Busting the myths of the brain with neuroscientist Chantel Prat (Transcript)

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Re:Thinking with Adam Grant
Busting the myths of the brain with neuroscientist Chantel Prat
October 4, 2022

[00:00:00] Adam Grant:
Hey everyone, it's Adam Grant. Welcome back to ReThinking, my podcast on the science of what makes us tick. I'm an organizational psychologist, and I'm taking you inside the minds of fascinating people to explore new thoughts and new ways of thinking. My guest today is cognitive neuroscientist Chantel Prat. Her research has won numerous awards and has been funded by the NIH and the Navy.

She specializes in making sense of how our brains differ, how we think, andd how we learn languages. Her debut book is The Neuroscience of You, which is the smartest and funniest book I've read on the brain. It gave me a bunch of light bulb moments about my brain, so I thought it was time to talk to her about it.

I mean, honestly, we could do this podcast just with like me reading your book and laughing out loud, the humor.

[00:00:51] Chantel Prat:
Oh my gosh, that would be awesome. I would pay for that.

[00:00:55] Adam Grant:
I'd definitely got some strange looks. What are you reading and why are you laughing at a neuroscience book? How did this happen?

[00:01:05] Chantel Prat:
I like to violate expectations. I mean, I guess I don't like to, but I do very frequently. So that's the lane I inhabit, so might as well go with it.

[00:01:15] Adam Grant:
So how does one become a neuroscientist, a psychologist, and a linguist?

[00:01:20] Chantel Prat:
Well, I started out with a very specific question, and that is how to understand how brains make people the unique individuals they are. And that question lives at the intersection between psychology and neuroscience. On average, people who live in neuroscience departments tend to try and understand simpler brains: zebrafish, fruit flies, roundworms. And that just wasn't gonna do it for me. I mean, those are great and important places to start. The people who are studying simpler brains are actually making progress and, and answering questions much quicker than those of us who are trying to understand the insanely complicated human brain, but I don't wanna understand how brains work. I wanna understand how your brain works. And so of course there's a lot of psychology in there because you have to understand what human brains do.

And I think I landed on answering questions about language because language is one of the most sophisticated behaviors we can use to reverse engineer a mind. When we're trying to understand this invisible place that is someone else's way of thinking, feeling, we have to depend on the observable behaviors and language is the most, I think, one of the most specific ways that we can share our inner worlds. And so I started to research how people take away different messages when they read things. And then I started to be interested in how different minds go about mapping meaning onto multiple languages. And now I'm studying how people go about learning to speak to computers and learn programming languages, and there's this intersection in the symbolic ways that we communicate. And although I am not at all a linguist, like I couldn't find my way through a grammar tree to save my life, I am very interested in language as this observable behavior and this sort of map into what's going on on the inside-- the power that it provides for us to share that place.

[00:03:29] Adam Grant:
I wanna talk about all of that, but before we do, I'd love to hear a little bit about how, how did you get interested in brains? I gotta kick out of the combination of Phineas Gage and Doogie Howser that showed up in your intro to your book. What was it that, that led you to say, I have to understand the brain?

[00:03:45] Chantel Prat:
I remember just this convergence of life experiences and curiosity that just completely turned my path. And so at the time, I was sitting in an intro psychology class, and I found my way to that class because it was the last class I needed to take in order to apply to medical school. I was 19 years old. And after spending some time in an accelerated pre-med program, I just needed to take a social science class. Looking back, I had really moved in the direction of medicine because I had received a lot of feedback in the world that I was, air quotes "smart", and I can talk all day about what I think that does and doesn't mean.

Let's say book smart, or I performed well in school and yes, Doogie Howser oh my gosh, I had the biggest crush on him, wanted to be him, and I was like, "Oh, you know what? Look at that. Smart kids go to, fast track to medical school." I took psychology only because it was a class that fit in with my day job selling shoes at the mall. And the instructor started to tell the story of Phineas Gage: this railway worker who famously made a mistake that ended up with an iron spike being blown up and through his frontal lobe out the right side of his brain. One of the pieces of misinformation about that is that he lived with an iron spike in his head. In fact, the thing went all the way through, but remarkably, he walked away from this accident, but he walked away fundamentally changed, and changed in interesting ways that illustrate that the brain is this organ that makes you, you. Change the brain and you change the person.

And so I had been studying physics and chemistry and some basic anatomy. And interestingly, medical doctors, you know, are really focused on the brain, especially surgeons, as this kind of pump and make sure the person doesn't bleed. And you know, of course, make sure they can still do their typical bodily functions, you know, speak, walk, move. But in terms of like where and how your brain makes you, you, this is not really what they're trying to do. I needed to figure that out. And of course, I'll spend my whole life just chipping away at it. But you change your brain and you change the person. You're a different person when you wake up in the morning and when you go to bed at night. You're a different person before and after you read a book in sometimes incremental ways, and sometimes you have an experience that's akin to a railway spike blowing through your head. It's just like pivotal, right? How does that work? It's just it. I need to know.

