Safi Bahcall — On Hypnosis, Conquering Insomnia, Incentives, and More (#382)

Safi Bahcall (@SafiBahcall) is the author of Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas that Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industrieswhich debuted #3 on Wall Street Journal’s bestseller list. Loonshots describes what an idea from physics tells us about the behavior of groups and how teams, companies, and nations can use that to innovate faster and better.

Safi received his PhD in physics from Stanford and his undergrad degree from Harvard. After working as a consultant for McKinsey, Safi co-founded a biotechnology company specializing in developing new drugs for cancer. He led its IPO and served as its CEO for 13 years. In 2008, Safi was named E&Y New England Biotechnology Entrepreneur of the Year. In 2011, he worked with President Obama’s council of science advisors on the future of national research.

In this episode, we talk about many things we haven’t covered before, including hypnosis, conquering insomnia, thoughts on depression, optimizing incentives, and much more. You can also listen to my first interview with Safi at

Please enjoy!

You can find the transcript of this episode here. Transcripts of all episodes can be found here.

Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, StitcherCastbox, or on your favorite podcast platform.

Watch the interview on YouTube.

#382: Safi Bahcall — On Hypnosis, Conquering Insomnia, Incentives, and More

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Want to hear my first episode with Safi? — Listen to our first conversation, in which we discuss Safi’s writing tips and techniques, creativity, systems thinking, and much more!

#364: Safi Bahcall — On Thinking Big, Curing Cancer, and Transforming Industries

QUESTION(S) OF THE DAY: What was your favorite quote or lesson from this episode? Please let me know in the comments.



  • Connect with Safi Bahcall:

Website | Twitter | Instagram


  • Where, how, and why did Safi learn about hypnosis? [06:30]
  • How Safi has used self-hypnosis and trance induction to calm down and sleep when his racing brain has other ideas. [12:29]
  • A few common relaxation trance induction techniques. [18:08]
  • Some of the most effective applications of hypnosis, how it compares to meditation for self-control, and Safi’s chairman of the board routine to try when other tactics aren’t getting through. [21:01]
  • What does it say about the ego and the mind that splitting it up into these different characters has such tremendous power? Why is it so effective? [30:57]
  • Understanding anger as a gift and using it as fuel. [35:15]
  • How Safi makes sure he doesn’t overfill himself with this kind of fuel to the point where it burns him from the inside — thanks to a useful phrase from The Hot Zone author Richard Preston. [38:36]
  • What is Safi’s relationship with depression, and what does he see as effective and non-effective ways of helping someone cope with it? [43:18]
  • My own relationship with depression and what I’ve found useful for — and promising for the future of — its treatment. [51:39]
  • While I’ve suffered from severe depression my entire life, I’ve not had a major episode in the past five years or so. Why do I think this is? [1:00:08]
  • A mental trick Safi uses when he finds himself wallowing in “a deep brown stew” of thoughts, and a book that’s helped him befriend rather than fight with these thoughts to achieve inner peace. [1:06:55]
  • Books and tools I’ve found for helping me achieve my own inner peace. [1:14:50]
  • How my default calibration for joy has changed over time, and the roles place and time have played in this calibration. [1:20:35]
  • Even when you inherit faulty genetics or programming, it’s empowering to know there are ways you can take control, edit your script, and change how these factors affect you. [1:24:20]
  • Where is your calendar for the day? [1:28:26]
  • What is your default question? What might be a better question? [1:31:09]
  • Two different kinds of anger, and what we can learn by identifying and dissecting them as they appear in our lives. [1:33:39]
  • Happiness equals reality minus expectations. [1:39:07]
  • MDMA and rTMS as loonshots for depression. [1:41:04]
  • We already know that biochemistry can influence thought patterns, but can thought patterns influence biochemistry? [1:55:50]
  • Safi riffs on position space versus frequency space, new ways of looking at old problems, common paradoxes, and how incentives really drive progress in science as well as business. [2:01:47]
  • When good ideas really die. [2:12:13]
  • What would a Chief Incentives Officer bring to the table? [2:14:21]
  • What are some common default compensation structures or offers that Safi considers problematic, and how is empowering a Chief Incentives Officer like bringing a gun to a knife fight? [2:22:13]
  • “Culture” is a word that gets thrown around a lot in the business world, but what does it really mean in this context, and how does it relate to a company’s structure? [2:30:51]
  • Will changing a company’s culture or its structure drive more meaningful, quantifiable progress? “It’s the incentives, stupid.” [2:34:18]
  • Safi shares two very different examples of how a company might handle a coveted promotion — one promotes politics, and one promotes innovation. Which is preferable? [2:37:06]
  • Parting thoughts. [2:43:42]


