TIP 037 | How the Brain Works

TIP 037 | How the Brain Works

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During improvisation or spontaneous creativity, the brain enters a state of being completely intertwined with the activity, be it painting landscapes, playing jazz or freestyle rapping. This is called the Flow state, a unique pattern of how the brain works that cognitive neuroscientist and professor of psychiatry Dr. Heather Berlin has been studying. In this state, creativity is flowing through a person and so a sense of self, time and place is lost to them until they become aware of the activity. Learn Dr. Berlin’s definition of creativity and how meditation helps in achieving the Flow state.


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How the Brain Works with Neuroscientist Dr. Heather Berlin

Welcome back, listeners. We have the incredible Heather with us. Heather, please tell us who you are. What’s your name? What do you do? 

My name’s Heather Berlin. I’m a cognitive neuroscientist, a professor of Psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York. I’m practicing clinical neuropsychology at Weill Cornell Department of Neurosurgery. I got my Doctorate from the University of Oxford and Master of Public Health from Harvard.

When people discover what you do, what’s their most common question?

Everybody has a question about either their brain and their some psychiatric or psychological issue. There’s not one common question. Everybody has their own personal question like, “I keep having this recurring dream. How can I control my impulses?” It totally varies but everybody has a question. Once they’re like, “You’re a neuroscientist? I’ve always wondered this. Let me ask you this.” It varies.

There’s a lot of unfair expectation on neuroscientists to know everything.

It’s like you say, “You’re a neuroscientist,” and they don’t realize that I’m a specialist in a particular area. I know a lot about the brain, but I don’t know everything.

If we knew everything you wouldn’t have a job. 

They assume that you know everything about every aspect of the brain. I’ll probably have an answer at some level for any question, but the level of depth will vary depending on what the question is.

What’s the most awkward question anybody’s ever asked you? There has to have been classic questions like, “My friend keeps thinking about doing X. What do you think about that?”

TIP 037 | How the Brain Works

How the Brain Works: People open up to you very quickly when they hear you’re doing neuroscience or psychology.

It’s never been something where I’m like, “That’s weird.” People do often ask about their friends. It will be something like having strange thoughts or a lot of impulse control problems. I think it’s really interesting. People open up to you very quickly when they hear you’re doing neuroscience or psychology. They’ll reveal things that they wouldn’t normally reveal to a complete stranger. You do hear people’s innermost secrets. There’s an interesting research looking at what people Google. You can find out a lot about people in terms of looking at trends and what they look up. People have a front and a face that they put on, but you can see what’s really going on behind the scenes by what people Google. I like that insight.

I always find it super surprising that every time I type in on-camera personality’s name because of all the dinners, and I’m like, “Who is this person that’s coming?” I never know anybody’s name. I didn’t grow up in American culture. The auto-complete for some reason is feet and I’ve never searched to look at a picture of somebody’s feet in my life. The other is net worth and I’ve never cared what anybody’s net worth is ever. All I can think is there’s some group of people probably in my area, that’s geo-located or whatever, that all they’re doing is searching to find out how much money people have and how their feet look.

My husband told me about this. If you Google your name, they’ll start to auto-fill in things that are commonly searched with your name. My husband was like, “I typed in your name and then it came up like Heather Berlin, married, age.” I guess these are the things that people are curious about with. It’s so interesting to see what people Google with you with your name. I guess a lot of people were interested if I’m married. I am married and you just have to guess my age. What’s that about? Maybe they’re like, “Who is that weird husband of hers?” It’s interesting to see what’s in people’s minds. You get a little bit of that insight.

Let’s dive in a little bit into your work because I find this fascinating. First of all, everybody always find the brain stuff fascinating. I’m very curious specifically on this concept of flow state and creativity. Listeners, to give you some background, there is a very large study done probably twenty-plus years ago by this guy named Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He was curious about peak human performance. He interviews hundreds and hundreds of top performers across every industry from athletics to music to business. Overwhelmingly, they all described the state of feeling completely intertwined in their activity. They didn’t know where the activity ended and they began. They felt this intrinsic state of ecstasy from participating in the activity. It seemed like it was very difficult to enter this state of what later became known as flow. In order to enter it, you needed to be doing something that required a certain level of skill. What you were attempting was just outside that skill set, but it wasn’t so difficult that you were failing all the time and became self-conscious. Heather, I know that you did some work around this so I’d love to hear what you worked on and what you discovered and what we can gain from that. 

