Lisa Feldman Barrett

Our Brains on Totalitarianism

Air Date: November 16, 2020

Northeastern University neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett discusses her new book “Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain."


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. I’m honored to welcome to our broadcast today Lisa Feldman Barrett. She’s a neuroscientist, psychologist and author of the new book “Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain.” Professor, welcome. Thanks so much for joining me today.


BARRETT: Oh, it’s my pleasure. Thanks so much for having me on your show.


HEFFNER: Let me ask you to begin with, why seven and a half?


BARRETT: (Laughs). Because I like to be different now… I think that there are lots of lessons about the brain that are really interesting, but to get, to warm up the readers, I gave a little bite-size lesson at the beginning about brain evolution. It’s really not the whole story, but it begins the story of where our brains come from. And so really it’s a half lesson.


HEFFNER: Can you, do you mind expounding; I know that some of our viewers will buy your book and irrespective of this, but what is that derivation of our brain?


BARRETT: Yeah, so it’s really, I think really fascinating, basically. We have brains because of predation basically, before the Cambrian period, which is a period in the earth’s past; there were a lot of little creatures that didn’t really have eyes. They didn’t have any senses. They couldn’t hear, they really just floated around, planted themselves in the sand and kind of filtered food. They really were, really unaware of the world around them. And then during the Cambrian period, which is about 550 million years ago, predation evolved, which means that creatures start to eat each other quite deliberately. They started hunting. And so we had predators and prey and this scientists think spurred on the development of eyes and ears and the ability to smell and taste and we needed brains in order to organize all of that information.


HEFFNER: Well, that’s the first essay, the organization piece. And, you know, we think that that’s exactly what we’re doing with our brains. We’re forming thoughts, we’re mentally or intellectually stimulating ourselves, but really we’re regulating our entire existence, right?


BARRETT: Yeah, so people think that we have these big brains and we use them to think rationally and that thinking rationally is really the definition of being human, you know, that’s what makes us different from other animals. But actually our brains evolved to perform a very important job, which is to regulate our bodies. And so everything you think, everything, you feel, everything, you see, everything you hear is in the service of regulating your body. That’s your brain’s most important job. And that’s true for all animals on this planet, but for us because we can be so cerebral, we can, you know, really live in our thoughts. And because we have a very dynamic social world around us, we sometimes miss the mark and we think that that’s really what our brains are for. But first and foremost, your brain is for controlling your body, for regulating the systems of your body. And once you understand that a lot of mysteries just evaporate, like why do we have mental illnesses and physical illnesses, right? So it turns out we don’t, depression is a metabolic illness. We think of it as something psychological, but it’s actually a metabolic illness. And something like heart disease has really important psychological and mood related effects. So the divide between mental and physical illnesses just really falls away. And I think learning that your brain’s most important job is to regulate your body ends up introducing all kinds of fascinating dilemmas that we can think about a little differently.


HEFFNER: What is one in particular?


BARRETT: Well, here’s one I think that right now is particularly salient as we go into an election. We have the kinds of brains that don’t just regulate our own bodies, but we regulate other people’s bodies without, without our awareness, right? We are, so humans are social animals and we are physiologically dependent on each other. So even though you know, Alexander, you and I have never met before I could right now text you three little words and that could change your heart rate. It could change your breathing; it could change your muscle tone. We affect each other physiologically all the time, for better or for worse, right? So the best thing for a human nervous system is another human. And the worst thing for a human nervous system is another human, but we also live in a world and in this country we live in a country that really values and prioritizes individual rights and freedoms. So how do we negotiate this dilemma of having these socially dependent nervous systems where, you know, we can affect each other for better, for worse, just, you know, simple interactions have a huge impact on your biological health, but yet we have these ideals about individual rights and freedoms. We don’t even have a conversation about that in this country. Id people have difficulty even raising the issue of the fact that there is this dilemma there, and, but understanding how our brains work, I think makes it clear that that there is a conversation to be had there.


HEFFNER: What would you like to impart to the American people during this election season, but also to homosapiens broadly, about our capacity to reason and our neurological function that can be introspective in ways that are perhaps profoundly different or maybe uniquely different than other species?


