Neuroscientist Heather Berlin on Creative Flow, Brain Implants and Rappers
Interview with Heather Berlin
This episode on Smart Dust, we’re delving in the brain of Heather Berlin; cognitive neuroscientist, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. She is also a television host across a myriad of science programs on BBC, History Channel, Netflix and even Bill Nye: Science Guy.
We explore the world of neuroscience, from how AI and neural-implants will influence our evolution and ethics, to the impact of technology on future generations. We debunk the myths of the left brain/right brain theory, explore how we dream and learn the secret science behind the creative ‘flow’. Along the way, Heather also shares her neuroscience experiments conducted on her husband, rapper Baba Brinkman.
Douglas Nicol: Hello and welcome to Smart Dust on Douglas Nicol. And as always I’m joined by Mr Nick Abrahams.
Nick Abrahams: Hello everyone.
Douglas Nicol: And welcome to our special guest Heather Berlin. Heather, you’re very welcome to Smart Dust.
Heather Berlin: Thanks for having me.
Douglas Nicol: For those of you who don’t know, Heather is a cognitive neuroscience and assistant professor of psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. And in the US she has very high profile across pretty much every form of media in terms of talking about science and making it accessible. She’s had series on PBS, Netflix, the Discovery Channel. She’s done at least two TEDx Talks. She’s on the Bill Nye podcast. She’s appeared with the likes of Brian Cox talking about science. Heather, you’re very welcome.
Now, your fresh off the stage. You’ve just been talking about a topic that I think is really super interesting and the session was called How AI Will Design the Human Future. Do you want to tell us a bit about what you were talking about?
Heather Berlin: Yeah. So I was on a panel with two computer scientists working on AI systems, and I was the sort of the neuroscientists talking about the human perspective. And two issues that are really of interest to me. One is, whether these AI systems that they’re developing that can learn that they’re being programmed based on reinforcement whether these systems will ever have subjective states, whether they’ll ever have consciousness. So that’s one thing that we talked a lot about in my perspective compared to theirs, and also integrating technology to the human brain. So things like neural prosthetics and neural implants and what will that mean in terms of what it is to be human. So those were some of the issues that we touched upon as well as things like cognitive enhancement, how we can maybe potentially modify the genome to increase our intelligence.
Nick Abrahams: Sounds like a nice light subject to start the morning on.
Heather Berlin: Yeah, 9:30 on a Monday.
Douglas Nicol: I’m interested to know what a neural implant is. Can you tell us a bit about that?
Heather Berlin: Yeah. So they’re different types of neural implants. One is the type that you implant that actually stimulates different parts of the brain depending on where we implant them that are being used right now to treat psychiatric or neurological illness. And so basically it’s this little electrode. It’s connected to a wire that’s implanted underneath the skin, connected to a battery pack that’s implanted in the chest wall. The same people who make pacemakers make this. And we can control the amount of stimulation with a remote control. And it’s being used to treat things like Parkinson’s disease, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder for when nothing else has worked. This is kind of a last resort.
So those are kind of neural implants that are stimulating the brain, and we don’t know exactly if it’s knocking out a faulty circuit or if it’s reinvigorating a circuit, but we just know that if you implant them in specific areas it tends to help treat the symptoms. The other type of implants are ones in which you put in these sort of micro electrode arrays that are recording information. They’re just silently sending, they’re recording, neurons firing, and what these certain neuro signatures look like, for example, when you think about moving your hand to the right or the left.
And then that information is sent to a computer, which can translate it into say moving a prosthetic limb with your thoughts or moving a cursor on the screen with your thoughts based on kind of transducing the patterns of activation of the neurons. But ultimately these things are being used now to sort of treat disabilities, but it’s not too far off where they’re going to start being used to enhance a normally functioning brain and make us kind of superhuman.
Douglas Nicol: Do you think that’s better than the use of drugs, for example, to treat, for example, depression?
