Jean Mary Zarate: 00:04
Hello and welcome to Tales From The Synapse, a podcast brought to you by Nature Careers in partnership with Nature Neuroscience. I’m Jean Mary Zarate, a senior editor at the journal Nature Neuroscience. In this series we speak to brain scientists all over the world about their life, their research, their collaborations, and the impact of their work. In episode eight, we meet a neuroscientist and author who focuses on and celebrates the differences between people's brains.
Chantel Prat: 00:40
Hi, my name is Chantel Prat. I am a professor in the departments of psychology, neuroscience and linguistics at the University of Washington in Seattle. And I love to study individual differences. I'm really interested in how individual brains operate and understand the world differently.
I feel like we’re living through a great social paradox. People are discussing the importance of having diverse minds and brains and decision-making spaces.
But yet, we don’t seem to be getting any better at talking through our differences. I wrote the book The Neuroscience of You because I realized that my perspective, the way I understand the gap between our personal subjective realities, and the objective, ostensibly knowable world out there, makes a big difference in how I relate to others.
It drives a curiosity about people who believe differently than I do, instead of a defensiveness about my own perspective. And I thought it was really important that if I could give people some concrete data about the ways that different brains understand the world, and that these differences don't necessarily map on to being better or worse, or right or wrong, I might help give us the ability to connect with and understand others who work differently.
It’s really ironic, because my book is called The Neuroscience of You. But there was a whole lot of new research going on when I wrote it. This wasn’t helped by the fact that a few months after I started writing in earnest, the real-life experiment that we all participated in, the one that none of us signed a consent form for, that revolved around this pandemic that changed every bit of our surroundings, was happening to me as well. I was participating in this experiment. And I couldn’t help but notice and be frustrated by the fact that my brain was responding to the pandemic in a way that seemed very different from the people around me.
I heard about people getting in the best shapes of their lives and cooking more than ever, while I didn't seem to be doing any of the things I always promised myself I would do if I had more time.
And, you know it was into the mixology chapter where I started thinking about stress and cortisol in the brain, that I realized the way that our genes and our neurotransmitters influenced the way we respond to stress.
My brain was changing in response to this chronic stress and the neurochemicals that it was being soaked in. And my brain was changing in a way that was different than other people’s, right? So, in many ways, as I was writing the book, I was going through this real-life experiment of having my environment change around me, and trying to figure out who I am in response to these changes in the environment.
I figure if people who read the book learn as much about themselves when they read it as I did when I wrote it, it will be a huge success.
Chantel Prat: 04:12
Phineas Gage was a railway worker who survived a horrific accident that resulted in a railway spike being blown through his cheek and out the top of the right hemisphere of his brain.
One of the remarkable things about the story is that he literally walked away from this gory accident. When he walked away, most of his physical abilities were intact, but the things that made him him, his characteristic ways of thinking, feeling and behaving, were changed.
As his physicians wrote, Gage was no longer Gage. Once a very dependable man, the kind of go-to guy you would want on your team, he became much more unpredictable, sort of abandoning implants for things that seemed more feasible, something that was attractive in front of him, a lot more uninhibited.
And this was the fact that actually captivated me and got me interested in neuroscience in the first place. As a pre-med student that was learning about the organs in our body and the jobs that they do, it struck me, more like hit me like a ton of bricks, that while the lungs have a job to oxygenate the blood in your body, the heart has a job to pump this oxygenated blood throughout the body, the brain is an organ that takes that oxygenated blood and translates it into the energy that creates every thought, feeling and behaviour that makes you you.
Any way that you change the brain, you change the individual. And so one thing that's characteristic about my work is I've always been interested in the relationship between the mind and the brain, at the level of the individual, not how do brains work in general.
Or how do most brains work. But what are the differences in ways that brains work that make you you, Phineas Gage, and the way his brain changed in a dramatic way, and it changed his personality? was my first inspiration into this question.
Chantel Prat: 06:30
I think one of the things that really allows me to appreciate differences is that I have in my lifetime occupied many different spaces.
And what I mean by that is, I grew up in a small rural town in northern California, you know, the kind of one-stoplight town that we could ride horses through main street where my dad lived in Calistoga.
And where not a lot of people leave and go to college. Neither one of my parents have college degrees. I'm a first-generation college student. And I really value the kind of practical knowledge that people that I was surrounded by growing up use to operate in the world.
And as I became more and more educated, I also appreciate the gap between the kinds of things you learn in books, and the kinds of ways that you behave in the real world, the kind of knowledge that you use in everyday life.
So I think, coming from a small town, coming from a background where people use practical knowledge rather than book knowledge to succeed, shapes my views in a large part.
Chantel Prat: 07:54
I also had a series of adventures and misadventures throughout my college training, one of which was becoming pregnant as a teenager. So I undertook all of the adventures in neuroscience. In fact, part of what got me my first job in neuroscience was having a child of my own.
