Dr. Brynn Winegard knows what your brain needs
Published on October, 2nd 2018
By Greg Wells
This Q&A was adapted from my podcast conversation with Dr. Brynn Winegard, an award-winning professor, speaker and world-leading expert in neuroscience and in the intersection of business and brain science. Dr. Brynn is formally educated in neuroscience, psychology, and marketing and strategy, including a BSc, MBA and PhD. In addition to her training and research, she also spent a decade in corporate marketing, working for organizations like Pfizer, Nestlé and Johnson & Johnson. While she retains several faculty positions at leading Canadian universities, Dr. Brynn has now dedicated herself to helping groups, organizations and companies learn to build better brains.
Listen to the episode here: http://bit.ly/DrBrynnPodcast
Building better brains: An overview of Dr. Brynn Winegard’s expertise and current interests
Dr. Greg Wells: Dr. Brynn, before I clicked record, you and I were talking about how you did an audit of what you love to do versus what you don’t, and that you landed on what you do, which is speaking and teaching. Can you tell us about that?
BW: I focus on business and brain science and merging the two. In the olden days, it used to be called things like “neural management,” “neuro leadership,” “neural marketing,” and those kinds of things. I consider those to be relevant, though I would say my focus is a lot broader than that. And I spend my days much like yourself, running a business, so there’s a lot of delivering that has to happen, organizing, and chasing, marketing, and some administration.
But if you think about the knowledge work I’m doing, especially this time of year, I take in a lot of disparate sciences by reading very broadly. Greg, you know this is my time to retrench myself in the literature and some of the newest science, looking at other sciences you wouldn’t necessarily think are relevant and then bringing them back to my domain or mixing them with my existing knowledge to either reproduce them in the form of video or blog content. And right now, I’m attempting write a popular press book, putting my knowledge in terms that real people and real businesses can use. You and I have that in common.
GW: So, what’s capturing your attention right now as you’re doing this deep summer dive into the literature? What’s the latest thinking that you’re exploring?
BW: Two things. The first is that I’m really into the work of people like Shawn Achor and others out there. It’s effectively the science of happiness. So looking at the brain science behind what makes us happy, why we are happy, why happiness on the aggregate seems to be decreasing, etc. People ask me that a lot. I get a lot of questions, especially after a keynote. People will come up and say, “I used to be a lot happier. I want to be happier, and I understand more isn’t going to help me. I understand that happiness is self-work and all of that. How do I become happier?” So I started looking into it.
The other place that has really tweaked my interest lately is this concept of self-care being healthcare, and the idea that you’re really the only person who can care for yourself. A lot of what goes wrong, disease or ill health, often stems from psychosomatic disorders and a psychosomatic place. So I’m looking into what are the early indicators of the health of that place in your brain that allows you to manage, and be nimble and flexible around stress, how not to let it overcome you and overtake you, and how we can preserve and ensure our health. So, I am looking into mindfulness and meditation literatures, but not stopping there. Sort of saying, “Well, if meditation is purposeful as a means to an end, what’s the end?” Of course, the end is really a mindset and a brain space that allows you psychosomatic health and happiness. The ability to think of how to be more productive, and how to operate at your peak self and maintain that.
These two topics are especially important, and you hear this a lot from our youth, which is where some of the questions stem from, important in light of some of the terror in the world. I think there is a kind of union of collective conscience culminating in the ether. There are terrorists and lot of horrific things happening. We are almost nine billion people and poverty is at an all-time high, and there is a staggering gap between rich and poor. So, people are having a harder and harder time all the time. Technology is increasing in how advanced it becomes, and that’s overwhelming for many people. So I think increasingly, you see people struggle to be happy in and of themselves and find a calm and peaceful place in their own brain space and their own mind.
Stop comparing yourself to others
Dr. Greg Wells: What is happiness and what can people do to build more happiness into their lives, if they should? Maybe that’s not even the end we should be looking for, but I’d love to hear a little bit more about your thoughts on it.
