[00:00:19.4] ANNOUNCER: Welcome to The Science of Success. Introducing your host, Matt Bodnar.
[0:00:12.0] MB: Welcome to the Science of Success, the number one evidence-based growth podcast on the internet with more than 2 million downloads, listeners in over a hundred countries and part of the Self-Help for Smart People Podcast Network.
In this episode, we discuss real-life inception with a former bank robber turned neuroscientist. Is it possible to plant ideas in your head? Are your memories an accurate reflection of past reality? Can you change and mold your memories to be different?
We open the door on human irrationality and explore why and how we make bad decisions and what you can do to make small changes that will create a big impact in your life and much more with our guest, Moran Cerf.
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I wanted to also highlight before we start this interview, we had an amazing conversation with our guest Peter Shallard a couple weeks go where we looked at the gap that exist between learning and doing and why it is that so many smart, ambitious people invest hours in their growth and development but fail to see breakaway external results for the time they’ve invested. If you sometimes feel overwhelmed by all the things you know you could or should be implementing to level up your life or career, then that episode will blow your mind.
We explore what science is telling us about the actual execution of concrete individual growth and measurable upward mobility across various dimensions of life. We share the most effective tactic for moving yourself from learning to doing and much more with our very special guest, Peter Shallard. That interview is one of the most impactful interviews we’ve done on the Science of Success. It’s completely different from any other episode and it will help you finally take action on what you’ve been procrastinating on. Check that episode out.
Now for our interview with Moran.
[0:03:31.0] MB: Today we have another fascinating guest on the show, Dr. Moran Cerf. Moran is a professor of neuroscience and business at Kellogg School of Management and the neuroscience program at Northwestern University. He’s also a member of the Institute of Complex Systems and was recently named one of the 40 leading professionals under 40. He’s work has been featured on the TED Stage, in Wired, Scientific American and much more.
Moran, welcome to the Science of Success.
[0:03:58.9] MC: Thank you.
[0:04:00.1] MB: Well, we’re thrilled to have you on the show. You’re obviously a fascinating individual, and for people in the audience who may not be familiar with you, I’d love to start out with – I’m sure you get asked this all the time because it’s such an incredible kind of moniker or experience to have kind of attach your name, but as somebody who loves heist movies and bank robberies and all that kind of stuff, tell us about your experience robbing banks.
[0:04:25.1] MC: Well, I spent over a decade of my life in my teens and early 20s working as a computer hacker for the good guys. So my job was to help banks and government institutes find what hackers could do badly to their systems before the hackers actually do that. I help them secure the systems better. So in doing so, one of my jobs was actually to try to break into the organizations, to the banks, to the financial institutes of sorts of find flaws in the security so we can secure them better. So I did have a lot of bank robberies on my sleeves.
[0:04:59.6] MB: And in some of these cases, I mean, obviously a lot of it was sort of digital penetration testing, but in some cases you actually physically robbed these banks.
[0:05:07.8] MC: Yeah. What’s less known about bank robberies, since there aren’t a lot of books with directions how to do that, is that the majority of them are actually of course done online using hacking tools, but hackers are also responsible for finding flaws in security more kind of physical. Someone leaving a note on the computer with their password or a camera that works on batteries and the batteries die every now and then and no one cares about that.
So our job as hackers was also to sometimes actually go to the bank physically and try to find those security flaws and it involved actually coming to the bank and physically asking for the key to the vault and pretending to be bank robbers to see how it works. So we did that a few times, and for all purposes for the point of the bank tellers, this is a regular bank robbery, a clumsy one though.
[0:05:59.5] MB: I mean, that’s truly amazing. I can’t imagine what that experience must have been like, and I’m sure it was a lot of fun as well.
[0:06:08.2] MC: Makes for a lot of stories.
[0:06:09.7] MB: That’s true. So you’re an accomplished bank robber turned neuroscientist. Tell us a little bit about how that sort of transition took place and what drew you into the world of neuroscience?
[0:06:22.2] MC: So like most things in life, we tell our story backwards based on how we got to where we got rather than forward by planning it, and I guess I could think of various ways to figure out how I ended up who I was. But I think that I would boil it down to at least one encounter with a famous neuroscientist and biologist, Francis Crick, who was one of the guys who was remarkable in many ways, but essentially is the father of modern biology because he discovered the double helix and how it creates basically the building blocks of life and won the Nobel Prize in the 50s for that.
After that, he became a neuroscientist who focused on looking at consciousness, and I was just a kid fascinated by consciousness research when I met him once and told him about my career trajectory in the hacking world and only learned at the time that he also had a short-lived career as a hacker during World War II. He was breaking codes for satellites, we were breaking into banks, but in his mind there was some similarity. The way he phrased it was that if you know how to look into black boxes and understand how they work without actually having access to what’s going on inside, you are what makes for a good scientist.
Then he said the sentence that always changes someone’s life, “If you’re willing to give up your career right now and move to neuroscience, I’m going to write a letter of recommendation for you.” With a letter of recommendation from the Nobel laureate who discovered DNA, you pretty much can go to any school you want. So this was the moment that shaped everything and made me live my career as a hacker and start on as a neuroscientist trying to look at black boxes in the brain.
