How to think and avoid cognitive bias with Evian Gordon, M.D., Ph.D.

Content By: Ari Whitten & Dr. Evian Gordon

In this episode, I am speaking with Evian Gordon, MD, and PhD – a world-leading brain expert and founder and Chief Medical Officer of MyBrainSolutions, the world’s first digital brain tracking, and optimization platform. With more than 30 years of experience in human brain research, he is considered one of the originators of integrative neuroscience, and he has authored more than 300 peer-reviewed publications. We will talk about how to think (and avoid cognitive bias) in the face of conflicting health information.

Table of Contents

In this episode, Dr. Gordon will cover:

  • The ways your brain can mislead you
  • The critical importance of the spectrum of conspiratorial belief — blind trust in the authority vs. “everything is a conspiracy” (and why both positions are usually misguided)
  • Why most people are incapable of analyzing things objectively, and instead only seek to confirm their pre-existing beliefs (and how to be one of the few people who DOESN’T do this!)
  • Why people tend to lock in on one single belief, despite contradictory evidence
  • How cognitive bias can limit your ability to problem-solve
  • The importance of critical thinking and how it improves your health and well-being
  • When to question the validity of scientific research
  • Evaluating all the conflicting narratives around this pandemic
  • The importance of intentionally challenging your theories/beliefs
  • The best way to optimize your brain to overcome information overload, increase focus, and decrease depression

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Ari: Hey there. This is Ari. Welcome back to The Energy Blueprint podcast. With me now is Dr. Evian Gordon, who is an MD and a PhD and is a world-leading brain expert. He’s the Founder and Chief Medical Officer of MyBrainSolutions, the world’s first digital brain tracking and optimization platform. He has more than 30 years of experience in human brain research and is considered one of the originators in the field of integrative neuroscience and he’s authored more than 300 peer-reviewed publications.

He’s a mutual friend of my good friend John Assaraf, who introduced us. When I asked John, I said, “Hey, I really want to talk to somebody who’s an expert in cognitive biases and how our brains work to process information,” which I feel is right now amidst this pandemic more important than ever to talk about and really understand. John without hesitation said, “Dr. Gordon is the man to talk to.” It’s a pleasure to meet you. I’ve also read your book, I’m a big fan of your work. It’s really nice to connect with you in person for the first time.

Dr. Gordon: It’s great pleasure to meet you. John has spoken very highly of you and I appreciate the connection.

How our brains respond to major changes in our environment

Ari: First to start us off, I would love for you to do a big picture overview of your perception of what is going on right now with this pandemic from a cognitive, from a neuroscience neurological perspective. What’s going on in our brains as we’re processing this pretty unprecedented event and unprecedented response to an event like this?

Dr. Gordon: Yes, Ari, the reality is that this is a classic brain hijack and by that, I don’t mean that in a simplistic sense, I mean that in, we all know that the basic organizational principle of the brain is safety and here we have two threats to that safety. The first is physical, which we’re all aware of and it’s a pretty toxic physical threat. Even I can tell you at my age I’ve never seen anything quite like this. Then of course there is the uncertainty. Uncertainty is very challenging for the brain non-consciously and I’ll come to the differentiation of course that we all know, about how it’s beginning to be unpacked in neuroscience. In a sense that uncertainty is compounding the physical threat. That’s a perfect storm when you also add the fact that there’s a third issue is the uncertainty also hasn’t got a good time limit.

You’ve got a lot of confluence of events here that are what the brain is wired to check and magnify till it’s safe. It’s not safe and so the challenge is what do we do with that? I just want to add one other context, Ari, about the clock we– People love to use all these words about catastrophic and brain hijack, and I like to use those words too, but I do always see the brain, Ari, from its physiology. You’ve got these 85 billion neurons and you have this brainstem, superior and inferior colliculus, and really deep brainstem networks that are massive projections that readily in a fifth of a second, we’ve got laboratories where we’ve literally tested this, presented stimuli so rapidly that people connect with, consciously are not aware of them and we see this amazing projection that happens in a fifth of a second that primes the brain for an immediate response.

The whole basis of– We call it non-conscious because it’s not unconscious. You’re actually quite aware of it, it’s just you don’t have words for it. You have the physiology because you can sense that your brain has picked up a cue, a mismatch. In the brain, we just see it as the brain is matching and mismatching every fifth of a second, is this safe? Should I approach this or avoid it? Anyway, the point is that the magnitude of that physiological feedforward projection can often be underestimated. It is just surreal. Then at about half a second, we consciously try and rationalize it. That reconciliation, that dance in a way, that balance between the non-conscious show the brains seemed to have evolved these non-conscious biases as shortcuts. Shortcuts for decision making. Is this safe? Is this safe? Is this safe?

Then we’ve got, obviously, the networks we think we know so much more about, which is the rationalizations, the logical thinking, the planning. That is much more detail that happens much more slowly. It starts at about half a second, but it goes on for tens of seconds in some cases as we perseverate and start finding optimal solutions all the time, all the time. The brain is essentially a timing device that is looking to find immediate solutions of what fits with our previous experience that is safe and then what fits with our previous experience that’s rewarding. When you deconstruct it into its inherent brain dynamics, it gets fascinating as how serious this hijack really is. It’s not a metaphor. It’s for real, and it’s happening every second in most people in some way.

