"Our brain is not a slot machine," so quit trying to hack it

"Tailored Brain" author Emily Willingham talked to us on the myths and truths of brain hacking

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published January 14, 2022 4:00PM (EST)

Throwing data and ideas into the brain (Getty Images/z_wei)
Throwing data and ideas into the brain (Getty Images/z_wei)

Your brain is not a computer to be hacked. Considered it, instead, a planet to be explored.

That's how science writer Emily Willingham invites us to get to know our gray matter, before we decide that we really need to optimize it. In "The Tailored Brain: From Ketamine, to Keto, to Companionship, a User's Guide to Feeling Better and Thinking Smarter," Willingham, the author of "Phallacy: Life Lessons from the Animal Penis," clarifies our often mistaken ideas around intellect and offers a new way of looking at self-improvement. It's a lively, often genuinely funny deep dive into our current mania for a bespoke brain, one that investigates what current research involving diet, drugs and technology is really telling us, and considers why being a nicer person might be the best thing you can do for your headspace.

Salon talked to Willingham via Zoom about her new book, and why real life is not like a science fiction movie — yet. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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There are so many things we get wrong, like the myths of the "lizard brain" or IQ. What don't we understand about our own brains?

There are so many things that neuroscientists disagree on, or they haven't looked at yet. They don't even agree on the names of things when you're talking about brain anatomy and things like that. People still say that we use only 10% of our brains. But the whole thing is busy all the time, and doing its job, even when you feel like you maybe aren't doing anything.

The other myth about the lizard brain, or the triune brain, is that you've got some sort of unevolved part of your brain that would be akin to something that a lizard might be using. The reality is that even those parts of the brain that we consider throwbacks have evolved along with the part of our brain that we think of as the smart part that makes us human.

And we don't just know in our brains. We carry knowledge all over our bodies. But in common parlance, we talk about the brain and wanting to hack and optimize it. Why is this idea is so deeply entrenched in this moment in our culture?

That's Silicon Valley tech speak, right? The brain has been metaphorized as being like a computer. When you start from that premise, then it's a pretty easy slide into, if you can hack a computer, you should be able to hack this wiring in our heads. Yes, we have a network in our heads. We have cells that use electricity to communicate. But they're only about half the cells in our brain, and the other half are not that kind of cell. We have a lot of not electrified things going on in our brains.

Our brain is not a slot machine. You can't pop a quarter in, pull a lever, and then just hope for the best. There are so many pathways in our brains that act together. If you affect one, you're going to be influencing the other. There's not some direct target where you just hit the bullseye and that's it.

You talk in the book about Elon Musk, and about this concept of BCI. What is BCI?

Those are Brain Computer Interfaces. They connect the brain to the computer and use thinking to affect what happens on a screen, to even move a mouse cursor and things like that. They have a lot of clinical utility. They're being tested for people in the form of implants and similar things for people who have paralysis. You can imagine how that would be incredibly useful.

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And then there's some other scarier versions of these things where you and the computer are connected, maybe in a way that is intrusive and uninvited, and possibly an invasion of privacy. Looking down the road, we are going to be having to face some decisions or repercussions of things like that.

Who wants access to our brains? It's not all benevolent physicians, is it?

You're probably referencing the US Department of Defense, DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and their interest in what's going on inside of our heads. It's a similar pattern to the one that I just described. Some of it is extremely useful and legitimate and necessary. They look at what happens with implants and how you can address people's mood difficulties, or PTSD. If you're the Department of Defense and you really want to help the people who are doing the jobs you're sending them out to do, this is useful stuff to learn. On the other hand, you think maybe this also is almost "Minority Report," where they're going to predict that you're about to do a thing they don't want you to do, and they're going to stop you from doing that. It starts to get into creepy territory.

There's this sci-fi ideal when we talk about optimizing our brains, where you're just omniscient. You walk back a step by first asking, what is our brain, really? What does it do? When we talk about optimizing or tailoring our brains, what does that even mean? I think when we talk about hacking our brains, we're really talking about what that means to Silicon Valley dudes who want to be like Bradley Cooper in "Limitless."

I came to this book wanting to get people to interrogate why they're motivated to do what they think they want to do for their brains. "Where is this coming from? Did I just watch that movie with Bradley Cooper? Why do I feel like I need to do a thing to my brain that makes jacks up my intelligence in some way?" Instead, maybe examine what you might want to do that would give you a brain at peace or a brain that connects better with people you love, instead of, "I am going to be the smartest person in the room."

I don't recall from that movie that when he took the pill and had these limitless powers, they were related to his interpersonal relationships and making those better. That that's something that we omit when we try to consider, how do we want to make our brains better? We don't live in caves by ourselves, we live with other people. We interact with other people. We should consider more than just our own brain.

I want to take a moment on IQ, because when we talk about intelligence, we are talking about a concept with a very narrow and beyond racist origin. We're not talking about good ideas from good people. Intelligence itself is not objective. It's not like measuring in the number of rocks in a pile. So what do we mean when we say IQ?

That number that we get, if you ever learn what yours is after taking the test, is often used as a proxy just for your smarts. This number is supposed to be a reflection of how you think. It's a modern invention that we use in ways that aren't especially apt. There are so many different ways to be smart. And it's contextual, just like any other trait that you might have, or population might have, that depends on your environment.

IQ, as I delineate in the book, has some strongly bigoted origins. They used to try to stratify people based on IQ score using really bigoted and ableist terms, like "moron and imbecile."

Then there came this idea that this was somehow a fixed thing, a trait that maybe got a little worse with age, but you're just born this way. What I found was is that it can change, and there are absolutely environmental factors. Even in real time, factors like giving people money to take the test, can result in a better score on it. So what is it really capturing? I didn't land on that it was capturing something about us that makes us better as human beings. I didn't find that.

