The following is a conversation with Andrew Huberman, a neuroscientist at Stanford, working to understand how the brain works, how it can change through experience, and how to repair brain circuits damaged by injury or disease. He has a great Instagram account at Huberman Lab where he teaches the world about the brain and the human mind. Also, he's a friend and an inspiration in that he shows that you can be humble, giving and still succeed in the science world. Quick mention of the sponsor, followed by some thoughts related to the episode.
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And now here's my conversation with Andrew Huberman.
You've mentioned that in your lab at Stanford, you induce stress by putting people into a virtual reality and having them go through one of a set of experiences. I think you mentioned this on Roegan or with Whitney that scare them. So, just on a practical psychological level and maybe on a philosophical level, what are people afraid of? What are the fears? What are these fear experiences that you find to be effective?
So it depends on the person, obviously. And we should probably define fear, right, because you can, without going too far down the rabbit hole of defining these things, you know, you can't really have fear without stress, but you could have stress without fear. And you can't really have trauma without fear and stress. But you could have fear and stress without trauma. So, you know, we can start playing the word game. And that actually is one of the motivations for even having a laboratory that studies these things is that we really need better physiological, neuroscientific and operational definitions of what these things are.
I mean, the field of understanding emotions and states, which is mainly what I'm interested in, is very complicated.
But we can we can do away with a lot of complicated debate and say in our laboratory what we're looking for, to assign it a value of fear is a big inflection in autonomic arousal. So, increases in heart rate, increases and breathing, perspiration, pupil dilation, all the hallmark signature features of the stress response. And in some cases, we have the benefit of getting neurosurgery patients, where we've got electrodes in their amygdala and their insula and the orbital frontal cortex down beneath the skull. So these are chronically implanted electrodes for getting multi-unit signals and we can start seeing some central features of, meaning within the brain.
And what's interesting is that, as trivial as it might seem, in listening to it, almost everybody, almost everybody, responds to heights and falling from a high virtual place with a very strong stress, if not fear response. And that's because the visual vestibular apparati, right, the optic flow and how it links to the balanced semicircular canals in your inner ear, and all this technical stuff.
But really, all of that pulls all your physiology, the feeling that your stomach is dropping, the feeling that you're suddenly you're sweating, even though you're not afraid of falling off this virtual platform. But you feel as if you're following, excuse me because of the optic flow, that one is universal. So, we've got a dive with great white sharks experience where you actually exit the cage. We went out and did this in the real world and brought back 360 video that's built out pretty well.
So this is actually 360
360 video. And this was important to us. Right? So when we decided to set up this platform, a lot of the motivation was that a lot of the studies of these things in laboratories, I don't want to call them lame, because I want to be respectful of the people that did the stuff before. But they study fear by, you know, showing subjects a picture of a bloody arm or a snake or something like that. Or and it just unless you have a snake phobia, it just wasn't creating a real enough experience.
So we need to do something where people aren't going to get injured, but where we can tap into the physiology and that thing of presence of people momentarily, not the whole time, but momentarily forgetting they are in a laboratory. And so heights will always do it. And I if people want to challenge me on this, I like to point to that movie free solo, which was wild because, you know, it's incredible movie. But I think a lot of its popularity can be explained by a puzzle, which is, you knew he was going to live when you walked in the theater or you watched it at home. You knew before that he he survived. And yet it was still scary that people somehow were able to put themselves into that experience or into Alex's experience enough that they they were concerned or worried or afraid at some level.
So heights always does it. If we get people who have generalized anxiety, these are people who wake up and move through life at a generally higher state of autonomic arousal and anxiety, then we can tip them a little bit more easily with things that don't necessarily get everyone afraid, things like claustrophobia, public speaking, That's going to vary from person to person.
And then if you're afraid of sharks, like my sister, for instance, afraid of sharks, she won't even come to my laboratory because they're there's a thing about sharks in it. That's how terrified some people are of these specific stimuli. But Heights gets them every time.
And I'm terrified of heights.
It it's you know, when we have you step off a platform, virtual platform and it's a flat floor in my lab. But, we, you're up there.
Where you actually allow them the possibility in the virtual world to actually take the leap of faith.
Yeah, maybe I should describe a little bit of the experiment. So without giving away too much in case someone wants to be a subject in one of these experiments. We have them playing a cognitive game. It's a simple lights out kind of game where you're pointing a cursor and turning out lights on a grid. But, it gets increasingly complex and it speeds up on them. And, you know, there's a failure point for everybody where they just can't make the motor commands fast enough.And then we surprise people essentially by placing them virtually, all of a sudden, they're there on a narrow platform between two buildings. And then we encourage them, or we cue them, with a talking to them through microphone, to continue across that platform to continue the game. And, you know, some people, they they just won't, they actually will get down on the ground and hold on to a virtual beam that doesn't even exist on a flat floor.
And so what this really tells us is the power of the brain to enter these virtual states as if they were real. And we really think that anchoring the visual and the vestibular, the balance components of the nervous system, are what bring people into that presence so quickly. There's also the potential and we haven't done this yet, to bring in 360 sound.
So, the reason we did a 360 video is, when we started all this back in twenty sixteen, a lot of the VR was pretty lame. Frankly, it was CGI. It just wasn't real enough. But with 360 video, we knew that we could get people into this presence where they think they're in a real experience more quickly. And our friend Michael Muller, who I was introduced to, because of the project, I reach out to some friends. Michael Muller, a very famous portrait photographer in Hollywood, but he dives with great white sharks and he leaves the cage.
And so we worked with him to build a 360 video apparatus that we could swim under water with. Went out to Guadaloupe Island, Mexico, and actually got the experience. It was a lot of fun. It was there were some interesting moments out there of danger. But, he came back with that video and built that for the sharks. And then we realized we need to do this for everything. We need to do it for heights. We need to do it for public speaking, for claustrophobia and what's missing still is 360 sound.
Where 360 sound would be, for instance, if I were to turn around and there was a like a giant attack dog there, the moment I would turn around and see it, the dog would growl. But if I turn back toward you, then it would it would be silent. So and that brings a very real element to one's own behavior where you don't know what's going to happen if you turn a corner.
Whereas if there's a dog growling behind me and I'm and I turn around and then I turn back to you and it's still growling. Yeah. That might seem like more of an impending threat, but unsustained threat. But actually, it's when you start linking your own body movements to the experience. So when it's closed loop, where my movements and choices are starting to influence things and they're getting scarier and scarier, that's when you can really drive people's nervous system down these paths of high, high states of stress and fear.
Now, we don't want to traumatize people, obviously. But, we also we also study a number of tools that allow them to calm themselves in these environments. So, the short answer is heights.
Heights [laughs]. Yeah, well, from a psychology from neuroscience perspective, this whole construction that you've developed is fascinating. We did this a little bit with autonomous vehicles. So to try to understand the decision making process of a pedestrian when they cross the road and trying to create an experience of a car, you know, that can run you over. So there's a danger there. I was so surprised how real that whole world was. And the graphics that we built wasn't ultra realistic or anything, but I was still afraid of being hit by a car. Everybody we tested were really afraid of being hit by that car, even though it was all a simulation.
It was all a simulation.
It was it was kind of boxy, actually. I mean, it wasn't like ultra realistic simulation and these fascinating.
Looms and heights. So, any kind of depth, we're just programmed to, to not necessarily recoil, but to be cautious about that edge in that depth and then looms things coming at us that are getting larger. There are looming sensing neurons even in the retina at a very, very early stage of visual processing.
And incidentally, the way Mullard and, you know, folks learn how to not get eaten by great white sharks when you're swimming outside the cage is as they start lumbering in, you swim toward them and they get very confused when you luman them because clearly you're smaller. Clearly, they could eat you if they wanted to. But there's something about forward movement toward any creature, that that creature questions whether or not it would be a good idea to generate forward movement toward you. And so that's actually the survival tool of these cage exit white shark divers.
Are you playing around with like one of the critical things for the autonomous vehicle research is you couldn't do 360 video because the there's a game theoretic, there's an interactive element that's really necessary. So maybe people realizes, maybe they don't. But 360 video, you obviously what's actually not that obvious to people, but you can't change the reality that you're watching.
So but you find that that's like is there something fundamental about fear and stress that the interactive element is essential for or do you find you can you can arouse people with just the video?
Great question. It works best to use mixed reality. So we have a snake stimulus. I personally don't like snakes at all. I don't mind spiders. We also have spiders stimulus, but like snakes, I just don't like them. There's something about the the slithering and the it just it creates a visceral response for me. Some people not so much, and they have lower levels of stress and fear in there. But one way that we can get them to feel more of that is to use mixed reality where we have an actual physical bat and they have to stomp out the snake as opposed to just walk to a little safe corner, which then makes the snake disappear. That tends to be not as stressful as if they have a physical weapon. And so you've got people in there, you know, banging on the floor against this thing. And there's something about engaging that makes it more of a more of a threat.
Now, I should also mention we we always get the subjective report from the subject of what they experience because we never want to project our own ideas about what they were feeling. But that's the beauty of working with humans, is you can ask them how they feel.
And humans aren't great at explaining how they feel.But, it's a lot easier to understand what they're saying than a mouse or a macaque monkey is saying. So it's the best we can do is language, plus these physiological and neurophysiological signals.
Is there something you've learned about yourself, about your deepest fears? Like you said snakes? Is something that like if I were to torture you. So, I am Russian, so, you know, I always kind of think, how can I murder this people, that this person enter the room, but also how can I torture you to get some information out of you? Well, where would I go with?
Hmm. It's interesting you should say that. I never considered myself claustrophobic. But, because I don't mind small environments provided they're well ventilated. But. I, before covid, I started going to this Russian Albania, you know, they jump at you and I had never been to Albania. So, you know, the whole experience of really, really hot sauna and what do they call it? The plots. So they're hitting you with the leaves and. yeah, and it gets really hot and humid in there. And there were a couple of times where I thought, OK, this thing is below ground. It's in a city where there are a lot of earthquakes, like if this place crumbled and we were stuck in here and I'd start getting a little panicky and I realized I'm like, I don't like small confined spaces with poor ventilation.
So I realize I think I have some claustrophobia and I wasn't aware of that before. So I put myself into our own claustrophobia stimulus, which involves getting into an elevator and with a bunch of people, virtual people, and the elevator gets stalled. And at first you're fine, you feel fine. But then as we start modulating the environment and we actually can control levels of oxygen in the environment if we want to, it is really uncomfortable for me.
And I never would have thought, you know, I fly, I'm comfortable in planes, but it is really uncomfortable. And so I think I've unhatched a bit of a claustrophobia.
Yeah, for me as well, probably. That one that was pretty bad. The heights, I try to overcome. So I went skydiving to try to overcome the fear of heights, but that didn't help.
Did you jump out?
Yeah. Yeah, jumped out. But it was it was a fundamentally different experience. And I guess that could be a lot of different flavors of fear of heights, maybe. But the one I have didn't seem to be connected to jumping out of a plane. Because its very different because like once you accept it, that you're going to jump, then it's it's a different thing. I think what I'm afraid of is the moments before it, it is the scariest part.
And, And I don't think that's emphasized in the skydiving experience as much and also just the acceptance of the fact that it's going to happen. So, once you accept that it's going to happen, it's not as scary. Its the fact that it's not supposed to happen and it might. That's the scary part. That, I guess I'm not being eloquent in this description, but there's something about skydiving that was actually philosophically liberating. I was I was like, wow, it was the possibility that you can walk on a surface and then at a certain point, there's no surface anymore to walk on. And it's all sudden the world becomes three dimensional.
And there's this freedom of floating. That the concept of like of Earth disappears for a brief few seconds. I don't know those those ...
those wild, but I'm still terrified of heights. So, I mean, one one thing that I want to ask, just on fear, because it's so fascinating ,is have you learned anything about what it takes to overcome fears?
Yes. And that comes from two, from a, you know, research study standpoint. Two parallel tracks of research. One was done actually in mice because we have a mouse lab also where we can probe brown different brain areas and try and figure out what interesting brain areas we might want to probe around in humans .
And graduate student in my lab. She's now at Caltech. Lindsay Salay, published a paper, back in twenty eighteen, showing that, what at first might seem a little bit obvious, but the mechanisms are not. Which is that there are really three responses to fear. You can pause, you can freeze essentially. You can retreat, you can back up or you can go forward. And there's a single hub of neurons in the midbrain, just actually not the midbrain, but it's in the middle of the thalamus, which is a forebrain structure. And depending on which neurons are active there, there's a much higher probability that a mouse or it turns out or a human will advance in the face of fear or will pause or will retreat.
Now, that just assigns a neural structure to a behavioral phenomenon. But what's interesting is that it turns out that the lowest level of stress or autonomic arousal is actually associated with the pausing and freezing response. Then as the death threat becomes more impending and we used visual looms in this case, the retreat response has a slightly higher level of autonomic arousal and stress.
So think about playing hide and go seek. You're trying to stay quiet in a in a closet that you're hiding. If you're very calm, it's easy to stay quiet and still. As your level of stress goes up, it's harder to maintain that level of quiet and stillness. You see this also in animals that are stalking. A cat will chatter its teeth. That's actually sort of top down inhibition and trying to restrain behavior. So the freeze response is actually an active response, but it's fairly low stress.
And what was interesting to us is that the highest level of autonomic arousal was associated with the forward movement toward the threat.
So in your case, jumping out of the plane. However, the forward movement in the face of threat was linked to the activation of what we call collateral, which means just a side connection, literally a wire in the brain that connects to the dopamine circuits for reward.
