Occasionally, one comes across a person whose journey is as intriguing as his career achievements. James Schmachtenberger, CEO of FORM’s portfolio company Neurohacker Collective, is a prime example. Having dropped out of university after realizing that standardized education wasn’t his cup of tea, James enrolled in an alternative education institution where he studied both the science of health as well as alternative approaches to treating disease. His road then took many turns until he felt ready to build a company that would bring an entirely new way of preventing and treating disease. Based on a novel, systems approach to the science of health, Neurohacker is driven to optimize human health and performance. But this interview is unique because James goes beyond health to touch upon his personal journey and bigger questions about life. For James, personal experience, career, and life are tightly woven and come together in one grand picture.
Markus: James, thank you so much for joining us today. You’ve had a unique upbringing and a career. Please tell our audience a little bit about your upbringing and education, and how they’ve come together to make you the person you are today.
James: I was homeschooled on and off throughout most of my young life. Our homeschool was oriented towards trying to see what my brother and I were naturally interested in, and creating opportunities to dive into those interests. This resulted in some interesting differences in my education versus what is considered standard education- such as basic geography, for example. But I loved learning because there was an opportunity to explore topics of interest as opposed to being forced to learn something. And I think that created a really good framework for me to build on for the rest of my life. I’ve always been profoundly curious, and that has influenced every project I’ve worked on, especially Neurohacker. For me, it’s always been about learning and knowing more about something, and using that knowledge to my advantage.
Markus: Do you believe that the kind of educational experience you had growing up might be a better framework for our education system today?
James: Oh, absolutely! Of course, as a caveat, there are things that were part of my education that I would improve and do better if I was designing an educational system. But I think one of the scariest things to me is when you look around the world and see how many people seem to have an aversion to learning and education. People want to be entertained but not educated, because we don’t educate in compelling ways. We teach topics that don’t matter to most people, we don’t explain why they should matter, and force kids to memorize and regurgitate information in a way that is - for lack of a better word - soul-killing. As humans, we want to be profoundly engaged, but that means you have to create the opportunity and space to enable people to find out what they’re interested in and pursue it further. And I think that the more we’re able to move our education system towards the ability to identify what is unique about each person and enhance that through education, instead of making people conform to a particular way of thinking, we’re going to be in much better shape as a society.
Markus: You’ve also gone through a very interesting career path. You’ve done very different things, from fighting for cannabis legalization to running your own educational institute. Can you tell us more about your career trajectory and how it led to you founding Neurohacker?
James: In a sense, most of it was accidental. I didn’t have a predefined career path and stumbled into a handful of things. Because of my education, I started college at a very young age, and dropped out three times before realizing that it wasn’t for me. I was much more entrepreneurial and hands-on, so I wasn’t really oriented in a traditional academic sense. So after I dropped out of college for the third time, I enrolled in an institute teaching alternative medicine and alternative psychology as opposed to a traditional college environment. As soon as I got there, I felt like I found where I was supposed to be. Something just clicked.
Markus: Sorry to interrupt, James. But I’m curious to know why you chose that major?
James: Throughout my whole life, I had a very deep interest in healing, both in terms of the physical aspect of healing, as well as the psychological and spiritual. So I grew up studying a lot of medicine, comparative religion, and so on. Also, when I was young, my mom almost died of a drug trial, and it was only Ayurvedic medicine that was able to bring her back to health. So I grew up around natural medicine. But it was largely the element of psychology and psycho-spiritual healing that drew me in. I always wanted to learn about how people interact with the world, how they think, why they make the decisions they make both on the personal and collective level. I ended up enrolling in med school and within a few weeks I felt at home. I knew that this is the kind of work I want to do in the world - both focus on my own healing and personal development and facilitate it for others. And the more I got into it, the more I fell in love with it. And so, as I was nearing the end of my schooling there, the man who ran the institute wanted to retire from running the organization. So I decided to raise a chunk of money and buy the school from him.
Markus: Wait! How old were you when that happened?
James: I had just turned 18.
Markus: Wow! That’s impressive!
