Chantel Prat

The Science of Changing Your Mind

Air Date: September 12, 2022

University of Washington neuroscientist Chantel Prat discusses her new book "The Neuroscience of You: How Every Brain is Different and How to Understand Yours."

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HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Hefner, your host on The Open Mind. I’m delighted to welcome our guest today, Chantel Pratt, author of the new book “The Neuroscience of You: How Every Brain is Different and How to Understand Yours.” She is an academic at the University of Washington, a scholar, a neuroscientist and psychologist. Welcome, Chantel.

 

PRAT: Thank you so much for having me.

 

HEFFNER: Chantel, your book and its premise immediately intrigued me because we have a lot of public policy discussions on The Open Mind. And your book has an insight into how we can think about each other’s respective thoughts and whether they can even be malleable in an age when, through the politicization of politics, we seem hardwired in one camp or another camp. So how does your book inform the way we should think about each other and each other’s convictions, thoughts, values, feelings?

 

PRAT: I’m so glad you asked that question, because that is exactly why I wrote the book. Before the pandemic. I was experiencing what I call the great unfriending, before the great resignation and just, you know, feeling a lot of anxiety around the fact that people could no longer politely disagree with one another. And my husband is also a cognitive neuroscientist and it just occurred to me that the conversations we were having over the dinner table about how our brains create our realities and all of the different stories that our brains tell us about truth was something that shouldn’t stay at my dinner table. And I hoped, I sincerely hoped that if I could go about the labor of love of explaining to people all the levels at which their brain interprets the world, we might relax our convictions a little bit, or at least our confidence about what’s really out there.

 

So I started in a safe split, a safe place, just talking about the dress, that internet sensation that took the world by storm because people couldn’t agree about whether or not the dress was blue and black or white and gold. You know, for people like me who study individual differences for a living, this was a no brainer not to be punny, but it shocked people because I think the reality that our brains create for us is so convincing. You know, I sat in a room with other neuroscientists, including my students, who would point to the blue background on my computer. And I said, yes, this is blue. And then they’d point to the dress. And I’d say yes, for me, that is blue. You know, they were just like, we agree on what the color blue is and that, that’s what I see. And I think that many people learn at some point in their education, that the colors that we see correspond directly to a wavelength of light, that this is a really one-to-one you know, property between the world around us and the way we understand it. But it’s not true if that, if life were that simple. And if our understanding of the world were that simple, then a green apple would turn red in the sunset and blue in a shadow. And instead, even something as elementary as color is interpreted by our brain; our brain takes into account the context. We learn over our lifespans, that objects are less likely to change color than the light that bounces off of them. So we look what, what kind of light waves are in my surrounding? And we use that information to interpret color. And so by walking the reader through all of these different kinds of ways that our experiences shape our brains, and all of the different ways that genes can build different brains, I hope I can get them to appreciate that you can be in the same room with somebody else and take away a completely different story, you know, from something as elementary as color, to who said what and why. And that if I, if I can build that appreciation, people might be slightly more open to understanding perspective and really what that means to have a different perspective and really what that means and have a different perspective.

 

HEFFNER: Right. We live in an age of viral disinformation. And so, you know, the result of that is wanting to establish a home base of information literacy and integrity because that really has to be the foundation in order to genuinely assess whether people are constructing their view on the basis of something that is true. So how does that fit in because you were talking about color, ultimately, an example of a dress, and whether people saw certain colors in that; there were other examples over the last few years of sounds and whether , it was saying one thing or another, and some people think it’s saying this and others think it’s saying that, but the bottom line is like, if those things are subjective, then how do we do with, how do we deal taxes and, you know, reproductive health and think, you know, the neuroscience of intensely challenging, moral, or scientific or human health questions?

 

PRAT: Yeah. So I think that one thing that’s really hard is that our AI, the devices that feed us information, probably have the best model of our brains of anything, right? So they are selecting. They’re, our brains are adapting to the information that they feed us, and they know based on what we scroll on, what we click on, who we follow. They have this really great representation of what our brains are curious about, what makes us feel safe, what makes us feel right. And so I think that this, you know, this climate that I called, the great unfriending is due in no small part to the fact that once upon a time we used to share inputs, like, you know, in my story about the dress, I said, we might be standing in the same room and we might have a disagreement about what it is that we see or how we interpret things. But we’re, it’s so easy to not be in the same room anymore, right? Because how much of our interaction with the world is not at all us moving our bodies around in the world? It’s us moving our brains around on our phones.

 

HEFFNER: Right.

