In this episode of Outrage Overload, a science podcast about outrage and lowering the temperature, Dr. Alex Corb, a neuroscientist and best selling author, explains how our need for social connection has evolved to ensure our safety, but in modern society it sometimes leads to tribalism, political polarization, and divisiveness. Corb also talks about recent research which has shown that small life changes are capable of targeting key brain circuits involved in mood, stress, anxiety, and emotional control. He provides listeners with practical tips and solutions for how to lower the temperature, and encourages them to visit his website alexcorbphd.com and his Instagram @The Upward Spiral Approach, for more information.
The conversation is about how it’s impossible to control the thoughts that pop into our heads, but we can control our actions. The speaker suggests that when a thought pops into our head, it can trigger an emotion and then a habit. They use the analogy of a pilot, who can put the plane on autopilot, but then needs to be aware of when they need to take control. The speaker suggests that it’s helpful to notice and be aware that these autopilot habits are happening, and even if we can’t turn them off, we can work to decrease the intensity of them.
The conversation focuses on the difficulty of recognizing the complex world and distinguishing between the things we can and cannot control. In the face of things that are important to us but beyond our control, the only path forward is to accept it and move forward. We should refocus our energy on the things we can control, such as our words, and try to not be stressed out by worrying about the outcome. An example of this is if the autopilot was stuck on, the only thing we can do is tilt it 15 degrees to counteract the autopilot, and not worry about the habits previously programmed into it. The takeaway is to distinguish between the things we can and cannot control, and focus our energy on the things that we can do something about.
The conversation is about how it can be difficult to take action towards a goal, especially when it is a large, overwhelming goal. It can be tempting to focus on proving oneself right or scoring political points, but this can get in the way of connecting with and understanding other people. To keep going and make progress, it can be helpful to focus on effort and the next step, rather than on the big goal. It is important to remember that there are some things that cannot be controlled, such as emotions and other people’s reactions. By focusing on the controllable, such as the amount of time spent on a task and the speed of typing, it is possible to take steps towards achieving a goal.
0:00:16 Episode 11: Outrage Porn and the Neuroscience of Lowering the Temperature with Dr. Alex Corb +
0:03:53 Heading: Recognizing Autopilot Habits in the Brain +
0:06:09 “Understanding the Difference Between What We Can and Cannot Control” +
0:07:57 Conversation on Taking Action and Focusing on Controllable Goals +
0:12:00 “The Benefits of Slowing Down Your Breathing to Reduce Stress” +
0:16:36 Conversation on Increasing Motivation and Prioritizing Goals +
0:18:45 Topic: Managing Outrage and Prioritizing Values for Long-Term Goals +
0:23:20 “Exploring the Benefits of Reflection and Compassion in Habitual Change” +
0:28:09 Conversation on Prioritizing Happiness and Understanding Neuroscience +
0:29:44 Interview with Dr. Sarah Allen on Managing Outrage Overload +
This transcript was generated automatically and may contain errors and omissions.
[0:00:16] David Beckemeyer: Welcome to Outrage Overload, a science podcast about outrage and lowering the temperature. This is episode eleven.
[0:00:52] Alex Korb: If you were excluded from the tribe, well, that was basically a death sentence because you’re left on your own and you’re going to die. That’s why it activates the same systems as being attacked by a lion. And well, how do you know who to trust? Well, it’s the people that you’re around all the time, who you interact with all the time, who you know, and who should you not trust? Everybody else because they’re potentially a threat.
[0:01:23] David Beckemeyer: This is part two of a two part series on the neuroscience of outrage porn. We’re talking with Dr. Alex Corb, a neuroscientist and best selling author.
[0:01:32] Alex Korb: Yeah.
[0:01:32] C: So I went to Brown undergrad. I went to grad school at UCLA. I wrote The Upward Spiral, and it’s mostly focused on explaining what’s happening in the brain and depression and has about 20% of like, oh, we’ll try this. And you can change your dopamine, or change your serotonin system, or activate your prefrontal cortex. And the thoughts that you have and the actions you take and the interactions you have those produce measurable changes in the brain’s activity and chemistry. So you don’t need to get an MRI or get an EEG to tell you what those specific changes in your brain are, because you can start to feel. It changes your emotions, it changes your thought pattern.
