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Abel James: How to Upgrade Your Brain with Music, Beat Stress & Rock Your Life

In this show, my wife Alyson is interviewing me about how to upgrade your brain, the relationship between music and testosterone, how to get a full-brain workout, and tons more: http://bit.ly/abelj

Today I’ve got something special for you. I’ve been getting quite a few emails recently asking for an inside look at not only the way that I eat personally, but also the secrets to being mentally healthy – strong, disciplined, resilient, and most importantly, happy.

There’s so much more to health than diet and exercise.

So today my wife Alyson is interviewing me about how to upgrade your brain with simple lifestyle hacks like meditation, music, and more. I’ve been shocked by how many of you listeners are musicians, artists, or Type-A rockstars yourselves, so I think you’ll enjoy this special episode.

On this show, we’re talking about:

  • How to upgrade your brain with simple lifestyle hacks
  • The relationship between music and testosterone
  • How to get a full-brain workout
  • And tons more


Alyson: I’m excited for your listeners to hear you on the other side of the microphone so to speak. The first time I met you (besides a couple casual lunch dates) was at Sixth Lounge in downtown Austin, TX. I walked in around midnight and saw you up on this little stage playing your heart out for a handful of drunks.

What did you learn from your time as a musician that helped you start Fat-Burning Man from nothing, and then beat Jillian Michaels and dominate the charts with #1 Health podcast in 8 countries across the world?

I traded my guitar for a podcast microphone. But for me a podcast is a very similar thing– you need to put on a good show, know who’s listening, and give them exactly what they want.

I started this podcast because I felt like I had been burned by the traditional health system. In my early 20s, following my doctor’s advice led me to be fat and sick and on on 6 different prescription medications… drugs that I’d have to be on for the rest of my life.

It took my apartment burning down for me to focus on my health. The world of alternative health and healing your body with real food and common sense ancient wisdom, combined with cutting edge science, can do incredible things. I learned that I could take my health into my own hands – and that was the secret to losing 20 pounds in just over a month and transforming my body and life.

I went from being fat and sick to being a young buck in my prime in one month just from eating incredible good quality food like bacon, butter, fat and tons of veggies. As I did my own research, I realized that if anyone has a handle on real health it’s people who aren’t in the traditional system.

Once I changed my whole body, I wanted people to know that there’s a better way.

It’s my responsibility to get behind a mic and talk about the most important thing there is—our health.

Alyson: Before video game competitions, I would put in my earbuds and listen to music, which helped get me in the zone. How do you think music optimizes the brain and improves performance?

There’s a physiological response that happens when you listen to music—you can measure your skin and see that music is regulating the speed at which your body is operating.

A lot of people might be listening on earbuds during a workout and suddenly their steps are going with the beat. If you do that in a conscious way, this can actually help you train with more efficiency. You can use different music to align the steps and cadence, but you can also use it to regulate mood and get out of a funk.

That also applies to creating music—it actually changes your brain. That’s what my first book (The Musical Brain) is all about. It’s super sciency and it applies to music and a lot of different arts. Writing, painting, meditating, dancing… all that right brain activity applies to improving your performance.

Alyson: Do you have any tips for choosing the perfect song?

If you think that Justin Bieber sucks, don’t listen to Justin Bieber. But you don’t have to love what you’re listening to, you just have to like it.

If I’m doing monster lifts, I listen to epic soundtrack music, like from Batman, to get myself totally psyched up.

If I’m training for marathons, I want that driving beat. If I want to get work done, I listen to DragonForce or something really intense. You can use that heart-racing effect for good or evil.

“When you learn how to use music intentionally, you can increase workout performance and day-to-day performance as well.”

Alyson: What does music do? What superpowers does it give you?

As a musician, it’s fascinating—there are some simple things you’d expect. For example, musicians have a larger area of their brain related to auditory functions. It directly maps to changes in your brain and also your brain is less lateralized—you’re using more of your brain.

Both hemispheres of the brain and the corpus colostrum between them are strengthened by playing music.

Musicians are also more likely to be ambidextrous, primarily because your brain is being used more efficiently but also due to the physical demands of playing an instrument with both hands.

Some things might even seem unrelated… for example, musicians are usually better able to hear the emotion behind what is being said. If someone says, “I’m fine,” a musician might hear that they’re actually not fine by the tone of their voice.


