Harvard’s Srini Pillay on managing stress burnout and anxiety, how doodling can improve your memory by 29%, and how to train your brain to create a better future.
On today’s show. We have the pleasure of interviewing Dr Srini Pillay. After graduating at the top of his class from medical school in South Africa, he received a Medical Research Council scholarship to study the neurochemistry of panic. Thereafter, he completed his residency in psychiatry at the McLean Hospital, Harvard’s largest freestanding psychiatric hospital with the most accolades ever given to a single resident. He joins us today to explain how doodling could improve your memory by 29% how to train your brain to create a better future, how to reduce anxiety, and much, much more. Ladies and gentlemen, without any further Ado, what is my pleasure to introduce to you? Srini Pillay.
. Yes, yes, yes and yes, right based nation. On today’s show, we have a very special occasion. Dr Z. Today’s
guest has been featured on CNN, Fox, come on in PR. Wow. The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Huffington Post, Harvard business school, Cosmopolitan, l port Fourchon. Just too much. You might’ve should’ve listed, but he’s not been Srini Pillay Welcome on to the thrive time show. How are you sir?
I’m very good. Thanks. Thanks so much for having me.
Hey, can you share with the listeners what it is that you do for a living cause your career is so interesting?
well, I, I do a bunch of different things. I um, I’m a psychiatrist by training and a brain imaging researcher and an executive coach. Uh, and so I’ve combined my background in psychiatry, Brain Imaging and executive coaching to do what I Call Transformational Neuro coaching. And so I work with leaders and fortune 500 companies, helping them manage and deal with issues like uncertainty, anxiety of creativity, and a bunch of other things. And in addition to that, I have a few tech startups. I’m also a musician. I’ve just written a musical. Um, so, and I also work in biotechnology. And so when I think about what I do, I think what I’m doing is, is trying to disrupt and innovate at the intersection of science, art and technology. But for the purposes of business, I’m a brain-based executive coach.
No, I’ve heard that you’ve worked on collaborative projects with that. See that new startup called the Google, what is that a, is that a, that that college called a MIT, some cotton
mitt me as these small organizations that are, you know, no seriously big commerce really. What kind of work do you do with, with Google and MIT?
So, so at, uh, uh, recently I was actually in Romania and I delivered a program on transformational leadership, managing stress, burnout and anxiety over three days. And the first day, um, we had somebody from, from Google, uh, deliver a program on flow. And on the second and third days I walked people through concepts and immediate application of ideas of how to manage stress and burnout and anxiety. And we did that over overs over days two and three. And it actually works out really well. Uh, cause we prepared a lot beforehand and then did that. And at MIT I am working with 800 Shapira, uh, who has a phd in creativity. And together we’ve actually created a company called fourth space design that combines the science of creativity and creativity itself because we both work with companies to help them enhance their creative potential.
You have like, it seems like you have a multiple, your, your like a polymath. You have so many different careers going on. Can you share with us about this? You’re an award winning poet as my understanding, a skilled musician and author. What does, what is your day look like? How do you get good at all these things? Are you, you wake up and you go from, you know, from 4:00 AM to seven, I’m gonna work on my poetry from seven to 11. I’m going to work on my writing. And then for me, how do you find time for all this?
Well, I, you know, I, I trained in music from a pretty young age, so probably from around the ages of like four and a half to five until the age of 17 or 18. And then I had to give up practicing six hours a day cause I went to medical school. Um, but I stopped. I still practiced the music. I feel like I initially lost a certain kind of proficiency, then came back to music and started composing. Uh, and then wrote, wrote a musical, which I’m in the process of editing right now. And in fact, I’m actually doing a project with someone from IBM, which combines classical music and neuroscience to help leaders connect with, uh, a more inspired state of living. So in terms of what I’m doing with music, I’ve studied it as a child and now I’m able to apply it in terms of what I’ve done in psychiatry for more than two decades, I’ve, I’ve worked with patients.
