In today’s episode we are joined by Dr. Srini Pillay, a Harvard-trained psychiatrist, brain-imaging researcher, and renowned keynote speaker known for his innovative approach to personal development that blends science, spirituality, and joyful creativity.
Brain function and decision-making. 0:00
The power of an unfocused mind. 4:15
The importance of balancing focus and unfocused time for creativity and productivity. 9:29
Focus, emotion, and well-being. 15:13
The role of subconscious mind in mental health. 20:32
Self-awareness and shifting between two parts of the mind. 27:58
Personal growth and change management. 31:35
Personal growth and self-awareness. 34:39
Creativity, motivation, and daydreaming. 41:05
Anxiety and its paradoxical nature. 44:38
Mindfulness and anxiety management. 50:33
Neuroscience-based mindfulness practices for mental well-being. 56:33
Dr. Pillay 00:00
To really be exceptional in life, you want to be able to give yourself time give your brain time to assimilate ideas. And over the years, as I began to learn about how the brain works, I learned that there is a very focused part of the brain, which is the prefrontal cortex, the logical brain. And then there’s a part of the brain that only turns on when you start focusing, okay? And this part of the brain actually has some very special features it, it can actually assimilate details that the focus brain cannot assimilate. So if you’re really trying to make a decision about the future, your focus brain will pick up a bunch of stuff. But the unfocused brain is what will bring you things from the nooks and crannies.
Welcome to the Invigor medical podcast, where we sit down with medical professionals and discuss a full spectrum of health related subjects. It all starts in 321.
Well, so I’d love to dive into that
Yeah, so let’s just do a little bit of background on Dr. Pillay. He’s a Harvard trained psychiatrist, brain imaging researcher and renowned keynote speaker, known for his innovative approach to personal development that blends science, spirituality, and joyful creativity. I love that joyful creativity. I write more of that in my life. He’s also the author of three books and beyond, and more. So I’m excited to hear a bit about those books. But let me just first start by saying, Welcome to our podcast. Dr. Pillai, thank you for being here.
Dr. Pillay 01:26
Thanks so much for having me. I’m excited to see what direction this conversation goes.
Oh, us too we are always excited to see which way it goes. We always have some questions lined out. But honestly, I always look at Derek and I’m like, I never really do the questions because..
Freestyle and when you have somebody on who is passionate about their research and what they’re doing in the world, it’s so easy to just find the avenues that we want to go down and have that conversation. So I’m excited to see where you take us today. But why don’t we start a little bit with your background? And how did you get here, not necessarily here in the seat that you’re in but proverbially to the work that you’re doing today.
Dr. Pillay 02:06
So I do a lot of different things, which to many people sounds too desperate and disconnected. But the truth is, it’s all coming from me. So it’s all related to what I want to do. So my background, I’m a doctor, my background is in psychiatry, I ran the outpatient anxiety disorders program at McLean Hospital at Harvard.
Dr. Pillay 02:25
I also ran the panic disorders research program in the brain imaging centers, so I studied brain blood flow, functional magnetic resonance imaging for many years.
Dr. Pillay 02:34
I also worked in biotechnology across medicine and still do helping companies try to decide where the drugs that are early stage development are actually going to be approved by the FDA. And there I look at drugs across medicine to cancer, heart disease, stroke, neurodegenerative disease, but then pioneered a field called neuro coaching, which is basically using brain science to help leaders develop teams that are more resilient, agile and creative.
I love that.
Dr. Pillay 03:02
I think, a think tank at McKinsey about the future of learning. I’m also a musician, I just finished writing a musical. So I’m in the process of..
Oh my gosh, this is so cool. I love this.
Dr. Pillay 03:12
And then I cofounded two technology companies. The first is Circuit, which is a brain based methodology that uses cognitive techniques that have been shown to change the brain to reduce anxiety. And right now we’re in the process of changing it from an app into a game. So I’m learning a lot about gaming and gaming infrastructure and gaming mechanics. And then the other company is really, and really is an AI driven digital therapeutic platform that uses brain based video design to reduce stress and anxiety across multiple platforms. So it can be deployed on a mobile device and a desktop computer on a TV in a VR headset, or in the metaverse. But the general theme, I think you can see is that I’m really interested in the connection between mental health and physical health. And I’m interested in communicating mechanisms that are related to brain science. And what I really like is the ability to use some of this technical information in practical ways so that people can actually have a framework that they can use to manage their own challenges.
Yeah. That’s, that is a lot.
What I’m hearing here is, we need way more than the hour we have set aside. Because there’s so many little things that you just said that I’m like, yes, yes, this sounds incredible. I want to know more about that. And so now I’m just like, where do we focus in, even though one of the things the topics that we had brought up to discuss with you was the, the unfocused mind and some of your research behind that and your thoughts? So I’m like, my mind feels a little unfocused now, and I’m like, where do we go? But I think that might be an interesting place to start. Because I think in general, when people think about, you know, an unfocused mind not really being something that has power, and you’re talking about that something that feels that is powerful, and it can be powerful. So can we start a little bit there? Because I feel like there’s so much emphasis on how do we get focused? How do we maintain focus? How do we maximize the effort that we’re putting into any one task at a time? You know? So just kind of give us a little bit of a foundation of what you mean when you talk about the power of an unfocused mind.
Dr. Pillay 05:18
Sure, so I wrote about this extensively in my book, Tinker, Dabble Doodle, Try The Power of the Unfocused M ind. And in a few minutes, I’ll tell you a story first, and then maybe tell you sort of some of the signs. So when I first got to Harvard, I was very sort of, you know, ambitious, I wanted to do well, I wanted to make sure I went to everything. So I went to all my didactics. And I stayed in the hospital too late, and I interviewed patients. And when I got my first round of feedback, I was like, Yeah, I definitely kill this, like, this is going to be amazing. And so my supervisors were like, well, you clearly know the most information in the class, but we’re worried about you. And I’m like, why are you worried about me? And they said, Well, you go to all your classes, which shows no discernment, you we don’t see you sitting in the park benches, taking time off. So you’re just filling your head with stuff. But what’s going to happen with that stuff, to really be exceptional. In life, you want to be able to give yourself time, give your brain time to assimilate ideas. And over the years, as I began to learn about how the brain works, I learned that there is a very focused part of the brain, which is the prefrontal cortex, the logical brain. And then there’s a part of the brain that only turns on when you start focusing, okay, and this part of the brain actually has some very special features it, it can actually assimilate details, that the focus brain cannot assimilate.
