Lisa Feldman Barrett (@lfeldmanbarrett) is among the top one percent most-cited scientists in the world for her revolutionary research in psychology and neuroscience. Her new book, Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain, is out now.
What We Discuss with Lisa Feldman Barrett:
- Our brains evolved to keep our bodies alive — thinking is just a bonus by-product.
- Why the lizard brain theory is a myth.
- More like companies than computers, our brains reorganize themselves when the situation calls for adaptation to survive.
- How our brains predict what we think we’re hearing and seeing, and how this affects our behavior.
- Why you’re not really left-brained or right-brained.
- And much more…
Like this show? Please leave us a review here — even one sentence helps! Consider including your Twitter handle so we can thank you personally!
Anyone who’s spent more than five minutes on social media probably won’t be stunned to learn that the human brain didn’t evolve for thinking. So what is it for? Renowned research neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett joins us to discuss this and more from her latest book, Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain.
On this episode, we’ll debunk the lizard brain theory, dive into brain development and what happens during the learning process, discover how our brains rewire themselves to the world around them, find out how emotion affects our senses and influences the way we make predictions, and much more. Listen, learn, and enjoy!
Please Scroll Down for Featured Resources and Transcript!
Please note that some of the links on this page (books, movies, music, etc.) lead to affiliate programs for which The Jordan Harbinger Show receives compensation. It’s just one of the ways we keep the lights on around here. Thank you for your support!
Sign up for Six-Minute Networking — our free networking and relationship development mini course — at jordanharbinger.com/course!
HostGator has been around almost as long as the Internet. Does your business have an Internet presence? Save up to a whopping 62% on new webhosting packages with HostGator at hostgator.com/jordan!
Grammarly goes beyond spellchecking — it levels up your writing at work, school, and personal projects. Premium features include advanced suggestions on grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, and style, and it works in anything from Outlook to Gmail to Twitter, LinkedIn, Google Docs, WordPress — you name it. Get 20% off Grammarly Premium at Grammarly.com/jordan!
Better Help offers affordable, online counseling at your convenience. If you’re coping with depression, stress, anxiety, addiction, or any number of issues, you’re not alone. Talk with a licensed professional therapist for 10 percent off your first month at betterhelp.com/jordan!
LifeLock gives you all-in-one protection for your identity, devices, and online privacy; there’s a victim every three seconds, so don’t become one of them. Save up to 25% off your first year of LifeLock at lifelock.com/jordan!
Miss our conversation with Fyre Festival fiasco fraudster in federal prison? Catch up with episode 422: Billy McFarland | From Fyre Fest Fiasco to Federal Prison here!
THANKS, LISA FELDMAN BARRETT!
If you enjoyed this session with Lisa Feldman Barrett, let her know by clicking on the link below and sending her a quick shout out at Twitter:
And if you want us to answer your questions on one of our upcoming weekly Feedback Friday episodes, drop us a line at email@example.com.
Resources from This Episode:
- Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett
- How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett
- Center for Law, Brain, & Behavior
- IASLab at Northeastern University
- Lisa Feldman Barrett | Website
- Lisa Feldman Barrett | Facebook
- Lisa Feldman Barrett | Twitter
Lisa Feldman Barrett | Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain (Episode 479)
Jordan Harbinger: Coming up on The Jordan Harbinger Show.
[00:00:02] Lisa Feldman Barrett: When your brain is predicting, what it's doing is it's remembering. Your brain is not asking itself, "What is that loud bang? What is that tightness in the chest?" It's asking itself, figuratively speaking, "The last time I was in this situation and my body was in this state, what caused that bang? What caused that tightness in my chest?" So it's asking itself a similarity question. What in my past was similar to the present and what caused those things in the past? And what's the likelihood that that's causing those things again? And then your brain prepares you to act.
[00:00:44] Jordan Harbinger: Welcome to the show. I'm Jordan Harbinger. On The Jordan Harbinger Show, we decode the stories, secrets, and skills of the world's most fascinating people. We have in-depth conversations with people at the top of their game, astronauts and entrepreneurs, spies and psychologists, even the occasional billionaire investor, mafia enforcer, drug trafficker. You get the idea. Each episode turns our guests' wisdom into practical advice that you can use to build a deeper understanding of how the world works and become a better critical thinker.
[00:01:12] If you're new to this show or you're looking for a handy way to tell your friends about it, we've got episodes starter packs. And these are collections of some of your favorite episodes organized by popular topics to help new listeners get a taste of everything we do here on this show. Just go to jordanharbinger.com/start to get started or to help somebody else get started. And of course, I always appreciate that.
[00:01:33] Today, Lisa Feldman Barrett, she educates lawyers, judges, and other legal actors about emotion, neuroscience and the law. And that's just a part of what she does in her work at the Center for Law, Brain, and Behavior. Today, we'll debunk the triune brain theory that we hear so often, you know, the whole lizard brain theory. It turns out it's not real. We'll also do a bit of a dive into brain development and what happens in the brain of a human or adult and how this relates to how we learn. Turns out our brains, rewire themselves to the world around them, not nature versus nurture, but that our nature requires nurture. We'll also discuss the idea that our brain has evolved to regulate our body primarily. So thinking that's just the cherry on top, it's not the primary duty at all. And we'll discuss what this means to us as humans, as humans who think, hopefully. If you're interested in the brain, senses, and perception, you're definitely going to enjoy this episode.
[00:02:24] And if you're wondering how I managed to book all of these great authors, thinkers, and creators every single week here on the show, it's because of my network. I'm teaching you how to build your network for free over at jordanharbinger.com/course. And by the way, most of the guests you hear on the show, they contribute to this course. They're in the course as well. Come join us, you'll be in smart company where you belong. Now, here's Dr. Lisa Feldman.
[00:02:48] I'd love to start by debunking this triune brain theory. So the three layer brain theory, because we hear this a lot, especially in kind of a self-help niche where people go, "Oh, that's your lizard brain." And I'm guilty of that too, right? I love saying things like, "Oh my lizard brain just wants some sugar right now. My lizard brain wants a pizza." I figured it was kind of oversimplified, but I didn't know that it was actually just whole cloth baloney.
[00:03:10] Lisa Feldman Barrett: I think this is one of the most fascinating myths in all of the history of science. Of course, for many, many, many years, people believed that the sun revolved around the earth, but that myth was maintained because we had limited ability to observe how the world worked in relation to the rest of the solar system. This myth, the idea that we have a brain that evolved in three layers, an inner lizard brain. Overlaid with something called a limbic system. Limbic meaning border, the tissue that borders your lizard brain for emotion. So your lizard brain is for instincts. Your limbic system is for emotion. And then layered on top of that evolved this big cushy cerebral cortex, which is the home of rationality. This idea has been around since the beginning of Western civilization. And it's popular in the law. It's popular in economics. It's popular, even in some branches of neuroscience. It's very popular in coaching and leadership training and generally in the media. And it's completely false.
[00:04:21] Jordan Harbinger: It's easy to understand though, right? It's just like easy for me to remember that there's three things in it and then one is primal and the other one is not. It's just sort of like simplified to the point where I go, "That must be right, because I can wrap my head around it."
[00:04:34] Lisa Feldman Barrett: Yeah, I would go further, Jordan. I would say it feels right. You know, when you're struggling with yourself, you want to have that extra piece of chocolate cake or that extra cookie. It feels to you like you have an inner lizard and inner beast, which is driving you to satisfy your urges. And oftentimes our behavior does feel like a struggle between what we want and what we know to be good for us. And I would even go so far as to say, if you go all the way back to ancient Greece, you can see that writers like Plato, for example, actually wrote about the human psyche — for our purposes, we can say the human mind — as a battle between two beasts, two horses, one for instinct, one for emotion, passion. And the other, the chariot, charioteer, the human who tries to battle these beasts and the charioteer is representing rationality.
[00:05:29] So this is actually a story of human morality. It's actually an origin story that's kind of anchored in human morality, beliefs about human morality. Your mind is a battleground between urges, instincts, emotions on the one hand and rationality on the other for control of your behavior. When rationality wins, you are moral and you are healthy. When your inner beast wins, you're either immoral because you didn't try hard enough or you're sick, mentally ill, because, you know, rationality just couldn't overcome your inner beast.
[00:06:11] And so I think there are a lot of reasons why this myth is still with us, but it doesn't at all reflect how the human brain evolved. And it also doesn't reflect how the human brain functions.
[00:06:24] Jordan Harbinger: That's interesting. And I've heard this before and it reminds me of this argument that people always say, " We need this legal structure or this religious structure, because otherwise things will devolve into chaos." And the common reply is, "No, I already murder and steal as much as I want," which is zero, right? And like, people are not necessarily constantly struggling against — I'm scared of the person who says, "Man, if it weren't for my rational brain and this system of laws that we have in this country, I would just be doing X, Y, Z horrific, terrible violence, depraved things. And I'm like, "I don't really want the person who's just barely holding on by a thread to the idea that they haven't cut me open and stolen everything from me," or like killed my family. You know, there are people that say things like that often in movies. They're right. It's like the joker or something where he just loses it. But there are people that kind of agree with this theory. And it's terrifying to think that there's just a bunch of people out there where, but for the police officer on the corner, they're lighting the whole neighborhood on fire.
