Meet Adam Piore, a powerful storyteller who spins tales of new technology, gut instinct, will, and transcendence
Full disclosure: when we first heard about Adam’s new bioengineering book, The Body Builders: Inside the Science of the Engineered Human, we felt like the subject matter might be a tad over our heads, and slightly unrelated to the business and marketing themes we cover here at Intellects. But after reading his inspiring and very palatable stories about human resilience and mental breakthroughs, it clicked. We absolutely had to interview him and get his take on everything from Artificial Intelligence to creativity; from self driving cars to blockchain technology (don’t miss his honest and charming answer about that one). Honestly, it was an honor to get a glimpse inside his curious mind and to hear the insights and insider stories he shares about the amazing people he encountered while writing his latest book. Read on for instant inspiration—it’s his strong suit.
When reading The Body Builders, we were touched and inspired by the resilience of your subjects. Has this book inspired you to push your own personal and mental boundaries? If so, can you provide any tips or mental processes that could become a daily practice to increase our potential?
Adam Piore: Yes. I was definitely impressed by the resilience and resolve of many of the subjects I profiled in my book. Like Hugh Herr, who lost both his legs to frostbite and who eventually, through his own efforts, was able to construct prosthetics that allow him to walk again. And Pat Fletcher, who lost the ability to see and can now see using her ears. I was inspired by both the individuals and the science they used—and the way their stories highlight the incredible resilience of the human body and mind. In terms of what I do myself, while working on the Pat Fletcher chapter, I learned about the incredible ability of the human brain to rewire itself: something called “neuroplasticity,” which concerns the human potential to reshape the neural connections in our brain with our activities. So I meditate every day for twenty to thirty minutes which has been shown to increase a sense of wellbeing. They’ve done brain scans of long time meditators and found that the longer these people have meditated, the quicker areas of the brain associated with wellbeing light up and the larger the areas of neural real estate. I also do a gratitude list. This practice wires my brain to think positively and has been shown to increase happiness. And I exercise three times a week at least. I do CrossFit. This isn’t totally related to the book, but in the Hugh Herr chapter I explored the biomechanics of the human body and how the muscles all work together. This has helped me to see the body sort of as a machine, like a car. I knew it was like that before, but doing CrossFit I know I’m helping it to operate at peak efficiency.
In terms of other ways that I increase my potential, I know it’s important to keep my brain active; I have also learned that setbacks don’t have to be permanent. If anything, I was inspired by the people in the book. I’ve also been inspired to trust my own intuition better, by learning how that works.
"Fifty years from now, when we want to visit a friend across town, we’re not going to get in a metal box and drive there, we’re just going to strap on the latest device that augments our ability to run and we’re just going to jog there."
Self-driving cars, Artificial Intelligence [AI], human augmentation...we are seeing the world change before our eyes, and know that these new realites are evolving at a rapid pace. At the same time, we’re willingly becoming more and more tethered to our devices. What’s the positive spin on this? Any thoughts on how we can remain present and grounded, while embracing the future?
AP: I think it’s important to take some time away from technology, obviously, and look at the world around us. There’s some debate about whether technology is making us more alienated from one another and I’m not so sure that’s the case. Probably the largest, longest and most exhaustive longitudinal study of human happiness and adjustment was the Harvard Grant Study, in which they looked at individuals of JFK’s generation. JFK and Ben Bradlee were actually participants in this and they followed them throughout their lives, and they found that some of the most important qualities for happiness and life-satisfaction, as well as resilience, were human relationships and doing meaningful work. I don’t think that that is going to change with technology. Technology, in fact, is just changing the tools we use to achieve these things, and if we’re well-adjusted, hopefully we recognize that these are the things that make us happy and make life worth living. So, some people have suggested that if you look at Facebook, it makes you more miserable because you’re comparing yourself to others and you’re more alienated. But those were early studies of the internet. Now everybody is on email and Facebook and some studies suggest that Facebook helps us stay connected to people, so it functions as a tool to extend our relationships. In the old days, many of us lived in the same town we grew up in and we were around the same people our whole lives. Now there’s this period of time where it’s become much more common to migrate for jobs or other things and we lose touch with our roots. Facebook helps us stay in touch with our roots and makes it so that when we have reunions with people that we have known from previous years, it’s like we haven’t been away as long. And so I think it can supplement relationships. In this sense, being tethered to our devices doesn’t necessarily mean we’re more alienated from humanity. That would be a positive spin.
