Brain Science – Episode #21

The power of story

contextual factors for better understanding

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Researchers have examined the power of story and discovered the way in which stories provide a framework that has the capacity to transcend language for universal understanding. According to Joe Lazauskas, “Stories illuminate the city of our mind…stories make us remember and they make us care.” In this episode we dive deep into the power of story to explore the ways in which stories play a role in our emotions and in our relationships with others.

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Stories are designed to take you on a journey; a journey you’re more likely to remember and relate with as you are apt to examine ways in which you can see yourself in the story. While our biases can interfere with our understanding of others, stories have the power to circumvent the challenges these pose and allows the opportunity for changes in our attitudes and henceforth our responses. When we’re able to see ourselves in others’ stories, we make others more relatable, and therefore easier to live with and work alongside.

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Adam, I’m curious, have you recently heard a good story, read a good book or even seen a movie that stuck with you?

Yeah. We watched a movie last night. What was it called? Gosh, I have to look it up. It doesn’t matter. The name of the movie doesn’t matter. I’ll figure it out; I’ll put in the show notes. But the story was this fella who had an accident was walking across the street in a rainy day and got hit by a– some bike, like a motorized bike; like a scooter of sorts, and became a paraplegic. And the story was this love story, and if they had just jumped right into the middle of story, maybe I wouldn’t understand the movie very well, but because they began at the beginning, and they gave the full back-story, it was easy to empathize with his character and the development…

And like any movie, you can go deeper, because movies aren’t as deep as books, but they gave a lot of context towards who he was and why he was the way he was. And as a paraplegic, he was less happy with his life because he could be– he was less active than he was prior in his other life, as he had said. So it’s this full back-story of him, his accident, this love story, and this full arc, and you can really appreciate the relationship that came from the two because of all the detail in there and all the nuance.

That’s what I think is so fascinating - stories are really powerful. I love the way I get to learn nowadays, with doing school twice with my kids. Recently, I had to do a little lesson on folktales, and it just sparked my curiosity because the whole premise of this assignment was recognizing the value that folktales have, and that they’re designed to learn. Stories, ironically, help us to learn from anything. How many times you hear analogies or stories or other ways in which you can relate the information that you hadn’t previously considered?

[00:04:06.12] Yeah. Well, data for data’s sake isn’t actionable; you often have to tie it to some emotional buy-in and things like that. I think that’s why stories really get at you, because it’s like an empathy tie-in or an emotional tie-in, or maybe even being able to place yourself in the scenario, to some degree, where you can, I suppose, transplant yourself in–

–see yourself in the story, or someone you know.

Right. It pulls on your emotions, and so all of a sudden now– I mean, this is what makes reading even fictional books fascinating. Like, oh, you’re on the journey with them, or I relate to this character or that character, but the nuances or the contextual factors for that individual really matter and help you better understand and then relate with them, right?

I think so, yeah.

Yeah, and so I see the power of story being super important as a conversation, because there is a learning process that comes, and I think in the workplace, how often - and in relationships, because we don’t opt out of those when we go to work, but how important story is as it relates to feedback and understanding other people, so that we can work alongside and we can all grow and learn, as well.

Yeah. We’ve touched on this a little bit before, but not to the depth we’ll go into today. But imagine a relationship at work, with (let’s say) a peer, a lateral peer or something like that. You may have difficulty working with them, but if you understood their back-story more, it might make it a little easier to understand why they operate the way they do. Maybe even why they have that chip on their shoulder, that attitude or maybe even that joyful mood. Maybe it’s they’re always smiling and you’re like, “What’s wrong with you? Why are you always happy?”

And maybe you realize, if you knew their back-story, they had something traumatic happen, and they promised themselves they would always see the joy in life and always focus on the positive. So you might think “That person’s weird for being too happy or that person’s weird for being too much of a jerk”, but it makes sense if you understand their back-story, and then you can see them in a different light and your relationship blossoms because you have more detail and more context, and there’s just so much more understanding from there.

Yeah. So imagine that understanding people’s stories gives you so much more breadth and depth to navigate it. I mean, if I was like, “Hey, Adam, I want you to go walk this tightrope up above a 25-story building, okay?” You’re not gonna be like, “Sure, I’ll do that.”

That’s right.

This little narrow– this little narrow path that you’ve got. So what we know is really helpful in navigating our lives is flexibility and being able to adapt and do things in different ways. So imagine I just then said, “Hey, I paved this really wide – you’ve got six feet on either side of planks that you can walk from one building to the next, 25 feet in the air.” It wouldn’t be so scary in the same way and you’d be more prone to approach it. Let’s face it, everybody’s got their own little idiosyncrasies that make it challenging to interface with them, and these can’t help but show up at work, especially when there’s aspects of pressure.