Dr. Brynn Winegard: It’s such a good question. I think it is relative to some degree. Recently, a cab driver asked me that question on my way to a talk in Chicago. In a hurry, I had to figure out how to answer his question in a succinct way. I said, “You know, sir, really the answer is to stop comparing yourself. It’s contentedness in oneself.” As I thought about it after, it stood up to scrutiny. It’s a good starting place for understanding it. That when you look around, you’re not thin enough. You’re not pretty enough. You’re not rich enough. You don’t have a good enough education. You don’t have a big enough house. Your car isn’t nice enough, etc. On and on, the list goes. What we know is that people who have less of a delta between their aspirational self or ideal self and their actual self are happier. So, the one line sound bite is to stop comparing yourself to others. The secret to your happiness is to feel as though what you have is enough, and who you are is enough.
You asked another question about whether happiness is the end goal. I don’t know that it is. I often talk about the fact that emotions are functional. You’re supposed to have emotions. They are supposed to feel uncomfortable, and that the reason for that, from a biological or evolutionary perspective, is to motivate action and behaviour. If, as an example, you’re feeling something, I often say to people, clients and audiences, don’t try to repress or deny that. Don’t ignore feeling something, especially that intuitive self that pops up and says, “Hey, this doesn’t feel quite right.” Because it’s there to remind you that a situation isn’t maybe in your best interest or to motivate you toward action.
I think it’s also a good question to ask, “Should we feel happy all the time?” No, I don’t think we should. But we also shouldn’t never be happy. It’s an inverted U curve, right? There’s never feeling happy at one end, which is an absolute recipe for depression, despair and hopelessness. And there’s always feeling happy, which is a recipe for naiveté and lack of progress. In the middle, there’s a happy medium or middle space that comes from a lack of self-comparison and healthy acknowledgement that emotions such as discomfort and unhappiness are functional in moderation.
GW: I couldn’t agree with you more. I love the idea of radical self-acceptance when you’re not comparing yourself to other people. That’s crucial. I also think you have to stop comparing yourself to yourself too, or if you do, stop comparing yourself to what you think you should be and rather that just paying attention to where you are. Maybe glance back and see where you’ve been and how far you’ve come as a way of dealing with this gap between what we do feel and what we should feel. I love that you’ve latched onto that, and also that you’re thinking about the fact that it’s okay not to be happy. It’s great to be happy, that’s phenomenal, but you shouldn’t expect to be happy all the time. It’s okay to feel the spectrum of what humans are capable of feeling.
BW: Yeah, absolutely. A couple of things there. One is that social psychologists have long known that social comparison to others, both upward social comparison and downward social comparison, are harmful, right? If you’re looking to others who have done way better than you, then you’re absolutely going to feel this huge delta in terms of their state and your state, and you’re going to feel like you’re not good enough. You haven’t achieved enough. And if you’re looking downward to others, then you have this inflated sense of how much you’ve accomplished and how great you are. And that’s also not a functional head space.
But to your point, looking back on your own history and saying, “Look how far I’ve come,” I think absolutely can be very helpful. I think there is a healthy difference between who you want to be or where you want to head, and where you are today. I think some of that, in moderation, can help you get out of bed in the morning and motivate you forward. It can give you a mind’s eye picture of who you want to be and what you want to achieve. But I think as that delta grows greater and greater, it becomes increasingly toxic. At that point, it’s hard to climb out of what might otherwise be a healthy, motivating, helpful and hopeful emotion. I can easily become depressing, despairing and hopeless.
Turning fear into action
Dr. Greg Wells: A little while ago, you talked about fear and terror. I’d love to get your perspective on that from a psychological perspective. What is fear? Why does it happen? Why is it good for us? Why is it important? But then also how do we deal with fear and minimize its negative effects on our lives or use it in a positive way to move us forward?
Dr. Brynn Winegard: You are right, there are benefits to feeling fearful. Having a healthy level of imagination about what can go wrong, could go wrong, might go wrong, and what is out there that is threatening us can be good, because the opposite is naiveté and that’s not going to be helpful.
There are three things, basically, that you can do with fear.
