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September 29, 2022 45 mins

If you think a neuroscientist couldn’t lead a master class in marketing, you haven’t met Dr. David Eagleman. Professor of Brain Plasticity at Stanford, best-selling author, TV host and CEO of neurotech company Neosensory, David has a passion for applying neuroscience to topics beyond academic science. In fact, Bob considers David’s book “Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain” as one of the most important marketing books ever written. In this episode, we find out why.

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Speaker 1 (00:01):
You're listening to Math and Magic, a production of I
Heart Radio. Your brain's job is to put together a
model of reality, but all we ever get is our
own version of reality. I am Bob Pittman, and welcome
to this episode of Math and Magic, Stories from the
Frontiers and Marketing. Today, we're really going to the frontier.

(00:25):
Our guest is going to take us to the area
most of us would not really think about as marketing,
yet it underpins everything we as marketers do. It's the
brain who we fundamentally are, and the how behind all
those decisions that are key to marketing and oh yeah,
life itself. Today, we're fortunate to have Dr David Eagleman.

(00:47):
It's hard to put a label on him, but let's
call him a neuroscientist who happens to teach brain plasticity
at Stanford and is a best selling author, TV host
and very serious entrepreneur. A Fortunately for us, he is
also a failed stand up comedian, and what a ways
that would have been had he succeeded at that. David
wrote a book Incognito, The Secret Lives of the Brain,

(01:10):
which I've given to other marketers over the years as
what I considered to be the most important marketing book
ever written, but that barely scratches the surface of who
he is and his contributions. A native of New Mexico,
he was always the smart kid and wildly curious, and
it took him on an electric path. He considered being
a writer, electrical engineer, screenwriter, and was even a soldier

(01:34):
in the Israeli Army. He has important works and thoughts
on who we really are, empathy, perceptions of time, consciousness,
and even the possibilities for the afterlives. We got a
lot to cover today, David, welcome, Bob's great to be here.
Before we get started, I want to do a little
warm up. It's called you in sixty seconds. Ready to go?

(01:55):
Do you prefer Instagram or Twitter? Twitter, West World or
Game of Thrown? I can't arbitrate between those two. That's
a good answer. Early riser or night owl? Night O
Houston or San Francisco, San Francisco, call or text call
Left brain or right brain, no difference between them. Salty
or sweet, salty, coffee or tea coffee. Grants or venture capital,

(02:20):
vesture capital, cats or dogs, dogs, introvert or extrovert extrovert.
Airplanes or helicopters, airplanes, WEB two or WEB three WEB
two Slow and steady or pedal to the metal, pedal
to the metal, crypto or dollars dollars Conscious or subconscious?

(02:42):
Trust your subconscious? Come on, my subconscious is telling me
to say the conscious. I like that. It's about to
get harder. Smartest person you know, my father, favorite writer,
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, childhood hero, Carl Sagan, first job, bus Boy,
last book you read, Entangled Life. It's something you can't

(03:03):
live without. Family, favorite city, Its Stanable, Guilty Pleasure, Sylvester
Stallone Movies. If you could have one superpower, what would
it be? The ability to see more of the electro
magnetic spectrum? Oh? I like that. Okay, let's get going

(03:24):
and incognito. You talk about this idea that our conscious
self is just a small fraction of who we are.
Can you explain this concept? Yeah, It turns out most
of what your brain is doing you don't have any
conscious access to. So what you believe, the actions you take,
all these things are generated by these parts of your

(03:45):
brain that you have no acquaintance with. So that's in
neuroscience what we call the unconscious, or sometimes the subconscious
brain and the conscious mind, which is the part of
you that wakes up in the morning. That is like
a broom closet in the mansion of the brain. You know,
think about when you have an idea and you say, oh,
I'm a genius. It wasn't exactly you that thought of it.

(04:06):
Your brain has been working on that for days or weeks,
evaluating hypotheses behind the scenes, and at some point it
cooks something up and it serves it to you and
you say, oh, I'm so smart. You know. For those
of us in the creative business, we often talk about
how do you come up with these sort of ideas?
And I think most of as share this view that
you know, you you load up your brain, you think

(04:28):
about the issue, get all the data, and then you
forget about it, and at some moment, which you're sort
of the most in the zone mind is a fifty
minute hot shower in the morning, suddenly ideas pop into
my head. So you're saying, my subconscious have been doing
lots of work and when it's ready, it just throws
it up to me at the easiest point it can
access me. Yeah, that's exactly right. We uh, it's a

(04:50):
funny existence that we have because we don't know what's
happening under the hood. But then things just sort of
appear like mind pops. We say, oh, yeah, hey, that works.
Oh I just thought of that person's name, or oh
I just thought of a way to view this problem
differently and get past it. I just wrote my speech
in my head. Let me rush out of the shower
and write it down real quickly while it's still in

(05:12):
my head. Exactly. You use the example of someone hearing
their name in a restaurant just sort of Wow, they
just said my name. Your point was that your subconscious
been listening to every conversation in the room. Is that right, Well, yeah,
all the conversations in your room are hitting your ear drum.
And even though you think I'm ignoring everything except for
the conversation right in front of me, your brain can't help.

