March 11th, 2021
EPISODE 6: The Storytelling Machine – How Our Brains Create our Reality
In this episode David welcomes renowned neuroscientist and author of Seven and a Half Lessons about the Brain, Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett. Dr. Barrett and David walk us through the latest research and insights about how the brain (the physical organ) and the mind (the human consciousness that thinks, feels, and acts) interact and inform our behavior. Together, they unpack the neural mechanisms that explain our behavior and how this understanding of the brain can impact how we mitigate bias, increase empathy and inclusion, both in ourselves and others.
[00:00:06] GB: Shhh! Quiet. Quiet. Listen. Do you hear that? Your brain is telling you a story right now. It’s dark and quiet up there, but your brain is receiving everything you see, feel, and hear including my voice through electrical activity and chemical signals. It’s taking those bits of information and telling itself and you a story, a story about the world and the people around us, about how to protect ourselves and interact with others, about how to satisfy our needs and advance our ambitions. But that story isn’t objective or even always true. It’s shaped and shaded by our identity. Research is revealing more every day about how that story is told. Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett is doing that research. She’s helping people understand how their brains, and their minds, and their bodies interact and how that in turn affects our behavior. She’s illuminating some of the dark areas in our brains. And her work holds fascinating insights for leaders at all levels. So we invited her over for a chat.
I’m Gabriel Berezin, and you’re listening to Your Brain at Work from the NeuroLeadership Institute. We continue to draw our episodes from a weekly webinar series the NLI has been hosting every Friday. This week our panel consists of NLI’s co-founder and CEO, Dr. David Rock; and author of Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain, neuroscientist, Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett. Enjoy.
[00:01:33] GB: I’m really excited to get some time with Lisa. It’s been forever. And, Lisa, we met, it was more than 10 years ago the first time in Boston I came up to see you. I was a wee boy. I must have been 25 and we were doing such interesting work then and then we ended up inviting you to our summit in Boston. The summit used to move around lots of cities. We had a great one in Boston. I think 2010 or 2011. But you’ve been busy and I’m so glad to get some time to catch up with you. I guess tell me overall what’s the big focus of your research in the last few years. What have you been working on?
[00:02:09] LFB: Well, we started off working on trying to understand how your brain and your body work together to create emotions and this turned out to be – And I wrote a book and we have many papers on this and this turned out to be a really good flashlight for just understanding how brains work and how they evolved and what their basic functions are. So I would say at this point the goal is to develop a systems level understanding of how your brain and your body in conjunction with other brains and bodies around you create your mind.
[00:02:44] DR: That’s great. I wanted to actually – Before we get to your new book, where I learned about you and what’s fascinated me for years was the work on emotions that you did around a really counterintuitive insight about emotions. Can you give me the sort of guts of that for people who are new to it, your understanding of emotions?
[00:03:01] LFB: Yeah. I mean, we’re still doing work on emotion, but I would say the basic idea is that emotions are not built into your brains from birth. They’re built by your brain as you need them using information from your body and from the world. So your brain’s always attempting to make sense of what’s going on inside your own body in relation to what’s going on around you in the world in order to control your behavior and create your experience to keep you alive and well and maybe even thrive. And sometimes those events are emotions. Most of the time they’re not, but sometimes they are, and understanding how that works gives you a little bit of control, more control I would say than you would have otherwise.
[00:03:49] DR: Right. I remember you saying back then, I wonder if it’s still your position, that there’s no kind of consistent neural signature of any particular emotion. It kind of depends how you –
[00:03:58] LFB: Well, an emotion – Emotion word, like anger, refers to a population of instances, not a single instance, right? So there is no such thing as an emotion of anger. There’s a whole population of emotion, of anger instances. So we’re talking really about emotion categories. And if you look at my work and other people’s work what you’ll see is that in a given study you might find a pattern that distinguishes anger from fear, but that pattern doesn’t generalize across all studies. And in fact it doesn’t even really generalize across people in the sense that those patterns are not brain states. They’re just kind of like abstract summaries.
And so there’s a lot of variability there that your brain is making variable patterns. Every time you’re angry or sad or afraid or what have you, your brain is constructing variable patterns that match the situation that you’re in. And so we have very good evidence that this is how your brain works and mapping those patterns, and trying to understand how they’re generated is really I would say the cutting edge of where research on emotion on the brain basis of emotion going.
[00:05:14] DR: Yeah, I know. That’s great. There’s no kind of fundamental kind of consistent pattern and in some ways it’s a lot about the narrative around it and the story you have around it.
