S2 Episode 12: Your Brain Is Not for Thinking

…and 7 other lessons about the command center that runs all our body’s systems. Lisa Feldman Barrett, professor of psychology at Northeastern University and a director of the Interdisciplinary Affective Science Laboratory there, talks about how the 128 billion neurons in the brain act like the air traffic control system. They are knit together into a pattern that’s capable of a remarkable range of functions, from satisfying thirst to making morally responsible choices. Plus… Why Plato was wrong about the brain

Phil Stieg: Hello, today, I would like to welcome Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett, a distinguished professor of psychology and director of the Interdisciplinary Affective Science Lab at Northeastern University. She is here to talk with us about her recent book, Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain. After today, you will understand the brain works very differently than you thought. As a matter of fact, the first half lesson is that the brain is not for thinking. Lisa, welcome. Thank you for being with us today. And congratulations on the book.

Lisa Feldman Barrett: Thank you. Thanks so much. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Phil Stieg: What’s interesting about your first chapter – excuse me, half chapter – you state that the brain is not for thinking. The people are going to want to know what you’re really trying to say with that. So can you explain that thought?

Lisa Feldman Barrett: I can. If you actually peer back into evolutionary history, what you can see is that brains didn’t evolve for thinking, they didn’t evolve for feeling, they didn’t even evolve, for seeing or hearing. Brains evolved out of the need for animals to control the systems of their body. As animal bodies got bigger and there were more parts to those bodies and more systems that had to be coordinated, there was a need for a command center to orchestrate that internal coordination or organization. And that’s really your brain’s most important job. You don’t think because it’s great to think. You think because that is in the service of helping your brain regulate your body more efficiently.

Phil Stieg: You talk about you talk about Allostasis, – keeping your body stable and what you refer to as the budgeting process, you know, keeping the body budget neutral. Correct?

Lisa Feldman Barrett: The technical definition of allostasis is; anticipating the needs of the body and preparing to meet those needs before they arise. It means that your brain is constantly predicting what the metabolic needs will be and attempting to meet them before the need is present.

Phil Stieg: Is there a specific example that you used in the book regarding how the brain anticipates something, something to maintain allostasis?

Lisa Feldman Barrett: Sure. The last time you were really thirsty and you had a drink of water, you drank a glass of water, your thirst was probably quenched almost immediately after drinking that water. .But it takes about 20 minutes for water to make its way into your bloodstream and up to your brain. So how is it that your thirst is quenched immediately, even though it takes 20 minutes for that information to reach your brain? The answer is that your brain has a lifetime of preparing motor movements to drink water, and then at some point, the pattern is learned that that drinking action is associated with quenching of thirst. And so your brain quenches its thirst in anticipation of receiving that water in 20 minutes.

Phil Stieg: So you’re saying then the water hits my tongue and that induces the release of dopamine, serotonin so that I have the pleasurable sense of the water knowing full well, like you said, that physiologically it takes 20 minutes for the water to get into my system.

Lisa Feldman Barrett: Yeah, it’s even better than that. It’s that as your brain is allowing you to drink, preparing for you to swallow, it’s the motor movements actually that are initiating the construction of the experience.

Phil Stieg: Throughout the book, you suggest that there are many misconceptions about the brain. You also talked about, you know, one brain, not three. Can you expand on that?

Lisa Feldman Barrett: Well, sure, the triune brain idea, this idea that you have a brain that that evolved and that functions in separate layers. You have an inner lizard for instincts, and you have a limbic system for emotion. And then the cerebral cortex for rationality is not a good reflection of brain evolution or how you got the brain you have. And it’s not a good reflection of how your brain functions. And this idea of your brain as a battleground between instincts and emotion on the one hand and rationality on the other for control of your behavior is a story that goes all the way back to ancient Greece.

Phil Stieg: What impressed me about it, though, in your book is the fact, you know, this triune brain that you referred to from Plato, I actually was impressed. The fact that Plato had kind of an anatomical representation of the brain, you know, I mean, there is the deep brain in the middle brain in the cortex – and that’s impressive way back then.

Lisa Feldman Barrett: Yeah, I wouldn’t say that Plato had that idea exactly, though, Phil. I think Plato had the idea that the human mind is a constant struggle between, you know, these inner forces. And when rationality wins, you’re moral. You’re a moral person. In modern day terms, we’d say when rationality wins your moral and you’re mentally healthy, when your inner beast wins, you’re morally lacking. And if you can’t control your inner beast with rationality, then there might be something wrong with you. But the anatomy actually doesn’t support this triune brain idea at all. Actually, it’s it is a modern myth. It’s a myth that’s so embedded in our society, in the law, in economics and so on. But it’s really not it doesn’t reflect how brains evolved and it doesn’t reflect how they work .