First is, of course, to express it and that’s sometimes fine but it’s not always useful. Second is that you can repress it and deny that it’s happening to you. “Just man up.” I hear that a lot. Or, “Don’t be a pussy.” People do this self talk. You don’t hear it verbalized often. People tend to say it to themselves. But, generally, that’s not necessarily going to work either. That’s where the third option comes in — to transform that emotion. If what you’re feeling is fear, transforming it is to either re-label it or to use it other ways.
So you might re-label it not as fear, but as healthy self-reflection or healthy imagination about what could happen. And then that allows you to identify the emotion objectively. Or you might say, “Listen, I’m going to normalize this emotion. I’m going to say that fear is a very healthy way of feeling right now. And that I should feel fearful or stressed and anxious.” If we normalize it, what we’re attempting to do is (and I sometimes use the image of pulling an emotion out of my chest or out of my brain) objectify the emotion so that instead of it controlling us, we control it.
It takes us back to understanding why we’re feeling that way, how it is that our subconscious might have developed that emotional sense, whether or not it is a recurrent sense of fear or a novel sense of fear. Asking, is this a new source or sense of fear? And really trying to figure out or pinpoint what in our environment, context or circumstance is causing that fear. That allows us to rationalize it, objectify it in such a way that we take control over it again.
That allows us to take those emotions and have them be functional toward proactive performance, action and behaviour as opposed to letting them control us and dumb us down or have them be toxic toward any productivity. In many cases, fear makes us unable to act and creates anxiety, despair, depression and other dopamine feedback cycle loops that create further fear. When people are just spending too long circulating steroids and cortisol, they end up in adrenal fatigue, failure and burnout. That’s what you can do with emotion and why there is real benefit in feeling what people consider to be negative emotions.
GW: Interesting. So when you were talking about that, in my mind, I was picturing being scared. For some reason, I picture, “How would I feel if I had a cancer diagnosis?” Maybe because I spend a little bit of time doing research on cancer, so it’s always in the back of my mind. I would probably be fearful, but I would want to move that into action. It’s fascinating to hear you talk about how to use fear to move forward rather than be paralyzed. It’s almost like executing a mental process so that you are motivated.
BW: Certainly. You know, the nugget or sound bite that I often give people is, “To get mad, not sad.” That’s a focus on anger instead of fear. Sad being a fear emotion — a helpless, hopeless space in your mind. Whereas anger is motivation toward action — transforming the emotion into approach instead of withdrawal.
It can be helpful to think about the fear of public speaking. They say, take your nervous energy and put it into your performance. Make it performative energy. What I’m saying is a similar concept. You say, “Listen, instead of getting sad and ruminating, and miring myself in these helpless, hopeless, despairing emotions, let’s get mad, get functional toward action.” Ask, “what can I do to make things different? What actions can I take? What behaviours need to be different? Where can I find solutions?” And I think that is a much more motivated space and therefore more helpful.
Motivation and action
Dr. Greg Wells: Does action lead to motivation or does motivation lead to action?
Dr. Brynn Winegard: It’s a good question. They’re often mutually reinforcing. What you’ll often see is when the effect you were hoping for has happened, you feel more motivated in successive steps. There is all kinds of great research out there that shows the benefit of just getting started so that you put yourself into the task. It’s called the Zeigarnik Effect. I sometimes say it’s like the Nike tagline, “Just do it.” If you’re having a really hard time, you’re procrastinating, you don’t know where to start with something, just do it. Just start, start anywhere because what we know is that a little bit of progress will motivate further action.
It relates to dopamine feedback loops. I always say, “Do it with dopamine,” but the idea is that these little squirts of dopamine, little surges, are going to motivate you to the next step. That step might not be very high, it might be a couple inches, but then you take the next step and the next step, and so on. Those steps have a way of becoming mutually reinforcing and self-fulfilling. And then next thing you know, you’re able to leap multiple steps at a time, and you’re really making huge leaps and bounds in terms of your progress. But, the real critical thing is to start anywhere.