[0:07:59.7] MB: That’s fascinating and really, really interesting. So I’m curious, I mean, I know a lot of the work you’ve done has kind of been around decision making and how our brains work. Starting out with kind of this core premise you look at, and I think this is something that’s being rapidly adjusted. But if you look at something like economics or many of the kind of social sciences, there’s this presumption that people are rational actors who make decisions in their best interest. Is that a roughly accurate way to think about human behavior?
[0:08:30.6] MC: So what you’re alluding to is exactly right. For the last 180 years, economics and much of the business world relied on their mistake, and this is a mistake to some extent even though there are some tools to this mistake, which is that humans are rational. It’s not. Humans are irrational. They’re not fully irrational, but they’re not rational in the way the equation predicts. So for the days of Adam Smith who created the idea of a homo economicus and national being, we could expect a lot of the theories of economics by assuming that people make rational choices, that if you have two items and one of them is cheaper, you’re going to buy the cheapest one. If you have two things that otherwise identical, you would never buy the thing that is more emotionally connected to you for no reason, because emotions shouldn’t have any part in economics. It should be just a pure rational choice. But we know that people don’t work like this. We know that forever there’s always some anomalies in the equations that couldn’t be explained by the theory, and this was the psychology of human beings, that sometimes we do buy the most expensive thing just because it signals to others that we’re willing to pay a lot of money for something expensive, and it makes no sense economically, but it makes total sense for us, because pride is something that the equations of Adam Smith couldn’t really put as an argument.
We know that sometimes people do things because they’re sad that they wouldn’t do if they were not sad. So just somehow your feelings change what you buy. We know that the temperature in the room, who you talked to before, how many things you looked at before you made this choice. All of those things end up making us choose things different than what the equation predicted.
For the last 20 years, there’s been a field called behavioral economics that basically took all the mistakes so to speak of the predictions and explained them, and they explained them using psychology. They said people aren’t rational. People have all kinds of works of their mind that lead to what they do that cannot be explained by just looking at an equation, but can be explained perfectly if you look at psychology.
However, this also got to a dead end at some point. So a lot of the behavioral economists, which were mainly psychologists who did economics couldn’t really explain why this is the case. They could describe it, but not explain why. They said people would sometimes buy the product in the middle if you have three options, but we don’t know why. We think that because they don’t want to buy the cheapest one. They don’t want to buy the expensive one. They want the middle one, and this kind of works well, but we can’t really explain to you why or how we think, and more than that we can’t change that. If we want to make people be rational, we don’t know how. We only know that they aren’t, and that’s where neuroscientists like myself penetrated this field of behavioral economics and said, “We can explain to you. We can explain to you how the mind work and actually help you understand why people do the things that you quantify as irrational, and also we can actually help you change them.” So we can look at the brain and see what drives behaviors from the brain’s perspective and then offer ways to change that, and this is I think where people like me came.
So there’re three kinds of states. First; economics theory predicts thing that make mistakes. Then behavioral economics or psychologists come and explain those mistakes by saying they’re consistent and they’re predictable and they always happen, but we don’t know how to change them or how to fix them. Now neuroscientists come and say we can fix them, change them and even offer a kind of complete explanation of how people behave, and that’s where I come into the world of economics, business and bring neuroscience to the game.
[0:11:54.1] MB: So let’s explore that a little bit more. Tell me about what are some of the kind of conclusions or explanations that you’ve uncovered and working on discovering around how people behave irrationally and perhaps how they can change or modify that behavior?
[0:12:10.9] MC: So I’ll give you examples of irrational behavior, what we understand about how people work and then how we can change it. So for instance there’s a classical experiment that actually won its author the Nobel Prize, Daniel Kahneman, the early turn of the century, where he show that people behave irrationally in the following ways. Imagine that you, for instance, bought a ticket to the movies for $10 and when you arrived at the theater and you’re about to enter you realized that somewhere between your home and the theater you lost the ticket. It fell off your pocket and you now lost our ticket and they asked a question, “Would you now stand in line and buy another one for $10?” Some people said yes and many people said no, “I’m fed up with this theater. I’m upset. I’m going home.”
Then they asked people a different question. They say, “Imagine you didn’t buy a ticket. You just went to the theater to buy one and on the way to the theater you lost $10. Would you now not buy a ticket to the theater?” Everyone said, “Of course, I will buy a ticket to the theater. What does it actually do with losing $10?”
For economists, $10 in the form of our precedent or $10 in the form of a ticket are the same. It doesn’t matter what image is on the paper, but for us it matters, because in one way we feel like we invested some of our emotions into the purchase and when we lost it we feel like we lost part of the theater and we might actually go home.
Now, when we come to think about it, we know that people indeed behave this way because they think of money differently in context. They think of money differently when they’re angry, when they already put something to it, but we can’t really change that. My colleagues and I come and try to change things is by looking at how our memories work, how our emotions work and basically offering access to those from various levels of complexities.
