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129: Trust Fund Rats and Behaviorceuticals

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Buck: Welcome back to Wealth Formula podcast everyone. Today my guest is Dr. Kelly Lambert. Kelly is a professor of Behavioral Neuroscience at the University of Richmond in Virginia where she runs the Lambert Behavioral Neuroscience Laboratory. She’s also the author of Well Grounded The Neurobiology of Rational Decisions. Kelly, welcome to Wealth Formula Podcast.

Kelly: I’m glad to be here, Buck.

Buck: I want to start out a little bit about sort of your background. Can you start by giving us maybe a little bit of an idea of what behavioral neuroscience is in particular and how you got interested in it. Right so behavioral neuroscience there are really three things that we’re trying to look at how they all interact: the brain, behavior and the environment. So we’re certainly the neuroscience part we’re interested in that brain, but we don’t see the brain is an island. It is there and evolved to interact with the environment. And behavior is really the output of the brain and I think is one of the most complex phenomena ever so it’s fun trying to figure that out.

Buck: What let up to that? You always kind of have an interest in how things worked and with people and the brain and that sort of thing and you know obviously we share some similarity in that and I started my career as a neurosurgical resident. But yeah I mean so I mean obviously the answer to that is the brain is really cool.

Kelly: It sure yeah.

Buck: I want to talk about some specific things in your book first. You talk about the outcomes in our lives are off and contingent on our experience-guided actions, that’s a mouthful a little bit. Can you give us a high-level explanation but what you mean by that?

Kelly: So our brain evolved to as I mentioned to allow us to interact with the environment around us. So it’s at one simple level our brain is keeping us alive as you know we’ve got our medula on our brainstem that’s helping us to breathe and our granular responses and such. But beyond that kind of a second-tier function is that it’s keeping track when we make a response and what that outcome is. So response, outcomes. So going back to the classic behaviorist…I’m trained in psychology as well as biology in neuroscience. So the JD Watson and the Skinner and the Pavlov’s they started to notice there’s some method to the way behavior is reinforced and so our brain, our circuits and the human brain is really in a league of its own when we look at the density of neurons and that cortex, but it’s keeping track of these responses so that action outcome. Make a response that Skinner rat pressed a bar, it got a little food pellet, and so it was more likely to press that bar. Action-outcome. We need a clear lens and window to that environment the authenticity of how our actions what the outcomes are in order to have this healthy action outcome contingency.

Buck: You talked a little bit about neuro economics is that related to this?

Kelly:  Yeah it is because, that’s kind of a hot area now, but neuro-economics is involved in this decision making so knowing we have so many decisions in front of us every day. How do we even keep track? Just what do we order for lunch? So there are certain areas of our cortex that are active when we’re we move from this uncertainty shift to this is what I want or this is this response. So the more classic field in neuroeconomics looking at the particular brain areas involved leading from uncertainty to response. So this whole book, this idea our brain is a contingency calculator, and I use that a good bit, certainly involves those areas that are involved in making decisions. But even more than that I try to reinforce the idea that to make those informed decisions, we need to have some really great informative experiences. We can’t invest unless you have money to invest or resources to invest and we can’t make a decision unless we have experiences. And we can look back at our stockpile or inventory of action outcome you know contingencies and just make an informed response. But our brains just didn’t drop from the sky, they were molded through our experiences from the day we were born and will continue to be until the day we die and those experiences are really important in informing us to make those decisions. And part of that decision making is the neuroeconomics part of it right.

Buck: So with that theory the you know the more exposure you have in different things in life, the better or more favorable decisions you’re going to make because you have a wider set of options to choose from or contingencies in other words you already have positive negatives in a number of areas and I think a lot of us experienced that in life all the time even you know even when we talk about you know investing and making mistakes.

Kelly: Right those experiences, failures and successes, are incredibly important and I think it’s very important. And I’m concerned about how our life changes and how we think of prosperity being we can pay someone to do all of these experience things that our ancestors evolved to do: to forage, to find food, to build our shelters, to do all this stuff, and as we seem to strive for lifestyle sometimes where we press a button or call on someone to do that I call that the contingency conundrum. We may be creating a world that is going to dumb down our brain in a scary kind of way. So I don’t think our brains definition of prosperity is the same as our contemporary culture of definition.

