Crystal: You never really know who we would have been if we had made one different decision way back there in our childhood, but because of the way the brain develops, we are more emotionally susceptible to the experiences that we have early on in life than we are later in life. Tom: Hey everybody! Welcome to Impact Theory. You are here my friend because you believe the human potential is nearly limitless, but you know that having potential is not the same as actually doing something with it. So our goal with the show and company is to introduce you to the people and ideas that will help you actually execute on your dreams. Today’s guest is a professional dancer and molecular neuroscientist with a PhD from Caltech that is hell bent to destroy the longstanding stereotypes about the frumpy and pathologically unhip scientist.
She gave an amazing TEDx talk that covered state of the art neuroscience and brain imaging all while dressed in some eye catching neon green high heels and her brash style and voice helped the video gain nearly 100,000 views and make it very clear that she’s not your mother scientist. As effortless in front of crowds and cameras as she is in the lab, she’s painting a new reality for people that shows that STEM is for anyone willing to dive headlong into the unknown and start figuring things out. To that end, she earned her doctorate by modifying mice brains to glow and then shot lasers at them and took pictures to see the effect that smoking has on the brain.
That’s just what she did to graduate. Since then, she’s brought together the worlds of science and creativity entering herself in the pantheon of globally recognized science communicators who can bring the often impossible to understand worlds of things like quantum computing and neurochemistry within reach of the masses. Her ability to combine the usually sterile world of research with the mass appeal of pop culture has made her the go to host/journalist for countless scientific shows across virtually every medium including the wildly popular TechKnow which airs on Al Jazeera English in virtually every English speaking country in the world. YouTube’s Lab Fail and Discovery Channel’s DNews among several others. So please help me in welcoming the woman who considers it her personal mission to redefine who and what we think of as a scientist, the researcher, actress, host and of course, choreographer for all of Caltech’s musical productions, the doctor with the best shoes in the game, Dr.
Crystal Dilworth. Thank you. Crystal: Thank you. Tom: My pleasure. Thanks for being here. I’m so excited. Crystal: Quite the induction. I’ll try and live up. Tom: Very true. As you well know, I’m very excited to have you here today. One I’ll quickly ask, I don’t want to start going down this rabbit hole, but how much of the science of the multidimensional stuff do you buy into? Crystal: So you’re asking me about multiverse theory as my first … Tom: I know as one of the first ones this is a dangerous rabbit hole to dance around, but just quickly while we’re here.
Crystal: I think as a neuroscientist, I can’t answer as a physicist but as a neuroscientist, the idea that there are other options. I’m a penguin in another universe that’s sort of like the example is very comforting. Tom: Really? Why comforting? Crystal: It makes it so that every decision that I make as I said is accounted for. So if I chose, yes in this reality then maybe I chose no in that timeline. Got a chance to play out. So I never feel like I’m missing out on anything. Tom: That’s interesting. Even though you don’t get to experience that timeline.
Crystal: It’s all about controlling my experience in this dimension. I don’t have to worry about the other me’s in other dimensions that are controlling their experience. Tom: Very interesting. You’ve talked about how we all create our own realities. What do you mean by that? Crystal: I think our expectations create our reality in the same way that a psychologist will tell you that we often recreate patterns in terms of our relationships with other people throughout our life like something that happened to us in childhood. We might put ourselves in the same situation or seek out similar experiences as adults. I think we do that in all of the choices that we make. You took a sip of your water, you expected it to be water and it was water, but have you ever tried to take a drink of something that you thought was water but it was orange juice? Tom: Yes. Crystal: That like changed your entire reality. It’s turned upside down. So we expect things, we get the same things back in a way.
Tom: So I’m absolutely obsessed with this and in many ways what we’re doing here at Impact Theory is all predicated on the notion that essentially we create our own reality. If we create our own reality and to be honest like I don’t really believe that we’re actually in the matrix even though that’s like my go to metaphor. I don’t believe that we’re actually in the matrix but I do think that because the wet works of our brain, our essential and you’ve talked about this, our creating a virtual environment, so my brain doesn’t actually touch light.
