Are mice asocial compared to rats? Does child abuse cause brain damage? Does this neuroscientist watch “Orphan Black”? Find out below.
This is part two of a two-part conversation with Richard G. Hunter, neuroscientist and Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Read part one here.
Neurogenesis, “Life-ectomies”, and “Orphan Black”: A Conversation
with Richard G. Hunter, PhD (Part 2)
[Laugh] That’s interesting.
This is again one of those qualitative factors —
— Yeah. Well, they don’t, they’re [mice are] not naturally group-dwelling! They don’t like each other, whereas rats are. Rats hang out together, so if you do something like chronic stress in a rat and then you socially isolate it, it gets worse and worse. But if you let it go back to its home cage and wrestle with its buddy, they adapt to the stress just fine — not perfectly, but better.
Mice can’t do that, because you put them back in their cage with their buddies and they just try to kill each other, so it’s just more stress. But rats buffer that much better than mice do.
Social defeat is the kind of models we’re likely to have in mice for depression [studies]. That’s one of the reasons I actually — that digression — is one of the reasons why I think mice are probably a bad model for some of this, and rats are probably better, but that’s an argument that’s lost on everybody but a few fellow scientists. [Laugh]
So I think it’s a very good model for this kind of stuff, and I hope it gets used to kind of push us past some of the chemical imbalance stuff, and because of what it is. I mean, it looks — one of your assays in that is you look at social interaction, so after this happens, typically what happens, is that these animals lose interest in interacting with a novel mouse. Most mice — or rat, for that matter — when they see a novel mouse they’ve never met before introduced to a cage, they run up to it and start sniffing its butt and all that kind of stuff that little mammals like to do to each other.
If you’ve done this to them [used them in a chronic social stress or chronic social defeat model test], they run away and avoid, they essentially hide in the corner. They’ve obviously developed a genuine sort of social anxiety about other mice, which — again — I think is a very good model of depression.
Having been depressed myself at various times, I know that the way you start reading other people’s social cues — if there’s anything ambiguous — you assume that it’s negative.
Right? As opposed to just someone being confused or not even really thinking. It’s automatically, instead of thinking, “Oh, this other person’s preoccupied,” or, “They didn’t see me,” it’s, “They hate me.” That kind of cognitive process is part of people being depressed and the more you can model that, the better models you have. So I think it’s as good a model as we’re likely to get.
Right. So you mentioned your dubiousness about the neurochemical deficit hypothesis for depression, the serotonin deficits argument — low levels of certain brain chemicals being the cause for various mental health problems.
Neurogenesis. SSRIs generating new hippocampal cells. Is this true? [Laugh]
Yeah, kind of.
Yes. I mean we know that some of these antidepressants do increase neurogenesis. I’m — and we know that chronic stress reduces neurogenesis, right? And chronic stress also induces depression-like states in model animals.
We know in humans that exercise increases neurogenesis. We know that exercise also increases neurogenesis in animals, and we can — Fred Gage and his group just did a study, maybe three or four years ago, where they used imaging markers developed in mice to map that into humans during an exercise period so they could see the neurogenesis happening in people.
So we know it’s relevant to humans and we know that exercise — for instance — is an antidepressant. All that is true, all of that fits together, and there probably is something to it. I don’t believe — again — that it’s as simple as just, “Having more neurons makes you happier.”
Right? Stated that way it sort of seems absurd, but it’s just that there’s a lot of correlation with neurogenesis and states that are associated with non-depression. Exercise has pretty consistently [been shown to have an] antidepressant effect.
In fact, when people ask me what they should do if they’re feeling depressed, I just say, “Exercise.” It’s the most consistently effective antidepressant we’re aware of, other than perhaps ketamine.
You can’t take ketamine every day.
No. Isn’t that a horse tranquilizer?
Yeah. In the trial, a tranquilizer [made] for people, but yes it’s pharmacologically the same class as PCP. In low doses, it turns out that in people, more or less in the course of an hour or two [of ketamine administration], it will reverse depression. It’s literally probably the best drug we’ve produced in decades for a psychiatric disorder.
The problem is, as we’ve already gone over this territory, is that you can get someone out of depression and their symptoms will be gone for a few weeks, but then they go back to their life.