Phil Stieg: What I liked about in your book. I thought the best analogy was the airport hub concept. You know, the diagram that you had in the book. I mean, that really represents the neural network. Can you explain that to us?

Lisa Feldman Barrett: Sure. I mean, your brain, if you look at it with the naked eye, it looks like one organ. But really, if you peer a little deeper, it’s about give or take, you know, one hundred and twenty eight billion little cells called neurons that are constantly talking to each other. They’re constantly passing information back and forth in a you know, with the electrical activity and chemicals. And it’s not the case that every neuron talks to every other neuron. But there is a pattern of activity of conversation that knits those one hundred and twenty-eight billion individual cells into one system, kind of like our air travel system. You know, some airports, you can fly directly from one airport to another. Sometimes you have to take more than one flight. But basically you have many ways that you can get from one place to another. And that’s the same way of passing information in your brain. There are lots of different paths that the information can take.

Phil Stieg: There’s a beautiful redundancy in our system, thank God.

Lisa Feldman Barrett: And there is indeed. There is indeed. And it’s expensive to have that. But we get a lot for that for our money, I would say.

Phil Stieg: You talk about the concepts of tuning and pruning of the nerve cells, and that allows us then to make different predictions and this and then you all of a sudden linked it. Instead, it may have a role in free will. So what is your concept of a tuning and pruning and how many experiences you have to have in order to get the full array of responses that we have as a human being?

Lisa Feldman Barrett: Well, I think, first of all, it’s important to understand that your brain, when your brain is remembering something for the purposes of prediction, it can do this in a really interesting way that neuroscientists call generativity and psychologists call conceptual combination. And that means that you can take bits and pieces of past experiences and combine them in new ways in order to perceive or experience something that you’ve never encountered before. For example, if I, you know, didn’t know what a pizza was and you didn’t know what a pizza was, I would try to describe it to you with concepts we do know. That’s conceptual combination or generativity, but usually it happens pretty, pretty automatically. And the really interesting thing is that if it happens enough times, if we if we do conceptual combination enough times, actually our brains will tune themselves to be able to very easily make that experience again in the future. It’s a little bit like driving how you would explain driving. At first something is a little bit effortful and you have to concentrate on it. It’s hard if you practice it, though, your brain tunes to it, which means that it’s actually changing its own structure to make it e asier to construct that experience again in the future.

Phil Stieg: It always bothers me when people refer to the brain as a muscle. But, you know, the more you talk about with this tuning and pruning, it’s the similar thing like muscle memory. You know, this is nerve cell memory. And with the process of repetition or experiencing, you develop new and different nerve connections.

Lisa Feldman Barrett: Yeah. And actually what I would say is that this is also muscle memory. Muscle memory isn’t actually in your muscles. It’s in your brain. I mean, that’s how it works. That’s why, you know, like interval training is like a really cool thing because it’s trying to trick your brain out of muscle memory, because muscle memory is there. I mean, basically, your brain is remembering muscle movements to make things more metabolically efficient. But when you’re exercising, you don’t want to be metabolically efficient. You want things to be hard. So you have to keep changing them.

Phil Stieg: Well, that’s the other thing that made me think of Ted Williams who said that he see the seams on the ball. And so what was different about Ted Williams than, you know, John Q. Public that can’t see the seams on the ball? What did he do differently or what’s different about his brain?

Lisa Feldman Barrett: Well, I would say that. You know, Ted Williams had a lot of experience, so let’s just say when someone’s brain is predicting something, there’s no difference between seeing and imagining.

Phil Stieg: So he can imagine better than the rest of us.

Lisa Feldman Barrett: Yeah, actually. Yeah, exactly.

Phil Stieg: So link imagining to behavior or performance. OK, performance go. OK, ok.

Lisa Feldman Barrett: OK, So Phil if I ask you to keep your eyes open and imagine in your mind’s eye a red Macintosh Apple of the sort that you would eat.

Can you do it?

Phil Stieg: I’m thinking of it right now.

Lisa Feldman Barrett: Yeah. Can you see the ghost of an apple, though, in your mind’s eye? And imagine grasping that apple in your hand, bringing it up to your mouth and, you know, sinking your teeth into it and taking a bite and hearing the crunch of the apple as you bite it. Can you sort of hear that maybe, you know, OK, and can you, like, maybe even taste a little bit what the apple might tastes like – you can sort of imagine that it’s tart. Maybe a little sweet.

