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Today, you'll learn more about the foundational understanding of identity and beliefs and why we operate the way we do and look at how our brain works in this environment, especially around this narrative of self.
In this episode, I speak with Jonas Kaplan a cognitive neuroscientist whose research focuses on using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study the cognitive and social aspects of brain function.
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Michael: Hey! What's up, Unbroken Nation. Hope that you're doing well wherever you are in the world today. Very excited to be back with you with another episode with my guest, cognitive neuroscientist, Jonas Kaplan. Jonas, my friend. How are you today? What is happening in your world?
Jonas: I'm doing great. I am happy to be talking to you. This should be a really interesting conversation.
Michael: Yeah, I think so, man, I've spent a lot of time researching you over the years. You've been on a lot of our mutual friend shows and the deeper that I got into the more your work, its kind of just reinforced a lot of the thought processes that I have around beliefs, around identity, around cognition, but more importantly, this whole thing that I created about Think Unbroken in this ability to kind bend and fold and change the way we are in the world. But before we dive into those depths, I would love if you just take a moment and kind of lay out and explain not only the work you do, but like what is a cognitive neuroscientist?
Jonas: Yeah, a cognitive neuroscientist is someone who studies how the brain works. And, you know, I think our main job is to understand how it is that our minds, which are this strange, mysterious phenomenon of consciousness relates to what we know about the biology of the body and the brain. Ultimately, there's this piece of flesh, this piece of meat in our brain so, it's giving rise to us and our feelings of who we are and all of our thoughts and all of the things that the brain does, it's pretty amazing if you think about it, that you can build this out of a piece of biology out of a network of cells that can understand language for example, you know, you're listening to me speak right now and it's that piece of flesh inside your head that's decoding all of the sounds coming in from your ears and turning them into meaning. And to me, that is just the biggest mystery in the universe. And so, as a cognitive neuroscientist, it's my job to try to understand it better, try to give some insight into the relationship between the mind and the brain. And my own work in particular, you know, since I started in this field with an interest in consciousness and self and identity. My work has swirled around those concepts in various ways and I've studied that for example, how the brain gives rise to beliefs and our deepest beliefs and values and why it is difficult to change our minds and where does the self and identity come from in the brain? The main technology that I use is brain imaging so we do what's called functional MRI where we put people inside an MRI machine and we measure what's happening in their brain while they do various psychological tasks that's one of the ways we can try to understand what the brain is doing and how it works when we do these things that are most central to who we are.
Michael: What do you think is the most foundational? I wanna use word earth shattering here, it's probably not the right word usage of word, but it's the word that I want to go to. What do you think is the most foundational earth-shattering piece of information that you've discovered about the human brain when it comes to beliefs, identity mindset?
Jonas: You know, I think it's more like a perspective that has emerged over time on the relationship between belief and identity. And it's an interesting relationship. You know, there are many things that we believe that aren't part of our identities. For example, one of the, the stimuli we use in our studies, we try to find things that people believe in so we can measure what happens when they're thinking about them or when we challenge them. And for some of these things that we try to challenge, when we try to change people's minds, it's very easy because these beliefs are not part of one's identity. So, an example that we use in our studies is this statement, Thomas Edison invented the light bulb. If we ask people, if they believe this almost everybody who in our studies, these are young people in America, in the Los Angeles area, say that they believe this very strongly. But it's pretty easy belief to change with evidence because nobody has much of an attachment to it. It's not something that too many people care about all that much. Like if you find out that his patent was invalidated or that there was really someone else in his lab, working in his lab, that they came up with a central idea or that there was a working prototype, you know, 30 years before him, you're pretty willing to change your mind about that. But when it comes to other things, it seems like we get attached to them, they become part of the self, they become part of who we are. And then once that happens, it's very difficult, very, very, very difficult to change a belief like that. You know, if you have a belief that has to do with your religion or your politics, you know, we ask people, if they think taxes on the wealthy should be changed for example, these are things that people have a different stake in because in order to change those beliefs, they have to change who they are. And from the brain's perspective, you know, if you think about what the brain is and what the brain's primary purpose is, brain's primary purpose is to keep us alive, to protect ourselves. And in biology, we tend to think of that as the living organism as the physical body, but from the brain's perspective, the physical body is not the only thing it needs to protect, it also adopts our psychology, our mind, our identity, our story of who we are as part of the self that requires protecting.