Heather Berlin: So we’ve gotten so far, at least in the world of psychiatry, there haven’t been really major breakthroughs in at least like 50 years. I mean, recently now they’ve come out things like ketamine to treat depression and there’s been some novel treatments, but in general we only get so far in terms of pharmacological treatments in psychiatry. And this is kind of the next step. We used to go in and actually for people who are intractable or untreatable with depression and OCD we would lesion parts of the brain, and sometimes it would work. It would help. But if it didn’t help then you had a brain lesion now and that’s not great. So this is sort of an alternative to that. So yeah. There are drugs that now also are cognitive enhancements. But, again, they can only get you so far and they’re not going to get you as far as an implant would get you.
Nick Abrahams: And, Heather, you mentioned that idea that we might become better than we are and so forth, and folks like Elon Musk are obviously focused on that sort of area. I mean, do you actually see us as a species evolving?
Heather Berlin: Mm-hmm. We use tools. Since many thousands of years back what distinguished us in terms of many other animal species is our use of tools. And this is just sort of the evolution of tools. We have our iPhone and then we create these neuro prosthetics so in terms of the evolution of man and its interaction with tools that we built. But in terms of our biological evolution that takes a little bit longer, right? So technology and our integration with it is evolving much quicker, faster than actual our neuro biological evolution, which is at a much slower rate.
So often there’s a mismatch. We’re kind of these like caveman brains living in this high tech world, and that can lead to even certain psychiatric illnesses because our environment … we just haven’t really fully evolved to function in these types of environments. So it depends on how you look at evolution. I mean, there’s how we’ve created tools that we’re evolving with, but then there’s a biological evolution, which is a little bit different.
Nick Abrahams: If you look at the trends humanists are sort of looking at which … they’re saying, okay, we are going to evolve in some way. Is it going to then create effectively a two tiered society where there’ll be those who can afford these amazing tools to enhance themselves, and then we’ll have an underclass who will be just straight bios and won’t have those tools?
Heather Berlin: Yeah. I mean, it really presents an important ethical dilemma because either there’s going to be the haves and have nots. Right now, for example, if you take a course to improve your SAT scores sort of those who can afford to take the course or at a bit of an advantage. Now imagine you can get your kid a neural implant where they have like three times the size of their memory capacity. It’s just untouchable. And so either we’re going to have to enforce laws where nobody gets to have it, like sort of performance enhancing drugs in sports or everybody gets the habit and it’s available to everyone, because the divergence in terms of classes will be so huge and it would be very hard to kind of bridge that gap.
And the other issue is that you’re going to have, let’s say one country makes laws, “Okay. This is illegal.” But then, I don’t know, in China they’re like, “Well, we’re already creating our designer babies and they’re already working now to increase IQ points in different ways.” So in order to be competitive are we going to have to make sure that everybody has access to this? And then other issues are what if somebody can hack into your neural implant to control your behavior, which is not that farfetched.
Douglas Nicol: We’re not far away from this, are we? I mean these neural implants are happening now-
Heather Berlin: Absolutely.
Douglas Nicol: … in the disability space. So the reality is we’re within five years of this capability-
Heather Berlin: Yeah. The rate limiting factor really is our understanding of the human brain. So for example, there’s only certain disorders that we can treat with these neural implants because we know the specific circuit that is say involved in depression. And depression is not like in one place in the brain. It’s just a circuit that we know is involved, and we target a particular node in that circuit.
But something that’s more like autism, which involves many, many parts of the brain, it’s sort of the way the brain is wired up, you can’t just go into one place and change that or neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s. Or intelligence for that matter. We don’t really understand how that works in the brain. So that’s our limiting factor. But the more we understand about how the brain works and maps on to say different cognitive functions then we can very easily go in and manipulate those functions.
Douglas Nicol: You mentioned and I’ve read before that China are investing in programs to raise IQ scores by up to 15 points in every successive generation. Does that mean you could actually improve my IQ or is it more that you could improve the IQ of my children and their children’s children?