And the effectiveness of repeated ketamine interventions decreases over time. I think if you aren’t sort of giving them a “life-ectomy” —
— I mean if you’re not treating their crappy life circumstances, the rest of the stuff is a temporary reprieve.
Right. Oh, ethology, not ethnology.
Yeah, it’s easy to mistake by phone. To my knowledge, there’s no ethnology of mice, although someone might try to make a name for themselves by trying to develop that! [Laugh]
[Laugh] Good to know. Okay. That’s cleared up. So, have you — oh, oh! Is it fair to say that abuse, trauma, and stress cause brain damage?
Well, abuse certainly does if you’re getting hit in the head. So physical abuse can cause brain damage.
I’m a little hesitant to say that it’s brain damage in the same sense as, like, concussion is brain damage.
Like a traumatic brain injury, right. Like footballers. [Laugh]
Yes, if the result is traumatic brain injury, then obviously yes. But things like emotional neglect and things like that … you certainly have physical detriments in the size of brain regions like the hippocampus. If you’ve had chronic stress over the course of your life, if you’ve been abused, even if you had chronic stress hormones as a result of Cushing’s disease or being treated with cortisol or something like that for a very long time, your hippocampus shrinks.
Your brain function that’s based on your hippocampus — which is your memory, your ability to form new long-term memories, and your spatial navigational ability — that decreases. That happens in rodents. That happens in people. There are imaging studies showing this happens to people. People with PTSD have smaller hippocampi.
People with a life history of stress, or of high stress, are more likely to show early-onset dementias, so it’s a “softer” kind of brain damage than the frank stuff that happens if I hit you in the head with a hammer — [Laugh]
— but you certainly are seeing detriments in brain function and decreases in brain volume in certain areas of the brain.
Sometimes parts [of the brain] grow, like the amygdala in these cases often will grow. The amygdala governs our ability to detect —
— anger and fear in other people, and so that’s probably part of why people who have these life experiences are more likely to perceive negative input and ambiguous input from other people. Why it’s easier to become depressed if you have a history of depression is your amygdala is looking for that. You’ve grown a bigger amygdala, so it’s spending much more time hijacking your cognitive processes and saying, “That person’s trying to kill you. They hate you,” or, “They’re afraid of you.”
And so when you’re dominated by the amygdala, which is built to basically short-circuit all our other behaviors and save us in fight-or-flight situations — so it’s very adaptive, it’s useful — but when it’s running every interaction it’s very hard to have a happy, normal social life.
But it explains a lot about why people with PTSD, say, are hyper-vigilant and they have flashbacks. [It’s] because their brains really have, to some extent, rewired themselves to look for potential violence and danger everywhere, even when that’s not appropriate much of the time in modern society, fortunately.
Although it probably was in our evolutionary past. Probably PTSD was a normal phenotype 10,000 years ago.
Have you ever watched “Orphan Black”?
No, I haven’t! My wife keeps asking me about it, and I’m thinking maybe I should start watching it. [Laugh]
Just curious. [Laugh] In epigenetics, what’s the most exciting thing right now to you?
I think I mentioned the one paper that’s excited me most is the one by Binder and Kessler, who were the senior authors, from 2013 — [Divya] Mehta was the first author on that work — where they actually showed that there are completely distinct methylation patterns, and completely distinct gene expression patterns, between PTSD victims who had extreme child abuse and those who didn’t.
And I think that that story — the child abuse story, whether it’s about epigenetics or whether it’s about public health — is probably the most exciting thing to me happening, and I guess the psychiatric or psychological sciences right now.
And I think it’s the most important, too. I mean it’s just, so many of the things that are major public health issues in the developed world — but also in the developing world, I mean there’s tons of PTSD in the developing world — come from these negative home environments and these negative early life experiences.
It’s probably, we need to modify the scale. I saw a talk this spring by [Dr.] Nadine Burke-Harris, who’s in San Francisco.
Are you familiar with her?
Yes, that’s how I found out about the ACE Study. I read the March 2011 New Yorker profile on her by Paul Tough, and about her work with children in The Bayview neighborhood of San Francisco. She’s a pretty cool lady.
Yeah, she’s very smart. She’s found some clever ways to apply the ACE scoring to the clinic.