[00:07:46.20] Yeah, because you can read a lot into things that happen that are just by happenstance and not on purpose, but because you’re already anxious about an interaction or have a preconceived notion or whatever it might be, you’re like– you start to read into things that are not actually true… Or maybe they are, you never know. But the point is, you start to really put information into place that may not actually be there because you have insecurities or concerns between a relationship, and you read into things that are not actually there, and so those curt responses from them, one word or two words or whatever, or delayed response even… You might think, “Well, they haven’t responded to me yet. Are they angry with me? Is this thing that I thought was an issue, is it becoming a bigger issue?” Really, they were just busy with their kids, or doing other things–

–and they’re just getting to it when they have the time. But meanwhile, you’ve worried, you’ve been anxious, you’ve had projected thoughts about this truth that’s not true.

Yeah, and so the other thing with this as well - we can get feedback from other people… We fare a lot better, as we’ve mentioned before, when we actually use our words. So if I have a conversation with someone, to be like, “Hey, I totally didn’t understand your response or I was just thrown off. Can you help me understand?” It then changes the dynamics, instead of you just running your old play, or filling in the blanks according to your own perception and your own projection, dare I say.

Yeah. A key phrase from me I’ve learned a long time ago, when someone is talking to me about something in this scenario that you’re painting here, is the response of, “How do you mean?” So they say something and they explain themselves and I don’t understand it, the easiest, most concise way to respond saying what you’re saying is, “How do you mean?” Because then they’ll be prompted to say, “Well, when you do this, this or this, it makes me feel this way,” or “I want this. Can you provide it in that way?” They have to give more detail, and it’s three words. How, do, you… Well, is that four words? How do you mean. That’s four words. I’m sorry.

[laughs] Right. It’s like spelling. Counting, spelling…

How many words is in that, “How do you mean”. It’s so easy. How do you mean.

Yeah, and that prompts more of this effort around discovery as opposed to judgment. I’m not leading with presumption, I’m actually leading with a sense of curiosity, which makes a difference.

Yeah. You can say it several times, too. You can say it “How do you mean? How do you mean? Hm… How do you mean?” You could say it a couple of different ways, but you can keep saying it over and over and over until you get your understanding, and it’s really good in a scenario whenever you’re getting a rebuttal. You’re trying to propose something and somebody is giving a response back and they’re not– it’s like a give and take there, and really, I learned it in sales training. If someone’s giving me a rebuttal to what I’m proposing as a solution to the problem, and they’re proposing an anti-solution or a reason to not move forward, well, “How do you mean?” Because it forces them to explain in a very– in a way that doesn’t get anybody upset. The way you worded it was better. There was no hidden meaning in there. There was no “Well, you said this, but you didn’t say that. Can you explain?” That’s giving more detail to the angst, where this is just neutral, “How do you mean?”

Yep, yeah. So I love it. This guy, Joe Laza– I’m gonna wreck his last name… Lazauskas. He says - so this is just a really good quote, I couldn’t help but share. It says, “A few different things happen when we hear a really good story.

[00:12:01.04] The first is that the neural activity in our brain increases fivefold. Stories illuminate the city of our mind.” He goes on to say, “Stories make us remember and stories make us care,” and that’s so significant, because it creates a broader landscape and meaning, as opposed to just relating to a thing. We all remember better too when things have meaning. If I gave you four random words and told you to remember them, maybe you could, but it’s actually really different if I told you a story, and said, “Tell me back that story.” And even more so if you can relate with the story.

Even though I can’t remember the whole story, I could at least paraphrase most of it and get the– which is interesting about language, because I don’t have to say exactly what you said to deliver meaning. Meaning in language is really interesting, because you can say something of meaning 10 or 15 different ways. I don’t know if that’s true or not in terms of the actual math, but you get the point…

But you can say something in many different ways and deliver the same meaning.

Yeah. And our brains process stories differently than it does any other feedback, because one, stories pull in emotions. You can’t help but emote in some way. Two, stories help us relate better to others, which in turn means we can empathize better with them, and three, stories improve memory, which allows for improved learning. Stories make data meaningful. So it’s almost as if stories create anchor points in our brains. So It’s like, “Oh yeah, I get that.” And if you think of the landscape or terrain of our minds, I mean, they’re all over the place. So to be able to relate something– I think about this a lot in terms of how much I deal with more abstract concepts in therapy.

