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David DiSalvo is a science writer and public education specialist who writes about the intersection of science, technology and culture.

His work has appeared in Scientific American Mind, Psychology Today, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune, Mental Floss, Slate, Salon, Esquire and other publications, and he is the writer behind the widely read blogs, Neuropsyched, Neuronarrative and The Daily Brain.

David has also served as a consulting research analyst and communications specialist for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and several public and private organizations in the U.S. and abroad.

His first non-fiction book, What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the Opposite, has been published in 10 languages. His second book, The Brain in Your Kitchen, is available in e-book format at Amazon. His latest book, Brain Changer: How Harnessing your Brain's Power to Adapt can Change your Life, is available at all major booksellers.

Running Time: 01:05:00

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Joe: Hi, and welcome to SOTT Talk Radio. I'm Joe Quinn. My co-host this week is Pierre Lescaudron.

Pierre: Bonsoir, bonjour.

Joe: And this week we are talking to David DiSalvo. David DiSalvo is a science writer and public education specialist who writes about the intersection of science, technology and culture. His work has appeared in Scientific American Mind, Psychology Today, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune, Mental Floss, Slate, Salon, Esquire and many other publications. He is the writer behind the widely read blogs Neuropsyched, Neuronarrative and The Daily Brain. So you should check those out if you get a chance.

David is the author of three books. His first non-fiction book is called What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the Opposite. It has been published in 10 languages and is a bestseller. His second book The Brain in Your Kitchen is available on Amazon outlets in e-book format. And his latest book Brain Changer: How Harnessing Your Brain's Power to Adapt Can Change Your Life is available at all major booksellers. So we're going to be discussing two of those books today, not The Brain in Your Kitchen so much, but the other two.
So David, welcome to the show.

David: Hey thanks for having me. I'm happy to be here.

Joe: David, after reading both of your books and letting the information percolate down after the first few days, there's a lot of detail in there and they're excellent books in that they bring together so much information from the field of cognitive psychology and all of the latest research and just put it all together in a book for you and there's some fascinating information there. But the general message that I was left with - and I suppose this is indicated by the titles of the books - is that people need to change their thinking. It's kind of a general question I suppose, but is there something wrong with the way people think in a general way, in terms of speaking for everybody, the whole human race?

David: It's a great question and it's really not so much that there's something wrong with the way we think. It's that our brains have evolved to think in certain patterns. We fall into certain thinking patterns which become behavior patterns. And it's really very endemic to being human. So I can't really say there's anything wrong with it because it's really true of all of us. But you're right in pointing out that the central theme of both books is really that we need to be more intentional about examining how we think. And in doing so, delve more deeply into the biases and distortions and delusions that are endemic to how we think. So yes, it's about changing thinking, becoming better thinkers, really by leveraging what science has been able to reveal to us about how our brains work.

Pierre: You mention examining how we think and this notion of metacognition seems to be a central topic to develop in your book, in your work. So could you tell us more about this examining our thinking?

David: Yeah, so the first book I wrote called What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the Opposite focused largely on a term, which now has become commonly known, called cognitive bias. And this is the slew of 40 or more different catalogued biases that are endemic to how humans think and some of the common ones that we're confronted with. The book talks about a full range of them, but some of the common ones include confirmation bias, which is one we're all familiar with where when we're arguing a position we tend to find evidence that supports our argument. And then when we're confronted with evidence that challenges our argument, we tend to discount that evidence. So we look for things to confirm our thinking.

Some of the others, one I talk about in the book is called restraint bias, which is we can sort of fool ourselves into believing we've been able to control a particular behavior, say we're trying to quit smoking or get into a different diet or exercise routine. Once we believe we've gotten past the crest of controlling that behavior, we let our guard down. Sure enough, we tend to backslide right back into that behavior. That's what yo-yo dieting is all about.

So those are just part of the way we think as humans. And really what I wanted to do with these books is dive into the research, the fantastic research that's been done in cognitive psychology, behavioral psychology and neuroscience over the last 20 years and really pull out some of the credible findings that have come out of that research that tell us why we think these ways and what can we do about it. It's not enough just to point out problems. There are plenty of books out there to do that. What I'm trying to do is point them out and also give some ways to actually address those things.

Joe: It's actually really important work and I think it's very empowering, because I think for most people - I don't know why but I'm thinking about my own dad here for some reason that if I turned to him and said, "You've got a problem with the way you think" he would give me a very strange look.