Heather Berlin: It depends on what techniques are they using to improve those IQs. I don’t know, but I think that we are born with certain genetic predisposition to be within say a certain range of a skillset. Now IQ is not just one thing. I mean, it’s really made up of various different cognitive processes. So you might be really good at say visual spatial processing or memory capacity, but not good at verbal reasoning or … they’re all different aspects of it. And then we average all these numbers together and come up with some general number.
But there’s no one thing. But if you were to say like, “We want to increase your cognitive capacity in a particular domain,” let’s even say it’s musical ability. We know that you can be born with a genetic predisposition to be really good at music, to have a good ear. That’s just genetics. And then with experience we can get you to the highest you can get within that biological range. So I think biology sets the limits of your capacity. And I think that’s what it is sort of with IQ. Your highest capacity, I don’t know, let’s say it would be to be up to 130 IQ and we can get you there, but I don’t think you’re going to get past that unless you have a genetic predisposition to have a specific set of skills that are kind of pre-wired. So we’re only going to go so far until we start manipulating the genome. And then anything goes at that point.
Nick Abrahams: Oh, yeah [crosstalk 00:10:28]-
Douglas Nicol: So there is hope for me.
Nick Abrahams: Well, CRISPR certainly looks like that’s real. And it’s interesting, Heather, you mentioned that idea of why don’t we just have uniform laws. But as you said the Chinese they’re widely reported event of the Chinese scientist reportedly using CRISPR to have a baby that was immune to AIDS.
Heather Berlin: Right. And we know what they found was that when they did this, I think it was with mice, they found that actually it increased certain cognitive functions. So whatever they did genetically to make them immune to AIDs actually affected brain development. And they had certain … I can’t remember if it was memory or something along those lines, but they actually increased their capacity. The problem is with these things when you’re playing around we still don’t know exactly how the genome maps onto the brain, and you can manipulate for one thing and get some other weird side effect that we don’t know about. And it becomes really dangerous. But when you’re dealing with countries whose ethical standards are different than ours we can’t stop that.
Nick Abrahams: Which then raises the issue which has come up a lot at South by Southwest, which is what is ethics actually, which is sort of this fundamental issue which I think everyone has a bit of a moral compass and so forth and that’s their ethical boundaries. But if you grew up in a different environment you have a different set of ethics. So it’s a challenge.
Heather Berlin: I mean, some people’s point of view is that look, we need to push the boundaries of what it is to be human and you know we have this technology, why not see where it takes us, and almost like they’re impelled to keep exploring despite what might be the negative consequences.
Douglas Nicol: We might move on to another topic that’s I know is an area of interest for you which is around creativity and where ideas come from, and I’ve read quite a lot of your content around this concept of creative flow, which is sort of a stage your brain gets into where you actually come up with original and really good thoughts and increased ability. Can you explain this thought of creative flow?
Heather Berlin: When I was an undergraduate I was really interested in creativity and I wanted to do it for my senior thesis, was to look at the effect of music on creativity. And I came into this problem of we didn’t really have any objective measures of creativity. How do we measure it in the lab? And the best we had at the time was these measures of sort of divergent thinking, which would be like, “Okay. Here’s a paperclip. Tell me how many ways you can use this paperclip.” But that wasn’t really the kind of creativity I was trying to get at.
And so I ended up looking at the effect of music on productivity because that was easier to measure in the lab and we could say operationalize. But I’ve always been fascinated with creativity because I’m a scientist but I’m also an artist, and I paint and I’ve done theater. And I knew from my own subjective experience what it felt like to get into those kinds of flow states, when I would just paint for hours and hours and it’d be really a positive experience for me. And my scientific sort of mind was like, well, what’s happening in my brain when I’m in that state?
And so what we find is that … and there’s been some preliminary studies looking at rappers who are doing freestyle rap compared to memorize rap or jazz improvisers doing jazz improv versus a memorized piece. And when they’re in FMR, which looks at blood flow to different parts of the brain, you can see a unique pattern of brain activation in these states where they have decreased activation and part of the prefrontal cortex and the dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex, which normally is involved in our sense of self and in filtering our behavior to make sure it conforms with social norms.
