Happy Brain: How to Overcome Our Neural Predispositions to Suffering by Amit Sood at TEDxUNI (Transcript)

Here is the full transcript of Dr. Amit Sood’s TEDx talk presentation Happy Brain: How to Overcome Our Neural Predispositions to Suffering at TEDxUNI conference. To learn more about the speaker, read the full bio here.

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Dr. Amit Sood – Professor of Medicine at Mayo Clinic College of Medicine

How are you doing this evening? Good. Motivated inspired, wonderful speakers — I bet you have not heard Slumdog Millionaire accent so far, so here I bring that right in the middle of Midwest.

So I came to U.S. in 1995. I had been in medical training for 10 years before I came. In my first year of medical school in 1984, I witnessed one of the worst industrial disasters Bhopal gas tragedy where we lost maybe tens of thousands of people overnight. I was a first-year medical student at that time.

So over the next eight to ten years I saw a lot of disasters, lot of challenges because of malnutrition and infections and so on. So by the time I was preparing to come to the U.S. in 1995, I thought I was going to come to Disneyland. I thought everybody here is going to be very happy. I thought as a child here you grow up in Disneyland, when you’re an adult you play slots in Las Vegas and you retire in Florida playing bingo. I thought that’s what pretty much American life is, I was seeing too many movies.

So when I came here and I saw that it was almost as much stress and suffering here as I was seeing overseas, that sort of shocked me. I had come here to become a cancer specialist, or change my direction. And I said I’m going to understand why does human brain not know how to be happy? Why do we struggle with that?

And so I’ll share with you a few pearls I have learned on that journey and we’ve sort of put together a program that we offer to over 50,000 people every year at this time.

So there are some neural predispositions that predispose us to suffering, there’s the external situations of course but there are some neural predispositions. For example, we spend a lot of time mind-wandering when you are doing dishes. You know, right at that time your brain is not doing dishes, your brain is going through all of that. And you’re not saying, “I have the most wonderful partner in the world. I have the best children; how come I have so much more money than I ever needed?” We’re focusing on all the imperfections, all the challenges. Our mind is wandering. An average person has about 150 undone tasks at any time. So we spend a lot of time with wandering attention. So this is one big challenge of human brain.

And do you want to guess what proportion of the time we are like that? About 50% to 80% of the time during the day. So our colleagues at Mayo actually took a few patients and tried to scan them how — and see how their brain looks at rest — at rest, when they were doing nothing. And this is the scan of brain at rest. So I know many of you don’t have a degree in radiology but perhaps you can see that it seems like a pretty busy place. It seems a bit like fish market. What you’re seeing is blobs of blue and red forming and dissolving, those are actually networks in the brain.

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So the way our brain operates — our brain is designed as a giant network of about 86 billion to 90 billion neurons. So these networks collaborate to create two modes of the brain. The first mode of the brain is the focused mode. Focused mode is engaged when you’re processing something very interesting, very novel, very meaningful. For example, if you step out and you see a baby elephant jaywalking in the parking, that’ll get your brain in the focused mode, right, or when you’re bungee jumping, right at that time in the middle of there you don’t say what was that email I had to answer; boom it’s too late. You know, playing with a little baby gets you in the focused mode. Having the baby happy with all the attention that she is getting. So that is the first mode of the of the brain, the focused mode — our brain loves to be in this mode. But we don’t give ourselves enough those of that.

The second mode of the brain, I realized was, is the default mode. Have you ever experienced — you’re reading a book, you read half a page, you say what was I reading? But where were you at that time? You were mind wandering, you were with all your open files, and an average person has about 150 undone tasks at any time. So we spend — do you want to guess what proportion of the day we’re like that, with a wandering attention? 50% to 80% of the time. So right now as we speak 2 billion to 3 billion people are walking around the planet with no idea where they are, because they are experiencing wandering attention. That’s the reality. It’s kind of scary; isn’t it?

So I’m sure you have experienced this or not experienced this, you tell three things to your partner and this is how they look totally blank as if you’re sound, like clicking sounds your words? Yeah, I can see some of you resonating with that, right? Have you ever read a book to a child and you have no idea what you read and maybe try to skip pages and then you get caught skipping pages? Yes, yes, yes.

So those are the two modes. So this is the default mode where we spend a lot of time. What research is showing is that the more time we spend in default mode, greater of a risk of anxiety, depression, attention deficit, perhaps even dementia. And the way the brain operates — when you use a particular network it becomes stronger, so we get stuck here.

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So we see between these two modes all day long but what happens is when we have too many open files which everybody does — is there anybody here who has less than 20 user IDs? We all — our brain didn’t evolve around our need to process 20 user IDs, right? So we were focused on safety and survival; so that is a challenge. Our brain evolved around safety and survival. We wanted to deliver peace and happiness. And that is why we get stuck.

So this was the first challenge I realized — the neural predispositions. Our tendency of our mind to wander. The second challenge is our focus on threat and imperfections. So I have personally had multiple medical problems. I’ve had several heart attacks, I have had multiple strokes, several cancers, nearly died many times, all in my head; none of this actually happened. I’m imagining all these illnesses. So I have, yeah, looked pretty preserved for all of that, right? One of my oncologists said that. So I spent a lot of time living with imaginary fears.

And so when you’re looking at this picture I’m sure your attention is going to that spider, right, because spider has immediate threat focus. But let me ask you this: what is more threatening in 2015? Is it spiders or donuts? What do you think? How many of you think it’s donuts? So let the record show everybody is saying donuts. So when you go to a party and they’re serving a box of donuts, you’ve got 20 donuts staring at you; shouldn’t you run away shouting out: Oh my God! They’re serving donuts; they’re out to kill me? Will never go to Smith’s again because they tried to kill me by feeding donuts, right? No, but we get attracted to them because our ancestors got attracted to calorie-dense foods. So we’ve got some evolutionary predispositions that are not very adaptive. So this is the second challenge: negativity bias.

Another challenge is hedonic adaptation. I’m sure you’ve realized this: “Honey, I love you but now please change.” Has it ever happened to you? First year of marriage, it’s all wonderful; 20th year of marriage — and we have been married 21 years, I’ve said this in front of my wife; partners become borderline boring after 20 years. So 30 years even worse. So we get used to good. One of my patients said, “I divorced the wife I loved” which is a very sad thing to hear, because what happens is we get used to the goodness and start focusing on imperfections.

And there are several other neural predispositions; I’ll just share a few of them. So what happens is these neural predispositions take away from enjoying life, and that is what I realized. So happiness is very little to do with having too much resources or not having malnutritional infections. Happiness is really that inner state.