How our instincts may work against us in the modern world.
Top Brains with Dr. Rebecca Heiss, Evolutionary Biologist.
Hello, I’m Bethany with Bigger Brains. Welcome to Top Brains, a monthly conversation that picks the brain of one of Bigger Brains experts on a topic of importance to the L&D and Training community today. I am pleased to welcome our kickoff guest, Dr. Rebecca Heiss. Rebecca’s work focuses on the paradoxes of the way humans think. Her research has been designated transformative by the National Science Foundation and has led to her being recruited as a founding faculty member to develop a startup school to nurture entrepreneurial minds and approach learning through impact.
She is the founder and CEO of Icueity, a continuous 360 review app, providing users ongoing feedback and challenging them to grow in self-awareness. She is the author of the new acclaimed book Instinct and a full-time speaker and coach. If that weren’t enough, she also leads training for Bigger Brains on productivity and workplace bias. Welcome, Rebecca, and thank you for taking the time to be with us.
Oh, I’m delighted to be here. Thanks for having me, Bethany.
I think the most interesting part of your work is how our instincts, or biology can work against us in the modern world. We’re often told to go with our gut or not to second guess ourselves. But it appears that you and science advise against this.
Yeah, I mean, it’s not that we can’t always trust our gut. Well, let me reframe that. It is that we can’t always trust our gut, but our gut and our instincts out aren’t out to harm us. The idea here is that our brains simply aren’t built for the world that we’re living in. Our brains are built for a world where our ancestors lived. It was a dangerous world, a sparse world, a scary world where there were literal tigers around every corner. And so our brains main objective is to keep us alive. It’s not that our instincts can’t be trusted, it’s that we shouldn’t trust our instincts all the time. So, for example, when you put your hand on a hot stove, what do you do?
Oh, pull it back!
Yeah, right, exactly. And the reason for that?
That’s right! It is hot, it hurts, of course, that’s it! Except that actually, not it. You remove your hand before you feel heat or pain. So this is a nice behavioral response and an important instinct that actually does prevent us from injuring ourselves. Right. That’s a good thing. That’s a trust your gut, go with your instinct kind of move. Problem is, our brains often overstep this. So how many other things are we behaving versus reacting first and then justify it? Well, I moved it because it was hot.
Well, actually, no, you didn’t. You moved your hand before you felt that heat or pain. But we all do this and it’s very natural to do this. But often those instincts can get us into trouble in other instances.
So how does our biology interfere with modern work life or a successful life in general?
Yeah, I mean, again, our biology is trying to protect us. The main thing it’s trying to do is keep us alive. But what that means is that it keeps us often locked into this space of stress and anxiety. And it prevents us from actually thinking. Humans have this gift, this frontal lobe, this expanded frontal lobe where we are able to make cognitive conscious decisions from. The problem is we don’t actually use it very much because we live in a, in a modern environment where we have 400 billion bits of information just hitting us every single second.
And so our brain is trying to keep up, trying to process this. And what ends up happening is it just passes all this information along to the subconscious brain to handle, because, again, the first thing the brain is trying to do is just keep us alive. So what that means is that we end up in this stress response, this fight-flight-freeze mode most of the time when we’re panicking and we’re either responding to that email like it’s a tiger. Right? We’re fighting, we’re antagonistic with our colleagues, or we’re fleeing. We’re running away or hitting reply all or doing things really fast, or we’re freezing, we’re procrastinating, we’re getting behind.
And when we stay in those stressed-out modes, we end up missing out on the abundant modern world that we live in. We’ve got all this great technology that right now we think is more of a hindrance to our progress than it is a help. And again, when our brain is sort of narrowed in on the stressful moments, we miss the smell of bread as we’re walking down the street past our favorite bakery. We miss those tiny moments that make this abundant world so special to live in, to begin with.
So what are the most common negative biological traits that you see, especially in business today?
Yeah, I mean, they’re all fear-based, right? So fear of rejection, fear of failure, and fear of the other. People who think different or look different or act different and these fears are all based in biological instincts, right. Fear of rejection, that’s a that’s a good fear to have if you’re living in the ancestral environment, because, look, if you got kicked out of your tribe, you died. You weren’t going to make it out there alone. Same thing with fear of failure. Oh, my gosh. If you failed to bring home enough meat to survive, you died. Right? If you tried a new piece of technology that didn’t work. You put everybody’s life at risk.