Dr. Pillay 06:43
So if you’re really trying to make a decision about the future, your focus brain will pick up a bunch of stuff. But the unfocused brain is what will bring you things from the nooks and crannies in your brain, metaphorically, also, the unfocused brain is is something that we call the crystal ball of the human brain. So the default mode network is what it is, we used to think of it as the do mostly nothing network. Actually, it does a whole lot. And what we know is that is that it can actually help you sort of assimilate variables to predict the future. And a lot of times people will say things like, you know, I should eat this or don’t need that. But the truth is, all decisions in life are very complex. They involve integrating large amounts of information. If you just use your logical brain, you’ll find yourself doing oversimplify things. But if you use this unfocused network in the brain, it is actually wired for complexity and for abstraction. So focus on the one hand is amazing. I mean, I don’t think I’d be able to do anything if I didn’t focus, and if I didn’t learn how to focus, but most people live their days with focus, focus, focus, fatigue, and then they’re out and tired and exhausted in that step. And usually, by the time they get to the afternoon, that dragging, like, I need a cup of coffee, I don’t know how I’m gonna, I don’t know, but I’m gonna try to pull through this. And so what I often say to people, instead, an optimal way to live, is to focus on focus, because it’s just normal to refuel, to focus on focus, and that way, you’re working with your optimal brain through most of the day.
Dr. Pillay 08:18
Now, there are many advantages to focus. But there are also disadvantages to focus. One of the things we know is that focus depletes the stinking brain, the prefrontal cortex, and it actually makes it more difficult for you to care by the end of the day. In one experiment, expert these experimenters gave people a task of focusing intensely at a video or just watching the video as usual. And at the end of the day, they gave them this this dilemma, this question, they will these people, they have to figure out who to save the people who focus intensely couldn’t care less about saving. Until they actually got glucose, because then they were reactivated to care. Whereas the people who just watched as usual, were able to think about who they wanted to care about. So the first thing is that focus can deplete the brain of energy if you overly focus. The second is that focus prevents you from seeing what’s around you.
Dr. Pillay 09:13
You know, it prevents you from seeing the competition television. And Wang, who developed a word processor was focused on developing word processor to because he wasn’t paying attention to the fact that the PC was in the wings. And so he became bankrupt because he wasn’t paying it even like right now for everybody. It’s like aI this AI that will, you know, what am I going to do? How’s it going to take How can I disrupt myself? If you don’t pay attention to asking these open questions, you might be focused on what you’re doing right now, but you could be sideswiped. In addition, focus is great with your nose to the grindstone, but then you’re not paying attention to upcoming trends. So it’s not just what’s going on around you like the competition, but it’s also upcoming trends, and then focus when you’re focused. You pay attention to one spot but When you’re innovating, you often need to connect two or more ideas. So people who are hyper focused or like I’m not creative, and it’s not that they’re not creative, they’re just not willing to unfocus to allow the brain to make these connections. And then another thing that we know is that the self network in the brain, like who you are, overlaps heavily with the default mode network, the unfocused circuit. Okay. So, you know, like, a lot of times people will say, they get their best ideas when they’re in the shower. Yeah, it’s because you’re in the shower, and you’re not hyper focusing, and you’re allowing your brain to be as intelligent as it can be. So I like to say to people that if you don’t build in regular periods of unfocused into your day, you’re not allowing yourself to be the smartest person that you can be.
Dr. Pillay 10:44
Yeah, and a lot of times, people will say, I can’t find a solution. I don’t know how to make more money. I don’t know how to make this relationship work. I don’t know how to do you know, whatever the challenge is, it’s taking that time off that regularly during the day, that allows your brain to come up with solutions. And there are in the book, I outlined a number of different ways that you can do this, you know, five to 15 minutes of napping can give you one to three hours of clarity. Love naps. When you don’t want to like lose, you’re gonna nap too much so that you can sleep at night you could write your heart one or two times a week, but you can do that. Booster breaks. So just a 15 minute booster break brisk walk and just after lunch or before lunch can actually improve the way you feel it can improve your creativity, it can improve social connection. You know, in addition to that, you can doodling to scribbling on a piece of paper. Jackie Andrade found that people who were doodling during a particular call, were actually able to they had improved memory 29% better memory. And then there’s a technique called positive constructive daydreaming where Jerome singer studied this in the 1950s. And one of the things he said was that sitting at your desk and daydreaming is not that helpful, or trying to remember the prior night’s indiscretions. Oh, my gosh, Janelle said that. That’s that there you’re daydreaming and your mind is wandering but not in a productive way.
Dr. Pillay 12:11
There is a type of productive daydreaming that’s called positive, constructive, daydreaming. And positive constructive daydreaming is actually when you tell yourself, I’m going to set aside 15 to 20 minutes. I’m going to do something low key like knitting, gardening, going for a walk something that’s low key for you.
To me knitting would be like ultimate frustration, throw something at the wall.
I have sharp objects, that someone is gonna get poked.
Stay away, I’m attempting the knitting.
Dr. Pillay 12:43
Yeah, but if you do that, and then you let your mind go and you start thinking about running through the woods with your dog or lying on the yard line on the beach, then you have this this perceptual decoupling, we spent the whole day with our eyes open, responding to this responding to this email responding to that person talking to that person. We don’t spend time getting to know innerspace. What’s in our brain. And what a lot of people don’t realize is that taking this time off, can improve your clarity, it can improve your creativity. But by allowing yourself to have this regular downshifting, this was actually one of the nine factors that the Blue Zones project identify as being related to healthy longevity. So when they looked at like, Why do these people, why do they live so much longer in a carrier or Sardinia or Loma Linda, Okinawa, or the Nicoya Peninsula? They actually found that in all of these areas, one of the things that was common is that people regularly downshift, which is why part of the reason we created relay, because only 10% of the world meditate. So it’s hard for people to figure out how to downshift but with Relay video and virtual reality, people know that they have a time when they can vote and sit down and then watch a video that’s been designed specifically based on brain science to disconnect. Yeah, but that’s all to say that in response to your question about why is this a different take? I think it’s a different take because people feel like focus is the holy grail, right? Whereas I say cognitive rhythm is the holy grail where you have focus and unfocused and focus and unfocused. And when you think about great discoveries, theory of relativity, Albert Einstein describes that as a musical perception, and then he developed all the concrete stuff. He was like it just it just arrived. Wow. You know, the person who discovered Carrie banks mallets discovered synthetic DNA, actually was driving from Berkeley to Mendocino was with his girlfriend, they just had little bit of wine. They went they stopped along the way, scribbled in a mountain face wasn’t really sure what to do, went back home and eventually was like this just suddenly came to me from somewhere. But if you’re following me on if you’re if you’re just focusing, you are closing the door to serendipitous discovery, right? You are closing the door to what you could actually know. Do you often are ignoring your intuition? So there is a time and place for unfocused in the world. And it’s important for us to get into a regular habit of creating these periods when we can focus.
