The Brain Science Of Perception, Virtual Reality, And Curiosity with Dr. Todd Maddox

Perception is dependent on the individual. Although we may be in the same world, we still perceive reality differently. CEO and Founder of Cognitive Design and Statistical Consulting LLC, Dr. Todd Maddox, dives deep into the brain science of perception and virtual reality while tapping into curiosity. He takes us from a neurochemical standpoint and discusses how our perceptions could affect working with many different cultures and people. Dr. Maddox discusses where understanding and respect come into play, and how it removes the system of harassment that targets others. He also shares his insights on AI and augmented reality and the way they disrupt corporate learning with cultural immersion.

TTL 542 | Brain Science


I’m glad you joined us because we have Dr. Todd Maddox here. He is the CEO and Founder of Cognitive Design and Statistical Consulting. He’s got a PhD in Psychology and Brain Science. We’re going to talk about curiosity, perception, virtual reality. It’s going to be fascinating.

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The Brain Science Of Perception, Virtual Reality, And Curiosity with Dr. Todd Maddox

I am here with Dr. Todd Maddox, the CEO and Founder of Cognitive Design and Statistical Consulting. His passion is to apply his many years of scientific and neuroscientific expertise gained by managing a large human learning memory and performance laboratory to help build better training solution. He has published more than 200 scientific articles resulting in more than 10,000 academic citations. It’s nice to have you here, Todd.

Thank you. It’s great to be here.

You must constantly be researching, writing and doing all crazy brain-related activities.

You’ve got to keep your brain active to ward off the Alzheimer’s.

You’re never getting it. That’s for sure. I get some amazing people on this show from Albert Bandura. Paul Ekman is coming on and I had Jürgen Schmidhuber who created artificial intelligence. Some of the brains behind some of you guys. It blows my brain to talk to you. I want to get a background on you. I gave a little bit of your background. I know you have a PhD in Psychology and Brain Science, which is amazing as it is. Can you give us a little bit more of a background?

After I got my PhD, I went the full academic route. I was a university professor. I started at Arizona State University where I spent some time. I love that area. There’s a big part of me that wishes I never left. I went to the University of Texas at Austin for several years. This is the typical college professor teaching undergraduates, training graduate students to be scientists, and then conducting basic scientific research. That’s what I did studying how the brain learns, studying different systems in the brain that learn behavior versus learn information, facts and figures. With technology, what technology tools are best for treating information versus training behavior? A few years ago, I left the academic world of Ivy Towers, with this grandiose plan to convert as much of the scientific knowledge that has been gained into plain English that people can utilize it because I realized quickly that we’d learned much from basic science. Basic scientists have done frankly a crummy job of converting that into a language that laymen can understand. That’s a failure on the scientist’s part, not on the layman’s part.

Most people would probably assume with this background you have that you would be that person that wouldn’t put it into plain language. How did you get to be normal and down to Earth when you have this scientific brain?

I’ll be honest. It’s because I’m not the smartest person I know especially in academics. It was clear to me there were people that were a lot smarter than I was. I always had to work harder, which was fine. I like working. It’s helped me to take complex concepts that smart people can talk to each other about and nobody else understands. I’d be the one going there, “Sorry, I’m not too smart. Can you explain that to me better?” I’ve taken that approach because there is no scientific result out there that you can’t put into the language in terms that the “average person” can understand. You’re going to miss some nuance and nuance is important. You should be able to get across the basics of your idea in a few sentences using regular plain English without a bunch of jargon.

My first exposure to peer-reviewed journal articles was as a pharmaceutical rep. I was in AstraZeneca for several years of pharmaceutical, many years in the company. I remember reading these things going, “What?” All the statistical analysis was a lot of fun. A lot of people think if you write in a way that’s all snooty sounding is somehow more impressive. I love it when people write in a more down to earth way you could relate and understand. I don’t think it’s necessary to make it be complicated. I love that you’re trying to do that.

