The DNA of Work

Unravelling the mysteries of the brain with Dr Lisa Feldman Barrett - part 1

January 16, 2024 Season 1 Episode 61
The DNA of Work
Unravelling the mysteries of the brain with Dr Lisa Feldman Barrett - part 1
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Are your everyday experiences really a true reflection of how your brain works? Our guest for this episode, acclaimed neuroscientist Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett, sheds light on this thought-provoking question. Dr. Barrett takes us through the compelling world of neuroscience, revealing the ingenious manner in which our brains regulate our bodies. She explains how our brain is a master of deception, constantly predicting and preparing based on past experience rather than just reacting to the world. This fascinating discussion decodes how the brain's predictions shape our thoughts, feelings, and decisions in ways that are more metabolically efficient.

The conversation doesn't end there though. We dive deeper into the brain-body connection and the implications it has on our health and well-being. Dr. Barrett further explores how societal pressures and lack of rest are leading to burnout, affecting our mental and physical resilience. She emphasizes the importance of being mindful of others' impact on our lives as we navigate this hybrid working world.

So, if you're intrigued by the complex world of human brains and bodies, and seeking strategies to navigate these challenging times, this episode with Dr. Barrett is a must-listen!

This episode is part 1 of a two part special.

AWA Hosts: Karen Plum and Andrew Mawson 

Guest: 

 AWA Guest details: https://www.advanced-workplace.com/our-team/ 

CONTACTS & WEBSITE details:

AWA contact: Andrew Mawson 

 AWA Institute contact: Natalia Savitcaia 

Music: Licensed by Soundstripe – Lone Canyon





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Karen Plum:

Hello there. I'd like to start this episode by asking you some questions. How much sleep did you get last night? Are you eating a healthy diet today? Have you taken any exercise and had some breaks in your day? It turns out that these things impact our brain's ability to manage our body and to use its budget wisely and effectively. So think about what sort of a day you're having as we dive into this episode to find out more about how the brain works. Welcome to AWA's podcast, which is all about the changing world of work and trying to figure out what's right for each organisation, because we know that every one is unique. We talk to people who have walked the walk, who've got the t-shirt and who've learned lessons that they're happy to share with us. I'm your host, Karen Plum, and this is the DNA of Work. At AWA, we've been interested in the brain for years. The vast majority of our clients' businesses are full of knowledge workers, people who essentially think for a living. So having their people bring their best brain to work is vital for the performance and success of the business and for the health and wellbeing of those people. Nobody wants people to burn out, but it seems to us that a lot of managers and organisations lack the understanding about what helps people maintain a healthy brain, body and balance through their lives, privately and at work. So, in addition to researching the things that have the most impact on the brain things like sleep, exercise, hydration, interruptions, temperature, air quality and so on and embedding this in our approach, we're also intensely curious about the brain itself and how it works, so we can share this within our team and with our clients. A nd we wanted to dig below the surface, beyond a generalised understanding about the brain. So AWA's Managing Director Andrew Mawson and I talked to Dr Lisa Feldman Barrett, neuroscientist and psychologist. Lisa's among the top 1% most cited scientists in the world. She's a prolific author and wrote two of our favourite books "ow Emotions Are Made and Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain. I bet you're curious about the half lesson, aren't you? Lisa's also University Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts. The conversation was very rich and, to do it justice, we've created a two-part special, of which this is the first. We started the conversation by asking Lisa to give us an understanding of what our brains get up to every day.