I think this is really interesting. Because as you’re talking, I’m like, kind of simplifying things in my mind, and thinking about how, you know, a conversation around focusing. And you know, it’s usually around like, how can we achieve more and get more done in our day and pack things in, right. But it’s something that I think most people want to find a way to do better. I want to focus more, there’s so much distraction in the world, like, how can I get my things done, I’m constantly, you know, focused, divided, and it doesn’t feel like I’m getting anything done. And so it’s interesting, as you’re talking about this, because I’m like, in the effort of focusing so much on how to focus better, we’re actually not seeing an opposite side of this scale, that’s important to keep this weighed and measured and balanced. And so instead, there’s all of this attention over here on the focus, and people aren’t paying attention to this. But it’s literally a metaphor for exactly what you’re talking about, which is how you need to have both, and how opens the door for both. And I think instead, people kind of get in a sort of self deprecation or beating themselves or one of my favorites, which is shooting on yourself like I should this I should have that I love that terminology stop shooting on yourself. And, and instead are just like, Well, how do I focus more? How do I focus more? How do I focus more? And so I’m living this idea of like, we have to bring in this other side, you create this balance, and I’m guessing there’s even stuff that’s happening on a neurological level when it comes to like jumping to different parts of the brain and opening up different brain pathways that otherwise wouldn’t be there is I mean, am I on the right track there? And what’s happening neurologically?
Dr. Pillay 16:47
Yeah, absolutely. Because when you focus you the default mode network, for the most part just is turned off. So all this future prediction is less detailed, you’re fewer details, complexity, you ignore that, abstractions, you ignore that. So you just become sort of super concrete. And when you become super concrete, and overly operational, at a psychoanalytic level, it’s actually problematic. So Pierre Marty, who’s in the in the Paris psychosomatic Institute, which looks at the connections between the mind and the body, the psychopath, the psychological part, and the somatic part, Pierre Marty, and his colleagues found that people were presenting with what they call essential depression. And essentially, depression is not something that’s part of our modern nomenclature. But it’s not about feeling sad or bad feeling, not being able to sleep or having no interest or guilt, feeling guilty or having no energy, not being able to concentrate. Essential depression is what I believe we have an epidemic of that no one’s picking up on, which is an absence of vitality. There’s a lot of tiredness and burnout, and just feeling exhausted. And vitality is thrown out the window. Like everybody, I always feel like when I listen to how people talk about medical interventions, they sound like this is how you live a slightly less labor.
That’s a tagline for you on the commercial for some kind of prescription medication.
How to live a slightly less lame life.
Dr. Pillay 18:19
It’s sort of like, no, people want to feel vitality. Yeah. And what they found with these with the the people that did examine who lacked this vitality, was that they were overly operational. They were just like, you know, I gotta finish this, I gotta finish this. And sometimes you get in the zone. And it’s great if you have the energy to do that. But if you’re overly operational, you basically say, I don’t have time to invest my words with emotion. You know, like people. I mean, how often do you hear people say, I’m always shocked by this, and people are like, Oh, my God, that’s so funny. What do you mean, you’re describing your emotional reaction? If it’s funny? Well, you’re not like, if it’s definitely Why don’t you let go? That’s like, oh, that’s sad. That must be hard. Well, what happened to you emotionally? Where did it go? Well, what’s really profound about this, is that because they study the connection between the mind and the body, they found that when you are overly operational, that emotion has to go somewhere, because you’re basically shutting the door on the emotion. And what happens is that the emotion ends up going towards somatic symptoms. And so people start thinking about their bodies in an operational way. They don’t just live as humans that Oh, my God, I think my nose is right. But then he started Oh, wait, no, I think the left side of my face needs some shifting, I think the right side of my body. And so as a result, you get an increase in cosmetic procedures, you get an increase in turning to physical solutions. Like I’d rather take that pill and just, you know, dial everything out rather than having some sense of agency. And we know from studies of mortality, that emotional suppression over 12 years, increases the chances of cancer, and it increases the chances of dying. That’s thinker. So the mind and the body are very connected. And we might think we’re doing a great job when we’re just saying, saying no to emotion because we’re like, you know, I want someone to take me seriously. But you know, as Antonio Damasio, the neurologists pointed out, Descartes, he wrote a book called de cartes error. And in the book, he pointed out that I think, therefore I am is not accurate. It’s thinking and feeling intimately connected in the brain. Really, what I’m saying to you is that not only are thinking and feeling connected, but they’re connected to the well being of your body and yourself.
You know, I think that’s a really good point. And it reminded me of something and no one is going to be surprised here, this wouldn’t be an Invigor medical podcast, if I didn’t fangirl over Huberman again, but like, he, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, he is his, I’ve listened to every single episode that he’s ever put out. And it’s just like I am. I love this guy. But his most recent episode that he just did was all about mental health. He was interviewing Dr. Paul Conte. And in that he was talking about how foundational the subconscious mind is that if the brain was a was a building, or you know, a piece of equipment that like 10% would be your conscious mind, kind of the, if I’m, if I get this correct, and you can correct me if I’m wrong, but like the the central or the prefrontal cortex, it’s like your conscious mind what you do on a day to day basis. 90% of it is like this iceberg that’s floating under the water, which is the subconscious mind, which is like everything else that’s processing that. And if we don’t give it the time, and the maintenance and the and the energy that deserves, it’s going to be no wonder that things fall apart. I don’t know if you would agree with that.
