Below is a transcribed interview from my sit-down with Dr. Raz.
There was no doubt about it. Dr. Raz clearly had my attention from the very beginning. And for me, someone who prides themselves on the ability to multi-task in today’s day and age, that is somewhat of a feat. As the interview progressed, however, and Dr. Raz began to discuss his research, that perhaps my ‘multi-tasking’ is not as efficient as I believe it to be. In fact, attention – and what happens to our attention when under particular circumstances – can be quite fickle at times. And with cell phones and texting and Facebook and Twitter – well, this has become an even larger issue. One in which, perhaps, could be treated with Hypnosis, a practice of which Dr. Raz is well versed. But wait – can Hypnosis, or manipulating your thought process, really cure a Twitter addiction? Or the desire to constantly change your Facebook status while you should be focusing on a class lecture? Because wow; if so, maybe I should be the first to sign up. So Dr. Raz, here I am. Go for it. Read my mind. Now tell me, what do you think?
Tell me where you’re from, how you came here and how long you’ve been here. I’m from Israel originally. I moved from Israel to the US to do a post-doc and since that time I stayed in North America. I was an Assistant Professor at Cornell and did my post-doc at Cornell Medical School. Then I moved to Columbia University, where I worked as an Assistant Prof. In 2007, I crossed over the border and moved to McGill to become the Canada Research Chair and give Cognitive Neuroscience some attention here at McGill.
Can I ask what you did in Israel? Were you in the Army? Well I’m Israeli born and raised. So I did the Army and did some of my education there as well. In the Army, I was in Research & Development for the Airforce, which is a special kind of group of people who are doing more covert sort of research things that is sometimes helpful for military applications.
I’m sure you’ve seen a lot of interesting things… So I know you have a few areas of research. Can you tell me about some of them? The first and foremost area I’m interested in is attention and what people pay attention to. More importantly atypical attention – forms of attention that don’t represent the mainstream. So for example, what happens to our attention when we’re sleep-deprived, what happens to our attention when we are in an altered state of consciousness, like when we meditate or when we’re under hypnosis; things of that nature. And as it turns out, attention is a very important and powerful capacity that we have to block out information – or sensation or perceptions – and to modulate, regulate and even govern our emotional state. Most people think about attention through the analogy of a zoom lens of a camera - but that’s a very simplistic and unhelpful analogy. Good attentional skills are not just about following a lecture. Good attentional skills are actually somebody who is robust emotionally. Really…. This translates into a person who, when something bad happens, can still pay attention to the good; can pay persevere in the face of adversity; and people who can actually invest their energy in something despite possible distractions. And “distraction” is almost inescapable. We get emails and text messages and pages – and so in our high-speed world, interruption is the name of the game.
So paying attention has basically become the “abnormal.”Because of these multiple interruptions, having a strong ability to pay attention and to stay on task is crucial to functioning well. Most people think that in order to hypnotize a person, or to meditate, that you have to be in a very quiet room, and you need to be lying down on a leather sofa, and somebody with a beard and a pipe needs to speak to you. But the truth of the matter is, the people who I am working with are people that can pay attention on the metro because they live in their heads.
So to clarify what you mean. You mean paying attention? Yes, paying attention. And paying attention is also an internal thing. For example, you can pay attention to your body and things that are happening in your body. And that is something that is learned. You can teach people how to do that; it’s a skill that actually uses your physiology. And we know quite a bit about the physiology of attention. And we see that with neurotransmitters and other chemicals in the brain we can train people how to pay more attention. It turns out that these people have the ability to modulate, regulate and influence their cognition, their emotions, and their actions.
So it’s almost a therapeutic effect – Completely. For example, I can demonstrate, and this is demonstrated in the literature quite well, that athletes should probably invest quite a bit in attention training. Because with attention training you can boost, bolster and improve performance in a way that very little physical training would allow. Physical training will take you a certain distance but then there’s the element of attention that could make it even better. Of course an athlete cannot only compete with attention training alone, but it’s an important facet. So that’s one aspect of my research. Another aspect of my research has to do with placebo effects. Placebo effects and placebo responses are huge in our society. So much so that some people claim that most of what we do is placebo. Some people claim psychotherapy is a placebo, some people claim taking Vitamin C when you’re sick is a placebo, and some people think that anti-depressants, for minor-moderate Depression, are a placebo. All sorts of claims are out there! But the fact of the matter is, placebos are very strong and they work on people in a big way, despite the fact that many people consider them to be nothing. But symbolic thinking and the power of suggestion make a huge impact on people; and as a result, physiology can change based on something that they think is happening.