And so, what we see when we look at the brain, when these beliefs that are part of our identities are challenged, the brain is reacting in a protective defensive way in the same way they, if the body was challenged or hurt. Right? So, the idea that the self, the psychological self is part of the sort of whole biological organism that the brain is working to keep alive and to protect, I think is an important perspective that that's emerged from our work.
Michael: How much of beliefs and identity are biological and come in our DNA versus our reinforced by our environments as we're in our adolescence.
Jonas: Yeah. I mean, from some perspective, it's all biological in the sense that every belief or thought that you have is somehow arise from something that your brain does, that doesn't mean biological is not the same as innate. So, you know, most beliefs are not innate well, I don't know about most with many beliefs are not innate, you know, your belief about Thomas Edison, it's certainly something you learned. There's information about the world that is in eighth, the rain comes with certain assumptions about the way Physics work and about the way, you know, light works that uses for perception. But of course, a lot of our beliefs and values come from our experiences with the world and there's a huge social element to belief, right? I mean, if you have a belief that you share with other people this becomes part of your social identity and identity is not just about who you are as an individual it's about who you relate with and who other people think you are and what you think of yourself, how you think of yourself in relation to other people. And so, beliefs that we share with other people those become very, very important to us because they form the foundations, they often form the foundations of those relationships and in some cases to change our beliefs is not just to change ourself, but it's to change our relationships with other people and sometimes still lose relationships.
Michael: One of the things that I personally struggled with the most in my journey was this idea about self and being able to understand that what was embedded and ingrained in me from an environmental perspective, wasn't necessarily true. Now this would be things like you're not good enough, you're not strong enough, you're a loser, you're a piece of shit and this stuff from the youngest age, growing up in a traumatic household, became my identity. So, I was leveraging my beliefs as my identity and it wasn't until I realized that the brain is plastic and malleable, that I was able to not only navigate that, but almost to this point, completely erase those ideals from myself. What is it that's happening in our developmental years, where we hear things like that and we latch onto them so tightly that 45 years down the road, nothing's different.
Jonas: Yeah, it's pretty amazing, right. I mean, you know, there is a time when the first drafts of our autobiography are being written. And so, there's a particularly, important time in our lives when we're trying to make meaning of who we are in the world, where when the brain is trying to stick together a story. And, you know, let's talk about the self a little bit before we get deeper into this, maybe we can, it'll help we break it down into its parts because there are different parts to the self that have different biological bases. So, you know, one aspect of the self is the self and the here and now, and the brain has a representation of our bodies in space and the external parts of our bodies, the internal parts of our body, a lot of the self we think is rooted in the brain systems for keeping track of what's happening inside of our body, we have this feeling of being alive that just comes from, you know, homeostasis is the word in biology we use to refer to what life does to keep everything within the parameters it needs to maintain life. You know, if things get too hot or too cold, we're gonna die. If our heart's beating too fast or too slow, the brain has to control and regulate all of this basic, these basic life processes. And so, we have our bodies and some of our self is related to just that feeling of being a body and space. But we also have a self that extends across time, you know, this idea of yourself as a person, as a character in a story that has certain qualities and certain goals and certain ideas. And, you know, when we ask people to think about those things and we look at what's happening in the brain.
There are certain brain networks that seem particularly important for thinking about oneself in this extended way about who you are as a person over time. The interesting thing about those brain networks is that they are the same brain networks that are involved when people read stories or watch movies or think about stories. Their brain networks that seem to be involved in narrative comprehension that, you know, understanding the world through stories is one of the ways that the brain makes sense of things, one of the fundamental ways in which the brain makes sense of things and certainly one of the fundamental ways in which we make sense of ourselves. And so, we have this story that the brain is stitching together events and characters and ideas we're one of the characters in there to make meaning out of what's happening. And so, there's this self that's an autobiography. And as you say, there's a time in life when that story is first being written that seems to have a lasting effect on us that those first drafts of the story can become indelible and difficult to change.
