♪ ♪ After I talked to Nick Hornby about Charles Dickens and Prince, I wanted to talk to someone who understood the brain and how it works, and so I found my way to Boston to talk to Lisa Feldman Barrett.
She teaches at Northeastern, she does some work at Harvard, she's written some books that I could not put down, like "How Emotions Are Made" and "7 1/2 Lessons About the Brain."
So, thank you so much for making time for us.
Oh, it's so great to be here.
I was shocked to discover how many misunderstandings I and many people I know, the lay people out there, have about how the brain works, so, can we just hit 3?
Right brain, left brain.
Is it true?
Well, you do have a left hemisphere and a right hemisphere.
I meant do they have very specific jobs?
No, they don't.
Where did that come from?
That's actually a really good question.
I'm not sure where this one comes from exactly.
But lots of things have been attributed to the right versus the left, so, spatial ability, you know, your ability to navigate where you're going, to the right, verbal ability to the left.
Emotion to the right, rationality to the left.
There have been lots of different incarnations of the same kind of idea, but I think it's important to understand that first of all, your cerebral cortex is only part of your brain.
There's a whole other big part called the subcortex and there's not a right and a left of those.
There's just one.
That's the first thing to understand.
The second thing is neurons have this really interesting ability to take on other functions, like, so, if you--not always, but if you lose a function because some neurons are damaged or they stop working, there's a very strong likelihood that other neurons can pick up that function.
So, when you start learning language, both your left and your right hemispheres of your cerebral cortex are helping you out.
But as you start to learn to read, the left side starts to do more work for processing language, for your ability to speak and understand language.
In most people, but not in everybody.
In some people, it's the right hemisphere that actually takes on more work.
And if something were to happen to the left side of your brain, the right side could pick up some of those functions.
Not all of them but some of them.
The important thing to understand is just because language is the one thing that we understand to be more on the left than the right or more on the right than the left, that's really the only one and it doesn't translate to the rational brain is on the left or, you know, your ability to do math is on the left.
It's just really not the case.
OK, here's another one.
Can you teach creativity?
Like, is it a divine gift or can it be developed?
I don't know that there's any scientific answer to this question, so I'm gonna just riff on what I do know.
I'm gonna just infer.
Human brains have this amazing capacity called conceptual combination.
That means we can take bits and pieces of things we know and put them together in new ways.
And every neurotypical brain can do this.
So, that's how you can look at something you've never seen before ever and have a pretty good sense of what it is.
You know, I have this little movie that I show people when I'm giving talks of electrical towers playing jump rope, and you look at it and you're like immediately you know what it is but you've never seen that in your real life.
How could you possibly know?
And the answer is you know bits and pieces and your brain can put them together.
That's how we can look at Medusa and understand that she's a woman and a monster, even though we've never actually seen Medusa in real life.
That is the wellspring of creativity in a sense.
It's being able to put ideas together in a different way than they've been assembled before and do it very fluidly and very automatically.
And so, can that be taught?
I suspect it can be taught because creativity is a skill and any skill can be honed with practice.
I remember with my girls when they were really little reading picture books and saying, "Bird, bird, bird," and then they were outside and saw a real bird, and she said, "Bird," and I was like, that's amazingly-- from the little cartoon drawing of the blue thing Right.
to this brown thing.
But now you're getting at something really important I think that people miss when they're thinking about creativity, and that is that you seeded her brain with knowledge.
"Bird, bird, bird."
And that is what allowed her to generalize to something she had never seen before and something that probably she had never experienced, maybe, the sounds of the bird or-- Or the movement.
the movement of a bird, but she could nonetheless generalize, but that's because she was prepared.
So, creativity doesn't come out of nowhere.
It comes from being able to combine things or generalize from past experience in a new way.
And so, you have to seed your brain with that original knowledge in order to be able to use it in this really novel, creative way.
And I think that's-- sometimes, that's something that people miss.
They think about creativity as if it is a wellspring that derives only from the brain itself as opposed to the brain's ability to absorb experiences in life and then mold them in novel ways.
Well, that sort of goes to nature versus nurture, which you must get asked about constantly, because that was a nurture moment that fed into the nature of our brain to do this thing.
You know, there are some debates that have been around for millennia, like, just thousands of years, philosophers debating, scientists debating, and when that happens, usually my intuition is that somebody's asking the wrong question.
Otherwise, it would be resolved.