I think generally speaking, people don't really know that there's a problem with the way they think. You could cite to them examples of, in their lives how they ran into problems, made mistakes. And people generally kind of tend to blame that on external circumstances, nothing really to do with them. Or very often people will do that. And to give people access to the information that shows that there's a kind of process going on in their thinking process, that they're not even aware of, that is leading them to kind of do things and act in certain ways that doesn't get them what they want is, fundamentally a very empowering thing for people. If people will be open to it. Because I'm sure there are a lot of people who maybe reject the idea at all, who tend to think that they have it figured out and their life is perfect.

But it's kind of strange as well in the sense that you talk about metacognition which is, I think, the kind of idea of thinking about the way you think which most people kind of don't do. And in fact your books are an actual process of metacognition. People who read your books ultimately are forced to engage in metacognition, in a very particular way. Because I'm sure people think about the way they think, let's say they think about their thoughts, let's say they would say they think about what's going on and stuff, but it's not really in the way that you're describing in your books, which is quite a critical thinking approach to...

David: Yeah, it's about levels of intentionality. Like you started saying, and I agree with you, many people, maybe most people wouldn't say "Have you thought about this pattern that you seem to repeat? Have you thought about it"? And they say no. It's not something they've really thought about and it's a very interesting dynamic because it's not just a perceptual thing. We're not talking in perceptions and metaphors here. This is actually a neural reality. A good physical analogy might be somebody who keeps working the same part of ground at a farm, let's say, with a hoe, and they keep going back and forth and making this ditch. This ditch keeps getting deeper and more pronounced and deeper and more pronounced and if you were to say to that person inside of the ditch that they've been hoeing back and forth for the last say 10, 15, 20 years, "Hey you know, maybe that's not the right pattern?" Well of course they're so deep into it. In fact their brains are so patterned into that same thinking behavior patterning, they haven't challenged it.

And so it's levels of intentionality. It's getting more intentional about really challenging the way you think about something. And I think what makes people uncomfortable about that is that it may impose radical changes on their life. When you start thinking differently, it logically follows that you will behave differently. Thought leads to action. To a very real degree, our patterns of behavior throughout our lives all started as thought. At some point, some catalyst in our thinking processes led to that behavior.

So it's uncomfortable to think you may have to change the way you've been living. You may have to change ingrained patterns of behavior. But yeah, exactly, that's what I want to convey, particularly in this last book Brain Changer which is about metacognition, thinking about thinking. It's the intentional process of really examining almost from a third person perspective how you are thinking. And then by getting that third person perspective, you're able to more objectively figure out, "Wait a minute. Maybe what I've been thinking and doing here really isn't working. Maybe I really can change and that change will be beneficial to me. Maybe I don't have to be afraid of it." So yeah, your point is exactly right. That's what I hoped to convey with these books.

Pierre: And metacognition, thinking about the way we think, is not the whole story. I suppose to implement concrete changes in who we are, in the way we behave, you have some practical advice, methods?

David: Yes. Yes. This book is actually divided into three sections. So Know, Do and Expand. So the first part of the book is Know, which is really talking about what does the research tell us? What has science been able to reveal for us about the way we think and why we think as we think? And then the second part, Do, is this section that you're talking about with 30 action-based, sort of directives. I call them brain changer principles. And these are the logical extensions and actions from the research that's talked about in the first part of the book.

So there are things in here that some things will surprise people. Simple things like chewing gum. There's an enormous amount of research about the cognitive benefits of chewing gum, believe it or not. Other things that will seem more obvious to people, but again, it's about being more intentional about it; how well you assert yourself in situations. Thinking about your resilience, how resilient, how tenacious are you, working through kind of the mechanics of that. Other things have to do with the use of alcohol and smoking and other chemicals. So yeah, that entire section of the book delves into just kind of practical "do" oriented things that just about anybody, maybe somebody could not do all of these things, but there's something in there, I think, for just about anybody.

Pierre: Yeah. Here we can point out that unlike a lot of books that I've read about this topic, self-observation, changing, there are some very concrete tips about how to implement in a not so theoretic and difficult ways, those changes. You also mention the quality of sleep and you have several tips about the topic, about 10 tips.

David: Yeah, sleep is a big, big deal. The more I did research for both of these books, the more I came to really appreciate just how important sleep is to the well-functioning of our brains. And it's something that we just discount, I think, in general. I think we discount the importance of sleep. We feel like we can get more done by sleeping less. For some reason sleep is this part of our day that we feel like we can trim off of in order to get more accomplished. But really the truth is there's a compounding negative effect from doing that. And there are actually several negative effects.

One of the pieces of research out there about sleep uses this metaphor of burning out our mental circuitry, that in fact compounding sleep deficits over time lead to, in a very real sense, a burning out of our mental circuits. Our brains are electrical organs. Our brains work on electrical impulses. And the connection between sleep and the well-functioning of those electrical impulses is very, very real. And it's something that I wish more people would educate themselves on because I think people would, in general, try to get more, like seven or eight hours of sleep a night, if they realized just how important it was to them. Not just on a day-to-day basis, but in your overall health, moving forward in their lives. So many negative things have been linked to sleep deficits. It's an extremely important topic.