So, and then fear of the other same thing. Right? If you saw somebody who looked different from you, acted differently from you, was from another tribe, they likely weren’t coming over to borrow a cup of sugar. Right? People were real threats from other tribes. They were going to steal all of your resources, kill you. It was a terrifying moment. Now, of course, today, none of those fears apply. You know, we live in a global economy where we know that diverse teams are more engaged.
They come up with more accurate solutions to problems. They are more creative. We know that we have to get over these fears. But just because we know it doesn’t mean we always employ it.
So how can we learn to recognize instincts that no longer serve us well or that work against our, how can we work against our biology and develop new instincts?
Yeah, certainly. So, you know, I have a whole lot of background. I took a lot of classes in college on animal behavior and human behavior and evolution. And I wanted to begin to apply this to ways that we can solve practical problems in business. But frankly, I was held back by my own fear. I didn’t feel like I belonged in the world of business. I was a biologist, after all. And it took a little bit of a personal tragedy to help shake me out of this fear. Unfortunately, my sister-in-law was diagnosed with terminal cancer.
And at this point in time, you know, I pursued the life that I, quote-unquote, was supposed to. I had my dream job, my academic career with all the credentials in the home and a husband. And when she got her diagnosis, I took a closer look at my life and realized, man, if I had been my diagnosis, I would be so disappointed with the life that I lived. So I kind of cleared the deck. And then in the next month, I quit my job, sold my house, and divorced my husband, which you know, not a move that I recommend you listeners immediately take.
But I made a commitment to myself that I would no longer be making decisions out of fear. That I would be fully conscious in overriding some of those instincts, some of those fears that had held me back. And so that was kind of the start of this new path, this new line of research for me.
Oh, great. So you have a book on the topic. It’s called Instinct Rewire Your Brain with Science Backed Solutions to Increase Productivity and Achieve Success. And I know authors are always asked this, but the reasons are so diverse and interesting. I always ask when I talk with an author, what compelled you to write the book?
Yeah, I mean, I was homeless, and jobless is the real answer there.
That’s always a good reason!
But I was really curious, too, and wanted to extend my reach. I had all this knowledge and background in biology and saw this opportunity, that I think was being missed in the world of business, where we could apply biology to work for us rather than against us. And I think, you know, the other part here is that I began to really understand myself as well. Instead of feeling like an imposter, or feeling like I had to be somebody in order to fit in in the world of business. I started just sharing more of who I was and recognizing that I’m still valued.
And in fact, I don’t have to prove myself in this world. All I need to do is show up and continue to put out great work. So the story I kind of tell about the next book that I’m writing is that that was the realization I started telling people that I drink my wine with a side of diet sprite actually mixed into the wine.
Yeah, I know. That’s usually the reaction I get. The like, ooh, why? I think because and I know this seems off-topic, but it’s quite relevant. I think we show up in the world trying to present ourselves as the thing that we’re supposed to be.
Right. I’m supposed to like this high-end wine and taste the notes of. And that’s great if you’re that person. I’m not that person. I like mixing Diet Sprite in my wine. And I started showing up and recognizing that, oh, this is the kind of training that I needed when I was 12, 16, 22, 32, 48. And it’s the same training that CEOs of multibillion-dollar companies need when they start recognizing, oh, I’ve been afraid that people would reject me if I told them that I liked Diet Sprite in my wine.
I thought I was supposed to be that. When we get over those fears, we start to recognize how diverse and how innovative we can be when we’re individuals.
So in your opinion, if you had to choose one, what is the most important reason to rewire your brain from this instinctive mindset of fear?
I mean, to just not have regrets, to be able to live life fully. At the end of the day, I don’t think death is the biggest tragedy. I think the biggest tragedy is a life lived in fear, a life lived from instincts, because that those aren’t decisions. Those are just following the path that biology has already laid out for you. So, you know, taking a step back and living more fearless is probably the most important reason to rewire your brain.
I think that’s a good reason. I would like to be more fearless.
Look, me too! I’m on this path with you.
So, on that note, we’ll have to wrap this up. Be sure to take a look at Rebecca’s website at rebeccaheiss.com. Her leadership training course, The Fearless Accelerator, specifically designed for female leaders who need to break free of stress and that naggling, niggling imposter syndrome. Also check out her book Instinct, which is available from booksellers everywhere. And of course, you can go to our website at getbiggerbrains.com and increase your productivity and learn more about how you can combat bias and your fears with great courses like the ones Rebecca has done for us. And hopefully, there will be more!
I hope so, too Bethany!
Thank you so much, Rebecca. It’s been great talking with you.
Been a pleasure. Thanks so much.