Ari: I want to try to maybe see if I can rephrase and summarize very briefly what you said there, in my own words, and you tell me if I’m misrepresenting things, but here’s my take on what’s going on. I think ideally, we have some heuristics, we have some previous reference point of experience for going through something like whatever we’re going through in the moment. From there, then we can calmly rationally analyze the data, analyze the situation that we’re dealing with, and then maybe arrive at greater and greater levels of certainty as the data warrants doing so.

What it seems right now is we don’t have any heuristics for going through any pandemic like this, going through lockdowns and social distancing, and wearing masks and all these sorts of things. There’s no reference point in our brains for what to do in such a situation or how to process information, or how to evaluate good information from bad information.

What most people, I think, are doing is just making an instant snap judgment, usually that happened right at the beginning about what’s going on, and from then on rationalizing why that is the correct thing. All the torrent of information that’s come at us since then, is processed by our brains through confirmation bias where we seek out, only the information that fits with our original snap judgment of the situation. Do you think that’s an accurate picture?

Dr. Gordon: Yes. No, that’s a great summary. I just with one other caveat that I’d say from the physiology array. That is that in your description, your waiting, your tonality, the amount of time you spend talking about the rational piece was great. That’s what we see. But what we see, I think, is the converse, where actually the majority of what’s going on is non-conscious, intuitive bias based, because it is such a unique confluence, as you mentioned at the beginning. I will just suggest that another way of looking at this is just the extent to which that bias process and the perseveration in that mode is dominating, and it’s not getting a lot of looking for the rational brain and the systematic thinking and reframing short, medium, long-term. It’s much harder to do that when this extent, the preoccupation, the dominance of our non-conscious brain seems to be in play. That would be my only physiological slot chip in the waiting, I’d say, mainly non-conscious that is dominating, that’s willing to play at the moment.

Ari: [chuckles] I think that’s a really important point. I’m glad you brought it up, which leads to, I guess, how should those two things be weighted? Obviously, our emotions and our instant reflexive, emotionally charged reactions and intuitive reactions to things have a very clear evolutionary purpose. If you are walking down a trail and you see a snakelike shape, in your peripheral vision it’s wise to have that emotional reaction of fear and to back away from it. These things can be, obviously, important lifesaving, but the rational side, the logical side that calmly evaluating evidence, the more intellectual analytical side, also very clearly has importance. How should they be weighted? I know that’s a really complex question, but how should they be weighted in this circumstance that we’re going through right now?

 Dr. Gordon: It is a complex question. It’s the essence of the brain’s conundrum in neuroscience, just in the same as physics. We’re trying to reconcile Newtonian physics, essentially macrophysics with micro, quantum physics, and we have no idea how those two things alone. In a way the brain is analogous, in my mind anyway, that we have these rational, clear, specialized neural networks that are there for logical processing, words, and planning and systematized logic. We know that that’s real and that we can deconstruct that. Not too analogous to macro-processing because it’s not really macro. The brain’s doing this at a micro level. These rapid non-conscious biases is super underestimated as we all know, but we are starting to deconstruct it. The point is that it’s about alignment.

To me, what I see whenever we deal with any problem across the spectrum from mental health to well-being to peak performance, it’s just like what you said, if you don’t have a framework, it’s hard. If you look at the difference between and expert and a novice, an expert has a framework. They have a model. If you don’t have a model of your brain, of starting off with, “What are my non-conscious biases? How well do I understand them? What are my conscious thinking tracks? How well do I understand those? What are my strengths?” Once you’ve got that framework you can then start answering your question, which is, “What is the waiting?”

It is complex but it’s actually pretty simple too that most people, because they don’t have a good framework, they’re dilettantes. They got all these facts and they got stuff they’re trying to impress all the time. They got stuff they’re spouting to themselves. The confirmation bias is driving them, so they’re scanning around on Google and finding little bits to paint by numbers to make it look and feel like they’ve got a grasp of what’s going on. It can be pretty persuasive because smart people remember stuff so they can novel it together.

We happen to oversee the world’s biggest brain database across the board on everything that moves pretty much. When we look at the most effective brains, they don’t do that. They’re actually amazingly clear in the way that they are able to align their non-conscious biases and their ability to think through things and match them. It’s the same thing, Ari. It’s not what people say that matters as much as the intention. Their non-conscious cues, their voice tonality displays their authenticity, which is that whole deep area of non-conscious biases, which is the question that you’ve asked.

In answer to your question, the waiting is first and foremost seems to be, when we look at effective brains, firstly, do you really understand your biases? By the way, the company that I work with is called Total Brain. They re-access the brain, including non-conscious biases because that is critical. For example, I know for myself, I was really fascinated to see what was my bias. What is my inherent basic bias? Is it anger? Is it fear? Is it sad? Is it disgust? Is it happy? Not understanding that, you have no beginning of a framework.

I often ask people, “What are the top 10 biases that you know about even?” Very, very few people can say, “These are my top 10 non-conscious biases that I’m even aware of.” Everybody knows about loss aversion bias. We all know we hate losing stuff. Everybody knows about confirmation bias because it dominates so much of our lives and it’s so hard to count against that. When you get beyond that and the other obvious simplistic ones like gender bias and racial bias, people get stuck.

They go, “There’s them-us bias,” but not the big ones, the ones that really matter like your attentional bias. What do you really focus on? Your small number bias. Do you realize that most people have never been taught or trained how to deal with randomness? People who believe in a lot of la la land stuff, it’s because they don’t have a good grasp on probability theory. These are just very interesting dynamics.

