Elizabeth Ricker

Year of Graduation: 
Elizabeth Ricker

"I'm not going to leave my brain up to my doctor or my teacher or my boss. My brain is my own responsibility and I'm going to do the best I can to optimize that."

Are you ready to seriously upgrade your brain? In an electrifying debut book, Elizabeth Ricker ’03 presents a host of hands-on experiments — from physical exercises like “comedy cardio” to guzzling a drink direct from the Pacific Islands, and, yes, even a (gentle) electrical brain stimulating — that just may boost your mental capacity.

More self-enhancement than self-help, Smarter Tomorrow: How 15 Minutes of Neurohacking a Day Can Help You Work Better, Think Faster, and Get More Done draws deeply from Ricker’s professional experience in technology and neuroscience: Ricker received her undergraduate degree in brain and cognitive sciences from MIT and a master’s in mind, brain and education from Harvard. She also worked in tech startups spun out of Stanford, Harvard and MIT research labs before deciding to make more time for her writing. Currently, she runs NeuroEducate, a citizen-focused neuroscience organization, and Ricker Labs, through which she is a science adviser, speaker and consultant.

Curiosity is key in Ricker’s book — you have to be not just a willing participant, but a focused one. The underlying premise is that neurohacking is about empowering yourself by developing and improving your individual abilities. In other words, the book is what you make of it.

In a field flush with self-help books, what makes yours stand out?

It’s funny, I didn’t intend to write a self-help book. I was originally writing a popular science book, but I wondered if I could stitch together the strengths of science and self-help and avoid some of the pitfalls that each of the disciplines run into. I’m hoping that it will start a new trend of what I’m calling “scientific self help.” You take the premise of self-help, which is intended to provide the reader with tools that will help them improve their life, and you combine that with deep rigor and sound scientific research. Then I go a step further, introducing self-experimentation — in the research literature we call it single-case experimental design. That teaches you how to run experiments on yourself in the same way as pharmaceutical companies or large biomedical research institutions run randomized control trials. At its core, neurohacking is saying, “I’m not going to leave my brain up to my doctor or my teacher or my boss. My brain is my own responsibility and I’m going to do the best that I can to optimize it.”

And neurohacking is a combination of neuroscience and biohacking?

Yes. You’re using specific components of neuroscience. Some of the principles that are most relevant would be our relatively recent knowledge of neuroplasticity and all of the incredible things that even the adult brain is able to do to adapt to its environment. You’re taking this science and combining that with life hacks — quick shortcuts — where you gain better access to your mental performance. That’s really what I’m going for. I take the distilled crystalized nuggets of neuroscience research that I’ve pulled out from years of poring through this material, and present the reader with useful, accurate science that they can apply to their daily lives.

What’s a good example of that?

The concept of personalization is key: asking a question like, “If I’m going into a meeting and I want to be well prepared, would I be better off drinking coffee or meditating for five minutes?” That seems like a simple question but the answer is potentially different for every person. Neurohacking gives you the tools to answer such questions in a really rigorous way so that you go into any given situation and have exactly the tool kit that best suits your unique brain.

You wrote this book while working full time and starting two businesses. What were the biggest challenges?

The practical aspects were the hardest, like figuring out how to fund it. Initially, I tried to work on the book on the side — my day job was working as a manager for tech companies, basically doing science and technology in industry — but I found that I didn’t have enough mental force left for writing at the end of the day. So I left my original career track to start Neuroeducation Ricker Labs. A big appeal in working for myself was being able to carve out chunks of uninterrupted writing time during the hours of the day when I was freshest. Also, entrepreneurship enabled a more flexible schedule — when inspiration knocked, I could finally answer.

Did you always want to be a writer?

Were there teachers at Exeter who shaped your trajectory? I fell in love with writing when I was 10, writing a poem about a lake and unicorns. The Exeter teachers who really stuck out were history teachers, Mr. Pruitt and Mrs. Merrill. They emphasized the importance of primary sources and of making a clear, cogent argument that took the other side into consideration. Miss Pettigrew, in English, was phenomenal: We read The Bluest Eye and had these discussions around empathy and about handling the discomfort of reading about a character who you find abhorrent but fascinating. I really came to admire the power of the written word to transport the reader into entirely different mental states. And then, of course, Mr. Chisholm, my AP bio teacher, gets a lot of credit for why I fell in love with neuroscience.

Do you recognize early versions of neurohacking that you applied at Exeter?

Yes! One was discovering that you can cram a lot of homework into the 25-minute break before class — the power of adrenaline to focus the mind, that was definitely an interesting early insight. And I developed some neurohacks there — one was working in sprints, which I later discovered is the Pomodoro method, a form of work where you focus intensely on one specific thing for, say, 25minutes and then you take a five-minute break. I coupled that with exercise in those five minutes, doing jumping jacks, push-ups, sit-ups or by having a dance break with friends. I even ran experiments with a friend to see how effective our study was before versus after these short exercise breaks.

Did neurohacking help write this book?

Absolutely! Writing the book was very challenging, not just because of the pandemic, but also because I became a parent for the first time. One thing that helped was what I call “treadmill typing.” I placed my laptop on a piece of an old bed that I slung across the treadmill, then I walked very slowly as I worked. I found the activity was stimulating, as effective as coffee for me, since I wasn’t drinking as much caffeine as I previously had. Another effective neurohack was discovering the time of day that I was most productive — that turned out to be somewhere after midnight. Another one was watching stand-up comedy while doing some form of cardio. There are well-documented benefits to laughter and combining that with exercise gave me a double boost. Mood is linked to creativity, so I knew I had to stay positive, otherwise I probably wouldn’t get the book done. Now that it’s published, my goal is to encourage as many people as possible to get into self-experimentation and neurohacking.

Editor's note: This feature first appeared in the Winter 2022 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.