So I’m trying to help people who don’t have a framework around why they’re having the issues they are per se, and then I’m trying to help them understand something that they don’t relate to or relate with, and can’t necessarily name. So ironically, I do this a lot, and I never really thought about it, because I talk about it in terms of analogies or metaphors, but I tell mini-stories often, so that people can anchor in. Or I talked about stitching in and bringing a couple of things together that they hadn’t necessarily seen in that way. So it then holds a different meaning, because they then bring themselves into that story and go, “Oh, that makes sense.”

Yeah. It makes sense, because we talked about memory… So back in the Memory and Learning episode, we talked about the ways in which our brain’s vacuum seal. Memory is generally around a high degree of emotion, positive or negative.

Touché, yeah.

So it would make sense– I mean, as we go through this, it would make sense that as we collect memories, emotion is tied to it, and if stories evoke emotion, it would make sense that stories can evoke memory and learning and recall, and I suppose, if you hear the story enough, you get those neural pathways worn in quite well.

Yeah, it’s interesting, because having done a fair amount of cognitive testing, there’s actually tests that look at how we remember things, and so there’s– I’ve administered this one test so many times that I know the story by heart. I don’t have to look back at it to be like, “Repeat this back to me”, because of the frequency… And my only thing is then I sometimes overlap multiple stories, because I’ve associated that these couple of stories go together.

[00:16:10.11] Right. Can you give us a preview of that story? Is that interesting or is it kind of boring?

No, it’s– well, for test security purposes, I don’t.

Okay. Gotcha, gotcha. Intellectual property reasons.

Yeah, yeah. But it’s funny, because thinking about ways in which I give– you know, when people I encounter are asked, they end up concerned like, “Gosh, I’m having so much trouble remembering, I’m getting older. Do I need to be worried?” And I give them a list or a little snippet of a story and be like, “Tell it back to me,” and I’m like, “Nah, you’re good. You’re generally– you’re okay. We don’t need to be concerned yet.”

There’s something in the notes here on autobiographical memory, and when we were reading some stuff by Daniel Siegel, that really intrigued me. I never considered how we, as humans, have an understanding of autobiographical, meaning it’s my story, and then you can also understand it in chapters in a way, serial learning in terms of “Well, when I was this age, and then this age, and then this age, this is my story”, but then I also understand it in terms of time. That’s super interesting to me.

Sure. Yeah, because it changes then as well. I mean, your seven-year-old story when you were seven, as told by your seven-year-old self is very different than possibly telling the story of your seven-year-old self as a 25 year old versus on and on.

Yeah, especially because my concerns as a 25-year-old is way different than when I was seven, but it was still the same me, but not the same me; different brain, different abilities brain-wise… However, I had different concerns. G.I. Joes were a really big deal to me when I was seven, and if I lost one, it would have been the end of the world. At the age of 25, not such a big deal.

Yeah, that’s super significant, and recognizing that the stories we tell ourselves too really make a difference in how we feel. It’s so interesting, even going back to– I think of your four-word sentence, and mine is, “Tell me more.” What was yours? How–

How do you mean?

How do you mean, right? There’s a way that people associate things that they’re not aware that they’re associating, and that these are just stories that they’ve told themselves, either about who they are, what they can do or where they’re going to go, which then affect how they interface with themselves in the world.

Yeah, totally. This is so fascinating to me, just how wrapped up we can be in stories. I think of it like Star Wars, for example. It’s just a crazy big story, but once you understand the bigger context, the universe even that can come from a big story, you can continue to expand upon it. There’s some degree of scrutiny out there, whether it’s a good story or a bad story as it expands, but the point is it was just a small idea at one point, and then as the story got bigger and bigger, a universe emerges.

Same thing with Marvel, and I’m thinking these big universes, this Marvel, gigantic universe of all these different characters come into play, and you’ve got these little mini characters… That’s an example of how big storytelling can be, because you care about, let’s say, Infinity War or Endgame more because you watch literally all of these Marvel movies, 25 movies or more, to create this one final ending of a movie. Storytelling is huge.

[00:20:03.25] Yeah, but so if I can flip the lens for just a second, I want to move what you just said over into literally people in our world. There’s you and I, and we’re just small potatoes amidst the entirety of the people within the world, and recognizing that our stories matter and can have power within the world and change people and change the way things go. So this is why learning stories, not just knowing your own, but also having a curiosity around other people really can make a difference. I’ll share this - I remember, and it wasn’t necessarily a story, but it was just this shift in perspective…

My husband is fabulous at doing this for me, but when I worked in this office when I lived in Texas, he just always reminded me about all the other players that allowed me to do my job. So I remember walking in and being grateful all the time that my trash was empty. It might seem super-petty, but that somebody, somebody’s life– that’s how they were earning their living for that time, and it just made my life easier, and I just had so much more appreciation for the parts to the greater whole, that enabled me to then just do what I felt like I could do.