The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 900 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.

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20 Replies to “Safi Bahcall — On Hypnosis, Conquering Insomnia, Incentives, and More (#382)”

  1. Hey Tim, I’m halfway through this episode and completely blown away by the discussion. So, I just felt it would be worthwhile to send a giant thank you for your work and the knowledge you shine a spotlight on each week. I’ve only been a follower for a year or two, but I always come away from your podcasts with real, practical, wisdom.

  2. Hi Tim

    I would love to read the transcript for #384. Two of the reasons I keep turning to your podcast are the meticulous notes and the transcript.

    Thanks for offering a great podcast— I teach business English in Germany, so for my students who need to practice realistic listening with fascinating content. Your podcast offers the chance to check what they’ve understood with the transcript. At some point I hope you get everything translated in Japanese as well. Thanks!

    1. Hi, Elizabeth. Transcripts are typically published within about 10 days of the interview going live. You’ll be able to find Safi Bahcall’s by clicking on “The Tim Ferriss Show Transcripts” under “Topics” or by entering Safi Bahcall’s name with the word “transcripts” in the search field in the top, right corner of the blog.

      —Team Tim Ferriss

  3. Lots of great stuff. Thanks!

    To change culture, change what senior people think, believe and do. Show them how their beliefs lead to their actions, which influence the thoughts, beliefs and actions of everyone else.

  4. Just wanted to let you know how appreciated it is to hear TMS being discussed as a treatment for drug resistant depression. I’m a 30yo female who spent 15 years trying different psychiatric drugs and a variety of treatments (e.g., wilderness therapy program, rehabilitation centers, ayahuasca retreat) and it was TMS that completely changed me and my life. Thank you for the inspiring content.

  5. My comment actually relates to a movie that I think you would love! It is “Crash”. This movie is just as relevant today (if not more) than when it received 6 Academy Award Nominations in 2005. Please check it out and let me know if it is as powerful as I think it is. Tina Robertson

  6. This is a spectacular 50% bs production by a PhD physicist.

    Depression etc is a biochemical disorder just the same as a displaced joint? If the treatment of depression with either medication or TMS is of 30% efficiency, this implies that displaced joints are also treated with 30% efficiency, and dr. Peter Attia would tell you that the treatment of displaced joints is one of the (3) pillars that makes the sparse “progress” of modern medicine.

    Depression is biochemical and anxiety etc is sort of not? The stupidity of researchers, psychologists and psychiatrists failing to find unequivocal biochemical basis of anxiety etc and an appropriate biochemical treatment doesn’t make it less “biochemical”.

    Why your training in “mental performance” doesn’t allow you to see the elementary logical extensions of simple thoughts? Engineers who built bridges in Ancient Greece were required to live for several years under these bridges with their families so that they wouldn’t build bridges that fail. Did you know that the nervous system and its functions such as consciousness are much more complicated than bridges and actually are the most complex objects in the physical universe? So next time when you send people to some “health care professionals”, make sure that at least the same measures are applied to these “professionals”.