In answer to your question, understanding our biases. Then lastly, Ari, when I say to people, “How many biases do you think there are? Unconscious well-established biases?” They go, “Like 10.” They’re actually over 100. That’s scary. I don’t know if you’ve ever looked at that list. I often look at it and I go, “Oh my goodness. This is really serious.” I’ve been doing this for 30 years, Ari, and I’m still coming to terms just with confirmation bias.

I deal with some of the sharpest tools in the shed in the brain and honestly, behind the scenes, some of them say to me, “This confirmation bias thing is a nightmare. I’m one of the world’s leading–” Not me, people have said this to me that they’re some of the best statisticians in the world. They’ll go, “I still have a confirmation bias.” Read something with a small sample size but it’ll be an effect that they found, “That is what I believe in.” I’ll go, “Yes, there you go. See? Told you.”

That is then to reconcile that, Ari, with the rationality that we know we’re all capable of, but I believe that if it’s not predicated by a deep as possible understanding of those biases were in dilettantes space. To have that even when I ask people, how many thought traps are there. The whole of cognitive behavioral therapy is just revolving around five well established thinking traps. Catastrophizing, black and white thinking, should statement, could statement, overgeneralizing. If that’s the case– and jumping to conclusions. They are the five well established thinking traps. Most people understand catastrophizing, but some people magnify a threat like wacko, and it flips everybody out and it can be useful if you’re an analyst, not that great beyond that.

My bottom line takeaway is this, Ari. If people can’t name the five top biases, including their own, and they can’t tell you the five thinking traps, man, to then put a waiting on that to align that is very tricky. You can teach it in five minutes like I hope I’ve just done. After five minutes anybody on the planet can know the five biases. Put confirmation bias at the top and then five thinking traps. Don’t catastrophize. Don’t think simplistically in black and white. Don’t overgeneralize. Don’t jump to conclusions and don’t be should be, could be. It’s like, “Hey, what can I be.” That didn’t take that long and yet, my view is that’s the problem with neuroscience. There’s so much information, Ari, and that’s why we operate as integrationist.

There’s so much information, and people can jump at little small things and I’ve coined a term, a long time ago, it was more for my own amusement. I called it, neural epicenterism. Everybody believes that what are they doing at their level, that’s the epicenter and everybody else, it’s like, if they’re doing, say, behavior therapy, and they look at geneticists, they go, “That’s too simplistic,” and then I speak to the geneticists, and they say, “Those neuroimaging people. That’s just so superficial.” Then you realize that every level has their own biases because we want a bias that says that what we do is the epicenter. It’s hard to reconcile all of that. A long answer to your short question.

Ari: Yes, it was a great answer. You just made me think of the famous saying, “If your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.”

Dr. Gordon: Totally. I have to tell you, Ari, my wife often tells me that. She says, “You have a bias where every problem you think is a brain hammer”, and I go, “Yes, but in case it is.” [laughs] Anyway, she has never been convinced.

Ari: On the topic of cognitive bias-

Dr. Gordon: That’s my convincing bias and I’m sticking to it, Ari.

Why people often end up taking sides

Ari: I have to say also, I think there’s a skill element to this too, which is, it’s not just the intellectual knowing of the biases you have to implement them. I run a Facebook group. I have thousands of members in my Facebook group. I see people debating, especially right now around Coronavirus stuff and the amount of confirmation bias, the amount of poor argumentation logical fallacies and argumentation, and the amount of people who just want to rationalize all their preconceived notions and just are not thinking very clearly is amazing to observe also on my personal Facebook page among friends, seeing and engaging in lots of arguments.

I spent many years in my mid-20s, engaging in online forums, in online debates, especially on health-related topics and science-related topics with some very, very, very intelligent people. In the initial part of that, I got hammered pretty good by people who were older and wiser and more skilled in argumentation than I was, but after years of doing this for many, many hours a day, I learned to become very good at the art of debate, and I learned to be able to see other people’s logical fallacies and cognitive biases and to be able to expose them and also to very importantly, be able to see those things in myself. I think there’s a skill element there that I learned over many years of engaging in that, that I think most people don’t have.

They don’t have eight hours a day for five years of engaging in these sorts of debates to learn this. I think just people not being able to see through their own logical fallacies and cognitive biases is a huge, huge problem. Right now, there’s a war of information taking place and people on both sides of it. I think politics matters, whether you’re left or right, but there’s all these specific things, right? There’s, what’s the death rate and the lethality of the virus? Is it 5%, 3.4% or is it 0.1%? Very early on, there were people who took sides on that and then decided they were going to have one thing or the other.

It was lockdowns and you were either pro-lockdown and saving lives or if you were opposed to that, then you were a demon who was concerned with the economy and money over saving lives. There was outrage if you were anti-lockdowns. Turns out there’s a whole bunch of arguments that should have happened around what are the health consequences of unemployment and depths of despair. All of those things should have been getting juxtaposed in a rational way. Bill Gates, is he an evil psychopath, or is he a loving altruist who’s saving billions of lives?

Should we wear masks? You can find data showing that masks are going to save all of these lives based on so and so projection and other data showing that masks are totally worthless. All these different things where we have all these just completely contradictory data points and narratives and opinions from experts and then there’s this war of information. Then you have people taking sides with all of this information and very convinced as you were alluding to their way of thinking is the correct way. Everybody who doesn’t think that way is a dummy. Then you just have these battles of people who are in totally different realities.

This is how I’m understanding what’s going on, but I’m really curious what your take on all of that is from a neuroscience perspective.