Well, I came into work today and the electricity still worked, the internet was still there… Somehow the internet was still there. All these people make the internet, not only the infrastructure, all the necessary hub spots between my IP address to other IP addresses to hit these servers… All these complex stuff, simplified by one button for me. Such utility, in a way…

Yeah, and so one of the things that researchers have found when it comes to stories that I think is so important for people to know is that ironically, language - and I don’t know if there’s a dialect - doesn’t matter. The power of stories is universal. So these researchers at USC found these patterns in people’s brains when people find meaning in stories, regardless of their language. So they took people and stories in English, Farsi and Mandarin Chinese, and looked at what happened in people’s brains using a functional MRI, and they map their responses to narratives in these languages, and guess what? They all looked the same. So it’s almost as if story has the power to transcend language.

Well, this drives at what really drives drove me to want to produce this show in the first place, was that while there’s so much that divides us, there’s significant that unites us. You have the same human brain I have. We may be different gender, we may be different color, we may be from different geographical areas, we may be speaking different languages, we may have different life experiences, but the thing that unites us is our humanity. And your brain works the same way as mine regardless of language, regardless of gender, regardless of background, regardless of all these things. Now there may be some differences in there because just life, circumstances, but the point is that we share a common bond, which is humanity, and there’s similarity and sameness because of that.

[00:23:47.17] Right, right, yeah. So in the case of each of these languages, what the researchers found was that they resulted in these unique patterns of activations in what we call the default mode network of our brains. This network engages interconnected brain regions including the medial prefrontal cortex, the posterior cingulate cortex, the inferior parietal lobe and the lateral temporal cortex, and of course, the hippocampal formation. That hippocampal formation - we’ve talked about memory and that the hippocampus is that key brain structure involved in that.

And so additional studies, including this one, suggests that this default mode network is actually working behind the scenes, while the brain is at rest, but it continues to find meaning in the story, and it serves as an autobiographical memory retrieval that influences how our brain relates to the past, the future, ourselves and our relationship to others.

Like a big old memory cake.

Right. So look at that, Adam - you even said it before I said it with the research.

Well, sure, because I’m so smart. [laughter] No, I mean, it would make sense. I mean, we all have emotion. Emotions are involved with memory. I do find it extremely fascinating that regardless of language in scenarios here that our brains seem to take in narrative and storytelling in memory, and this whole function of past, present, future [unintelligible 00:25:22.13] and interweaving all that together, the same… And that just provides me hope. Because regardless, if you’re human, we can relate.

Yeah, right? I talked about relationship is sort of like overlapping circles. Not that they fully overlap like eclipse, but that there are these areas which in people cooperate and both negotiate that, and what stories do is really help create that opportunity to relate better. I see you, you see me, we both put our pants on the same way. Maybe. Maybe not.

Right leg first.

[laughs] Yeah. So imagine the way in which that establishes a different foundation with which you can move towards another person. So given this, stories also help change our attitudes, which in turn, leads to changing our response. Ideally, that’s learning, because if I’m aware of my attitude, then maybe I start to consider my response.

What’s a quick example of or definition of attitude from a psychological standpoint?

It’s funny… You say that and I just think about one of my children. When I parent and I’m always like, “It’s not what you’re doing, it’s the attitude you have while you’re doing it that you’re in trouble for…” [laughs]

But the attitude is, to some degree, the emotion and intangible way in which I make sense of information. I have to talk about attitude as having an emotional component, because I can say, in the same way, “It’s fine and I’m okay”, or my attitude is like, “IT’S FINE”, and that has a little bit different attitude. Or a behavior. Attitude– my daughter has this stance and my son has commented like, “Mom, why does she do that?” She’ll stand with the one hand on the hip, and… You know, she’s still of elementary age, so it’s amazing that there’s that much attitude in that little body… But attitudes are this sort of way of perceiving and reacting. How would you make sense of it?

[00:28:10.08] I’m gonna google it, and I will read the definition, which is what I’m going to do now, because–

Of course you would.

Well, my first thought – I’ll give my Adam take on it and then I’ll give the Google take on it. So the Adam take was more like demeanor towards a scenario or a person or a thing, which just requires more digging, because what does demeanor mean…? That’s why I turned towards and got stuck on explaining myself, because I was like, “Well, it doesn’t make sense to me, beyond my own understanding of demeanor. What does that mean? Break that down.” So they’ve got a couple, obviously… The one that makes more sense to me is a position of the body proper to or implying an action or a mental state.