And so when one safely and adaptively, meaning you survive, moves through a threat or toward a threat, it's rewarded as a positive experience. And so the key, it actually maps very well to the cognitive behavioral therapy and a lot of the existing treatments for trauma, is that you have to confront the thing that makes you afraid. So, otherwise you exist in this very low level of reverbatory circuit activity, where the the circuits for autonomic arousal are humming and they're humming more and more and more.
And we have to remember that that stress and fear and threat were designed to agitate us so that we actually move. Now. So the reason I mention this is I think a lot of times people think that the maximum, you know, stress response or fear response is to freeze and to lock up. But that's actually not the maximum stress response. Maximum stress response is to advance, but it's associated with reward. It has positive valence.
So, so there's this kind of everyone always thinks about the bell, you know, the sort of shape curve for, you know, at low levels of arousal, performance is low and as it increases performance goes higher and then it drops off as you get really stressed. But, there is another bump further out the distribution where you perform very well under very high levels of stress.
And so we've been spending a lot of time in humans and in animals exploring what it takes to get people comfortable to go to that place and also to let them experience how their heightened states of cognition there. There's changes in time perception that allow you to evaluate your environment, in fast, at a faster frame rate, essentially. This is the matrix. As a lot of people think of it. But we tend to think about fear as all the low level stuff where things aren't worked out.
But , there are many, there are a lot of different features to the fear response. And so we think about it quantitatively and we think about it from a circuit perspective in terms of outcomes, and we try and weigh that against the threat.
So we never want people to put themselves in unnecessary risk. But that's where the VR is fun because you can push people hard without risk of physically injuring them.
And that's, like you said, the little bump that that seems to be a very small fraction of the human experience. Right. So it's kind of fascinating to study it because most of us move through life without ever experiencing in that kind of focus
Where everything everything's in a peak state there. I really think that's where optimal performance lies.
There's so many interesting words here. But what's performance and what's optimal performance? We're talking about mental ability to what? To perceive the environment quickly, to make actions quickly. What's optimal performance?
Yeah, well, it's very subjective and it varies depending on task and environment. So, one way we can make it a little bit more operational and concrete is to say there is a sweet spot, if you will, where the level of internal autonomic arousal, aka stress or alertness, whatever you want to call it, is ideally matched to the speed of whatever challenge you have got to be facing in the outside world. So we all have perception of the outside world as exteroception and the perception of our internal real estate, interoception. And when those two things when interception and exterior perception are matched along a couple dimensions, performance tends to increase. It tends to be in an optimal range.
So, for instance, if you're I don't play guitar, but I know you play guitar. So let's say you're trying to learn something new on the guitar. I'm not saying that being in these super high states of activation are the best place for you to be in order to learn. It may be that you your internal arousal needs to be at a level where your analysis of space and time has to be well matched to the information coming in. And what you're trying to do in terms of performance, in terms of playing chords and notes and so forth.
Now, in these cases of high threat where things are coming in quickly and animals and humans need to react very quickly, the higher your state of autonomic arousal, the better. Because you're slicing time more finely just because of the way the autonomic system works. It, you know, the the the pupil dilation, for instance, and movement of the lens essentially changes your your optics. And that's obvious. But, in, with the change in optics is a change in how you bend time and slice time, which allows you to get more frames per second, readout.
With the guitar learning, for instance, it might actually be that you want to be almost sleepy, almost in a kind of drowsy state to be able to. And I don't play music, so I can't I'm guessing here. But since some of the nuance in the chords or the ways that you're to be relaxed enough that your fingers can follow an external cue. So matching the movement of your fingers to something that's pure exteroception.
And so there is no perfect autonomic state for performance. This is why I don't favor terms like flow, because they're not, well, operationally defined enough. But, I do believe that optimal or peak performance is going to arise when internal state is ideally matched to this base time features of the external demands.
So there's some slicing of time that happens and then you're able to adjust slice time more finely or more or less finely in order to adjust to the the stimulus, the dynamics of the stimulus. What about the the realm of ideas? So, like, you know, I'm a big believer. This guy named Cal Newport wrote a book about Deep work.
Yeah, I love that book.
Yeah, he's great. He. I mean, one of the nice things I've always practiced, deep work. But, he, it's always nice to have words, put to the the concepts that you've practiced, it somehow makes them more concrete and allows you to to get better. It turns into a skill that you can get better at. But, you know, I also value deep thinking where you think, it's almost meditative. You think about a particular concept for long periods of time. The programming you have to do that kind of thing for yourself to hold this concept like like you hold it and then you take steps, will, you take further steps and you're holding relatively complicated things in your mind as you're thinking about them. And there's a lot of. I mean, the hardest part is there's frustrating things like you take a step and it turns out to be the wrong directions, you have to calmly turn around and take a step back. And then it's kind of like exploring the space of ideas. Is there something about your study of optimal performance that can be applied to the act of thinking as opposed to action?
Well, we haven't done too much work there. But what but I think I can comment on it from a neuroscience, which is really all I do is, well, I mean, we do experiments in the lab, but looking at things through the lens of neuroscience. So what you're describing can be mapped fairly well to working memory, just keeping things online and updating them as they change and information is coming back into your brain. Jack Feldman, who I'm a huge fan of and fortunate to be friends with, is a professor at UCLA, works on respiration and breathing, but he has a physics background.
And and so he thinks about respiration and breathing in terms of ground states and how they modulate other states. Very, very interesting and I think important work. Jack has an answer to your question. So I'm not going to get this exactly right because this is lifted from a coffee conversation that we had about a month ago. But so apologies in advance for that. But I think I can get mostly right. So, we were talking about this, about how the brain updates cognitive states, depending on demands and thinking in particular. And he used an interesting example. I'd be curious to know if you agree or disagree. He said, you know, most great mathematics is done by people in their late teens and 20s and even you could say early 20s, sometimes into the late 20s, but not much further on. Maybe I just insulted some mathematician. No, that's that's true. And I think that it demands his argument was there's a tremendous demand on working memory to work out theorems in math and to keep a number of plates spinning, so to speak, mentally, and run back and forth between them, updating them. In physics, Jack said, and I I think this makes sense to me, too, that there's a reliance on working memory, but an increased reliance on some sort of deep, deep memory and deep memory stores, probably stuff that's moved out of the hippocampus and forebrain and into the cortex and is more some episodic and declarative stuff. But really, so, you're pulling from your library. Basically, it's not all RAM. It's not all working memory. And then in biology, and physicists tend to have very active careers into their 30s and 40s and 50s and so forth, sometimes later. And that in biology, you see careers that have a much longer arc, kind of these protracted careers. Often people still in their 60s and 70s doing doing really terrific work. Not always doing it with their own hands because the people in the labs are doing them of course. But and that work does tend to rely on insights gained from having a very deep knowledge base where you can remember a paper and or maybe a figure in a paper. You could go look it up if you wanted to, but it's very different than the working memory of the mathematician. And so when you're talking about coding or being in that tunnel of thought and trying to iterate and keeping a lot of plate spinning, it, it speaks directly to working memory.
My lab hasn't done too much of that work in memory, but we are pushing working memory when we have people do things like these simple lights out tasks while they're under, we can increase the cognitive load by increasing the level of autonomic arousal to the point where they start doing less well. And, you know, everyone has a cliff. This is what's kind of fun. We've had, you know, SEAL team operators come to the lab. We have people from other units in the military, very you know, we had a range of of intellects and backgrounds and all sorts of things.
And everyone has a cliff. And those cliffs sometimes show up as a function of the demands of speed of processing or how many things you need to keep online. I mean, we're all limited at some point in the number of things we can keep online.
So what you're describing is very interesting because I think it has to do with how narrow or broad the information set is. Because and I don't, I'm not an active programmer. So this is a regime I don't really fully know. So I don't want to comment about it, in the, in any way, that, you know, doesn't suggest that. But I think that what you're talking about is top down control. So this is prefrontal cortex keeping every bit of reflexive circuitry at bay, the one that makes you want to get up and use the restroom, the one that makes you want to check your phone, all of that, but also running these interior thalamus to prefrontal cortex loops, which we know are very important for working memory.
And let me try to think that it's a little bit. So, reducing the process of thinking to working memory access is tricky. He's probably ultimately correct. But if I were to say some of the most challenging things that an engineer has to do and a scientific thinker, I would say it's kind of depressing to think that we do that best in our 20s. But, is this kind of first principles thinking step of of saying. You you're accessing the things that you know and then saying, well, let me how do I do this differently than I've done it before?
This this weird, like stepping back, like, is this right? Let's try this other way. That that's the most mentally taxing step is like you've gotten quite good at this particular pattern of how you solve this particular problem. So there's a there's a pattern recognition. First, you're like, OK, I know how to build a thing that solves this particular problem in programming, say. And then the question is. But can I do it much better? And I don't know if that's. I don't know what the hell that is. I don't know if that's accessing working memory, that's that's almost maybe it is accessing memory in a sense. It's trying to find similar patterns in a totally different place that could be projected onto this. But you're it's you're not querying facts. You're scoring like functional things like.
Yes. Patterns. I mean, you're putting out your testing algorithms. Yeah. You're testing algorithms. So I want to just because I know of some of the people listening to this and you have or have basis in, you know, scientific training and have scientific training. So I want to be clear. I think we can be correct about some things like the role of working memory in these kinds of processes without being exhaustive. We're not saying that the only thing we're, you know, correct, but not assume that that's the only thing involved.
And I mean, neuroscience, let's face it, is still in its infancy. I mean, we probably know one percent of what there is to know about the brain. You know, we've learned so much. And yet there may be global states that underlie this, that make prefrontal circuitry work differently than it would in it, in a different regime or even time of day. I mean, there's a lot of mysteries about this. But so I just want to make sure that we we sort of are we're aiming for precision and accuracy, but we're not going to be, we're not going to be exhaustive. So there's a difference there. And I think, you know, sometimes in the vastness of the Internet, that gets forgotten.
So the other is that. You know, we think about how we think about these operations at, you know, really focused, keeping a lot of things online, but what you were describing is actually, it, it speaks to the very real possibility, probably that with certainty there's another element to all this, which is when you're trying out lots of things, in particular, lots of different algorithms, you don't want to be in a in a state of very high autonomic arousal. That's not what you want, because the higher level of autonomic arousal and stress in the system, the more rigidly you're going to analyze space and time and what you're talking about is playing with space time dimensionality. And I want to be very clear. You know, I'm the son of a physicist. I am not a physicist. When I talk about space and time, I'm literally talking about visual space and how long it takes for my finger to move from this point. to this point.
You are facing a tiger and trying to figure out how to avoid being eaten by the tiger in space and time.
And that's primarily done by the visual system in humans. We don't walk through space, for instance, like a scent hound would and look at three dimensional scent plumes. You know, when a scent hound, goes out into the environment, they have depth to their odor, their odor trails. And they don't think about them. We don't think about odor trails. You might say, oh, well, the smell is getting more intense. Aha. But they actually have three dimensional odor trail. So there you see a cone of odour. A seed, of course, with their nose and their factory cortex.
We do that with our visual system and we parse time often subconsciously with mainly with our visual system, also with our auditory system. And this shows up for the musicians out there. Metronomes are a great way to play with this, you know, bass drumming. When the frequency of bass drumming changes, your perception of time changes quite a lot.
So in any event, space and time are linked in the through the sensory apparati, through the eyes and ears and nose, and probably through taste to and through touch for us, but mainly through vision. So, when you drop into some coding or iterating through a creative process or trying to solve something hard, you can't really do that well, if you're in a rigid, high level of autonomic arousal because you're plugging in algorithms that are in this space regime, this time regime matches that space time match.
Whereas creativity, I always think the lava lamp is actually a pretty good example, even though it has these counterculture new agey connotations, because you actually don't know which direction things are going to change. And so in drowsy states, sleeping and drowsy states, space and time become dislodged from one another somewhat. And they're very fluid. And I think that's why a lot of solutions come to people after sleep and naps. And this could even take us into a discussion, if you like, about psychedelics.
And what we now know, for instance, that people thought that psychedelics work by just creating spontaneous bursting of neurons and hallucinations, but that the fivish, 2C and 2A receptors, which are the main sites for things like LSD and psilocybin and some of the other halluc..., the ones that create hallucinations, the drugs that create hallucinations.
The most of those receptors are actually in the collection of neurons that encase the thalamus, which is where all the sensory information goes into, a structure called the thalamic reticular nucleus. And it's an inhibitory structure that makes sure that when we're sitting here talking, that I'm mainly focused on whatever I'm seeing visually, that I'm essentially eliminating a lot of sensory information. Under conditions where people take psychedelics and these, particularly when serotonin receptors are activated. That inhibitory shell, it's literally shaped like a shell, starts losing its ability to inhibit the passage of sensory information. But mostly the effects of psychedelics are because of the lateral connectivity in layer five of cortex across cortical areas is increased.
And what that does is that means that the space time relationship for vision, like moving my finger from here to here, very rigid space time relationship. Right. If I slow it down, it's slower, obviously, but there's a prediction that can be made based on the neurons in the retina, and the cortex. On psychedelics, this could be very strange experience, but the auditory system has one that's slightly different spacetime and they're matched to one another, deeper circuits in the brain. Your olefactory factory system has a different time relationship to it.
So. Under conditions of of these increased activation of the serotonin receptors, space and time across sensory area starts being fluid. So I'm no longer running the algorithm for moving my fingers from here to here and making a prediction based on vision alone. I'm now this is where people talk about hearing sites, right. Do you start linking the this might actually make a sound in a psychedelic state.
