Do you know how the media you’re consuming is affecting your brain and mood?
When you’re around negative news, stressed colleagues, and minute-to-minute stock updates, even if you’re not consciously listening to it, your amygdala is on overdrive, and this can lead to subconscious fears, stress and anxiety.
But with a dab of neuroscience, common sense and self-expression, we can rise above the craziness we seem to find ourselves in. And returning to the show to help us get this figured out is Dr. Srini Pillay.
In this episode with Dr. Srini Pillay, we’re chatting about:
- What to do about burnout, depression and anxiety
- How to use neuroscience in the workplace
- Why we should get into the zone of experimentation
- How to be different and get away with it
- And tons more…
Let’s go hang out with Dr. Pillay.
Srini Pillay: Unabashed Dabbler, Polymath & Accomplished Musician
Abel: Always one of my very favorite guests, Dr. Srini Pillay is Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, and many, many other things.
He is known for combining head and heart, figuratively and literally, to combat the stresses faced by ambitious and high-achieving people in academia, business, and life.
Srini is an unabashed dabbler, a polymath, an accomplished musician, an award-winning poet as well, who frequently exports insights from neuroscience and other art forms, such as a new program that will combine neuroscience and music for use in corporate development.
Dr. Pillay, thank you so much for joining us.
Thanks for having me, Abel. It’s always lovely to talk to you.
And I always feel like I have a friend somewhere in the universe who’s traversing the same pathway in the meaning-making conundrum.
Abel: I know exactly what you mean.
We don’t get to catch up enough, but one potential reason why, is because so many people are so busy with so many things these days.
Why Lady Gaga said “No” (And You Should, Too)
Abel: You could argue, maybe more than ever.
One thing that, no matter where you are on the spectrum, from the most famous to the not, we’re all kind of burnt out.
We’re feeling that.
And so, I know it’s one of your focuses right now, and we were talking about Lady Gaga before we started this interview, so maybe we just start with that example, if you don’t mind.
Yeah, I was reminded of that example. When you were talking to me about how your life became better, one of the things that you said was that you get to say “yes” to the things you like to say yes to, and “no” to the things that you like to say no to.
And this reminded me of a video that I sometimes will show to corporations, which is a moment of realization that Lady Gaga had, when she suddenly said to herself, “Maybe I don’t like singing.”
Which is sort of crazy because she’s so good at it.
But she had reached a point in her life where she just didn’t want to do this anymore, and then she started to think about it deeply.
And what she said was, “I suddenly realized that I don’t like selling perfumes, I don’t like taking selfies, I don’t like checking my texts all of the time. I have much more to offer the world.”
And so she decided to say “no,” because she was starting to feel like a money-making machine, just making money for other people.
And so, when she started to say “no” to things, in her own words she said she would go home and look at herself in the mirror, and say, “You, I can sleep with.”
And in her words, she said, “Because you, you’ve got balls.”
And what she felt was that, because she had integrity, she could now say “no” to things she wanted to say no to.
She suddenly felt a greater degree of lightness because she realized that most of us are unconsciously living out a lie.
And it was just such a profound statement.
And it made me think certainly about, “What is this stuff I’m saying yes to that I don’t really want to do? And what is the stuff I’m not saying no to?”
Abel: Because it’s usually automatic, right? It’s usually unconscious.
Yeah, exactly. Right. So whenever I work with people in corporations, I’ll ask them, “Are there two things you could be saying no to in life?”
And when I ask anyone that, and I would ask anyone who’s listening to this to ask themselves, is there something they could say, “I don’t want to do that anymore,” to?
Because I think the moment we offload this unnecessary stuff, we free our brain space to be able to do stuff that we really love to do, and that we could be good at if that brain space was not occupied by nonsense.
How to Manage Social Media (& Stay Sane)
Abel: And you even mentioned an example from your own life, which is social media.
As much as you want to be out there, connecting with people—and I’m in a similar boat—you don’t want to be scrolling on that news feed or the feed in whatever app we’re talking about, looking at one out of every five sponsored manipulative posts that are trying to trick you and make you feel less than yourself and make you feel like you need something.
That’s all seeping in there.
Abel: What are some things that you do to kind of say “no” in your life?
That’s a good example to keep going with, because a lot of people say, “Well, you can’t avoid social media, you need to be on it. You have a business, or you’re a person, or you’re a personality. How could you possibly exist without it?”
So how could you? What do you do?
I think I like to share things with people, but I don’t like to invent mood states.
A lot of my passion for what I do comes from the experience that I have, and the stuff that I write, and the stuff that I read.
And I don’t like to force that on people. I don’t like to say, “It’s the only truth, so you have to love me.”
I don’t feel like you actually have to love me in order to read something that could be helpful to you.
I’ve worked with a lot of people who said, “You really have to engage personally with your audience.”
