Aug. 1, 2022

E379: Moran Cerf - How LUCID dreaming can IMPACT mental health and trauma

On Today's Episode: I am joined by my guest Moran Cerf s a neuroscientist and business professor at the Kellogg School of Management and the neuroscience program at Northwestern University.
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On Today's Episode:

I am joined by my guest Moran Cerf s a neuroscientist and business professor at the Kellogg School of Management and the neuroscience program at Northwestern University.

His academic research uses methods from neuroscience to understand the underlying mechanisms of our psychology, behavior change, emotion, decision making, and dreams.

There are different levels of control among people where you can control your lucid dreams. A low-level lucid dream is one where you know you're dreaming, but that's it. In experiencing a higher level of a lucid dream, you have the power to control, influence, and react to various events and contents of the dream.

Learn more about how lucid dreaming can impact mental health and trauma.

Learn how to heal and overcome childhood trauma, narcissistic abuse, ptsd, cptsd, higher ACE scores, anxiety, depression, and mental health issues and illness. Learn tools that therapists, trauma coaches, mindset leaders, neuroscientists, and researchers use to help people heal and recover from mental health problems. Discover real and practical advice and guidance for how to understand and overcome childhood trauma, abuse, and narc abuse mental trauma. Heal your body and mind, stop limiting beliefs, end self-sabotage, and become the HERO of your own story. 

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Michael: Hey! What's up, Unbroken Nation. Hope that you're doing well wherever you are in the world today. I'm very excited to be back with you with another episode with Moran Cerf, who is a neuroscientist and business professor at the Kellogg School of Management and Neuroscience Program at Northwestern University. My friend, how are you today? It is such a pleasure to have you here, I'm very excited.

Moran: I'm very excited too. Thank you for having me. I'm sorry that I have a running nose, so you're gonna hear me blow my nose every now and then. And I dunno, some of the L are gonna sound like ends or something like that, where I speak.

Michael: Hey! No, you know what, man, we're all having a human experience and I think we all have been through that. I would have to guess if you're like me and you've just done so much media at some point, you're just like, whatever, it's fine. I'm just a person.

Moran: I was thinking like, if I tried my best, it will just kind of come out inauthentic. I should just come clean and say, this is what you're gonna hear, I'll do my best, but you'll just see, flawed me.

Michael: Yeah. And you know what, that's the best we can ever ask of anyone. Right. So, knowing your research and your background, I've been fascinated when I came across you a few years ago on Impact Theory with our, our friend Tom Bilyeu Show, because I am a person who throughout the course of my life has, I pretty much lucid dream on a daily basis. And it's very rare if ever that I run into other people who have had this experience as well. And when I came across you in your work and I was like, oh, this is really fascinating, a lot of this makes a ton of sense, but what I'm having back and forth in dialogue with other people about trying to explain what it's like to be in this weird semi-controlled matrix type environment like they don't really connect the dots. So, to start with I'd love, if you would just simply explain lucid dreams, what they are and why you've decided to study them.

Moran: Sure. So Lucid dreams are a unique experience when you're still asleep and you're still dreaming, but your consciousness wakes up, meaning you are aware of your dream. And you know, that you're dreaming so you can actually direct them. You can say, you know what, I'm dreaming, it's a dream, but I can do whatever I want here. So, I'm going to fly, that's what everyone does when they just begin. And they just rise up in the air and they start flying and it feels real because it's your brain creating the imagery. So, you actually fly above New York city or LA or San Francisco, but it's still an experience that your body is new too, so it's fascinating and fantastic. And people choose all kinds of things when they lost a dream, they bring people that they have not seen for a while into their dream, and they can get to chat with grandma or they can see how it would be to go back to the job that they left and regret leaving and seeing if it's still nice in memory right now, all kinds of experiences, so that's what it's doing is.

The thing is it's rare. Most people don't experience that, definitely not voluntarily like some people encounter or stumble upon Lucid dreams randomly, but rarely people can go to sleep and say tonight, I wanna wake up at noon and while I'm sleeping, taking a nap and have control of the dream and this was reserved to about 10 to 12% of the people in the world who randomly encountered that. And the rest of the people just heard about it, but didn't experience that. And what we learned in the last couple of years is how to give it to anyone.

Michael: That's fascinating to me.What is the function and purpose that lucid dreaming actually serves for the brain?

Moran: It's not clear to us. We don't know what dreams are for to let alone lucid dreams. We have all kinds of theories and I can list a few of them, just give you a taste but the list is long, there's about seven theories right now that are vying for dominance on who is the kind of ruler or dreams. But essentially, they suggest things that kind of range from, they mean nothing, it's just a random thing that your brain does when you go to sleep without any purpose, other than to keep being active to very meaningful things along the lines of freud, that it's your way of dealing with things that are buried in your mind, but you don't wanna deal with them when you're awake. So, your brain creates a movie for you to handle them. I'll give you example of two, so you can kind of get a truth at what?

