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How to Tell if You Have a Healthy Brain

Neurological imbalances can show up as psychological, behavioral, and motivational problems. If we try to treat these problems at the psychological or behavioral levels, however, we can’t effectively cure them because the problems have physical causes, such as a buildup of toxicity in the brain.

by Steve Pavlina, from

It’s my opinion that a wide swath of personal development advice, such as having to get control of your thoughts and feelings, is completely unnecessary and largely counter-productive. If we solve the problem at a physical level, our brains will perform intelligently enough to render such well-meaning advice useless. Instead of consciously fussing over our thoughts and feelings, our brains will naturally behave the way we want them to – no conscious management necessary.

We accumulate toxins in the brain over a period of years because we live in a toxin-rich world these days. Our air is polluted. Our water is polluted. Our food is polluted. Our bodies are polluted. This is an unavoidable fact of modern society. Right now your body has detectable levels of hundreds of toxic substances inside of it, including plastics, heavy metals, pesticides, herbicides, and more. We live in an impure world, and so our bodies are filled with impurities. We soak up environmental toxins like sponges. Even with sophisticated internal detoxification systems, our bodies can’t keep up with the load, so these toxins pile up, particularly in the brain.

The brain is a resilient organ, so when toxins accumulate within it, the effect is usually gradual, and in the beginning the effect may be negligible. If a single neuron misfires now and then, it probably won’t affect our thinking. But when the toxic load becomes great enough, neurons may misfire or even die en masse.

When neurons don’t perform as they should, we suffer mentally, emotionally, and behaviorally. Two common diseases that arise from neuron death are Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Essentially these are the same disease, but in each case the neuron death is occurring in different parts of the brain. With Alzheimer’s the memory centers are affected. With Parkinson’s it’s the motor cortex.

If you develop Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, then you know something is very wrong with your brain. But these diseases don’t just switch on one day. They result from a long, slow process of degradation.

I’ve been investing a lot of time in detoxification, and I’ve been doing dietary and cleansing experiments for many years. I’ve kept journal entries to document how my brain was being affected when I made significant changes. While I’m not slicing my brain open and looking inside, I’ve paid close attention to my mood, motivation, dominant thoughts, problem-solving abilities, sleep habits, social interactions, and more.

With some dietary changes, like eating a macrobiotic diet for several months, I didn’t notice any difference. Other changes had profound and immediate effects. And still other changes seemed to have cumulative effects over time, such as being vegan for 20+ years. This experimenting has made me much more sensitive to the connection between my lifestyle and the relationship I have with my own brain.

I’ve also spent the past several years reading numerous books on neuroscience to better understand how the brain works. This has raised my awareness of how my thoughts, feelings, and behaviors connect with the internal structure of my brain. Perhaps the main benefit is that I’ve learned to diagnose certain problems as most likely physical in nature as opposed to psychological. This has led to some highly effective solutions for problems that couldn’t be solved psychologically but were solvable with physical improvements, such as doing multiple 30-day rounds of detoxification with substances like liposomal glutathione.

Your Relationship With Your Brain

When I ate a toxin-rich diet (animal products, fast food, lots of processed food), I often had a dysfunctional relationship with my own brain. I’d behave impulsively. I had a hard time getting up in the morning and would often sleep in late. I gave too much weight to high-stimulation experiences that were self-destructive. I engaged in frequent criminal behavior. I’d get drunk a lot. I found it difficult to trust myself. Just going outside took some daring because there was a good chance I’d do something risky or dangerous without planning to do so. The safest thing for me to do was to stay home and play video games. I owned more than 100 game cartridges, most of which I’d stolen.

I was lucky. I stumbled almost accidentally upon a long-term path of detoxification, and my behavior improved markedly. I took a nutrition class and began cleaning up my diet. I started running every day. I went vegetarian and then later vegan. And those behavioral problems evaporated. I finally felt like I had some control over myself.