BARRETT: Yeah. So, you know, we have a story that we like to tell, and we tell it in the law, we tell it in economics, it’s embedded in our systems of health, and this is the idea of a brain at war with itself. So the common story is that our brains evolved in layers like sedimentary rock. So we have an inner lizard, you know that houses our most base instincts like feeding and fleeing and mating. And that was overlaid by a limbic system for emotion, and that these two systems really make up our kind of inner beast. And then we have this prodigious big cerebral cortex that is for rationality that controls our inner beast, and that rationality, voting for example, should be done rationally, which usually means the absence of emotion. That whole story, which goes back to Plato actually, and is, I would say one of our most cherished myths in Western civilization is completely a myth. There is no, your brain is not a battleground for rationality and emotion. And in fact, feeling, feeling pleasant, feeling unpleasant, feeling worked up, feeling calm is part of every moment in your life from the moment you draw your first breath until the moment you draw your last. You can’t be free of feeling ever. Your brain is wired that way. So rationality first of all, is not the absence of feeling, from a neuroscience standpoint. And there are certainly lots of examples. I think from real life where feeling can be a source of wisdom. But also rationality is not what makes us special in the animal world. There are a number of other abilities that our brains in conversation with our bodies, surrounded by other brains and bodies many capabilities that we have that other animals don’t. But rationality is not the big news I would say.


HEFFNER: What are those distinguishable features that you would say are the ones that are most in need of being illuminated about what is distinct?


BARRETT: Yeah, so I would say you know, one of the essays, one of the lessons talks about a number of capabilities that we have and other animals have, but we have them all at the same time, whereas other animals might have one or two, but we have all of them. And what this gives us the capacity to do is create reality. So what do I, what do I mean by that? Well, you live in a country that was made up by other people. We draw lines in the sand of the earth and we place the boundary of a country. And because we all agree that that’s where the boundary is, that’s where it is. We use money, little pieces of paper or plastic, or just electrical signals in a wire, to trade for material goods. Little pieces of paper have value as money because we all agreed that these pieces of paper have value. And if we didn’t agree anymore they wouldn’t. So basically, other animals adapt to themselves to their environment. We do that, but we also add to our environment, we have things that are physically real in the world, like, you know, walls and gravity and so on. But then we add to the world by, we impose functions on things that weren’t there before. And we all agree that the functions are there and then they are there. So for example, and again you know, you asked me about the election, so I’ll just use that as an example the boundary between the U.S. and Mexico, or between the U.S. and Canada exists because everybody agrees that that’s where the boundary is. And if some people didn’t agree, that would be a problem, right? Or in 1776, you know, 13 colonies disappeared and the United States, a new country appeared just by collective agreement. The presidency of the United States exists by collective agreement. We all agree that there’s something called a president who has a set of powers that we all agree that the president has. And democracy itself is, is this kind of social reality.


HEFFNER: Social construct, right?


BARRETT: It exists because we all agree that it does,


HEFFNER: Right. And we define whether it’s actually representative or whether it’s a flawed democracy and, you know, sort of the degrees of representation and those perceptions vary. But you write at the end of the first essay, professor, you have one grain, not three to move past Plato’s ancient battle we might need to fundamentally rethink what it means to be rational, what it means to be responsible for our actions, and perhaps even what it means to be human. And that was the point that you just made. But what does authoritarianism do to the brain? That is a complicating factor that is altering realities right now. And you know we hope to be able to convene as a society over the years, over the decades and centuries, in a way that can recognize our common fate.