[00:05:23] LFB: Yeah. One way of thinking about it, David, is that your brain is telling a story and it’s creating a story, and that story is your experience and this is a continuous story. The brain’s basic job, right, is to control the systems of your body by making sense of what’s going on inside the systems of your body in relation to what’s going on around you in the world. And that leads to your brain’s regulation of behavior and construction of experience and that is the story basically that your brain is telling kind of all the time, this continuous narrative.
[00:05:59] DR: Right. Yeah. No. Interesting. I mean, that’s maybe a great leap off point to the book. I mean, the book’s doing really well. Congrats on the success of it and I think it’s an important book in a whole bunch of ways. Tell me how long were you working on it for and what was the background.
[00:06:17] LFB: Well, how emotions are made took me three and a half years to write. So that was a three and a half year long labor, a very long time. Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain took a much shorter time because the goal is different. There are many many books, good books, about the brain that are 300, 400 pages long. I wanted to write a book of little essays that would give people kind of distilled little nuggets of neuroscience about their own brains that would be fun to read, that they could take to dinner parties when we had dinner parties, to entertain their friends. And even though the essays would read very easily and they’d be short and concise, the topics that they raise about human nature might linger with you longer and lead you to maybe think about yourself or other people in different ways. So the goal was really to write a book, a neuroscience book for people who don’t read science actually.
And I built it as a kind of a choose your own adventure in the sense that you could just read the essays and that would be enough to think about, but there’s also an appendix, which has more in-depth scientific information for people who are looking for a more traditional popular science experience. And then there’s a whole set of web notes with all of the references for anybody who wants to take a deep dive. And the whole thing took me about 18 months I would say to do.
[00:07:56] DR: That’s impressive. My last book took me four years. Nearly killed me and –
[00:08:00] LFB: Yeah. How emotions were made was literally 16 hours a day for three and a half years, seven days a week. That was it. My daughter called it her little brother.
[00:08:12] DR: My kids are still resentful. So, 10 years later. Obviously we should go out and buy both of them to just make it up too. So thank you for all that you’re doing.
Let’s dig into this book. I picked three chapters I thought would be really interesting, or three essays, now I know them as, that I thought would be really kind of most relevant to our audience. And our audience thinks about other complex systems, maybe the second most complex system in the universe, which is large organizations, and you’ve been digging into insights from the most complex network in the universe. And the first chapter or essay I wanted to pull from is just your brain is a network and how to think about the brain as a network. So tell me about that insight and give us the central nuggets of that essay I guess.
[00:08:54] LFB: Yeah. So the essay before – This is essay two we’re talking about. Essay one really debunks the idea that your brain evolved in layers and then it functions in layers with an inner lizard. Like you have a reptilian brain for instincts and then a limbic system laid on top of that for emotions and then your neocortex for rationality. That whole structure is a myth. Brain evolution – Brains didn’t evolve that way. They don’t function that way. So that was sort of taken off the table really in the essay before, which then leads to the question of, “So if your brain didn’t evolve in sedimentary layers with this big prodigious cortex layered on top of your inner beast like an already baked cake, then actually how is it structured and how does it work?”
I would say for about the last maybe 10, a little more than 10 years, there’s been a growing very sophisticated area of research approaching the brain as a dynamic network. So the way to think about it really is that your brain is made of 128 billion neurons, give or take. That number is much larger than you’ll see in other estimates because other estimates tend to under count neurons in certain parts of the brain like the cerebellum. Those neurons are bathed in a chemical system full of neurotransmitters and neuromodulators. And then there are other cells like glial cells and other chemicals that really are, I would say, initially thought of as helpers to neurons although there is emerging evidence that they might be actually doing a lot more than just helping neurons. But the idea really is that every neuron is not connected to every other neuron, but every neuron receives information from thousands of neurons and a single neuron will speak to thousands of neurons, which means that really the way to think about your brain is as a single unit that can take on trillions of different patterns where the patterns are shifting in the blink of an eye. And it’s really not the case that neurons are off until they’re stimulated by the world. Your brain in this dynamic kind of network is continually talking to itself throughout your entire life and inputs from the world and from your body just modulate that ongoing conversation. They just kind of nudge it in one direction or another that most of the metabolic energy and most of the resources of your brain really are – It’s involved in this conversation that it’s having with itself where its main goal really or maybe its most important goal I would say is to really regulate the systems of your body.
[00:12:01] DR: Right. Right. There’s a couple of quirky facts that really made me think deep, much more deeply or differently about the brain, but one of them that’s really kind of scary in a way is just to realize that it’s actually dark and quiet in there and then all your experiences are still electrical and chemical impulses. And there’s no sound or light in there. It’s all just a big process.