I was at this talk that she gave recently at MIT. What she does is say, “Here’s a list of things. Tell me how many of them, rather than any specific ones, that your child might have been exposed to, or that you might have been exposed to.” She’s really trying to get out there and advocate for this stuff, and invest in preventing it.
Her talk was very interesting. She found the same level of incidence of these high-ACE children in her population as that found in the Felitti, Anda study, which I thought was interesting. I don’t know if you’ve read all of those things, but —
Yeah, they’re —
— that was actually a middle-class, —
— white —
— white, southern California population.
— mostly college-educated.
Yeah, it’s all the people [who usually say], “Oh, our class of people don’t act that way,” this conceit that this is something that [only] happens to poor people, but the rates are steep.
I kind of love that about her, and I think she should emphasize it. I think part of what [Dr. Harris-Burke] has found is that poor people aren’t any poorer parents —
— than middle-class, at least, Californians. Maybe it’s different in other parts of the country! And that’s really important from an advocacy perspective is that — just generally — we need to step away from saying that poor people are poor because, “Of course they all have abusive, alcoholic parents,” and stereotypical things like that. It’s not really true.
Her data demonstrates that most poor people are as good or bad of parents as the average middle-class people who are in the Kaiser Permanente [study].
So I think that getting that out there and saying that diabetes, heart disease, all of these things, the things that kill us the most, are the single biggest risk factor for those — now that we’ve had our smoking campaigns, it’s probably bigger than smoking because it increases your risk of smoking — is these adverse childhood environments.
And that’s really important to me. I think — whether or not I contributed in a major way to that — it’s where I’m like, “Yes, I sort of believe that scientists should remain aloof from the fray,” there are times when the data is strong enough that you just say, “Hey, look at this.” Pasteur could have sat there and said, “Yeah, I’ve discovered a vaccine for rabies, but I’m just going to publish the paper and not tell anybody.” [Laugh]
You have an obligation to communicate your findings to the world —
Yes! Moral —
— so there’s —
— a line there, and I think in this case it’s one that scientists should happily be crossing it and advocating for, because it really is evident that it’s not in the genes, but it is in our individual histories. And we need to find ways to intervene in that, both preventively — which will probably in the long run be easier, because we already have data from [Bruce] Perry and ABCD, where if you intervene early and promote parenting skills even at a fairly minimal level, then a lot of these things are ameliorated.
What’s much less clear to me is how do you [support] the folks who have already been through that. They’re already, they’re adults, they’re 30, 40 years old when or if the doctors ever start screening for [ACE scores]. The question is, well, what do you do with that person?
Therapy’s kind of obvious, but what kind of therapy? I think we’re [neuroscientists are] in a state of useful confusion as far as what we’re doing as people who are trying to influence psychiatric treatment. We’re having to abandon this old chemical imbalance model and we’re getting really good data that suggests maybe something else is going on, and we need a lot more research into what are effective methods of treatment, particularly probably non-pharmacological ones.
We need better data on [various therapy modalities and their efficacy] — actually, cognitive-behavior therapy is pretty backed by data now, but it’s probably not the only approach.
So I think that that’s what excites and what I hope we keep moving forward on as a field.
That’s really cool. One of the reasons why I love the ACE Study, and why I think Dr. Nadine Burke-Harris loves the ACE Study, is because it doesn’t pathologize people of color, black, Latino, Asian, for being poor and that somehow translating into being pathologically abusive and dysfunctional by writ of that poverty.
The U.S. government was promulgating that idea when Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan published the 1965 “The Negro Family: The Case For National Action” as part of its Moynihan report. It was pathologizing the black body, and pathologizing black families, and pathologizing poverty when, in fact, these were structural systems that reach all the way back to chattel enslavement and then to sharecropping. So it’s really good to bring the context in —
Well, I think even beyond that, I mean [Dr. Burke-Harris’s] own data suggests that that [pathology] doesn’t actually exist.
That black parents, nowadays, are not in fact any worse or any better than white parents are, so that whole contingent argument is, again, missing the point.
They don’t have this [pathology] problem. They’re just poor and they have to deal with the added burden of the fact that their race —
— stressors, structural racism —
— this idea that, “You’re a young black man. You’ll probably be shot or go to prison,” that is real — and I’m certain that affects you in the way that you come into the world and the way even your parents look at you. I think there’s a tendency to use what’s essentially an old Puritan story as an excuse not to grapple with these issues, which affect all of us. This isn’t a black or white issue at all.