And when that part of the brain is sort of turned down you lose your sense of self a bit, your sense of agency. Often artists say it feels like it’s flowing through them from somewhere else and your filter system is turned down. So kind of anything goes. You can make novel associations between ideas, and you also get increased activation of part of the prefrontal cortex called the medial prefrontal Cortex, which has to do with the internal generation of ideas, so this sort of flow of information from within as bubbling up perhaps from your unconscious that’s not filtered by this dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, and it allows for a free flow of information and associating in ideas in a novel way, which we considered to be creative. And so anyway, that’s this brain state.
We also see when people are in certain types of meditation or daydreaming or in REM sleep where you kind of lose your sense of time and self place and is associated with a very positive feeling. And so we’re beginning to understand a bit more about the neural basis of these creative flow states.
Douglas Nicol: And in fact you’ve experimented on your husband the rapper and playwright Baba Brinkman quite extensively to understand how he gets when he’s rapping freestyle, how he gets into this creative flow. Tell us a bit-
Nick Abrahams: Experimenting on your husband.
Heather Berlin: You’ve got to get your subjects where you can get them. When we first met … we actually saw each other on stage. I was giving a kind of TED style like talk in New York at this event and he came on before me. He was my opening act. And he-
Nick Abrahams: You’ve mentioned that to him a couple of times since then I suspect.
Heather Berlin: Yes, I did. He was performing a piece from his latest [inaudible 00:15:35] show at the time. And I was immediately attracted. It wasn’t love at first sight, but I was fascinated when I saw him doing this freestyle. How does he do that and what’s going on in his brain? So I invited him to come to my lab so I can run some tests on him and-
Nick Abrahams: Oh, that [inaudible 00:15:50]-
Heather Berlin: He thought it was a good opportunity … Yeah. I mean, he had asked me out actually at that point, but I was like, “Why don’t you come and I run some tests on you?” And then I also just threw in some personality measures and IQ test-
Nick Abrahams: Just to make sure.
Heather Berlin: … just to vet him. That’s how I do it.
Nick Abrahams: Good thinking.
Heather Berlin: Yeah. And he passed. But yeah, I got him into the lab and I ran some tests on him. He did freestyle versus memorized rap in the scanner kind of like a guinea pig. And I compared him to some preliminary data that was done in another lab. And his pattern of brain activation fit right in with that data. And so it just really seemed to be that there is this pattern. And the way he describes it … and I often talk to artists like, “What is your actual experience, your subjective experience?” Because it’s not enough to just look at what’s happening in the brain. It has to map onto this what it feels like when you’re in that state. And exactly the way I described what I would expect to happen given this pattern of brain activation is exactly how he reports experiencing it. Yeah.
Nick Abrahams: And then that idea of flow, because I am fascinated by flow, you talk about that idea of I guess not having quite the filter and I’ve also heard it talked about as the ego is sort of sublimated or something and then your connectedness to everything seems to become enhanced. And so is there then do you take that one step further, which is people with very strong egos would struggle to get into flow or is it just because of the way that when they perform that it triggers this state?
Heather Berlin: I think like a lot of other things there’s individual differences and there’s variation just like there is in terms of our capacity to have self control let’s say or be organized. Certain people are very sort of conscientious. It’s a personality trait. And that relates to do with activation of the prefrontal cortex. They’re very turned on or even people when it gets to be sort excessive then you can get things like obsessive compulsive disorder, right? But everyone’s on sort of a spectrum. There are certain people who are less inhibited and they can more easily get into these states because their brains are wired in such a way where they can very easily let go.