Now, I'm not suggesting people run out and do psychedelics because it's very disorganized, but essentially what you're doing is you're mixing the algorithms. And so when you talk about being able to access new solutions, you don't need to rely on psychedelics. If people choose to do that, that's their business. But in drowsy states, this lateral connectivity is increased as well. The shell of the thalamus shuts down. And once, these are through these so-called Ponto-geniculo-occipital waves.
And what's happening is you're getting whole brain activation at a level that you start mixing algorithms. And so sometimes I think solutions come not from being in that narrow tunnel of space time and strong activation of working memory and trying to iterate if this than this very strong deductive and inductive thinking and working from first principles, but also from states where something that was an algorithm that never you never had in existence before suddenly gets lumped with another algorithm and all of a sudden a new possibility comes to mind.
And so space and time need to be fluid and space and time need to be rigid in order to come up with something meaningful. And I realize I'm riffing long on this, but this is why I think, you know, there was so much interest a few years ago with Michael Pollan's book and and other things happening about psychedelics as a pathway to exploration and all this kind of thing. But the real question is what you export back from those experiences, because dreams are amazing. But if you can't bring anything back from them, they're just amazing.
I wonder how to experiment with the mind. Without without any medical assistance, first, you know, I pushed my mind all kinds of directions. I definitely want to I did 'shrooms a couple of times. I definitely want to figure out how I can experiment with psychedelics and talking to Rick domin I think,
Dublin soon. I went back and forth. So he does all these studies on psychedelics and he keeps ignoring the parts of my email that asks, like, how do I participate in these studies?
Well, there are some legality issues. I mean, conversation would be very clear. I'm not saying they want you go out and do psychedelics. I think that drowsy states and sleep states are super interesting for accessing some of these more creative states of mind. Hypnosis is something that my colleague David Spiegel, associate chair of psychiatry at Stanford, works on, where also, again, it's a unique state because you have narrow context. So this is very kind of tunnel vision and yet deep really relapse, excuse me, deeply relaxed, where new algorithms, if you will, can start to surface strong state for inducing neuroplasticity.
And I think, you know, so if I had a I'm part of a group that it's called the Liminal Collective as a group of people that get together and talk about just wild ideas, but they try and implement. And it's a it's a really interesting group. Some people from a military from Logitech and some other backgrounds, academic backgrounds.
And I was asked, you know, what would be if you could create a tool you just had a tool like your magic wand wish for the day. What would it be? I thought it'd be really interesting if someone could develop psychedelics that have On-Off switches so you could go into a psychedelic state very deeply for ten minutes, but you could launch yourself out of that state and place yourself into a linear, real world state very quickly so that you could extract whatever it was that that happened in that experience and then go back in if you wanted.
Because the problem with psychedelic states and dream states is that, first of all, a lot of the reason people do them is they're lying. They say they want plasticity and they want all the stuff. They want a peak experience inside of an amplified experience. So they're kind of seeking something unusual. I think we should just be honest about that, because a lot of times they're not trying to make their brain better. They're just trying to experience something really amazing.
But the problem is space and time are so unlocked in these states, just like they are in dreams, that you can really end up with a whole lot of nothing. You can have an amazing amplified experience housed in the amplified experience and come out of that thinking you had a meaningful experience, when you didn't bring anything back, you didn't bring anything back.
All you have is a fuzzy memory of having a transformational experience, but you don't actually have the tools to bring back. All right. To say actual actual concrete ideas to bring back. Yeah, it's interesting. Yeah. I wonder if it's possible to do that with them with a mind to to be able to hop back and forth. LIke
I think that's where the real power of, you know, adjusting states is going to be. It probably will be with devices. I mean, maybe it will be done through pharmacology. It's just that it's hard to do on off switches in in humans, pharmacology, that we have them for animals.
I mean, we we have cre flip recombinases and we have, you know, channel options and haloed options and all these kinds of things. But to do that work in humans is tricky. But I think you could do it with virtual reality, augmented reality and other devices that bring more of the somatic experience into it.
You're, of course, a scientist studying humans as a collective. I tend to be just one person scientist just looking at myself and, you know, I play when these deep thinking, deep work sessions. I'm very cognizant, like in the morning. That there's times when my mind is so. Like eloquent at being able to jump around from ideas and hold them all together, and I am almost like I step back from a third person perspective and enjoy that whatever that mind is doing, I do not waste those moments. I and I'm very conscious of this, like little creature that woke up. That's only awake for, if we're being honest, maybe a couple hours a day, early part of the day for the early part of the day. Not always early part of the day for me is a very fluid concept. So you're one of those?
Yeah, I'm one of those being single. One of the problems single and no meetings. I don't schedule any meetings. I will. I've been living like a twenty eight hour day, so I like I it drifts so it's all over the place. But after a traditionally defined full night sleep, whatever the heck that means, I find that like in those moments there's a clarity of mind that's just this. Everything is effortless and it's it's the deepest dives intellectually that I make.
And I, I'm cognizant of it and I try to bring that to the other parts of the day that don't have it and treasure them even more in those moments because they only last like five or ten minutes, because, of course, in those moments you want to do all kinds of stupid stuff that are completely is is worthless, like check social media or something like that. But those are the most precious things in and in intellectual life is those mental moments of clarity.
And I wonder, I'm learning how to control them. I think caffeine is somehow involved. I'm not sure. Sure.
Well, because if you learn how to titrate caffeine and everyone slightly different with this, what they need. But if you learn to titrate caffeine, what time of day and the kind of work that you're trying to do, you can bring that autonomic arousal state into a close to perfect place. And then you can tune it in with, you know, sometimes people want a little bit of background music, sometimes they want less. These kinds of things.
The early part of the day is interesting because the one thing that's not often discusses the transition out of sleep. So there's a book, I think it's called Winston Churchill's Nap, and it's about naps and the transition between wake and sleep as a valuable period. I've a long time ago, someone who I respect a lot was mentoring me, said be very careful about bringing in someone else's sensory experience early in the day.
So when I wake up, I'm very drowsy. I sleep well, but I don't emerge from that very quickly. I need a lot of caffeine to wake up and whatnot. But there's this concept of getting the download from sleep, which is, you know, in sleep, you're you were essentially expunging the things that you don't need, the stuff that is meaningless from the previous day.
But you were also running variations on these algorithms of whatever it is you're trying to work out in life on short time scales like the previous day and long time scales like your whole life.
And those lateral connections in layer five of the neocortex are very robustly active and across sensory areas. And you're running a an algorithm or a you know, it's a brain state will be useless in waking. You wouldn't get anything done. You'd be the person talking to yourself in the hallway or something about something that no one else can see.
But in those states, you do that that the theory is that you arrive at certain solutions and those solutions will reveal themselves in the early part of the day unless you interfere with them by bringing in, social media is a good example of, you immediately enter somebody else's space, time, sensory relationship. Someone is the conductor of your thoughts in that case. And so many people have written about this. What I'm saying isn't entirely new, but but allowing the download to occur in the early part of the day and and asking the question, am I more in my head, or am I in more of an interoceptive or exteroeceptive mode and depending on the kind of work you need to do, if it's it sounds like, for you, it's very interoceptive, in the end, very, you got a lot of thinking going on and a lot of computing going on, allowing yourself to transition out of that sleep state and arrive with those solutions from sleep and plug into the work really deeply.
And then and only then allowing things like music, news, social media doesn't mean you shouldn't talk to loved ones and see faces and things like that. But some people have taken this to the extreme. When I was a graduate student at Berkeley, there was a guy there, Professor is brilliant. Odd but brilliant. Who was so fixated on this concept that he wouldn't look at faces in the early part of the day because he just didn't want to do anything else to impact him.
Now, he didn't have the most rounded life, I suppose. But if you're talking about cognitive performance, this could actually be very beneficial.
You said so many brilliant things, so, one, if you read books that describe the habits of brilliant people like writers, they do control that sensory experience in the world in the hours after wake. Like many writers, you know, they have a particular habit of several hours early in the morning of actual writing. They do , not doing anything else for the rest of the day. But they control. They're very sensitive to noises and so on. I think they make it very difficult to live with them. I try to. I'm definitely like that. Like I. I I love to control the sensory information is coming in. There's something about the peaceful, just everything being peaceful.
At the same time. And we're talking to a mutual friend of Whitney Cummings who has has has a mansion, a castle on top of a cliff in the middle of nowhere. She actually purchased her own island, which. She wants silence. She wants to control how much a sound is coming in.
And she's very sensitive to sound and environment. Yeah. Yeah, beautiful home and environment. But, like, clearly puts a lot of attention into just into details.
And and very creative.
Yeah. And yeah, that allows for creativity to flourish.
I'm also I don't like the feels like a slippery slope. So I enjoy introducing noises and signals and train my mind to be able to tune them out. Because I feel like you can't always control the environment so perfectly because because your mind gets comfortable with that. I think it's a skill that you want to learn to be able to shut it off. Like I often go to, like, back before covid to a coffee shop. It really annoys me when there's sounds and voices and so on.
But I feel like I can train my mind to to block them out. So it's a balance, I think.
Yeah. And I think, you know, two things come to mind as you're saying this, first of all. Yeah. I mean, we're talking about what's best for work is not always what's best for, you know, completeness of life.
I mean, you know, autism is probably many things like autism, just like there are 50 ways to get a fever, probably 50 ways to that the brain can create what looks like autism or what people call autism.
There's an interesting set of studies that have come out of David Ginty's lab at Harvard Med. Looking at these are mouse mutants where these are models for autism, where nothing is disrupted in the brain proper and in the central nervous system. But the sensory up, the sensory neurons, the ones that generate the skin and the ears and everything are are hypersensitive. And this maps to a mutation in certain forms of human autism.
So this means that the deep overload of sensory information and sensory experience that a lot of autistics feel they like that they can't tolerate things and then they get the stereotyped behaviors, the rocking and the kind of the shouting. It, you know, we always thought of that as a brain problem. In some cases it might be. But in many cases it's because they just can't tol.., They they seem to have a it's like turning the volume up on every sense. And so they're overwhelmed and none of us want to become like that.
I think it's very hard for them and it's hard for their parents and so forth. So I like the coffee shop example because, um, the way I think about trying to build up resilience, you know, physically or mentally or otherwise is one, of I guess, we could call it I like to call it limbic friction. That's not a real scientific term. And I acknowledge that I'm making it up now because I think it captures the concept, which is that, you know, we always hear about resilience.
It makes it sound like, oh, you know, under stress where everything's coming at you, you're going to stay calm. But there's another, you know, so limbic the limbic system wants to pull you in some direction, typically in the direction of reflexive behavior. And the prefrontal cortex through top down mechanisms has to suppress that and say, no, we're not going to respond to the banging of the coffee cups behind me or I'm going to keep focusing.
That's pure top down control. So limbic friction is high in that environment. You've put yourself into a high limbic friction environment, meaning that the prefrontal cortex has to work really hard. But there's another side to limbic friction, too, which is when you're very sleepy, there's nothing incoming. It can be completely silent and it's hard to engage in focus because you're drifting off, you're getting sleepy. So their limbic friction is high, but for the opposite reason, autonomic arousal is too low.
So they're turning on Netflix in the background or looping a song might boost your level of alertness that will allow top-down control to be in in the exactly the sweet spot you want it. So that this is why earlier I was saying it's all about how we feel inside relative to what's going on on the outside. We're constantly in this. I guess one way you could envision it spatially, especially if people are listening to this, just an audio is I like to think about it kind of like a glass barbell where one sphere of perception and attention can be on what's going on with me and one sphere of attention can be given what's going on with you or something else in the room or in my environment.
But those this barbell isn't rigid.
It's not really glass. Would plasma work here. I don't know anything about plasma.
Sorry, I don't know.
OK, but so imagine that this thing can contort the size of the the the Globes at the end of this barbell can get bigger or smaller. So let's say I close my eyes and I bring all my experience into what's going on in terror through interception internally. Now it's as if I've got two orbs of perception just on my internal state, but I can also do the opposite and bring both orbs of perception outside me. I'm not thinking about my heart rate or my breathing.
I'm just thinking about something I see. And what you start to realize as you kind of use this spatial model is that two things. One is that it's very dynamic and that the more relaxed we are, the more these two orbs of attention, the two ends of the barbell can move around freely.
The more alert we are, the more rigid they're going to be tethered in place. And that was designed so that if I have a threat in my environment, it's tethered to that threat. I'm not going to if something's coming to attack me, I'm not going to be like, oh, my breathing cadence is a little bit quick. That's not how it works. Why? Because both orbs are linked to that, to that threat. And so my behavior is now actually being driven by something external..
Even though I think it's internal and so I don't want to get too abstract here because I'm a neuroscientist, I'm not a theorist, but when you start thinking about models of how the brain work, I mean, brain works.
Excuse me, there are only really three things that neurons do. They're either sensory neurons, their motor neurons, or they're modulating things. And the models of attention and perception that we have now 2020, tell us that we've got interception and extra perception. They're strongly modulated by levels of autonomic arousal, and that if we want to form the optimal relationship to some task or some pressure or something, whether or not it's sleep, an impending threat or coding, we need to adjust our internal space-time relationship with the external space-time relationship.
And I realize I'm repeating what I said earlier, but we can actually assign circuitry to this stuff. It mostly has to do with how much limbic friction there is, how much you're being pulled to some source. That source could be internal. If I have if I have pain, physical pain in my body, I'm going to be much more interoceptive than I am exteroceptive.
You could be talking to me and I'm just going to be thinking about the pain. It's very hard. And the other thing that we can link it to is Top-Down control, meaning anything in our environment that has a lot of salience will tend to bring us into more exteroception than interception. And again, I don't want to litter the conversation with just a bunch of terms. But what I think it can be useful for people is to do what essentially you've done is to start developing an awareness.
