Lex Fridman Podcast - #129 - Lisa Feldman Barrett: Counterintuitive Ideas About How the Brain Works

The following is a conversation with Lisa Feldman Barrett,

a professor of psychology at Northeastern University,

and one of the most brilliant and bold thinkers and scientists

I’ve ever had the pleasure of speaking with.

She’s the author of a book that revolutionized

our understanding of emotion in the brain

called How Emotions Are Made.

And she’s coming out with a new book called

Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain

that you can and should preorder now.

I got a chance to read it already,

and it’s one of the best short,

whirlwind introductions to the human brain I’ve ever read.

It comes out on November 17th,

but again, if there’s anybody worth supporting,

it’s Lisa, so please do preorder the book now.

Lisa and I agreed to speak once again

around the time of the book release,

especially because we felt that this first conversation

is good to release now,

since we talk about the divisive time

we’re living through in the United States,

leading up to the election.

And she gives me a whole new way to think about it

from a neuroscience perspective

that is ultimately inspiring of empathy,

compassion, and love.

Quick mention of each sponsor,

followed by some thoughts related to this episode.

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The cocoa flavor is my favorite.

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Please check out these sponsors in the description

to get a discount and to support this podcast.

As a side note, let me say that the bold,

first principles way that Lisa approaches

our study of the brain is something that has inspired me

ever since I learned about her work.

And in fact, I invited her to speak at the AGI series

I organized at MIT several years ago.

But as a little twist, instead of a lecture,

we did a conversation in front of the class.

I think that was one of the early moments

that led me to start this very podcast.

It was scary and gratifying,

which is exactly what life is all about.

And it’s kind of funny how life turns on little moments

like these that at the time don’t seem to be anything

out of the ordinary.

If you enjoy this thing, subscribe on YouTube,

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And now, here’s my conversation with Lisa Feldman Barrett.

Since we’ll talk a lot about the brain today,

do you think, let’s ask the craziest question,

do you think there’s other intelligent life

out there in the universe?

Honestly, I’ve been asking myself lately

if there’s intelligent life on this planet.

You know, I have to think probabilities suggest yes.

And also, secretly, I think I just hope that’s true.

It would be really, I know scientists

aren’t supposed to have hopes and dreams,

but I think it would be really cool.

And I also think it would be really sad if it wasn’t the case.

If we really were alone, that would be,

that would seem profoundly sad, I think.

So it’s exciting to you, not scary?

Yeah, no, you know, I take a lot of comfort and curiosity.

It’s a great resource for dealing with stress.

So I’m learning all about mushrooms and octopuses

and, you know, all kinds of stuff.

And so for me, this counts, I think, in the realm of awe.

But also, I think I’m somebody who cultivates awe

deliberately on purpose to feel like a speck, you know?

I find it a relief occasionally.

To feel small.

To feel small in a profoundly large and interesting universe.

So, maybe to dig more technically on the question of intelligence,

do you think it’s difficult for intelligent life to arise

like it did on Earth?

From everything you’ve written and studied about the brain,

how magical of a thing is it in terms of the odds it takes to arise?

Yeah, so, you know, magic is just, don’t get me wrong.

I mean, I like a magic show as much as the next person.

My husband was a magician at one time.

But, you know, magic is just a bunch of stuff

that we don’t really understand how it works yet.

So I would say from what I understand,

there are some major steps in the course of evolution

that at the beginning of life,

the step from single cell to multicellular organisms,

things like that, which are really not known.

I think for me, the question is not so much what’s the likelihood

that it would happen again as much as what are the steps

and how long would it take?

And if it were to happen again on Earth,

would we end up with the same menu of life forms

that we currently have now?

And I think the answer is probably no, right?

There’s just so much about evolution

that is stochastic and driven by chance.

But the question is whether that menu

would be equally delicious,

meaning like there’d be rich complexity of the kind of,

like would we get dolphins and humans

or whoever else falls in that category

of weirdly intelligent, seemingly intelligent?

However we define that.

Well, I think that has to be true.

If you just look at the range of creatures

who’ve gone extinct.

I mean, if you look at the range of creatures

that are on the Earth now, it’s incredible.

And it’s sort of tried to say that,

but it actually is really incredible.

Particularly, I don’t know, I mean, animals,

there are animals that seem really ordinary

until you watch them closely

and then they become miraculous,

like certain types of birds,

which do very miraculous things,

build bowers and do dances

and all these really funky things

that are hard to explain

with a standard evolutionary story,

although people have them.

Yeah, the birds are weird.

They do a lot for mating purposes.

They have a concept of beauty

that I haven’t quite, maybe you know much better,

but it doesn’t seem to fit evolutionary arguments well.

It does fit.

Well, it depends, right?

So I think you’re talking about the evolution of beauty,

the book that was written recently by,

was it Frum, was that his name?

Richard Frum, I think, at Yale.

Oh, I’m sorry, no, I didn’t know.

Oh, it’s a great book.

It’s very controversial, though,

because he’s making the argument

that the question about birds and some other animals

is why would they engage

in such metabolically costly displays

when it doesn’t improve their fitness at all?

And the answer that he gives is the answer that Darwin gave,

which is sexual selection, not natural selection.

But selection can occur for all kinds of reasons.

There could be artificial selection,

which is when we breed animals, right?

Which is actually how Darwin,

that observation helped Darwin come to the idea

of natural selection.

Oh, I see.

And then there’s sexual selection,

meaning, and the argument that,

I think his name is Frum,

makes is that it’s the pleasure,

the selection pressure is the pleasure of female birds.

Which, as a woman, and as someone who studies affect,

that’s a great answer.

I actually think there probably is natural,

I think there is an aspect of natural selection to it,

which he maybe hasn’t considered.

But you were saying the reason we brought up birds

is the life we’ve got now seems to be quite incredible.

Yeah, so he brought up birds,

now seems to be quite incredible.

Yeah, so you peek into the ocean,

peek into the sky, there are miraculous creatures.

Look at creatures who’ve gone extinct.

And in science fiction stories,

you couldn’t dream up something as interesting.

So my guess is that intelligent life evolves

in many different ways, even on this planet.

There isn’t one form of intelligence.

There’s not one brain that gives you intelligence.

There are lots of different brain structures

that can give you intelligence.

So my guess is that the menagerie

might not look exactly the way that it looks now,

but it would certainly be as interesting.

But if we look at the human brain versus the brains,

or whatever you call them,

the mechanisms of intelligence in our ancestors,

even early ancestors,

that you write about, for example, in your new book,

what’s the difference between the fanciest brain we got,

which is the human brain,

and the ancestor brains that it came from?

Yeah, I think it depends on how far back you want to go.

You go all the way back, right, in your book.

So what’s the interesting comparison, would you say?

Well, first of all, I wouldn’t say that the human brain

is the fanciest brain we’ve got.

I mean, an octopus brain is pretty different

and pretty fancy,

and they can do some pretty amazing things

that we cannot do.

You know, we can’t grow back limbs,

we can’t change color and texture,

we can’t comport ourselves and squeeze ourselves

into a little crevice.

I mean, these are things that we invent,

these are like superhero abilities

that we invent in stories, right?

We can’t do any of those things.

And so the human brain is certainly,

we can certainly do some things

that other animals can’t do.

That seemed pretty impressive to us.

But I would say that there are a number of animal brains

which seem pretty impressive to me

that can do interesting things

and really impressive things that we can’t do.

I mean, with your work on how emotions are made and so on,

you kind of repaint the view of the brain

as less glamorous, I suppose,

than you would otherwise think.

Or like, I guess you draw a thread

that connects all brains together

in terms of homeostasis and all that kind of stuff.

Yeah, I wouldn’t say that the human brain

is any less miraculous than anybody else would say.

I just think that there are other brain structures

which are also miraculous.

And I also think that there are a number of things

about the human brain which we share

with other vertebrates, other animals with backbones.

But that we share these miraculous things.

But we can do some things in abundance.

And we can also do some things with our brains together,

working together that other animals can’t do.

Or at least we haven’t discovered their ability to do it.

Yeah, this social thing.

That’s one of the things you write about.

How do you make sense of the fact,

like the book Sapiens, and the fact that we’re able

to kind of connect, like network our brains together

like you write about?

I’ll try to stop saying that.

Is that like some kind of feature

that’s built into there?

Is that unique to our human brains?

Like how do you make sense of that?

What I would say is that our ability

to coordinate with each other is not unique to humans.

There are lots of animals who can do that.

But what we do with that coordination is unique

because of some of the structural features in our brains.

And it’s not that other animals

don’t have those structural features.

It’s we have them in abundance.

So the human brain is not larger

than you would expect it to be for a primate of our size.

If you took a chimpanzee and you grew it

to the size of a human, that chimpanzee would have a brain

that was the size of a human brain.

So there’s nothing special about our brain

in terms of its size.

There’s nothing special about our brain

in terms of the basic blueprint

that builds our brain from an embryo

is the basic blueprint that builds all mammalian brains

and maybe even all vertebrate brains.

It’s just that because of its size

and particularly because of the size

of the cerebral cortex, which is a part

that people mistakenly attribute to rationality.

Why mistakenly?

Is that where all the clever stuff happens?

Well, no, it really isn’t.

And I will also say that lots of clever stuff happens

in animals who don’t have a cerebral cortex.

But because of the size of the cerebral cortex

and because of some of the features

that are enhanced by that size,

that gives us the capacity to do things

like build civilizations and coordinate with each other,

not just to manipulate the physical world,

but to add to it in very profound ways.

Like, other animals can cooperate with each other

and use tools.

We draw a line in the sand and we make countries

and then we create citizens and immigrants.

But also ideas.

I mean, the countries are centered around the concept

of like ideas.

Well, what do you think a citizen is and an immigrant?

Those are ideas.

Those are ideas that we impose on reality

and make them real.

And then they have very, very serious and real effects,

physical effects on people.

What do you think about the idea

that a bunch of people have written about,

Dawkins with memes, which is like ideas are breeding.

Like, we’re just like the canvas for ideas to breed

in our brains.

So this kind of network that you talk about of brains

is just a little canvas for ideas

to then compete against each other and so on.

I think as a rhetorical tool, it’s cool to think that way.

So I think it was Michael Pollan.

I don’t remember if it was in the Botany of Desire,

but it was in one of his early books on botany

and gardening where he wrote about plants

and he wrote about plants utilizing humans

for their own evolutionary purposes.

Which is kind of interesting.

You can think about a human gut in a sense

as a propagation device for the seeds of tomatoes

and what have you.

So it’s kind of cool.

So I think rhetorically it’s an interesting device,

but ideas are, as far as I know, invented by humans,

propagated by humans.

So I don’t think they’re separate from human brains

in any way, although it is interesting

to think about it that way.

Well, of course, the ideas that are using your brain

to communicate and write excellent books.

