THE EAR CAN GO WHERE THE EYE CANNOT
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TIM: Hi, everybody, welcome to the podcast. I’m excited for you to hear this episode with the really amazing guest, Julia Mossbridge. Julia is a scientist and author and a speaker. She’s on the faculty of the University of San Diego and is involved with a lot of really fascinating projects involving artificial intelligence, which is a particular interest of mine, unconditional love, time travel, a robot named Sophia, and much more.
Early on in this conversation, Julia surprised me a bit by kind of turning the tables and asking me a question, which allowed me the opportunity to reflect on some of the insights from the season so far. And to also talk a little bit more about my why for doing this podcast. This conversation is so rich that my team and I couldn’t imagine cutting it down. So this is our first two episodes series that we’re doing on Listening On Purpose. This is the first episode of the series with Julia Mossbridge. Enjoy it.
TIM: Julia Mossbridge, welcome to Listening On Purpose. I’m treating this as a real conversation and you know, less of a sort of interview style. When we were speaking earlier, I mentioned that I often, for these interviews or conversations, I do a lot of in-depth preparation. And I didn’t do that with this one because I just wanted to create space for a really, a conversation of broad subjects and dynamics. And I thought I would just start and kind of tell people how we met, which was very serendipitous. We were in the registration line at South by Southwest in Austin, in March, and you were there with your son, we were both checking in as panelists, and we just struck up a conversation. And for me anyway, it was one of those things that as soon as we started talking, I thought, Okay, this is really interesting. I want to hear more about what Julia has to say.
JULIA: Okay, that sounds exciting. And yeah, I love that you didn’t prepare because one of my least favorite things is to have one of those conversations where the person says, I have six questions. I’m going to tell you ahead of time and I’m like, argh, that’s not as interesting. It’s not as fun.
TIM: No, look. I mean, we’re both Midwesterners, right, I’m – did I read that right about? Yeah.
JULIA: Yeah, yeah, Illinois. Okay.
TIM: Well see, there you go. So first attraction there. We also have, we also have another mutual connection that we deciphered. And that is, through Nina Kraus, who was the guest on my first episode. And we had a fabulous conversation. So let’s start there. What’s your connection with Dr. Kraus?
JULIA: Nina? Yeah, I’m just gonna call her Nina because I think I called her Dr. Kraus once, when I first met her. So I was searching as a graduate school dropout. I was in a Ph. D. program at UC San Francisco and neuroscience, which was, you know, sort of like world famous for its neuroscience program. And I had a really great cohort of graduate students and the topics being studied, and there was something inside of me that didn’t match. And I ended up leaving with my Master’s, a terminal Master’s, which is like, the worst thing you could do if you’re a PhD student at UCSF. It’s like, that’s like being a high school dropout. It’s so ridiculous.
So I just went back to Illinois from San Francisco, and started trying to understand what questions were interesting to me, what I wanted to do with my mind, in terms of my research. So for about five years, I did all these different jobs and I thought by process of elimination, I’m gonna figure it out, you know, and I kept coming back to science and I kept realizing, okay, so science is inside of me. It’s not just this thing that I had wanted to do because I was good at it, and I got A’s and I got awards, you know, it was actually something inside of me that I’m passionate about. And that was important for me to understand.
But by this time, I’m like 26, or something, which is, you know, old for a graduate student to go into a mainstream PhD program, but I did anyway, I decided – I went to Northwestern, because they were down the road. And I kind of, I had read some newspapers and I had been doing research on killer whale communication. And I knew that I was very interested in the auditory system and in sounds and and how people might use them to communicate and, you know, Nina, she had done amazing work about – and she still has done amazing work since then, obviously – on music and learning and how music changes our brains and how learning a musical instrument changes our brains, and how we think and read. And I thought, this is a way to do science that I’m intrigued by.
And so I talked with her a couple times. And then she said, I would support you coming into the Ph. D program here, I would say good words about you. So I applied kind of at the last minute, and I got in and I got a fellowship, and Nina’s lab was the first lab I rotated through, which means she was the first sort of scientist there that I was really exposed to, and her work. And I didn’t do much in that lab at all except for learn things. I was basically useless. But I did learn a lot. And it’s, I understand now what it’s like, as a PI at these institutions, because you’re sort of taking on a student, and you’re just hoping that they’re not more trouble than they’re worth. And I was probably more trouble than I was worth at that point, you know, but like, at least I went somewhere else. So like, I kept learning and at some point, I became useful. So that was good. But that’s how I know Nina and she was on my dissertation committee. And just always very supportive, talking with me about issues of women in science, I just find her a powerful woman and person, she would prefer person in this space.
