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Your Brain Is Not For Thinking

A conversation with Lisa Feldman Barrett

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Adam Jacobs: Dr. Feldman Barrett, sorry for the delay, and thank you so much for joining me today. I really appreciate your time. As I was just mentioning to you, I just have completed your book and have a bunch of questions. And in fact, I've been focusing on the brain here recently. This is the second conversation I'm having out of a series of three, and it just sort of worked out that way. It wasn't planned. And so I've got the brain on my mind.

And I thought to ask you a question along these lines is a quote from Neil deGrasse Tyson. He said that “everything that we do, every thought we've ever had is produced by the human brain, but exactly how it operates remains one of the biggest unsolved mysteries. And it seems the more we probe its secrets, the more surprises we find.” So in terms of what motivates you, how did you get into this? And are you trying to explore the mystery of the brain? What drew you to this profession?

Lisa Feldman Barrett: Well, what drew me to being a scientist is probably that I don't like being bossed around by other people, and I really prefer, I mean, I can't even follow a recipe seriously without tinkering with it. And I'm really curious. So telling me, well do something because this is the right thing to do, because I said so doesn't work for me particularly well, even if that person happens to be Darwin or Einstein or whatever. Not that I could, I don't know that much about physics. So the reason why I retrained as a neuroscientist was that I was trained as a psychologist, and that was 20-something years ago that I'm constantly retraining or just sort of acquiring scientific skills in other scientific domains because I have a question that I want to answer.

And I became interested in neuroscience when the questions I was asking led me there. So originally when I was in graduate school, I was studying the self-concept. What is it that you believe about yourself? What standards do you have for yourself? What ideals do you have for yourself? How do you feel when you don't meet those standards or those ideals? And that required that I measure emotion. And it turned out that's a really complicated thing to do. And so I used the best available evidence that I knew of at the time to try to measure emotion objectively and learned that actually there is no objective way to measure an emotion. And that seemed really surprising and perplexing and super cool and interesting kind of a question. And then in trying to understand the nature of emotion, I had to understand physiology and I had to understand cognitive science, then neuroscience, and beyond that.

So really I'm always being led by a question. When it came to neuroscience though, there was a real advantage to being trained after the fact. So I went in with very few preconceptions about the field, and I wasn't schooled in the dogma of the field. So I ended up asking a lot of questions that maybe a person who had been more informed in their training had been more informed about what were the right questions to ask. So I started asking questions that were not the official questions that people were asking, and that led me to a whole different way of understanding how the brain worked, and how it evolved, and things just progressed from there.

Adam Jacobs: I agree with you. I mean, first of all, I wholeheartedly agree that there's a great advantage in coming into it from a totally different perspective, which sometimes I think I end up asking funny questions to people because I don't know not to ask them.

Lisa Feldman Barrett: Exactly. That's exactly right. And so every scientific field, every field, it doesn't matter whether it's science or some other domain, every field has its dogma, has its set of things that are assumed to be true. And the operating principles that everyone assumes in that field, or some large number of people assume. And if you don't know what those are, you don't know what not to ask. And you start asking questions that other people maybe aren't asking or that turn out to be difficult questions.

So I agree that the brain is a super complicated organ. Some people very lyrically refer to it as the most complicated and complex object that exists in the universe, and I think that's very lyrical, but I think there's a lot we don't know. But I think the things that people end up finding surprising are really assumptions they held that were wrong. So we have learned a lot in neuroscience, but a lot of what we've learned is that the prior ideas of how things work were really, the assumptions were wrong. And so people were asking the wrong questions. And sometimes in science progress is not answering questions, it's asking better questions.

Adam Jacobs: A hundred percent, yes. So let me ask you a question that might fall into this category of a funny question. I'm quoting you from your book in which you say “The most important function of the brain is to keep us alive so that we can pass on our genes.” Okay. Now, I guess this is more of a, is a biological question, but why would it be that genes care if they're passed on?

Lisa Feldman Barrett: Yeah, yeah, you're right. Yeah, no, yeah. If I could go back, you know how it is, right? You write something and then that book was written, actually, it was completed five, six years ago. So I probably would lop off the genes part and just say, that your brain's most important job is regulating and coordinating your body to keep you alive and to allow you to survive and thrive. And from a certain standpoint, it's important that you pass your genes on not just your genes, but all of your genetic material.