I want to ask you about these things that we culturally pursue, that are not about making us better as human beings, but supposedly making us more intelligent. We think, maybe if I just do crossword puzzles I won't be dumb. But it doesn't mean that I'm the smartest person, it just means maybe I've learned how to do crossword puzzles. I can learn different skills. I can practice and improve at things.

When people look at the evidence base for it, they find that if you do crossword puzzles, you will get better at doing crossword puzzles. That applies across the board to a lot of things that we think of as being really cerebral. If we think this is a cerebral activity, then we're going to have a global benefit from it. If you enjoy it, that's great. That's actually pretty helpful in general if you just do something that you find relaxing. That eases your brain burden, makes you feel better about life.

Every time I get that little genius from the New York Times spelling bee, I get a little dopamine payment, a little reward. Hugely satisfying. But it doesn't mean that my IQ shot up or that it made my memory better, or anything else. It just means that I've done it long enough that now I know that no matter how common some words are to me, the spelling bee is not going to accept them as words.

Then let's talk about the other things. What about keto? What about cannabis? What about all of these other really trendy concepts?

Some of those things do show promise, depending on what it is you want to be promised to you. There's certainly some benefit of some psychedelics, like ketamine, for mood conditions. They are finding some benefit of some microdosing, maybe for PTSD. But this stuff is midstream. I would say that there's still some good work yet to be done, and some randomized controlled trials yet to be done to really demonstrate it. I wanted to look at those things like ketamine and keto, to tap into the zeitgeist and see what people are wondering about, and say, here's what we know. And honestly, right now, we're not to the end of what we know and what we need to know.

How do we vet this information as consumers? You spend time saying, "Here's what you need to think about when you're looking at information."

I have a checklist that I've actually used in different forms for a long time. You certainly want to look at what the study design was underlying, of there was even a study. Underlying what's being claimed. If it doesn't have words in it like "randomized, controlled trial" and "placebo," then there's probably still ways to go before you know it's doing something.

You've got to look at where the money is. Who's getting money out of this? Are they telling you that you have a problem you didn't realize you had, and then offering this to you as a way to solve it? Are they relying on testimonials? I think it's really interesting, because we all do have really individual responses to just about any intervention. Where somebody says, for example, that an antidepressant worked for them — I wish that these things would work for everybody who needs them — there's somebody else out there for whom it didn't. When you see a testimonial you have to understand, that's just half of a story right there. It's not data, it's not evidence. Those are things to watch out for.

That gets to the heart of this book, the why. Why are we looking for these kinds of hacks to begin with? What are we really asking ourselves? That's when you start talking about empathy and social cognition.

I made that the central chapter of this book. I went through all that stuff about global cognition and IQ and everything else because, my hope is that by the time you get to this social cognition chapter you've realize, maybe that isn't the thing that I need to pursue. People have just been telling me I need to, that's a social imposition on me. Can we look at what might really be helpful, not just for my brain, but the brains around me? Because none of us exist in a vacuum. How well do you think socially? I don't mean to be an extrovert, be a people person. But you have people with whom you are connected and you want to have the best possible, healthiest relationships with them that you can.

That's a very personal thing. I wrote this book during a pandemic, and during everything else that's going on in the world. I think that it becomes very important for us to take a step back, to pause, to stop being so reactively judgmental, and really try to put ourselves in the shoes of other people and understand where they're coming from. I don't mean that in a sense of, you must forgive people who harm you, or anything like that. Just be a little less reactive and maybe shore that up a bit. I think it's important.

This really is about recognizing, what do we as a culture of value? Do we value guys like Elon Musk or saying that our brains are like computers? We value the hardware. What we don't necessarily value is empathy, listening, understanding. I think this book is saying there's the intelligence of being able to understand a chart, and there's the intelligence of being able to understand another person.

I agree that we do, as a society, at least think we value those Elon Musk type things. But when you get down to it and you read the stories of people who are losing loved ones right now, and you read the stories of people who can't see each other and haven't been able to for a couple of years, you ask yourself, what do you really value? If this were your last day, what would you actually value? Would you want to be Elon Musk on your last day? Or would you want to be with the people you love and connect with them? The funny thing is that even though I do believe that is a core value for most of us, nobody's offering you that in a pill. Nobody's offering you that in a brain hack. I'm hoping this book redirects attention to it.

Because nobody's going to pay money for a pill that could make me a better listener.

The good news is, we don't have to pay anything for it. Everybody just put your wallets away, because you can access most of the tools you need to make yourself feel better, and be in better positions with other people, without spending a dime. Except on this book, I mean to say.

This isn't a "10 tips to be smarter by Tuesday" book. But you do talk about things that actually can help give our brains a little bit of a break.

Just a better feeling of balance and less overload, if you achieve that, then that global cognition everybody thinks they want, where you've got more space and you can think smarter and all the other stuff, you actually might get it.

The trifecta that I landed on here is, first, physical activity. I don't mean getting on a treadmill. I just mean, to whatever extent you're able to, moving your body around and doing something physically active. The second thing, is if you can do it with somebody else, it can be so helpful. If you walk with a friend, you're doing the physical activity part, but you're also having this social sharing with them. You're sharing each other's cognitive burdens. You're telling each other your stories. You're reacting with the emotions that you share. You're reflecting emotions to people. All that's just so helpful to release space in your brain. You can almost feel it when you're done. And then the third thing ... I just don't come to this as somebody who meditates or spends time on mindfulness. It's just never been my personality. I started doing it while I was writing this book during the pandemic, even just a few minutes at a time, taking a break from the anxiety spiral, the doomscrolling, the rumination that takes you to bad places. Checking back in, paying attention right now to what's around me. Right now without judgment. And just saying, "I'm here now, I'm doing okay."

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By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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