Michael: When I think about this try to make meaning of the way that our brains operate, understanding first and foremost, to your point that it is about survival. If I were to kind of put them in a linear, like activation, my thought process has been your brain first goes to survival and then it goes to meaning making, would that hold true?
Jonas: I understand what you're saying. I mean, I think meaning making is ultimately serving survival as well and it serves the homeostatic function. The brain is trying to build models of the world in order to make better predictions about what's happening for the purposes of survival in one perspective, if you're just thinking about biology. And so that meaning making process, you know, as I said, survival is not just survival of the biological organism, it's survival of the psychological organism as well. And that meaning making process is part of taking care of the homeostasis of our psychological stuff.
Michael: So, if we take this evidence, right? So, I've often sat and thought in this idea that we are constantly bringing in information from the stimulus of our environment to categorize it into safety or danger, because that becomes the precedent for everything that we do. But on a long enough timeline, you start to really understand, okay, this stuff is for sure safe, this stuff is for sure dangerous, but when your identity is tied into danger, and this is my thesis I believe, and this is my personal journey, that childhood trauma and abuse for me, it wasn't homelessness or the physical abuse or those ramifications trauma felt like the theft of identity. And that meant that whenever I showed up as myself, my beliefs, my identity, myself, and there was a ramification, my brain pulled further away from that and created this place in which basically it was, how do I bend? How do I placate? How do I chameleon myself for survival? And thus, lack of identity became a survival mechanism. And what I'm wondering is in your research and your experience, does that feel like that holds true?
Jonas: That's a very interesting perspective. I mean, you know, I don't know about, about trauma at all, so I think you're the expert there. But I definitely think that our identities can come and go and there's an advantage to having a strong, healthy identity, you know, a strong sense of autobiography and of who you are. And then there's also downsides to it, right? Because it can be limiting if you just think of yourself as a loser, for example, then you're not gonna try to do anything else, that challenges you. And so, as with most things in psychology, I feel like some kind of balance is important here in being able to engage with a healthy identity and also being able to have some separation, some kind of detachment from one's identity. You know, one of the things that we study in my lab is meditation, mindfulness meditation. And this is a practice where by focusing on the present moment and practicing some kind of objective, non-interpretation of one’s thoughts, you do become more present focused, which then kind of dissipates this narrative self to some degree and we see those brain networks that support narrative cognition and autobiography tend to decrease in activity in experienced meditators. I know you've had Jud Brewer on your podcast, some of his work has shown that as well. This reflects a kind of disengagement with the autobiography and there's something freeing about that, right? You're not bound by your ideas of who you are in that moment and by what you think, what kind of a person you think you are, you're just experiencing the world in the present moment as it is and there's an advantage to it. And again, it's all about balance because if you're always in that moment and then you can't rebuild a healthy, long-term identity, it's difficult to engage with the temporal structure of the world that you live in.
Michael: Yeah. And it's really funny because that always leads me to this idea of asking myself, am I being self-aware right now? And often finding myself because of meditation, journaling, yoga, these kinds of practices, being able to step deeper into that. But I remember Jonas, there was this massive shift that happened where I was balancing these beliefs of what I thought I was versus who I wanted to be and it was like, I was arguing with myself all the time about this. And I know a big part of what you talk about in your work is just that, like, why is it that when introduced with new information that often proves our original thought processes and hypotheses about self-negative. Do we not switch or move towards being the other version of ourself? Like where is the gap that's there?
