Rewire & Resolve: The Brain Science of Making Better Choices

Jan 22, 2019

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What can we learn from modern neuroscience about achieving our highest potential? In this week’s episode, we go deep into the human psyche — literally. Meet Professor Moran Cerf, a neuroscientist and business professor who uses a truly groundbreaking process to observe the human brain directly from within.


Moran: Name is Moran Cerf and I'm a professor of neuroscience and business.

Jeff: So, you study the brain. How do you do that? There's neurons in your brain, right? And they're firing sort of electrochemical signals. What is the technical piece of how you actual measure the brain?

Moran: Generally, because the brain's language is the language of those little neurons inside your skull that are speaking to each other in electrochemical signals, the way to understand the brain is to listen to those electrochemical signals as close as possible to the source.

With animals, you can actually open the brain of a rat or a mouse and stick electrodes directly next to those cells and eavesdrop on their activity directly. In humans, it's really hard to do just that, so what we often do is we use tools that image the brain from the outside. Machines like fMRI or EEG, machines that inject magnetic field to your brain or listen to the residue of those cells on the outside of your brain and give you some reading of what's going on inside. That's kind of how neuroscientists generally work.

I'm part of a very small community of neuroscientists who have a unique way of studying the brain, where we actually look at the brains of humans from the inside. This is something you often do only with animals. We work with patients who undergo brain surgery for clinical purposes, and this surgery requires a surgeon to open their brain and stick electrodes deep inside their head in order to understand what's the source of their problem. And then, keep those electrodes there for a few days until the manifestation of the problem is clear and you can figure out what's the problem.

Then, what I do as a researcher, I piggyback on the surgery and I tell the patient, "You know, you're going to be here anyhow. Someone's going to open your brain and put electrodes inside your head and you're going to be awake all of the time. Do you mind letting me ask you questions about your thoughts and feelings and dreams and emotions and everything that I can figure out about your brain while I listen to those cells in your brain as they speak."

Jeff: And people say yes to you because you're so charming?

Moran: I think that the majority of the patients actually are happy to do that for, A, the benefit of science. B, because they're extremely bored. They sit there for two weeks and they can't really do much because they can't really move out of bed. They're in a way in a situation where they actually are excited about doing something that will help science and also entertain them and give them some information about how their brain works and so on. I think that we have a very high turn out of patients who say, "Yes, please do that with me."

Jeff: Either through measuring through fMRI or EEG, or as you suggest, the very, very rare way that you have access through actually putting electrodes in the brain, you can actually gather data on how the brain reacts, what lights up the brain, essentially.

Moran: Yes. Exactly.

Jeff: What I'm really interested in is how you are able to essentially predict and map engagement and peoples' interest by doing that. So, you can see, in some ways, what people are engaging with, just by mapping the electrochemical reaction in their brain. Is that right?

Moran: Yes. Exactly. So, engagement is a loaded word in English. It means so many things for so many people that it's kind of hard to even look at a dictionary and figure out what it means, but broadly speaking, when you're engaged with something it feels like this is the most important thing right now. Time passes by fast. Your emotions are elevated. You might remember more of what's happening.

A lot of good things happen when you're engaged and at the same time, no one could find a single part of the brain that is always active when you're engaged with something and is silent otherwise. This was a puzzle to neuroscientists for a while. How come it's really clear behaviorally that someone is engaged with something. They are very excited when their sports team is playing or they're very happy when their favorite politician is speaking. But, somehow, there's no neural correlate for that.

So, what we've said is, "You know what? Forget about finding this neural correlate, that single place in the brain. Let's look at one feature of engagement and use that."

The feature we worked on is the fact that when you're engaged, the content seems to take over your brain.

And if it's really good content it does the same thing to every person who watches it, so you, me, your wife, your daughters, every person who watches the, say, fantastic speaker or the amazing musician, soon to be under their spell. If that's the case, then it means that somehow all of their brains would look very similar.

When something very interesting is happening, the brain is totally under the spell of the thing. When it's really boring, everyone is very different. You might think about your shows and your wife might think about such things as she needs to do tomorrow at school, and maybe your daughters would think about jokes they heard. Everyone's brain can look very different.

What we said is, "Let's look at the similarity between brains when they watch the same content." And, by how similar they are we'll know how good the content is. If they're very similar, it means that the content is fantastic, very engaging, and if they're very different, it's not engaging. So, we just measure similarity between brains and estimate the things their brains are experiencing.