So you can take a random sample of the population and say, “Okay. We’re going to train you to get up on stage and do improv,” and you’re going to see a wide spectrum of ability to just get into that state. Now, yes, you can practice over time and get better within, same thing with IQ, within your biological constraints. So if you take people who are very conservative or very detail oriented or very focused and sort of highly active prefrontal cortex or with very big egos that it’s very hard for them to let go you can only push them so far. I mean, you can get them outside of their comfort zone, but they’re never going to be like, I don’t know, Jimi Hendrix or someone who’s really just out there. So I think it’s a positive experience for everyone to push themselves a little bit out there to try to let go. But for some people it’s more difficult call than others. Yeah.
Nick Abrahams: Normally we talk about people as being left brain or right brain, and you’re a scientist as well as being an artist, so arguably firing up both left and right brain, because I think a lot of people think of themselves as, well, I’m either that creative or I’m not creative. And there’s sort of a line within most people, and I think the way people’s jobs are structured tends to push them down a particular pathway. Can you talk about are we actually able to fire up both sides or is it just, once again, it’s a genetic predisposition?
Heather Berlin: Okay. First I’m going to dispel the myth. There’s a couple of brain myths. We don’t only use 10% of our brain. We use all of it. A lot of people say that like, “What if we could use all of our brain?” We use all of it, but we’re only probably consciously aware of a very small percentage of what’s happening. But our brain uses so much resources and just much of what’s happening is happening unconsciously. The other myth is this left brain, right brain. Creativity is a different brain state that you’re in, a different pattern of activation, but it’s not like right versus left.
I mean, it’s hard to say what comes first. So I think there are certain types of people that are attracted to certain types of jobs because that’s their personality. And that’s what they’re drawn to. So my husband is an artist, a performer. I mean, he could never … sometimes I’m like … my ex was a corporate lawyer, which was a totally opposite ends of the spectrum. And I was like, “Why can’t you just be structured, got to work.”
Nick Abrahams: Right. Get a job.
Heather Berlin: Yeah. Because he goes on tour, he’s here and there. There’s no steady … I’d like something in between, but he could never do that. It’s just not in him. He would die inside. And then I think about my ex who was a very … he was Swiss German, very-
Nick Abrahams: Well, followed a rule.
Heather Berlin: Followed the rules, structured. And he was an amazing corporate lawyer but he’s never going to go on stage and rap and … People are attracted to different careers based on their personality, and then there is a bit of a self fulfilling prophecy. But anybody can do either. I consider myself a scientist and an artist and I don’t think that they have to be mutually exclusive. And when I was in college and I was studying medicine and taking all these hard sciences I was a fine arts minor and I had to go to the studio and paint in the evening because I needed that for my science. I know science is creative. When I’m writing a paper okay, you have the raw data, but then you have to tell a story about it and you have to like fit it into this whole picture, and it is creative.
So I think we need each other, the arts and the sciences and it’s not either/or. And if you take anybody, even the most sort of structured person there’s something they like. Maybe the like going to the opera or seeing films or something where you can sort of get in and pry open the door a little bit further in terms of their creativity.
Douglas Nicol: Heather, you’re both a neuroscientist and a mother. You have two young children, very young children, and I think we all worry as parents about the impact of modern life on the human brain, social media, screen time, technology. Has your scientific ability and the fact that your mum sort of allowed you to take maybe a different approach as to how you’re going to allow your kids to engage with technology in order to help their cognitive ability or their emotional stability or whatever? Are you going to do it differently?
Heather Berlin: Yes, I think so. We know that, for example, the more amount of time kids spend on screens the less developed their social intelligence is, the less able they are to read like nonverbal cues because all that time that we used to spend just interacting with people and learning that information they’re losing that time. So it’s not only like being on the screen, but it’s what they’re missing out because of it in terms of learning and development. That’s really important and it’s really human face to face interaction. And because of what I understand about brain development and how basically it’s this … you’re born with many more connections than you actually need. And then it’s a process of pruning. As the child and the baby interacts with its environment it’s actually wiring up the brain in a way and reinforcing certain connections and not others. So what they’re exposed to in those early years is crucial in terms of their longterm brain development.