So I’ll give you the most complex one we can do right now, which is to actually change your memories and make you behave differently. That’s extreme and I should kind of put a disclaimer. Don’t try it at home yet until we understand how it works entirely. But one of the things we learned right now is that your memories, your experience in the world are not reliable to the extent that you don’t really know what’s going on inside your mind perfectly. You think you do, but you don’t.
So for instance, you and I right now are speaking and you definitely believe that it’s happening, right? You will not question the fact that we’re talking right now, but what if tomorrow you had a friend talk to you and this friend said, “Hey, remember that we had this soccer match we were playing last night?” You say, “No, I was actually on an interview with this professor last night.” She says, “No. No. No. You were with me playing soccer.” You would argue and you would totally believe that you were with me. You would never doubt your own mind even if she starts showing you pictures of the two of you playing soccer or bring 10 other people who would tell you, “No. We were also there and you played soccer.” You would still not believe it, because there is this idea that we totally believe what’s happening inside our brain and we never doubt that. There’s a barrier of entry to our brain. We really doubt everything that comes in. We’re skeptical. But once it’s in our brain, we never doubt it. We trust our memories entirely.
There’s a joke among neuroscientists where they say, “Don’t believe everything you think,” but that’s not the reality of how people operate. We always believe our thoughts. Now, we know that this is not a true thing. Now we also know that we can actually offer you ways to know that by changing them.
One of the things we do in my lab right now is we try to take people who go to sleep, and while they’re sleeping we poke inside their head figuratively. We don’t really drill inside, but we just do things to their brain using tools that allow us to look inside their head and we have them wake up with different thoughts and different memories than the ones they went to sleep with, and in doing so they actually operate differently. Tomorrow they might actually believe that something didn’t happen happened, or they might have different views on some things that they always have one view about. In doing so we can actually start slowly changing how they think about things, so when they come to the experience that I mentioned earlier of going to the theater to buy a ticket, they actually would have a different mindset, a mindset that actually knows that there’s no difference between money in paper or money in ticket and they would respond differently.
We actually take your brain and train your brain to understand these complexities so that you won’t make the same mistakes that others make. Sounds pretty creepy. It’s pretty remarkable and we’re just at the early stages of understanding how it works, but it allows us to actually take a person who is irrational and nudge them towards rationality.
[0:16:18.3] MB: I want to dig in to a number of different pieces of that, but I want to start with how are you inserting these memories or beliefs or ideas into people’s brains?
[0:16:28.2] MC: There are multiple ways. To that I’ll give you a simple one and a complex one. So the simple one is it turns out that if you take a choice that people have no strong feelings towards and you change it and you make them believe that it was coming from them, they will totally trust it.
I’ll give an example that’s concrete. There’s a study that was done by two colleagues of mine. They’re in Sweden right now. Where they would bring you to the lab and they will tell you to play a little game where they’ll show you two cards with two pictures of individuals and they say, “Hey, we’re going to show you two pieces of two men. You don’t know any of them. We just ask you to make a choice. Who do you find more attractive? The guy on the left or the guy on the right?”
You’ll say, “Okay. I don’t really know any of them. I’m looking at the pictures. I think that the guy on the left is more attractive.” They say, “Fantastic. Here’s the card with this picture of the guy that you just chose. Hold the card in your hand and explain to us in one sentence why you picked this guy.” So you hold it in your hand and you say, “Yeah, I like this guy because he’s smiling.” They say, “Fantastic. Let’s try another trial.” Pulling two new cards with two different people, showing you the cards, asking you again to make a choice, “Who do you find more attractive?” You make a choice, they give you the card. They ask you to explain to one sentence and then they move on to a different one. They did it for about one hour.
During the one hour you see dozens of couple of pictures. Each of them means nothing to you because you don’t know who they are, but each of them is a choice that you make and explain. But here is the interesting part in this experiment. Every now and then, once every, say, 20 trial, they actually give you the card you didn’t choose. So you chose the guy on the left. They use slight of hands to give you the card on the right that you didn’t pick without telling you. So you get the card you didn’t choose.
What they find are two interesting things. One is that people never noticed that they got the card they didn’t choose. So they just take the card that they received without noticing that this wasn’t their choice. More importantly, they hold the cards in their hand and then they go on and explain why this is really their choice. So in a matter of a second, you chose A, I give you B and you take B and you explain to me why you always wanted B, which means that somewhere in this moment you had a shift of memory. You make a choice, I change something in what the outcome is and you will go on to explain it. If I ask you to explain it more, you will create a more complex web associations about this choice that you didn’t make that will make you believe that it’s really a tool.
So here’s an example for that. You imagine you go to a supermarket and you’re about to buy 10 different items. One of them is a toothpaste. You go the shelf and there’s Colgate on the left and Crest on the right and you sit there for a while and you debate which one you want more and you try to be rational about it. You say, “I’m going to look at the color of the package and the price and how much CC of toothpaste is there and what’s more friendly environmentally?” whatever, and you ultimately choose Colgate, let’s say.