(05:33):
But here those other conversations, and then it has to
try to cut out the conversation that's happening in front
of you. It's called the cocktail party effect. When somebody
says your name in a different conversation, you're aware of it,
which means you have been listening to everything. So let's
go through for a marketing standpoint, when you're unconscious, subconscious,

(05:54):
here's a message over and over. Does it examine the
claim or does it up that based on how many
times it's heard it? How does that work? It's a
little bit of both. I mean, when you hear something,
you can be skeptical about it and you know, chew
on it and so on. The thing is that there's
something called the illusion of truth, which has been studied
for a while, which is, if you have heard something

(06:16):
several times, you tend to rate it as being more
truthful than the first time you hear it. So politicians,
of course take advantage of this all the time. Everyone
does this in various ways in their life. But yes,
if something is said many times, you think that it
somehow must be true. So we're going through it, of
course in this country right now, with trying to figure
out what's real news fake news? How we wind up

(06:39):
with this polarization. How is this piece of our brain
and ourself playing into that. This has been an area
of great interest for me lately, so my whole life.
I've been studying this issue about our internal model, which
is to say, you know, your brain is locked in
silence and darkness inside your skull. It doesn't have access
to the outside world all ever has or the little

(07:01):
dribbles of signals that gets through these spheres in the
front of your head, your eyes, or through air compression
waves and your ears or things that touches and so on,
and so your brain's job is to put together a
model of reality. But all we ever get is our
own version of reality. And the part that's been fascinating
to me lately watching the polarization is the way that

(07:23):
we all believe our own reality so firmly, so every
single person thinks, Okay, look, I understand the truth, and
I have no idea what those other people are doing,
their trolls or their misinformed They're just ignorant. And if
I could just sit down and talk to them, or
if I could just shout loudly enough in all caps
on Twitter, they would have to understand the genius of

(07:46):
what I'm saying and would come to repair their ways.
And the part that's been so fascinating to me is
that we all believe this all the way down, that
that we have the truth and that other people do not.
So let's talk a bit about news organizations the old
days pre social that a news organization would get information,

(08:08):
they would gather it, they would usually examine it, they
would process it. Some people do argue, curate it and
put it out. Do you think that it's very hard
for a society to function without that going on? That
if we left it to everybody who all always thinks
the right and gives everybody the microphone, which of course

(08:29):
social does, that we have a problem. You know, it's funny.
I think that it's easy to engage in retrospective romanticization,
where we think that it used to be sort of
better and normal, But if you look at the twentieth century,
it's far more bloody than anything we've had in the
twenty one century. I mean, take not only the World Wars,

(08:50):
but you know, the the Communist revolution in China, or
what happened with Nazi Germany, or the Hutu massacre the
Tutsi and Rwanda, or so on. It was an awful
time pre social media. What that demonstrates is you don't
need social media for humans to get very caught up
in their particular view and think the other side is
wrong to the point of picking up arms and and

(09:12):
murdering other people, and in fact, news in previous centuries
has always been just as biased in completely nutty ways.
For example, people used to do pamphlets. If you look
at let's say the American Nazi Party, you know they
print pamphlets with all kinds of the craziest stuff and
they mail it to people's houses. Is how you know,
went last century, and you've got tens of thousands of

(09:34):
people on the mailing list and so on. It's like
social media in that way. It's not different. And I
think it's probably a dangerous illusion if we think that
somehow people used to tell the truth and things used
to be peaceful, because it's quite the opposite of that.
So the question I think is, you know, does social
media have anything to do with what's going on now?
I think maybe a tiny bit, but that's not the

(09:56):
driver of it. What the driver is is the human
capacity to make in groups and now groups, and this
is something that you know, evolutionary theorists are. This goes
back to the days when we've functioned in small tribes.
Let's say a hundred and fifty people, and you know,
you knew the people in your tribe, so you would
trust them, and the tribe on the other side of

(10:16):
the hill that was to them, and you would, you know,
be suspicious of them. It's just extraordinarily easy for us
to assign labels and it doesn't take much to say, oh,
you're on the other side, you're them. You did an
experiment I think about empathy and was it a knife
going into a hand? So we put people in the
brain scanner it's called a functional magnetic residence imaging scanner,

(10:36):
and we show them six hands on the screen, and
the computer goes around, do do do and picks one
of the hands, and then you see it gets stabbed
with the syringe needle, and that evokes essentially an empathic
response from you. Your brain lights up what we summarize
as the pain matrix, which is to say, even though
it's not your hand getting stabbed, you feel the pain