And it’s almost like a piece of clay. And it’s easier to mold early on, and the older you get it’s still malleable but it’s a little harder. So as much as possible I try to keep my kids away from screens. I think parents also should not be afraid to let their kids be bored because boredom that’s where creativity comes from. If you remember being a kid you had to be creative and figure out stuff to do. There wasn’t a constant screen in front of you and entertainment. So as hard as it is to keep them away from screens I do what I can, and I want them to really be comfortable just being around people.
And when I look now and see teenagers, I mean, they’re sitting around together just everyone is staring at their screen and they’re not interacting with each other. I think that’s problematic. The other issue is what are they looking at on those screens? And that’s another issue. And the other thing as a scientist in terms of raising kids because I deal with a lot of both psychiatric and neurological lesion patients and people with traumatic brain injury is that I wouldn’t let them play contact sports, like no rugby, no football because what I see and what I know of just even not too much force that it takes for the brain to sort of shake inside the skull and you can get these little tears in the white matter and it can have really bad longterm effects.
And so because of what I know in terms of brain development and traumatic brain injury that’s another thing as a parent being a scientist that I would not allow them to do and they always have to wear a helmet no matter what if they’re riding a bike or whatever.
Douglas Nicol: Yes. It seems to me that children are full of curiosity, but by the time we hit 50 we’ve lost our curiosity for learning new things. We get very much stuck in a rot, and I feel like the world would be a better place if some of those older people were actually a bit more curious because they learn more and we’d evolve more. Is there a scientific reason for our diminishing curiosity over time?
Heather Berlin: Yeah. So as I said before, when you’re in these creative states it’s about turning down these parts of the prefrontal cortex. I mean, it’s good for them to be turned on because you’re behaving adaptively or else you would just act out whatever you felt in the moment and without a filter. And that’s not great either. But to be able to turn it off at will and get into those creative states it’s very childlike. And that is because the prefrontal cortex is not fully developed until about the age of 25. So when you’re younger, yes, you’re more impulsive. You have less control over your sort of instincts or your immediate drives, but you’re also more creative. You haven’t quite learned yet. And those things have not come online about you have to behave in a certain way or you can’t think like that or that’s too weird. It’s like anything goes.
And so as the adult brain forms it kind of quells all of that curiosity, and to be an adult and allow yourself to have that child like thinking to sort of turn off those filters not everyone could do. But I think scientists, I mean, we have to stay curious and creative. We always have to be asking what’s the next question, what’s the next question. And in order to do that you have to allow your childlike curiosity to kind of reemerge and almost remember what it’s like to be in that state and shut off the adult mind and allow yourself to do that and say it’s okay. But it is hard once the prefrontal cortex is powerfully online. Yeah.
Nick Abrahams: I guess one of my child like questions is … and having a neuroscientist here is … sorry, I do have to take this opportunity, but what are we doing when we’re dreaming? What’s happening there?
Heather Berlin: Well, basically in a dream state you have turned down activation of the prefrontal cortex. So your brain is still working. It’s always on. It’s in a different sort of state of activation, let’s call it, but it’s on and the neurons are firing. And when you’re in REM sleep … so you go through different stages of sleep. There’s delta waves when you’re really deep asleep and you’re not conscious of anything. But during REM sleep you go back into this sort of like alpha wave state or beta state where it’s almost like you’re an awake brain. I think you’re in this awake state but yet because of the pattern of activation you’re not awake, but you’re conscious.
And so whatever the firing is happening in the brain it’s random firing really. And that’s why it often doesn’t make sense because your prefrontal cortex normally make sense of what’s happening in your brain. But because it’s kind of turned down in this sleep state you only put meaning on this whole like kind of the narrative of the story when you wake up and you kind of piece it together and make a story out of it. But a lot of it is just random activation in the brain and you happen to be conscious during that time. And a lot of people think it has also to do with cleaning out. It’s a cleaning out of the brain. It’s a rehearsing of things. So a lot of different theories about why we dream, but we can look at it from a neurophysiologic perspective.