And they basically picked you, Lisa,

as an effective communicator and thereby are winning.

So that’s an interesting worldview

to think that there’s particular aspects of your brain

that are conducive to certain sets of ideas

and maybe those ideas will win out.

Yeah, I think the way that I would say it really though

is that there are many species of animals

that influence each other’s nervous systems,

that regulate each other’s nervous systems,

and they mainly do it by physical means.

They do it by chemicals, scent.

They do it by, so termites and ants and bees,

for example, use chemical scents.

Mammals like rodents use scent

and they also use hearing, audition,

and that little bit of vision.

Primates, nonhuman primates add vision, right?

And I think everybody uses touch.

Humans, as far as I know, are the only species

that use ideas and words to regulate each other, right?

I can text something to someone halfway around the world.

They don’t have to hear my voice.

They don’t have to see my face

and I can have an effect on their nervous system.

And ideas, the ideas that we communicate with words,

I mean, words are in a sense a way

for us to do mental telepathy with each other, right?

I mean, I’m not the first person to say that obviously,

but how do I control your heart rate?

How do I control your breathing?

How do I control your actions with words?

It’s because those words are communicating ideas.

So you also write, I think, let’s go back to the brain.

You write that Plato gave us the idea

that the human brain has three brains in it, three forces,

which is kind of a compelling notion.

You disagree.

First of all, what are the three parts of the brain

and why do you disagree?

So Plato’s description of the psyche,

which for the moment we’ll just assume

is the same as a mind.

There are some scholars who would say a soul, a psyche,

a mind, those aren’t actually all the same thing

in ancient Greece, but we’ll just for now gloss over that.

So Plato’s idea was that,

and it was a description of really about moral behavior

and moral responsibility in humans.

So the idea was that the human psyche can be described

with a metaphor of two horses and a charioteer.

So one horse for instincts,

like feeding and fighting and fleeing and reproduction.

I’m trying to control my salty language,

which apparently they print in England.

Like I actually tossed off a fairly.

F, S?

Yeah, F, F, yeah.

I was like, you printed that?

I couldn’t believe you printed that.

Without like the stars or whatever?

No, no, no, it was full print.

They also printed a B word and it was really, yeah.

Well, we should learn something from England.

Indeed, anyways, but instincts.

And then the other horse represents emotions.

And then the charioteer represents rationality,

which controls the two beasts, right?

And fast forward a couple of centuries

and in the middle of the 20th century,

there was a very popular view of brain evolution,

which suggested that you have this reptilian core,

like an inner lizard brain for instincts.

And then wrapped around that evolved,

layer on top of that evolved a limbic system in mammals.

So the novelty was in a mammalian brain,

which bestowed mammals with, gave them emotions,

the capacity for emotions.

And then on top of that evolved a cerebral cortex,

which in largely in primates, but very large in humans.

And it’s not that I personally disagree.

It’s that as far back as the 1960s,

but really by the 1970s, it was shown pretty clearly

with evidence from molecular genetics.

So peering into cells in the brain

to look at the molecular makeup of genes

that the brain did not evolve that way.

And the irony is that the idea of the three layered brain

with an inner lizard that hijacks your behavior

and causes you to do and say things

that you would otherwise not,

or maybe that you will regret later.

That idea became very popular,

was popularized by Carl Sagan in The Dragons of Eden,

which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1977,

when it was already known pretty much

in evolutionary neuroscience

that the whole narrative was a myth.

So what the narrative is on the way it evolved,

but do you, I mean, again, it’s that problem

of it being a useful tool of conversation

to say like there’s a lizard brain

and there’s a, like if I get overly emotional on Twitter,

that was the lizard brain and so on.

But do you?

No, I don’t think it’s useful.

I think it’s, I think that.

Is it useful, is it accurate?

I don’t think it’s accurate,

and therefore I don’t think it’s useful.

So here’s what I would say.

I think that the way I think about philosophy and science

is that they are useful tools for living.

And in order to be useful tools for living,

they have to help you make good decisions.

The triune brain, as it’s called, this three layer brain,

the idea that your brain is like an already baked cake

and the cortex, cerebral cortex,

just layered on top like icing.

The idea, that idea is the foundation of the law

in most Western countries.

It’s the foundation of economic theory

and it’s a great narrative.

It sort of fits in with what I’ve been saying

fits our intuitions about how we work.

But it also, in addition to being wrong,

it lets people off the hook for nasty behavior.

And it also suggests that emotions

can’t be a source of wisdom, which they often are.

In fact, you would not wanna be around someone

who didn’t have emotions.

That would be, that’s a psychopath.

I mean, that’s not someone you wanna really

have that person deciding your outcome.

So I guess my, and I could sort of go on and on and on,

but my point is that I don’t think,

I don’t think it’s a useful narrative in the end.

What’s the more accurate view of the brain

that we should use when we’re thinking about it?

I’ll answer that in a second,

but I’ll say that even our notion of what an instinct is

or what a reflex is, it’s not quite right, right?

So if you look at evidence from ecology, for example,

and you look at animals in their ecological context,

what you can see is that even things

which are reflexes are very context sensitive.

The brains of those animals are executing

so called instinctual actions

in a very, very context sensitive way.

And so even when a physician takes the,

it’s like the idea of your patellar reflex

where they hit your patellar tendon on your knee

and you kick, the force with which you kick and so on

is influenced by all kinds of things.

A reflex isn’t like a robotic response.

And so I think a better way is a way that,

to think about how brains work,

is the way that matches our best understanding,

our best scientific understanding,

which I think is really cool

because it’s really counterintuitive.

So how I came to this view,

and I’m certainly not the only one who holds this view.

I was reading work on neuroanatomy

and the view that I’m about to tell you

was strongly suggested by that.

And then I was reading work in signal processing,

like by electrical engineering.

And similarly, the work suggested that,

the research suggested that the brain worked this way.

And I’ll just say that I was reading

across multiple literatures

and they were who don’t speak to each other

and they were all pointing in this direction.

And so far, although some of the details

are still up for grabs,

the general gist I think is I’ve not come across anything yet

which really violates, and I’m looking.

And so the idea is something like this.

It’s very counterintuitive.

So the way to describe it is to say

that your brain doesn’t react to things in the world.

It’s not, to us it feels like our eyes

are windows on the world.

We see things, we hear things, we react to them.

In psychology, we call this stimulus response.

So your face, your voice is a stimulus to me.

I receive input and then I react to it.

And I might react very automatically, system one.

But I also might execute some control

where I maybe stop myself from saying something

or doing something and in a more reflective way

execute a different action, right?

That’s system two.

The way the brain works though,

is it’s predicting all the time.

It’s constantly talking to itself,

constantly talking to your body,

and it’s constantly predicting what’s going on in the body

and what’s going on in the world and making predictions

and the information from your body and from the world

really confirm or correct those predictions.

So fundamentally the thing that the brain does

most of the time is just like talking to itself

and predicting stuff about the world,

not like this dumb thing that just senses and responds,

senses and responds.

Yeah, so the way to think about it is like this.

You know, your brain is trapped in a dark silent box.

Yeah, that’s very romantic of you.

Which is your skull.

And the only information that it receives

from your body and from the world, right,

is through the senses, through the sense organs,

your eyes, your ears,

and you have sensory data that comes from your body

that you’re largely unaware of to your brain,

which we call interoceptive,

as opposed to exteroceptive, which is the world around you.

But your brain is receiving sense data continuously,

which are the effect of some set of causes.

Your brain doesn’t know the cause of these sense data.

It’s only receiving the effects of those causes,

which are the data themselves.

And so your brain has to solve what philosophers call

an inverse inference problem.

How do you know, when you only receive

the effects of something,

how do you know what caused those effects?

So when there’s a flash of light or a change in air pressure

or a tug somewhere in your body,

how does your brain know what caused those events

so that it knows what to do next to keep you alive and well?

And the answer is that your brain has one other source

of information available to it,

which is your past experience.

It can reconstitute in its wiring past experiences,

and it can combine those past experiences in novel ways.

And so we have lots of names for this in psychology.

We call it memory.

We call it perceptual inference.

We call it simulation.

It’s also, we call it concepts or conceptual knowledge.

We call it prediction.

Basically, if we were to stop the world right now,

stop time, your brain is in a state,

and it’s representing what it believes

is going on in your body and in the world.

And it’s predicting what will happen next

based on past experience, right?

Probabilistically, what’s most likely to happen.

And it begins to prepare your action,

and it begins to prepare your experience based,

so it’s anticipating the sense data it’s going to receive.

And then when those data come in,

they either confirm that prediction

and your action executes

because the plan’s already been made,

or there’s some sense data that your brain didn’t predict

that’s unexpected, and your brain takes it in.

We say encodes it.

We have a fancy name for that.

We call it learning.

Your brain learns,

and it updates its storehouse of knowledge,

which we call an internal model

so that you can predict better next time.

And it turns out that predicting and correcting,

predicting and correcting is a much more metabolically

efficient way to run a system

than constantly reacting all the time.

Because if you’re constantly reacting,

it means you can’t anticipate in any way

what’s going to happen.

And so the amount of uncertainty that you have to deal with

is overwhelming to a nervous system.

Metabolically costly.

I like it.

And so what is a reflex?

A reflex is when your brain doesn’t check

against the sense data.

That the potential cost to you is so great,

maybe because your life is threatened,

that your brain makes the prediction

and executes the action without checking.

Yeah, so but prediction is still at the core.

That’s a beautiful vision of the brain.

I wonder, from almost an AI perspective,

but just computationally,

is the brain just mostly a prediction machine then?

Like is the perception just the nice little feature

added on top?

Like the, both the integration

of new perceptual information.

I wonder how big of an impressive system is that

relative to just the big predictor, model constructor.

Well, I think that we can look to evolution for that,

for one answer, which is that when you go back,

you know, 550 million years, give or take,

we, you know, the world was populated by creatures,

really ruled by creatures without brains.

And, you know, that’s a biological statement,

not a political statement.

Really ruled with creatures with a.

You calling dinosaurs dumb?

You’re talking about like.

Oh no, I’m not talking about dinosaurs, honey.

I’m talking way back, further back than that.

Really these, there are these little,

little creatures called amphioxus,

which is the modern, it’s a, or a lancet.

That’s the modern animal,

but it’s an animal that scientists believe is very similar

to our common,

the common ancestor that we share with invertebrates

because, basically because of the tracing back,

the molecular genetics and cells.

And that animal had no brain.

It had some cells that would later turn into a brain,

but in that animal, there’s no brain,

but that animal also had no head,

and it had no eyes, and it had no ears,

and it had really, really no senses for the most part.

It had very, very limited sense of touch.

It had an eye spot for, not for seeing,

but just for entraining to circadian rhythm,

to light and dark.

And it had no hearing.

It had a vestibular cell

so that it could keep upright in the water.