Full disclosure, you need both. Scientific journals, peer review of scientific journals where the audience are other scientists, you have to put all that rigor in there. For one, you won’t get published if you don’t. That doesn’t mean that’s the only audience you should communicate to. What I’ve learned quickly in the last few years is there are a lot of people out there that are eager and passionate to understand this stuff. They want you to speak to them in their language in English, not in some jargony scientific language talking about P values. They want to know what works.

I hear you and I want to put some couple things into easier ways of looking at it. I’ve done work with curiosity. A lot of people are interested in that because we found in a lot of the things and people I’ve had on my show who have researched creativity and motivation, we all kept coming back to curiosity is the spark that drives all these other things. Have you researched curiosity at all? I’m curious about what you were thinking about discussing.

I cannot say I’ve ever published a peer-reviewed article where I used that term curiosity. I started thinking about this a little bit more when we first got connected with each other. If we take the term curiosity and we talk about at least a component of it that I’ll call creativity, maybe even when people talk about thinking outside the box. In the scientific literature, they talk about cognitive flexibility. If we want to argue that some components of curiosity are thinking outside the box, being creative, then I do have a few things to say about that. All from where does this emerge in the brain? What are some of the interesting phenomena?

First, maybe a little bit of background on neuroscience. In particular, learning and these things as curiosity, creativity, thinking outside the box are important for learning, problem-solving and decision making. Most of that occurs at least directly in what’s called the prefrontal cortex, which is an area of the brain right behind your forehead. Working memory is important. There used to be a time way back when somebody would give you their phone number on a piece of paper and you would try to memorize it. We don’t do that anymore. You’d memorize it by rehearsing it mentally to yourself. That’s using working memory, saying those seven numbers over and over again until eventually it’s stored in long-term memory and you don’t have to keep rehearsing it. It’s there.

The relevant brain regions on this prefrontal cortex, I call it the cognitive learning system. There’s some cool research that has shown that when you’re in a good mood, when you’re in a positive mood, and this can either be in your daily life. You’re feeling better for whatever reason. If somebody pays you a compliment or gives you a small gift, what happens is you get the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine into the prefrontal cortex, and it enhances things like creativity. It enhances your ability to think outside the box. There’s rigorous peer-reviewed scientific work on this. Much of it conducted at Cornell by a woman named Alice Isen who unfortunately has passed away.

What’s cool about this is dopamine that’s released into the prefrontal cortex that enhances your curiosity because of the mood component. This is elicited in subcortical regions. The analogy I use is sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Everybody knows the sex, drugs, and rock and roll. That’s about feeling good. Dopamine is about feeling good. That’s one thing you can enhance. On average, you’ll be more curious, you’ll be more creative when you’re in a positive mood which is interesting. I was at a trade show for a learning and development company and the keynote was Daniel Pink. I knew about his work but to be honest, I hadn’t read any of it. I read Drive. What he presented on though was this topic called When. I haven’t gone back to the primary literature. I’m sure he glossed over nuance, which is exactly what you should do to talk normally. He showed that our mood fluctuates over the day regardless of what’s going on. What he didn’t do was talk about what drives this? What’s the causal factor? From a neurochemical standpoint, that is interesting.

You start off the morning positive, in a good mood. Around noonish, you start tanking and then it picks back up again in the afternoon. One thing he suggested was it’s in the afternoon when you should do your creative work because you’ve got this big boost. If you’ve come out of this trough, you’ve got this big boost of mood. Your mood is quite a bit up. Mood being up, dopamine is released in the prefrontal cortex. You’re going to be more creative. You’ll be thinking outside the box where you’re going to be curious about things. That was something I didn’t know before.

[bctt tweet=”There is no scientific result that you can’t put into language.” username=””]

I feel like I’m the exact opposite. I’m toast after lunch. I don’t know how much creativity I have in the afternoon. Everybody’s got their unique differences of when they think the best. I wonder if he’s a night owl and it fits him.

He did make that one clarification. You tank afternoon. It’s about 5:00 or 6:00 in the afternoon where you get that big boost and you’re more creative. He did make the distinction between what are called larks and owls, morning people, afternoon people.

It’s an interesting perspective and I’ve seen his lark and owl thing. I want to talk to you a little bit about perception. What would your definition of perception be? Is that the same part of the brain? Can you talk a little too about perception because it’s an interesting thing in the working world because we’ve got to work with many different cultures, many different people and how we see things? They say perception’s reality and all that. I want to get your insight.