[00:06:26] Adam Grant:
I think it's endlessly fascinating and I'm kind of torn on this one because I do a very light touch of neuroscience when I teach personality and also emotional intelligence. And I do it largely because I want our students to know that there's a rigorous science behind a lot of the things that they think are, are sort of fluffy and difficult to study.

[00:06:47] Chantel Prat:

[00:06:47] Adam Grant:
And yet, there's a part of me every time I do that, that thinks, I don't know if anyone really needs to know neuroscience. Like I don't need to understand the brain in order to understand the mind and behavior.

[00:06:58] Chantel Prat:

[00:06:59] Adam Grant:
And so I'm gonna try to layer in some of this skepticism throughout our conversation.

[00:07:03] Chantel Prat:

[00:07:03] Adam Grant:
Because I think--

[00:07:03] Chantel Prat:

[00:07:03] Adam Grant:
--part of it you sharem, and part of it you're also gonna disabuse me of.

[00:07:09] Chantel Prat:
I love this.

[00:07:10] Adam Grant:
Am I, am I right or wrong?

[00:07:11] Chantel Prat:
You're so right and I'm just so glad that you brought this up because my absolute favorite thing about you is this willingness to disagree and to learn from people who think differently. I think this is why I wrote this book. It's like, let's get in front of new information. Let's try and find a safe place to change our minds. Let's understand what drives other people.

[00:07:31] Adam Grant:
I was really intrigued, in the book that you spend a lot of time on brain hemispheres and so I, I took a couple of your assessments. I scored a 1.3 on handedness, which I think means I'm a pretty strong righty.

[00:07:43] Chantel Prat:

[00:07:44] Adam Grant:
And if I interpreted that correctly, it means that I'm left hemisphere dominant.

[00:07:48] Chantel Prat:

[00:07:48] Adam Grant:
From a motor perspective, is that right?

[00:07:50] Chantel Prat:
Mm-hmm. From a motor perspective and probably more likely to be lopsided in that you probably really have two perspectives in there, in terms of the way your brain is processing the world.

[00:08:01] Adam Grant:
I did not know that, and I would like to know what the second one is. So hopefully you could, you could get to that. But that made sense right away because I remember in my diving days I used to have a lot of problems with my dives being a little bit off-axis. I was so right dominant that even in our weight training exercises, when I would bench press my right arm would do probably at least two-thirds of the work. Maybe more. Yeah. Which we confirmed then when we did separate arm tests. So that would be consistent with your sort of left hemisphere dominant theory?

[00:08:33] Chantel Prat:
Correct. And yeah. Can I ask you a question? About what percentage of the time do you think in words, is it like a hundred percent or... you know like words--

[00:08:42] Adam Grant:
What? What else can you think in?

[00:08:43] Chantel Prat:
Exactly? I mean, that's how I think. Of course, I just happened to marry this guy who has what he calls "Consciousness Netflix on mute". So it wasn't a surprise to me when this thing hit Twitter that some people cannot bring a visual image to mind, whereas others think only in pictures. And what's interesting is that people tend to think that everyone thinks like them. Like these people who think in pictures hear this internal narrative on TV and think, "Oh, this is just a weird way of like illustrating thought, but wouldn't it be like schizophrenia if someone was talking in your head?" But I think there are some, you know, new research looking at representation of concepts. And this is something that I really wanna study because I think that the way you think tells you something about the efficiency of your brain's representational systems, right? So I just went from how you dive and how strong the two halves of your body are to the code of thought. And I think something that elementary of what is the nature of your internal musings... The fact that we can differ there just is so exciting and, and so completely understudied.

[00:09:52] Adam Grant:
I'm gonna give you a bunch of examples from my own brain in part as a stand-in for the listener's brain and in part because I think you're gonna teach me things that I don't know I need to know. So apologies for making this be all about me, which is generally not my thing.

[00:10:07] Chantel Prat:
Oh no. This is so exciting for me because I wanted to be, I wanna know about you. I'm so curious about you. Here we go.

[00:10:13] Adam Grant:
I'm gonna try not to make you regret that.

[00:10:15] Chantel Prat:
This is the neuroscience of you, Adam Grant.

[00:10:17] Adam Grant:
Okay. This is the neuroscience I didn't know. I think entirely in words.

[00:10:21] Chantel Prat:

[00:10:22] Adam Grant:
I can form plenty of mental pictures, right? Visualization is easy. Mm-hmm. , But I would never visualize a concept unless there was a specific reason to do it. Mm-hmm. . And so that still means I'm a verbal thinker.

[00:10:32] Chantel Prat:

[00:10:33] Adam Grant:
Okay. Check. Just wanted to make sure I was understanding that accurately.

[00:10:36] Chantel Prat:

[00:10:36] Adam Grant:
Something I really struggle at, and I wonder if this is part of why, and if you can shed light on it, is what a concept that all of Oliver Schulte introduced me to when I was in grad school, which I think he had called referential processing. Which was the, as I understood it, the ability to translate from the visual system to the verbal system. So if I look at a painting, I can't say a word about it. I'm like, it's really cool that you could do that. But I'm the opposite of an art critic. Like the, the visuals don't translate into language for me.