You put it in your basket and then you go on and you shop for other things and some point you get to the checkout, but in the moment you chose Colgate on the shelf, and the moment you got to the checkout, I sneak in your basket and I replaced the Colgate with a Crest. If the choice means nothing to you, which is what’s true for most choices that are kind of arbitrary, you would not notice that I actually replaced the Colgate with a Crest. You will buy the Crest, and if I stop you on the way outside the supermarket and I say, “Hey, we’re interested in market research to ask you why you chose Crest.” You’re going to never say, “You know what? I have no idea,” or “I actually chose Colgate.” You will just go on and explain in detail why Crest is better and why you like the minty taste or the whitening compound or whatever. If I probe even more and asked you for more explanations, you’re going to dive deeper into your brain and come up with even more complex answers and the more complex answers you’re going to give me, the more convinced you will be in the truth of those answers.
The point, that then you will actually be convinced that you really like Crest. Tomorrow you’re going to buy Crest yourself. So this is a small experiment where we just ask you questions with something you didn’t want and in answering them you create the associations in your brain that make you believe that you wanted it and go on and really desire this thing. That’s like one example of creating memories.
There’s a complex one that i just mentioned briefly because this one really is not something that’s tangible in any way for your audience, but it’s something that scientists do a lot, which is we actually look at patients who undergo brain surgery and do things inside their heads. One of the things I’m known for as a researcher is this work that we do for the last, now, almost two decades where we work with patients who undergo brain surgery for clinical purposes, and during the surgery, the surgeons placed electrodes inside their head in order to understand how they think and work and to identify the source of their problems.
What we do is we say, “Since you already agreed to a surgery and you already let us in your brain, we also want to study you. We want to also ask you if you want to buy Colgate or Crest while you’re on the operating room and understand how you make these decisions,” and essentially we use those wires inside people’s brain to understand how memories work, how thoughts and feelings are created, but also to understand how choices are being made and we change them. So that’s the extreme version of what I just said earlier instead of having you change things outside of your brain and explain to them, “We actually go inside and help you change them yourself and explain them differently.” So that’s something that you really shouldn’t try at home, but the first one is a version of a simple one of me moving your choice into one direction and having you explain why, and in doing so creates new answers.
[0:21:39.9] MB: That’s interesting and a little bit scary, but really fascinating.
[0:21:44.1] MC: I agree.
[0:21:44.4] MB: I want to get into kind of some of the implications of that around human augmentation and some other things. Before we kind of get down that rabbit hole, I want to stay on this decision making track for a few minutes. That experiment reminds me a little bit of kind of the commitment consistency bias that Cialdini writes about in the book Influence, and I don’t know if you’re familiar with the yard sign experiment where they would go and ask people to put like a little sticker that said, “Drive safely on their window,” and then they would come back two weeks later and those people would be willing to put these gigantic billboards on their yards that said “Drive safely.”
[0:22:17.9] MC: I think what you’re alluding to, and that Cialdini is known for that, and I think that others are kind of following his suit right now, is that if you do a small step to change behavior in the right direction, the brain will be helpful in helping you do it yourself in a much bigger way. So with people asking me, “How do you kind of change behavior of someone,” and changing behavior is really, really hard, but making small nudges is really easy. What we learn is that many times the small movement starts things on its own if you see a reward.
Think about going to the gym. If you take a person who is overweight and tries to lose weight, the idea of losing 50 pounds seem impossible and seems really, really hard. So people kind of lose hope right away even before they started, because it kind of feels impossible. But making a person go to the gym once, working really hard and feeling something the day after is easy. If you do it once you will feel something, and this feeling that something works is enough to actually make us want to do it just one more time.
I think that if you try to change someone’s behavior, going for 180 degrees is really, really hard, but going for 10 degrees is possible and the hope is that once the other person sees that change is happening, they will carry the 170 degrees remaining themselves. So I think that’s kind of where we’re going. We don’t really say, “Let’s take a person, poke in his brain and make him wake up differently.” We don’t say, “Let’s take a democrat and wake him up a republican.” But let’s say, “Let’s take a democrat and just offer him a new lens on the views that he had before and maybe this is enough for him to actually be open to new ideas to talk a republican, talk to a person who is a bit more conservative,” and that’s enough to move things in directions that are more kind of converging. So you can take people from opposing opinions and just have them find a language that can be used for the two of them to talk. You can take people who are having difficulty changing behavior and give them the steps towards changing behavior.
I think that’s something that was known to a lot of psychologists for a while, but now we’re starting to look at the neuroscience evidence. We actually see, we quantity the change. You would go to a therapist before and talk about your girlfriend who dumped you and hope that things are going to get better after a few meetings. Now we can actually quantify the therapy and tell you, “Yes, things are moving. You actually are showing changes. You see things differently or better overtime, and this means that you’re making progress.” I think that many people, once they see that something works, they do the work themself to make it work fully, and that’s like a good tip I guess for people altogether. Don’t aim for the entire 180 degrees right away, but just 10 steps that actually show to the other person that doing something will make a big kind of difference.
[0:24:54.6] MB: So how does the concept of neuroplasticity kind of play into these changing patterns of thought and memory and belief?