Dr. Gordon: No, that’s a great observational perspective of the state of the planet and it’s really well articulated. In fact, I’m so glad you raised two points. One is you raised a point about our personal clarity to start. Before we dialogue with anybody about what we think that means for others, I think if we don’t have that clarity for ourselves it’s tricky. I really like your example. When I looked at you present on camera and the way you were beautifully summarizing information. Also, I can hear you’ve trained yourself. Your voice tonality, the way you argue is super sophisticated. That’s phenomenal.

You and I know that until that has been integrated fully, that you– I’m just giving the analogy, Ari, that you know your biases, you know your thinking traps and you’ve really thought and worked hard about your most effective integration alignment, is the word I use, between the two. You’ll be less powerful than if you do all those amazing things that you do and put it together and I obviously know that you’ve put it together. The same as I’ve seen with John, our mutual friend, John Assaraf. It doesn’t come overnight. A lot of that comes with discipline and with the context of seeing the big picture, this alignment.

Let’s just say we all agree on that. Now, what happens when that misalignment is not there? I get involved in a lot of these kind of debates. I’m unnerved by the extent to which that polarity exists in the way you’ve described. Key people keep saying to me, “What’s the solution?” I don’t know the solution but I do know this, I call it the pink elephant effect. If I tell you not to think about a pink elephant, it’s impossible for you not to. In fact, you may never see an elephant again without remembering this conversation in some little dark recesses of your non-conscious brain. You might see pink elephants again for the rest of your life and I apologize for that.

The fact of the matter is, that the pink elephant effect is what has challenged the planet because it opens a door to essentially false narratives. If you say something, anything strongly enough, repeat it enough, there’s enough pink elephants in there where they start wiring together and you have got an alternative dialogue going on in your non-conscious brain. In fact, even if you know it’s not true and I say to you, you’re still going to worry that there maybe there’s some– Where there’s smoke there’s fire. Well, we all know that most of the time, where there’s smoke there’s absolutely no fire.

What am I really saying? What I’m saying is this, there’s a massive confound that occurs with people who as you said can articulate well. Are very able to give their buttons that fear of the brain into taking one side or another. Priming is everything. It’s like cues. It’s like voice tonality. I can change the tonality of this discussion simply by being a false bullshit artist and slowing down and pretending that I’ve got some Moses from the mount wisdom. If I say it slowly enough with my FM DJ voice, you’re more likely to think, hey this guy actually is for real.

Ari: What’s FM DJ? Just out of curiosity.

Dr. Gordon: The FM DJ, you know the late-night FM DJs on the radio.

Ari: Yes. Radio DJ. Okay.

Dr. Gordon: They go, “Let’s be calm.”

Ari: I thought FM was all one thing. FM DJ was in fact a term.

Dr. Gordon: My late-night FM DJ voice. Now, I just believe that the brain sees through that stuff because authenticity matters, but you can swing things one way or another by priming. Here’s my point. What is the main priming that seems to occur in these debates? You’ve probably seen there’s a documentary that’s been taken off the web hundreds of times but keeps reappearing about exactly the issues you’ve discussed. Where there is woman– I’m not going to even mention her name, but where she starts off very cleverly by saying the state of the health industry, what a bunch of nightmares, what a bunch of– this is crazy, the price gouging.

Then we’ve got all the pharma industry that it’s an industrial complex. All things that are true. It is not okay what’s going on. The industrial complex is a little bit out of control. Then you can pick up individuals who’ve made a lot of money from price gouging. You layer the basic tonality, the priming with some hot button non-conscious pink elephants that come roaring through with big tusks and you go, “Oh yes, that is so true. What a disgraceful landscape.”

Then you pinion what you really want to say, which is, “That douchey, he’s sitting on a vaccine. He’s going to become a billionaire from saving it.” Seriously people? Seriously dude? I’m old enough to remember the seriously due phases in the 1990s, but there you are. When you conflate some aspect of reality, but they trigger fear and put people into their defensive mode, then you hit a confirmation by a set of magnified, distorted facts that lack context. You can say anything and people can go, “Yes, that’s totally possible.”

That’s where the confirmation bias in dealing with it. The only way that we can deal with it is one, be aware that our brains are super easily hijacked by non-conscious pink elephants of many persuasions. Two, that if we do not have a training ourselves to deal with probability and context, we will be sheep in the wilderness forever. It’s a very personal bias to you as you’ve heard from my tonality of my answer. That’s all I got. Did that answer your question firstly?

Ari: It does. I want to dig into some specifics. The way I understand– I think what you’re getting at here is, there is an alternative narrative and I know what documentary you’re referring to. Certain views that are being promoted in that, that are very contrary and contradictory to the mainstream narrative that we’re hearing from government authorities, from the WHO, from Bill Gates and so on. As I understand it– I’m curious if you agree or disagree, but I think the best way to look at something like this is a spectrum.

To what degree are you cognitively biased in the direction of on one end of the spectrum, blind trust in authority and whoever’s in a position of power, you just believe whatever they say versus the opposite. Versus complete distrust in authority and you whatever authority says you think there’s some ulterior motive, you think that’s a conspiracy, you take nothing at face value. You think everybody in positions of power are evil. I hope we can agree that both of those are very flawed or potentially flawed.

The question is where do you land in the middle and how do you evaluate where to land on that spectrum and where’s the best place that’s in touch with reality? I want to give one specific example– A couple examples actually. One is Ben Goldacre, who’s an MD, who’s been instrumental in exposing bad science and corrupt science. The file-drawer effect. The fact that thousands of studies that are, for example, funded by Pharmaceutical Companies never see the light of day if they don’t have a flattering finding towards whatever drug is being studied. It’s also true that funding of studies from Pharmaceutical Companies have a 400% greater likelihood of finding a flattering finding on a particular drug compared to independent research.