[00:07:22] Lisa Feldman Barrett: Sure. I mean, it's possible that there are people out there like that, but I would say a lot of our listeners right now might use this narrative because it's a way of — you know, kind of letting yourself off the hook a little bit, and that's actually how it works in the law. So in the law, if you were behavior, if you were bad behavior harms someone and the cause of that behavior is thought to be emotional, then you are less culpable. You're seen as less culpable as less responsible for the harm that you do because it wasn't you with all your faculties. It was your inner beast who reared its ugly head. I mean, that's a bit of a caricature and a bit of an overstatement, but the general gist is right. When we talk about less than admirable actions as rooted in some kind of ancient set of urges, then it's sort of a way of hinting that we don't really consider ourselves as responsible for those actions as we would if they were rational.
[00:08:30] Jordan Harbinger: I understand this. I mean, some of that is also, as I'm sure you're aware, rooted in the idea that somebody who hits somebody with a baseball bat and injures them because they were caught with the other person's wife is probably not necessarily a super dangerous person who shouldn't be allowed to go to the shopping mall, right? Because they don't get triggered unless they've hit a certain threshold, according to their actions. But it's still a little scary because you're right, that's not how many people who are not culpable would react. They'd be angry, but they wouldn't necessarily get violent, right?
[00:08:57] Lisa Feldman Barrett: Yeah. Most people who happened upon a spouse — if they're unfortunate to have a spouse, who's cheated on them and they walk in and find that most people don't pick up a shotgun and shoot anybody or harm anybody in any kind of physical way. And in fact, actually if the tables are turned and if a woman walks in and finds her husband or her partner engaged in an adulterous act and she reacts violently, nobody cuts her any slack in the law.
[00:09:29] Jordan Harbinger: Really?
[00:09:30] Lisa Feldman Barrett: Yeah. This crime of passion kind of defense works really well for men. Not so well for women.
[00:09:38] Jordan Harbinger: Interesting. Because you are so quick to call women emotional and it's like, "Oh, but not like that. Not like that. Only guys are allowed to kill people when they're emotional. Women, on the other hand, you all are emotional for different reasons." Like we hear that argument a lot, right? Women are so emotional, but then when you try and bring that argument up in court, it's like, "Well, hold on."
[00:09:55] Lisa Feldman Barrett: Yeah, actually I have a whole chapter on how emotions are used in the law in my first book, How Emotions are Made. It's full of fascinating little tidbits that will entertain your friends at dinner parties — when we have dinner parties again — but also slightly horrify you, when you realize the ways in which mythical notions about rationality and emotion are kind of weaved into our legal system.
[00:10:21] Jordan Harbinger: What about this whole left side versus the right side of the brain? I've heard that that is just a metaphor. And I'm curious because a lot of people will say like, "Oh, I'm so right-brained." And I don't really care about that stuff usually, but it's a problem when it limits us, right? Someone says, "Oh, I'm not creative. I'm very left-brained." And I kind of grew up thinking that like, "Oh, I'm left-handed," I can't remember what it is. "I'm left-handed so I'm left-brained," or, "I'm left-handed so I'm right-brained. So I can't draw well." It was just a bunch of garbage that was based on kind of pop science, right?
[00:10:50] Lisa Feldman Barrett: Yeah. This is a really tricky one. I would say, generally speaking, you are correct. That there is no really good evidence that the left side of your brain is rational and the right side of your brain is emotional or is intuitive or is creative. That's just a myth. There are one or two places where there seems to be a left right distinction that is learned over time.
[00:11:15] One of them is language. So for most people, but not everybody, for most people, language is more lateralized to the left hemisphere than the right hemisphere. But again, humans don't start out that way. The brain develops that way, but not for everybody, for some people it's the opposite. The right side is more lateralized for language and the left side. But that doesn't mean that nothing about language happens on the right side. And it also doesn't mean that other types of cognitive functions like thinking or decision-making or anything rational, whatever that means is happening on the left side of your brain. That's just blatantly incorrect.
[00:12:00] Jordan Harbinger: I'd love to talk about how brains develop in newborns. I just had a child who's 18 months old. And your book when we were talking about tuning and pruning the newborn brain, that's interesting to me because, of course, I love languages. People who listen to the show know that I speak five of them. And I learned all of them as an adult except for English. And I'm always hearing, "Oh, well, if you'd started learning this as a kid, you'd be so much better." And there's kind of different sciences has maybe that's true. Maybe it's not. I'm curious how the newborn brain develops. And does it mean we can't learn certain things later in life like languages?
[00:12:33] Lisa Feldman Barrett: You can always learn things later in life. And I think you're living proof of that. I'm in awe of the fact that—
[00:12:39] Jordan Harbinger: I learned them as well, I suppose.
[00:12:41] Lisa Feldman Barrett: I'm in awe that anybody could learn five languages or four languages as an adult when I can barely speak English sometimes, like clearly, you know, hearing today. You can always learn new things. It's just that in childhood, some things are easier to learn. And there are some kinds of input that we are as humans prepared to learn. That is our brains are expecting certain types of input in order to develop normally. So a little infant brain is not a miniature adult brain. It's a brain that is born under construction, waiting for a set of wiring instructions from the world.
[00:13:23] That is the thing that you do with an infant. How much light do you expose the infant to? Whether you have a nightlight or not. How much music do you expose the infant to? How much do you talk to the infant? How much eye contact do you make? How much do you hold the infant? Which directions do you hold the infant? Facing you or facing out? All of these things over time actually have an impact on how the baby's brain wires itself. It wires itself to its world, to a world that you create, that you curate for it.
[00:13:52] And of course, we've always known that it matters how we treat our children, but I think most people including me are really surprised to learn just how much our actions towards infants really matter to the way that infant's brain develops.
[00:14:11] Jordan Harbinger: You give the example of this Romania orphanage example, which is just heartbreaking. Essentially, the kids are neglected, never picked up and they never developed. It's not quite social skills, right? It's beyond that. They just never developed the capacity for a lot of emotional — what didn't they develop? It was kind of like they were dysfunctional in many ways.
[00:14:28] Lisa Feldman Barrett: Well in really, really basic ways I would say. So I think it's really important to understand that your brain's most important job isn't thinking or feeling or seeing. Your brain's most important job is regulating the systems of your body, your heart, your lungs, your immune system, your metabolism. This is actually the most important thing that your brain is doing and everything else your brain does — thinking, seeing, feeling, and so on — it's doing in the service of regulating your body. You and I don't — we don't experience our life that way we don't experience every feeling that we have, every hug that we give, every insult that we bear, we don't experience our lives that way, but that is actually what's happening under the hood.
[00:15:11] And so when an infant is born that infant — I mean, think about it can't even burp by themselves. They can't fall asleep. They have to be taught how to fall asleep. They have to be taught how to nurse. I mean, they are really little helpless creatures and their caregivers are basically taking care of the infant's body, of the infant system. And that care is wiring the brain to very slowly over time, to assume primary responsibility for regulating that infant's body.
[00:15:45] Now, it turns out that just feeding and watering an infant isn't sufficient for the brain, that infant's brain to learn how to do the job that it was intended to do. Also, that what's required are a lot of social things that we do with babies — talking to babies, holding babies, making eye contact with babies, sharing attention with babies, which means, you know, you look at something and then they look at something and then you look back at each other or labeling things for babies. All of these things are really important to normal development or what we would call neurotypical development in an infant.
[00:16:23] And the real tragedy in the Romanian orphanage situation is that hundreds of thousands of children were warehoused in institutions. And even in the cases where these kids were fed and had a place to sleep and they were fed and so on, they had functionally no contact with adults other than very briefly at feeding times. And as a consequence, their brains didn't develop in a neurotypical way. Their bodies actually are underdeveloped too. And it's not just that they have problems regulating their emotions. They have problems doing almost everything actually. Their brains just aren't equipped to regulate their behavior in a neurotypical way. And that's because all of that wiring got pruned away.
[00:17:20] You know, your brain is your most expensive organ in your body. It's like 20 percent of your metabolic budget. That's incredibly expensive. So you need to think of it like it's a Maserati or, you know, like a really, really, really expensive pair of shoes. It's really expensive. And so your brain is going to pare back bits and pieces of itself if they're not being used because then they're just kind of like a metabolic drag and that's what happened to those children.
[00:17:48] Jordan Harbinger: So it's almost like if you were thinking of this in terms of physical mobility, it's like how little kids can squat down really easily and they can sort of like, they put their foot in their mouth. And as they get older, they can't do that because you lose mobility that you don't use, right? If you're not stretching or doing some kind of crazy yoga stuff, even as a little kid, you're never going to be able to put your foot — well, not that you'd want to. You're never going to be able to put your foot physically in your mouth again and chew on your toes. Your brain's kind of doing some version of that, where it says maybe you start off being able to relate really well non-verbally to somebody else. But if you are ignored for three years and left in a crib, like some of these infants were in the Romanian orphanage, your brain just says, "You're never going to need this network of relating to other children or other people or showing and receiving love or whatever it is going on." So those neurons just kind of — did they die or do they just kind of get repurposed? What happens?