Joe: There's a phrase "you can't teach an old dog new tricks" and a lot of people would ascribe to that. Or people use it as an excuse I think, people who may be older or whatever age, that "this is the way to do things and it's not possible to really change ingrained patterns in that way". So you talk a little bit about it in your first book and you talk a bit about that brain plasticity and that previously, many years ago, it was thought that all of the development in the brain happens as children and that once that's set, that's it. But you're saying now that it can be changed. The brain has plasticity into later life.

David: Yeah. What's really happened in the last 20 years of research is that the old notions of the brain being this static organ have really been thrown out the window. I mean, it wasn't that long ago that we believed that after the pruning period, in neuroscience parlance is referred to as the brain pruning period in adolescence, after our brains go through the process of kind of trimming down the number of neurons available to us, that after that it was done. Your brain was a static organ and you carried it through the rest of your life as it was. And really the only direction you'd be going at that point was down, over time, the steady, oncoming decline that we've come to believe is just natural for all of us to experience.

Thankfully though, research has uncovered over the last 20 years that this just is not the case. There are parts of the adult brain which are always dynamic. Brain plasticity is the general term that this kind of research falls under. The term plasticity is a direct reference to plastic being malleable. There are parts of our brains that are malleable, that are changeable. And that there are areas in our brain that actually do grow new neurons, new brain cells. Not even 15 years ago, this was not an accepted scientific understanding, that our brains were capable of what's called neurogenesis, the creation of new brain cells. And come to find out that there are significant brain areas that are capable of neurogenesis.
And now a lot of the research that has been done regarding antidepressants, particularly antidepressants in the SSRI [Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors] category, is leading us to believe that these drugs may in part be catalyzing neurogenesis, that the reason why they may work in about 60 percent of the people that take them is because they're catalyzing the growth of new brain cells in parts of their brains that need that sort of refresh or reset.

So yeah, we have to get away from these old notions of the static brain. Our brains are not static. I think that's a very empowering thing to come to understand. Now when I think about the old understanding of our brain just being this static clump of magic clay in our heads, that's really kind of depressing, to think that you can't change. Basically what they're saying is you can't change. You started your comment saying "You can't teach an old dog new tricks". Well that former understanding kind of codified that idea that you really can't change. But thankfully we now know and we have a well-grounded science, understanding. This isn't just platitudes. This is scientifically grounded, that our brains are dynamic. They are not static. And that to me is a great thing to know.

Joe: Yea. Maybe that phrase "Can't teach an old dog new tricks" is evidence of people in the past who have tried to change their habits, tried to change their behavior and it's actually difficult, so they just come up with that answer just to avoid having to go through the process. Because it is, like you mentioned a little bit already, it can be quite difficult, the process that you're talking about. You're talking about wakening up or recognizing habits that maybe you're not exactly proud of or that don't reflect positively on you, that you're stuck in a rut in a certain form of behavior.

David: Right.

Joe: So it is difficult to do, but when you talk about brain plasticity, are you talking about actual new neural pathways being created within the brain? Is that....?

David: Yes. That's part of it. Like I said, neuroplasticity is kind of this rubric term that a lot of different components of the research fall under. But part of it is yes, that new neural patterns can be created. Another part of it is neurogenesis, that new brain cells can be created. We're well reminded to know that thinking is a physical thing. Thinking is a physical process that happens in our brains. Just because it occurs to us perceptually, we think things perceptually. But those perceptions have physical counterparts going on in our brains. So thinking is a physical process. And so changing thinking is changing a physical process in our brain.

When we talk about metacognition, we're not just talking about something that's theoretical. We're talking about an actual neural process that's engaged in our brains when we change the way we think. So in all these cases, in the books I try to make this clear, you have to look at two sides of this apple. The one side is how things occur to us and how we experience things perceptually. Thought is experienced by us perceptually. It's abstract. The other side of the apple is what's physically going on inside of our heads. For every abstraction that we experience, there's a physical corollary happening in our brain.

So everything we talk about, in a way, has to do with changing your brain, actual, real changes that occur in your brain. So that's the exciting part of this to me is that now that we know the brain is a dynamic organ, not a static hunk of tissue, we understand better what's going on when we change patterns of thought and behavior, that in fact there are new neural pathways being laid down in our brains when that happens. That's a very empowering thing I think.