Alyson: My mom was dead set on all 7 of us kids learning piano along with a second instrument for the school band. She was always telling us how good it was for our brains. How does musical experience shape our brain, especially children?

In this show, my wife Alyson is interviewing me about how to upgrade your brain, the relationship between music and testosterone, how to get a full-brain workout, and tons more. Watch the interview here: http://bit.ly/abelj

There are these wonderful studies that look at how babies hear sound and how they process language. These studies show babies don’t really understand adult speak when you’re just talking to them—but when you talk to a baby you usually use exaggerated expression and emotion, changing up rhythm. It’s “baby talk,” but it actually sounds musical.

A lot of studies show that if mothers are singing to their babies, they can more powerfully communicate emotion to babies than through language alone. It’s not about the words you’re saying, but how you’re saying them.

There’s also a lot of brain plasticity in children, so if you want to learn a language (and music is a language) the best time to learn it is when you’re young because your brain is hungry to make all of these connections.

Alyson: At what age should parents start introducing their kids to musical activities?

It’s never too late to start, but the younger the better.

Ages 3 – 6 are awesome, even if you just have instruments laying around the house. You want to get your kids involved with creating sounds because instruments give instant feedback and, as we all know, kids love to create sound.

Whenever you create something in real-time, like music, it creates an excitement and connection.

Allowing children to build a positive relationship with art is essential – you don’t want to force them to practice all the time and have them hate their instrument or hate their art. You want them to go to their music for an emotional release or outlet.

Whenever I needed to release emotion, I would play guitar, piano, sax or sing and that allowed me to deal with whatever came up. Music activates the flow state.

Alyson: In your bestselling book, The Musical Brain, you discuss studies that consistently show an improvement in self-esteem from participation in musical activities.

To read a section from the book: The children, their parents, and their piano teachers all believed that the piano instruction improved the students’ lives in many ways by making them feel:

  • More assertive
  • Better about themselves
  • And happy

Why do you think music improves self-esteem?

There are a lot of reasons. They are doing something inherently good. It feels good. It may not sound good at first, but they’re creating something.

“In this tech world, so many of us are just consumers—of entertainment or of information—but with music, you are creating something. It’s production vs. consumption.”

Alyson: You are one of the most emotionally aware men I’ve ever met. That shows in your podcast—it’s not just question after question—your interviews are fluid, like you’re jamming together.

Let’s talk about emotional intelligence. As a musician, how does music make us more human?

Music is powerfully tied to language. You can bring someone from an emotional zero to breaking down in tears in 10-15 seconds. Read more: http://bit.ly/abelj

You can bring someone from an emotional zero to breaking down in tears in 10-15 seconds. Music is powerfully tied to language. It activates the same parts of the brain, and sometimes it’s more effective to use a little bit of music to communicate an emotion than it is to say it in words.

When you read a blog or newspaper, it’s difficult to get there that quickly. But music is such a sensory experience. Language is so near and dear to music that it directly gets to your heart.

If you’re shopping, you may hear music that’s scientifically proven to increase sales, and then there’s the dreaded elevator music to regulate mood. They play music at particular times for particular effects. In the age of earbuds, you can do that for yourself, you can use music for good.

Alyson: In your book, I read that musical training involves:

  • Daily practice with long periods of focused attention
  • Reading of notation
  • Memorization of extended passages
  • Exposure to variety of structures
  • Pattern recognition
  • And mastery of technical skills

I would also add that it further develops emotional intelligence. So, it’s not really a surprise to also read that musicians demonstrated superior performance on things like memory tasks.

What other ways do you think music has helped you excel in life?

Music is a whole brain workout. You’re using such a large portion of your brain when you play music. Read more: http://bit.ly/abelj

You’re using such a large portion of your brain when you play music. When you look at MRI pictures of jazz musicians’ brains while they’re improvising, they’re all lit up.

Not only that, but you’re building skills. From a young age, becoming better at playing music requires discipline. In a sense, you’re practicing discipline even more than you’re practicing music.

Another benefit of reading from musical notation, you need to learn that language and translate it into something auditory.

There’s learning how to speak from a book and then there’s learning how to speak without a book. One side is very scripted. It’s like learning math—you’re using the same parts of your brain.