It’s a great topic. Here’s the way I look at it. We’re a human being. We’re in our environment. The environment is stimulating all of our senses. That’s what’s called the sensory input. When I look at something, photons of light are entering my eye. They’re going into the retina, which is at the back of the eye. They’re stimulating rods and cones and I start to see color. In the human being, everything we see is a mixture of red, green and blue because we only have receptors for red, green and blue. That doesn’t mean there aren’t other wavelengths out there and we know there are. There are plenty of wavelengths we can’t see. The first point is there’s a lot of sensory input that’s coming into the human brain via our auditory, visual, tactile, olfactory senses but only a certain amount of that is perceived that is processed at some level that it influences brain activation. A lot of it is outside of that perceived range. It is still hitting our system but it’s doing nothing to the brain. That’s one level. There’s a level beyond that. This is the level you’re talking about and that is how much of what we “perceive” is available to conscious awareness and that we act on it volitionally. That’s a lot smaller part of things that come in and affect our brain.

This is a theory. I don’t know that it’s been validated but there are a lot of people that buy into this. There’s a theory that says you are only consciously aware of processing in your brain. You were only consciously aware. You only know that something’s going on in brain regions that project directly to the prefrontal cortex. In other words, consciousness. What your conscious of is processing in brain regions that project directly to the prefrontal cortex. There are a lot of brain regions that do a lot of processing that doesn’t project directly to the prefrontal cortex and thus we are not consciously aware of them. They influence our behavior. They influence the way we interact with the world but we’re not consciously aware of it at all. This is a great transition point to the Ekman stuff.

Ekman did some classic work on categorizing facial expressions. The idea is if I’m sad, you can see that on my face. If I’m happy, you can see it on my face. Paul Ekman was a scientist. What he did was he went and said, “I am going to break down the way the muscles on the face are adjusted because the face has a ton of musculature. I’m going to categorize those. If the outside of your mouth is curved up, that’s a nine in the Ekman system.” I learned this back in the late ‘80s. I was able to code this stuff manually. He was able to take a look at a face then, categorize its emotions and then utilize that in science.

Here’s what’s cool about this. What drives those changes in the muscles in your face, a lot of that is not available to conscious awareness. I might say to somebody, “That was cool,” but I’m rolling my eyes. I’m not making eye contact. Actions speak louder than words. That’s one of my favorite lines. I can say to somebody, “I’m sorry about that.” If I’m not showing that on my face, they are not going to believe me. I’m not saying it’s impossible but it’s difficult to control your facial expressions consciously. You have to work at it and train. Most people don’t. What’s happening is their facial expressions are outing them. It’s what they feel. That comes back to perception. I might in my head think, “I told them I was sorry,” but I didn’t because my facial expression said I wasn’t. That’s what they processed, “No, you weren’t sorry,” and the problem is not resolved.

It was an interesting talk about nature and nurture when I was looking at some of this stuff. I don’t know where I read it, if you were blind from birth, you still made those same expressions which are fascinating to me. It’s not a learned thing. It ties into when we look at the same situation and say we’re all in a working world and we’re all looking at the same thing, we yet perceive things differently sometimes. How do you explain that?

TTL 542 | Brain Science
Brain Science: Curiosity, creativity, and thinking outside the box are important for learning, problem-solving, and decision-making.


We all perceive things within our frame of reference. This is probably the number one problem in Corporate America. These are things like empathy, sympathy, compassion and ability to understand where somebody else is coming from. I don’t want to get political, but there are certain political figures that have none of that. Whereas let’s say you do and I do, we might look at the same thing. A small child being ripped away from their parents. You and I might tear up and feel terrible and that other individual feels nothing. How can that be? We’re viewing the same exact situation. Perception is a representation of the real world by the individual.