So, one theory that people wouldn't like, because it kind of gives dreams no, meaning is one where because your eyes are shut when you're sleeping and no input comes through your retina. The part of the brain that processes visuals is inactive, it's not doing anything. And what we know about brains is that if a part of the brain is not active for too long, other parts take over. So, in many, many blind people, for instance, because their eyes don't function, the part of the brain it's supposed to process visuals is taken over by auditory functions and they get to hear better, but they just don't have activity in the occipital lobe when they see things. So, the theory that I'm speaking about suggests that because overnight for say seven hours, this part of the brain doesn't get an input, there's a chance that it's gonna be taken over overnight. You're gonna wake up and suddenly this part of the brain isn't doing what it's supposed to do. So, to protect that part, the brain created a mechanism that creates artificial made-up visuals inside, just so this part keeps seeing things and not falling asleep, and that's how the brain protects itself. So, dreams in that case mean nothing, it's just a brain creating all kinds of random factal images that we then make up into a story. But the point is that it means nothing, that's one side of the theory, the one that people don't like, because it means that dreams are not really, you know, unique. On the other extreme, there's a theory that comes from our lab that says that dreams are, our brain's way of basically doing VR. So, the brain takes things that are, you're thinking about right now that you're considering like you think, okay, should I have a baby? And you're not sure about that instead of going through a baby in real life and realizing whether you're good or not a parent, the brain creates a simulation where you actually have this baby and you live through it and because dreams feel real while you dream them.

Other parts of the brain don't know that it's a made-up scenario.

The brain thinks it's real so, the feelings come up naturally. And all the fears and reward system activity and pain and pleasure, all of those happen the same way so that when you wake up, even though you forget the dream, all the systems are kind of geared towards how it would feel like I don't when you think about it in the real world, you have better sense of what to do. So, dreams are basically a stimulation of things you consider so that you get better preparation when you're awake. So, I give just two; there's five more.

Michael: The latter makes a lot of sense to me because it feels almost as if that would, and I think it'd be contextual in the situation would almost be a preface for survival mechanism to kick in. Right? Because if your brain says, no, I cannot possibly be apparent then automatically you try to de deter from that cuz how would you protect that child in the wild? Right. That's where my brain goes for it. Right? One of the things I'm curious about in that is, you know, we see so many people trying to make meaning of dreams and what, there being seven different variations of what that could actually be, that it feels like to some extent, like this is pseudoscience and I know initially you had said a while ago, this was years ago that you didn't want to step into the world of dreams because you had said on, on Tom's show, I believe it was something to the extent of without having certainty that something is impossible, you didn't want to step into it. And so, you know, having that switch, being able to now step into this world, what is it that has surprised you about dreaming that you didn't know or expect?

Moran: Okay. So, I'll give you two sentences on each idea that you just mentioned. First of all, I would say the meaning part is a very human thing, we want to have meaning for everything we do. So, we attribute meaning to things even if they're random. You play basketball twice with the same underwear and you win and you say, oh my God, this is my lucky underwear. Natural state of like trying to make sense of the world. There's too much randomness around us. So, our brain tries to put meaning everywhere. And that's a natural thing of the brain as long as we are aware of it, we are able to control it. Sometimes we say, you know what, it's probably not the underwear, it's probably me practicing that made it and then you can practice more and actually be better. But at the same time, it's nice to observe and become aware of the fact that your brain is so much is into, coming up with explanations and meaning all the time, because if you are aware of it, you can control it and you can enjoy it and you can also regulate that, I can say this is not the right meaning.

So, now why am I saying this? Because for the last a hundred years, most of what we talked about when we spoke about dreams had to do with this meaning making machine, that wasn't reality, what I mean by that? Freud, for instance, they kind of godfather of dreams. He never started dreaming his life. All he had was the story, the people told him when they woke up. So, in many ways, I'm in a much better shape than Freud was throughout his career, because I can use neuroscience to look at people's dreams while they're dreaming them. I can put a probe in their brain and see their dreams so I can see what happens in their brain when they're dreaming. I don't need them to wake up and tell me a story, but Freud didn't have that. He had to wake up the person, ask them, Hey, tell me, what did you dream of? And another person told them a story. And what we know for sure is that the story people tell when they wake up is colored by their awake self-view of the world so they make meaning. So, the dream might have had just a woman in a blue dress, but you waking up have this visual in your brain and you say, I saw my mom. We dunno if it was a mom, even, but you add the meaning, the kind of salt and the spices to the visual and now Feud’s it deals with you talking about your mom. Now, it's not that it's useless, the fact that you make up the story with your mom, it's interesting, but we should know that this isn't the dream. So, we are in a much better shape than Floyd was that we can actually look at dreams, so the meaning balance we can strip off, we can say, I don't care what the meaning, I will tell you what the dream was. And now we can count the meaning together rather than me having to rely on your flawed story.

Now, to kind of the bigger, bigger question asked me, which is kind of like a, how do I deal with that? When I kind of myself, I think that what I do and as an advice to everyone say, it's a game to play and in that sense, there are many ways to play this game and they're all valuable. For example, I'm not too spiritual a person in that I don't really go to mystic and, you know, have people tell me my fortune by looking at cups of coffee or open tablet carts for me, or stuff like that. But I advocate for that in the following way. I don't think that anyone can actually tell your future by looking at your coffee cup. But I think that the exercise of having you copy a story, like whatever I give you a shape in a coffee, I tell you, copy a story for that. It's your brain's gonna copy a story. And in that sense, it's just a prompt for you and sound to talk about things and talking is really important.

