Tom: Everybody, welcome to Impact Theory.
You’re here because you believe as I do that human potential is nearly limitless.
You know that having potential is not the same thing as actually doing something with
Our goal with this show and company is to introduce you to the people and ideas that
are going to help you actually execute on your dreams.
Today’s guest is a hacker turned neuroscientist.
He is a fascinating blend of a wide variety of disciplines and this diversity has led
him to explore some promising albeit nontraditional ways of investigating the brain, namely cracking
open the skull and peering inside whilst the person is still living.
What he’s found is so interesting it makes my eyes bleed and has made him a much sought-after
speaker and leading thinker who is influencing academia and business in equal measure.
His education is a wondrous grab bag of joy and includes a PhD in neuroscience from Caltech
and both an MA and Philosophy and a BSC in Physics from Tel Aviv University.
He is a visiting faculty member at MIT’s Media Lab and his work has been published
in such prestigious scholarly journals as Nature, the highest ranking journal in world,
as well as widely-distributed publications such as Scientific American Mind, Wired and
He was named one of the 40 leading professors under 40 and his ground-breaking work has
brought him acclaim and attention from all over the globe including Hollywood where he’s
been tapped as a consultant and contributor on such hit shows as Mr. Robot, my favorite,
Limitless, Bull, Falling Water, and Ancient Aliens.
He’s also the Alfred P. Sloan professor at the American Film Institute where he teaches
a screenwriting course on science and film.
He holds multiple patents and is a multi-time national storytelling champion whose talks
have garnered him millions of views.
Please help me in welcoming the professor of neuroscience and business at the Kellogg’s
School of Management and the neuroscience program at Northwestern University, the neurosurgeon
who has actually walked into a bank and robbed it, Dr. Moran Cerf.
Moran: Thank you.
Tom: Thank you so much for joining us.
I think the only reasonable place to start with you is to ask how does it feel to rob
Moran: It feels remarkable.
I think … I’m trying to go back to the memory of doing it the first time.
It’s something that you [crosstalk 00:02:40] before and after your life is ...
Tom: How many times have you robbed a bank?
Moran: I robbed a bank the way you mean as in went into one and stole the cash, four
times and stole money virtually dozens of times.
Tom: The stealing money virtually was your job.
Tom: Walk us through how you end up walking into a bank and actually robbing it.
Moran: There are a number of people right now whose job is to actually break into banks
and steal the money online.
This is a job that’s called pen tester.
You’re hired by the bank’s board to try and find ways to online steal the money.
This is common.
There are some banks who would let you also try to test the physical security which would
mean to actually go there and see if the cameras are pointing to the right place, if someone
left a Post-It note with the password on the computer, and also to actually go and say,
"Hey, give me your money."
It’s not that popular among hackers because they’re really good at that normally, but
every now and then, you’ll hear about a group of hackers who’ll try that we were
among those who went instead.
Let’s see if we can rob the bank the way westerners did it.
Tom: How do you then end up becoming a neuroscientist?
Your job was pretty sexy.
It’s not like it was drooling boring.
You were robbing banks and hacking computers.
Moran: The story involved a lot of characters who influenced it, but I would say that the
one person who influenced me the most is Francis Crick who is at the time maybe the most influential
neuroscientist studying consciousness in San Diego that I happen to meet when I was a hacker,
so totally something doing else in my life, and had an evening with him.
In this evening, he learned about my career and said that your job is to basically look
at the black box, see what comes in, what goes out, and learn how it works.
This is what hackers do.
He said, “Think about using that in something that’s going to be much more valuable to
the world which is looking at the brain.”
The brain is this black box.
Instead of trying to figure out the code, try to see how people behave, understand what
they do and learn how their brains work to make it happen.
This took me two years to actually apply the advice but …
Tom: [Inaudible 00:04:45] You’re talking about Francis Crick from Crick and Watson,
the people who discovered the double helix of DNA which is pretty interesting.
Honestly, tell us about researching.
I didn’t realize how recently he was active.
It felt a little more decent to me.
You’ve called him your idol.
What was it about him in particular that made him your idol?
Moran: First of all, he tackled interesting questions, right, because a lot of scientist,
they try to do the same thing many, many times just to accumulate more knowledge on the same
He was not that kind of guy.
He really tried to look at all the things that I was told as a kid, the interesting
things in science but you should not ever study them until you have a Nobel Prize.
Studying dreams, consciousness, whether there’s aliens out there, free will, all the cool
things that we think about when we were kids but are told as we enter academia don’t
ever touch this thing at least until you get a Nobel Prize.
He was looking into all of those things and really diving into them, so I felt that this
was what’s interesting.
Tom: You actually made a list, right, when you first started your … Was it your PhD?
You made the list of like here are the important questions I think I want to explore?
Moran: Day one on my fridge, I had this Post-It note with all the things that I wanted to
do if I ever get a PhD.
Among those things were the things I mentioned.
Tom: All right.
Let’s take them piece by piece.
I’m really fascinated by Free Will certainly, and I’m assuming that you followed Sam Harris
in terms of his talk about free will and all the stuff that he has done on that.
What is it that draws you to Free Will?
Why are you interested?
Moran: I think that in a way, there’s an application to free will, right.
We live life thinking we make decisions all the time and responsible for our decisions
and also determined and defined by those.
If I ask you what do you want to have for lunch and I offer you five different things
and you make a choice, then your choice is somehow your identity.
This is like what you care about.
If I told you right now that I could predict what you’re going to choose an hour before
you made a choice, a day, 20 years before, it takes away some of our identity in a way
but also gives us meaning because it says, okay, there’s actually a narrative that
we carry with us throughout life.
Now, the choice has become really something that defines who we are, not just the moment
of but as a person in the world.
I always care about like free will, understanding it, predicting it, and also using it to change
If you think that, okay, [inaudible 00:07:06] determine do I have any meaning to my life
… I’m sorry.
They are not determined, we do have control over them and that’s what makes us human.
