Dr. Virginia Campbell

Troy Swanson: Ginger, welcome to Circulating Ideas. I’m very excited to talk to you and let me start by congratulating you on your 2022 induction into the Podcast Hall of Fame with some pretty big names. It’s such a great honor and very well-deserved. So congratulations.

Virginia Campbell: Thank you. I’m really excited about it.

Troy Swanson: For the past few years, I’ve been doing interviews with librarians, journalists, scientists, and really anyone who will talk to me about misinformation and disinformation, and hopefully the roles that librarians may play in combating that. My conversations have shifted into thinking about how we process and think about information. I’m a regular Brain Science podcast listener. I love your work, and so I thought you would be a logical person to come on to help synthesize some of these big ideas. I’m a big fan of your book, “Are You Sure?” and I think that should be on the bedside table of librarians. I think it helps us kind of open up how the brain works a little bit. So, I’m excited to talk to you today and maybe we can just start, I can ask you a little bit about yourself, your background, and how did you come to this work?

Virginia Campbell: Well, since you’re a librarian, I want to start out by saying that I love to read. I still remember being a little kid, and the thing I wanted to go to school for was to learn how to read. I can even tell you what my very first book I ever read was. “Run Dog Run!” But anyhow, if there was one thing that I love to do that I would hate to lose, it would be being able to read. I have been a physician for almost 40 years, but I actually started out in engineering and I spent over 20 years in the emergency room before I did a fellowship in palliative medicine, which is what I’m doing now. I work at the Birmingham VA in Birmingham, Alabama. I discovered podcasting in 2005, when it first appeared in iTunes and I launched both Brain Science podcast and Books and Ideas in 2006.

Troy Swanson: Could you tell us more about the brain science podcast, especially?

Virginia Campbell: Sure. So, you listen to the show. So you know that what I always say is that the goal of the show is to unravel the mystery of how our brains make us human really by exploring neuroscience. My tagline is “the show for everyone who has a brain.” That hasn’t been a very effective tagline, despite my efforts. I want to communicate that it’s for everyone, you don’t need any science background to enjoy the show. My original target audience was like, the NPR listener, but actually my listeners are more diverse than that, but that was kind of my original thing I had in mind. And I was thinking, science coverage of mainstream media is so bad, which of course the COVID epidemic has brought into sharp relief, but I wanted to present the science in a way that was accurate and accessible. And I think I’ve succeeded.

Troy Swanson: I think so for sure. I am a huge fan. In each episode it’s really focused on you’re interviewing a neuroscientist and I find it, as someone who’s not a neuroscientist and really hasn’t studied science formally in college. I don’t feel like I’m behind, I don’t feel like I’m lost, I’m right with the conversation, and I think that’s the real secret sauce of your podcast, if you don’t mind me saying.

Virginia Campbell: Well, I appreciate that. That’s what I’m striving for. One of the things I do do, so if someone listens to several episodes, they will see, is I try to vary the technical level of the content. So some episodes, because I do have about 20% of my listeners who are MD-PhD types. So some episodes are fairly technical and other episodes are really aimed at a non-scientist listener. I try to vary them on purpose with the idea that if you tune into an episode and maybe it’s not for you, but you know the next episode you’ll be able to.

But what I’ve learned is that people really listen to all the episodes because of what you just said, and I’ve really learned a lot from my listeners. People don’t want to be talked down to, they don’t have to understand every little thing as long as you make the main ideas clear. That’s what I want to know when I’m listening, and that’s what I think my listeners want. Like, one of the things I learned early on was that people love having summaries at the end. So I put a lot of effort into that because I’ve gotten so much feedback. So that’s a cool thing about podcasting is you can get feedback from your listeners and improve your show.

Troy Swanson: I think that those summaries at the end are so important because like you said, there are some times maybe some of the technical details I don’t follow, but you take the time and your summaries are four or five minutes, maybe a little longer even where it’s not just a mention, so sometimes you can tell people that just do an interview and throw it online. You’re very thoughtful with it. So thank you for that.