So, you having someone else in front of you open Holly Potter in page 77, pick a word and say, what does this word mean to you? And you can't repeat a story, it's just a way for you and that person to start engaging exercise or understanding yourself and making meaning. And making meaning is how our brain works, so if you make the brain do that, you're gonna get access to the brain that you can use to understand and make yourself better.

Michael: One of the things I'm curious about as the years have passed, my dreams have gone, my lucid dreams specifically have gone from these very nightmarish scenarios. Like the worst things that you could possibly imagine where I have full cognition of the reality else side of the dream to now being on the other side of it, where for the most part they're very beautiful, you know, they are things like flying or speaking on big stages or, you know, conversations like this with incredible people where I can kind of like see it happening and feel those emotions. And I don't know if this is for everyone so this is gonna be a question particular to me, cuz I've never been able to ask anyone. Why is it that I'm able to be cognizant of time because I will be in dreams in the moment and I will know it is 5:17 AM and I will be spot on and it is so creepy and sometimes like, there'll be hours that I feel pass in these dreams. Why does that happen?

Moran: So, first of all, you're lucky I should say to be among the 12% who can lose a dream regularly, maybe even on demand. Now the nice thing about that is that you're not only lucky, you're also useful because a lot of scientists have asked the same question you ask, what about time and dreams and the way we answer that, which I'm gonna tell you in a second, what the answer it was by using people like you as subject in a lab. So now to the kind of trimatic answer.

Scientists have been asked in a question that you just asked for decades, they said, what is the notion of time in dream? Some people think that when you're dreaming time kind of is fast forward. And some people think that no, it slows down because you can actually kind of pause the dream and look at things and they just had this question for a while is time and dream equal or different or better, or I dunno, not linear as a compared to time in real world. And because of lucid dreamers, we could finally figure it out. So, here's how we did it and in the second the answer. The way we did it is we took people like you, lucid dreamers. And we asked you when you're awake to essentially clap your hands like this and start counting in your mind from zero to 20. So, you do this and you count from zero to 20 and I think that in the original experiment actually even asked people to do it such as it aligns with 20 seconds so kind of count 20 seconds, not just like whether three for five 20, but like 1, 2, 3, 4 to basically count 20 seconds. So, you do that when you are awake and we have a stopwatch that we use to measure, how good are you in basically counting 20 seconds? So, let's say you start at zero, we have the clap, we start the counter timer, you start counting and maybe we see that when you think it's 20 seconds, it's actually 21, but fine, you're pretty good. Now we teach you the following. We say, when you're dreaming and you wake up in your dream, as in illicit dreaming, your eyes are gonna still be closed, but you can control your eye leads. So, what we ask you to do is signal to us by moving your eyelids up and down while you're dreaming and while you're still in the dream and controlling it to signal to us people on the outside that you're awoken. And once you do that, signal to us by moving your eyelids, kind of in a cross move, like left right, left right, up down, up down, left right, left right, up down, that you're starting, this is the parallel to the clap. And then in your dream counts from zero to 20. And when you get to 20 signals to us again, and you got 20 in the same way, and then we're gonna start the stopwatch with you dreaming and counting from zero to 20. And you'll see how similar is time in your dream to time in the real world to time actually by stopwatch and the answer, is it's the same.

So, it turns out that time in dreams is spiraled to time in the real world is least among those the dreamers and that there are very accurate times so, what seems. To be the case is that Lucid Dreamers generally are people that have accurate time perception, even as an awake person. This partially is why you lose a dream, because it means that your consciousness able to basically get up on exact window of time in your dream, which is why you listen to dream. But it also means that you are very accurate in counting to 20 regularly. If I just asked you right now to count from zero to 20, 20 seconds, gonna be pretty accurate and turns out you're gonna also be pretty accurate in the same accuracy when you're dreaming, which gave the answer the time in dreams is linear, going forward and same in the real world, despite all people's ideas that it's not.

Michael: That's absolutely fascinating to me because that's been my hypothesis since I was a kid, because I could be in these dreams for hours. One of the things I'm curious about, so many of the people that I've spoken with who are lucid dreamers, and I don't know if there's an association here, so I'm just throwing something at you to see what your thoughts are. Is that they had traumatic childhood experiences. I also had traumatic childhood experiences and what I'm wondering is are in any capacity, lucid dreams, a defensive mechanism for survival so that you don't go like all the way into deep sleep so that you are aware of your surroundings while sleeping to stay safe?

Moran: So, I'll say one, just thing that I wanna collect on the previous point, and then I'll answer about the trauma thing. First, all should collect dreams are like movies so while time in a dream is perfectly aligned with time in reality, it also allows you to cut and move forward. So, you know, in movies you can see the person when they're a five-year-old, cut now they're 15, cut now they're 20, same thing happens in your dream. So, it's not that if you see a dream of you. You have to wait 17 years to become an adult in your dream you can jump like this. So, in that sense, dreams allow us to jump in time but when you're going through, when you walking in the street, it'll be the same pace that you walk in the table.