TIM: Yeah, she and I had a really fascinating conversation. She has a way of really taking a lot of pretty dense scientific ideas and making them eminently relatable and connecting it to everyday life, which is really, really interesting. I think I told you, this podcast, I started because I want to create a global conversation around listening.
JULIA: Yeah. What can you tell me more about that? I want to understand that. What’s your underlying motivation? What are your experiences that led to that?
TIM: In a lot of soul searching that I did during the pandemic, when, of course, my life as a performer was not completely on hold, but largely, I really started thinking about it a lot. I did an Executive MBA Program at Harvard Business School called the Program for Leadership Development. And I saw a need to make change not just in my industry, but in the world. And I knew that I wasn’t completely equipped the way that I needed to be to do that. So this whole project came out of that, and me looking at the world and saying, What can I do to make this a better place? And what can I do that can have a broad impact? And use what I have learned as an artist, as having been a musician my whole life and having been a professional musician for 20-some years, what are the lessons that I can bring to the table here? What are the conversations that I can create in the world?
JULIA: What is the change you want to make in the world?
TIM: For me, it all comes down to we don’t make progress in any area unless we create more listening. And when I look at the polarization in our world politically, when I look at struggling relationships, when I look at communities that are not close or not bonded, to me it all comes down to listening. And, of course, listening is the main part of the job as a conductor. That’s really the key. That’s the linchpin to everything as a conductor. But a conversation about listening outside of that realm was something that I realized was needed, and something that I wanted to create. And so for me, it’s the first thing that we need to address to make progress in really any other area.
JULIA: So there’s listening, and there are kinds of listening. And so it seems to me like one kind of listening like when I was working with Sophia, the humanoid robot trying to help people have experiences of being unconditionally loved by the robot…
TIM: Yeah, we’re gonna get to that for sure.
JULIA: Yeah, but one of the things that we were working on was deep listening. So there’s deep listening, where you’re listening. You’re listening for what’s not being said. And because the assumption is that whatever is being said is what the person is conscious of or able to say and not afraid to say, but whatever is not being said is sort of the unconscious-slash-I’m-afraid-to-say-this piece. But it comes out in what they’re saying, right? So there’s that kind of deep listening, you’re listening for something,
I just feel like both are important. Like, you need to understand what a person is uttering, what they’re willing to say, what they feel comfortable saying, what they know, what they’re aware of, what they’re not uttering, and why they’re not uttering it. Is it because they’re afraid or because they don’t know? Or some other reason?
TIM: Well, yeah, right. All of the above, maybe. We had a really interesting episode recently with a leadership coach named Mark Hunter. And this – what you just laid out there, comes up with almost every guest – Mark put a little bit of a finer point on it. And he said that only 7% of communication happens in speaking and listening. That leaves a whole lot of room for all the things that you’re talking about, right? Whether it’s body language – you know, Mark and I also talked about the difference between, the distinction between hearing and listening, who and what you’re listening for, as you said, what’s unsaid and so it’s really, for me, it’s a broad conversation.
And it’s kind of like one of those – the keyhole, you look through it, and it feels sort of narrow. When I was going through and in the process of creating this, I was thinking, is this just too, too narrow? Right? Am I going to run out of content in 10 episodes, 20 episodes, 30 episodes? And really, the further I’ve gotten into it, I mean, this is an endless thing, because there’s so many contexts for listening. And you are really at this, it seems to me, at this really interesting intersection between technology and humanity, which is something I really want to explore more deeply. How do we interact with the development of AI? The further I got into it, I’ve just realized, boy, there, there is a lot of room here for a lot of fascinating exploration. And from there, I’m just going down the rabbit hole with these amazing conversations. And my commitment is that I leave listeners with something actionable, at the end of every episode.
JULIA: That keyhole thing really stuck to me – when you said the keyhole thing, I was like, ah, because you said, looking through the keyhole, it’s really narrow. But you know, if you put your ear up to a keyhole or to a door even where there’s no keyhole, the ear can go where the eye cannot. That’s one of the reasons why I wanted to study auditory perception, because I can hear what’s behind my head, I can’t see what’s behind my head. I can, you know, close my eyes, and my ears are still working. It’s much, much more informative, the auditory system, in terms of new things that are changing in the world, information that you need to survive. And so it’s our primary system for really knowing how the environment is relating to us in a fuller way than with what we can learn from the visual system.