Buck: We’ll get to that in a second. What qualities in the way a person behaves or reacts to you know the various stimuli out there helps to create success because obviously you can have a lot of experience and not have a lot of success. There are some people who seem to be better at it than others and is there you know whether that’s better analysis from the prefrontal cortex of these experiences or what, you have any sense of that or is that just kind of hypothetical?

Kelly:  Yeah I mean I guess the scientist in me would say how do we define success. But maybe related to meaningfulness, well-being, satisfaction, so if I go all brain nerd, a lot of the neurochemical that’s related to that is dopamine, that seems to be important in driving us toward our goals and telling us what is important. So having those goals seems to be important. Also I think engaging at a good bit of our brain. We were speaking before about using our hands. And if we look at engaging our brains as being healthy which may be related, it’s more related to well-being and health maybe than happiness, but I think that it could be related to happiness. I like to just sometimes I refer to myself as a brain whisperer and look at just what the brain tell us what’s important. If you look at you know that so much of the brain’s territory is related to movement. So we’ve got the whole cerebellum 78% of our neurons are in the cerebellum that’s involved, textbook definition motor coordination and conscious awareness, but it’s a lot of movement there. And then our basal ganglia in the middle of the brain. So a lot of the territory the brain is about movement. Hands we have a large large area of our motor cortex controlling our hands. so we seem to have evolved to move around in the space and the world around us and to interact with it so I think that our brains are more engaged when we’re interacting, when we’re moving and interacting and and learning from those interactions.

Buck: This is actually where I first learned of you as I was watching CBS Sunday morning. You know a big part of in my view at least a feeling wealthy or successful is having that sort of inner peace, you know, obviously it’s not just a financial thing, and as you know I mentioned before I’m a former surgeon and this really work oddly with what I would just say just with my brain creating content and through analytical activity, you know, looking through investments and things like that. And while most of most of what I don’t miss about most of surgery and medicine and all those things, I don’t miss, but what I do miss is having a sense some, hard to explain but at certain euphoria I used to get during and after doing a surgical case that I can’t seem to reproduce anymore. I didn’t know how to characterize that, but then I saw you again on the show and you called, you used a term that I was really interested in which was behaviorceuticals.

Kelly: Yeah I kinda made that up.

Buck: Can you talk a little bit about that?

Kelly: Because as we move, as we engage with the environment, our neural chemistry changes. So that neurochemical dopamine that may be involved in telling us what is important, reward movement, repetitive movement is involved in the release of serotonin that is certainly been implicated in mood regulation. We cuddle up to someone or engage in some cooperative task, oxytocin is released. As we do things such as when you were doing surgery and using your hands in a very informed meaningful way, you probably had a sense of control, it may be hard to simulate or mimic in other areas. A lot of my lab with my animals were studying how a sense of control and training reduces stress. So changing the neural chemistry to reduce that stress hormone cortisol in us and those related hormones. A lot of the the chemical basis of so many psychiatric illnesses is stress, that’s kind of tipping point. So through behavior and you have to be careful about, if you force someone to do it and you’re not going to reduce stress and you may not get this benefit. But finding something you enjoy doing or having done cleaning house, I don’t enjoy doing, I enjoy having done it and I have a sense of accomplishment. So you can tweak the neurochemistry in a very relevant real-world way and under your own accord you’re on accord with behavior as opposed to psychopharmaceuticals where you’re putting something into the brain that is changing the nerve chemistry but not in real time with what you’re doing, it’s just changing it regardless of who you’re sitting next to or what you’re doing so it’s kind of like there’s psychopharmaceuticals, it’s kind of like having a tow truck you know that can get you around but you don’t have the autonomy of driving your car you’re just sitting on the tow truck. And so I think if we can certainly, psychopharmaceuticals are important and relevant but if we could start with the behavior part and cognitive behavior therapy and other aspects especially to prevent that episode of psychiatric illness where that may need to come on board but we can change our neurochemistry through our responses too.

Buck: Yeah I mean I know what you’re getting at. What was really interesting to me was you know whether you’re an employee, entrepreneur or whatever. I mean fewer and fewer people are you know working with their hands and doing things like you said you know we’re not out there hunting, we’re not out there you know doing things that that we probably at least from a evolutionary perspective we’re designed for what we’re really meant for. And we’re moving further and further away from that. You talked about the you know the problems with that. I want you to talk a little bit about your trust fund rats. Talk about this as something that may be contributing to a collective health problem.