 

PRAT: And, and so all of these difficulties sort of finding alignment in perspective are scaled up when two people have totally different inputs and we’ve, you know, and so it, you know, the book talks about this. It talks about adaptability and how one of the fundamental truths of the human brain is that we’re born ready to adapt to the environment we put our brains into. And so I, you know, I ask the reader to consider what they’ve adapted to. And I remind them that as far as your brain is concerned, it doesn’t matter if you’re worrying about something, fantasizing about something, reading about it on social media, watching it on TV, it creates a neural event that your brain considers an experience. And your brain then says, this is the environment that I’m prepared to operate in. And so I just hope that if people become aware that they’re feeding their brain this, that they understand that they’re now if they go into a different environment, they’re not, they’re not prepared to live there. So…

 

HEFFNER: Are we placing too much of an emphasis on that dis and misinformation? I mean to not to undermine everything that I just said, but let me do that and say, does it really matter? Because you, I want to hear your prescription for the key to changing people’s minds, or at least getting them to have conversations in which they’re you know, open reservoirs of knowledge that are cross pollinating. But can we say that there’s always been dis and misinformation and that the neuroscientific analysis that you’ve done here, it doesn’t really matter if someone has been fed in their input, dis or misinformation, that is that the, they believe what they believe. And we have to, we have to work from that?

 

PRAT: I think the answer to that is, yes. I think we can ask a question about what draws people to dis and misinformation. And I think it’s trust in the source, sense of belonging. And then we can ask what prevents people from updating their beliefs or their knowledge when they’re put in front of something different. And I think that the answer to that is threat. I think that curiosity is an emotion that’s matched with a brain that is eager or hungry to absorb new information. And that’s a brain that’s ready to learn. It’s a brain that’s ready to update. Okay. That dress is actually blue and black. It’s not in a shadow, no big deal. No threat there. But when you’re, when the dis or misinformation is tied to your political identity or your group structure, and you feel a sense of threat when someone gives you information that’s inconsistent, your brain responds in the same way it would, or in a similar way that it would if you find yourself in a new neighborhood or a new neck of the woods and your brain goes, it makes an assessment: Do I want to go for a walk here and, and see what, what there is that I don’t know, what, do I want to explore. Or do I want to be like, you know, there’s a cave over there. You know, I see something that could be eating me, run away, push you away from that. And I think that what happens is we get so, we get so incensed or so, you know, committed to our ideals, that we can’t have a conversation that doesn’t make someone else feel threatened. You know, it’s like, if we can, if we can tap into that sense of curiosity or belonging, that only in that mindset can a brain learn or update.

 

HEFFNER: And what’s your key based on the research you did for the book, what’s the key to basically taking people? I love your example of, of safety and walking on the street. But the equivalent of that is having a conversation with people who might be culturally, pluralistically different. But a wise person once told me that, and it’s, it’s very a Churchillian kind of concept but at a, at a younger age that once you’re, you have a view on taxes or abortion at 18, you’re never going to change. You’ll never change. But I saw your book and I want you to dispute that. Or at least I hope you’ll differently.

 

PRAT: Oh yeah. I mean, I think that one of the, you know, one thing to note here is that there are individual differences, right? Like people change. It’s not just a person can or can’t change, but the topic of their beliefs can, or can’t change. And I think that the, you know, the way I go about having these tough conversations is first check myself, is my goal to change this person, or is my goal to understand this person is my goal to shame this person, like, am I, is my goal to connect with this person? Like, what is, you know, the sort of, if you’re having an interaction with someone who believes differently, where am I coming from? But then when I’m like in the, in the spaces where I’ve been having conversations with friends and family in this, you know, in this realm, I’ve asked the, a very simple question, like, what would it take to change your mind? And, and I ask myself this question as well, when I find myself listening to something and going, nope, I don’t, you know, I disregard don’t believe. Yes, because it’s a, it’s a, it’s a fundamental nature of our brains actually, that when there’s something that we believe that’s self-relevant, I think we treat that belief like a goal. And I think we know this, we know that there’s this, you know, sort of all these different biases in human information processing where we, we find something consistent with what we already believe. And we’re like, this is great. This is good science. Or this person is really trustworthy. And then they find something inconsistent, and we downregulate it for whatever reason. And so I, you know, if you’re thinking about all the different kinds of things, you know, and believe you can ask yourself the question, is there a context in which I could be convinced I’m wrong?

 

Is there a piece of evidence? Is there an observation that would convince me that I’m wrong? And if not, then you just know that this is a belief and that this is self self important. And then you say, why, what are my values? What is my identity? That’s wrapped up in this. But I think that awareness is really important. And if somebody says to me, like, there’s not, you know, I’ve had people say like, there’s nothing that convinced me, I’m wrong. You know, just, there’s some things you just know if, you know, you know, and then I’m like, okay, but that’s like the opposite of knowing that’s believing it and that’s fine, you know, but then we don’t have to engage in a conversation that puts you in a threat mind state, because you already know that you won’t update it. But I think understanding that your brain is a big database, that it takes all of its inputs, and it changes its connections and that you will literally see what you expect to see in the world because we can never notice everything. I think that if people are become aware of that and then kind of think about the different things of no I know. And the different ways of knowing, and is this something that’s data driven or is this like part of my identity? I hope that that will leave people open to having more interesting and safer conversations.