When I wake up, am I mostly in a mode of interoception or exteroception when I work? Well, is that what is working well, look like from the perspective of autonomic arousal?
How alert or calm I am I what kind of balance between internal focus and external focus is there?
And to sort of watch this process throughout the day
Can you linger just briefly on, because you use this term a lot and be nice to try to get a little more color to it, which is interoception and exteroception. Oh, what what are we exactly talking about?
Like what's included in each category and how much overlap is there?
Interception would be an awareness of anything that's within the confines or on the surface of my skin, that I'm sensing.
So literally physiological.
Physiological like within the boundaries of my skin and probably touch to the skin as well.
Exteroception would be perception of anything that's beyond the reach of my skin. So that bottle of water, a scent, a sound, although and this can change dramatically actually if you have headphones in, you tend to hear things in your head as opposed to a speaker in the room. This is actually the basis of ventriloquism. So there are beautiful experiments done by Gregg Recanzone at UC Davis, looking at how auditory and visual cues are matched. And we have an array of speakers.
And you can this will become obvious, as I say it, but obviously the ventriloquist doesn't throw their voice. What they do is they direct your vision to a particular location and you think the sound is coming from that location. And there are beautiful experiments that Greg and his colleagues have done where they suddenly introduce the auditory visual mismatch. And it freaks people out because you can actually make it seem from a perception standpoint, as if the sound arrived from the corner of the room and hit you like physically and people will recoil.
And so sounds aren't getting thrown across the room. They're still coming from this defined location on an array of speakers. But this is the way the brain creates these internal representations. And again, not, I don't want to go down a rabbit hole, but I think as much as, you know, I'm sure the listeners appreciate this, but everything in the brain is an abstraction, right? I mean, there there the sensory apparati, either the eyes and ears and nose and skin and taste and all that are taking information and with interception, taking information from sensors inside the body, the enteric nervous system for the gut.
I've got sensory neurons that generate my liver, et cetera, taking all that. And the brain is abstracting that in the same way that if I took a picture of your face and I hand it to you and I'd say, that's you, you'd say, Yeah, that's me. But if I were an abstract artist, I'd be doing a little bit more of what the brain does where if I took a pen and pad and paper, maybe I could do this because I'm a terrible artist and I could just mix it up.
And let's say I would make your eyes like water bottles, but I'd flip them upside down and I'd start assigning fruits and objects to the different features of your face. And I showed youLex that's you say, well, that's not mean. I say no, but that's my abstraction of you. But that's what the brain does. The space time relationship of the neurons that fire that encode your face has have no resemblance to your face. Right.
And I think people don't really I don't know if people have fully internalized that, but the day that I and I'm not sure I fully internalized that because it's weird to think about, but. All neurons can do is fire in space and in time, different neuorns, in different sequences, perhaps with different intensities. It's not clear the action potential is all or none, although neuroscientists don't like to talk about that, even though it's been published in Nature a couple of times, the action potential for a given neuron doesn't always have the exact same waveform people.
It's in all the textbooks, but you can modify that waveform.
I mean, there's a lot of fascinating stuff with with neuroscience about the fuzziness of all the of the transfer of information from neuron to neuron.
I mean, we certainly touch upon it every time we at all try to think about the difference between artificial neural networks and biological neural networks. But can we maybe linger a little bit on this on the circuitry that you're getting at? So the brain is just a bunch of stuff firing, and it forms abstractions that are fascinating and beautiful, like layers upon layers upon layers of abstraction. And I think it just like when you're programming, you know, programming in Python. It's it's all inspiring to think that underneath it all ends up being zeros and ones and the computer doesn't know about no stupid Python or Windows or Linux, that it only knows about the zeros and ones.
In the same way with a brain, is there something? Interesting to you are fundamental to you about the circuitry of the brain that allows for the magic that's in our mind to emerge.
How much do we understand? I mean, maybe even focusing on the vision system, is there something specific about the structure of the vision system, the circuitry of it that allows for the complexity of the visual system to emerge? Or is it all just a complete chaotic mess that we don't understand?
It's definitely not all a chaotic mess that we don't understand. If we're talking about vision and not just because I'm a vision scientist. Let's stick to vision. Well, because the beauty of the visual system, the reason David Hubel and Wiesel won the Nobel Prize was because they were brilliant and forward thinking and adventurous and all that good stuff.
But the reason that the visual system is such a great model for addressing these kinds of questions and other systems are hard is we can control the stimuli. We can adjust spatial frequency, how finer the gradings are, thick gradings, thin gradings. We can adjust temporal frequency, how fast things are moving. We can use Cone isolating stimuli. We can there's so many things that you can do in a controlled way. Whereas if were talking about cognitive encoding, like, you know, encoding the space of concepts or something, you know, I, I, I, you know, I like you, if I may, are drawn to the big questions in neuroscience, but I confess.
In part because of some good advice I got early in my career, and in part because I'm not perhaps smart enough to go after the really high level stuff.
I also like to address things that are tractable. And I want. You know, we need to we need to address what we can stand to make some ground on at a given time.
There you can construct brilliant, controlled experiments, to study, to really literally answer questions about. Yeah.
Yeah. I mean, I'm happy to have a talk about consciousness, but it's a scary talk. And I think most people don't want to hear what I have to say, which, you know, which is we can save that for later, perhaps.
I mean, it's an interesting question of how we talk about psychedelics. We can talk about consciousness, we can talk about cognition. Can experiments in neuroscience be constructed to shed any kind of light on these questions? So, I mean, it's cool, that vision.
I mean, to me, vision is probably one of the most beautiful things about human beings. Also from the A.I. side, computer vision, as is some of the most exciting applications of neural networks, is in computer vision, but it feels like that's a that's a neighbor of cognition and consciousness.
It's just that we maybe haven't come up with experiments to study those yet.
Yes the visual system is amazing. We're mostly visual animals to navigate survive. Humans mainly rely on vision, not smell or something else. But, it's a filter for cognition and it's a it's a strong driver of cognition. Maybe just because it came up and then we're moving to higher level concepts, just the way the visual system works can be summarized in a in a few relatively succinct statements, unlike most of what I've said, which has not been succinct at all.
Let's go there. What's involved?
The retina is involved. Yeah. So the retina is this three layers of neuron structure at the back of your eyes. It's about as thick as the credit card. It is a piece of your brain. And sometimes people think I'm kind of wriggling but out of reality by saying that it is it's absolutely a piece of the brain. It's it's a forebrain structure that in the first trimester there's a genetic program that made sure that that neural retina, which is part of your central nervous system, was squeezed out into what's called the embryonic eye-cups, and that the bone formed with a little hole where the optic nerve is going to connect it to the rest of the brain.
And those, that window into the world is the only window into the world for for a mammal which has a thick skull. Birds have a thin skull, so their pineal gland sits and lizards, too. And snakes actually have a hole so that light can make it down into the pineal directly and entrained melatonin rhythms for the time of day in time of year. Humans have to do all that through the eyes. So three layers of neurons that are a piece of your brain, their central nervous system, and the optic nerve connects to the rest of the brain.
The neurons in the eye.Some just care about luminance, just how bright or dim it is. And they inform the brain about time of day. And then the central circadian clock informs every cell in your body about time of day and make sure that all sorts of good stuff happens if you're getting light in your eyes at the right times and all sorts of bad things happen if you are getting light randomly throughout the 24 hour cycle, we could talk about all that. But this is a good incentive for keeping a relatively normal schedule, consistent schedule. Light exposure..
You lost me.
Consistent schedule and try and keep it consistent. When you're young, it's easy to go off schedule and recover.
As you get older, it gets harder. But you see everything from outcomes in cancer patients to diabetes, you know, improves when people are getting light at a particular time of day and getting darkness at a particular phase of the 24 hour cycle, we were designed to get light and dark at different times of the circadian cycle. That's all being all that information is coming in through specialized type of neuron in the retina called the Melanopsin and Intrinsically Photosensitive Ganglion Cell discovered by David Berson at Brown University.
That's not spatial information. It's subconscious. You don't think, oh, it's daytime. Even if you're looking at the sun, it doesn't matter. It's a photon counter. It's literally counting photons. And it's saying, oh, even though it's a cloudy day, lots of photons coming in at winter in Boston. It must be winter. And your system is a little depressed. It's spring. You feel alert. That's not a coincidence that these melanopsin cell signaling the circadian clock.
There are bunch of other neurons in the eye that signal to the brain, and they mainly signal the presence of things that are lighter than background or darker than background, so black objects will darken the background, a light object lighter in the background, and that all it's mainly a it's looking at pixels. Mainly it's they look at circles and those neurons have receptive fields, which not everyone will understand. But those neurons respond best to little circles of dark light or little circles of bright light, little circles of red light versus little circles of green light or blue light.
And so it sounds very basic. It's like red, green, blue and circles brighter or dimmer than what's next to it. But that's basically the only information that's sent down the optic nerve. And when we say information, we can be very precise. I don't mean little bits of red traveling down the optic nerve. I mean Spike's neural action potentials in space and time, which for you is like makes total sense. But I think for a lot of people, it's it's actually beautiful to think about.
All that information in the outside world is converted into a language that's very simple. It's just like a few syllables, if you will. And those syllables are being shouted down the optic nerve converted into a totally different language like Morse code beep, beep, beep, beep, goes into the brain.
And then the thalamus essentially responds in the same way that the retina does, except the thalamus is also waiting things. It's saying, you know what, that thing was moving faster than everything else or it's brighter than everything else. So that signal I'm going to get up and allow up to Cortex. Or that signal is much better than it is green. So I'm going to let that signal go through that signal as much. It's kind of more like the red next to it.
Throw that out. The information just doesn't get up into your cortex. And then in cortex, of course, is where perceptions happen.
And in V1, if you will, visual area one, but also some neighboring areas, you start getting representations of things like oriented lines. So there is a neuron that responds to this angle of my hand versus vertical. But this is the defining work of Hubel and Wiesel's Nobel. And it's a very systematic map of orientation, line orientation, direction of movement and so forth. And that's pretty much in color. And that's how the visual system is organized all the way up to the cortex.
So it's hierarchical. You don't build. I want to be clear, it's hierarchical because you don't build up that line by suddenly having a neuron that responds to lines in a some random way. It responds to lines by taking all the dots that are aligned in a vertical stack and they all converge on one neuron and then that neuron responds to vertical lines. So it's not random. There's no abstraction at that point. In fact, in fact, if I showed you a black line, I could be sure that if I were imaging V1, that I would see a representation of that black line as a vertical line somewhere in your cortex.
So at that point, it's absolutely concrete. It's not abstract. But, then things get really mysterious. Some of that information travels further up into the cortex. So that and goes from one visual area to the next to the next to the next.
So that by the time you get into an area that Nancy Kanwisher at MIT has studied her much of her career, the fusiform face area, you start finding single neurons that respond only to your father's face or to Joe Rogan's face, regardless of the orientation of his face.
I'm sure if you saw Joe, because you know him well from across the room and you just saw his profile. Oh, that's Joe. Walk over and say hello. The orientation of his face isn't there, you won't even see his eyes necessarily, but he's represented in some abstract way by a neuron that actually would be called the Joe Rogan neuron of neurons.
It might have limits, like I might not recognize him if he was upside down or something like that and be fascinated to see what the limits of the Joe Rogan concept is. So Nancy's lab has done that because early on she was challenged by people that said there aren't face neurons, there are neurons that they only respond to space and time shapes and things like that, moving in particular directions and orientations. And turns out Nancy was right. They use these stimuli called griebel stimuli, which any computer programmer would appreciate, which kind of morphs a face into something gradually that eventually just looks like this like alien thing they call the Griebel.
And the neurons don't respond to Griebles.
In most cases, they only respond to faces and familiar faces. Anyway, I'm summarizing a lot of literature. And forgive me, Nancy, and for those of the Griebel people, if there are they like you don't come after me with pitchforks.
Actually, you know what that's worth. I think I know what I'm trying to do here. Yeah. So the point is that in the visual system, it's very concrete. Up until about visual area four, which has color pinwheels and seems to respond to pinwheels of colors and um. And so the stimuli become more and more elaborate. But at some point you depart that concrete representation and you start getting abstract representations that can't be explained by simple point to point wiring and to take a leap out of the visual system to the higher level concepts.
Well, we talked about in the visual system maps to the auditory system where you're encoding what frequency of tone, sweeps.
So is gonna sound weird to do, but, you know, like a Doppler, like hearing something, a car passing by, for instance. But at some point you get into motifs of music that can't be mapped to just a what they call a tone topic map, a frequency you start abstracting.
And if you start thinking about concepts of creativity and love and memory, like what is the map of memory space?
Well, your memories are very different than mine. But presumably there's enough structure at the early stages of memory processing or at the early stages of emotional processing or at the earlier stages of creative processing that you have the building blocks, your zeros and ones, if you will, but you depart from that eventually.
Now, the exception to this and I want to be really clear, because I was just mainly talking about neocortex, the six layered structure on the outside of the brain. That explains a lot of human abilities.
Other animals have them, too, is that subcortical structures are a lot more like machines.
It's more plung and chug. And what I'm talking about is the machinery that controls heart rate and breathing and receptive fields, you know, neurons that respond to things like temperature on the top of my left hand.
And one of the you know, I came into the neuroscience from a more of a perspective, initially of psychology.