Kelly:  Right so a lot of my research interest is about depression. My first book was lifting depression, and so if you look at other medical diseases like cardiovascular disease, diabetes as we learn more about it we’re becoming more effective at treating them. Cardiovascular disease, deaths due to cardiovascular disease is much lower than it was many years ago. Psychiatric illness especially depression, it is not going down it’s going up if anything. So you’ve got a multi-billion dollar pharmaceutical industry and we’re not touching it and so some people may say well we have more awareness and we do but I don’t think that that’s getting at that. So I like to look at all the different pieces of the puzzle in addition to just the traditional brain perspective that I have, but when you start about the mid part of the 20th century when we started to see more service people paying and having appliances and doing less physical work and television comes on board and we’re sitting on our rear ends more instead of the physical work, there’s a correlation and this is just correlational and a kind of epidemiological perspective of depression starting to to rise. So if you ask individuals who were born before about 1950 they’re less likely fewer as they’re aging, but they were less likely Martin Seligman talked about this years ago, he’s known as the father of happiness research. The people born before about 1950 were a lot less likely to report ever being depressed than those that who were born in early 20 years old and you would think oh my goodness these older individuals actually maybe lived through the Great Depression, they’ve had more people, their loved ones died, they’ve seen so much more, but they weren’t as likely to report being depressed. So this makes us think about lifestyle was there something about all these changes where we have systematically become less active a less active society that is not not healthy for our brains. As I said in the beginning, our brains evolved to move us around and we’re not moving around. We’re not engaging and the challenges of problem-solving. If you look at the Sears & Roebuck catalog and the first ones, they had the appliance or whatever they were selling and then pages about how to fix it or repair it. None of us can, we don’t sometimes, your washing machine you don’t try to fix it. But everyone they had all that knowledge and they were incredibly smart and they had a sense of control over their environment. So our lifestyle may certainly be changing our brain and I mean we challenge our brain through technology and we can sit and look at a screen and such, but we may need another push, a more physical push to keep that brain active. So as far as some a psychiatric illness go and depression I think our lifestyle really influences it.

Buck: People don’t believe me when I tell them this is very true. Cuz I grew up in a very you know white collar family. The first time I ever used it drill was to drill through a skull. And then once I figured it out I went home and put up some cabinets and I was like wow, new skill.

Kelly: You had to be a search engine you know well people who say it’s not neurosurgery but yeah I mean just the, I have a lot of respect for trades work.

Buck: It leads me to believe and ask a question, do people in trades work people who are you know more blue collar so to speak do they are they mentally healthier? Do you have any data on that? Any correlation?

Kelly: Yeah you know there is some research showing how individuals who have hobbies seem to be less likely to experience depression like knitting or woodworking. I haven’t seen a very definitive study , there’s so much to control for because you’ve got salary differences and such. But what an author who is local here, I’m in Richmond Virginia but Matt Crawford he wrote the book Shop Class as Soulcraft. So he writes about the how much more challenging the trade work is for the brain as opposed to the white-collar work. He’s a political philosopher who worked in a think-tank and he said he quit that because he didn’t use his brain enough and now he has a motorcycle repair shop and he talks about how much more engaging that is. You can’t just BS your way, they literally have to drive that thing off the a lot so you have to problem-solve. It’s very engaging. So I think we could we need more of those studies looking at different type, the careers are changing so much and then controlling for the lifestyle as far as the salary and such, but theoretically based on my research if you have a sense of control, its meaningful work, you’re learning, I think that’s better than sitting somewhere all stressed not being very physically active.