Tom: You believe that we do have free will or you believe that it’s totally different
on how we’re thinking of them.
We have to totally re-imagine it.
Morgan: There’s like two kind of moments that need to be addressed.
One is whether we do actually have this moment of spark that happens when the choice is totally
arbitrary and we have like a choice.
I do believe that we have that free will, a toss of a coin where something gets determined.
What’s interesting is the moment when we become aware of the free will choice, as in
I ask you … [inaudible 00:07:41] ask you do you want the fish or the steak at this
moment like you have two options.
Now, you’re about to make a choice.
What do you want?
Tom: Steak for sure.
Morgan: You had a second now where you had to look at all the options, I gave you only
two, and make a decision.
Now, at some point if I ask you when did you make the choice, you would say, "Well, maybe
as soon as I finished the sentence."
Maybe you would say a fraction of a second afterwards.
The question is, A, how far before did we know the answer to that.
Also, was there anything I could have said differently that would have make you say the
Most importantly, what’s the gap between the moment you would tell me that’s the
moment that you chose and the moment that you actually chose.
Apparently, there is a gap and this gap is what we call the illusion of free will.
The moment where you say that’s the moment, [inaudible 00:08:25], this is when it happened.
I can look at your brain and say, “You know what?
Actually here, your dinner that you’re going to choose.”
Or even like if you want to take it one step further, we can actually stimulate your brain
and make you choose this thing.
I would tell you and I’d say, "Who made the choice?"
You say, "I have to make the choice myself.
This was my decision."
I’d say, “Well, you know what, here’s me zapping your brain performance making you
[crosstalk 00:08:43] Tom: What are you [inaudible 00:08:44] with?
Transcranial magnetic stimulation?
This is not to me but there are people who …
Tom: Yeah, so what would you do?
Can you really do the steak-fish one?
Morgan: The only demo that I saw was one person basically having a little box and they have
buttons and they have to choose whether they want to press the left or the right.
People sit there and they pressed left, right, right, left, left, left for like 10 minutes.
Then someone asked them what is your choice which button to press at any point?
They’d say of course and then you zoom out and you see a person sitting with a PMS like
this machine that looks at the brain.
They’re basically playing like a [puppeteer 00:09:13]; left, right, right, left.
Tom: Get the fuck out of here.
Morgan: That’s real.
What’s interesting isn’t that you can do that.
This is not surprising.
We know that we can actually zap your brain and make you move your head.
What’s surprising is that you would tell me it was my choice like you would believe
that it was your decision.
You wouldn’t question the fact that what you did was your decision.
This to me was an interesting part that we can have this way with our brain to always
In other words, whatever I did I wanted to do.
If I do this thing, it was my choice.
Now we know that it wasn’t necessarily your choice.
That things affected you, that things made you do what you did, and you will always claim
that it was your decision so we can actually show you that you’re not really fully …
Tom: How do people respond when you show them?
They mostly try to defend free will so they try to argue with me.
I showed them the video of me telling things.
They say, no, no, no.
We have this experiment that we bring them to the lab and we just tell them things.
We say, "Okay, what do you want to eat after the experiment?
Where do you want to sit, here or there?"
We ask them to make decisions and we don’t really tell them anything.
Just say take decisions, like sit here or there?
Do you want this pen or that pen?
Do you want the light on or off?
Then we ask them after the experiments how many choices did you made?
The people who experienced us toying with their free will think that they made hundreds
They made about 14 but they really feel that, okay, I had to make choices, I control everything,
this was my decision, they cannot try to grasp into the ideal free will and say, "I had a
lot of decisions to my life and I made them."
They become a little more religious.
They become a little bit more ethical.
A lot of things happen to you when you feel that what’s in question is your identity.
Tom: That is so interesting.
I’ve heard a lot of these studies and I’ve not heard where you’re literally playing
conga drums and whether they did the right and left.
I’ve seen one where you know they’re about to do it before they do and so you turn the
buttons on essentially to buzz them and tell them not to press which is hilarious, but
I didn’t know about that one.
It’s so interesting.
Okay, so you’re a guy with deep background in narrative.
You teach a screenwriting course, for God’s sake.
Help me understand how you know that you can manipulate the brain and yet you still believe
in free will.
It sounds like you believe in free will and the way that it’s tied to your own self
Moran: Here’s the idea.
I feel that there’s a lot of things that affect our decision.
The temperature in the room, the height of the chair, the weight of the book we’re
holding; a lot of things.
This is studied by a lot of people in many, many ways that show time and again that you
can actually change a person’s behavior.
We can list those things so someone can take them and now have list of things that they
can apply if they want to have better interactions with people, what temperature should the room
be, what they should do.
We know that.
We know that thing.
At the same time, we still live life as if it’s our decisions entirely.
We know that I can trick you by making the price of the food 6.99 rather than 7 and you
would think it’s 6, not 7, just like the simplest one in the book.
All of us know it and it still works.
Take that to a larger scale, we know that there’s hundreds of thousands of biases
that affect our brain and even if I tell you what they are, you would still work the same
Free will is becoming interesting to me when we learn all of those things and we say, "Okay.
Then who am I?"
Who’s in charge?
Who’s the puppeteer in this example?
The reality is that … what we learn is that there are more than one puppeteer in our brain.
There’s many, many.
Every day, one other guy wakes up, and so one day with this guy, one day with this guy,
and they’re vying for dominance.
They fight and they compete.
They make a decision together, they vote, and ultimately we protect the person who spoke
last and we say this is who I am.
To me, the most interesting is that we can now actually all their characters.
We can show them fighting.
We can tell you that there’s more people in your brain.
In doing so, we can actually allow you to really manifest different sides of yours so
you know maybe that you’re making better choices in the morning and I make that choices
in the evening.
You might know that you’re making better decisions when you’re hungry and I am when
I’m full; when you’re talking to friends, when you’re alone.
We can now profile your brain.
Tom: If somebody is watching us right now and they’re thinking, “Okay, wait.
