Welcome back to The Science of Success. Today, we have an exciting new guest on the show, Scott Halford. Scott is an Emmy Award-winning writer and producer, acclaimed public speaker, and author of Activate Your Brain: How Understanding Your Brain Can Improve your Work and your Life. Scott is also a long time educator of Fortune 500 executive teams on topics including achievement psychology, brain-based behavioral science, emotional intelligence, and the principles of influence. Scott, welcome to The Science of Success.
Scott: Thanks, Matt. Great to be here.
Matt: Well, we're excited to have you on.
Scott: I'm thrilled. You guys do all this psychology stuff. It's pretty interesting, huh?
Matt: Absolutely. So, to start out, Scott, tell me a little bit about how did you kind of get into this field and start doing some research and kind of talking and writing about neuroscience and psychology?
Scott: Yeah, I think I've been interested in what makes people tick for a long, long time. Never from a disease state, but mostly from an achievement state, which is a very different kind of path, and when I was in television... I had a TV career, as you intimated in my introduction. When I was in television, I had the opportunity to do a number of different documentaries on a number of different topics, and met some people in really very, very difficult and trying situations, all the way from people on death row for capital punishment to people who were burned on 90% of their bodies and lived and just the kind of trauma and drama that ensued after that and the kind of life that they had to deal with. And, you know, just meeting them, following them, understanding their plights, really just kind of always resonated with me, and as I got into the corporate world, I really wanted to kind of apply some of the lessons that I learned and to really help them to understand, you know, what is it... We know a lot about what makes people not work well. We even have a huge diagnostic manual on it called the DSM, that tells us all about the mental normalities, but we don't have that much out there that is actually published and rigorous and specific about achievement states. And so, I just got really interested in it and worked in corporations with executives and began just speaking a lot about it, writing a lot about it, and that brings me to kind of where I am.
Matt: So, when you say achievement state, what does that mean?
Scott: Well, so, when you look at... For instance, let's go back to disease states. When you look at paranoid schizophrenia or any kind of neuroticism or any other kind of psychopathology, you're typically trying to bring people to homeostasis, or normal. You're trying to fix something that they have that doesn't fit into the typical nomenclature of an average, normal human being, because of either brain chemistry or brain architecture that's gone wrong or, sometimes, substance abuse and physical and emotional abuse that creates that. So, there's all that work around that, and the achievement state is, if you're taking someone who's basically got kind of a normal profile, what is it that they can do to be exceptional, to push themselves, to drive harder than the typical person would, to stick with things longer than the typical person would, and to achieve kind of extraordinary results by the habits that they create and the kind of thinking that they have and the way that they go about paying attention to the world.
Matt: Fascinating. So, is that sort of the same thing as positive psychology, or is there a difference there?
Scott: Yeah. So, positive psychology, for sure, is a big piece of it. I actually did a semester of the Authentic Happiness with Martin Seligman, who is considered the father of positive psychology, now offers the master's in applied positive psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. And yet, you know, what they're really looking at are things like happiness and things like flourishing and really taking a look at the things that allow us to have a higher sense of wellbeing and applying it to counseling, applying it to coaching, applying it to just everyday kind of work. It's the same. I'm really interested in achievement states through the lens of the brain. So, I love being able to see it proven through science, and to see that gives it teeth. A lot of the executives I worked with, as well as I do a lot of physician leadership programs, and these doctors and highly analytical and cynical executives, quite frankly, they'll listen to it and they'll understand the emotional intelligence. They'll understand that's an important thing. I get that. I read that. It makes sense that it's important. But they're kind of like, well, it's really secondary to my business acumen or my understanding of financial spreadsheets, and so on and so forth. So, it doesn't always feel like they have teeth because there's no data. Well, neuroscience gives it data, and all of a sudden they can see it in the brain. They can see that their ability to make decisions is impaired by their stressors. They can see that their ability to interact with people in a positive light that actually brings out positive outcomes is predicated on how they manage themselves on a moment-by-moment basis throughout the day, and that you can actually see that in the brain. So, there are a variety of other examples. So, that's where I just get very switched on about the whole thing, is to be able to say, you know, take that cynical person and kind of show them a picture of what's happening in the neuroarchitecture and, with the endocrinology in the brain, the hormones, and say to them, "There's your data. There's the teeth. This is not soft skills. These are the hardest skills you will ever learn." The softer skills are business acumen and financial acumen. You can learn that in a book. You can go through a course, semester, go through an MBA in two years and get all that done and then go out there and experience it, but understanding humans is a lifelong process that has so many variables that we'll never, ever achieve that state. We'll just always be on the journey of it.
Matt: That's such a great point. One of the things that set me on that journey many years ago was a speech by Charlie Munger. I don't know if you're familiar with him or not.
Matt: But he has this amazing speech. He's Warren Buffet's business partner.
Scott: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. Okay, yep.
Matt: And he's a fascinating guy. He has this incredible speech called... I forget how many exactly, but it's like the 21 standard causes of human misjudgment, and he basically goes through all these things that cause people's decision making to go haywire. And that kind of got me on this rabbit hole of digging into all these different pieces of the puzzle.
Scott: Fantastic. So, why did you... Why are you so interested in it?
Matt: Like I said, I mean, I think it started with that speech and I really just wanted to figure out, you know, what drives people to make decisions, and I think in many ways, and I get a lot of listeners, actually, who send me questions sometimes that kind of fall into this category. I think a lot of people's interest in psychology, understanding humans, understanding decision making, all of that sort of stems from initially almost like a very naive place of, you know, I want to figure out how I can influence someone to do what I want, right. It's like, I want A plus B equals them doing what I want them to do, basically.