You’ll laugh. I have a funny story. I have a personal trainer friend who told me that he had people who were on a program with him but they didn’t want to exercise. And so, he didn’t know he was using the Zeigarnik Effect, but basically, he said, “Listen, I don’t care if you go for a walk, for a run for one mile, for two miles, for 17 steps. I don’t care, don’t worry about that. What I want you to do is promise me this — every day, what you will do is you’ll put on your running shoes, you’ll put on your workout gear, you’ll put your hair up, you’ll put your headband on, you’ll put in your earbuds and you will walk out your front door, down your front steps and stand in your driveway.” Isn’t that so good?
BW: It’s just starting anywhere. And Zeigarnik was the theorist who showed that if you do that, you get enough satisfaction of having started something that you’re likely to take the first step. I often say this on stage, but we all know that a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. So the idea is that you give yourself just an inch and you will ultimately take up a mile, you’ll be able to get a lot more done.
So, back to your point, I know it was rhetorical, but yes, action leads to motivation and motivation leads to action. Those things, they’re not just mutually reinforcing, but they will grow exponentially as you continue to reinforce them. Which, of course, as you and I both know, is the etiology often for addiction, right? So you do a little bit, you like what you get, you do a little bit more and you like what you get. You keep going on and on and on, and the cycle goes. And so that is the power of habit and the power of good habits, right? It’s almost like creating functional and healthful addictions.
Dopamine and positive habits
Dr. Greg Wells: Talk to us about the dopamine feedback loop and how it can be positive if you’re doing things that make you better. What is it and how can we leverage it to be a good thing?
Dr. Brynn Winegard: Very quickly, it is the idea that our brains are very neuroplastic and have synapses that run on dopamine, which used to be considered the pleasure neurochemical, but now we know is the action neurochemical. That came out of research with soldiers from Afghanistan who had PTSD. When they would hear bombs go off, they would experience a surge in dopamine.
Historically we’ve seen surges in dopamine, as an example, in drug addicts who were craving their next hit and were motivated toward getting the drug of choice. We would also see dopamine surges in addicts as a result of having injected heroin as an example. So, dopamine has long been discredited as the Hedonism pleasure chemical and is understood to be much more in the way of an action hormone that basically is the brain’s own reward for having done something that it wanted to do. That’s why it becomes a self-feedback loop.
The other thing is that the brain being neuroplastic, if you do something once and you receive a positive response, internally even, your brain will want to do it again. It will lay down neurons for wanting to do it again. To your point, almost like a computer, that system operates the same every time, but the choice is ours as to which situations we allow it to operate in. So, if you allow the dopamine system to operate on cigarettes, then you will get addicted to cigarettes. If every time you have one, you get a little of this surge of nicotine, you enjoy the feeling, and so on. You’ll want more and more. Then, there are habituation effects that lead to needing greater and greater amounts, so you go from smoking three cigarettes day to 30, etc.
Progress works in the same way. When you choose a habit that is functional, not dysfunctional, like working out or going out into the driveway with all of your running gear on and taking that single step, day over day, week over week, you start to build neural networks that themselves are certainly dopaminergic and will then create this motivation toward action, toward habit. That’s really how you can create progress, and you will habituate to that activity.
We always say, and I know you say this probably in your gyms and in your laboratories, but no pain, no gain, from the perspective that you have to constantly be challenging yourself in order to continue to grow those networks, to lay down those neurons and to see the progress that you’re looking to see. So, there’s always going to be a little bit of discomfort in it, but work that is a little bit uncomfortable allows you, within a realm that you enjoy, some amount of progress.
It’s related to the work of Csíkszentmihályi, the theorist who talked about cognitive flow and flow states. Flow states are the ideal state under which to work and to get things done. Basically, he said that, “Most productivity, the height of productivity, the most productive you will be, will be in a state of flow.” So, if we want to be more productive, then we want to facilitate a state of flow. Facilitating a state of flow is about being in a dopaminergic feedback loop in neural networks, so we are doing a thing we want to be productive at but are a little bit uncomfortable. And so we’re constantly pushing ourselves.
So, the mechanism of dopamine feedback loops works the same way, it’s really your choice to use it in a functional versus non-functional way. You either use it for exercise every day or for cigarettes. That’s your choice.