So, that's just a collection to what I said before. Time is time, but you can still cut the dream, whatever you want and speed up things or slow down things if you want.

To trauma. So, first of all, we don't have any evidence that Lucid dreams are more likely among people who have trauma, it's actually pretty random like people who can lose dream there anywhere. I also will say that what we call deep sleep is actually not the dream state. Dream state is closest to being awake, in fact, other than the fact that your eyes are closed, if you look at the brain of someone when they're dreaming general, not even listening, when they're dreaming, their brain looks like it's awake.

So, the only way we know that they're dreaming is that they are still asleep, that their eyes are still closed, they have this thing called the rapid eye movement where the eyes move. And that's a signal that they're in the re stage, but in a way, dreams look like awake state. And brain wise, it's very much similar like all the systems in the brain think you're awake, they don't even know that you're in a simulation right now, they think you're in the real world. So, what you call is actually a different stage night that happens just before your dream, it's stage three, it's like the slowest part of the night.

So now to the trauma thing, while we have no evidence that trauma has to do with lucid dreaming or anything, what we do know is that lucid start people with trauma who became able to control their dreams. Lucid dream is able to navigate the trauma because two things happen. One is if you have a nightmare, you can just get out of it. So, a lot of the studies we do are studies that take people with trauma and we just give them the power through dream and then in their dream, they can fix things. So, imagine that you were in Afghanistan and attack exploded, and you have a trauma of this explosion again and again, we can now give you essentially the power to change the movie. We wake you up so to speak during the redreaming of the explosion in Afghanistan. But this time you save your friend or this time you run out of the tank. So, in a way we give your brain a chance to create a different VR experience where things are better. So that's one use.

The other one is of course; we can just wake you up.

We can just say, okay, if you're going through a nightmare and you just don't wanna be there instead of enduring it, we can make you get out of it, just wake up that that's a control that you can have when you lose doing. And the third thing, that's the most loose one, but that's the one we explore the most right now is because we know that during sleep, the brain essentially kind of reprogram itself, the brain changes thing we can essentially help your brain eliminate trauma entirely. We can shuffle memories or strengthen memories or weakened other experiences so that when you wake up, the nightmare is no longer as powerful, not just in a simulation. So not just can we use little dream to make you have better dreams. We can also use them as a way to fix things so that when you wake up the same nightmare, looks less terrifying to you as an awake person.

Michael: That's fascinating. Is this within the same structure as like when you give someone the scent of rotten eggs and nicotine to get them to quit smoking. And if so, can you explain the science behind that?

Moran: Sure. So, I'll explain this nicotine experiment firstly, people get a sense of that, and then I'll tell you the thing I also gonna make it a little bit more tangible. How do we do that? We kind of said we can help people, but let me tell you how it starts.

So, first of all, the nicotine, what and eggs, explain what it is, is a study that came in 2015, that was one of the first studies to show that you can change awake behavior by doing things with the brain of a sleeping person. So, in that study, people came to the lab, they didn't know what they were coming for, but the only thing that the scientists knew was that all the people who came were smokers. So, the recruitment was for people who are very heavy smokers and these people came for a nap. It was in the afternoon and they were told don't sleep much the night before don't eat much and then you come to the lab and you go to sleep, so you take a nap in the lab and the scientists measure your better activity while you're sleeping and they wait for you to get to the stage that that's deep sleep stage, that's slow if sleep stage that the part where your brain is in the deepest. And it's essentially rekind of activating memories or thinking about things from the past and trying to decide if they should be strengthened or weakened. And that moment when your brain is in this stage, what the scientists do is they spray into your nose, a smell, that's a prompt for a memory. In the particular case, we spray the smell of nicotine into the nose, this essentially makes the brain choose of all the memories that it kind of evaluates right now to evaluate smoking. So, it a reminder for the brain that of all the things you can think about right now, we want you to think about smoking and then the brain kind of points the elbow if you want, of which memory gonna explore right now to let's explore smoking. So that's step one, we kind of point out.

And the next thing is that we then spray the smell of rotten eggs. Now the smell of rotten eggs is a bad smell, it makes people feel not good, but it's also known as a smell that in some dosage, can benefit your brain without waking you up. Most bad smells, just wake you up, you just become kind of awoken with bad experience. This one is a unique smell among many, but it's kind of that share the same trait, but it's a smell that benefits your brain make you think bad things about whatever you are thinking about right now, but not wake up. And that kind of combination means that you're now pointing to nicotine and feeling bad about it and we do it again and again. We spray it in the same dosage, multiple times in a very short window. So, nicotine or rotten eggs, nicotine or eggs, and this essentially makes your brain rewire. So, it actually changes the wiring to the memory of nicotine that are bringing bad things so now you have a lot of bad things about nicotine. This happens overnight. You don't know anything about it so over a nap, it could be in the afternoon. But you when you wake up, you have no idea what happened, all you know is that you went to sleep for two hours. But what happened in this particular study was that people went back home and they were asked to report how much they wanna smoke in the next couple of days and many didn't wanna smoke at all, and they reported a drop to a hundred percent in that case from a lot of tax to zero over the next couple of days, because their brain just now has a bad association with smoking. There are some kind of nuances here, I mean many other people actually came back after which means that probably we need to do it again and again, to strengthen not just one night, you probably can do it more than just in a two hour nap, but over multiple nights and multiple times at the night, but it's opened up the idea that you can do things to a sleeping brain that will change awake behavior. And now we're doing it with many other things. When people smoke less or eat healthy or exercise more or avoid trauma, and that's the same idea. You have to pointer the kind of the index to the memory you wanna change in the right time and then either make it stronger, positively or stronger, negatively and so on, so now this was the explanation.

