I bought into the idea that wellness guru Andrew Huberman could fix my life. Then I read about him

Does it matter if the paragon of the scientifically optimised existence is actually kind of a jerk in real life?

Uploaded by Brenda Fitzsimons 18/04/24

Early last year, I had a conversation with a friend about a spell of intractable insomnia I was going through at the time – a condition that has afflicted me, on and off, since early adulthood. My friend said that his own sleep had over the last while been much improved, in both quality and quantity, by a few habits he had lately developed. The most notable of these was the practice of going outside as soon as possible after waking and absorbing 15 or 20 minutes of early-morning sunlight. It had to do, I believe, with a spike in cortisol caused by UV rays, and with the resetting of the brain’s inner “sleep clock”. He had, he said, picked up this practice – along with an array of other highly specific-sounding lifestyle and health tweaks – from a podcast called Huberman Lab, hosted by the Stanford neuroscientist Andrew Huberman.

I was intrigued (and sleep-deprived) enough to start listening. At first I was sceptical. There was a lot of talk of supplements, for one thing; Huberman begins his podcasts with a lengthy paean to his sponsor, the startlingly expensive dietary elixir AG1, along with a rotating cast of theoretically health-improving products and services – meditation apps; cold-water plunge baths; mattresses that track your sleep; some kind of high-protein venison delivery concern. But it didn’t take long for me to be drawn in.

My friend had described Huberman as “reassuringly boring”, and although this doesn’t quite do justice to his skill as a science communicator, it does go some way toward accounting for his appeal. His affect is wonkish without being impenetrable, and he has a gift for simultaneously condensing and simplifying complex bodies of research. His persona is a unique configuration of peculiarly Californian signifiers: sweetly earnest former skate-punk; charismatic wellness guru; Silicon Valley-adjacent science-bro.

Huberman Lab is one of the world’s most popular podcasts. The focus of the most played episodes tends to be on practical tools for improving specific areas of physical and mental health: methods of breathing for reducing stress, mineral compounds that improve sleep, and so on. Huberman refers to these practices as “protocols”, a term which itself reflects the pleasingly square-headed rationalism of the podcast. Before long, I was a regular listener, and had adopted a handful of these protocols: hauling myself outside first thing to get that early morning sunlight, taking magnesium for better sleep, and even pursuing the crypto-masochistic exhilaration of daily cold showers. Who knows if any of it had much more than a placebo affect, but Huberman’s careful explication of the science was persuasive. I was, in my sceptical and half-assed manner, Huberman-pilled.


I still listen to the podcast, and the efficacy of, say, magnesium as a sleep aid is unaffected by whether the guy recommending it is an ascetic saint or a priapic dirtbag

Last month, New York magazine ran a cover story entitled “Falling for Dr. Huberman.” It’s a very long article, which goes into extraordinary detail on matters of debatable public interest, but the gist of it is that Huberman, that paragon of the optimised existence, has been presiding for some years now over a sexual life of near-deranged complexity and duplicity, conducting simultaneous relationships with six women, each of whom believed herself to be his exclusive partner.

My own response to reading this was more complicated than I would have expected it to be. There was some puerile fascination with the bizarre convolutions of the man’s sexual affairs, and with the daunting logistics of conducting them. The duplicity and emotional manipulation was undoubtedly grubby, and demeaning to everyone involved – Huberman himself perhaps most of all. But 8,000 words on a popular podcaster’s private life, however much of a moral and sexual fiasco it might be, seemed excessive, and frankly invasive. (I’m a fan of the writer, Kerry Howley, who just last year published an excellent book called Bottoms Up and the Devil Laughs; ironically, it’s about the so-called deep state, and how surveillance culture has eroded privacy in American life.)

Howley’s piece also seemed to bury the lede, in that Huberman’s enthusiasm for questionable supplements, touched on only briefly, felt more relevant, and in the end more damning than the WhatsApp group shared by his exes. For all its length, it never directly addressed the question of why Huberman’s lack of personal integrity might be relevant in the broader context of his work.

It would be absurd to try to make a neuroscientist-podcaster into a symbol of everything that is wrong with a culture of hyper-individualist techno-capitalism. But despite his measured and rationalistic style, Huberman represents an almost mystical promise that a life can be tweaked – a supplement here, a breathing exercise there – into something approaching perfection. The difference between what Huberman does and what, say, Gwyneth Paltrow does with her lifestyle brand Goop is one less of substance than of style. Huberman, for all his elucidation of cutting-edge scientific research, embodies a logic of individualist self-improvement that has been central to American culture since Benjamin Franklin – old “early to bed and early to rise” himself – was advising his countrymen on the virtues of temperance and moderation.

There is, too, something of the parasocial relationship at work here. As a listener to his podcast, I have – against my better judgment, and my deluded sense of myself as someone too sophisticated for such things – gradually come to feel that I know Huberman. This reliable dispenser of benign practical wisdom; this man who helped me sleep better, and gave me breathing exercises for when I was feeling stressed: how could I not come to love him, just a little! And how could I not love him just a little less, when I learned he was actually kind of a jerk?

I don’t think Huberman’s moral failings necessarily negate his protocols. I still listen to the podcast, and the efficacy of, say, magnesium as a sleep aid is unaffected by whether the guy recommending it is an ascetic saint or a priapic dirtbag. But it’s also hard to avoid wondering whether a commitment to optimising one’s existence – for health, for productivity, for sexual variety, for happiness – might lead down a path toward self-obsession, and away from the good life, whatever that might be.