GW: I can relate to that from working out or riding my bike and everything’s going great and I’m just completely in the moment. Actually, I was out on my paddle board today, and it was so cool. These waves that I was going over, and it was just awesome. I was in an incredible flow state. Now I know that makes my brain want to do it again!
How non-functional habits form
Dr. Greg Wells: Sometimes, when I am working out, I’m struggling massively, and I’m like, “Oh, great. The hydrogen ions in my muscles are blocking the calcium,” and so on. I’m overthinking situations. I try not to do it, but I’m curious if you have found yourself in moments when you detect that your dopamine feedback loops are operating negatively? Or an example of when you find they are operating and helping you reinforce a positive habit?
Dr. Brynn Wells: Absolutely. A good example of a nonfunctional habit that I’ve built for myself, that I’ve tried to cut out very desperately, is dessert after dinner — basically sugar. I don’t know, Greg, if you’ve ever tried to cut out sugar, but it’s in everything. It’s so hard.
There’s a really great TEDx Talk, “Sugar is Not a Treat.” It goes through the science of how it is that sugar is not just in everything, but is a toxin for us. It disrupts every good process in our body. Anyway, so I’ve tried to cut that out. It’s so hard, and absolutely you see that our society is built around this concept of dessert. It is a very tasty substance. There are all kinds of substitutes for it that are even more sugary, that actually lead you to want more sugar, which is in fact not blocking that dopamine feedback loop that is dysfunctional.
I’ve tried to reconstruct it, visualize it differently, identify it. To say, “I’m in this now, I know this is happening to me. I don’t want it to happen anymore. It’s an addiction. How do I interrupt it?” Sometimes I use the distraction effect. Sometimes, I try to interrupt it and block it. Still, not totally successful. Like two nights ago, I had ice cream for dessert. So, it’s still a work in progress, but that’s an example of one of those states that I wish was more functional.
On the contrary, much like yourself, I really like exercise. I exercise every day. I exercise every day at the same time. Everyone knows. It’s blocked off in my calendar. All of my colleagues know, my assistant knows. It’s my ideal time in the day, and now it’s exactly like I described — it’s a functional habit that has become something I can’t not do. It is an addiction in the sense that if I don’t have it, if I don’t exercise that day, I don’t sleep as well that night.
When I don’t exercise, I also find my nutritional patterns are disrupted, my circadian rhythm is disrupted. I find my happiness is a little bit disrupted. My mind state is disruptive. Even my sense of, and this is what you were experiencing on your paddle board, gratitude. We know gratitude has such great ramifications for brain and body health and brain/body connections. That sense of gratitude is disrupted if I don’t exercise, along with my sense of patience and ability to concentrate. You name it.
So there are two examples that I think many of your listeners, and yourself even, might identify with that have been positive and negative, using the same mechanism, using the same feedback loop, basically having to say, “Listen, one’s a functional habit and one’s a non-functional habit.”
GW: I really appreciate you being transparent with that. Thank you. I also have issues with ice cream. It’s not going to go away anytime soon, unfortunately, but I’ll try to manage it the best that I can with two kids at home!
Your state of optimal performance
Dr. Greg Wells: You mentioned a really interesting term that I actually haven’t heard before, but I would love your take on it because I think it’s really cool. You called it performative energy. What is that? How do we access it?
Dr. Brynn Winegard: Well, I don’t know if this is the academic definition per se, but I believe it is the energies that help us perform and be our peak performing selves. So, they are usually approach emotions and functional dopamine feedback loops. They are brain states and mindsets, and a psychological context or position, that allow you to feel your best. And from whence you are able to be your best self, perform your best, think your best, do your best, and feel your best.
Everyone’s a little bit different. What I’ve noticed, as an example, is that my most performative energies, my most performative brain space, isn’t one of hyper anxiety; it isn’t one of loud noise. I’m a little bit introverted that way. I need to be able to concentrate, I need time to be able to reflect, etc. Contrary to that, I work with somebody who absolutely loves the 11th hour pressure of having to get something done. He isn’t necessarily even a procrastinator, but doesn’t feel like he can perform his best work, that he is his best self in his most performative state, until it’s the 11th hour. The pressure is on, stakes are high, the anxiety is running high, there is a lot happening around him, there are other people who are also in a state of of anxious performance of some kind. He really, really thrives on that energy. I don’t.