It doesn’t actually … the perturbations of the error doesn’t actually touch my brain. It goes through a processing plank. It’s turned into neurochemical signals and creates its best representation. Once I realize, “Wait a second, if this is essentially it doing its best to create something so I don’t bump into too much shit, how many little lies are being told? If little lies are being told, can I take control of those lies?” Then really construct a reality that’s more advantageous. Not like delusional, not schizophrenic but advantageous so that I choose like Einstein said, “The most important decision any person ever ask to make is whether you live in a hostile or a friendly universe.” It’s a decision.
So how many little lies does our brain tell us? Crystal: So maybe a better way of thinking about this is as like a Mad Libs sort of games. Our brain, the probability machine that it is, is playing Russian roulette in a way with those fill in the blanks. So our experiences and what we expect our reality to give us back is part of the input into the probability machine that then makes its best guess at what the blank should be filled in with.
So I know for you and for Impact Theory it’s all about how do you affect the calculation that’s going on in the brain so that that blank that’s filled in gets filled in with something that’s more positive, more empowering, more action oriented than not. I have to admit I’ve never seen a V for Vendetta but I think that there is an important scene that I might have seen in a YouTube clip or something like that where Natalie Portman’s character realizes that she had the ability to leave prison all along and that she was really only being kept in her cell by her expectation which her brain was creating for her based on the input that she was getting, but she never thought to test it. Once she did, she realized that she was being limited only by her own expectations. Tom: I can’t believe I’ve never used that analogy before when talking about all this because that I think is where so many people live their lives is you could do something more but you never go like poke that.
You never check that door. You never stop to see if it’s actually unlocked or not. Crystal: I had a similar experience. Unfortunately, I forgot to look up the name of the artist who created the virtual reality experience that was here at LACMA. It was meant to illustrate the plight of those people that have taken the risk to try and cross the border from Mexico, illegal immigrants or searching for a better life. I think it’s a seven minute experience. You stand in sand that’s meant to recreate the earth in that San Diego sort of Mexico border. You have the headset on and you are actually with a group of migrants crossing the border with them and the experience that you get hopefully is not in the spoilers is that you’re identified, you’re captured by border control, a gun is put in your face, others around you are questioned, they’re injured and you have the instinctive reaction, especially you’re barefoot in that sand.
So you’re tangibly connected to the reality that the computer is creating for you. At the end of it, even though knowing that it was a virtual experience, even though knowing that nothing could actually happen to me, when a gun was put to my head in virtual-reality and I was told to get on my knees, I did. That messed me up. So I had the whole rest of the time wandering this institution of privilege looking at very expensive art wondering what it meant that the end of this imaginary experience, I was tangibly in a reality on my knees accepting the authority of a computer.
Tom: That’s pretty crazy. Crystal: Uh-hmm (affirmative). Tom: So I did … they had the one with the phone, the Samsung phone, where the person from O walks up to you. Have you seen it? Crystal: No. Tom: You’re in this mythical realm if you’ve seen Cirque du Soleil’s O and it’s like thin in water, very shallow water, and the person is way far off in the background. The VR ones on the phone are quite pixelated so it disturbs your sense of this is a seamless reality. The person walks, walks, walks, walks, walks and then they get right into your face. I found myself wanting to back away because the sense of presence was so real that I needed the distance.
It was super weird. I thought, “Whoa! If this is what it’s like when it’s super grainy, I fully know that I’ve got like something on my face.” It’s not like a light to the glasses. This is like the clunky VR that we’ve got today and it … presence is the right word. It had a sense of presence and it triggered … and this is what I find and I’m so curious to know what drew you to neuroscience. This is what I find so interesting. So my brain has its limitations. It does not process well that this isn’t actually happening. So all the physical things that would trigger if you got too close to me were triggering even though I was just wearing a headset which then, man you start thinking about how does this play out when it is indistinguishable visually from off and on, how much does it begin to mess with our neurochemistry? So this is sort of the world you play in.