Do I make better decisions when I’m hungry or full, night, day?”
What are you looking for and what can they look for at home?
Morgan: I would say what we do with a lot of people who are in senior positions in companies
that want to actually make decisions better, we have a protocol that’s a little bit tedious.
It’s not easy to do it but I’ll tell you what it is, and then you can think of ways
to maybe try it yourself.
We have them basically walk for a week with a diary and make choices and just write them
Tell us like I had this fish or the steak for lunch and I chose this and this is how
They also write whether they were happy or not with the choice.
Now, this is done the way they wouldn’t normally but we also add one more thing.
We put EEG cap on their head … Tom: All day?
Morgan: … for more than 24 hours.
They walk with something that measures their brain activity.
There’s moments where they have to replace the battery.
There’s a little like gaps there.
Altogether, we have them walk through life with both living life the way they do and
reflect on their choices but also have us look at their brain.
What we do at the end of the three days, one week, as long as they would do that … It’s
uncomfortable and embarrassing sometimes.
We ask them to look at all the choices and tell us which ones were good, which ones were
Then we look at their brains and we see what words their brain looking like.
What did it look like when they made choices that they were happy with?
We sometimes see that there are things in their brain that are repeated so maybe they
made choices more using this part of the brain.
I’m only trying to simplify it by looking at the part of the brain that are more emotional
rather than rational.
We see that they activate more part of the brain that are buried deep inside that has
to do with reflection rather than like thinking.
We tell them, “Here’s what we learned about you.
You are better in this and that state.”
That’s one thing.
It’s not easy to apply because you still have to have this thing on your head.
Not everyone can do that.
At least people in senior positions who feel that [inaudible 00:015:02] critical come to
us and say, “Okay, help me.
I want to know who I am better.”
Tom: Now, what about those study you did where you’ve got the cyclist on the bike, they’re
going hard, hard, hard, hard, hard, and you watch for certain brain states where you know,
“Okay, they’re going to quit.”
Then you use that information overtime to get them to delay quitting farther and farther.
How does that work?
Morgan: Behind that lies the idea that the brain is kind of like a muscle, and specifically,
there’s part of the brain that we really care about.
It’s the part that’s doing self control.
If you think about it in simple way [inaudible 00:015:33] is that you start running.
You go running.
The first mile, your legs say let’s run, and the brain controls them so let’s run,
and there another part of the brain that says no problem at all.
After one mile, your legs say it’s a little bit painful but the part of the other brain
that controls them say keep going.
After 10 miles, the legs say I want to quit, and the other part say, no, keep going.
It’s like there’s a battle there and at some point you're going to break.
Now when you’re going to break depends on a lot of things, your muscles, but it also
depends on this control coming from the front of your brain that overrides your experience,
If we can see this moment where you break, the moment where you stop despite the fact
that you can do a little more, we can come back to you tomorrow and say, “Let’s do
the same thing you did yesterday.
Have you run?
Only this time when you get to the moment when we see that you’re about to break,
we’re going to play a sound.
We’re going to tell you that we can see that you’re about to break and we ask you
to just continue for one more minute at this moment that is beyond what you did yesterday.”
Tom: What, in that moment, how do you appeal to them?
Is it like, come on, mother fucker, like you got this or …
Moran: That’s basically it.
There’s a question in sport for a while, why is it that people do better when they
play home game versus outside game?
What is it about your mom being in the audience that makes you win the game?
In theory, they doesn’t matter like throwing the basketball should be the same.
Somehow, we know that if your friends are there, if you’re feeling better, we know
that people do better when they’re, "Oh.
They're kind of winning."
There’s a lot of things that affect our brain.
What we try to understand right now is where is it in their brain.
What is this part of the brain that gets better when your emotions are highlighted or heightened?
Now we're seeing it.
Tom: This is life like what you’re talking about right now.
Boys and girls at home, I’m telling you there’s a banality to being an entrepreneur.
There is a willingness to suffer to being an entrepreneur, to being a great mom.
Whatever it is that you’re trying to do, suffering is involved.
It literally like being able to extend your breakpoint is what it’s about.
When I read- Moran: What I’m going to say is that we
all face those moments when the alarm buzzes at 6 a.m.
We set the alarm at 10 p.m. and suddenly in the morning we’re different people like
we’re not the person who wants to wake up anymore.
It’s the same brain that sets the alarm at 10 p.m. but now suddenly it’s 6 a.m.
We’re not the same guy.
This is the moment like that.
We have to make a choice when we’re going running, when we’re about to eat a cake.
There’s like a tasty cake and we’re on a diet.
We say, oh, I shouldn’t eat the cake but there’s a conflict.
Now is the moment where those two parts of the brain come to life.
The more you know about yourself, the more you’re aware of those situations, the better
you can do in controlling them.
The more you know about yourself, you can do better in all of those tasks.
That’s the ultimate thing.
That’s why we’re here.
We're giving you the knowledge.
Once you know it, it doesn’t work anymore.
Once you know that 6.99 isn’t 7, it’s harder for it to work.
Just knowing is enough for people to do better.
Know that it’s in your capacity to change.
That’s what we want.
Tom: Like how does somebody become more self-aware?
How do they begin to identify those things that are particular to them so that they can
extend their breaking point or so that they can disprove whatever?
Moran: All they need to do is they need to communicate science in tangible way so people
would know all the option.
I said there’s hundreds and thousands of options but there’re actually a couple of
hundreds of biases that, we, humans have.
I can give you examples in a second.
Once you know them, they don’t work anymore.
The job of scientist is to just translate the knowledge of the brain into words that
it can be then spoken to an audience who then lives by then, and that’s it.
All they need to do is just do this.
Speak to people and list their biases.
Then it doesn’t work anymore.
At least when it happens you become a little bit better in controlling that.
That’s all we need.
It’s pretty simple.
Once you know it, it doesn’t work.
Tom: Let’s use an example from your life.
I love this story, by the way.