Scott: Right, right.
Matt: And once you kind of get into it, you know... I mean, I started in that place. There's nothing wrong with being in that framework or that kind of thinking about things that way, but once you actually dig into it, there's so many more layers deeper than that, and you really have to kind of start understanding the building blocks and the fundamentals and how those fit together, and then once you understand a lot of that and you really start to build that deeper framework, then these sort of surface level tactical applications of everything from "Why am I making a bad decision?" to "What is this other person making this particular decision and what are the factors going into that and how can I potentially influence them in a more positive way?" Those sort of flow naturally from a deeper understanding of it.
Scott: Mhm. Yeah. And the variables become really difficult, not to understand but to maneuver around, and so when people have relatively good principles that work, they can work most of the time. Where the A plus B equals C falls apart is that A has a variable, B has a variable, and then the environment affects C as well, and so mood affects it, the timing of the day, positive or negative effect, what you ate, you know, prior decisions, the environment, so many different things. And so, I get that a lot from executives. Just tell me, what's the one line that will get everybody to do what I want them to do?" Like, wow. If it was that easy, I'd be out of business, but it's not that easy. And so, I think that it's so incredibly cool to be able to think about it from a not only personal perspective, but in helping other people. And for me, a lot of people will think because I teach it that I have all my stuff together, and nothing could be further from the truth. I just teach it. And again, we're all on that journey as unfinished human beings trying to figure out how do we go about in the world with high well-being, being effective, feeling successful, feeling meaningful, all of those things that allow us to be who we are. And I think the other thing, too, is that at our very basest, I think a lot of people are interested in psychology because they want to understand their own, number one, and I think when we look at our species, again, through brain architecture, we have brain architecture that allows us to contemplate about ourselves and reflect on how we fit in with the person sitting across from us. So, if you'd go to an airport and you sit around and you're not buried in your iPhone or other device and you just watch people, you watch people watching people. Not very many other species are as interested in each other as we are, because we have so many variables. And so, that's why people watching is so incredibly fascinating, because we can be stunned by each other every single day throughout the day, and I think that that's kind of at the crux of it all, in terms of why people are interested. We inherently should be interested in our own species.
Matt: You know, one of the things that it took me a little while to realize was that understanding your own decision making and why that can go haywire, why that can go wrong, and understanding other people's decision making, are essentially two sides of the same coin. And so, once you kind of dig into either one of those, you really start to get to those core principles.
Scott: Yeah. Yeah. I agree. And I think that, you know, we become better when we watch other people, and it's typically not in a book. You know, none of this is... It's all written about. We all ponder it, but no one's ever pronounced the truth just yet. I think that we do our best when we are aware, and not just of ourselves but of other people, and I meet countless executive after executive. And I mostly work in corporations, and I meet countless person after person who can't figure out why all the bad stuff in their life keeps happening, but when I ask them deeper questions and they come to a realization that they're just not looking up. They're not paying attention to the people sitting across from them. They're not interacting, and then understanding their own impact in that relationship. They don't question it. They don't take responsibility for their piece in it. They just kind of have a sense that something went wrong. Huh, what did they do wrong out there, you know? So, the successful ones are looking up and they're watching and they're interacting.
Matt: That makes a lot of sense. So, kind of changing gears slightly, one of the core concepts that you talk about in Activate Your Brain is the idea of activation. What does it mean to activate, and how does that tie into kind of what we were just discussing?
Scott: Well, so, from a neurophysiological standpoint, you can actually see activation in the brain. It's what we look at when we're looking at PET scans and we're looking at fMRIs, which is a functional magnetic resonance image. Allows us to look in your brain as things activate while you're doing something. And when we activate, in the book when we're looking at activation, we're talking, really literally, about activating momentum around doing what it is that you want to do that pushes you toward more what you believe to be your own successful state and your own state of wellbeing. And activation is a place in the brain. It's in the medial orbital frontal cortex, so in the middle. So, if you put your finger in the middle of your forehead and just to the left of that middle, you're on that left side of the medial orbital frontal cortex, orbital meaning around your eye, and right under there is a place that, when it activates by you doing something, and typically it has to do with something that you've accomplished... You know, like you just got something done on your to-do list and you cross it off. When you do the crossing off, that literally activates that left medial orbital frontal cortex. We'll just call it LMOFC for short. It activates it, and what it does is it energizes the reward systems in the brain, and the reward systems include a neurotransmitter called dopamine, and dopamine makes you feel like you want to do something again and makes you feel excited and gives you pleasure, and it says, "Do it again, do it again, do it again." So, when you activate, activation preceeds motivation. Motivation is a psychological construct that really looks into and determines on why are... Really, the why. Why do you want to do something? And looks at desire. We all have those things that we don't desire to do but we have to do, and we have to be the one to do them. And we don't ever get motivation around them, and so what we have to do is activate around them. You just do it. You just begin. Start small but start now is a mantra throughout the book. And once you start and you get that one little cross off, you go again. I mean, we've all had that, where we're like, oh, you know. You're looking at your emails and you've got in your inbox, even though you've looked at them, you just haven't cleaned it out. I have this going on right now. I've got 3,000 emails that they're all dealt with, but it really needs to be cleaned out. And you go, okay, I'm going to spend some time. I'll just do a few. Well, once you start doing it and you start kind of checking off, either mentally or physically, around it, and you activate around it, pretty soon you've cleaned out the whole thing. You've done it with your office. You've cleaned your house, right. We've all done that.