I think it’s important to put down devices and connect in person when you are with people you care about. But, all of these things are just tools to experience the world and we always have had them. Hugh Herr talks about self-driving cars. He says that fifty years from now, when we want to visit a friend across town, we’re not going to get in a metal box and drive there, we’re just going to strap on the latest device that augments our ability to run and we’re just going to jog there. So, you can see how these are different tools.
Understanding new technologies can be overwhelming. It’s not so different from a marketer needing to learn quickly about the latest in, say, blockchain technology. How did you approach learning about subjects that felt foreign to you? How would you help these marketers better tackle understanding the subjects, and therefore the implications for their business?
AP: I don’t know what blockchain technology is, actually, but what I did is, I just admitted my ignorance upfront. I tried to read up on things. We have a tremendous amount of information at our fingertips through Google, and I use Nexus, and we can read up on things. And then I just identified the experts, people who were at the center of these trends, and I approached them and asked them to explain things to me. A lot of times they were happy to do so because—especially scientists and technologists—they know that it’s important to be able to explain their technologies to people if they want them to have an impact. And I would think that with marketers, if you can tell them that you’re in marketing and maybe highlight for them that they might benefit from talking to you because you can help them articulate why people should care about their projects, I think most scientists appreciate this and embrace the opportunity to discuss things. While they don’t appreciate if you call them totally blind and ignorant, it’s okay to be confused and not understand things. Often, to prepare for an interview, I understand things as much as I can. I ask informed questions. And though they might be the questions of a novice, somebody who’s not an expert in their field, they can tell that I’ve done the reading and that I’m up to speed on what they did. If they can tell I’m not just calling them randomly, I’m calling them because I appreciate what their area of specialty is, then they seem more than willing to assist. So, I recommend personalizing emails—I say, “This is why I’m contacting you; I came across this thing that you did and this is why you’re interesting to me. This is why I’d like to talk to you.” And then I might, if I were a marketer, I would point out why they might be interested in talking to me. Something like, “I’ve often considered how to translate technologies like yours into a language that would appeal to the general public.” Something like that.
What’s the difference between a “pattern mismatch” in our brain and just plain gut instinct? Are they interconnected? Can you give us examples of both?
AP: I did a chapter in my book on efforts to understand, reverse engineer, and train intuition. It’s an effort that the U.S. military has undertaken but it is of great interest to many of us, I think. Basically, what they have discovered, is that there are two kinds of learning. There is explicit learning, which is the traditional way of learning, where you’re conscious of what you’re learning. Then there’s implicit learning—learning things when we’re not aware that we’re learning. The most familiar aspect of this is motor memory. Like when you’re driving home and you don’t remember having driven there or even thought about it because you know how to get there so well. You’re just operating on autopilot. Those are kinds of implicit learning that we are familiar with. But they’ve discovered that this kind of learning also applies to perceptual expertise, and all types of expertise. We make a lot of judgements based on things we’ve been exposed to in the past. For instance, the reason the military is interested in this is because in Iraq and Afghanistan they were getting all these reports of individuals in units who would just sense when something was wrong. They might be in a convoy and they would stop the convoy and say, “Something’s wrong.” They couldn’t explain what it was but when people went out and looked they would find a hidden IED. Or they would say, “Something’s wrong, something’s about to happen,” and they would tell everyone in their unit to duck, right before the ambush would happen. So, the U.S. military began to look at this and what they learned is that often we pick up on subtle cues. They could be visual, they could be auditory, they could be different information in the environment that maybe isn’t strong enough to get into our conscious awareness, maybe there’s a lot going on and we’re distracted. But we get a feeling, a gut feeling, an instinct. And so when you talk about a pattern mismatch, that would be one of these instincts.