So at the time, we’re talking evolutionary scale here,

so give or take some 100 million years or something,

but at the time, what are the vertebrate,

like when a backbone evolved and a brain evolved,

a full brain, that was when a head evolved with sense organs

and when that’s when your viscera,

like internal systems involved.

So the answer I would say is that senses,

motor neuroscientists,

people who study the control of motor behavior

believe that senses evolved in the service of motor action.

So the idea is that,

like what triggered, what was the big evolutionary change?

What was the big pressure that made it useful

to have eyes and ears and a visual system

and an auditory system and a brain basically?

And the answer that is commonly entertained right now

is that it was predation,

that when at some point an animal evolved

that deliberately ate another animal

and this launched an arms race between predators and prey

and it became very useful to have senses, right?

So these little amphioxies don’t really have,

they’re not aware of their environment very much, really.

And so being able to look up ahead and ask yourself,

should I eat that or will it eat me is a very useful thing.

So the idea is that sense data

is not there for consciousness.

It didn’t evolve for the purposes of consciousness.

It didn’t evolve for the purposes of experiencing anything.

It evolved to be in the service of motor control.

However, maybe it’s useful.

This is why scientists sometimes avoid questions

about why things evolved.

This is what philosophers call this teleology.

You might be able to say something about how things evolve,

but not necessarily why.

We don’t really know the why.

That’s all speculation.

But the why is kind of nice here.

The interesting thing is,

that was the first element of social interaction is,

am I gonna eat you or are you gonna eat me?

And for that, it’s useful to be able to see each other,

sense each other.

That’s kind of fascinating that there was a time

when life didn’t eat each other.

Or they did by accident.

So an amphioxus, for example,

it kind of like gyrates in the water,

and then it plants itself in the sand

like a living blade of grass,

and then it just filters whatever comes into its mouth.

So it is eating, but it’s not actively hunting.

And when the concentration of food decreases,

the amphioxus can sense this.

And so it basically wriggles itself randomly

to some other spot,

which probabilistically will have more food

than wherever it is.

So it’s not guiding its actions on the basis of,

we would say there’s no real intentional action

in the traditional sense.

Speaking of intentional action, and if the brain is,

if prediction is indeed a core component of the brain,

let me ask you a question that scientists also hate

is about free will.

So how does, do you think about free will much?

How does that fit into this, into your view of the brain?

Why does it feel like we make decisions in this world?

This is a hard, we scientists hate this,

this is a hard question we don’t have the answer to.

Have you taken a side?

I think I have. Do you have free will?

I think I have taken a side,

but I don’t put a lot of stock in my own intuitions

or anybody’s intuitions about the cause of things.

One thing we know about the brain for sure

is that the brain creates experiences for us.

My brain creates experiences for me,

your brain creates experiences for you

in a way that lures you to believe that those experiences

actually reveals the way that it works,

but it doesn’t.

So you don’t trust your own intuition about free will?

Not really, not really.

No, I mean, no, but I am also somewhat persuaded by,

I think Dan Dennett wrote at one point,

the philosopher Dan Dennett wrote at one point that it’s,

I can’t say it as eloquently as him,

but people obviously have free will,

they are obviously making choices.

So there is this observation that we’re not robots

and we can do some things

like a little more sophisticated than an amphioxus.

So here’s what I would say.

I would say that your predictions,

your internal model that’s running right now,

your ability to understand the sounds that I’m making

and attach them to ideas is based on the fact

that you have years of experience

knowing what these sounds mean

in a particular statistical pattern, right?

I mean, that’s how you can understand the words

that are coming out of my mouth.

Right, I think we did this once before too, didn’t we?

When we were.

I don’t know, I would have to access my memory module.

I think when I was in your, when I.

The class thing?

Yeah, I think we did it just like that actually, so bravo.

Wow, I have to go look back to the tape.

Yeah, anyways, the idea though

is that your brain is using past experience

and it can use past experience in,

so it’s remembering, but you’re not consciously remembering.

It’s basically re implementing prior experiences

as a way of predicting what’s gonna happen next.

And it can do something called conceptual combination,

which is it can take bits and pieces of the past

and combine it in new ways.

So you can experience and make sense of things

that you’ve never encountered before

because you’ve encountered something similar to them.

And so a brain in a sense is not just,

doesn’t just contain information.

It is information gaining,

meaning it can create new information

by this generative process.

So in a sense, you could say, well,

that maybe that’s a source of free will.

But I think really where free will comes from

or the kind of free will that I think

is worth having a conversation about

involves cultivating experiences for yourself

that change your internal model.

When you were born and you were raised

in a particular context, your brain wired itself

to your surroundings, to your physical surroundings

and also to your social surroundings.

So you were handed an internal model basically.

But when you grow up,

the more control you have over where you are

and what you do, you can cultivate new experiences

for yourself.

And those new experiences can change your internal model.

And you can actually practice those experiences

in a way that makes them automatic,

meaning it makes it easier for the brain,

your brain to make them again.

And I think that that is something like

what you would call free will.

You aren’t responsible for the model that you were handed,

that someone, your caregivers cultivated a model

in your brain.

You’re not responsible for that model,

but you are responsible for the one you have now.

You can choose, you choose what you expose yourself to.

You choose how you spend your time.

Not everybody has choice over everything,

but everybody has a little bit of choice.

And so I think that is something that I think

is arguably called free will.

Yeah, the ripple effects of the billions of decisions

you make early on in life are so great

that even if it’s not,

even if it’s like all deterministic,

just the amount of possibilities that are created

and then the focusing on those possibilities

into a single trajectory,

that somewhere within that, that’s free will.

Even if it’s all deterministic,

that might as well be just the number of choices

that are possible and the fact that you just make

one trajectory to those set of choices

seems to be like something like

they’ll be called free will.

But it’s still kind of sad to think like

there doesn’t seem to be a place

where there’s magic in there,

where it is all just the computer.

Well, there’s lots of magic, I would say, so far,

because we don’t really understand

how all of this is exactly played out at a,

I mean, scientists are working hard

and disagree about some of the details

under the hood of what I just described,

but I think there’s quite a bit of magic actually.

And also there’s also stochastic firing of,

neurons don’t, they’re not purely digital

in the sense that there is,

there’s also analog communication between neurons,

not just digital.

So it’s not just with firing of axons.

And some of that, there are other ways to communicate.

And also there’s noise in the system

and the noise is there for a really good reason.

And that is the more variability there is,

the more potential there is for your brain

to be able to be information bearing.

So basically, there are some animals

that have clusters of cells.

The only job is to inject noise.

You know, into their neural patterns.

So maybe noise is the source of free will.

So you can think about stochasticity or noise

as a source of free will,

or you can think of conceptual combination

as a source of free will.

You can certainly think about cultivating,

you know, you can’t reach back into your past

and change your past.

You know, people try by psychotherapy and so on,

but what you can do is change your present,

which becomes your past.


So one way to think about it is that you’re continuously,

this is a colleague of mine, a friend of mine said,

so what you’re saying is that people

are continually cultivating their past.

And I was like, that’s very poetic.

Yes, you are continually cultivating your past

as a means of controlling your future.

So you think, yeah, I guess the construction

of the mental model that you use for prediction

ultimately contains within it your perception of the past,

like the way you interpret the past,

or even just the entirety of your narrative about the past.

So you’re constantly rewriting the story of your past.

Oh boy.


That’s one poetic and also just awe inspiring.

What about the other thing you talk about?

You’ve mentioned about sensory perception

as a thing that like is just,

you have to infer about the sources of the thing

that you have perceived through your senses.

So let me ask another ridiculous question.

Is anything real at all?

Like, how do we know it’s real?

How do we make sense of the fact that just like you said,

there’s this brain sitting alone in the darkness

trying to perceive the world.

How do we know that the world is out there to be perceived?

Yeah, so I don’t think that you should be asking questions

like that without passing a joint.

Right, no, for sure.

I actually did before this, so I apologize.

Okay, no, well, that’s okay.

You apologize for not sharing.

That’s okay.

So, I mean, here’s what I would say.

What I would say is that the reason why

we can be pretty sure that there’s a there there

is that the structure of the information in the world,

what we call statistical regularities

in sights and sounds and so on,

and the structure of the information

that comes from your body, it’s not random stuff.

There’s a structure to it.

There’s a spatial structure and a temporal structure.

And that spatial and temporal structure wires your brain.

So an infant brain is not a miniature adult brain.

It’s a brain that is waiting for wiring instructions

from the world.

And it must receive those wiring instructions

to develop in a typical way.

So, for example, when a newborn is born,

when a newborn is born, when a baby is born,

the baby can’t see very well

because the visual system in that baby’s brain

is not complete.

The retina of your eye, which actually is part of your brain,

has to be stimulated with photons of light.

If it’s not, the baby won’t develop normally

to be able to see in a neurotypical way.

Same thing is true for hearing.

The same thing is true really for all your senses.

So the point is that the physical world

the physical world, the sense data from the physical world

wires your brain so that you have an internal model

of that world so that your brain can predict well

to keep you alive and well and allow you to thrive.

That’s fascinating that the brain is waiting

for a very specific kind of set of instructions

from the world.

Like not the specific,

but a very specific kind of instructions.

So scientists call it expectable input.

The brain needs some input in order to develop normally.

And we are genetically, as I say in the book,

we have the kind of nature that requires nurture.

We can’t develop normally without sensory input

from the world and from the body.

And what’s really interesting about humans

and some other animals too, but really seriously in humans,

is the input that we need is not just physical.

It’s also social.

We, in order for an infant, a human infant

to develop normally, that infant needs eye contact, touch.

It needs certain types of smells.

It needs to be cuddled.

It needs, right?

So without social input,

that infant’s brain will not wire itself

in a neurotypical way.

And again, I would say there are lots

of cultural patterns of caring for an infant.

It’s not like the infant has to be cared for in one way.

Whatever the social environment is for an infant,

that will be reflected in that infant’s internal model.

So we have lots of different cultures,

lots of different ways of rearing children.

And that’s an advantage for our species,

although we don’t always experience it that way.

That is an advantage for our species.

But if you just feed and water a baby

without all the extra social doodads,

what you get is a profoundly impaired human.

Yeah, but nevertheless, you’re kind of saying

that the physical reality has a consistent thing

throughout that keeps feeding these set

of sensory information that our brains are constructed for.

Yeah, the cool thing though,

is that if you change the consistency,

if you change the statistical regularities,

so prediction error, your brain can learn it.

It’s expensive for your brain to learn it.

And it takes a while for the brain

to get really automated with it.

But you had a wonderful conversation with David Edelman,

who just published a book about this

and gave lots and lots of really very, very cool examples.

Some of which I actually discussed

in How Emotions Were Made,

but not obviously to the extent that he did in his book.

It’s a fascinating book,

but it speaks to the point that your internal model

is always under construction.