BARRETT: Yeah. So this is something that I actually take up in one of the essays, and I should just make it really clear. I mean these are little essays where I’m writing as a neuroscientist about how the brain works, how your brain works. And then occasionally I’m taking off my white lab coat, and I’m basically suggesting to people that there are some really interesting things to think about here. I’m not really telling people what to think. I’m more introducing themes to think about. And one of the themes to think about is exactly what you suggested. So we don’t, when we collectively agree on something, we don’t necessarily actually talk about it, right, so I’m not wearing a wedding ring right now, but if I were wearing a wedding ring wedding ring, I wouldn’t walk up to you and say, Alexander, I’m wearing this ring. Do you agree that that means that I married? No, we just, we just agree that a ring on a certain finger has a set of meanings, right? And so our actions also sort of serve in the place of agreement. So if a president, all of a sudden starts doing things that are maybe different than other presidents have done, and the public who elected this president agree that it’s okay, then it is okay, because by definition, the role is defined as social reality, if the public protests that it’s not okay, then that means that some members of our country are, some citizens are withdrawing their consent. And so one way to think about these protests, right, that are occurring is that people are trying to change the nature of reality in our, social reality in our country, In a totalitarian government, for example, a president might or a leader might stand up and say things; media might record that the leader has said these things. But then maybe the leader denies it and maybe other media outlets agree that he never said it. If the public accepts that and agrees basically with that narrative, they’ve consented essentially, they’ve agreed that the social reality is that those words were never uttered. And I know that might sound really kind of crazy to people if they’re, you know, to viewers, if they’re not familiar with ideas about social reality, but social reality is, we, most of civilization is rooted in social reality. We have a set of laws and customs and principles that we live by because we all agree that these are the ones that are the ones to live by. And sometimes those get renegotiated. And usually we’re not thinking to ourselves as we’re protesting, or as we’re writing letters to our members of Congress, or as we’re voting, that we are actively shaping the reality that we live in. We’re not thinking to ourselves that’s really what we’re doing, but, but in fact, we are. And I’ll just say one other thing. And that is that, you know, social reality is a very powerful super ability that humans have, but it can’t supersede physical reality, right? So you and I could agree that we could walk through walls, but that doesn’t mean that we can walk through walls, right? We could all agree that if we flap our arms really fast, we’ll be able to fly, but that doesn’t actually mean that we’ll be able to fly. We can all say that a virus isn’t really contagious. But that doesn’t, we all agree that that’s true, but that doesn’t actually mean that it’s true, right? So social reality only works best when you’re aware that you’re doing it. And when you don’t violate the principles of physical reality,


HEFFNER: Absolutely. You write in one of your essays about kids and their brain function. Some kids are fortunate enough to be naturally resilient to the insidious effects of adversity and poverty, but on average adversity in poverty are afflictions from which little brains struggle to recovery. What’s truly frustrating is that this tragedy is preventable. And that struck me because so much of what’s occurred during the pandemic has been preventable in terms of the systemic racism of COVID fatality. Our brains are going to suffer for many years as a result of this pandemic. And our mental health was already in question compared to other developed countries and so-called developing countries. So where does that leave us?


BARRETT: Well, I think first of all, little brains it’s really, so all brains are pretty plastic, meaning that our brains are constantly under construction. I think many viewers; many of your viewers are probably familiar with that idea. I think little brains in particular though, like an infant brain is not a miniature adult brain. It’s a brain that is waiting for wiring instructions from the world. And those wiring instructions come from the physical world. You have to feed a baby and water a baby and keep a baby, you know, regulate its temperature and so on. But the social impact, the things that we do with babies socially, cuddle them, talk to them, and so on. Those things really wire a baby’s brain in irrevocable and important ways. Babies’ brains are negatively impacted by growing up in adversity or poverty. And that’s just, you know scientists, don’t like to talk about facts, but that’s about as close to a fact as you could possibly get. Adult brains are also plastic. Adult brains can learn and can change. And our brains are constantly changing with our experiences. But when your nervous system is encumbered, meaning when you have a lot of stress and in the book I talk a little bit about what stress means in terms of your metabolism and your, you know, your energy regulation; when your brain is constantly preparing your body for a big metabolic outlay because you aren’t sleeping enough or because you were economically struggling, or because you’re living in conflict, or because you are subject to persistent racism, or because you view persistent racism, which violates your values, there are all kinds of things, which can burden a human nervous system. And when a nervous system is burdened, it doesn’t learn as well. You, you know, you won’t learn as well. You will be more likely to develop respiratory symptoms if you’re exposed to a virus. If you’re given a vaccine, it won’t work as well. And in general, you will feel pretty crappy. I mean, our feelings of feeling pleasant or unpleasant and so on, is it’s really like a barometer of how our, how our nervous systems are doing.