You’re about to be published in Nature.
It’s your first big break in science, and this is really going to set up your career.
Then someone wakes you up from a nap and you basically say, “Yeah, recording dreams is
You can’t take it back.
You’re like “Wait, wait, that’s not what I meant.”
It goes crazy.
The part that I love is Christopher Nolan calls you up and says, “Hey, I just did
this movie, Inception.
You’re now the dream recording guy.
I want you to come with me and do a worldwide tour,” which would be a huge break for you
and just be … I’m sure money and certainly notoriety and you had to think about it.
Even though you knew going means essentially reinforcing this opinion that I actually don’t
agree with, but turning it down means that I had passed up that opportunity.
What did you go through in the 24 hours before you gave the answer?
Moran: To give you the full story, I’m finishing my PhD.
I haven’t decided what I’d do next.
Am I continuing in science?
Do I go like back to being a hacker?
This is like a moment of [inaudible 00:20:21] in my life and suddenly there comes this moment
where the end of my five-year PhD is getting a lot of attention but all wrong; my career
hindrance of this thing.
Then I have suddenly an option to actually own this thing and become this dream expert
even though it’s based on a lie.
I was fortunate enough to have enough checks and balances that I didn’t really have to
go far with that so here’s the interesting reflection that I have right now.
I knew it was impossible to look at people’s dreams and [inaudible 00:20:52] I said it
in sleepy state and created this like amazing story for people that scientists are now recording
The mistake was to leave this.
To say it’s not possible, I’m not going to own this thing even though the world cares
If anything can be learned from this thing is that the world really wanted to have people
record dreams because that’s why it’s such a big thing because people care about
Dreams are interesting.
I went and I said it's impossible and I want to kill the story.
This was a mistake.
Three years later, I’m sitting at home, now 2013, and I got a call from BBC again.
BBC were the first ones to let the story go away.
They called me again and they say, “Professor Cerf, we wanted you to comment on dream recording
and the possibility of doing that.”
I said, “Guys, are you kidding me?
I’m done with that.
This is not too ... Like let’s not even begin going there.”
They said, “No, no.
We know that you’re going to do that.
We want you to comment on the work of Professor Kamitani from Japan who is doing it right
Someone in Japan didn’t know that it was impossible.
He just didn’t hear me going anywhere public and saying it’s impossible so he just did
Three years after I said it was impossible, someone did it, and two years after that,
Now half the thing I do in life is actually looking at people’s dreams.
The mistake I made, it wasn’t just saying something is possible when it was not.
It was to say that something was impossible before I knew it because I think that science
is all about going to those dark places and trying to find what’s impossible.
My mistake was to say it was impossible before I was sure about it.
I should have said we don’t know yet, we didn’t do it yet, but we should investigate.
I was quick to say “I didn’t do it, it’s impossible,” so I delayed things by three
Five years after, I’m doing it right now.
Tom: Dude, can I shake your hand?
I fucking love that so much like most people cannot look at something like that and say
the mistake that I made was actually in the opposite direction and I should’ve been
I should’ve made a wiser proclamation.
Then to actually join the team, that’s so cool.
Moran: Dreams is something that I was told not to study.
Now that’s what I do in my life every day.
Now I’m never saying something is possible before I’m certain that it’s impossible.
Tom: I love that.
I love it even more if you would go so far as to say nothing is truly impossible.
Then you’d really have me.
Moran: I’ll go with you.
You mentioned that I teach screenwriting and I work with TV.
The reason I do that is because I feel that the best ideas for my research come from those
hours with the kids who write plays, with the fellows at the American Film Institute
who writes science fiction, from movies that inspired me like The Matrix.
You mentioned that like this has inspired us.
We are kids of 1999.
What happened then affected us.
Star Trek affected my dad’s generation.
The best paper that I had ever written has a thousand of citation.
The episode of Limitless that I worked on last week and came out has five million people
Those are the kids who are going to be me in 20 years.
If they think, oh, this is maybe possible, they’re going to do that.
You’re asking me how to change their behavior.
This is how.
To know what the possibilities are.
Tom: I love that so much.
Here’s the people watching the show, they know my story very, very well, and I now run
it into the ground because it’s so important.
I am not an example of what happens when innate talent meets hard work.
I’m an example of what happens with a human being anytime hard work is applied because
I didn’t show early signs of promise.
I got a 990 on my SATs.
I was taking it twice.
I don’t qualify for men’s or anything like that.
I have an average IQ.
It’s like none of my raw materials are very impressive but I work hard.
I work hard over a very long period of time.
In doing so, I’ve completely transformed my life and I’ve transformed my mind to
the point where now people just assume I’m smart.
The same people, right, that were looking at me 20 years ago did not assume I was smart
but they do now.
The reason this conversation is so important to be having with a neuroscientist is it all
comes down to me to the narrative that you tell yourself, when I was undereducated and
lost and bordering on depress and all of that, it was because the narrative that I told myself
was that I was a victim of something.
Once I gave up the victim mentality and I realized I can do anything that I set my mind
to, so now it’s a spiritual question, right?
If you really believe you can do anything you set your mind to, then how you spend your
time is a spiritual question.
Once I said, “Okay, what I’m going to spend my time on is self-improvement.
I’m going to see how much can I manipulate my own brain.”
I began researching the brain to understand what’s malleable and what’s not; learning
If you don’t even know what myelin is to like think that you’ve already maxed yourself
out is fucking crazy.
Researching the brain, finding out the anatomical mechanisms that are at play, and the coming
to, okay, this comes down to self-narrative.
If I’m telling myself dreams can be recorded, then they really can’t because I will stop
shy of that.
When you’re talking about never saying that something is impossible when you’re not
really sure, what I start thinking is thinking big like thinking really big and watching
The Matrix and saying, "Okay, either that level of VR is actually possible or stopping
bullets is actually possible," like whatever the thing is that you take away from it.
Time travel was one of the things on your list.