Dr Lisa Feldman Barrett:

Well, the first thing to realise is that your brain is only three pounds, right, it's a three-pound blob of meat, but it's actually the most expensive organ that you own, so it takes up about 20% of your metabolic budget, even though it's relatively smaller than some other organs. The second thing to realise is that it's a master of deception, your brain, and the reason why is that it's creating your experience and it's controlling your actions, all the while giving itself the impression that these experiences actually reveal the way that it works, and it doesn't. So another thing to realise is that the way that you experience yourself in the world doesn't really pull back the veil of how the brain is doing what it does. That's important, because the way it feels to us is that we see things in the world, we hear things in the world, they trigger things inside us, inside the brain, inside the body, and then we react to those things. So maybe somebody scowls at us in a meeting or they use a tone of voice that we're not particularly happy with. The thought is that that, or the way you experience it, is that that triggers in us emotions or thoughts, and the thoughts and emotions might battle for control of behavior. So are you going to ask someone, are you feeling okay? Are you just going to react with a snippy comment? Are you just going to avoid the person? Are you just going to ignore it? These all seem to us like, some of them seem like knee-jerk reactions, others seem like more considered reactions, but to us it feels like there's a stimulus out there. We process that stimulus, then we react to it. That is not how the brain is structured. That is not how the brain works to the best of our knowledge. So science is always ongoing and it's always revising its understanding based on new discoveries and so on. But to our best available understanding from anatomy, from brain evolution, from understanding about the energetics and metabolics of your body and how that works, your brain is actually not reacting to things in the world. It's predicting. And what I mean by that is literally that if we were to hold constant, like, say, we take this moment and we freeze it in time, your brain is making guesses about what's going to happen next and starting to prepare to act in a particular way, to experience the world and itself in a particular way. And when I say it's preparing, what I mean is it's starting to change the firing of its own neurons in anticipation. So it's making a guess and that guess is based on priors, it's based on past experiences that are similar to the present in some way, and it's not making one guess, it's making like a sample of guesses, like a handful of guesses, and then the sensory signals from the world and from the body make their way to the brain. So sights and sounds and smells, and you know tugs and gurgles and whatever you know, they make their way to the brain and those incoming sense data basically confirm or modify the predictions. So, really, what's going on is this very complicated guessing game whereby the brain is attempting to prepare in advance, to anticipate what's going to happen and prepare in advance, and then it waits for the information to either confirm those guesses or to change them. And this is a much more efficient and metabolically effective way of regulating a body and dealing with an ever-changing world. And the reason why it's more metabolically efficient is and I should say, metabolic efficiency is like the key to everything. Right, it's a key to everything. It's a key to health and well-being and happiness and productivity in your life. So we're not going to reduce everything to metabolism, but metabolic efficiency is a key feature of your brain and your body that you're probably not very aware of, but that has a huge impact on what your life is like. And the one other thing to keep in mind here is that the reason why or a reason why, maybe not the only reason, why it's important that things work this way is because if your brain can't make a guess about what's going to happen next, there is an unlimited number of things that can happen, and that uncertainty is extremely expensive. It's also extremely uncomfortable. So uncertainty, really what a brain is opting for is sort of bounded uncertainty. You can't have boundless uncertainty, because no animal, including humans, can function like that.

Karen Plum:

Yeah, and essentially what we're trying to do is to survive. So the protection of that energy and that metabolic load on us, we're trying to reduce that so that the brain can do all of the things that, the other things it needs to do?

Dr Lisa Feldman Barrett:

I think it's important to understand that the brain is not attempting to reduce the metabolic load, because you could reduce the metabolic load by just sitting in a room and not moving. Sitting in the dark and not moving, that's called the dark room problem that philosophers argue about. And living organisms can't do that because they die. So the goal here is not that the brain is attempting to not spend. It's attempting to spend wisely and to spend efficiently. So the brain can anticipate the needs of the body and the requirements of the world when you're sleeping, and it can do it when you're exercising, and it can do it when you're working hard on a problem, and it can even do it when you're seeking novelty. Like you know, you're seeking uncertainty, kind of deliberately for fun or for adventure. Everything in moderation, you know. But the point being that and in fact actually I should just say in exercise it's a problem sometimes, right, like if your goal is to run the fastest mile that you ever could, you know to be as fast as possible. You probably want to practice running a mile again and again and again and again and again, and you get faster and faster and faster and faster and you burn fewer and fewer and fewer calories doing it, because your brain gets really practiced like building a skill. But if you're exercising to kind of keep your heart healthy and to maybe keep your weight in check and whatever, you have to mix it up. You have to do interval training. You have to constantly be doing something different and maybe something even unexpected. Like in interval training you have a trainer who's calling something out to you that you don't expect, and then you have to do it for 30 seconds and then you do something else for 30 seconds and there's this constant change. Because that way your brain can't get practiced at it, it can't get more efficient at it. You're actually trying on purpose to burn as many calories as possible, and it's okay to do that as long as you replenish, as long as you get enough sleep, as long as you eat healthfully, as long as you drink enough water, and so on and so forth. It's the same thing when you're working, if you're working in a new environment, or you're working on a new problem, or you're trying to innovate right, you're trying to. You know you have to fail quickly and fail often in order to really produce something. That's a lot of. That's, like you know, interval training a little bit. You know it's like there's a lot of costs there and so it's not that you can't absorb that cost, it's that you have to take it into account. You have to replenish, you have to make sure that if you're going to spend, spend, spend, you're doing it in the most efficient way so that you're not being wasteful, basically.

Karen Plum:

So I mean in terms of what the brain does for us every day, I guess, from my understanding, there's a lot of stuff that it does that we're not really very aware of. It looks after all of the systems within our body, as well as doing the things that perhaps we are more aware of, but, as you've explained, perhaps you know, it's not even there working in the way that we think it is. So, in terms of the workload of the brain, do we have any sense of how much of that workload is dedicated to running all of our systems in the background?

Dr Lisa Feldman Barrett:

Well, that's a good question, and I just want to point out, though, to our listeners that there's a, in English we have this way of speaking I've done it too where I talk about the person and then I talk about the brain, as if the brain is doing something for the person. But your brain is you, you are your brain. That's where you - all seeing, hearing, feeling, thinking, is in your brain. When you feel your heart beating, you don't feel your heart beating in your body, You're feeling it in your brain. When you see, you don't see in your eyes. You need your eyes to see, but where the seeing happens is in the brain. Everything is in the brain. Right, if you pinch your skin or you take your pulse, you're not feeling it, you know on your hand, you're feeling it in your brain. So the brain isn't doing something for us. Your brain is you, it's all I mean, your body is you too, but your brain is you. So the brain isn't tricking us, it's tricking itself. And why the brain keeps itself unaware of some things that I mean, nobody knows the answer to that question. And anyone who gives you a suggestion for why - they're just making up a story, nobody knows. But what you're asking me is how much of the brain's metabolic budget is devoted to regulating the body. And that's a tricky, it's a great question, but it's a tricky question to answer. And the reason why it's tricky is that the brain's regulation of the body, which is happening 24-7, even right now, as we speak and as our listeners listen to us, everybody's brain is regulating their body, coordinating the systems and so on. The thing is that that enterprise is not separate from thinking and feeling and seeing and hearing and so on. You can't really separate the two and say, well, this percentage is devoted to the body and this other percentage is devoted to thinking, because they're not separate. You have a mind because your brain is regulating your body. The way that your brain regulates your body is by creating your mind essentially. Everything that you think, everything that you feel, every decision you make, emerges from exactly the same neural patterns as the preparation for your heart rate to go up or down, for your lungs to breathe more deeply or less, for squirts of cortisol and immune function to change, and the plans for moving your body. It's all really predictions. The brain's predictions are the origin of everything physical and also everything mental. They start off really as the same set of signals that then just are differentiated and unpacked in different ways in different processing streams in the brain.

Andrew Mawson:

It's interesting when you talk to people about the brain, because I think people just gloss over stuff. I take the view that human beings are basically brains on legs, in effect. And when you talk to people about their brain and you say everything that you've ever done, everything that you do, all these issues around prediction, the connection between your physiology and your central nervous system and your brain, it's all one big system and it is what you are - people just go, yeah, okay. It's almost like it's the significance of it, it's almost like it doesn't register, in a funny way.