And I feel like that’s kind of fake because I don’t know my audience, and it’s sort of like I have a sense of who they are, and I know they like to feel like I know them.
And, of course, I want them to know me for what I do, but I’d like it to be real.
And so what I did was I’ve changed a lot of my social media style of posting to, “Just wrote this. This is what it’s about. Hope it’s helpful.”
And I don’t think it’s sort of a massive success in terms of what it could be doing.
I think if I did more videos on Instagram, it probably would give people a better sense of who I am.
But I feel like I need to grow to that point where someone else is taking care of thinking about that.
Because for me to think about how I want to appear in front of people, it’s a level of conscious thought that just messes everything up.
Abel: Yeah, totally.
You know me well enough to know that when I’m somewhere, I’m somewhere.
What works is when I’m me, and the message that I want to communicate to other people is that what works is when they are themselves.
So I feel like when you try to think, “Should I come off as this? Or what should I be wearing?”
As you know, I’m an eccentric dresser. So I was like, “Should I wear a jacket? Should I wear this?”
I wear all of those things. So why do I have to pretend to be a certain kind of someone?
And why should anyone in the world pretend to be that?
So I think, with social media, it’s beautiful to share, and like anything, there are pluses and minuses.
I think it really is awesome to be able to say to someone, “This just happened.” Or, “I just wrote this.”
But I think that the more authentic we can stay, the better it is for us and the people we’re connecting to.
Abel: That makes me think of one of the first times we hung out, where you were just wearing the most spectacular rhinestone boots, or something like that.
At first, that doesn’t make you think, “He’s saying ‘no’ to something” because it looks like a yes.
But what you’re saying no to is the norm, right?
Deliberate Practice and Grit
Abel: What you’re saying “no” to is the tendency to be like everyone else, to wear the same hat and the same jacket and the same everything as everyone else.
You’re saying no to that. And that takes more courage than most people probably realize.
Yes. And sometimes people will say to me, “Don’t you ever just wear regular jeans and a t-shirt?”
And I’m like, “Yeah, I do.”
For me, a lot of life is just about having fun.
And it doesn’t mean I have fun all the time, but when there’s an opportunity, I like to take advantage of that and have fun.
And so the idea of trying on different clothes, of experimenting with all kinds of things in life, is what matters to me.
I think, for a lot of people, we all have different levels of experimentation we want to engage in. Like some people don’t want to experiment, they want to be stale.
I think that’s cool if that’s your comfort zone.
But I think as long as you’re asking yourself a question of, “Do I want to be in this zone, or do I want to be somewhere else? And as I grow through this life, how do I want to grow?”
Because, too often, I think people don’t realize that they’ve just ignored who they are through most of their lives. The self goes completely ignored.
As a result of that, they end up being some version of who they think they’re supposed to be.
And, as you and I talked about, this whole notion of the fact that I play music and that I work in the corporate sphere, that I’m a psychiatrist, and that I have tech companies.
Most people say, “How could you be doing all these different things?”
Well, because I’ve worked for a substantial part of my life in each of those categories, and I’m a connector, and I like to connect things.
The absolute truth is I probably don’t know why. Because if more than 90% of brain function is unconscious, I probably only partly have an idea of why.
And it’s one of the reasons I’m often reticent about this notion of giving advice.
Because I feel like successful people are the worst people at giving advice because all they tell you about is what’s conscious.
They’ll say things like, “Well, I worked at it because I really had a lot of grit.”
But if you actually look at the research on grit, I think Angela Duckworth has done a beautiful job in framing the advantages of grit, and saying that it really matters to be conscientious and to have some consistency of effort.
But Marcus Crede did a meta-analysis on grit recently and made some pretty valid critiques, and he basically said that when you look at the correlation between grit and success, it’s actually very poor.
A perfect correlation is one, and the closer you get to one, the more it’s correlated with success.
Well, it turns out that grit’s correlation with success is between 0.18 and 0.2. And so, it’s not a strong correlation with success.
And so when successful people tell you, “I did this because I had grit.”
Well a lot of the figures around that are a little inflated.
There was a study done with people in the military, I think, who would have to make it through some challenge. And what they said was something like 99% of people who had high grit were able to do this, but what they didn’t say was that 96% of everybody else were also able to do this.
I think another good example of listening to successful people, but listening in the wrong way is they will often tell you that deliberate practice is the way to go. That practice makes perfect and if you do something over and over again, you’re likely to become good at it.
Now, that’s such a believable thing.
When I think about music, I’m like, “I practiced a lot and I was able to get some sense of mastery over it.”
And when I think about what happened with my academics, when I was learning psychiatry or brain science, I read a lot.
Right now, I spend a lot of time doing stuff.
But if you look at the research in this, Brooke Macnamara at Princeton did a meta-analysis, to ask the question, “How much does deliberate practice correlate with success?”