We have the kind of nature that requires nurture, meaning we have the kind of brains and bodies that require care.
Little infant brains are not miniature adult brains.
They are brains that are waiting for wiring instructions from the world and those wiring instructions come from the sights and sounds and smells and, you know, the wiring instructions come from your own body.
Your brain is wired so that you can see through your eyes, which are at a particular distance in your skull.
If you took your brain and stuck it into somebody else's head, you wouldn't be able to see and you wouldn't be able to hear because the ear shape would be different, the eyes might be a different distance, and so, some of those wiring instructions come from other humans, you know, humans that tend that little person, who sing to that little person, who cuddle that little person, who feed that little person, who teach that little brain how to go get her own snack, eventually, [Laughter] in the refrigerator or whatever.
That, I think, is a part of the misunderstanding, too.
I could change your behavior but that your behavior isn't related to your biology, and a big thing you're saying is everything is biology.
Everything is biology.
And I don't mean that in a reductionist way, right?
I'm not saying, well, behavior is meaningless because really there's biology underneath in there.
That's really what we should be paying attention to.
That's not at all what I'm saying.
But what I am saying is every thought that you have, every feeling that you feel, every action that you take has a biological basis and sometimes it's really useful to remember that.
What's an example of a time when it's really useful to remember that?
I think right now, actually, it's a really useful time to remember that.
So, we're still in the middle of a pandemic that's been going on for two years now.
So, it's filled with chaos.
And before that, we still had chaos.
We had political chaos that stretched back for some period of time.
And so, when people now feel tired and they feel really worn out and they feel like something's wrong, it's because the way that your brain manages your body, you could describe it as running a budget for your body and people are running deficits in those budgets.
There have been lots and lots and lots of newspaper articles trying to explain why everybody feels so crappy.
Maybe our fight-or-flight circuits are overworked or--you know, there are all these kinds of explanations, but there's a really simple explanation.
The simple explanation is all of us have been living with tremendous uncertainty for a long time.
Uncertainty is incredibly biologically expensive for a human nervous system.
And so, we've been making lots and lots and lots of withdrawals from our body budget and not replenishing enough.
And the consequence of that is feeling crappy, is feeling distressed, is feeling fatigued.
It's feeling like something is fundamentally wrong.
♪ You mentioned fight or flight and you said it in a certain tone of voice that made me think that I wanted to ask you about one more super common idea, and I may have used it myself, is the lizard brain.
So, the only animal on this planet who has a lizard brain is a lizard.
[Chuckles] What do people mean when they say it and what's wrong with the way that we think of that?
Usually what people mean is the idea that each of us has an inner beast in our brain.
So, our brains have this animalistic inner core that we share with lizards, where the circuits for instincts live, for fighting and fleeing, running away, and freezing and mating.
That--scientists call that the 4 Fs.
My mind is already going there.
And then the idea is that what evolved on top of that was what's called the limbic system, limbic meaning "border," the tissue that borders that lizard brain, and that came from early mammals, who would experience emotions.
And then what evolved on top of that is the cerebral cortex, which is the home of rationality, and, of course, our cerebral cortex is quite large relative to the rest of our brain, so, one of the things we value about ourselves, we, in fact, we created a whole era of history called the Enlightenment around this notion that rationality is this way of being in the world that controls our inner beast and prevents instincts and emotions from bubbling up.
And so, the human mind and the human brain are conceived of as this constant battleground between your inner beast and your rational self.
Yeah, it's like the elephant and the rider.
The elephant and the rider.
For Plato, it was two horses and a charioteer.
It's a morality story.
It's a story about human morality and responsibility.
You're either immoral because you didn't try hard enough or you're mentally ill because you couldn't.
So, there are a number of different ideas about mental illness, for example, depression, anxiety, that basically have the storyline you have overly emotional parts of your brain, right?
So, the parts of your brain for instincts or emotions are just too active or the parts of your brain for rationality are just too weak and that's why you have the, you know, emotional challenges that you have, and it's a great story.
It fits our Western notions of morality.
But unfortunately, it doesn't actually fit the best available evidence for how brains evolved or how they function.
So, brains didn't evolve like sedimentary layers of rock, and the morality story that comes from Plato, from ancient Greece that is now still with us, embedded in the law and embedded in economics and mental health and even physical health is not an origin story for the human brain.
It's not a story about how the brain functions.
But it is a really hard story to put to rest.