Let’s shift and talk a little bit about some of the ideas out of your book, Are You Certain?, and I guess the first thing that I think is noteworthy that would be useful for our audience is the idea that a lot of the work of our mind is inaccessible to our conscious mind. A lot of the work is happening unconsciously, and you call this the hidden layer. And could you help unpack that and maybe explain what that means?

Virginia Campbell: Yeah, I think the term hidden layer really comes from the folks in the field of artificial intelligence because when they started developing deep learning, which is what all this AI stuff going on now is based on, there’s whole layers in there that the programmer has no control over it. So they call that the hidden layer. And it’s a really good analogy to what’s happening in our brain, because it’s not just that things are unconscious, like in the sense of Freud. In fact, I oftentimes emphasize, I’m not talking about Freud’s unconscious. It’s because not only we’re not aware that’s unconscious, but we can’t access it. We can’t even introspect into understanding what’s going on. And that’s actually just as important as the fact that it’s unconscious. But if you think about it, it’s a good thing. I mean, you know, the old joke you can’t walk and chew gum at the same time. It’s a good thing most of what our brain does is unconscious because that’s the only way we are able to do complex activities is that we learn them and that we don’t have to think about them. And we don’t have to think about breathing, for example. If we had to concentrate on breathing to stay alive, we couldn’t do anything else. So it’s really a important feature of our brain that even learned activities become to a certain extent, unconscious.

This discovery that most of what our brain does is unconscious, it sort of goes against our intuition, and it was even difficult for scientists to accept this. Back in the 19th century, Hermann von Helmholtz proposed that visual processing was unconscious and his ideas, which actually turned out to be pretty much spot on, were rejected because at that time, scientists assumed everything was conscious, especially those who were trying to fight against Freudian thought. So, it’s a good point that our intuition is not always right, and scientists can be wrong too. And scientists can be stubborn toward new ideas, just like everybody else. The main lesson is that since most of what our brain does is unconscious or hidden, introspection’s an unreliable tool for figuring out what’s going on.

Troy Swanson: And I think the step for me that was the most difficult, and I don’t know if I’m even there yet, is it’s one thing to say managing your fluids or glucose is unconscious. I think we know that, but even cognition, like big parts of cognition are unconscious, and it’s almost like the unconscious mind serves up options to us in the consciousness. And there’s like a back and forth between consciousness and unconscious. I’m not sure if I’m putting that accurately or if that’s how you would describe it.

Virginia Campbell: Michael Graziano put it the best the last time I interviewed him. He said, the brain gives us this kind of cartoon version of the world, right? It tells us what we need to know, aimed at survival, not at accuracy. So that’s why the mind feels like it’s not physical because we don’t need to know what the brain’s up to. We just need to know the results. Now it’s amazing the amount of unconscious processing that happens even at the level of the retina. You’ve seen all these visual illusions, even when you know it’s an illusion, you can’t not see it. To me, that’s the most convincing proof.

Troy Swanson: Well, let’s take that maybe a next step. And I’m really fascinated by the idea that I think is really important in your book, the idea of the feeling of knowing. And again, generated by unconsciousness, and it seems distinct from cognition. How should we think about this?

Virginia Campbell: Okay. So first I want to say, a simple definition of cognition is decision-making and that doesn’t actually imply anything in the way of consciousness. I mean, a bacteria deciding to go toward food and I’m using the word “deciding” liberally here. That’s cognition. If there’s a choice to be made, that’s cognition. So again, most of cognition’s unconscious, the term “feeling of knowing” highlights the fact that this is something conscious and it’s subjective. It’s the thing that emerges from the hidden layer. So all that stuff is going on, like you decided to sleep on a problem overnight and you wake up knowing what to do. So the decision emerges and then we have this subjective feeling that it is correct. And it’s that subjective feeling that we’re right that is what we’re referring to when we talk about the “feeling of knowing”.