Uh, I’m also, uh, I’ve also, um, you know, over the years I worked for 17 years in a brain imaging laboratory. So I feel like I put a lot of time in and I’m at a point in my life right now where I’m actually making connections amongst these different fields. And so to be able to connect these different fields, um, in different ways is very exciting for me. And the, the, the, the, the one unifying factor across everything that I’m doing, including the music, is that it usually involves concepts related to psychology and brain science. Cause those are my primary competencies. And I, I call myself a radical collaborator because I collaborate with people whose expertise is in other fields. Even if, uh, you know, I know something about that field. For example, in the Gospel Music a project I’m working with someone from IBM who has a background in Gospel music and was signed with 50 cent and she’s also sort of someone who’s, who’s able to create in the space.
So I collaborate with people across different disciplines. And one of my sincere beliefs is that stress, it’s actually a belief based on a lot of scientific research, but that’s stress turns genes on. And not only can it lead to anxiety and depression, it can also lead to cancer, heart disease, stroke and degenerative and degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s disease. And my goal is what I realized is that when we look at diseases, we usually look at the body, but in fact the body is where the disease ends up. A lot of times diseases are created in work, in environments like work environments that are highly stressful and so a lot of my work in working in both in work environments, it’s aimed over the next 10 to 15 in years. I would like to connect the work that I’m doing to help people manage stress and reduce conflict and become more creative with, with with the ability to decrease their stress, turn off the genes that cause medical disease and decrease the incidence of psychological problems and medical problems as well.
Dick or you are teaming up at all with a, with Kanye to work on this gospel praise and worship thing.
Oh, that’s so funny that you’re saying that because I’m not, but I have another project that’s a fashion and neuroscience project and I am so desperately trying to connect with Virgil Abloh who is actually a good friend of canyon because I believe that this concept that I’ve designed, which combines the brain, it’s like the, it’s actually, it’s branded as beauty in the brain. Um, is, is a project that will help to give the brain, it’s a real place in the world right now. People generally, you know, the, the body gets the runway and the brain gets a boring podium. But I feel like the brain should have the runway. So I did designed to show so that the brain can have a runway and it will be awesome to connect with Virgil Abloh and Connie. So I’ve talked to people at Louis Vuitton where Virgil Abloh is and I’m slowly trying to get to him, but maybe when I get to him of could be involved would be great if he is.
Okay. Wow. Y Z, z. Ah, you’re going to one up me with some, some deep questions. We’re going, we’re going deep here. We’re going deep.
I know you asked about Kanye, but I’ve got something maybe a little touch deeper than, than the Mr Kanye. Um, whenever you talk about, uh, stress, uh, and we talk about how it can turn on genes in the, in the brain, genes in the body, and that lead to ultimately to disease processes. As a general rule of thumb. And I know stress can be a pretty complicated issue in a lot of people deal with that on a daily basis. Do you have a quick kind of a, across the board, here’s a step one in a person working. So in other words, you might say, well, meditation or, or, you know, uh, exercise or I’m, I’m not sure what your first level of defense against stress is. Do you have like a first level of defense? And have you written anything on this by the way?
I have. So I’ve written a book called life on seven revolutionary lessons to overcome fear, uh, which is a book about, uh, how to tap into your brain to decrease your brains, excessive reactions to fear, which frequently accompanies stress. Yes. And my last book is called Tinker, Dabble doodle. Try unlock the power of the unfocused mind, which helps people refuel their brains so that stress doesn’t take over. So, you know, from a very basic level, and I could probably talk about it, I’ve written a lot about this online as well. Um, from a very basic level, I would say in general, most people live their days at work by, by basically focusing as much as they can. So it’s focus, focus, focus, fatigue. And at the end of the day, they’re completely out of it. But in the same way that you wouldn’t use your car without refueling it, when it runs out of fuel, you have to refuel your brain as well.
So I wrote tinker, dabble, doodle, try to help people understand strategic ways in which they could re-energize their brain so that they could manage their stresses more effectively. So I can tell you about four basic ways that I think are lifestyle shoes that people can use in order to manage their brains more effectively. It’s great that I’m totally used to, you know, for focus, I understand we need to focus during the day, but we need to build periods of unfocused whenever our brains are beginning to tire like so for a lot of people that directly after lunch, middle of the afternoon or right at the end of the day. What I recommend is you take 20 minutes and practice one of the following four things. The first is something we all know how to do quite well, which is napping and five to 15 minutes of napping can give you one to three hours of clarity, which is why companies like Google and Zappos actually both napping parts that they have not been part.