So to switch the thinking so things can change physiologically. Right. And that brings us back to what I was saying about attention, because when people pay attention and when they think - sometimes physiology can change just because you’re paying attention to something. So let me give you an example to help clarify things. Let’s say that somebody goes to the Doctor and by some huge error, the Doctor says to them, “Your X-ray shows that you have cancer and you really don’t have much time to live.” But say a week later, the doctor realizes there was a big mistake and they have to call this person to apologize. Well if you interview these people – the ones who thought they had cancer - they will tell you that they were actually having trouble breathing - You mean, upon their “death sentence”… Yes. They were really feeling that they were dying! Because these are very strong suggestions to make to a person. Now usually when we take about placebos we think, “Oh, you’re going to give me a candy.” But there are situations where we really are very susceptible to certain suggestions, particularly if they’re made in a serious way and if we think that they’re genuine. Placebos are interesting because it’s a top-down process. It has nothing to do with what’s actually going on in your body in a bottom-up fashion. It has to do with what your brain is thinking is happening, which can then change your physiology in a top-down fashion. And that is something that medicine knows very little about. This is something that usually comes from Psychology or Behavioral Science. So for example, we can create a situation where people would come in to a pub and get – what they think – is an alcoholic drink.
When in reality they really have no alcohol in them… Right, they’re actually virgin drinks, no alcohol whatsoever. But you’ll see that some people are going to act tipsy after two or three drinks – some people will have slurred speech, will have a hard time walking in a straight line. Some might even vomit! Even though their blood alcohol level will not change. But, because they are so convinced after drinking a certain amount that they should feel drunk, their body will start to act as such. So this is a good example of how powerful placebos can be. And it also is a good demonstration of the power again of symbolic thinking and cultural influence. In Chinese or Japanese culture, for example, the number four is considered synonymous with death and ill-fate. So people in China and Japan will try not to travel on the fourth of the month because they think weird things will happen. They won’t wear jerseys or shirts that have a four on the back; they’ll try to change an appointment on the fourth if they can. They will actually go out of their way to avoid the ‘fours’. Sometimes, we will do retrospective studies and see if more accidents or deaths do actually take place to people of Chinese heritage, just because they’re expecting it and they know it I going to be a bad day. And as it turns out, there’s at least one study done and several others in the making, that you can actually demonstrate statistically that these things are, or at least appear to be, significant. People from Chinese backgrounds do have more heart-related deaths than people who are not from Chinese background. On the fourth. On the fourth. So it’s interesting to look at these sorts of things and the explanation of them. And it is all based on one’s thinking - if you are in a hospital’s ICU and you realize that tomorrow is the fourth of the month, these people might think that tomorrow is their final day of living. And that kind of thinking really influences your immune system – and you could actually lose it. Just because of these cultural signals.
Well then, that also links with the attention. The power of the thought. Yes, as well as the power of the placebo. It’s actually both things. Another trajectory of some of the research I do is what we call “attention training.” And that is just a set of programs that we’ve developed and other scientists have and we basically take children and we teach them how to pay attention. We train their attentional system, almost treating the attention like a muscle. We basically train children – or give them attentional challenges – just as you would in any other subject. And we can demonstrate, that with attention training, weird things happen. You can get an increase in IQ scores, better ability to contain your emotions and to pay attention. These are really important observations because most people who are researching attention are trying to understand conflict resolution and monitoring conflict. But I’m actually taking it in a slightly different direction, where I will manipulate the attention. Like with Hypnosis, for example. I take individuals and hypnotize them and under hypnosis I then suggest certain things to them. And see how these particular suggestions affect or influence them. And I can see what changes occur in their brain as they listen and as they follow.
What type of behaviours do you try and have an affect on? Do you do weight loss or more social-type behaviours? Most of the things that I try to do are usually geared towards trying to see if I can take an automatic process and de-automize it. I’ll give you an example. We have certain behaviours that we all engage in that we consider to be automatic. If I put words in front of you, you’ll read them. It happens effortlessly. If I put the word “RED” in front of you, you get all sorts of things that are associated with Red. If, however, I ask you to read the word “YELLOW” but the colour of the word is different than the one written, then there is a conflict going on because you’re trying to read the word but you see the different colour and it’s not clear what you should respond. It’s difficult not to have them interfere with one another. So what I can do is override these conflicts that are going on inside the brain by suggesting to people that what they see is actually in a foreign language. If I tell people that this is in a foreign language, they basically stop reading because now they are processing the information very differently. They are modulating the way they look at the world as a result of their paying (or not paying) attention. And that then creates a completely different way of seeing yourself in the world. You can make people hot, when the room is not hot, you can make people hungry or thirsty. All these things have physiological affects. Basically what I’m saying is that with words you can actually override the physiology -in a top-down fashion – as opposed to bottom-up.
