The Science of Limiting Beliefs

Crystal: You never really know who we would have been if we had made one different decision way back there in our childhood, but because of the way the brain develops, we are more emotionally susceptible to the experiences that we have early on in life than we are later in life. Welcome to Impact Theory. You are here my friend because you believe the human potential is nearly limitless, but you know that having potential is not the same as actually doing something with it.

Today’s guest is a professional dancer and molecular neuroscientist with a PhD from Caltech that is hell bent to destroy the longstanding stereotypes about the frumpy and pathologically unhip scientist.

She gave an amazing TEDx talk that covered state of the art neuroscience and brain imaging all while dressed in some eye catching neon green high heels and her brash style and voice helped the video gain nearly 100,000 views and make it very clear that she’s not your mother scientist. As effortless in front of crowds and cameras as she is in the lab, she’s painting a new reality for people that shows that STEM is for anyone willing to dive headlong into the unknown and start figuring things out. To that end, she earned her doctorate by modifying mice brains to glow and then shot lasers at them and took pictures to see the effect that smoking has on the brain. That’s just what she did to graduate. Since then, she’s brought together the worlds of science and creativity entering herself in the pantheon of globally recognized science communicators who can bring the often impossible to understand worlds of things like quantum computing and neurochemistry within reach of the masses.

Her ability to combine the usually sterile world of research with the mass appeal of pop culture has made her the go to host/journalist for countless scientific shows across virtually every medium including the wildly popular TechKnow which airs on Al Jazeera English in virtually every English speaking country in the world. YouTube’s Lab Fail and Discovery Channel’s DNews among several others.


Crystal: I think as a neuroscientist, I can’t answer as a physicist but as a

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Photo by JohnE777   

the idea that there are other options. I’m a penguin in another universe that’s sort of like the example is very comforting. Tom: Really? Why comforting? Crystal: It makes it so that every decision that I make as I said is accounted for. So if I chose, yes in this reality then maybe I chose no in that timeline. Got a chance to play out. So I never feel like I’m missing out on anything. Tom: That’s interesting.

We might put ourselves in the same situation or seek out similar experiences as adults. I think we do that in all of the choices that we make. You took a sip of your water, you expected it to be water and it was water, but have you ever tried to take a drink of something that you thought was water but it was orange juice?

If we create our own reality and to be honest like I don’t really believe that we’re actually in the matrix even though that’s like my go to metaphor. I don’t believe that we’re actually in the matrix but I do think that because the wet works of our brain, our essential and you’ve talked about this, our creating a virtual environment, so my brain doesn’t actually touch light.

So how many little lies does our brain tell us?

Crystal: So maybe a better way of thinking about this is as like a Mad Libs sort of games. Our brain, the probability machine that it is, is playing Russian roulette in a way with those fill in the blanks. So our experiences and what we expect our reality to give us back is part of the input into the probability machine that then makes its best guess at what the blank should be filled in with.

Tom: Which will discount the narrative, the story. Crystal: So appealing to the logic of a six year old might not be the fastest way to get them to comply with your desires but you might be training them later to be able to use those processes in the future. So there is value in it but it’s about do you want to get them in the car now or do you want to help them motivate themselves logically in the future? Tom: So if you’re trying to get them in the car and not necessarily train their logic system, you’re telling them a story.

What’s going to get them to take action, the action that you want? Crystal: With young kids and I love teaching what I call little littles which is about ages six to eight … it has to be a good idea for them to get in the car. So that could mean … Tom: Meaning that lines with their motives? Crystal: Exactly. So if the asphalt has suddenly become lava and there is lava alligators that are coming to eat you, then it’s not that hard to run around the car in a circle and jump in and then close door and you lock it.

My belief is because I’ve assimilated things like that as an adult, but I won’t lie that the ones that I assimilated as a child haunt me the deepest. They seem much more deeply like planted in my sense of identity, which is the easiest way for me to explain like real profound transformation. I stop myself from using the word solidify.

So I think you planted that in my mind when you said the brain solidifies. Star Wars because I encountered it so young feels baked into my soul. I don’t know who I am without that. The Matrix I consider to be the most important metaphor in my life, but it feels more intellectual than it does like real deep seated identity.

Crystal: Would it have resonated as strongly if you hadn’t ever seen Star Wars? Tom: I’m not sure. You tell me. What do you think? Crystal: That’s the thing about multiverse theory. We never really know who we would have been if we had made like one different decision way back there in our childhood. Because of the way the brain develops, that is exactly true. We are more emotionally susceptible to the experiences that we have early on in life than we are later in life.

That exactly attracts. I use the word solidify and I don’t want the angry mail that says “But certain parts of the brain remain plastic.” Yes, I do acknowledge and recognize that but there’s a certain amount of finishing that happens in those last few years in the early 20s which is the full development of the prefrontal cortex which is responsible both for our ability to think logically and to predict outcomes and also maybe a little bit for us to be able to project the negative outcomes as well. Optimism falls victim to reality in a way during …

Tom: Because we can actually process. We get better at fantasizing in essence about the negativity because that region of the brain becomes more full formed. Crystal: You can get trapped in this. Tom: That’s really interesting.