Now I'm gonna end with telling you about Lucid dreams and this is where I'm gonna disappoint some of your audience by saying that, we know how to give nearly everyone, this experience. We get to a very high percentage when we try to do that but the method is quite cumbersome and it requires tools and a scientist in your bedroom. So, unless you want me in everyone's bedroom, it requires a little bit of like advance technology, so the way we do it is we have you come to the lab and go to sleep and before you go to sleep, we put something on your head, that's known as EEG, it's a device that measures your productivity, it's kind of like a swim cap that you put in your head and it broadcasts to computer nearby the activity in various parts of your brain. So that's what you have to wear on your head when you're sleeping already pretty uncomfortable. And then this device allows the scientist to sitting at the room and looks at the activity live while you're sleeping, to identify the exact moment where your brain is getting to this slim stage, the part where you're looking like you're awake, but actually you're still asleep and you're in the dream state and that's when you have use another device called TMS or TDS or basically Transcranial Magnetic Stimulator or something that uses magnets to stimulate the brain with magnetic energy in a specific location, specific frequency that essentially what he does, it turns on some neurons in the front of your brain, which is where your consciousness, your executive functions are and then wakes them up. But because the other part of brain is sleep, you become this unique moment of consciousness, but still dreaming and you get to lucid dreaming. So, you have to have device that reads productivity that you can wear while you're sleeping scientist who can read the signals and know exactly when’s the right moment and press a button to activate a different machine that stimulates the brain to wake you up all of that so they can those dreaming and even that works with not everyone, but a lot more people. So as long as this is the level of cumbersomeness that it's required, I think that you either are lucky to be in the 12% that just naturally have that or you are one of the people who really need it. And kind of agreed to come to my lab and essentially sleep in the lab or fortunate or wealthy enough to have someone come to your home and do it for you so it can get to everyone. In the near future, I think someone gonna commercialize that and prioritize that so you will have companies offer you the entire service or the entire toolkit to do it in a better way, and then it'll become everyone's but for now, it's pretty only lab.

Michael: Yeah, this is absolutely fascinating to me because the thing that I think of is being within the guise of hypnosis, I know it's obviously not the same thing, but looking at it and going, oh, you're restructuring, you're reprogramming, you're putting in new ideas, new understandings and reframing which is ultimately the thing that helps create change in your life. You have to be able to your point, make meaning, reframe things and be able to move forward adjustly. One of the things I'm curious about, and this is where we're gonna kind of switch gears a little bit is if what you're saying holds true, which obviously from the studies and research it does well, where does free will and decision making play a role in this?

Moran: So, first of all, I would say is a note that you were very right on the fact that it sounds like resembles hypnosis and more and more scientists than right now, trying to find the link between the two. It's kinda mysterious, if you want that the number of people who can actually be hypnotized naturally, about 12% as well, and that hypnosis looks brain wise very similar to lucid dreaming so there's a lot of similarities there that make people think maybe we're onto something, maybe it's the same idea. And right now, we're trying to do essentially the same studies that we did on use dreaming, we tried to do them on away people to see if you can get them to lose dream from awake rather than from already being asleep. And in that sense, it's kind of like hypnosis, there's something so that was just kind of a note that you're correct. And if someone from your audience is seeing this link, they're probably on the right kind of traditionally, because science are trying to essentially figure out how to control brains that are in different states and that's all of there.

So now to FREE WILL.

Pretty much every way you talk about the brain, you will end up talking about free will, it's kind of like physics. You talk about the, any experiment in physics, you will end up in the big bang, like, but how does it all begin? And that's kind of the puzzle of a lot of neuroscientists. So, you know, I can do things and you can look at my brain and you can see that you have residues of the things I did a few seconds before that's something known, like I'm asking you to choose between the pasta or the salad. I look at your brain before you say pasta, I can look at your brain and find signals that tell me in two seconds, it's gonna say pasta. But if you find those signals, you can say, well, could I not have found one a second before that? And before then, so, and at some point, you say, okay, at some point, either it becomes too noisy, like chaos system, I can't predict, but it must be there or it came from thin, which violates all the laws of physics like how could something come up or nothing, or if you take the other extreme, if everything is dependent on something else was my choice to have pasta determined when I was a baby or maybe when I was conceived or way my parents were conceived because it's genetically triggered or is there any randomness and boom, we're back in the kind of big bang, like is the entire universe predetermined or there's some overlap.