[0:25:03.8] MC: That’s a great question. We know two things about the brain, and now we know a third one that’s [inaudible 0:25:07.8] you. But the main thing that you should kind of know and [inaudible 0:25:10.4] audience and maybe the take home message, is that their brain is the organ in our body that mother nature gave us to adapt the world after we’re born. Most of the other things in your body are kind of fixed, like the DNA or the eye color, the hair color, how much hair you’re going to have in your chest. Everything is all set in a way when you’re born. The only thing in our body that’s made for the patient is the brain, and this is the organ that constantly responds to things in the environment.
Now we know that these organ changes overtime and some changes happen faster and slower and over ages, there are some ages where things even change faster. When you’re a kid, 0 to 5, you can really, really change fast. When you’re an adult, it becomes a little bit harder to change. This is why it’s easier to learn languages when you’re 0 to 5. It’s harder to learn languages when you’re older.
Also, there was one thing that always changes. These are your memories. Your memories are never fixed. They’re never kind of sitting in a vault like we imagine them to be. Just experience happens, you store it in your memory and you load it every time someone asks you a question about that memory. It actually works differently. You go to an experience, you store it in the vault, but then when you asked about this experience, you open the memory, you offer it to the other person as token and then you resave it. This means that if you resave it every time you use it, you can always change it.
Imagine that your girlfriend dumped you and you’re feeling really, really sad. You go to a therapist. The therapist asks you about this thing. You tell the therapist about this breakup. In doing so you actually open the memory for changes. The therapist maybe will say something. She would say something like, “You told me for a while about this relationship and you never really were satisfied.” In saying that, she actually introduced a little change to the memory. Now you resave everything with this change.
When you come to the therapist a week after and she asks you again about this breakup, you won’t load the original. You would load the modified version, that one that you saved last. Every time you use a memory, you change a little bit. Which means that overtime, when we use memories a lot, we actually change them and we change them sometimes greatly. We change them so that we remember facts that are totally differently overtime. We actually have new lens on experiences that we happen to kind of find important. The more we use it, it actually changed a little bit more because we use it a lot more.
Now, this is by design. This is how our brain is working so that we can heal. So if something bad happens, we actually deal with that and poke in the memory for a while until it becomes better. This is how our brain deals with trauma. This is how our brain deals also with things that we want to kind of remember more. We add more and more angles and more and more nuances of them until they become a perfect memory in our mind. So we actually use memories and change them all the time.
Now, knowing that means that we can actually use that to help you change. The neuroplasticity that you asked me about suggests that I can have you talk about things. I can help you go through experiences, and in doing so really change how you view them. Primarily, we now know we can do it also when you’re sleeping. Even when you’re sleeping your brain still rehearses memories and loads them in kind of things about them in the form of dreams, in the form of thoughts that happens when you’re sleeping. It can even now reactivate some of the memories even when you’re kind of resting and help your brain do this process of rehearsing them and changing them.
All of it is to say that we have more and more evidence in the last couple of years to how the brain changes memories, experiences and thinking about things and we’re now trying to quantify that and help people really understand when things happen, when changes are happening and how changes are happening so they can actually get better in all walks of life; get healthier, have less traumatic experiences, and altogether align their outcomes with their interest by ways of actually rehearsing the things that they want more and really living the life that aligns with what their intensions are.
[0:28:57.1] MB: So as a neuroscientist, is your work looking at kind of the – In some sense, the sort of the physical aspects of how the brain changes, how memories are stored and recalled and how are the beliefs can be kind of shifted by these kind of interventions?
[0:29:13.3] MC: Yes. So we look at it not just like in theoretical neuroscience aspect, also practically. We’re trying to kind of see what things people can actually do that will help them change. One thing I said is that we actually learned that just taking experiences that are bad and actually dealing with them by talking about them more and more. So talking about them particularly with people who can give us positive inputs actually makes us get better. You’d go to a person, you tell them the story, they give you positive input, you save it, you go the day after, you tell them the story, you give you positive input. It actually changes. It means that overtime you will get better. You will have different perspective of this same bad experience. That’s a tangible, practical thing.
We also know that, generally, giving people access to their behavior in the past with some kind of reflections of that helps them to change. For example, if you’re the CEO of a company, we have studies where we tell you, “For the next week, work about your life regularly.” Just every time you have a choice, write down the state you are at when you made this choice. How hungry you were? How hard you were? How mad at people you were or how important their inputs were. Put as many things as you can into the moment and then tell us what the options were and what the choice was and just code your choice, log them for the next 10 days, let’s say, and then when they come after a week of doing that, we actually go with them over all the choices and we ask them to tell us which ones they’re happy with and which ones they’re not happy with. Which ones they like the outcome. Which ones they feel they made a mistake.
We look at their brains when they make the ones that are good and the ones that are bad and try to profile their brain and tell them, “You know, it seems that your brain makes choices that you feel happier with when you’re hungry. You feel happier with choices when you’re in the evening rather than in the morning. You like choices better when you’re with these people, but not with that people.”
So we kind of help them see which states their brain is when they make choices that they like more and then help them actually kind of profile their brain. What’s important is that every person has different brains. You might feel better making choices in the morning and I might feel better making choices in the evening, or your wife might like better choices that happen when she’s surrounded by 10 people and you might be alone.