Certain companies have napping beds that are especially made for quick naps because they know that your productivity is going to increase. If you take those five to 15 minutes, you’re going to have one to three hours of clarity. So that’s the first technique. The second technique is, is doodling. So simply scribbling on a piece of paper, like you know, the way you might, when you’re on the telephone, all the things that we’re conference call, hopefully someone’s listening to this right now, and doodling Dooley can actually improve your memory by 29%. Wow. Jack, Jackie and ratty and her colleagues did a study in which they show that memory was significantly improved. Now, you know, with all of these studies, I should just say upfront, I both believe and don’t believe what I’m saying. And I think everything and its opposite can be true because eventually this, this has gotta be personalized.
I don’t think everything works the same way for every person. So that said, there have been studies that show that doodling is effective. The third thing is something called positive, constructive daydreaming. Uh, and Jerome Singer in the 1950s studied this. And what he found was that if you’re sitting at your desk and your mind just floats up, it’s not that helpful. If you are just ruminating over the prior night’s indiscretions. Let’s say you went to a party, you had too much to drink. I’m like, Oh man, I shouldn’t have said those things. Daydreaming in that way doesn’t help you. However, positive constructive daydreaming does help. And there are just three things to do and I would recommend that people write this down. Number one, schedule it into your day. So choose a 20 minute period, maybe at the end of lunch or at the end of your day where you can actually do this.
Number two, you have to be doing something low key. So typically in studies people, we’ll talk about things like knitting and gardening, but you can also go out for a walk. And if you want to be more creative, walking in zigzags will make your brain more creative than Jen just walking around the block. So as you’re going and as you’re going for this walk and you let your mind go into some kind of positive, stimulating vision, like maybe think of yourself lying on a yacht or lying on the beach or running through the woods with your dad. And these three steps, simply number one, scheduling. Number two be doing something low key and number three literal mind goal. Those three things will actually get your mind to, to float into places where focused mind could never take you. And it’s this that actually allows your brain to put puzzle pieces together.
So that’s number three. Then number four is one of my favorites actually. It’s a term that I’ve coined called psychological Halloween Azul, which is based on the fact that uh, you know, a particular studies showed that if, if, if you are trying to solve a creative problem, then embodying the identity of the creative person, like an eccentric poet will actually make you statistically significantly more creative than if you embody the [inaudible]. And then if you embodied the identity of original library. And so what I say to people is, if you’re trying to stop, and I do this with corporations and I’ve, I’ve had some amazing results. I worked with an insurance company in London where I worked with them and they were going through a really difficult time because they had joined and then they were beginning to become unjoin, which meant that their, their Asian contingent couldn’t actually, that they couldn’t go to Asia anymore.
And so there was a whole lot of conflict around this and they wanted me to work with them to help them see the future of their business took differently. And at the beginning of the program, people were super stressed. At the end of the program they had a completely different frame on their stresses. So one person, one group, when they imitated a particular figure, imitated Madonna, cause they said Madonna could reinvent herself. You know, another group said that they wanted to embody the personality of the Buddha, like some kind of radical acceptance and they went on in this way and eventually and third group wanted to embody the personality of Steve Jobs because they said, you know, he had said you can’t connect the dots moving forward but you can connect them backwards. So they were just going to think of life in a more exploratory way. And when you do this kind of thing, any of these four things, either napping, doodling, psychological Halloween, or positive, constructive daydreaming, all four of these things can prepare your brain to be able to be refueled so that you can work more effectively again and not let the burden of stress take over your brain.
Well, that is fantastic. You know, I do. I, where’s your saying that I do three out of four of those right now and the nap do I do, I wish I could nap. I, I, I nap like three times in my life and I wake up and I’m done. I don’t know who I am for two weeks where I am. So I can’t, I, I’m not a big napper but the other three actually do. So that’s fantastic. Now I’ve always heard this urban legend and you seem like the man who can finally answered this question code, crack the code. Are you ready? This guy, just so we’re clear. Then we’ll quit. Sorry. Serine in his career. Uh, if, correct me if I’m wrong, but you worked at the McLean hospital there, did your residency in psychiatry there as, and you have Harvard’s largest freestanding, uh, working at Harvard’s largest freestanding psych psych psychiatric hospital. You have like the most accolades of any student ever given out. Do I? Am I correct? I mean if you not, did you not rack up some serious awards during your time with your residency there at the McLean hospital?