The highest figures are the 20%. So if you look at your success pie, and you cut out a piece of the pie, and you say, “How much of success is due to deliberate practice?”
The highest level of that is actually in the 20%—in music and sports. For education, it goes down to 4%. And for jobs, it’s less than 1%.
Which means that people who are good at their jobs are not necessarily good at it because they do it a lot, which is such an earth-shattering thought.
I respect both sides of the argument.
There are studies that probably show the opposite of that, but I think they make us ask questions, “If grit is not enough, and if deliberate practice is not enough, what else do we need?”
And I think we need not just psychological constructs and methods, we need to be part of anything that we’re practicing, or anything that we’re doing conscientiously.
And if we are just following somebody else’s advice, then we actually leave ourselves out. It’s like imitating someone else’s life.
So that whole monologue was really to emphasize the fact that successful people usually only report what they do consciously.
They don’t really tell you about what’s happening unconsciously, and that deliberate practice and grit, on their own, are not enough to manifest success.
And if we think about all of these things, and what you and I are talking about implicitly, at some level, we call ourselves dabblers because we’re working in different fields.
But there is a kind of intensity that you bring to your poetry, for example.
I read a lot of that poetry, and I was like, this is not dabbling-ish poetry.
This is a guy who is operating from some kind of primitive core, and is able to channel it through an artistic medium, and bring together his various interests in a way that feels alive.
And so I feel like the more we can access our primitive selves, the more likely it is that we will be successful and more creative.
How to Access Your Primitive Core for Success
Abel: As long as you don’t paint yourself into that box.
It makes me think of something. I’m taking jazz lessons from one guy over in the UK and also from a few guys in North America. Kind of a DIY grad school arts education is what I’m after.
And he said something really interesting, because he went to conservatory over in the UK, and there were a ton of solid players there, real cats.
Now he’s 15, 20 years out, something like that. And he said something interesting happened.
When you’re in conservatory, the best players are at the top of the world. They’re just honored as gods, and all this other stuff.
But after school, when you enter the real world, whatever that means, a few years out that switches, he says.
It’s really the ones who were able to engage the rest of their lives and develop some sense of entrepreneurship, some sense of, I don’t want to say marketing yourself, but, especially for musicians, you need to put yourself out there, you need to be good at that.
That has nothing to do with moving your hands with great precision on an instrument, right?
And so, it’s really much more about this holistic approach, where you have to take different parts of yourself and develop them, and hopefully, like you were saying, get to some sense of wholeness.
Yeah, I think what happens when you are connecting these different parts of yourself, as opposed to ignoring them.
I often will say to people, “So if you like cooking and you also work in technology or you’re working with a social media company, and you like hanging out at the beach because it’s something that just makes you feel good in the summer, I think you can make a life combining those different things.”
And not in a kind of compartmentalized way, but give yourself to some of your impulses.
On a certain day, if I realize I’ve got something to do, and I’m like, “But today, I feel like actually being on the beach.”
Then you can be on the beach, and come back and revisit your schedule, and change what you’re doing.
And when you give in to that impulse, it connects you with something that’s primitive about yourself.
Now, I’m sure people are thinking, “Yeah, that sounds great for you, but I’ve got such a tough schedule. I’ve gotta look after my kids. I’ve gotta come home and leave.”
Look, I think we put ourselves into these chains for reasons that are not entirely clear, but which I do have some thoughts about.
As you probably know, one of my favorite quotes is a Kierkegaard quote, which is that anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.
We say we want to be free, but when we are free we actually become really anxious, because it’s like being without gravity.
And so we try to weigh ourselves down with life’s duties so that we don’t have to be free, and we can authentically complain about it.
So, I often will say to people, “If you feel like your life is packed in that way, then ask yourself how can I build in some time to not pack my life in that way?”
And, “How can I build in some time so that I’m not caught up in these chains that are completely limiting my life?”
Because it’s not just about the theory of what I’m saying, or about whether what I’m saying is right or wrong.
If we project out into the future, probably the thing we’re projecting out to is a way in which we can think about our lives.
When I think about my life, I think, well, you know, “What would the music in me be, that I want to be played out?”
I’m like how I’m getting an unusual number of texts on this device right now.
Abel: Oh, it’s that what’s knocking it over?
Abel: I was thinking we should make a blooper reel of this, but we should just leave this in, because this is real-life stuff right here.
You know, normally, we’d be doing this over a Wi-Fi connection that’s supposed to be super-stable, but any of you watching or listening, that is getting more challenging as the years go by.
So, more often than not, instead of Wi-Fi or ethernet, we’re set to go over phones. Sometimes they get tipped over when you get texts.
Right. Why is everybody texting only now?
Abel: Murphy’s law, I think.
Yeah, probably trying to unsettle me about something.
Abel: Right. Get you all scattered, distracting you from your point.
Yeah. But I feel like life is short. You live, you die, you do something in between.