Jeff: So I was at a concert, I remember, a few years ago. This notion really stuck with me where there was a piano player, as part of a group. I was enjoying the concert in the audience and I was with a drummer who's also very, very talented. He taps me on the shoulder and whispers in my ear, and he's talking about the piano player. He's like, "That guy, Neil, he makes everyone feel the same." And he was right. It was actually sort of an Aha moment. I don't have any science with it but I could tell just by looking around that people were having a moment of collective joy or collective enthrallment. It sounds like you, actually, it's more than anecdotal, it's actually data driven that that's actually true. By extension, he's a great artist, or what he's doing is actually producing content that makes everyone feel the same, or essentially has the same effect on everyone's brain. And by examining that content, you could then look forward of like, "Okay, well we know now how everyone's brain is reacting, so now we can manufacture content that can have the same desired effect."

Moran: It's exactly right and I think what is magical about this, in a way, is that in my mind, this is what makes artists remarkable. It is their ability to somehow, even though they never met you, to be able to tap into your brain and figure out who you are in a really large scale. Musicians like, let's say, composers like Mozart, somehow he could sit in his little room and write something in his notebook that would make all the brains of people hundreds of years later look the same.

So, genius is being able to penetrate the brains of millions of people, in the same way, even though he doesn't know them, even though they're very different. Men, women, old, young, different races, different experiences, different desires. Somehow, if you're a fantastic composer, if you're a fantastic filmmaker, if you're a fantastic drummer, you're able to penetrate the brains of all of those people and make them all look the same. This is what genius is about.

Jeff: Right. I guess you might say, by extension, make them care.

Moran: Yeah.

Jeff: We're both probably hyper aware of some of the most salient issues of our time, that are existential issues, like the environment and global warming, for example. But it's very hard to make people care about that. Can you help to make people care because you understand what creates collective engagement?

Moran: In a way, there is something that I can do or that we can do better now because there is an engagement and there is ... For example, we can rank different messages and see which one works best. If you're the government and you're trying to promote different behavior, let's say you want to make people care more about climate change, and you bring me, a scientist, 10 different options for a messaging campaign that will change people's behavior, I can look at which one makes more brains look alike and which one makes less brains look alike and rank them and tell you this one would work better than this one.

That's one way.

This doesn't help you create the content, but this helps you know which of the possibilities is the best one. That's relevant for marketing campaigns, for politicians who are about to give a speech, for teachers who are thinking of how to teach and what's going to be the best way to educate, and so on.

There's another, even more impressive, level that we sometimes are trying to get at which is when we, say, have people look at a content that we clearly see is engaging, we also try to tweak things and see what changes engagement, what makes it go higher or lower. Then we say, okay, it seems that putting a joke in the 17th second actually increases the engagement in this moment but it decreases the engagement 40 seconds later, so even though it's momentarily increasing it, you should not put it there. Maybe using this font will change engagement, but using that font will do something that is even more powerful. We're now starting to play with small tweaks to content and checking how they affect [inaudible] brains, to start learning something about the code of what works or doesn't work.

Jeff: I also want to talk about habits. Because this show is very much geared around helping people live healthy and purposeful lives, and a lot of this is about giving people actual information so they can develop good habits, like eating well or doing yoga or meditating. So can we actually train the brain into good habits?

Moran: Absolutely. Now the question is how. And the how is a little bit different per person, but there's some guidelines that repeatedly work.

Broadly speaking, what habits are, are a set of operations that the brain says, we do them so routinely that we don't want to think about them any more. That's a very good thing to have, because if we had to think about everything we do we would waste a lot of resources making a lot of choices that are not important. When you are a baby you learn to walk, at first every step requires thinking, to think where you move your feet, how you move your leg, where you put the weight and so on, and it takes a lot of energy. It's effectively the only thing you can do when you're walking, is think about walking.If you had to do that all the time it would be very hard to do other things.

So the brain created this idea where, after you do something routinely, and the brain figures out that you need to do it for most of your life in the same way, it just moves it to a different part of the brain, buried deep inside, right at the center of your brain, and there it sits and it does it without you thinking any more, which leaves room for you to think about other things.

That's the idea of that. The unfortunate aspect is that sometimes things go into this vault in the back that we want out, and it's very hard to get them out, because the brain made an effort to put there and give us no access, that's why it's sometimes hard to break habits. But there's still ways to do it.