When I read that an experiment found that 80% of juvenile delinquency problems could be eliminated by removing all processed sugar from a child’s diet, I became especially curious about the relationship between diet and behavior. It made sense that the foods I ate could affect my brain and therefore could affect my thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. I figured this effect must be minor though, probably not enough to worry about.

It was obvious that certain substances like caffeine and alcohol affected my brain when I consumed them. When I paid attention, I could notice the effect of chocolate as a stimulant too. But surely “regular food” was just neutral, wasn’t it? It might affect my body overall, but how much would that matter to my brain?

Like many people I also had a tendency to perceive my mind as something separate from my physical brain. The experience of my mind seemed like something that just was the way it was. My mind was me. If I was affected by caffeine or alcohol, that was just a temporary experience, and so the background perception of who I was didn’t really change.

It wasn’t until I began experimenting with significant attempts to purify my diet and later attempts to further draw out toxins that I began seeing the tremendous and undeniable connection between the functioning of my mind and the health of my brain. With some of these experiments, the experience of living in my mind changed significantly. The longer I went down this path, the more changes began to accumulate.

Let me share some of the contrasts between what it felt like to live with a less healthy brain vs. a healthier one. This is partly based on my own experiences as well as the experiences of others who’ve shared their detoxification journeys.

Focus and Concentration

Difficulty focusing and concentrating is one of the first and most obvious signs of toxicity in the brain.

This can manifest as a feeling of brain fog or mental mushiness. When you set your mind to a task such as writing a new article, it doesn’t perform well. Your internal circuitry isn’t firing on all cylinders. The ideas aren’t flowing. The creative juice isn’t there. Trying to work on your task often feels like thinking your way through a bowl of mushy oatmeal.

Have you ever experienced writer’s block? A healthy brain is hugely creative and doesn’t suffer from writer’s block. In 12+ years of blogging, I never have writer’s block except when I’m doing a heavy detox. When you detox, your blood becomes dirtier for a while as the toxins start coming out of your tissues. This can give you some serious brain fog during the detox. But if you’re experiencing brain fog when you aren’t detoxing, that’s a major hint that your brain is suffering from a backlog of toxicity. With a healthy brain, you can just sit down to write, tell your brain to start writing, and it will compose the text and move your fingers. You have a supercomputer with 87 billion neurons in your head. Do you really think that it can’t create a flow of words that’s at least as fast as you can type? Only if you’ve sufficiently poisoned it.

This degradation can also manifest as a heightened vulnerability to distraction. Maybe you can get the desired circuits to fire intelligently sometimes, but now the suppression circuitry seems to be going offline, so your mind wanders and you keep distracting yourself away from the desired focal point.

Your brain is deeply networked, with each neuron (brain cell) connecting to up to 10,000 other neurons. Some of those cells (excitatory neurons) send activation signals to other neurons. Others (inhibitory neurons) send suppression signals. Each neuron receives an incoming flow of activation and suppression signals from the network, and when the activation signal strength reaches a certain threshold, that neuron fires.

Toxins in the brain can short-circuit these connections, causing neurons to misfire. The brain has enough redundancy to correct for minor errors, so it doesn’t just crash when misfirings occur. As toxins build up, the degradation is very gradual – so gradual that you’ll rarely notice the effect as your thinking becomes slowly corrupted. But if you do a serious round of detoxing, within a month you may notice a huge difference in your ability to focus and concentrate.

I began noticing big swings in my mental functioning when I did certain dietary experiments, like eating 100% raw. Within days after switching to raw foods, I noticed a sharp improvement in my writing speed. My mind became calmer and clearer than ever, and it felt like I had more mental RAM available for thinking about complex ideas. I could write articles about 30% faster when eating 100% raw. That made me curious about why that was happening and how I could lock in better mental performance. I’ve since learned how to achieve even better results without having to eat 100% raw, although I still eat a high-raw diet. I’m sipping on a green smoothie as I type this.