I think if you use that as a guide post, it’s really helpful in terms of how you make choices in your life.
And those people who feel like they don’t really have choices, I think it’s more that we can’t see our choices when we’re not self-connected.
Because when we are—like we talked about where you might live, for example. I often think, there’s a lot of stuff, a lot of loose threads hanging around.
I live in a suburb of Boston, but I feel like my heart is in New York and LA.
And my ostensible reason is that it’s too expensive to move out to New York, which is true technically, but if that were really the reason, then why would I not say, “I really want that”?
And so then I think about the possibilities of spending the same amount of time doing something that will allow me to afford a place to stay in New York.
Because if I really want to do that, and I would say that I don’t think I’ve lived into that possibility enough, I don’t think I’ve committed with my whole body to that possibility.
And as we were talking about earlier, in terms of where you move to and how you live, I think you’re so happy with where you are right now. Because it felt to me like your whole body was committed to that environment and that move.
I think embodied commitment is really not talked about, in fact.
My general feeling in psychiatry and in medicine is that the split between the mind and the body is just sort of absurd.
Even a thing like commitment is something that—when you’re anxious you clench your teeth. When I’m excited, I’m moving my hands. This is my body that’s channeling some kind of emotion.
So if I want to be committed to living in New York, rather than saying, “Well, in order to live in New York, I probably need much more money than I’m currently making, and so I’m not able to do that.”
And if you look at the apartments that are great. There are apartments that are absurdly priced, beautiful, $250 million.
You’re like, “Wow, that’s an expensive apartment.”
What do you have to do to afford that? That sounds impossible.
Well, the building is almost full, so it’s not impossible.
There are people who are doing something, probably spending less time working than I’m working, who have figured out how they want to do what they’re doing.
I probably don’t want to do what they’re doing, but my sense is they were more committed to that vision.
So they were able to live a life to be able to fulfill that vision.
And so, when I think about it, I’m absurdly excited about my life because of the different things that I do, and I get up with a spring in my step.
I’m one of those annoying people who’s sort of like that. I’m excited from the time I get up to the time I go to sleep.
And even when something awful happens, which is often, especially when you’re an entrepreneur, I’m just sort of like, “Okay, next. How do I move onto this next thing.”
Because I like thinking about the brain, I like thinking about the human psyche.
I’m very fortunate to be working personally with people I truly love, and I’ve been working with them for a long time.
So those things are awesome that they’re happening.
If they’re not happening, like in the way my New York apartment is not happening, or the $250 million apartment is not happening, it’s like, well, it is kind of a stretch.
I don’t think I can stretch my mind from where I am, just saying I’m going to do something different tomorrow so that I’ll be able to buy a $250 million apartment and have a few dollars left over for a hot dog.
But I think that we can scale back on those possibilities until we get to a point where we say, “Well, what amount of money that’s greater than what you’re making right now can you be committed to?”
And I would say, for me as a practitioner, this has been one of the biggest changes that I think I made in my own practice.
Rather than only talking about memory, how you can revisit what’s happened so you can correct things in the here and now, and move into the future.
I really encourage people to also spend time living into possibilities and committing to them in an all-in kind of way.
And I think you would be an amazing person to talk to about the all-in-ness, because from the time I first met you, I think I noticed that you had an all-in-ness about you.
And I’m interested to know from you as well, how do you think that all-in-ness happened in your life?
Harnessing the Power of “All-in-Ness”
Abel: It wasn’t always all-in-ness, I think, is the answer to that. You have to experience the opposite of that, and be like, “This is not what I want.”
Abel: And then you find the edges, and you find your way back to the sweet spot, is how I like to explain that.
But, for me, going to an Ivy League school was a double-edged sword. For a long time, I thought that my education was just like everything.
I’d worked so hard for it, I went into debt for it, and I worked so hard to get out of debt for it, and all this stuff.
But when you really take a step back, it’s like, I didn’t learn about spirituality and deeper meaning from an Ivy League college.
I learned that from the woods and from going across the world and meeting people I never thought could exist in this reality. You know what I mean?
It came from all these other things, and breaking myself over and over again.
Also, it’s almost 10 years to the day, it was Easter 10 years ago, I lost everything I had in a fire in Austin, six months after I moved there.
And that’s just as I had paid off my debt, so I was completely broke and just hit rock bottom.
I think once you’ve hit that rock bottom in whatever way in your life, you can hopefully find a way to navigate out of it so that you never have to be there again.
And that makes it easier to go all-in. And makes it easier to be like, “Ok, I’ve been publicly humiliated.”
I was engaged in my early 20s, it was a public and embarrassing breakup, to me. It wasn’t to anyone else, no one else really cared, right?
Because it happens all the time, but all these things just kind of broke me over and over again.
I’m only 34 now, but I feel like, for the past five or so years, it’s been a deep search to try to get back in touch with what my 8-year-old self would have wanted to grow up into.