Yeah, I was. It’s a pretty competitive residency. I did and I am. And on one hand, I’m really pleased that that’s there because it adds to the credibility and the other hand, you know, I don’t really think it’s about awards.
Most accolades ever given to a students. Wow, that’s impressive. So ever, so here we go. Drum roll, drum roll. A little piss. Just the end or get a little something. I mean, thank you. Thank you. I, um, I’ve heard this urban legend that we only use about 10% of our brain. Is there any truth to that? And, and can you validate that one way or the other? And what does that really mean?
Yeah. In, in general, there’s no real proof of that. So, so the, the idea is that we don’t necessarily use all, all of our brain that we could be using. So I think the 10% sort of myth is not really proven. And so I think the first thing I’d say is, I would just spell with that as an amount. But what I would keep is, is that, you know, one of the beauties about brain science, and one of the things I love about it is that for many, many years, we believed that the brain could not change. And now we know that the brain can’t, we used to be victims of evolution, right? It was like, well, you know, you got what you got. You deal with what you deal with. Sorry, you can’t get better. But now we know that simple things that you do can change brain blood flow.
That’s just by using forms of self-talk, you can change your brain. So let’s say for example, you’re going to a board meeting now, you know, usually when you’re anxious and you’re going to a board meeting, you try to calm down with, you have to speak in front of a group of people. You try to calm down and you try to tell yourself, okay, relax. This is going to be okay. Uh, you know, I’m, I’m, I’m really gonna do, okay. Well, what do we know from brain science is that there are three simple things that you can do to move blood away from the flooded anxiety center back to your thinking. Great. So, you know, number one, it relates to some people, it’s basically called ethical labeling and it basically means call out your feeling. So if you’re about to go on stage and you’re super excited and also petrified, just naming those feelings will actually decrease your anxiety because it will stop blood from sort of flooding your, the Amygdala, which is one of the key parts of the anxiety circuit in the brain.
So number one, name the field. Number two, you can actually, you know there’s a, there’s a theory called ironic process theory, which was invented by a guy named Daniel Vagner at Harvard as well. And what he found was that frequently under stress, if we tell ourselves not to do something, the brain does exactly the opposite of that. So for example, there was a woman I worked with once and she said, you know, she always freaked out when she was going to board meetings. And so she would say to herself, do not lose your temper. And then she’d go to the meeting and then the, the, the next thing she knew she’d have lost her temper. And so we talked about this and I told her that under stress the brain does not hear the word not, you know, like a classic example is you’re at a party and you’re carrying a glass of red wine.
And if you say to yourself, do not drop the wine, why is that that just when you’re walking past the white couch, the wind drops. Well, it’s because your brain is not able to manage your stress and try to prevent something from happening. At the same time. And so the simple solution there is simply to frame your goals in the path. Rather than saying, I must not lose my temper, you say I must be calm. And that actually prevents you from falling into the spraying trap. In fact, it’s been shown in soccer players as well that if soccer players are trying to score penalties and if they say do not kick the ball to the right, the eye goes to the right immediately. So what you should say instead is kicked the ball to the left. So number two is avoid using the word knock when you’re feeling stressed.