 

HEFFNER: Do you think it’s helpful to differentiate between belief, knowledge and feeling, you know, the, the act of knowing versus the act of feeling something?

 

PRAT: I do. And I think that it’s also useful to understand that like in some ways, you know, my book is all about individual differences, but in some ways every brain of a behaving animal has these basic goals to like learn about the environment and figure out how to move that animal around in a way that brings it into contact with another animal that will reproduce its genes, right? So it’s really inputs and outputs. There are different decision-making spaces that different brains occupy. But my real hope is that people can come to understand that somebody who they think is atrocious or believe, you know, or makes bad choices or whatever, is a person with a brain that has different inputs and different kind of decision-making space. And that, if you understand all the ways that different brains can under can build an interpretation of the environment, you might take a step back from your own beliefs. I mean, the truth is like, yeah, the truth…

 

HEFFNER: Is, is it fair to say that yeah, we as a society have less ably differentiated between knowledge, belief, truth, and feeling? I mean, all those things are just in one pot right now.

 

PRAT: I sort, yeah, I think I, I would say yes, I’ve never really thought about it like that. But I have thought that like the things that people are the most convinced about or tend to be the things that, that are not data-driven, that are belief based. And, and I think, you know, when you think of it from this sort of threat or how do I decide to be open to new information, kind of from a curiosity standpoint, I think it makes sense. Like I am not open. I am convinced that this thing is true because it’s important to my sense of self, to my sense of community and belonging. But I just hope that if you kind of break that down from a basic biological standpoint, it’ll make people wonder a little bit more, make people a little bit more curious.

 

HEFFNER: And, and do you think the truth informs knowledge and belief informs feeling or vice versa? I mean, it seems to me that truth and knowledge have become interchangeable and feeling and belief have become more interchangeable.

 

PRAT: Yeah. I agree with that. I think that there’s more threat, at least there’s more at least, so it depends on what you… feeling is a kind of a fuzzy word, right? But I think in terms of like threat or conviction, those things are more involved in or more related to belief.

 

HEFFNER: I think, you know, I’m sorry.

 

PRAT: No, no, please you

HEFFNER: In some is the reason that, that we are less discerning about this because people are not thinking about this in the way that Twelve Angry Men, forgive the title. It was the film Twelve Angry Men. Now women and children would be included, but you know, children can’t serve on a jury. So it would be Twelve Angry People.  That whole philosophy of life makes you think more critically about what is, what is feeling or belief? What is knowledge? Is it informed by truth? You know, you, you interact with the next generation fairly often in the lab and in the classroom. So are you concerned that these incoming classes of students, maybe for the last quarter of a century, haven’t watched Twelve Angry Men. They don’t understand the idea of being critical and differentiating between those ideas?

 

PRAT: I think that the new generation is, has a new culture. But I think for all of us, it’s harder to think critically when you’re under threat. Again, like, you know, I think for all of us, it’s like, I think humans are not as we are all making decisions that are rational from a brain perspective, but rarely logical, rarely thinking critically about, rarely are we able to take a step out of ourselves, you know, and kind of evaluate this belief-space from a third person point of view. And I think, I hope, you know, my goal is to start at these really fundamental processes because they aren’t threatening. You know, like how we understand color is not threatening, like saying that if you’re a, if you’re a person who wakes up early in the morning and you spend more time in natural light, you see the dress, you’re more likely to see the dress this way than a person who wakes up late and sees a lot of things in artificial light. Going from that to ideas of race and how people are more likely to recognize a weapon after a black face. It’s the same kind of shortcut mechanism with a lot more important, critical real-world implications. At the end of the day, all of your experiences, whether there’s something you, you know, misinformation that you read online or the kind of natural lighting that you, that you are exposed to, or the movies that you watch and the stories they tell you about the roles that people play, all of those things get encoded in your brain and that’s your, and because your brain has the goal of using that information to drive you through the world and the way that it thinks is successful. So…

 

HEFFNER: Let me ask you, we have only five minutes left or so, but in terms of the neuroscience of taxes and the neuroscience of reproductive health, abortion, life, depending upon how you think of it. And I should say taxes or revenue or investment because people think about that differently too, but on each issue, I suppose it depends on what side of the fence you are on, but what is the way you would get people to rewire not to take the opposite position but to be open to the idea that more taxation could make for a better society or in the case of reproductive care that access to reproductive and contraceptive help would make for a better society? If you can give me the crib notes of that,