So, sometimes as a mental exercise I even imagine, “Wow, I just time-traveled from being 8 years old. What am I going to do today? What do I want to do now?”
And if it weren’t for that, I wouldn’t be writing this poetry, I wouldn’t be playing or learning jazz piano for the first time.
I’d never actually done that, but I always wanted to. I’m mostly a guitarist and singer.
And so just exploring all these things and making yourself a beginner is big.
And I’ll add one other thing to that, which I think is so important and you’ll definitely appreciate, Srini.
When you play music—and I think when you play sports too, but certainly with music—I tend to play for an hour, maybe two hours in the morning, practicing on piano and guitar, and you’re making mistakes constantly.
You know that there are mistakes. That’s kind of the whole point. You’re bad, you’re making yourself bad every time you practice.
You’re not supposed to practice the things that you’re good at, you’re practicing the things that you’re bad at, right?
So you get used to making those mistakes, and that somehow spills over to the rest of your life, where it’s easier to be all-in because you’re not self-censoring.
Kind of like what you were saying before, when you’re on social media, you have to think about what other people are thinking of you, and if you’re in that state, you can’t be all-in.
I really like what you’re saying. That point also resonates deeply with me, and especially the jazz piano bit.
I trained in classical piano, and recorder, and I studied music, and then I went to medical school.
I used to practice six, seven hours a day, and so I felt like I was really immersed in it.
And then I went to medical school, and then that’s what happened with my six to seven hours.
And I realized, at a certain point, though, that you can say goodbye to a lot of things, but music is a lover, it’s just impossible to say goodbye.
Abel: Yup, I tried. Didn’t work.
Yeah, it just doesn’t. And so I decided that the way I would cope with my ego-fracturing, knowing that I had not practiced for many years, was I would hire a jazz piano teacher.
Yeah. So I wouldn’t feel badly about the fact that I wasn’t as good at classical piano. I was just beginning to get to concert levels, I was feeling fluent, I was composing.
And suddenly, I was like, I’ll do jazz piano because then I won’t be hard on myself about the fact that I’m not good at this, because I haven’t actually studied jazz piano.
So I hired this teacher, and I was working with him. We worked together for a while, and then I was like, “I hate being so bad at this.”
This is so awful. I used to play so fluently, and now it’s like playing as if I’ve never played piano before.
This is not like the bicycle story.
It’s like, if you haven’t been practicing for a while, you get rusty at it, and then it’s the opposite of deliberate practicing.
But I was like, “Well, you know what I want to do is, I’m going to try to understand what I feel.”
And what I felt was, I really did not like not being fluent at playing jazz piano.
So I came to my music lesson one day, and I said to my piano teacher, “Can you please take the seat of the piano?”
He was like, “What are you talking about?”
And I said, “I had a sudden impulse today that I want to sing and I want to find my ugly, because I think there’s something in my voice that I’m avoiding, literally and figuratively.”
And he was like, “Well, what do you mean?”
I said, “I keep on singing in this kind of comfortable range, but I’m not stretching my capacity of my vocal column.”
He said, “What would you like to sing?”
And I said, “I don’t know, but please start playing.”
And so then I start singing. And he was like, “What key? What time?”
I said, “One, two.” And I’m just starting to sing.
And I ended up composing 42 songs that year that became the musical that I wrote.
Abel: Wow, no way!
Because I just decided that there was something going on there.
I didn’t know what it was, but I sang all of it, and then I looked at it, and I was like, “I must be singing about something.”
So I went around and I wrote down the titles of each thing, had all the notation.
And I was like, “I think there’s a theme to what this is.”
I reorganized the music into a story, and then went back and edited it a couple of times.
And so now I’m at a point where I’m doing the final notation before I produce it.
But that all came from wanting to find my ugly and recognizing what I could not tolerate.
That’s an example where you can’t tolerate being bad at something. But composition doesn’t really leave you.
Composition, if you’ve been doing it for a while, sort of stays with you, and there are places you can go, and you can experience the fluency.
And so I feel like I turned what could have been a really bad situation, because I was getting so annoyed with how bad I was at jazz piano, compared to how I was.
And I was like, “I don’t want to go through this thing.” I’m like, “I’ve added one more song to my repertoire,” and, “I’ve added another song to my repertoire.”
And, “It’s getting a bit better. I want to throw myself into this.”
I think the fact that you turn to music to describe an aspect of your all-in-ness, I deeply resonate with, because music is a place where I experienced my all-in-ness, as well.
The Zone of Experimentation
Abel: Yeah. I think a lot of people do, if they’re honest about it.
Have you seen what Jeff Goldblum is up to with a jazz piano?
He released an album last year. It’s really good. He’s good, and has been playing and been really good for a long time.
But he describes it as the joy of discipline. He discovered the joy of discipline.