Now, if you're religious, you have an answer, which is there is something kind of beyond physics that explains the world. If you're not religious, you have to kind of have some kind of a sense, disbelief you say, I dunno the answer, but I still operate as if it's true. Most scientists are not giving you good answers, all we can say is the following. First of all, we know that your expensive free will is flawed, meaning even if you have free will, when you make the choice is way after the choice was made, meaning when I ask you to choose pasta or salad and he choose pasta, and I asked you, when did you choose you say right now, when I said pasta, this is surely not true. If you look at your brain, we can definitely find the answers to choices you make seconds before you experience them. You will think it's now, but we already in your brain right now is the next question that you will think you came up with only when you ask it. So, in that sense, we know that the experience flawed, but what we don't know and that's the kind of real question everyone sense is when does it start? When is the moment it comes up and where and how and we have no answer, we are basically the same way all physicists are, which is we can explain everything from T zero, big bang forward, but not the big question, which is just before that.

Michael: So, here's what side thinks really interesting. My thought on, it has always been free will as actually and this is, again, I'm not a scientist nor a doctor this is only my own experience. Free will is predetermined by learned behaviors that we absorb and see and observe through our adolescent stages. And my thought has always been, I'm only acting in accordance with the things that I understand to be true. Is that true?

Moran: So, it's basically different way to say the same thing that we kinda struggling with, which is we don't know. Yes, we know that some of your actions are predetermined and that the set of options that your brain have is not finite, it's not infinite. Meaning even all the things that you can think of are not everything in the world. You can think only of certain things that you know, that you can express, that you can experience, there are things that you cannot think because they're not part of your vocabulary of thoughts. And those things like things that you learn in your life, the more, you know, things, the more things you can think about and you just cannot think things that you're not aware of, even though some people out there are aware of things that you are not aware of and they can think them. So, the spectrum of things think about are not aligned by all people. And some are not like some people can just see more things in the world and some are not, and you can see other things that he cannot see so, everyone has a different space. Now we know to kind of make it more numerical that about 50% of your personality, what you think of as your traits that are stable is genetic. So that's something that you were born with, like the fact that you're an introvert, for instance, the fact that you're conscientious, defer that you're neurotic, this is something that at least partially was in your genes the moment you were born. That is a big part, 50%, but it still lives 50% for experiences, things that you learned over life and even among those it's divided, roughly that 25% so half of the 50% that is for you to determine is your parents', education like they kind of train you in the first five years of your life and the remaining 25% or half of the entire part that is up to you is determined by your peer group in the first 17 years of your life. So, that by the age of 17, you're pretty much set, your personality is set, you can still do all of things, you can learn new things, you can act on different things, but personality genetic upbringing and your parents' kind of education if you want determining the personality by the age of 17. And from now on, you can still do things out of character, but it'll take a toll on your brain, if you're an introvert and you will have to give a speech in front of tons people, you can do that. It's not a problem for you. Your brain will allow you to, but when it's over, you're gonna be more tired. Then extrovert who gave the same talk and gets actually more energy for it.

Michael: I love that you said that because that leads perfectly into the question that I have pondered for very long, timely.

Moran: I knew the question I put it in your brain, everything I know, I also know the next one. I know the one after.

Michael: Brilliant. And now we're into the matrix and I love it. So, here's what I'm thinking is really interesting growing up the way that I grew up, being homeless as a kid, being abused as a kid, being obese as a kid, all of these things set up for financial failure, no high school diploma, no college education. You said something that hit me really hard, you can continue to do those things right, but you can create change, but it takes this toll on the brain. For the last 12 years I have deep deep, deep, deep into neuropsychology, into understanding brain health and understanding physical health, mindset, personal development, understanding all these things which have allowed me to change my life. But what I'm really interested about is how do you know if you're programming up to the age of 17 has said, you're not good enough, you're not strong enough, you're not capable enough, you're a loser, you're dumb, you're never gonna be anything, blah, blah, blah, so on and so forth. How do you start to control your mind, your brain to be able to facilitate and make the right decisions to move you forward, as opposed to self-sabotaging and destroying your life if free will is, or is not a thing? 

Moran: So, let let's talk about, okay, I'll give you a few complete answers, but let's say the following. If you had bad experiences, they're part of who you are, that's it like good and the bad who is who we are. You won't forget that; you won't want it. Like you don't want scientists to just pop in your brain and say, here's the memories. There what makes you who you are positively. Like you now, the sum of all the bad things, and you can learn from them and you have some knowledge that others don't have, and you can prepare for that and you can recognize bad things when they come faster than others who have not experienced them and you can respond to them because you're trying to practice. So, there are things, at least you can say there's positive there, it's not that I'm just doomed for failure. There are learnings that come from that, that you can use. So that's kind of like a very broad self-help ish idea of why bad things in the beginning, they're bad because they're bad experiences they're not ever gonna become a good one, but they can be used for good in the future. So, now how? So, I'll say the following of the many things you can do, there are some practical things that are mechanical and some that hopeful. Let's like the hopeful, the science shows that the people you surround yourself with have huge influence on your behavior day to day. It's what's called trait versus state behavior. So, the traits are the things that are in your brain fixed, and you basically are always gonna be an introvert. But if you surrounded by extroverts, your state is gonna be an extrovert, meaning you're gonna behave different than what the natural state is.