The promise I make to people watching the show is from watching the show, you will accomplish
more than you would have if you didn’t watch the show.
One of the key reasons for that is you’ll finally understand that if you fail to think
big, that’s on you.
The only reason you’re not thinking big is because you’re scared, because there’s
nothing in the machinations of the brain, there’s nothing in what has come before
you in science, nothing that would lead you to believe the thing you currently think is
impossible actually is.
Moran: Let me say this in neuroscience words.
I love it so here’s how I’m going to say it.
Your brain goes with you and it carries all of the history in the form of memories.
All of you have from what happened before you is stored in the form of memories and
they’re not accurate and they’re compressed.
That’s only about the past.
You have no idea in the future even though your brain tries to predict it all the time.
This is what dreams are for.
This is what decisions are for.
You try to simulate the future and make predictions.
You don’t know what’s going on.
All you have is this sliver of reality which is the present which is all you have, and
you control everything that happens there.
The nice thing about the present is that actually it interacts with everything in your brain
and you can change things.
What we learned in the last five years is that memories are different in how they work.
If I have to summarize it to one sentence, they change every time you use them.
If you have a memory stored here or what you had for lunch yesterday and I ask you what
did you had for lunch, you basically open them.
Right now you tell me a story, but whatever happens right now goes into the story and
you say it differently.
If I ask you tomorrow what you had for lunch, you’ll open the modified version.
Every time I ask you the same question, you open a different version which means you can
actually change the past.
You can actually change your experience of things.
This is why therapy works.
Your girlfriend breaks up with you, you go to a therapist, she asks you what happened.
You tell the story, she intervenes, you say it differently.
A week after, what happened, you tell a different story.
After five meetings, you have a different version of the reality.
That is powerful because it means that we control the narrative that we have.
We don’t really have to be confounded to the story that we experienced.
We can actually change it.
That’s what the brain is for, to simulate and change and adjust and synthesize better
version of life.
We can make ourselves happy.
We can make bad things look better.
We can control things and it’s all by virtue of just telling a story, looking it differently,
and saving it again.
It’s as simple as that.
We have the ability to actually change a story all the time.
Learning is one way to do that.
Thinking and reflecting about ourselves is another way to do that.
Having more experiences allows us to do that.
We know all of these now.
Suddenly, there’s essence to this self-help book that we read when we were kids and we
know how to implement that.
I become a preacher but … Tom: No, but I love it, I love it, and I hope
people are listening to your sermon because like that is the most important thing anybody
struggling to have success should know is the narrative that you tell yourself about
yourself is the most important thing you have.
If you tell yourself a story of struggle, inadequacy, not being good enough, failure,
like all of that, then that’s going to reinforce because that literally becomes your identity.
Going back to what you’re saying at the very beginning, you’ve got people and they’re
justifying why they made some choice, right.
When you said do you want the fish or the steak, dude, inside I was like my narrative
as a human being is I’m the guy who chooses the steak, right.
I know that isn’t even difficult.
It would’ve been easier if you said steak or cake because I’m really the guy that
chooses steak over cake.
It’s like that’s pure narrative.
That’s what I want to tell myself.
The big breakthrough in my life, the big breakthrough on a map of my timeline if you were going
to put a demarcation point, it is the day I stopped thinking of myself as smart because
I wasn’t, and I started thinking of myself as a learner.
That changed everything because now the narrative that I was reinforcing, the memories I was
pulling out changing just a little bit and then putting back all revolved around reimagining
myself as somebody who learns faster than other people, is willing to learn, will put
in the time and the effort to learn.
It became this identity which was anti-fragile, right, because now you could tell me I was
stupid and it didn’t matter.
It didn’t hurt me.
It just compelled me to learn more.
The reason I shook your hand earlier is I really am moved when you say I was wrong about
I should’ve done this.
Any time people can say that, can just own a mistake and see a better solution, that’s
somebody who’s polishing a self-image in a way that’s anti-fragile that the more
they look at that failure, the harder they go in an even better direction.
It’s really incredible.
I want to ask you all the questions that I get asked to which I have no answer and I’m
hoping … because I get asked these questions a lot.
Number one, how can I get more motivation?
It’s the one thing because I’ve never lacked motivation.
I don’t know how to help people.
Here’s how I would think about it.
Motivation is a word, right.
It’s a label that we put, set of events in our brain.
What you actually want is the outcome of that.
You want to do things when it’s held.
I think there a few things that we know work.
One is evidence of past successes.
If I say to you and go back to your memories and I reframe them as successes, suddenly
the current event that’s the same is a success.
I think one thing is having success stories and identification [inaudible 00:32:02].
There’s a lot of people out there.
There was a person that is like you that had similar experience and chose the thing that
you want to choose.
Find this person or this people and it’s going to rub into you.
I get asked by my students often how do I become funnier, how do I become smarter like
by [inaudible 00:32:21].
What I give them all the time is surround yourself with people that you want to be like.
You want to be funny?
Just sleep next to comedians.
Just go within the same room they are and just sit with them.
Its’ going to rub onto you by osmosis because it’s the environment that surrounds us that
really changes everything.
Other people said that before but I’ll tell you what the neuroscience behind it.
We know now that brains interact with each other through language in a way that synchronizes
When I talk to you right now, if you’re engaged with what I say, it means that if
we scan our brain right now, our brains are going to look alike, more than yours and someone
on the street that isn't here.
Two people in the same room, as soon as they interact, their brains literally start to,
if you want, pulsing in the same way.
Part of their brain light up in the same way, parts shut down.
This is how we affect each other.
This is how communication made humans who they are.
This is the one thing that makes us better than all the other animals because we are
able to communicate using language, affect each other’s brain and create narrative
that only exist together.
We both believe in things that we’ve never seen before like God or ideas that’s like
democracy or money, like those things we invented, we can communicate them and create this image
in people’s brains, and they all share this thing.
In the same way, if you surround yourself by people that you want to be like, you hear
them communicate, they change your brain, and it’s going to rub onto you.