[00:18:39] Lisa Feldman Barrett: Yeah. So that's a really interesting question. And the answer is we don't completely know, but here's what we do know, generally speaking about how brains work, brains really are a use it or lose it organ. And so when your brain, so for example, when you're born, you can hear all kinds of sounds, regardless of whether those sounds exist in your native language or not. And what happens is if you're not exposed to certain sounds, then the wiring that would support that kind of dies back. It doesn't mean the neurons die. It means that the bushy branches at one end or the bushy root at the other kind of contract a little bit and they get kind of smaller.
[00:19:17] So when we prune in the brain, when the brain prunes itself, it's not usually killing neurons, it's usually trimming, you know, giving a good trim to the bushy parts of a neuron. The reason why it would be very bad to lose brain cells is that you cannot grow them back. Other than a couple of places in your brain. Your brain cannot birth new neurons. So when you lose it, sweetheart, it's gone.
[00:19:45] The interesting thing is that science, or to me anyways, really cool thing is that scientists for many years would look at the human brain and say, "Well, how come we can grow neurons in these one or two other places? But mostly we can't like, what's special about those one or two other places?" And it turns out there's nothing special about those places. Actually in other vertebrate brains, they can grow neurons their whole lives. It's just that we've lost that ability. And that ability probably was lost because when you lose the neurons, you lose the memories that they make up. So we live very long lives. And as a consequence, it's not a great idea to lose your neurons. And when you do, you cannot grow them back.
[00:20:23] Jordan Harbinger: That's sort of terrifying. So if I don't remember something, does that mean I've lost neurons in the area of my brain?
[00:20:29] Lisa Feldman Barrett: Well, it depends, right? So for example, I would say, you know, it might just be that that set of connections is really being used very often. And if you remind yourself of that information, then poof, you have it back. And also memories are not coded in only one way. So there could be lots of different sorts of patterns or assemblies of neurons, which can remember the same information. But if you have catastrophic memory loss, meaning something like dementia, right? Then when the neurons are gone, the memories are gone forever. And really that's what dementia is. And that is sometimes what memory loss is after you've been hit on the head or you've had a stroke or some kind of like serious brain damage.
[00:21:17] Jordan Harbinger: What about growing up poor? I know there's some new research on poverty in the brain, but I would imagine that similar to not being held when you're young and I don't want to equate growing up without Nintendo is the same thing as being left alone in an orphanage and a crib, but there's a lot of people that grow up wanting or they're under a lot of stress. Their family's under a lot of stress. They have a single mom that works two jobs and she has a kid. So there's a lot of time spent staring at a TV while a teenager reads a magazine on the couch. You know, things like that. And you don't have to be poor to grow up like that but I think a lot of people who are under the poverty line do grow up like that. That has to affect your brain development.
[00:21:55] Lisa Feldman Barrett: Yeah. So again, I think you're really intuitively asking a set of really important questions here. And you just asked me three or four different questions. So I'll try to sort of pick them off one at a time.
[00:22:06] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah, you're never supposed to do that in an interview by the way. But you know, you're welcome, especially since they're all complicated.
[00:22:13] Lisa Feldman Barrett: Well, we're talking about really complicated stuff. So that makes a lot of sense. I think, first of all, it's important to understand that when we talk about poverty, we're really not talking about, you know, "Oh, you didn't get that Nintendo game that you wanted."
[00:22:27] Jordan Harbinger: Right.
[00:22:27] Lisa Feldman Barrett: Or, you know, you really want to eat steak, but you have to eat hamburgers. You know, that's not what we're talking about when we talk about people living below the poverty line. The answer is growing up in poverty will affect brain development in a very, very pernicious way. So if you are growing up in — if you're a little brain in a little body, in an environment that doesn't have enough food that has a lot of noise, which never goes away, where the temperature is really variable and not in someone's control. If you don't sleep enough, if you don't hydrate enough, if you don't have people talking to you or you're not exposed to words enough, this actually affects the way that the brain finishes itself, right? Little brains wire themselves to their world. They wire themselves to effectively regulate the body as well as they can in the world that they're in. And of course, if you're growing up in poverty, it's very likely that you have caregivers who are very stressed and who may not have the opportunity to give you as much time and as much interaction as you would get if you were growing up in a middle-class home. That being said, brains are also remarkably resilient.
[00:23:50] So I should tell you that I grew up in a working poor family, where it was often the case that you would open a cupboard and there would be really not that much to eat. And my family needed help financially in order to stay above the poverty line. And I am the first person in my extended family to go to university, let alone, you know, get a degree and become a professor. So you could look at me and you could say, "Well, obviously, she's an example of the fact that poverty can't really hurt you." And what I would say is who knows what I would have been if I had actually grown up in a household that actually had sufficient food and sufficient enrichment and so on.
[00:24:31] The point is that what allows the brain to grow healthy and whole is not one thing. It's a whole stew of influences. And poverty sort of systematically removed some of those ingredients. That doesn't mean that a brain won't develop in a capable way, but what it does mean is that a brain isn't going to develop in an optimal way. And so in cases where there's real adversity, that little children are facing real adversity, it can seriously impact their future functioning, but it's always the case that poverty is just a waste of human capital because brains are wiring themselves in non-optimal situations. And who knows what you would have gotten from those kids, what kind of adults they would have grown up to be and what they could have accomplished for you or for themselves if they had had optimal growing conditions.
[00:25:30] Jordan Harbinger: I read in your book that relating to and understanding people who look or act different than us is more taxing on our brains. And I mean, I think anyone can kind of relate to that if you boil it down to something ridiculous, like disagreeing with your parents at Thanksgiving, but I'd love to discuss just a little bit. Because it seems like one of the reasons for the echo chambers we see in our lives, where we only hang out with the people who agree with us and are like us might be because it's just easier.
[00:25:56] Lisa Feldman Barrett: Yeah. I mean, now, we're into the land of speculation.
[00:26:00] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:26:00] Lisa Feldman Barrett: What I'm going to say is sort of speculating based on what I do know, but here's what I know: your brain, all brains, really on the planet as far as we know, don't work by reacting to things in the world. So it's not like your brain is off and you react to stuff in the world. Your brain is actually using your past experience to predict what's going to happen next. This is kind of a remarkable thing. It's surprising sometimes even to me, even though I've steeped in the science of it. But it's more metabolically efficient to predict and correct than it is to just react.
[00:26:35] Because if you're just reacting to stuff in the world, there's a tremendous amount of uncertainty and that uncertainty is actually almost unmanageable. So really what the brain is doing is it's using its past experience, combining it in various ways. Reimplementing that experience in your brain as a prediction of what's going to happen next. And this actually is how your actions are controlled. This is how your thoughts and your feelings, and even what you see and hear and smell and so on, how these things are constructed, how these experiences are constructed. So when you're in any situation where things are unexpected or novel and uncertain, so unexpected or uncertain, ambiguous, it's going to be more metabolically expensive for you.
[00:27:22] And the way we're wired, metabolic expense in the moment, you can track that by the simple feelings that we have, feeling pleasant, feeling unpleasant. I can unpack why that's the case, but for now let's just take it—
[00:27:35] Jordan Harbinger: At face value, yeah.
[00:27:36] Lisa Feldman Barrett: Yeah. So think of exercising, for example, you know, when you're exercising after a while you start to feel really uncomfortable. Like it feels unpleasant. You might feel really pleasant at the end of it.
[00:27:47] Jordan Harbinger: Like the old endorphin counterbalance. Yeah.
[00:27:50] Lisa Feldman Barrett: Yeah. Although, you know what, I read something recently, which suggested it's not endorphins. It's actually internal cannabinoids. Like you have an internal, you know, marijuana system, really.
[00:27:59] Jordan Harbinger: Ah, I get mine externally, but we don't have to go into that.
[00:28:04] Lisa Feldman Barrett: A lot of people do. But what I read was that it's actually your internal cannabinoids that's giving you that pleasant feeling. But anyways—
[00:28:10] Jordan Harbinger: Interesting.
[00:28:10] Lisa Feldman Barrett: —the point being that whenever you're burning a lot of glucose and you're using up a lot of oxygen and you haven't replenished it yet, you feel crappy. And that's going to be true no matter what the reason is for your spending, your resources in this way.
[00:28:27] And so when you're learning something new, for example, oftentimes it feels really hard. It feels uncomfortable. It actually feels really unpleasant. And there might actually be a high arousal aspect to the feeling. And I don't mean sexually. I mean, you just feel jittery and you feel like crap. And that's because as your brain is attempting to learn something new, to acquire new information so that it can predict better next time, there are chemicals that aid this process, but that result in a feeling of jittery crappiness, which is basically often what you feel when you're exercising. And it it's often what you feel when you're learning something new.
[00:29:07] If you replenish what you spent, that is you sleep and you drink water and you have protein and carbohydrates in a healthy form. You can think of it as kind of spending and replenishing spending and replenishing, and you're fine. You have enough energy to exercise and you have enough energy to talk to people who believe something different than you. You have enough energy to learn new things, to expose yourself to novelty and so on and so forth.
[00:29:34] But if you are metabolically encumbered, the analogy that I use in the book, both books actually talk about this, is that your brain is running a budget for your body. It's not budgeting money, it's budgeting, water and glucose and salt and oxygen and all the nutrients that are necessary to keep you alive and well. If you are running a deficit because you haven't slept, because you've been on social media too much, because you haven't eaten healthfully. Whatever the reason is, then you don't have a lot of extra energy to devote to learning something new or to putting yourself in situations where things are ambiguous or unexpected or novel.