Then I want to specifically give the example of back in the– I don’t know if it was the 1940s, 1950s, there were ads all over the place on TV and magazines and newspapers of a doctor, an MD, smoking cigarettes and saying how great they are for your health and controlling your appetite. At the time if somebody was a “conspiracy theorist” and they would have said, “Hey, this is a conspiracy, these authorities have it wrong, really cigarettes are bad for you.” People with a pro-authority bias would have said, “No, you’re just a crazy conspiracy theorist. Of course, cigarettes are good for you. Look, the good doctor is telling us they’re good for you. Who are you not to trust him?”

Dr. Gordon: Yes. Good example.

Ari: For people who are either inclined towards conspiracy theory in general, or either inclined to assume anybody who goes against the official narrative is automatically wrong, how do you piece that together?

Dr. Gordon: It’s a great question and a great example by the way with doctor. Let me tell you about two fields that I actually know something about that I’m actually personally involved at quite a reasonable level. Let me give you my two concrete examples. Firstly, your answer to the question, as I said, I don’t have solutions, but I just have what I see and that is that the answer I think is to ask yourself the open question is, “Have I fulfilled my biases? Have I affected those? Then have I put this into the correct context? To me, context and probability are everything. That’s just my point. We can find better balance through context, and context is what you said right at the beginning, the waiting.

Let me give you my two examples, Ari, analogous to yours. These are two that I’ve been involved in quite a lot. If you take antidepressive medication, there’s a huge review that’s shown that actually they don’t really beat placebos by much luck by 10%, and that’s a big problem. For pharmaceutical companies to be selling a drug like an antidepressive and saying that it’s a blockbuster, is not okay. It is surprising to me that to this day there is not a single test that can predict treatment response in psychiatry. Now, it turns out that my group have done the first study to predict treatment response in depression and that we currently are in discussion with the FDA to do that. It was a very difficult study to do. It was an $18 million study with 1700 patients with depression.

The reason is this, that yes, the antidepressants– There’s tremendous challenges. As somebody who has a medical and a science background, I do know that there are many people with depression who if you get the right antidepressant to them, in the right time, at the right time, it can be life changing and lifesaving. There’s an example whereby, yes, the blanket overarching pink elephant effect is big pharma are completely overreaching, and they are. There’s no reason for them not having personalized tastes because they should. We’ve already demonstrated that they can. There’s an example where the answer is, however, when you look to the level down and say, “Well, okay, this is not working as a blockbuster for everything and nor should it be prescribed, or over prescribed, but who is it helping, and all the situations where it does work?”

Now, please allow me to finish the converse. I have many, many friends and collaborators in the so-called alternative medicine world, and I personally am somebody, as much as I’m a warrior for fighting for drug tests, I do not believe that drugs should be the first order of choice. I think it’s a lot of people like yourself, like John like Daniel Amen have been super-important to give people alternatives. Heidi Hanna from American Institute of Stress and Synergy Wellness. These are people who are giving alternatives to stratify and personalize, and give people alternatives through breath, through meditation, through online cognitive behavior trainings, through various behavior training, through eating and exercise. All the things that you know about, only too well that are super-important alternatives.

Here’s the point. When I speak at conferences, were people from the alternative so-called, I think it’s exactly as you say, it’s one continuum. There’s no alternative. It just should be stratified and personalized. To my absolute horror, and I’ll say horror with a capital H, I have seen the ignorance about the placebo effect. When I challenge people on that, I gave a plenary discussion to talk at the American Neurofeedback Society, and I said, “A passion of mine is brain training. Electrical brain training is noninvasive, why would we not do this?”

The quality of the science is so bad and so unreplicated that it’s taken one of the most powerful treatments we have, and just not done justice to it. When I raised that at this conference around [unintelligible 00:35:08] I said, “The only thing missing from this field is quality replicated science.” You know what most people said? “We don’t have time to do that. We’re busy clinicians saving people’s lives.” All I’m saying is bias is a strange thing, Ari, and until we all integrate our views, and just then look at the layer down, where is neurofeedback helpful? I’m a vegan? I know that can change people’s lives. Seriously change people’s health.

I personally, am having trouble persuading my son and daughter to get my grandchildren to be vegans because they go, “Oh God, dad, not another shtick from you. You have given us this all our lives. Enough already.” I go “No, no, seriously.” Of course, when you tell people what to do, they have an unconscious pushback, and it takes years to get to the next phase. That’s my point, Ari, that I think looking below the hood of our biases and finding pragmatic contextualized horses for courses. What works, in whom, at what stage and stratified. I personally have seen works most effectively. That’s my answer to your context about bias is a strange thing and it operates across the board and I think they always have to deconstruct it.

The stance on vaccines – and why it is so charged

Ari: I want to interject a couple specific, personal stories actually related to the documentary that you brought up recently. I have a very diverse array of friends, a lot of friends who are in the natural health community, functional medicine doctors, MDs, people who are more into natural health, nutrition and lifestyle factors, and so on. I also have quite a number of friends who are conventional medical doctors. It’s very interesting for me to observe how they react differently to something like the documentary that you brought up.