Matt: That's totally true.
Scott: Yeah. That's the activation. You know, and to be certain, the activation portion of the brain is also implicated in addiction at all, because it's within the same neurotransmitter and receptors as addiction does. But it's a great message to understand. That's the achievement side, is that you can become addicted to positive things. So, that's what that's all about, and really, it's the dance between that right side, which is on the orbital frontal cortex on the right side, is your no button. The left side's your go button. The no and the go. And the right side says, you know, when you wake up in the morning and you're supposed to go work out and you lay there and you think, oh, no, I just want to sleep, and the sleep wins, the no button won. And so, that's the part that keeps you on the couch. But, as with the left side being both positive and negative, having the positive attributes, the right side does, too. So, the right side, says, "No, stay on the couch," but it also says, "Don't eat that food. Don't go and gamble again." So, it's the dance between that left and right side that actually help us to navigate and negotiate our conscience, our guilt, our morals, our values, our ethics and beliefs. And that drives our behavior and really allows us to achieve what we want to achieve in the world, and that dance back and forth is what we're really looking at.
Matt: That's fascinating. It reminds me of, I think, Josh Waitzkin. I don't know if you're familiar with him, but he's a world champion martial artist, a national chess champion who's now kind of a performance coach, but he talks about the idea of unkinking your energy flow, and it's kind of like a hose that has a bunch of kinks in it, and you know every time you move one kink, the flow through the hose gets stronger and stronger and stronger. And it's the same thing. You know, when you activate one thing, then that sort of cascades into multiple different activations of doing and executing all kinds of different things. You know, you start with your one email and then you've cleaned your inbox, cleaned your office, et cetera.
Scott: Yeah. I 100% agree with that, and that would be exactly what our goal is. Because when you look at drivers, you know, Hertzberg studied drivers in the 1960s when he created hygiene therapy. I don't know if you know about that, but... Hygiene theory, rather, not therapy. Hygiene theory basically says that the things that demotivate us are not the same things that motivate us, so the things that demotivate us are pay, the environment, fairness, that kind of thing. Well, when all those are taken care of, if you feel like you are being paid well enough, it's not consider a motivator. So, it will demotivate you if you're not paid well enough but, once you're paid well enough, it's not the motivator. The things that drive you to motivate are things like achievement, personal growth, the job itself, earn recognition, so on, so forth. And really kind of unkinking, to your point, unkinking to get to those places and making sure that those demotivator things are taken care of, are really kind of what it's all about and really important, and I think that when people pick up my book, or any other kind of book like that, what they're really looking for are the tactics and the ways to get out of the way of themselves and to unkink and to... You know, most people are looking for an easy kind of way to go. I think success is never easy. It's always rewarding, but you have to make sacrifices. You've got to get up early. You have to work harder than you typically might want to. But, you know, when you look at a pathway that says, "All right, so what do I do to kind of feel excited about doing this hard stuff?" part of it is just the awareness of, number one, what it is that you're going after, number two, what's in your way. Those are the kinks. And number three, having the gumption to get rid of them, and actually, not only get rid of them but to create things that keep you activated, keep you excited, keep that energy going and making sure that you stay on that achievement side, as opposed to falling back into what Hertzberg would call the maintenance side, which is the demotivators. So, you know, again, it's not a destination. It's just always the journey. That's what you will do for the rest of your life if you want to be successful.
Matt: So, I'm sure it's a lengthy and complex answer, but how would you say people should go about keeping themselves activated, or even starting, kind of jump-starting, activation?
Scott: Well, you know, it really kind of boils down to a couple of things. First off, really kind of beginning to live under the adage, getting away from the old, you know, do more with less. What a crappy adage that was. I mean, what a bad theory. And we're discovering now how bad it was. In the '80s, '90s, even... you know, some organizations still live with it. Do more with less, right. Why should I multitask? We know that actually is such a bad idea. It's not only a bad idea, we physiologically cannot do it, number one. Number two, we also know that it degrades the gray matter of your brain over time, so it's hard on your head. But we know that people do better when they do fewer things. They just pick fewer things. They do them better. And so, first off, it's figuring out what you want and not having... You know, you can have anything you want. You just can't have it all right now. And the thing that people get really overwhelmed with is when they put too much on their plate. I know I do. I've done that several times where I just get too much on my plate, got to accomplish things around them, and now what I'm just doing is just maintaining them, just getting them done, not having enjoyment going toward them. So, if I have something I really want to go toward and I figure out what those are, two or three things, and I'm going toward them, I don't become overwhelmed. I can activate around them and I can start small but start now. Just start, you know, doing a little bit around each one and allowing the activation momentum to kind of take over and just rely on myself to push myself. I also think we all need people who help us be accountable, whether it's a coach or a mentor or a good friend, significant order, who, when you say, "All right, so I want to accomplish this and I need you to help make sure that I'm sticking to my goal here, and so I want you to hold up the mirror every once in a while and say, 'Hey, you know, you said you wanted to...' da-da-da-da, 'but you just didn't do this this time. You said you wanted to lose weight, but look at that big old triple-decker cheeseburger in your mouth.'" Whatever it is, right, that we have somebody who we're willing to listen to, to kind of hold us on the path. You know, my philosophy... And I don't have any data around this, but I do have a lot of experience. I've been in my... I've had my company, Complete Intelligence, for 26 years. I've watched people for a long time, and I think about 75% of the people I meet are not self-starters. Only about 25% are self-starters. About 75% are kickstarters. They need a little kick in the butt. I'm one of them. I mean, I self-start on some things and I kickstart on others. I need somebody to go, "Okay, come on. Come with me." Like, all right. I'll go. We need that, and really getting an awareness around that allows us to get into the activation. It's a habit, you know, and I think people get really hung up on the whole idea of, you know, am I accomplishing everything I want to accomplish and am I doing it fast enough? And look at what... You know, we have these yardsticks that are crazy, quite frankly. You know, we look at... I'm looking at a picture of you and you look really young.