[00:12:24] LFB: Yeah. So one of the things I like to remind, particularly my daughter who’s just emergent of adolescence, is when she’s worried about somebody else’s opinion of her or something I just say, “Well, it’s just a bunch of electrical and chemical activity if you just think about it. It’s just electrical and chemical, little blips going on in somebody’s head. That’s their opinion of you.” Really, it sort of reduces the power or the sting of somebody’s criticism.
The thing to remember is that your brain is really trapped in your skull, right? So I have this phrase, your brain is trapped in a dark silent box called your skull. It’s receiving sense data from the world through your eyes and ears and your skin and so on. It’s also receiving continuously information from your body through various ascending systems. And these are the outcomes of some set of changes in the world and in your body, but your brain doesn’t actually know what the causes are. It only has access to the outcomes and so it has to figure out, well, when you hear a loud bang or there’s a tightness in your chest, your brain basically has to guess what caused those sensations in order to act on them.
And the idea that seeing occurs in one part of your brain and hearing occurs in another part of your brain and feeling occurs in another part of brain isn’t really the right way to think about it. Your whole brain is involved. For example, in motor movements, there are primary parts of your brain, or you can say parts of your brain that are primarily responsible for motor movements, but all of the sensory systems in your brain are in the service of motor movements. So they’re kind of like helpers, or accessories, or association regions to motor actions. And so you can think of anything as really a whole brain event.
[00:14:25] DR: Right. A helpful metaphor for me was always kind of thinking about brain as a city, and in a city like sales doesn’t happen in one particular place. It’s like, yeah, there’s a bit more selling downtown I guess, but it’s kind of supported by and connected to everything and know everything’s kind of networks upon networks of complexity.
[00:14:44] LFB: Yeah, exactly. And there’s a really good reason for that, and that is that – Well, there are a number of reasons for that, but having your brain as a network means that your brain has more complexity, which means doesn’t just mean like, “Wow, that’s really complex and complicated.” It means that the brain is an information gaining structure, which means it can take bits and pieces of the past and recombine them in new ways to allow you to experience things that you’ve never experienced before, but without that capacity you’d be experientially blind to those things.
So it gives you a certain amount of complexity. It allows you to respond flexibly to novel situations and it also provides protection against loss of function, because each neuron doesn’t do everything, but each neuron can do more than one thing. And as a consequence, if you have a problem with some neurons, there are usually some other neurons that can take over the function of those neurons. And so it’s really protective of your ability to be able to think and heal and so on particularly as you get older.
[00:15:57] DR: That’s great. And let’s get into the second essay I wanted to dig into, is I think these are some fantastic, deep insights about the physiology and structure, but I want to get a little bit more into some of the observable stuff that’s relevant to leaders as well. Your brain secretly works with other brains. What are some of your insights in that realm in terms of how we understand each other? And how do we secretly work with other brains?
[00:16:22] LFB: Well, we are social animals, and what that means is we regulate each other’s nervous systems, and we do it in ways that we are largely unaware of. So there are many animals who are social. There are insects that are social like termites and bees. They regulate each other’s nervous systems with chemicals. There are rats and mice and rodents who are social and they use chemicals, smell. They also use touch, and to some extent they use audition, hearing sounds, and a little bit vision. They use vision. There are animals like chimpanzees who really rely on vision much more. And we use all of our senses to impact each other.
David, if you and I were in a room together talking and we like each other and we trust each other, actually we know each other from the past, so that makes things a little easier. But even if we were complete strangers, after about 10-15 minutes, if we were comfortable with each other, we would start mirroring each other’s actions. So you have your hand on your face. So I might put my hand on my face or I might put my hand on my chin and then maybe I might cross my arms and then you might cross your arms or maybe you would just put one – And we’re doing this like completely without any awareness. But more importantly our breathing will start to synchronize, which will synchronize our heart rates to some extent, and our gaze will be synchronized, which is a way of regulating each other’s attention, of paying attention to certain things and ignoring other things. For example, if a siren goes by and you turn to look at it, I’ll probably turn to look at it. If you don’t, I probably won’t. And all of these are sort of flying under the hood.
But the most important way that humans can regulate each other’s nervous systems is with words, because the parts of your brain that are most important for regulating your body, like your heart rate, your lungs, your immune system and so on are also involved in allowing you to understand language and produce it and speak. And so that means that I can text a friend or email a friend three little words. She could be halfway across the world, and in fact she is, and I can affect her metabolism, her heart rate, her breathing just with a couple of words. Up or down, for good for better or for worse, right? You can read something that was written thousands of years ago and take comfort from it. Literally, meaning it will have an effect on your body, right? Or it could inflame your your temper. The point is that words are incredibly efficient and powerful ways that we use to regulate each other’s nervous systems. We don’t think of it that way, but that is actually what’s happening. And so it’s not just the meaning of what we say. It’s also how we say it, the tone of voice and the clarity or ambiguity with which we say it. So these things actually matter quite a bit to the impact that you have on another person.