(11:00):
of someone else's hand getting staff and this is the
neural basis of empathy. Okay, But now what we do
is we then put a one word label on each
hand Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Scientologists, Hindu, atheist, and the computer
goes around, picks a hand. You see the hand gets stabbed,
and the question is does your brain care as much
when it's a member of your outgroup getting stabbed. Now,

(11:21):
And it turns out that's the answer, is that you
don't care as much when it's not your label getting stabbed.
Of course, we measured all people from all groups, and
you care more when you see your label, and you
care less when you see other labels. And this is
very depressing. How low level and instant this is where
your brain has its in groups and has its outgroups. Now, interestingly,

(11:43):
it's a little bit flexible. So if we then put
a one word sentence on that says the year is five,
and these three groups have teamed up against these three groups,
the computer randomly picks the division. Now you care more
about your allies. So whatever groups have just been randomly
assigned to your now you care when you see them

(12:03):
get stabbed more than you cared a second ago about it.
So anything we can do to organize people in bigger
groups is probably helpful. Huh, that's exactly right. And this
is what I've been working on, is how do we
complexify our group memberships. I think this is really going
to be the key to solving the polarization issue that
we're facing, which is to say, how do we figure

(12:25):
out what are the threads that link us across the
easy group divisions. So I'll just give an example the
Iroquois Native Americans. For for hundreds of years, there were
the six tribes that fought in these bloody wars. And
eventually a new leader came along, came to be known
as the Great Peacemaker, and and his idea was he said, look,

(12:45):
let's take these six tribes and for each member of
the tribe, assign them to a clan. So you're a
member of the Beaver clan or the Eagle clan, or
the Elk clan or so on. And now it's harder
for one tribe to attack another tribe because these two
guys here both members of the Beaver clan, and these
two guys remembers the Eagle clan. So they've got these
other relationships that cross cut what seems to be the

(13:08):
original group, and so it makes it more complexified, and
and that actually brought peace to these to these tribes
that were attacking each other. So one of my interests
right now is how to make what I'm calling algorithms
for unity, which is, let's say it's on social media.
Let's imagine that you and I had totally different views

(13:28):
on some whatever on our political parties. How do we
make it so that you post something and it happens
to be something I like to that, something about your
dog or something about surfing or whatever, and so I
like that post. And specifically, what the algorithm looks for
is posts that are cross cutting like that, that reach
across party lines, and those are the ones that can

(13:51):
amplified instead of the ones that are merely within party lines.
Let's go back in time to put you in context.
You were born in New Mexican go the dawn of
the nineteen seventies, youngest son of a psychiatrist and a
biology teacher. Can you describe that that time and place
that you grew up in. Yeah, I was outside of
the Albuquerque city limits, up in the mountains. So in retrospect,

(14:14):
it was a very isolated sort of childhood. And as
I said, I'm a real extrovert. So as soon as
I was able to, I got myself into big cities.
And I've always loved being right in the thick of things.
But you know, it was it was a nice childhood.
My father had built an extensive library, you know, he
actually built the shelves like library stacks that you could

(14:36):
walk around and pick books. He was a terrific reader,
was fluent in eight languages, and so we had books
of all languages and all types. I guess in retrospect,
it was really wonderful to grow up with not much
else to do. Besides that, you're obviously very curious guy,
and this sort of has driven you in your whole life.

(14:57):
Wasn't that curiosity influenced by all this? Or was it biology?
Was it just genetics? Impossible to know? In fact, the
nature versus nurture question, of course, is a dead question
of biology, because it's always both. But happily my parents
both were real feeders of that curiosity. And every night
at the dinner table, we would talk about things, and

(15:19):
they would ask me questions, and you know, we'd pull
out a map of the world and talk about different countries,
and you know, my father would pose questions to us,
most of which we didn't know the answer to. And
you know, the time we learned all this stuff, it
was really lovely to have that time. And I feel
like as the world has sped up, yeah, mostly because
of the Internet and social media and video games and
so on, it's harder to rope our kids into just

(15:42):
spending time with us doing that. Now, I will say,
on the other hand, I am very cyber optimistic about
what's going on. I think that there is a good
chance that our children will grow up to be smarter
than we are because they have so much opportunity to
tap into the entirety of human kinds knowledge. With any

(16:04):
question that they want to ask Alexa, Google Home, they're
getting the information that they need. And so you know,
I happily had my very smart parents to ask questions too.
But these kids can ask a question and watch a
Ted talk and in fifteen minutes get the world's expert
on some topic giving the best talk of their life
where they can see a little video on something. And
the reason this matters is because they're getting the answers

(16:27):
right when they're curious about the question. And that makes
a big difference from the point of view of brain plasticity,
which is to say, things stick if you care about
the answer, and it's harder to make things stick if
you are just being told in a classroom that you
need to know this particular fact. So supposedly you wrote
your first words at age two as a kid, you

(16:48):
could repeat back to some on a list of random objects,
and even in reverse order, if they ask is that
brain power or is that something that's learned? And how
did that define you? I mean, you must have been
the smart kid. Was that your image as a kid
of yourself self image? That's interesting? I guess it was.