The other side is difficult to define and a lot of times you’re kind of silent in that brain state, but it’s very meditative and the music is flowing through you and out of you. It’s more of a holistic full brain activity.

“Music, dance, meditation, art… these things light up your brain and we should be doing more of them.”

People who listen to my interviews comment that I’m so happy all the time! That’s most likely because right before the show I jammed out on my guitar. Really.

And on long days where I’ve spent 8 hours doing back-to-back interviews, I come out like a zombie. Then I play piano or guitar for a few minutes and I’m right back in action, it’s like an emotional cleansing.

Alyson: When I was a kid doing band, I was taught to read sheet music. But when you’re playing guitar—I could be making Chicken Parmesan in the kitchen and you’re playing something that you’re making up as you go and then you say something like, “That’s the Chicken Parmesan song.”

There are artists who talk about the muse, and it feels like the art is just flowing through you. I talk about this with Denny Hemingson, the Bandleader of the Tim McGraw Band, a lot—he’s been on the show several times and he’s an incredible guitarist and musician. He knows all about the healing power of music.

“When you get to mastery with music, all of a sudden you’re not trying to paint a picture, you just see it there.”


Alyson: Something else I found fascinating from the book: Hormonal differences have also been found between musicians and non-musicians. For example, testosterone has consistently shown to correlate with creative musical behavior.

What’s that about?

That’s an interesting one because that set of studies actually does NOT show that more testosterone is a good thing—that’s why I like it.

A lot of times on the internet and health sites you’ll see, “MORE TESTOSTERONE!” What you find when you look at creating art, though, is that there’s an optimal level of testosterone that allows you to be more creative. More is not necessarily better.

That level for women is on the upper side, for men it’s on the lower side. The reason for that is because you’re not generally going too far on the feminine or too far on the masculine, normally you want to communicate and resonate with as many people as possible.

I want people to realize that it’s not always “more is better.” Music and art allow you to practice more balance in your life. It helped me run marathons—I’d play music for four hours and then running in that brain state becomes easier.

People talk about diet and fitness and why you need to do this specific diet or workout, but music is a holistic thing.

If you want to sleep or reduce stress, two things that should be at the center of health, those are the things that are really affected by meditation, art, music, and getting into right brain state.

It’s powerful when you learn how to intentionally build that into your life. People like the show because I put myself into that state before the show, and then after a while you can do it on cue.

Alyson: I know there are plenty of people out there who have never played an instrument—or maybe it’s been decades since they last picked up the guitar. When are you too old to start playing an instrument?

I would tell them to talk to my parents. After they were empty-nested by my brothers and me, my mom took up the standup bass and my dad started playing the banjo. At first they didn’t know what they were doing. Now they play every week at the St. Augustine Farmer’s Market. The Bare Naked Ladies saw them playing and called them out during their show because they loved those old bluegrass tunes!

You need to work on it most days of the week and build discipline, but you’re never too old to learn this stuff. Now when I go hang out with my parents, we jam to bluegrass. And you’re (Alyson) learning mandolin.

 Sharing art, singing, oral traditions… these are essential parts of being human and we’re losing them. Read more: http://bit.ly/abelj

Alyson: Why is it important to talk about music on this show?

This show is not just about what we ate as cavemen, it’s about how we used to live and what it means to be human. Sharing art, singing, oral traditions… these are essential parts of being human and we’re losing them. Not a lot of people get together and sing these days.

Before the second world war, everyone sang. Now people think you have to be a “singer” to sing or a “painter” to paint. We can’t lose sight of these things that are deeply human, and we need to keep them alive by making them a part of who we are as complete human beings.

Music makes you healthy, it’s a wonderful way of dealing with emotions, and it shouldn’t be lost in the discussion of health.

If I have a secret to health, it’s about what I’m doing before my health show. Music and meditation help me relax, and put me into an awesome space not affected by outside stress. It’s a place where you can do anything from digesting your food more effectively, to thinking more clearly, and even sleeping better.


Alyson: What’s wrong with music today?

The traditional media and music business is the one of the ugliest businesses there is. When I recorded this new album with Denny, we wanted to create something that didn’t have to make anybody at a record company happy.

Music was co-opted by business a long time ago. These days, the musical-industrial complex manufactures songs designed to be #1 bestsellers. The singer isn’t writing their own music, and may not even be actually singing at the concert.