Dr. Pillay 21:37
100%. In fact, that’s one of the reasons I feel sad that a lot of psychodynamic teaching and psychoanalytic thought has not been brought into traditional psychiatric training anymore. People have become so overly focused, you know, I did a psychopharmacology fellowship, I studied brain science. But for me, it’s much more enriching to understand those things. In the context of the deeper subconscious things that are happening. You know, the technical term for that, for us is unconscious medicine, we generally call the unconscious, but most people know that as the subconscious. I’ll give you an idea, an example. So there’s, there’s, there’s a woman that I’ve worked with for a long time, and she was burnt out, you know, came home, beautiful daughter runs out, falls down. She’s tired from work, when she goes to pick her up in her head. She’s doing this, she’s she’s going in because her daughter is crying. She’s got a headache, husband’s like she called she gets annoyed that she gets a telephone call from her son’s school is like, why haven’t you picked him up? He doesn’t have practice today. Oh, my God, my day is falling apart. What do I do with this? Now? She will she lived like this for a very long time. And I saw that, you know, we tried everything. I tried all kinds of cognitive techniques. What about setting aside time? What about making priority lists? And no matter what we did it just whatever her dedication to the burnout, like was never, it never disappeared. And it was only when we began when I began to ask questions, you know, like, well, you know, Carl Jung, talked about archetypes, just these symbolic condensations, that, that become like what I call the gods of our consciousness, they are the things that we really listen to, we might do things cognitively. But what she was doing was she was listening to this, this archetype of the faithful servant, I have to be faithful, otherwise, no one’s gonna appreciate.
Dr. Pillay 23:28
And if I reduce my burnout, I will give up my identity as the faithful servant. And that’s when the penny dropped for it. And she was like, I can’t believe I’ve been carrying around this construct in and see who actually came up with that. But she, what she said was like, I’ve been carrying around this construct, the people always say things to me, like, go easy on yourself and take a breath. You know, I’m a smart person. I know what they’re saying. But you know, what really struck me in that conversation was that knowing that we have these unconscious symbols that are directing our behavior. And really, another thing we’re doing is actually it’s beyond that level of concreteness, as well. It’s just any symbol can affect you. Sometimes you look at a shape or piece of modern art, and you’ll be like, I hate that. I love that, which means that you are responding to those some one way or another. And I the one thing I do feel very passionately about in all of medicine, is I really don’t believe in the way we’re communicating medicine right now. Right now. There’s so much of one size fits all. Yeah, I’ll give you a good example of this, which is LDL cholesterol, for example. Firstly, I think that we’ve taken a lot of people who’ve taken their the their ideas around religion and then brought it surreptitiously into good cholesterol and bad cholesterol.
Heaven cholesterol and hell cholesterol.Your soul depends upon your choice, not just your life.
Dr. Pillay 24:57
Right. So people always like Well Oh, LDL cholesterol is it’s bad cholesterol, you’re like, well, for the most part, most people would agree that the it’s a source, it’s a risk factor associated with different things. Well, if that’s the case, why do 16 of 19 studies in the British Medical Journal show that if you try to lower LDL cholesterol, you increase the chances of die. 14 of them are statistically significant. And the other three showed that has no impact, and very similar findings published in the American Journal of Cardiology. So then people are like, What are you saying, like, I can just eat whatever I want? No, what I’m saying is that it’s highly personal. Yeah. And until we have personalized interventions until we know, for you, lowering your cholesterol will be helpful. We can’t go around just saying generic things, right? You gotta you gotta make sure you have an antioxidant, because an antioxidant will mop up all the toxins from the cells. And so you should eat your broccoli. I love broccoli. I think it’s a great thing to eat. I like Brussels sprouts. I think it’s great. But I don’t think I think knowing the research, I often feel like, you know, this is not as simple as it sounds, because it sounds simple. But we also know that antioxidants, these amazing things that mop up toxins can also accelerate malignant progression, they can also increase the chances of cancer. So you’re like, a cancer worse? But then you’re like, Well, should I eat it? Or is it going to help me not help me? Well, I’m not saying it’s bad for you. I’m saying we don’t know, for any given individual. So while while the double blind, placebo controlled trial is a decent standard, it is far from perfect. And it almost never informs me when I’m working with a patient. I almost always have to say whether or not that could be helpful, or it could not be. Now let’s think about things together. And let’s try something that’s intuitive. That’s about you.
Dr. Pillay 26:51
Because, you know, you best, right. And it’s one of the reasons, I think that so good or for bad, we’re being ushered into an era of self care. Self Care, is is super important. And I think one big thing that we talk about it really a lot is reskilling for self care. Because most people I meet know, when the food is distinctly unhealthy. They know when they’re not exercising, they know when they’re doing things that are not great for their bodies, or their minds or their relationships, but they cant stop doing. And when I say well, what about taking time out, I have no time to take time. They don’t have time for self care. And so I think we all have to take a step back, and re skill for self care. And by that I don’t mean we all have to be on the same program. I just think gather the science, the science is informative, reflect on it. Think to yourself, that when I eat that doesn’t make me feel better or worse. When I don’t exercise, do I feel better or worse? And then make a program for yourself. But I think we need to rescale for self care, because we’ve just we’ve lost the plot.
Yeah. I agree. And I think the conversation surrounding your own self awareness. I love what you said about the woman realizing like this archetype. I personally learned a couple of years ago about the internal family systems model by Dr. Richard Schwartz, I don’t know if you’re familiar, where there’s like multiple parts of self that are created in our lifetime, a lot during childhood. And each part is created to serve a specific purpose. And usually it’s created for safety of, you know, true self. And we’re going through our lives, with these parts, getting in the driver’s seat, and we’re completely unaware it’s happening. And it kind of felt similar to what you were describing in this story with this woman. And I know in my own journey to self care and self health and all of these things. More often than not, the first step is always in my own awareness of what’s happening for me internally, you know, and I just so I love this conversation and everything that you’re, you’re saying around that. So could you maybe give some practical advice on where someone could start on this journey of like becoming aware and understanding, shifting between these two parts of the mind, and why that’s important.
Dr. Pillay 29:12
Sure, so if you want to make if you want to do anything different, that amounts to change, and change causes what we call cognitive dissonance in the brain, which is basically brain chaos. So the moment you say, let me live my life a different way. Your brains like why?
It’s like no thank you pass.