The easiest high level take-home message is that it's easier to break habits by replacing them. So instead of just saying, okay, I want to wake up every day early but it's not happening because my brain is geared to always not waking up early all by itself, if you start creating routines that make you change habits, they will become habits too, replacing the other ones. So it's not enough to just say, I'm going to stop.

So if you're biting your nails, and you want to stop, it's one thing to try to stop, but it's easier to actually create some kind of replacement habit.

That's why unfortunately a lot of times when people stop one bad thing they start another bad thing. Because if you don't put anything instead the brain just takes something that's easy and puts it instead. So that's one practical high level way of talking about habits.

There are all kinds of small ways that have shown to work. Breaking habits is a big goal and it's hard, but changing small things is easier. So if you say next year I'm going to exercise, it's a good thing to say, it's very, very hard to operationalize that. But if you say, Monday every week at 2 pm I'm going to meet my friend and exercise, you will effectively exercise a lot more next year, but you just turned a big idea into an operationable action. So small tasks are better than big ideas in that sense, for that brain.

Jeff: There's probably an element of social accountability, but also, I've read statistics of, okay, if the majority of the people that you know are overweight, there's a much greater probability that you're going to be overweight yourself. Is that a function of sort of socio-cultural condition, or is there is a neuroscience component of behavior and human conditioning?

Moran: So generally you're probably right, there are a lot of studies in the last couple of years, on what we call networks, that show that who you're around, not just who you're around directly, but who they're around, even to a degree from you, affects your life a lot.

So if you're next to people that are overweight you will actually increase your weight. It's true even if the people that are not directly next to you, the people that are next to them are overweight. It's true for positive and negative things.

If you want to change behaviors one of the easiest ways to do it is to surround yourself by people that exhibit the behavior you want to have.

So if you want to lose weight, one of the easiest ways to make a change is to surround yourself by people who eat healthy, you will have a hard time not doing that. A because you're going to have a lot more healthy food around you, you're going to have a tough time teaching a lot of people, so you will actually conform to their standards.

You will also see behaviors that your brain will replicate and mimic in neuro basically, without you knowing why. So one of the easiest ways to take on habits or behaviors that you want is to surround yourself with people who exhibit them. I wanted to be funnier, I studied in Poland to be a funny teacher in my class. I surrounded myself by comedians, I just started to hang out with comedians. Even though at no point did they actually sit me down and say, "Moran, we're going to teach you how to be a comedian, we're going to teach you how to copy jokes," It somehow rubbed onto me.

I started seeing how they think about things, how their timing works, how they talk to each other. And suddenly things became easier in my mind, without at any point actually articulating the language of being funny. I never learned the rules, or I don't even know if I can articulate them right now. But my brain embraced that. So that's one of the easiest ways to do that, to just be next to people that are exhibiting the behaviors you want.

Jeff: Interesting. So you personally have done a lot of different things in your life. You've been, I think your history as a hacker has been well documented on YouTube, and obviously you're a speaker and have contributed a lot to neuroscience. I'm curious, if you could make one big impact on the human condition what would that be?

Moran: These are all tough questions. I think ... I feel that I want my contribution to be translating science in a tangible way, to the masses. So I feel that there are too many of my friends, neuroscientists are doing fantastic work, but no one but themselves knows about. It's published in [inaudible] and they read it, and maybe their mothers read it too, but that's about it. And I feel that's a shame, and I think what I try to do is take those results and speak about them in podcasts, on TV, find whatever medium I can to communicate that to the bigger world. That's, I think, what is important for me right now.

Jeff: Right, well it seems like no one is more qualified than yourself, to achieve-

Moran: Thank you.

Jeff: Your own goal.

Moran: I hope so, thank you.

Jeff: Yeah, well this is fascinating, thank you so much for your time and for your absolutely fascinating work.

Moran: Thank you so much, more than happy.

Jeff: There is clearly still much to learn about the human psyche, but Professor Moran Cerf’s work has put our theories on the power of community to the test. He says one of the easiest ways to take on habits or behaviors that you want, is to surround yourself with people who exhibit them. And then there’s the work of kicking old habits, by welcoming in newer, healthier ones.

The intricate functions of our brain work in our favor, as well as against us, but the best part about the human brain? It’s malleable to our will, we just need to make the choice to make the change.

Thanks for listening to the Commune podcast. I’m Jeff Krasno, and we’ll see you next week.



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