You’re going to actually become funnier if you sit and listen to funny people next
You’ll actually become more motivated if you’re next to people that are motivated.
The next version of that, if you cannot find them, if you're sitting right now in the rural
part of Alaska and you can’t just find yourself in Los Angeles with the people you want to
be with, is to actually just look at them on videos, on books.
That’s the way our brain basically gets content and change.
Changing brains happens in many, many ways but the easiest one that anyone can try is
to say what kind of world I want to be in and bring this world to you in the form of
movies, stories, TV shows, all people.
That’s the ways to get things that you want next to you.
Tom: Do you think when you’re doing that that you’re getting into a repetitive brain-firing
pattern that ultimately wires?
Moran: You actually change your brain.
We didn’t mention that the science behind it match like in terms of what we do.
We put electrodes in people’s brains and we look at their brains while things happen
We actually see it in action.
We see how the brain changes when people communicate.
We see how the brain looks.
When you watch a movie, we see how your brain aligns with the movie.
When you tell someone else the story about the movie, their brain aligns with your brain
but aligns also with the brain of the director of the movie.
Communication is this mechanism by which information flows between brains and changes the brain.
Actually, if you want to take it one step above, this is also how we change ourselves
because we [inaudible 00:35:06] all the time.
You drive your car or you walk to work and you’re just alone with yourself and you
communicate, you also change your brain.
You solidify the things that you want to be more like and you suppress the ones you don’t
We always talk.
Those voices, those are basically the other characters in our brain that talk to each
You can choose which ones to give more weight to so this is how you become the better person
you want to be.
We actually now play with things that change behavior during the night when you’re sleeping
in the following way.
[crosstalk 00:35:37] This is another new thing from the last 10
years in neuroscience that was finally discovered which is you can learn change and transfer
If you look at the night if you go to sleep for eight-hour sleep, it’s not a uniformed
It’s not really just to fall asleep and you spend eight hours in the same state.
You actually have phases.
We call them stages and cycles.
There have different things that’s happening in them and one of them is the stage where
That’s when our brain basically simulate future options and shows us a movie of things
that could happen and allow us to live through them, thinking the realities, the ultimate
We actually live life thinking that we’re there, thinking how it would be to live with
her in Alaska or to quit the job and move to Vancouver.
Really that experience filled it to our emotions and then wake up with the answer what to do.
This is one stage.
There’s another thing stage that’s really interesting, Stage 3 and 4 of the sleep.
We call it slow-wave sleep.
It’s a stage of the night where your brain essentially takes all the experiences from
the day before and waits them, and chooses which ones to keep and which ones to take
If you think about life when you go through your day, there are many, many moments you
call the present.
About every one-and-a-half second you have a different present, and then it goes in the
It becomes a memory.
You go to the next moment and you live it and then you store it in the memory.
Then when you go to sleep, your brain looks at all those 50,000 moments that you had.
It says, okay.
When I walk from home to the bank, I had 20 of those moments.
They’re not really important.
I should compress them into one.
Keep just one.
Remove the others.
When I kissed her, it was a moment that I want to remember every fraction of so I want
to keep all of them individually like one big stock of experiences.
Your brain does it.
You’re in slow-wave sleep during this mode.
You choose out of all of them and picks the ones that’s important.
What we learned in the last five years, 10 years, is that it can actually do things to
you at this stage.
When you’re sleeping, it will make you change the pointer.
We can choose for you to focus on the walk to the bank rather than the kiss, and in doing
so, we’re going to basically make you strengthen those memories at the expense of others.
We do that by using smells or sounds that we play to your ears.
In the right moment, the smell of the … Tom: You judge that right moment because you’re
actually watching like [inaudible 00:37:55] [crosstalk 00:37:54]
Moran: It has to be done.
The important thing is you can’t do that at home.
You can’t just spray the smell and do it all the time.
You have to do it in the right moment because if you just spray in the room, it’s going
to wash out.
You have to target the brain at the right moment, but then the brain is going to say
I smell this thing.
This means that I want to focus on this moment and strengthen that.
What the experiments that we are doing and others are doing right now show is that you
can actually make a person learn things when they’re sleeping.
You can actually change their behavior.
You can make them choose to focus on different behaviors that they want to change and wake
up not doing these things.
You can actually do things.
The classic experiment that was really popular in the last three years since 2015 was people
come to lab and they’re smokers and they want to sleep.
They go to sleep for two hours.
The experiment just wait for the moment when they’re brain is in this state when it’s
listening to the outside world and reassessing life.
They spray the smell of nicotine into their nose making their brain think, okay, out of
all the memories I have, let’s focus on those that have to do with smoking.
Then immediately after, they blast the brain with a smell of rotten eggs which basically
makes the brain rewire and take nicotine and wire it with like bad experiences.
You do that a few times.
When they’re sleeping, they wake up, they have no idea what happened.
Then suddenly, they say, "I don’t really want to smoke anymore."
For a few days they actually changed their behavior.
They don’t want to smoke, not knowing what happened.
They just came, took a nap, wake up, and they don’t want to smoke.
This is change in behavior neuroscience.
You find the moment, you hit the brain with it, you change the wiring, and the person
wakes up a different person.
Tom: That is amazing.
Do people freak out about that like good or bad?
Moran: The answer is they do but they shouldn’t.
I have an analogy that’s going to be the way I look at it.
Go back 406 years ago, 1610.
Galileo Galilee points his telescope to the moons of Jupiter and he looks at the orbit
and he expected it to go in one way but it doesn’t.
It goes in a different way.
He tries to understand what’s going on there.
The only way to solve the equation is to realign the planets of our Milky Way galaxy and specifically
the solar system by putting the sun in the center and put earth as the number three planet
in the system which to him is the [inaudible 00:40:03] of humankind.
What does it mean?
That we’re just one more planet out of many?
We’re not the center.
It feels horrible to him.
It changes everything.
The equations require that so he does it.
In doing so, he basically allows us to now see the wide [inaudible 00:40:15] universe.