Pierre: Indeed. And to implement these changes, if I understood you correctly, while you are living your life and thinking your thoughts and doing what you do, you're supposed to somehow freeze time, step outside the situation, observe the situation and yourself, what you think, what you're about to say, what you're about to do, what you're about to feel as well, and somehow redirect on an intellectual level and emotional level what is going to happen?

David: Yeah. In Brain Changer one of the tools I talk about in the "Do" section is I call it the Awareness Wedge, which is kind of what you're talking about. I call it the Awareness Wedge because I think of it as an actual wedge. If you think of a wedge kind of being forced down in between your present state of thinking and the next step in the thinking process. And this has a very robust underpinning in the scientific literature. Other terms for it are cognitive pause or tactical pause or advance semantic pause. There are a lot of different terms that are used in the literature for this. But basically what it means is that we stop momentarily. We assume a sort of third person position where we're intentionally engaging our metacognitive capabilities. Again, a metacognitive capability is being able to think about your thinking from a detached position.

So one of the classic examples I use in this when I talk about this is when you're in your car on the highway and someone cuts you off in traffic. And you're already in a bad mood. You're late for work or whatever and somebody cuts you off. And you're at your breaking point and the first thing you want to do is open your window and start shouting at this person or doing something else, or sending certain messages.

When we're reading about these things that happen in the news, we're reading about it from a detached position. Somebody did this on the highway and somebody else pulled out a gun and shot that person. It's a tragedy. Wouldn't it be great if we could assume a third person position in the moment and stop the entire thing from happening? We don't have to be sort of slaves to our impulses. We have the ability to insert this wedge and we don't have to become the tragedy the other people are looking at from a third person position on the news.

That's an extreme example, but it kind of sends the point home I think. Which is: there are things that we think and do that if we do not insert that wedge, we may harshly regret very quickly. And metacognition is the internal tool that we have. It's what nature has given us to change the situation, to assert a greater level of executive control.

The prefrontal cortex of our brain is often called the command and control center of our brains. The most recently evolved part of our brain. And it's where higher level thinking occurs. And it's where metacognition occurs. It's where we have this capacity to think about our thinking. We've all got this. It's a great, great capacity, great tool we've got that we're carrying around between our ears. We just have to get more intentional about using it.

Joe: In your first book you pretty much make the statement that we're not rational beings. There's been the idea for a long time that humanity and the human race is that man is a rational being and stuff.

David: Right.

Joe: But you say, "That's not true. We're not rational beings and in fact we're hardwired from the beginning to be threat sensitive."

David: Yeah, this old idea really found a tome in economics that man is a rational actor. I marvel now thinking about this, that this idea actually took hold for the centuries that it did and that we believed it. That people always act rationally.

Joe: Well all you have to do is look at the state of the world.

David: Yeah, exactly. The proof is evident all around us. What's clear from what neuroscience and cognitive psychology has revealed is that we can certainly, by engaging more intentionally in metacognition and other thought processes, that we become more rational. We certainly have the ability to become more rational actors. We are not innately so however. And the evidence, as I discuss in the first book, as you just pointed out, is that our brains, when left to their own devices, operate on the principles that have kind of insured our physical survival, which is that we are very threat sensitive. Uncertainty, instability, insecurity, these things are threats. Just as somebody in the physical environment coming at us with a knife or a gun is a physical threat, the more ambiguous ideas, just feeling uncertain, feeling not right, feeling unstable, these are threats to our brain.

And our brains react the way we've evolved to react which is to shut ourselves down from those things. When I talk about a happy brain in the first book, the book's title is a bit tongue in cheek, What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the Opposite. What makes your brain happy is being threat sensitive because that is a naturally evolved tendency of our brain. Why we have to learn to do the opposite is because that tendency that asserts itself does not suit all the situations we find ourselves in. We have to kind of remind ourselves we didn't really evolve to be in these heavy technology-laden, consumerist-driven, information-driven cultures. This is not how we grew up as a species, so to speak.
So our brains don't perfectly overlay with these environments that we live in. The grand irony of that is that our brains created this environment. Everything that's around us, our cultures that we live in, these are all creations of our brain. So it's a bit of an irony that we find ourselves living in which is we're just not perfectly suited to live in this world that we created. And we have to find different ways to adapt. And that's what the second book is really about. It's about adapting our thinking to better match the environment.

Joe: I suppose the idea of being threat sensitive could also involve an aspect of kind of being programmed at an early age in life, having reactions or programs. I use the word programs almost like neural pathways set up within us a result of experiences as a child that were threatening and that as an adult, they're no longer threatening. Let's say, because you're an adult and you're able to deal with a situation far better than that child could, but you still have that reaction laid down in your brain and you're going to react that way. And that's why I suppose you get a lot of adults get accused of acting like a child and in fact maybe they are, almost literally. They're acting on childhood neural pathways laid down.