On the one hand, you have a lot of people in the natural health community less so the scientifically literate ones, but who just immediately assume everything’s true. They just take everything in as truth without questioning any of it. Then on the other end, you have a lot of my conventional medical doctor friends who are not at all educated on natural health or nutrition and things like that, who they look at something like this, and they just say, “Oh, this is total nonsense. None of this is true.” I’ve seen a number of attempts to rebut or debunk it and there are certain specific points that are interesting. I want to keep this about cognitive biases, but I just want to mention a couple of stories.

One is the immediate assumption that flu vaccines by my conventional MD friends, the immediate assumption that flu vaccines couldn’t possibly have any relationship to Coronavirus immunity or could interfere with it. The reality is there’s at least two if not three studies that have directly tested that and they have shown about a 35%, 36% interference with decreased immunity to Coronavirus, not specifically SARS-CoV-2. My point is that there is actually scientific evidence that supports that that is at least plausible, if not, very likely. Yet there was an immediate assumption to completely dismiss it as conspiracy theory nonsense.

Alternatively, I pointed that out to them, and they looked at the research and to their credit, they said, “Yes, you’re right. I guess I shouldn’t have brush that off so quickly.” ” I said, “Here’s a quote from Bill Gates, he said, “We cannot get back to normal until we have a vaccine.”” I said, “What is the evidence to support this claim?” As far as I can tell, there has never been a case in human history, where we’ve gone into lockdown in response to a virus and where a vaccine was the reason that we were able to get back to normal. In fact, from what I can see, there’s thousands of viruses that have circulated throughout human history, and many have killed lots and lots of people and we’ve always gotten back to normal without a vaccine.

Why is it that you accept one of these statements totally uncritically as if it’s based on science when it doesn’t have good evidence? The other one that actually does have good evidence, you immediately dismissed it as nonsense and quackery and pseudoscience. People on both sides are doing this. I’m giving you one example. There’s absolutely a lot of the same thing happening on the other side of dismissing things that have good evidence as nonsense and taking in things that don’t have evidence totally uncritically. I’m just wondering if you have any thoughts on that? I thought my personal anecdote-

Dr. Gordon: No, that’s a great summary, Ari. I’ll tell me what my takeaway from all of this stuff is. It comes back to– I’m sure you read the book Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. Such great book that really captures this, can we reconcile these non– That book was fascinating because when the book Nudge was written, which was inspired a little bit by Daniel Kahneman. It was more about these bigger picture issues. How do we deal with it? Anyway, my point is this. Even in Daniel Kahneman, here’s this guy really understood the non-conscious and conscious brain and show the way that these random little nudges to the non-conscious brain can influence our answers quite dramatically. Just how sensitive the non-conscious brain is that it can even be shaped and nudged by random things that you see. You see a big number and your answer is going to be bigger than if you didn’t. I mean seriously, that is amazing. Just shows how nuanced this is.

The point that I think he made that was so intriguing to me, he was one of the people actually, who said, Ari, he said he’s one of the greatest statisticians on the planet and he said he has trouble. He has trouble dealing with his confirmation bias because it is what it is, a non-conscious confirmation bias. To me the issue is that– He wrote and many other people like him have written, what do we actually do with the example, whether it’s a video or with just any information about the Coronavirus? Any.

To me, it comes back to that simple point that he made and others have made. Firstly, do not believe anything in science that’s not replicated. That’s number one. That is a really basic rule. As somebody who’s been through the science track and the medical track, I cannot tell you how hard it is for people to live by that because there is no science without replication. In fact, people forget that when you have a study, it’s meaningless till it’s replicated in the sense that you just don’t know. It could be random effects, it could be placebo effect, was it properly replicated? That’s number one.

Secondly, never believe anything that is not but big numbers because we know that with small numbers of surveys or whatever, you can find anything. In fact, there’s an old joke in statistics, that if you flog your data hard enough, it’ll confess to anything. I really do believe that. My point is, Ari, the simple discipline of just checking the facts and putting them into context. Let’s take that little documentary. When I watched the documentary, I said, “Hey, this woman is really smart.” She’s given some really plausible, very negative, but very, certainly I agree with them, statements about the state of health care and the way it’s controlled by the medical and pharmaceutical industry in ways that are not the healthiest on the planet. Really, I’m agreeing with it, but that had nothing to do with what she was saying. She was making very specific things.

Here’s my point. Over a cup of coffee, it did not take me long to go and look at some of the most basic information that she put out, which was this. I’ll just give you one example. The interview, priming is everything just like you prompt me. How do your audiences know that I founded the world’s first standardized international database? Who knows? Check it out. If you can’t see Dr. Evian Gordon and that he’s done this, well what does anything I’m saying matter?

I just went and looked up. That guy who interviewed her was a masterful priming interviewer. That is not what an interview should be. He said to start. She is one of the most influential– and he said it in his late-night FM DJ voice, “She is one of the most influential scientists of our time.” Seriously. She was one of the people and this was the point I checked, that had a major impact on the AIDS virus solution. That was really easy to look up. Go look up prove what impact did she have on contributing to the AIDS virus solution? The answer is not much. My point is you start from there, and every one of the key elements.

I’ve always been fascinated by people who just published a book. Suddenly they’ve got a book out, and they’ve got a shtick that is hot button-pushing and selective. I’m just saying how different is there to the pharma industry? How different is that to any marketing spiel? It’s not that difficult to deconstruct. Now, sometimes, what people say, serious whistleblowers, like the smoking ones turned out to be 100% true, and [unintelligible 00:44:43] Even today, there are people who still can unfold the wings of that butterfly and go, “Cancer. How come my uncle lived and he was 100. He smoked 100 cigarettes a day and didn’t get cancer.”