There’s a famous case in which there were these firefighters and they were in a house fire. The chief of the fire department was in there, the kitchen was on fire, and something felt wrong and he said to his men, “We’ve got to get out here.” And they got out of there and right after they exited the house, the floor that they’d been standing on collapsed. And he thought that he had ESP, but what it turned out, researchers later discovered, was that he’d sensed something was wrong. Because when he really thought about it, he realized that the flames that he was seeing in the kitchen, and the heat that he was feeling, there was not enough flames and not enough smoke to account for the heat. It turned out there was a fire in the basement, and that was what was causing the extreme heat. So, this fire chief had a pattern mismatch. Something wasn’t normal but he wasn’t aware of what that was until he thought about it. This instinct, this gut instinct, went into to his conscious mind.
Now, we often make snap decisions based on these kind of unconscious instincts, so what the military is interested in is if they can train this—if they can figure out a way to give this new recruit from Nebraska the ability to drop into Iraq and immediately sense IEDs. And you can see with fire departments, you could take a new recruit and train them somehow that they could go into a house fire and immediately sense when something’s wrong. And what they’ve discovered is largely drill training is the way to do this. Basically, our brain is the most advanced pattern recognition machine and it responds to the patterns that it’s seen before so your instinct can lead you awry if you get a gut instinct or a feeling that’s based on incomplete information. For instance, if every time you see a red car, your husband or wife has been driving it, then maybe next time you see a red car you’ll think it’s your husband or wife. Your body and mind will anticipate they’re going to get out, you have an instinct that they’re in that car and you might be surprised when somebody else gets out. But if you are exposed to a representative sample of red cars, then you might have a better gut instinct. Police officers often pull over red cars unconsciously without knowing, I think—maybe they know it consciously—because people with red cars tend to speed more. That is instinct. So, I think marketers and advertisers often try to connect two different kinds of stimuli and play on these implicit associations. We might associate happiness with flowers and sunshine, so if we want somebody to buy a mop, we might place the mop in a commercial with flowers and sunshine. Then if you drill that into people’s heads long enough, unconsciously when they see a mop they might anticipate flowers and sunshine and be more likely to buy it. The same thing applies to real world things.
In the marketing world, we’re all searching for the next big idea, the most creative new concept, a way to rebrand something that’s already existed. Many of the greatest minds in your books have fascinating backgrounds, and some suffer from brain disorders or mental imbalances. Do you believe that the most creative or brilliant people are always a little bit (or a lot) different from everyone else? How can we learn from them to tap into our own sources of creativity?
AP: The final chapter of my book is on creativity. There are some things that you can learn from it and I’ll tell you what they are right now. I profiled a guy named Derek Amato who had a brain injury. He actually dove into a pool and banged his head on the bottom of the pool and this unlocked this latent ability to play the piano, which sounds incredible but there’s actually many people that they have seen that have had similar experiences. Now, the first instance of this, the most significant I guess, is there’s a researcher who is now at UCSF named Bruce Miller. He works with elderly patients and a few years back, the son of one of his elderly patients came to him and said that his father was basically losing his marbles. He was taking off clothes in the parking lot, stealing tips, yelling at people, and his verbal skills were deteriorating. And this was due to frontotemporal dementia. Basically, parts of his brain were giving way that were involved in social intelligence and verbal ability. But as they did so, he was becoming a better and better artist. Bruce Miller was skeptical until his son brought him pictures and they were remarkable in their skill. Then Bruce Miller began looking and he found other cases of people with a certain form of frontotemporal dementia and what he discovered was that as this disease lays waste to areas of the brain on one side that are involved in verbal ability, areas on the other side are less inhibited. And it turns out that this part of the brain that was deteriorating exerts an inhibitory influence on areas of the brain that are involved with creativity. And so there are all these elderly people that, as they were “losing their marbles,” were increasing in creativity. This seems to be what happened to Derek Amato. He banged his head, got a little bit of a brain damage on one side of his brain, and it increased his creativity. And there’s a guy named Darold Treffert who’s a world-renowned expert on savants—he was the consultant on the movie Rain Man—he, once the internet came, was being contacted by people who had experiences like Derek Amato. He named this disorder “Acquired Savantism.” So, basically, people are able to think outside the box once this area of the brain has been affected in this way.