I was 19 years old when I gave birth to my daughter, Jasmine, and I first recorded her brain when she was 17 months old.
Having experience with children got me this critical job in a cognitive neuroscience lab where we were looking at brain development, and they wanted people with baby-charming experiences, because we had to do what I still believe is one of the hardest jobs in neuroscience, and that's getting a baby to wear an EEG cap.
So for those of you out there that are parents and ever tried to get a kid to wear something on their head as part of a Hallowe’en costume or to keep them warm, you know that this job is not for slouches.
Once you put an EEG cap, it’s kind of like a little swim cap that has microphone-like devices sewn into it that allows us to eavesdrop on the electrical activity of the brain.
Once you put that thing on the head of a baby and fill it with the goop that’s necessary to listen to increase the conductivity, they pull it off, it’s game over. So you know, the fact that I had my own child and had this experience with, you know, getting babies to wear things on their heads and captivating their attention, really was was my first qualification.
Once I had decided I wanted to study the brain, I had no experience and the only kind of background I had was, “Well look, I have my own child.”
So I have significant experience with wrangling them, so to speak. And it just so turns out when we talk about nature versus nurture, which is one of the quintessential questions that drive psychologists and neuroscientists, it turns out that my daughter gets her temperament from her father, which is wonderful.
Because unlike her mother, she's very easygoing and has a long attentional span. And because of this, she participated in just about every psychology or neuroscience experiment that was happening at the University of California, San Diego, which is where I was as an undergraduate.
She loved it. She would sit there for hours, listen to sounds, look in boxes for things that had been hidden from her, get stickers, talk to the people around. And, and so I brought her into practice this capping procedure and to get good at it.
And when we did, we put her into the experimental room and played words that she knew and didn't know. And I got to see her brain understanding language. What was remarkable about this is that I went through the whole process of analyzing the data, looked at the results.
And we're sure I had done something wrong, because unlike the children that we were studying in the lab, who typically have language signals coming from either both halves of their brain, both hemispheres of their brain, or moving towards a left-lateralized specialization for language, my daughter, Jasmine showed the differences between words that she knew and words that she didn’t know, over the right side of her brain the most strongly.
I thought I had definitely done something wrong. I called in my supervisor, we discussed it and she said, “You know, is there any chance that Jasmine will be left handed?”
It turns out (long story short), Jasmine's brain showed me she was left handed before her behaviour could. Most kids start stably reaching for things by about 20 months to 24 months. And she was 17 months old. And I got to see that her brain was actually reversed-lateralized for language.
Afterwards, we followed up with a bunch of other fun tests like an oddball paradigm where she just listened to tones of different frequencies. And it turns out that for everything that we looked at at the time, Jasmine’s brain showed the opposite pattern is to what is typically reported in the literature.
This just drove my curiosity about individual brains even more. So here I am, you know, having an atypical adventure of my own, going through undergraduate and graduate school as a parent and a single parent, and learning that my daughter’s brain in many ways, not only her temperament, but the place that her language and attentional processes wound up, was the opposite of mine, is fascinating.
Chantel Prat: 12:40
What’s interesting to me is that this world-building that different brains engage in doesn’t only happen when you’re reading something, when you’re engaged in a fictional experience. We make inferences about what’s happening around us in the real world all of the time.
So here in the US we had a popular version of this when people got up in arms because they couldn't agree about the colour of a dress, a picture of a dress that was printed on the Internet, whether the dress was black and blue, or white and gold.
And if you haven't seen the dress, and you’re interested, you can go to Wikipedia and look up the dress. And lo and behold you will see the picture of a torso of a woman wearing a dress. And it will appear to be clearly either white and gold, or blue and black to you.
Now the reason that this was so controversial in America is because many of us have learned at some point in our education that the colours that we see in the world around us map on in some one-to-one fashion to the energy that is bouncing into our eyes, often object, right. We’ve all learned at some point about this colour spectrum and how it relates to wavelengths of light.
But if the way we perceived colour was this simple, if it really were related in a one-on-one fashion to the characteristics of the light that's entering our eyes, then we would all see a green apple turn red in the sunset, and blue in a shadow.
Instead, our brains use the context that objects occur in to figure out what colour they are all the time. We learn from experience that an object is less likely to change colour than the quality of the light bouncing off of the object.
And so really, what we do is take a survey of the kinds of light energy in any situation and decide what colour an individual item is, based on the context. First, what made the dress controversial is that the context is largely clipped out of it.
And it’s unclear whether the lighting in this picture is coming from behind the individual, or coming from overhead. People who see the dress as blue and black, which it actually is in real life, are assuming that the person is standing in some kind of overhead or artificially-lit room, that they’re not in a shadow.
People who see white and gold, their brains are automatically assuming that the dress is lit from behind, and that the person is in a shadow. When we see things in shadows, we automatically subtract out these blue-black wavelengths to figure out what colour something is.