[00:19:49] DR: Yeah. I know it’s really interesting. A lot of it happens unconsciously. This is a comment we’re telling leaders a lot. Like your emotional state automatically impacts the emotional state of the people that you lead, that people will read your emotions and be impacted by those. Can you comment on that a bit?
[00:20:07] LFB: Yeah. David, we make a distinction in our lab between affect or mood and emotion in the following way. Your brain’s most important job is regulating your body and it’s doing this all the time. Right now each person here, you, me, everybody who’s listening, probably unaware of the fact that they have like a whole symphony of stuff going on inside their own bodies. Hopefully you all are unaware of that symphony. If you are aware of it, I’m so sorry for. You know what that means? Because there’s a lot of drama going on in there. But mostly you’re unaware of it and your brain is receiving sense data from your body, which it makes available to you consciously or to itself consciously as mood or what a scientist like me would call affect. So you feel pleasant. You feel unpleasant. You feel worked up or you feel calm. You feel comfortable. You feel uncomfortable.
These feelings are with you 24 hours a day, seven days a week, from the moment that you’re born until the moment that you die. They are not emotions. They are properties of consciousness in the same way that the brightness of light is a property of consciousness of your ability to consciously experience the visual world. This is a property of consciousness that’s with you always. Sometimes as your brain is making sense of the sense data in your body, what does your heart rate mean? What does a tug in your chest mean? Is the tug in your chest anxiety? Is it indigestion? Is it the beginning of a heart attack? What is it? Right? Your brain is guessing and it’s using the context to guess, and sometimes in those instances your brain will create emotions.
I would say what really has an impact on leaders, impact on their peeps, emotion for sure, but probably even more so is their affective tone or their affect of feeling, which just you can’t read in someone’s face or in their voice what their emotional state is. But most people can guess pretty well the affect whether somebody’s worked up or calm, whether they’re generally feeling pleasant or unpleasant. You don’t know why and you don’t know what caused it and you don’t necessarily know what to do about it, but affect I think is really the key one that I would probably focus on.
[00:22:34] DR: Right. Right. Yeah. That’s an interesting distinction. We might dig into that a little bit later and do some writing on that. A couple interesting things coming up. So we’re talking about the impacts we have on each other. How much is this affected by the virtual world? Like is virtual the same once we’ve settled in and got rid of our fear of Zooms? Are we synchronizing on Zooms as well?
[00:22:53] LFB: We are just starting to ask this question, but I would say there are so many things working against that synchronization. On the one hand there’s some evidence that from a camera, using machine learning, it is possible – So right now, for example, you couldn’t – A machine learning algorithm would have trouble detecting my heart rate because my carotid artery is hidden by my scarf, okay? But if I wasn’t wearing a scarf it could use subtle changes in my face. It would adjust for the light and which subtle changes in the skin tone of my face and my carotid artery and maybe my chest breathing to make some guesses about a couple of physical signals. But the algorithm is basically using data from a camera that’s trained on the whole array all the time. What do you do when you’re on Zoom? A lot of people right now, we would hope, David, that everyone is just compelled and just glued to the screen listening to everything we say. But probably some people are checking their emails and some people are multitasking. And during a meeting you might be multitasking. So your attention might be elsewhere. You can’t actually lock eyes with people because it’s really – You don’t know whether someone’s looking at you or not.
So there’s so much working against that and then there’s also the delays that so people are constantly interrupting each other because there are delays and so on. So I think part of why people feel jangled by Zoom actually is a combination of their multitasking and it makes it really hard actually to lock in together the way that you can when you’re actually physically in a room with each other. However, I will say that you know there are companies that are multinational that have – Like my husband, for example, works for a large tech company which most of the team he works with is not even in the same country as him, and that was true before COVID. And so there are ways that people find to connect with each other that makes that kind of biological synchrony maybe a little easier.
[00:25:07] DR: I think there’ll be some improvements in both the technology but also in the human practices so we get better at that, like just even ways of locking eyes and things like that. I think we’re at the early stages of a lot of virtual meetings. We were the same. Actually almost all of our consulting was done virtually for years before the pandemic and all our teams worked virtually. Most of our client delivery was virtual, like 78%, before the pandemic, because we found while there was some downside, there were enormous upsides that were actually bigger.