[00:11:03] Chantel Prat:
Even if it's not abstract?

[00:11:06] Adam Grant:
The more abstract it is, the harder it is.

[00:11:08] Chantel Prat:

[00:11:09] Adam Grant:
Yeah. But it's incredibly hard for me to describe visuals in words. I, I've been told, for example, whenever I write the first draft of something like, wait, paint the picture, like, this is too abstract. When my wife asked me what someone looks like, I can't describe any of their features. Like I only see the gestalt. So what? What's going on in my brain?

[00:11:28] Chantel Prat:
What I would guess, I think this is fascinating. What I would guess is that this is about the communication between your hemispheres, right? Like you're saying, I can visualize something, but I wouldn't unless I have to. And like when you try and translate from this purely spatial realm to something that's nameable, I think that you're incredibly lopsided. This would be my guess. I share similar things. I am a strong verbalizer, and not only do I verbalize all my thoughts, you know, I talk to Roomba and I, like, talk to plants and everything like that, but my brain is so much like using what it knows that it just shovels everything into the verbal system. You were saying, unless you have to, how does your brain know gonna be specific enough to get that piece of information back out?

[00:12:16] Adam Grant:
I have a friend who, I guess when her son was little, he didn't know the word for ankles, and he called them his leg wrists, which I thought was such a, such a delightful phrase. And there was a whole post about this on social media where my favorite one, our kids were laughing hysterically about this, there was a kid apparently who named tears panic water.

[00:12:39] Chantel Prat:
I saw this post! I love it.

[00:12:40] Adam Grant:
You saw it?

[00:12:41] Chantel Prat:
Yes. I love this post so much.

[00:12:43] Adam Grant:
So now as I hear you talk, I'm understanding something about this that I didn't get before. These funny descriptions, like renamings of words, are giving me connections between the visual and verbal system that I'm missing.

[00:12:54] Chantel Prat:
Right. Yeah. I love that. Kids are brilliant in their sort of simplicity, right? Their way of mapping things.

[00:13:02] Adam Grant:
Okay, so go back a step. I am clearly left-hemisphere dominant. I would never write with my left hand or throw something with my left hand, but I can play ping pong pretty well with my left hand. And I was puzzled until I took your next test and found that I was left-eye dominant. Wow. And so what, what does this all mean?

[00:13:22] Chantel Prat:
I think it goes back to this idea I have that your hemispheres are kind of independent. So even if your left hemisphere is stronger, faster, you know better at these motor things. If, if they're not communicating strongly, if they're not interfering with one another, there's opportunity for different hemispheres to get different jobs. So I wonder, how do you feel like you are at like naturally navigating the world?

[00:13:49] Adam Grant:
I mean, I could get lost coming back to my own house, if that's what you're asking.

[00:13:54] Chantel Prat:
Yeah, I was gonna say like if I were to leave you alone in a building and then say if I--

[00:13:58] Adam Grant:
--No sense of direction whatsoever.

[00:14:00] Chantel Prat:

[00:14:00] Adam Grant:
No, in fact I, if I had to give you directions to my house from somewhere I go regularly, I'm not sure I could do it.

[00:14:08] Chantel Prat:
Interesting. And if you were gonna do it, would you be more likely to go with kind of landmarks? Or do you think you have like a representation of, my house is, you know, 42 degrees southeast from here?

[00:14:18] Adam Grant:
I don't even know what direction. I don't know whether it's north, south, east, or west. I'd actually try to pull up a mental image of each street name--

[00:14:25] Chantel Prat:

[00:14:26] Adam Grant:
And what direction do I turn when I see that street sign and then I would be able to reconstruct it maybe.

[00:14:31] Chantel Prat:

[00:14:32] Adam Grant:
And by the way, this runs in my family. Like there are multiple people who can't navigate to save their lives. They just have no mental maps and also can't operate anything mechanical whatsoever, which does not extend to technology. I'm good at tech, but I can't do machines or directions.

[00:14:50] Chantel Prat:
So is there anyone in your immediate family that's left-handed?

[00:14:54] Adam Grant:
Not that I know of.

[00:14:55] Chantel Prat:
Yeah. I would guess that also. Every vertebrate animal has two hemispheres, and I don't think we know a hundred percent of why, and in the human brain, I think particularly because we've focused on commonalities and ignored 10% of the population that are left-handed, you know, people who are more variable and how jobs get distributed between the two hemispheres.

Marian Annett had this idea called the right shift theory, and her idea was that you could have a double right shift, which is what I would think you have: two genes where the right-handed, left hemisphere shift is present, but this is actually really advantageous because the more different your two hemispheres are, the more systematic job assignment is going to be. So newer functions like language, get all put over in the left hemisphere, like math computations, tend to get shuttled over to the left hemisphere where we have a different kind of wiring, and this kind of focal wiring lets us get quick processors up and running that allow us to do things like language that happen really quickly in sequence or computations. So if you have one of these genetic shifts, then you might have a more balanced brain. And then if you have none, you have a brain that's truly 50/50, then things get closer to randomly assigned, which I think is, is really fascinating.