Suddenly we see that the universe is much bigger than we imagined and we can explore
In the next 400 years, we saw more of the universe and we learned a lot about what is
Now in the same way, in the last five years, we’re beginning to understand that in our
own brain, there are many, many voices and we are not the most important one.
We’re not even the center.
We’re just one more voice out of many in our head and we’re the one who think that
they’re the most important.
Actually, the quiet ones that don’t really talk to us are the center of our universe.
Now, this to us, again, feels like a [inaudible 00:40:48] of humankind.
What does it mean that I’m not the center of my own universe?
The reality is that this will allow us to understand the most important and interesting
thing in the universe which is us.
That’s I think a profound understanding.
Yes, it’s scary that we’re not responsible for our choices that happen to us, that we
are creating a narrative based on things that we’re not really full in control.
That’s the beauty of us because now we can actually explore more things in our brain
and learn how things happen, and maybe we’ll understand how to become better people.
Tom: It’s really interesting.
Moran: I somehow ended up being a preacher tonight.
I have no idea how it happened but I’m going to take it.
Tom: Yes, please.
Preach now about the self-deception, how essentially it feels like the layer that we view is also
the voice … to use your vernacular, the voice that we view as us is trying to cobble
together this narrative based on these decisions that are made by the quiet voices.
How can we leverage that to either just tell ourselves a more empowering story or to actually
get the quiet voices to do what we want them to do that’s more in line with our goals.
Very specifically with self-deception, how can that become a tool that we’re using
in a self-aware way to push us forward.
Moran: It is tool that we're deceiving ourselves but we have to change the valance of the statement
to a positive one.
Set of deception sounds like a bad thing.
This is our brain’s way of saving us.
This is our brain’s … it’s [inaudible 00:42:22].
It’s still not living to reality the way it is.
This is actually mechanisms that our brain created to optimize the world.
We know that our eyes offer us only a small fraction of all the things that the world
has but we call this reality.
We know that our nose smells only what’s right here, and our noses [inaudible 00:42:42]
to where the smells are.
The smells are down here and our noses are up here.
We don’t even smell … We don’t have it in place.
All of those things may not … Our brain deceives us.
It always offers us a reality that isn’t true.
This allows us to have a different view of the universe that we get to create ourselves.
On one hand, we want to know what’s out there.
That’s why we have x-ray sensors and ultraviolet sensors because we want to actually know what
are all the rays of light that are out there that our eyes cannot see.
That’s why we developed all those smart tools to hear things that are beyond the frequencies
that our ear can get.
We want to know what’s out there, but our brain through years of illusion created this
set of deception that we call reality in a way that’s perfect for us.
It allows us to live life in a comfortable way.
Tom: One of the things you talked about along the lines of self-deception is people are
really bad at understanding what they want and whether they’re intentionally deceiving
themselves, intentionally deceiving you as a researcher.
One thing I get asked a lot is somebody wants to be fulfilled.
They want to find a career that they love.
They want to start a company but they don’t know what.
How can people get good at understanding what they want?
Moran: I would say that the best way is to be aware.
Be aware meaning like [crosstalk 00:44:01] take a note.
What you see actually when you look at the brains of people, we see how few repetitions
of a message does it take for your brain to rewire and now have it solidified.
We can show you eight times.
Moran: It varies but that’s the area.
We show you eight times this person next to this item, and first when you see this person,
this cell lights up in your brain.
The cell, it codes Tiger Woods, lights up when you see Tiger Woods.
They show you Gillette, another cell lights up.
We start showing you the two of them together, after eight repetitions of seeing them together,
suddenly the cell for Tiger Woods also codes Gillette and the cell for Gillette code Tiger
Suddenly, the cell [crosstalk 00:44:46] and that’s it.
Eight repetitions is very little.
This is the amount of time that commercials need to be shown on TV before you say, "Okay,
now I know that this is the [inaudible 00:44:55].
That means that it’s very easy to place in our brain things that we’re going to
Now that we also learned that these numbers are pretty small, we can also look at what
times of the day.
We know that there’s times of the day where it’s even three times.
Tom: Why do you think it has to do with this?
Is that like a circadian rhythm thing?
Is that a level of alertness tied to food like … I’m surprised by that.
Moran: All of the above.
Our brain has a lot of clocks in it, if you want.
There’s clocks and there's environment.
In a way, it’s simple.
The neuroscience proves what we can do behaviorally very easily.
Just pay attention, learn, surround ourselves with people that we care about, and decide
when we want to be fooled and when we don’t want to be fooled.
I think that this historian I really like said that hundred years ago the biggest threat
to humanity were famine, plague and war.
Basically, it’s over.
Those are no longer a threat for us.
If someone is hungry right now, it’s because politically we want them to be hungry.
There shouldn’t be any hunger in the world but there is because of reasons that’s beyond
Basically, we conquered the things that we should be … right now, it’s a lot more
You’re a lot more likely to die from overeating than under-eating, right.
Diabetes is a lot bigger threat to us than malnourishment.
In that sense, I think we conquered a lot of things.
Now, we’re at the level we start playing God.
We’re starting to think what can we do to the body that’s going to make it better.
We have privileges.
We are focusing out on happiness and what would make us happy.
We are extending life to its limit and now we’re realizing that the one thing that
we don’t know how to deal with is not the extension of life but the quality of life.
A lot of us are going to get to age 150, you and I, but we might spend the last 50 years
not being there.
Our bodies are going to be there but our brain is going to be basically not able to do the
A bunch of neuroscientists, and I’m helping a little bit, but it’s a project that is
beyond me are trying to fix that.
This is really the science fiction aspect.
The way to fix it is not by actually fixing the brain using drugs but by placing components
What we’re doing right now … Tom: With synthetic biology or …
Moran: Yes, with the chips like you basically take a chip and you … There are positive
brain almost like a bridge so things come from the in and get processed through and
A lot of things could come in, a lot of things could come out, but it’s finite sense.