So every one person has their own brain, but we try to actually help people figure out what’s their brain profile and what choices align with that and what choices are not and maximize the time that they spend making choices that are important in the right environment. You can say that, “For this particular choice, I’m going to wait in the morning because I know that my brain works best in the morning when I’m full after I spoke with 10 people, but when I’m alone, closer the deadline.”
In doing that, we actually look at your brain and tell you what your brain’s perfect states are, how to get there and make decisions that are better. Now you don’t have to work with neuroscientist for that. Neuroscience gives you more access to the brain, but even every person from the room that is listening to you right now can do it for themselves. They can take 48 hours by which they just sit with a notebook and every time they make a choice, they just write down the conditions and then look back at the choices, code which ones they like and which ones they are not happy with and try to see what is common to their situations and they were at when they made choices that they like. Maybe you were the simple person or maybe you were alone. Maybe you were hungry or full. Maybe you’re in a loud place or a quiet place. Some of the choices are going to tell you something about who you are. That’s enough to, even without looking at the brain, understand something about what’s your best case scenario.
[0:32:32.7] MB: That’s a great strategy and reminds me of a very similar tool used on sort of a broader spectrum, is the idea of a decision journal. I mean, this is almost like a daily decision journal, but the other concept would be kind of expanding that out to looking at the major decisions in your life and trying to understand what are the kind of contexts and inputs around those and then aggregating those overtime so you can see your own sort of biases or repeated errors in your thinking.
[0:32:56.3] MC: Absolutely. I think what’s important in understanding with people who don’t believe that, but I can’t stress it enough, is that we’re a lot simpler than we think we are. People think, “Oh! But until you understand the complexity of my mind, you need hundreds of choices and to follow me constantly and really understand.”
People think that they’re very unique, and it turns out that for the sake of brain and choices, we’re a lot more simple. We’re a lot simpler than we think we are. We are all falling into one of very few clusters. We’re very predictable. This is what marketing mangers knew for a while, that if you priced a thing as 6.99 rather than 7, everyone knows that it’s actually 7. It’s one cent different, but it works. All of us somehow fall for this in our mind because we read numbers from left to right rather than right to left.
Even though one of us is an engineer, another one is a housewife, a kid, an adult, speaking English or not, we all fall for that. Somehow marketing managers realized that when it comes to choices, we’re a lot more similar than different. In that sense, if you just find your brain and figure out which kind of category you fall into out of very few, you will find not only how you work and what’s helping you do best. You’d also find who’s like you and who’s not and you can start thinking about putting yourself next to people who think like you or think different than you so you can make choices similarly.
So maybe someone who shares your views and values and then you can outsource some of the choices to her instead of having to make all the choices yourself and say, “I trust my wife because I know that she chooses like me. So I’m going to give her the reigns when it comes to what we eat and when we go on vacation and she would give you the choice of who you’re spending time with and when you should talk to this or that person,” because you know that brains would actually work the same way. But maybe in your company, you want someone who thinks the opposite of you because you’ll say, “I’m going to be really good in the morning. I need someone else to be really good in the evening, and this is the person that will make the best thing for me.” In many ways, once you start profiling your decision making style and asking others around you to do the same, you will start finding what’s the perfect match. Well, not just you, but for a group around you.
[0:35:05.1] MB: I think that’s a really interesting point, and I think it kind of comes back to this idea that you touched on earlier, which is with the experiment where people were kind of handed the pictures they didn’t select, we think our decision making is so – And the problems that we faced are so unique and so kind of one off, but the reality is not only do they often times fall into kind of simple, predictable patterns of bias and behavior, but also in many cases our decisions aren’t even really our own decisions and they’re impacted by small external factors, like the environment and other things.
[0:35:38.0] MC: Absolutely. So we know more and more now that more and more of our brain is not really under our control. This myth that says that we only use 20% of our brain. This is not true. We use 100% of our brain, but not all of our brain is accessible to us. Not everything in our brain is something that we have control. A lot of things that happen in our brain happen without you actually governing them. Simply, you can think about three things, right? Your brain sends a signal every second to your lungs and to your mouth and to your nose to inhale and exhale and contrast and expand. All of these happens under the hood. You have no access to that. It just happens and you’re there witnessing it without the need to actually govern that in a new way.
This is true for even more complex things, like your emotions. You don’t really say, “Some friend of mine is sick. I should activate sadness right now. Turn on sadness please. Sadness for 10 minutes. Turn off sadness right now. Let’s move to happiness.” You don’t really control your emotions. They kind of dawn on you and you’re a witness to their exposure.
So we know now that the brain has a lot of things that are happening that we have no control over. They just happen to us. We’re beginning to actually understand how they work and how to get control over them, but for the sake of the immediate moment, we should know that a lot of things happen in our brain that we don’t have access to, but they do have influence on our life. The temperate in the room changes how you respond to things.
There are experiments where people are asked to hold a cup of tea in their hand while they write an essay about their mothers, and whether it’s a cup of hot tea or a cup of iced tea, changes how nice or warm or cold they are in their writing about their moms, just because the temperate in your body reflects thoughts that are in your mind differently. So you probably have all the repertoire of options of things that you think about mother, but if you’re cold in your body, you will reflect some of the negative ones maybe more than the positive ones even though you don’t put them in your head.