But one of the reasons I forced upon myself to learn some electrophysiology, not a ton, but enough and some molecular biology and about circuitry, is that one of the most beautiful experiences you can have in life, I'm convinced, is to lower an electrode into the cortex and to show a person or an animal, you do this ethically of course, stimulus is like an oriented line or a face, and you can convert the recordings coming off of that electrode into an audio signal, an audio monitor, and you can hear what they call hash. It's not the hasheesh smoke. It's the hash you hear. And it's it sounds like it's just sounds like noise.
And in the cortex, eventually you find a stimulus that gets the neuron to spike in fire action, potentials that are converted into an auditory stimulus that are very concrete, crack, crack, crack, sounds like a bat cracking like home runs or outfield balls.
When you drop electrodes deeper into the thalamus or into the hypothalamus or into the brain stem areas that control breathing, it's like a machine. You never hear hash. You drop the electrode down.
This could be like a like a grungy old tungtsen electrode, not high fidelity electrode. As long as it got a little bit of insulation on it, you plug it into an audio monitor picking up electricity. And if it's a visual neuron and it's in the thalamus or the retina and you walk in front of that animal or person that that neuron goes kaaa...h
And then you walk away and it stops. And you put your hand in front of the eye again and it goes, kaaa...Hh.And you could do that for two days, and that neuron will just every time there's a stimulus, it fires. So whereas before it's a question of how much information is getting up to cortex and then these abstractions happening where you're creating these ideas when you go subcortical, everything is.
There's no abstraction.
It's two plus two equals four, there's no abstractions. And this is why I you know, I know we have some common friends at Neural Link and I love the demonstration that had recently. I'm a huge fan of what they're doing and where they're headed.
And no, I don't get paid to say that. And I have no, you know, business relationship to them. I just a huge fan of the people in the mission.
But my question was to some of them, you know, when are you going to go subcortical? Because if you want to control an animal, you don't do it in the cortex. The cortex is like the abstract painting I made of your face.
Moving, removing one piece or changing something may or may not matter for the abstraction, but when you are in the subcortical areas of the brain, a stimulating electrode can evoke an entire behavior or an entire state. And so the brain, if we are going to have a discussion about the brain and how the brain works, we need to really be clear which brain. Because everyone loves the neocortex. It's like, oh, canonical circuits and cortex. We can get the cortical connectome. And sure, necessary, but not sufficient. Not to be able to plug in patterns of electrical stimulation and get behavior eventually will get there.
But if you're talking subcortical circuits that that's where the action is. That's where you could potentially cure Parkinson's by stimulating the sub-thalamic nucleus, because we know that it gates motor activation patterns in very predictable ways. So, I think for those that are interested in neuroscience, it pays to pay attention to, like, is this a circuit that abstracts the sensory information or is it just one that builds up hierarchical models in a very predictable way? And there's a huge chasm in neuroscience right now because there's no conceptual leadership.
No one knows which way to go. And this is why I think Neural Link has captured an amazing opportunity, which was OK, well, while all you academic research labs are figuring all this stuff out, we're going to pick a very specific goal and make the goal the endpoint.
And some academic laboratories do that. But I think that's a beautiful way to attack this whole thing about the brain because it's very concrete. Let's restore motion to the Parkinsonian patient. Academic labs do that. Want to do that, too of course. Let's restore speech to the stroke patient. But there's nothing abstract about that. That's about figuring out the solution to a particular problem. So, anyway, those are my and and I admit I've mixed in a lot of opinion there.
But having spent some time, like twenty five years digging around in the brain and listening to neurons firing and looking at them anatomically, I think given it's 2020, we need to ask the right, you know, the way to get better answers, ask better questions. And the really high level stuff is fun, it makes for good conversation and it has brought enormous interest. But I think the questions about consciousness and dreaming and stuff, they're fascinating, but I don't know that we're there yet.
So you're saying there might be a chasm in the two views of the power of the brain arising from the from the circuitry that forms abstractions or the power of the brain arising from the majority of the circuitry that's just doing very brute force, dumb things that are like that, don't have any fancy kind of stuff going on. That's really interesting to think about.
and which one to go after first? And and here I'mpoaching badly from someone I've never met but whose work I follow, which is and it was actually on your podcast, I think Elon Musk said, you know, basically the brain, what did he say, the brain is a monkey brain with a supercomputer on top. And I thought that's actually probably the best description of the brain I've ever heard because it captures a lot of important features like limbic friction.
Right. We think of like, oh, you know, when we're making plans, we're using the prefrontal cortex and we're executive function and all this kind of stuff. But think about the drug addict who's driven to go pursue heroin or cocaine. They make plans. So clearly they use their frontal cortex. It's just that it's been hijacked by the limbic system and all the monkey, the monkey brain, as you refer to. It's really not fair to monkeys, though, Elon, because actually monkeys can make plans.
They just don't make plans as sophisticated as us.
I've spent a lot of time with monkeys, but I've also been long time with humans.
You're putting you're saying that there's a lot of value to focusing on the monkey brain or whatever the heck you call it?
I do, because let's say I had an ability to place a chip anywhere I wanted in the brain today and activate it or inhibit that area. I'm not sure I would put that chip in neocortex, except maybe to just kind of have some fun and see what happens. The reason is it's an abstraction machine, and especially if I wanted to make a mass production tool, but a tool in mass production that I could give to a lot of people because it's quite possible that your abstractions are different enough than mine that I wouldn't know what patterns of firing to induce.
But if I want let's say I want to increase my level of focus and creativity, well, then I would love to be able to, for instance, control my level of limbic friction.
I would love to be able to wake up and go, oh, you know, I have an eight o'clock appointment.
I wake up slowly so between seven, eight. But I want to do a lot of linear thinking. So you know what? I'm going to just I'm going to turn down the limbic friction and or ramp up prefrontal cortex's activation.
So, there's a lot of stuff that can happen in the thalamus with sensory gating. For instance, you could shut down that shell around the thalamus and allow more creative thinking by allowing more lateral connections.
These would be some of the those would be the experiments I'd want to do. So they're in the subcortical, quote unquote, monkey brain.
But you could then look at what sorts of abstract thoughts and behaviors would arise from that. Rather than, and here I'm not pointing the finger at neural link at all, but there's this obsession with neocortex. But I am going to where I might lose a few friends, but hopefully gain a few.
And also one of the reasons people spend so much time in neocortex. Yes, I have a fact and an opinion.
One fact is that you can image there and you can record there. Right now, the two photon and one photon microscopy methods that allow you to image deep into the brain still don't allow you to image down really deep unless you're jamming prisms in there and endoscopes. And then in the end, the scopes are very narrow. So you're getting very you know, it's like looking at the bottom of the ocean through it, through a spotlight and so much easier.
Look at the waves up on top. Right. So let's face it, folks, a lot of the reasons why there's so many recordings in layer two, three of cortex with all this advanced microscopy is because it's very hard to image deeper. Now, the microscopes are getting better. And thanks to amazing work, mainly of engineers and chemists and physicists, let's face it, they're the ones who brought this revolution to neuroscience in the last 10 years or so.
You can image deeper, but we don't really. That's why you see so many reports on layer two or three. The other thing, which is purely opinion and I'm not going after anybody here, but is that as long as there's no clear right answer, it becomes a little easier to do creative work and a structure where no one really knows how it works. So it's fun to probe around because anything you see is novel.
If you're going to work in the thalamus or the pulvinar or the hypothalamus or these structures have been known about since the 60s and 70s and really since the, you know, centuries ago, you are dealing with exist.
You have to combat existing models whereas in cortex, no one knows how the thing works. The neocortex, six layer cortex. And so so everything is a room for discovery. There's a lot more room for discovery. And I'm not calling anyone out. I love Cortex. We've published some papers on Cortex.
It's super interesting, but I think with the tools that are available nowadays and where people are trying to head off of not just reading from the brain monitoring activity, but writing to the brain, I think we really have to be careful and we need to be thoughtful about what are we trying to write, what script are we trying to write.
Because there are many brain structures for which we already know what scripts they write. And I think there's tremendous value there. I don't think it's boring, the fact that they act like machines makes them predictable. Those are your zeros and ones. Let's start there. What they're what's sort of happening in this field of writing to the brain is there's this idea. And again, I want to be clear. I'm not pointing out neura link. Mainly pointing at the the neocortical jockeys out there that you go in, you observe patterns, and then you think replaying those patterns is going to give rise to something interesting.
Yeah, I should call out one experiment or two experiments which were done by Susumu Tonegawa, Nobel Prize winner from MIT, has done important work in memory and immunology, of course, is where he got his Nobel, as well as Mark Mayford's lab at UC San Diego. They did an experiment where they monitored a bunch of neurons while an animal learns something.
Then they captured those neurons through some molecular tricks so they could replay the neurons. Mm hmm. So now there's like perfect case scenario. It's like, OK, you monitor the neurons in your brain. Then I say, OK, neurons one through 100 were played in the particular sequence. So, you know, the space time, you know, the keys on the piano that were played that gave rise to the song, which was the behavior.
And then you go back and you reactivate those neurons, except you reactivate them all at once, like slamming on all the keys once on the piano and you get the exact same behavior. So the space time code. May be meaningless for some structures. Now, that's freaky, that's a scary thing because what that means is that all the space time firing in cortex. The space part may matter more than the time part, so, you know, rate codes in space, time codes, we don't know.
And, you know, I'd rather have I'd rather deliver more answers in this discussion than questions.
But I think it's an important consideration.
You're saying some of the magic is in the early stages of what the closer to the raw information that the brain is receiving.
I believe so. You know, the stimulus. You know, the neuron then codes that stimulus. So, you know, the transformation when I say this, for those who don't think about sensory transformations, it's like I can show you a red circle. And then I look at how many times the neuron fires in response to that red circle. And then I show the red circle a bunch of times green circles, see if it changes. And then essentially the number of that is the transformation.
You've converted Red Circle into like three action potentials, you know, BP or whatever you want to call it, you know, for those that think in sound space.
So that's what you've created, you know, the transformation. And you march up the it's called the neural axis as you go from the periphery up into the cortex. And we know that. And I know Lisa Feldman Barrett or is it Barrett Feldman, Barrett Bertelmann, excuse me, so that talked a lot about this, that, you know, birds can do sophisticated things and whatnot as well. But humans, there's a strong what we call cephalization. A lot of the processing is moved up into the cortex and out of the subcortical areas, but it happens nonetheless.
And so as long as you know the transformations, you are in a perfect place to build machines or add machines to the brain that exactly mimic what the brain wants to do, which is take events in the environment and turn them into internal firing of neurons.
So the mastery of the brain can happen. (inaduible). You know, another perspective of it is you saying this means that humans aren't that special. If we look at the evolutionary time scale, the leap to intelligence is not that special. So like the extra layers of abstraction isn't where most of the magic happens of intelligence, which gives me hope that maybe if that's true, that means the evolution of intelligence is not that rare of an event.
I certainly hope not. So you hope there's I hope there are other forms of intelligence. I mean, I think what humans are really good at and here I want to be clear that this is not a formal model, but what humans are really good at is taking that plasma barbell that we were talking about earlier and not just using it for analysis of space like the immediate environment, but also using historical information, like I can read a book today about the history of medicine.
I happen to be doing that lately for some stuff I'm researching. And I can take that information. And if I want, I can inject it into my plans for the future.
Other animals don't seem to do that over the same time scales that we do now. It may be that the Chipmunks are all hiding little like notebooks everywhere in the form of like little dirt castles or something that we don't understand. I mean, the waggle dance of the bee is in the most famous example. Bees come back to the hive, they orient relative to the honeycomb and they waggle. There's a guy down in Australia named Srinivasan, who study this. And it's really interesting.
No one really understands it except he understands it best. The bee waggles at a in a couple of ways relative to the orientation of the honeycomb and then all the other bees see that it's visual and they go out and they know the exact coordinate system to get to the to that source of whatever it was, the food and bring it back. And he's done it where they isolate the bees. He's changed the visual flight environment, all this stuff, they are communicating and they're communicating something about something they saw recently.
But it doesn't extend over very long periods of time, the same way that you and I can both read a book or you can recommend something to me. And then we could converge on a set of ideas later. And in fairness, because she was the one that said it and I didn't and I hadn't even thought of it. When you talked to Lisa on your podcast, she brought up something beautiful, which is that I had never really occurred to me.
And I was sort of embarrassed that it hadn't.
But it's really beautiful and brilliant, which is that, you know, we don't just encode senses in the form of light, color and light and sound waves and taste, but ideas become a form of sensory mapping. And that's where the you know, the really, really cool and exciting stuff is. But we just don't understand what the receptive fields are for ideas.
What's an idea, receptive field
and how they're communicated for between humans, because we seem to be able to encode those ideas in some kind of way. Yes, it's taking all the raw information and the internal physical states that sensory information put into this concept blob that we can store and then we're able to communicate that
Hey you're abstractions are different than mine.
Yeah, I actually think the comment section on on social media is a beautiful example of where the abstractions are different for different people.
So much of the misunderstanding of the world is because of these abstract these idea receptive fields.
They're not the same, whereas I can look at a photoreceptor neuron or olfactory neuron or of one neuron, and I am certain I would bet my life that yours look and respond exactly the same way that Lisas do and mine do. But once you get beyond there, it gets tricky. And so when you say something or I say something and somebody gets upset about it or even happy about it, their concept of that might be quite a bit different. They don't really know what you mean.
They only know what it means to them.
Yes, so from a neural link perspective, it makes sense to optimize the control and the augmentation of the of the more primitive circuitry. So like the stuff that is closer to the raw sensory information,
go deeper if they I think,
by the way,sort of
deeper into the brain. And I to and to be fair, Matt McDougall, who is the neurosurgeon, Lincoln clinical nurse, a great guy, brilliant.