[00:25:37] DR: Hi there. David Rock here, CEO and co-founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute.On behalf of our team at NLI, I’d like to thank you for listening and for staying up to date with all the latest neuroscience and industry research that helps us make organizations more human. We know you have a lot going on and we appreciate you following the science and following us. I wanted to make one simple request. If you’re enjoying Your Brain at Work, please pass on this podcast to a colleague or friend. Help us share these insights and spread the word in our mission to build a better normal for everyone.
[00:26:09] DR: We were talking about the synchronization that happens and the way all these different systems get synchronized, like visual, and heart rate, and breathing and all this stuff, mostly unconscious. Putting aside virtual or in the room for a minute, when you’re synchronizing, firstly my assumption is that puts you in a – It gives you some like positive mood, right? Gives you some positive effort, it feels good. It feels comfortable. Is it creating that toward response or what’s the –
[00:26:35] LFB: Well, it depends on who you’re synchronizing with, right? So if you’re synchronizing with somebody who’s all jangled up, then that might not be the best. So I wouldn’t say that it’s – It’s not inherently good or bad. It’s just it depends on who you’re with and what the goal of the interaction is with. But some people have nervous systems that are highly reactive and they’re going to react to every little thing. The internal coordination of their physical systems is going to be perturbed by lots and lots of things. If you synchronize to a person like that, that could be really exciting or it could be –
[00:27:13] DR: Terrifying.
[00:27:14] LFB: Yeah, it could be unruly. It just really depends. Simple judgments or simple sayings like that are fun but they tend not to actually reflect reality very often I would say.
[00:27:28] DR: Yeah. I think the fact is that you’re synchronizing with someone and you’re taking on their experience and you’re more likely to synchronize with the highest status person in a room. And to me I think that is all a statement that the highest status person in a room should take care with their state.
[00:27:44] LFB: Well, not only that, but the higher status person in the room can actually extend themselves to try to synchronize with the person, with their peep. Yesterday I asked a graduate student – I have about 25, 30 full-time people in my lab. So that’s not a big multinational corporation. That’s like a small company. And I asked a graduate student something from her perspective and she was like, “Oh, did I say something? I’m sorry.” And I was like, “No. You didn’t say something. I was just taking your perspective for a minute and I was wondering like how did this seem to you.” And she just blossomed and opened up in a way. She’s a new student, and I’ve actually met her only once in person because then the lockdown happened and we accepted her into the lab. And so I’ve actually seen her only one time in person.
The thing to understand is that we have lots and lots and lots of ways that we can get in sync with each other. And if you know what those are, then you can use that information to influence the people around you for better or for worse. If I say a word, like if I say to you, “David, I had pizza yesterday for dinner.” I didn’t, but let’s just say I did. I said, “David, I had pizza for –” In my brain I have maybe 20 features that my brain is representing. If I say a single word to you, now your brain is representing maybe 15 of those features. That’s what it means to communicate with each other. And if I’m talking – All I have to do maybe is say I had pizza. It was really delicious. If you start conjuring those features in your brain, literally simulating them, you’re going to start to salivate and your brain is going to start to prepare you for eating pizza. That sounds kind of preposterous, but that literally is how your brain works.
[00:29:31] DR: Domino’s pizza thanks you about this moment. Everyone –
[00:29:35] LFB: Well, the example I used to give was like – But I’m in Boston. And if you were in Chicago, then you’d be conjuring the wrong feature for the thickness of the crust, but the thickness of crust is like almost at the level of a political preference. So I just –
[00:29:51] DR: We won’t go there.
[00:29:51] LFB: Yeah. No. No. No. I don’t.
[00:29:53] DR: I had a couple other questions on this that sort of coming up for me. So one is this whole synchronization thing. What about if someone is – Like someone that you feel is different to you, like you’re out group, right? There may be different race –
[00:30:04] LFB: Well, there you go. Yeah.
[00:30:05] DR: What happens with synchronization there?
[00:30:07] LFB: There isn’t any. And here’s the thing, and sometimes it’s discussed in a superficial way about empathy. But I think there’s a deeper point here, and the point is that as a person with light skin in this country, like I’m melanin-challenged. I don’t have a lot in my skin. I don’t have to face certain obstacles that other people have to face every day. They’re just not present in my life. And, David, because you have a penis and I have a vagina, there are certain obstacles you don’t have to face in everyday life that I have to face every day. Or we could say you’re a white man and now you have obstacles to face that I don’t have to face. But my point is that working a little harder to try to take the frame of reference. We have, we call it perspective taking or empathy or whatever.