    Watching the video/audio engineers in your brain watching their produce? Haha. Modern neuroscience methodology is unable to decipher 95% of content that actually matters to people experiencing it (with 100% ecological validity, which implies the equal capacity to reverse engineer rather than only registering something post hoc, which is necessitated from the very paradigm of modern physics, FIY). If a person is imagining flying a dragonfly, an UFO or just with no flying equipment at all would modern neuroscience be able to decode this specific content from the brain activity? Would it be able to decode whether a person is solving a quadratic vs linear equation, a differential vs integral? These are definitely discreet things from a physical perspective, yet NONE of the modern neuroscience methods are able to decipher this very content from the brain activity (with 100% ecological validity).

    You’re “dissecting” shit in your podcasts if you can’t see a PhD physicist going delusional in his overgeneralisations mediated by the “fast tawk”” activation of the Broca and Wernicke centres. The speed of your and yours interlocutors’ “tawk” seem to provide equally less consciousness of what you’re actually talking about. And neither will I read any of the books (incl. Sam Harris) recommended in the podcast, nor think about consciousness in your suggested perspective due to the psychological bs you wrap them in (and also because I have a much more optimized definition of consciousness derived from a much more optimized source). It is spectacular how little Sam Harris, claiming himself a neuroscientist, was able to extract from his decade of meditation experience, apart from some feeble philosophy and ideology. You seem to be unable to just imagine what evidence for what actually exists, even in the public domain.

    Thus the only solution for you is to make a (business-related) podcast on a 20-minute ketamine infusion in the middle, or at least on a Faddiman’s micro-dosing schedule.

  7. Definitely one of my top interviews all-time. Thank you so much.

    I had a few comments, one critical, one insight.

    1) You drew a similarity between SSRIs and ketamine that aren’t accurate. Ketamine is an NMDA receptor antagonist, which blocks those receptors and prevent neurons from responding to input as strongly (postsynaptic). SSRIs on the other hand are antagonists for presynaptic serotonin transporters which basically vacuums up serotonin to prevent dilute its effects on the postsynaptic neuron. SSRIs make postsynaptic cells more sensitive to stimulus because it stops the presynaptic neurons (and some other cells) from vacuuming up serotonin in the synapse, allowing it to pool of and have a stronger effect on the postsynaptic neuron. This can actually cause an increase in NMDA receptor presence in the synapse, making cells more likely to respond to a stimulus, which is the opposite effect that ketamine would have on the same pre and post synaptic cells. The differences in how the modulate behavior depends on what cells actually have these NMDA receptors or Serotonin transporters, where they are in the brains, and what cells they are connected to. I think this clarification is necessary to dispell any belief that ketamine does the same thing as SSRIs because that is not true and potentially dangerous if misinterpreted.

    2) regarding TMS and TDCS, recent results have shown that they actually directly modulate the activity of cells called Astrocytes rather than neurons. Astrocytes are generally though of as support cells for neurons (ionically, osmotically, metabolically) but are begining to be implcated in directly effecting neuronal activity and behavior. Considering that TMS and TDCS are effective treatments for things like PTSD, mania, maybe depression, etc, the jury is still out on how astrocytes actually influence cognitive function. Lots of ideas, not a lot of evidence,and tons of inertia to overcome bureaucratically to explore it. And if these recent results are true, astrocytes may be involved in shaping neuronal function and behavior in ways we’ve never previously though. It’s a really exciting time in neuroscience and glial biology. I thought it might peak your interest considering your efforts in funding research on this front.

  8. Great discussion and insightful points of view!

    One thing that struck me is Safi’s comparison of meditation and hypnosis. To think meditation is the practice of turning the volume down is a very simplistic view. Meditation is doing exactly what hypnosis does, but so much more. Meditation is training the mind to focus on one thing, this brings about an unfoldment of the mind and its habits that lead to deeper states of mind/happiness and allow greater mastery of one’s internal self. Hypnosis is the fast-food version of this, you can get to the one-pointedness state of mind that allows you to deal with things, but all the stuff that existed within your mind that was stopping that state of mind still exists and will need to be dealt with at some stage. Not saying hypnosis isn’t useful, it just isn’t really comparable to meditation. Admittedly there are some fairly useless forms of meditation out there, in those situations maybe hypnosis is more useful… maybe another discussion though.