HEFFNER: You said something interesting about how our brains are constantly under construction and reconstruction, particularly true during the metamorphosis of puberty and early childhood, but, but I’m asking you about permanent damage or devolution, not evolution when it comes to the pandemic and how it could fundamentally alter our sense of self, our, you know, our worst qualities and, you know, potentially we can extricate ourselves from that. But there is certainly the fear that the physiological consequences of the pandemic is not going to be contained only, you know, within your physical health, but your mental health.


BARRETT: Yeah. So the simple way to put it is this, your mental health is intricately tied to your physical health. If your brain is encumbered, meaning metabolically encumbered, so you know, your brain basically is sort of running a budget for your body. It’s budgeting, not money, but, you know, glucose and water and salt and all the things that your body needs to function normally. If your brain is, you know, running a deficit, your body budget is running a deficit; you’re going to feel like crap. Basically, you will feel unpleasant and distressed. That’s, if that goes on for long enough, you get sick with some kind of metabolic illness, metabolic illnesses include diabetes and heart disease, but also depression and anxiety and Alzheimer’s disease. So there are persistent meta-, persistent metabolic drag adds like, think of it as like adding a little tax, which adds up over time and actually leads to physical illness. So mental illness, like, like mood, a mood district disturbance is an indication that there is a metal also a metabolic problem, which down the road could manifest itself as a physical illness. That being said, humans are incredibly resilient, and there are ways that we can make additional deposits into each other’s body budgets instead of just you know, making persistent withdrawals. So, you know, a pandemic is really hard for obvious reasons, but we could make it harder on ourselves, or we could make it easier on ourselves. You know, there’s a reason why there were so many articles about social isolation and social withdrawal and loneliness because, you know, loneliness and social isolation are really hard on a human nervous system. Our nervous systems didn’t evolve to be independent of each other. We are interdependent, you know, if you have ever had the misfortune to lose someone who you love and you feel like you’ve lost a part of yourself, that’s because you have. You’ve lost someone who helped who was a caretaker of your nervous system. And so my point is that how we treat each other matters. It’s not just about being nice. It’s how we treat each other really matters to how resilient we are to the challenges that we face. And that doesn’t mean that we have to all agree on everything. It doesn’t mean that we can’t have vigorous debate. It does mean that we have to treat each other with a basic sense of human dignity. And we have to remember that, like it or not, we are biologically speaking each other’s caretakers. We might not; we might not want that to be true. Some of us might not like that. Some of us might not mind, but I mean, it doesn’t matter how you feel about it. It’s just the reality of how our brains evolved and how our bodies work.


HEFFNER: Final questions and they’re interconnected. Did society learn anything scientifically from the last pandemic that we can absorb in healing that precisely what you’re saying, the healing process of being our caretaker or our brother or sister’s keeper?


BARRETT: Well, I think it’s been known for a really long time that persistent inequality, where one where a set of humans you know who have power at the expense of another set of humans, that that’s really not a good thing for anybody, you know, that we pay a price that, and that price actually, sometimes it’s a financial price and sometimes it’s a biological price, but we, when there’s inequities in society, we, we knew from the last epidemic that the people who are are, you know, have the least advantage bear the more of the brunt. And I think we’ve known for a long time, for example, that chronic stress, that is chronic deficits in body budgeting, leave people more vulnerable to developing symptoms when exposed to a virus. I mean we’ve known these things for a really long time.


HEFFNER: Professor. I’m sorry; we’re about out of time. But just in the seconds we have left, what is one thing we can do for our neurological processes to help the healing, one thing that your essays might suggest we need to do?


BARRETT: Get enough sleep and treat your fellow humans with a basic; a baseline of respect.


HEFFNER: Lisa Feldman Barrett, a neuroscientist and psychologist, the author of the new book “Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain.” Thanks so much for joining me today.


BARRETT: My pleasure.


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