Episode 167: Brain Science and Behavior Change
with Dr. Kyra Bobinet, MD MPH
Creating and maintaining healthy habits is often the biggest lever that we can pull to affect our health and happiness, but it can be an incredibly difficult process to change our behavior and create those lasting habits. Through her medical training and research, Dr. Kyra Bobinet has begun helping people to close the gap between the brain and behavior through behavioral neuroscience design. She shares her wisdom about how staying in effort can lead us to turn our healthy habits into automation.
On Today’s Episode of A Healthy Curiosity:
- Dr. Bobinet’s journey into becoming a behavior designer as she followed her curiosity
- How to move our good intentions into being habits
- The two big things people get wrong when building new habits
- Why she says that no one changes alone
- What she found in her research about what makes change stick
Kyra Bobinet, MD MPH, is a behavior neuroscience designer specializing in behavior change. As CEO/founder of engagedIN, Dr. Bobinet designs large-scale health and wellness products that impact hundreds of millions globally. She has an MD from UCSF School of Medicine, an MPH from Harvard School of Public Health and is consulting faculty at Stanford School of Medicine. Recipient of the 2015 Harvard TH Chan Innovator Award and designer of a patented clinical algorithm, her team is currently developing a habit engine AI for their Fortune 10 customer.
Connect With Dr. Bobinet:
Read the transcript here:
Welcome to today’s show!
My guest today is Dr. Kyra Bobinet, and she has an MD from UCSF school of medicine and an MPH from Harvard school of public health and is part of the consulting faculty at Stanford school of medicine. And she and her team have designed a habit engine and a software that helps people live differently. Dr Kyra, Bobinet, welcome to A Healthy Curiosity!
KB: I am so psyched to be here, Brodie thanks for having me.
BW: So before we pressed record on this conversation, I was sharing with you a little bit that that I have been in practice doing Chinese medicine 16 years. I’ve been seeing people one on one in a clinical setting for about 20 and that really seeing and getting interested in how people change their behavior because I would leave every session giving someone a self care prescription that they then would not follow and then feel bad about not falling and feeling like a failure. And I knew that it wasn’t these people’s fault that they weren’t able to do the thing, but that I didn’t necessarily know how to help them create new habits and make them stick until I started studying that separately from my studies of Chinese medicine and all the other things that I’ve studied. So I am, I’m always interested in learning more. I’m hoping to have my perception expanded by understanding a little bit about your work, but I’m curious about your particular journey as well from being a doctor to being someone who is a behavior designer.
Yeah, exactly. Well, I would say that, you know, one of the things that I want to just come clean about initially is that yeah, I was trained as a doctor, but I grew up as a fast food junkie. And even up until probably about eight years ago, I was a regular fast food customer and you know, just, just as kind of a symbol of how unhealthy you can be, even though you know what you should do, right?
So it’s not about the education, you know, and I’m on the upper end of the education of, of knowing what to do. And so, you know, to me, the, the incremental journey that I’ve been on, anybody can go on, right? And, and all you have to do, and I love, you know, this healthy curiosity that you bring, which is we have to be curious about how to be healthier and actually how to get ourselves to do the thing. And that’s really what my work centers around is, is I know what I should do. I don’t know why I don’t do it. You know, closing that gate, that gap between the brain and the behavior. Well especially because so much of what I mean really the biggest factors and how we end up showing up in the world health wise, like everybody knows the essential habits that we need to have in place, right?
It’s not a new story that we need to break up with stress. We need to move more. We need to nourish ourselves. We need to get enough sleep, we need to be connected to each other. We need to live with purpose. Like we, can name these, these habits and that’s actually what I’m passionate about doing with my coaching groups is like actually doing the things, practicing it until it’s automatic and that it just is, it becomes our way of being instead of, or trying to squish it in around the edges. Like it’s no secret; the secret is out what we need to do in order to be healthy. And yet it can be really hard to get those habits into automation and yeah. So first off, I’d love to hear what you can tell us about moving from our good intentions to making something a habit.