The evidence has been around since the 1970s, really conclusive evidence, that brains didn't evolve this way.
There really isn't a lizard brain and there is no limbic system in your brain, and the cerebral cortex is not the home of rationality.
The cerebral cortex does many, many, many important things but ra-- and rationality is not the absence of feeling.
This has been known for a really long time.
So, there's something about the way our brains work Yeah.
that is making it hard for us to understand how our brains work.
We're just a bunch of brains trying to understand how brains work.
And we're not very good at it, you know?
♪ I was really drawn to this idea of how metabolically expensive it is to live in chaos and how relatively cheap it is to live in certainty.
But when you think about jazz, opera, the symphony, watching "The Wire," those are complex experiences.
And so, if our brain prefers something more certain, then why are we drawn to, like, a 1,000-page novel like "Great Expectations" with 150 named characters?
Like, wouldn't we all pass it over for, I don't know, "Sam I Am"?
I wouldn't say that our brain prefers certainty.
I would say certainty is cheaper, metabolically speaking.
The first thing to understand is that your brain isn't really reacting to things in the world.
It's not like you see something and then you react to it.
Your brain is predicting all the time.
If things are certain, then all your brain needs is one or two predictions.
If things are uncertain, your brain has to conjure, you know, multitudes of predictions in a given moment.
It's just more expensive.
The brain doesn't tend toward efficiency.
It is oriented towards efficiency.
In fact, metabolic efficiency is one of the most important criteria for remaining healthy and, actually, it's important for the evolution of a species.
I mean, natural selection in a sense is selecting for metabolic efficiency, but there's a balance, right?
So, for example, I exercise almost every day, and when you exercise, you're deliberately making a withdrawal from your body budget.
And, you know, you'll replenish that, you know, so, you have a protein drink or you, if you're like me, you'll have an extra piece of chocolate, you know, just because you're, you know, so virtuous.
Yeah, a treat.
But you can think about that spending like an investment in a healthier you, a healthier brain, a healthier body, and the brain also invests in other ways.
It might explore, it might attempt to forage for information just to learn something novel, right?
So, why would you do that?
Why would you listen to a really complex symphony or read a really complex book?
And the answer is because you're learning, and that learning is an investment.
It's a metabolic investment because you might be able to use that information in the future to predict better.
Humans love novelty.
We love novelty in food.
We love novelty in stories.
We love novelty in activities.
We love novelty in almost everything except each other, frankly.
I mean-- We like people like us.
We prefer to be around people like us in part because, you know, we can better predict.
The novelty is like foraging for information.
It's like we're learning stuff.
The brain is loading itself up with information that it can then use to predict better in the future so it can be metabolically efficient in the future.
So, novelty is like an investment.
It's so thrilling to be in that space where you're generating next possible-- OK.
My point is that there's an increase in arousal because there are chemicals that increase to make it easier for the brain to learn in uncertainty.
So, there's an increase in arousal.
And when you desire that arousal, when you're engaging with that uncertainty, when you even deliberately put yourself in an uncertain situation, that's fun, that's thrilling.
But when you don't choose the uncertainty, your brain doesn't make sense of it as thrilling.
Your brain makes sense of it as anxiety and doesn't forage for information and doesn't continue to, you know, explore, and it's not fun.
It's distressing, and that's why it's important to understand that high arousal doesn't always have to be anxiety.
Your brain can make it into something else.
OK, so, talk about that, because that's really fascinating, that you could teach your brain to reinterpret some sensory input not as anxiety-provoking but as challenge or thrill or curiosity.
Yeah, so, I would say you can teach your brain to interpret, because the original interpretation is also from your brain.
Your brain is always making sense of the sensory changes in your body in relation to the sensory changes that are going on around you in the world.
That's what your brain is always doing for the purpose of keeping you alive, ha ha, and it's attempting to do it in a really metabolically efficient way.
That's our kind of go-to feeling, like this is something that happens to our brains, not something that our brains are creating or making, but your brain is making anxiety out of arousal.
It's giving meaning to that arousal as anxiety.
And you can train your brain to give that arousal meaning as something else.
So, for example, there's really great research showing that there are people who suffer from test anxiety and so, they can't finish school.
And that changes the whole course of their life.
And so, you can train people to experience that arousal, that pounding heart, that--those sweaty hands, as determination.