So, if you put yourself around people that exhibit the things you want to become, it'll rub on you and you'll start shifting your personality towards that. You're an introvert, put yourself in a room full of extroverts. You will see that you become gradually more and more extroverted. You might still become an introvert when you come back home, but it'll push you. You wanna be funny, instead of learning how to be funny by reading 1000 jokes, books. If you sit with comedians all the time, you will somehow learn without even knowing that you learned how to become funny, you will see how timing works for them and how they think of the thing upside down and that's what makes it funny and you'll start getting that without intentionally doing that. Like you won't say, okay, I'm gonna now learn how this comedian is saying things and I'm gonna replicate what she does. You'll just sit there and at some point, you're gonna little and you're gonna be funnier. And you say, I guess I learned something, I don't know well. So, solution number one, that's I call it the less active one, the passive one is you put yourself next to people and you let your brain really by osmosis learn to become different. So, if you're coming from trauma and your tendencies are to go there when you're alone, put yourself next to people who have very different views and just force enough to sit next to them. And then the passive part comes cause your brain will learn without you saying, I'm gonna write notes, how to not think bad things right away, how to avoid eating things that I don't want to eat. You put yourself next to healthy people, you'll see that when they come to the menu, they order the healthy stuff and you'll sit next to the menu order the healthy stuff, because it's like part of the conformity of the group before long you're gonna lose weight and you're gonna eat healthier. And at no point did you have to really say I'm consciously for the next week only traceable and so on it'll become part of nature of stats because passively you will learn it, so, we spoke a passively again, one example, which is put test to people like that, actively.

There are things that are really good for the brain when it comes to healing from bad things. Sleep is very good, it's not surprising that people, when they're sick, they sleep more, that's their brain saying I need time to heal. I need all the energy. The brain takes a lot more energy when you're sleeping than when you're awake. Most of the energy in the body goes to through their brain so the brain naturally has that. But if you are feeling bad, then depression is somehow a signature of that is that sleep a lot, but also, it's how our brain essentially calibrates to dealing with things that he cannot deal with. So, sleeping generally for every person is one good thing. Then exercise, that's another active one. People underestimate the power of the endorphins in your body in healing you, and making you see clear behaviors. So, you're feeling bad, it's hard to live the bedroom. It's you don't wanna call people, that's something you can do in your bedroom, by yourself and it'll work. You will be surprised again and again, how this mechanical thing, you just do something, you just lift the weights without thinking it has any capacity to help you think differently about the trauma from your childhood and it does. You think differently cause the brain and that's can go to chemistry.

The brain actually essentially gets a different oxygen, different nutrients, different chemicals. And those chemicals make us see the world differently, it creates different connections, we think differently. This is very self-help ish, but I'm standing behind all of that. Two ways, the ones that are active, which is you do things like sleep and exercise, eat healthy things that we all think we should do, but then when you need them, the most is when you're going into those spiraling moments of bad experiences and the passive ones you've put yourself into people that exhibited things you wanna become, and you let your brain bi osmosis become that.

Michael: So, how do you navigate the voice in your head as you're going through this and how do you choose which voice to listen to? Or on the one hand, you're like, I know what I need to do to make my life better. And on the other hand, you're like, well, my life is so terrible why bother?

Moran: You get other people to do it. So, I think that where you're hitting correctly is that people are depressed, they definitely don't call people, they have no energy to do things. Depression is the symptom that where the brain essentially listens only to the voice that says I can't do that, I only think about the bad experiences, like that's where you need other people. So especially when you're not in this state, cultivate your peer group, go to your friends and say, right I'm in the best pace I am, right I'm in the manic state. I need you when I'm not there and I will say to you that I don't want you there. Don't listen. Listen to me by now. And the sooner you do it, the better, the more you do it, the more people you have you'll have different options. Like you'll have the best friend, the best girlfriend, the parents, the younger person. The communities, people underestimate again and again, the power of others to change our brain. We think we do it ourself, we don't, we need others. I have an example, it's a little longer, but it's three minutes, but it's one that I think works well in explaining it.

In advocacy of therapy in a strange way, a lot of people say, I don't need therapist, I have myself. I know myself. I can do it. Like what? And I would say that it's true. You don't need the other person to rescue you, you need yourself to be rescue you, but you need someone who's not thinking with you. So, here's what I mean when you're in a swamp and you're starting to drown in the swamp, one option is to have someone with a little lifeboat come and pull you out, that's the approach of like, I don't do anything someone just saves me. Part of the approach is that you find a little branch of tree that's not sinking and you hold on and you pull yourself out. But the thing is, there needs to be a tree that's not sinking, there needs to be something outside of the swamp that you can hold onto and pull yourself the tree doesn't pull you, it's just not syncing with you. So, any person that's not drowning with you could be that outsider who you can hold onto and ask, get yourself out. They wouldn't say, I will tell you how to do with a bad breakup, the answer is you should do this. That's not what the therapist or the best friend or the others would do, but by not being there with you, you will say not, no, I talk about it to you someone who is not in the bad situation as me, I see the answer. I know what to do. I don't even need to tell me that, but you need someone who is not with you thinking that you can talk to and that would be your brain's way of seeing things from a different perspective and coming up with the answer yourself. So, it's gonna be you, who's gonna say yourself, it's not gonna be a therapist or the best friend it's gonna be you, but you need someone else to be there so, your brain will see the same situ from a different angle and come up with the answer.