[00:16:21] Adam Grant:
It is. So are you telling me I have an unbalanced brain?

[00:16:24] Chantel Prat:
Yes. All evidence strongly points in this direction. [Laughter] Points, strongly points in this direction so you don't get lost.

[00:16:34] Adam Grant:
I think the hypothesis has been supported many times over. Uh, so. What does this all mean? What are the advantages and disadvantages of being unbalanced in my direction? Right. And then the reverse, and then what are the pros and cons of being more balanced period, or having more connection between the two hemispheres than I do?

[00:16:53] Chantel Prat:
Yeah. First, I really like the framing. I think if there's one thing that I would love people to take away from my book, it's that different doesn't have to be corresponding to better and worse, there are these design features of brains where a certain brain that's wired in a certain way will be good at something, but it might have an information processing cost in another circumstance, and I feel skeptical or concerned about this sort of trend of biohacking and how do I make myself better and how do I circumvent these limitations in my brain? Mostly because I think people are unaware of the reasons that brains work like that. If you could expand your attention and focus on 25 things at once, what would be the consequence of that?

In a nutshell, what I believe is happening is that as our brains become more and more lopsided, our assignment of jobs between hemispheres becomes more different and more systematic. If the two hemispheres are sort of equally suited to take on a neural job, then language might wind up in both hemispheres and it might wind up next to spatial navigation. And what happens there is that if a brain area has lots of different jobs, it's not going to become narrowly tuned to any one of those particular jobs. However, having this kind of redundancy in the brain is really excellent because if you only have one part of the brain that can do one job and that part of the brain gets overwhelmed, you don't have what I've called in my research spillover, like in a lot of lefthanded people and a lot of people with less experience reading, for instance, the right hemisphere is actively involved in language comprehension, and when things get hard, these people have a whole nother hemisphere that can take on some of the work. Whereas if you've got a very lopsided brain and your brain has really specific fine-tuning to the jobs that it does, you might have damage the size of a pencil eraser that leaves you never able to speak again. So Adam, you should wear a helmet.

[00:19:10] Adam Grant:
When doing what? [Laughter]

[00:19:11] Chantel Prat:
Everything. I mean, you are athletic, so I haven't asked about your level of clumsiness, but certainly when you're out navigating in the world.

[00:19:17] Adam Grant:
No, I'm really clumsy. I, I spill something at least once a week.

[00:19:21] Chantel Prat:
Everyone sort of understands that our brains drive our peculiarities, but the only real language we have for this is saying I'm a left-brain analytical thinker and a right-brain creative thinker, which is not quite right.

[00:19:36] Adam Grant:
Why not?

[00:19:37] Chantel Prat:
That research comes from really fascinating work on corpus callosotomy patients, which are casually known as split-brain patients. There are people who have had the connections between their hemispheres severed to control intractable epilepsy, and actually Mike Zanega, my academic grandpa, he was just kind of curious and playing around with these patients and having conversations with them about the way they explain their behavior.

So you were saying "There are two perspectives inside of me. I wanna know more about that." Right? Like thankfully, when we have this, you know, corpus callosum, this huge bundle of fast white matter neurons connecting our two hemispheres, we perceive the world as an integrated whole, but there's a lot of independent computation going on. So in these patients that have had their corpus callosum severed, if you show something to the right visual field and it goes to the left hemisphere, most patients can talk about it because language--speech is driven by the left hemisphere in most people. So if you say, "What did you see?" They're gonna say they saw whatever was shown on the, on the right side of the screen. But then if you give their left hand a pencil, the left hand is the way that the right hemisphere can communicate with the world if it can't talk, and ask them to draw something, it's gonna draw something different than what they said they just saw. It's gonna draw whatever was presented on the left side of the screen.

And from that, the idea of an interpreter was born. A left hemisphere interpreter, which has subsequently been followed up by a lot of research looking at how the left hemisphere in most people is interested in causality and sort of how one thing leads to the next, but also using this kind of computation, the left hemisphere is telling you a story about why you did the things that you did, even a little bit after you've done them. And even though, in an intact brain, there's still a huge amount of what drives our behavior that we're not consciously aware of, right? Like all of our implicit biases, all of our instincts, all of our overlearned things are, are influencing much of our behavior, but that interpreter is telling us the same kind of, "Oh, you did this because this", and this is where the analytical hemisphere was born, but it's eerier than that.

[00:22:00] Adam Grant:
Okay. So you just explained why in addition to wanting to name everything, you and I both love doing experiments.

[00:22:06] Chantel Prat:
Exactly! Exactly.

[00:22:07] Adam Grant:
Causal explanation. We get to interpret.