And therefore, you always can modify your experience.

I wonder what the limits are.

Like if we put it on Mars or if we put it in virtual reality

or if we sit at home during a pandemic

and we spend most of our day on Twitter and TikTok,

like I wonder where the breaking point,

like the limitations of the brain’s capacity

to properly continue wiring itself.

Well, I think what I would say is that

there are different ways to specify your question, right?

Like one way to specify it

would be the way that David phrases it,

which is can we create a new sense?

Like can we create a new sensory modality?

How hard would that be?

What are the limits in doing that?

But another way to say it is what happens to a brain

when you remove some of those statistical regularities,


Like what happens to an adult brain

when you remove some of the statistical patterns

that were there and they’re not there anymore?

Are you talking about in the environment

or in the actual like you remove eyesight, for example?

Well, either way.

I mean, basically one way to limit the inputs to your brain

are to stay home and protect yourself.

Another way is to put someone in solitary confinement.

Another way is to stick them in a nursing home.

Well, not all nursing homes, but there are some, right?

Which really are where people are somewhat impoverished

in the interactions and the variety

of sensory stimulation that they get.

Another way is that you lose a sense, right?

But the point is I think that the human brain

really likes variety, to say it in a sort of Cartesian way.

Variety is a good thing for a brain.

And there are risks that you take

when you restrict what you expose yourself to.

Yeah, you know, there’s all this talk of diversity.

The brain loves it to the fullest definition

and degree of diversity.

Yeah, I mean, I would say the only thing,

basically human brains thrive on diversity.

The only place where we seem to have difficulty

with diversity is with each other, right?

But who wants to eat the same food every day?

You never would.

Who wants to wear the same clothes every day?

I mean, my husband, if you ask him to close his eyes,

he won’t be able to tell you what he’s wearing, right?

He’ll buy seven shirts of exactly the same style

in different colors, but they are in different colors, right?

It’s not like he’s wearing.

How would you then explain my brain,

which is terrified of choice

and therefore wear the same thing every time?

Well, you must be getting your diversity.

Well, first of all, you are a fairly sharp dresser,

so there is that, but you’re getting some reinforcement

for dressing the way you do.

But no, your brain must get diversity in other places.

But I think we, you know,

so the two most expensive things your brain can do,

metabolically speaking, is move your body and learn.

And learn something new.

So novelty, that is diversity, right,

comes at a cost, a metabolic cost,

but it’s a cost, it’s an investment that gives returns.

And in general, people vary

in how much they like novelty, unexpected things.

Some people really like it.

Some people really don’t like it,

and there’s everybody in between.

But in general, we don’t eat the same thing every day.

We don’t usually do exactly the same thing

in exactly the same order,

in exactly the same place every day.

The only place we have difficulty

with diversity is in each other.

And then we have considerable problems there,

I would say, as a species.

Let me ask, I don’t know if you’re familiar

with Donald Hoffman’s work about questions of reality.

What are your thoughts of the possibility

that the very thing we’ve been talking about,

of the brain wiring itself from birth

to a particular set of inputs,

is just a little slice of reality,

that there is something much bigger out there

that we humans, with our cognition, cognitive capabilities,

is just not even perceiving.

The thing we’re perceiving is just a crappy,

like Windows 95 interface onto a much bigger,

richer set of complex physics

that we’re not even in touch with.

Well, without getting too metaphysical about it,

I think we know for sure.

It doesn’t have to be the crappy version of anything,

but we definitely have a limited,

we have a set of senses that are limited

in very physical ways,

and we’re clearly not perceiving everything

there is to perceive.

That’s clear.

I mean, it’s just, it’s not that hard.

We can’t, without special,

why do we invent scientific tools?

It’s so that we can overcome our senses

and experience things that we couldn’t otherwise,

whether they are different parts of the visual spectrum,

the light spectrum,

or things that are too microscopically small for us to see

or too far away for us to see.

So clearly, we’re only getting a slice,

and that slice,

the interesting or potentially sad thing about humans

is that we, whatever we experience,

we think there’s a natural reason for experiencing it,

and we think it’s obvious and natural

and it must be this way,

and that all the other stuff isn’t important.

And that’s clearly not true.

Many of the things that we think of as natural

are anything but,

they’re certainly real, but we’ve created them.

They certainly have very real impacts,

but we’ve created those impacts.

And we also know that there are many things

outside of our awareness that have tremendous influence

on what we experience and what we do.

So there’s no question that that’s true.

I mean, just, it’s,

but the extent is how, really the question is,

how fantastical is it?

Yeah, like what, you know, a lot of people ask me,

am I allowed to say this?

I think I’m allowed to say this.

I’ve eaten shrooms a couple of times,

but I haven’t gone the full,

I’m talking to a few researchers in psychedelics.

It’s an interesting scientifically place.

Like what is the portal you’re entering

when you take psychedelics?

Or another way to ask is like dreams.

So let me tell you what I think,

which is based on nothing.

Like this is based on my, right, so I don’t.

Your intuition.

It’s based on my, I’m guessing now,

based on what I do know, I would say.

But I think that, well, think about what happens.

So you’re running, your brain’s running this internal model

and it’s all outside of your awareness.

You see the, you feel the products,

but you don’t sense the,

you have no awareness of the mechanics of it, right?

It’s going on all the time.

And so one thing that’s going on all the time

that you’re completely unaware of

is that when your brain,

your brain is basically asking itself,

figuratively speaking, not literally, right?

Like how is, the last time I was in this sensory array

with this stuff going on in my body

and this chain of events which just occurred,

what did I do next?

What did I feel next?

What did I see next?

It doesn’t come up with one answer.

It comes up with a distribution of it, possible answers.

And then there has to be some selection process.

And so you have a network in your brain,

a sub network in your brain, a population of neurons

that helps to choose.

It’s not, I’m not talking about a homunculus in your brain

or anything silly like that.

This is not the soul.

It’s not the center of yourself or anything like that.

But there is a set of neurons

that weighs the probabilities

and helps to select or narrow the field, okay?

And that network is working all the time.

It’s actually called the control network,

the executive control network,

or you can call it a frontoparietal

because the regions of the brain that make it up

are in the frontal lobe and the parietal lobe.

There are also parts that belong

to the subcortical parts of your brain.

It doesn’t really matter.

The point is that there is this network

and it is working all the time.

Whether or not you feel in control,

whether or not you feel like you’re expending effort

doesn’t really matter.

It’s on all the time, except when you sleep.

When you sleep, it’s a little bit relaxed.

And so think about what’s happening when you sleep.

When you sleep, the external world recedes,

the sense data from,

so basically your model becomes a little bit,

the tethers from the world are loosened.

And this network, which is involved in,

you know, maybe weeding out unrealistic things

is a little bit quiet.

So use your dreams are really your internal model

that’s unconstrained by the immediate world.

Except, so you can do things that you can’t do

in real life, in your dreams, right?

You can fly.

Like I, for example, when I fly on my back in a dream,

I’m much faster than when I fly on my front.

Don’t ask me why, I don’t know.

Or when you’re laying on your back in your dream.

No, when I’m in my dream and flying in a dream,

I am much faster flyer in the air.

You fly often?

Not often, but I, You talk about it like you,

I don’t think I’ve flown for many years.

Well, you must try it.

I’ve flown, I’ve fallen.

That’s scary.

Yeah, but you’re talking about like airplane.

Yeah, I fly in my dreams.

And I’m way faster, right? On your back.

On my back, way faster.

Now you can say, well, you know,

you never flew in your life.

Right, it’s conceptual combination.

I mean, I’ve flown in an airplane

and I’ve seen birds fly

and I’ve watched movies of people flying

and I know Superman probably flies,

I don’t know if he flies faster on his back, but.

He’s, I’ve never seen Superman.

He’s always flying on his front, right, but yeah.

But anyways, my point is that, you know,

all of this stuff really, all of these experiences

really become part of your internal model.

The thing is that when you’re asleep,

your internal model is still being constrained

by your body.

Your brain’s always attached to your body.

It’s always receiving sense data from your body.

You’re mostly never aware of it

unless you run up the stairs

or, you know, maybe you are ill in some way.

But you’re mostly not aware of it,

which is a really good thing.

Because if you were, you know,

you’d never pay attention to anything

outside your own skin ever again.

Like right now, you seem like

you’re sitting there very calmly,

but you have a virtual drama, right?

It’s like an opera going on inside your body.

And so I think that one of the things

that happens when people take psilocybin

or take, you know, ketamine, for example,

is that the tethers are completely removed.


That’s fascinating.

And that’s why it’s helpful to have a guide, right?

Because the guide is giving you sense data

to steer that internal model

so that it doesn’t go completely off the rails.


Again, that wiring to the other brain,

that’s the guide, is at least a tiny little tether.



Let’s talk about emotion a little bit, if we could.

Emotion comes up often.

And I have never spoken with anybody

who has a clarity about emotion

from a biological and neuroscience perspective that you do.

And I’m not sure I fully know how to,

as a, I mentioned this way too much,

but as somebody who was born in the Soviet Union

and romanticizes basically everything,

talks about love nonstop,

you know, emotion is a, I don’t know what to make of it.

I don’t know what to,

so maybe let’s just try to talk about it.

I mean, from a neuroscience perspective,

we talked about it a little bit last time,

your book covers it, how emotions are made,

but what are some misconceptions we writers of poetry,

we romanticizing humans have about emotion

that we should move away from before

to think about emotion from both a scientific

and an engineering perspective?

Yeah, so there is a common view of emotion in the West.

The caricature of that view is that,

you know, we have an inner beast, right?

Your limbic system, your inner lizard,

we have an inner beast

and that comes baked in to the brain at birth.

So you’ve got circuits for anger, sadness, fear.

It’s interesting that they all have English names,

these circuits.

But, and they’re there

and they’re triggered by things in the world.

And then they cause you to do and say,

and so when your fear circuit is triggered,

you widen your eyes, you gasp,

your heart rate goes up,

you prepare to flee or to freeze.

And these are modal responses.

They’re not the only responses that you give,

but on average, they’re the prototypical responses.

That’s the view.

And that’s the view of emotion in the law.

That’s the view, you know,

that emotions are these profoundly unhelpful things

that are obligatory kind of like reflexes.

The problem with that view

is that it doesn’t comport to the evidence.

And it doesn’t really matter.

The evidence actually lines up beautifully with each other.

It just doesn’t line up with that view.

And it doesn’t matter whether you’re measuring people’s faces,

facial movements, or you’re measuring their body movements,

or you’re measuring their peripheral physiology,

or you’re measuring their brains

or their voices or whatever.

Pick any output that you wanna measure

and any system you wanna measure,

and you don’t really find strong evidence for this.