Dr. Pillay 29:32
Yeah. And there’s a part of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex that registers conflict. And so this alarm keeps going up, change, change, change, change, change. And so for most people that like you know, what, forget about Yeah, I’m not getting up at six to go exercise. I’d rather just relax and watch TV. Now, some people get over the hump and they get to the other side. And what we know from some preliminary studies in brain science is that when this conflict detector is alarming in the brain, you It stops alarming when you stimulate the left frontal cortex.
Dr. Pillay 30:04
And one way you can do this is by a technique called spreading of alternatives. Now, this is what it means alternative A is I eat whatever I eat, I eat whatever I want to eat, I don’t feel like exercising, I work all day I focus all day. Now I’m listening to this person saying to me, build periods of unfocused, think about your diet, think about your exercise, and maybe take care of yourself a little bit better. And it’s like, it’s all too much, I don’t know what to do. So what I say to people is, you may in column A write down all the advantages of of what you’re doing right now, which is that you eat delicious food, no doubt, you don’t get tired from exercising, you don’t actually have to face yourself ever. Because you’re so absorbed in your work, that you’re actually you’re missing the complexity of being human. And that’s kind of satisfying. But then I say, now write down the advantages in column B, of eating healthily, so that you feel better exercising so that you can, you can dance longer, you can you can play around for longer, you know, allowing yourself so then what alternative A is, like all the advantages of staying where you are, alternative B is the new advantages that you realize.
Dr. Pillay 31:17
And when you have a spread, so that your brains like, okay, Column B is winning by a longshot. I think I need to switch over to column B. That’s when when you’re when you have brain buy in, that’s when you’re like, Okay, I have to do this. Now, it doesn’t always happen that logically, sometimes it happens. I was running course, a part of a course at Harvard Business School with a group of entrepreneurs. And we divided the course into into two sections in the year. And it was highly motivated group of entrepreneurs sort of $500 million and up revenue they wanted, they were thinking about their lives, like, do I want to legacy, what do I want to do, and they were all super motivated. But in the second half of the course, we brought someone over to start the course after because we had heard what had happened. And he was close to 50. And he said, I just want to tell you a lesson that I learned. After a meeting last year, when I decided I really wanted to, like get up my game and do what I needed to do. I found myself in an emergency room looking up at the ceiling, wondering whether my heart attack would prevent me from ever seeing my wife and my kids. And I realized that the burnout that I was ignoring, which seemed like I had to because in his head, his his, you know, his whole archetype was the hero, right? It’s like, I have to be a hero. So, but that’s when I reset, that’s when I realized, my life’s got to change. And I’m here to tell all of you, don’t wait until you get that heart attack. Like, you know, try to think beforehand. So in order to start somewhere, first, ask yourself, what is this one change I want to make? Let me make this column. But make it honestly until you truly see the advantages of the change. And that’s where you start. Now we get into the change process. The question is, how do you change?
Dr. Pillay 33:08
And there are all kinds of theories about this. There’s John Locke’s original goal theory, which is like, Don’t set small goals, because no one will your human, no one’s motivated by small goals, like set at least a medium to medium high goal, because then you’ll be like, Yeah, I’m pumped. Like, this is really awesome. However, there are other researchers who have shown that, that that small changes are less intimidating. So here’s a great place for personalization. What excites you? And what do you think you can manage? If you’re someone who’s excited by, you know, I’m gonna really like, shoot for the stars, I’m gonna aim for the stars. I’m gonna get there. Do that. If you’re someone who’s intimidated when making this huge shift that make a small change. And then ask yourself once you’re done through all this cognitive stuff. For me, one of my favorite ways of thinking about change is through the lens of a theoretician named dobrowski, Casimir dobrowski. So the Brodsky studied gifted students. And what he found was that gifted students are constantly falling apart, to bring themselves together at a higher level. And what he said was a traditionally review mental health when we feel like we’re falling apart, we’re like, Oh, my God, I’m falling apart, and somebody needs to put me back together. Right, right. Yeah. And, and there are psychoanalytic ideas around anxiety, like the idea that anxiety is the cry of the self in the process of becoming that anxiety is basically saying you are changing and, and this is fine. But it is it makes you feel afraid, because your your fight or flight system is over activated because you’re in unfamiliar territory. And so you feel in your head like, because you’re in unfamiliar territory.
Dr. Pillay 34:52
This danger is all automatic, metabolic preparations that the brain does, and it signals this through emotion. So really what you want to do is reframe your relationship with anxiety. The next time you feel anxious, the next time you feel freaked out, the next time you feel like I am falling apart, ask yourself, clearly my brain wants to save me. And the way that I have to help have my brain help help save me is to actually come apart to come back together again. Now, at a very literal level, we know that this is possible, because one of the key circuits in the brain that codes for itself is the dmn, the default mode network. And we know to therapeutics studies, in the therapeutic effects of psychedelics, and studies and meditation, that you can create entropy or chaos in the self circuitry. And there’s not just one self, you know, as you pointed out, there are these multiple cells that you can reconstitute. And so you decide, how do I want to reconstitute myself and what dobrowski said was, he said, You have to have something that actually gets keeps you jazzed when you’re doing so you can’t just be like, let me just fall apart, and you’re great. So he called these, identify this factor called over excitability.
Dr. Pillay 36:05
And these overexcite abilities are things like some people are like, they want to work out because they feel good when they have a great workout. So that becomes a part of your, your energy, giving energy, your or you could have something like, you know, sensory stimuli, like I really like fragrant candles, they make me feel great. Or maybe I really want to be connected to my emotions, I mean, watch, like a really sad movie, or listen to a sad song, where you feel like whatever this this element is, is something that keeps you it’s like the emotional glue that keeps you together. But then you try to go through the stages of disintegration. And what he talks about is, he says 70% of the world is at stage one. They live to eat, reproduce, socialize, and go to sleep. And that’s pretty much how people live. And there’s very little anxiety at that level. The second level is where the unconscious starts to kick in, like, something’s not right here. Like, I like, it’s not quite where I wanted to be, but I don’t have time to pay attention to it. And he said, There, you still have a little bit of anxiety, but not so much. The third is where you identify the gap between who you actually are, and how you’re living your life. And then you say to yourself, the life I want for myself is a life that has what is freedom, autonomy, money, relatedness power, social connection, you basically outlined a list of values that you care about. And then you let the values be your navigator, your values will tell you, you know, what, if you’re choosing this trap of life, but you value autonomy, 10 out of 10, then you’re going to need to shift your life to honor what you value.