They have amazing people. I have to give it to them. They have been very cryptic in recent years. Their website was just like a like neuro like nothing there that, you know, they know they really know how to do things with style and and they've upset a lot of people.
But that's good too. Matt is there. I know, Matt, he actually came up through my lab at Stanford, although, you know, he was a neurosurgery resume. He spent time in our lab. He actually came out on the shark dive and did great white shark diving with my lab to collect the VR that we use in our fear stuff.
I've talked to Matt and I think, you know, he and other folks there are hungry for the deeper brain structures. The problem is that damn vasculature, all that blood supply, it's it's not trivial to get through and down into the brain without damaging the vasculature in the neocortex, which is on the outer crust.
But once you start getting into the thalamus and closer to some of the main arterial sources, you really risk getting massive bleeds. And so it's it's a it's an issue that can be worked out. It just is hard.
Maybe be nice to educate. I'm sure my ignorance. So the the smart stuff is on the surface. So I didn't realize, I didn't quite realize because you keep saying deep.
so like the the early stages are deep.
in actual physically in the brain.
Yeah. So the way that you know of course you got your, your deep brain structures, they're involved in breathing and heart rate and kind of lizard brain stuff. And then on top of that this is the, the, the, the model of the brain that no one really subscribes to anymore. But anatomically it works. And then on top in mammals and then on top of that, you have the limbic structures which gate sensory information and decide whether or not you're going to listen to something more.
They are going to look at it or you're going to split your attention to both kind of sensory allocation stuff. And then the neocortex is on the outside and that is where you get a lot of this abstraction stuff. And now not all cortical areas are doing abstraction. Some like visual area one, auditory area one. They're just doing concrete representations. But as you get into the higher order stuff that when you start hearing names like infra parietal cortex and, you know, when you start hearing multiple names in the same, then you're talking about higher order areas.
But actually, there's an important experiment that that drives a lot of what people want to do with brain machine interface. And that's the work of Bill Newsome, who is at Stanford, and Tony Moshen, who runs the Center for Neuroscience at NYU. This is a wild experiment and I think it might freak a few people out if they really think about it too deeply. But anyway, here he goes. There's an area called MT in the cortex. And if I showed you a bunch of dots all moving up and this is what they this is what Tony and Bill and some of the other people in that lab did way back when is they show a bunch of dots moving up somewhere in MT.
There are some neurons that respond. They fire when the neurons move up. And then what they do is they start varying the coherence of that motion. So they made it so only 50 percent of the dots moved up and the rest moved randomly. And that neuron fires a little less. And eventually it's random in that neuron stops firing because it's just kind of dots moving everywhere. It's awesome. And there's a systematic map so that other neurons are responding to things moving down and other things are responding left and other things right.
OK, so there's a map of direction. Space. OK, well, that's great. You could Lesion empty animals lose the ability to do these kind of coherence, discrimination or direction discrimination. But the amazing experiment, the one that just. It's kind of eerie is that they lowered a stimulating electrode into MT, found a neuron that responds to one, dots go up, but then they silence that neuron. And sure enough, the animal doesn't recognize the neurons are going up and then they move the dots down.
They stimulate the neuron that responds to things moving up and the animal responds because it can't speak, it responds by doing a lever press, which says the dots are moving up. So in other words, the sensory the dots are moving down in reality on the computer screen. They're stimulating the neuron that responds to dots moving up and the perception of the animal is that dots are moving up, which tells you that your perception of external reality absolutely has to be a neuronal abstraction.
It is not tacked to the movement of the dots in any absolute way, your perception of the outside world depends entirely on the activation patterns of neurons in the brain.
And you can hear that and say, well, because if I stimulate the stretch reflex and you kick or something or whatever, you know, the knee reflex and you kick, of course there's a neuron that triggers that. But it didn't have to be that way because a) the animal had prior experience b) your way up in the, you know, higher order cortical areas.
What this means is that and I generally try and avoid conversations about this kind of thing. But what this means is that we are constructing our reality with the space time, firing the zeros and ones, and it doesn't have to have anything to do with the actual reality. And the animal or person can be absolutely convinced that that's what's happening.
Are you familiar with the work of Donald Hoffman, so he's so he makes an evolution argument that's not important of, that, we are our brains are completely detached from reality in the sense that he makes a radical case, that we have no idea what physical reality is and in fact, is drastically different than what we think it is.
So he goes,
So he doesn't say like there's just because you're kind of implying there's a there's a gap, there might be a gap with constructing an illusion and then maybe using communication to maybe create a consistency that's sufficient for human collaboration or whatever or mammal, you know, just maybe even just life forms, constructing a consistent reality that's maybe detached. I mean, that's really cool that neurons are constructing that like that. You can prove this is what neuroscience does best, vision science. But he says that, like, our brain is actually just lost its shit on the path of evolution to where we're normal. We're just playing games with each other in constructing realities that allow our survival. But it's it's completely detached from physical reality.
Like we're missing a lot.
We're missing like most of it, if not all of it.
Well, this was it's fascinating because I saw the Oliver Sacks documentary. There's a new documentary out about his life. And there's this one part where he's like, I've spent part of my life trying to imagine what he would like to be be to be a bat or something, to see the world through the life, the sensory apparati eye of a bat.
And he did this with his head, these patients that were locked into these horrible syndromes that to pull out some of the beauty of their experience as well, not just communicate the suffering, although the suffering, too. And as I was listening to him talk about this, I started to realize it's like what you know, like there are these mantis shrimp that can see 60 shades of pink or something, and they see this stuff all the time and animals and see UV light.
Every time I learn about an animal that can sense other things in the environment that I can't like heat sensing when I don't crave that experience the same way Sacks talked about craving that experience. But it does throw another penny in the jar for what you're saying, which is that it could be that most, if not all, of what I perceive and believe is just a neural fabrication. And that, for better or for worse, we all agree on enough of the same neural fabrications in the same time and place that we're able to function.
Not only that, but we agree with the things that are trying to eat us enough to where we don't they don't eat us meeting like that. It's not just us humans, you know.
I see. Because it's interactive. It's interactive.
So like so like now I think it's a really nice thought experiment.
I think because Donald really frames in a scientific like he makes a hard like as hard as our discussion has been. Now he makes a hard scientific case that we don't know shit about reality. I think that's a little bit hard core.
But I think it's I think this is because I think it's a good thought experiment that kind of cleanses the palate of the confidence we might have about thought about because we are operating in this abstraction space and you know, and, you know, the sensory spaces might be something very different.
And it's kind of interesting to think about if you start to go into the realm of neuralink or start to talk about just everything that you've been talking about with dream states and psychedelics and stuff like that, which part of the which layer can we control and play around with it? Maybe look into a different slice of reality?
Just got to do the experiment.
The key is to just do the experiment in the most ethical way possible. You just I mean, that's the beauty of experiments. This is why, you know, there's wonderful theoretical neuroscience happening now to make predictions and but but that's why experimental science is so wonderful. You can go into the laboratory and poke around in there and be a brain explorer and listen to and write to neurons. And when you do that, you get answers. You don't always get the answers you want.
But that's you know, that's the beauty of it. When you were saying this thing about reality and the Donald Hofmann model, I was thinking about children. You know, like when I have an older sister, she's very sane. But, when she was a kid, she had an imaginary friend and she would play with this imaginary friend, and it had there was this whole, there was a consistency. This friend was like it was Larry who lived in a house.
There was a girl. It was like all this stuff that a child, a young child wouldn't have any issue with. And then one day she announced that Larry had died. Right. And it wasn't dramatic or traumatic, and that was it. And she just stopped.
And I always wonder what that neurodevelopmental event was that kept her out of a psychiatric ward, that she kept that imaginary friend.
But but it's also there was something kind of sad to it. I think the way it was told to me, because I'm the younger brother, I didn't I wasn't around for that. But my my dad told me that, you know, there was a kind of a sadness because there was this beautiful reality that had been constructed. So we kind of one I wonder, as you're telling me this, whether or not, you know, as adults we try and create as much reality for children as we can so that they can make predictions and feel safe, because the ability to make predictions is a lot of what keeps our autonomic arousal in check.
I mean, we go to sleep every night and we give up total control and that should frighten us deeply. But, you know, unfortunately, autonomic arousal being sucked down under and we don't negotiate too much. So you sleep sooner or later. I don't know. I was a little worried.
We get into discussions about the nature of reality because it's interesting in the laboratory, I'm very much like, what's the experiment? What would know? What's the analysis going to look like? What mutant mouse are we going to use? What what what experience are we going to put someone through?
But I think it's wonderful that in 2020 we can finally have discussions about this stuff and look kind of peek around the corner and say, well, neuraink and people, others who are doing similar things are going to figure it out. They're going to the the answers will show up and we just have to be open to interpretation.
Do you think there could be an experiment centered around consciousness? I mean, you're plugged into the neuroscience community. I think for the longest time, the quote unquote C word was totally not was almost anti scientific. But now more and more people are talking about consciousness. Elon is talking about consciousness. A.I. folks is talking about consciousness. It's it's still nobody knows anything, but it feels like a legitimate domain of inquiry that's hungry for a real experiment.
So I have fortunately, three short answers to this, the first one is
I'm not I'm not particularly succinct.
The joke.I always tell the two things you never want to say to a scientist. One is, what do you do? And the second one is take as much time as you need. And you definitely know what to say them in the same sentence.
I have three short answers to it. So there's a there's a cynical answer kind of and it's not one I enjoy giving, which is that if you look into the 70s and a back at the 1970s and 1980s and even into the early 2000s, there were some very dynamic, very impressive speakers who were very smart in the field of neuroscience and related fields, who thought hard about the consciousness problem and fell in love with the problem, but overlooked the fact that the technology wasn't there.
So I admire them for falling in love with the problem, but they gleaned tremendous taxpayer resources essentially for nothing.
And these people know who they are. Some of them are alive, some of them aren't. I'm not referring to Francis Crick, who was brilliant, by the way, and thought the claustrum was involved in consciousness, which I think is a great idea. It's the skewer structure that no one's really studied. People are now starting to study it. So I think Francis was brilliant and wonderful.
But there it you know, there were books written about it. It makes for great television stuff and thought. Around the table or after a couple glasses of wine or whatever, it's an important problem nonetheless. And so I think I do think the consciousness the issue is it's not operationally defined. Right, that psychologists are much smarter than a lot of hard scientists in that for the following reason, they put operational definitions. They know that psychology, if we're talking about motivation, for instance, they know they need to put operational definitions on that so that two laboratories can know they're studying the same thing.
The problem with consciousness is no one can agree on what that is.
And this was a problem for attention when I was coming up. So in the early 2000s, people would argue, what is the attention? Is it spatial attention, auditory attention? Is it?
And finally, people were like, you know what we
have they agreed on that. So I remember
I remember hearing people scream a lot of attention, right?
They couldn't even agree on attention.
So I was coming up as a young graduate student, I'm thinking like I'm definitely not going to work on attention and I'm definitely not going to work on consciousness. And I wanted something that I could solve or figure out. I want to be able to see the circuit where the neurons I want to be able to hear it on the audio. I want to record from it. And then I want to do gain a function and loss of function, take it away, see something change, put it back, see something change in a systematic way, and that takes you down into the depths of some stuff that's pretty plug and chug, you know.
But, you know, I'll borrow from something in the military because I'm fortunate to do some work with units from Special Operations and they have beautiful language around things because their world is not abstract. And they talk about three meter target's 10 meter targets, a 100 meter targets. And it's not an issue of picking the hundred meter target because it's more beautiful or because it's more interesting if you don't take down the three meter targets and the 10 meter targets first, you're dead.
So that's a I think scientists could pay to, you know, adopt a more kind of military thinking in that in that sense.
The other thing that is really important is that just because somebody conceived of something and can talk about it beautifully and can glean a lot of resources for it doesn't mean that it's led anywhere. So but this isn't just true of the consciousness issue. And I don't want to sound cynical, but I could pull up some names of molecules that occupied hundreds of articles in the very premier journals that then were later discovered to be totally moot for that process. And biotech companies folded everyone and the lab pivots and starts doing something different with that molecule.
And nobody talks about it because as long as you're in the game, we have this thing called anonymous peer review. You can't afford to piss off anybody too much unless you have some other funding stream. And I've avoided battles most of my career, but I pay attention to all of it. And I've watched this. And I don't think it's ego driven. I think it's that people fall in love with an idea. I don't think there's any there's not enough money in science for people to sit back.
They're rubbing their hands together.
You know, the beauty of what neural link and Elon and team, because obviously he's very impressive with the team as a whole, is really what gives me great confidence in their mission, is that he's already got enough money. So it can't be about that. He doesn't seem to need it at a level of I don't know him, but it doesn't he doesn't seem to need it at a kind of an ego level or something. I think it's driven by genuine curiosity and the team that he's assembled include people that are very kind of abstract, neuro neocortex, space time coding people, there are people like Matt who is a neurosurgeon.
You can't I mean, you know, you can't bias neurosurgery. Failures in neurosurgery are not tolerated. So you have to be very good to exceptional to even get through the gate.
And he's exceptional. And then they've got people like Dan Adams, who was at UCSF for a long time, a good friend and known him for years, who is very concrete, studied the vasculature in the eye and how it maps to the vasculature and cortex. When you get a team like that together, you're going to have dissenters. You're going to have people that are high level thinkers, people that are coders. When you get a team like that, it no longer looks like an academic laboratory or even a field in science.
And so I think they're going to solve some really hard problems. And again, I'm not here. They don't you know, I have nothing at stake with them. But I think that's the solution. You need a bunch of people who don't need first author papers, who don't need to complete their PhD, who aren't relying on outside funding, who have a clear mission. And you have a bunch of people who are basically will adapt to solve the problem.