The truth of the matter is everybody perceives the world differently. Diversity is awesome. It’s great for innovation, all these things. It would be incredibly boring without it. Seeing lots of movies like that where everybody’s a robot, but when you have to have along with that, you have to embrace that diversity. You don’t have to be exactly like somebody else. You have to say, “I empathize with you.” Worst case, I’m going to agree to disagree. Let’s see what common ground we can find and move forward. Most interactions used to be face to face. Now everything’s either web-based or it’s a phone or it’s conference calls. Dovetail back to Ekman, we are missing out on so much communication which is the body language. Body language says it all.

Is perception reality? People argue with that.

It’s my reality. What I perceive is my reality. I used to teach perception at two undergrads and the best way to teach perception is to show him these optical illusions. People would say, “That’s weird. Why would the brain be misleading me like that?” The information that hits the eye is two-dimensional. We have two eyes. That’s how we see a 3D world. The world might not be 3D. It may have to do with the way that we were designed and that we perceive it. Perception is real for each of us. We always have to realize that other people’s perception of the same thing might be different. That doesn’t mean they’re wrong.

That’s what I’d like to get companies and organizations to embrace. We talk about cultural quotients and having cultural awareness. If you do business in other countries or other countries want to do business with the United States, what do you think are the biggest impactors to our perception of how we’re going to get along together?

It comes down to that ability to respect another person’s way of looking at things, trying to find common ground, empathizing with somebody else. What’s interesting about this and this comes back to some of the neuroscience stuff. Let’s take me too for example. Let’s put this out on the table because this is something that’s passionate for me. When the Weinstein thing hit, I blew up and wrote a few pieces on this. We have been providing harassment training. I know as a university professor, I did it every year. It was text defining harassment, telling me maybe what a bias is. Maybe I see a video of an example of it. It’s usually a terrible cheesy video. I’m being provided with information about what this is.

Harassment is not information. Harassment is behavior. Harassment is people behaving inappropriately with somebody else. The behavioral learning systems in the brain are completely distinct from the definitional processing systems in the brain. They’re not even all that connected. They’re competitive. You teach me all these definitions about harassment and I go, “I got that,” and then I go out at and I commit the behaviors instead. What we need to do is start training those behaviors. Training behavior directly is challenging. Technologies like virtual reality are great technology. There’s a woman in LA who has an amazing VR harassment training platform. We’re getting there but what we’re doing is we’ve been training the wrong part of the brain and then wondering why nothing’s getting better.

What’s the wrong part? What’s the right part? What part of the brain is that?

[bctt tweet=”Curiosity is the spark that drives all other things.” username=””]

Harassment is about behavior. The big structure is called the basal ganglia. The smaller subcomponent is what’s called the striatum. It’s in the limbic system. This is where the dopamine release occurs. These are part of the reward centers. It gets a little more complicated in that. I want to get that out front that I’m not oversimplifying. I am oversimplifying but I know what I’m talking about. It’s those systems. One of the best analogies is sports. I can read every book that there is on how to putt a golf ball. I can research the Bible and verse, this chapter but that doesn’t mean I can hit a golf ball. The only way to learn how to hit a golf ball and putt is to go putt. When you’re learning how to putt, teachers will tell you don’t over think it. What that means is don’t use the prefrontal cortex. That’s your thinking part. That’s the rules and regulations. The definition of harassment. Don’t use that. Go with the flow. Generate a response. You’re going to get feedback. You’re going to get dopamine released if you did the right thing. You’re not going to get dopamine released if you did the wrong thing. You’re going to gradually and incrementally get better. That’s the system we need to be targeting and we’re not.

Why aren’t we?

We aren’t because it’s hard to do that. There are two reasons. The first reason is none of these people don’t know anything about how the brain works. We, and I mean as our society, certainly even in diversity and inclusion, harassment training, unconscious bias training. We have this belief that you learn through the cognitive system. You learn by throwing information at people. That’s not how you learn behavior. You learn behavior by having people generate behaviors and get immediate feedback on that behavior. The best way to train for harassment, the scalable way, would be with tools like virtual reality. I go in virtual reality. This would be perfect. I’m a middle-aged heterosexual white guy. Put me in virtual reality and I look at my arms and I’m a young African American lesbian.