(17:10):
But you know, some of these things are just party tricks.
They are just intellectual exercises. That's no different than learning
how to do a layup or something. So you know,
the thing about memorizing a list of items, There are
all these memory tricks that you can use for that.
And I did that as a kid, and you know,
really really enjoyed doing that sort of thing. But yeah,
I think it's so helpful to to get the proper

(17:34):
feedback about, hey, you've done something that's smart and and
isn't that great? And you know, my parents always gave
such wonderful feedback about that sort of thing, and when
I came home with good grades and so on, And
that matters because when you're making choices later in life
about whether to stay up all night really dig into
the book and really understand something all the way down

(17:56):
to the bottom, or to take the lazy way out
it's used. Well, if you are used to making sure
that you understand something all the way down, what lesson
do you use today that you know came from your childhood? Ah?
I think it's never giving up. One example, I happen
to be sitting in front of my bookshelf right now,
and there's some copies in my book Some which I'm

(18:19):
really happy to say became an international bestseller and has
had a real wonderful life. It got turned into two
operas and stuff like that. But the point is I
wrote this book Some it's a book of fiction, and
I submitted it to so many agents and publishers and
got a stack of rejection letters as high as the book.
And people some people said nice things like I really

(18:42):
love this book, but I have no idea how to
market a book like this. I wouldn't even know where
in the book store to put a book like this.
Tell us about the book for the people who don't
know what some as. It's a book of forty short stories,
it's literary fiction, and all forty stories are mutually exclusive,
so they all tell incompatible version of what's going on
with our lives here. It was just so hard to

(19:03):
get published but the point is probably well well passed
the point where everyone thought I was nuts. I just
kept sending out letters. I just kept making phone calls
and asking people if they had a connection and working
on it until until finally, through a string of connections,
I got introduced to an agent and she said, Okay,
I'll take you on as a hip pocket client, which

(19:23):
means you're not really a client, but I'll just keeping
in my pocket in case I see an opportunity. And
then she called me two days later and she was
as surprised I was, said, Wow, random house just bought this. Anyway,
the key is I've gone about everything in my life
that way, and like everybody, I've had so many rejections.
I I imagine that I may have more rejections than

(19:44):
the average person, just because I just keep getting rejected
until at some point I know moral math and magic.
Right after this quick break, welcome back to math and magic.
Let's hear more from my conversation with d David Eagleman.
You did graduate from college in a degree in British

(20:05):
and American literature, and you went on to get your
pH d in neuroscience, but along the way you joined
the Israeli Army, You spent a semester at Oxford, you
had a try as a screenwriter and even a stand
up comic. So what was driving this and how did
that send you to where you are today? Yeah, I
was really trying to find what was fitting because I

(20:29):
had been good in science all growing up, and so
everyone told me you should be a scientist, which which
was good advice, except that no one really knew the
details of how to steer me. So, you know, one
person said, hey, you should go into waste management. There's
a lot of money in that. And someone said, oh,
you should be an actuary. I looked into that stuff
about five seconds and it's like chewing on autumn leaves.

(20:51):
So everyone, I feel like, was giving me a well
meaning advice that didn't fit me at all. And so
when I went to college, I was studying all kinds science.
I was doing electrical engineering for a while, I was
doing space physics for a while. I was always doing
British American literature in the background, because I that was
my first love. But I couldn't find what I was
going to do as far as career wise goes, and

(21:13):
so that's why I dropped out of college. I wasn't
really enjoying college that much, and I just felt there's
so much of the world to do and explore, and
so I went off and did that for a while.
You know, all of that added so much depth and
color to my experience that I think I probably wouldn't
have had otherwise. And what happened is the last semester
of my senior year, that's when I took a neuroscience class,

(21:35):
and a gentleman teaching the class was probably eighty five
years old, and he was using literature from the nineties sixties.
But it didn't matter. I just I was immediately hooked
on it and read every book at the library on neuroscience.
And so when I went to apply for neuroscience graduate school,
I said to them in the interview, look, I know
I don't have any biology on my transcript, but asked

(21:58):
me what I know, and I'll tell you because I've
read every look in the library on this, and so
you know, they interviewed me and asked me, and I
guess I just squeaked in there. Let's jump to the
perception of time. At age six, I was put on
a horse by an uncle and all of a sudden,
the horse reared up, and I still remember, I mean
to this day, sweating thinking about it, every detail of
trying to hold onto that saddle horn and then beginning

(22:21):
to slide off the back of the horse, and my
life went into completely slow motion. I see a story
from you that was was your childhood story about falling
off the roof of a house and time moving to
slow motion. And I know even at that moment as
a kid, that aroused your curiosity. So later as a scientist,