Oh, I love that. Yeah.

Yeah. So I think mental status is key there, because it’s like “How am I thinking? Am I exhausted? Am I frantic? Am I perfectly fine and calm?” It’s like a positioning. How am I pointing? Am I pointing in a negative way towards this thing or scenario, or a positive way? So attitude is adjustment, my angle, my position.

Right. So given that, it would make sense to talk about biases in relation to this, right? Because we all have our biases, and that very much can be based on what our experiences have been up to this point in our lives.

Well, I can only understand what I understand. And what I understand is what I’ve learned, and what I’ve learned is from my experience. So it’s not as if you lead your life in a way that you have understanding of all. You can really only live a life and have an attitude towards things as per your experience of them.

Yeah. So we need to be thoughtful around what our biases might be, which could affect intergroup attitudes and our social identity. And that’s not good or bad, right or wrong. It just is. But without the awareness, I then limit or restrict my ability to respond to other people.

What about the unspoken? I can begin to– you could judge me by my coffee.

No one sees this, but we have video, so I’m showing her my coffee cup. It’s gigantic. It says “Coffee for one.”

My wife got it for me, and she knows that I drink a lot of coffee. I don’t want to go back for a bunch of small cups; I want one big cup, and even if it gets a little cold at the end, I might be upset, but I’m still happy there’s coffee there… So that’s me. So you can you can pre-judge a bit about me potentially just because of my coffee cup size.

So if you were there face to face, you can begin to judge a lot of other things about me, which– does that attribute to a bias? This pre-judgment– is that a bias? Is that the same thing? Are they interconnected? Are they the same thing?

Well, I think if I’m talking about social identities, how I see myself, how I see others - yeah. Because I could say people with, I don’t know, big cups of coffee - I can make inferences and say that they’re not very smart.

Or they can’t count words and sentences.

Sure. But would that be accurate? You can say that. I could do those things, okay? I can say big words. I have big words.

[laughs] Right?

I’m just kidding… I’m defending myself here… Whatever. It’s funny. I like this.

[00:31:57.24] But - right, just because we can’t see our biases or our attitudes, it doesn’t mean they aren’t there. I mean, I’ve talked about this in other episodes with having worked in South Central, L.A, and with gang prevention program, and I really had a bias. I mean, give me some grace… I was a young 20 something year old, so I wasn’t as aware, hopefully, as I am more so today, but I walked into that community and environment just – oh, I mean, ignorant. Ignorant of their world, their life and where they were at. There were moments where I missed them big. I had every good intention in the world to help these people, these kids, and my bias ran interference with my intention, and that is disappointing to me.

Well, you can’t help your bias, to some degree. You can be aware of it and understand the change necessary.

Well, but that’s how you change it.

Right. Right, exactly. Awareness is key.

Yes, and so it doesn’t mean that those thoughts or reactions don’t still pop up, but you can then respond to them differently, and that’s where the learning takes place, because you’re like, “Oh, yep, I see you. I know where that came from, but that doesn’t really hold much validity in this context” and then– I mean, just like a flower blossoming, that you open up and allow to have new experiences, then with that person, group of people, and it has an opportunity to create a hiccup and disrupt your previous bias, because now you have new data.

Would you say that the way to have an awareness of and potentially change bias, positive or negative, is through story? Because story is more data.

Back-story, context. Given now your experience at that time in your life, you had no story, you had no context, and so it just plays into what we’re trying to key in here, which is the importance of story, the importance of context, this idea of back-story. You didn’t have that data before, and you had a bias because of it. But once you got the information, the story, the context, the back-story, you had the information, you became aware of your bias, and you changed, and you were transformed because of it.

Yeah, exactly. I mean, trying to put it in the best way I can, stories allow for openness, in a way in which our ego or ourselves don’t get as involved, because it doesn’t feel like it’s against me. What somebody else has walked through or encountered - it doesn’t necessarily always mean that I was responsible for that, but rather, I can then understand the response to me more so if I have some awareness of them and what they’ve been through.

This is what the process of therapy is about - people can begin to see themselves and others in different ways, as compared to how they learned previously, so that they have more freedom.

Some people are just unwilling though. Unwilling to be aware of their bias, unwilling to change their bias… And that’s ego. Ego’s lot of that.

Well, ego in the sense of it’s protective in nature. If I don’t want to let people in or I don’t want to change, it’s usually for some self-protective factor. That feels too risky, that feels too vulnerable. I was talking about it like we all have our castle, and I’m not gonna drop the drawbridge over the moat. No way, I’m not letting that down to let you in.