And I use that term genetic material very loosely since genes protein-coding genes turn out to be the least important thing, they're not unimportant, but they're sort of not the big story that makes you who you are. So there's a certain way in which you could say, well, for the survival of the species and for maximal adaptability and evolvability of a species, it's a really good idea to pass your gene for people who are for organisms that are robust enough that they can survive and thrive.

It's good for the species to pass on those genes to the next generation and ensure that that generation makes it to reproductive age, whatever that means in that species. That's the kind of standard evolutionary biology take. But for my purposes, I don't really care about it, that's not what I focus on. I focus on the lives of individuals, and I focus on trying to understand the rule of the brain's regulation of the body as an important aspect of everything you do and feel and decide and think and say, right?

So this is a very overlooked part, I think, of human function of day-to-day function. And I could give you tons of examples of why this is the case and why it's important. But this is the thing that really fascinated me. That not only that the brain's most important job is regulating the body and that the body is largely ignored from the study of the mind, but the reasons why people ignore it are also really interesting to me. So it's not just the fact that it's ignored, it's also why do people ignore it? Why do people think that their body has nothing to do with what they feel or what they think or what they say or what they do or what they decide in a given moment? To me, that's really fascinating.

Adam Jacobs: So why? Why are they ignoring it?

Lisa Feldman Barrett: Yeah, I think if you look at the history of most sciences, physics, chemistry, biology, certainly scientists pretty much start with what they experience and then they attempt to find the physical basis of that experience. And in the maturation of a scientific field, historically speaking, it's anchoring and adjusting away from your own experience as a scientist, as the premise for asking important and meaningful questions. And I think psychology just isn't there yet. I mean, for the most part, psychology for the last 150 years or so, and to some extent neuroscience fits this bill too, although maybe a little bit fewer scientists start with their own experiences, and most of the scientists who are publishing voraciously happen to live in western culture.

So it's really a very Westernized view of what human nature is. Even the idea that there's a single human nature is a very Western view. And so you start with your experiences and then you start asking about the physical basis of those experiences. And we're not wired to experience our bodies directly. We don't feel every heartbeat, every squirt of chemical. We don't experience those things very directly because we're not actually wired to, if you could feel every event going on inside your own body and the sensory consequences of those events, you'd never pay attention to anything outside in the world ever again. Anybody who's ever been totally overwhelmed by gastrointestinal pain knows this to be true.

Adam Jacobs: Yes, that is absolutely true. And I would like to get on to the psychological aspects. I know it's important to you, the emotional world and how this all impacts people, and I think that's the most important thing too. But one of the ways that we can get there, I think, is you make the, (I think self evidently true) point to me that there is no such thing as a triune brain. It's a story that was told at one time as if three different brains somehow coordinate together.

And you make the point that, no, that's not true. We have one brain and one of the corollaries from that is therefore there is no intra-brain fighting, as you call it, which I thought is an interesting term. So I had the pleasure of speaking with Ian McGilchrist a couple of weeks ago, whose whole worldview, his whole 2000-page book came out a couple years ago. Specifically, he agrees, of course, that the two major lobes of the brain communicate. But he goes so far as to say, and maybe as you put it lyrically that the left brain usurped power from the right brain with fighting words, or maybe you just wholesale disagree, but how do you understand what he's talking about in the light of that you believe that there's no brain fighting?

Lisa Feldman Barrett: Well, I don't just believe it. Okay. Oftentimes, when I want to give my personal opinion about something, I'll indicate that by saying very explicitly, that I'm going to take my lab coat off and give you my personal opinion, but I think at the moment I'm going to put my lab coat right back on and tighten it up really tight and say, you should be asking him why he continues to believe this in the face of tremendous amounts of evidence that this is not the case. I mean, I write about something and communicate it to the public because I think there's a sufficient amount of evidence to suggest that this is a reasonable way to see things.

So the idea that any part of your brain is emotional and any other part of your brain is rational and that the two are battling it out for control of your behavior is not supported by the best available evidence. And it's a super cool story that goes all the way back to Plato. And it's a morality tale. It's an origin story about human morality in the West. It is not, however, an origin story for how brains evolved or how they work to the best available evidence that I am aware of. And so I think the question really is the question for him.

In my mind, I'm less concerned with what people write, and I'm more concerned with what the observations show and what are reasonable inferences from those observations. So I don't know what to tell you.