Have you guys at Caltech started dealing with VR? Do you have insights into VR or VR/AR or even AI? Where is the science of all this? What are the things that give you pause? Crystal: It’s everything I learned when I’m speaking with my fellow researchers gives me pause because everybody’s questions they’re also interesting. Caltech is deeply involved in AI and specifically in computer vision. Pietro Perona is one of the leading researchers in the world in this area and he happens to be at Caltech and I had a few friends in his lab and that’s teaching computers to recognize patterns in the world similarly to the human brain which they are not capable of doing. Tom: Walk us through the story. So I know that originally you wanted to be a dancer and you were doing the college thing because you had the parental encouragement to put a nice word on it. Then you actually go become a professional dancer in New York but you’re sitting here today working at Caltech as I mean a PhD.
So what happened? Crystal: I went to New York and I trained at the Alvin Ailey School which is a very well-known school of modern dance. They’re in Manhattan. I was going to be a dancer but then there’s sort of cracks in the façade a little bit. I wasn’t quite fulfilled and when you’re a dancer especially when you’re a young dancer, you’re treated as if you don’t have a mind of your own. You are simply a body and the artistic director and the choreographer or the teacher is giving you the input and you have to back. For someone that already had a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry, that wasn’t really satisfying especially when they would make comments about biochemistry like “Don’t eat too much turkey for Thanksgiving, because then you’ll fall asleep because tryptophan …” I’d be like, “Do you know how many turkeys you’d have to eat?” I digress. Tom: So talk to me about dance for a second because dance is brutally difficult. What parallels are there and the discipline obviously being in a lab is so … you have o be so regimented, so disciplined.
Are there parallels between the two? Have you always been a disciplined person? Did you have to develop it? Crystal: I think when it comes to discipline, I didn’t much have a choice. So I didn’t realize that other people live without it. A lot of the early accomplishments that I have made were because I didn’t realize that there was an option. There’s actually a type of method for teaching … I also used to play the violin and I was taught with the Suzuki method. If you look up the Suzuki method you have all of these little four, five, six year olds that are playing violin concertos that are far beyond what you would think somebody of that age should be able to do. It’s because nobody told them that they shouldn’t be able to do that. So that was basically my reality. I was told while you’re 11, you’re going to start going to college so I went. The expectation was you’re supposed to get good grades so I did. Every time there was a goal put in front of me, I didn’t realize you could not accomplish it so I just did.
Tom: So you said that you’re actually trying to wean yourself off of type A traits. So I was very surprised by. So you’re trying to, one, why? When you were talking about it and what I heard, you acknowledge that maybe this is the recipe for success, but I don’t know that it’s necessarily the recipe for happiness. So what are your views on type A traits? Where are you at in your own journey? Was does that look like? Crystal: It’s very wonderful to see a mountain and to want to climb it and put your flag on top of it. It is very wonderful to want to create your own mountain so that you can then climate it and put your flag on top of it.
It is also wonderful to know why you are doing that or why you are compelled to climb mountains in the first place. You might discover that everyone values mountains, but you actually love the sea. Perhaps swimming is what you really should be doing. If you’re calling is the mountain then by all means go and climb the mountain, but if you have questions about the sea, you might as well run the experiment and see what happens. Tom: Run the experiment is encounter it? Crystal: Yes. Tom: What would you do … so if you had kids, let’s say six.
So do you have to run a lot of experiments? Like, what are the systems you put in place to help them find maximum happiness? I guess, is happiness the highest thing you would want for them? Crystal: No, definitely not. I think there’s … Tom: Really? Crystal: There’s a balance between following your bliss and having that bliss be reasonable, because we all have to live in society that’s been created for us and there’s certain expectations that one is a contributing member of the community of humanity. That can be accomplished in many different ways. I think if I had a group of young people that I was responsible for, I would try and listen. Listen more than maybe my parents did to what each of them want. I certainly wouldn’t try and mentor all of them, because you can’t do that. Put them in situations where they can find people to emulate and to look up to and to ask the right questions, because the worst thing in the world is to have an inquisitive mind or to have questions and to not know the right people or have the right resources to get them answered.