[0:02:18] C: Recent research has shown that these small kinds of life changes are actually capable of targeting these key brain circuits involved in mood and stress and anxiety and emotional control. So my website is alexcorbphd.com and my instagram is The Upward Spiral Approach.
[0:02:52] David Beckemeyer: If you haven’t listened to part one yet, it’s time to hit pause and go listen because you don’t want to miss it. In part one, we learned about some of the brain systems involved in processing outrage porn. That is, media and messaging intended to get us outraged or angry, often about politics and how our need for social connection evolved to ensure our safety. But in modern society sometimes gets in the way and contributes to tribalism political polarization and divisiveness.
[0:03:22] David Beckemeyer: I’m your host, David Beckmeyer, and in this episode of the Outrage Overload podcast, we continue that discussion and get further into some practical ideas for lowering the temperature. There’s some really good stuff here, so let’s get right into it.
[0:03:53] D: I’m pretty sure I’ve heard you talk about, like, we can’t control those thoughts that pop into our head, like that just happens. But one thing we can do is pick something we can control. And you even talk about this idea of what can I do? Well, I can make dinner. That’s a thing I can actually do. And talk about how that kind of thing can help, I think, if I got that right.
[0:04:09] Alex Korb: Yeah, I mean, so you don’t have control over these random thoughts that pop into your head. What what often happens is like this thought pops into your head and that triggers an emotion. And that emotion triggers some habit, either an action habit or another thought pattern habit or an emotional habit. And these deeper regions of the brain, the emotional circuits, the habit circuits, they’re perfectly happy going, like living your life without your awareness.
[0:04:43] Alex Korb: They’re like autopilot in the same way that a pilot can start flying the plane and then just puts it on autopilot and it flies it to Chicago. And that’s actually a really helpful feature. But at some point, if they’re like, oh, Chicago is closed, okay, well, then you need to turn off autopilot because otherwise you’re going to be trying to go this way and your autopilot is going to be fighting against you.
[0:05:13] Alex Korb: And it’s just that in our brains, it’s really helpful to recognize what are those things that turn on the autopilot. And it’s really not turn it on or turn it off. It’s sort of like increase or decrease. And even if you can’t turn it off, it’s extremely helpful to just notice and be aware that it’s happening in the same way as a pilot. If for whatever reason the autopilot was stuck on, then you’re just like, oh, it’s stuck on. Okay, I just need to tilt the wheel or whatever, I don’t know what it’s called in it, but I just need to tilt it 15 degrees this way to counteract the autopilot. And it’s like, oh, you can’t control necessarily, when your autopilot is triggered, you can’t control the habits that have already been programmed into it for your whole life up to this point.
[0:06:09] Alex Korb: All you can do is recognize your own tendencies and then accept the things that you can’t control and redirect your attention to the things you can actually do something about. And that’s really difficult because the world is complex. It’s not always clear what we can control and can’t control. And it’s really easy to confuse things that we can control with what we can’t control. I can control mostly what I say to you and the words I use.
[0:06:45] Alex Korb: What I can’t control is how you will interpret those words and your emotional reaction. And so a lot of times we’re focused on like, well, it’s important for me for you to like me, or it’s important for me to convince you that I’m right or whatever. And so we’re focused on the outcome of this interaction as being really important, but that stresses us out because it’s like, oh, but I don’t know what’s the right word that I could just say if I just said this, oh, you’re taking me out of context, whatever. And so it becomes really stressful because we’re focused on some outcome that we don’t have control over that’s really important to us, and neglecting like, well, what do I actually have control over? And in the face of things that are really important that you don’t have control over, the only useful path forward is just accept that and move forward and to refocus your energy on the things that you actually have control over. And so I can’t make you believe me or care about me or whatever.
[0:07:57] Alex Korb: All I can do is keep going or strategize a different way. And one of the things that gets in the way of that is like, it feels so good to be right, score political points and prove someone wrong, that our brains just get confused. Like, it feels so good in the short term, like, oh, that must be really important. But in fact, it’s getting in the way of what’s actually important to you is connecting with and understanding this person who has different experiences and different perspectives.
[0:08:43] D: Yeah, I think I’ve also heard you talk about when you do have one of these kind of big, overwhelming kind of goals that sometimes scaling back and focusing on the effort, like the next step you can take and not about the big goal can also be helpful.