I like the analogy of the three minute targets and hundred meter targets. So the folks at neuralink, basically many of them are some of the best people in the world at the three meter target, like you mentioned Matt in neurosurgery, like they're solving real problems. There's no B.S. plus philosophical smoke. So we can look back and look at the stars, but. So both Elon and because I think like this, I think it's really important to think about the 100 meter and 100 meter is not even not even 100 meter, but like like the stuff behind the hill that's that's too far, too far away.
Which is which is where precociousness.
Maybe I tend to believe that consciousness can be engineered. Being part of the reason. Part of the the business I want to build leverage is that idea that consciousness is a lot simpler that we've than we've been talking about.
Well, if someone can simplify the problem, right, that will be wonderful. I mean, the reason we can talk about something as abstract is face representations and fusiform face area is because Nancy Kanwisher had the brilliance to tie it to the kind of lower level statistics of visual scenes. It wasn't because she was like, oh, I bet it's there. That wouldn't have been interesting. So people like her understand how to bridge that gap and they put a tractable definition.
So I just I that's what I'm begging for in science is attractable definition.
This is what but I want people to sit in.I want people who are really uncomfortable with who like consciousness, like high level stuff to sit in that topic and sit uncomfortably because it forces them to then try to ground and simplify it into something that's concrete, because too many people are just uncomfortable to sit in the consciousness room because there's no definitions. It's like attention or or intelligence and artificial intelligence community. But the reality is it's easy to avoid that room altogether, which is what I mean, there's analogies to everything you've said with the artificial intelligence community, with the Minsky and even Alan Turing that talked about intelligence a lot.
And then they drew a lot of funding and then it crashed because they really didn't do anything with it. And it was a lot of force of personality and so on. But that doesn't mean the topic of the Turing test and intelligence isn't something we should sit on and think like think like what is first of all, Turing actually attempted this with a Turing test. He's trying to make concrete this very question of intelligence. It doesn't mean that we shouldn't linger on it and we shouldn't forget that.
Ultimately, that is what our efforts are all about, an artificial intelligence community and in the people where there's neuroscience or whatever, a bigger umbrella you want to use for understanding the mind, the goal is not just about understanding layer two or three of the it's it's to understand consciousness and intelligence and maybe create it or just all the possible biggest questions of our universe. That's that's ultimately the dream.
Absolutely. And I think what I really appreciate about appreciate about what you're saying is that everybody, whether or not they're working on a kind of low level synapse, that's like a reflex in the musculature or something very high level abstract can benefit from looking at those who prefer three. You know, everyone's going after a three meter, 10 meter, 100 meter targets in some sense.
But to be able to tolerate the discomfort of being in a conversation where there are real answers, where the zeros and ones are are known zeros and ones, those are the equivalent of that in the nervous system. And also, as you said, for the people that are very much like, oh, I can only trust what I can see and touch, those people need to put themselves into the discomfort of the high level conversation, because what's missing is conversation and conceptualization of things at multiple levels.
I think one of the this is I don't gripe about my life's been fortunate. We've been funded from the start and we've been happy in that in that regard and lucky and we're grateful for that. But I think one of the challenges of research being so expensive is that there isn't a lot of time, especially nowadays, for people to just convene around a topic because there's so much emphasis on productivity. And so there are actually, believe it or not, there aren't that many concepts, formal concepts in neuroscience right now.
The last ten years has been this huge influx of tools. And so people in neural circuits and probing around and connectomes and it's been wonderful. But, you know, 10, 20 years ago when the consciousness stuff was more prominent, the C word, as you said, what was good about that time is that people would go to meetings and actually discuss ideas and models.
Now, it's sort of like it's sort of like demonstration day at the school science fair where everyone's got their thing and some stuff is cooler than others. But I think we're going to see a shift.
I'm grateful that we have so many computer scientists and theoreticians and or theorists, I think they call themselves and somebody tell me what the difference is someday and, you know, psychology and even, dare I say, philosophy.
You know, these things are starting to converge. We, you know, neuroscience, the name neuroscience. There wasn't even such a thing when I started graduate school or as a postdoc.
It was neurophysiology or neuroanatomist or what. Now it's sort of everybody's invited and. That's beautiful, that means that something useful is going to come of all this, and there's also tremendous work, of course, happening on it for the treatment of disease, and we shouldn't overlook that. That's where, you know, ending, eliminating, reducing suffering is also a huge initiative in neuroscience.
So there's a lot of beauty in the field. But the consciousness thing continues to be a it's like an exotic bird. It's like no one really quite knows how to handle it. And it dies very easily.
Well, yeah, I think also from the A.I. perspective. I so I view the brain as less sacred, I think, from a neuroscience perspective. You're a little bit more sensitive to BS like BS narratives about the brain or whatever. I'm a little bit more comfortable with just poetic B.S. about the brain as long as it helps engineer intelligent systems.
You know what I mean.
Well, and I have to you know, I confess ignorance when it comes to, you know, most things about coding.
And I have some quantitative ability, but I don't have strong quantitative leanings. And so I know my limitations, too. And so I think the next generation coming up, you know, a lot of the students at Stanford are really interested in quantitative models and theory.
And I and I remember when I was coming up, a lot of the people who are doing work ahead of me, I kind of roll my eyes at some of the stuff they were doing, including some of their personalities, although I have great many great senior colleagues
Way of the world.
So it's the way of the world. So nobody knows what it's like to be, you know, a young graduate student in twenty twenty except the young graduate student. So I. I know what I am I know there are a lot of things I don't know. And in addition to I do a lot of public education, increased scientific literacy in neuroscientific thinking, etc. A big goal of mine is to try and at least pave the way so that these really brilliant and forward thinking younger scientists can make the biggest possible dent and make what will eventually be all old guys and gals look stupid.
I mean, that's that's what we were all trying to go. That's what we were trying to do.
so from the highest possible topic of consciousness to the to the lowest level, a topic of David Goggins.
I don't know if it's low level. He's high performance.
High performance. But like like there's I don't think David has has any time for philosophy. Let's just put it this way.
Well, I mean, I think we can tack it to what we were just saying in a in a meaningful way, which is whatever goes on in that abstraction part of the brain, he's figured, you know, he's figured out how to dig down in whatever the limbic friction.
He's figured out how to grab a hold of that. Scruff it and send it in the direction that he's decided it needs to go and what's wild is that he's what we're talking about is him doing that to himself, right. He's it's like he's scruffing himself and directing himself in a particular direction and sending himself down that trajectory. And he what's beautiful is that he acknowledges that that process is not pretty. It doesn't feel good. It's kind of horrible at every level, but he's created this rewarding element to it, and I think that's what's so it it's so admirable and it's what so many people crave, which is regulation of the self at that level.
And he practices. I mean, there's a ritual to it. There's every single day like no exceptions. There's a practice aspect to the suffering that he goes through,
principled, self-aware, self principled suffering.
And I mean, I just I mean, I admire all aspects of it, including him and his girlfriend slash wife. I'm not sure you probably know.
I don't know
Fiance, I am not asking
Wonderful person. No, no. We've only we've only I've only communicated with her via text about some stuff I was asking David, but yeah, they clearly have formed a powerful team.
And it's a beautiful thing to see people working in that kind of synergy.
It's inspiring to me, same as with Elon, that a guy like David Goggins can find love, that that you find a thing that works, which gives me hope that like whatever whatever flavor of crazy I am, you can always find another thing that works with that. But I, I've had so maybe trade gogin stories.
You from a neuroscience perspective, me from a self inflicted pain perspective. I somehow found myself. In communication with David about some challenges that I was undergoing.
One of which is we were communicating every single day email, phone about the particular 30 day challenge. I did this for longer of push ups and pull ups.
And you made a call out on social media.
I think that was the point I knew of you before, but that's where I started tracking some of what you were doing with these physical challenges. And
the hell's wrong with that guy?
Well, no, I think I actually I don't often comment on people's stuff, but I think I commented something like neuroplasticity loves a non-negotiable rule as a non-negotiable contract, because at the point where neural neuroplasticity really loves a non negotiable contract because, you know, and I've said this before, so forgive me, but, you know, the brain is doing analysis of duration, path and outcome, and that's a lot of work for the brain.
And the more that it can pass off duration, path and outcome to just reflex, the more energy in it and it can allocate to other things. So if you decide there's no negotiation about how many push ups, how far I'm going to run, how many days, how many pull ups, et cetera, you actually have more energy for push ups running at pull ups.
And when you say neuroplasticity, you mean like the brain. Once the decision is made, it'll start rewiring stuff to to make sure that we can actually make this happen.
That's right. I mean, so much of what we do is reflexive at the level of just core circuitry, breathing, heart rate, all that, that boring stuff, digestion. But then there's a lot of reflexive stuff like how you drink out of a mug of coffee. That's reflexive, too, but that you had to learn at some point in your life earlier when you were very little analyzing duration, path and outcome.
And that involves a lot of top down processing with the prefrontal cortex. But through plasticity mechanisms, you now do it. So when you take on a challenge, provided that you understand the core mechanics of how to, you know, run push ups and pull ups and whatever else you decided to do, once you set the number and the duration and all that, then you all you have to do is just go. But people get caught in that tide pool of just, well, do I really have to do it?
How do I not do that? What if I get injured? What you know, can I sneak out this, you know, and that's work.
And to some extent I look, I'm not David Goggins, obviously, nor nor do I claim to understand his process. Partially, you know, but maybe a little bit, which is that it's clear that by making the decision, there's more resources to devote to the effort of the actual execution.
Well, that's a really like what you're saying was not a lesson that was obvious to me. And it's still not always something I really work at, which is there is always an option to quit. And I mean, that's something I really struggle with. I mean, I've quit some things in my life, sick stupid stuff. And one lesson I've learned is. If you quit once it opens the door that like it's really valuable to trick your brain into thinking.
That you're you're going to have to die before you quit. It's actually really convenient. So actually what you're saying is very profound, but you shouldn't intellectualize it. It took me time to develop like psychologically in ways that I think would be another conversation because I'm not sure how to put it into words, but it's really tough on me to to do certain parts of that challenge,
which is a huge is a huge output.
The number that I was I thought would be the number would be hard, but it's not it's the entirety of it, especially in the early days, was just bending a kind of embarrassed to say how many hours this took. So I didn't say publicly how many hours because people I knew people will be like, don't you aren't you supposed to do other stuff? What the hell are you doing?
And I won't speculate to interrupt, but occasionally David has said this publicly where people will be like, don't you sleep or something?
And his process used to just be that you would just block, delete, you know, like gone.
But it's actually it's it's a super interesting topic. And because self-control and directing our actions and the role of emotion and quitting, these are these are vital to the human experience and they're vital to performing well at anything. And obviously, at a super high level, being able to understand this about the self is crucial.
So I have a friend who was also in the team. His name is Pat Dossett, did nine years in the SEAL teams and in a similar way there's a lore about him among team guys because of a kind of funny challenge he gave himself, which was so he and I swim together, although he swims further up front than I do. And he's very patient.
But, you know, he was on it. He was assigned when he was in the teams to a position that gave him a little more time behind a desk than he wanted. And it's not as much time out. And deployments, although he did deployments. So he didn't know what to do at that time, but he thought about it and he asked himself, what what does he hate the most? And it turns out the thing that he hated doing the most was bare crawls, you know, working your hands and knees.
So he decided to bare crawl for a mile four times it was bare, crawling a mile a day. Right. And I thought that was an interesting example they gave because, you know, like, why pick the thing you hate the most? And I think it maps right back to limbic friction. It's the thing that creates the most limbic friction. And so if you can overcome that, then there's carry over. And I think the notion of carryover has been talked about psychologically and in kind of in the self-help space, like, oh, if you run a marathon, it's going to help you in other areas of life.
But will it really will? It will. I think it depends on whether or not there's a lot of limbic friction, because if there is, what you're exercising is not a circuit for bear crawls or a circuit for pull ups.
What you're doing is you're exercising a circuit for Top-Down control. And that circuit was not designed to be for bear crawls or pull ups or coding or waking up in the middle of the night to do something hard. That circuit was designed to override limbic friction. And so neural circuits were designed to generalise. Right. The stress response to an incoming threat that's a physical threat was designed to feel the same way and be the same response internally as the threat to an impending exam or divorce or marriage or whatever it is that stressing somebody out.
And so neural circuits are not designed to be for one particular action or purpose. So if you couldn't, as you did, if you can train up top down control under conditions of the highest limbic friction, that when the desire to quit is at its utmost, either because of fatigue or hyperarousal being too stressed or too tired, you're you're learning how to engage a circuit. And that circuit is forever with you. And if you don't engage it, you it sits there, but it's atrophied.
It's it's like a plant that doesn't get any water. And a lot of this has been discussed in self-help and growth mindset and all these kinds of ideas that circle the Internet and social media. But when you start to think about how they map to neural circuits, I think there's some utility because of what it means is that the limbic friction that you'll experience in, I don't know, maybe some future relationship to something or someone, it will it's a category of neural processing that should immediately click into place.
It's just like the limbic friction you experienced trying to engage in the God knows how many push ups, pull ups and running, you know, runs. You were doing five thousand twist counting.
So, folks, if if Lex does this again, more comments, more like, well, is the problem with you getting more followers is you're going to get more.
And actually, I should say that's the benefit.