Yeah. So you know, for me, I find it incredibly clarifying to look at how the brain works. So you know, this is not going to scare anybody who doesn’t have a science background, but I’ll just say that, you know, the reason why we have bad habits so to speak, is that we have a super highway that’s really paved and it’s paid with this stuff called myelin in our brain. And it turns into what’s called white matter, which just basically means that that’s faster than anything else in the brain. And so the whole goal with habit formation is taking the gray matter, which is kind of the slower, you know, I have to think about it, I have to be very mindful. I have to use maybe willpower, decision making, problem solving, that kind of stuff and really doing it enough times and [inaudible] enough and long enough to signal to the brain, Hey build another highway.
And then basically what you have are copies of the same behavior. One that’s not desirable anymore and then one that you’re really wanting to do. And so for me that really helps people to understand what’s going on in their heads. And so when they see themselves no something and not do it, they understand, Oh I’m just on the [inaudible] old highway and I know how to get off and I know how to just get back onto the new highway cause I prefer that.
BW: Well and these ideas of highways, I think it bears mentioning that the brain likes efficiency and that, so we build these highways in the first place because we don’t want to have to think about how to tie our shoes every time. We have to tie our shoes and we don’t want, that’s right now that the brain likes to group behaviors together, a group skills together, group neurons together that are doing something. And then make that super efficient. So you’re saying that if we build a second highway, if we build an alternate path to get to the same place or an alternate path of like a choice points essentially that we can, we can either be on our new path or on our old paths.
Well, you know, like you said, the destination, the goal is mindlessness actually. Yes. You want, you want to get, you want to get the new thing to be completely energy free and free energy and just happen automatically without you having to spend a single neuron on it. That where people get wrong are two things I find. One is they have unrealistic expectations about how long it takes to construct the highway. And then the second one is that they don’t realize the old highways still there. So in the first case, and not realizing how long it takes, we have these mythologies in our, in our kind of, you know, social culture around you takes three weeks to form a habit that is not right.
Do you know the backstory of that?
Well, I’ve heard that it takes 90 days to form a habit. I’ve heard that it takes that the length of habit of how long it takes depends on how difficult the habit is. And so I am usually pretty suspect. Anytime somebody says that it takes X long to do X thing, but, tell me, tell me the truth as you see it.
Well, you know the three weeks came from a plastic surgeon in the ’60s who noticed that it took three weeks for his patients to get used to their new nose. And that is the origin story: Having three weeks even though it’s just the beginning of adjustment in the sort of, you know what’s called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which is where our are “me sets”, you know, our self image sets.
KB: And so when you get used to something different on your face, which is very much associated with “me”, right? Then you, you basically got that signal going. But as you point out, there are 90 day inflection points. They’re almost like mile markers. There’s a 90 day one, there’s a six month one, there’s a, there’s a one year one, right. And again, you know, a full fledged fully adult, no matter how complex it is, usually it takes about a year on average. And so I feel like it’s better to be honest with people so that they know how long they’ve got to invest in something rather than trick them with kind of gimmicks and play to this short term thinking, you know, and, and, and what you’re doing, what you’re doing with the building community, you know, that kind of supports each other really helps create a lot of infrastructure so that he will can go that long.
BW: Well and that’s interesting that in 2018 I incentivized people to stick around and do the program three times, like the 11 weeks, three times so that they could have a whole year of support around.
KB: I love it.
BW: And every time you go through the same habits but the next time you are doing it obviously from a different place like it and, and you are able to deepen into it, you’re able to to maybe learn some things about yourself and the process and the people who stuck around for, you know, who kept repeating the course where the people who like they really are referring to themselves as like the new me and the old Me, right? Like the fully getting into identity evolution, not right behavior change of if really feeling like they are operating from a different place.
And yet I still let people do just the, the three month version because a lot of times it’s a hard sell to get people to invest in themselves proactively and you know, health wise and like, all right, well it’s still doing, I think about it as like if we can turn the wheel, uh, on the ship or around a little bit, we can at least start seeing a new horizon. Even if it actually takes a longer time to actually reach that new horizon. It’s like, it’s long enough to just at least orient the compass in a new direction.
KB: Absolutely. And you know, if you had told my old self my fast food addict self that I had to just suddenly go off fast food and that, you know, I had to do it for a year, I, you know, I would not have been able to even sustain any of that because my emotional attachments to that food would have risen up and, and sabotage so quickly that I wouldn’t have been able to make any progress.