Matt: I have a very young face.
Scott: You do? You look pretty young. And people... In my business, you know, the speaking world, we have an award that is the National Speaker's Hall of Fame. Well, people get it at different times in their lives, but you know what people brag about? Is how young they got it. And I think that's a ridiculous yardstick. Okay, so you got it when you were 30 as opposed to when you were 50. Is that the goal? Is the goal to get it done fast? And then what? And what does it get you? What does it bring you? So, I think we fall into this trap of saying, I need it all, I need it fast, and if I do it fast then that's... wow, yay. And I ask people... I have a really good friend. When he was inducted into the National Speaker's Hall of Fame—and he really, really, really wanted it bad for a long time, many years—and he started kind of getting bitter about it. And he's a great performer and an awesome speaker. Well, once he got it, we were having a beer, and we were just chatting about it. It was a couple of years afterwards. I'm like, "So..." I'll just call him John. That's not his name. "So, John, so has your life changed since you got inducted?" He goes, "No, not really." So, "Did it change how you feel about you?" He said, "For a small amount of time it did, but I needed to get it checked off and I needed it now," kind of thing. So, I think, you know, when people look at what they want to accomplish in their lives, I think being measured about it, understanding that, you know, obviously we're not living forever, so there is that time element to it, but this whole idea of "I want to make $30 million by the time I'm 40 years old." I know people like that. It's like, why? But, you know, it's different whys for different people, for sure. I just think that when we put ourselves on the journey that says we have to have it all right now, we create an anxiety that actually causes us to not perform as well, increases our anxiety, increases our stress state, our wellbeing is reduced, and then they accomplish it and it's kind of like, wow. You aged yourself. Your brain is worse off. You got what you wanted. It didn't change anything. You're not healthier because of it, right? So, my own little soapbox. Pardon me.
Matt: Oh, no. It's all good. That was very interesting. So, kind of circling back a little bit, what are some things that someone listening to this podcast could do...? Let's say they have kind of a challenge or a goal. I think, one, the idea of addition by subtraction, i.e. cut down, focus on fewer, more high-impact things, I think that's a great piece of advice. What are some other things they could do to maybe create that momentum or to take that small step right now to get started, if they're struggling or they can't quite get the momentum they want and they feel like they're not motivated?
Scott: Yeah. Well, you know what? I always like to use the weight metaphor. Weight. A lot of people relate to the idea of losing or gaining weight, or getting fit. And, you know, you're not going to lose 50 pounds between now and tomorrow, and when you put that as your goal and you lay that out, it's a great goal. You know, if you have 50 pounds to lose, it's a fantastic goal to have. But your brain doesn't see you as losing 50 pounds between now and tomorrow, and so what we typically do is we put it off. And there's some research that shows, actually, in an fMRI, that shows that the part of our brain that lights up that registers disgust is the same place in our brain that registers when we have a goal that is longer than 90 days out.
Scott: Yeah. So, it's kind of fascinating to see that when we have this long-term goal, what we see is that... You don't see yourself as accomplishing it. You see it as somebody else's thing. It's an out there kind of thing. Because if you think about a goal that you have, like if I say to your listeners now, think about something that you have to accomplish between now and next week. So, just think about that right now, and whether it's your email or getting your proposal done—whatever it is, right—you think about that. The part of your brain that lights up is called the ventral medial prefrontal cortex, almost near that orbital frontal cortex on the left side. It's right in the middle of your forehead and right behind it, and it's the place where you see yourself. It's the place where you self-reflect. And that lights up when you think of short-term goals. And, again, it is a reward radiator and it allows you to kind of create momentum. So, all of that architecture's interconnected. But, when I say, all right. So, Matt, think of... It's right now May. What do you want to accomplish by December? What's one goal that you don't have going right now but you know you want to accomplish by December? You think about it and then you might write it down. If I looked in your brain and had you think about it, the part of your brain that would light up would not be the ventral medial prefrontal cortex. It would likely a part called the medial parietal lobe, and what happens there is it does radiate to discuss and it does begin to become something where we push it off. So, that's the science behind it, which says it's real. So, what we need to do is take a larger goal, that 50 pounds, and bring it down to, I'm not losing 50 pounds between now and tomorrow. Not even now and the end of the month. Not even now and the end of two or three or four months. However, what I can do is I can lose about eight ounces a day and keep it off. Or, if you want to look at it in terms of a week, a pound a week or something like that, or maybe two, but it needs to be sustainable and reasonable. And then what would I do every single day...? So, you would have the piece that would be... Okay, what's the big goal. Then what would I do to bring it down to a manageable goal? What would be the amount I could actually lose? And then ask yourself, there's the goal. Now I have to have two other things. I have to have a how and why. And they're two separate operations in the brain. So, the how is, what would I do? I would exercise more. I would take the stairs. I wouldn't eat carbohydrates after seven o'clock, cut out bread, don't drink wine and beer as much, and so on and so forth. Those are all the hows. The why needs to be all the benefits. Well, I'll feel better about myself. I'll look. I'll have better self-image, my self-confidence, so on and so forth. Those two networks in the brain are two different networks, but you need them both in order to accomplish motivation, if you will. So, it really is... Kind of reducing it down is this, is: go ahead and have a big goal. Understand that it could take you a year or longer to accomplish. And, if you really want to accomplish it, you really want to be able to break it down into bite-sized pieces that you can check off to get that dopamine bump, if you will, check off at least a few times a week, if not every day, and then have a why. Why are you doing it? And that's the big thing that a lot of people are missing. I have a good friend who was a client. He was joking that it was the $40 million by the time he was 40. And he did it, but I kept asking him, why? I mean, it sounds ridiculous. We'd all love to have $40 million by the time we're 40. But it doesn't take disease away. It doesn't make people happier. We've seen the research around that. You know, how many cars can you have? How many houses can you have? And, as a matter of fact, achieving those in a state where you don't have to really work hard to earn it, there's not as much happiness. When you go buy your first house, that's huge. It's so exciting, because you work at it, and it's a lot of bump. But when you can just do it any time, it's not as exciting. So, you know, the why. Why is so huge, and really figuring out what's the benefit to yourself. And earning $40 million, you could have a fantastic why, but if you don't articulate it, kind of the wellbeing part of it kind of gets compromised.