So the youthful brain is still plastic, it’s still developing and it’s more susceptible to information in certain ways than in others. I’d use stories. I would use imaginative language and humor. Tom: That’s interesting. This is very important to me so I’m now just straight asking you because this could be very useful. Why is story more effective on young people whose brains are still more plastic? Crystal: Because the last thing to solidify is the executive control function, the critical thinking function, the logic function.
Tom: Which will discount the narrative, the story. Crystal: So appealing to the logic of a six year old might not be the fastest way to get them to comply with your desires but you might be training them later to be able to use those processes in the future. So there is value in it but it’s about do you want to get them in the car now or do you want to help them motivate themselves logically in the future? Tom: So if you’re trying to get them in the car and not necessarily train their logic system, you’re telling them a story. What’s going to get them to take action, the action that you want? Crystal: With young kids and I love teaching what I call little littles which is about ages six to eight … it has to be a good idea for them to get in the car. So that could mean … Tom: Meaning that lines with their motives? Crystal: Exactly. So if the asphalt has suddenly become lava and there is lava alligators that are coming to eat you, then it’s not that hard to run around the car in a circle and jump in and then close door and you lock it.
Now you’re on your way to the supermarket and they’re happy because they got away from the lava alligator. So you can distract and encourage them to have a positive experience that helps you and that sort of a great way to get change to happen with the group of young, highly energetic imaginative kids, a cast of the future of the world. Tom: Little littles. Crystal: Little littles. Tom: I like that. So you ended your talk, the TEDx, you said “May the force be with you.” You smile now thinking about it. It made me smile when I heard it. It made me feel an instant kinship to you. We clearly have a shared mythology, a shared interest. I can’t remember actually if it was Homo sapiens or Homo Deus but he talks about how we can … we are an animal that can band together in these massive groups, very flexibly because something like that.
That you could just say may the force be with you and now I’m like, “Okay, she’s my people.” That little thing that then triggers all of this back story and knowledge kicks off. My belief is because I’ve assimilated things like that as an adult, but I won’t lie that the ones that I assimilated as a child haunt me the deepest. They seem much more deeply like planted in my sense of identity, which is the easiest way for me to explain like real profound transformation.
I stop myself from using the word solidify. So I think you planted that in my mind when you said the brain solidifies. Star Wars because I encountered it so young feels baked into my soul. I don’t know who I am without that. The Matrix I consider to be the most important metaphor in my life, but it feels more intellectual than it does like real deep seated identity. Crystal: Would it have resonated as strongly if you hadn’t ever seen Star Wars? Tom: I’m not sure.
You tell me. What do you think? Crystal: That’s the thing about multiverse theory. We never really know who we would have been if we had made like one different decision way back there in our childhood. Because of the way the brain develops, that is exactly true. We are more emotionally susceptible to the experiences that we have early on in life than we are later in life. That exactly attracts. I use the word solidify and I don’t want the angry mail that says “But certain parts of the brain remain plastic.” Yes, I do acknowledge and recognize that but there’s a certain amount of finishing that happens in those last few years in the early 20s which is the full development of the prefrontal cortex which is responsible both for our ability to think logically and to predict outcomes and also maybe a little bit for us to be able to project the negative outcomes as well.
Optimism falls victim to reality in a way during … Tom: Because we can actually process. We get better at fantasizing in essence about the negativity because that region of the brain becomes more full formed. Crystal: You can get trapped in this . Tom: That’s really interesting. So I focus very intentionally on being very optimistic. Now, I happen to be optimistic by nature, but I’ve really like fuel that in my adult life. So how much of that kind of stuff do you think is influenced by I refer to it as identity. That’s how I attack it. So I’m the type of person that is optimistic. Okay, well, then I need to act in accordance with that. So when I find the pessimism … maybe the pessimism is always my natural inclination but because I’m the type of person that looks the optimistic view, then I set that aside and I go, “Okay, but what’s the positive way to look at this scenario?” Am I reshaping my brain slowly over time or am I just amassing an arsenal of … do you know what pachinko is? Crystal: No.