I don't know, maybe it's not politically correct for me to ask. Like there is this stereotype about Russians being, you know, like
like like like being a really, you know, durable. And, you know, I started going to that Russian banya that way back before covid, and they could tolerate a lot of heat, you know, and they would sit very stoic, you know, no one was going, oh, it's hot in here, they were just kind of like, ease into it. So maybe there's something
there might be something there, but it could be also just personal. I just have some, I found myself. Everyone's different, but I've found myself to be able to do something unpleasant for very long periods of time, like I'm able to shut off the mind.
And I don't think that's been fully tested.
And I monkey mind or the supercomputer.
Well, it's interesting. I mean, which mind is which mind tells you to quit. Exactly.
Limbic limbic friction tells you what the limbic function is the source of that. But who are you talking with?
Ah, so there's a we can put something very concrete to that. There's a paper published in Cell, Super Top Tier Journal, two years ago looking at effort. And this was in a visual environment of trying to swim forward toward a target and a reward. And it was a really cool experiment because they manipulated virtually the visual environment. So the same amount of effort was being expended every time. But sometimes the perception was you're making forward progress and sometimes the perception was you're making no progress because stuff wasn't drifting by meant no progress.
So you could be swimming and swimming and making progress. And it turns out that with each bout of effort, there's an epinephrine and norepinephrine is being released in the brainstem and glia what traditionally were thought of as support cells for the neurons. But they do a lot of things actively, too, are measuring the amount of epinephrine and norepinephrine in that circuit. And when it exceeds a certain threshold, the Glia send inhibitory signals that shut down Top-Down control, they literally it's the quick stop.
There's no more. It's you quit enduring. It can be rescued. Endurance can be rescued with dopamine. Beat. So that's where the subjective part really comes into play. So you quit because you've learned how to turn that off or you've learned how to. Some people will reward the pain process so much that friction becomes the reward. And, you know, when you talk about people like Goggins and other people I know from Special Operations and people have gone through cancer treatments three times, you hear about, you know, just when you hear about people, the Victor Frankl stories, I mean, you hear about Nelson Mandela, you hear about these stories.
I'm sure the same processes involved. Again, this speaks to the generalizability of these processes as opposed to a neural circuit for a particular action or cognitive function. So, I think, you have to learn to subjectively self reward in a way that replenishes you. Goggins talks about eating souls. It's a very dramatic example in his mind. Apparently, that's a form of reward. But it's not just a form of reward where you're it's like you're picking up a trophy or something.
It's it's actually it gives the energy. It's a reward that gives more neural energy. And I'm defining that as more dopamine to suppress the noradrenaline adrenaline circuits in the brainstem
to ultimately maps that, yeah, he creates enemies.
He's always fighting enemies. I never I think I have enemies, but they're usually just versions of me inside my head. So I've thought about through that thirty day challenge, I tried to come up with a fake enemies.
It wasn't working. If the enemy came up with this David
Well, now you certainly have a formidable, formidable adversary in this one. I don't care.
David. I'm willing to die on this one. Come on, let's go there. But I.
Well, let's hope you both both survive this this one.
See what my problem is, the physical. There's so everything we've been talking about in the mind. There's a physical aspect that's just practically difficult, which is like I can't like when you enjoy yourself at a certain point, like you just can't function or you're doing more damage. You're talking about taking yourself out of running for. Yeah. For the rest of your life potentially, or like, you know, for years. So, you know, I'd love to avoid that.
Right. There's just like stupid physical stuff. They just want to avoid you want to keep it purely in the mental. And if it's purely in the mental, that's when the race is interesting. But yeah, the problem with these physical challenges as as David, as experienced, I mean, it has a toll on your body. Hmm. I tend to think of the mind is limitless and the body is kind of unfortunately quite limited.
Well, I think the key is to dynamically control your output and that can be done by reducing effort, which doesn't work throughout, but also by restoring through these subjective reward processes. And we don't want to go down the rabbit hole of why this all works, but these are ancient pathways that were designed to bring resources to an animal or to a person through foraging for hunting or mates or water, all these things. And they work so well because they're down in those circuits where we know the zeros and ones.
And that's great because it can be subjective at the level of, oh, I reached this one milestone, this one horizon, this one three metre target. But if you don't reward it, you it's just effort. If you do self reward it, it's effort minus one in terms of the adrenaline output.
I have to ask you about this, you're one of the great communicators in science and really big fan of yours enjoying in terms of like the educational stuff.
You're putting it neuroscience. Thank you. What's the. Do you have a philosophy behind it or is it just an instinct of unstoppable force of like what's your thinking? Because it's rare and it's exciting. I'm excited that, you know, somebody from Stanford. So I am in multiple places in the sense of like where my interests lie and want. In the politically speaking, academic institutions are under fire. You know, for many reasons. We don't need to get into we get into a lot of other places.
But I believe. In. In places like Stanford and places like MIT as one of the most magical institutions for inspiring people to dream, people to build the future, I mean, it's I believe that it is a really special, these universities are really special places. And so it's always exciting to me when somebody as inspiring as you represents those places. So it makes me proud that somebody from Stanford is like somebody like you is representing Stanford. So maybe you could speak to what's how did you come to be who you are and being a communicator?
Well, first of all, thanks for the the kind words, especially coming from you. I think Stanford is an amazing place, as is MIT. And it's such a....
MIT is better, .... I let it out. Anything you said,
I have many friends at MIT, you know,
Ed Boyden is is is is best, you know, among the best in class.
There's some people,
Not me, that can hold a candle to him, but not many, maybe one or two. I think the great benefit of being in a place like MIT or Stanford is that when you look around, you know that the the average is very high. You have many best in class among the, you know, one or two or three best in the world at what they do. And it's a wonderful privilege to be there. And one thing that I think also makes them and other universities like them very special is that there's an emphasis on what gets exported out of the university, what you know, not keeping it ivory tower and really trying to keep an eye on what's needed in the world and trying to do something useful.
And I think the proximity to industry and Silicon Valley and in the Boston area and Cambridge also lends itself well to that. And there are other institutions, too, of course. So the reason I got involved in education, social media, was actually because of a Pat Dossett, the Bear Mile, Bare call guy.
I was at the turn of twenty eighteen to twenty nineteen. We had formed a good friendship and we were he talked me into doing these early morning cold water swims.
I was learning a lot about pain and suffering, but also the beauty of cold water swims and and we were talking one morning and he said, so what are you going to do to serve the world in twenty nineteen? It's like that's the way that like a Texan former SEAL talks, like we're just literally we're going to serve the world in twenty nineteen like well I run my lab is like no no. What are you gonna do that's new. And he wasn't forceful in.
But it's interesting question. I said well if I had my way I would just, you know, teach people everyone about the brain because I think it's amazing. He goes, will do it. All right, you shake on it.
So we did it, you know, and so I started putting out these posts and it's grown into to include a variety of things. But you asked about a governing philosophy. So I want to increase interest in the brain and in the nervous system and in biology generally. That's one major goal. I'd like to increase scientific literacy, which can't be rammed down people's throats, talking about how to look at a graph and statistics and Z scores and P values and genetics.
It has to be done gradually, in my opinion. I want to put valuable tools into the world, mainly tools that map to things that we're doing in our lab. So these will be tools centered around how to understand and direct one's state of mind and body. So reduce stress, raise one stress threshold. So it's not always just about being calm. Sometimes it's about learning how to tolerate not being not calm. Raise awareness for mental health.
There's a ton of micro-missons in this, but it all really maps back to, you know, like the eight and ten year old version of me, which is I used to spend my weekends when I was a kid reading about weird animals.
And I had this obsession with like medieval weapons and stuff like catapults.
And and then I used to come into school on Monday and I would ask if I could talk about it to the class and teach.
And I just it's really I promise and some people might not believe me, but it's really I don't really like being the point of focus. I just get so excited about these gems of that I find in the world, in books and in experiments and in discussions with colleagues and discussions with people like you and and around the universe. And I can't just compulsively I got to tell people about it.
So I try and package it into a form that people can access.
You know, I think if I think the reception has been really wonderful, Stanford has been very supportive.
Thankfully, I've done some podcasts even with them, and they've reposted some stuff on social media. It's a precarious place to put yourself out there as a research academic. I think some of my colleagues, both locally and elsewhere, probably wonder if I'm still serious about research, which I absolutely am. And I also acknowledge that, you know, their research and the research coming out of the field needs to be talked about and not all scientists are good at translating into a language that people can access, and I don't like the phrase dumb it down, what I like to do is take a concept that I think people will find interesting and useful and offer it sort of like a you would offer food to somebody visiting your home.
You're not going to cram frog raw in their face. You're going to say like, do you want a cracker? Like and they say, yeah. And like, do you want something on that cracker? Like, do you like cheese. Like, yeah. Like do you want Swiss cheese or you want that really. Like stinky. Like French. I don't like cheese much but. Or do you want frogurt. Like what's that like.
So you're trying the best information prompts more questions of interest, not questions of confusion but questions of interest. And so I feel like one door opens, then another door opens and another door opens. And pretty soon the image in my mind is you create a bunch of neuroscientists who are thinking about themselves, neuroscientific. And I don't begin to think that I have all the answers at all. I cast a neuroscience sometimes a little bit of a psychology lens onto what I think are interesting topics.
And, you know, I you know, someday I'm going to go into the ground or the ocean or wherever it is I end up. And I'm very comfortable with the fact that not everyone is going to be happy with how I deliver the information. But I would hope that people would feel like some of it was useful and meaningful and got them to think a little bit harder.
Since you mentioned going into the ground and Viktor Frankl man's search for meaning, I read the I reread the book quite often.
What? Let me ask the the big ridiculous question about life. What do you think is the meaning of it all? And maybe why do you do you mention that book from a psychologist perspective, which Victor Frankl was ? Do you do you ever think about the bigger philosophical questions it raises about meaning? What's the meaning of it all?
Hmm. One of the great challenges in assigning a good you know, giving a good answer to the question of like, what's the meaning of life is, I think, illustrated best by the Victor Frankl example, although there are other examples, too, which is that our sense of meaning is very elastic in time and space.
And we talked a little bit about this earlier, but it's amazing to me that somebody locked in a cell or a concentration camp can bring the horizon in close enough that they can then micro slice their environment so that they can find rewards and meaning and power and beauty even in a little square box or or a horrible situation.
And I think this is really speaks to one of the most important features of the human mind, which is we could do let's take two opposite extremes.
One would be let's say the alarm went off right now in this building and the building started shaking our vision, our hearing, everything would be tuned to this space time bubble for those moments and everything that we would process, all that would matter.
The only meaning would be get out of here safe, figure out what's going on, contact loved ones, et cetera.
If we were to sit back totally relaxed, we could do the work. I think it's called pale blue dot thing or whatever, where we can imagine ourselves in this room. And then there were in the United States, in this continent, in the earth, and then peering down us and all of a sudden you get back. It can seem so big that all of a sudden it's meaningless. Right. If you see yourself as just one brief glimmer in all of time and all of space you go to, I don't matter.
And if you go to every little thing that happens in this text thread or this comment section on YouTube or Instagram, your space time bubble is tiny. Then everything seems inflated and the brain will contract and dilate its space, time, vision and time, but also a sense of meaning.
And that's beautiful. And it's what allows us to be so dynamic in different environments and we can pull from the past and the present and future. That's why examples like Nelson Mandela and Victor Frankl had to include. It makes sense that it wasn't just about grinding it out.
They had to find those dopamine rewards even in those little boxes they were forced into. So. I'm not trying to dodge an answer, but for me personally and I think about this a lot because I have this complicated history in science, where my undergraduate graduate adviser and postdoctoral advisor all died young, so, you know, and they were wonderful people and had immense importance in my life.
But what I realized is that because we can get so fixated on the thing that we're experiencing holding tremendous meaning, but it only holds that meaning for as long as we are in that space time regime. And this is important because what really gives meaning is the understanding that you can move between these different space time dimensionality. And I'm not trying to sound like a theoretical physicist or anyone that thinks about the cosmos and saying that it's really the fact that sometimes we say and do and think things and it feels so important.
And then two days later, like what? What happened? Well, you had a different brain processing algorithm entirely. You were in a completely different state. And so what I want to do in this lifetime is I want to I want to engage in as many different levels of contraction and dilation of meaning as possible. I want to go to the micro. I sometimes think about this. I'm like, if I just pulled over the side of the road, I bet you there's an anthill there and their whole world is fascinating.
You can't stay there and you also can't stay staring up at the clouds and just think about how we're just these little beings and it doesn't matter. The key is the journey back and forth up and down that staircase, back and forth and back and forth. And my goal is to get as many trips up and down that staircase as I can before the reaper comes for me.
Oh, beautiful. So the the other dance of dilation and contraction between the different the zoom in, zoom out and get as many steps and on that staircase,
that's that's my goal anyway.
And I've watched people die. I watched my postdoc advisor die, wither away my graduate. It was tragic. But they found beauty in these closing moments because their bubble was their kids in one case or like one of them was a Giants fan and like got to see a Giants game, you know, in her last moments. And like and you just realize like it's a Giants game, but not in that moment because time is closing. And so those time bins feel huge because she's slicing things so differently.
So I think learning how to do that better and more fluidly, recognizing where one is and not getting too attached to the idea that there's one correct answer, like that's what brings meaning. That's my goal. Anyway.
I don't think there's a better way to end it.
Andrew, I really appreciate that you would come down and. Contract your space time and focus on this conversation for a few hours is a huge honor. I'm a huge fan of yours.
As I told you, I hope you keep going and educating the world about the human mind. Thanks for talking to.
Thank you. I really appreciate the invitation to be here. And people might think that I'm saying it just because I'm here. But I'm a huge fan of yours. I send your podcasts to my colleagues and other people. And I think what you're doing is isn't just amazing. It's important. And so thank you.
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