Buck: You talked about the trust-fund rats. I think that’s a interesting…

Kelly: Little rodent twist on that so I am, being a neuroscientist, I do laboratory work with rodents. And so I was trying to simulate some of these ideas. So I wanted to send my rats to work so they go out at an arena just 5 or 10 minutes a day and my worker rats which I call my contingent trained rats, they learn that if they see a mound on this bedding that is in a lab they just dig just simple little movements and there are pieces of fruit loop and that’s the currency of money for the rats. And so I had the worker group that goes out every day and they dig up four little fruit loop pieces and they’ve earned it and they eat it and then they go back to their cage. And then I had the control group. Same age as these animals and we call it yoke so they’re they’re put in the arena for the same period of time but instead of digging up the fruit loops I just give them the same number that their rat buddy, the yoked buddy got. So they dug up three, they get the three right in the corner regardless of what they do. So they’re the non-contingent or the trust-fund rats, they get their rewards regardless. And so when we do that training for four to five weeks five to six weeks and then we look at brain areas that we see when we challenge those rats that our worker rats have lower stress hormone levels they had a higher adrenal hormone DHEA that you might have heard about that seems to provide a buffer against that. They have other areas of the brain that seem to be more activated and more neuroplasticity. And behaviorally for example we give them a swim challenge, and rats they’re great swimmers but they don’t like it, they’re more likely to dive, I mean it’s just they’ve never been in water but they dive like little scuba rat divers to explore, just so smart and bold and such a controlled response. And they also if we give them another challenge to get a fruit loop and a little problem solving task, they’ll persist longer. It’s as if they have the confidence that they can get it. So they have this persistence and boldness and healthier stress response just from making that connection but we start action dig up get the fruit loop. A sense of control we think in their live.

Buck: The question then, I think you know just just sort of going off of I think you said Matthew Crawford right isn’t that his name, the one that the guy with the motorcycle shop. He was able to do this and I think I remember him saying you know he physically felt a lot better, he wasn’t falling asleep all the time like you used to and his old work.

Kelly: Right he was in the CBS Sunday morning I forgot to mention that.

Buck: And the question I have is with your rats, if you take your trust fund rats and put them to work, do they then end up with changes in their hormones that are more healthy or are they kind of pretty much screwed?

Kelly: Well that’s a great question but we haven’t done that study. My guess is I don’t think it’s ever too late to work, that they would adjust to that, but you’re asking a question of their critical periods and having gone through this time where they unlearned the contingencies or learned that maybe there wasn’t, it would probably take them longer to learn the contingencies but hopefully they would come on board. But that’s a great question we just haven’t, we usually look at the you know their responses after this five-week training but I’ll have to jot that one down that’s a good good one.

Buck: The reason I ask that of course is you know I mean to the extent that a lot of us are sort of trust-fund rats out there and I’m not talking about people who aren’t working they’re certainly people were working but you know we outsource a lot of things, you know I told you about my drill thing and my surgery stuff and I don’t do it anymore and I think there’s a lot of people who for the most part probably some people who are listening to this thinking right now gosh you know I’m sitting at a computer all day and pushing buttons and I’m doing really you know specialized hard work and actually this is resonating with me. I wonder if I change my behavior now, would that change my physiology, my neural physiology. And that’s kind of what I’m…

Kelly: Yeah well instead of just making you go back to be a worker rat, because we’re all kind of our worker rats and we do outsource, but just adding something physical to your day to your plate, something you enjoy. Gardening, woodwork, cleaning, I don’t know knitting, there is some research with knitting and I haven’t talked in the book about how doctors used to prescribe knitting two women who they saw as overwrought with anxiety. They saw something about that calming behavior. So adding that behavior like a behaviorceutical. You know you don’t take drugs all day long you’re just adding. So adding that now looking at a complete lifestyle I talk about in the book adding that behavior but also the environment natural environment that we evolved, you may know from your medical career that having a plant in a hospital room, people request lower doses of morphine. So we can certainly influence our brain like I said until the day we die. So if we have a job that even we enjoy that it’s not very physical or if I’m riding all day I don’t see an output, it is important to see this this product of our work. And we don’t always see that in some of our writing or thinking and reading, but if we go home and we see a meal that we’ve prepared or something that reminds me that they were gaining a sense of control. So I think we can have like lifestyle supplements for the behaviorceuticals.

Buck: In surgery I always sort of knocked it up on the you know as the idea was that I could start something and finish something and it was completed and a lot of the things that I work on now are okay well we identify a good investment and we don’t see the result for years.

Kelly: And that’s hard for the brain because we are kind of geared to see this outcome. The long-term outcomes we do have all this fancy brain to help us look at these long-term investments and outcomes but we still need something along the way to remind us that we have some control in our lives. So it could be something rather simple.