So you are wise to break it down into these three months. It’s achievable, especially when you have a community of support, it’s achievable to really norm yourself differently.
BW: Right, and, and I love that you point out that yes, if you look at it as like this giant mountain that you have to climb of, okay, no fast food ever, but to someone who is for whom this is a daily way of life that that you might try and then fail and then something that I learned from, from stalking you online is that we actually have a failure counter in the brain that inhibits us trying again, game changing a game, changing the habenula, is that right?
KB: Yes, that’s exactly right. Yep.
BW: I was like, Oh my God, the habenula! I have a huge habenula, because I really do keep track of my failures more than my successes and it’s, and I see that a lot of times with people like with my coaching clients that that trying to take on too much too fast and then it is, it’s counterproductive because then you’re proving to yourself that you can’t change and it’s evidence in the wrong column as opposed to doing something small that you can build on and then see evidence that you are in fact like making some progress and, and I’m sure you’ve noticed this, but there’s so many patterns of change that people do.
KB: You know, some people are cold turkey people, some people are, you know, baby steps, some people are, you know, micro steps and it’s really based on what, what amount of an emotion are you releasing, which with each of the change, because you know, when you, when you change something, when you move something, the brain kind of freaks out. You know, cause you’re, you’re moving outside of the me. You know, I talked about that me center and, and you have a constant feedback loop. Like this is me, this is me. Yeah. The people who are listening to this podcast, this is you, this, this is something you consider to be you or otherwise you wouldn’t listen to it. You wouldn’t stay with it. And so that is something that when you move that you freak out the brain cause they can’t find itself anymore. And it’s like, that’s not me.
BW: That’s not me. I’m not the salad eating person or I’m not the exercise person or I’m not the, you know, go to sleep early person, whatever the case may be. And you’ve got all this release of emotions and freak out because it just feels so groundless. And that something like how much do you have wraps around this particular thing? I noticed that like when I, you know, when I was even in high school, being a vegetarian and having people who ate meat necessarily feel like their identity was threatened or like that I was calling into question their behavior. Like even like Facebook memes like bacon and coffee: these things where people are like, “I’m in tribe tea” or “I’m on team avocado” or you know, like whatever it is that people just that it’s like I can’t live without my fill in the blank.
KB: That, that these are things that even something as seemingly innocuous as like as our, as our eating habits like that our brain can really freak out when threatens like w what do you mean the attachment, the umbilical cord to those is so long and deep isn’t it? I’m wondering, so, so you getting back to the idea that the amount of emotion behind something may, it can be related to, am I hearing you correctly that for example, if we’ve got a lot of emotion and a lot of identity wrapped around a particular behavior that we would be wise to bite off a smaller step than try to just go in a big direction. Big, massive, yeah. I think, yeah, I think playing the odds, the odds are that you have to do that. There are these, you know, kind of weird people who can just go cold turkey and not have super big freakouts for some reason, but you see what’s happening in those brains is that it’s been tracking for some time.
Like we have our subconscious brain that has almost infinite ability to figure out patterns. We in our sleep without us being knowing it and when that pops into the person’s conscious working memory that, Hey, I don’t like this anymore. You know, that’s when you see that cold turkey on the surface happen. Yep. Yes. For the most part, most of us in most habits that we have are going to have to bite off little pieces and chew on it, especially if it’s really tender, if it has a lot of childhood memory around it, as a lot of identity around it. If it has a lot of social norms around it, you know, if my family is team bacon, you know, and then I’m trying to go vegetarian that that’s really counterculture even on a smaller scale. So there’s, there’s just so many dynamics we have to take into account.
I see this cropping up in terms of how we see ourselves as well, right? If you, if you have a sense that you’re not allowed to relax until everyone else’s needs are met, you’re gonna have a hard time claiming that space to meditate or to sit down and read a book or enjoy the sunlight on your face, which you have every right to do. But if you’re a woman and you are brought up that your self worth is predicated on how much you do for other people, that that can be really tough. Right?
KB:That that’s a, sort of inner conflict of self image as the sacrifice person, the martyr versus the uh, or the servant versus the self image of I deserve care, right? And, and one is more dominant than the other. And so you have this kind of existential crisis when you shift the order of the dominance in the, self-image stack.