But it’s one that often gets dumped onto black people, because, “Well, they’re poor, and that’s what poor people do, but we socially successful [white] middle-class people, that doesn’t happen in our neighborhoods,” even though it does. We just hide it better. [Laugh]
What inspires me? Stuff like this. I mean, the idea that I can actually do something useful in the world.
[Laugh] Yeah. That’s pretty simply put. It’s nice to know that you can contribute something useful, and you have to be humble about it. Not all of us are going to make huge breakthroughs, but science is something that’s progressive. If you discover something in science, that’s something that’s added to the human inheritance, even if it’s a small thing. And I don’t think that’s something that many people get to do, or are even inclined to do, but for me it’s important to know that I’ve left something — however small — behind. I guess that’s what inspires me.
What do you trust?
[Laugh] I love it. Okay. That’s cool.
That’s an easy one. My wife, too, I guess.
I hope so.
Yeah. I do. I trust my wife. But, yeah, mainly data. [Laugh]
“But mainly data.” Alright, that’s fair. You’re a scientist.
So I really love the Zero to Three Journal and Institute. It’s based in DC. What’s your take on early childhood development?
Well, that’s a big subject, but in terms of early interventions I think it’s something we need to be doing more of, and we need to be doing more to identify what we can do for people.
I have mixed feelings about the whole “pre-K movement” because I’m not sure how evidence-based that is, as yet. I do think there’s evidence for intervention and promoting parenting skills, and that’s something I strongly support. And I think that that’s something that kind of gets lumped in with the “pre-K movement” and [other programs like it], and I think the data’s better for parenting interventions than it is for Head Start.
Head Start does have an impact, but most of the impact disappears within five years, versus parenting interventions, [studies] have shown that they have an impact that goes out for 10, 20 years in terms of reduced incarceration rates, reduced teen pregnancy rates, and all sorts of things that are very real impacts on these children’s lives. The Head Start Program has this scholastic impact that lasts for maybe grade school and then it disappears, whereas there are really pronounced impacts that have lasted for as long as they’ve been looking for the parenting intervention [programs].
I think, yes, early childhood development is a tremendously important place for public health interventions but I think, like anything, that it requires a lot of thoughtfulness in how to do it. And you have to target the right things and not the wrong things, because the wrong things can be — in and of themselves — damaging.
It’s obviously a very complicated issue, and it’s something that we need to be paying attention to. It is something that we need to be thinking about interventions for, but — unsurprisingly — I think they need to be data-based. We need to be really thinking about, “What is the best evidence we have for the best intervention?” first.
Do you think that the efficacy of the parenting-skills interventions are more effective because it actually focuses on the parents as well, versus Head Start, which seems to be more classroom-based intervention mostly including the children, and not including the whole family? [Note: The Head Start Program, while including parental community support services, tends to miss the zero-to-three developmental stage for children and “they are explicitly focused on getting kids out of the home and into educational institutions early. I’m not so sure of the benefit of that orientation,” wrote Richard Hunter in a follow-up email.)
Yeah, I mean you can do this in your own life. You don’t need scientists to come and study this.
Just look at how children are with their own parents. I first noticed this when I was a technician and before I started graduate school, I was living in a rooming house and the daughter of the woman who ran it came home. She had married a Japanese man and they were in the process of getting a divorce. So she came home and she had three sons. The oldest was about 11, which is the age that young male humans start looking for adult male role models. And I was very disconcerted by this boy. If I were standing up against the kitchen sink, say, with my arms crossed he would come up and stand next to me in exactly the same posture — almost without thinking about it.
If I were standing up against the kitchen sink, say, with my arms crossed he would come up and stand next to me in exactly the same posture — almost without thinking about it. … But I was the one man in the house, so he was just automatically doing this — not because he had necessarily thought about it or because I was a “good role model” at that time in my life — but just because I was a man and I was there.
At the time, I was 25, 26, and I was like, “God, I’m not a role model. What are you doing?” [Laugh]
But I was the one man in the house, so he was just automatically doing this — not because he had necessarily thought about it or because I was a “good role model” at that time in my life — but just because I was a man and I was there.