We’re just starting a study now. Nothing has been published in terms of what we’re looking at. I can talk a little bit about what research I’m doing now is based on. It’s based on some preliminary studies which looks at what’s happening in the brain during improvisation or what we call spontaneous creativity. I think that’s one of the states in which you enter into these flow states. What we’re discovering is that there’s a unique pattern of brain activation that occurs when, let’s say artists in this case are in that flow state or they’re in that spontaneously creative state. We looked at jazz improvisers and rappers doing freestyle rap compared to doing a memorized rap or a memorized musical piece in the case of the jazz musicians. We found that when they were improvising, parts of the brain, the dorsal and lateral prefrontal cortex was turned down. There was less activation there. That part of the brain has to do with your sense of self, so you feel like when you’re being creative that it’s coming through you, you’re not the agent of this creativity. You lose your sense of self and you lose your sense of time and place. Some people claimed they feel like they’re one with everything.

That part of the brain also has to do with filtering your behavior so it conforms with social norms. Your filter system is turned down so anything goes. The moment you become too self-aware or self-conscious, you turn that part of the brain back on again and you lose the flow state. It’s a lot about when you’re being creative about letting go. If you try to turn on that prefrontal cortex and think consciously about it too much, you’ve ruined that state. You also see in that state there’s increased activation in the medial prefrontal cortex, which has to do with the internal generation of ideas. The internal generation of ideas is turned up, the filter system is turned down and allows for these novel associations between ideas and for creativity.

One of the things that I think is really interesting is that you refer to creativity as being essentially a byproduct of making connections between disparate ideas. Is that a common definition or is that really how creativity is viewed from a neuroscience perspective?

TIP 037 | How the Brain Works

How the Brain Works: A lot of people equate it with divergent thinking, which is thinking outside of the box.

Creativity is a hard thing to know. This is a topic I’ve been interested in ever since I was actually an undergraduate. My first senior research project was that I want to look at the effect of music on creativity. It was very hard to measure creativity or operationalize it. What exactly is it? A lot of people equate it with divergent thinking, which is thinking outside of the box. A classic test of creativity would be for example, “Here’s this paperclip. I want you to tell me as many uses for it as you can.” Somebody who’s not very creative would just say, “You can use it to hold papers or whatever.” Other people will come up with very novel ideas. It’s divergent thinking. What I really think it is is making this novel association between ideas. It’s like putting things together that nobody else has done before. It’s unique. I use as an example if you look at geniuses or people like Darwin, he collected all these data. All the other scientists had access to the same data, but he was novel in the sense of how he put it all together. That’s the creative part, or Einstein. Other physicists had access to the same data, the same knowledge base, but how you put these pieces of data together in a novel way is the creative part of it.

It’s that spark of genius. 

I think genius and creativity go hand in hand. In any field, like Mozart or artistic geniuses or Picasso, they have access to the same materials, to the same training as other artists and musicians or even in the case of scientists, but they use them in very novel ways. I think that they go hand in hand, creativity and genius. It depends on how you define genius. Some people think math protégé is a genius. I think it depends. If you’re really good at doing mathematical problems, that’s great. I would define genius as someone who can come up with a novel solution to a problem. Do things that other people couldn’t do. That’s how I define it.

If I wanted to increase my creativity, is there something that you recommend I do?

Some people do drugs, but I wouldn’t recommend that. Some people try to get there via drugs, but I don’t think that’s the best way because the drug itself interferes with other aspects of brain function like processing speed or organized thinking. The best way to get to these creative states, and when I say that, is to turn off the certain parts of the prefrontal cortex that are holding back creative thought in a way. Another way you can say this to access these unconscious processes is that you want to become uninhibited. You want to turn down the prefrontal cortex in a way that’s not negatively affecting other parts of the brain, which is what drugs can do. Some people drink alcohol to turn down their inhibition, but then you’re going to have other negative effects. You can do things like meditation. Certain types of meditation turn down the prefrontal cortex. We find a similar pattern of brain activation as you do in that creative flow state when people are undergoing certain types of hypnosis, meditating, daydreaming, and dreaming in REM sleep. The key is not trying. It’s going for a walk. It’s not thinking about it, letting your mind be free, letting your mind wander. That’s how you can get to these more creative states.