The first thing is, “I’m a young African-American lesbian. I am somebody else.” Emotion centers in my brain are going to light up. It’s visceral. It’s an empathy builder. Right there, I’ve already gotten value. How about some guy walks by and makes some inappropriate comments. I’ve learned something from that big time. Put it another way. Let’s say that I go into VR and I’m a guy. I’m essentially me and maybe I say something inappropriate. I get slapped in the face. That’s a punishment. I’m going to be less likely to generate that behavior if I’m put in that context again. On the other hand, what if I say the appropriate thing, behave appropriately? I get a smile, “How are you doing?” I’ve gotten rewarded. That behavior pattern gets rewarded. The real key is training behavior. It’s hard to do at scale with eLearning-type approaches. We want to trade behavior directly. It’s tough.

I wrote my dissertation on emotional intelligence. You’re talking about empathy and while I’m thinking about that I’m curious about your perception of the Gillette commercial. Let’s start with the emotional intelligence aspect. You hear the story of Phineas Gage and getting the post through his brain and they found it. I don’t know if you want to tell a little of that story. I was wondering if you had any other cool stories that show where perception is in the brain. Is it the same area as what we found with emotional intelligence? Are there any other stories that are like the Phineas Gage thing where you found out this is cool?

My understanding is he was a factory worker and something blew up in the railroad. A rod went through his prefrontal cortex. This is at least the theory and it makes a lot of sense. What happened was he lost inhibitory control. You see this in Alzheimer’s as well. Let’s take a step back. In the end, we’re all biological organisms with needs and urges. We say things in our head all the time that we might want to say or do to somebody and we stop ourselves because it’s not appropriate. That’s called inhibitory control. Inhibitory control is in the prefrontal cortex. What happened with Phineas Gage was that inhibitory control was gone. He started all that inappropriate stuff a lot of people think about that don’t act on. He had nothing to stop him. He kept acting on it. Where do those inappropriate behaviors come from? They don’t come from the prefrontal cortex. They come from emotional centers.

When you’re talking about emotional intelligence, what you’re talking about is the amygdala and these other limbic structures that drive emotional processing. Those tend to be more subcortical structures. I’m talking about cognitive areas, emotional areas, how they interact and they do. We spend a lot of time inhibiting actions that our society, starting with our parents, taught us, “This is not appropriate. You don’t do that.” That was gone. You definitely see it in senior living facilities, especially in memory care. You’ll see people ripping their clothes. This isn’t just men, it’s men and women. All that inhibitory control is gone. A big part of that is because these inhibitory centers are not working anymore so people are acting out.

Is that the same part of the brain that is impacted with perception as well?

TTL 542 | Brain Science
Brain Science: Harassment is not information. Harassment is behavior. Harassment is people behaving inappropriately with somebody else.


The way I view perception is much broader because it is driven by sensory information and sensory information comes in five forms. Sight, sound, all that. Vision is processed in the back of the brain, which are the occipital lobes. Auditory information is processed in the temporal lobes on the side of the brain. Olfactory is deeper down subcortical. There’s the olfactory bulb. Perception is much more broadly distributed. This is overgeneralizing but you can think of perceptual processing being broadly distributed in the brain. Everything that goes through what’s called the thalamus. You can think of the thalamus like in Phoenix, that’s the Southwest hub. Everything goes through Phoenix on Southwest. That’s the thalamus. It goes from there and then either you’re learning behavior, maybe you’re learning information, maybe there’s informational processing. It goes from more diffused processing, which gets you the perception. Processes the environment you’re in. That then feeds through the thalamus and then it goes out to where you’re getting something done. You’re either learning information, you’re generating behaviors, you’re feeling emotional and the interactions of all those.

It’s bringing me back when I interviewed Jürgen Schmidhuber. We talked about how they were creating artificial curiosity. Can we create any artificial perception?

That’s what LSD is. That’s what LSD does. That’s what pot does. For that matter, that’s what alcohol does. That would be the artificial perception that you feel more confident. I would say especially, and I’m not going to say what I know from experience or don’t, but the “psychoactive drugs,” they definitely alter what you would think of as perception. For real you see things in a different light. Ecstasy, the same thing. Alcohol is basically a depressant. You feel a little more confident. You’re not as inhibited. It doesn’t change how you see or hear things until you get so drunk that you see double. It’s like cocaine and uppers and that. It’s the psychoactive drugs that absolutely alter perception.