[00:22:11] Chantel Prat:
Yes! Yes. You might feel resistant or that it's weird that your brain tells you a story. Think about a time where you just wake up in a unfamiliar location, and you open your eyes and you can hear the kind of hypothesis testing going on. You can hear your brain going. "That's not my house. Where am I? Oh yeah, I'm in a hotel. I'm on the road. I'm doing this." I think it's in those sleepy moments, you know, where your hemispheres are waking up you can catch that kind of experimentation happening in your brain.

[00:22:44] Adam Grant:
I guess this also sheds some light on why sometimes people find it annoying that I have to analyze the lyric to every song instead of just enjoying the music.

[00:22:51] Chantel Prat:
Well, I think that that's really cool because one of the things that I think makes you interesting is that you're trying to understand people all the time. Language is this powerful behavioral cue that tells you something about the mind beneath it, right? So what does it mean? Like where did this sort of thought zeitgeist that drove this lyric--where was it? What were they trying to communicate? I think that's really cool.

[00:23:17] Adam Grant:
Well, you, you might be the only one from the data that I've, I've gathered anecdotally. If it's better to understand left hemisphere dominance in terms of interpreting, what's, what's the equivalent mistake we're making on the right side? It's not creative, but what?

[00:23:32] Chantel Prat:
If we were talking about a language system in the left hemisphere, it's building sounds into words and words into utterances and utterances into songs and songs into what does Adam Grant think that this song means, right? Whereas the right hemisphere is broadly connected and taking in the whole, right? It's the music makes you feel something. The paucity makes you feel something. The words are part of that story, and this thing is an inseparable event. The whole is really greater than the sum of the parts in the right hemisphere. And so you could see how this leads to creativity or making broader connections between more distantly related concepts.

[00:24:15] Adam Grant:
So if, if the left hemisphere is about interpretation in part, then the right is about integration?

[00:24:22] Chantel Prat:
I think that's a great analogy in that space. Yeah. And other people would say that, Why is this?

[00:24:27] Adam Grant:
I have to name it. I can't help it. I need a word. I need a word.

[00:24:31] Chantel Prat:
Well, some people sort of talk about the differences between the two hemispheres at many different levels. So one level is the computational level, right? Like how are these things wired and what does that allow them to do with input? But some people like to talk about it in terms of functions, like why do we have two hemispheres that are wired differently? Because sometimes our brain needs to accomplish two jobs that would compete with one another if they were happening over in an overlapping way. And so that interpretation piece, some argue, is about predicting the future. So learning causal relationships, this leads to this, leads to this, helps you figure out what's gonna happen next. Whereas the right hemisphere is focused on processing the here and now, and it needs to know what's happening even if you didn't expect it to happen.

[00:25:21] Chantel Prat:
Right? So you need all of the data-- you know, you need the whole picture to understand if there's a tiger coming at you, even if there's nothing in your previous experience to suggest that there could be a tiger. So this is, I think, another way of talking about why we have these different kinds of computations. And again, then it would be between people. It would be to what degree are these things really happening in different hemispheres versus kind of overlapping.

[00:25:47] Adam Grant:
Excellent. That is very helpful. Thank you.

[00:25:54] Adam Grant:
Are you up for a lightning round on neuroscience?

[00:25:57] Chantel Prat:

[00:25:58] Adam Grant:
Okay, good. So basic ground rule is you can only pass once.

[00:26:02] Chantel Prat:

[00:26:02] Adam Grant:
And no more than a sentence on each.

[00:26:05] Chantel Prat:
Oh gosh.

[00:26:06] Adam Grant:
To the extent that you can.

[00:26:07] Chantel Prat:

[00:26:08] Adam Grant:
Okay. What's your favorite, surprising fact about the brain?

[00:26:12] Adam Grant:
My favorite surprising fact about the brain is that when you feel curious, your brain is squirting out dopamine, which helps it to rewire and learn in the face of what you experience next.

[00:26:24] Adam Grant:
Oh, this is a neuroscience explanation of the curiosity gap and how it feels like an itch to scratch.

[00:26:31] Chantel Prat:
Yes, I like that. I said your brain is squirting out dopamine, like your brain is an octopus or something. It's kind of gross. Actually, I was under pressure. I was under pressure.

[00:26:40] Adam Grant:
I was gonna leave it alone. I was just gonna pretend. Yeah. Anyway. Okay. What's the neuro myth that we most desperately need to bust?

[00:26:50] Chantel Prat:
That we only use 10% of our brain, and that we can do something, take a pill, or you know, train our brain in a way that's gonna make us like Lucy. I mean, doesn't everyone wanna be like Scarlett Johansson? but no, we're using all of our brain all the time.

[00:27:04] Adam Grant:
You didn't even hesitate on that one. Are there other neuro myths that drive you crazy?

[00:27:09] Chantel Prat:
They don't drive me crazy, but I think you definitely hear left-brain right-brained a lot. And I think that these two things are collaborating much more intimately and importantly than most people think.

[00:27:20] Adam Grant:
And also from what I learned earlier in our conversation, that really leaves out the people who are much more balanced.

[00:27:25] Chantel Prat:
Correct. Correct.

[00:27:27] Adam Grant:
What's one thing we should know about the neuroscience of ADHD?