Where is the prefrontal cortex located in our brain? 

The prefrontal cortex is a large part of your brain that is just above your eyes. If you take where your forehead is then go back a bit, that whole chunk right there is the prefrontal cortex.

From an evolutionary perspective, that’s the part that would develop later on. Is that correct? It’s not the reptilian brain. It’s not your autonomic nervous system at your brain stem. It’s the higher-order functions. Is that accurate?

Yes. You have these subcortical areas that are right in the center of your brain that some people call the reptilian brain that’s evolutionarily older. It’s usually unconscious processes. They’re more sensitive to immediate pleasure or avoidance of pain, very basal drives. Freud would call it your id impulses. Then you have the more recently evolved prefrontal cortex, which thinks about the future consequences of your actions and is involved with higher-order thought with a lot of conscious processes. Humans have the largest percentage of prefrontal cortex compared to the rest of the brain than any other animal. Supposedly, we have the greatest ability to control those basic animal drives and to have the capacity for impulse control.

There’s this perception that our brain works in unison, but it seems that there are sections of the brain that don’t necessarily agree all the time and fight for control. There are sections of our brain that will want sugar and carbs and immediate pleasure in whatever form. Then we have sections of the brain that try to have forethought and control and structure systems out. Our brain isn’t a unified system so much as interconnected systems fighting for their best interest.

I wouldn’t say fighting. I would say working together. There are different neural networks that are working together and then ultimately coming to a decision where we engage or don’t engage in a behavior. It’s weighing the positives and negatives to an action. You have the subcortical areas, those id impulses that came about. If you get an emotion and you want to act on that emotion, but then the prefrontal cortex might say, “Now might not be the best time to act that out.” There will be a back and forth, almost like a conversation between these two networks or systems until ultimately something will tip the brain over in one direction or another. Sometimes the drives win out and sometimes the control wins out.

I assume as we get more tired throughout the day or more worn out for whatever reason, either from making a lot of decisions, it becomes more and more difficult to limit the impulses. Is that accurate?

TIP 037 | How the Brain Works

How the Brain Works: Over control could lead to ultimately outburst of lack of control or impulsivity.

Absolutely. Some say that it’s a limited resource as we become tired. There are some experiments which looked at if you have less sugar, you start to become less able to control your impulses because there’s less energy to do it. It does take energy to control these impulses. Some people even say that when you engage in willpower in a number of ways, after a while it depletes it and it will be harder to engage in that willpower for the next task. If you refrain from eating a chocolate chip cookie, and then another test of impulse control comes right after, it might be even harder to control your impulse once you’ve already just did it. Over control could lead to ultimately outburst of lack of control or impulsivity.

If I wanted to control my impulses, it seems that the most effective way to do that is to prevent the decision from ever coming up to begin with. 

That’s one of the strategies basically is to structure your environment. Basically, know what your predilections are. Let’s say if you know you have a sweet tooth, don’t put sweets in the house. If you know you’re someone who might cheat on your spouse, don’t go out to the bar at night or whatever. Keep yourself out of situations where you know you’re not going to have the kind of impulse control that you’d like to have. Structure your environment accordingly. That’s definitely one strategy.

Is there a certain book or person that influenced you the most?

There are a lot of influences. Firstly, I would say my mentors throughout my career have been probably the most influential. When I did my Masters work with someone named Marcel Kinsbourne who was one of the founders of this field of neuropsychology. He does a lot of work on the neural basis of consciousness, which is something that I’m really interested in. I worked with someone named Susan Iversen in Oxford and Edmund Rolls. All great people inspired me. Christof Koch who I worked with who is now the Head of the Allen Brain Institute in Seattle. He was one of the founders of this field of studying the neural basis of consciousness. He collaborated with Francis Crick and they wrote a paper and there was also a book in the early 1990s that made it a legitimate field to be able to study consciousness from a scientific perspective rather than just relegate it to the realm of philosophers. He was pretty inspirational as well.

Do you have a hero? Who would it be?