[0:08:58] Alex Korb: Yeah, right. So if you have some big goal to write the injustices of the world, or even more concretely, like, I want to write a novel or I want to run for political office, it’s wonderful to have big goals as long as they’re in line with your values. But it’s wonderful to have big goals insofar as they are inspiring and motivate action and help keep us focused. But sometimes we have big goals that are really important to us and we don’t have confidence in our ability to get there.
[0:09:46] Alex Korb: And in that case, the goal might be really important, but focusing on it might actually just stress you out and make you not take action. Like, it might be really important for you to write the next great American novel, but the more you’re telling yourself, okay, I need to write the next great American novel, then the more you might stress yourself out and not write at all. And so what you have to do is like, okay, just keep that goal maybe as important in the back of your mind, but not focus on it so much, and instead focus on the things that are controllable that would move you towards that goal.
[0:10:29] Alex Korb: So in writing a novel example like, well, I can’t control how many people read it or how much critics like it, or even if I like it. All I really can control is, like, writing words. I can’t control if they’re good words or the best words. I can’t control when I am writing. If the things that I’m writing are interesting or meaningful, all I can sort of do is just write and then edit. And if I try and write and edit at the same time, then I’m getting in my own way because I’ll start to write something and then I’ll tell myself, no, but that’s not quite right. And so then again, it leads me to inaction and really all you have control over is sitting in front of your computer that’s for a certain amount of time and how fast you can type.
[0:11:27] Alex Korb: But people often confuse like, well, I need to feel inspired or I need to want to write. And it’s like we don’t have control over those emotions. And so you really just need to recognize like, well, okay, I’m going to sit in front of my computer, I’m going to start writing words. And when the thought pops into my head of that’s dumb, or that’s pointless, or that’s not helpful, well, I have to remind myself, yes, that’s okay, my goal is just to write now. I can rewrite it later.
[0:12:00] D: I was talking earlier about how a lot of times we try to get some idea of are there some actions we can take or some things we can do? And many times I have to say that they kind of start to sound a little cliche. Now, I don’t want to totally sort of be negative on cliche because sometimes cliche stuff kind of works. Take a deep breath, do some of those things. They aren’t terrible things. But one thing I wanted to think about is this idea that but by.
[0:12:22] Alex Korb: The way, the take a deep breath thing, I found people object to that because it’s like just someone telling you to do it. That’s why I love the neuroscience, because the neuroscience tells you no slowing down your breathing, not actually the depth of your breathing, but slowing it down and smoothing it out pushes your brain away from the fight or flight stress response and towards this calming rest and digest response. And the reason why that’s critical is because when you’re stressed, you’re just automatically being pulled into these old habits.
[0:13:03] Alex Korb: And if you can just calm yourself down, then it makes it easier for the thoughtful, more analytical parts of the brain to intervene. And so you’re not taking a breath for no reason or to just interrupt things. You’re doing it because that’s a simple way to influence the emotional circuitry your of brain to just get it to calm down for a second.
[0:13:30] D: Like you’re okay, we’re not being chased, we’re not going to be eaten by the line right now.
[0:13:34] Alex Korb: Exactly. And it’s easier often to control your actions than it is to notice your thoughts and argue with your thoughts. You could do it in sort of a totally mental way. It’s just that that’s more abstract. And when you’re really stressed out, the abstract thinking parts of your brain are being overwhelmed. And so it’s just easier sometimes to focus on specific actions like that, like taking deep breath or just go to sleep on time tonight, or get some sunlight, or get some exercise, or just hang out with your friends.
[0:14:19] Alex Korb: There are general simple things that help reduce the reactivity of our stress response that they’re very easy to dismiss by smart, goal oriented people as like oh, but that’s a dumb and it’s like.
[0:14:35] D: That’S a new age nonsense.
[0:14:37] Alex Korb: Right? Exactly. That’s a new age nonsense. And that’s why I think it’s so crucial to understand the brain. It’s like, no, you idiot, I’m talking to myself right here. I just need to figure this out. I was like, no, you need to stop trying to think your way through everything. And sometimes it’s just a dumb. You need to eat food like those snickers commercials where you get hangry and someone’s like, sometimes the answer is dumb and stupid. Like, you don’t need to figure out your bigger picture. You just need to eat a cigarettes bar and get your blood sugar up and make sure that you’re getting enough sleep and getting enough physical activity.