And I say this as somebody who not only has reviewed

really thousands of articles and run big meta analyses,

which are statistical summaries of published papers,

but also as someone who has sent teams of researchers

to small scale cultures,

you know, remote cultures,

which are very different from urban,

large scale cultures like ours.

And one culture that we visited,

and I say we euphemistically because I myself didn’t go

because I only had two research permits,

and I gave them to my students

because I felt like it was better for them

to have that experience

and more formative for them to have that experience.

But I was in contact with them every day by satellite phone.

And this was to visit the Hadza hunter gatherers in Tanzania

who are not an ancient people, they’re a modern culture,

but they live in circumstances, hunting and foraging,

circumstances that are very similar,

in similar conditions to our ancestors,

hunting gathering ancestors,

when expressions of emotion were supposed to have evolved,

at least by one view of, okay.

So, you know, for many years,

I was sort of struggling with this set of observations,

which is that I feel emotion,

and I perceive emotion in other people,

but scientists can’t find a single marker,

a single biomarker,

not a single individual measure or pattern of measures

that can predict what kind of emotional state they’re in.

How could that possibly be?

How can you possibly make sense of those two things?

And through a lot of reading

and a lot of an immersing myself in different literatures,

I came to the hypothesis that the brain

is constructing these instances

out of more basic ingredients.

So when I tell you that the brain,

when I suggest to you that what your brain is doing

is making a prediction,

and it’s asking itself, figuratively speaking,

the last time I was in this situation

and this, you know, physical state,

what did I do next?

What did I see next?

What did I hear next?

It’s basically asking what in my past

is similar to the present?

Things which are similar to one another

are called a category.

A group of things which are similar

to one another is a category.

And a mental representation of a category is a concept.

So your brain is constructing categories or concepts

on the fly continuously.

So you really want to understand what a brain is doing.

You don’t, using machine learning like classification models

is not going to help you

because the brain doesn’t classify.

It’s doing category construction.

And the categories change,

or you could say it’s doing concept construction.

It’s using past experience to conjure a concept,

which is a prediction.

And if it’s using past experiences of emotion,

then it’s constructing an emotion concept.

Your concept will be,

the content of it changes

depending on the situation that you’re in.

So for example, if your brain uses past experiences of anger

that you have learned,

either because somebody labeled them for you,

taught them to you, you observed them in movies and so on,

in one situation could be very different

from your concept of for anger than another situation.

And this is how anger, instances of anger are,

we call a population of variable instances.

Sometimes when you’re angry, you scowl.

Sometimes when you’re angry, you might smile.

Sometimes when you’re angry, you might cry.

Sometimes your heart rate will go up, it will go down,

it will stay the same.

It depends on what action you’re about to take

because the way prediction, and I should say,

the idea that physiology is yoked to action

is a very old idea in the study

of the peripheral nervous system

that’s been known for really decades.

And so if you look at what the brain is doing,

if you just look at the anatomy and you,

here’s the hypothesis that you would come up with.

And I can go into the details.

I’ve published these details in scientific papers

and they also appear somewhat in

How Emotions Were Made, my first book.

They are not in the seven and a half lessons

because that book is really not pitched

at that level of explanation.

It’s just giving, it’s really just a set of little essays.

But the evidence, but what I’m about to say

is actually based on scientific evidence.

When your brain begins to form a prediction,

the first thing it’s doing is it’s making a prediction

of how to change the internal systems of your body,

your heart, your cardiovascular system,

the control of your heart, control of your lungs,

a flush of cortisol, which is not a stress hormone.

It’s a hormone that gets glucose

into your bloodstream very fast

because your brain is predicting you need to do this.

Predicting you need to do something

metabolically expensive.

And so either that means either move or learn, okay?

And so your brain is preparing your body,

the internal systems of your body

to execute some actions, to move in some way.

And then it infers based on those motor predictions

and what we call viscera motor predictions,

meaning the changes in the viscera

that your brain is preparing to execute,

your brain makes an inference about what you will sense

based on those motor movements.

So your experience of the world

and your experience of your own body

are a consequence of those predictions, those concepts.

When your brain makes a concept for emotion,

it’s constructing an instance of that emotion.

And that is how emotions are made.

And those concepts load in,

the predictions that are made include contents

inside the body, contents outside the body.

I mean, it includes other humans.

So just this construction of a concept

includes the variables that are much richer

than just some sort of simple notion.

Yeah, so our colloquial notion of a concept

where I say, well, what’s a concept of a bird?

And then you list a set of features off to me.

That’s people’s understanding,

typically of what a concept is.

But if you go into the literature in cognitive science,

what you’ll see is that the way

that scientists have understood what a concept is

has really changed over the years.

So people used to think about a concept

as philosophers and scientists used to think about a concept

as a dictionary definition for a category.

So there’s a set of things which are similar

out in the world.

And your concept for that category

is a dictionary definition of the features,

the necessary insufficient features of those instances.

So for a bird, it would be.

Wings, feathers. Right, a beak.

It flies, whatever, okay.

That’s called the classical category.

And scientists discovered, observed

that actually not all instances of birds have feathers

and not all instances of birds fly.

And so the idea was that you don’t have

a single representation of necessary insufficient features

stored in your brain somewhere.

Instead, what you have is a prototype,

a prototype meaning you still have

a single representation for the category, one,

but the features are like of the most typical instance

of the category or maybe the most frequent instance,

but not all instances of the category

have all the features, right?

They have some graded similarity to the prototype.

And then, you know,

what I’m gonna like incredibly simplify now,

a lot of work to say that then a series of experiments

were done to show that in fact,

what your brain seems to be doing is coming up

with a single exemplar or instance of the category

and reading off the features

when I ask you for the concept.

So if we were in a pet store and I asked you

what are the features of a bird,

tell me the concept of bird,

you would be more likely to give me features of a good pet.

And if we were in a restaurant,

you would be more likely, you know, like a budgie, right?

Or a canary.

If we were in a restaurant,

you would be more likely to give me the features

of a bird that you would eat, like a chicken.

And if we were in a park,

you’d be more likely to give me in this country,

you know, the features of a sparrow or a robin.

Whereas if we were in South America,

you would probably give me the features of a peacock

because that’s more common

or it is more common there than here

that you would see a peacock in such circumstances.

So the idea was that really what your brain was doing

was conjuring a concept on the fly

that meets the function that the category is being put to.



Then people started studying ad hoc concepts,

meaning concepts where the instances don’t share

any physical features, but the function of the instances

are the same.

So for example, think about all the things

that can protect you from the rain.

What are all the things that can protect you from the rain?

Umbrella, like this apartment.


Your car.

Not giving a damn.

Like a mindset.

Yeah, right, right.

So the idea is that the function of the instances

is the same in a given situation.

Even if they look different, sound different,

smell different, this is called an abstract concept

or a conceptual concept.

Now the really cool thing about conceptual categories

or conceptual category is a category of things

that are held together by a function,

which is called an abstract concept

or a conceptual category,

because the things don’t share physical features,

they share functional features.

There are two really cool things about this.

One is that’s what Darwin said a species was.

So Darwin is known for discovering natural selection.

But the other thing he really did,

which was really profound, which he’s less celebrated for,

is understanding that all biological categories

have inherent variation, inherent variation.

Darwin wrote in The Origin of Species

about before Darwin’s book,

a species was thought to be a classical category

where all the instances of dogs were the same,

had the exactly same features,

and any variation from that perfect platonic instance

was considered to be error.

And Darwin said, no, it’s not error, it’s meaningful.

So nature selects on the basis of that variation.

The reason why natural selection is powerful and can exist

is because there is variation in a species.

And in dogs, we talk about that variation

in terms of the size of the dog

and the amount of fur the dog has and the color

and how long is the tail and how long is the snout.

In humans, we talk about that variation

in all kinds of ways, right, including in cultural ways.

So that’s one thing that’s really interesting

about conceptual categories is that Darwin

is basically saying a species is a conceptual category.

And in fact, if you look at modern debates

about what is a species, you can’t find anybody

agreeing on what the criteria are for a species,

because they don’t all share the same genome.

We don’t all share, we don’t,

there isn’t a single human genome.

There’s a population of genomes, but they’re variable.

It’s not unbounded variation, but they are variable, right?

And the other thing that’s really cool

about conceptual categories is that they are the categories

that we use to make civilization.

So think about money, for example.

What are all the physical things

that make something a currency?

Is there any physical feature that all the currencies

in all the worlds that’s ever been used by humans share?

Well, certainly, right, but what is it?

Is it definable?

So it’s getting to the point that you make this function.

It’s the function, right.

It’s that we trade it for material goods.

And we have to agree, right?

We all impose on whatever it is, salt, barley,

little shells, big rocks in the ocean that can’t move,

Bitcoin, pieces of plastic, mortgages,

which are basically a promise of something in the future,

nothing more, right?

All of these things, we impose value on them.

And we all agree that we can exchange them

for material goods.

Yeah, and yes, that’s brilliant.

By the way, you’re attributing some of that to Darwin,

that he thought.

No, no, I’m saying that what Darwin.

Because it’s a brilliant view

of what a species is, is the function.

Yeah, what I’m saying is that what Darwin,

Darwin really talked about variation in,

so if you read, for example,

the biologist Ernst Mayr,

who was an evolutionary biologist,

and then when he retired,

became a historian and philosopher of biology.

And his suggestion is that Darwin,

Darwin did talk about variation.

He vanquished what’s called essentialism,

the idea that there’s a single set of features

that define any species.

And out of that grew really discussions

of some of the functional features that species have,

like they can reproduce, they can have offspring,

the individuals of a species can have offspring.

It turns out that’s not a perfect criterion to use,

but it’s a functional criterion, right?

So what I’m saying is that in cognitive science,

people came up with the idea,

they discovered the idea of conceptual categories

or ad hoc concepts, these concepts that can change

based on the function they’re serving, right?

And that it’s there, it’s in Darwin,

and it’s also in the philosophy of social reality.

The way that philosophers talk about social reality,

just look around you.

I mean, we impose,

we’re treating a bunch of things as similar,

which are physically different.

And sometimes we take things that are physically the same

and we treat them as separate categories.

But it feels like the number of variables involved

in that kind of categorization is nearly infinite.

No, I don’t think so,

because there is a physical constraint, right?

Like you and I could agree that we can fly in real life,

but we can’t.

That’s a physical constraint that we can’t break, right?

You and I could agree that we could walk through the walls,

but we can’t.

We could agree that we could eat glass,

but we can’t.

Oh, there’s a lot of constraints, but I just.

Yeah, we could agree that the virus doesn’t exist

and we don’t have to wear masks.

Right, yeah.

But physical reality still holds the Trump card, right?

But still there’s a lot of.

The Trump card, well, pun unintended.

Pun completely unintended, but there you go,

that’s a predicting brain for you.

But there is a tremendous amount of leeway.


Yeah, that’s the point.

So what I’m saying is that emotions are like money.