Adam Jacobs: So let me ask you the same kind of question I asked him, which is, it does strike me as odd, and obviously this is the reality and you have to accept the reality for what it is, but it strikes me as odd that particular organ is the way it is, meaning that it's just cleaved right down the middle with these very separate lobes. I know that the corpus callosum unifies them. What is the advantage of those aspects of the brain being so detached from each other?

Lisa Feldman Barrett: I just don't think that this is the way that any developmental neuroanatomist or neurobiologist would describe a brain.

Adam Jacobs: How would they describe it?

Lisa Feldman Barrett: First of all, the brain is not cleaved down the center. You have a whole subcortical set of clusters of neurons that make up a large portion of your brain, not the largest portion, but certainly a large portion that is not cleaved anywhere. You only have one subcortical stock of neurons there. And sure there are some neurons that are paired on the left, right? But there are a large number of collections of neurons that are not, and you also have a cerebellum that is a very large part of your brain, again, which is not cleaved with a left and right. Yes, yes. So I think first of all, it's a very, what we would call cortico-centric view, which means you're focusing a lot on the cerebral cortex and kind of ignoring the rest of the brain, which doesn't really have that organization. So that's the first problem.

But I think the second problem is, I think if you look in order to answer that question, you don't look at an adult brain and say, why is it structured like that? You go back to an embryo and you look at the way that a brain is set up from an embryo. When an embryo has a neural tube and a neural crest, there are neurons being born in a particular order off those parts of the embryo, and those neurons migrate into particular places. And so the questions that you want answered, you don't answer them functionally by some inferred function, psychological function of a cerebral cortex. You go back and you look at the evolution of the brain, and that's where you start to ask questions. So for example, and I don't know if this holds for why we have two lobes and a corpus callosum, which is massive by the way.

-And even now there's evidence from split brain patients whose corpus callosi, I guess you would say, the corpus callosum of these patients has been severed, and the evidence that the two lobes are functioning, that they have these two separate characteristics and whatever is really questionable. I mean, that's not my evidence. I didn't publish that paper. It was published in the last couple of years, which calls into question really the basic foundation of this left-brain, right-brain kind of idea. But there are lots of questions that people ask, and they look for functional answers when they're looking really in the wrong place. So you don't look in an adult brain and look at the putative functions that somebody has inferred that brain that those parts perform, and then start to reason about that. Really what you do is you start with the ecology of the animal, the evolution of the brain, of that nervous system, of that animal, the development meaning at the embryologic level.

And that's where you start to ask questions. So for example, some people ask questions about why the cerebral cortex, why is it folded the way it looks like this wrinkly kind of sheath on top of the subcortical areas? And if you take the cerebral cortex and you lift it off the rest of the brain and you stretch it out like a napkin, it's flat and it's got layers. And people ask questions about, well, why is it wrinkled up like that? And it turns out that the answer has something to do with the physics of how cells can create tissues and best be how many cells can you pack into a really small space, basically. And so the folding patterns have something to do with that. They don't have anything to do necessarily with the improvement in cognition or whatever people…

Adam Jacobs: Right. It's like the Ikea packaging. What can you get in the box?

Lisa Feldman Barrett: Yeah, exactly. And so of course you can. So this is the problem I think in general with starting with your own experience and then trying to ask questions based solely on your own experience. I think first of all, half the world, half the world doesn't make distinctions between cognition and emotion. There are cultures for whom that distinction just doesn't make any sense. And maybe half the world is a bit extreme at this point because Western views are really, there's this pervasive globalization of Western views, but there are distinct cultures that don't distinct thinking and feeling are part of the same event. They're features of the same event. They're not at war with each other.

There are some cultures for whom mental experiences and physical experiences, experiences of your physical body are not distinct, whereas in our culture, they're very distinct. So you can ask questions about why people believe those things. You can ask questions about how does the folding of the cerebral cortex, how do those folding patterns contribute or in any way impact neural processing or the speed of processing or the speed of action, or the speed of learning? I mean, you can, but the question of why would things be this way? Obviously, there's an answer. Scientists can never answer that question. That's not a scientific question. That's something called teleology, which scientists

Adam Jacobs: Don't deal with.