So we were talking before you mentioned that that quote from the book, the feeling of knowing is learning’s best friend and mental flexibility’s worst enemy. It’s learning’s best friend, because that feeling of knowing it feels good. When you’re trying to think of somebody’s name, that’s the simplest one, and you get it, it feels good. So that’s the sense in which that feeling of knowing is a friend a learning because it motivates us really in a way to want to learn. But as soon as we’re sure about something, we quit looking for more information. That’s just human nature. And that’s the sense in which it’s mental flexibility’s worst enemy.

Troy Swanson: I think that is so important for us, especially for those of us who are in libraries or in the classroom, because so often we think of knowing as the rational process. You take evidence and you sprinkle on some logic and then you know something, but the thing that seems to come through so clearly from your book and others, is that the knowing is really, it’s like an affective process. Like, it’s a feeling. We don’t think of knowing as a feeling; we think of knowing as this rational outcome, but to know something is to feel it. And to me that has been almost life altering in how I think about what we do with learning in the classroom.

Virginia Campbell: The mind is embodied and that impacts our concept of knowing, which is that knowing then becomes a embodied process that is by definition, subjective, this pristine objective knowledge that philosophers have aspired to since before Plato, it doesn’t exist because we are embodied creatures and we experience the world through those bodies. We know the world through the bodies that we have.

Troy Swanson: I think the challenge is then how do we adapt to the classroom and not let the feeling of knowing shut off learning. We still need to know things and to recognize where that feeling comes from.

Virginia Campbell: Yeah. And I can’t imagine trying to be a teacher today. It’s the most essential and most difficult profession, besides the fact that they’re totally underpaid, what they’re expected to accomplish is unrealistic, and any kind of innovation now that they’re teaching to the test is pretty much punished. So I don’t have kids, so I don’t know this firsthand, but my impression is that if anyone actually learns something, it’s a side effect.

Troy Swanson: Yeah. Well, that may be a whole nother podcast for sure. But before we’re too far away, can I ask you about certainty?

Virginia Campbell: Yeah. Certainty is related to the feeling of knowing. When you have the feeling of knowing then that is certainty. Robert Burton, who is really the person whose work influenced my book very deeply, he talks a lot about how people have different tolerances for uncertainty. Some people just gotta be a know-it-all, they’ve got to always know the answer and they they’ve got to always be sure, even if they’re wrong. Scientists have to be the opposite. Scientists have to revel in uncertainty. It’s a personality trait. You might be able to cultivate tolerance for uncertainty, but if you’re a person who’s naturally inclined to want to feel certain, then that’s just going to be a struggle.

Troy Swanson: In your book, you emphasize that we should not expect that other people will think like us or even that we can get them to believe as we do. Our mental processes are uniquely our own, and I really appreciate this emphasis on the diversity of thought, that we must acknowledge that in other people. How should we think about this?

Virginia Campbell: Yeah, obviously like most of you, I am very concerned about the polarization. I think that it definitely is driven at least to some extent by this need to say, “I’m right, and you’re wrong,” this black and white thinking in which there isn’t really any searching for common ground. People are so polarized about little issues and just ignore how much they have in common, and that’s very disturbing.

And worst of all, science has somehow gotten caught in the middle when science ought to be something that brings people together. It’s interesting looking at the anti-vaccine forces there on the left and the right. Okay. So it’s a political thing, and this anti-science thinking is on the left and the right for different reasons, and it’s disturbing because really science should be something that brings us together because it’s the tool that we have for figuring out. We may not have access to objective reality, but the closest we can get is by something like the scientific method where we can figure out a way to verify things.

