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Transcript: David DiSalvo on How Cultural Evolution Outpaces Natural Evolution and Old Brain Metaphors

Below you can find the full tran­script of our engag­ing Q&A ses­sion today with David DiSalvo, author of What makes your brain happy and why you should do the oppo­site, moderated by Alvaro Fernandez. You visit previous Q&A Ses­sions Here.

Full Tran­script (Lightly edited) of Live Q&A held on December 9th, 2-3pm ET

2:00
AlvaroF: Hello everyone! We are honored to have David DiSalvo here with us today.

2:01
AlvaroF: For the next hour, he’ll answer as many of your good questions as possible.

2:02
AlvaroF: David is a prolific blogger and science writer, and has just released a great new book. David, can you tell us why you titled your about in such a thought-provoking way?

2:03
AlvaroF: Let me clarify that this is a chat-only Q&A: there is no audio. Everyone can ask questions by typing and sending them, and David will type his answers.

2:07
Comment From David DiSalvo
Hi everyone, it’s a pleasure to be online with you. The title of the book captured the main idea that frequently our brain leans in directions that are not ulltimately in our best interests.

2:07
AlvaroF: Let me ask the first obvious question – why is that so?

2:08
David DiSalvo: The underlying reason is that our brain didn’t evolve to meet the needs of a complex, information driven culture

2:08
David DiSalvo: Cultural evolution has outpaced natural evolution, and we are in a perpetual state of “catch up”

2:09
Comment From MsJulie
David, what do you make of Kahneman’s new book: Thinking Fast and Slow? How does his book square with your thinking — it seems to me you both are thinking along the same lines. (Great minds, I guess.)

2:10
David DiSalvo: I must admit I am not finished with Kahneman’s book just yet, but I love it. His work has been very influential for me and, I imagine, most writers in this area.

2:10
Comment From Guest
Do you think working memory constraints are part of the problem?

2:11
David DiSalvo: Working memory constraints are doubtless part of the issue. Most of the research suggests that we can only hold 7 items or concepts in working memory at on time. That’s often less than what an average office job requires us to maintain on any given day!

2:12
AlvaroF: Back to your first comment: how are the brain demands of today, after cultural evolution, different from yesterday’s? working memory may be a good example, what are others?

2:13
David DiSalvo: One of the things I focus on in the book is that we have adopted inaccurate metaphors for how the brain works, and this has led us to some odd conclusions, such as the alleged ability to “multi task”

2:13
David DiSalvo: Truth is, none of us are capable of multitasking in the term’s original sense (doing multiple things at one time)

2:14
David DiSalvo: At least not at the conscious level

2:14
AlvaroF: What are better metaphors than, I guess, computing/ multitasking?

2:15
David DiSalvo: But fast paced information cultures demand that we do this thing we call multitasking, though it’s contrary to how our brains are structured to process information

2:15
David DiSalvo: The computing metaphor is problematic because it is essentially linear

2:16
AlvaroF: I hope none of you are checking email now 🙂

2:16
Comment From Elyse
Could you elaborate on subconscious multi-tasking?

2:17
David DiSalvo: Computers are programmed to accomplish multiple tasks at once, given certain parameters and inputs.

2:17
David DiSalvo: Parameters WE define and inputs WE define

2:18
David DiSalvo: Truth is, we have very little idea what those processing parameters are for the brain, if the term “parameters” even applies

2:18
AlvaroF: What’s a better metaphor?

2:19
AlvaroF: Also, please see Elyse’s question above on “subconscious multi-tasking”

2:19
Comment From Cathy
A computer is only as good as the programmer, etc.

2:19
David DiSalvo: I think the best, though still terribly inadequate metaphor, would be something more akin to the Internet

2:20
David DiSalvo: At least with the Net metaphor, you have a sense that processing occurs across boundaries and information is inputted anda accessed in a multitude of ways (places)

2:20
David DiSalvo: To Elyse’s questions…

2:21
David DiSalvo: What I meant by conscious vs suibconcious multitasking is that we have pretty good research based evidence that we process in “default” mode. While we are sleeping, for example, or daydreaming.

2:21
AlvaroF: but the Internet does not self-regulate/ plan

2:22
Comment From Cathy
Why the need for a metaphor? Keeping busy with several tasks simply means we move quickly from one to another and back until they are done or we’re distracted by more. As we age, if brain health is not there, the quickness and focus slows leading us to think we can’t “multitask” any more.

2:23
David DiSalvo: Exactly — and that’s why it is still not adequate, but it’s likely a close to a decent metaphor as we can reach.

2:23
Comment From MsJulie
Could you speak a little more about the default mode?

2:24
David DiSalvo: Peter Singer at Yale has for many years conducted research into a neural network that, more recently, has come to be called the default network. It appears to take center stage in our brain when we are not focused on any given thing(s), but are “drifting” so to speak.

2:25
David DiSalvo: This drifting use to be considered pointless, but we now understand that our brain is accomplishing quite alot in those spans of time

2:25
Comment From MsJulie
I’ve also just read the book on Willpower by Baumeister and Tierney. Where do you think that willpower plays into Kahneman’s slow thinking notion, and your notion of spending the energy working against what makes the brain happy?

2:27
David DiSalvo: I have not read Roy Baumeister’s new book (though I saw a couple stinging reviews), so I am a bit handicapped to comment on it

2:27
David DiSalvo: I am not sure if his notion of Willpower is consistent with the convential notions

2:28
Comment From Cathy
What are your thoughts on programs such as Posit Science’s “Auditory” and “Insight” as well as Advanced Brain Technologies “The Listening Program”?