Jonas: It comes down to motivation. I mean, first of all, it's a huge problem for us as individuals and also as a culture that it's difficult for us to just objectively evaluate new information and change our beliefs when confronted with facts that that do challenge what we believe in. I mean, ideally, we'd really like to have our beliefs correspond with the way the world actually is and if we have good data about the way the world actually is, we find out that, you know, this vaccine is working for example, we want people to believe that. And the fact so often doesn't work that way reflects the fact that we're motivated by things other than just being right. And you know, one of the main motivations in the case you're talking about is protecting self, just feeling good about yourself, it feels bad to be wrong. One of the things we find in our brain admitting studies is that emotional brain systems are very important for this process. We like to think of ourselves as rationally emotionless when we're evaluating information, but it doesn't turn out that way at all. I mean, we use a lot of emotion and feeling to evaluate information, particularly when it comes to things that are identity related and it just doesn't feel good to be challenged, to be wrong. And one way of dealing with that is to just avoid any kind of information that challenges you we're very good at doing that particularly with the way that social media is set up nowadays, it's very easy to put yourself in a bubble and to live your life in a way that completely avoids these feelings that come along with being challenged and potentially being wrong. And so, avoidance is one thing counter arguing is another, you mentioned, you know, arguing with yourself, coming up with reasons why you shouldn't be listening to this information or why it might be wrong. All of these are part of a motivated reasoning process rather than a cold irrational one. And it's a big challenge for us.
Michael: I'm thinking about this in real time, is that why, when we have these moments where someone introduces new information to us from a rational perspective, you go, yeah, I get that. But then you double down on the thing that you initially had believed that's obviously not, correct?
Jonas: Yeah. There's actually, you know, there was some evidence that in some cases when presented with challenges, people's wrong, initial police can even get stronger because of that doubling down effect, you kind of provoke all of the defensive responses that people have, you know, experimentally, this is called the backfire effect and it's been kind of difficult to replicate experimentally and so, we don't really know yet, uh, why, why sometimes it seemed to happen and most of the time now it doesn't seem to happen. But certainly, people are very, very defensive, you know, in our studies we tell people, we're about to challenge your beliefs and you're gonna read these statements and there are the things you believe, and then we're gonna challenge them. And just telling people that, you know, as soon as people know a belief is coming up, that they're about to be challenged on, we can see things happening in their brain, as they prepare their defenses that allow us to predict whether they're going to change their mind or not before they've even seen the evidence. So, this defensiveness, this defensive posture is very common, particularly for these beliefs that are important for us.
Michael: When you're challenging them, what I'm wondering is like what role the nervous system plays in this? And I'm wondering if this is activating their sympathetic nervous system in any way, like, is that perhaps a defensive mechanism?
Jonas: It could be, we didn't measure the peripheral nervous system, but we measured regions of the brain that are related to the sympathetic nervous system. For example, the amygdala is a structure that tends to respond to fear and anxiety and it's actually more complicated than that. The amygdala detects all kinds of emotionally salient events, but we found that the more people activated the amygdala when they were challenged, the less likely they were to change their mind. You know, suggesting that this kind of sort of defensive, fearful anxiety related response is predictive of just being stubborn basically and protecting yourself.
Michael: Yeah, that's really fascinating. The reason I went there is cuz like, and I've shared this on this show before my greatest flaw and my greatest character trait is stubbornness. And so, when you were saying that's what I was thinking, I was like, there's something about that rooting your feet down in that moment that makes you feel. Right. But eventually in my experience, I've come to find the more you root down, the more you're stuck and so, that's really interesting.
Jonas: It's a razor's edge thing to figure out because again, there's pros and cons, like, as you say, there there's real advantages to being stubborn. And, you know, there's research showing that, culturally speaking, when there are certain values that become really, really important to people and culture, we call them sacred values or protected values they're things that people just refuse to trade off under any circumstances, you know. Think about something like, a piece of land that is a just a thing of value and maybe I can buy a piece of land from you, but as soon as that land becomes sacred land. Now you're not going to sell it and we may even have a go to war over it, and offering you money for it, more money for it is not gonna make you likely to sell it. It's just outside the realm of sort of cost benefit analysis for you it's sacred. And this is like, as I say, it's the basis for many of the conflicts that we have in the world are these sacred values that people are unwilling to compromise on. On the other hand, there's research showing in those cultures in south America, for example, that had a sacred value for the environment, ended up being more successful because they weren't willing to compromise their natural environment for other things. And so, when you really stick to something, you get the benefits of that as well as the downsides.
Michael: I can see the pro and con in that and part of me leans toward, yeah, there's a sense of freedom when you let go of it. The other side of it, you know, you stand fast and you know, that ties, I would have to assume that ties directly into identity and our belief itself. Right?