[00:36:14.24] Right. Look at my walls.

Right, and walls keep you in and they keep you safe, but they keep people out. And so you might be safe, you also just might be alone. And I don’t know that that’s necessarily better; maybe just better in the emotional sense at that time, that things don’t feel as threatening or overwhelming.

Yeah. Something I’ve become extremely aware of since we’ve done this show is this idea of mirror neurons. It’s interesting how when you become aware of something and you have a name to tame it, as we’ve said before - you’ve said, and I’ve adopted - that you can grok or understand something more deeply… And it’s just funny, because we have a young son, five months old, but he’s pretty big. He started out small, now he’s pretty big, and he weighs a lot; he’s like 19 pounds right now. That’s a lot, and so she’s picking him up and putting him down a lot all day long, and so she’s got some backache. And I don’t know if it’s because I have a high degree of love and empathy that I now have some back pain too, or it’s the mirror kicking into high gear, or maybe it’s just a brain hiccup or something like that, but for some reason, I empathize deeply to the point sometimes I’m a me-too person with her, in the fact that she says she’s got some problem or some ailment and I’m like, “Me too.” And she’s like, “Don’t do that.” So it’s a thing for us.

[laughs] Right. Well, yeah, I love this. Mirror neurons are one of the brain mechanisms that is or tends to be involved with empathy and understanding, and so as we’ve talked about it before, it’s not my perspective of your perspective, rather if I were to move to where you are, your perspective, how might I be able to see it from your point of view. So mirror neurons, ironically, are relative to our motor systems, so that means they’re involved in movement. So no wonder your back hurts. Just kidding. [laughs]

It’s not– I’m not crazy. My back really does hurt… A little bit.

Researchers point out that mirror neurons enable us to understand other people’s actions in terms of our own movement and goals, and to empathize with them. So bear in mind that mirror neurons – because whenever we talk about the brain, you guys (please I hope this sticks), it’s never as simple as we’d like to think. That’s why research continues and theories or one data point changes. So mirror neurons are not the end all, be all of empathy and it’s understanding, but it’s what researchers are trying to untangle when it comes to better understanding this cognitive process.

That really make sense of this stuff though. I think from an outsider, in terms of neuroscience, and just a curious person, which hopefully we’re attracting - if you’re curious out there, you’re probably listening to this show, which is awesome… It’s this idea that there literally is this mechanism inside of our brains that has a role in – it’s not the end all, be all, but it has a role in this idea of empathy. This isn’t just simply– it’s a skill that you can get better at, but it’s a baked-in thing into our brain, to mirror somebody else’s presence, perspective, etc.

[00:39:46.11] Yeah. So these were discovered by this neuroscientist in his study of monkeys. So his name is Dr. [unintelligible 00:39:53.22] and his colleagues at the University of Parma, who first identified these… And they were looking at monkeys’ premotor cortex. This was back in the 80’s… And what they found is that this area fired when the monkeys did things like reach for a peanut, and then they wanted to learn how these neurons responded to different objects or actions, and so they used electrodes to record the activity in these monkeys’ brains, while giving the monkeys different objects to handle.

What they realized was when the monkeys picked up an object, in this case, say a peanut, to hand it to the monkey – or when the researchers picked it up, sorry, to hand it to the monkey, some of the monkeys’ motor neurons would even start to fire. And these same neurons are what fired when the monkey itself grasps the peanut. So they’re watching, like “Hi, Adam. I’m gonna hand you a peanut” and your mirror neurons run the same play as if you grasped the peanut as well.

I’m always gonna take it back to mountain-biking, because– I’m not that good; I really enjoy the process, I like to watch some pro mountain bikers, these be serious riders who ride real fast down insane terrain… And now I’m making sense that maybe I enjoy it more because my mirror neurons are firing with them, and I’m enjoying it as if I am them. So in some ways, they’re my avatar going down this mountain. So I’m at least– well, I do not have the skills, nor the body that can do what they do, because they’re just Olympic-level riders… I can at least enjoy the fact that they can and take some enjoyment with me because of that.

Yeah, it’s so funny because I do the same thing even with gymnastics, of like picturing gymnasts doing different tricks, and recalling, and I always have to talk back to myself and be like, “Mireille, it wouldn’t come out that way if you tried it.” That’s great. [laughs]

That’s right. My video would be a fail video. Theirs is a winning video. So… Yes.