Tom: It’s I think … I’m not even sure that I’m right right now but bear with me. I think it’s a machine that you drop a coin or a ball or whatever and it tik, tik, tik, tik, tik down all that stuff which sometimes I feel like I have all these mechanisms in place and any idea is like a pachinko ball that because of all the beliefs and things that it hits, whatever negative thought I try to have, by the time it gets down to the bottom, it’s positive because I’ve built these mechanisms in place.
These beliefs, mantras, actions like whatever the case may be to make sure … because I’m obsessed with what’s efficacious. So like when I say, “What’s more efficient to get them in the car?” I’m literally thinking, “Time.” So what activity … forget that scarring long term is deeply problematic and you actually do have to think about it, but what gets them in as fast as humanly possible. So I have that obsession. So that’s one of my little pachinko things that it’s going to hit. That to me is I be very curious to know like how much of it do you think is my brain will actually shape and change over time to where “No, positive thoughts are just … they’re more seamless. I’m more wired to kick up a positive emotion and a positive framework, whatever.” or no, it’s all sort of your mind reacting in different ways to the negative stimulus. Crystal: Brains are lazy because most of nature is lazy. There has to be a justifiable reason for energy output, because that’s using resources that is important for survival. So if our brains are lazy and they follow the processes that are easiest for them to follow, if you have constantly trained your brain in through like reframing and reframing and reframing, that the positive, the optimistic outcome is the easiest one to think about.
It has to work very hard to think about the negative ones unless it’s feeling threatened in some way. It will go, “Seems good enough.” because it’s a prediction machine. It’s like, “I predict that this is probably what’s going to happen. It’ll be a positive outcome. There might be other factors but the energy that I would be expending thinking about those other factors doesn’t seem in line with what’s necessary for the importance of this decision.
So good enough.” Tom: That’s interesting. What do you think is like human’s default settings? So I’ll give you one of mine just so you get a frame of reference. So I think humans are an active species meaning to your point about there has to be a justification for energy expenditure and I think about this in terms of AI and all the decisions that we’ll have to make for AI. I think one of the things that that is inbuilt is while we have the need to justify the energy expenditure, I don’t think ever that a human in its default setting just stands there.
Crystal: Our brains really don’t like to the bored. We get very unhappy if they’re under stimulated. Then that can go to solving the problem in many different ways. Not just how can I solve the problem short term, but how can I ensure that this is not going to be a problem in the long run. Our brains don’t like to be wrong either. Tom: Yeah. Yes, we do a whole podcast about how much our brains hate being wrong. Crystal: We’ll create all kinds of realities for us so that we can avoid being wrong in the initial guess. Tom: What are the mechanism of creating those realities? Crystal: Well I think in the context of addiction, it’s probably different than in the context of other types of decision making behavior, because that genuinely is different parts of the brain having different priorities and sort of the argument that happens between them.
So you have the midbrain which is people call the emotional center which is the lizard brain. I really don’t like using the … Tom: One of the biggest offender. Crystal: I don’t like using those oversimplifications, but the section in the midbrain that everyone is always talking about being relevant is the section that is responsible or where the dopamine system lives. We always talk about dopamine and reward and positive reinforcement. Once that’s activated, it’s so powerful that the poor prefrontal cortex is really struggling, because it’s only been around for so many million years and the system that’s in control of the organism of the person that’s trying to stop smoking has been around for much, much longer and exists in much, much more primitive organisms.
So you’re kind of fighting nature there. You have a biological system that has been irrevocably changed through exposure to this drug. It’s doing what it’s supposed to do. Every single part of your body is doing its job properly, but the weight has shifted. So that in fact is a biological reality that is affecting your perception and you’re sort of saying like, “Well, I really want this cigarette.” The part of my brain that’s telling me that I really shouldn’t is starting to get very, very quiet. Then worse, the prefrontal cortex has now coopted by the emotional needs of the midbrain. So it starts to rationalize. So now it’s like a secret agent. It’s no longer working for that long-term plan towards positive, productive success. It’s now working for the midbrain and it’s like, “It’ll feel really good. It’s only this once.” You only smoke half of it and then as soon as you light up, you’ve lost the battle. Tom: So if it’s irrevocably changed, how the people that end up quitting quit? Crystal: So for some people they actually can just quit and could quit cold turkey.