And it’s interesting too, because he wakes up in the morning and practices piano. And that’s kind of a common theme that I’ve seen in very artistic kind of inspired all-in people.
As an actor, he definitely personifies that sort of eccentric off-the-wall, all-in, all the time, and that’s what you want.
But it has to be this combination of that joy of discipline, combined with, it sounds like for you, the musical, and the poetry book was like this for me.
It’s not like you had this intention that was totally clear, and you were striving for it, and you were working really hard and making sacrifices until you had this musical.
It kind of appeared out of nowhere, right?
Abel: But it molded itself, almost, a little bit, right?
Yeah. And, in fact, there are studies that do attest to the fact, this thing about being connected to whatever your primitive core is.
I started writing a piece about this recently.
And I asked the question, “Why do we all appreciate Serina Williams’ role, or great dancers hip-thrusting, or…”
There’s something about when people connect to their primitive selves, we’re like transfixed.
Because, in part, it reminds us that there’s that level of ambition somewhere within us, that there’s that level of commitment somewhere within us.
And I think, when I put myself in this position with the music, I was just like, “I want to also connect to something that feels more primitive.”
And there are parts of this musical, because a lot of it is about the characters in the main character’s head, that even feel a little bit Wagnerian, in the sense that they kind of don’t make sense. Like, what is going on?
They don’t make sense. The kind of sense that they make is the kind of sense you feel, but you can’t really tease out in logic.
And the studies that have looked at creative scientists and artists have found that, number one, they engage in imagination a lot.
They actually make mental pictures and mental movies.
And secondly, in the midst of making those mental movies, there are these primitive forms that just come together, that start to express something.
There’s a humorous part, I’ll share a little bit about one of the characters.
One of the things I wanted to address is how all of us are embodied with this kind of sadomasochistic tension—hurting ourselves, hurting others, trying to deal with how not to do either.
And when I introduced masochism as the mental character, I thought it was sort of amusing but also slightly primitive, that the character was singing, “All I do is hurt me, hurt me, hurt me.”
I was like, “What? There’s a person like that in our head, what?”
It was so absurd to be singing this thing in the form of a musical, to be like, having this character celebrate the fact that that’s what they do.
But the truth is, I would say, two brain facts about that are true.
Firstly, these kinds of self-oriented attacks are quite common in all of us, and it’s important to be aware of that.
So when you see that on stage, it’s sort of like a remarkable reminder of that.
And the other thing about the disorder is that brain studies are now showing that entropy, the degree of disorder in one’s brain actually correlates with a higher degree of intelligence.
The more options your brain can generate for any given situation, the more likely it is that you’ll solve what exists.
But if you just think in a very narrow and confined way, and there isn’t this constant communication, you’re limiting your intelligence.
So when I emphasize these points, be aware that deliberate practice or bridges are not everything. Use your imagination or have a sense of possibility or live on the wild side.
I know they all sound like very idealistic notions.
And so my thought is, it’s difficult to jump from where most of us are to live doing all of that, all the time, but I think if we can just choose one of those things, just to turn the dial up a little bit on our lives, and to say, “I want to make one change.”
I think it’s far less overwhelming.
And I think, for people who want to practice that, choosing one or two things, and then realizing what’s in that world, I think, can make a huge difference to your lives.
When I read your poetry book… How did that poetry come through you?
Abel: That is an excellent question.
Because it didn’t sound like it was manufactured. It sounded like it might have been edited from time to time, but mostly, it sounded like it just came through you.
Abel: Yeah, it did. Some of them, honestly, I wrote when I was about 14 or 15 years old.
I was going back through them after my parents had moved, and I was just kind of going through, “Oh, this is kind of cool, old stuff.”
Like the poem that I wrote about the pumpkins—The Day When Pumpkins Came Alive—which is kind of one of the more political ones, was actually written when I was 15, when the Bush administration was in office, around 9/11, and all that.
So, in reading my old poetry, I was just like, “Oh, oddly enough, I don’t always think of myself as an artist.”
And I certainly didn’t after everyone started saying, “Oh, you’re a health guy. You’re a big health guy,” over and over again after this was kind of the thing that got big.
That starts brainwashing you a little bit.
And it took one of my best friends from high school, Will, who was on this podcast not long ago. He’s an eighth grade teacher of world cultures in English, and he wrote a couple of poetry books mostly for his kids.
And I read through those, and I was like, “Well, if my best friend is doing it, why can’t I do something like that?”
So, I just kinda sat down and had this space.
This was before I had really focused on practicing for two hours a day, which is what I’m doing now, because I shift that focus.
But for just a couple of months, I sat down whenever something felt like it was coming through. I’d think of a funny rhyme or it was just there, and then it would come out, I’d sit down, and I’d write it.