This is all part of like this field. It’s called embodied cognition that chose time and again that a lot of things are happening to us that are driven by our mind and our body that we have no full control over. The moment we understand them, we can actually predict how they’re going to work, but at the same time they’re governing how we think, decide and operate without us knowing exactly how they are going to influence us before they are actually manifested themselves.
[0:38:00.7] MB: So what can we do or maybe somebody who’s listening, how could we kind of constructively think about the idea of embodied cognition and these other things we’ve been talking about, decision making and behavior, how can we incorporate that into our own decision making and process and try to live with that effectively or be better decision makers as a result?
[0:38:20.9] MC: So I’ll give you a few quick ones. First of all, just by knowing about it. If you just know the term, if you go to Wikipedia and read about it, if you listen to our conversations about it, immediately things get different. You immediately become aware of this just by knowing that these things exist. If you have a name for something, you can think about it, and if you can think about it, you can actually control it. So just whoever is listening to right now, already by listening made a first step.
Let’s take it differently. Another step we can make is also to code things. So we said that the CEOs of companies come to us and we tell them, “Please, write down what was the noise level in the room when you make a choice in the board room. Tell us who you were with.” Just by coding thing in your life you will become aware of the patterns and you will start to know them. That’s option number two we mentioned.
Option number three, of course, is to work with a neuroscientist who can actually look at your brain and analyze your brain as you make choices and really kind of create a pathway, diagrams that explains to you how you choose and to change it if you want. Option number four, which I think is my preferred one, is to surround yourself by people who overtime prove themselves to be decision makers that you like and outsource some choices to them.
So I always go to restaurants with people I really, really like to have dinner and when the menu comes, I tell the other person, “Choose for the two of us.” Sometimes I will choose for the two of us. Sometimes they would choose with separate choices. I say, “I trust you. I know that your taste is great. I like new experiences. I know that you’re going to want what’s in my best interest. You choose for the two of us. I’ll do the same next time so we cannot overload each other with the choices.” If none of us know each other that well, I ask the waiter to say, “Hey, give me two, three options that you think are good and I randomly choose number three,” just to kind of make it so that I would commit to something but not fully choose always the first one because it might be given by some other ideas.
Those things actually ease our lives because they tell us first of all that, A, we don’t have to make choices, but B, the choices that we make when it comes to small things are usually pretty similar. You won’t be that disappointed from the salad compared to the stake, and you think before that you really will be, but you won’t.
Also, as you start to get the outcomes of choices and you see which ones you’re happy with, which ones you’re not, who chose them, you start to know something about your colleagues and your friends and you say, “Okay. Every time I go to a stake place, I should take Leslie and have her make a choice, because the past history shows that she’s really, really good.” “Every time I go to a movie, I should go with Anthony and let him choose, because I know that he’s making a good choice.” In doing that we, A, become friends, but also B, remove a little bit of the load, the choices we have on our brain. We know that making decisions actually is tax on our brain. Having many of them tires our brain. So if they’re not that important, why don’t divide them by people and take people that you know are making good choices in domains and have them do those for you. That’s tip number four in out of four ways to actually do better in choosing.
[0:41:17.4] MB: So I want to come back to what we talked about earlier, kind of the idea of inserting memories and transforming the brain. You recently gave a TED Talk called Humans 2.0 where you kind of talked about human augmentation and a really interesting kind of future of how we can apply technology to the brain and enhancing our cognition. I’d love to hear your thoughts about that.
[0:41:39.0] MC: If you look at evolution, it’s a really, really slow process. It takes millions of years. If you think about how long it will take you humans to say develop wings so we can fly, it’s a process that won’t be your and my lifetime. It will take years of evolution if it’s even advantageous for human to have wings. But for the first time in history, we actually are able to take over evolution and enhance human bodies much faster. Rather than millions of years, it could be a few months or years. We do that by actually harnessing the power of technology and the power of the brain.
So what we know with the brain, is the brain is a machine that gets input and learns what’s the signal in this input. This is, if you want how we learn things as babies. When you’re born, you have a brain, the brain is pretty, void of stimuli, but you start bombarding the eyes of a baby with photons from the world and its brain quickly learns how to do the complex [inaudible 0:42:32.6] transformation of the signal and essentially learn to see. It takes a baby a few hours, days, weeks before it learns to separate colors and identify moving shapes and gradually learn how to identify object and stuff like that. Within a few weeks you already see. You see the same way. You see after many, many years of training, and you see by having your brain do complex processing happening under the hood.
In the same way, your brain learns how to hear, how to smell, but we can also think of new organs that don’t exist right now and see if the brain of a human would learn how to control them. Imagine that I take a third arm and plug it somehow into your brain and connect it to your body. The question is; will the brain learn quickly just by getting feedback from this new arm, how to control it? The answer is yes. The answer is some experiments that were done on animals and a few that were done on humans, we plug new devices into their brain and we see that their brain within a few weeks or months usually learns to control them.