Tom: Is it because their brain wasn’t altered for whatever reason? They have a . Crystal: A lot of it has to do with genetic background. So I studied a specific mutation in a specific protein that makes up a group of protein that’s responsible for binding nicotine in a very small subset. Those people that have the mutation that I studied, find it much, much more difficult to quit. They are more likely to get addicted if they ever smoke and they also are more likely to get lung cancer or abuse alcohol. We’re not exactly sure why all of those things are true and it’s not just what a point mutation for those biologists that are watching. It’s not just an amino acid change although it is. It’s the difference of a single atom. Tom: Do you see your life as having a mission? Crystal: I hope that I learned from all of my experiences and that I always have new ones and that I’m always growing because I think that life means to evolve.
If you’re not evolving through small incremental changes that build up over time to create a large change, then you’re probably dead. That shouldn’t really be a goal of anyone. I think every day I get up and I say, “What are my priorities?” Then I move towards that. Sometimes honestly my priorities are to see how many back-to-back episodes of whatever I’m watching on Netflix I can watch if it’s that kind of introvert Sunday that I need in order to be my best self out in the world Monday morning. Sometimes it’s how much of my to do list can I crank through before lunch. Like put on Eye of the Tiger or I really love the Rocky IV soundtrack. Tom: Nice, respect. Crystal: I really like Rocky IV soundtrack mornings. That’s like boss bitch morning which is the complete opposite. So utility function changes based on I feel like I need. Tom: I’m utterly fascinated by that. Crystal: The Rocky movies are those overcoming obstacles kind of you can do it.
Just put your head down and do the training and take the pain and eventually it’s going to pay off. On those days where you just got to get through an impossible to do list, you really have to feel. That if you put your head down and you take the pain, it’s going to pay off. So I think it’s good for that. Tom: When you’re doing stuff like that, are you thinking about the neurochemistry? Like, “I’m about to manipulate my brain chemistry right now and understand exactly what you’re going to do.” Crystal: No, I try not to. Tom: Really? Crystal: I try and create the narrative and the experience. Tom: Interesting. I am so fascinated to go deeper. What do you mean by that? Crystal: It’s more powerful that way. If you are rationalizing it, then it’s not going to have the same impact as if you really do you give yourself over to the lovely molecules that are pinging around in your midbrain and helping to create an emotional environment for you.
It’s the same as falling in love. So you do these talks we call the nerd brigade which is a group of science communicators that I hang out with. We do public talks around Valentine’s Day. We call it Valinscience Day. We tell really nerdy stories about science’s relationship with sex and mating and love. I’m a neurochemist so if I found somebody that I was really into, I could talk about … I’m feeling some really high oxytocin levels. I feel very bonded to him and I’m feeling like all of the dopamine … I’m just like back stroking through dopamine and it’s lovely. That’s not as romantic as understanding that you are under the influence of these molecules but sort of enjoying the ride and letting them do the wonderful things they do. Yeah, I probably have eaten less in the last week or so than normal because I have all of this adrenaline going on, but that’s okay. Isn’t it funny how meeting the right person can create all of these wonderful things. Most the time when you first meet someone based on a narrative that you’re telling yourself about that person, because you don’t even know them that well.
Tom: What is the narrative that you’re running? When you’re about to put on the Eye of the Tiger, you’ve got the list, you got to get through, you’re going to kill it. What do you say? Is it visual imagery? Is it like as if someone were narrating your life? What is that moment for you? Crystal: I don’t consider myself a very competitive person, but sometimes it’s necessary to try and tap into one’s more primal urges.