BW: And so if someone’s trying to break out of that, they’re saying, you know what, this is, this is an old narrative. It’s an old box I’ve put myself in and I really want to actually be able to enjoy my life. But it feels scary to do that. How do, how do we bridge that gap?
KB: So, you know, there’s, there’s a couple of dynamics that I think people miss. Um, one is there’s at least three different distinctive phases of the transition, if you will, between here and there. So the first one is, I have the intention to do and be different. And what happens in phase one is that my fast brain, you know, my, my, my old habits beat me to the chase. You know, my, my old habits are faster. They’re, you know, myelinated, they’re paved. And basically I have a whole phase of disappointment where it’s not happening.
KB: It’s not happening. The second phase is, it’s still not happening, but the interval between me doing it automatically and me catching gets shorter and shorter so that those two things kind of come together in time. And then the third phase is when you actually have some chance of changing the behavior on the, on the surface. Right? So, so people give up mostly in phase two because they think they’re not getting anywhere. So that, that’s kind of one thing I would say.
The next thing is that, you know, our self image is this very dynamic feedback loop, as I mentioned before. And it’s formed around different areas of defending ourselves that we learned as children. And so when we try to unpack that and, and feel like we deserve something different and try to get ourselves to open that wound up, we need a lot of support.
It’s not just as simple as changing what’s on the plate. There’s so much emotion that gets released when we start going there. Right.
BW: And this makes so much sense where it’s so helpful to have a community of people who can support you or having someone who is, who can hold the space for you to get uncomfortable and stick with it.
KB:That’s right. We have a saying around here, “no one changes alone.” In our research on thousands of people who’ve changed their behavior. Not a single one of them did it by themselves.
BW: That’s something I was just reading in the book Change or Die. That idea that even when your life depends on it, most people can’t change unless they have a supportive community. Somebody who believes that change is possible, new skills and, and are willing to move into a new identity.
KB: Right. And, and you know, that’s a big miss in healthcare, in, in Western healthcare because, you know, as a doctor, we’re trained only one behavior change technique, which is scare the bejesus out of somebody. You know, when they have, when they have, when they’re smoking or when they have a heart attack. You have this idea of like, wake up call. And honestly, if that doesn’t work, uh, we’re not trained in anything further honestly. So if I can’t scare you out of your behavior, then I’ve got nothing left as, as a classically trained physician. But you know, if you, if you take that into, you know, where the brain is and that kind of thing, somebody is not going to be scared into changing their behavior. They may, that may create adrenaline and a jolt and some attention that they didn’t have before. There’ll be more mindful, which gives them some fuel to, to pay attention to things a little more.
But again, the only way is to change their habits. And if you look at the statistics on this, after a heart attack, only 4% of people change their eating, their, uh, smoking and their exercise levels 4%.
BW: Yeah, it’s really, it’s amazing really, because we would think that we would be very fear motivated in order to survive, but that’s apparently not nearly enough. And so with your research, what else did you learn that in terms of what makes change stick?
KB: Yeah. So the main thing is we found a very special mindset. And you know, we did this with Walmart associates who are, have every stressor you could imagine: two jobs, single parenthood taking care of a senior parents, um, all of the stress in the world and those that changed their, their lives dramatically. We’re talking about a hundred pounds plus weight loss and you know, two plus years keeping it off four plus years, keeping it off like really, really, you know, lasting change in the middle of food deserts by the way, you know, like no money, no time, no, no emotional or they all did it with the same ingredient, which is this what we’re calling the iterative mindset.
KB:And the iterative mindset is defined by when you go to change your behavior, A) you see it as an experiment and B) when said experiment doesn’t work or somehow you get tired of it or maybe you master it, the way that that person addresses that change is they look for their next thing. They make some sort of tweak adjustment or they search for, you know, talk about curiosity: they’re curious about the next thing or what that’s teaching them and those people are distinctly different than other people and everybody else quits or relapses and these people don’t.
This episode is brought to you by my healthy habits course, level up your life. Since autopilot dictates up to 40% of what happens to us every day, wouldn’t it be great if those autopilot routines were the ones we needed to thrive? They could be. “Doing this work of habit change with a supportive coach and a network of allies allowed the foundation of my daily habits to automate. I’m now free to move through the world with greater ease and to focus my energy on what matters most. ” -a happy course member.