Really what your brain is doing is it’s literally simulating the experience of another person when you’re empathizing with them. And if you can’t do that or you can’t try, it means that your judgments that could affect the outcomes of that person won’t be well aligned with what is best for them. I’m sure there are lots of examples in business. I’ll tell you in the medical environment, the most serious implication is that children and adults, but for me it’s the harder one as children. They don’t get the treatment they need. They’re not given – There’s a belief in many medical schools still that people who have dark skin feel less pain. Now who’s making those judgments? It’s a bunch of light-skinned doctors who have trouble simulating because somebody is not similar to them. Yeah, it’s very, very bad.
[00:31:49] DR: Interesting. So we’ve written a paper as well on perspective taking. It’s a really important capacity and it’s one of the mechanisms of empathy. I want to come back to that for sure. But what you’re saying is we’re creating representations in our head of other people’s representations. And if someone is different to us, it’s really hard to do that. Is that because we don’t have the building blocks of those experiences in our brain or –
[00:32:11] LFB: No. Well, we may not have the building blocks. I mean, like I said, there are obstacles I don’t face that other people do. There are obstacles that you don’t face that other people do. But like I said, our brains can do what scientists call conceptual combination. They can take bits and pieces of past experience and combine them into new ways. So I may not know what it’s like to be black in this country, but I certainly know what it’s like to be a woman, and I know what it’s like to be Jewish, and I know what it’s like to be liberal in conservative circles or conservative in liberal circles. Like I have things I can use to empathize with someone.
I just want to point out that by words and actions, this is our way of doing mental telepathy. I can’t literally place a thought in your head, but I can say things that will conjure simulations in your brain and that is the way that we communicate. And to give that a special name called empathy or refer to a special set of neurons like mirror neurons, which, by the way I don’t know who asked that question [inaudible 00:33:13]. Mirror neurons don’t exist as a special class of neurons. All neurons work like this, but certain neurons in the pre-motor area of your brain, Brodmann area 6, do this more for movement and for information that’s more conceptual. And that’s why those neurons have been identified. But the truth is your whole brain works like this basically.
[00:33:40] DR: Right. Right. No. That’s interesting. So one of the questions that we’re working on at the moment is what is the most effective way to increase empathy is a somewhat urgent question. We’re thinking about it deeply and and asking a bunch of scientists about this. So I’d love to get your perspective on this, is what are the most effective ways? I mean, the research is you can increase empathy a little bit and it depends on motivation. But what’s your perspective on the most powerful ways to actually increase empathy? Particularly maybe in – Let’s call them high-status individuals where the trouble begins. How do we do that best?
[00:34:14] LFB: Exposure. For example, the more self-relevant something is to you, the easier it is for your brain to stimulate. I could take that statement and explain to you in neuroscientific terms, but that basically is your brain isn’t going to expend the metabolic energy to simulate anything that isn’t relevant to your well-being. It’s just that would be metabolically stupid to do. For example, why don’t most people in congress take climate change as seriously as they should? Because they aren’t making decisions after a hurricane standing in three feet of water when the air conditioning doesn’t work. But if they were, they might make different decisions.
When people think it’s okay to separate children from their parents at the border, they can say that cavalierly until you say, “Okay, then give me your kids right now. I’m taking them away and I’m going to go lock them in cages or whatever. Like give me your kids. Just hand them over right now.”
The knee-jerk reaction that you get from that even when people protest is that they understand that now it’s a little more real for them. There are some things that are just really hard to simulate without direct experience. And the one thing that can reverse, for example, other race face effects where you can’t recognize people who have features that are somewhat different from yours, even an infant is like 30 to 60 minutes of exposure.
The reason why you see amygdala increase in amygdala activity to people of a different so-called race or ethnic group from you is just the lack of familiarity. If I show you anything that’s novel, I’m going to get a massive amygdala response. So the more you interact with people, the more you learn. I’ll just give you one really quick example. I’m Canadian originally. I mean, I’ve been an American citizen for a long time now, but I originally came from Canada, and I came from Canada and it’s not like there’s no racism in Canada. It’s just that the categories are different. Skin color is not such an issue. There are other issues.
So when I came here I was like, “I don’t understand what’s going on.” I came to a university where there was a diversity training program, a minority training program it was called at that time for graduate students. And I was treating everybody the same and I got in a lot of trouble for that. And I didn’t really understand why I’m being egalitarian. What is the problem with that? I really didn’t understand what the problem was. So I did the only thing I could possibly think of doing, which is I went and found the only African-American faculty member in my department and said, “Can you please explain to me what the fuck is going on because I just don’t understand it?” And he didn’t explain anything with words at first. He said, “Why don’t you just spend a couple of days with me?” And I was like, “Yeah, I would love to do that.” And I did, and it was eye-opening.
Today there was an article about a university president who moved into the dorms with his students because he was worried about them. If you have a leader, a high status leader who wants to know what life is like for his peeps or her peeps, he or she can go spend a day being a peep. Not a bad idea frankly from my perspective, because it becomes real not just hypothetical.