I love that though. I mean, I love the fact that– it makes sense. It goes back to name it to tame it; we have this understanding of this thing in our brain, this ability, these neurons that have science behind it, that prove that when the researcher handed the monkey the peanut, they had the same neurons firing as if they had touched it themselves.

Right. Yeah, I mean, these are just cool things that researchers find… But just like anything, it’s like we don’t know what the final puzzle is. So it’s like, “Oh, I discovered a part, but I don’t know where that piece fits relative to the broader picture.” So that’s why the data and the information we have is always changing. But it also makes sense these mirror neurons why it’s used so much in watching videos and visualizing performances used in athletics and high-performance athletics, because your brain is still running that same motor neural network. So it’s strengthening, like we talked about in the attention episode, about strengthening that myelin sheath, so that information can travel faster down a neural pathway.

Do you think that, on that same note, which may be a tangent to our topic today, confidence comes from the strengthening of that? So if I have less strength in that myelin sheath, whatever that is (I don’t really know), if I have less strength, would I be less confident? So my confidence is built– not so much is only there, because sure, it’s a bigger part than that, but is that one aspect of confidence?

[00:43:58.14] Well, I would think that more so – part of it is actually having a broader breadth of neural networks. Even thinking where you’re at today in terms of podcasting versus over 10 years ago.

Yeah. Terrible, ten years ago.

No, but you feel more confidence, because you have a greater breadth. You don’t get to the end like there’s a Stop and the road ends here. You’ve got nothing to respond to a guest, or be like, “Oh, shoot.” You can recover and adapt so much better today because of all of the experience.

Sure. Well, back to them watching these videos, though - is it one part to keep these pathways worn, as we’ve said before, this neuroplasticity? Is that part of the reason? Or is it because it enables this confidence… Like, if I can’t train [unintelligible 00:44:49.24] that day, and so now I keep training mentally, not physically, by watching these videos, and it enables the perpetuation of the confidence-building, the positive focus towards this outcome goal, which is extreme athletics.

Yeah, it still reinforces it. If your question is does it still reinforce that neural network - yes. Yeah, because – I think I shared this before as well, about the thumb strengthening exercise, whether I just picture it or actually do it… And it doesn’t mean I can just watch TV and then I build those networks or I just see someone…

I was really hoping that was my easy pill. I just watch awesome mountain bikers, and I’m suddenly an awesome mountain biker.

Right, but also think about the wider breadth you have in terms of being out on the mountain and doing things and understanding it from a live perspective. It’s not just a distant perspective of seeing somebody else. So one other thing I can’t help but talk about relative to brain mechanisms involved in storytelling is oxytocin, which if you’re not familiar with, it’s a hormone and it has a lot to do with social bonding and social behavior.

So oxytocin, we’ve mentioned before, as relative to the key times when our brain releases it is during orgasm, as well as with infant-mother bonding after birth, and breastfeeding… Which is why with new moms breastfeeding, it’s super helpful to calm all the stress, lack of sleep, all these things, and it fosters the attachment. So there’s been researchers who’ve looked at this like Paul [unintelligible 00:46:40.09] who– he is actually someone who looked at integrating neuroscience and economics into what he calls neuroeconomics.

What he was looking at is the way in which brain processes that support virtuous behaviors like trustworthiness, generosity, sacrifice, as well as those that when they’re not there, lead to evil or vice and conflict. So what he found– they tested narratives, stories shot on video, as opposed to face to face interactions, that would cause the brain to make oxytocin. And what they did is taking blood draws before and after the narrative, they found that character-driven stories do consistently cause oxytocin synthesis. The amount of oxytocin released by the brain predicted then how much people were willing to help others. For example, donating money to a charity associated with that story. Isn’t that crazy?

[00:47:51.29] That is crazy. It makes sense why then donations are connected to galas, is because they feed you very well or some decent meal, and it’s like, “Well, now it’s time to donate with the same–” Nah, I’m just kidding. [laughter] It would make sense [unintelligible 00:48:02.05] maybe just by happenstance, but it makes sense that they’re connected.

Right. But it’s the stories then that are shared of the people that are helped.

Of course.

I always think about the animal rescue commercials that break my heart. I see these impoverished animals who look so sad and scared and impoverished and hurt, and it’s like, “Sure, yes. You can have my money.”

Or “I will adopt the cat. Yes, bring me that cat.”