David: I think that's very true and bullying has become a big topic of research in the last 10 years. And it's very important research because a lot of what it's telling us is that bullying behavior in these early stages of our lives do trigger changes in our brains that become patterns well into our adult lives. We may never break out of those patterns. If we aren't intentional about challenging them, perhaps engaging a tool like talk therapy because talk therapy really helps us to be more intentional about our thinking. That's really what it boils down to.

And what we've come to understand in these bullying studies is exactly what you just said. Triggers can happen early in life that will frame a person's life into adulthood if they are never challenged, if they're never understood. And this can have just severe, severe ramifications, does have severe ramifications in many different walks of life. And it's about time that we came to terms with this. And I think the focus on bullying to me is so important because as a father with three young kids, I really think about this a lot, and think about the impressions that are left on the developing brain. Because even though the brain is dynamic throughout adulthood, it is still true that it is the most affected in childhood and adolescence. The most profound imprints, if you will, on the brain occur in childhood and adolescence because that is the period in which the brain is the most in flux, if you will. It's the most dynamic.

What happens to us in those periods doesn't necessarily condemn us to a life of a particular pattern. Much the opposite. My argument is that none of us needs to be condemned in such a way. But it is true that those imprints that occur are very, very real and they can have a huge impact later on in life.

Pierre: Imprinting can shape your behavior, your thinking, and your emotional life.

David: Yes.

Pierre: This fear, all this hate, this anger, this sadness. So what about emotions? Are they legitimate? Shall we express them? Shall we repress them? If we express them, how can we express them in a healthy way? Can we redirect them? Can you tell us more about emotions?

David: Well, emotions are of course another very rich, robust part of the research literature. And it's interesting that where people fall on the question of emotions, kind of what school of psychological thought they tend to fall into. I tend to be more on the side of cognitive behavioral research, which is the school of psychological thought that was founded by Aaron Beck and a few other great thinkers that asserts that we can change our emotional response by changing our thinking. So it draws a direct correlation between our emotional responses out in the world with what our thoughts are internally.

And I think the form of therapy that's embodied in it is CBT, cognitive behavioral therapy. And I think that form of therapy has increasingly become the preferred form of talk therapy because it works. And really, I have to underscore this because I use the word so often in my second book: pragmatic. I am a pragmatist. At the end of the day I want what works. And I believe, again from my perspective, that cognitive behavioral therapy, the cognitive behavioral school of thought, is the most pragmatically efficient school of thought because it actually works. People are able to change how they react emotionally by getting a better handle on their thinking.

And so there are parts of my second book Brain Changer that kind of go into this in more detail and I won't belabor the fine points here, but part of understanding that is understanding the pattern of an emotional response. There's been a lot of research that kind of breaks down the phases of an emotional response. Just because we experience something so quickly doesn't mean it's actually happened so quickly. There are different phases that lead up to an outburst of anger, or on the other side, an outburst of joy or other positive emotions.

And so part of what being more intentional about our thinking means there is that we need to think more about what those phases or levels are that lead to the emotional response. We don't just automatically have to have an angry outburst. We don't just automatically have to break down in tears. We're kind of enculturated to think that emotions are automatic in that way, but they're not. They have multiple underpinnings that again all occur in this world of thought.

Now I've been accused of this, so let me make this point clear. I'm not Dr. Spock from Star Trek and I'm not saying that we can become unemotional or that there's any benefit to becoming unemotional. Let me make that very clear. I'm a Sicilian by descent, and let me tell you, emotions run strong in my ethnic heritage and I own that. So I'm not saying that at all. What I am saying is that we need to be more intentional about how we think in such a way that our emotions are perhaps more appropriate for the situation and more in proportion to the situation.
Quite typically, when we say someone has an "emotional problem" what we really mean is that their emotions seem to be out of proportion for the triggers that they're experiencing. An anger management problem, what is that really? Is it that someone is angry? No. Anger is a natural emotion. The problem is that their anger appears to be out of proportion to the triggers they experience in their life. So again, it's not a question of not being angry. That would be a horrible idea. There's perfectly good reasons to be angry. The issue is how do you bring your anger more in proportion with what you're experiencing in your life? And that's what cognitive behavioral therapy is really all about. It's about being more intentional about your thinking so that you can respond emotionally in ways that are more proportionally adequate for your life, for what you're experiencing.

Joe: Yeah, because it's essential I think for anybody who wants to aspire to that kind of happier, more balanced life to think about that and to think about getting a handle on their emotions. Because emotions are in family environments and amongst friends and society in general, emotions are the things, when they're out of control, lead to all sorts of pain and heartache and suffering among many people. They can also lead to frigging wars and stuff.