[00:30:16] And that will mean that you will start to choose, pair away activities that have great metabolic expense or that make you feel like crap. Most people would agree that talking to other people who are really, really, really different from you in the sense of they believe something different, maybe they have different morals or they have different values, it's a little challenging.
[00:30:42] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:30:42] Lisa Feldman Barrett: And I would say it's challenging, like exercises challenging in a metabolic sense. There's an analogy there that's very biologically real. And when we're living under conditions like we are right now where a lot of people have body budgets, which are running a deficit, there's not a lot of energy left to spend on expanding your point of view. You know, it just makes sense. Kind of economically
[00:31:06] Jordan Harbinger: You're listening to The Jordan Harbinger Show with our guest Lisa Feldman Barrett. We'll be right back.
[00:31:11] This episode is sponsored in part by HostGator. In the fast paced and futuristic sounding world of 2021, owning your own website is as crucial as indoor plumbing. All right. That's a bit of an exaggeration. But a global market research firm recently concluded that only 25 percent of the people searching for you online are going to do so through social media. 52 percent will look for your website first. So if you don't have one or you're rocking that old GeoCities, if that's even still around, unless you're trying to live off grid while you're scratching at your 35,000 word manifesto on birchbark in a remote woodland shack. You're going to want to. HostGator's help to make sure that you're up to date. You don't have to know the first thing about programming or design in order to custom craft your own mobile friendly website. They've got a drag and drop builder, which is just what it sounds like. There are hundreds of themes. You can take payments. Everything works great on the phone. And if you've got a tight budget, no worries. As long as you're a new user, you can try any HostGator package for 62 percent just for hearing the sound of my sweet voice. And if you're not completely satisfied with everything HostGator has to offer, you've got 45 days to cancel for a refund of every last penny. Check out hostgator.com/jordan right now to sign up. That's hostgator.com/jordan.
[00:32:19] This episode is also sponsored by Grammarly. This is a tool I just fell in love with. They gave it to us and I thought I'm never going to use this. I already have spellchecker. I've already got a grammar checker. it's built into every dang web browser or word processor. Grammarly has been a game changer. As part of the show, I regularly communicate with brilliant and important people. I use Grammarly so that I don't sound like a schlub or at least as much of a schlub when I do that. So if you're sending a message to your landlord, a potential date, your boss, you're finding it difficult to get the right words, I highly recommend Grammarly. Even if you're great at writing, Grammarly will help you increase your vocabulary by making word suggestions, not the same kind of, sort of typical thesaurus stuff. I mean, they really have a good, I guess, AI or machine learning that guides you doing this. If you have clarity issues in your writing, which I do because I've got 7,000 thoughts in my head, and I realized that I put half of them down into the sentence and avoided the main points, somehow Grammarly will find that somehow and correct it or help you correct it. So vocabulary and clarity suggestions have been a big part of me improving my writing. And it's a small part of what they do over at Grammarly. Elevate your writing with 20 percent off Grammarly Premium by signing up at grammarly.com/jordan. You like how I did that. So you remember how to spell grammar? G-R-A-M-M-A-R-L-Y.com/jordan for 20 percent off.
[00:33:39] And now back to Lisa Feldman Barrett on The Jordan Harbinger Show.
[00:33:45] You mentioned before prediction, and we talked about this in our Beau Lotto episode, where essentially the brain predicts what we see. So we're not necessarily seeing what we take in with our eyes. Our brains use memory, feelings, smell, taste, everything around us to create — especially our vision — so we're not necessarily seeing or hearing what our organs sense, our brain is building this. And it's fascinating to me that the brain mixes input and memory into our senses. I knew that our brains constructed vision, but I didn't know it could be altered based on the state that we were in, memories we have, although of course it makes sense when I think about it. I mean, we see it in movies, right? Somebody sees something and gets like a flashback, and then they replay the short scene of something that happened to them before. And now they're better equipped or worse equipped to deal with the situation at hand, right? We see that in movies all the time.
[00:34:32] For me, this explains some, what might be happening in a police officer's brain. And I know you've spoken about this before that it's not just — is this what's happening when we see police shootings happen and when we see things like — we've discussed this on the show where somebody who looks like they shouldn't be armed because they're white and they're dressed in a suit, it takes us longer. It takes police who are trained longer to see that this person is a threat. And if we see somebody who looks like other people that they've dealt with in the past, who were armed and dangerous, they see it right away. They see that this person is armed right away even if they're not armed or dangerous or a threat. Did that make sense?
[00:35:07] Lisa Feldman Barrett: It makes sense. But again, there are many pieces to what you just said that I think are important to kind of put exclamation marks on, or maybe underline to be clear about what we're saying, because I think it's really important that people not misunderstand what we're saying here.
[00:35:26] So what I would say is that it's not just with vision, actually, every single thing in your entire life that you have ever experienced — everything you've seen, everything you've heard, everything you smell, everything you taste, everything you feel, everything you think comes from predictions in your brain.
[00:35:45] When we talk about a little brain wiring itself to its world, what it's doing is it's learning about the statistical regularities in sights and sounds, and smells and so on. It is wiring into itself, bootstrapping into itself on a model of the world, as it is encountered it, a model of the world. And actually what it's really a model of is a model of the infant's body in the world, because your brain is always receiving sense data from the world. It's always receiving sense data from your body, always, from the moment that you're born until the moment that you die. And so if you take the brain's perspective for a moment, it's trapped. It's trapped in a dark silent box called your skull and your brain is receiving a steady stream of sense data through your eyes and your ears and your nose and so on.
[00:36:40] And so let's say you hear a loud bang. What is it? And what does it mean for you? Is it someone slamming a door? Is it someone dropping a box? Is it a gunshot? Whatever caused that bang is important for you to know. But you don't know because all you get are the outcomes. That's all you can sense. You don't know what the causes are. You can just sense the outcomes, ditto for what's going on inside your body. Your brain is constantly regulating your body. Your body's constantly sending data back to your brain. It's receiving sense data about your heart and your lungs and all the other parts, moving parts inside your body.
[00:37:16] So when there's a tightness in your chest, what is it? What caused it? Are you anxious? Are you out of breath because you just ran up the stairs? Is it the beginnings of a cold or an infection? Is it the beginning of a heart attack? Your brain doesn't know. It only receives sense data about the outcomes. So how does it know what the causes are because that's what it needs. It needs that information in order to prepare your next action to keep you alive and healthy. And so your brain has one other source of information. It has that internal model. It has those memories from the past that it has wired into the connections between neurons.
[00:37:58] And so when your brain is predicting, what it's doing is it's remembering. It's remembering past experiences and remembering doesn't mean that you have a conscious experience of remembering. It means that your brain is reassembling experiences from the past. Your brain is not asking itself. What is that loud bang? What is that tightness in the chest? It's asking itself, figuratively speaking, "The last time I was in this situation and my body was in this state. What caused that bang? What caused that tightness in my chest?" So it's asking itself a similarity question. "What in my past was similar to the present and what caused those things in the past? And what's the likelihood that that's causing those things again?" And then your brain prepares you to act. So it's actually preparing you to act.
[00:38:51] So it's not like last time that you were in a particular situation and you heard a loud bang and that loud bang last time you couldn't predict it, you didn't know, but it was caused by a gunshot and your brain learned that. Then it's going to make the prediction that in the present circumstances, it's a gunshot, meaning somebody is armed. Now, your brain doesn't sort of think about it. It's just associating patterns. That's all it's doing associating patterns. So your brain starts to prepare you to take certain physical actions, like draw your own gun. And those physical actions actually set your brain up to hear certain things, to see certain things. Like the last time I prepared this action, what did I see? What did I hear? What did I feel? And then your brain starts to actually create those, prepare itself to hear those things and see those things and so on and so forth.
[00:39:44] So it's not just with vision that this is happening. This is happening with every sense you have everything you experience in your life. Every action you take is some combination of what is in your head and what is outside in the world. And the data coming from outside in the world or from your body is only there to confirm the prediction or correct it. You're not reacting to it. All of our brains are wired to the world that we live in. Think about the world that we live in. We live in a world that is filled with television shows and movies and books, and so on, which suggests that people who have a certain skin tone and maybe live in certain parts of the city are more likely to bear a gun than people who don't. And so when a police officer is going into a situation in that part of the city and encounters people with a certain skin tone, his or her brain is going to start automatically making predictions. Those automatic predictions are preparing action first, preparing action first and preparing experience second.
[00:40:50] It's like playing baseball. Okay. Baseball to me. I mean, I live in Boston, so I have to be really careful about saying this because, you know, I should not really be saying out loud that I'm not a baseball fan that could get me kicked out of the city.
[00:41:04] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah, that might be the most controversial part of this segment of the show actually.
[00:41:07] Lisa Feldman Barrett: Right, right. Well, you know what? I grew up in Canada, so my brain wired itself to being a hockey fan. You know, and there's something that's translatable there, but the point is that baseball is actually, even for people who love baseball, maybe it would be even more interesting for them to learn, certainly was interesting to me that, you know, a baseball player who's at bat, his brain is using his past experience and in this particular situation. So what's the weather? How much glucose does he have? How much did he sleep last night? Who is this pitcher? What does the field look like, and so on? His brain is just using all this information really, really automatically to construct a prediction of where he should swing, not based on him seeing the ball, but based on where he predicts the ball will be in a moment from now.