There is a table of millions of things that could come in, and for them there’s a clear
what comes out.
The idea is that when you’re starting to decay, when your Alzheimer emerges, we’re
going to put electrodes in your brain and learn how the in-looks and the outlooks and
learn that while you’re decaying and when you get to the state where you’re really
no longer out there, we’re going to take out the part of the brain that’s biological
We’re going to put a chip instead.
That chip is going to now take the input from here.
Now you can open it to questions like is it still me, if any of those chips bypass …
Tom: That’s being worked on right now?
Moran: It’s already working with rats.
With rats, you can actually induce Alzheimer and then replace the faulty parts with chips
that do the mapping.
It's done here in Los Angeles [inaudible 00:48:07] by guys at USC.
Tom: Man, you’re really getting … It’s, A, exciting.
B, you’re opening Pandora’s Box like this is insane.
I love this show.
Moran: Yeah, we should talk about ethics in the end.
Whatever you tell me [inaudible 00:48:19] …
Tom: Let’s talk about ethics.
Moran: … because there is an interesting part.
I’m spending my time, half my days, in a business school.
This could be seen like a really selling your soul to the devil by helping people sell [inaudible
00:48:37] and crunch overnight to a person who’s in phase three of their night.
You can bombard their brain with [inaudible 00:48:42] crunch and they’re going to wake
up and they want [inaudible 00:48:44] and crunch instead of less.
Tom: Can we switch that to crossbars?
The idea is that there’s like a war right now where neuroscientists are splitting up
and they’re finding things.
They’re finding how to change behavior over the night.
We’re learning how we can change your biome and make you a different person by playing
with your gut bacteria that makes you different.
We know how smell affects your behavior.
We can make you like this woman, not that woman by playing different smells.
A lot of things happening and no one is in control of that because policymakers are slow.
It takes them a while to create the policies.
The people who are really fast are businessmen and marketing departments.
They are really fast.
They hear about it and they say, okay, let’s apply that.
My students, the MBA students, are the ones to say, "Hmm, it’s interesting."
My job … and that’s why I feel it’s important to say it here, is to remind those
students how bad they felt when they saw the 6.99.
They say, "Oh, come on.
I feel like I’m being schooled.
Someone tells me that it’s 6.99 to fool me but I want it to be just the fair price
I would know.
Why do they play with my …" In 20 years, you’re going to be the guy
who sets the price of an item and you’re going to have the option as well to go for
6.99 and make a person buy or you can say I’m going to be the better person.
I’m going to not try to play on all those biases and kind of change things.
I think this is the reality we have to have right now because scientists are going to
offer you a lot of tools to do good or bad and we have to choose as society how we play
Tom: Can I give you what I think is the right answer now?
I’m talking to the school of management guy and the neuroscientist here.
As an entrepreneur, as somebody who’s built a food company in particular, the answer that
I came to because I’m very much trying to convince you to buy, and what I realized is
we’re living in an era where companies have an obligation, a moral obligation in my opinion,
a moral obligation to make products worthy of being used.
If you’re making a product that actually delivers value, and that’s so important,
and yes I get it, who determines the value.
I honestly think that the companies have to be able to look themselves in the eye and
say I believe this product is good for you.
Moran: Hundred percent.
Tom: If you believe that it’s good for the person that you’re selling it to, then using
the tools and techniques to get people to buy it that makes sense to me.
It all comes down to what you’re pushing and promoting because if you’re … Think
about policymakers trying to get adoption on even just policies like getting STD test
or whatever the case may be that things that are good, not just for that person but for
society as a whole.
You have to sell it.
You have to get people to believe in that thing.
As long as that thing is good for you, I think getting people to believe in it is all right.
Moran: I think the thing that as scientist we have to explore the world.
This is why we’re here to all the options and including the ones that will be good for
you and the ones that are going to be bad for you, and then have you really understand
how to make a choice better yourself.
Tom: That’s good.
One last question for you.
What’s the impact that you want to have on the world?
Moran: The one thing that I’m really good [inaudible 00:51:55] do is find ways to take
complex ideas and make them into something that is tangible for everyone.
This is the impact that I want to be.
I want to find ways, movies, conversations, products, students to have everyone have the
I want everyone in the world to know enough so they can make a decision by themselves.
Tom: I love it.
Moran, thank you so much… Moran: Thank you so much.
Tom: … for coming on the show, man.
That was incredible.
Guys, I think we all are thinking the same thing right now.
Where can we find you online?
Moran: I have a website that I built in the last couple of weeks that’s pretty good
It has my name, morancerf.com, but, then again, I have so many stories I told and students
that take the message there.
If you just look for ideas, you’ll find me somewhere buried in them.
Well, I can tell you from experience if you drop his name in the YouTube, you’re going
to get a treasure trove of amazing talks.
Watch them all.
I hope you guys had as much fun with this man as I have.
I promise you I will be working to get him back for round two.
It is rare that I say that on the spot, but I’m telling you I could go for round two.
That will be amazing.
I had so much fun picking this man’s brain, the diverse way that he approaches.
Everything he does is incredible.
You’re going to see that as you dive into his world.
Watch the talks and hear him go from one subject to another.
He can go deep business and really like nuts and bolts business, marketing, and then switch
it over and show you photos of an actual brain with electrodes in it and what they’re learning
It is utterly astonishing.
I have rarely seen a human being who can so rapidly and beautifully traverse the line
between academia and business.
For anybody out there that wants to be at the cutting edge of what’s happening in
marketing, you’re going to want to look him up.
It is absolutely phenomenal.
From one narrator to another, as somebody who believes in the power of story, my friend,
you have a unique ability to do it.
It’s absolutely incredible.
Watch him on the Moth Storytelling.
See the stories that allowed him to win the awards.
All right, guys.
This is a weekly show.
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Hit it up.
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Until next week, my friends.
Thank you so much.
What a pleasure man.
Thanks so much for joining us for another episode of Impact Theory.
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