 

PRAT: Oh man. If I had the answer to that though, like I could save the world. Right. But…

 

HEFFNER: Yeah, but you do have a distinct perspective, so,

 

PRAT: Right. I think I would ask people to try and reverse engineer their own beliefs. Where did this come from? Is it, have I, you know, because I. Did somebody who I love, tell me this, did I read it on the news? What are my arguments for this? What are the life experiences I’ve had that support this view? And now can I imagine where the other, what the other view, where it came from, what are the life experiences that might support that? Because most of the time in what I, what I suppose is that most of the time we haven’t really thought through our own views very deeply. Where did they come from? You know, was it a soundbite? Was it 20 years of, of paying taxes or whatever, you know, like? And I think being aware of how that knowledge lives in your brain and where it came from and what environment do I suppose that that has prepared me for, are there other environments that I think that this thing could be, you know, a different belief could help a lot. But I think that you have to figure out where you’re, where you came from and, and then try and be open to another person’s perspective. And, and it’s a whole ‘nother thing, can I make a decision that’s good for the world that might not be the best for me.

 

HEFFNER: Right. So really channel the cause of people’s convictions. I’ve suggested the same to our viewers over time., I think your tactic and suggestion is spot on. Finally this is way out of left field. So forgive me (laugh); but we did a program with a Noah Hutton on his documentary, In Silico and on the quest for, the quest to map our brains on a supercomputer, which sounds like a frightening Terminator dystopian future, right? The idea of empowering the supercomputer with, with the God-given human capacity. But I’ve thought about that a lot. And I just thought you might have some insight into this and our viewers, if they want to explore. One thing that I would like to kind of superimpose on some sort of device is our dreams. There aren’t so many people who study dreams, but this idea of having a transcript of your dreams really is fascinating to me. And, and we all, I think have a shared experience of, if we don’t rescue the dream in the first few minutes of waking up, or even seconds, with some notation we have nothing, no scraps or anything. And even then, we, we question, well, was that really what was happening? And then we lose it all. So are you or any of your colleagues working on something that could map our dreams so that we have an archive of what we’re dreaming?

 

PRAT: Not me. And I’m not. And the closest thing I can say is that you get, I think, a similar phenomenon, well, dreams are, you know, particular because they tend to be very narrative and story-like, but you get some information in mind-wandering as well. And the field is really becoming more and more interested in what the human brain does when it’s off task. I’m really excited about that. You know, we used to put people in the scanner and have them do math or read a sentence. And in fact, that is a change in brain activity that’s maybe like three to five percent of the whole, you know, shebang, the whole iceberg. And so we’re doing more and more research on characterizing individuals by just sticking them in the scanner and saying, stay awake and think about whatever you want, and sort of watching the patterns of, of brain activity as it reverberates through. And I think that those spaces have a similar niche in that they’re, your brain is sorting through experiences and sort of strengthening some things and some things are fading away. And it’s really interesting. I can see why you would want to record the dreams because I’m always like, oh, my brain is still working on that. Or, you know, like, whoa, that was, that made such a little impact on me during the day. But my brain is like, hey, remember, you know, it’s like making all these connections and…

 

HEFFNER: I mean, I just to close, would you be afraid of gathering that data? Do you think dreams should stay where they belong? Or you know just from your own existential assessment of this?

 

PRAT: So, no, I would not be afraid. And I think that that’s, so if there were very personal, because I think I always would rather have more information than less.

 

HEFFNER: Yeah.

 

PRAT: You know, and,

 

HEFFNER: And I guess the, the point was you’d have to safeguard this very carefully…

 

PRAT: Of course,

 

HEFFNER: But is, do you think knowing neuroscience the way you do and experiments that are underway, do you think that this is actually something that could be feasible in our lifetimes?

 

PRAT: I think that we’re getting better and better at decoding, like visual imagery from activity in someone’s brain. And even like people have, you know, recorded remarkable things from people who are in different levels of consciousness in a coma or something like that. So…

 

HEFFNER: We are nearly out of time, the number of screenplays I would’ve written, if I could have those transcripts are in, is infinite truly Chantel. If you have more insight into that, we will gather it and let our viewers know because we’d love to have an expert on that subject on the program as well. In the meantime, please check out Professor Prat’s new book “The Neuroscience of You: How Every Brain is Different and How to Understand Yours,” an enlightening book and conversation today. Thank you, Chantel Prat.

 

PRAT: Thank you so much.

 

HEFFNER: Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/OpenMind to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews. And do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.