Becausre you’re in misalignment.
Dr. Pillay 37:52
Dr. Pillay 37:53
You know, like, I recently spoke to a very ambitious, very highly qualified mother, who had a PhD in neuroscience. And she was like, Yeah, I mean, I’m in a perfect place for promotion right now. But I will regret it. If I do not spend quality time with my daughter. That’s the value that I care about. And there are people who feel the opposite. I’ve had friends who are like, Oh, my God, what did I do having this child?
I think every parent parent has at least one moment of that. They’re like, Well, what have I done?
Dr. Pillay 38:25
Right. And so for those people, you know, there’s a different caretaking schedule, there’s a different there’s a whole different structure of how you interact. But it’s important for you to virtue to live by your own values. And when you do that, you get to levels four, and five, with level four, you’re pretty much living your life, mostly in accordance with your values, you’re psyched to jump on a bit. In level five, you’re so living in accordance with your values, that giving is not an effort. It’s more that you’re so aligned, that you have this intrinsic desire to want to do something. And this relates to another theory, which is called self determination theory, which tells us how you can increase intrinsic motivation. And there are three factors, it’s autonomy, how can you be freer to do what you want to do? Competence? How can I do something that I’m good at? Or how can I be better at what I’m doing? And then social relations? How can I surround myself with people who are amazing because if you feel free to do what you want to do, and you’re surrounded by amazing people, and you feel like you can really do well, and whatever you’re doing, of course, you’re gonna feel motivated. And of course, you’re gonna feel like you can do something in the world. I think when you stand away from that, when you’re trapped, but you’re saying things like, I want to be of service, which I call the beleaguered service. And I always tell people, that there’s a difference between service and actually being a servant. Okay, you know, when, when when you work with organizations, you you there’s a model of leadership called servant leadership, which is high reprised, but I always ask people to just re examine them. Because if you want to serve, you cannot serve without taking care of yourself as well. There’s a thing called compassion fatigue, which is you spend your whole day loving, loving, caring, caring, caring it’s exhausting.
I always say you can’t pour out of an empty cup, like you’re just pouring and pouring in. It’s like, well, you have to have something in the cup to pour out.
Dr. Pillay 40:25
Yeah, so absolutely. So I know, I’ve been waxing lyrical about that whole line of thought. But I think if I were to summarize it, I think in terms of where people start, number one, start with spreading of alternatives by making the list in two columns. Number two, ask yourself, what is the change that I want to make? And number three, how do I positively disintegrate so that I allow myself to make choices that are in accordance with my own values, rather than just being an automaton and doing what I need to do? Because I understand on the one hand, that you need to pay your mortgage, I understand that what on the other hand, you need to take care of people at home, so I’m not prescribing some kind of idealized life.
Pack up a bag and get on the road and go to the mountain folks. That’s the way forward. haha
Dr. Pillay 41:10
What I’m saying is these frameworks can be helpful for us when we’re thinking about making some changes. There was actually a great interview that Lady Gaga did it.
Love Lady Gaga. Oh, my gosh, mega fan.
Dr. Pillay 41:21
Yeah, she’s incredible. And she talks about how coming to a point in her career when she didn’t want to sing anymore. And everybody’s like, do not want to sit, what do you mean, like to famous, you’re great, you’re amazing that I just didn’t feel motivated. And then I got up, and I thought to myself, I don’t like. So what she said was, I got up and I thought to myself, I don’t like selling these perfumes. I don’t like making money. And just being like a money making person from other people when my creativity is not acknowledged, like I don’t really like taking selfies, I have more to offer the world than that. And so she said, So gradually, I started to say no, I was like, No, I’m not going to do that. I’m not going to do that. I don’t care how much money that perfume brings, I’m not doing it. And she said slowly, I started to realize, when I went home, I looked at myself in the mirror, and I was like you, I can sleep with. Wow. Because you, I respect you as someone who’s honoring who you are. And to many people let this go for too many years. And then they find themselves over the 50 mark over the 60 mark like what happened to my life. I just live my life as someone else. Yeah.
And you’re so far from where he started, like, how do you even find the way back? You know, when you were talking about making those two lists? It was making me think about what you talked earlier, which did you call it active daily active daydreaming is I can’t positive, constructive, positive, constructive, daydreaming. And I started thinking about that, and like imagining, like sitting, and literally thinking about how each of these columns feel, how I feel when I’m living in each of these columns, and envisioning myself in a day, where I’m either in column A, or I’m in column B. And like walking through the day, in that column, and examining how I feel in my body, what my thoughts are, like, what’s happening around me how the people around me feel how I feel. And I was like, Wow, that feels so powerful, to literally just take the time to visualize and daydream about each of these columns, because I think we just get in this automatic mode. You know, when we’re in column A, we’re doing the things we do. And it’s like you kind of you cognitively like, understand, there’s probably a better way, and I’m not really that happy. And there’s definitely changes that need to be made. But you’re just, you’ve this pathway in your brain, it’s a highway at this point, right? You know, when you first forged it, it was a trail in the woods, and you had to make effort to stomp it down. But at this point years in, it’s a freeway in LA and like it is so easy, automatic mode, this is where we’re going to say kids like no chance for getting off at a different exit, right? And so there might be an awareness that there are these other roads over here that we can travel and maybe even awareness, like Oh, I think that road might actually have a better view. But I you know, that’s where it ends. So thinking about actually really getting into this place of daydreaming of what this other road actually looks like, and how it feels when you’re driving on that road. To me, the moment I started, like, just as you were talking, visualizing some of those things, I felt like a fullness in my chest and an opening, just visualizing like that. So I thought of all the things you said that was one thing that just really landed for me.
You know, Natalie, that that analogy of being on the highway, you know, traveled anyone that’s traveled with kids can sometimes not be a pleasant experience. That’s putting it mildly, mildly. Yeah. But you know, my wife and what we started doing is we would take an exit we’d find the nearest park and we you know, go out and let our kids run and play and it’s just like I know that you’re just using it as an analogy, but like, I think that this kind of like ties into the whole thing of like, it just so much better. Yeah, it feels like you, you can be at so much peace and there’s so much better in the car. And I just think it’s apt to that the analogy Yeah, of choosing actually really ties in very well and into the concept that we’re trying to understand as well. So, yeah.