So, I guess what I’m acknowledging is that everyone will have different performative brain space mindsets and energies that help them. I think it’s largely a personal thing. But, yeah, effectively it’s the energy you require to be your peak performing self.
GW: Interesting. So that’s almost like the flow state. The ideal performance state being that inverted U shape, where in low activation states, you can’t perform well, and then as your activation increases, your energy levels increase, your nervousness increases, your performance can improve. But if it goes too far, off the other end, you’re into, “I’m scared, I’m nervous, I’m anxious,” then your performance isn’t great. Finding that ideal point in the middle of that inverted U curve?
BW: Yeah, and I think what happens is everyone lives somewhere in this band naturally, right? So, for my colleague, he needs that level of excitement to push him into that operational band at the top of that U curve. Whereas I often feel like, for me, that level of excitement, pressure, anxiety, rigmarole and buzz pushes me, to your point, down that slippery slope at the back end of that U shape. Maybe when he wakes up in the morning, he lives somewhere in the lower range of excitement, energy, enthusiasm, optimal performative energies, and maybe my natural state is further up that curve. So it’s easier to push me off that curve than it is him. Right? He needs that extra stimuli in order to get him in that optimal performance band.
The power and potential of brain plasticity
Dr. Greg Wells: I’ve heard so much about neuroplasticity. I’m really excited about it because it means that at any time in our lives, we can improve our brain. No matter what has happened to us previously, we can improve our brain. Can you explain neuroplasticity and what you’ve discovered recently in that area?
Dr. Brynn Winegard: Yeah, I think that’s probably one of the scarier findings in the last 10 years. We always knew that the brain is neuroplastic. But now there is new research all the time showing just how neuroplastic you are, just how quickly you’ll lay down new neural pathways, new connections for things that matter to you, things that you’re interested in.
Technology has shown it, especially with youngsters who are addicted to technology or who really like technology. Video gaming is an example. Video gamers. They will very quickly neuro-plastically reorient to new gaming worlds at unprecedented levels. And, of course, those games are designed to spike that neuroplastic alteration.
We used to believe, as an example, that neuroplasticity went to zero. Starting at puberty, it effectively continually decreased until your death, at which point you likely had zero neuroplasticity left. Almost like collagen in your skin. You were just no longer nimble or flexible cognitively. Now, we know that to be discredited and untrue. So you are, in fact, neuroplastic throughout your life.
The truth is that neuroplasticity is the secret to all knowing, all learning and all knowledge because it is the laying down of new networks. That is how the brain holds information: new permutations of networks. Which actually is also very hopeful and encouraging, because what it also means implicitly is that your ability to learn is infinite. So, whatever you can know, given time and opportunity, you can encode.
Your brain has no limit to that, at the theoretical level. Where the limit lies is in accessing those networks and in accessing those memories. Really, knowledge is just the memory of having learned something encoded into a network for which you already have some relevance, because you won’t develop necessarily an altogether new network. You’ll take existing cognitive networks, existing schema, cognitive schemata, and reorient them toward new information.
What I find very … if not alarming, hopeful and helpful, and also wildly scary is not just how fast it happens — how quickly your brain can reorient — but that it is doing it all the time, whether you know it or not. Whether you like it or not. So what that means is that, whether you like it or not, whether you know it or not, your brain is constantly changing in response to the stimuli around you.
Which means that you are not just the food you eat. We’re all very used to that adage. You are not just the company you keep. We are also used to that adage, but it’s more and more true. We’re finding out all the time that you very quickly become, neuro-cognitively, whoever the people around you are. You are the culmination of the five people you spend the most time with. You’ve probably heard that research.
GW: That’s true. There’s actually some really good science around that. That’s fascinating.
BW: You are literally laying down neural networks that mimic theirs. So, you neuro-plastically become, and you neuro-plastically develop, the same insights, ideas, polarization of thought, and perspectives as, the people you spend the most time with. That’s scary.