[00:37:34] DR: Yeah. I mean, exposure is central. I want to hear about kind of what else we can do around perspective taking as well. I’m thinking about –
[00:37:42] LFB: I’ll just tell you one other I’ll just say one other thing, and that is empathy is not only or perspective taking is not only the responsibility of the listener. It’s also the responsibility of the speaker or the sender. So people can also be trained to be better senders. In general, people are not so good at that. In fact, in some ways we socialize people to be opaque.
[00:38:05] DR: Right, and to not show your emotions and all that, absolutely. It’s interesting, the exposure question. Some years ago I was taking a walk with a filmmaker friend and we were kind of brainstorming about the stuff he was working on. It was sort of early in the VR days. And he was telling me about some really intense VR experiences, like dropping people into a riot, for example, and seeing what it’s like being beaten by police and like being in a war zone and some really intense things like living for a day as a person of color in different environments. And I had this big insight that if we could kind of give people really powerful experiences like this that feel real, we could potentially scale those, and it led me –
[00:38:44] LFB: Sure. Sure. I mean, VR is really good for this. There are some experiments though where you can change your features in various ways. In fact, there’s a group called Playground of Empathy. I’m so impressed with these people. They don’t use VR. They use actual real, live immersive experiences. So the head person, the head designer, his name is Micah Kessel, and he also used to design escape rooms. So he’s designed escape rooms in europe that are like, I don’t know, in the top five of like the best escape rooms ever or whatever. And so then he took his prodigious design skills and started designing environments to create empathy for people. And I don’t want to give away what he does, but I will say it’s brilliant. At first it sounds really hokey until you do it. And the science behind it is totally solid. It’s just really, really well done.
[00:39:42] DR: That’s interesting. Well, I’ll definitely want to dig into that. Tell me a little more about empathy. So exposure is one thing. And what else can we do to teach high status people to empathize better? I mean, is it about perspective taking? How would you go about that?
[00:39:54] LFB: Well, one thing I think is about curiosity. So I think it’s really important to understand that your brain is guessing all the time. And you can be wrong. And you can be wrong even when you’re super confident. It doesn’t really matter whether you think of yourself as somebody who reads other people well or not, because your brain actually doesn’t read other people. Their facial movements and body movements and even words, they’re not read. Their meaning isn’t read the way that you would read words on a page.
And so I think it’s important to be humble and be curious. I think it’s also really important to understand your stimulus value for another person. For example, if you’re in a position of authority and you ask someone their opinion, what is the likelihood that they’re actually going to tell you the truth? You might have to work a little harder to assure them that it really is okay that you really want to know and that you will reward them or you at least won’t punish them if they tell you something that you might not want to hear. I mean, you might have to do a little more. You have to understand your stimulus value for people in a situation. Because how your brain is doing calculus in that situation is not the same as this other person whose outcomes depend on you or your decisions.
[00:41:10] DR: Yeah, it’s interesting. There’re so many different directions I want to go, but I just stay on empathy for another couple of minutes. One of the things I think is really interesting with perspective taking, we bring a lot of bias to perspective taking. We put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. It’s really hard to actually kind of see the world through their eyes. We bring our own biases and our own filters to this issue. What would you say about that?
[00:41:32] LFB: Well, I think you can’t leave your own perspective 100% because your brain is always using your past experience. Your brain is receiving sense data from the world and from the body, from your body. From the world, the sense data are other people’s words and their movements and so on. And your brain has to guess at the meaning. It’s solving a reverse inference problem. It gets the outcomes of causes. It doesn’t know what the causes are. It has to guess. What is it using to guess? Your past experience. Your brain is wired in such a way to conjure, re-implement your past experience in the wiring of those neurons. You don’t experience it as consciously remembering, but that is what your brain is doing. Every time you have an experience, your ability to understand my words right now is based on this process which we’re talking about. You are inherently biased.
Rather than bias, I would say you always perceive things from a particular point of view, and that point of view is from someone who has the body that you have in the state that it’s in. For example, the physical state that your body is in, or I should say your brain’s estimation of your body state will influence not just like how you interpret what you see, but literally what you see. If your nervous system is encumbered, if you haven’t slept well, if you haven’t eaten healthy, if you aren’t exercising properly, if you’re not doing the things that you need to do to make it easy to regulate your body, for your brain to regulate your body, you are going to be more likely to misperceive or rather to perceive things in a particular way. You’ll be more likely to – Like, literally, in experiments, we can show that we can make people look at a neutral face and see it more like a smiling face or a scowling face just depending on the physical state we put them in.