[0:15:15] Alex Korb: And that’s kind of like the baseline.
[0:15:17] D: It takes almost no training or expertise to be able to calm your breast down. Right. Something anyone can do.
[0:15:24] Alex Korb: Exactly. And then from there, when your stress response is calmed down a little bit, then you can start taking some of these more abstract mental focuses and shifts because you’re not being so distracted all the time by some of your physiological needs, right?
[0:15:44] D: Yeah. So maybe the question I’m going to ask is almost like, well, you just answered it because we’re going to we.
[0:15:49] Alex Korb: Can do those next things. Right. If you do those baseline things and you can read, I mean, that’s like what a lot of the upward spiral is about and people oftentimes they don’t want to hear that part. What are the little tricks and whatever, it’s like, okay, right. Start with the basic stuff. And here I will explain to you why you should care about that and how there are the simple ways to rewire your brain. And a lot of times when smart people hear that, they’re like, okay, it’s not just some guru or influencer telling me to exercise, oh, now I see why I should do it. It increases motivation. But once you do all the basic things, then yes, there are a lot of different mindset shifts and higher order things that you can do, which I’m happy to talk about.
[0:16:36] D: Well, one of the big things I was thinking about, we talked earlier a little bit about this idea that this outrage porn. We do get this immediate short term benefit out of it, but then we kind of realize it’s this longer one, we’re stressed out all the time. We’re stressed. So is there a way to sort of realize or see that that long term benefit is bad and is there some way there you can kind of do something?
[0:16:58] Alex Korb: Yeah, it really comes down to being honest with yourself about what actually is important in your life and again, what your limitations are, what you can control. And a lot of times we have many things that are important and yeah, if you had infinite time and infinite energy and infinite resources, then like, sure, like, volunteer for saving the planet and volunteer for your PTA at the school and make a lot of money and write a novel.
[0:17:42] Alex Korb: But at some point you have to realize, oh, I’m human. And part of being human is like, well, you don’t have infinite energy, you don’t have infinite ability to focus. And given your limitations and that you can’t have everything that you want, like, what is the most important thing right at this moment? And ironically, once you start to prioritize and recognize that maybe you can’t have everything, it actually makes it easier to have everything.
[0:18:16] Alex Korb: Because if you’re trying to have everything all at once, like, well, I want a job that makes a lot of money and that gives me a lot of time to do other things, and that I feel enjoyed, feels meaningful, and I enjoy doing it. And you’re trying to get everything all at once and you can’t figure out how to do it, so you just kind of feel dissatisfied and maybe you don’t make any progress where instead, if you’re just like, okay, yes, all these things. I want a job that makes money, and I want a job that makes me happy, and I want this.
[0:18:45] Alex Korb: Okay, given all those things, if you had to choose, which would be your highest priority? And focus on that, and then sometimes when we just focus on one thing, then other stuff falls into place. Or we realize, like, oh, well, the most important thing for my job is that I make enough money. But not for no reason. But it’s so that I can support my family. Because my family is the most important thing and I’m doing my job not because it’s unenjoyable.
[0:19:19] Alex Korb: If it’s unenjoyable, that’s fine. That’s just something I can accept because it’s helping move me towards my more important value of helping my family. And so if I can figure out some other way to support my family that is also more enjoyable, great, do that. And if I can’t, then when my job is unenjoyable, I can accept it. My brain will be like, oh, this is so boring. And I’m like, yeah, boring. I’m not doing it because it’s fun. I’m doing it because I’m trying to support my family and I can have fun in other ways.
[0:19:55] D: And it seems like in this outrage porn context, if you’re a person that’s already kind of realized, I’m angry, I’m angry all the time, or I’m just exhausted by it, it seems like then you’re at least ready to take that next step to try something different. So there’s probably a couple of audiences. One is that the ones that kind of don’t know they’re there yet, but I’m mostly trying to speak to the people that have kind of starting to say, I’m angry all the time.
[0:20:27] D: I’m obviously exhausted by it. So what are some of the things? So I think that what you were talking about. There are all things that kind of apply in that context, right?