You don’t have to default to stress, overwhelm, and numbing out step by step. You can lay the foundation for abundant energy, resilience, confidence, and trust in your body. If it’s time for you to start a new groove, whether it’s meditation or exercise, getting more sleep or speaking more kindly to yourself, I’d love for you to consider level up your life. It’s so hard to change habits on your own and so much easier when you have a group of likeminded peers all working towards similar goals. We get rolling for the next round in January, 2020 so now is the time to apply. The first five people to enroll are going to get a super sweet early bird discount. So today would be an excellent day to head to Brodiewelch.com/level-up and apply.
BW: This is something that we talk about in my level up group all the time is this idea of the Kaizen approach of the, the 1% better. Constantly looking for like what would be the easiest low hanging fruit that would make me one better at at doing whatever it is than I am today. We talk about fixed mindset versus growth mindset, but I love this iterative mindset idea, right? That like, yeah, we’re not, we’re not just, “this is who I am and I can’t change,” but that every time we’re willing to run these experiments and see a new result and, and pivot that we are, we are iterating, we are becoming our future selves slowly, little by little.
KB: Oh, I want to, I want to dissect if I can. The difference between the iterative mindset, the growth mindset and the 1% better idea.
BW:Yeah, that’d be great. Yeah.
KB: Cause these, these are all mental models and it’s very important, but also very subtle differences.
So growth mindset is basically that you believe that you can change, you know, and that, and that’s basically it. And, and that helps with not failing, meaning that somebody doesn’t give up on something. The iterative mindset is a little bit more leaned forward than that, which is not only do I not give up, I kind of assumed that I can change. But also my, my leaning in is to hunt and search for what my next thing is in that mode. For example, there’s, there’s a really good body of work by Jaak Panksepp, you know, rest in peace. One of my favorite neuroscientists who found that in animal brain, and I believe it’s true also for humans, that there’s seven major emotional neuro networks, the largest and the most dominant of which is searching. And you wouldn’t think searching would be an emotion, right? But it is.
And, and this curiosity that you based this whole podcast on curiosity is the most potent emotion over everything else. So what that means is that this iteration is this kind of leaning forward and 1% better is good, but it mostly goes to baby steps. It’s, it’s more of like, uh, a former version of little changes that don’t set off the alarm system in either the habenula thinking that you failed or the a the self image center. But it’s a little bit different in the sense that iteration is about like, you know, not just 1% better, but what about, “I can go either direction, I can be better or worse, but I’m learning, I’m learning, I’m adjusting, I’m tweaking, I’m tinkering. You know, I’m playing with this” and that’s a very different orientation or target if you will.
BW: Yeah, yeah. No, I liked that.
KB: And it seems like both valuable. Yeah.
BWAnd for a lot of people that 1% better is too slow and they want to bite off something more. And it’s sometimes there is that tension between kind of like, well I pretty much do it. Choose your own adventure or let people decide for themselves what they feel like they can handle. And then we aim for a B minus, right? We aim for like not doing it perfectly, but less like what doing this experiment and actually getting curious as to why it didn’t work or why it did.
KB: Perfectionism is such a setup isn’t it for, you know, those, those folks that habenula is just waiting for them. Oh yeah, you want to fail? Okay, I’ll, I’ll kill your motivation to try it again. And I feel like in our, in our whole society, you know, very good people suffer from this all the time.
We don’t have an obesity epidemic, or these other diseases, or stress. We have a quitting disease. We have a disease where we stopped trying. And that’s my biggest passion right now is can we just figure out how to get ourselves to keep in effort? Because if we can do that, then we can conquer anything. Right. But, it’s getting that belief in the mind that you’re never done. You, can iterate your way out of this. Uh, it’s not over for you. Not just growth mindset wise, but like, what’s your next thing? You know, what adjustments can you make? That kind of thing.
I love that, that basically getting, getting us to a point where we as an orientation keep trying.
Yeah. And the meta a message is being an effort. If nothing else, just stay in effort of some kind.