Basically, they’re like money, they’re like countries,

they’re like kings and queens and presidents.

They’re like everything that we construct

that we impose meaning on.

We take these physical signals and we give them meanings

that they don’t otherwise have by their physical nature.

And because we agree, they have that function.

But the beautiful thing, so maybe unlike money,

I love this similarity is it’s not obvious to me

that this kind of emergent agreement

should happen with emotion,

because our experiences are so different

for each of us humans, and yet we kind of converge.

Well, in a culture we converge, but not across cultures.

There are huge, huge differences.

There are huge differences in what concepts exist,

what they look like.

So what I would say is that what we’re doing

with our young children as their brains become wired

to their physical and their social environment

is that we are curating for them.

We are bootstrapping into their brains

a set of emotion concepts.

That’s partly what they’re learning.

And we curate those for infants

just the way we curate for them what is a dog,

what is a cat, what is a truck.

We sometimes explicitly label

and we sometimes just use mental words.

When your kid is throwing Cheerios on the floor

instead of eating them, or your kid is crying

when she won’t put herself to sleep or whatever.

We use mental words.

And a word is this, words for infants,

words are these really special things

that they help infants learn abstract categories.

There’s a huge literature showing that children can take

things that don’t look infants,

like infants, really young infants,

preverbal infants can take, if you label,

if I say to you, and you’re an infant, okay?

So I say, Lexi, this is a bling.

And I put it down and the bling makes a squeaky noise.

And then I say, Lexi, this is a bling.

And I put it down and it makes a squeaky noise.

And then I say, Lexi, this is a bling.

You, as young as four months old,

will expect this to make a noise, a squeaky noise.

And if you don’t, if it doesn’t, you’ll be surprised

because it violated your expectation, right?

I’m building for you an internal model of a bling.

Okay, infants can do this really, really at a young age.

And so there’s no reason to believe

that they couldn’t learn emotion categories

and concepts in the same way.

And what happens when you go to a new culture?

When you go to a new culture,

you have to do what’s called emotion acculturation.

So my colleague Bacha Mesquita in Belgium

studies emotion acculturation.

She studies how, when people move

from one culture to another,

how do they learn the emotion concepts of that culture?

How do they learn to make sense

of their own internal sensations

and also the movements, the raise of an eyebrow,

the tilt of a head?

How do they learn to make sense of cues from other people

using concepts they don’t have,

but have to make on the fly?

So that’s the difference between cultures.

Let me open another door.

I’m not sure I wanna open,

but the difference between men and women.

Is there a difference between the emotional lives

of those two categories of biological systems?

So here’s what I would say.

We did a series of studies in the 1990s

where we asked men and women

to tell us about their emotional lives.

And women described themselves

as much more emotional than men.

They believed that they were more emotional than men

and men agreed.

Women are much more emotional than men.

And then we gave them little handheld computers.

These were little Hewlett Packard computers.

They fit in the palm of your hand.

They weighed a couple of pounds.

So this was like pre palm pilot even,

like this was 1990s and like early.

And we asked them,

we would ping them like 10 times a day

and just ask them to report how they were feeling,

which is called experience sampling.

So we experienced sampled.

And then at the end,

and then we looked at their reports

and what we found is that men and women

basically didn’t differ.

And there were some people who were really,

had many more instances of emotion.

So they were treading water in a tumultuous sea of emotion.

And then there were other people

who were like floating tranquilly in a lake.

It was really not perturbed very often.

And everyone in between,

but there were no difference between men and women.

And the really interesting thing is at the end

of the sampling period, we asked people,

so reflect over the past two weeks and tell it.

So we’ve been now pinging people like again

and again and again, right?

So tell us how emotional do you think you are?

No change from the beginning.

So men and women believe that they are different.

And when they are looking at other people,

they make different inferences about emotion.

If a man is scowling,

like if you and I were together

and so somebody is watching this, okay?

And yeah, hey, who are you saying?

Hey, hi.

Yeah, hi.

By the way, people love it when you look at the camera.

If you and I make exactly the same set of facial movements,

when people look at you, both men and women look at you,

they are more likely to think,

oh, he’s reacting to the situation.

And when they look at me, they’ll say,

oh, she’s having an emotion.

She’s, you know, yeah.

And I wrote about this actually

right before the 2016 election.

You know what, maybe I could confess.

Let me try to carefully confess.

But you are really gonna.

Yeah, that when I,

that there is an element when I see Hillary Clinton

that there was something annoying about her to me.

And I, just that feeling,

and then I tried to reduce that to what is that?

Because I think the same attributes

that are annoying about her

when I see in other people wouldn’t be annoying.

So I was trying to understand what is it?

Because it certainly does feel like that concept

that I’ve constructed in my mind.

Well, I’ll tell you that I think,

well, let me just say that what you would predict about,

for example, the performance of the two of them

in the debates, and I wrote an op ed

for the New York Times actually before the second debate.

And it played out really pretty much

as I thought that it would based on research.

It’s not like I’m like a great fortune teller or anything.

It’s just, I was just applying the research,

which was that when a woman,

a woman’s, people make internal attributions, it’s called.

They infer that the facial movements and body posture

and vocalizations of a woman reflect her interstate.

But for a man, they’re more likely to assume

that they reflect his response to the situation.

It doesn’t say anything about him.

It says something about the situation he’s in.

Now, for the thing that you were describing

about Hillary Clinton, I think a lot of people experienced,

but it’s also in line with research, which shows,

and particularly research actually

about teaching evaluations is one place

that you really see it, where the expectation

is that a woman will be nurturant

and that a man, there’s just no expectation

for him to be nurturant.

So if he is nurturant, he gets points.

If he’s not, he gets points.

They’re just different points, right?

Whereas for a woman, especially a woman

who’s an authority figure, she’s really in a catch 22.

Because if she’s serious, she’s a bitch.

And if she’s empathic, then she’s weak.

Right, that’s brilliant. I mean, one of the bigger questions

to ask here, so that’s one example

where our construction of concepts gets in trouble.

So, but remember I said science and philosophy

are like tools for living.

So I learned recently that if you ask me

what is my intuition about what regulates my eating,

I will say carbohydrates.

I love carbohydrates.

I love pasta.

I love bread.

I love, I just love carbohydrates.

But actually research shows, and it’s beautiful research.

I love this research because it so violates my own

like deeply, deeply held beliefs about myself

that most animals on this planet who have been studied

and there are many actually eat

to regulate their protein intake.

So you will overeat carbohydrates

if you, in order to get enough protein.

And this research has been done with human,

very beautiful research with humans, with crickets,

with like, you know, bonobos.

I mean, just like all these different animals, not bonobos,

but I think like baboons.

Now that I have no intuition about that.

And I, even now as I regulate my eating,

I still, I just have no intuition.

It just, I can’t feel it.

What I feel is only about the carbohydrates.

It feels like you’re regulating around carbohydrates,

not the protein.

Yeah, but in fact, actually what I am doing,

if I am like most animals on the planet,

I am regulating around protein.

So knowing this, what do I do?

I correct my behavior to eat,

to actually deliberately try to focus on the protein.

This is the idea behind bias training, right?

Like if you,

I also did not experience Hillary Clinton

as the warmest candidate.

However, you can use consistent science,

since the consistent scientific findings

to organize your behavior.

That doesn’t mean that rationality

is the absence of emotion,

because sometimes emotion or any feelings in general,

not the same thing as emotion, that’s another topic,

but are a source of information

and their wisdom and helpful.

So I’m not saying that,

but what I am saying is that

if you have a deeply held belief

and the evidence shows that you’re wrong, then you’re wrong.

It doesn’t really matter how confident you feel.

That confidence could be also explained by science, right?

So it would be the same thing as if I,

regardless of whether someone is like Charlie Baker,

regardless of whether somebody is a Republican

or a Democrat,

if that person has a record that you can see

is consistent with what you believe,

then that is information that you can act on.

Yeah, and then try to,

I mean, this is kind of what empathy is in open mindedness,

is try to consider that the set of concepts

that your brain has constructed

through which you are now perceiving the world

is not painting the full picture.

I mean, this is now true for basically every,

it doesn’t have to be men and women,

it could be basically the prism through which we perceive

actually the political discourse, right?

Absolutely, so here’s what I would say.

There are people who, scientists who will talk to you

about cognitive empathy and emotional empathy

and I prefer to think of it,

I think the evidence is more consistent

with what I’m about to say,

which is that your brain is always making predictions

using your own past experience and what you’ve learned

from books and movies and other people telling you

about their experiences and so on.

And if your brain cannot make a concept

to make sense of those, anticipate what those sense data are

and make sense of them, you will be experientially blind.

So, when I’m giving lectures to people,

I’ll show them like a blobby black and white image

and they’re experientially blind to the image,

they can’t see anything in it.

And then I show them a photograph

and then I show them the image again, the blobby image

and then they see actually an object in it.

But the image is the same.

It’s they’re actually adding,

their predictions now are adding, right?

Or anybody who’s learned a language,

a second language after their first language

also has this experience of things

that initially sound like sounds

that they can’t quite make sense of,

eventually come to make sense of them.

And in fact, there are really cool examples

of people who were like born blind

because they have cataracts or they have corneal damage

so that no light is reaching the brain.

And then they have an operation

and then light reaches the brain and they can’t see.

For days and weeks and sometimes years,

they are experientially blind to certain things.

So what happens with empathy, right?

Is that your brain is making a prediction.

And if it doesn’t have the capacity to make,

if you don’t share, if you’re not similar,

remember categories are instances

which are similar in some way.

If you are not similar enough to that person,

you will have a hard time making a prediction

about what they feel.

You will be experientially blind to what they feel.

In the United States, children of color

are under prescribed medicine by their physicians.

This is been documented.

It’s not that the physicians are racist necessarily

but they might be experientially blind.

The same thing is true of male physicians

with female patients.

I could tell you some hair raising stories really

that where people die as a consequence

of a physician making the wrong inference,

the wrong prediction because of being experientially blind.

So we are, empathy is not, it’s not magic.

We make inferences about each other,

about what each other’s feeling and thinking.

In this culture more than,

there are some cultures where people

have what’s called opacity of mind

where they will make a prediction

about someone else’s actions

but they’re not inferring anything

about the internal state of that person.

But in our culture, we’re constantly making inferences.

What is this person thinking?

And we’re not doing it necessarily consciously

but we’re just doing it really automatically

using our predictions, what we know.

And if you expose yourself to information

which is very different from somebody else,

I mean, really what we have is we have different cultures

in this country right now that are,

there are a number of reasons for this.

I mean, part of it is, I don’t know if you saw

the Social Dilemma, the Netflix.

Heard about it.

Yeah, it’s a great, it’s really great documentary and…

About what social networks are doing to our society?

Yeah, yeah.

But nothing, no phenomenon has a simple single cause.