[0:20:35] Alex Korb: I mean, aside from the physical things, like the mental things you can do is really one clarify in your mind what are the things that are most important to me? And chances are if you’re feeling stuck somewhere, you’re wrong about that. Somewhere you think something is really important, but it’s actually not. I always describe it as like when the oxygen mask falls down on an airplane, they say put your oxygen mask on first before helping others.
[0:21:05] Alex Korb: Are you doing that to be selfish and get all of the oxygen or are you doing that because helping yourself will actually help you help others? But that really comes down to understanding and recognizing your limitations. And so yeah, you could give away all of your money to charity or you could never consume anything, but would that help you help others the way you want to? Or would that help you be the person you want to be?
[0:21:36] Alex Korb: But it again comes down to clarifying what your values are and what’s most important and in terms of accepting the things that you can’t control so that you can focus your energy on the things that you can control.
[0:21:52] D: Yeah, it all comes down to the Serenity Prayer.
[0:21:56] Alex Korb: No, it really is the Serenity Prayer and I don’t like bringing it up because sometimes people are like oh they smith. It like oh, it seems religious or it seems like I have feelings about a but it’s like, well, yeah, these are the principles that guide your brain. The deeper regions are going to focus on the things you can control the things that are most immediately pleasurable and the higher order, more advanced analytical parts like the prefrontal cortex that cares about your long term goals.
[0:22:31] Alex Korb: And it can override your immediate impulses and habits in the service of some long term goals. But you have to actually think about what those are and you’re going to make mistakes sometime which is something you can’t control, which is going to stress you out and going to push you back into your old habits. And so it’s so easy to fall into these old habits. And the reason why it’s so important to be aware of this process is because in the absence of being aware of it, well then you’re just going to be on autopilot and you’re going to be an alcoholic or you’re going to be oppressing other people. You’re going to be going against your own values in some way.
[0:23:20] D: You’re going to be doom scrolling right before you go to bed and you’re not going to get a good night’s sleep.
[0:23:25] Alex Korb: Right, exactly. But why should you care about that? It’s like you can, you can live your life, you can doom scroll and disrupt your sleep. Why do you care? It’s like, oh, well, I want to be more rested and motivated and less stressed. But why? It’s like, oh, well, because it would help me help other people. It helped me connect with my family and like getting to those deeper. Whys are the key to changing your habits then? The actual key to changing your habits is stupid stuff like the triggers and little dumb stuff. But the bigger picture is often like if you can really focus on what is most important to you, it helps to reduce your stress. And then when your habits are pushing you in one direction towards what’s most easy, what’s easiest and most immediately pleasurable, your prefrontal cortex, your analytical circuits can intervene and be like, yeah, we could do that.
[0:24:20] Alex Korb: But you know what? We’ve done that for the last ten years and it’s led us to exactly where we are right now. So maybe we should try this other thing because that might actually take us that might actually take us where we’re trying to go. And because it’s new and unknown, your emotional circuitry is like I don’t know, that’s unknown and it’s going to want to push you back into your old habits. And again, it’s helpful to recognize that this is sort of like a committee that’s talking in your brain of like yeah, we could do that.
[0:24:56] Alex Korb: And instead of trying to shout at yourself like that’s so stupid. Why you treat yourself with compassion, treat yourself with reflection and be like, realize you’ve done this experiment 100 times before already. And be like and it keeps turning out this way so let’s try something different because we know kind of with a high degree of certainty that the way we’re doing things now doesn’t work. So the fact that if I try something new and that also doesn’t work, that’s fine, I’ve learned something.
[0:25:32] Alex Korb: But even if it is only 10% better, well that’s better than doing the same thing over and over again that I know doesn’t work, right?
[0:25:43] D: Yeah, that’s perfect. The why why? It’s kind of like oh, the four year olds had it right all along.
[0:25:49] Alex Korb: Just keep asking why it is true. But at some point that’s the opposite thing is that if you are smart, analytical person this is sometimes a lot of the people I talk to too. We over think things and be like, but why is this? And you could keep asking questions like that like a philosopher forever. But at some point you should ask yourself like, okay, am I trying to understand this so that I can take better action?