What about the computer world? If we’re creating artificial intelligence that’s curious. Can you alter the perception of computers if there’s a reality if they all have the same senses? Is that alterable?

Many years ago, when I started graduate school in psychology and neuroscience, I talked to a computer scientist and such. They told us they basically have AI replacing human beings within a couple of years. It’s not even here now. My personal opinion, and this is my semi-informed opinion, it’s decent because of the way the brain works. AI is going to be good at solving step-by-step instructions, things you can easily capture in computer code. Whether that’s going to lead to consciousness, I’m skeptical of that because we don’t even know what consciousness is in the human being. Do we think it’s going to emerge on the computer? I left academics a few years ago. I knew the words AI. I knew Artificial Intelligence. I knew machine learning. I come into the corporate sector and I’ve never been bombarded with those words more. Most of it is not real. It’s people using buzzwords. Correlation is not machine learning. It’s a correlation. If you drill down into a lot of these applications, that’s what they are. That’s not Google. That’s not Facebook. Those guys are for real doing good stuff.

The way to go about this as opposed to the current methodology which is computer scientists and engineers drive the bus. They’re the ones that know how to code. They’re the ones that know the complex math. I get it. That’s all great. The best machine out there is still a human being. I know it has flaws, it has limitations but all in all it does everything quite well. A lot of computers do one thing well and can’t do anything else. The way I would approach it would be to model what the human does, model how the brain works and the prefrontal cortex works differently from the striatum. Model those with different machine learning algorithms, put them together in a way the brain puts them together. Now you might start to get emergent perceptions and emergent personalities. I am not convinced that’s going to happen with the way things are being done now.

I’m curious what you think is the most misunderstood aspect of brain science in general? Do we have a lot of misconceptions of what we can and can’t control in our own brain?

I cover the corporate learning and development sector a lot. The technologies out there are amazing. All of them are prefrontal cortex centric. They’re all engaging the prefrontal cortex because people think that’s how you get information into the brain. That’s how you get facts and figures into the brain but that’s not how you train behavior. Every corporate L&D vendor, their tagline is, “We change behavior.” You’re not changing behavior if you’re targeting the prefrontal cortex. Actions speak louder than words. I can know what to do but I might do it. I know not to eat that piece of chocolate but I do anyway. Knowing what and knowing how are completely different things. We talk about willpower. It’s willpower. Willpower is a tiny little part of your brain. If you want to stop somebody from using heroin, willpower is not going to work. That’s not the way to do it. You need to identify the brain regions where that are involved. That requires neuroscience research and you need to go in there and you need to modify those behaviors. Either modify those behaviors, which is going to be gradual. It’s going to be incremental.

[bctt tweet=”We’re all looking at the same thing, yet we perceive things differently.” username=””]

Take traditional rehab. I’m a junkie. I go to rehab. I don’t use for a couple of months. I feel great. I’m glad I’m not using. I go back into my environment and I fall off the horse. That’s what happens 80% of the time. It’s a high number. Why is that? I know why that is. It’s called contextual learning. My behaviors in this environment are using. I go to this other environment completely, different context. I don’t use. When I’m in rehab, my brain says, “I know what you’re doing. You put me in a new context. I’m going to save those behaviors that I had before because they felt good.” When you go back into that environment you start using again. What we need to do in rehab is another application of virtual reality. Put somebody in rehab, put him in VR, and they’re in VR in a similar environment to where they were using. A lot of the same cues are present but don’t reward that environment. Don’t provide the reinforcement. What’s you’re going to start doing is you’re going to get what’s called unlearning. That’s the key. You want to unlearn the bad behaviors, not learn new good behaviors. You’ve got to unlearn the bad behaviors. We’re not paying enough attention to the behavioral side. We’re focused way too much on the information side.