TIM: No, it’s so fascinating in that regard. This first season, have an episode with Michael Jasny from the National Resources Defense Council about the ocean noise. And when you really start looking at listening, noise, sound, it’s something that has a huge impact. I mean, the World Health Organization is raising this as – the second highest cause of death comes down to noise pollution. But yet, we’re in this area where a lot of people and a lot of companies make more money, the further divided people get. And so, to me, it’s an existential crisis for our species, because if we look at our political world – and we’re talking right now while there are congressional hearings about January 6 going on – I don’t even think we’re in the ballpark of solving a problem. You know, how do we create a conversation around really getting something done with gun violence without first creating more listening? And the participants in that conversation, being willing to and having the tools to actually listen?
JULIA: Now, these are essential questions. I keep having the sort of inner conflict in this conversation of wanting to talk about the value of first learning to listen to yourself. That’s why I created Choice Compass – it’s this app you can use to tap into your heart rhythms and allow your heart to choose between two different choices that you’re thinking of. It never did very well, people don’t want to wait for a minute to think about one choice and then wait for another minute to think about another. That’s a long time when you’re thinking about life choices, I understand. But what it comes down to is not wanting to listen to yourself think about something for a minute.
But in any case, those who use it are few and far between, but who really get out a lot out of it, talk to me periodically about their experience. And the key commonality across these people is I finally learned to listen to my inner dialogue. And then, speaking of technology, the other piece that reminds me of is this newer technology Time Machine that we created to help people heal trauma. And the first step in Time Machine is to record a first rating, your emotional, physical, and spiritual well-being and your sense of hope for the future, which you do every time you log in. But then after that, you have a Time Machine. And all it does is record your voice in response to a prompt about your life. And you record it and then it goes into the Time Machine. And then the next day, you get an email that says, hey, your time machine has landed, you’ve got a message, you know, and by then everyone’s forgotten what they said the day before. And they want to go listen to the message. And the key prompt that seems to really affect people is that on the screen, when they press the play button in the Time Machine to play their previous recording, is to see if you can love yourself while you listen. And that is the most challenging.
The reason we have that prompt is because people say, I want to just write my message to myself, I don’t want to hear my voice. I don’t like my voice. And we’re like, yeah, that’s the point. Right? Right. If you don’t like your voice, if you don’t love yourself, while you’re talking about what’s true for you, you’re not listening. Because your voice comes from the core of your body. It’s the essence of who you are. So if you can’t listen to your voice with love, like you have to start there. Things are not gonna go well. From there on out – forget January 6, forget gun violence – like this, this piece, this central piece of who you are, if that is not loved by you. That’s the first piece of work. And so I think that’s really important is that we have so much technology that encourages us not to listen to ourselves. Literally, people are making money off of the bet that we will not listen to ourselves. You’re not tired, you should watch another video on Netflix. Right? You’re not sick of reading the news, you should still scroll your phone some more. Right? So these are bets that we won’t listen to ourselves.
TIM: I’ve never thought about those things in that context. But you’re right on. And if we go down that road a little bit, there’s a vulnerability in the voice, right? This is something that I think as a conductor who does a lot of opera, there’s a vast difference in the psychology of working with singers versus instrumentalists. A violinist can buy a new instrument or a new bow, change strings use different rosin, etcetera. A violinist can also play their instrument while they’re sick. But with singers, they don’t have those variables to change, it’s part of their body, and everything impacts them. And so there’s this really huge level of vulnerability when it comes to the voice. So I think about it from that perspective. You know, that requires a lot of bravery.
But then I think about if we take it a step further, listening to yourself, and I want to hear more about how this relates with the Choice Compass, you mentioned heart rate, right. So, there’s a physical manifestation of listening that’s happening. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of this Conscious Leadership Group. Really interesting to follow them. And I heard someone from there once talking about, is this a full body yes, when I’m making a choice, and how to sort of do that scan. And that, again, that requires, of course, being aware of something that you need to do to listen to. But when I think back about it, how many times I’ve made a decision, and whatever you can call it – got your palms sweating, whatever that is, where it really was absolutely not a full body yes.
JULIA: And you know it.
TIM: You know that it wasn’t – like you say, but the hardest battle actually really is starting with yourself. I’m glad you brought that up as a kind of the necessary starting point. How does that work with Choice Compass app? What are you aggregating there to help make a choice?