Phil Stieg: Yes.

Lisa Feldman Barrett: Yeah. So your brain just did something really miraculous. It changed the firing of its own sensory neurons, even though there is no Apple present, even though there is no apple present. If we looked inside your brain as you were doing this, imagining, we would see that neurons in the parts of the brain, important for vision would be highly active. And the neurons in the parts of the brain that are important for grasping would be highly active. And the neurons for hearing and for tasting highly active. Even though there is no apple, their imagination is the — another word that scientists use for imagination is simulation, meaning your brain when it’s making a prediction about what’s going to happen next, it’s actually changing the firing of its own neurons to prepare the experience in advance of the sense data. And then it just waits for the sense data to confirm those predictions.

Phil Stieg: So Ted saw the ball so quickly that he could make that prediction faster than you and me, and that’s why he could do what he could do.

Lisa Feldman Barrett: No, I would say it slightly differently that he saw so many balls in his life that, as his brain was preparing him to swing the bat. His brain was figuratively speaking, asking itself, what am I going to see next? And so his brain was preparing him to see the stitches on the ball because he had so much expertise, so much practice, his brain could prepare him to see things that other people would normally miss.

Phil Stieg: This takes us into the next topic of reality. You say that our brains create our own reality and you broke it down to physical reality and social reality. And just this conversation, I’m kind of going, well, where does where does my imagination of that apple fall into the physical or the social reality? Because I really experience the event when you talked about the apple. So it is a reality, but it wasn’t a “real” thing.

Lisa Feldman Barrett: Well, the reason why you experienced the apple really right, when you have a song going through your head, you know, that you can’t get rid of, you’re really experiencing that song. When you’re born, you’re born with your brain under-construction, your brain is waiting for a set of wiring instructions from the world, from the physical world and from the social world. So you’re basically wiring the regularities of your world into your brain. That’s what predictions are. That’s what your memories are for. You’re basically like running a model of your body in the world constantly. And the reason why you can imagine an apple accurately is because you’ve had a lot of experience with apples. So your brain is able to anticipate an apple, prepare to eat it, prepare to grasp it, what have you, in a very accurate way, because you’ve had a lot of practice with it. Everything we experience, we experience in our brains, everything we see, we see in our brains, everything we hear, we hear in our brains, everything every pain we feel, every taste we have, it’s all in our brains. And it’s mostly accurate for neurotypical brains because they have bootstrapped into themselves the regularities of the world. So there’s physical reality, which are the sights and sounds and smells, the things that exist in the physical world that we can experience by virtue of the fact that, you know, we’ve had lots of practice with them and our brains are wired to be able to experience them. But humans have this amazing capacity to impose functions on things that those things didn’t naturally evolve to have, give it a name and then it becomes real. A really good example of this is money. Little pieces of paper don’t have value as currency because of something in their physical nature. Little pieces of paper have value to be able to purchase material goods because we all agree that little pieces of paper have value and because a group of humans agree and we give it a name called money.

Phil Stieg: So you don’t you don’t believe in Bitcoin, huh?

Lisa Feldman Barrett: Well, exactly. Exactly. The value of Bitcoin depends on people believing that Bitcoin has value. Social reality depends on human agreement, if some of us decided that money, that little pieces of paper didn’t have value anymore, they wouldn’t. This is what this is what happened with the mortgage crash. Right? Some people decided that mortgages no longer had value and then they didn’t. And that changed the world economy, basically. And so part of what has been under debate essentially is which social reality do we want to live by?

Phil Stieg: What I didn’t get in that last chapter was this how you connected this reality stuff to responsibility. I mean, all of a sudden, the word responsibility popped in and I went, woah , how did I get there? Can you explain that? I mean, why are we responsible?

Lisa Feldman Barrett: Well, we are responsible because. Certain things exist, the reality of certain things exist only because of our consent. Let’s say I want to buy something from you, I don’t verbally ask you, Phil, do you consent to imposing the function of value onto this piece of paper and then you don’t say, well, yes, Lisa, I do. And then then we exchange money for food, say. No, I just give you a piece of paper, and then you give me the food. So by virtue of our actions, we are engaging in collective agreement. Every time you vote or you don’t vote, you are endorsing a particular social reality. When you go to the supermarket and you see there are bananas for sale, one set of bananas are conventionally farmed and they’re cheaper than sorry. One set of bananas are conventionally farmed. They are cheaper than the other set, which is organically farmed, and you buy the cheaper set, y ou are endorsing a particular social reality that organic farming isn’t necessary or that you know it’s not necessary to worry about the Earth. We could go on and on and on. But basically, by your actions, you are by your actions and your inactions. You are shaping the reality that you and other people live in. You’re always making a choice. We don’t usually think about shopping as moral decisions. But every time you decide to purchase something or not purchase something, it is a moral act that you’re engaging in. Whether you like it or not, it has moral consequences.