  9. Hi Tim,

    First of all, big thank you for sharing about your experiences with depression, and shining some light on the subject for people, who don’t understand it.

    I’m NOT one of them. My family has a “history”.

    I fought it for over 25 years and was on antidepressants for 2 years.

    I just celebrated 3 years off of them and loss of 60 lbs.

    It was a journey… 1 year after quitting, “it” returned. Then I discovered meditation, which worked for a year – I discovered its limit too… since I used to use it just as another medication.

    Then I discovered hypnotherapy and a different use of it than discussed here – a self-discovery.

    Diving into it helped me to tie all the things you talked about, into a coherent experience, that explains bidirectional nature and even why psychedelics work.

    You guys actually talked about most of it all, just didn’t connect the dots. But maybe it’s just me. After all I’m not as smart as you guys.

    Nevertheless, I wish this podcast took a look at hypnotherapy from the self-discovery perspective, instead of barely rising the infamous bar set by the “on-stage hypnotists”.

    Still, thank you for highlighting those simple yet beneficial “programming” uses.

    BTW you guys talked a lot about Neural Language Programming, without naming it or the great therapists, who pioneered it, like Steve and Connirae Andreas.

    I hope listeners wishing to know more will find this comment and Google it further.

    Thank you for all that you do and all the best helping the cause of improving the outcomes for people with depression and other mental… anomalies.



  10. I was apprehensive at the length of this talk but when I started listening I couldn’t stop–so glad I listened/watched instead of putting it off. As a hypnotist I loved hearing Safi say that hypnotism changed his life. I plan to read Joyful Wisdom based on his recommendation. I read and listened to Conversations with the Masters by De Mello because of your recommendation and its wisdom went deep inside me.

    Your pain and drive to find joy by doing this type of work, has helped so many of your listeners. Thank you so much Tim!

  11. Tim, thanks for the amazing podcast, so so so many good points and things to read and think about.

    Please, do read Lost Connections, a book by Johann Hari, talks about depression/anxiety and especially about antidepressants in a way that was, to me as a psychologist and and anxiety/mild depression sufferer , quite new but make so much sense, it would be great to maybe have him on the podcast. Thanks again!

  12. In listening to Safi on TMS and nudging the hertz in the right direction a question screamed at me. Has anyone measured the hertz of people’s brains before and after using psychedelics? Could psychedelics impact on the default mode network actually be resetting the brain to its appropriate hertz in each region of the brain?

  13. Enjoyed the podcast. You mentioned IFS as a resource for working with internal “parts”. That’s been a good resource for me. The developer of the system Richard Schwartz could be a great guest on your podcast. I feel like it’s a powerful tool that has gotten very little visibility and is very powerful in conquering all the conflicts inside us that we are not aware of that leak out in all sorts of destructive ways to ourselves and others.

  14. Safi on incentives and structure was simply brilliant. I watched what was described three times in companies in transition and never could put my finger on the issue. Great ‘ah-ha’ moment. Thank you!

  15. Excellent analogy: Telling someone with depression to “look on the bright side” is equivalent to telling someone with fertility issues to “just relax and it will happen.” In many cases, it’s biochemical not just mindset. Enjoyed this interview, especially sleep tips!

  16. Hi Tim,

    You talked about Bidirectional Thought process for depression. I read a book called “Upword Spiral”, a very good book describe anatomy and patho physiology of depression and how to overcome it . It also does describe this bidirectional process of depression.

  17. The sleep hack put simply – engage the creative mind and your imagination. Disengage the problem solving, self identifying, memory accessing, situation replaying worrying self. Hence why you find fiction books helpful and why random numbers works over counting. Fascinating stuff! Matthew Walker interview ?