(22:42):
what did you learn about that? So the main thing
I learned is, you know, when I had fallen off
through if it seemed like things were moving in slow motion.
But when I learned as a scientist that no one
had ever actually run this study of does time going
slow motion when you're in fear for your life? So
I tried to figure out how would I study this
because it's actually quite important. And also, you know, you

(23:02):
could build completely different kinds of dashboards for cars or
for fighter jets or whatever if you could feed information
to the pilot faster when things were really hitting the fan.
But it turns out it had never been studied, of course,
because you can't put people in life threatening situations. So
I figured out how to do that. I you know,
I took my whole team to the amusement park. We

(23:22):
went on the scariest rides. It turns out none of
that was scary enough to induce the effect. But I
finally found something called scad diving, which is where you
dropped from a hundred and fifty foot tall tower backwards
in free fall and you're caught in a net below
going seventy miles and that, it turns out, is scary
enough that you really feel like the whole event took

(23:42):
much longer than it did. So with my students, I
built a device that sits on the wrist and it
flashes information at you in such a way that we
could measure whether people were actually seeing in slow motion
during the event or not. And uh, skip to the punchline.
It turns out you cannot actually see in slow motion

(24:03):
during the event. Nonetheless, you believe that the event took
much longer. So it turns out the whole thing is
a trick of memory. When something very scary is happening,
you're laying down more memory, because that's what memory is for.
When things are hitting the fan, that's when you write
down everything going on, and when you read that back out,

(24:24):
it seems you've taken longer. You have much more memory
than normal. You know, when you're in a car accident
and you're watching the hood crumple and the rear view
mirror fall off, and the other driver's facial expression and
so on, you're writing down every detail of that. So
when you say what does happen, what does happen? What
does happened? You think, oh, well, there's that, there's that,
so your brain estimate, so that must have taken a
long time, but in fact it's not moving in slow motion.

(24:46):
And of course part of the reason you can evidence
is for yourself is you know, the person on this
seat next to you who's screaming no, it doesn't sound
like they're saying no like that, And that's because you
know it would have to sound like that if time
we're actually running in emotion. But instead it's just a
density of memory issue. So when we look back on
our life, and you know, I hear people talk about

(25:07):
this that we really tell our story of our life
through all the things that were bad that happened to us,
scary stuff. So you're really saying that that's true. The
memory is much more filled with that than it is
oh wow, it's a beautiful day to day and I
walked to work and the sun was beaming on my head.
It's anything that's emotionally salient, so that can be good
or bad. So it can be your wedding day and

(25:27):
the birth of your children, and so it can be
good memories too. It's just anything that is routine. The
brain doesn't bother writing down. So for example, the first
time you ever drove to your work, it maybe seems
to take a bit of a long time, but after
a while, it essentially seems like zero time because you're
just running as an unconscious automaton and you're not writing
down any new memories. So when you arrive at work

(25:48):
and say, okay, what just happened, you can't really remember anything.
So the whole key to making it seem as though
you've lived longer is to always seek new cha lenges
so that you're writing down new memories. Question for those
of us on the back end of life, why has
my memory gone to hell? Um? A big part of that,

(26:09):
again has to do with this issue that memory is
for things that are novel and as you grow older,
you've sort of figured things out. You you know how
to run a company, Bob, and you know how people
act generally, and you know the spectrum of personality types,
and you know, even when you travel to a new city,
you've kind of seen it all before. You know what, Oh,
here's a cool tourist spot, here's the Starbucks, here's the hotel.

(26:31):
You sort of know how things going. So your brain
just doesn't write things down, and the way it used
to in memory is simply not as important. But again,
this is the key to seeking novelty, to putting yourself
in situations where you're always in between the levels of
frustrating but achievable, because then your brain starts writing things down.
And of course you know this. If you spend two

(26:53):
weeks at home doing the same old thing, when you
look back, that you just have no memory of it.
But if you go on a vacation for a weekend
to burning Man, to Burning Man, exactly you come back
and you have to remember every day exactly right. Is
that why my pattern recognitions is so good because I've
now seen it all that's exactly right. So so there's

(27:13):
always this trade off that happens, which is you become
expert at the things that you're doing. That's why you're
able to run companies, because you are trained like a
machine to do that kind of work. And that's the
good news. The bad news is you have less novelty.
Let's talk about your TV work. You have been an
advisor for all sorts of folks. You've had your own
TV show, You've helped other people with theirs, you were

(27:35):
even a scientific advisor for Westworld. Where did this itch
come from? What motivates this for a scientist like you?
You know I mentioned at the beginning when you asked
you what childhood hero was, it was Carl Sagan, And
it's because he was a great scientist. He was such
an insightful thinker, and also he was able to phrase

(27:56):
things so that we could all tap directly into the
beauty of of what was going on around us in
the world. And so I watched him at nine years
old and just immediately thought that's what I wanted to do.
And in fact, my parents when I was growing up,
they would they wouldn't say, oh, David's gonna be the
next president United States, he say, they said, David's gonna
be the next Carl Sagan, Like from the time I
was a little kid, they were saying that stuff. So