[00:27:32] Chantel Prat:
Something I found really interesting in research on ADHD goes back to this laterality thing, and it turns out that some research suggests that people with ADHD are driven more by this right hemisphere that's paying attention to what's going on right now, than they are by this left hemisphere that's among other propositions, predicting the future. So if you ask someone with ADHD to bisect a line, they're on average gonna show you that more noticing is driven by the right hemisphere, and oh my goodness. That was not one sentence.

[00:28:04] Adam Grant:
That's okay. That was very informative and totally interesting. How about an insight that surprised you or intrigued you about bilingual brains?

[00:28:14] Chantel Prat:
Bilingual brains really drove home my idea about different not necessarily being better or worse, that there's a huge history of politics that start out with people who are hell-bent on convincing others that bilingualism is bad for you and that they lag behind monolingual peers. And this was followed by a wave of all of the ways that bilingualism, is bilingualism really, really good for my brain?

The very obvious advantage of being bilingual is that you can talk to twice as many people. You have a behavior that allows you to share your mind with a bigger subset of the population. Bilingual brains are experts at dealing with conflict. They have two different ways of behaving in every situation, and that conflict management in real time shapes their cognition. But they also are slightly slower at making any decision. At using any word, at naming any picture, because they have these multiple ways of behaving. So is that better? Is that worse? I mean, if I were to be able to upload another language into my brain, I would do it a hundred percent. But really it's just different. The bilingual brain is adapted to exist and behave in multiple environments.

[00:29:28] Adam Grant:
Oh, so interesting. We could do the whole episode just on that. Last question. What is at least one thing you think I should rethink?

[00:29:35] Chantel Prat:
Oh my gosh. Because you think, like, I have never heard you say anything that I disagreed with, which is kind of spooky.

[00:29:41] Adam Grant:
That's extremely disappointing.

[00:29:43] Chantel Prat:
I know.

[00:29:43] Adam Grant:
I thought you had better judgment than that and you were a more adept critical thinker.

[00:29:48] Chantel Prat:
So what I wanted to say was, you know, this whole idea of rooting for the underdog, but you know, I, I loved that conversation with Malcolm Gladwell about rooting for the underdog, and I thought it was really interesting because, to me, Malcolm was focused on you cannot root for the underdog because if, if the underdog wins, losing will be so much more painful for the favorite.

He was really focused on what happens when you lose, and you, like me, were really focused on what happens if you win. But you know, but winning for the favorite is like no big deal. This is what their brain and everyone else's brain expects. And if the underdog wins, it's like, Blah. You know, like dopamine surprise. Um, but I think the same as you. I guess I would just say we could rethink that that tells us something about which scenario we're focused on. The surprise win or the surprise loss.

[00:30:43] Adam Grant:
Oh yeah. I mean, I, I don't care about the surprise at all. I just care about more people having a chance to win.

[00:30:51] Chantel Prat:
I love that.

[00:30:52] Adam Grant:
The winner already got the dopamine. Go home.

[00:30:55] Chantel Prat:

[00:30:56] Adam Grant:
You had your chance.

[00:30:57] Chantel Prat:
Exactly. Access to dopamine.

[00:30:59] Adam Grant:
I'm curious about the value of describing in terms of underlying neurological tendencies as opposed to the more familiar personality patterns. Why do we need the neurotransmitters?

[00:31:11] Chantel Prat:
I think your question is really valid in terms of like, what does neuroscience add to be behavior? Because sometimes you see this kind of, what I've called in others, have called neuro seduction approach, where somebody goes, "I can prove that this pattern of behavior is real and valid because your brain makes you do it." And this is just garbage because your brain makes you do everything. And if there's like a very obvious set of behaviors in the world, adding a neuroscientific explanation I think adds nothing. So I'm just gonna validate that, that belief, cuz I, I hold it as well. However. We're really complicated beings, right?

And I think that there are multiple axes of being this sort of, you know, not only dopamine, not only serotonin, but how they look in combination with one another that can lead to the same kind of behavior. For instance, I might be unmotivated to go looking for rewards because I don't have a lot of dopamine communication happening in my brain. Like I don't get a big boost in response to something unexpectedly good, which would be like, meh. You know, like, I don't feel pleasure. I don't, you know, I'm not seeking these things. Or I might not be motivated to go looking for things because my serotonin might be high. Serotonin is a thing that actually quiets dopamine, it tells you you've had enough. And so you're trying to treat an individual who's having some kind of dysfunctioning mood, some something that's getting in the way of their motivation.

You need to really understand where they're at in this kind of balance between dopamine and serotonin. This is a, an effective example. But for me, I study less effective things like how somebody reads a sentence or why somebody might find programming difficult. And in a similar way, when you have a really skilled behavior, people can struggle and perform at the same level for really different reasons. It might just be a matter of experience, it might be intentional limitations. There are a lot of different paths by which somebody might achieve a certain skill level. And the brain can give us some hints about where things are going wrong or, or where things are going well. So I, I, I think that at the end of the day, there are not, I mean there are 86 billion neurons, give or take, but I don't think there are 86 different kinds of problems brains solve. I think there are maybe, 20 or 12, you know, like a, a finite number of spaces or axes that brains occupy. But I think that people can behave in the same way for different reasons, and that that's where understanding neuroscience and specifically individual differences can give us a better appreciation of why that lets us reverse engineer those behaviors.