There are multiple small causes

which all add up to a perfect storm.

That’s just how most things work.

And so the fact that machine learning algorithms

are serving people up information on social media

that is consistent with what they’ve already viewed

and making, is part of the reason that you have these silos

but it’s not the only reason why you have these silos.

I think there are other things afoot

that enhance people’s inability

to even have a decent conversation.

Yeah, I mean, okay, so many things you said

are just brilliant, so the experiential blindness

but also from my perspective, like I preach

and I try to practice empathy a lot

and something about the way you’ve explained it

makes me almost see it as a kind of exercise

that we should all do, like to train,

like to add experiences to the brain

to expand this capacity to predict more effectively.


So like what I do is kind of like a method acting thing

which is I imagine what the life of a person is like.

Just think, I mean, this is something you see

with Black Lives Matter and police officers.

It feels like they’re both, not both,

but I have, because martial arts and so on,

I have a lot of friends who are cops.

They don’t necessarily

have empathy or visualize the experience of the other.

Certainly, currently, unfortunately,

people aren’t doing that with police officers.

They’re not imagining, they’re not empathizing

or putting themselves in the shoes of a police officer

to realize how difficult that job is,

how dangerous it is, how difficult it is to maintain calm

and under so much uncertainty, all those kinds of things.

But there’s more, there’s even, that’s all that’s true,

but I think that there’s even more,

there’s even more to be said there.

I mean, like from a predicting brain standpoint,

there’s even more that can be said there.

So I don’t know if you wanna go down that path

or you wanna stick on empathy,

but I will also say that one of the things

that I was most gratified by, I still am receiving,

it’s been more than three and a half years

since How Motions Are Made came out

and I’m still receiving daily emails from people, right?

So that’s gratifying.

But one of the most gratifying emails I received

was from a police officer in Texas

who told me that he thought that How Motions Are Made

contained information that would be really helpful

to resolving some of these difficulties.

And he hadn’t even read my op ed piece

about when is a gun not a gun?

And like using what we know about the science of perception

from a prediction standpoint,

like the brain is a predictor,

to understand a little differently

what might be happening in these circumstances.

So there’s a real, what’s hard about,

it’s hard to talk about because everyone gets mad at you

when you talk about this, like, you know.

And there is a way to understand this

which has profound empathy

for the suffering of people of color

and that definitely is in line with Black Lives Matter

at the same time as understanding

the really difficult situation

that police officers find themselves in.

And I’m not talking about this bad apple or that bad apple.

I’m not talking about police officers

who are necessarily shooting people in the back

as they run away.

I’m talking about the cases of really good,

well meaning cops who have the kind of predicting brain

that everybody else has.

They’re in a really difficult situation

that I think both they and the people

who are harmed don’t realize,

like the way that these situations are constructed,

I think it’s just, there’s a lot to be said there I guess

is what I want to say.

Yeah, is there something we can try to say in a sense,

like what I’m, from the perspective of the predictive brain

which is a fascinating perspective to take on this,

you know, all the protests that are going on,

there seems to be a concept of a police officer being built.

No, I think that concept is there.

But it’s gaining strength, so it’s being re, I mean.

Yeah, it is.

Sure, it is there.

But I think, yeah, for sure, I think that that’s right.

I think that there’s a shift in the stereotype

of what I would say is a stereotype.

There’s a stereotype of a black man in this country

that’s always in movies and television,

not always, but like largely, that many people watch.

I mean, you think you’re watching a 10 o clock drama

and all you’re doing is like kicking back and relaxing,

but actually you’re having certain predictions reinforced

and others not.

And what’s happening now with police is the same thing,

that there are certain stereotypes of a police officer

that are being abandoned and other stereotypes

that are being reinforced by what you see happening.

All I’ll say is that if you remember,

I mean, there’s a lot to say about this, really,

that regardless of whether it makes people mad or not,

I mean, I just, the science is what it is.

Just remember what I said.

The brain makes predictions about internal changes

in the body first and then it starts to prepare motor action

and then it makes a prediction about what you will see

and hear and feel based on those actions, okay?

So it’s also the case that we didn’t talk about

is that sensory sampling,

like your brain’s ability to sample what’s out there

is yoked to your heart rate, it’s yoked to your heartbeats.

There are certain phases of the heartbeat

where it’s easier for you to see what’s happening

in the world than in others.

And so if your heart rate goes through the roof,

you will be less likely, you will be more likely

to just go with your prediction and not correct

based on what’s out there

because you’re actually literally not seeing as well.

Or you will see things that aren’t there, basically.

Is there something that we could say by way of advice

for when this episode is released

in the chaos of emotion?

Sorry, I don’t know about a term

that’s just flying around on social media.


Well, I actually think it is emotion in the following sense.

And it sounds a little bit like,

it sounds a little bit like artificial

in the way that I’m about to say it,

but I really think that this is what’s happening.

One thing we haven’t talked about is brains evolved,

didn’t evolve for you to see,

they didn’t evolve for you to hear,

they didn’t evolve for you to feel,

they evolved to control your body.

That’s why you have a brain.

You have a brain so that it can control your body.

And the metaphor,

the scientific term for predictively controlling your body

is allostasis.

Your brain is attempting to anticipate the needs

of your body and meet those needs before they arise

so that you can act as you need to act.

And the metaphor that I use is a body budget.

You know, your brain is running a budget for your body.

It’s not budgeting money,

it’s budgeting glucose and salt and water.

And instead of having, you know,

one or two bank accounts, it has gazillions.

There are all these systems in your body

that have to be kept in balance.

And it’s monitoring very closely,

it’s making predictions about like,

when is it good to spend and when is it good to save

and what would be a good investment

and am I gonna get a return on my investment?

Whenever people talk about reward or reward prediction error

or anything to do with reward or punishment,

they’re talking about the body budget.

They’re talking about your brain’s predictions

about whether or not there will be a deposit or withdrawal.

So when your brain is running a deficit

in your body budgets,

you have some kind of metabolic imbalance,

you experience that as discomfort.

You experience that as distress.

When your brain, when things are chaotic,

you can’t predict what’s going to happen next.

So I have this absolutely brilliant scientist

working in my lab, his name is Jordan Theriot

and he’s published this really terrific paper

on a sense of should, like why do we have social rules?

Why do we adhere to social norms?

It’s because if I make myself predictable to you,

then you are predictable to me.

And if you’re predictable to me, that’s good

because that is less metabolically expensive for me.

Novelty or unpredictability at the extreme is expensive.

And if it goes on for long enough,

what happens is first of all,

you will feel really jittery and antsy,

which we describe as anxiety.

It isn’t necessarily anxiety.

It could be just something is not predictable

and you are experiencing arousal

because the chemicals that help you learn

increase your feeling of arousal basically.

But if it goes on for long enough,

you will become depleted

and you will start to feel really, really,

really distressed.

So what we have is a culture full of people right now

who their body budgets are just decimated

and there’s a tremendous amount of uncertainty.

When you talk about it as depression and anxiety,

it makes you think that it’s not about your metabolism,

that it’s not about your body budgeting,

that it’s not about getting enough sleep

or about eating well or about making sure

that you have social connections.

You think that it’s something separate from that.

But depression and anxiety are just a way

of being in the world.

They’re a way of being in the world

when things aren’t quite right with your predictions.

That’s such a deep way of thinking.

Like the brain is maintaining homeostasis.

It’s actually allostasis.

I’m sorry.

And it’s constantly making predictions

and metabolically speaking,

it’s very costly to make novel,

like constantly be learning to making adjustments.

And then over time, there’s a cost to be paid

if you’re just in a place of chaos

where there’s constant need for adjusting

and learning and experience novel things.

And so part of the problem here,

there are a couple of things.

Like I said, it’s a perfect storm.

There isn’t a single cause.

There are multiple cause,

multiple things that combine together.

It’s a complex system, multiple things.

Part of it is that they’re metabolically encumbered

and they’re distressed.

And in order to try to have empathy

for someone who is very much unlike you,

you have to forage for information.

You have to explore information

that is novel to you and unexpected.

And that’s expensive.

And at a time when people feel,

what do you do when you are running a deficit

in your bank account?

You stop spending.

What does it mean for a brain to stop spending?

A brain stops moving very much,

stops moving the body and it stops learning.

It just goes with its internal model.

Brilliantly put, yeah.

So empathy requires,

to have empathy for someone who is unlike you

requires learning and practice, foraging for information.

I mean, it is something I talk about in the book

in seven and a half lessons about the brain.

I think it’s really important.

It’s hard, but it’s hard.

I think it’s hard for people to have,

to be curious about views that are unlike their own

when they feel so encumbered.

And I’ll just tell you, I had this epiphany really.

I was listening to Robert Reich’s The System.

He was talking about oligarchy versus democracy.

And so oligarchy is where very wealthy people,

like extremely wealthy people,

shift power so that they become even more wealthy

and even more insulated

and from the pressures of the common person.

It’s actually the kind of system

that leads to the collapse of civilizations

if you believe Jared Diamond.

Just say that.

But anyways, I’m listening to this

and I’m listening to him describe in fairly decent detail

how the CEOs of these companies,

there’s been a shift in what it means to be a CEO

and no longer being a steward of the community and so on,

but like in the 1980s, it sort of shifted

to this other model of being like an oligarch.

And he’s talking about how it used to be the case

that CEOs made like 20 times what their employees made

and now they make about 300 times on average

what their employees made.

So where did that money come from?

It came from the pockets of the employees.

And they don’t know about it, right?

No one knows about it.

They just know they can’t feed their children,

they can’t pay for healthcare,

they can’t take care of their family

and they worry about what’s gonna happen to their,

they’re living like months a month basically.

Any one big bill could completely

put them out on the street.

So there are a huge number of people living like this.

So all they, what they’re experiencing,

they don’t know why they’re experiencing it.

And then someone comes along and gives them a narrative.

Well, somebody else butted in line in front of you

and that’s why you’re this way.

That’s why you experience what you’re experiencing.

And just for a minute, I was thinking,

I had deep empathy for people who have beliefs

that are really, really, really different from mine.

But I was trying really hard to see it through their eyes.

And did it cost me something metabolically?

I’m sure, I’m sure.

But you had something in the gas tank.

Well, I. In order to allocate that.

I mean, that’s the question is like,

where did you, what resources did your brain draw on

in order to actually make that effort?

Well, I’ll tell you something, honestly, Lex.

I don’t have that much in the gas tank right now.

Right, so I am surfing the stress that,

stress is just, what is stress?

Stress is your brain is preparing for a big metabolic outlay

and it just keeps preparing and preparing

and preparing and preparing.

You as a professor, you as a human.

Both, right?

For me, this is a moment of existential crisis

as much as anybody else, democracy, all of these things.

So in many of my roles, so I guess what I’m trying to say

is that I get up every morning and I exercise.

I run, I row, I lift weights, right?