But honestly, I don’t think that’s totally fair, because even before that, I don’t know if you saw some of the live looping music videos that I’ve been doing with just a bunch of different instruments in virtual reality, or whatever.
But that was something I was doing because of writer’s block.
I did 400 improv music videos on a bunch of instruments that I don’t play. And it reminds me of your experience with the jazz instructor.
Where I’m just like, “Buh! I have no idea what’s going to happen, let’s hit play.”
And sometimes I’d create 10 new songs in a night. And most of them were really bad, and just completely silly.
But then the poetry just started to flow out of me after I did 400 of those.
Some of them were decent, but most of them were not. It was more of an exercise, like you were talking about, to kind of get things flowing.
And that’s what you need, isn’t it?
I think so. I think part of what we’re talking about is what you can do to get things flowing, not to get things right.
Abel: Yes. Oh, that’s so big.
When you do something to get things flowing, you discover things. You can’t really discover anything if you know everything.
It’s sort of like, if you know everything, there’s nothing to discover.
But if you turn things up so that you can just get started in some process.
What you said about the improvisational instruments, I’ve had that experience.
I’ve had the experience trying to play a trumpet and having no sound come out of it, and being like, “What is going on?” Even a clarinet.
I was playing recorder, and I was very practiced at it. I was good at it, and I was, “Oh, clarinet. That must be easy.”
So I took the clarinet, and I’m like, “Nothing is happening. There’s no sound coming out of it.”
But then you learn what you need to do when you play with reed instruments, and how you wet things, and how it sounds.
It’s an awesome thing to jump start your life.
And I think that most of us, when I think about my life, certainly, and the lives of anyone I’m working with, part of what I would love for people to feel is this feeling of electricity, which is literally what’s coursing through our bodies.
To really tap into that electricity by jump-starting our lives, by choosing something like that, and then seeing where it goes, not giving up on it.
I think what happens is, with a lot of people, when you were describing being with the musical instruments, it sounded like you were just into it.
You’re like, “I don’t care if I’m good or bad.”
I was like, “I’m just going to play, sing, do something.”
And so, all of a sudden, you’re in that zone, and it’s the zone of experimentation.
And the zone of experimentation is where you find the promise of being alive at a very different place in your life.
And I think science is sort of amazing at teaching the process of experimentation.
But there are a lot of people, Einstein, for example, who talk about the fact that speculation is much more important than people realize.
That taking a huge leap forward, and then reverse-engineering that is probably much more effective.
Because when you just think your way into a sensible place forward, then you’re not jumping that far.
But I would say to somebody, “What’s the most outrageous thing that you could possibly be thinking that you’re doing, that would keep you safe, and others around you safe, and leave your life intact?”
So, that said, those are the only limits. What could you possibly be doing?
And I think there’s so many things that we could all be doing if we allowed ourselves to speculate.
Kary Banks Mullis, who I mentioned in my book as well, who discovered a synthetic way of making DNA, his colleagues hated him because he just didn’t follow the very regular, logical, scientific process.
He was just driving from Berkeley to Mendocino, suddenly thought of something, wrote it on a wall, his girlfriend was asleep, he had had some wine along the way.
This is not what they teach you when they teach you how to design experiments.
They are like, “Be clear. Have a clear mind. Be methodical. Go from point A to point B.”
What I often feel is that when I hear rational thought that shapes our intellects, I believe it because I believe our innate intelligence is much more primordial, is much more associative, is much more wild.
And rational thought brings some order to that.
But when rational thought is your intelligence, it’s a problem.
Because I feel like then you’re not actually touching base with that particular shape. You’re just making your intelligence in a kind of structural way.
It’s what I think differentiates great architects from not great architects.
Great architects have a feeling deep inside of them that they then bring out into a structure.
And so I think if you’re not connected to that feeling, and you’re not connected to that drive, it doesn’t matter what the rational thought is, it’s not going to serve.
Transcranial Direct Stimulation
Abel: I love that. I can’t believe it, but we’re almost out of time.
I want to make sure we quickly touch on one more thing with you, specifically, because there’s a whole lot of hubbub about it recently, transcranial direct stimulation.
Having this podcast and stuff, I get all sorts of devices sent to me, and I have a couple of brain-shocking devices, and, ethically and morally, I’m a little freaked out by them.
But where do you stand on that whole thing?
So, I guess there are two things to say about that.
One is that, from a research perspective, there’s a decent amount of research on different kinds of transcranial brain stimulation.
And there certainly is a decent amount of pilot data to show that it can change depression, it can help in a number of different outcomes.
So I think, as a methodology, it’s fairly safe if administered by people who know how to use it in a laboratory setting, where there are safety devices, in case something goes wrong.
I think, from my own perspective, I am very interested in it for a number of reasons.
We live in an age where we talk a lot about brain chemistry, and we try to change our mental states chemically, using medications or drugs.
But when we think about how the brain works, electricity is a way that it works. So adding an electrical intervention could actually be helpful to people.