James: It was one of those things where I was too naive to realize what I couldn’t do. Because truth be told, it was way out of scope for me. As an 18 year old who barely knew how to balance a checkbook, I was not well-equipped to run an educational institution. But I made up for my lack of skill and intelligence with passion and sheer willingness to work, because it was so clearly the right path for me. Even though everything about it was a little bit insane, there was no question in my mind that I had found my path. The only part that was surprising to me was that anyone would be crazy enough to loan me money at that age.
Markus: That’s remarkable.
James: It was indeed. I dove right in and as it progressed, I became more and more informed about what the future would look like. I started doing a lot of one-on-one counseling, which I loved. I started facilitating personal development classes, which I loved even more. But even though I was passionate about working closely with people, as I got older I realized that I have a unique competency to build teams and infrastructures that can then scale the process of healing to a lot more people in need. And even though some elements of that weren’t as personally fulfilling in terms of directly working with one person, my goal was to maximize impact. So I started teaching less and training more teachers and facilitators. And then along the way I was introduced to new areas, and at a certain point it became time for me to move on.
Markus: What was it that made you want to move on?
James: Well, many different factors. One major factor was that at that time, I was introduced to cannabis as a medicine and started exploring its therapeutic and medicinal potential. I launched a dispensary, really as a transition between the school and what was to come next. But it ended up not being a transition. The activist got ignited in me, and I started moving into public education and policy reform. I did a lot of legislative work too, initially on safe medical access, and then safe recreational access. And while I was doing that, there was a deep inspiration sitting in the background for quite a long time, around wanting to build an organization focused on human optimization. Since I had a career in natural medicine, I had exposure to different opportunities to improve my health that most people didn’t even know existed. I knew there were remarkable opportunities for healing, as well as going beyond healing and advancing human capacities, such as improving cognitive functions, slowing the pace of aging, and optimizing sleep. I knew there was a lot out there that could be done but wasn’t being done as well as it could be. So this inspiration really came to the forefront a few years ago, and I decided to start building Neurohacker, which from the get-go required us to essentially develop a new scientific model of how to study human physiology.
Markus: Interesting. How is this model different from the dominant medical model?
James: Essentially, it takes on a more complex view of human physiology. Our approach is to study healthy systems and how they adapt and evolve to maintain homeostasis. And we develop supplements and various other products that enable the body to enhance these self-regulatory capacities. The standard medical approach is to override something, but that often leads to unintended health consequences. So we dove deeply into the development of an entirely new approach in our goal of developing novel products that enhance self-regulatory processes, and in this way, optimize human capacities.
Markus: When you say enhancing human capabilities, what does that mean exactly? What happens when someone uses your products?
James: We have products that cover a few different aspects of health but cognition is what we’re most known for so I’ll speak to that. As you may know, some people experience a dropoff from a host of factors in cognitive performance, while others may be maintaining their cognitive performance but desire to have a higher baseline of cognitive abilities. Whatever the case may be, a huge portion of our audience is committed to increasing cognitive function. And this is where our work is really unique. Mostly, when people think about increasing cognitive function, they’re thinking about it in a more narrow sense, mostly in terms of increasing focus and attention. The problem is that when you look at the brain, you see that increasing focus can lead to a disproportionate increase in other brain functions. A lot of brain products out there, especially pharmaceuticals, work in that way. Aderol is a good example. It ramps up dopamine, which makes you hyper-focused, but at the same time reduces your ability to think clearly. So know you have all this drive but less of an ability to know if what you’re driven toward is actually a good thing. Obviously that’s dangerous. So we look at various aspects of brain function together - focus, memory, verbal reasoning, problem-solving capacity, and so on. We look at how we can develop products that allow your body’s performance to increase in a way that, as you need more of these capacities, your body can produce the relevant neurotransmitters on the fly and help you achieve that. This allows people to have increases in a series of brain functions as opposed to an increase in a single factor, but in a way that’s holistic, where you’re not benefitting one area at the expense of the other.
Markus: Wow, that’s fascinating. Especially when you consider the serious backing you guys have from the scientific community. Could you say a few words about what’s made it possible for Neurohacker to enjoy the backing and support of top scientists?