You exercise in the middle of the day.

I saw your like, you know, daily thing.

Yeah, I hate it actually.

You love it, right?

You get a…

No, I hate it.

I hate it, but I do it religiously.


Because it’s a really good investment.

It’s an expenditure that is a really good investment.

And so when I was exercising, I was listening to the book

and when I realized the insights that I was sort of like

playing around with, like, is this, does this make sense?

Does this make sense?

I didn’t immediately plunge into it.

I basically wrote some stuff down, I set it aside

and then I did what I prepared myself to make an expenditure.

I don’t know what you do before you exercise.

I always have a protein shake, always have a protein shake

because I need to fuel up

before I make this really big expenditure.

And so I did the same thing.

I didn’t have a protein drink, but I did the same thing.

And fueling up can mean lots of different things.

It can mean talking to a friend about it.

It can mean, you know, it can mean making sure

you get a good night’s sleep before you do it.

It can mean lots of different things,

but I guess I think we have to do these things.

Yeah, that’s a good question.

Yeah, I’m gonna re listen to this conversation

several times, this is brilliant.

But I do think about, you know, I’ve encountered

so many people that can’t possibly imagine

that a good human being can vote for Donald Trump.

And I’ve also encountered people that can’t imagine

that an intelligent person can possibly vote for Democrat.

And I look at both these people,

many of whom are friends, and let’s just say,

after this conversation, I can see as they’re predicting

brains not willing to invest the resources

to empathize with the other side.

And I think you have to in order to be able to,

like, to see the obvious common humanity in us.

I don’t know what the system is

that’s creating this division.

We can put it, like you said, it’s a perfect storm.

It might be the social media,

I don’t know what the hell it is.

I think it’s a bunch of things.

I think it’s, there’s an economic system,

which is disadvantaging large numbers of people.

There’s a use of social media.

Like if you, you know, if I had to orchestrate

or architect a system that would screw up

a human body budget, it would be the one that we live in.

You know, we don’t sleep enough.

We eat pseudo food, basically.

We are on social media too much,

which is full of ambiguity,

which is really hard for a human nervous system, right?

Really, really hard.

Like ambiguity with no context to predict in.

I mean, it’s like, really?

And then, you know, there are the economic concerns

that affect large swaths of people in this country.

I mean, it’s really, I’m not saying everything

is reducible to metabolism.

Not everything is reducible to metabolism,

but there, if you combine all these things together.

It’s helpful to think of it that way.

Then somehow it’s also,

somehow it reduces the entirety of the human experience,

the same kind of obvious logic.

Like we should exercise every day in the same kind of way.

We should empathize every day.


You know, there are these really wonderful,

wonderful programs for teens

and sometimes also for parents of people

who’ve lost children in wars and in conflicts,

in political conflicts,

where they go to a bucolic setting

and they talk to each other about their experiences.

And miraculous things happen, you know?

So, you know, it’s easy to sort of shrug this stuff off

It’s easy to sort of shrug this stuff off

as kind of Pollyanna ish.

You know, like, what’s this really gonna do?

But you have to think about,

when my daughter went to college, I gave her advice.

I said, try to be around people

who let you be the kind of person you wanna be.

We’re back to free will.

You have a choice, you have a choice.

It might seem like a really hard choice.

It might seem like an unimaginably difficult choice.

You have a choice.

Do you wanna be somebody who is wrapped in fury and agony?

Or do you wanna be somebody who extends a little empathy

to somebody else?

And in the process, maybe learn something.

Curiosity is the thing that protects you.

Curiosity is the thing, it’s curative curiosity.

On social media, the thing I recommend to people,

at least that’s the way I’ve been approaching social media.

It doesn’t seem to be the common approach,

but I basically give love to people

who seem to also give love to others.

So it’s the same similar concept of surrounding yourself

by the people you wanna become.

And I ignore, sometimes block, but just ignore.

I don’t add aggression to people

who are just constantly full of aggression

and negativity and toxicity.

There’s a certain desire when somebody says something mean

to say something, to say why,

or try to alleviate the meanness and so on.

But what you’re doing essentially

is you’re now surrounding yourself

by that group of folks that have that negativity.

So even just the conversation.

So I think it’s just so powerful

to put yourself amongst people

whose basic mode of interaction is kindness.

Because I don’t know what it is,

but maybe it’s the way I’m built,

is that to me is energizing for the gas tank

that then I can pull to when I start reading

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich

and start thinking about Nazi Germany.

I can empathize with everybody involved.

I can start to make these difficult thinking

that’s required to understand our little planet Earth.

Well, there is research to back up what you said.

There’s research that’s consistent

with your intuition there,

that there’s research that shows

that being kind to other people,

doing something nice for someone else

is like making a deposit to some extent.

Because I think making a deposit

not only in their body budgets,

but also in yours.

Like people feel good when they do good things

for other people.

We are social animals.

We regulate each other’s nervous systems

for better and for worse, right?

The best thing for a human nervous system is another human.

And the worst thing for a human nervous system

is another human.

So you decide, do you wanna be somebody

who makes people feel better

or do you wanna be somebody who causes people pain?

And we are more responsible for one another

than we might like or than we might want.

But remember what we said about social reality.

Social reality, there are lots of different cultural norms

about independence or collective nature of people.

But the fact is we have socially dependent nervous systems.

We evolved that way as a species.

And in this country,

we prize individual rights and freedoms.

And that is a dilemma that we have to grapple with.

And we have to do it in a way

if we’re gonna be productive about it.

We have to do it in a way

that requires engaging with each other,

and which is what I understand

the founding members of this country intended.

Beautifully put.

Let me ask a few final silly questions.

So one, talked a bit about love,

but it’s fun to ask somebody like you

who can effectively, from at least neuroscience perspective,

disassemble some of these romantic notions.

But what do you make of romantic love?

Why do human beings seem to fall in love?

At least a bunch of 80s hair bands have written about it.

Is that a nice feature to have?

Is that a bug?

What is it?

Well, I’m really happy that I fell in love.

I wouldn’t want it any other way.

But I would say.

Is that you the person speaking or the neuroscientist?

Well, that’s me the person speaking.

But I would say as a neuroscientist,

babies are born not able to regulate their own body budgets

because their brains aren’t fully wired yet.

When you feed a baby, when you cuddle a baby,

everything you do with a baby

impacts that baby’s body budget

and helps to wire that baby’s brain

to manage eventually her own body budget to some extent.

That’s the basis biologically of attachment.

Humans evolved as a species to be socially dependent,

meaning you cannot manage your body budget

on your own without a tax

that eventually you pay many years later

in terms of some metabolic illness.

Loneliness, when you break up with someone that you love

or you lose them, you feel like it’s gonna kill you,

but it doesn’t.

But loneliness will kill you.

It will kill you approximately,

what is it, seven years earlier?

I can’t remember exactly the exact number.

It’s actually in the web notes to seven and a half lessons.

But social isolation and loneliness will kill you earlier

than you would otherwise die.

And the reason why is that you didn’t evolve

to manage your nervous system on your own.

And when you do, you pay a little tax

and that tax accrues very slightly over time,

over a long period of time

so that by the time you’re in middle age or a little older,

you are more likely to die sooner

from some metabolic illness,

from heart disease, from diabetes, from depression.

You’re more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease.

I mean, it takes a long time for that tax to accrue,

but it does.

So yes, I think it’s a good thing for people to fall in love.

But I think the funny view of it is that it’s clear

that humans need the social attachment

to, what is it, manage their nervous system

as you’re describing.

And the reason you wanna stay with somebody for a long time

is so you don’t have, is the novelty is very costly for.

Well, now you’re mixing thing.

Now you’re, you know, you have to decide whether.

But what I would say is when you lose someone you love,

it feels like you’ve lost a part of you.

And that’s because you have.

You’ve lost someone who was contributing

to your body budget.

We are the caretakers of one another’s nervous systems,

like it or not.

And out of that comes very deep feelings of attachment,

some of which are romantic love.

Are you afraid of your own mortality?

We’re two humans sitting here.

Do you think, do you ponder your own mortality?

I mean, somebody thinks about your brain a lot.

It seems one of the more terrifying or, I don’t know.

I don’t know how to feel about it,

but it seems to be one of the most definitive aspects

of life is that it ends.

It’s a complicated answer, but I think the best I can do

in a short snippet would be to say,

for a very long time, I did not fear my own mortality.

I feared pain and suffering.

So that’s what I feared.

I feared being harmed or dying in a way

that would be painful.

But I didn’t fear having my life be over.

Now, as a mother, I think I fear dying

before my daughter is ready to be without me.

That’s what I fear.

It’s, that’s really what I fear.

And frankly, honestly, I fear my husband dying before me

much more than I fear my own death.

There’s that love and social attachment again.

Yeah, because I know it’s just gonna,

I’m gonna feel like I wish I was dead.

A final question about life.

What do you think is the meaning of it all?

What’s the meaning of life?

Yeah, I think that there isn’t one meaning of life.

There’s like many meanings of life.

And you use different ones on different days.

But for me.

Depending on the day.

But for me, I would say sometimes the meaning of life

is to understand, to make meaning actually.

The meaning of life is to make meaning.

Sometimes it’s that.

Sometimes it’s to leave the world

just slightly a little bit better

than like the Johnny Appleseed view, you know?

Sometimes the meaning of life is to clear the path

for my daughter or for my students.

So sometimes it’s that.

And sometimes it’s just,

even in moments where you’re looking at the sky

or you’re by the ocean.

Or sometimes for me it’s even like

I’ll see a weed poking out of a crack

in a sidewalk, you know?

And you just have this overwhelming sense

of the wonder of the world.

Like the world is, just like the physical world

is so wondrous and you just get very immersed

in the moment, like the sensation of the moment.

Sometimes that’s the meaning of life.

I don’t think there’s one meaning of life.

I think it’s a population of instances

just like any other category.

I don’t think there’s a better way to end it, Lisa.

The first time we spoke is I think if not the,

then one of, I think it’s the first conversation I had

that basically launched this podcast.

Yeah, that’s actually the first conversation

I’ve had that launched this podcast.

And now we get to finally do it the right way.

It’s a huge honor to talk to you,

that you spent time with me.

I can’t wait for hopefully the many more books you write.

Certainly can’t wait to, I already read this book,

but I can’t wait to listen to it

because as you said offline that you’re reading it

and I think you have a great voice.

You have a great, I don’t know what the nice way to put it,

but maybe NPR voice in the best version of what that is.

So thanks again for talking today.

Oh, it’s my pleasure.

Thank you so much for having me back.

Thank you for listening to this conversation

with Lisa Feldman Barrett and thank you to our sponsors,

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And now let me leave you with some words

from Lisa Feldman Barrett.

It takes more than one human brain to create a human mind.

Thank you for listening.

I hope to see you next time.

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