[00:33:58] Adam Grant:
So it sounds like you're saying neuroscience helps us make sense of equifinality and that when it comes to behavior there are many different paths to the same end, and the better we understand the brain, the better we can make sense of which path I might be following to a certain behavior that might be different from yours.

[00:34:13] Chantel Prat:
Exactly. In fact, I think that this is one of the things that goes wrong when we're trying to connect with someone whose brains don't work like ours. Social neuroscience is showing us more and more convincingly that brains of a feather flock together, and that people wind up hanging out with other people whose brains not only respond to the external world in the same way that theirs do, but that whose brains have these kind of intrinsic connectivity patterns that mimic one another.

Intrinsic connectivity patterns that are driven by similar experiences that you know, then cause a person to interpret the world in a similar way. And I think because at the end of the day, when we're trying to reverse engineer someone else, we have more data about ourselves than we do about anything else. Right? So the easiest thing to do is say like, "Well, Adam said this, and if I said that, I would be thinking, feeling these things." Or this would be, you know, the state that drives that and. And then I would interpret your message correctly, but if you said something and your brain doesn't work like mine, and the path, you know, the sort of drivers that got you there are different, then we're gonna, we're gonna be misaligned and we're gonna get it wrong more often.

[00:35:27] Adam Grant:
How do you use this in your marriage and in your collaborations?

[00:35:29] Chantel Prat:
[Laughter] That's such a good, oh my gosh, that's such a good question because what that question uncovers is the difference between knowing something and putting it into action and feeling. So I would say--

[00:35:44] Adam Grant:
Wait, even neuroscientists have knowing, doing gaps.

[00:35:46] Chantel Prat:
Oh, yes. Oh yes. I still feel right. Don't get me wrong, like I still feel correct. I love this quote... It's a quote that I will always ascribe to Ted Lasso because he ascribes it to Walt Whitman and it turns out Walt Whitman didn't say this: "Be curious, not judgemental." The more out of sync my husband and I are the more I can be like,"What? You know, like, how do you work? You know, like that's wild and interesting."

With my students, it's so clear that a one size fits all approach to mentoring does not work. I tell them, "I am working to earn your trust. I am going to get things wrong, and I want feedback about that". Because at the end of the day, I think trust is what's really missing in these, how to understand people who work differently. Like we have to have a foundation of trust where we can make mistakes and get feedback. You know, you could think of all of your relationships as these longitudinal experiments, right? And that's a really good model of how different brains work and how to communicate through those differences.

[00:36:55] Adam Grant:
One of the things I like about teaching personality is that nobody chooses their traits, right? I didn't decide that I was gonna be an introvert, right? Or that I was going to have a tendency to be highly agreeable. And I think when you bring in the neuroscience, it, it pushes that a step further to say, you obviously have choices about how you express your, your personality traits, right? I don't choose anything about my neurons.

[00:37:21] Chantel Prat:

[00:37:22] Adam Grant:
And that makes it easier to empathize, doesn't it?

[00:37:25] Chantel Prat:
Yes. It raises the question. If I take my introverted brain out and act like an extrovert, am I going to have the same experience, if, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, is it a duck? Like, no, not really, right? So I also think that finding your lane with your brain, we can absolutely grow and everything, but I hope that there's some kind of self-appreciation that comes when you say like, "Oh my gosh, like my brain literally makes different decisions than this other person's brain, or my brain has a different value set, or it has different fundamental ways of communicating under stress than another brain does." And again, knowing better doesn't necessarily translate into doing better, but appreciating the sort of costs and benefits in these spaces that brains take, I think is really important.

I think we are becoming increasingly aware that having different perspectives, having diverse perspectives at the decision-making table is valuable and important. But yet, we still feel more comfortable with another brain that makes the same decisions that we do. And so I like to think about, you know, what would happen if I was in a group of six Chantels. At the end of the day, this is just more mouths to feed, right? It's just a bigger body, a bigger brain with more mouths to feed. But if I was in a, in a room with six people whose brains work differently, the collective problem solving there is actually much more advantageous, right? We want all of these different brains in our collective problem-solving space. And so the, the work to be done is like, how do we understand and appreciate them?

[00:39:05] Adam Grant:
We've talked a bunch about language and words and how much you and I both like them. One of my favorite studies of yours was about the predictors of how quickly people learned to code. And I was excited, maybe exhilarated, to read that in your data it was not math skills, it wasn't cognitive ability or IQ. It was language aptitude. And we talk all the time about how coding is about mastering a language, but I think this message has been completely missed when computer science is labeled as a STEM topic and people who aren't good at math or don't like numbers think "This isn't for me." And I think what your data suggests at least is this is literally a language that that learning to code, at least in some coding languages right, is, is much more similar to foreign language skills. And being able to pick up Mandarin or, or Italian easily, than it is being a quant jock. I'd love to hear your reactions to that, and I think you might have some new data too.