BW: I’m curious if you have a practice that helps people with that. Because I find a lot of times when when we’re stuck in a mental trap, it helps to either go to aligning with something that’s not the mind, like the consciousness, it’s seeing another way of being, or even the body are using these other domains of who we are to get around that stuckness. It’s like, do you have a go-to strategy that you recommend?
Yeah, I find that people have what’s called a mental model. We call that mental model in design thinking where they have some story of what they’re doing. You know, “I’m losing weight” or “I’m going to this class,” or “I’m coaching with Brodie,” or you know, those, those kinds of things are the story. And, and what happens is that when people are focused on that, that concreteness of the story, the mental model, and that wears out for them, they need a refresher.
So they need, you know, I’m level two with Brodie, I’m, you know, I call it also the Dumbo feather. You know, Dumbo, had a feather that he- believed he could fly. What’s your next Dumbo feather? You know, what’s the next thing you can believe or try or get yourself into that will carry you a certain distance and then that vehicle, whatever that is, needs to be refreshed or, or you know, match you again, in order for you to stay in effort. So I, I find it to be, you know, point at the meta: the you are the designer of this and that gets people to kind of stay in that meta states, that metacognitive state. Cause there’s you listening to me, then there’s you watch, you listen to me, right? Anybody who’s meditated understands that. And so if I can point to the you watching you listen to me, that’s your designer, that’s the person who you know, picks.
BW: The next thing I was just going to ask you about meditation as well, whether that was part of your study because it seems like as you were going through those three phases that you were talking about earlier, that that awareness of the gap of what you’re doing and, and why it may not, may or may not be happening. It seems like meditation is game changing in terms of us being able to watch ourselves and to see where we bite the hook and fall into like taking the old highway.
KB: Oh, I love that. Yes, absolutely. And, and how, how it works is that, you know, I talked about you have this implicit memory system running in your subconscious that’s picking up on all the patterns, doing all the math, trying to figure out, you know, who you like, who you don’t like, how you’re suffering, how you’re play in pleasure.
KB:And then at some point that exports to the conscious mind .What mindfulness does and what meditation does is it kind of lowers that watermark where you have access to more of the ocean floor and you, you can see things more quickly. Uh, it doesn’t mean that you’ll change. I don’t know if it means that you’ll change faster because that might be, you know, your brain being neuroplastic. It’s building, it’s under construction, but you’ll at least feel a lot better about your experience when you feel in that metacognitive state. I mean, the neuroscience behind that metacognitive state alone is that you feel more empowered as a person instead of being the victim to your own behavior. So yeah, maybe just that is the reason to train that part of your brain. Yeah.
BW:So you’re saying everyone does need a meditation practice.
KB: I think it’s very soothing and important for, for somebody to have some meditation practice of some kind.
Now where people go wrong is that it’s not always going to be pleasant because once you start shining a light on things that maybe you’ve been using to it’s not very pretty. I remember the first time I meditated, I, I closed my eyes and it was like a room of people talking and I was like, what was that? You know? And I opened my eyes immediately, just shocked at the level of noise chatter that it was going on under the hood. So that can be unpleasant if somebody has a very judgmental mind, which I did and probably still do to really, you know, subject yourself to that consciously.
BW: Oh yeah. It can be really noisy in there. And really, yeah, getting quiet enough to look at some like to create space for things to come up so that we can digest it. It’s often uncomfortable. And I just would put it out there to, to people listening that there’s so many different ways of meditating. And that finding one that works for you. And really if it’s uncomfortable and especially if you have been through trauma, if it, if closing your eyes and being still is difficult that I am of course gonna beat the qi gong drum because moving and breathing, you know, repetitive movements where you’re in your body and you’re opening yourself in a form of moving meditation and gentle exercise that can put the mind, in a flow state.
KB:I love it. No, and there’s also a lot of neuroscience arising around just time in nature, you know, and how that induces a metacognitive state, you know, and, and awe, awe being its own science, it turns out. So there’s so many tools out there. I think the problem, the modern problem is, you know, again, how do you find the one that’s right for you right now? Right? And, and that’s where the iterative mindset I feel is another helper.