David: Yeah. No question. And this is kind of the point. The point is not that we should try to be cold and rational beings. The point is that we just need to be more intentional about all these parts of our lives. Emotion expressed proportionately well, is extremely healthy. It's healthy whether you're expressing a positive emotion or when you're expressing a negative emotion. We frame things up in dualities in our culture. And it's very toxic thinking, positive/negative emotion. When we say negative we say regret is a negative emotion. We don't want to ever experience regret. Well, in the first book I kind of deconstruct regret as an emotion. Is it true we never want to express it? Or is it true possibly that regret is an emotional response that has a very practical underpinning, which is it helps us learn from something we've done to not make the same error again.

When you get out of bifurcated thinking, negative/positive, and you frame things up in a more pragmatic way, you can kind of link up even the most negative emotions with, if you will, reasons. So getting a handle on all of this, first and foremost it puts us in a better position to manage our own lives. Because the problems we typically have in managing our own lives is that the triggers we experience, whether those triggers are other people, other situations, jobs, family, world crises, etc., how we respond to those things is the coloration of our life, right? How we experience life is largely how we respond to what happens around us and to us.

So the argument is becoming more intentional about our thinking helps us to become better adapters to our lives. We are able to manage these situations more effectively. And by doing so my argument is, and this is an argument throughout everything I write really, is that we become more fulfilled. People who more effectively manage their lives tend to be more fulfilled. People who have a hard time managing their lives tend to be less so.

Joe: And there's also some evidence of people who are having a hard time managing their lives suffering physically as well, in terms of having poor health.

David: Yes.

Joe: I don't know if you're aware of Dr. Gabor Maté? I don't know if you've ever heard of him, he's a Canadian.

David: Not familiar with the name, no.

Joe: He talks about, essentially, kind of what you're saying but he goes further and says that expressing emotions is extremely important from a health point of view because there's been lots of studies done with people with various chronic illnesses and stuff and kind of almost across the board all these people, at least in one aspect, have a history of repressing their emotions and being kind of brow-beaten or in a bad relationship.

David: Yeah, there's really no question about that any longer. There's been some research done recently that's really mind-blowing. For a long time we've kind of anecdotally believed that cancer is linked to stress. And there really isn't any research out there that makes a firm A to B causal connection between cancer and stress. But very recently there's been some research to show quite convincingly that cancer cells are indeed fed by stress. By higher levels of stress, higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and higher levels of adrenalin. These things can certainly make a cancer tumor grow and so yeah, the point is well taken. And it's something we all need to think about. This isn't just about thought and emotion. This isn't about abstraction. This is about what's happening to your body. There is no question, in my mind and I think the science well supports this at this point, that our emotional responses have direct biological corollaries.

Heart disease is the number one killer in the United States for men and women. And there is a wealth of research literature showing the connections between what are, essentially, the mismanagement of emotional responses and heart disease. It's not just all about cholesterol and triglycerides and lipids and so forth. This has a lot to do with how we think and our emotional response. So it's an extremely important point that you made.

Joe: You mention a common experience that probably a lot of people have. I've had it anyway, with driving down the road and after a few minutes realizing that you kind of weren't there for the past few minutes. And it kind of freaks me out now and again because I wonder who was driving, making all those subtle maneuvers in the car and avoiding the pedestrians and stuff. Who was doing that because I wasn't there. I don't remember it.

David: Right.

Joe: But then you talk about that as switching on to auto pilot and that it's an area of intense interest to cognitive scientists. And you also say that the consensus is that most people spend somewhere between 30 and 50 percent of their day in this auto pilot state.

David: Yes.

Joe: I'm just wondering that doesn't seem like a good thing in the sense of if someone is trying to become more aware of their thought processes. If they're kind of not there, then they can't do that, right?

David: Yeah, it's a really interesting area in the research right now. And like you say, there have been some studies just in the last couple of years that have tried to quantify the amount of time that we spend in this auto pilot drift if you will. And yeah, it seems to be a considerable amount of time that we're just not quite there. And this is really interesting because what it's kind of getting to is this question of conscious and unconscious thought. And so we know that if you took the brain and you tried to break it down in percentages of what part of our thought is conscious and what is unconscious, the vast, vast majority of what's going on is unconscious.

And it's very easily understood when you think about everything that's going on in your body all the time that you're not having to think about doing. You don't have to think about controlling your heart pumping blood. You don't have to think about your lungs working. You don't have to think about your nervous system working properly. There's a fair amount of automatic muscle movements that we don't have to think about.
So the unconscious mind is responsible for all these things and it's being referred to in the most recent research as calling this the modular mind, that the unconscious mind is really this kind of fast network of modular processing centers that control all of this stuff that's happening 24/7 in our bodies. And so then there's this very, very, relatively speaking, small percentage of things that we're able to control consciously. And it's been broken down. There are always attempts at quantification of these things. It's difficult, obviously, to get a very firm bead on something like this, but some researchers said that our unconscious mind processes about 11 million different things a second and our conscious mind processes about 40 things a second. So again, you don't have to worry about being precise with the numbers, the point is obvious enough. It's a very small amount of things relatively speaking that we can consciously influence.