Douglas Nicol: Heather, finally, when you were a child you asked your dad a fantastic question, which was, “Dad, where does thoughts come from?” And that was the first step in you following a career in neuroscience. And you have done incredibly well in that field. But I feel that a lot of young women wouldn’t ask that question, and maybe that’s a problem. Why do you think not enough young women aspire to get into STEM subjects and follow in your footsteps?
Heather Berlin: Yeah. I was fortunate in a number of ways. Well, first of all, when I was coming up and I was a kid in the ’80s there weren’t a lot of female scientist role models. But my father was a physician. His father and my grandfather was a pharmacologist and sort of scientists ran in my family. And so I grew up around that atmosphere and I wasn’t discouraged from being … I was curious about science and my dad would take me on rounds in the hospital, and I would see patients and there was nothing around me that said I couldn’t be that. That being said there was also no role models. I remember when I saw Jodie Foster in Contact I was like, “Oh, wow!” It’s like a woman-
Nick Abrahams: I could do that.
Heather Berlin: I could do that. So I think the lack of role models is a problem because these cognitive biases we have they happen for a reason because you can’t take every individual account. The brain has to make approximations in order to function. And so if you’re always seeing, let’s say, male CEOs you’re going to make an assumption that if somebody says that this person is a CEO you’re going to assume they’re male because on average that’s what it tends to be. And the same things with women in STEM.
And so the way to shift that perspective is to just have more role models out there. And part of one initiative that I’m involved here in the National Academy of Sciences there’s a program called The Science and Entertainment Exchange where we scientists interact with Hollywood screenwriters and popular television shows to help them incorporate more science and scientists.
So for example, one thing that our program did was in the movie Thor, which is a Marvel film Natalie Portman’s character was supposed to be a nurse and we got her to become a astrophysicists, right? And so just subtle things like that is sort of planting the seeds so that young girls can see this and it becomes the norm. And so if they happen to have a curiosity or interest in science they have someone to look to as like, “Oh, I can be that. I can be just like, whatever, Natalie Portman and that film.” And so I think it’s important to get it out there in pop culture and slowly change the way people think.
Douglas Nicol: And in neuroscience is there a good gender balance these days in the US?
Heather Berlin: I mean, we’re not at parity. There’s still a ways to go and there’s still a lot of as … much as we like to think we’ve evolved past it there’s a lot of pushback and it’s … I mean, I’ll never even forget when I was coming up. I was going to go into medical school at one point and I was exploring that. And at one point I thought I wanted to be a neurosurgeon, and then I remembered I was doing some internship and this head of neurosurgery said, “Well, I’m just going to save you some trouble. The top residency is in cardiovascular surgery. Neurosurgery are still reserved for men. So let me just help you out here.” Because those are the highest paid medical positions. And that’s not what turned me away from neurosurgery, but I remember that distinctly.
And so there’s a strong bias. When you have children I remember a week before my due date and chair of my department is like, “You’re going to get those two papers in before you … ” And you get three weeks leave and you’ve got to be back and you have to stay on that track. So there’s a lot of obstacles. It’s not great and definitely in America in terms of that. But we’re pushing it. We’re getting further. But it’s still a process.
Douglas Nicol: We’ll certainly in terms of role modeling you are doing your bit in the area of neuroscience and in the wider scientific community. So well done.
Heather Berlin: Thank you.
Douglas Nicol: If people will learn more about your work what’s your website?
Heather Berlin: I am Heatherberlin.com and you can follow me on Twitter or Instagram at Heather_Berlin.
Douglas Nicol: Heather, thank you very much for joining us today on Smart Dust.
Nick Abrahams: Yeah, thanks, Heather. And we need to get you down to Australia. We want to do a big stadium event with you.
Heather Berlin: Yes, yes. You’ve heard it here first.
Nick Abrahams: That’s right. Heather Berlin live.
Heather Berlin: From the Sydney Opera House.
Nick Abrahams: Now you’re talking. Thanks very much, Heather. Great to see you.
Heather Berlin: Thank you so much.