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So I focus very intentionally on being very optimistic. Now, I happen to be optimistic by nature, but I’ve really like fuel that in my adult life.

So how much of that kind of stuff do you think is influenced by I refer to it as identity. That’s how I attack it. So I’m the type of person that is optimistic. Okay, well, then I need to act in accordance with that. So when I find the pessimism … maybe the pessimism is always my natural inclination but because I’m the type of person that looks the optimistic view, then I set that aside and I go,

“Okay, but what’s the positive way to look at this scenario?” Am I reshaping my brain slowly over time or am I just amassing an arsenal of … do you know what pachinko is? Crystal: No.

So I have that obsession. So that’s one of my little pachinko things that it’s going to hit. That to me is I be very curious to know like how much of it do you think is my brain will actually shape and change over time to where “No, positive thoughts are just … they’re more seamless. I’m more wired to kick up a positive emotion and a positive framework, whatever.” or no, it’s all sort of your mind reacting in different ways to the negative stimulus.

It’s like, “I predict that this is probably what’s going to happen. It’ll be a positive outcome. There might be other factors but the energy that I would be expending thinking about those other factors doesn’t seem in line with what’s necessary for the importance of this decision.

So good enough.” Tom: That’s interesting. What do you think is like human’s default settings? So I’ll give you one of mine just so you get a frame of reference.

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I think one of the things that that is inbuilt is while we have the need to justify the energy expenditure, I don’t think ever that a human in its default setting just stands there. Crystal: Our brains really don’t like to the bored. We get very unhappy if they’re under stimulated. Then that can go to solving the problem in many different ways. Not just how can I solve the problem short term, but how can I ensure that this is not going to be a problem in the long run.

Our brains don’t like to be wrong either. Tom: Yeah. Yes, we do a whole podcast about how much our brains hate being wrong. Crystal: We’ll create all kinds of realities for us so that we can avoid being wrong in the initial guess. Tom: What are the mechanism of creating those realities? Crystal: Well I think in the context of addiction, it’s probably different than in the context of other types of decision making behavior, because that genuinely is different parts of the brain having different priorities and sort of the argument that happens between them.

Every single part of your body is doing its job properly, but the has shifted. So that in fact is a biological reality that is affecting your perception and you’re sort of saying like, “Well, I really want this cigarette.” The part of my brain that’s telling me that I really shouldn’t is starting to get very, very quiet. Then worse, the prefrontal cortex has now cooped by the emotional needs of the midbrain.

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So it starts to rationalize. So now it’s like a secret agent. It’s no longer working for that long-term plan towards [00:28:00] positive, productive success. It’s now working for the midbrain and it’s like, “It’ll feel really good. It’s only this once.”

You only smoke half of it and then as soon as you light up, you’ve lost the battle. 

Tom: Is it because their brain wasn’t altered for whatever reason? They have a [crosstalk]. Crystal: A lot of it has to do with genetic background. So I studied a specific mutation in a specific protein that makes up a group of protein that’s responsible for binding nicotine in a very small subset. Those people that have the mutation that I studied, find it much, much more difficult to quit. They are more likely to get addicted if they ever smoke and they also are more likely to get lung cancer or abuse alcohol. We’re not exactly sure why all of those things are true and it’s not just what a point mutation for those biologists that are watching. It’s not just an amino acid change although it is. It’s the difference of a single atom. Tom: Do you see your life as having a mission? Crystal: I hope that I learned from all of my experiences and that I always have new ones and that I’m always growing because I think that life means to evolve.

If you’re not evolving through small incremental changes that build up over time to create a large change, then you’re probably dead. That shouldn’t really be a goal of anyone. I think every day I get up and I say, “What are my priorities?” Then I move towards that. Sometimes honestly my priorities are to see how many back-to-back episodes of whatever [00:30:00] I’m watching on Netflix I can watch if it’s that kind of introvert Sunday that I need in order to be my best self out in the world Monday morning. Sometimes it’s how much of my to do list can I crank through before lunch. Like put on Eye of the Tiger or I really love the Rocky IV soundtrack. Tom: Nice, respect. Crystal: I really like Rocky IV soundtrack mornings. That’s like boss bitch morning which is the complete opposite. So utility function changes based on I feel like I need.

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I found myself getting sucked into a total time warp on that, because when you engage with somebody that really has a deep understanding of something and can express it whether you agree on everything or not, you begin to ask yourself like far more interesting questions. That I think at the end of the day is Crystal’s real gift. Whether you agree or disagree, she’s going to get you to ask questions that you’ve never thought to ask and for that I’m very grateful. Guys, if you haven’t already, be sure to subscribe and until next time my friends be legendary. Thank you guys so much for watching and if you haven’t already be sure to subscribe and for exclusive content be sure to sign up for our newsletter. All of that stuff helps us get even more amazing guests on the show and helps us continue to build this community which at the end of the day is all we care about.

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