Dr Lisa Feldman Barrett:

I think it's because, first of all, we're unaware largely of everything the brain is doing to regulate the body. That's by design, because if you were I mean, just think about the last time you had stomach cramps or where your chest was tight from having a lung infection or something. When you have something that you can actually sense going on inside your body, or menstrual cramps or whatever, you have a hard time paying attention to anything outside your own skin. Your attention is just grabbed by the sensations inside, and that is by design. One problem is we're not aware. We're not aware of all the drama going on inside. Our brains, don't make us aware of every small sensory change inside our own bodies. But what it does do is it creates this general feeling which people call mood, or a scientist like me would call it affect with an A which, these are simple feelings that are always with you. They are like a simple barometer of what's going on inside your body and what the state of your body budgeting efforts are, so to speak. You feel pleasant, you feel unpleasant, you feel worked up, you feel calm, you feel comfortable, you feel uncomfortable. I don't know if you've ever had the feeling where sometimes the world just feels like a hard place to be, or sometimes things just feel like you feel really in flow and everything feels like it's clicking and it's easy. These are simple feelings that are directly yoked to the metabolic state of the body. Scientists can point to brain regions where this transformation is happening, but nobody knows exactly how it's happening and nobody knows why. But it is, and there are just hundreds and hundreds of studies which make this link, it's really clear. Experimental studies. So I feel comfortable saying this, even though I don't actually understand the mechanisms by which it's occurring. I can point to brain regions and go well, it's happening there, but more than that I can't really say. However, these aren't emotions, these are feelings that are properties of consciousness. They're with you all the time and oftentimes we experience the world in terms of these feelings. And even somebody like me who understands this can, have a hard time sometimes separating how I'm feeling in a mood-related way from my perceptions of the world. So you know, yesterday I was having a tough day, yesterday - it was a stressful day. What is stress? Stress is your brain is preparing your body for a big metabolic outlay. That's it. That's what stress is. Cortisol? Not a stress hormone. I mean, it's a hormone that gets released in stress, but it's also a hormone that gets released when you drag yourself out of bed in the morning, and it's a hormone that is released right before you exercise. It's a hormone that fluctuates throughout the day, depending on the metabolic needs of the body, or really the brain's guesses about the metabolic needs. So stress is just your brain is anticipating a big metabolic outlay and my brain was anticipating a day full of metabolic outlays yesterday. And so to me, I woke up in the morning and I just was like, even before I got out of bed, you know, I was like this is going to be a horrible day, I'm feeling like the world is about to end. It just felt. I felt really unpleasant and just kind of crabby. And now, in a moment like that, I think to myself okay, I really have to kind of grab a hold of myself mentally and say, okay, you're having a body budgeting problem today and you just have to take care of yourself. So that means drinking a lot of water, having some walks, taking some breaks in between these challenging meetings and stuff, because the world isn't ending and everything really is okay. You know, I'm just, I was just prepared for a challenging day, and so the point that I'm trying to make here is that we often take our mood to be an indicator of how things are in the world, but it's not. It's really an indicator of how well your brain is regulating your body, based on or in response to these guesses that it's making about what the requirements are for the day. And sometimes we feel bad, like really crappy, not because something is wrong, but because you're doing something hard and you're draining your budget and you've got to replenish, and when you do that, life goes more smoothly for you.

Andrew Mawson:

Just taking that a little bit further, you know, of course at the moment we're seeing quite a number of different countries people suffering from mental challenges and you know the term burnout is a term that's used a lot and certainly was used a lot during the pandemic. What's your articulation, you know, from a neuroscience standpoint, of the idea of burnout? I mean, we've looked at it a bit and it's a difficult concept to bound and define precisely. What would your articulation of that be?