[00:41:56] So what's going on between a batter and a pitcher is a game of wits. It's like a game of prediction and who's going to win, right? Well, not to trivialize it in any way, but it's a little bit the same when you have a police officer going into a potentially dangerous situation, he's going to take all kinds of cues or she will take all kinds of cues, including where is the location, what just happened a moment ago, how much melanin is in the skin, how dark or light is the skin color. Because all of these things, not just in our own experiences, but in movies and books and television shows and so on, they are cues. They might not be valid cues, but they're cues that we have learned because media curates a certain set of statistics for us and our brains wire themselves to their statistics.
[00:42:47] Obviously, Jordan, we're not talking about situations where somebody is running away and you know, a police officer shoots them in the back. We're talking about situations where a police officer sees a gun where there is no gun and shoots someone and kills them unnecessarily. And the fact is that those police officers may have actually literally seen a gun because the way vision works is your brain is preparing you to see something based on the actions that it's preparing you to do. All of which are conditioned on your past experience. And I just want to add, I know I'm talking a lot, but I just want to add one more piece of this and that is that the actual condition of your body is influencing how well your brain can take in visual information from your eyes and correct itself. So when your heart is racing and your brain is tracking that it's going to be harder for your brain to correct its visual predictions. Your brain will be more likely to go with its prediction and not correct itself because of the way that different sensory information influences itself.
[00:44:01] I did write about all of this in the New York Times a couple of years ago. And I just want to make it clear when I'm saying this, that I'm not saying that this is a different explanation than racism.
[00:44:14] Jordan Harbinger: Sure.
[00:44:14] Lisa Feldman Barrett: And I'm also not saying that this is a form of racism. I'm just speaking as a neuroscientist that seeing a gun where there is no gun is perfectly explainable under many conditions, just based on understanding how your brain predicts and creates your experience.
[00:44:31] Jordan Harbinger: So when we see these kinds of accidents, it's not necessarily, "Ah, this person just wanted to execute this person." But sometimes that is the case, obviously, I mean, that does happen, but other times it can be, "No, this person didn't just think they saw it. They did see it," because that's how vision works. It wasn't some sort of illusion any more than our entire sense of vision is actually that same illusion, right?
[00:44:53] Lisa Feldman Barrett: Yes, absolutely. And I think that there's a really deep and profound point here, and that is the following: we live in a world that creates certain statistics for us. We live in a world that creates the opportunity for our brains to predict in ways that lead to prejudicial actions. Not because we're horrible people, but because this is just how brains work. Your brain wires itself to its world. That world is created by other people. It doesn't only include the things you actually personally have experienced yourself. It also includes — those wiring instructions also come from things that people tell you, things that you observe, things that you observe in your real life, things that you observe in the media, things that you observe on television, things that you observe in movies, things that you observe when you're reading. All of these things if they're repeated over and over and over again, become the memories that your brain uses to make predictions about how to keep you alive and well in the world. This is what implicit bias is. It's just your brain functioning normally, but it's been pickled in a set of experiences that potentially lead you to predict incorrectly.
[00:46:19] Jordan Harbinger: This reminds me and this might not be the exact same thing. When I was young, I was probably in middle school and a friend's dad and mom were driving us to a lacrosse tournament and there was a really loud helicopter, like an industrial military helicopter, not like a regular traffic helicopter. And he wasn't driving, the wife was driving. And he froze and he goes, "Do you guys hear that?" and we were like, "Yeah, what the hell?" And his wife knew exactly what was going on and goes, "Honey, we're driving to the lacrosse tournament. Are you hungry?" And he froze and paused and goes, "Yeah, let's stop by McDonald's. I need to go to the bathroom." And he was totally shaken. And then later on, I was like, "What the hell was that?" Because I didn't really get it. And my friend said, "Yeah, my dad was in Vietnam and that just happens sometimes. One time he jumped behind the couch." And I was like, "Okay." I didn't really get it. But now I'm thinking, okay, this guy was traumatized by something. So his pattern in his operating system is when he hears just that very specific type of helicopter sound, whatever it was, you know, along with probably other types of memories or maybe he's also hungry and has a low blood sugar. What do I know? He like jumps into this other predictive mode that was definitely part of his fight-or-flight reaction because of whatever happened to him in Vietnam.
[00:47:30] Lisa Feldman Barrett: Yeah. I wouldn't say it's another predictive mode. It's the same predictive mode. Your brain picks. It predicts all the time. To me, this is a really remarkable part of how this all works. If we were to freeze time right now and just peer into your brain. You know, clear away the blood, peer into your brain. What would we see? What we would see is that your brain is representing some version of the conditions in the world and the conditions in your body, and it's associating. It's predicting what's going to happen next based on past experience, based on your past experience. It's forming predictions and setting probabilities for those predictions to be likely.
[00:48:07] Now, those predictions are not abstract things. They're literally your brain changing the firing of its own neurons to prepare your body to act. It's not like your brain takes in information and goes, "Hmm, let me think about this. What does this mean?" No. What it does is it's just associating. It's creating patterns based on past patterns. That's it. So your brain is predicting what's going to happen next. And those predictions are first predictions to change your heart rate, to change your breathing and so on to support a physical movement. And then it's a prediction of what will you see, what will you hear, what will you smell, and so on.
[00:48:47] Most times your brain waits for the incoming sense data from your eyes and your ears and your taste buds and so on to compare the prediction to the incoming data. If the prediction is confirmed by those data, then your actions proceed and your experience proceeds and no new information from the world makes it much further into your brain because your neurons are already firing in a way that was confirmed by the data that you received.
[00:49:17] So, first of all, let me just be really clear. That's really remarkable when your brain works well and your brain is predicting accurately, the sense data from your body and from the world is there merely to confirm those predictions. So your experience is largely made from what is in your head, because it matches what is in the world. There's nothing new to be learned there. The only time you actually take in information from the world or from your body into your brain is when there's something unexpected there. And that's why scientists like me think it's like more metabolically expensive to do that, but sometimes when your brain can't wait, it kind of doesn't care what the conditions of the world are. What it's predicting is so dire that it's just going to act and, you know, screw the consequences. It's just going to act. And that's what we call a fight-or-flight response.
[00:50:17] And it's also the same reason why when you see reflexes, you know, in smaller animals, those reflexes are actually very sensitive to the context. So the point is that even a larval zebrafish, which is like two hours old is still, it can execute these fight or flight responses in a way that's really, really sensitive to the immediate surroundings that that fish is in. Because its brain is predicting and then it just doesn't wait for the correction or the confirmation, it just acts to keep that animal alive. And that's what's happening to, you know, your friend's dad who was jumping behind the couch it's just the same process.
[00:50:59] Jordan Harbinger: Can we change our predictions? I mean, I know that we can, it's possible. It happens all the time, but is there a sort of a manual way where we can unwire or rewire. And I'm separating this from the metaphysical bullsh*t that influencers spread around about visualizing things and hanging out in $10,000 mastermind groups to attract wealth and success. I mean like, are there things we can do that say, that you recommend to people where it's like, "Hey, my brain is doing this X, Y, Z prediction or is that literally therapy?
[00:51:25] Lisa Feldman Barrett: No, I would say in a very real way, your brain is using the past to predict your immediate future, which becomes your present. So, one way to think about it is that you're constantly cultivating your past, which will influence what kind of a person you will be in the future. That's not metaphorical bullsh*t. That's actually, I think a reasonably succinct way to describe what's happening in your brain. If you want to change who you are, one way to do it is to reach into your past and change the meaning of your past to change your memories. That's really hard to do.
[00:51:57] Jordan Harbinger: Right.
[00:51:57] Lisa Feldman Barrett: I think that is partly what people are learning to do in therapy. Actually, certain types of therapy really are designed for the purposes of re-examining the past and changing the meaning of what happened. And that is variably successful, depending on which outcome studies that you read,
[00:52:13] Jordan Harbinger: I didn't mean to say metaphorical bullsh*t. I meant to say metaphysical bullsh*t.
[00:52:16] Lisa Feldman Barrett: No, you said metaphysical bullsh*t.
[00:52:18] Jordan Harbinger: Okay good. Okay.
[00:52:19] Lisa Feldman Barrett: I said—
[00:52:19] Jordan Harbinger: Just making sure.
[00:52:20] Lisa Feldman Barrett: No, I said metaphorical bullsh*t. I mean, that's something that you sometimes will see — you know, you sometimes see these really inspirational metaphors on, you know, bumper stickers and posters and things like that. And that sounds like that. "Oh, so you're constantly cultivating your past in order to become a different person in the future." It sounds like — but it actually, you know, there is more than a grain of truth to that.
[00:52:43] Jordan Harbinger: For Gen Z, by the way, a poster is like an Instagram post only it's on your wall on a piece of paper.
[00:52:49] Lisa Feldman Barrett: Right, right. I should've said a meme. Sorry.
[00:52:51] Jordan Harbinger: Right.
[00:52:52] Lisa Feldman Barrett: But the thing is that, you know, it's hard to reach back into your past and change the meaning of your past. Some types of psychotherapy give you exercises. They give you homework. What you're really doing is you're, in effortful way, cultivating new experiences for yourself in the present because your brain will learn those and then they become your past. And then if you practice them enough, they get pretty automatic. You know, like you're building a skill like driving and then eventually your brain will use them to automatically predict in the future. That is a reasonable strategy for changing your predictions.