And that’s just one thing about children, which is that they absorb a lot more of what you do — particularly the people who are the parents and around them the most — than what you say. And I think there’s a bias in our culture to make statements about things as if those are cures. We make a law about something as if the law fixes the problem, sort of like we’ve done with drugs and alcohol over the past century or so.
We’re [apt to say], “Well, we’ll just make a law against drinking and that’ll fix the problem of teen drinking.” Right? Children do an enormous amount of implicit learning, and it scares me because my wife and I are starting to think about having kids, and I’m like, “Gosh, I’m going to have to start thinking about — I’m much more worried about what I do when I’m not talking!” [Laugh]
When I’m sitting around, what kind of example am I setting? And so intervening with the parents and just giving them the kind of basic skills is going to have a lot more lasting impact. And again, some of these interventions, they’re not tremendous things! It’s maybe a social worker coming to the house once a week during pregnancy, for maybe 10 or 20 sessions. But they still have these much more-lasting effects than the classroom-based stuff, where this random outsider comes in and tells the children things about how they should be living their lives or whatever it is —
— that’s done there. I think the parents are always going to have a much more profound impact, because the parents are the dominant forces in early life. And unless they really want to do a “Brave New World” and have children living in crèches or something like that, that’s where we need to direct our attention. And I don’t think any of us is ready to abandon the human model of biological parentage just yet. I don’t think we have the data that that’s a good idea! So I think that parenting-based interventions are probably the best way to go about dealing with this stuff.
They’re not going to be perfect. I mean, it’s — the unfortunate truth is that humans are very diverse. I know we sell that as a positive thing now, and on many ends it is, but it also means that there’s diversity in the negative direction. So there’s just some horrible people out there that you’re never going to be able to reach, and some of them are going to have children.
But we can hope that the more people we reach, the less of that there is.
And I think that’s been the hope and — to some extent — the realized promise of the neuroscientific work, of scientific progress, if you read work by people like Steven Pinker. We murder fewer and fewer people with every passing decade. Crime now is half of what it was when I was a kid in the ’70s, and that’s a worldwide phenomenon. No one quite understands why it’s happening, but I think in part it’s because are changing standards, we’re publicly changing standards, we’re making people think twice about the kind of behaviors that used to be normal, like spanking your children, beating your children, or beating your wife.
I hope that we don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good.
There are some parts of our culture that, within the past few generations, a certain amount of wife-beating was [just looked at as], “Well, that’s what we do.” I mean, look at James Brown. [Laugh] Hopefully he’s not taken as an example of a decent husband anymore, at least — not that he ever was, to be fair — but there’s been a tremendous shift for the positive, I think, in recent generations. And I think it’s a capital that we can keep building on, because that’s how science works: science is progressive. We build on knowledge and we build better ways to do things. So that gives me a lot of hope.
But I hope that we don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good. It’s a lot of the problem that people have with science versus political ideas. Basically, science has a lot of contingent truths. There aren’t many big truths in science, but people want things to be just so, and they want an end to this, an end to that. And what we get is just less and less of x, or y, or z over time. And sometimes we get rid of stuff.
We’ve more or less eradicated smallpox, which is a big victory, and we don’t murder — it used to be that I would be dead by now. Probably some other man would have murdered me. The death rate among pre-modern human societies for murder for men was about 25 percent of men would be murdered. One in four would be murdered. That was the leading cause of death for men in pre-modern societies. Now my change of being murdered is roughly five in 100,000 as opposed to one in four. I mean, that’s huge. And I think we can do better on a lot of other fronts, too. That was a long paean to the value of science.
How do we stop people from being harmed?
You mean in general? [Laugh]
In general. Yeah. The big questions. [Laugh]
[Laugh] Yeah. Yeah, that’s a big one. Well, you don’t. I mean, not in the absolute sense. You basically do your best to mitigate it. There are some ways you can absolutely stop harms, but in general I think a wise way to go is through mitigating it, and you’re equipping people to deal with the difficulties of life. There’s a, probably the received wisdom from my own discipline about stress, like, “Stress is toxic,” “Stress is bad for you.”
But it’s not really true. Stress you can manage. Learning to manage stress makes other stressors easier to deal with. It makes you stronger. Exercise has a lot of the same neurochemical and hormonal effects as stress does — it is a stress in many ways — but it’s very good for you. And we know stresses we can overcome, that makes people stronger. “What does not destroy me makes me stronger” — Nietzsche’s famous phrase. Unfortunately, he did not defeat syphilis, but that’s an entirely different story …
What a dork.