Dr Lisa Feldman Barrett:

Well, I think about burnout again and I think about it in metabolic terms. So the story that you sometimes read you know I don't know how it is in the UK, in the US the story that was in newspapers and magazines and so on was that, you know, our fight and flight circuits in our brains were overactive and it exhausted us and whatever and what have you. But the problem with that story is there are no fight and flight circuits in your brain. Those circuits which are located in part in a part of the brain called the periaqueductal gray, which is a midbrain area, those circuits are for regulating your body. They're not for fight or flight. They happen to be driven hard in circumstances where you are faced with a threat. But they also, we have experiments where we show that using very, very powerful brain imaging like so powerful that the images that come out almost look like an x-ray of the brain. So we can see into tiny little spots in the brain stem and the subcortical areas of a human brain. We can have somebody do a task that's easier than remembering a phone number and we see changes in activity in those regions, which track changes in heart rate and respiration and so on. It's not the case that we have these circuits for freezing and fleeing and fighting and so on that are overactive. It's that there's a lot of uncertainty, and uncertainty is very, very, very expensive for a human brain, and when there's a lot of uncertainty, the brain can't predict well. And if the brain can't predict well, it means that the brain can't anticipate, can't create an action plan with a couple of options. It's got to keep alive many, many options over a longer period of time, which is very, very expensive. So, if you think about it, one part of the problem here is that even before we had the COVID pandemic, we had a world that was increasingly becoming uncertain politically, economically, health-wise, and then there's the whole climate catastrophe, really. So you have all of that. Then, on top of that, you have the COVID pandemic, which is there is tremendous uncertainty and real threat there for a lot of people. So there's a lot of cost. But now what about the replenishing of that cost? Because chronic stress, the kind of stress that eats away at your brain, basically like literally, almost, we could say, is not just the fact that you have a lot of demand. There isn't an opportunity to replenish what you're spending, and so you're driving your body budget into a deficit. Basically, that would be the metaphor. So are people sleeping enough? Are they eating healthfully, or do they eat pseudo foods that look like food but they're not really food, that are empty in their nutrients? I mean, I know I'm now sounding like a mother, and my daughter can tell you, like her eyes would be rolling back in her head when I start to say things like this, but I am actually speaking to you as a neuroscientist. Sleep, healthful eating, enough protein? Are you exercising enough? Are you going out for walks? These are actually things that matter a lot to the ease with which your brain can manage your body, and so sleep is like, you could cure half of the problems that people experience if they could just get enough sleep. We have in the developed world we've created a cultural environment that makes it very, very easy for people to drive their body budgets into a deficit. And then, on top of all of that, you have the social aspects, which I mean, what's the most uncertain thing that you deal with on a day to day basis? Mostly, it's other people, other people. The best thing for a human nervous system is another human. The worst thing for a human nervous system is another human. I mean humans - we are notoriously unpredictable, and so made only more so by the kind of political divisions that are happening in many, many countries around the world, and so basically, what I'm saying is people feel burned out because there's a perfect storm of demand and not enough replenishing of what is being spent, and that's how I think about it. So other people are a key part of the picture here, yeah.

Karen Plum:

And we're going to pause it there. Maybe it isn't the tense cliffhanger ending you expect from a two-part drama on the telly, but I think you'll agree it's worth pausing and considering Lisa's last sentence. "So other people are a key part of the picture. We probably know instinctively that other people impact our mood and how we feel, but I certainly felt the conundrum of other humans being the best and the worst thing for the human nervous system. Quite a showstopper. And I think that I'll have this in mind as I navigate life in the coming days. In part two, we continue the discussion where we look at the world that parents are navigating with their kids, curating their experiences and gradually exposing them to higher levels of uncertainty. We look at the advice Lisa would give organizations that have many thousands of brains within their workforces, and we look at how we can better understand why some people are keen to reinstate the mental models of the world that made them successful, but which may not align with what people in their teams and organizations are looking for in this hybrid working world. See you next time.. If you'd like to hear future episodes of the DNA of work, just follow or like the show. You can contact us on our website advanced-workplace. com.

Understanding How the Brain Works
Brain's Role in Body Regulation
Navigating Uncertainty and Other People's Impact