[00:43:39] DR: In the third essay you’re talking about brains can create reality, and I want to sort of link in some of the earlier questions as well and tie in self-regulation. Like having words for emotional states, like being able to label emotional states and and kind of see that something is a fairness reaction, for example, or a reaction to feeling someone else is putting you down. Like what’s your view on being able to label states? I know, Lieberman did a lot of work on that and a bunch of others, kind of the whole affect labeling. What’s your position on that?
[00:44:11] LFB: Well, Matt Lieberman’s work really derives from our work. Our work initially was work showing that when people can conceptualize or categorize, that’s the way we make meaning of all sense data that we categorize it. And the way explaining how that works will take more than the time that we have. But an easy way for us to learn concepts and categories is with words. So the broader your vocabulary is, the more flexibility you have in making meaning in understanding what that tug is in your heart or that gurgle in your stomach or that flash of light or that bang of sound or whatever. And there’s a tremendous amount of evidence to show that this is the case.
I think Matt’s explanation for how this works is wrong frankly. I mean, we’ll have to agree to disagree, but I don’t think his explanation neuroscientifically is the one that I find most accurate. But he would disagree. He may disagree with that. But I think the findings are really important. Words are important. They’re not everything, but they are important, because basically emotion concepts are abstract concepts. Meaning sometimes your heart rate goes up in anger. Sometimes it goes down in anger. Sometimes it stays the same, but yet your brain understands that all those instances are angered, which means that your brain is summarizing across different instances which are perceptually different. Your heart rate can go up, go down, stay the same. They’re perceptually different but they have the same meaning. And this is something that I talk about how this works in lesson seven. Yeah.
[00:45:50] DR: Right. Yeah. I mean, a bunch of people have been posting about SCARF. SCARF describes the five social experiences. It’s a framework I wrote about some time ago; status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness. It’s kind of taking Jessica and Ryan’s work and adding status and fairness in a way, and it’s a framework for essentially labeling what you might be experiencing in a social interaction or ideally ahead of time being able to predict what someone else might do if you say what’s wrong with you. In kind of predicting the different reactions people will have. So there’s a bunch of comments on that.
[00:46:24] LFB: Sure. I appreciate that context. I mean, I would say these are features that your brain is constructing. So what does it mean to have status or what does it mean to be fair or what does it mean to feel closeness? The physical features are not the same on an instance by instance basis, but your brain is finding equivalences. It’s compressing information, the sensory details, to find equivalences to say, “Well, these three things which look different and sound different and feel different actually mean the same thing.” This is something that your brain can do. It’s not something that many animal brains can do, but human brains can do it in spades, right? And you link this to social reality. I don’t think we’re to have time to probe.
[00:47:09] DR: Yeah. We want you back. So we’ll have to find a way to do that down the track. Sort of closing comment, I’ve always said that like the more language you have for your brain, the more opportunities you have to almost have like a kind of weird mindful moment because you’re observing and then you can switch what’s happening a little bit through the language. And I think the more words you have for your brain and other people’s brains, the more you can get similar benefits to mindfulness of sort of having more choice and having more self-awareness and stuff. And I think it’s a really big call out today to just build all our vocabulary for what’s going on –
[00:47:42] LFB: Well, this is the essence of emotional granularity, David. This is exactly the argument that we make based on our own research. This is discussed more in depth, I would say, in how emotions are made. Really, we’re talking about emotional granularity and like mental state words, but I would say it holds generally speaking, as a general principle. The more words you know, the larger vocabulary, the more tools your brain has basically to create meaning in a flexible way that is situated to the environment that you’re in or allows you to make the environment that you want to be in.
[00:48:18] DR: Emotional granularity. That’s fantastic. Lisa, I want to thank you so much. I’ll let you go in about 30 seconds. I just want to summarize by saying this is roughly the one year anniversary of these Friday events. We started this in March last year and in a whole year of doing things. You’ve been just such an exceptional guest and congratulations on being the first person in a year to say penis and vagina as well on a call. That was fantastic.
[00:48:39] LFB: Certainly will get people’s attention I hope.
[00:48:42] DR: I think it really worked absolutely here. But thank you so much for the work you do, and everyone’s going to go off and buy your book and voraciously read the essay. So thanks so much for everything that you’re doing.
[00:48:53] GB: Your Brain at Work is produced by the NeuroLeadership Institute. You can help us in making organizations more human by rating, reviewing and subscribing wherever you get your podcasts. Our producers are Cliff David, Matt Holidack and Danielle Kirschenblatt. Our executive producer is me, Gabriel Berezin. Original music is by Grant Zubritsky and logo design is by Ketch Wehr. we’ll see you next time.