Lisa Feldman Barrett: They shouldn't deal with it if they're good scientists. They don't go close to that with a 10-foot pole unless they're evolutionary biologists and they have some really good reason for saying so. But most evolutionary biologists, I personally know, and I've read, stay away from the teleology question with a 10-foot pole. You don't want to know why. You want to know how, and you want to know what, what's happening, how is it happening? But you don't ever ask, well, in the grand scheme of things, why did it work like this? Because evolution just doesn't work. It doesn't work with why questions.

Adam Jacobs: Yes, I understand that from a scientific perspective, I think the general public probably likes the why questions a lot more.

Lisa Feldman Barrett: Well, great. And one of the things that we do when we talk to the public is we say, let's think about the kinds of questions that science can answer and answer really useful for you. How is it that why questions won't really be useful for you? Or if you want to ask those questions, ask them in some other way and talk to the theologian or I don't know, talk to somebody who has something to say about that. But the only thing I have to say about that is that's a really fun dinner party conversation, but it's not a question I would ever ask, and it's not like I didn't start off with this view and then I was as surprised as the next person.

Frankly, you said it makes a lot of sense to you. I was really surprised to learn that it's been known for more than 50 years, that the brain didn't evolve in layers, and that the only reptile, the only lizard brain that exists in the world is in a brain of lizard, is in the body of a lizard that mammals and lizards, mammals didn't evolve from lizards, mammals and lizards evolved from fish.

They're not even in our evolutionary line lineage. So the idea that to me that was really surprising because, like the next person, this is what I believe because I wasn't a neuroscientist, and I also think it's super interesting, how did it happen that the really aha moments for understanding, for learning, that the brain didn't evolve this way and it's not structured this way. Those discoveries were made in the sixties and the seventies, and when did, this idea has been around for a really long time, but it really took off in 1977 when Carl Sagan talked about this idea, the try and brain idea in the Dragons of Eden.

So that's an irony, and I think it's really interesting to ask why is it the case that people still believe this? And you have very esteemed thinkers still writing books, talking about the limbic system or about some part of the brain being emotional and some part of the brain being rational. And so telling this really old platonic story about morality, about what it means to be a good person or a healthy person now in modern psychiatry and being led by that to talk about brain function and structure. I think that's a really interesting question.

Adam Jacobs: Me too. Can I ask you a question about neuroplasticity?

Lisa Feldman Barrett: Sure.

Adam Jacobs: Okay. First of all, that's another amazing concept. The idea that you can have cells that can be adapted, if I'm describing it correctly. They can change, they can change their configurations. Pathways that were once set up one way can be sort of broken open and then re-established, and you can correct, I'm sure you'll correct me if I'm wrong, how I'm describing that, but are you familiar with the work of Jeffrey Schwartz at UCLA with OCD patients. Basically, he shows how the brain can be rewired, that OCD patients have certain patterns of thinking that are detrimental to their lives. And by being trained to go against their natural instincts of how you should do things, those neural pathways break down, if that's probably the wrong way of saying it. And they reestablish in healthier ways. So again, I hope I don't ask an annoying why question to a scientist…

Lisa Feldman Barrett: Or an amusing why question. I mean, we don't necessarily, I'm not annoyed. I just think it's funny that we just gravitate in that direction. But anyway, please finish your question about Neuroplasticity.

Adam Jacobs: Who is instructing the brain to make that change?

Lisa Feldman Barrett: Yeah, I understand. I think I understand what you're asking. So first of all, I think that the way that you're describing neuroplasticity is, maybe I might tweak it a tiny bit. So I might say brains are constantly tuning and pruning, meaning the neurons are, so, neurons are constantly, for example, neurons are constantly sprouting little buds on their…

Adam Jacobs:vThe dendrites?

Lisa Feldman Barrett: Yeah, on the dendrites, I don't know how much your listeners know, but here's the canonical neuron has these branches out at the top above the cell body that receive chemical signals from other neurons and also from glial cells and which are surrounding the neurons. And they're constant. This is something I found super fun and surprising. They're constantly budding little receptors all over the place randomly, and the ones that are used stick and they stay, and the ones that are not get absorbed back. Interesting.

So no director is indicating, well, little nubs, you stay and you little nubs you leave. No, it's just that if they're used, they stay. And if they're not used, they're absorbed back. And this is happening kind of all the time. Similarly, I would say that neurons, so when you're born, you have almost all the neurons you're ever going to have.