We talk about augmented and virtual reality to disrupt corporate learning and all the things we want to do with that. Your example with the heroin or different things to get people in this immersive thing. How can we use this with cultural immersion? I had a CEO of a company where they immerse you in making of different foods and different cultures through the internet. You have the chef in there, the video, you are right there and it’s to get that experience. I would like to know in the business sense if you wanted to do business with another culture, how can we get that immersive experience maybe to help our perceptions to get along better?

I’m a simple-minded guy. What I do is I look at technology and I say, “How is that technology affecting the way the brain processes information? A traditional eLearning experience, looking at your mobile device, even watching a video. What brain regions does it engage? Let’s take watching a video. Let’s say your company partners with people in India, China and the Middle East. We know there are big cultural differences there. I could watch some videos that not only tell me about the culture, that’s information, but it is also giving me visually and in an auditory sense a little bit of how that culture works.

I’m engaging those sensory systems we talked about. I’m engaging some of that perception. That’s great but when I turn my head that screen didn’t move. When I turned around, I don’t see it anymore. This is what VR does. When you put a VR headset on, you put the headphones on, you are immediately transported into that environment. You could be transported on top of the Empire State Building and be told to walk a plank and people won’t do it. Even though they know they’re in a room, they won’t do it. Why won’t they do it? This massively engages what I call experiential system. The perceptual systems in the brain. When you turn your head, the environment moves exactly as it does in the real world.

For these kinds of cultural exchange, basically trying to understand another culture, the best way to do that is to be immersed in it. The content needs to be good. The discussion needs to be good. The situations you’re put in can be optimized. Plopping somebody in China doesn’t do anything but you want to be presented with these corporate cultural differences and learn how to deal with it but because you’re engaging more of the brain, what I call in synchrony. All these brain regions are active together, you get a much more powerful experience. With regards to your comment about EQ, one of the main sets of regions that are activated are these emotional regions like, “Where am I? This is amazing.” Those brain systems are activated. You can do things like walking a mile in somebody else’s shoes. I could be somebody in China literally. I am maybe being treated disrespectfully by a Caucasian person. It’s like, “I see. My behavior is normal because it’s normal where I live offended that person. How do I know that? It’s because I was that person for a second.”

Is this available, this virtual reality software? Are you talking about it in the future?

The number of use cases I believe is infinite. The vendors that are providing these solutions, the numbers are growing. There are certainly people in corporate and there are a lot of new ones. There’s a computer graphics-based VR. There’s what’s called 360 video VR. There’s interactive VR where you can move your hands around and you can see them in the space. There’s a VR where you have a headset on. Solutions are out there. They’re growing and they’re developing. The real problem is they’re not embracing the neuroscience. Who are the developers here? Gamers. Nothing against gamers but you need neuroscientists. That’s one of the things I do a fair amount of is consult with these companies and say, “You’ve got this disruptive technology but you’re not using it in an optimal way.” They’re like, “What do you mean?” I’m like, “You’re not engaging the brain in this way. That’s what you want. Here’s what you want but you’re not engaging those parts of the brain. Here’s what you need to do to engage those.” It’s here. It’s here to stay. Healthcare is a sector where this is absolutely exploding and I’m thrilled about that because we have many healthcare crises. All of the training, education, empathy, reducing people’s anxiety, enhancing satisfaction, corporate, industrial, manufacturing, you name it. Retail and marketing. This stuff has taken off.

I looked at one of your articles about medical and not having cadavers anymore. My husband’s a plastic surgeon and he had to go through so much reality training. What’s the advantage of using this 3D virtual reality training for doctors?

TTL 542 | Brain Science
Brain Science: When you turn your head, the environment moves exactly as it does in the real world.


First, I’ll bet you. If you grilled your husband, he’d say, “I’ve got a lot of training, but I’ve got to be honest, on that first day I still didn’t feel totally prepared.” He’s a plastic surgeon. He has a behavioral skill that’s off the charts. His behavioral repertoire is absolutely superior. To train behavior you need thousands of hours. What’s happening in our medical field, let’s take the emergency room. That’s where doctors learn. Do I want a doctor to learn about my family, my parents, myself? No. What virtual reality allows us to do is get that practice that MDs are getting in cadaver labs or simulate or getting in the ER. You can get an infinite amount of that in VR. That’s one point that is super important.