Exactly. So oxytocin– because, like I mentioned before, it’s never that simple… You have to remember that any chemical in the brain (or anywhere in the body for that matter) which is floating around is only as good as the receptor it binds to. So we’ve talked about we’re electrochemical beings, so there’s electrical activity and chemical activity which produces certain things… And so which receptors these chemicals bind to, where the receptors are, how they react, what they can connect to can make a world of difference in how things work. So little changes in receptors, or single - what they call nucleotide changes in the genes that code for receptor proteins can change the proteins within the genes and can change how these receptors work and where they go and what they do. That was a lot what I just said.

This is pretty deep. Yeah, this is– well, the important thing to grok here is that it’s a key hormone that deals with bonding, social behavior, connection, the things we’re talking about. It plays a key role because its presence or lack thereof enables or disables.

Right, and this was a little caveat to say “Hey, it matters that receptor is, how it works, and little itty-bitty changes in the genes that code for these receptor proteins matter.” That that can change how they get expressed. But this is why it’s important in our relationships to be aware of the way in which oxytocin plays a role. But if I feel good in social exchanges, I’m probably more prone to be giving. That’s not a far leap. So with this, you’re like, “Okay, this is all great, but so what do we need to do?”

Right… “What do we do because of this oxytocin and these things?”

I would say context counts, and when we don’t understand the context of other people, where they’re getting stuck, why they’re having trouble, why they said what they did, I’m gonna have a harder time responding. So Adam’s four-word question is super-important.

How do you mean.

How do you mean, right?

Tell me more.

Ask questions. Do I understand this person, this employee, a friend of a friend that I’m engaging with or interacting with? Why did they say that? That person in the meeting, what were they thinking when they said X, Y or Z? “Hm. Tell me what you mean? How do you mean? I don’t get it.”

Consider also cultural factors that are relevant. I think of this a lot in terms of eye contact, because here in the US, and I’ve reinforced this with our children about eye contact as a form of respect. Well, in other places, eye contact is a form of disrespect. You don’t meet the gaze, as a sign, and that that’s really important. So maybe somebody isn’t looking at you when you’re giving them feedback, ironically to be respectful, but you feel insulted. So go ask… And that’s really it. You want to lead with curiosity, and if I’m talking about being curious about other people, I can’t help but also bring in respect and humility.

[00:52:21.08] I think curiosity, to me, seems like an action or an attitude that is respectful. To be curious means you’re inquisitive. Cross-examination - that’s the opposite of that. I mean, you’re not trying to cross-examine. You’re not–

Asking them the proof.

Right. You seem like you’re on the side of– curiosity just seems to me just very, in some ways, loving; like a loving action.

Yes, yeah. Right. So again, “I don’t know you, can you help me understand you and why behavior X, Y or Z made sense to you?” That helps us then build this broader perspective. Also, how can I see what this person does as relevant to what I do? How can I see myself in their story, or vice versa? Their story in me. This pulls on that empathy thread. Look, some people have been through really challenging things and they learned skills or strategies that were super-helpful in that context. Well, just because I learned it over here– I learned really well how to box in the ring. I’m pretty sure that the boxing outside of the ring isn’t going to bode so well.

And then finally, where is the common language? How do we develop a shared language? I think about this - it’s interesting hearing other friends in different professions talk about things, and I code-switch it in my brain. One example would be, I always, in talking about what I do in the psychotherapy process, I say I modeled alternative ways that a client can communicate. But teacher friends are like, “Oh.” So I provided these sentence stems, and I’m like, “Oh, that’s a sentence stem.” I gave a different framework and said, “Here’s something you could say”, and people have different words for different things, but if you work to collaborate with co-workers, acquaintances, people you’re trying to get to know, how can you build a shared language so that you know what the other person means when you’re talking about that thing, or that way of interfacing. A lot of times, we don’t always interpret the same thing from the words we use.

Right. That’s true, yeah.

Right? I see this a lot in doing marital therapy, and that I have one partner asked the other, “What did you hear me say?” and the things I hear back, it’s like “No, that is not what they said.” And so it then becomes this “Try again.” Sometimes it involves a person repeating it one more time, or saying it in a different way, and then the person trying again like, “What did you hear me say?” and they’re like “No, that’s not what I said still…” Because they have their own filter.

So recognizing that and having the person try, try again… There’s effort, and you’re vicariously showing that you value this other person enough to put forth the conversation to try to understand. This is where the learning comes in, is when I do these things… I can then improve both with myself, and then whatever product or project that I’m working on.

We’ve talked about having a mental framework in previous episodes, and so in what ways is there overlap in our mental models? Or is there a way that our organization as a whole could create a model that enhances the way in which feedback or interpersonal exchanges are given, so that all people feel more understood? People work well together, and then have this shared story to tell about the impact they’re making on and in the world, because this is where we have the meaning and feel valued.

Changelog

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