Right. So “top-down”, as in starting with the mind. Yes. This has tremendous implications for pain regulation and pain control. Here at the Jewish General Hospital, for example, we use hypnosis as an adjunct for chemotherapy and other cancer treatments because we find it makes the treatments more tolerable. That is one approach… Another approach to take that is slightly more scientific for your purposes is to see what is the limit to which you can actually influence individuals. There are certain things obviously that we cannot do. If I told you “don’t blink for the next two hours”; you can’t do that. As a matter of fact, as soon as I told you not to blink –
Very interesting. So my next question. Magic and Science. Link? Relationship? My interest in magic is – sometimes it’s actually difficult for me to say if my interest in magic came as a function of interest or attention or the other way around – I actually think it was the other way around because when I started out I was a young boy and I was attracted to the idea of vanishing things and making them come back. And rabbis and pigeons and all these things. But I think I had this epiphany as I was beginning to read books into it, that most magicians are quite regular people. I remember that even as a young boy the father of one of my friends was a magician and I remember going to his house and I was not very impressed with him as a person – and I remember that he would do all these magic tricks. And I would like all the tricks but I wasn’t impressed with him as a person. I didn’t like his personality. And that sort of created in me this idea that you can be a good migician but you’re not nexcessarily a good person. And I thought initially that the magician is this person with powers. That was a big moment for you! It was a big moment. I think I was six. But the important bit for me was that magic was an introduction to a laboratory of behavioural science. Because you can learn a lot about what people think. Well that’s the “power of thinking.” It’s all magic. Magic is a complicated art because it incorporates theatrics with science with some psychology. There’s a lot going on with magic; choreography and timing and dexterity at some points. And very quickly, I found that I’m more interested in a branch of magic that is called “Mentalism”, that is more psychological tricks. Like? Like reading your mind or I’ll guess the card that you’re thinking about. I’ll tell you your date of birth and I’ll tell you all sorts of things that are supposed to be very personal and you think to yourself, “how do you know these sorts of things?” And you learn how gullible people can be.
Can you do that? You can do that right now? Or do I have to be in a lab and be in the right environment. Sure. Anyone can do those things. Maybe we’ll do them later. Ok! The idea is that magic is really a very interesting way of looking at what people really are interested in. Because sometimes they don’t listen to what you say they just sort of think that you said it, or they just sort of make up that you said it. And I was always fascinated by that. Now there was a period of time where it was popular for magicians to do hypnosis shows. Hypnosis was under the rubric of magic. And one thing that I noticed from the get-go was that magicians would know nothing about hypnosis. I would ask them questions, even as a teenager, about how does this work and how did you learn it. And they would just roll their eyes. So you were really interested in it… Yes, and I can see that the answers that I was getting were very shallow and superficial and the whole level of inquiry wasn’t even there. I remember clearly, for example, a particular kind of chemical magic that I was privy to – a magician performed a type of timing response, where something would change colour – and I asked some very basic questions, and I was as young as 12 or 13, I asked “can you tell me how this is working?” And he said, “You don’t need to worry about that. You don’t need to worry about how this is working. Mix these materials and this is what you’re going to get.” And that always bothered me. You do things in sort of a blind, sort of a dumb fashion and it just happens and it’s not sort of clear to you how this happened. And I started, in addition to magic, I started interviewing people and magicians about what they do, how they do it, and I sort of learned that there’s more to magic than just the performance. There’s a whole science to it. I started getting more and more interested in the science of magic and the science of illusions and things like that. And I think I still have it to this day, to some extent.
It sounds like you developed critical thinking at a young age. And I now hear that you have developed this course on critical thinking. I know that there’s been a lot of talk about how students don’t think critically these days. What are your thoughts on that? I think that people don’t critically think, not just students. I think that our education system doesn’t teach us to think critically. I think that just like attention training, you need to get critical thinking training. I think that somebody needs to be there to show you what are the appropriate questions to ask when claims are being made and I think that people need to learn a little bit about the logic of proofs and what is considered to be acceptable evidence and what is considered not to be acceptable evidence and all these things, they’re not trivial. And what is your course called? It’s called Critical Thinking: Biases and Illusions. It’s part of McGill given through the Psychology department. It gives examples and scenarios, and shows what is considered to be fantastic and what is considered to be less fantastic and how can you go about asking questions. The most important part is to explain to students that each situation is different. And even though you always have to improvise and go about things in a slightly different way, depending on the situation, there is always some kind of a governing principle. The class has no pre-requisites – except for the pre-requisite that is “life.” You need to have a pulse and you need to have two neurons that are connected to one another. And if you have that, then you’re ok. That should be in your description of the course. I think that would be an attention-grabber.