BW: Definitely. I will put a link in the show notes to another episode about figuring out which meditation practice might be right for you based on neuroscience. And that was with Dr. Jeff Tarrant I think you pronounced it. Um, anyway, uh, fascinating stuff that they, all these different ways that we can, that we can get into our brains and, and change how we’re living in response to that. I’d love to know because you know so much about the brain and how it works and how it affects our behavior. What else do we need to know?
BW: Say we want to change the way we’re eating, for example. Right? There’s obviously a huge reward system associated with eating sugar, for example. And we know that unlike in the past where we wanted to pack on the pounds so that we could survive a harsh winter these days, most of us, uh, have an abundance of calories, not too few. So curious as to like when we have these, these biologically hardwired rewards for, for things that we might not necessarily want to be engaging with. How can we work with our brains to mitigate that?
KB: Yeah. So two things around that. One is that, you know, self image dominates when it comes to food experience. And always, always, we gravitate towards foods that check the box on me versus not me. And so what happens when somebody tries to change their diet is that there’s these incumbent go-to foods.
KB: And it’s almost like when you say, Oh, I can’t have that anymore. I can’t have a loaf of bread, for a snack. Then you’ve got to figure out what’s the new version of that. Cause you can’t just say no to something. It has to be replaced with something else. So one good guideline to understand about your brain is that it has kind of a heuristic model. Do you, have you ever heard of a heuristic Brodie or talked about that? Okay, so we talked about that on the unpacking for our listeners. Yeah. So, so an easy sort of, you know, cheat way to do it is, is where the brain takes a shortcut. It’s just a shortcut. And so it groups and take shortcuts all the time, you know, to your prior point around trying to be efficient. So you know like and like are grouped together.
So for example, salty food, a sweet foods, you know, those are, those are common categories that people are already familiar with. But I would go so far as to say, I’ve noticed in my research that there’s people who need crunch, there’s people who need sauce on everything. There’s people who only can have things of a certain temperature. T.
BW: Here you’re going into energetics. I love it.
KB: People who like spicy on everything: certain consistencies, certain appearances. So think about every sense that you have. There’s some sensory similar matching that the brain needs when you move your old food away that you’re replacing it with something that is as close to that invisible checklist. I like to call it in your brain, so that again, you don’t freak out. The me/ not-me to be triggered. Right. So, so that’s one thing.
The other thing is that, you know, you mentioned this, this world that we live in, the only thing that works in a land of plenty of with you know, unnatural access to blueberries year-round, you know, which never used to be the case in, in old times and places with winter where blueberries grow is constraints. And this is, this is something we use in design thinking also when we’re designing products or designing interventions that you need to have a certain level of constraints. And there’s, if you look at what people are kind of naturally doing, people are super smart. They are, they’re coming up with constraints, not maybe calling it that, but you’ve got to somehow eliminate certain amounts or types or hours or some sort of eating pattern where you don’t have access to everything all the time. You know, so few people could eat anything all the time and live to be in their nineties right?
So what we do with different diet plans, different ways of eating. You know, you mentioned you’re a vegetarian. I just recently turned vegan, which is a whole other story is you’re basically saying no to a whole population of things and yes, to a more constrained list of things. And again, too, to all this whole conversation, we need to baby-step our way there usually. But that’s ultimately what people are doing when you’re talking about intermittent fasting, when you’re talking about, you know, ketogenic diets, when you’re talking about any other kinds of paleo, whatever their, their brand name is, or even a seasonal challenge, right?
BW: That there is something that Chinese medicine and Ayurveda both hold dear is this idea of that we shouldn’t be eating the same thing in all seasons, nor should we be eating the same thing at different times of the day because our digestive fire waxes and wanes and because nature gives us that which is medicine for our bodies at different times of the year and so that if we are and that of those, those energetics, right as you were talking about, that something that’s dry and crunchy is going to, that that’s, that’s the energetics of the air and ether elements versus something that is moist and, and oily and warm. It’s like that’s going to pacify that same energetic.
KB: And so the idea that that looking at either deciding that we are someone who is a seasonal eater or like we’re going to get X number of percentage of our food from the things that grow locally or at the farmer’s market or something like that, as well as eating during daylight hours or you know, just these things that have to do with natural cycles seem like such common sense ideas of restraint, which is really just about going back to the way humans used to live. I love that. I’m going to add one more piece of science leads from my tradition to that in support of that, which is that I had a very nasty food allergy that I didn’t know about it. This is one of those I’ve been humbled by the universe over and over and over again from my Western education.