So I tell myself that this to do list or the things that are on it are so insignificant compared to the things that I have already done or I’ve already survived or already accomplished. That it’s almost laughable that they think they can stay there on my to do list. They’re actively mocking me. Tom: That’s a statement. Crystal: I think that there’s a lot, maybe specifically in women, but there’s a lot that we have already accomplished that we don’t even look at as accomplishments. So if you can get to the point where you can say, “Well it’s only push through something uncomfortable or I’ve already done something that I didn’t think I was able to do, didn’t have skills to do, didn’t have the confidence to even try, but yet circumstances intervened and I was forced to, I’ve already done these thing. Yeah, they were in a different context and maybe they were in a personal context and not a career context or in my case they were in the theater and not in the science world, but proof of concept is already there.
So what reason do I have to believe that this isn’t … it’s not going to work again?” So not thinking about it is this entirely novel new thing, because you do get the fear response to new things because that’s our brain trying to protect us from things that might be dangerous, that we don’t know anything about and realizing that in fact this is a familiar task that’s cloaked in a new environment. So I think that there’s a lot to be said for looking back at our successes and not just appreciating them, but really recognizing that the new challenges in fact are old dragons we’ve already slain. Tom: Yeah, I love how much you use story. It’s really interesting. One thing that’s fascinating I guess for me is part of what I have done as a technique to get control of my neurochemistry is to learn about it, to think about this is what’s actually happening. These are the chemicals that are being pumped.
To understand that dopamine isn’t just a reward chemical. In fact, more than anything it’s a chemical of desire. It’s wanting. It’s the leading up to and how like intoxicating that anticipation is. So having the Christmas presents waiting to be opened is more fun than having to open Christmas presents. So when I get that, when I really understand like what’s going on and I can imagine it, I’m able to take hold of it more. So I used to have really bad anxiety and that was how I dealt with it. I needed to understand the brain structures that were at play. I needed to understand what is the sympathetic nervous system, what’s the parasympathetic nervous system, what’s the negative feedback loop, how does that help me, how can I grab hold of it. Here’s something that is interesting.
When I fell in love with the woman who’s now my wife, I told her, “This is just neurochemistry. Be very prepared. Now the reason that I need you to understand that is because it will ebb and flow. So if we’re going to last for a very long time, we’ve got to one of two things, either understand that this is then going to change and evolve and we have to sort of emotionally be ahead of that change, that where it doesn’t feel like it’s flattening.” We get that it’s maturing and turning into something else or we have to learn or maybe both but we have to learn how to fan those flames.
That we have to feel that chemistry of love again because what I found is in the beginning that in … I remember my mom give me the best description of being in love I’ve ever heard my life. She said, “You’ll know you’re in love when you feel like there is no way anyone else’s ever experiences before ever. Like it’s just not possible.” I remember when I … I’ve never been in love before than my life. She’s the only woman I’ve ever said I love you to.
When it hit me and I began having that chemical cascade, I thought, “There’s no way anyone has ever felt like this.” If they did, nothing would ever get done. It’s like doing cocaine. It’s all consuming. All I wanted to do was be around her and feel that. It was just as long as I had her, nothing else mattered. So in that moment, I thought, “Aha, aha this is just neurochemistry. This is going to go away.” You’ve got to be really careful. A, don’t plan a life where you’re going to feel like this forever. So don’t give up on your career.
Don’t stop eating because it’s going to evolve and then you’re going to be looking around going “What the hell just happened?” So recognizing that neurochemistry and thinking of almost removing myself from the story to tell myself the reality of the neurochemistry so that I can build a longer term story, I mean at the end it’s another story.
Having that intermediary of really spending the time with the realities of what’s happening allowed us to build a mechanism that protected us from that decline of “Now, what do you do when the neurochemistry changed?” So she and I do this show called Relationship Theory. We walk people through sort of how we’ve gotten here. We build a business together. We’ve been married for 15 years, together for 17 like how and that is like one of my silver bullet things to put on the table is read about your brain.
Read about you brain, understand what it’s doing, understand the change. I remember I was like she was 21 when we met. Your brain has it. I’m using the word solidify but your brain hasn’t finished developing yet. So we’re going to have to deal with that. We’re going to have to deal with how does our relationship fit into your brain as it evolves and how much will our relationship evolve your brain. Just having the self-awareness to say, “I’m experiencing the world entirely by the saying … going back to right where we .started I’m experiencing the world through this thing that is encased in total darkness and total silence and yet it recreates this whole experience for us.