The classical example would be the cochlear implant. That’s a device that people that are deaf use to hear. You basically a device that translates the molecular vibrations in the air into the language to their brain and the brain just gets bombarded with a new signal that it doesn’t know, because these people were deaf and they didn’t hear anything before, but suddenly their brain gets new signal coming from vibration in the air and within a few months they learn to hear. That’s how we kind of can conquer deafness.
There are now studies with humans that are trying to conquer blindness and make people who were blind learn to see. We gradually learned that the brain learns a lot of things if you just blast it with information that has meaning and let it do its magic. Now in the same way we can imagine a world where we indeed connect a third arm and teach you how to control it or plug two wings into your brain that would start flapping and changing how they feel. Overtime your brain will learn how to actually control those wings, but also how to fly.
This kind of idea that we can enhance the human body by plugging devices into the brain and having the brain learn quickly how to control them is the notion of Human 2.0. We take the body that you are born with, we plug new devices into it; wings, our complex nose, a third eye in the back, anything you can imagine as long as it knows how to speak the language of the brain, we presume that the brain will learn overtime to control it and you will gain this new senses and you kind of control over the organ. That’s Human 2.0.
[0:45:08.7] MB: It’s so fascinating to me this idea that the brain is so effective at adapting and understanding new information that essentially we’re not quite there yet obviously, but potentially in the near future there could be the technology basically implant a chip into your brain that could learn to intuitively think and interact with just like your own limbs or your own sort of thinking patterns that could actually be – Whether it’s sort of an external piece of electronics or computational power or whatever. It’s really, really interesting.
[0:45:39.5] MC: Absolutely. I think that the nice analogy that someone equated it with is two people. One guy navigating the world with a map, trying to get from point A to point B. Another guy just memorizing things in his brain and then navigating with his mind. The only difference is whether the thoughts come from your own mind or from the map, and gradually we know how to basically put this map inside your head.
This map is an example. It could be your phone. It could be any gadget on the outside world that will give you an advantage. Right now if I ask you to calculate how much is 58 x 56, you would spend some time with a piece of paper or with your iPhone trying to do the numbers. But if I ask you how much is 2 + 2, you will just outsource, so to speak, the thought from your linguistic area to the calculating area. You’re going to get the number and you’re going to turn it back and you’re going to say the number is 4. It’s just because one of them is easy, one of them is hard. But if we take the
iPhone chip and put it inside your brain, when I ask how much is 58 x 56, you will just do the same thing, but inside your head you will just think the thoughts that will turn to the iPhone, like the guy turned to the map and asked the iPhone in your head how much is the answer. It will do the numbers for you and give it back to you and you will just spit the answer not even knowing that it happened on a different device, because once we plug it into your brain, it would even feel to you like it’s a different thing. The same way you don’t really feel the separation between the left hemisphere and the right hemisphere. They just feel like part of the same thing. If we put a thing inside your head, it will do things for you. It will just filter you automatically and immediately, like it’s you making the same things, and this is kind of the next level of what we can do. We can actually start harnessing the power of technology inside our head and feel like it’s doing it for us, really, kind of integration of human and machines.
[0:47:17.8] MB: So fascinating and it’s such an exciting future to kind of contemplate. So wrapping up, for listeners who want to concretely implement some of the ideas that we’ve talked about today to improve themselves, what would be kind of one piece of homework that you would give them as an action step or starting point?
[0:47:36.5] MC: I think that, in my mind, the first step is to just know. So the more you know the language of what is – We spoke about recognition, about irrational thinking. Once you know those things, you can’t ignore them anymore. They become part of your life and you start being aware of things. So that’s step number one. I think every person who’s listening to this podcast did step number one.
Step number two, surround yourself with people who embody the things you want to have yourself. I tell a lot my students always that if they want to become something, one way is to learn about it and actually trying to train themselves. But another one is to just surround themselves with people who have that. If you want to be funny, you can actually buy a book of 1,000 Jewish jokes and read them or you can actually try to learn how to be funny by looking at the comedians. But another one is to just find friends that are funny and be with them for a while. It will figuratively rub on to you by osmosis. You will actually become funnier because you will just internalize how they do things by how fast they are, what’s their timing when they tell jokes. You will somehow learn that.
Same is true for any other thing you want to manifest. You’re always late and you want to be on time. Be next to people who are always on time. You will just become a person that’s on time automatically. I think this is tip number two that I always try to kind of do in myself. You think what you want, you find people who have that and you put them next to you, and this works magically in changing you without you needing to work for that. It just happens automatically.
[0:49:07.9] MB: Where can listeners find you and your work online?
[0:49:11.5] MC: So I have a website. It’s my first and last name .com, morancerf.com. Generally, I’m the easiest to find. If you just look my name, there are so many now talks and videos that my students and I have given that it’s the easiest to find. Really, the most accessible scientist you can imagine.
[0:49:29.7] MB: Well, Moran, thank you so much for coming on the show, sharing all these wisdom. Such a fascinating career and life you’ve had and it’s really cool to see how you’re applying these now to help people become smarter and to change neuroscience.
[0:49:43.3] MC: Thank you so much, Matt. It really was a pleasure.
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