(28:18):
when I reached a point where I could, you know,
I've been running my neuroscience career for a long time,
started proposing to various production companies this idea of doing
a series called the Brain, which is equivalent to Cosmos,
but but the inner cosmos. And uh, it's interesting because
that's another example of getting rejected so many times, and
people essentially uniformly told me, look, you can't do a

(28:42):
show like Carl Sagan anymore because audiences don't have that
same kind of audience loyalty and attention span. They said,
you have to do something like, you know, stand in
an airplane and take your shirt off and jump out
of the plane and then talk about stress on the
way down and so. And I said, you know, I
want to do something with his seriousness of purpose. I
don't want to do something us to get eyeballs and
things like that. So anyway, I kept going and kept

(29:03):
talking to production companies. I finally found one that got it,
that got exactly what I wanted to do, and we
pitched it to PBS together and uh, and then I
was able to make the Brain exactly the way that
I wanted to. So very happy that I was able
to show some people wrong. It was nominated for an Emmy,
and it, you know, has maintained a real place in
a very small segment of the public. But anyone who

(29:25):
cares about stuff like that, who cares about the brain
and learning and being exposed to the beauty of something.
And so increasingly when I teach my classes at Stanford,
I run into students who say, Hey, when I was
thirteen years old, I watched your series The Brain, and
that's why I'm here, That's why I'm now at Stanford
studying this. So it's really it's very rewarding. Do you

(29:47):
think your TV work is just an outgrowth of being
a professor? I feel like it's different in the sense
that the TV work in a sense, it's putting on
a completely different hat and it's trying to figure out, Okay,
I'm not having to make sure that you know this
and this and this and this, but instead, how do
I tell stories? How do I lead the audience through

(30:07):
a journey where by the end of it they've learned
and they've been turned on something that's that's changed their
internal model and you know, hopefully blown their mind, because
everything that I get to do every day is mind
blowing stuff. But you have to take the time to
go on the journey to get there, to see who
we are, what your existence is. The brain is essentially

(30:29):
the densest representation of who you are, and as I mentioned,
you know, even the tiniest bit of damage to your
brain a tumor, stroke, traumatic brain injury and anything like
that will change who you are and how you decide
and what your consciousness is. It is an opportunity to
look under the hood there and I love when people
come with me to do that examination. When we did

(30:49):
you in sixty seconds at the top of the episode,
you said, venture, not grants. Why be in business? You're
in academia. Where did this come from? Okay, so I've
been academia my whole life, and I got very used
to it. You know, the way you write a grant
and nowadays grants to the National Institutes of Health in
the National Science Foundation, even for the best people, there's

(31:10):
a ten percent chance of of hitting on a grant.
So I've been doing that for a long time. But
what happened is in I gave a talk at Ted
on this research that we've been doing in my lab
about sensory substitution, which is passing information into the brain
via unusual channels, for example through patterns vibration on the skin.
And so I gave this talk at TED and immediately

(31:30):
a number of venture capitalists came up and said, Hey,
we want to fund this as a company. So I
made this very sharp turn in my life and started
a company called Neo Sensory. And for the last seven
or eight years now I've been running that company and
it has been amazing. So I'm still I'm teaching at Stanford,
but I'm no longer running a lab anymore, and instead
I spend ninety of my time running, you know, a

(31:52):
CEO of this company. What it has taught me is
to be able to see the walls of the fish
bowl that is academia. And I also, by the way,
because I have a foot in both worlds, now, I
also see the walls of the fish bowl of the
entrepreneurial world. But by having the opportunity to be in
two different worlds and switch back and forth, I can

(32:12):
finally see what the opportunities and the limitations are in
both of these But anyway, I think venture capital can
just move things along much faster. I actually the work
that I've been doing at Neo Century, I actually had
applied for a grant to the n i H and
the NSF, and both of those got rejected with the statement,

(32:34):
and I'm quoting, they said, uh, this is not incremental enough.
Because I always thought incremental was a bad word, but
they actually meant they wanted to be more incremental, and
I was trying to take too big a leap. And
so for that, I find venture capital so exciting that
people say, you know what, You've convinced us that the
data is there, Let's let's go for it. So in

(32:54):
two thousand thirteen, you wrote in New York Times op
ed about what our brains can teach is basically asking
you know, why fund brain science? A decade later, what
do you think? Wow, that's an interesting question. I still
am such a believer in funding brain science. But back
when I wrote that, I was probably really thinking about

(33:16):
the n I H in the NSF. And now I'm
so pleased to see all the other opportunities going on.
So not only is their venture capital when appropriate, but
they're also private philanthropists. But there are all these new
things that are coming along with Web three, these neuroscience dows,
these decentralized autonomous organizations where people are collecting up money