Matt: That was great. That's super helpful. I love the idea of really breaking things down into bite sized kind of weekly or even daily activities towards that longer-term vision. I think that's super important.
Scott: Yeah. And you want to make sure, for sure, that it's got some frequency to it. When I was writing my book, when I was writing Activate Your Brain, it's an evidence-based book, so it's a harder book to write than... Like, my first book, Be a Shortcut, which is more... You know, there's evidence in it, but it was more me expounding on my philosophy about things, right, or my influence in emotional intelligence. So, when I had to write that book, I would stare at it and go, oh, God, I just don't want to. I was on a deadline and I didn't want to write it, and so I would just take my own advice and literally take out an old chapter that I'd already written and just kind of read through it. That was my activation, was just to get out a chapter I'd already written and read it, and you know, what do you think would happen from that? Well, I would start editing it, and I'd add to it, and pretty soon I had written 15 or 20 pages. And that's what it looks like. It literally is... I'm not writing the whole chapter. I'm not writing the whole book. I'm actually not going to even write. That wasn't even my activation. My activation was to get out an old chapter and read it and, knowing exactly what would happen, is that I would begin to edit it, add on, think of new things, and then just bam, just go.
Matt: That's awesome. So, you've touched on, in some of that extrapolation, kind of the ideas of brain structure, neural networks and everything. One of the things we've talked about in the past on the podcast are kind of the biological limits of the mind and how biology constrains and sort of structures our thinking. One of the topics I know you've talked about in past is the idea of the three different brains and how that ties into neuroscience and sort of our brains themselves. Would you talk a little bit about that?
Scott: Yeah. So, it's kind of a simplistic way to look at the brain, but when you look at kind of architecture in a larger, macro format, and you look at what developed when in the brain, the first thing that came online was the reptilian brain. It's ancient. And it's kind of at the base of the brain. It's what we call the pons or the brain stem. [INAUDIBLE 00:35:28] is also in there, and it's really the ancient part. It's implicated... You know, the whole brain interacts with each other, but this one is on 24 hours a day, seven days a week, reptilian, pays attention to things that are automatic and autonomic, that they just have to happen and they need... Like, body temperature, perspiration, respiration, aspiration, salivation, any of the -ations it's doing for you. And basically, it turns those on and off. You don't really have a choice about it. And it also helps to activate around certain motivations, as well. The medulla, that is at the very base of the brain that kind of looks like a second brain, that's where we lock all of our consolidated behaviors like riding a bike, brushing your teeth, buttoning a shirt, tying your shoes, things that were really hard when you were a two-year-old and spent a lot of sugar to be able to do, a lot of glucose, because that's what the brain uses to energize itself, and it used to take you lots and lots of energy, and that's why kids have meltdowns if you push them too hard. But over time, what happens through repetition, those behaviors consolidate, and now the glucose expenditure reduces, and that's all in the medulla. And so, it allows you to operate in the world without having to spend a lot of sugar. We want to use that for other things. Then the second brain is what we call the mammal brain, and that's kind of locked right in the middle of the brain. It's the mid-brain. We call it the limbic system and it harbors lots of architecture. We store behaviors, we consolidate and store behaviors, in that part. It's also where we harbor our memory, most of it, in a place called the hippocampus, and the emotional danger-detecting architecture is there, as well, and we have several times, about seven times more danger detecting architecture in our brain than we do for a reward. It allowed us to survive the world. And that's the emotional part of the brain. It's what puts you on high alert. It's what makes you kind of pay attention to things in the environment. And we put rewarding things on the bottom and we put dangerous things on top, and it gives you a lot of clue about behavior. You know, people who are constantly seeing the negative are in their danger-threat response quite a lot. And that mammal part of the brain si 24 hours a day, seven days a week, scanning the environment for danger and threat in the environment about three to five times per second, even while you're asleep. So, it's a busy, busy, busy brain. The problem with it is it has no logic. It's messy and it's the part that says, you know, if you hit me, I'm going to hit you back. It's that part that says, you know... If all we had was our mammal brain and we were executives sitting across from each other and I vehemently disagreed with you and I wanted to choke you, I actually would. And so, we have to bring online the human part of the brain, which is the prefrontal cortex, and that's the last part to have been added to the brain, about 30,000 years ago. That's the part that is the executive reasoning, thinking, innovating part of the brain, and so it gives intelligence to our emotions, thus emotional intelligence. It's the dance between the prefrontal cortex and the limbic system. That's emotional intelligence. Because, again, if we acted on all of our impulses, all of our emotional impulses, especially the stronger ones—to hit, to bite, to scratch, to yell, to scream—we wouldn't be very effective as a species. We'd be effective as other animals is what we'd be. And the intelligence, that prefrontal cortex, says, no, no, no. Let's modulate that. You might be really angry right now, but is that anger going to help you get what you want, or do you need to just slow it down, take a deep breath, and restate and reframe your needs in a way that's not going to cause somebody else to become defensive and not get what you want? So, that's the emotional intelligence piece, and those are the three parts and pieces that kind of interact. So, that's what they look like right there.