2:30
David DiSalvo: I am intrigued by brain stimulation programs. I must admit that I have not researched their effectiveness, but at an intutive level I think they merit investigation and experiment,

2:30
David DiSalvo: At least anecdotally, there is alot of feedback that some of them are effective.

2:31
David DiSalvo: One thing to mention on that topic…

2:31
Comment From Natalie
I have just bought the book thru amazon, so I haven’t read your book yet. But what is the main thesis? Whay are we doing now that is making us happy but is detrimental in the long run? Is this a too literal question?

2:33
David DiSalvo: …I am not sure anyone can “prove” brain stimulation’s effectivness just yet, but that is also true of many many other brain-related technologies.

2:33
David DiSalvo: Answering Natalie’s question….

2:35
David DiSalvo: The central thesis is that our brain’s are prediction and pattern-detection machines that evolved to survive. As a result, there are multiple mismatches between our brains’ native tendencies and our cultural environments.

2:35
David DiSalvo: (my typing skills leave much to be desired!)

2:35
Comment From MsJulie
Could you also talk a little more about why awareness is so crucial to changing behavior?

2:36
AlvaroF: Good question! It seems David is aware of his need to update typing skills…

2:37
David DiSalvo: Awareness forces us to self examine (perhaps very quickly, depending on the scenario) — and that places a “wedge” between what we may be first inclined to do, and what we ultimately do.

2:38
Comment From Cathy
My understanding of “evolve” is simply adaptation and not necessarily improvement.

2:38
David DiSalvo: It’s this “wedge” that could, as one example, prevent most road rage incidents.

2:39
David DiSalvo: “Improvement” is a relative term. How does one “improve” as a person? For you that means one thing, for me probably another (with points of similarity of course). Adaptation is still the pivotal term.

2:40
AlvaroF: Can we “evolve” ourselves? if there is a new environment to adapt to, and we have plastic brains, why not? do you talk about epigenetics and neuroplasticity in the book? any tips?

2:40
David DiSalvo: But, we cannot expect natural evolution to jump into hyperspeed for our brains to “adapt” to information saturated, consumerist societies.

2:41
Comment From Cathy
Excellent point about improvement. Agreed.

2:42
David DiSalvo: I talk about neuroplasticity quite alot in the book. IMO it’s the most important discovery in brain science of the last century.

2:42
David DiSalvo: because it underlies so many other new understandings….

2:43
David DiSalvo: Before, we worked under the assumption that after a brief period in childhood, our brains became static hunks of tissue

2:43
Comment From Cathy
I think there have always been mismatches between what our brain accepts as viable information and what it rejects and that would be based on the prediction, pattern detection you mentioned. The brain is also plastic and changeable and adaptable so isn’t this routine?

2:43
David DiSalvo: …now the static tissue misunderstanding has given way to a new arena of research findings

2:44
David DiSalvo: Answering Cathy…

2:45
David DiSalvo: yes, I agree, those mismatches have always been there to varying degrees. My contention is that in the information age they happen with exponential frequency and we are, all of us, trying to keep up

2:45
Comment From Cathy
It was understood a very very long time ago but went against the “norm” of that time and was swept under the scientific community carpet.

2:45
David DiSalvo: We are constantly adapting in the pragmatic sense (not evolutionary sense)

2:47
David DiSalvo: I think one of the reasons that Ray Kurzweil’s work is compelling is because of this exponential movement

2:47
AlvaroF: What are the implications for education, training, healthcare? how are/ will neuroscientific discoveries such as neuroplasticity impact those domains?

2:47
David DiSalvo: Answering Alvaro….

2:49
David DiSalvo: The implications are already being seen particularly in education. Under the old model of brain development (the ‘static’ model), it’s hard to imagine why we’d think adult education could do very much for the average person

2:49
AlvaroF: We have ten minutes left – please submit your remaining questions.

2:50
Comment From MsJulie
Thank you, David, very much for your time, all the best on your book. I’m looking forward to reading it. P.S. is your publisher going to release a version on the Kindle?

2:50
David DiSalvo: No one wanted to admit that, of course, but if your working assumption was that the brain was more or less cemented after it’s early pruning period, then why expend resource to change that?

2:50
David DiSalvo: Thankfully, we now know that isn’t true.

2:51
David DiSalvo: Yes, a Kindle and Nook version should be out very soon.

2:51
David DiSalvo: It’s ironic that it takes so much time to get an ebook produced.

2:51
AlvaroF: why not at the same time (we have been thinking options with our own book, we released both at same time)

2:52
David DiSalvo: I’m really not sure why. I’m gladly leaving those details up to the publisher 🙂

2:53
David DiSalvo: More questions?

2:53
AlvaroF: Any main themes from the book we haven’t touched on?

2:54
David DiSalvo: Some themes from the book: the imperfection of memory; why we discount the future; psychosocial contagions, the power of metaphor….

2:54
David DiSalvo: ….and many others 🙂

2:55
AlvaroF: OK, thank you very much for your time, David!

2:55
AlvaroF: We wish you the best with the book and with everything else you do

2:56
Comment From Elyse
Thanks very much – quite interesting.

2:56
David DiSalvo: Thanks everyone. You can email me at disalvowrites at gmail.com

2:57
David DiSalvo: twitter: @neuronarrative

2:57
AlvaroF: Bye everyone

2:57
AlvaroF: And you can visit David’s great website, can you remind us of best URL?

2:58
David DiSalvo: www.whatmakesyourbrainhappy.com

It has links to both of my blogs at Psych Today and Forbes

2:58
Comment From Cathy
Thank you, David. Love the term “pragmatic” adaptation

2:59
AlvaroF: Have a nice weekend, everyone. The transcript will be available at sharpbrains.com by end of the day.

Tran­scripts of pre­vi­ous Live Q&As with Book Authors:

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