JULIA: So it sort of works in two ways. There’s listening. There’s what’s spoken and what’s not spoken. And I always think the one thing that’s not spoken is always more powerful. But we use both so that part that’s spoken is – I just had this intuition, it was like 10 years ago or something – that because we know that the heart beats differently depending on how you feel about something, that I ought to be able to ask people to put their finger on their webcam on their phone. And from the changes in color and the skin extrapolate heartbeat, this is before phones had done this. So I was kind of on the leading edge. Extrapolate heart rhythms, and then just have people watch a one-minute video about making bad choices. They don’t have to make the choice, but they’re watching a video that says I choose to be miserable, I choose to be unhealthy. I choose to not contact my friends, you know. And then I didn’t think that was very ethical without also having them watch a video that says, I choose to be healthy. I choose to enjoy my life, I choose to praise myself for my successes, you know, these things that we know are positive.
And then I just did hundreds of people. And I looked at the mathematics of the heart rhythms. And I changed the order so that they were looking at these different videos, different times, different moods, so that I was convinced that I had figured out sort of common rhythms for each of these types of feelings. And then once the statistics were clear, and then I could test them and say yes, yes, in this other group of people, it’s really true, then I went ahead and created the app and put it on on the app store.
And one of the things I noticed is that – there’s a just unpopular topic of conversation – but there was a very clear gender difference. So the way that the heart rhythms went mathematically for men, when they’re experiencing, when they’re watching this video of the negative choices was just exactly the opposite for women and then flipped for the positive choices. On average, this is all on average, but I got irritated with that result. Because for some people, for women in their menstrual cycle or when they were pregnant or postmenopausal, things would flip around. For men, they were pretty constant, but still some men it was switched, that I thought, I don’t want this to be a gender thing. I just want to have people calibrate it for themselves.
So now I have people calibrate three choices where they’re thinking about their own positive and negative life choices. And it just determines based on their heart rhythms during that time, what algorithm it’s going to use. So that’s all the spoken part. That’s the part we put on the website. If you read in-depth about Choice Compass, you’ll learn all of what I just said. The unspoken part is we don’t really – I don’t really want people to use Choice Compass for the rest of their lives to make decisions. It takes a long time. It’s a pain; you’re basically outsourcing your intuitive insight into an object that is your phone. Right? Yeah, I don’t love that.
I want people to know what it feels like to listen to their bodies when they’re thinking about one kind of choice versus another, so that eventually they become their own choice compass. And actually, that has led me to want to create a new app, which I haven’t done yet because I have too much going on. But if anyone wants to do this, I would love to work with him. Like you. We could create Voice Compass. I want to create Voice Compass, because you can tell in the voice, if I just say the same sentence, right here. You be my Voice Compass for a second.
JULIA: So the sentence is going to be, “I am thinking about a choice.” And in one, in one case, I’m going to say that sentence, and I’m going to be thinking about a choice that I think is really positive for me. Okay, another case, I’m going to say the sentence and I’m going to be thinking about a choice that I don’t know, like, I’m not sure. Okay? So you’re telling me which time I was doing which. Okay, here we go. “I’m thinking about a choice.” “I’m thinking about a choice.” Which was which?
TIM: Well, the second one had more of a smile in the sound, I would say. So I think that was the one you’re thinking about a choice that would be positive for you. And the first one was pitched very slightly lower, and the end of the sentence went down, instead of up.
JULIA: Right, those are the things you’re conscious of, and then there’s all the unconscious processing. So the first – that was a very subtle difference, but you’re a really good listener. The first one was really something I’m not sure about. It could be a really good choice for me to make. But I’m not sure – it’s one of those life decisions that you’re like, oh, this seems like it might be good. The second one was about having my son. And like, I was like, yeah, this choice was awesome. And still is. No ambivalence there.
TIM: That’s an interesting thought, this Voice Compass app. It’s interesting to think about a tool. And maybe this is a time to kind of turn the conversation a little bit, this idea of these technologies helping us and how we use – you know, you mentioned the algorithms that are involved in Choice Compass. Artificial intelligence is something you’re really deeply involved with. And this is something, especially as a topic that moving forward in the podcast, I really want to drill down on.
Hi, dear listeners, we’re going to pause here. Our next episode is the second part of my conversation with Julia, where we dig a bit into, among many things, one of my favorite topics, which is the intersection of artificial intelligence and humaneness. Julia also closes out with some really powerful insights. I can’t wait for you to hear some things that I did not see coming at all and were just incredible. So I encourage you to come back to Part Two with fresh ears and a fresh mind. In the meantime, I hope you are listening to yourself and your own voice.