Wonderland, Alice discussed on Minnie Questions with Minnie Driver


In your life, can you tell me about something that has grown out of a personal disaster? Ah, yeah, when I was in the third grade, I fell off of a roof of a house that was under construction. And I almost died. I fell from the roof and landed on the brick floor face first, and I shattered my nose, but I think that's part of what made me a neuroscientist because as I was falling, I was first of all having completely calm, clear thoughts. I was thinking about Alice in Wonderland and how this must have been what it was like when she was falling down the rabbit hole. And just before that, I was thinking about, okay, I wonder if I could still grab for the roof and then I realized, oh, that's tar paper and it's not going to hold and that's not going to work. And eventually I just turned and faced the bricks and hit. But the thing is that the whole event seemed to take a very long time. I still remember the thoughts very clearly because it was a traumatic event. But when I got to high school and I took physics, I realized that the whole fall had taken .6 of a second. And I couldn't figure that out. I couldn't understand how this thing that was so fast seems taking so long. It's not going to be really interested in our perception of the world and specifically in the perception of time. And why things seem to go in slow motion during a life threatening event. And I ended up growing up to become a neuroscientist and I studied that. I did these experiments where I dropped people from a 150 foot tall tower in freefall and they're caught in a net below going 70 miles an hour and I was able to measure aspects of their time perception on the way down. How did you do that? What I did is I built a device that went on their wrist and it flashed information at them, visual information at them at a certain rate. And depending on how fast they were seeing the world, the question was, would they be able to essentially see in slow motion? Because everybody who's ever gotten in a car accident says, oh, you know, it was like slow motion I saw the hood crumple in the rearview mirror fall off and the facial expression of the other person and so on. And so I wanted to really test whether that was true whether you could see in slow motion and it turned out that you do not see in slow motion. It's all a retrospective trick of memory, which is to say, when you're in a life threatening situation, you're laying down memories, really densely. Normally, you're not laying down much memory at all. You know, I don't remember my drive home, it was just nothing. But when something really matters, your brain writes down every single thing, so when you read that back out, when you say, what just happened? What just happened? What just happened? You remember it in such detail that your brain estimates, I guess that must have taken longer. I was thinking a long time. So it's all about the way memory is laid down. That's why we think the event took place in slow motion, whereas in fact, it's not slow motion. And I realized after I did these experiments that it has to be that way because coming back to the car accident, you want someone says, look, I know it went slow motion 'cause I saw all these things. You can just ask the person, okay, look, the passenger on the car seat next to you who is screaming, did it sound like the person was actually saying because if not, then that means it was not going in slow motion. And people have to allow that actually they didn't hear things in slow motion and so on. It's simply that they remembered all the details and so when their brain makes an estimate, it says, oh, I guess that must have been 5 seconds, because I don't usually have that much memory. Do you think that only a traumatic event can trigger that kind of memory sequence or could something that is intensely pleasurable and amazing to do the same thing? Yeah, good question. It can be the intensely pleasurable and amazing. That's more rare, but it's an area of your brain called the limbic system and the amygdala in particular that's involved in saying, hey, write this down. This is important. And there aren't that many things that are super important for us to write down. Certainly traumatic events count and certainly super pleasurable events count. But otherwise, most of the time, you're amygdala says, okay, you know, same old stuff. I'm not going to bother keeping dense memories of this. That's so funny, because childbirth, I don't know what your partner or wife experience, but it's so interesting. There is great swathes of the 37 hours that I was in labor that I remember so acutely and keenly and they involve pain and they also involved laughter and hilarious things that my mother and my sister said. And then there must be hours there were hours and hours and hours that I know I was just stumbling through pain, but I don't remember exactly. So it's interesting that there are parts of that 37 hours that are carved out in the boldest relief. It's so interesting about from wondered why my brain chose to remember those bits and not when I was sitting in the shower, you know, singing, which I know I did because they told me I did it, but I don't really remember it. Yeah. Well, what happens during pregnancies, you've got this hormones that are going up and down and bouncing all over the place. And for better or worse, it's just teaches us what biological machines we are, which is to say, oh, when this hormone is high and then you remembering and you can remember that later. And then when this other thing is happening, forget it, you're just not writing anything down. God, that's amazing. Yeah, it can be amazing and depressing and eye opening and so on. I think it's the most important thing for self understanding for understanding what is our experience in the world. I think that grief has taught me that meaning is just a sign. We assign meaning and the depth of our experience and the meaningfulness of our life is in direct proportion to what meaning we assign to it. Well, it's even worse than that, I think. Oh, great. Which is to say, a lot of the stuff is evolutionarily dictated. And so when you're a young person and you think, oh my God, I'm so in love and so on. That meaning we didn't really have a choice in that. That is what has allowed our species to survive. So many things are like that. Why is it that, you know, if there's a lemon pie in the oven, that smells so good, but let's say a piece of poop on the sidewalk smells so aversive, so bad. Given that, they're just molecules, both in both cases, just molecules that are wafting through the air and attach to receptors in your nose. You know, if you study olfaction, how that actually works, it's just molecules of different shapes. So if I showed you the two different shapes, I said, okay, one of these is lemon pie, one of them is poop. You wouldn't know which is which you couldn't possibly. And so the question is, why is one so pleasurable once over? And the answer has to do with the evolutionary meaning. So the lemon pie tells you, hey, there's food, there's high sugars in there, great, I can keep this battery powered robot, meat robot going. But the poop is full of bacteria and things that have been figured out through evolutionary time are dangerous to you or pathologic. And so the shorthand that your brain does to say, oh, that's aversive. Don't go near that thing. And so I often wonder about this issue of all the things that we find meaningful in life. The question is, how far does the hand of evolution reach in there and define what we find meaningful and what we know? Exactly. And spending time unwrapping that at that probably isn't quite enough life to do that. Or maybe there is, but maybe it would just take all the fun out of it. You know, I don't actually think so. My analogy is if you and I sat down for the next hour and I gave you a diagram and I showed you exactly why you like the taste of, let's say, a chocolate, why do you think that tastes so delicious? You might say, okay, good. I've got it. I understand the entire diagram, but that doesn't change your pleasure about it at all. It doesn't improve it, it doesn't diminish it. It's like it's a different world. I mean, if I said this to you about the color purple, I said, oh look here, you've got these color photoreceptors and this happens in the visual cortex, blah, blah, it doesn't change the fact that you look at something purple and you say, oh, that's beautiful. No. Has having your children made you think about neuroscience in a different way? Yeah. Because the yogis talk about beginner's mind, like that that is, that is a place that you are always seeking to get back to, which is what I always always perceived like having watched my son grow up. That beginner's mind is the purest, most beautiful. They are so connected to whatever was pre consciousness, and they've brought that in with them. So yeah. Well, one of the things that has sort of been an interesting surprise to me is just seeing the punctuated equilibrium by which I mean, you know, things change suddenly as in one day your daughter can't read and then kind of a week later she's a pretty good reader. It's just sort of these things that you work on with her for a long time selling change. And I've always found this kind of thing fascinating. It's like the system finds some thing where it says, okay, now I got it. Now I know how to read or ride a bicycle or whatever the thing is. So that's been really interesting to me. And also to really try to get an understanding of which things are pre programmed and which things are just a matter of absorbing from the world. And you know, it's always a combination of both. You may know this, but the nature versus nurture debate is totally dead because it's always both. You come to the table with a lot of pre programming and you absorb the world and you absorb your language and your culture and your neighborhood and your religion and so on that all becomes part of who you are. So just really watching my kids and trying to

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