So humans don't grow new neurons in most places. We have one or maybe two places where we grow new neurons, but for the most part, you're born with what you've got and you just slowly lose them over your lifetime. Except when you're my age, you start, that starts to get a little more rapid. But so for a long time, scientists were asking, well, why are these parts of the brain special? Why do we grow new neurons here? That's a form of plasticity, just like little buds forming and dying back. That's a form of plasticity. The birth of new neurons is also a form of plasticity.

And scientists turn themselves into not trying to answer that question for a long time until it was discovered that that's really the wrong question. The proper question to be asking is how come humans are so weird in that we don't birth new neurons everywhere in our brains, but other animals do? Interesting. And the answer that some scientists have come to at least, so this is any answer in science, it's really like this is our best available guest based on our best available. The best available evidence that we have is that humans are very long-lived. And when you birth new neurons, they're not wired up by anyone.

They don't participate in memories because they haven't been used yet. And so the hypothesis would be maybe in very long-lived animals, there's less new neuron birth because when you lose a bunch of neurons, sometimes other neurons can step in, but it means that you lose memories. And when for a long-lived animal, memories are really important to being able to function. So that's like a very simplistic description of what is a more complicated question about why it is that humans generally don't have the capacity, except in one or two places to birth new neurons. Another form of plasticity though is the dying back of connections between neurons or the thickening up or the thinning out of the fatty wrapper around the axon of a neuron, which, and again, I'm assuming that your listeners know something about the anatomy of a neuron, but again, the canonical neuron has a cell body, and then at the top it's got these branches like a tree, and those are the dendrites.

And then there's a long trunk, and usually there's actually many different trunks or different branches off that trunk, that main trunk. But those are all called axons, and they carry electrical signals. And then at the bottom are sort of roots, I guess. And so when the electrical pulses make it to the bottom, to the ends of the axons where the roots are, they release chemicals into a space, and then other neurons that their dendrites pick up those chemicals. And then that's how signals are passed. And in an electric electrochemical kind of flow, and there's a fatty wrapper around many, but not all neurons that will speed the electrical.

It's like insulation, think of it as, and that fatty wrapper can thin, or it can thicken so that can when it thickens, it speeds the electrical signaling, and when it thins out, it slows them down. That's a form of plasticity. Sometimes connections die back because they're not being used. So all those are forms of plasticity. We could sum them up by calling them tuning and pruning. You're tuning, meaning you're strengthening certain connections when you use them. And your pruning, your brain is pruning itself. The neurons prune when their connections that are not used are lost because neurons are expensive little buggers, your brain costs 20% of your metabolic budget.

So what you say about, I don't know the work of Jeffrey Schwartz, you said, I don't know his work specifically, but what I can tell you is I, every brain is always tuning and pruning throughout your entire life. This is the case, and it's very much the case with little brains because little brains are, infant brains are not miniature adult brains. They're brains that are receiving wiring instructions from the world all the time, but so are adult brains. It's just adult brains. The plasticity is just slower. So this idea that your brain is a static organ is actually not the case. If you look with special tools, you can see that the physical structure of a brain is constantly changing because the neurons are constantly growing little nubs and losing nubs and growing axons, or not growing axons, but growing myelin sheaths or thinning those sheaths, sometimes neurons die.

And so what's true for OCD is true for everybody all the time. It's just that usually, the changes are microscopic enough and slow enough that we don't pay much attention to them. But if you can change the wiring of anybody's brain, you will change who they are. You will change what they think, how they feel, what they feel. Everything that you experience is in your brain, you don't see in your eye. You need your eyes to see. But the seeing occurs in your brain.

If you pinch your skin, that pinch, you feel it in your brain. If you feel when we say, oh, I just ran up the stairs or I had too much coffee, I feel my heart pounding against my chest. Well, actually you're feeling that in your brain. You don't actually feeling it in your body. Everything you feel is in your brain. So it makes sense that if you were to change the structure of the brain, or when we say change the wiring, really what we mean is that some connections are weakening and other connections are strengthening. And in only one or two parts of the brain, we were talking about the birth and death of neurons, really the birth of neurons, that's probably a better way to say it,

Adam Jacobs: In your fifth or sixth lesson in the seven and a half lessons that you cover in the book, you talk about babies and the way their brains are. And actually some valuable lessons for parents, I think, which I've got kids myself and I quoted, and I wish I knew this before, but you say, “if you don't let a baby fall asleep on her own and instead rock her to sleep every night, her brain might not learn how to fall asleep without help.” And my gosh, did we find that out? We had kids who absolutely needed the exact same routine. They needed to be rocked in a particular way or to be in a swing or whatever.