My personal philosophy on those kinds of things is I stick to martinis for external stimuli.
And I think anything else that’s going to shock me or change my chemistry too much.
I have a lot of friends who use those kinds of devices or alter their chemistry because they need to.
Personally, I think there’s a decent amount of safety associated with it. I think it can help things like depression. There are instances of post-traumatic stress disorder where it’s been helpful.
So I think that it could be helpful, but I think there’s a lot more research that needs to be done to make sure that it’s safe.
Because if you have a pacemaker, if you have a lesion in your brain already, if you have magnetic things in your body, that could change what’s going on. I wonder about that.
I’m also interested in the fact that hemoglobin itself is magnetic.
And so I wonder what the long-term effects on blood flow will be with the transcranial stimulation.
Abel: I remember doing a bunch of MRI studies in college—the max, I think. And it was unpleasant, I can tell you, being inside that machine for a time.
But I got a lot of pictures of my brain out of it, which was great.
Where to Find Dr. Srini Pillay
Abel: But, anyway, Srini, what’s the best place to find you? And what are you working on? What’s coming next?
Well, so I’m doing a bunch of different things.
I’m working on an app for anxiety.
I’m putting together a book proposal that looks at how we distraught ourselves, and as a result have depression and anxiety as signals that remind us that we need to figure out how to get back into connection with ourselves.
I can certainly give you the link so that people can click on them to follow what I’m writing about.
And would love to have more people join in the conversations that I’m starting, because it matters to me what people would like to learn more about.
And there’s so much to write about that I’d rather write about stuff that people care about.
So, look me up, see if it appeals to you, and if it does, please join me on social media so we can have some rich conversations.
Abel: The breadth of Srini’s work is inspiring. Your work is so important, I really appreciate you being here, Srini.
We’ll have to have you back on many more times. Maybe we’ll just make it an annual thing, keep checking in on you.
That sounds awesome.
Abel: Alright. Thanks, again.
Thank you. Well, I love talking to you, always.
Before You Go…
Here’s a review for the podcast that came in from Tonya. She says:
Just want to say that I enjoy listening to your podcast! My family and friends think I’m weird because I’m interested in health and anti-aging. I started training for my 18th marathon and your podcast gets me through the miles!
My mother is 86 and refuses medication for her few health issues — all diet! I hope I can convince my family and friends not to follow the “norm”. Thanks Abel!
Tonya, thank you so much for your review.
It’s fun to be the weird one, isn’t it?
My friends all thought I was nuts when I started this show 8+ years ago.
But a funny thing happens once they realize you’re sticking with it. They’ll start asking for your advice!
And kudos to your mother for healing her health issues with good old fashioned healthy foods, instead of pills.
Thank you for writing in, and sharing a bit of your story with us. And for standing out and being weird.
Speaking of weird. I finished up my new book of mostly silly poetry, and it’s finally ready for you.
The book is called Designer Babies Still Get Scabies, and it’s full irresistible rhymes and ridiculous rants.
You can grab your very own copy by heading over to DesignerBabiesBook.com.
And here’s a fun surprise. When you buy the paperback, you’ll get the audiobook for FREE. Plus, we’ll enter you into our mega giveaway for over $800 in prizes.
I narrated the audiobook myself, and I hope you’ll get a kick out of it.
To claim your free audiobook and enter the giveaway, just head on over to DesignerBabiesBook.com to get all the details and join in the fun.
Here are a couple reviews that already came in for the new book…
New York Times Bestselling Author, Robb Wolf says:
“In a world that takes itself far too seriously, Abel manages to both poke fun and provide insight… if one is willing to go on the adventure.”
Writer and Life Simplification Teacher, Gary Collins says:
“I highly recommend Abel’s small book of poetry. With all the noise of today’s society, there are times when you just need to turn it all off and have a chuckle. This book does exactly that. Even though the content is based on today’s real world problems, the humor behind it is fantastic and gives you a little hope we can get it figured out.”
“What is Designer Babies all about?” you might be wondering.
It’s a subversive, hypnotic little book that confronts dark questions, conspiracy theories, magic, and histories’ mysteries with dazzling flurries of irresistible rhymes and ridiculous rants.
You’ll meet indestructible robots, world-conquering pumpkins, $300 million dollar fighter jets, dog-eating dinosaurs, judgemental Sasquatch, and for the first time ever, The Dastardly Zuckerburglar.
Speeding through true stories of eels on cocaine, you’ll ultimately discover why designer babies and brain implants won’t save us as we tumble toward the Singularity.
But I need your help. Together, we can get this crazy little book on the bestseller list…
Just go to DesignerBabiesBook.com for details on ordering your copy, claiming your freebies, and joining our giveaway.
What did you think of this interview with Dr. Srini Pillay? Share your thoughts with us in the Comments section below!