And number three in terms of self-talk, it’s, it’s really important to remember that, that you can actually, if you’re trying to pep yourself up, rather than saying, I’m going to crush this, it’s studies have shown that if you say, if you call yourself by name and you see you, if you speak in the second or third person, you’re much more likely to feel more confident and less stressed. So I would say three, you’re going to crush this because when you say I’m going to crush this, it’s not that convincing. If you’re feeling anxious because your anxious brain is speaking to your anxious brain, but if you say three you’re going to crush this. You realize that there are many parts do and that the anxious part is just one part, but just three simple things like that can actually change brain blood flow. So while the 10% factor may not be true, what is true is that we can do more to use more of our brains effectively. Sweeney, I have three questions for you about your new book, but before we get into, I wanted Paul Hood,
our show sponsor and CPA. I give him an opportunity to ask you some hard hitting questions, hard hitting your I if it’s okay, I want to go way out there because I love this, this subject because I, you know, I’m a business guy and one plus one is two and and when I was going through school the most I got taught about psychology, psychiatry and psychology is okay, wear a red tie. You know, that’s what people, the commands tie. Yeah. Power tie. Yeah. But I’ve also, you know, I’ve, I’ve read a little bit about you Srini Pillayand just passively look, um, what is your, I’ve seen studies maybe there it’s, you know, a fake science or whatever, but people with multiple personalities in the power of their brain and the things that, that, you know, you can have one personality, the Daz is diabetic and one personality is not, I mean that’s all mental, the, the power of the brain. What say you have as far as the untapped power of the brain that, that, that you like z you said we’re only using a percentage of it, but is there, do you personally with your experience, believe there are untapped? Not that we can move things with our minds or whatever, but we can, there’s so much that we can do to a positively affect our futures, um, through some of that science.
Yeah, absolutely. In fact, I think that we, so it, so the reason, the reason I feel that certain that it’s possible to tap into the untapped regions of our brains is that there are studies that when I work with companies and I, and I teach them how to become more creative, usually it’s much more, you know, tangible. It’s like, well, we’ve got a product, our pipeline is drying up. We need to figure out how to become more creative. Or, uh, you know, I, I might speak to a group of learning designers who want to know how to become more innovative. Well, what do we know from brain science is that by doing simple things, you can turn on the innovation centers in the brain that may not actually be turned up. So, for example, um, there’s a technique called analogical thinking and there are at least between six or 10 other techniques depending on how you divide them, uh, that, that can turn on these innovation regions in the brain.
Um, what, what we know is that by learning to think in analogies, you can come up with all kinds of new ideas. And the the, the further away from your primary construct and analogy is we call that semantic distance. The more it will activate the frontal polar cortex, which is the part of your brain that’s right in the front of your forage, just behind your four it, there’s a, there’s an innovation part of your brain that that allows you to map ideas. So when I worked for the company, they weren’t, they were interested in innovating around the idea of a trusted advisor and they said, can you come work with the senior leadership team and help us figure out how we can essentially think more creatively if we start this new function called a trusted advisor. We don’t just want to say a trusted advisor as the nice person who reaches out to customers and improves customer experience.
Srini Pillay, We want to get into the depth of this person’s personality and job role. And so we did an exercise where people thought about all kinds of analogies. Some people thought of the thought of a trusted advisor model than a mother. Some people thought of a trusted advisor model than a dog. Some people thought of a trusted advisor model in a car’s gps that will take you to your destination. And each of those analogies then gives you a characteristic that you can build into the profile of this new function. So too, to the point of can we use our brains to create a better future? Absolutely you can use it to become more creative. And then there’s also a module that I deliver on the science of possibility and a lot of people feel like they’ve got to base their decisions. In reality, as you said, you know, one plus one is two, this is what’s happening.
But the truth is conscious business leaders are always thinking about the future and and they and everybody realizes too much is going on to rely on probability. Like there used to be days when you could take data, process it and say the probability of this happening is x, y, or z. But these days, if I asked you what’s the probability of being disrupted by a technology, it’s impossible to say. What’s the probability your market will continue to be interested in new. You can know a little bit about that, but it’s really hard because the world is changing so rapidly and things are getting disrupted so fast. So probability is not as useful as possibility and possibility is simply, it’s essentially activating your visualization circuits because your brain can create an image that can help your brains navigate or move you forward. So you create this image about the possibility and then commit to it in an all in kind of way.