James: We’re very fortunate in that sense. Although we’re still a young startup in many ways, we have an extraordinary group of scientific advisors who’ve come on board. It’s really the result of this different approach to science, this complex systems approach to understanding human physiology. To the best of my knowledge, there aren’t any other organizations out there using the same or even similar modeling orientation. It’s what I view as the necessary evolution of the entire medical system, especially as you look at the issue of healing chronic disease. We have such a reductionist view of healing that we haven’t been able to come up with cures to complex diseases. This is in contrast to acute diseases. You break your arm, there’s a cause and a fix for it, and it works wonderfully. But we don’t have cures for cancers and autoimmune disorders, for instance, because they don’t have a single cause. There’s a complex series of causations that stack onto one another to create disease, which means that there’s no single way to treat it. Only a complex treatment process can take into account the different causative factors that go into disease. I think that many of these scientists started working with us because they came to understand our scientific approach and what it’s able to do in the near and long term. In the near term, it allows us to make products that meaningfully increase capacity in a way that you notice in real time. And as this model progresses and becomes more broadly used, I expect it to support incredible advances in medicine on every front, from healing to enhancement.
Markus: Fantastic. Now let’s switch to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Do you see an intersection between your products and treating infectious diseases?
James: That’s a very interesting question. Obviously, when we started working on all of this, we didn’t anticipate an infectious disease spreading across the world. There are some intersections here. For one, with our work on cognition, both in terms of our products but also from the educational side with our blogs and podcasts, we focused on sense-making. This is a huge challenge in the world today. There’s so much misinformation and strong opinions on all sides, taking all of this in and making sense of the big picture is extremely difficult. And that’s entirely true of COVID-19. You read one study from a reputable source saying that it’s no worse than the flu and we’re blowing it out of proportion. And then you read a different reputable source saying that the death toll is 35 times higher than the flu. So one area we work on is supporting people’s capacity for sense-making. Both in terms of physically enhancing their capacity to understand complex issues, but also from the educational side on how to think critically and discern truth from falsehood. So sense-making is a big area where we lean in. In terms of our products, none of them are designed to address COVID-19. That said, we recently finished developing an immunity product, one we’ve been working on for quite a while. Although it’s not specifically oriented toward COVID-19, it is oriented toward improving overall immune function. And it’s reasonable to think that having a better functioning immune system reduces both people's capacity to get many infectious disorders generally, and to reduce the repercussions. So we’re extremely excited about that. But so far, we’ve really been focused on sense-making and enabling people to better understand the whole COVID-19 situation.
Markus: Sense-making is certainly important. Now that countries are opening up again slowly, how do you see things unfolding until the end of the year?
James: Well, the way I see it, I don’t think I’m well enough informed to have a high likelihood of predicting the way the situation plays out. As I’ve learned, this is the area that’s most difficult to make sense of. Overall, though, my belief is that as a society, we’re significantly overvaluing the economy and rushing to make decisions based on economic factors, a dangerous game that can lead to severe repercussions. At the beginning of the crisis, we were late to shut things down, because we were more worried about losing money than losing lives. And now that things are starting to whittle down a bit, everyone’s rushing to reopen as quickly as they can. Hopefully that all plays out well, but from what I’m seeing from the data, that appears to be a very bad idea. I fear that we will lose a lot more people than necessary, and that the overall recovery process will be longer and harder. What’s pretty well understood is that if we go through a global quarantine for about two months, we’d be in really good shape and the world would largely come back to normal. But now it appears that we’re heading down the path of an open-and-close cycle that will inevitably cause more economic harm and more lives lost than necessary. I say this because I don’t believe that there’s a good near-term solution right now. The vaccine route won’t be viable for a significant period of time to come. And even if it is, there’s going to be massive controversy surrounding it. So really, testing and social distancing is the key until we have much better control over the crisis.
Markus: Thanks for that intriguing perspective. On a more personal level, how did the crisis impact your daily habits and choices? Have you changed anything about the way you live your day-to-day life as a consequence of the pandemic?
James: I changed quite a bit actually. For one, I’m on a very tight quarantine protocol, both to make sure I don’t get the virus and I don’t spread it. My interactions with the outside world are very limited other than through Zoom. I’ve tried to focus quite a bit on boosting my immune system. For example, I’ve tried to increase the amount and quality of sleep I get. That’s a key factor.