That way the probability piece comes in of knowing how probabilities work. I’m not saying I’ve got the answers, I said, Ari, but I do believe as an integrationist risk, which is all I’m sharing with you today. That it’s actually complicated, but not that complicated. There are some simple things that I think can cut through and give us a better alignment between the non-conscious biases and the conscious rational thinking that is so powerful that we do have. That’s essentially the essence of what I’ve learned, Ari. In that sense, that’s pretty much all I’ve got.

Ari: I think the key, if I’m interpreting you correctly, is be critical of information that you’re encountering. Be skeptical of it and check the evidence. Also, maybe be extra skeptical and critical of information that meshes with your preconceived notions and what you wish to believe. Go out of your way to do the opposite of what we are naturally inclined to do, which is to take in that information without questioning it, but make an intentional point your question the things which you’re inclined to believe or you wish to believe.

Dr. Gordon: Yes, that’s spot on. People often ask me this, Ari. They go, “We got that. Non-conscious brain, conscious alarm. That’s tricky. That’s hard. Tell us one thing we can do.” If there’s one thing, I just say the same thing. “Start off by looking at what’s replicated in large studies.” Just start off. There’s lots of them out there. You can go to all sorts of places. You can just simply look at the Cochrane studies. They’re big meta-analyses of things that give you a start. They’re not necessarily infallible, but start off with big studies that are replicated. That’s the start. That cleans up so much stuff. I also often provide the nice context to start. It doesn’t always have the answer, but it’s a good starting point. That’s always been my starting point.

Ari: I completely agree with you and that’s why I really prefer to deal with areas where we have strong evidence and we can just look at the evidence and it’s just a question of how deep are you willing to analyze it and how fairly you’re going to take it in and represent that information.

Dr. Gordon: I do have a second– Sorry, just a second context about that, which is that I’m an innovator. What I do for a living is find new ways that work in the brain. There’s something’s where there is no evidence, but then, just say it. Say, “Look, Ari, I believe that we can train our non-conscious brain and here’s how. I haven’t got a proof for this, I haven’t done replicated studies.” Then I will say to you, “Ari, this is my personal view based on my insights from 300 publications around the world, biggest brain database, and having been born at the time where some of the world’s founders of neuroscience shared stuff magnanimously with me. I can say this is my view of a distillation.” Just share that as a view.

My only other second point, Ari, is to make clear the difference between validated replicated information and personal intuition that we’re discussing and exploring that could be super helpful to people in some cases. Sorry, I just wanted to make that other point, a ratio-continuum. It is about having a clear continuum from that replication to what is it. Often, people conflate those two. They talk about their personal neural epicentric views as if there’s validated replicated examples. That’s another point of conflation that confuses people. Sorry, I cut you off, I didn’t mean to. I just wanted to finish that thought.

Ari: No, that was perfect. That was perfect and that was actually where I’m going with this. On one end of the spectrum, you have very clear evidence, lots of evidence, it’s been repeated. The challenge is just to learn it and then represent it fairly and accept that the evidence is there and it’s strong regardless of what you want to believe. Believe, or don’t believe, want to believe, the evidence says what the evidence says. I really like dealing with that kind of stuff. [laughs] The challenge here is we have things like lockdowns. I’m just going to give a few examples, like lockdowns. As far as I know, there’s only one example in history where we’ve done lockdowns. It was the 1918 flu pandemic and social distancing. There’s some retrospective analysis and estimates of how well it might have contributed to reduced death rates, but mostly, what it does is spread out the same number of infections over a longer period of time. It doesn’t massively reduce the total number of infections, this is a point that there was widespread misunderstanding on.

My point is there isn’t very good evidence on the subject of do lockdowns save lives or don’t save lives? What are the– Do they save lives or not save lives when contrasted with all of the fallout from unemployment and deaths of despair and suicides and drug abuse and all the morbidity and mortality that results from the lockdowns? It’s a real question. We don’t have 10 previous pandemics where we can get clear data from, and so there’s people using unclear data to try and decide something like that.

There’s also– I’ll give one more example, the masks. There’s a mandate in California where I live to wear masks whenever you’re outdoors right now. You go and look at the evidence, and there’s some evidence that you can find in certain contexts saying, masks reduce the risk of infections and block viral particles and things like that. Then there’s other studies that have shown especially with cloth masks like homemade masks. They may actually increase the risk of infection. You can find evidence to support the idea that masks are either going to save lots of lives or masks, maybe totally counterproductive.

We don’t have really amazing evidence, even the WHO, the World Health Organization came out. I saw an article published from CNN a few days ago saying there is no evidence to indicate this is a quote, “There’s no evidence to indicate any potential benefit of widespread mask wearing in the general population as contrasted to like in an acute medical setting.” We’re getting just massive conflicting information where we don’t have really good data.

My goals of this interview are really threefold. One, I want people to understand how to think about things better and how to overcome their cognitive biases. The second thing is I want people to be able to bridge the gap with one another and understand why we’re operating in such different realities in many cases and hopefully be able to communicate in productive ways. Then third of all, and maybe you can speak to this, too, to wrap up. How can we get our brains out of this hijack mode to reset so we can use our total brain, in your words in a productive way, instead of allowing this hijack to go on where we’re not using our brains very well?

Dr. Gordon: Yes. Firstly, Ari, thank you for such thoughtful insights and comments and context, and that’s really what’s needed. To me, one of the things that I hope people can share with us in terms of looking at data differently, because there are some things that do matter. I know for me as somebody who is 67 and my friends on the front line who tell me about what it’s like when you are intubating someone on a ventilator, it’s not fun. To me, I’m looking at the data about what can I do. They are little things starting to creep in like they doing plasma now, extracting antibodies, you can get a CPAP machine rather than a ventilator maybe, but who knows?