Yeah, so don’t listen to everything philosophers say. There really is value in stress, and in confronting stress. So the idea that you prevent all harms is probably a bad one. You want people to be able to struggle successfully through what life throws at them, as opposed to complete harm reduction or harm abolition viewpoint —
— because that usually leads to some kind of negative externality that you weren’t predicting anyway.
You want people to be adults. You don’t want to protect everybody like they’re babies for their whole lives. You want people to be able to adapt to their own circumstances.
How do we mitigate the effects of that harm?
That’s the big question, in terms of the harm that a negative childhood, what [effect] interventions have. I don’t know a simple answer. I know that therapy definitely works for a number of people. But I don’t think we know about what kinds of therapy are best. Therapy doesn’t always work. There’s a rule of thumb amongst therapists where only one in three therapists are going to be a good fit for you just based on personality factors. And it seems very non-data-based, although it does seem to actually be born out in experience.
So, why is that? How can we standardize therapy or therapists so that we can get better outcomes? There’s just a lot that’s hard to deal with, and I think part of the reason why we got so focused on drugs is that drugs are easy to test scientifically, right?
If you can give an animal a drug —
— in that dose, and it’s so much harder — what’s the “dose” of therapist?
It’s the qualitative factors, those sticky things.
Yeah and, nonetheless, I think in issues like this they’re really important. Dealing with the sticky aspects of your own individual issues in life: that’s your problem. Or my problem. Not to be personal about it, but —
Yeah, yeah, yeah, mm-hmm. [Laugh]
— it’s a real problem. It’s not necessarily so much — although our chemistry contributes to it, a part of how we construct that inside our little squishy brains, it’s not as simple as that. We need to navigate those sticky parts of our lives, and how do we train each other, how do we transmit the wisdom of how to live a more flourishing life and one that’s less marred by horrible childhood experiences.
Because there are plenty of people who have horrible childhood experiences and go on to do incredible things. I won’t name him, but I know of a Nobel Laureate who once commented, “Almost all good scientists had horrible childhoods,” and he counts himself among them. It can drive people to good things, and they can deal with things, and get a Nobel [Prize], although he always said that his therapist told him at some point, “Look: two Nobel prizes are not going to fix the fact that you had a shitty childhood.” [Laugh]
There are a couple sides to that. But, knowing the man, he actually has a fairly happy life now. So he has recovered to some great extent, even if he carries some of the internal processes, and some of the internal scars and, well, at this point he’s almost 90, so probably he is not going to get rid of all of them, but …
He has made a flourishing life out of something that started off in a very difficult way and obviously not everyone’s going to get a Nobel Prize, but people can get therapists. And people could live their better life — I don’t know about “best” lives, because that’s much more of a judgment — but people can live better lives with good interventions. So we just don’t know about what the best interventions are right now, and so I think that that’s the big question. And I don’t have a good answer. If I did, I would be publishing it or would have published it. [Laugh]
How do you define healing?
Contextually, I guess. If you’re talking about something like we are, with child abuse, I think that’s basically learning to adapt yourself more accurately to your actual social environment. So to take a more proactive role in shaping your own social environment. Because a lot of what these early childhood tragedies do to people, or seems to do to people, is that they leave them with a sense of helplessness about their ability to shape their own environment.
They leave them with a tendency to overreact in terms of their stress response to adverse life events, or even ambiguous things like, “Sue didn’t say hi to me at the office today,” can produce a stress response and increase your stress hormone levels, which we know have negative effects on your brain and your behavior.
Getting out of that. Being able to regulate your own stress axis on your own terms, I guess, would be where I would put it. And that’s hard to learn, and it’s something that’s — we don’t know the simple answer to it yet. We know that things like exercise certainly seem to help, but I think it’s much more complex than that. So learning, in some ways, to regulate your own stress responsivity and to overcome the biochemically-engrained lessons of your childhood would be it.
Okay, so I’m going to ask you 10 questions that James Lipton always asks any actor that comes to his Actors Studio —
— so, the first one: What is your favorite word?
My favorite word? That’s hard. I like so many words. I really do.
[For example,] I like triptych. Cantilever.