[00:53:25] Before we go on, I just want to say it's really bloody hard, really hard. I mean, harder than you might imagine, or maybe, you know, how hard it is and it takes way longer to get automated than you would reasonably think. But yes, one thing that you can do is you can expose yourself to new experiences. Think of it like exercise. It's going to be metabolically expensive. It might be like sh*t, but in the end, it's a really good investment in a future you but you can cultivate new experiences for yourself. And if you do it frequently and you do it on a regular basis, then it is giving your brain an opportunity to wire new experiences to predict differently in the future.
[00:54:09] Jordan Harbinger: This is kind of what I used to do a decade and change ago with a lot of shy people, I would take them out and we would have fun. And then I would expose them to new people in new social situations and more difficult social situations. And then we eventually started videotaping those situations and people would see themselves getting more and more confident or just not freaking out during those social situations. And it worked, but it took forever. And even in the week that I had with these people, they would make like a small incremental progress and then have to do the rest on their own and then come back in a year or do the rest on their own in some way.
[00:54:41] But it's like exposure therapy, I guess, right? If you're really scared of snakes and you for some reason wanted to change that you could safely work with somebody who's safely, I don't know, holding snakes. And you see that happen sometimes, right? I think there was a show called Fear Factor where there's half of the things they did were based around that. Like, they would make you hold a tarantula or something along those lines. So it's not, it's like you can rewire your brain over time, but it's not like a Tony Robbins hypnosis where it's like, "Ta-da, you're not afraid of snakes. Here's the snake." That's probably a trick and not real rewiring.
[00:55:11] Lisa Feldman Barrett: Correct.
[00:55:11] Jordan Harbinger: In the last bit of the show here, I'd love to talk a little bit more about emotions and how these are not necessarily standardized right across humanity, because we've recently learned and we've heard a lot about expressions and micro expressions, and this part of your brain does that, but your work shows that culture influences or culture shows that we have different types of emotions. We don't just have happy, sad, scared, angry across cultures. And one, I'd love to discuss that a little bit. And two, I want to know what that means for things like reading body language and micro expressions and facial expressions, because people swear by this stuff. But if cultures affect emotions, then we can't really say that we can read someone's face unless we know all of their cultural history and their background and everything.
[00:55:58] Lisa Feldman Barrett: Jordan, no one, not you, not me, not any person listening to this podcast can read anything in anybody's face or in their body language. Movements are not like words to be read on a page. Your brain is guessing. Your brain is guessing. What does that raise of the eyebrow mean? What does that smile mean? What does that nod have the head mean? Your brain is always guessing. It doesn't matter how confident you feel. It doesn't matter how right you think you are. You're always guessing. You can guess well. You can guess poorly. Your brain is using past experience to make predictions. And those predictions are guesses and that's always true.
[00:56:43] So in our culture, we tend to nod our heads up and down when we mean yes. And there are some cultures that nodding your head up and down means no. Okay. In our culture, people smile for all kinds of reasons. It's not that there's a true smile, which is sometimes called a Duchenne smile, named after this guy Duchenne. The so-called Duchenne smile is like your eye crinkle—
[00:57:08] Jordan Harbinger: Crow's feet.
[00:57:09] Lisa Feldman Barrett: Yeah. But you know what? People can fake that. It's been shown in scientific papers that people can fake it. And I mean, just like turn on a television, you know, look on YouTube. People fake it, you can fake it. I can fake it right now. You know people can fake it. So the point is that, think about your own life. Think about the last time that you were angry? In fact, I probably said this on your show the last time, you know, when is the last time you saw anybody scowl when they were angry and won an Academy Award for it? Never because nobody — I shouldn't say nobody scowl. People scowl approximately 30 percent of the time when they're angry, which means 70 percent of the time when they're angry, they're doing something else. They might be laughing. They might be crying. They might be sitting stone-faced. You cry sometimes when you're happy. You widen your eyes sometimes when you're really angry.
[00:58:02] Our expressions are variable. They depend on the situation that we're in and you don't even have to go outside of a culture in order to see this variability. This variability is there for you and for me and for everybody else on this planet. But yes, the modal meaning of anger and fear and sadness and so on is not the same across the cultures that have those emotion categories and some emotions don't exist in other cultures. Those people in those cultures make meaning of their own physical changes in relation to the world in different ways than we do.
[00:58:40] For example, if you go back. A couple of hundred years in England, there was an emotion called nostalgia that could kill you.
[00:58:50] Jordan Harbinger: I didn't see you going in that direction with it.
[00:58:52] Lisa Feldman Barrett: But the point is that how people made sense of the changes in the body in relation to what was going on around them in the world, the category nostalgia meant something different than it means now.
[00:59:05] Jordan Harbinger: Right. When watching the karate kid that could be lethal, right?
[00:59:08] Lisa Feldman Barrett: Well, you know what, for some people it is lethal. I mean, for some people you lose a loved one and to you, it feels like you've lost a part of yourself. Because you have, you've lost someone who's helped you regulate your body budget. So it feels like a piece is missing. And sometimes people don't recover from that actually. And there are some really sad and tragic stories of people who their demise comes up very rapidly after they've lost someone who's really, really dear to them. So for some people that's sadness, for some people, they experience grief. For some people, they experienced something much more substantial. My point is that the main thing that we can say that is common across cultures is that variation is the norm.
[00:59:55] Jordan Harbinger: This is The Jordan Harbinger Show with our guest Lisa Feldman Barrett. We'll be right back.
[01:00:01] This episode is sponsored in part by Better Help online counseling. I'm a huge fan of therapy. I've said it over and over. I recommend it to a lot of you. In fact, on Feedback Friday, I feel like every other answer is, "You all need therapy, but also—" That's how I start every answer these days, I feel like, and, and it's for good reason. Therapy is extremely important. Look, if you are. Not enjoying the activities you typically did, or you're using a substance to cope — and no shame. We've all been there. And I'm talking about any substance you're taking too much of. Maybe you've experienced some trauma. You want to improve yourself, but you don't know where to start. You're feeling stressed AF about the pandemic and the economy. Therapy can help you untangle and better understand sticky interpersonal situations in which you find yourself as well as sort of understand what's going on inside your own brain — if that tagline sounds familiar. A skilled therapist can also help you understand your own part in a situation and what you can do differently to produce a better outcome. And moreover, a therapist can also help you better understand other people's points of views so that you are more aware of your impact on others. And I know that's a mouthful, but that is self-improvement in a nutshell. And you can have someone help you do it, who you don't have to face every day, you know, and it isn't going to say, "Hey, you're draining on our relationship." You know, that's why friends and significant others don't work as therapists. Also remember reaching out is not a sign of weakness. It's a significant step towards the path of self-care. The sooner you seek help, the faster you can get back on track.
[01:01:22] Jen Harbinger: The Jordan Harbinger Show listeners get 10 percent off your first month at betterhelp.com/jordan. Visit better-H-E-L-P.com/jordan and join over one million people who have taken charge of their mental health with the help of an experienced Better Help professional.
[01:01:37] Jordan Harbinger: This episode is sponsored in part by LifeLock. Now, somebody wrote in and told me this, actually the other day, a lot of these free VPNs or virtual private networks that are out there, they're supposed to be, "Oh, you know, it's increased privacy people can't find you." If you're using a free VPN, you might want to reconsider. Free VPNs, they are known to harvest data and then sell it. So they're kind of in the business of exposing some of your personal information, as opposed to hiding it. That can make you really vulnerable to identity theft. And LifeLock, I got this a long time ago when I first started this current iteration of my business because I was working with business partners and I thought, "Okay, these guys have all my personal information." They're, you know, not necessarily trustworthy. Maybe I should protect my identity. I went out and got LifeLock and it felt great because not only do they tell you if your social security number or other private info is available on the dark web, they can tell you when, where it was, you'll have access to a dedicated restoration specialist if you become a victim of identity theft and they will help do this for you. So you're not sitting at home on your day off trying to write letters to freaking Equifax.
[01:02:40] Jen Harbinger: No one can prevent all identity theft or monitor all transactions at all businesses, but you can keep what's yours with LifeLock identity theft protection. Join now and save up to 25 percent off your first year by going to lifelock.com/jordan. That's lifelock.com/jordan to save 25 percent off.
[01:02:58] Jordan Harbinger: This episode is also sponsored by 1-800-CONTACTS. If you're a contact lens wearer you know that ordering contacts can be a hassle. Now you can order contacts without leaving the house. And it's super easy to do with 1-800-CONTACTS. And it's worth remembering that if you order, now, you can use your flex spending account or FSA. I just learned what that was because I don't have a real job or you can use your vision insurance benefits before they expire. You can even renew your prescription online in just 10 minutes. Couldn't be simpler. You order the same contacts you would get from your doctor. Just look on the side of your contacts box for your prescription details. You can order online, over the phone, or with their app and they ship them fast and free to your home. There's award-winning 24/7 customer support if you ever need help, you have any questions. Their best price guarantee also means that if you find your contacts at a lower price elsewhere, they'll beat it.
[01:03:43] Jen Harbinger: So let 1-800-CONTACTS get you the contact lenses you need. Order online at 1800contacts.com.