KB: Anything that I scoffed at, you know, in my early twenties I was like, come on, that’s not a thing. You know, I, I got that thing. So one of one of those things was food allergies and specifically the protein and dairy that I was allergic to for years. And I had my blood tested and what I’ve noticed through different blood tests over the years on food sensitivities I’ll call it, was that anything I regularly binge on is the thing. Those are the foods that have the highest inflammatory, the response at that time and that when I move those out of my diet, to your point of seasonality for a period of time, almost fast from them for a period for a cycle or a season or that kind of thing, did that inflammation, inflammation, a signal goes down again. So isn’t that amazing that our blood and our immune system is responding to this overindulgence, this, this, this, you know, year roundness to food availability.
BW: It’s really true. And in nature that the digestive enzymes that we have available for things switch on and off, as always we do in animals, you know that like the same that the deer will be able to digest certain kinds of tree bark in winter but not in summer.
KB: So perfect. Isn’t it?
BW: So interesting. So we’ve been talking for a little while now and you’ve given us such was really cool practical advice. I still am totally unclear as to what you actually doLike I’ve got it right now by combining the waves and. Compassionate design approach to increase engagement and behavior change at scale. What’s that about?
KB: So we do large scale population health and public health design projects. So in the case of Walmart, which is a perfect example, we know Walmart has a 1.5 million employees. And as I said before, these are folks that come from backgrounds where you know a lot of them are really struggling and we are designing something that can help them to be free of some of the suffering that they experienced and also be more empowered over their habits.
KB: And so that’s where fresh try the habits engine, the habit formation engine that we got and we just studied it actually. And we found that we got statistically significant weight loss, statistically significant mindset adoption. This iterative mindset I spoke and physically significant habit formation, which is a habit index that that is comes from science. And so those are the kinds of things we do. We take science, we do all of the research, kind of like what you’re doing, you’re very well read and your, you, you know, this comprehensive set of information. And then we basically take that as guidelines to help a product and intervention program, uh, for a group of people. And the bigger, the better to be able to help them do it better and do it more effectively.
BW: So. Cool. I love that so much.
KB: I do too. I love what we do.
BW: That’s fantastic. So if people wanted to learn more, or potentially even get involved, where would you suggest that they go?
KB: I would say that fresh try is the sort of most public facing part of our work. Another thing is I have a book out, a well designed life, which kind of has a, the neuroscience that I mentioned today as well as a bunch of other things. I feel like it’s a really good anthology of how the brain works under behavior change circumstances. And so that, that I hear is very helpful for a lot of people. And, and then we have, occasionally we have these events. Um, but those are very infrequent. So probably just kind of, if you, if you hear about one great, it was meant for you, but if not, you know, don’t worry about those.
BW: What happens at your events?
KB: We train people in neuroscience based design actually. So we teach them what we do, which is you take the brain how it works and you design things that to make you know yourself or others better.
BW:So cool. Any final pieces of advice or inspiration for people listening who wants to want to live differently?
KB: You know, I think if they know you and they’re working with you, it sounds like they’re in good hands. And so, you know, I would just say stick to it. Just stay in effort. That’s the only thing that seems to matter these days and try to find anything you can to, uh, get yourself to do the thing.
BW: Staying in effort sounds exhausting. How do we make that easier?
KB: (laughter) I think, you know, curiosity and, and also feel it. Feeling like effort isn’t exhausting. You know, you’re, you’re constantly breathing, it’s kind of passive and your heart’s beating and those are efforts, right? So, um, just being in something where you are trying something, you’re playing with life, you’re, you’re taking in new things and you’re constantly iterating on it.
BW: I love that. I love that notion of our whole lives being a grand experiment and an opportunity to design new experiences that we can I, the image I get is kind of like riding an upward current and going on that upward spiral to be in a different place than we are now. Dr Kyra Bobinet, thank you so much for joining me today and dropping some awesome neuroscience knowledge on us.
KB: Oh, it’s my pleasure. Thank you so much for your work.