Your Humanities people probably know the famous story of the blind men touching the elephant on different parts of the body and getting a different idea of what an elephant looks like. Right. So think of science as, you got a bunch of people touching the elephant and you’ve got to come up with a unified view of what an elephant looks like by confirming that, yeah, he really does have four legs and whatever, but imagine that everybody has been touching the elephant, but no one has ever touched the trunk. And all of a sudden somebody touches a trunk. The first time this happens, people are going to go, “ah, nah, there’s no trunk. That’s crazy talk!” It’s going to take other people verifying that they too touch the trunk before other people will believe that there’s a trunk. So, I think that’s a good way to understand science correctly. It’s a process. It’s not a set of boring facts like you get taught in school.

Troy Swanson: In addition to the Brain Science podcast, you host two other podcasts that I think our audience would appreciate, so can you tell us about the Books and Ideas podcast as well as the Graying Rainbows podcast?

Virginia Campbell: Yeah. I will say neither one of those are in active production, but all the episodes are freely available and I think they’re pretty evergreen. Books and Ideas I started at the same time as Brain Science, because I really didn’t want to be stuck in neuroscience. I mean, I love neuroscience, but I’m not even a neuroscientist so of course I want to talk about other things. And so in Books and Ideas, I have everything from other kinds of science, philosophy, history, even science fiction. I mean, I did an interview one time with the woman who wrote novels that go with the Gears of War video game. I even did an episode about Harry Potter, so there’s a lot of diversity in Books and Ideas.

And then, Graying Rainbows is aimed at people coming out LGBT+ later in life. And it has a variety of different people, historians, older people who’ve lived through, one of my last guests was someone who was a physician during the worst of the AIDS crisis, but the main focus of the show is people telling their stories and they’re so powerful and it was so different from anything else I’ve ever done before. That was a really good experience. But the reason I quit doing that show is because I felt like it’s a book that’s finished. It doesn’t need to go forever and ever, whereas Brain Science, I knew when I started it that I would never run out of material because it’s science. It’s going on and on.

Troy Swanson: Right, and I think both of those are great. Like you said, evergreen, they’re there and you can find them, and listeners can work their way through. So I think it’s excellent. And I think especially the Graying Rainbows, I think so many people will appreciate your honesty and openness in terms of the conversations that go on. So, definitely to be commended for your work on that. If our listeners wanted to contact you online, where can they find you?

Virginia Campbell: So, if you want to go to brainsciencepodcast.com, you can get to everything else, I think, from there. My email is brainsciencepodcast[at]gmail[dot]com. My social media is @docartemis that’s D-O-C-A-R-T-E-M-I-S. And for those of you who know your Greek mythology, Artemis was the athletic goddess, the one with the bow and arrow.

And I did want to mention that I’ve just started a new page on the Brain Science podcast website that’s for educators, there’s a button right there on the home screen. I would love if any of you consider yourselves educators to go to that page and send me feedback. It’s a brand new page. So, I want feedback from educators for how to improve it. Having educators listen to the show, I think since the beginning, I’m now finally finding a little teeny bit of bandwidth to see how I can pull those people together because it’s becoming increasingly important. Over the last few years, I’ve really become convinced that having a basic knowledge of neuroscience should be… you know, in high school they have biology, they have physics, chemistry, and some schools have psychology. I really think that people need to know some basic neuroscience. They would not be so prone to some of the quackery that’s out there if they had just a very basic idea, you don’t need to remember the names of the lobes of the brain or something. That’s not what I’m talking about, just the basic idea of how it really works I think would take us a long way.

Troy Swanson: Yeah, I agree, and from the librarian perspective, I think our profession is really interested in how we can be a positive force in resisting that quackery. One of the reasons why I like to do these interviews is I think getting this foundational knowledge and thinking about what the science is telling us is a first step and that it’s on us to figure out how to apply it.

And so, yeah, I agree. And I think for our listeners, your book, Are You sure? is a great first step and your podcast is equally just so excellent in terms of opening up so many ideas for us. So thank you for that work and thank you for your time today.

Virginia Campbell: Thanks so much for having me.