I think that’s really incredible.
But I actually had a question for you, Dr. Palais. So I know earlier, you’re talking about anxiety and, and anxiousness in general, and how it can be used as a as a mechanism for change. What I’ve what I’ve seen and heard from a lot of people that I know is they they talk about how yes, there can be a feeling of anxiety that motivates you and get you to change. But there’s also anxiety where, you know, you’re sitting on your phone, not doing anything, and you’re feeling anxious, because it’s like, I’m not doing anything. My life isn’t getting better. And really, I just see it as like, kind of like this downward spiral. It’s crippling. Yeah. And and I guess the reason I bring this up, as I know that for you, specifically, you’ve worked on how we can better utilize technology to make our lives better and to actually deal with anxiety. And so I guess there’s this kind of dichotomy that we’re dealing with. I don’t know if you can speak to that dichotomy.
I love that. That’s a good point. Yeah.
Dr. Pillay 46:28
Yeah. So I think pretty much everything is the dichotomy.
True. Living in the paradox, just get it figured out.
Dr. Pillay 46:36
Every nanosecond is like that, to me, I my Twitter profile describes me as somewhere between martinis and meditation.
Martini, honestly, fantastic. I wish that that had been in the bio that I could just read Welcome to the show. Today, he’s between martinis and meditation.
Dr. Pillay 46:55
But it’s I do think anxiety is a paradoxical. It’s a paradoxical thing. On the one hand, as you point out, anxiety can be really motivating. On the other hand, there are non motivating types of anxiety, that can be helpful or hurtful. So just just go through that again. So there’s some kinds of anxiety that feels bad, but it’s actually good, like in positive disintegration, or Kierkegaard, the philosopher who said, anxiety is the dizziness of freedom. We say we want to be free, but actually, it freaks us out. Yeah, like, like driving into a parking lot. If there’s one place to park your car, you don’t have to think about it. But if you have like 75 parking spots, you’re gonna try to take this one on the left, or this one on the right, and this freedom is too much anxiety.
So dizziness, freedom. Wow. Okay, sorry, I just wanted to say that again. Because I’m like, I feel like you should repeat that. Because I know a lot of people that some of the anxiety is something that there’s so many more conversations surrounding today. And so I want you to keep talking, but I just wanted to repeat that because I felt like it was worth repeating. Yeah.
Dr. Pillay 47:57
Yeah, it’s such a it’s, you know, the problem with this is that so many people because they’re afraid of freedom, and usually this is unconscious, they start building in, like, all these weights into their lives, all these balls and chains, I’m, I can’t be free, I’m gonna do this, I can’t be free to do this. And that way, they protect themselves from freedom, which they say they want, right? Because they’re afraid and intimidated by freedom. However, if we get to the point that you mentioned, if someone suddenly getting a panic attack out of nowhere, feeling like you get up on a Monday morning and you open up your email box.
Dr. Pillay 48:32
Yeah, like, Is this, like my favorite? It’s like opening an email. There’s like this, oh, my gosh, oh, man. Are we gonna go through?
And from somebody you really weren’t that excited to hear from in the first place? And it’s just like, yeah.
Dr. Pillay 48:48
So I circa, which is one of the technologies that I developed is something that it’s actually a free download right now. It’s an app. But it there are five steps. It’s a mnemonic that describes five, five steps that have been shown to change brain activation. So when you get anxious, there’s a part of your brain called the amygdala, that over activates, it’s like the needle goes to the high position. If you just keep up, they don’t address it. And then you have to figure out how do I reset this needle? How do I decrease the activation in this anxiety processor, it happens to process other emotions as well. But but it does process anxiety. And circa is a five step process, which I would recommend people write this down. The first C is for chunking, which is when I opened my email box, and I have like 5 million things to do, and there’s just no time to do it. Rather than saying, I’ll get to it. Just stop for a second, take two extra minutes and say, This is what I’m going to do this today. I’m going to chunk it out tomorrow. This is going to be about just doing that decreases this amygdala activation, okay? It’s also about ruthlessly prioritizing, telling yourself I’m not going to get through all of this today, but So what do I have to get through? And then what would be great if I got through? And what do I know I’m not gonna get to calms your brain down, okay. And then also delegation. You know, it’s like, you can do this with your family you can do with your friends, you can do it at work, those things really help you chunk things down. The I in circa is about ignore mental chatter, which is like mindfulness. And essentially, it’s closing your eyes, placing your attention on your breath, at like a flashlight. And if your mind starts chattering, and then you get distracted, gently bring your attention back to your breath. Now, this sounds like like a whatever thing, but actually, it’s super helpful. Not only there’s a decrease amygdala activation, but preliminary studies are showing that at the ends of our chromosomes are like shooting of them like shoelaces, there’s this little end of the shoelace, that’s called a telomere. And as you get older, the telomere gets shorter and shorter, and you get the bonuses and then you die. But mindfulness may may protect the tilam. Wow. And so what sounds like such a simple practice could actually lead to healthy longevity, because it helps to protect you at even at a genetic level. So I always tell people, you know, different people recommend different things. Brown University recommends 40 minutes once a day, most people would faint when they hear that.
Yeah I almost did just now. There she goes…
Dr. Pillay 51:20
I think she’s meditating. Just laying on the ground, I think she’s meditating.
Natalie has left the episode.
Dr. Pillay 51:31
Probably you have, you have a choice. It’s not mindfulness. But don’t forget the Martini.
Probably not as good for the telomeres. But hey that’s something else.
We’re talking about the paradox we’re live in here.