Matt: And I think that... We've talked about this in a previous episode. It's fascinating that the brain is sort of geared towards it via the process of evolution, focusing more on threats and danger and, in many ways, that's kind of maladapted to modern day society where, oftentimes, the threats that you're facing are not an animal jumping out of the bushes that's going to eat you, but it's somebody across the table or in a board room or whatever it might be that is not actually a physical threat to your life, necessarily, and so our response is often inappropriate or wrong, kind of rooted in these biological nature and structure of the brain itself.
Scott: Yeah. And, you know, exactly. The architecture is the same. The dangers have evolved. And you're right. It's no longer the saber-toothed tiger or the poisonous plant. It's the missed deadline. It's you disagreeing with me. It's you telling me that my baby's ugly, right. It's that back and forth. That's the danger in the environment. And the architecture is still useful. We just have to manage it, and when our prefrontal cortex... You know, before that prefrontal cortex became fully developed, we were still a pretty nasty species. All you have to do is look back at the history of our species, especially in the last 5,000 years. We've been pretty mean to each other in a lot of different ways. When you add language and some of the sophistication that comes with a prefrontal cortex, wow, that's another layer that you have to deal with, right? I mean, confusion really became part of who we are and how we interact. When you add language in... Because we've all had that, you know, when you say to someone, "Hey, you want to go have Mexican food?" and they look at you like, oh, sure. You know, you can't see my face right now, but if you saw it you'd be like... you'd look at it and go, he really doesn't want to go. Well, because we play games with each other, we might be passive-aggressive, if you will. I might look at you and see your face saying no but decide not to pay attention and say, "Well, you said yes, so okay. Great. Let's go have Mexican food." And now you have conflict, right, and so we're constantly dealing with these little teeny papercuts of dangers. Cortisol is your stressor hormone that is activated when you're paying attention to all those dangers. So, as we look at the health of the aging brain, we look at cortisol and the implications of it, in terms of the integrity of that brain, because we're all shrinking after we're 25, 25 to 30 years old. You're either shrinking or you're growing. You're not going to stand in place, your brain. And, in order for it to grow, you have to proactive. It's going to just shrink on its own, and if you are paying attention to all of the dangerous threats that you interpret as a danger in the environment, something tardy, an email that you get that is upsetting, and myriad of things, if your lens is always about danger and you can't reframe it, which is what the prefrontal cortex allows you to do, then your brain health is... you're going down a nasty path. And you feel bad, and other disease happens because now your immune system, your immune function is battered from all that cortisol in your system. So, it's a circular kind of thing that happens. Our danger detection system is there for a very good reason. It's just that because we have evolved into a modern world, we need to kind of say to our danger response, really, that email, it didn't make me rageful. It made me frustrated. That's a different set of neurohormones, but we keep telling ourselves that, oh gosh, we get really mad when it really requires not such an outsized emotion that is filled with all kinds of... not only negativity from a feeling sense, but also from a neurochemical sense to the brain.
Matt: So, along with cortisol and dopamine, which we've touched on, what are some of the other key neurochemicals, and how do we control or manage their impact on our behavior?
