There’s no such thing as a “normal” brain. And according to Dr. Chantel Prat, a neuroscientist at the University of Washington, that’s a very good thing indeed. In her new book, The Neuroscience of You, Chantel tells readers how their brains got to be the way they are, and today on the show, she explains how to get the most out of the brain you’ve got.
Listen to Chantel’s appearance on the Next Big Idea podcast below, or read a few key highlights. And follow host Rufus Griscom on LinkedIn for behind-the-scenes looks into the show.
There’s no such thing as a “normal” brain.
Rufus Griscom: Chantel, you have been doing something pretty unusual. You’ve been studying the variation in human brains in a field that has historically been focused on the typical human brain. And it’s amazing to me that the field of neuroscience has not been more focused on brain variation until now. Do you find this surprising? And why do you think that is?
Chantel Prat: I think, after 25 years, I find it less surprising. Certainly when I entered the field, my goal was to understand what makes us unique, what makes us different, what creates the things that we think are weird about ourselves. And so the fact that that was not a part of our general methods or our theories was really surprising to me.
Rufus: You quote the cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker, who’s been a guest on this show, as saying, “All normal people have the same physical organs, and … we all surely have the same mental organs.” That’s, I guess, the conventional view, which seems to really rub you the wrong way. Do you think Pinker still believes that? And why is he wrong?
“Normal is a space with a lot of variability.”
Chantel: It does rub me the wrong way because the idea here is that normal is one thing, and that it’s the same in everybody. And, in fact, normal is a space with a lot of variability. You can’t define what’s normal and abnormal without understanding how people in the normal range vary. And so, yes, when I read that, I thought, This is so not true! Not only have I dedicated my entire career trying to explain these differences, but I think to say that they’re not meaningful is really—It’s subjective.
The “ideal” brain type depends on what kinds of problems you’re trying to solve.
Rufus: I used to be a swimmer, and I was not a phenomenal swimmer. I was an OK swimmer, probably partly because of an attitude problem, but it was partly, I think, because I did not have the ideal swimmer’s body, which turns out to be a body with very long feet, effectively flippers—this is like the Michael Phelps body—knees that bend backward, which delivers a more powerful flutter kick; and a long trunk, a long torso, which results in better flotation. You could probably go through every single sport and figure out what body type would be ideal for that sport. But the kicker is that while we have in our minds the notion of what the ideal athletic frame is, there’s actually no ideal body type for the purpose of competing in all sports, and as a consequence, it seems, highly desirable to live in a world of people with lots of different body types—and I think the same would apply to brain types.
Chantel: It’s a perfect metaphor. What I’ve said in the past is: if you take a room full of people and calculate the average height, that number might not actually describe any person in the room. That’s similar to where neuroscience has gone. Some of my own research has shown that what we thought was true of how brains work was actually what you get when you mush together two really different ways of behaving and that no individual in the group actually looked like the group average. The mean might not describe any person.
“Some of the things that you find frustrating about your brain might actually be the flip side of the best thing about your brain.”
You can say, “5’7” is the average height in this room,” but is that the optimal height? Well, it depends on if you’re going to go on an international flight or if you’re playing basketball. Brains are like that. Some of the things that you find frustrating about your brain might actually be the flip side of the best thing about your brain. It just depends on what kind of problem you’re asking it to solve.
Think your brain just isn’t wired to do something? Think again.
Rufus: If you tell yourself a story that you’re not good at math or you don’t have a great long-term memory, that story may or may not be true of your current self, but you can make it true of your future self, because we have these plastic brains and if we want to change them, we have to decide to do that, and that requires some faith in our capacity to do so.
Chantel: When you tell yourself a story, “I’m not good at X,” it becomes a part of your knowledge, and your knowledge guides your attention. You notice the things that are consistent with your story.
“Rather than being born with a bunch of hardwired instincts, we’re born with powerful learning mechanisms that allow us to adapt continuously to our environment.”
You mentioned plasticity. I want to talk about that in the context of the pandemic.
The most quintessential thing of all human brains is that rather than being born with a bunch of hardwired instincts, we’re born with powerful learning mechanisms that allow us to adapt continuously to our environment. I remember, at the beginning of the pandemic, when my lab manager said, “So we’re all gonna go home for March.” And I was like, “No, that’s not going to happen.” I remember the feeling of, like, Oh, this is really cool. It’s like having a snow day. I’m just going to play board games for a week. But then, after a year of being at home, I was like, Oh my gosh, I have to wear pants not just sweats? We adapted to this new way of being. All of us. And all of us feel some kind of whiplash at the return to a new normal.
The pandemic is a really salient shared experience, though it didn’t look the same in every person. Everyone’s life’s changed, and you can intuit how your comfort zone and how what you enjoyed and how your personality and how your decisions changed when the world changed around us.
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