So to not understand it, it fundamental … when I’m sitting next to you, obviously I feel like a spaz, but to have at least a rudimentary understanding of what’s happening so that you’re not blindsided by anger, love, sadness, loss like whatever that thing is that you can really process through it. Crystal: I think when I was younger that’s how I felt. That emotion was not useful or it gets actively a destructive thing and that I had to build my life entirely logically. Now that’s obviously like we’re human so it’s impossible. We make emotional decisions all of the time, but a youthful developing brain thinks that this is something that can be done and that they can always do the right thing.
The right thing is logical thing. Then as I started to learn about the brain and as I started to learn about myself, I realized that I didn’t have a lot of experience in seeing what would happen if I just let them come. Most people experiment with this in adolescence, but they don’t know they’re experiencing these emotions. They just kind of think this is how I am and this is who I am. They don’t think about it in an abstract way. Tom: Before I ask my last question, where can these guys find you online? Crystal: I’m not Facebook. I try and keep a low profile but on Twitter I’m @PolycrystalhD and that’s sort of my professional life.
So you’ll get lots of science stuff and a lot of feminist women in the workplace stuff. If you just kind want to know what’s going on with me in my real life, then you can find that on Instagram same thing @PolycrystalhD. Tom: All right. I lied. I have two things I have to ask. Crystal: Sure. Tom: So, one, what is it that you hope you impact in terms of women in STEM? I’ll get to the last one in a second. Crystal: All I hope for women in STEM is that they stop worrying about whether or not they’re fitting in and whether or not they are supposed to be emulating the men or making a point of being female and they start just taking things, taking their power, taking their place at the table and not asking permission for it.
We have all these trailblazing women that have had to do that. They have had to take in. There are so many glass ceilings in academia. You know the ancient Ivory Tower that it is and they are still there to be broken, but I think for the masses since we’re always trying to get women in STEM now and women in coding. So I think of it as like … I hope this isnt offensive. Like storming the beaches at Normandy. We just put enough women into the pipeline and the fact that it’s so leaky won’t be a problem and will eventually get enough of them through to tenure track positions that there will start to be a positive feedback loop. I think that for the masses it can be very difficult to be at your best when you’re constantly looking over your shoulder and wondering if being you is enough.
Tom: Well that’s great. What is the impact that you want to have on the world? Crystal: All I want is to give one example of what’s possible. It’s not a numbers game for me. It’s just I’m trying to figure out what works for me and what’s best for me and makes me happy and helps me accomplish goals that I think are worthwhile. If anything that I have done sparks the thought or interest in somebody else, then I feel like I’ve done my job. So everyone has to find their own way and I’m trying to find mine. I hope that the way that I am looking for it might spark some ideas in other people.
Tom: I love that. Crystal, thank you so much. Crystal: thank you so much. Tom: Guys, hit that one again. What I love is that she is really bringing the humanity to the science which is why I think she is so effective at her job. I think it’s why I was so drawn to her the moment that I heard her talk about neuroscience. There’s that sense of her own experience of really being that example that she wants to be for people to give a fresh voice, to show somebody a version of not even a woman in STEM but just a person in STEM that is completely authentic and raw and real. It was the juxtaposition of being a dancer and being a neuroscientist that I knew I was going to just really, really want to spend time talking. I found myself getting sucked into a total time warp on that, because when you engage with somebody that really has a deep understanding of something and can express it whether you agree on everything or not, you begin to ask yourself like far more interesting questions.
That I think at the end of the day is Crystal’s real gift. Whether you agree or disagree, she’s going to get you to ask questions that you’ve never thought to ask and for that I’m very grateful. Guys, if you haven’t already, be sure to subscribe and until next time my friends be legendary. Thank you guys so much for watching and if you haven’t already be sure to subscribe and for exclusive content be sure to sign up for our newsletter. All of that stuff helps us get even more amazing guests on the show and helps us continue to build this community which at the end of the day is all we care about. So thank you guys so much for being a part of the Impact Theory community. .