’re having, so that they’re able to use their sensations to sense our sensations. It was fascinating. But the weirdest thing that happened in the sauna was, as we’re lying on these benches, they also have this ritual where they feed us weird things that are oddly familiar.
At the beginning of the ritual we eat bread that has like pine needles into it, we drink tea that has wormwood into it and these are familiar sense, but they’re sort of in a weird context, context and then we go into the sauna, and we’re in this really stressful area and we experience those things again. They start hitting us with pine needles and rubbing wormwood on our skin, and we’re in this super stressful place and as they do that, for some reason, my brain starts connecting senses like a synesthetics, I had synesthesia. And what that means is that, I start hearing pressure on my skin, I start smelling the sounds and tasting noise. It is this totally bizarre experience because they’re using the same stimulus, which was the bread or whatever, in a totally new context. My brain gets super confused and at the end of this whole ritual, I feel so refreshed, so renewed. It’s like you’re tasting things new again for the same time, but that taste is like the world around you. It was amazing.
Brett McKay: Tell me, what do think the benefit of that is? Except besides experiencing weird taste or whatever.
Scott Carney: The saunas are really traditional medicine. They are a… Every circumpolar indigenous group around the world uses sweat lodges, they use saunas, they use these things as ways of forming community, as forming bonds with each other. They use it to fight depression and there was this really interesting guy that I met named Charles Raison who shows that by exposing people to heat therapy, they actually severely reduce anxiety symptoms, they severely reduce major depression and I have noticed this over and over again ’cause literally, right after I went back from Latvia, I bought a sauna and I sauna all the time and it is more effective clinically, in Charles Raison’s research then taking a SSRI, taking Prozac, or Valium, or any of these. But I guess, Valium with Benzo but it’s better than these anti-depressants at relieving depression. It’s amazing.
Brett McKay: Yeah, we had Charles on the podcast a couple of weeks ago. He was saying that what the sauna does, it increase… So his interesting theory about depression is that, it’s also an inflammatory condition. It’s not neurochemical, your body is basically inflamed and your mind is inflamed. And what the sauna does is it helps… It increases inflammation and in the process of doing that, you decrease systematic inflammation. And you have this whole chapter about that, about inflammation and macrophages, and how a lot of things that we do for treatment, medical treatment is of can be attributed to placebo. And this was an interesting chapter. Can you walk us through this?
Scott Carney: Sure. The placebo effect is like the most derided thing in medicine, right? How often have you heard someone takes, does any sort of alternative medicine thing, and they say, “Oh, well, that’s just the placebo effect that made them better.” The question is, is if someone is getting better, is that not medicine? One of the things I look at, and I look at many things in this chapter, but is if you see a standard clinical trial of just about any drug they do, they test the chemical against a group of people who is not taking the chemical, but they’re getting sort of like a treatment and they say that if the chemical performs better than the placebo, then the chemical must be good, and then that is in medicine, and that gets approved by the FDA.
But if you actually start looking at these trials, many medicines, not all, there are certain classes of medicines, such as antibiotics, where usually placebo is radically not useful compared to the, an active drug. But in many, many drug trials, you’ll have approved drugs that are like 1% or 2% better than the placebo, where a drug is 30% effective, but the placebo is 28% effective. One of these that I like to write about a lot, because I think it’s absurd, is Rogaine, the Hair Club for men, the thing that grows hair on your head, is 28% effective if you take this topical solution and put on your head, but if you just put any solution and think it should get good vibes, that will also regrow hair at 25% or 21% rate.
One of the questions is, why are we just looking at medicine from this sort of very myopic perspective of a chemical intervention, when that placebo effect is actually incredibly powerful and we can manipulate it in various ways. In this chapter, I’m looking at a number of ways to sort of communicate with various parts of your body. Again, I don’t mean telepathically, I mean physically, to try to make them better and try to make them more effective. Honestly, a lot of it comes through emotions. I was talking to this cardiologist the other day, who said, he will always try to use the placebo effect when he’s healing patients, and he does it very consciously. Let’s think about a person who’s about to go through open heart surgery, he will show them a picture of the clogged thing that he’s about to fix, with plaque around the walls and say, “Look, this is how bad your heart is, or your atria,” or whatever. He shows them the scan and says, “I’m going to clean all of that out.”
And then he goes through the surgery and shows them an after photo and say, “Look, I cleaned all that out. Think of how much more blood we’re pumping through your system.” Now, showing the picture is not like a physical intervention, but he sees really, really significant improvements in those, in the people he showed the picture to before and after, versus the people who didn’t get the before and after photo. It wasn’t just the physical thing that he did in the heart, which was probably essential, but it was also that all the things that go into thinking about getting yourself better.
Brett McKay: Well, they’ve done that with surgeries too. They found that back surgery to alleviate back pain or even surgery on your shoulder, they found if you could just cut the person open and then stitch them back up, said, “Yeah, we fixed your back.” They report their back feels better.
Scott Carney: So many people, and honestly, you see this again and again and again in medicine, where, if you think about it, and I’m not against the medical industry, people can oftentimes listen to me and think that I’m, “Screw Western medicine!” That is not my position whatsoever, but there is a lot of money to creating drugs that you can sell over and over again to treat chronic conditions and there is not a lot of money in giving people placebos. We’ve created sort of evidence paradigms around chemicals and things that we can sell that… You know, it costs a billion dollars to get a drug onto the market at the end of the day. There’s no clinical setting where you can sell someone ice water or positive juju that would generate a similar amount of vibes. I think it’s very, very important not to throw away the benefits of Western medicine, not to throw away antibiotics, not to ignore clinical interventions that work, but also accentuate what is available out there. The healing through sensation, through all of the things that I’m looking at at The Wedge. A lot of these things work probably along the same pathways as placebos, and that shouldn’t mean that they’re bad. It means it’s another way to access the healing power of your body.
Brett McKay: It’s another tool. Well, Scott, there’s a lot more we can talk about. You delve into psychedelics, you went on two psychedelic journeys, and we’ll let people check that out. But where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Scott Carney: You can get a free chapter of The Wedge right now at my website, scottcarney.com. Just go there and you subscribe to the mailing list, and then you can read the first chapter, but it’ll also be everywhere. It’ll be on Audible. If you like the sounds of my voice, I will read it to you, the e-book’s absolutely everywhere. I’m also on all the social media platforms. But I would love you to go to my website and read the chapter first. Sign up for the mailing list and let’s get going.
Brett McKay: Scott Carney, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Scott Carney: This has been awesome. Thank you so much.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Scott Carney. He’s the author of the book The Wedge, it’s available on amazon.com. You can also find out more information about his work at his website, scottcarney.com. Also check out our show notes at aom.is/wedge where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
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