Once upon a time, music was an opportunity to add to political discourse, to rebel against what’s going on in society, to tell a meaningful story… and it used to be fun. I want to create that in my music.

Alyson: Ok, let’s talk about the new album, Swamp Thing! I heard you play some of the songs on this album at bars when we were first dating, but this is the first time they’ve been recorded on an album. Can you pick a few songs from the album and tell us the meaning behind those songs?

Well, I’m really excited about some of the songs we wrote on the spot—that’s the magic, when you get people together who love to play, stuff just happens.

We wrote the title track, Swamp Thing, in about 45 minutes. Denny, Deano, and I just sat down and started thinking about New Orleans. Denny was playing a riff and I was singing gibberish, and then it turned into this really cool New Orleans style song. Then we built it out with incredible musicians. It’s kind of a tribute to where music comes from.

Thank God for the Blues is one that Denny wrote on the spot. It’s incredible because it’s written in the old gospel style, but what we’re saying is that music is our savior—it allows us to get through the toughest times in our lives.

So many people are listening to music created by computers. You’re missing out if you’re not getting to the very human part, which is deep emotional vulnerability. That’s what that song is about.

Alyson: Besides singing all the songs and writing most of them, what instruments did you play on this album?

The cool thing about being a struggling musician is that you learn to do a bit of everything. When I first started as a kid, I played piano or whatever was laying around the house… and on this album I play a bit of everything: guitars, saxophones, clarinet, lead vocals, background vocals, etc.

I actually made an album at age 15, playing all the instruments, which shot up on the charts and reached #1 in Blues/Rock… I’ve been doing this for a long time.

Alyson: You played all the instruments on that album and wrote those songs when you were 15?

It wasn’t great music, but it was a fun project to keep me out of trouble. Having something you create and put out there yourself – especially at a young age – is so powerful. It’s never been so easy with the tech we have now.

So on Swamp Thing, I’m playing electric guitar, but Denny is doing most of the guitars—he’s a musical genius and also produced the album. I played the entire tenor sax and woodwind section with overdubs. I also did lead vocals, songwriting, and even snuck some clarinet in there.

Here’s a little sample of what you’ll hear on the album!

Alyson: Where can people get the album?

Pretty much anywhere music is available online. But if you buy directly from us, you also get my presentation at the biohacking conference, audio and video versions of How to Upgrade Your Brain with Music, my e-book version of The Musical Brain… and we’re also giving away signed copies of The Wild Diet and the album.

If you just go to www.swampthingmusic.com you can get all those bonuses with your CD!

The musicians who joined me in the studio are legends, including:

  • Denny Hemingson, our guitarist and producer, has been nominated for an Academy of Country Music award for Steel Guitarist of the Year been the bandleader of the Tim Mcgraw Band for nearly two decades.
  • Our bassist, David Santos, has toured with Billy Joel, Elton John, John Fogerty, and Crosby, Stills & Nash.
  • Singing backup, the Grammy-nominated powerhouse, Wendy Moten has recorded with Eric Clapton, Kenny Rogers, Alice Cooper, and Buddy Guy.


Mark Sisson, head hancho at Mark’s Daily Apple says:

“The new album frikkin’ destroys, Abel. If Sawyer Brown and Leon Russell had a love child it’d sound sumpin’ like that…then throw in some Credence, a little Little Feat and a dash of Steely Dan.

Point being, it’s not derivative, this blatantly steals from EVERYONE, and in a unique way, so you get away with it. Crisp and raspy, clean and nasty. What are you doing podcasting, man?”

Jonathan Bailor, New York Times bestselling author and founder of SANESolution says:

“If you know anything about Abel James, you’ll know that he has a deep love for his art and for those who join him on his artistic journeys. Abel’s artistic prowess, originality, and love for life and his fans are audible in every note of Swamp Thing… put it on repeat and enjoy.”

You can find my new album, Swamp Thing, anywhere music is sold online – iTunes, Google Play, Amazon, and more.

BUT if you want to get all of the special bonuses I’m giving away, pick it up from www.swampthingmusic.com.

Buy my new album of original music for a limited time and get my eBook and video presentation on how to upgrade your brain with music for free: www.swampthingmusic.com

Let me know what you think! Leave your comments below.


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