I’m just saying, we know that the malaria drug probably was a little overstated. The data seems to show that. The other drugs, there’s 150 groups working on vaccines, so there is evidence. It’s a matter of just taking this replicated data approach big numbers, and separating the signal from the noise, and that’s what we can do. I think the trickier part, I think, Ari, is when we’re looking at things that are not just science-based, it’s a lot to do with dynamics of trade-offs between economics and health. That is a different ballgame. That’s a whole different level of complexity. When we try to trade-offs, it’s like stratifying in personalized medicine.

Look how many years– I know when I was a medical student, we spoke about holistic medicine. Holistic medicine is not here yet. We haven’t managed to even reconcile all of this in the simple, obvious stratified, step by step way. To do that with something as complicated as the economy versus death rates. Whoa, good luck on that one. It’s tough, and we need big, serious modelers who can factor all this in and not pink elephants to be run wild all over the place, scaring everybody to pieces.

That’s a tougher thing, but there’s a lot of things we can bring that kind of alignment between non-conscious and conscious abilities. Then there’s some things where it’s just opinion really, that’s my point about that opinion. The economists are not even able to model that stuff yet, effectively, we have to really scientifically controlling all the variables that we can see where there are trade-offs or for lockdown versus non-lockdown. That’s really, really complicated. There is no precedents to that. I have no idea what the answer is, but I do know that there’s some things we are getting better at. We’re getting more and more empowered.

Lastly, Ari, I know we’ve run out of time, but lastly, I’d say that from our data, we give a monthly report of the cognitive data because we have about a million people around the country who’ve used our assessment and stuff. We can see in the 40 corporates we deal with around the country, the employees, we can see that obviously, the anxiety is gone up massively. So has negativity, and so has a lack of focus. Then, of course, the increase is in depression and increasingly in addiction.

Just to take the example of negativity and focus. Negativity can be trained. We know that there are non-drug related ways to retrain ourselves, better brain networks to prime ourselves to see what is working for us, and magnify that rather than the threat. That is one. Same with focus. As you know, focus is about task completion. If we do it in small steps, and we do what we can do and we connect the dots to get a solution, we can retrain ourselves. That, to me, is where people are really reaching out for solutions that are simple and natural and straightforward, they exist and there are lots of apps on the web and those can be helpful too, but the greatest help, I think, is having the right framework. That framework if it’s brain-based, my biased brain hammer for you, Ari, is that it works.

Ari: If you’re going to leave people with one brief piece of wisdom as far as how to regain control of their brain right now, amidst all of this war of information, confusing and contradictory data points, what’s the single most important thing that people should do right now?

Dr. Gordon: Just my personal view, which is all of this, is to reframe. To reframe the issue as immediate acute danger hijack, which it is, but also, we are really entering into the medium term and starting to be able to think about long-term solutions. If you reframe it in terms of time and put solutions down on a piece of paper or in your mind in a clear way of reframing the reality that it’s okay to be scared right now. In fact, if you’re not, it’s a little bit of a worry because there’s enough to be scared about, but put it into context and then start thinking about what can I do to restructure if it is going to be a new normal in some way?

How can I prepare for that? How can I now deploy my 85 billion neurons in a way that better aligns my non-conscious and conscious brain? Then start thinking of the long-term solution. Many people are reinventing themselves now because it’s– The last thing I’ll end up with is, Ari, as you know, yes, fear is the greatest hijack, but one thing we know about behavior change, it is also the greatest opportunity where people do change. That’s what I think the opportunity really is and it’s not a platitude. It’s for real. This is an opportunity for people to reinvent themselves or reshape their neural networks and rewire brain habits. That way they can choose who they want to be. For real, this is an incredible opportunity in that regard. It may sound a bit too optimistic, but that’s my thoughts.

Ari: Yes, beautiful. Great piece of wisdom to end with. Dr. Gordon, thank you so much for sharing your knowledge with my audience. This has been a lot of fun. For people who are interested in learning more about your work, where’s the best place to do that?

Dr. Gordon: There’s a free trial if they want to just assist their brains and train with some tools and stuff at, T-R-Y. I have a podcast called The Total Brain Podcast. I bring in key opinion leaders to talk about some of these issues. Last but not least, Ari, I want to thank you for the very thoughtful and expensive and yet pragmatic way that you have asked these questions and then I’ve seen more and more and in terms of what you do. Thank you.

Ari: Thank you so much for saying that. I will admit I was nervous going into this because it’s so polarized and emotionally charged out there. I really wanted to be as objective and neutral and present both sides fairly and not get anybody worked up or outraged about anything. Hopefully, help people understand how their own brains work and bridge the gap with one another more effectively. I think you did that brilliantly. Thank you so much again, Dr. Gordon.

Dr. Gordon: It’s a great pleasure. Thanks, Ari.

Ari: I hope we can connect again very soon.

Dr. Gordon: I’m looking forward to you being on The Total Brain Podcast.

Ari: Yes, me too.

Dr. Gordon: Looking forward to it.

Ari: Great to connect with you. Talk to you soon.

Dr. Gordon: I look forward to it.

Show Notes

How our brains respond to major changes in our environment (01:24) 
Why people often end up taking sides (17:48) 
The stance on vaccines – and why it is so charged (36:36) 


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