An unhealthy brain is an easily distracted one, but a healthy brain is better at maintaining focus and suppressing signals to change course. It feels relaxing and peaceful to stick to a task or project for an extended stretch. The urges to distract myself may still arise, but they aren’t as strong as they used to be because the suppression circuitry is working as it should.

Brain scans have revealed that our brains are constantly activating different patterns in anticipation of what input might occur next. If you read the word bear, your brain will automatically preload patterns that are associated with a bear, but this usually happens on a subconscious level. As you read each word of this article, your brain is constantly preloading associated patterns. Normally those patterns are quickly suppressed when they aren’t needed, but in an unhealthy brain that suppression circuitry doesn’t work correctly, so the mind frequently wanders into these preloads. It’s like reading an article online and always being distracted by the first or second link, so it takes you much longer to finish the original article, if you finish it at all.

Inner Alignment and Motivation

When your brain is misfiring, the thought processes that occur in one part of your brain don’t sync well with the other parts of your brain. This shows up as various conflicts, such as desiring a certain outcome but behaving in ways that won’t produce the outcome, setting a goal but not having the necessary motivation and discipline to achieve it, or wanting to be happy but feeling depressed or frustrated instead.

Have you had the experience of coming up with grandiose ideas that you procrastinate on implementing? Do you find yourself taking actions that seem haphazard and which can’t possibly give you useful, long-term outcomes? Do you often feel like the desires your mind gives you and the actions it gives you are out of sync? Are negative emotions getting in your way?

Do you believe that your brain evolved to behave in such a conflicted manner? Does it seem natural that after millions of years of evolution of the mammalian brain, we should have such troubles? Of course not. If your ancestors couldn’t sync their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors intelligently, they wouldn’t have survived long. You’re descended from an unbroken line of survivors who got the job done. All of them reproduced.

An improvement in your brain’s internal synchronization ability is among the most powerful benefits of detoxification. After some 30-day intensive detox experiments, I saw much greater coordination between the desires my mind was creating, the actions I was taking, and the emotions I was feeling. In the past I’d have to do a lot of personal growth work to get my behaviors into alignment with my desires.

Over time this alignment has improved greatly. Instead of having to push myself to take the right actions, the balance has shifted. Now I catch myself automatically taking actions that align with my goals, and I’m actually getting many actions done before I’ve even decided to do them on a conscious level. As I make progress I begin seeing how synergistically my actions are working to create the desired outcome. I don’t need to do as much conscious planning, and I don’t have to push myself to act. When my brain comes up with a desire, it’s also feeding me the action steps and the motivation to make it happen.

This is an extraordinarily different way to live than the alternative of constantly fighting yourself when your mood and behaviors are out of alignment with your desires. If you’ve been suffering with consistency and motivation, consider that your problem may not be psychological but rather physical. Perhaps your brain is much more brilliant than you give it credit for, but it’s unable to do it’s job when it’s overloaded with toxins that cause too many neurological misfirings.

An unhealthy brain is also more susceptible to addiction. A healthy brain has a stronger prefrontal cortex, which can override addictive impulses. The more addictions you drop, the stronger this part of your brain becomes, and the more disciplined you’ll feel internally.

Detoxification leads to a feeling of greater inner harmony. This path has given me a tremendous respect for just how brilliant and well-synchronized all the parts of our brain can be, if we clean it up enough to perform as it evolved to perform. The experience of living with a harmonious mind is very different from living with a disharmonious one.


Your prioritization abilities come from the emotional, survival-driven parts of your brain. Logic alone can’t tell you whether it’s more important to brush your teeth, look for a new relationship partner, or start a new business. In the modern world, there are many pressures that are out of alignment with how our prioritization circuitry evolved, so it’s easy to scramble these circuits. Even a small amount of toxicity can degrade them sharply, with the result being that you find yourself giving too much weight to trivialities and/or too little weight to genuine priorities.