The question is, how much of that conscious processing power are we really engaging? And so the research that's been done on how much time we spend drifting is interesting because it's kind of getting to the point of is what we consider to be conscious thinking. Everybody has an idea of what conscious thinking is. The idea of being awake, right? Being awake to the moment, that's conscious thinking. But what the research seems to be telling us is that there are some elements of conscious thinking even that is not quite conscious. The brain seems to kind of operate in this - I kind of think of it as kind of a front room/back room scenario. Picture an office space and there's a smaller front room that conscious is in that has maybe two or three people sitting there. And then there's this back room that's closed off and there's about 500 people in there at work.

Joe: Warehouse.

David: And the question is: are those two areas really as distinct as we kind of think they are? Or is there this interplay going on that seems to be showing up in this research about drifting, about rumination? And it's really interesting stuff. And there's no kind of firm conclusions about this yet, about why we do this, about why we seem to spend so much time ruminating.

Pierre: And when reading your book, obviously as human beings spend a lot of time, as you say, drifting, the conscious mind inactive, and we also spend of lot of time when the conscious mind is active, it is creating narratives to maintain the illusion that it is in charge, that we are kind of one and there is some kind of consistency in our lives.

David: (laughing) Right. Right.

Pierre: So can you tell us more about those narratives and this illusion of consistency?

David: Yeah, I'm laughing only because it strikes me that the conversation we're having, which I've had on a few different occasions, can lead people toward the conclusion that it's kind of just a big question mark at the end of all this. Very difficult to arrive at any conclusions. And while it's true that it is difficult to arrive at conclusions because there's so much we don't know about the brain, it's still really, really interesting to talk about the research. And so what you're alluding to is this idea are we a unified self or are we selves?

We have had this question for a long time and it's really an ancient question. There isn't really consensus about this, but I think that the latest research is leaning in the direction of saying that really we're not a self. We have multiple ways of interacting with the world. But our brains have adapted to construct, as you say, a narrative which ties these selves together into a unified whole, the "I", the Self. And there's great, great books on this out there. I talk about a number of them, particularly in my first book. And I encourage people to read about it because it's a really interesting study. But yeah, it really comes down to our brains have been able to adapt to the best way for us to interact with the world, not as a fragmented, multiple persona, or personas, it's as a unified whole. And so we are fortunate that that's the case.

Now we know, practically speaking, how this works, right? Because the way you speak to somebody at work or the way you interact with people at work is not the same way you interact with people at a party. The way you talk to your mother is not the same way you talk to your best friend. There's a multitude of examples that show exactly how this works. We know, practically speaking, that we put on different hats all the time, yet our brains are extremely efficient at enabling this narrative which keeps us together.

Now a lot of the research on schizophrenia would seem to indicate that part of what's going on in the schizophrenic brain is that narrative linking, that narrative thread, is missing or is damaged such that the selves are not held together. And it makes a lot of sense, if you think about what we know of schizophrenia.

Joe: Yeah, it's actually quite a scary topic if you think too much about it.

David: Yeah, exactly.

Joe: Just getting back to the idea of - there's a book I read, you mention him actually, I think it's Daniel Kahneman?

David: Yes. Kahneman.

Joe: The kind of research he did and he came up with this System 1 and System 2 to describe these two brains, type of thing.

David: Right. Right.

Joe: Like you kind of mentioned that there's all this processing of data going on in the background far more than happens in the foreground, the conscious self. In your books as well you give plenty of examples that really bring that point home, that there's stuff going on that we're not aware of that is influencing our decisions, unconsciously. You cite an example of a study done where people that walked into a building were given either a hot drink or a cold drink. And then they were asked to fill in a questionnaire about how they felt about one of their close friends. And the people who got the hot drink felt warmer or closer to their friends than the people who got the cold drink.

David: Yeah.

Joe: And it's at that level that there's data being transmitted to this part of the mind that is unconscious and it's then feeding it back to the conscious mind telling it how to decide, but the conscious mind has no idea why it's doing it. It's doing it based on this subtle data that this other part of the brain is picking up on.

David: That's right. And that is exactly why we are not innately rational actors.

Joe: Yeah.

David: Humans are not innately rational because so much of what influences our thought and behavior is happening in this kind of back room process center. Like you say, there's been a plethora of research about tangible things, temperature, weight, hardness, softness, whatever, of objects affecting our thoughts.