GW: I experience it firsthand at the Titan Summit, an event I speak at where I am surrounded by these incredible people. It completely changes your life. It also emphasizes that it’s really important to audit that. Even though you may be friends with people or they may be even family members, if they have a negative effect upon your life, it’s essential that you decrease the amount of time that you spend with them because there are other opportunities. Life is short. We need to surround ourselves with people that make us better. A way of doing that, which I have sort of gotten back into, is reading as much as I can. Especially biographies of amazing people. I’ve read an Elon Musk biography, I’ve read Walter Isaacson’s biography of Leonardo Da Vinci. I’ve got Alex Hutchinson’s book, Endure, on my desk. I’ve got Impromptu by Judith Humphrey. I’m trying to surround myself with people via books. And I love the idea that you mentioned about being careful about Facebook or social media and consuming them intentionally, not compulsively. Because if you’re compulsively scrolling through Facebook, that’s a problem. If you’re intentionally engaging and commenting positively on other people’s lives, and encouraging and congratulating, that’s a completely different physiological and psychological response.
How our brain’s change in respond to self-talk and thoughts:
Dr. Greg Wells: Talk to us about the link between neuroplasticity and the way that self-talk and the thoughts we think shape us.
Dr. Brynn Winegard: Yah, it’s the thesis of one of my keynotes and a thing that scares me a lot — the idea that we are the thoughts we think. That has very potent ramifications for the self-talk that we do. You know the self-talk about your worth? That you can do it, you can get through this, you’re awesome, or whatever. Whatever we tell ourselves. Or that other self-talk that you’re not worthy, you’re not good enough, you’re not thin enough, you’re not smart enough. These people are going to judge you. They’re going to think you’re an idiot. That complex that so many people have in their mind or in their running internal narrative.
The scary part is that it means those narratives are not benign. It means that they’re more powerful than we ever thought them to be before. And I think that is, for me, the scariest ramification of some of these accelerated knowables about the neuroplasticity of your brain — the fact that you can’t always believe what you think. What you think becomes your reality and very literally becomes the neurons that fire together and therefore get wired together.
That scares me, I think, for both what is exogenously, extrinsically put into our brain, in so many subconscious ways through marketing and through the use of Facebook, Instagram and all of these platforms. Whether we like it or not, they signal to us, to all of us, on a continual basis that we don’t have enough, we’re not good enough, we’re not worthy enough, we haven’t reached our height yet, we haven’t developed our … whatever, our optimal selves yet.
I think that’s scary because that is exogenously being put into a subconscious that, as it routes through and tries to find a narrative that feels right, will then spew forward, will put forward some damaging insights for you. Right? And I come at this from the perspective that your subconscious contains 200 billion bits of information, though you’re only paying attention to some absolute infinitesimal fraction of that. So your conscious brain is doing very little of what your subconscious brain is, in fact, absorbing. And then it’s your subconscious brain that often is the one that is really manufacturing the self-talk and the internal cognitive narratives that your conscious brain ends up adopting. Not the other way around.
That is such a scary truth because what it means is that whether we like it or not, whether you believe it or not, a lot of this subconscious stuff that’s filtering in that 200 million bits of information going into that subconscious brain every day, is becoming your brain. It’s neuro-plastically rewiring you. I speak to groups who say, “Oh yeah, well I read The New York Times, and I’m careful.” Yeah, but do you really, though? Do you also sift through Facebook for an hour a day? You can tell me anything, but what you really do with your brain is what your brain really becomes. And so we have to be very careful about what we ingest intellectually and from a visual and technological perspective.
I often joke about, and you would appreciate this Greg, if there is a scary or violent scene in a film on the television in front of your child, you’ll hide your children’s eyes, but you wouldn’t hide your own. Right? And so we don’t censor, I think, enough of what’s coming into our ether, what’s coming into our environment, who is coming into our environment and what we’re allowing our subconscious to be adultered by, effectively. And I think that is something that is the scariest ramification for me.
GW: That’s so powerful. The idea that you become the thoughts that you think. I didn’t realize it happens so quickly or so extensively. That’s pretty intense.