(33:36):
and figuring out, hey, how can we help fund good
neuroscience research in this new Web three kind of way. Anyway,
it's just it's wonderful to me to see that neuroscience
has has gotten more attention and that people care about
funding it. So let me hit a couple of quick
topics here before we come to an end. Knowing what

(33:57):
you know and the conversation we've had a day, our
schools teaching the right way? If not, how should they
be teaching? How should we redo education? You know what?
I think there is a way to redo education, but
it's very simple. Redo is too strong a verb for it.
The whole key is to teach our children the skills

(34:18):
of creativity, which is about taking all the stuff that's
just gone in to your head and bending and breaking
and blending it to come up with new versions of things.
That's really the heart of both art and science, and
it's what we summarize as creativity. It's just this constant
remixing of what's under the hood there Now, what happens
in our schools currently is they teach all semester and

(34:40):
you take a test at the end, and if you
regurgitate properly, then you get a good grade. And that's it.
All we need to do is add an extra week
in there in the end where we say, great, we've
taught you all the foundational stuff you need. Now for
your final project. I want you to take all of
that stuff and remix it. I've touched you how to
do electrical engineering with this stuff. Now invent a new thing. Okay,

(35:01):
I've taught to you all these you know, great artists.
I want you to mix up their art styles and
make some new thing. I've taught you all these great
whatever writers. I want you to come up with your
own version that's a mixture of blending and breaking and
bending of what you have learned so far. So it
would actually be very easy. There's just no emphasis on
this in the in the school systems currently. But this
is something I've been trying to spread my previous book before,

(35:23):
that's what was called The Runaway Species that I co
authored with my friend Tony Brandt because a musician, and
we have been trying to spread the word on this
too to schools because it costs almost nothing and uh
just requires a tiny compression of what is already there.
So here we are on a podcast. I would be
remiss if I didn't ask this question. Audio is hot
at I heart were totally in the audio radio, podcast, etcetera.

(35:46):
Explain my business to me. How does hearing something differ
from seeing something? How does conversation differ from reading? Any
difference in memory of audio versus visual? You know, it
depends a bit on the person. So we've heard of
visual learners and auditory learners, and that's true. You know,
people are different places on the spectrum. So some people
are gonna love podcasts and other people won't. What has

(36:09):
been fascinating to me, I mean, you're in this world.
I'm just watching from a distance. But fascinating to me
was the rise of popularity podcasts during the pandemic because
people realize, you know, I want to walk, I want
to garden, I want to wash the dishes, whatever, and
so they found it so convenient to be able to
strap in some EarPods and go and and be a

(36:30):
part of what's happening and learn new things. You know,
there's something so wonderful about eavesdropping on the conversation of
of other people who are talking about interesting things, hopefully,
And that's why podcasts are really here to stay, because
other activities are here to stay, as in you know,
gardening and washing dishes and walking and a million other things.
You could go back in time, what advice would you

(36:51):
give your twenty year old self. Just keep going, Just
keep banging on all these doors, and eventually the doors
will open. So you had this remarkable life, You've done
so much, yet you're lucky, you're still young. What do
you plan to do with the next chapter? What's the
big unanswered question that fascinates you now? Mm hmm, I

(37:14):
guess I'd say there's three things there. One is scientifically,
I still have a hundred questions on the plate about
the brain. I'll presumably be studying this till the till
the day that I die. In fact, back in two
four I wrote an article and Discover magazine the cover
article which was called ten Unsolved Questions of Neuroscience. And

(37:34):
they're still unsolved all these years later, And so there's
plenty plenty of stuff to sink my teeth into. In
terms of great unsolved questions. One of the things I've
been working on lately is the question of why we dream.
I mean, it's bizarre that we spend every night of
our lives having these completely weird movies that were the
star of and it's never been explained why we dream.

(37:56):
So I have a new hypothsitive that that I've been
publishing about last few years. Tell us that one real
quickly because it's really interesting. Yeah. It's simply that when
the planet rotates into darkness, the visual system is at
a disadvantage because you can still hear and smell and
touch and taste in the dark, but you can't see
obviously in evolutionary times before electricity, is what I'm talking about.

(38:17):
So what we know is that when data coming into
a particular sense stops, the other senses try to take
it over. And what we've learned in neuroscience in last
fifteen years is how rapidly these takeovers can occur. And
so what I realized is the brain needs some way
of defending the visual territory, and so the way it
does this is every ninety minutes, it just blasts random

(38:39):
activity into the visual system to keep it defended against
takeover from hearing and touch and so on. So I
call this the defensive activation theory. It's the only hypothesis
on dreaming that provides quantitative predictions about how much different
animal species will sleep depending on how flexible their brains are,
and the predictions come out spaw on and so I'm

(39:01):
super excited about that. So scientifically, I'm gonna keep doing that.
In terms of my writing, I still have at least
six more books that are outlined and all in various
stages of pregnancy, and so those will all happen. But
as I said, I'm always interested in new methods, uh
pedagogically speaking, for for transmitting knowledge, and who the heck