The second point is that in traditional training, you’re trained how to let’s say deliver a baby. If you’re lucky to get any practice at it, you’re going to get practice at it when you have all the tools you need. Wouldn’t it be nice to know how to deliver the baby in the back of a cab without all the tools that you need because people have done it? You could get that training in VR and it’s not going to cost thousands and thousands of dollars. You can train people on events that are super unlikely to occur. The baby in the back of the cab is unlikely. Things that are even more unlikely. You can throw the book out and throw all this crazy stuff happening and see how they do. It engages the brain in the way you want super effectively. It’s time-effective, it’s cost-effective and it’s scalable. That’s the triple whammy. You have that in a field like medicine.

It brings to mind then The Matrix. You can’t exactly upload to your brain because it’s not immersive. You’re having a hard time. You’re throwing the book at somebody if you’re uploading the knowledge. The Matrix won’t work.

For those movies like that, they’re like everybody else. They think the only thing you teach people is information. Even teaching uploading somebody information is massively changing the way the brain is organized. When you learn information, you rehearse it mentally and you store it in long-term memory, those are chemical changes to brain cells. If you can do that, you can probably do it in the striatum. You can probably upload all the motor programs that somebody needs to be Shaquille O’Neal or whoever, be a great athlete. The algorithms are going to be different. Neurochemistry is going to be different. The way you upload it is probably going to be totally different. Those are as challenging. People tend to fixate on cognitive stuff and think that’s all that we learn. Frankly, that’s the least interesting part of what we learned.

I’m curious if you would take the blue pill or the red pill. In The Matrix, it’s the blue pill. The story ends and no one tells you that what you’re seeing isn’t reality. Would you take the red pill, go down the rabbit hole and try to figure out the truth?

I’m a scientist that I would always go that route.

I wanted to know so much I couldn’t wait to talk to you. This has been so much fun. You are interesting. I could ask you questions for hours and I appreciate you answering all these interesting things. A lot of companies probably want to know how they could reach you because you do your consulting business and all this stuff you can do to help businesses with disrupting their corporate learning would be helpful and everything else you do. How can people reach you?

I’m going to be honest here publicly that I am a one-man shop. It’s my Gmail account, which is That’s the best way to get ahold of me. I am passionate about this and I do want to have some positive impact on the world. I’m all game.

[bctt tweet=”Perception is a representation of the real world by the individual.” username=””]

You are interesting and this is fascinating. Thank you so much for being on the show.

Thank you for asking me sincerely. It’s been a pleasure, a fun time and I’m energized. I’ve got my mood up and I’m ready to get back to work.

I’d like to thank Dr. Todd Maddox for being my guest. What a great show. I learned so much. My brain is hurting a little bit because it was so much information and it was good. He is an expert in the areas that I research, behavioral therapy and some of the things we talk about in the business world of behavioral improvements. There are many issues with soft skills, emotional intelligence and lack of curiosity. All these things are impacting engagement, innovation, productivity. I love the work he’s doing and I hope you gained as much from the show as I did because it was amazing. If you’ve missed any past shows, you can go to If you need to find out more about Cracking The Curiosity Code or the Curiosity Code Index, you can go to I hope you join us for the next episode of Take The Lead Radio.

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About Todd Maddox

TTL 542 | Brain ScienceTodd Maddox, Ph.D. is the CEO and Founder of Cognitive Design and Statistical Consulting LLC. His passion is to apply his 25 years of scientific and neuroscientific expertise, gained by managing a large human learning, memory and performance laboratory, to help build better training solutions.

Todd published over 200 scientific articles resulting in over 10,000 academic citations. Todd is a prolific learning science speaker, and to date, has won over $10 million in federal grants from the National Institute of Health, National Science Foundation, and Department of Defense.

After receiving his Ph.D. in Psychology and Brain Science, Todd embarked on a 25-year academic research career achieving status as a leader in the fields of human learning, memory, and performance. Todd is especially interested in applying his optimized training expertise to manufacturing, healthcare, and corporate training and sees immense potential for applications of augmented and virtual reality in these sectors.


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