Jonas: Yeah. And there's a reason why it's not so easy for us to change our minds, it isn't all bad. I mean, there must have been some benefit to that in our past, that led our biology to develop in that way. For example, we know there are social benefits if you do share beliefs that don't change with other people, those form strong social bonds, that can be the foundations of communities, you know, shared values and having things that we care about and that are important to us and don't change. Certainly, conferred advantages for humans in the past that were able to bond together to work together and for example, even fight others and be successful in that way and if we just change our minds at the drop of a hat, you know, if there's any small amount of evidence that sways us, it would be a very unstable situation for the brain. You know, the brain is always trying to build these models of the world and if you had to change your model of the world every day that you encountered a new piece of information, it would be very, very confusing, and it would be hard to predict anything about the world so, there's got to be some advantage to it.
Michael: Is there a logical way to kind of lay out the framework for when it makes sense to have the openness, to change your mind, to be of the learner mindset, to be anti-fragile for lack of a better way to phrase it versus to hold steadfast. Like, is there some way that you can make meaning of the world of the environment and be like, now it makes sense for me to change my mind versus no, I need to stay the same?
Jonas: I mean, that is the million-dollar question. I don't know if I have a good answer for that, but I think that's the kind of question that all of us should be thinking about. I think, you know, in some sense we have to be open to information and we have to put ourselves in a position where if there is good information, we're willing to listen to it and we're willing to change our minds. I don't think about, you know, about most things about that have to do with the nature of reality we have to be open-minded and we shouldn't be totally fully committed to any particular belief. But how to evaluate that evidence and decide actually when to change is getting more and more difficult honestly, the more information sources there are, and the more authorities are difficult to trust. So, this is a huge challenge I think the way you've phrased it is really getting to the heart of the issue. But I think this is a huge challenge for the human race right now.
Michael: Yeah. I agree is self-narrative keeps coming back to me here in this conversation and thinking about, for me, the way I believe in the world, one of the most important things is the way that we think, right? The way we operate this entire concept about being unbroken is about just that self-narrative. Can you define for us from your perspective exactly what self-narrative is and if it's actually like something practical and tangible that you can hold onto or if it's just this illusion of an idea of what we think we are?
Jonas: I think it's both simultaneously and I think it's important. I think that's one of the sorts of profound things about is that like, so on the one hand is it is literally a narrative, you know, it's a story and the brain works like an editor, like a film editor in a lot of ways to piece together all of the experiences and ideas and people and to select them and to put them together into a story that makes sense. Now, anytime you're editing, there's a bias involved, you know, you’re presenting things in a certain way, and the audience is gonna have a particular reaction to it and any edited piece of even if it has an element of truth to it, the experiences that happen to you are real the explanations, make sense, it's still got some bias to it. And when it's yourself, you know, that's the thing, you're the most biased about anything in the world. And your brain is editing this story about yourself from that perspective so it is going to be a biased story and you have to know that that's what it is. And so, in that sense, it is an illusion in the sense that it is an explanation that the brain comes up with for what you're doing, it isn't some fact of a world that exists outside of your brain. So, in that sense, it's an illusion but it certainly can have elements of reality. I mean, it really is very much like film editing. I actually have a colleague at USC, who's a filmmaker and she is a film editor, we have worked together for many years. And what we found is that there's so many similar things in terms of what the brain does in putting the self together and what filmmakers do in the editing room that we started our own podcast to explore this very issue. And we talked to filmmakers and neuroscientists called float if people are interested. But the thing that came out of that is just, you know, one of the things that came out of it is just how similar this process, that the brain does, when it's creating stories to what filmmakers do in the editing room, and you just gotta know the brain's leaving a lot on the editing room floor and it's not trying to tell the most unbiased documentary, it's trying to make a hit movie for you.