One of the most famous examples is this guy named Tommy McHugh in England who was sort of this meathead construction guy who liked to get in brawls and never read, and then he had some sort of brain stroke thing and suddenly he became this poet, a very unlikely poet, just riffing with words all the time. There’s a former chiropractor in Boston who had some sort of brain stroke, aneurism type thing, and now he’s an artist whose work has been published in The New Yorker. His name is Jon Sarkin. So, the idea is that if possibly we could learn to consciously work these levers, if we can learn to consciously turn off this critical, verbal area of the brain that is exerting an inhibitory influence on the areas of the brain involved in creativity, we could actually move a little in that direction. And maybe this is why alcohol or drugs sometimes are thought to unleash creativity, because they release certain areas of the brain that are related to this. I don’t know, I’m just speculating. But there have also been studies that show that a number of some of the most brilliant, creative people have mental disorders like bipolar or other disorders that affect the functioning of different areas of the brain and may well loosen inhibition. So we want to find ways to let go.
There have been some studies—there’s a guy at Northwestern and they’ve been doing brain scans—they think that if you can look at something the same way that people look at when they tell you, “See if you can see the forest instead of the trees, let go of things, turn off your brain, just stare at something and let ideas enter your conscious awareness, that’s the best way to be creative.” And that is somewhat akin to the state that is being accessed by these people with these mental disabilities.
"Imagine if technology was able to reach into the minds of...people and allow them to talk without moving muscles, if it could read their verbal thoughts and they could convey those thoughts to other individuals."
What’s the one new technology that excites you the most, and why?
AP: I had a lot of experiences that blew my mind while working on this book. I tried on a muscle suit that allowed me to lift a 100-pound weight with my fingertips like it was a piece of paper, I wore an exoskeleton. But I think from an intellectual perspective I was most fascinated by some of the brain scanning technologies that allow us to—there’s an effort to try and decode imagined speech. So, I don’t know what kind of impact that would have on my own life, but for people who are locked in, people with Lou Gehrig’s Disease for instance, who have lost the ability to speak, that sounds like one of the most terrifying diseases you could have. Imagine if technology was able to reach into the minds of these people and allow them to talk without moving muscles, if it could read their verbal thoughts and they could convey those thoughts to other individuals. It would help people a lot. In terms of something I might use, I did a chapter on efforts to reverse engineer and understand memory, the molecular biology of memory and efforts to develop a memorization pill. So, that would be useful to me because I have a terrible memory. When I meet people, I often forget their names, so it would be helpful. Also, I fear age-related memory diseases.
Can you share some films, books or people that have inspired you (and your work) in unexpected ways?
AP: My book is about science but I try to make it about people and their stories. And that’s what I really love to do, I’m a storyteller. Intellectually, I was fascinated by how the human body and mind work, where our limits lie and why, but what also fascinates me is just how people live their lives. And so I love reading books with great stories. I get inspired by great stories and great movies all the time. One book I read that I loved was the book, The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen, which won the Pulitzer. It was a great story and it was about a double agent who was in Vietnam and then came and lived in the Vietnamese refugee community here. I loved that book just because it was a great story. I also love Mark Bowden, Black Hawk Down, I love his nonfiction. I like Kavalier and Clay, that’s a great book by Michael Chabon. None of these have anything to do with science but I found them incredibly entertaining and I found the pacing good. And I liked William Finnegan’s, Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life. I read that recently because I love surfing. I’m just looking at my bookshelf. I like reading Stephen King books. I love the book, The Stand. I love Lonesome Dove by by Larry McMurtry, that’s a good book. Again, not a science book, these are just books that are great stories and I’ve read them just to get a sense of pacing and how to keep people involved.