There's another research along the same lines with what you mentioned about when people are going to a job interview, whether the chair they're sitting in tends to be more rigid or more comfortable, affects their performance in the interview. There's a bevy of these things. And so yeah, that's what a lot of this research is getting to. We just don't fully understand the interplay between consciousness and unconscious thought, or what we've come to think of as unconscious thought. I kind of think that even these terms are going to change, that these categories we have of conscious and unconscious, that those will eventually change because right now it's the best way we can categorize things. But I think over time, what the science is going to reveal more and more is that these categorical lines, these boundaries that we've put between these things don't really exist, that there is an ongoing interplay that kind of blurs the lines much more than we currently appreciate.

Joe: When I read stories like that about how people are influenced, unconsciously, it reminds of when I was going to my brother's wedding one time and we had just gone down and got fitted for suits and we were driving back and we stopped at a traffic light and he looked up and he saw a poster, a billboard sign for Budweiser beer. It was a bottle of Budweiser with the cap turned upside down and it said "King of beers". And he looked at that, looked at me and said "Do those people really think that that's going to influence anybody's decision-making? It's kind of ridiculous. It's stupid." He was very dismissive of it. About an hour later we were in the bar and we walked up to the bar. And you can imagine what happened next. We walked up to the bar and he had no idea. He said to me, "What do you want?" I said I don't know. I just asked him, "What are you going to have?" He thought, and he just really didn't know he just said "Oh, I'll have a Budweiser".

David: (laughing)

Joe: And I was going to say something to him, but I just went no, not going to bother. And that's with something that's kind of overt, you actually saw a billboard. But the more subtle stuff that you describe in your books, even the cold/warm thing, or the back of the chair, that no one would ever think is going to influence anything, really. If you ask the person "That has no bearing on my decision or that had no bearing on anything". But it does!

David: Right. And that's a great example because there's a case where he actually did consciously intentionally identify something. He looked at the ad, he deconstructed it and said "It's odd that this would influence anyone's behavior" and then moments later he's being influenced by it.

Joe: Yeah. Exactly.

David: So if that's the case, imagine how much stuff happens to us that we're experiencing all the time that we're not intentionally conscious of...

Joe: Yeah. Exactly. Yeah.

David: ... that we're influenced by.

Joe: David, we're getting close to end time here we probably should wrap it up. It's been great having you on. Your books are excellent I'm just going to give a shout out again, two books mainly: What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the Opposite and the newest one Brain Changer: How Harnessing Your Brain's Power to Adapt Can Change Your Life. They're excellent books.

David: Thank you.

Joe: Packed full of information that everybody needs to know and be aware of and act on and we can maybe change the world if everybody gets a copy.

Pierre: Easy to read and full of practical tips to change and have a better life.

Joe: Absolutely.

David: Thanks very much. And I hope people will read the books. There's a new project I'm a part in. It's called If your listeners can visit it's a new project that I'm involved in that's kind of creating a one-stop shop for knowledge about all things brain and mind. Just kicked it off this week, so if anyone has an opportunity to go out there and check that out as well.

Joe: Okay. And your website is?

David: My website is just People can find out more about me and the books and other things there.

Joe: Alright. Thanks a million David for being on.

David: Hey, thanks for having me. I appreciate it.

Joe: Okay, no problem.

Pierre: Thank you very much David. It was a pleasure.

Joe: Have a good one.

David: Bye-bye.

Joe: Alright folks, it's going to be a short one this week because we have things to do and places to go, people to see, thoughts to analyze.

Pierre: And our brains to change.

Joe: And our brains to change. You should all do the same. There are other books like this out there. It seems to be a very popular genre these days. People can check the psychology section on our forum for a lot of information about these books and other books of a similar nature. But it's really important information, to be honest. It's kind of ultimately potentially life changing.

Pierre: Yeah, and in this field I've found basically two kinds of books, two categories: the ones that are very abstract, normal science and theoretical, and the ones that are practical but kind of shallow, the way to become an efficient individual. And here David, he brings the best of both sides; a very sound theoretical background with sound practical applications. So it's really a must read and it's easy to read, so this Brain Changer book brings a lot of different topics together. It's not only neuroscience. There's a little bit about nutrition, about sleeping, about emotions, about behavior, self-observation and a lot of exercises. A lot of things approached in his book.

Joe: Alright folks, we're going to leave it there. Next week we will be interviewing Gilad Atzmon. If you don't know who Gilad Atzmon is, you should look him up. That'll be a good one. Until then, thanks for listening, thanks to our chatters and have a good one.

Pierre: Bye-bye. Thank you.