Dr. Pillay 51:45
And then the R is reality check, which is essentially, this too shall pass. You know, sometimes you just have this horrible thing and you try to see a positive side, and you’re like, there is no positive side to it. There’s nothing. But what is positive is that most things that affect us in life, do end up going away. And we do move on and time does move on. So reminding yourself, this too shall pass. It’s a really helpful thing. That so that’s reality check. That’s the answer. The C is control, check the second C, which is like the Serenity Prayer, like, what can I control? What can I not control? And do I know the difference, like you get up in the morning, let’s say you have 10 attentional units, like oh my god, there’s a war here, there’s a pandemic going on here, there’s something happened here is, all of a sudden six units are taken up with stuff that you cannot control. And that’s what you talk about the whole day. So you’re not freeing up your own attention to be as intelligent as you could be. But if you say this, I’m not going to think about I’m not in control of it. And even you could even embody this, rather than a piece of paper and throw it away. That control helps to, you know, recreate space in your brain so you can figure out what you can control. And then attention shift is a reminder that we often talk about the problems like, Oh, my God, everyone’s so polarized. Why are we like this? Why is the world in conflict? Why do people and then say, well, what’s the solution? Let’s live into the solution. But why don’t we take some time out and live into the solution? We take the attention shift from the problem to the solution? Yeah. So I always recommend, and you don’t have to do all of those steps, you can do some of them. But if you get up in a Monday morning, it’s super helpful, because Monday when is often rough for people. But if you get up on Monday morning, you’re like, let me just soak up like a two minute circuit. What can I chunk to have time to be mindful? What’s what’s horrible, that’s going to pass cycle Yeah, have that project or meet the deadline, and then we’ll go, so don’t have to feel sick to my stomach the whole week, that that’s there, what can I control, I can probably schedule that out. I can figure out how to get there, I can control that. I can’t control how people are going to respond to it. But I will do my best I can control what I can do. And now let me just figure out how to solve it. Here are the resources I’m gonna look at. Here’s how I’m going to put this together. Rather than like, oh my god, I have this report. And so horrible. I can’t believe they made me do this. It’s so irrelevant. Why do I did you get stuck in the problem, but those five steps, whether it’s whether it’s a panicky feeling that that when you ask yourself, What am I overwhelmed by, and then you go through circuit can be very helpful to when you’re thinking about how to decrease your anxiety. Another way to think about decreasing anxiety, if it’s worrying, which is the other thing I think he was saying, you’re going through your phone, you’re like, oh my god, I’m worried about this. How do I stop? Well, the leading theory of worry is called contrast avoidance theory. And contrast, avoidance theory basically teaches us that the main reason that people worry is that they’re attached to worry. Like they actually they’re in love with worry and Freud has made has made this Freud even made this comment early on in his dealings with people where he said, you try to snatch away the worry from someone and they’ll hold it like it’s their baby. No, not Don’t take my worry away.
Drama magnets. They say, Oh, I hate drama.
It’s just always around me. I don’t know what’s happening. It’s just always around me.
Because they just love it.
Dr. Pillay 55:10
Yeah. Well, so part of the reason this distraction, but what this does is, they say it likes to have peak experiences, like finding someone you love getting a great job having a child, and then you have this trough or low experiences, like losing a job or losing a loved one, or, you know, having a bad day. And people who worry hate the sudden shift from like, having an amazing time to like, oh, my god who died, that shift is too much contrast avoidance, so that they would rather be mildly miserable, so that the contrast is less. And then they feel like they go from mildly miserable to bad thing. But the problem with that is, you end up having nothing that’s amazing or awesome in your life. So part of what you want to do is, firstly, I’ve noticed that pattern in your life. Secondly, ask yourself, How can I just begin to build compulsory awesome experiences, like things that I know are going to be guaranteed, like, I love to eat this thing, and eating this on Thursday, I want to go for a massage, I’m going to do that I love this friend, I’m going to schedule time with his friend. And that way, you you make it a rule that you are not going to avoid great things. And that there is a way to shift from there to the lower things over time. And you’ll learn to do that over time. But I think circa and remembering contrast, avoidance theory, are two ways in which you can manage anxiety.
I love that I think it’s so practical. And I you know, I’m just thinking, for everyone listening, just a reminder that Dr. Palais is Harvard trained. Like I think so many times when we talk about where people hear things about like mindfulness and how to have better mental health, it kind of gets put in this subcategory of like woowoo. Like it’s not science based, whatever. So I just like a reminder that this guy knows what he’s talking about. He’s obviously incredibly smart. And here you are giving us a tool. It’s not a medication, it’s not psychotherapy, it’s not come see me every week for three months, we’ll try to it’s like, here are five letters. And you could start your day with this and have a massive impact on the way that you feel and show up every single day. So thank you. I love whenever our guests leave us with something that’s actionable. And you absolutely did that. And I feel like there are so many different roads. Here we go on another road analogy that I want to go down with you. So hopefully we can have you back another time to hopefully go into some great detail. Was there anything else that you wanted to ask Derek before we wrap up?
No, I think was that that was it. But I want to again, agree with your sentiment of just like, there are so many things that we could have covered. And we would definitely love to have you back. Yeah, we’re going to cover some more of those things if we’re happy to do that. But thank you so much for your time for joining us, is truly appreciated. Where can people find more about you and your work? And what’s your books and your books? Yes.
Dr. Pillay 58:03
So you can find out more about me at Dr. 3d play.com or at nbg corporate.com. And as a Nancy B as in boy G as in girl, corporate one word calm. You can also follow me on Instagram at Dr Sweeney Palais, or on Twitter at Srini, Palais. And in terms of my books, they’re on sale at Amazon. Tinker, dabble doodle try is about tapping into the unfocused circuit, life unlocked. Seven revolutionary lessons to overcome fear is about managing fear by changing your brain using the techniques that I talked about today. And then your brain in business, the neuroscience of great leaders is about how to build more resilient, agile and creative teams by focusing on changing the brain.
Thank you. Thank you, not just for your time today. But thank you for your work. And I mean, you can just tell on talking with you that this is something you’re passionate about. But I think at the core of that it’s people you know, and you know, setting aside your time for us, for our listeners, all of this expertise that you have, like I just wanted to say, thank you so much for today and for everything that you’ve done to impact the way that people can live a better, fuller, happier life.
Dr. Pillay 59:16
Well, thank you both, too. And thank you for just allowing me to speak about all of these things that I feel so passionately about. And, and also for being part of the conversation. You know, I feel like we’re in an age where we I like the idea of thinking of what we’re doing together as boundary breaking. I think it’s more than bringing an expert in. It’s like, you are also committed to having these conversations with people. And so I think we’re breaking boundaries between whatever’s in the lab, and whatever’s out in the world. And I think you’re mediating Yeah, thank you.
We’re really grateful we can be a part of it. It’s definitely a big reason why we’re doing what we’re doing. So thank you so much. Well, definitely going to have you on again and this has been Invigor medical and We’ll see you all next time
Transcribed by https://otter.ai