Michael: Why would it not just give you as is here is the answer. Here's the solution. This is your life. This is reality. Why would it not just lay it all out flat? Cause like when I watch film, the one thing that I love and I love film is there's always this space for interpretation. Right. I just went and saw the new film from Jordan Peele “Nope”. And as I'm sitting there watching this with my friends, we're all having this crazy different experience, which holds true in life, we're all having this crazy different experience. But if the foundation of the brain is within this survival mechanism, why would it not just give you all the data that you need at all times instead of leaving those gaps?
Jonas: Yeah, because it's kid can represent all of the information and there's so much experience and there's so much memory. Number one, we don't remember everything that happens to us. And so, there's got to be a selection process, you know, there's a selection process in our attention, we have so much perceptual information coming in every moment that we have to decide which things are worth processing further. And that's where our attention comes in, that attention process is guided by our current goals and we are always making selections and what we actually, burn into our memories. And then we have those memories, we just can't rehearse them all and keep them all alive, and so there just has to be some selection process. And because there's a selection process, basically a form of information compression is what a story is, you're compressing all of the experience and information to something that's simpler and easier to store and because we're doing that and because it's about us, you know, and because it's biased, it's never going to be just a complete history of all this stuff that happened. You know, if you find yourself cheating on a test, you've gotta decide, is it because I'm an asshole or is it because, you know, I was pressured into this situation by other people, it's one of those interpretations, you don't wanna feel like an asshole. So, you're more likely to go with the interpretation that you were pressured into it by other people and the sort of, you know, the bias unfolds from there.
Michael: That's fascinating me. I wonder if part of that is because if you're an asshole, you get ostracized from the community, you don't wanna ostracize yourself. I mean, I don't, have an answer for that, obviously, but that's where my thought process went on it. One thing you mentioned is about memories and, you know, there's so much research and studies that say the more that we remember things, the more that they tend to change. And is that just because our brain is not big enough? Like, would we need to have a brain 10 times the size that we have now to have this linear experience?
Jonas: Maybe it would just have to be organized differently. I didn't know about size, I mean, just isn't really built to have these vertical recalls and you know, remember the brain is just built out of scraps of biology, life was doing what it could with what it had. It wasn't a prescient engineer building a computer system. It was built piece by piece, little by little, over, over billions of years. And so, it just kind of built up the way that it did and yeah, like you said, the process of recalling a memory is a constructive process. We have to actually build our memories and ask ourselves questions and that process can change the actual memories that are there, that's why things like eyewitness testimony so unreliable, you know, you ask people seven times if they saw somebody in a green shirt, eventually the idea of a guy, a green shirt is familiar because I've tried to recall it so many times that I might say yes. And so, memory is, it's just the way it's built.
Michael: Yeah. When it comes to that, I had this really interesting experience where I did a hero dose of psilocybin while in a float tank, while listening to the meditation music on an island. It was this really, really gnarly experience, but it was arguably one of the most healing experiences of my life, because I've been trapped in this flashback for years and years and years of this very young childhood trauma experience. And so, I went, I did this CBAN experience, hero dose, and in that this really powerful thing happened where it felt like I effectively had closed the loop on the memory because I found this amazing sense of self love, of empathy, of grace, of protection. And I know that you've talked about different various psychotropics like you know, LSD and mushrooms and things of that nature. What is really happening in the brain when we are stepping into what I'm gonna call the other dimension?
Jonas: Wow. First of all, congratulations on doing that dose, that is a heroic thing to do, I know how frightening it can be. Part of the reason it's frightening is because of this, self-protection mechanism we have and when our ego, our psychological sense is challenged by the fact that it might actually disintegrate, that biological response of fear is there. And I think that is one of the things that happens with psychedelics. I mean, first of all, we first answer to say is just, we don't know, I mean, we're just learning about this little by little. There is a growing amount of research on what happens in the brain when we're on psychedelics but unfortunately, it's less than we would've liked the history of that science is intertwined with politics and for many years we weren't able to do it. But one of the things that that does seem to happen is change in the dynamics of brain network. And one of the brain networks that is particularly affected is this network that we call the default mode network. And it seems to be one of the networks is very important for the autobiographical self. And so, in my own perspective, this is some speculation added in with the hard science that's there is, I think one of the things that happens is that we do have this reduction in top-down processing in the brain and the constant prediction, meaning making process that the brain has, which allows some of the sensory information to come in a way that's free from memory or more free from memory and learning than we might otherwise experience's. Partly while things feel new and they feel like, you know, you're seeing the world in the way that you did when you were a child, because it's not through the lens of everything you've previously learned, which is normally how we do experience the world. I mean, perceptually, our perceptual systems are so influenced and fine-tuned and dependent upon our memories that it is often difficult to see things in a way that that's free from memory and I think psychedelics give you a glimpse of that.