Buck: So with behaviorceuticals,  is there a type of, and I know you made that up, because i mean if there’s none I think you’ve got a great business opportunity. Is there support out there like you know therapies and things like that that aren’t just people sitting in hospitals? I mean I remember hearing because I you know I trained in UC San Francisco and I was in San Francisco and there was like these people who are on their phones all the time and they were going to Silicon Valley, they were going to camps where they just checked in and did stuff like they did when they were you know probably when they were twelve years old and there was no internet, There are things like that out there that are catering to this?

Kelly: Well I mean I’m the only treatment side yes we’ve had them in psychology like cognitive behavioral therapy, where you’re focusing on the behavior, you’re changing your behavior. Yes and we had this in our society called exercise and going to the gym, I’m just calling it behaviorceuticals of course that’s one is not really effort based rewards like I talked about but you’re changing your neuro chemistry when in wonderful ways when you exercise when you are out on a date you’re changing the oxytocin or when you’re eating you’ve got dopamine. So everything we do we’re changing these neural chemistry, our chemistry. But maybe the closest,  something like I was noticing that this app Calm, meditation where people pay to have someone tell them to relax. That’s kind of getting, my rats don’t really meditate. For some reason we like to pay someone to tell us how to act and I guess I’m trying to just say you can do it on your own, just do it. But in order to get people to do it, the reason I call it behaviorceuticals is to make it sound like it’s something fancier than just doing, engaging in behavior and we can talk about dosing your behavior and having withdrawal from the behavior we like to think of medicine and surgery as a way to heal ourselves not three thing behavior. So I’m trying to just enhance or start the conversation about how we can change some of these things through our behavior.

Buck: I think you should trademark that.

Kelly: Maybe I should yeah scientists are not sometimes good entrepreneurs.

Buck: So the book just came out it’s called Well Grounded The Neurobiology of Rational Decisions. You wanna talk a little bit about some of the things in there that maybe we haven’t discussed? Some of the topics that are you know that they’re gonna be covered for people might be interested.

Kelly: Yeah so my work with these contingent trained rats, the worker rats and the trust fund rats are kind of a basis of this and how important it is for our brain to see these outcomes and another aspect when I was finishing writing the textbook, I’m very nerdy writing behavioral neuroscience textbook and when I was writing the learning chapter I really got interested in just thinking more about what a brain does and how it does it in its best way other than keeping us breathing and consciously aware and stockpiling these experiences is so important and if that’s important, anything we do that distorts our knowledge of you know the effect that we have that our interactions with the environment is going to be very harmful to us. So psychoactive drugs drinking things that that dilute the authenticity and distort our reality is not good for the brain that’s toxic to the brain not knowing that you did something. If you black out you don’t know what the outcome was for that particular response. You’re going to be more likely to do that again you did not learn from that there’s no contingent calculation I talk about our brain as a contingency calculator. It is making all these calculations you know eat this this will happen or this will be good or I’ll gain weight or this so you’re calculating so psychoactive drugs a life of privilege. You know having yes people around you always agreeing with you is not giving you an authentic life experience either and a big part of the book and it was the title but my editors thought otherwise as we a brain bubble with just like the housing real-estate bubble when the value is distorted and you buy into that and then when you find out oh my goodness I’m not as good as I thought I was because everyone was telling me this, you have a market crash. But I think you’ve got an emotional crash as well as you have been told or you’ve been living thinking one perspective but it wasn’t the truth so anything that distorts our reality, privilege, poverty, drugs, political perspectives, religion all those may be good in some ways but if they are go to an excess the brain is losing its ability to do what it does best, keeping us alive, but making the best decisions to get our resources or happiness or meaningful life, everything that you’re talk about on this show.

Buck: Where else can we learn about your work and website?

Kelly: Yes I have Kellylambertlab.com, it talks about some of their research. I have always worked with undergraduate students, I’m very much the professor and mentor hopefully to the students and we’ll talk about so I have some of our research for getting into the ultimate nature’s entrepreneurs reckonings and they’re just great with their four calls and hands. And then this this book has a good bit, Well-Grounded that just came out last week. And I’m always happy to my email address is on my website address. I like hearing from people hearing stories our brains also evolved to react to a great story and so I like to incorporate those into my writing and teaching and research ideas too. You gave me one about reversing that going from the trust fund to the workers.

Buck: Anyway, thanks so much for being on the show Kelly it’s been a lot of fun.

Kelly: Well thanks for having me.

Buck: We’ll be right back.