Phil Stieg: But I understand that there’s moral consequences. Are we saying that everything that we do, our brain is calculating? You know, I mean, honey, do you want to go to the you want to go to the movie tonight? I don’t know. You make up your mind, tell me. And we just do it.

Lisa Feldman Barrett: You know what? Sometimes we’re responsible for things not because not because, we’re immediately culpable, but because we’re the only ones who can change things. So the point here is that many things in our everyday lives are real only by virtue of the fact that we agree that they’re real and we don’t have to agree verbally. We can just agree with our actions or inactions. And we aren’t so partly we are responsible for actually more than we might know or even like.

Phil Stieg: I understand what you’re saying about responsibility, but I just what I don’t seem to understand is, is every component of our life and personality a responsible act? I understand when I do something, there’s a consequence. But is everything the brain does, as you said earlier, predicted and predestined or so, is there no spontaneity?

Lisa Feldman Barrett: Prediction is not necessarily predestination. So everything is very probabilistic in the brain and very little is deterministic. And no, of course, you’re not morally responsible for every single event that occurs in your brain. I’m just suggesting that we’re much more responsible for things than we might realize. You know, you may think that you have no responsibility for certain things that you actually could have a role in changing. I think that’s something that has been brought home to a lot of people recently, certainly in the political realm.

Phil Stieg: Yeah, right.

Lisa Feldman Barrett: So here’s something. The brain is born under construction. It wires itself to its world. There are great advantages evolutionarily for our species because of that. But there are also some pretty significant disadvantages. Childhood poverty, for example, little brains that are, you know, fed and watered in conditions of poverty, those brains don’t develop optimally. In the United States, there are laws about foreseeable harm. That’s the reason why you can’t drink a lot and then get behind the wheel of a car because alcohol influences your brain. That’s why we’re held responsible because we know there’s foreseeable harm. Well, there’s foreseeable harm in childhood poverty, too. There’s foreseeable harm to the development of those brains. But every single one of us who vote for a political candidate who doesn’t think that childhood poverty is important or isn’t trying to change childhood poverty, we all bear a tiny little bit of responsibility for allowing that poverty to continue. Many of the realities that we live with are made up by us. And if we sustain them, we’re responsible for them. And if we don’t, then we’re not.

Phil Stieg: So that brings me then to the last question I’ve got to ask you is you wrote this book for a purpose and for a reason. What lessons do you want me to walk away with from this conversation and from reading this book that I can apply to my daily life?

Lisa Feldman Barrett: Science is relevant to your daily life. This book I wrote, this book is a series of little essays for people who don’t think of themselves as that interested in science. But science is a set of tools for living a better life. Neuroscience is really cool. And every time I would go to a dinner party or I’d be around people and I’d tell people what I was studying, people would be like really interested. And I wanted to share that sense of wonder and amazement with other people and have them experience that too, like, “wow, I have this, like, amazingly cool, you know, thing going on between my ears, most of which I’m unaware of. That works in ways that I seem really fantastical” And so that was another reason why I wrote the book. I just wanted to share that kind of curiosity and kind of wonder about how cool a brain actually is. And the third reason is that I wanted people to. I want people to think a little bit about big questions that are important to our everyday life, I don’t necessarily want people to come to a particular conclusion. I just want them to think a little bit about their own experiences and what that means about the kind of person they are and the kind of person they want to be.

Phil Stieg: Lisa, I think it reminds me a little bit about some of the last comments that Jim Valvano made, is that every human in every day should laugh a little bit, think a little bit, and cry a little bit. You know, those are particularly human endeavors. And I think that your book, Seven and a Half Lessons about the Brain achieves your mark and that it was humorous. It was fun to read. I thought that the humor and the analogies that you used were excellent. Where I still think we can debate for a long time is morality and responsibility and how the brain does that in a in both a scientific but also in a non-scientific way. Thank you so much for being with us today.

Lisa Feldman Barrett: It’s my pleasure. Thank you so much for having me on your show.