There are people who I worked with who I really admire. When I was at Oxford, I worked with Larry Weiskrantz who I think is great and has done great work. He discovered this thing called blindsight where you can be cortically blind, meaning you have a lesion in the visual part of your brain but your eyes and your retina, they’re totally intact. People can’t see because their visual cortex is damaged. There’s another path in the visual system that if you tell people to just guess, “Guess which way this line is oriented,” they could do it well above chance. It was showing that some information was getting in even though you couldn’t consciously describe it. You could walk through an obstacle course and perfectly well navigate it without getting to see consciously anything. It’s interesting work.

There’s people’s work who I really admire. Stan Dehaene has done really interesting work on looking at conscious and unconscious processes in the brain. Giulio Tononi is someone who is a psychiatrist but who’s done amazing work and created a new theory of consciousness called the Integrated Information Theory of Consciousness. It’s not one I necessarily buy into completely but I think he really moved the field in a different direction, which I admire. There’s a lot of people and philosophers too who have inspired me like Dave Chalmers, Ned Block, people who I’ve gotten to know and become friends with over the years whose work I really admire.

If you got a random email from someone, you have no idea who they are, and they came across your work and they really wanted to meet you, what would have you accept an invitation to join them for coffee?

Because I have two young kids and they’re just about to be one and four, I’m really very selfish with my time lately. I want to spend every spare minute I can with my kids. There are people I met with, for example, who’ve had a personal experience or something that’s really interesting that they want to talk to me about. I had a woman in UK. I ended up meeting with her and chatting with her on several occasions who had an experience where she suddenly out of nowhere became blind. They had no idea. She went to all these doctors about what happened and why. Over the course of the year, she gradually regained her vision but it came in piece by piece. It basically gave us an idea of how the brain works in the way in which she gradually gained the sight back. She ended up writing a book about it as well about this experience of losing sight and gaining it again little by little and her whole subjective experience of that. People who have had some interesting phenomena happen to them that they’re really curious about the scientific explanation of it and how and why it happened, that would be interesting for me. A lot of people have emailed me with their own theory of consciousness, “I have this great theory of consciousness. This is how it works.” I usually just delete or just skip through it. If there’s something profound that they’ve just come out with, but these are homegrown theories of consciousness, not as interesting.

“I’m not sure if you know this but I have this theory that has to do with gerbils. That we just have invisible gerbils in our head that tell us what to do.” That’s my personal perspective on it.

They’ll be like, “Here’s my manuscript on it. I just wrote it. I can’t get it published, maybe you can help.” I’ll be like, “No.” I do appreciate when people have these novel experiences that might be interesting from a scientific perspective.

Heather, thank you so much for coming on. If people want to find out more about your work or contact you or find you on Instagram or a website, where can they get you on the internet?

My website is HeatherBerlin.com. I’m on Twitter @Heather_Berlin. Those are probably the best ways to find me.

Heather, thank you so much for coming on. Listeners, stay tuned. We have another anonymous interview coming up next. 

About Dr. Heather Berlin

TIP 037 | How the Brain WorksCognitive neuroscientist Dr. Heather Berlin is a Professor of Psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, Visiting Scholar at the New York Psychoanalytic Society and Institute, and avid science communicator.

She’s a committee member of the National Academy of Sciences Science and Entertainment Exchange, TV host on PBS and the Discovery Channel, and co-wrote and stars in the critically acclaimed off-Broadway and Edinburgh Fringe Festival show, Off the Top.

Anonymous Guest Interview

Listeners, I hope you’re ready to start guessing because we have an incredible human being with us today. I’d actually call her a hero. Her name is Rita. Rita, thank you so much for coming on.

I’m delighted to be on. Thanks for having me.

Let’s give the listeners some hints about who you are. Where are you from?

I’m currently in Columbus, Ohio. Originally from Michigan, so a solid Midwest girl.

No wonder the good nature and heroic character that you have. Was there a certain incident or someone who inspired you to go down the career path that you went? 