I can create a degradation effect in my prioritization circuits by consuming caffeine. If I have an espresso, some parts of my brain will become overstimulated, and I’ll spend hours doing tasks that didn’t need to be done at all. My mind races to give me assignments to keep itself busy, but it loses sight of the big picture. This is one reason I’ve committed to going caffeine-free for the whole year. I know that I’m better at maintaining intelligent priorities when I stay caffeine-free. Caffeine can cause me to speed up, but it will soon have me racing down the wrong track.

When your prioritization circuitry is working properly, the result is consistency. You’ll be able to stick with long-term projects and goals long enough to see them through to completion. This is certainly more rewarding than bobbling around between different ideas and never sticking with any of them long enough to see results.

Mental Endurance

I’ve often had good mental endurance, being able to do challenging work for many hours at a time. But after doing a lot of detoxification, I found my endurance spiking to even higher levels. Initially these spikes were semi-random. Some days I’d find myself plowing through 12+ hours of creative work like it was nothing, but this didn’t happen consistently. The more I’ve pursued this path though, the more frequently these bursts are occurring, sometimes being sustained for weeks at a stretch.

High mental endurance helps you get creative work done faster. You don’t need as many sessions or breaks to get through it, and there are fewer sticking points where you have to stop and consciously think. I recently wrote up a 16,000-word design doc for the upcoming coaching program to be launched in the Spring. My subconscious mind basically did the writing while I watched.

I love this improvement. It’s causing me to set and pursue bigger goals that were previously out of reach, including the coaching program. I feel like my capabilities are catching up to my dreams, which is very rewarding.

Social Comfort

When your brain is unhealthy, you’re more likely to feel shy, nervous, or anxious around other people. Toxicity disrupts your social skills, and this often leads to social withdrawal.

One way that toxicity interferes with socialization is by generating incongruent emotions and behaviors that don’t serve you. Instead of feeling friendly, outgoing, and confident, you get feelings of nervousness, anxiety, or the desire to withdraw. Other people may also perceive you as being disinterested or aloof if your body language isn’t communicating interest and openness.

When you feel more centered, clear, and aligned on the inside, it’s easier to socialize. It’s also easier to socialize when your brain naturally generates positive feelings around other people instead of misfiring into pathways of anxiety or nervousness.

After all, why should your brain make you feel nervous or anxious around other people? Is it intelligent to withdraw and to rob yourself of companionship and social resources? These are largely unintelligent behaviors. A brain that frequently generates such behaviors is a misfiring brain.

Some people say that our brains evolved to feel anxious around strangers because they could be a threat. There may indeed be some truly threatening situations to consider, but why would our brains generate such false feelings when it’s abundantly clear that we aren’t in danger? Some say it’s a throwback to how our brains evolved. I say that’s partly true.

Yes, our brains have evolved the fight-or-flight response, which can be a lifesaver in dangerous situations, but if we’re partially triggering this pattern at the wrong times, it’s due to a lack of synchronization with more modern parts of our brains. The brain should be suppressing aspects of the fight-or-flight response in non-threatening situations. And in fact it does suppress such unnecessary feelings when it’s functioning optimally. Your brain is indeed smart enough to recognize when a situation isn’t threatening, and it can leave you feeling calm and comfortable.

You can push, push, push yourself to develop better social skills, but if your own brain is betraying you by generating conflicted feelings and behaviors, this is a tough mountain to climb. As soon as you ease up on your social courage efforts, you’ll naturally find yourself withdrawing again. But this only seems like your natural default because of the unnatural level of toxicity in your brain.

Perhaps you don’t need social courage at all. Maybe what you need is a brain that naturally generates social comfort, curiosity, and a desire to connect. A healthy brain does this automatically. A healthy brain can even get you socializing automatically before you’ve even made a conscious decision to do so.

You can actually work on both fronts simultaneously if you so desire. You can work on building social courage while also cleaning up your brain. I took that route, but I think I’d have made faster progress if I’d gotten into detoxification much sooner.