[01:03:50] Jordan Harbinger: Hey, thanks so much for listening to the show. Your support of our advertisers, your support of us here, working hard on the show, it means a lot. All of the discounts, all the codes you hear for all the products, those are all in one place. So if you're looking to buy something, make a purchase, support the show, go to jordanharbinger.com/deals. Please do consider supporting those who support us. And don't forget, we've got worksheets for these episodes. Today's episode is no exception. If you want some of the drills, exercises, primary takeaways, we talked about here during the show, they're all in one easy place. That link to those worksheets, that's also in the show notes at jordanharbinger.com/podcast. Now, for the conclusion of our episode with Lisa Feldman Barrett.
[01:04:31] What about those folks who watch my Amanda Knox interview on YouTube and go, "Look at her when she looks down and she looks right, or she does this with her lip. That is all—" I love to highlight this on the show that that is baloney, right? Because all these people who watched like three videos from Ekman or something now think that they can read everyone's micro expressions over Zoom, on a recorded YouTube interview, that's been edited.
[01:04:55] Lisa Feldman Barrett: I want to relay to you a story, which I've never talked about this story before. So this is, I'm letting you in on a little bit of my everyday life here. To me, this story illustrates the point really well. So I had to record a talk recently, like keynote address and I was recording it in advance and somebody else was recording, also a talk, another scientist who also studies emotion. And then it was going to be played virtually at a conference. Okay. I was really busy. I recorded my talk at 10:30 at night after I'd had a really long day. I'd been, I think, at my desk for like more than 12 hours. And I had a migraine. I was dehydrated. I had a migraine, so I'd taken some migraine medication, which actually dries my mouth out quite a bit.
[01:05:41] These are the conditions under which I'm giving this. I'm videotaping this talk out. Of course, when you're giving a talk, you show some slides. You show some science and then you stop periodically and you summarize, right? Now, imagine that you're uncomfortable, you're tired. You're really dehydrated. Your mouth's really dry because you just took some medicine to kill the pain. Every time you stop to summarize, what are you likely to do? You can't take a drink because you're being filmed, right? So what do you do?
[01:06:10] Jordan Harbinger: You lick your lips or swallow or something like that?
[01:06:12] Lisa Feldman Barrett: Yeah, exactly. You lick your lips. You swallow. Right. Okay. So I'm talking to this other scientist who says, "Lisa, I think that you were very anxious during your talk and you did not believe what you were saying." And I said, "Why do you think that? Because I think I was very straightforward with what I was saying. And it definitely is my current view." And the scientists said, "Because every time you would say something that was a little bit critical, you would lick your lips." And I said, "What does that mean?" And the scientists said, "Well, licking your lips is a micro expression."
[01:06:45] Jordan Harbinger: Right.
[01:06:46] Lisa Feldman Barrett: And I said to the scientist, "Well, would it change your mind to know?" And then I just started listing off. It was 10:30 at night. I was really tired. I had a terrible headache. I took medication that would kill the pain. And when your lips are really dry and you can't take a drink because you're on screen, you're going to lick your lips, particularly at times when you know you're summarizing because that's when you can take a break for a minute. There are many reasons why people make the same facial movement. You can scowl because you're mad. You can scowl because you have gas. You can scowl because somebody just told a joke that wasn't funny and you're indicating your displeasure. You can scowl because you're concentrating really hard.
[01:07:32] You cannot read people's emotions because emotions are not read on the face or in the body movements are not words to be read. You're inferring and you could be wrong. Now, Jordan, you and I don't know each other very well. We've talked to each other, I think, two times. This is the second time we've ever talked to each other in our whole life.
[01:07:53] So if I were to scowl right now or smile or tilt my head in a certain way, you know, your brain is going to make an inference. It's going to guess what that means based on past experience. So you might be using a stereotype. Like if I scowled right now, you would be using a stereotype for our culture. "Gee, she's pissed. Why is she pissed? I didn't say anything."
[01:08:11] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[01:08:12] Lisa Feldman Barrett: Maybe I'm scowling because I'm concentrating really hard on what you're saying.
[01:08:17] Jordan Harbinger: You're trying to figure out Zoom.
[01:08:18] Lisa Feldman Barrett: Or I'm trying to figure out Zoom. I'm trying to figure out why it is that somebody keeps muting me when in fact, you know, I have stuff I want to say.
[01:08:25] Jordan Harbinger: Stop unmuting yourself. I'll handle the tech.
[01:08:27] Lisa Feldman Barrett: Someone who really knows well, though, somebody who's been around me for a while knows. They've observed me and they've learned the statistics. So they know, in the past, when I've scowled, it usually means I'm concentrating really hard, or I'm trying to read a really, really small print. So their inferences, their guesses are going to be tailored to the statistics that I tend to give off. Think about your wife or your husband, you know, you can so-called read that person in air quotes pretty well because you've learned the statistics, the patterns that that person tends to emit, but it just means that your guesses, you have a lot of data. You have much better data. You don't have to use stereotypes. You can use more tailored, guesses, more tailored predictions that are specific to that person in the situation that you're in.
[01:09:16] Jordan Harbinger: It also makes sense going along with what we talked about before with — what was that called? That affective realism, where we kind of see the gun we're known as present. If we're trying to read someone else and our brain is making up, imputing our own memories and smells in there, and we don't have enough data for this person, it's not only a guess, it's a guess that probably reflects more about what the guesser has going on than it does necessarily about the person on the screen or spending in front of them.
[01:09:43] Lisa Feldman Barrett: Yes, that's exactly what I was thinking. When I was listening to the scientists, tell me that licking my lips was an expression of how I was nervous because I didn't really believe what I was saying.
[01:09:56] Jordan Harbinger: Basically. That's like, "So you didn't believe what I was saying. And your confirmation bias and all this other crap going on in your head, was looking for some cue and you just decided it was when I licked my lips." Right?
[01:10:06] Lisa Feldman Barrett: Yeah, exactly. You know, sometimes when people say things. They are really speaking to themselves in your presence. It often happens with perception. So out of the blue, when my daughter comes to me and says, "Is everything okay?" I know something's not good with her. Something's not quite right with her. Maybe she's feeling unpleasant. And she's using that as a way of indicating that something is wrong in the world. And it's not just her. We all evolve that way. Really simply, you know, animals evolved to move first. You know, the first animals on this planet that had complex movement did not have eyes, did not have ears, did not have really, they had really very few sentences of the outside world. What they had was an internal coordination system that allowed all the parts to work together. So the animal could move.
[01:10:52] Now, if something comes along and impinges itself upon you from the outside world, that jangles up that internal coordination system. So you do kind of get a sense of the world for free. So when you're feeling crappy, it's very reasonable for you to look around the world and think, "Geez, what's happening. That's wrong out here." The problem is you can feel crappy because you didn't sleep. You can feel crappy because you're not hydrated enough. You can feel crappy because you didn't eat enough today. Or maybe you ate too much. I mean, there are all kinds of reasons. It isn't just one thing that influences how you feel. It's a whole symphony of causes that all work together to create how you feel. But it's reasonable for our first reaction to be, "I'm feeling jittery and unpleasant," that means something in the world is wrong. It doesn't really though but that is a form of affective realism that people use all the time.
[01:11:48] Jordan Harbinger: So we're projecting our own emotions and our own stuff onto other people, or imputing our own emotions onto babies and things like that. What about animals? Because people will take a photo and go, "Look how ashamed my dog looks." And I'm just like, "Is that really what your dog is feeling? Or is that what you think your dog should be feeling because he's standing next to the toilet paper that he shredded, but it's just a dog standing next to a roll of toilet paper that's shredded. It's not a dog that feels bad because they destroyed the paper towel or the toilet paper. I always kind of assume people are doing this with animals as well.
[01:12:18] Lisa Feldman Barrett: I have a whole chapter about this in How Emotions are Made, my first book. The way that we make inferences about movement, about each other's movements is exactly the same way that we make inferences about dogs and cats and Guinea pigs, and birds and cars, and even things blankets, you know, like anything that moves is fair game for us to infer something mental too. And we do it all the time. Little kids do it, we do it, we do it with each other, and we do it with dogs and so on. I do want to say that most vertebrates, I'm going to just stop with vertebrates, animals with backbones, because I'm not sure about anything else, but most vertebrates probably do have simple feelings that come from body budgeting.
[01:13:03] So when your brain is controlling your body, your body's sending sends data back to your brain. This is always happening. It's even happening right now as we're talking to each other. I mean, the remarkable thing here is that inside your body right now, inside every listener's body right now is a virtual symphony, a drama of changes that you can't directly sense in the way that you can see and hear and smell. The way that your brain keeps track of these, consciously, is by simple feelings of pleasantness, unpleasantness, feeling worked up, feeling calm. These are not emotions. These are simple feelings that are with you every waking moment of your life. So when you feel crappy, it usually means that you're running a deficit in your body budget, and you need a deposit. When you're feeling great, it means that your body budget is just humming along really well. And so on and so forth, it doesn't really tell you what's wrong inside your body when you're feeling crappy, it just means something is wrong. And you have to kind of figure out what that is. And that's where predictions come in. And that's where emotions come in.