Scott: So, fun with neurochemistry is what we're talking about. Yes. [Laughs] So, there's a set of catecholamines that include dopamine and epinephrine, and then you add oxytocin into it, and those are the three I like to focus on, along with cortisol. And again, cortisol's not all bad. You don't want to get rid of it. It's actually a very positive thing as you're learning something. It focuses you. That along with norepinephrine. Norepinephrine's your focuser. That's the thing that actually causes you to pay high alert and attention. In a positive state, it's exciting, and when you're learning something... Say you're going to go out and learn to play golf or any other thing, and you go out and you start playing and you start getting positive feedback. Well, norepinephrine plus the cortisol, which is, again, focusing you, those two things cause you to learn rapidly. It's just that when you're pushed too hard and somebody starts to criticize and then the danger becomes danger, you know, the threat response becomes dangerous as opposed to positive, then we crumble, because we're spending way too much glucose. Cortisol doesn't travel alone. It travels with glucose, because glucose and cortisol, along with adrenaline, come together to make you fight, flight, or freeze. Well, you know, you just don't want to be in that space all day. It's exhausting. And that's what happens when you're in a state of learning where you've been pushed too far. So, on the positive side, norepinephrine focuses you, makes you interested, makes you engaged, makes you excited, and we know that things that actually activate it are things like novelty, learning something new like I just explained. You know, a new language, a musical instrument, going and learning something you've never done before. Paint a painting. Do mosaics. Do something you've never done, and it's not about achieving mastery but just about... and not only about exciting your brain, but when you are in novelty, you're actually in neurogenesis as well as neuroplasticity. You're causing your brain to grow. You're binding neural pathways that are there that have never talked before and now they are, and you're creating new growth in your brain, and then neurogenesis, which is brand new neurons in the memory center of your brain as well as the motor center of your brain, the medulla and the hippocampus. So, those... norepinephrine is really positive that way, so learning something new, getting hobbies, and that kind of thing. Dopamine comes from winning. It comes from accomplishing things, that check mark. It comes from achieving mastery and feeling like, somewhere in your world, you have some chiefdom, some little corner of the world that you know you do really well, and that sense of wellbeing is part of what happens with dopamine. And then there's oxytocin, which is your bonding hormone, and that is that state of feeling like you're part of a social group. It's pro-social. It makes you feel included. It makes you feel loved and it makes you feel liked, as well. And things like collaboration, laughter. So, if you're laughing a lot. We love people who we laugh with, and that's an oxytocin bump. If you like somebody, you're just hanging out with them, going and having a coffee with them or a beer, whatever, and you just feel simpatico. That's an oxytocin. That's that feeling. When you fall in love with someone, you're going to get a bunch of oxytocin. And then being generous. You know, being benevolent and going out in society and doing something for people that you don't have to do something for. That creates oxytocin. We know that, actually, to that end that volunteering and helping people, where you don't have to do it, right, but doing something for other people has about the same palliative effect on your depression, mild to moderate depression, as an anti-depressant does. So, volunteering's a really great kind of therapy for yourself, if you will. And so those three, dopamine, norepinephrine, and oxytocin, kind of combine to give you that overall sense of peace, wellbeing, excitement, mastery, control. All the positive things in your world. We kind of dive deeply in the book into, you know, what are the things you want to put in your place that create those, and I just mentioned some of them.
Matt: Yeah. No, those were some great examples. So, for example, if somebody has too much cortisol or they're constantly in that fight or flight danger response place, what are some of the things that they might be able to do to calm themselves down or to reduce their cortisol levels or to kind rebalance some of their neurochemicals?
Scott: Yeah. I call them erasers. I call these things erasers. They erase the cortisol. They rebalance it, set it to homeostasis. And they're everything we all know about, and yet you've got to do them. And here's the thing: got to do them every day. And not all of them, but some of them you have to do every day. Some of them, you just do it when you're starting to feel stressed out. The everyday things are, number one, and by a long shot, is sleep. We are so under-slept, and we're seeing inflammation in the brain, which is a bad thing. It's making the brain stickier. We're seeing that being implicated in Alzheimer's, where the beta amyloids can't be flushed because of the inflamed brain, and the lack of sleep will inflame your brain. It's why you can't think. You gotta get your seven to nine hours, and on average, that's where we are as an adult human being. So, sleep. If you're having frenetic sleep because you're so anxious, you've got to go figure that out. Go work with a sleep doctor. Work with somebody, but read the chapter in the book on sleep. You've really just got to pay attention to this. So many people: "Oh, I don't like to sleep. It's a waste of time." It is the most important time you have all day. If you're not sleeping, you're not consolidating, and that's where we consolidate our memories. It's not happening while you're awake. While you're awake, you gather. While you sleep, you learn. And so, you might think it's a waste of time. It's the most productive time your brain has, and if you're not doing it, you're headed for an early grave. Just really pay attention to that. That's number one every day. Number two is exercise every day. Gotta walk, faster than a typical walk. 30 minutes a day is what's being recommended. About 150 minutes a week. Cardiovascular's where we see both neurogenesis and neuroplasticity be affected in a positive light. Plus, BDNF, the brain-derived neurotropic factor, which is like Miracle-Gro to the brain, causes the brain to have the neural pathways to connect, as well as neurogenesis. So, it's a brain grower. Sense of wellbeing happens, brings down the cortisol levels, brings up endorphin, which is your natural painkiller. So, exercise, you know, and cardiovascular's the big thing. For those of you out there just lifting weights and not doing any cardiovascular, we're not seeing the same kind of positive implication in the brain. It's great for your bones. Gotta have that, right. So, it's great for the pressure on the bones, but I really want you to get out there and do some cardiovascular stuff. It doesn't have to be crazy. Just get a Fitbit and get 10,000 steps in a day. You know, Fitbit or something else that's a step counter, and make 30 minutes of those a day something that are faster than walk and make you breathe a little heavier and maybe get you a little sweaty above the lip. So, that's exercise. The third thing every day: your brain needs downtime that is not asleep. We call it a wake rest in neuroscience, and that means mindfulness. It means meditation. It means just wandering, mentally wandering. Sit in your office, sit