With a healthy brain, conversation gets easier too. You may experience a nicer flow of ideas to share, and you’ll sync up better with the other person, creating a healthy balance of listening and talking. I’ve been enjoying the in-person meetups more than usual lately, and I think it’s because I feel more present, aware, and relaxed.

Toxicity can easily affect your desire to socialize. I did another 30-day detox round in January of this year, and during that time I didn’t feel like socializing much. I delayed following up with people who requested a meetup that month. But as I was finishing the detox, I began feeling a lot more social, and I welcomed those meetups and enjoyed them in February.

The more I invest in staying clean on the inside, the less fear and hesitation my mind generates when it comes to social situations. At some point I even flipped from an INTJ to an ENTJ on the Myers-Briggs test, which means I went from introvert to extrovert. Today I feel like it would be hard to classify myself as either since I can flip from introvert to extrovert mode with relative ease, and I feel comfortable all across the spectrum. However, my introvert side is way more dominant when I’m doing a detox round.

Give Yourself a Taste of Clarity

If this article serves to raise your awareness of potential degradation of your neural circuitry, you can take steps to reverse the damage. Generally this is a long process, requiring many years and a lot of patience. I think you’ll find it very worthwhile though. Seeing your mind become clearer and sharper year after year is certainly better than the alternative. In some ways it’s a lot like taking the pill from the movie Limitless.

I think this is a situation where you have to see it to believe it. Going on a short-term cleanse can give you a temporary boost of mental clarity, which can serve as a powerful reference experience for how your mind performs when it’s closer to its best. This was the biggest motivation for me.

I experienced strong boosts in mental clarity within a few days when eating 100% raw, while doing a 7-day green smoothie cleanse, and while water fasting for 17 days. I also experienced a long stretch of increased mental and emotional clarity after doing a 30-day juice feast. The more I experimented with cleansing, the more I touched these awesome higher states, and the more I wondered if it would be possible to get my default experience closer to that ideal. In some ways though, I think I’ve already passed what I used to consider the earlier ideal. The ideal is a moving target as well because the more you purify your brain, the higher the peaks can climb.

Not everyone experiences bursts of clarity during cleansing though. It depends on how toxic you are and how much the toxic load will decrease during a short-term cleanse. I think it’s worth a test to see if you can get a taste of a new peak. If so, that’s a hint and a half that your brain could be functioning a lot better, and what you’ve been considering your normal functioning all these years is actually a sickly and degraded condition.

There can be some bumps on this path. You might make some dumb decisions while you’re detoxing. You may make decisions during your peak states that you can’t follow through on, much like Bradley Cooper in Limitless when he loses access to his pills. You may need to get used to a wider spectrum of mental functioning, and when you sink a little, it can be extra disappointing. Detoxing isn’t a smooth and consistent path for most people. It usually takes a lot of experimenting over a period of years.

I inadvertently started on this path in 1993 when I stopped eating animals. Back then I didn’t realize what a powerful step that was. I didn’t learn until much later that fish is one of the most toxic foods we can ingest due to its high concentration of heavy metals like mercury and lead. Going vegan helped even more, as did experimenting with raw foods, drinking pure filtered water, and doing multiple rounds of intensive detox such as those shared by Alex Bloom and Josh Macin. I met Josh at a conference last year in London, and his story of going from mental and emotional chaos back to health is extraordinary. (Update Mar 2, 2017: A reader informed me that Alex recently put his how-to detox info behind a paywall, but since he’d already published it publicly before, you can still find that info via the Internet Archive.)

This is no easy path, but in today’s world it’s a crucial one that you ignore at your peril. We can’t turn our backs on the toxic overload that’s in our air, water, and food. We’re immersed in it every day now, and we can’t prevent it from affecting our minds. We must take steps to slow and reverse the damage if we are to be fully self-actualized human beings.

The longer you travel the default path of toxicity, the more degradation you’ll experience, and the harder it will be to change course later. If you can integrate the habits of eating a purer, cleaner diet and investing in detoxification while you’re young, it will surely serve you well.

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