Michael: Why does the fear response happen? So, you talked about this idea, like the disintegration of the ego; is the ego, trying to survive as a defensive mechanism and so, it doesn't want to allow you to go into that space. I know that's a hard question to ask, but I'm just trying to make a little bit of meaning of what's actually happening because some people will do psychedelics and they will find God and other people will do psychedelics and they will be like, if I ever do that again, I'll probably jump off a roof.
Jonas: I felt both simultaneously, to be honest with you. I mean, I think it is very scary to face ego death. I think the way you phrased it is one way of talking about it that the ego just doesn't want to die. I mean, I just think of it, the brain is so used to working hard to maintain the integrity as of the self that when it's falling apart, it's just feels like something is going wrong or like one interpretation that the brain can make is that something is going wrong. I think that's one of the things that can happen with experience with psychedelics is that you can become more comfortable with the fact that this is going to happen and hopefully become less scared of it because you understand that it is something that's ultimately beneficial to you.
Michael: Yeah. I remember stepping into it the first time and I was probably 30, 31 when I had done this, I baby stepped it I'd done a couple milligrams leading up and I said, you know what? I'm just gonna go all in. Let's see what happens. But I remember telling myself that I was going to allow the space for whatever was going to occur, to occur and to not fight it. And whereas it could have been this dark thing, it actually was. I mean, yes, it was dark in that I was like reliving that memory that I had, but it was also like you, it was a beautiful experience where I was able to come together with self. When you think about psychedelics, like, why does it happen? Like if you do Iosk, if you do mushrooms, if you do plant medicines or if you do, you know, LSD, like what is actually happening in the brain when you are taking and ingesting and metabolizing these things?
Jonas: Yeah. Well, they're affecting the way that your synapses work. So, like any psychological drug or like most of them, they are changing the communication between neurons at the level of the synapse. So, there's a particular serotonin receptor and serotonin is a neurotransmitter it's a molecule that signals from one neuron to the next. And most of these psychedelic substances will fit into that serotonin receptors, it's a particular subtype of serotonin receptor, the five HT two, a receptor that seems to be responsible for most of the psychedelic effects. And for example, if you block that receptor, you get rid of most of the effects of the drug. So, this drug activates that receptor and causes a response in the neuron that wouldn't normally happen in the absence of that drug, which then leads to large scale changes in the dynamics of the way networks of neurons are interacting with each other. And, you know, explanations beyond that would require really understanding how the brain works if we also don't understand completely. So, you know, for me, I had the experience when I much younger. I was 17 when I first tried psilocybin and this fact of, you know, this question of how it works and how is it possible that a molecule could change my entire experience of myself and reality and time and memories. I also had an experience where I felt like I was going back in time, I revisited some of my earliest childhood memories and that was because we physically went to where they took place and I had some sort of time confusion that happened and the fact that all of that profundity could happen because of a chemical interacting with the biology of my brain. It's basically what drove me to become a cognitive neuroscience scientist. I mean, that question, that visceral understanding of myself as a biological organism as a collection of molecules, that could be changed so profoundly by just the concentration of some molecule in my synapse was the first big insight that it gave to me.
Michael: Yeah, that's fascinating because I think about my first journeys into anything that kind of changed my cognition. Right. Marijuana, especially very young like I would have these incredible thoughts and memories and sometimes I was like, I don't know if that happened or not. Right. And it was really strange because when I heard and discovered and started researching stone ape theory, I was like, yeah, okay, this makes a little bit more sense in terms of evolution, in terms of what we're able to do in terms of this growth in our brain, because there's that healing modality, we see it now in ketamine. Do you have any thoughts on why there's this actual healing process that's happening within the brain around whether it's PTSD or traumatic experience when it comes to the interjection of these medicines?