[0:26:22] Alex Korb: Or is this just thinking and thinking just actually getting in the way of taking action? You might need to know, well should I prioritize recycling whatever, plastic bottles or should I prioritize driving less or whatever. And we could say, oh, I don’t look into all the details and never end up doing anything. And you have to realize, like, oh, well, I have limited time and resources, so it’s like it’s better to do one small step in the right direction than to just spend an increasingly amount of time thinking about it, not making any changes at all. And whether when to know if you’re falling into the trap of overthinking is again.
[0:27:10] Alex Korb: Like, we’ll look at your own tendencies, like, oh, that’s interesting. I’m telling myself it’s really important that I think about this and make the perfect decision. But like, I always think that about every decision, and it really gets in my way. So I just have to instead of trying to make the perfect, best decision, I just have to pick any of these ten options that are better than what I’m doing right now.
[0:27:36] Alex Korb: And if I realize later on that there’s a better thing, okay, they’re going to choose that. But don’t try and make everything perfect all at once. Make the best decision. Just make one small change that is better than the default. And that’s really what the upward spiral is all about, because making one small change that isn’t quite perfect, what’s going to change your activity and chemistry of key brain circuits, which is going to then make it clearer about what the path should be, or make it easier about what your next change should be.
[0:28:09] D: Right. Yeah. And then what you were describing there was pretty much exactly kind of the path that I ended up getting to. Or that’s kind of where the title of the podcast comes from. I sort of reached my overload like, this is not working anymore. I’m like, I was one of those guys that shared everything and was looking at all the outrage porn out there and realized, this is not working anymore. Like you said, you come up with something, you try something different.
[0:28:32] Alex Korb: Right? Yeah. This is one of the hardest things for people to do who are smart, passionate, goal oriented people, is to accept that they can’t do everything, that they have limitations. And you could have gone on Twitter more and you could have shared more articles, and you could do that, but at some point you’re like, oh, but I can’t do that and be happy. And so at some point, you had to make a choice like, which do I want to prioritize?
[0:29:08] Alex Korb: And sure, if you could do both, do both. But you came to the point where I can’t do both. And that freed you up to prioritize the things that were more important. And then the habit part of your brain is like, oh, but just go online one more time, or just share this thing. And that’s where you have to answer it. You have to be like, yeah, I’ve tried that path and it hasn’t gotten me where I want to go. So I’m going to thank you for your input.
[0:29:36] Alex Korb: You don’t need to get mad at your brain for making these suggestions. And that’s where understanding the neuroscience is helpful because you can have compassion towards yourself, like, oh, I understand.
[0:29:44] D: Right. It’s actually trying to be helpful, kind of thing. Your brain is trying to help you.
[0:29:48] Alex Korb: Exactly. Your brain is trying to help you in the same way that your mom when you were a kid and walking outside, she’s like, oh, don’t bring a sweater, mom, I know I can be trying to help you be safe and not be cold. And so just like with your mom, you should show your appreciation. Like, oh, thank you. I appreciate you trying to take care of me, but I’m going to do this other thing instead. And that, again, involves reflection and self compassion and clarifying your values and mindfulness. And that’s why when I work with people on these things, it’s really a comprehensive approach because there’s not just like one little simple life hack or brain hack that you can change.
[0:30:34] Alex Korb: It’s a spiral, right?
[0:30:36] D: Yeah. It all kind of builds up. Well, that’s fantastic. I’ve really enjoyed speaking with you. And again, thanks for coming on and making the time.
[0:30:45] Alex Korb: Yeah, well, thanks for having me on and I hope that was useful. It was great talking with you.
[0:31:00] David Beckemeyer: That is it for this episode of the Outrage Overload podcast. For links to everything we talked about on this episode, go to outrageoverload. Net. I’m excited to tell you that the podcast now has listeners in almost every state in the union. I hope to bring in those remaining states soon enough. I’m talking to you, Alaska and Wyoming. I’m asking you, good listener, to join our Facebook listeners group.
[0:31:22] David Beckemeyer: There’s a great place to get actionable ideas and resources to join. Visit outrageoverload. Net join. The sooner you do it, the sooner your ideas can help make the show better.
[0:31:34] D: Okay, check back in a few weeks.[0:31:36] David Beckemeyer: For a shiny new episode.