Triptych … those are both really good words!
I love both of them.
I got to use “incipient” yesterday in a text message. I was very excited about that. So, yeah, I don’t know … there are so many really good ones. Orpiment.
Could you spell that, please? Could you spell it?
Oh it’s an old, it’s o-r-p-i-m-e-n-t. It’s a particular gold color that comes from an old lead-based dye.
Ugh, lead. [Laugh]
It’s a medieval-era color term and — as a former history major — I sort of like those very old terms for things. Spelling is not one of my greatest virtues …
Okay, anyway — I’ll Google it later! [Laugh]
And then: —
You know, actually I got that one right!
— What is your least favorite word?
[Laugh] Jargon-y. It’s too jargon-y.
Yeah, any of those kind of business speak-y pseudowords. That’s not even really — I mean, it’s a word because people use it and it means something. I’m not a complete grammatical proscriber, although my wife is, she would probably beat people for that if she had the time. But, yeah, words like “impactful” and all of those kind of business speak-y neologisms I just, I despise.
Part of what I love about science is we can build precise words for exactly what we mean, and I hate those really sloppy things that aren’t even words. There are so many great words in the English language: find a real one! So, yeah, words like that I find deeply frustrating.
What turns you on? In a life sense. This is James Lipton! This is not me!
I’m going to keep this PG and say new ideas and data.
I think we do a lot of that, socially, where we say, “I feel this. Therefore, it’s true.” As someone who’s a high-cognitive science type, I hate that.
New ideas and data. What turns you off?
Emotion masquerading as fact. I think we do a lot of that, socially, where we say, “I feel this. Therefore, it’s true.” As someone who’s a high-cognitive science type, I hate that. [Laugh]
What sound do you love?
I think I probably like the wind through the leaves on the trees. That’s one I really like a lot. That’s an excuse to get outside —
What sound do you hate?
Hmm, the sound of the FDR*, I guess. When I lived in New York, that was always one of the constant background noises, those buses.
What is your favorite curse word?
Well, I probably use fuck more than anything else. It does have a nice Anglo-Saxon provenance. There goes the PG rating after all … Good effort. I have to admit that’s the one I’m most likely to use. I’ve been wanting to use just meaningless appropriations lately, but then you have the risk of actually being mistaken for schizophrenic.
One day I’d like to say, “Absquatulate!” — but, yeah, it doesn’t have quite the same effect. [Laugh]
It doesn’t. What profession other than yours would you like to attempt?
I think in past ages I would have loved to have been an explorer, or something like that. Too many things are explored right now, and I think I’ve hit the middle point. In the next generation, people will be exploring Mars and stuff like that, but I’ll be too old and crippled up by the time that happens.
Architecture was always something I thought about. Seemed like fun.
And soldiering was something that I thought about. My family’s very heavily military, and I kind of like the primary factuality of being a soldier, even if the morality is a little complicated. [Laugh]
What profession would you not like to do?
Well, we established that medicine was one thing that I didn’t really want to do! [Laugh] And I don’t feel like I’m cut out for movie stardom.
You don’t want to be an actor. Okay.
No, yeah, in fact I’ve been told by my actor friends that I should just never even think about it. [Laugh] Which I guess is just a backhanded way of saying, “You’re just honest-faced” or something like that … ? I’m not sure how to take that. But, yeah, I’m not cut out for that business.
This question is [adjective redacted], and I don’t like it, but: If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear god say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?
I would like him to, you know, acknowledge that this whole idea that Gospel was actually written in his world, that science is part of the path that he set for us — to the extent that I believe god exists, which I’m agnostic about. But, if he does exist, I would like him to support the free activity of human minds and not be against it.
In other words, I’d like him to come down against the people who think that they know what he thinks. [Laugh]
Other than that, I’d like him to say, “Welcome to Heaven” — which he might say … so …
“Welcome to Heaven.”
That’s actually really the first thing, if I find out that Heaven really exists, is that I’m allowed in.
I really appreciated talking with you today. Thank you so much for taking the time!
Well, thank you. It’s been a lot of fun. And let me know if you have any more questions — or if I can find you papers for less than $30 or $40!
* Franklin D. Roosevelt East River (FDR) Drive
(1) Featured image: Human cerebellum neuron detail by Ed Reschke / Getty Images