So I wanted to expand that concept for one second with your permission. Sure, of course. I'm wondering, a book just came out by Jonathan Haidt who deals with anxiety in children called the Anxious Generation. Would you attribute this phenomenon to part of what he sees as a resilience and independence crisis? Have we raised a generation of people with these concepts of not letting them fall asleep or not letting them do many things that have changed their brains in such a way that they behave generationally differently than previous generations?

Lisa Feldman Barrett: What I will say is that it's possible to agree with an observation at 20,000 feet. You know what I mean? The gist, and then really maybe not agree about the details.

So I think in John's thinking, he tends to want to take what is a complex phenomenon and reduce it to one or two or maybe four, I think in this book like big causes. But as far as I know, nothing works with those kinds of mechanistic causes, right? That's an old way of thinking about cause and really cause works a little differently. So do I think that there's a crisis of anxiety and frankly, depression? It's not just anxiety. Do I think there's a crisis? For sure. I think it is ironic though, because there were a number of years for which I was making that argument and he was saying, he argued with me. That wasn't true.

But anyway, just he's come around, people get credit for paying attention to the data and he's trying to help parents. And I think that's super important. And yes, I think that, I wouldn't say we changed their brains. I think infant brains are not miniature adult brains. They are brains that are wiring themselves to the sensory signals they are receiving. They're really wiring themselves to their own bodies. So for example, your brain, when you were born, your eyes were at a certain distance in your skull and your brain wired itself to the signals at that distance. So if hypothetically we could take your brain and stick it in somebody else's skull where the eyes were at a different distance, you wouldn't see out of those.

Adam Jacobs: Wow, that's interesting.

Lisa Feldman Barrett: So the brain is wiring itself to the body and the sensory surfaces of the body, you hear the way you hear because your ear is a particular shape, and if it changes its shape, you'd have a hard time hearing. You'd have to relearn that plasticity. And babies are also not born able to, their brains can't perform the most basic function that brains need to do, which is to coordinate and regulate the child's body. Babies can't burp by themselves. You have to do everything for them. And what you're doing is you're managing their metabolism. You're managing the amount of uncertainty versus predictability. All of that has metabolic consequences for a developing brain. And it turns out that those metabolic consequences are super important to how that brain develops. So there's a longer story here, a little bit, which is a couple of the essays in my book touch on this.

But what I would say is that can you look at one or two causes and say, or four causes and say, well, this is the reason why kids are experiencing pervasive challenges in mood. I think the answer is no. There are lots and lots and lots and lots of small factors that are adding up to a very big effect. And the same factors that will impact one child don't really impact another child in the same way. So yes, I think that here's just one example. This is just one example. When carbon dioxide levels change just ever so slightly, you have carbon dioxide sensors in your body that send information about carbon dioxide to your brain, carbon dioxide is tightly regulated, tightly regulated in the body, and in the brain. It's tightly regulated just like oxygen, tightly regulated. It has to do with, particularly carbon dioxide, which has to do with the many things about the blood, including the pH of the blood, which is tightly regulated.

So small changes in carbon dioxide, really small changes can actually affect how you feel. It can affect the ease with which your brain is regulating your body. A lot of research has been done in other animals showing that slight changes in carbon dioxide have huge effects actually in humans, I wouldn't say they have huge effects, but they have, that's a nudge. So we are living at a time when there are increasing carbon dioxide levels. So does that mean that that's the cause of this epidemic? No, it's not the cause, but it makes certain things more likely and it nudges the system in a particular direction and not in another direction. So some kids are very robust, and their nervous systems are easy, easy. Some kids are just easy, right? Their brains regulate their bodies and it's really easy. And for other kids, they're born with nervous systems where it's really hard.

It takes a lot more to keep that kid from going off the rails. And so what parents are doing, what parents need to do, the optimal level of knowing when to step in and knowing when to step back, like the optimal level of uncertainty, the optimal level of frustration, the optimal level of discomfort is different for different kids. And as a parent, you try to calibrate. So do I think at the 60,000 foot level that he's onto something? I do. Do I think that cell phones are the problem?