in your home. Just look out the window and untether yourself from electronics. Literally untether from electronics. And give yourself ten minutes of that three times a day. The recent research shows that your brain is best from a work, productive, and quality standpoint, best at sprinting for a maximum of about 57 minutes with a 17 minute break, and in that break you're doing downtime things. You're laughing. Maybe you go and do a deliberate distraction. Maybe you just mentally wander. Maybe you do some mindfulness where you just think about a thing. There's lots of stuff out there, Headspace and other kinds of apps out there that you can really just take that cortisol level down. So, sprint 57. In my book I call it 50-10, because I like even numbers. So, sprint for 50, take ten off. Also during that ten minutes, by the way, is to hydrate. An under-hydrated brain doesn't think as well. Your brain needs about ten times more water than the rest of the cells in your body. So, during your ten minutes, go... You know, every time you hit that ten minute mark, go get a glass of water and drink it. So, 50-10, 50-10, throughout the day, to the degree you can. Obviously, nobody's on that exact schedule, but you want to introduce it at least three times a day, and during that ten minutes, during at least three of those, really have that downtime awake rest. Not where you're sleeping, but awake rest. If you want to take a nap in your office for ten or 15 minutes, awesome. Awesome, awesome. Really, those reset everything in your head, and if you can do it and close your door and figure out how to accomplish that, it's highly encouraged. Lots of research around the benefits of napping. Laughter is... We talked about that, but laughing, finding lightness, going to websites that make you laugh and make you giggle, and don't discard all those things that your friends are sending to you. Put them in a file, and when you're feeling a little in energy, get them out and giggle. Watch what happens. You feel awake. It's not an accident. Gives you stamina. And then the final thing is being moved. Tears of joy or just being moved, feeling emotionally positive. You know, the underdog videos or movies. One of the websites I love is values.com, and it's a non-religious, non-political website, and you can't give it money. It's a great of entrepreneurs and philanthropists who came together and created a thing called the foundation for a better life, and it's literally public service announcements that are 30, 60, and 90 second long videos about doing the right thing. It's anti-bullying and it's just about doing the right things, and if you watch those and don't feel something, you've got ice in your veins. You need to go do something about that. And that sense of... That's where we feel that oxytocin and that towardness toward our own species, where we feel like, oh, look at that. See, how cool is that? So, we've all seen all those videos, and you want to see those a few times a week. I just encourage you to sit down and find those things in your world that make you laugh, make you feel, make you feel energized, and the five things I just outlined for you are the great erasers for that.
Matt: Those are some excellent things, and we've talked a bunch about the importance of sleep, meditation, and several other of these topics on previous episodes, so I think you're echoing what our listeners have heard before, but it bears repeating, definitely, that these are absolutely critical things to be doing every single day.
Scott: 100% every day. And you know, the thing is people get all into a regimen. For me, mine is like, okay, when am I going to get this in? It's like I'm going to go work out right after we're done. And I have a personal trainer, by the way, and I put that person in my life because I know I won't go push myself like he will, right? So, it's that accountability. It's that person and, you know, I look at that and I'm like, okay, a few times a week I'm going to go work with him when I'm in town. Not in town a lot, but and then in the off time, I'm going to go get on a treadmill. Don't love it, but I'm going to do it, not necessarily for my body but definitely for my brain.
Matt: So, what is one piece of homework that you would give to our listeners?
Scott: Well, I would have your listeners take stock of their open order list, what I call an open order list. What are all the things that you've told yourself that you will do that, you know... kind of think a month out. What are all the open orders that you have? Gotta get this anniversary gift. Have to finish this email. Got to get this proposal out. Have to go look for venture capital money. Got to finish the basement. Got to do yard work. All those go on there, because it's what you're asking your brain to pay attention to. I would detail them out, write them down, and think as many as you possibly can. It's kind of like a to-do list, but it's even bigger, because you wouldn't put "Call Mom" on your to-do list, usually. Maybe not. But I want you to look at everything that you're telling your brain to pay attention to, and then what I would like for you to do is start to discard stuff. Get rid of the things that you know you're not going to do. Stop telling yourself you are. When you're ready, you will. And start focusing on a few things, big chunky things. I would really look at what is putting you in a towards state. What are you moving toward? And that typically has to do with a goal. We know that people who are moving toward a larger goal and, breaking it down into the smaller, bite-sized pieces, start small but start now, they have better wellbeing overall. And they accomplished their goals. They just have more effectiveness in their lives. So, it's really about cleaning out the attic of your life, and get rid of the mental boxes that you're not going to do anything with and just discard them. Start to discard. Really look at that list. That would be from a piece of homework I would have people start with.
Matt: That's great advice. So, what are some other books and resources, obviously other than Activate Your Brain, that you would recommend people check out if they want to learn more or dig into some of these concepts?
Scott: Yeah. I really like Flourish, as well as Authentic Happiness by Martin Seligman. Positivity by Barbara Fredrickson. I like Charles Duhigg's book on habit. I like Shawn Achor, A-C-H-O-R, on happiness, the Happiness Factor. I think he's great. Written some really cool things on that. You know, there are so many tomes and books out there that really... Oh, here's one that I really love, is a book that kind of got me really deeply interested in some of the intricacies. It's called Rewire Your Brain. I don't have it in front of my right now and I would misquote the author's last name, but Rewire Your Brain is the name of the book, and a really great... Written by a PTSD neuropsychologist who really understands the intricacies of bringing the science down to a place where people can eat it, consume it, and do something with it. Really great book.
Matt: And where can people find you online?
Scott: They just go to www.completeintelligence.com, and that's my website. You can find my book there. Both my books are on Amazon.com, Activate Your Brain and Be a Shortcut. Activate Your Brain was the one that came out about ten months ago, and it hit the Wall Street Journal Bestseller list in September, so I'm proud of that.
Scott: Thank you.
Matt: Well, Scott, this has been great, and I'm sure the listeners are going to love a number of the insights and tactics that you've shared here. So, I wanted to say thank you very much for being on The Science of Success.
Scott: Great to be here.