My daughter, when she was 12, was testing for her black belt in karate, and her sensei, who's a 10th-degree black belt, really, really powerful, scary guy, said to my little, tiny daughter, "Get your butterflies flying in formation."
Not "Don't be scared."
Because that arousal, she needed that arousal to do what she needed to do for that black belt test.
And actually, yesterday, she was interviewing for a job and I said, "How are you doing?"
and she said, "I've got my butterflies flying in formation."
That's so interesting because you have talked about the impact of poverty on brain development, but in both the case of Prince and Dickens, these were people who grew up with some level of poverty and neglect.
And somehow, would you say that they got their butterflies flying in formation such that they could create at this extraordinary level?
There are lots of ways that you can learn to do that.
I grew up in poverty also.
And your butterflies are clearly flying in formation.
Well, I guess what I would say is that every experience that you have, every action that you take, is an opportunity to train your brain to predict, to construct your experiences differently.
Our brains in every moment are, in a sense, creating a past that will predict who we will become in the future.
Because everything you do now in this moment, everything you experience, becomes fodder for your brain to use, to predict very automatically later.
And I feel like you said somewhere that memories don't actually wash away and disappear.
It's just the math changes because there's new memories created, and so, each memory, therefore, is less significant in and of its own.
The more distinct experiences you have, basically the more facile your brain is to be able to predict and construct your experience in flexible ways in the future.
But we don't let go of things.
We don't let go-- No, not unless you start losing neurons, which, you know, happens.
When your brain remembers something, it's not pulling up a file out of a file drawer.
It's actually reassembling.
If you are someone who suffers from test anxiety, you can-- reconceptualizing that, reinterpreting it as determination, and then eventually, what you're doing, really, is you're seeding your brain to remember those experiences differently.
Then, the next time you're faced with sweaty hands and a pounding heart when you're about to take a test, what you experience is determination.
♪ If you think about Dickens' childhood, you know, parents not able to invest in him, and then you think about Prince's childhood, where he was sort of living in a basement somewhere with just a lot of instruments, that arousal that would be happening, like, maybe I'm not safe, is there a way that that gets poured into art, that is explained by our biology?
You know, I don't think that there's one way.
There's not one path.
I think this is something to remember, really, about humans, is that variation is the norm.
So, there are lots of ways to transform adversity into art, into something expansive and beautiful.
Eventually, people in moments of adversity, if they can find someone else to invest in them or to lend them a little bit of body budgeting support, there are multiple paths to transforming adversity into art, into something beautiful.
But one ingredient probably is the ability to find other people to care for you, to help you wire your brain in a new way.
How does one person lend another person body budget support?
We're doing it with each other, I think.
We are making eye contact with each other, we're nodding, smiling, gesturing.
Probably if somebody had us wired with sensors, our heartbeats would be in sync and our breathing might be in sync.
This is something that we-- that humans do with each other without our awareness.
We are the caretakers of each other's nervous systems, right?
I can have a friend and send her 3 little words on a text halfway around the world.
She doesn't have to see my face or hear my voice, but I can change her breathing, I can change her respiration, I can change her heart rate with 3 little words.
We can support each other, make deposits of a sort, by hugs, by words of encouragement.
Even a random act of kindness can be body budgeting support.
The alternative, though, right, is also true.
I mean, the best thing for a human nervous system is another human.
The worst thing for a human nervous system is also another human.
That's so interesting to think about lines like "practice random acts of kindness," which I think of as like, you know, coffee mug wisdom that can be a little cheap, but what you're saying is there's a biological impact, which, of course, I feel like we sense because we're so drawn to the people who make eye contact and smile.
And I have to say, I'm a super skeptical person.
I mean, I don't even believe my own data right away.
So, just because somebody says something like this doesn't mean it's true, but the data are really clear, they're really clear on this point, and so, I changed some of what I do.
You know, I take a walk every morning.
I make eye contact, I say hello to every single person I pass.
At the beginning of the pandemic, I started to bake bread for my neighbors.
It's like a double whammy.
It's a little perk for me and it's a little perk for them.
And the really interesting thing about your nervous system is that all these little nudges add up to a big effect.
OK. Let's end there.
That's so perfect.
Thank you so much.
I love talking to you.
♪ If you enjoyed this conversation, you'll love our episodes with Lilly Singh, Steve Kerr, and Kate Bowler.
You can find them all at pbs.org or on my podcast "Kelly Corrigan Wonders."
♪ ♪ ♪