And then you bring it to the moment and you say, okay, so what I want to do is I want to quadruple the next quarters earnings. What if I want to do that? Then rather than only looking at the data for probability, why don’t I say I want that to be possible now what other companies have done this and how have they done it or what’s missing in my current strategy that I can do that? And when you activate the possibilities, so consider the brain, you become calmer because you are activating the opioid circuits in the brain. You feel more motivated because you are activating the reward circuits in the brain. And research has shown that this possibility mindset, which is basically a belief in your future, actually puts your brain in a greater state of control, especially when you go wrong. So when you get feedback, if you’re rigid and certain, it’s hard to respond. But if you’re in a possibility framework, you’ll quickly ask, I’ve got this feedback that what I did was wrong. Where do I go next? So possibility and the science of possibility teaches us that we can change our brains to believe in a better future. There’s actually a way to do this. I have a possibility index where I have people measure their sense of possibility and then they learn what’s blocking their possibility. And then they work on those three things to be able to unleash the full power of who they are.
All right, Serena, I’m going to give you 120 seconds of interrogation. Here we go. Our final three questions for Ya. Your new book, tinker, Dabble, doodle. Try unlock the power of an unfocused mind. Uh, talk to us about what inspired you to write this book.
Well, essentially I’ve lived my life as I’ve told you sort of, you know, bridging different disciplines across different fields. And I find that building periods into unfocused can really help us become more productive. This is something I learned at Harvard, something my mentors recommended. I was even critiqued for not doing that initially. So I thought, why not share with the world how you can bring your brain into a better state of cognitive rhythm and become more productive by learning how to refuel. And I think my own personal experiences, both in terms of my work and also in terms of my breadth of interests inspired me to do that.
Now on your website, you talk about how 99% of goal setting is any effective by default. What do you mean by this?
Well, most of brain processes are actually unconscious. So because brain processes are unconscious, we can really just setting a goal doesn’t necessarily help help. In fact, uh, there there’ve been studies that have shown that if you compare coaching with compassion, with coaching, with gold setting people who are simply able to w if you are compassionate with someone and you let them find their own way, they are much more effective in reaching their goals than if they just set goals. Because when you set goals in over, activates the brain’s fight or flight system and doesn’t allow you to reach than others. Doesn’t mean you should have no goal. It just means that having a goal and being obsessionally attached to it can make you missed opportunities that, that, that come by you in the meanwhile and can make you miss things that could come to you through insight and through your unconscious. So I would say that goal setting is important, but much more important is that the type of brain that you’ve prepared to generate these goals. Because the brain that is exhausted is going to come up with very weak goals. A brain that is refueled will come up with much stronger goals. So the first priority is to take care of metaphorically of the soil of the unconscious so that your goals and your strategy can be firm as well.
Uh, my final question for Srini Pillaywould be this, um, we’ve got a lot of listeners to this show in a roughly half a million downloads, uh, each and every month, people from all over the world. And, uh, we’re giving you the mic here. What, what is the word, the encouragement, the advice, maybe the statement. What, what would you like to share with all of our listeners? What’s the message that you want to convey to our audience?
I think what I want to say is that every person has a sense of ingenuity. You know, when they w when the one laptop per child project was done, where they dropped, uh, laptops in re rural Ethiopia with kids who had never seen technology and they wanted what they would do within a few hours, they found the on off switch they wanted, you know, where they sit on them or they eat them, but within two hours. Then within a few hours they found the on off switch switch. Within a few days they was singing ABC songs and using apps and within a few months they’d hacked android. Which tells us that education is a useful way to structure what you want, but ingenuity resides within you always lead with ingenuity because you have the intelligence that you need. Never think that school is the thing that that actually gives you intelligence. It helps you to shape your intelligence, but most people lose out on the greatest possibilities because they forget that they have always had an ingenuity that they can tap into.
Sweeney, I appreciate your, your, your time and your energy. You, you could have been on l r o l l magazine. You could have been in Forbes, you could have been unfortunate. Again, you could have been Harvard business review. You could have been an NPR, you, Kevin and Fox and CNN, Washington Post, Huffington Post. Z’s been on all these great publications, but he chose to really take his day down to old to an all time low and be here on the show. Thank you Freddy. Well this was Kinda like his, his act of daydreaming that he did with us. He’s like, what if he was doing really good? He’s been doodling. This is his doodling toe. This was baby. So ready. I appreciate you so much Srini Pillay.
Thank you too. I appreciate you too. Thank you all for your energy as well. I appreciate it.
Hey, you take care
and now without any further ed do great.