Jonas: Yeah. I mean, I guess there are a lot of levels that discussion and one of them is sort of just like, why do these plants exist that that can create these kinds of changes in us. And I think the basic answer to that is that we and the plants are of the same stuff. I mean, we are very more similar chemically speaking to a plant than it might appear from our own sort of Egocentric human modern culture points of view. But you know, a lot of the molecules that make up a plant cell are the same basic molecules that make up us. And we are part of the same process of life that came out of this earth. And so, from that perspective, you know, it makes sense that plants could interact with us in very important ways. Now, we also know that because they do, they have been very important parts of human culture for our history and many of the spiritual practices that human cultures have had were inspired by the experiences of psychedelics because they have the power to dissolve the self and to interrupt this process of self-making that makes us feel separate from the world, because it's the illusion of separateness, of being a separate thing from the world of being not made of the same stuff that plants are of having our own boundaries to us, which really some kind of illusion of the brain. And so, because of the power of these substances to interrupt that process and to give us these experiences, I think they are so, potentially beneficial for the kinds of situations you're talking about PTSD, trauma, depression, but also for people who don't suffer from those things. I mean, you know, people can have tremendously transformative experiences without some kind of profound suffering to begin with and can move in positive directions with interaction with these plants as well. So, I think they're very powerful and very interesting to me.
Michael: Yeah. That's a really solid point. So, in consideration of stone date theory, and now is putting ourselves in this position where we have access to not only study the impact of using these plant medicines. Do you think, and this is gonna be such a left field question, as I'm about to ask you, it's kind of weird, but I have to, cuz I really want to know. Do you think the future of human evolution will start here?
Jonas: Well, it didn't start here because there's no starting point. You can pick that is an actual starting point that is an arbitrary except maybe the big bang, that's really when human evolution started.
Michael: Yeah. In my head, I was just thinking to myself, you know, if stone date theory led to us, then what do we lead to? Right.
Jonas: Something, that's very interesting to think about, but yeah, we'll see.
Michael: Yeah, I think that's ultimately it, right, we'll see. You know, this conversation, Jonas has been absolutely incredible. I appreciate you greatly, I feel like I have such a stronger foundational understanding of just identity and beliefs and why we operate the way that we do and looking at the way that our brain works in this environment, especially around this narrative of self that I love that part of this conversation and I appreciate you greatly. Before I ask you my last question, my friend, can you please tell everyone where they can find you?
Jonas: Yeah. You guys can find me on Twitter @jonas_kaplan.
Michael: Brilliant. And of course, we'll put the links in the show notes for the audience. My last question for you, my friend, what does it mean to you to be unbroken?
Jonas: What does it mean to be unbroken? Well, I'm gonna answer that question in a weird way, because we're talking about illusions of the brain. The thing that comes to mind for me is that the difference between broken and unbroken is also an illusion of the brain, right? These are concepts that one thing that the brain does in its meeting, making process is to divide the world up into pieces. These opposites, hot, cold, up, down, broken, unbroken are useful for the brain in terms of making models of the world, but ultimately, they're provisional and the deepest insights, the kind of insights that come from the psychedelics that we've been talking about, show you that these divisions, that the brain makes between things like broken and unbroken are ultimately arbitrary they aren't actually out there in the world they're in our heads. So that's my answer.
Michael: I actually love that answer. Thank you so much, my friend, I appreciate you being here.
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Jonas Kaplan is a cognitive neuroscientist whose research focuses on using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study the cognitive and social aspects of brain function. He is an Associate Professor of Research at the University of Southern California’s Brain and Creativity Institute, where his work has explored issues relating to consciousness, identity, empathy, and social relationships. He uses functional neuroimaging combined with machine learning approaches to examine the neural mechanisms that underlie our sense of who we are, including research on how the brain processes stories, imagination, beliefs, and values. This work has focused in particular on how the brain deals with the beliefs that are most important to us such as those relating to religion and politics. He is currently the Co-Director of USC’s Dornsife Neuroimaging Center.