[01:14:11] Emotions become our explanation for that crappy feeling, because what emotions are, are little stories that our brains create to link our internal state to the outside world. All vertebrates, they have brains that regulate their bodies and their bodies send data back to their brains. And there's really good indication that animals can feel pleasure and pain. There's really good evidence that they can. There are times when they feel pleasant and times when they feel unpleasant. And that may be something that comes along for free because of the kind of brain that we have that regulates the kinds of bodies that we have. So I think it's reasonable to assume that non-human animals can feel, but they don't feel anger and sadness and grief and awe and whatever they feel pleasant or unpleasant. And then we make sense of their actions in emotional ways because that helps us know how to treat them. It helps us know how to co-exist with them and predict what they're going to do and treat them well.
[01:15:14] Jordan Harbinger: We could go on forever. There's a lot about the brain. That's still unexplored. There's infinite questions that we can be asking about this. And it's just a topic that will take many more lifetimes of research before I think we even come close to fully understanding it. I really appreciate your time on this.
[01:15:29] What are you working on now? Or actually, let me ask you this. What do you think is the number one question that you would like to see answered about the brain? I know it's tough and it's kind of a cheesy question. I don't usually like those, but there are certain mysteries in every area of science where researchers go, "If we could just find out what this was or did or how this works, we would unlock all these other things." What is that in your opinion for the brain or for emotions? Even if we just narrow it down to emotions.
[01:15:56] Lisa Feldman Barrett: Okay. I mean, yeah, because I was going to say, do I have to pick one seriously?
[01:15:59] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[01:16:00] Lisa Feldman Barrett: Yeah, I would say your body is sending sense data back to your brain. But you don't experience that sense data directly. You experience these very physical changes in your body as something mental, as a feeling of pleasant and unpleasantness. How does that happen? No one knows. That's a really basic question. Like when you have a sensation that's occurring, you have sense data coming from your body — first of all, when do you experience it? Because a lot of the time, you don't feel, you know, your liver making bile or what have you. That's like not available to you. So when you experience it, how does your brain create affective feelings, these moods out of this stream of sense data? When do you experience it as a physical sensation and how come? Like, what are the different mechanisms?
[01:16:48] This is a really basic question that we know the transformations happening, and we can even point to parts of the brain, like a network in the brain where it might be happening. But we have no idea how it's happening. And if we could understand this, then we would have a better understanding of how your brain actually creates experiences. Where something happens is not the same as saying how it happens.
[01:17:17] Jordan Harbinger: Right. That's absolutely true. I'm excited for some of the maybe like wearable fMRI, where you can just have 30,000 people where these, hopefully, non-brain cancer-causing devices for three years. And we find out what every person is doing and what they're doing at the moment and what it's doing in the brain. And then we'll just have a bajillion times more data that we can decode.
[01:17:39] Lisa Feldman Barrett: Listen, we can decode a lot of data right now, but to do the experiments properly with enough data on each person to really develop meaningful, scientific inferences, we would need to really change how we do science. And the way that scientists try to learn about the brain now, what I would say is people are doing the best with what they've got. But if we really want to understand some of these mysteries, we need to up the funding by a factor of 10 and start being really willing to take serious chances, high-risk, high-reward types of research. So if any of your listeners want to hand me $50 million, I already have a proposal. And every other neuroscientist could probably say the same.
[01:18:24] My point is if we can figure out how to get to the moon and we can figure out how to make a cell phone and we can figure out how to fly, we can figure out a little better how the brain — we can force brains to yield their secrets to us. We just can't do it without sufficient support.
[01:18:44] Jordan Harbinger: Looking forward to what we discover in the near future and our next conversation. Hopefully, we'll have decoded all that stuff by then, right? Maybe in a couple of years next time. But thank you so much for your time. It's always fascinating. And I really appreciate it. We'll link to your books, both of them in the show notes as well.
[01:18:59] Lisa Feldman Barrett: Great. Thank you so much. This is fun as always.
[01:19:04] Jordan Harbinger: I've got some thoughts on this episode. But before I get into that, I speak with infamous Fyre Fest, Billy McFarland from inside federal prison, where he's serving six years for fraud and on the hook for $26 million in restitution. Here's a quick bite.
[01:19:18] Female Operator: You will not be charged for this call. This call is from—
[01:19:22] Billy McFarland: William McFarland.
[01:19:24] Female Operator: —an inmate at a federal prison. Hang up to decline the call or to accept dial five now.
[01:19:31] Jordan Harbinger: When I asked before on our first call, if you were a con man, we had 10 seconds of silence. Is this the new Billy that we're hearing or are you the same Billy that tried to pull off the Fyre Festival?
[01:19:43] Billy McFarland: When I think about the mistakes that were made and what happened, there's no way I can just describe it other than, what the f*ck was I thinking? I was wrong and I hope now that I can, in some small way, make a positive impact.
[01:19:56] Jordan Harbinger: Once you knew that the festival wasn't going to go as planned, why didn't you call it off?
[01:20:01] Billy McFarland: So a lot of people don't know, but the decision to cancel the festival was made when I was told that three people had died at the event. Thankfully, no one was actually physically hurt in any way, but up until the last second, I believed incorrectly, you could pull it off, and obviously, I was wrong. We had something called the urgent daily payments document, and basically it was a Google Excel sheet. Essentially, it was a list of payments that we had to make that day or else the festival couldn't proceed. In the couple of months leading up to the event, it went from a couple thousand dollars a day to a few million dollars a day, where I'd wake up at nine in the morning, find three million dollars by noon and then make the payments by four.
[01:20:38] Jordan Harbinger: How was solitary confinement? Essentially, being locked in a box? Like that sounds terrible.
[01:20:42] Billy McFarland: It really makes you think. And I think the biggest takeaway was, you know, there was one guy who was serving a 30-year sentence and he was already locked in the same room for over three and a half years, when I was there.
[01:20:54] Jordan Harbinger: You had a big vision. I mean, it was huge. And you got so close to something great that everyone wanted to be a part of and people still want to be a part of it. I have to wonder if there's going to be a Fyre Fest version two. I assume you wouldn't call it that, but are you thinking of doing something similar?
[01:21:07] Billy McFarland: If there's anything that makes you want to create and build and do, it's being locked in a cage for months or years. Are you going to come?
[01:21:16] Jordan Harbinger: For more with Billy McFarland, including lessons learned on the inside, the value of trust and Billy's plans for the future once he's served at the time he agrees, he rightly deserves, check out episode 422 of The Jordan Harbinger Show.
[01:21:29] I always find brain research and discussions so interesting. There's all these little foibles and quirks of humanity, and it kind of speaks to the side of me that at one point as a kid kind of wanted to be a hacker, right? Because it's kind of the ultimate system to hack. And I think that's why I enjoy social engineering and learning about the brain so much.
[01:21:47] Our brain is just a prediction machine. Prediction is why we find things maybe unsatisfying sometimes. For example, when a sentence is missing its final— See. This type of phenomenon that works, even when we're doing it, when we explain it, that's how deep this programming is. That's why it's so hard to defeat our own brain programming and rewire or ourselves or reprogram ourselves. I shouldn't say rewire that's happening all the time, whether we want to or not.
[01:22:11] Dr. Feldman Barrett's book also covers things like how our brain sees things when we have different predictions and expectations. So the brain is wired, so that seeing is influenced by feelings. So if you're scared, you will literally see the world differently than if you are calm, which explains a lot of the things we thought we saw as kids or what things our kids think they see in the dark, I should say.
[01:22:33] We also touched on this in our earlier episode with Jennifer Eberhardt on bias and how many police officers literally see weapons in the hands of people that they're scared of. And police officers will also not see weapons that are there if they are not scared. And a lot of that has to do with bias and things that are hardwired into our brains, that we're just now starting to fully understand.
[01:22:52] So again, big thanks to Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett. Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain is her latest book. She's got a couple of books that are all interesting reads. Links to those will be in the show notes. Please do use our website links if you buy books or anything else from guests here on the show. That does help support the show. Worksheets for this episode are in the show notes. Transcripts are in the show notes. There's a video of this interview going up on our YouTube channel at jordanharbinger.com/youtube. I'm at @JordanHarbinger on both Twitter and Instagram, or just hit me on LinkedIn.
[01:23:21] I'm teaching you how to connect with great people and manage relationships, using the same systems and tiny habits and software and all those little nuggets that I use in my own life every single day. It's in our Six-Minute Networking Course. The course is free. It'll always be free. You don't have to enter your credit card or any of that crap. I don't have anything for sale. Go to jordanharbinger.com/course. Dig the well before you get thirsty. Most of the guests on the show, they subscribe to the course. They contribute to the course. Come join us, you'll be in smart company where I'm sure you belong.
[01:23:50] This show is created in association with PodcastOne. And my amazing team is Jen Harbinger, Jase Sanderson, Robert Fogarty, Millie Ocampo, Ian Baird, Josh Ballard, and Gabe Mizrahi. Remember, we rise by lifting others. The fee for the show is that you share it with friends when you find something useful or interesting. If you know another psychology nerd or somebody interested in the brain or how we think, how we learn, how we're wired, please do share this episode with them. I hope you find something great in every episode of this show because we do bust our buns making it for you. Please do share the show with those you care about. In the meantime, do your best to apply what you hear on this show, so you can live what you listen, and we'll see you next time.
Sign up to receive email updates
Enter your name and email address below and I'll send you periodic updates about the podcast.