(39:23):
knows what's gonna exist in twenty years from now. We
might have really really new methods for that, and so
I'm really excited to jump on that. And then finally,
entrepreneurial wise, I'm looking way ahead, you know, once I'm
done with my current company, Neo Sensory, I'm looking ahead
to my next company, which will be about brain plasticity,
but specifically, how do we build machines that take advantage

(39:47):
of what we've learned about brain plasticity. In other words,
the way we build everything now is based on these
principles of hardware and then software that runs on top
of that, and you make this very clean and efficient
hardware and clean efficient soft where And that's a cool
way of building things, but it's not at all the
way that mother Nature does things. And so the situation
we run into is, you know, when the Mars rover

(40:08):
gets its wheel stuck, it dies, and that's what happened
to Curiosity. But you know when a wolf gets its
leg caught in a trap, it choose its leg off
and figures out how to walk on three legs. Because
real animals don't give up. They figure out how to
change things around and and be creative and change their
body plan and make things happen. And so I want

(40:29):
to figure out how we can build machines that take
advantage of what we're learning in neuroscience. Pretty cool, and TV,
what are you gonna do in TV? I'm working on
several things right now. One is a fiction series and
then I have several documentaries. Let's end the way we
always end on math and magic. We always ask our
guests to tell us the greatest math mind they know,

(40:52):
and usually within the context of marketing, that's some big
analytical person and the greatest magician. And again in the
business world, that's usually some intuitive, creative ideas. Person. Now
in your case, you're probably gonna have a little different
view of that. But in your case, who would you
give us, Let's put him on the pedestal greatest math person,
greatest magic, magician, mathematician. I would say Pythagoras, because you know,

(41:16):
he obviously was mathematical genius and had his whole school
and you know, came up with such new ideas. But
but what I find particularly interesting about him is he
had synesthesia, which means a blending of the senses. So
when he would think of numbers, that would trigger a
color experience for him, each number had a color, a size,
of shape, things like that. And synesthesia is one of

(41:37):
the things that I've been studying in my lab for
many years as an alternative form of consciousness, and so
it's very cool to see a mathematician who leveraged his
synesthesia for magician. So I've been teaching a class at
Stanford called the Brain and Literature, and what I realized
is that mystery novelists are doing precisely what magicians do,

(41:59):
which is they lead you down a particular garden path,
so that everyone in the audience or the reader in
this case thinks, Okay, I got it, I got the
next thing, and so on, and the writer or the
magician is simply taking advantage of of your assumptions about things.
So I would list Arthur Conan Doyle, the writer of

(42:20):
the Sherlock Holmes Mysteries, as my favorite magician because he
does exactly the same sort of tricks, such that everything
is right there in front of you, but you don't
see it until he wants you to. I was gonna
ask you if we're living in a simulation, but I
thought maybe that's a step too far. Well, you know
the answer to that is, um, we certainly maybe um.

(42:43):
And there are many philosophers who take that very seriously
now as as a real possibility, and some make the
argument that it's almost certainly the probability. David, thanks for
giving us so much to think about, by the way,
not only on this episode, but on everything you do,
and for giving us some science that under ends our
world of marketing. Thank you so much, Bob for having me.

(43:05):
Here are a few things I've picked up in my
conversation with David one when executing on something new, embraced
the familiar. David shares that our brains are wired to
have stronger convictions in the messages we hear most often.
As marketers, we should remember that when we're tempted to
freshen up a campaign, we should keep elements of classic
messaging in order to forge stronger relationships with consumers. Two

(43:30):
Always seek new challenges, As David says, memories preserve for
things that are new and novel. David cites scientific research
that shows the more familiar we become with the task,
the less energy our brains assigned to it. Implement slight
changes to your routine so you can remain sharp and attentive.
Three Find what fits. David talks about how he had

(43:52):
a myriad of interest growing up, like literature, physics, and
stand up comedy. Despite getting pushed toward different career paths
by family and advisors, David kept pursuing his passions until
something neuroscience fit. Four. Push through rejection. So often we
think that ambition ends with either success or failure, but

(44:13):
David reminds us that we not our wins or losses,
decide where our ambition takes us. I love how, David
says his book Some was and I quote rejected until
it wasn't. So if you're hitting a roadblock while launching
a new idea, try pushing through the roadblock may only
stop you until it doesn't. I'm Bob Pittman. Thanks for listening.

(44:36):
That's it for today's episode. Thanks so much for listening
to Math and Magic, a production of I Heart Radio.
The show is hosted by Bob Pittman. Special thanks to
Susan Ward for booking and wrangling our wonderful talent, which
is no small feat Marissa Brown for pulling research, our
editors Derek Clements, Mary Dow and Ryan Murdoch, our producer
Morgan Levoy, our executive producer Nikki Etor, and of course
Gayle Raoel, Eric Angel Noel, and everyone who helped bring

(44:59):
this show to your ears. Until next time,
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