Markus: I see you’re wearing an Oura ring. Is that the main technology you use, or do you have other ways to improve sleep?
James: Well, I use Oura mainly as a way to track my sleep. But there are a bunch of other things that I experiment with on a daily basis. I’m constantly trying out different practices before bed - meditative practices, gratitude practices, and so on. I experiment with different supplement protocols. I try out different types of exercise at different times of the day to see how it impacts my sleep.
Markus: So would you say that sleep is essential?
James: I would say that sleep is the single most important factor people should focus on to build better immunity.
Markus: How many hours do you sleep on average?
James: Unfortunately, sleep is not a strong point of mine, so it’s an area that I have to put extra attention on. Realistically, I average between 6 and 6.5 hours. Sleep has always been a health challenge for me. It probably goes with being an entrepreneur.
Markus: Tell me about it. There’s definitely a correlation there.
James: Oh yes! Sleep is one of the biggest things that everyone can and should focus on. Other than that, exercise is known to be an important factor that increases immune function. So I decked out my garage with a pretty nice home gym at the beginning of the outbreak, which is great. And then there’s a chunk that I’m doing in the way of supplementation. My Vitamin C and D intake has shot up, as well as Zinc and a few others. Those are the types of things I'm taking consistently on a daily basis for immune function, and then occasionally things like immune-boosting mushrooms to go along with those. I also made some dietary changes, though I’ve always had a pretty good diet. But I’m focusing more on eating less sugar, processed foods, and focusing on having everything homemade and organic.
Markus: Do you eat a mainly plant-based diet?
James: Yes, I’ve been a vegan for a number of years.
Markus: James, I really want to thank you for all the wonderful and practical advice on how to build better immunity. I’m sure our readers will greatly appreciate it.
James: I very much hope so.
Markus: Now I have a bigger-picture question if I may. As you recounted earlier, you’ve had a very interesting life and career so far. Now that you look back on your younger days as a more mature man, how would you have lived your life differently if you had the choice? What advice would you give 20 year old James?
James: It’s a fascinating question. I think that the primary advice I would give would be something along the following lines: trust and accept yourself more. As I reflect on my personal life and career, I notice that a huge amount of time and energy has gone into trying to be a particular way. For example, watching a certain business leader and trying to emulate the way he did things. Or looking at a certain company that was celebrated for having a great culture and trying to emulate that. Basically, looking at models and emulating them. But what I now understand is that I was really trying to recreate someone else’s vision and version of reality based on their very own personality type, strengths, and weaknesses. As opposed to really owning who I am, what I’m uniquely good and bad at, what I really want, and then building my life and organizations around that so that I’m not spending my time and energy trying to model my behavior or strategy after someone else. It would've been great, for example, if I had done a better job earlier in my career of surrounding myself with people who compliment my skill sets and not try so hard to reinvent what I’m not best at naturally. Because that trying ends up taking as much if not more energy than the actual work does. We’re just simpler, happier, and more effective when we have a clear sense of who we are, having acceptance around that, and then build our lives and organizations from that framework as opposed to trying to be someone we think we’re supposed to be.
Markus: I think that’s excellent advice. Would you say that you’re at that stage in your life today?
James: I would say that I’m in that evolution. I wouldn’t say it’s a point that I’ve arrived at. It’s an area where I can see a huge amount of growth and evolution, particularly in the last few years. I also see where certain business relationships that I set up early still carry certain legacy challenges, and how new ones carry less. It’s a good sign that I’m on the right course of evolution, and that I’m still very much on that path. It’s not one that I’ve arrived at yet.
Markus: It’s very interesting you put it that way, because I see it very much the same way when I think of myself. It’s a tough road, especially when you have to push boundaries and reinvent your course throughout the journey. But it’s also what drives your own personal growth and pushes you closer to the point of knowing yourself and living according to that knowledge.
Markus: And on that philosophical note, I would like to thank you immensely for your time today. It’s been a real honor to have you as part of our interview series. I wish you the best of luck!
James: Same to you! It’s been a pleasure, Markus.