Michael: I love that. And that's why the entire tagline of this show and everything that we've built in Think Unbroken is about be the hero of your own story. But all we do is facilitate the information and the education and my thought has always been, if people are really paying attention to this show, it will change their life forever because I'm just simply trying to be the tree that's not in the swamp. So, I think you're spot on because that's how my life has changed from people like you. And look, think about this, you've been an influence on my life, but that's only been through YouTube and education and videos and speeches and things like that and it's like, people feel like they can't find the information or the community or the people. And it's like, no, it's out here. You just have to be willing to go find it in the different source that might fit for you.

Moran: Brilliant. And I would say sometimes you will be the enemy because when you're depressed, you are so resistant to help that you should drill build that when you're not so that the health can come to you, if you don't seek it. So, if you're in depression and you don't leave home, ideally with someone else who says, you know, I have not seen him for a while, I'm gonna come knock on his door. And for that, you have to use the times where you're okay to build the network. So that can come to you when you're not okay.

Michael: That's brilliantly said my friend. This conversation's been absolutely incredible and I appreciate your time greatly before I ask you my last question, can you please tell everyone where they can find you and learn more about you?

Moran: Sure. As you can said, I'm on YouTube and I'm on everywhere even now installed Instagram for the first time, like 20 years after everyone else and TikTok about years of everyone else, I try not mess I realized that there was a thirst for knowledge of neuroscience, which I always thought no one cares about and I started to say that I should do my best to do that. So practically I have a website that's where I would start other than that, if you just look my name, I'm everywhere, YouTube and I don't know TikTok now and Instagram and everywhere and on Think Unbroken first place I would go.

Michael: Thank you, my friend. I appreciate that greatly. My last question for you, what does it mean to you to be unbroken?

Moran: When you think of the experience that seemingly could break you, you would go through it again and not be scared.

Michael: Brilliantly said my friend. Thank you so much for being here.

Unbroken Nation. Thank you so much for listening.

Please like, subscribe, share, tell a friend.

And Until Next Time.

My friends, Be Unbroken.

I'll see you.

Michael UnbrokenProfile Photo

Michael Unbroken


Michael is an entrepreneur, best-selling author, speaker, coach, and advocate for adult survivors of childhood trauma.

Moran CerfProfile Photo

Moran Cerf


Moran Cerf is a neuroscientist and business professor at the Kellogg School of Management and the neuroscience program at Northwestern University. He is also a member of the institute on complex systems (‘NICO’) and the Alfred P. Sloan professor at the American Film Institute (‘AFI’).

His academic research uses methods from neuroscience to understand the underlying mechanisms of our psychology, behavior change, emotion, decision making, and dreams.

His works address questions such as: "How are conscious percepts formed in the brain?", "How can we control our emotions?" and “How the brain judges content as engaging?"

Prof. Cerf holds a Ph.D. in neuroscience (Caltech), an MA in Philosophy (Tel-Aviv University), and a B.Sc. in Physics (Tel-Aviv University).

He holds multiple patents and has mentored over 50 students and published over 70 academic papers in journals such as Nature, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and the Journal of Neuroscience, as well as popular science journals such as Scientific American Mind, Wired, New Scientist and more. Prof. Cerf’s work has been portrayed in numerous media and cultural outlets such as CNN, BBC, Bloomberg, NPR, Time, MSNBC, and dozens of others. He has been featured in venues such as the World Economic Forum, the Venice Art Biennial, and China's Art, Science and Technology Association gathering, and has contributed to magazines such as Forbes, The Atlantic, Inc., and others.

He has made much of his research accessible to the general public via his talks at PopTech, TED, TEDx, Google Zeitgeist, DLD, and similar venues, and via his appearances on shows such as Netflix Explained, PBS NOVA, Curiosity Stream's "Psychology of Con Artists", and many more, garnering millions of views and a large following.

Additionally, he is the beneficiary of several awards and grants for his work, including the Carnegie Corporation Award, the Templeton Foundation “Extraordinary Minds” award, and the prestigious Presidential scholarship for excellence. He was recently named one of the "40 leading professors below 40".

Prior to his academic career, Prof. Cerf spent nearly a decade in industry, holding positions in cyber-security (as a hacker), pharmaceutical, telecom, fashion, software development, and innovations research. Currently, Prof. Cerf is on the board of a number of neuro-tech companies (Nervanix, X-Trodes, VR Americas, BestFit, and more) and is the Co-founder of ThinkAlike. He is also the founder of the non-profit organization B-Cube which applies neuroscience to help society.

Prof. Cerf is a consultant to various Hollywood films and TV shows, such as CBS' “Bull” and “Limitless”, USA Network's “Falling Water”, and others.

Most importantly, he is right-handed.