[00:40:09] Chantel Prat:
I do. Yeah. So this is exactly why I embarked in this new area of research, because there's a lot of beliefs about what makes someone good at coding that are just intertwined with the environments in which coding has been traditionally taught in engineering departments. Like it's, it's grown so much out of this niche area to being something that many different people interact with on a daily basis. And I really think that coding is going to be like literacy of the future. It's gonna be a barrier or a supporter and access to all different kinds of jobs. I wanted to make sure that we had the data to back up our superstitions about what makes someone good at coding. Many computer science departments, many of them require linear algebra and so forth and so on as a prerequisite to intro to programming. We were just interested in looking at the predictors of learning to code in Python. These new languages that are gaining popularity really quickly are increasingly beginning to mimic natural languages.

At the end of the day, the programming language doesn't exist for the computer. The computer, as you know, does not speak human language. The programming language exists as an interface between the human and the computer, and I think the more successful a programming language is going to be will be directly related to how much it mimics the way that people think and communicate naturally.

So in our lab we, we actually recorded resting-state brain activity. And we used our previous predictors of what it takes to learn a natural language along with some standardized language aptitude tests, and we showed that over lots of different predictors of learning to code in Python, so how quickly you move through the program, how accurately you can code at the end of training, what your declarative knowledge is like afterwards, all of these things were really strongly predicted by these typical natural language aptitude measures. Which raises the question, should we be teaching coding like we teach natural languages? Or at the very least, can we debunk this idea that you have to be good at math to learn a programming language?

[00:42:27] Adam Grant:
So fascinating. I mean, the, the idea that schools could allow students to fulfill a foreign language requirement by taking coding, it makes so much sense in light of your data.

[00:42:38] Chantel Prat:
Yeah. Yes.

[00:42:39] Adam Grant:
So tell me, tell me about your new evidence then you have some additional things to say about who finds it easy to learn to code and who doesn't, and how we could improve this process.

[00:42:49] Chantel Prat:
So hot off the press, not yet published data. We were really interested then in asking the question. Is this relationship that we found between natural language aptitude and coding, is it tied to English? It's worth noting that all of the 20 most popular coding languages are written in English, and the instruction that we were using was in English. And the language aptitude tests that we were using queried specific skill, you know, some piece of it was like, what job does this word do in an English sentence? So we wanted to know, is this about English proficiency specifically or about language proficiency more generally?

And so now we have tested over a hundred participants. They went through twice as much Python training. Half of them were Chinese English bilinguals who spoke Chinese as their native language and English as their second language. And the other half were English monolingual speakers. And what we're finding is really cool. In our Chinese English bilinguals, their Chinese proficiency was the strongest predictor of their ability to produce code. It was stronger than their ability, than their English skills in terms of predicting their ability to create these codes. Whereas debugging relied more heavily on English skills, so you're reading the code, then English becomes more prevalent. There's a lot of rich and nuanced data here, but it turns out that knowing languages in general get you quite a bump in learning programming language. It doesn't have to be that the match between the language, you know, and the language you're coding in is perfect.

[00:44:28] Adam Grant:
This has been so fun. I honestly, I think I've kind of been annoyed by some of the neuroscience that I've read because I feel like it's just kind of adding a layer of biology to things we already know. And what I thought was so powerful about your book is how many new questions it raised for me. And my favorite part of this conversation is you've answered a lot of my questions and you've raised just as many new ones, which is to me at the very heart of the joy of learning. So thank you.

[00:44:56] Chantel Prat:
Oh my gosh, thank you. And that's the cycle of curiosity, right? The more you know, the more it shines a light on those shadows and those places that you don't know as you move down a pathway. I am so, so, so happy to have a conversation with you about your brain. This is the, probably one of the coolest things that ever happened.

[00:45:14] Adam Grant:
Well, we need to make actual cool things happen in your life then.

[00:45:17] Chantel Prat:
No way!

[00:45:18] Adam Grant:
We often talk about the value of being well-rounded, but Chantel's work reminds us that there's also value in being well lopsided, being balanced mitigates against weaknesses, but the places where you're unbalanced are often where your greatest strengths lie. Rethinking is hosted by me, Adam Grant, and produced by TED with Cosmic Standard.

Our team includes Colin Helms, Eliza Smith, Jacob Winick, Michelle Quint, Sammy Case, and Anna Phelan. This episode was produced and mixed by Cosmic Standard. Our fact-checker is Paul Durbin. Original music by Hansdale Hsu and Allison Layton-Brown.


[00:46:03] Chantel Prat:
What this means is that if you and I walk out the door, let's say, let's say for the sake of argument that you, and I love Jason Mamoa exactly the same. I mean, this is a hypothetical...

[00:46:13] Adam Grant:
Unlikely, given how much you profess to love him in your book.