There were three things that I can think of. First, as a child I was one of those kids who was quiet, but I was constantly pumping my fist and saying, “That’s not fair.” It was inevitably when I saw something happen to a child that I didn’t think was fair. They were getting spanked, they were being denied something, and they weren’t allowed to go somewhere. I would get very loud and say, “That’s not fair.” It feels like I’ve always been a child advocate at heart. I think as I moved into adulthood and was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life and had done a number of things, when I had one of my first daughters as an infant, there was a case of horrendous abuse that became very public. An infant died and that’s when I said, “I’ve got to do something about children who are abused and neglected.” That launched me into the career that I’m in now.

It’s so easy for us to just sit back and say, “I’m not going to get involved. It’s not my place. What would happen if I did say something?” It’s not like you’re 6’7″ and 250 pounds of muscle either. How tall are you?

I say I’m 5’4″ but I’m really 5’3.5″. I lie a little bit.

In my mind, you’re at least seven inches taller than you are in reality. Just so people get a sense of what you look like, if there was a movie about your life, about your story, who would play you?

I certainly don’t look like a movie star. People frequently tell me as I get older I look a little bit like Judi Dench. I’ll take that. Knowing me as I do, who would you think should play me?

I wouldn’t even begin to venture. It’s one of these rules that as a guy you never ever play this game.

Angeline Jolie.

Either that or Scarlett Johansson. 

I’d take either one.

Was there a certain accomplishment in your career that you’re most proud of?

There is. I think in the current position that I’m in, we’ve worked very strategically over the past decade to develop an evidence-based program, embed it and scale it across the nation that makes significant change for children and the child welfare system. We’re at a stage where we’re moving towards significant growth and seeing that happen in all 50 states. I think that overnight success that’s happened over thirteen years now is something which I’m really very proud of. Mostly, I’m so excited that our target population of children that we do serve is going to have an opportunity for a better life.

I remember speaking to you about your mission in general a few times. You said it’s something that everybody has or everybody deserves to have. What was the phrase you used?

As humans, sometimes we forget what we were like as children. We think that some children will be okay at sixteen or seventeen or eighteen on their own, and many are. We’re resilient as humans and we thrive on surviving. The reality is that so many children in the United States and across the globe don’t have a home, don’t have a family. It is the birthright of every child to have that system of support of a family surrounding them and helping them to grow and thrive in the best way possible. So many of our children in the United States and across the world don’t have that.

Was there a certain stunt or some crazy thing that you did that cause your success to some degree? People have shared stories about how they lied their way on stage for performances or faked their way onto being able to show their clothing line. Is there anything that you’ve ever done?

TIP 037 | How the Brain Works

How the Brain Works: I believed in my heart of hearts that if we could get this program rolling, we would find the resources and the way to make it grow.

This program in particular. We’re an organization that is dependent on fund raising. We started this program that we’re now expanding across the nation with the foolish belief that if we started it, people would follow and help us grow it. There was no guarantee that that would happen, and frankly I didn’t share everything with my Board about what was happening and the commitments we had already made. I believed in my heart of hearts that if we could get this program rolling, we would find the resources and the way to make it grow. That could have been a make or break it. I suspect my Board could have fired me over starting a program, making commitments to organizations across the nation without really having the funding in place.

Was there a certain moment that you felt like you had arrived to a certain degree? Not that anybody ever truly arrives, but this pinnacle moment, maybe received an award or you’ve got to meet somebody or somebody said something to you that made you look back and go, “That was very cool.”

One of my heroes in this business is right there in New York City, Marcia Lowry, who used to run this incredible organization that worked on behalf of children and the child welfare system. I picked up a voicemail on my phone and it was Marcia Lowry at the other end about four years ago. I had never met her. She was asking a favor of me. She had written an iconic book. She had initiated an iconic movement on behalf of children specifically in New York City but that has gained the foothold across the nation. That she even knew to pick up the phone and call me. First of all, I almost didn’t call her back. I thought, “I can’t talk to her. She is literally one of those heroes that I won’t be able to speak a word.” That was one of those times when I thought, “Maybe finally this organization is doing something that can help those who have truly paved the path toward truly having rights for children.”

What hint or riddle would you give to help people figure out who you are and what you do?

Our founder used to tell us every day these children are not someone else’s responsibility. They are our responsibility.

Rita, thank you so much for doing this. Listeners, you have between the end of this episode now and the beginning of next week’s episode to figure out who Rita is. If you can, you can win an invitation to me or The Salon series. Good luck.