What’s really cool is vision researcher Pascal Wallisch found that you could predict some percentage of variability and how people would perceive that dress, based on their chronotypes, or what time of day they usually wake up, and what time of day they usually go to sleep.
This is a way of figuring out what kind of lighting people are usually exposed to. And if you spend a lot of time up in naturally-lit environments up in the sun, and you see things in shadows, it turns out you’re more likely to see the dress as white and gold than people who are night owls and spend a lot of time awake after dark and in artificially-lit places.
This is just a tiny example of how our experiences shape this world-building that we're doing, the way our brains create inferences and connect the dots, even for something as elementary as colour. And they do this so quickly and so automatically that we, the kinds of conscious experiences that we identify with, are completely unaware that our brain is is taking shortcuts and making these decisions for us.
Chantel Prat: 17:05
There are two things that I really hope readers will take away when they read The Neuroscience of You.
The first is that the one-size-fits-all approach to neuroscience that has dominated the field for over a century doesn’t fit anyone very well. Most of the books on the shelf talk about how brains work.
But this view is based on group averages, and it’s not even based on very representative group averages. What I’m hoping to show people is that “normal” when it comes to brain functioning, is a mult-dimensional space and not a single value. And that in that space there are lots of different ways that brains can work that are not necessarily better or worse than one another, just different. They've evolved to solve different problems.
And when it comes to abnormal, you know the fact that normal is a variable multi-dimensional space is important to consider because the distinction between normal and abnormal is also not a, it’s not a bi- dimensional decision.
Abnormal can mean two different things in this multi-dimensional space. One is that a value or a particular way of being is rare, atypical, and that says nothing about the functionality of that way of being.
On the other hand, there are ways of being that have been characterized by modern society as dysfunctional, that are not at all abnormal.
For instance, almost one in 10 American children can meet the diagnostic criteria for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. This is because children whose brains work like this struggle to function under the constraints of modern society.
But it’s important to note that a brain design that has that survived and exists in one in 10 individuals is not at all atypical, and that there are benefits to these kind of organically-driven ways of focusing that we may not have considered yet.
So number one point. Normal is a space, not a place. And it's something that we have vastly under-considered when trying to describe how brains work.
The second point I want to make is about connecting to brains that work differently from yours. Social neuroscience is providing more and more whopping amounts of evidence that we tend to gravitate towards other people whose brains work like ours.
What this means is that knowing another person is a concept which I believe relates to reverse-engineering the mind that drives the behaviours you can see, When we’re trying to understand or know another person, we tend to default to how our own brain works.
This is because humans, like many other social primates, use mirror neurons as a way of understanding the behaviour of others.
In fact, if I watch a person execute some action, or even a primate, another (a nonhuman primate), my brain will activate the same programs that it takes to make me execute that same action.
Through mirroring, I can learn from the behaviors of others and by simulating them in my mind. But I think what’s going wrong is that if the brain that’s driving the behaviour of another doesn’t work like mine, the inferences that I make when I connect the dots or fill in the gaps, and try to know that person, are wrong. I make assumptions, I’m forced to make assumptions when all I have is observable behaviours, about the why, of how of why that person is behaving the way they’re behaving.
And if I don’t have the knowledge or tools to understand that different brains might understand the world in different ways, and make decisions based on different understandings, I'm gonna get it wrong when I’m put in front of somebody who thinks differently than I do.
So the second thing I hope a reader takes away from my book is a set of tools for understanding the mind of a person that is driven by a brain that works differently from their own.
Chantel Prat: 22:02
When I set out to write the book, I had two very clear goals. One was to write a book that was more accurate than the typical neuroscience book on the shelf, which tends to take the one size fits all approach. And the second was to make a book that was accessible to non-academics.
And it wasn’t until I actually started writing the book that I realized how many places those two goals came into conflict with one another.
As an academic, I want to tell my reader everything I know, I want to build this case. But then everything I know has, like, 400 other back stories that support it.
And as a science communicator, I want to tell the reader what it all means. And I think that this is the biggest way that writing the book changed my perspective about science and where it belongs.
Because now I’m engaged in conversations with thousands of people I may never meet. It’s a one-way conversation. They’re reading my book, and maybe having important haystack moments where they can bring their real-life knowledge and experiences to bear on my words, and we'll flesh out what it all means to them.
That’s incredibly powerful, and scary too, and vulnerable. But I don’t think science belongs to academics alone. I think that if we have things that we know that might influence the way people understand themselves or one another, we need to do our best to share it and to share it in a way that might make somebody laugh or cry, or be fascinated or be angry, might make them feel something, It might make them learn something. It might make them curious. I think this is our responsibility. And that's how writing this book has really changed my perspective on science and life.
Jean Mary Zarate: 24:24Now that’s it for this episode of Tales From The Synapse. I’m Jean Mary Zarate, a senior editor at Nature Neuroscience. The producer was Don Byrne. Thanks again to Chantel Prat. And thank you for listening.