I think cell phones are a tool. Tools can be used well, and they could be used poorly. I think that there are other things, there are other ways that I would describe what's going on. There are other things that parents need to look for. But I do think that I do agree with him in the sense that we live in a culture that just generally believes, that if you feel bad, it means something is wrong. And sometimes we feel bad because we're doing something really hard. The goal is not to feel happy, and this is a longer point, but research shows if you aim yourself at feeling happy, it's really bad for you in all kinds of ways.

So I think he kind of has a point there. But I also think that I would be giving, I would be approaching this differently. I would be approaching this as if the problem is complexly caused, which means there are probably a lot of factors to consider. Each one contributes, weekly on its own, but when they interact, when they find them together, they produce a really big effect. And that effect unfortunately, is producing in some kids anxiety and in other kids depression.

And sometimes one follows the other and the order in which they follow each other tells you something about sometimes anxiety is not bad, and sometimes arousal just feeling like jittery. You don't have to make sense of that as anxiety. It's just uncertainty. So it's just a lot more complicated than I think I would tell a much more nuanced story. I think, and I'd probably point to maybe different factors than maybe he's pointing to. But on those points, I think he definitely has a point, not that we're creating snowflakes, but that you have to create optimal circumstances for your kid to, not harden up, but to be flexible and resilient. You can't be resilient if you never have a challenge.

Adam Jacobs: Of course, this is a huge topic and I'm sure there's a lot to say about it. I know you have a hard stop. I think it's Now, can I give you a five-second question?

Lisa Feldman Barrett: Yeah. Let me just put off my next meeting.

Adam Jacobs: I'm meeting Dr. Lisa Miller next week who writes a lot about spirituality and psychology in the brain. So you can give me a, however, 30 seconds is the brain wired for what might be called spirituality.

Lisa Feldman Barrett: The way the brain is wired, the way the human brain is wired, your brain is always regulating your body. Your body is always sending sensory signals back to your brain about the sensory conditions of the body. And that's how those sensory signals are, partly how the brain regulates the body, but the brain doesn't make itself aware of all of those little signals. Instead, because of the circuitry and because of how the neurons are wired together, the architecture of the circuitry, what you become aware of is your mood. So your mood, feeling pleasant, unpleasant, worked up, calm, feeling comfortable, feeling uncomfortable.

These kinds of feelings are, they're like simple summaries, like a barometer of your metabolic state. Basically, the ease with which your brain is doing its most important job, and that means they're with you all the time. They're not just instances of emotion, they're with you always. They're properties of consciousness. And I think when they're really intense, we usually take them to be meaningful in some way. So they're kind of like a hack. You can't really know what's going on inside your body, but they're kind of like a hack that emerges from the brain's architecture. And they're useful. They're useful as a cue. So I think that that's when people are experiencing spirituality, they're usually having a moment of what I would call affect, intense affect, which is these feelings are intense.

And for several reasons that we don't have time to go into right now, people tend to look out to the world when their effect is intense. When there's been a big metabolic shift or something is starting to get really hard or something gets really easy, the brain looks to the world to figure out what is the cause. And when the brain can't find a cause in the world, it will turn its causal explanation to itself. Well, there's nothing wrong in the world. I'm just a horrible person. That's why. That's what my bad feeling tells me. I think spirituality is really just intense, not just, but it is an intense eeffect. And so we're wired to feel intense affect at times. Are we wired to make sense of that as spirituality? No, I don't think we are. We learned that. So some people make sense of their intense affect that way, but not everybody does.

Everybody uses their feelings as evidence that something is true. That's affective realism. If you experience something and as you experience something, you observe something out in the world are feeling very, very intense effect along with it, you tend to believe that what your experiences are revealing to you is how the world really is.

Adam Jacobs: Okay, fair enough. And thank you so, so much for taking the time to talk to me today. We really enjoyed that conversation and learned a lot, and I'm looking forward to your next works, whatever they may be. And I encourage everyone watching to go out and you have a great podcast with Andrew Huberman that I saw recently and great Ted talk and great books. And thank you once again for taking the time.

Lisa Feldman Barrett: Oh, my pleasure. Thank you so much for the fun questions. You really gave me a workout.

Take care. Okay, bye. Thank you.

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