Transcription of Hannah Holmes for the show Personality & Place #209

Dr. Belisle :                            This is Dr. Lisa Belisle and you are listening to Love Maine Radio, show number 209, Personality and Place, here and for the first time on Sunday, September 13, 2015.

It can be a lifelong process to understand what makes each of us thrive as individuals and how to create personal environments that foster our best selves. Today we speak with science commentator Hannah Holmes about her book, Quirk: Brain Science Makes Sense of Your Peculiar Personality. We also explore the idea of creative space with Joan Dempsey, a writer and teacher who works of a converted chicken coop known as, the Shed, in the backyard of her home in New Gloucester. Thank you for joining us.

As someone who pays quite a lot of attention to the book world, I’ve been familiar with this name for a few years now. Hannah Holmes is an American writer, journalists, essayist and science commentary, who has published 4 books. Most recently, Quirk, Brain Science Makes Sense of Your Peculiar Personality. She’s published articles online and in magazines, including Sierra, New York Times Magazine, L.A. Times Magazine, Outside, National Geographic and Discover. She lives with her husband in Portland, Maine, and she has also been a real estate agent for the past 3 years. Thanks so much for coming in.

Hannah:                                  My pleasure.

Dr. Belisle :                            I have been actually paying attention to your books because they’re so interesting. I think that one of them was about watching your lawn and seeing your lawn grow. I think you’ve done a lot of work on something like dust. You’ve been paying attention to the microscopic world around you from your vantage point here in Maine and yet you’ve moved on recently to brain science. Lots of stuff going on here.

Hannah:                                  One thing leads to another, believe it or not. I have always enjoyed turning a spotlight on the things that we take for granted, like dust. It’s something that you just don’t think about unless you’re thinking in terms of how it bothers you. It’s a microcosm of our entire universe. It’s perversely amusing to me to take something incredibly mundane and look at how it really functions in our world and functions to perpetuate an ecosystem that supports us. The same goes for the Suburban Safari book. We look at our back lawns as though they’re these ecological wastelands and for many years, for decades, biologists treated them as wastelands and disparaged them. It turns out they’re actually tremendously rich environments for a whole lot of species. We do a really good job of creating habitat for a wide variety of animals and plants in our backyards. Again, it’s the stuff we take for granted. We harp about the dandelions and whatnot, but we actually create a very healthy, if you can avoid the pesticides, a very thriving rich environment in a world where that’s increasingly difficult to come by.

Dr. Belisle :                            As you were talking I was thinking about Abigail Carroll, who is with Nonesuch Oysters. We interviewed her for the radio show. She was talking about something like this, that the ocean is so different and varied, and it has such a different and varied impact on things like creatures like oysters. You can go 6 feet north of one oyster bed and they’re going to be experiencing a completely different aquatic ecosystem, and yet we don’t necessarily pay attention to it, because here in Maine we look at, “There’s water. There’s water and oysters must live in it, great.” How does this paying attention to microcosm, how does this get you to the brain. I’ll tell you the reason I was really interested in having you come is because I watched your Ted Talk about the red mind, blue mind. It was so fascinating to me and I thought, “This lady is paying attention.” Talk to me about that.

Hannah:                                  Again, it’s the stuff we kind of gloss over and dismiss as unimportant, uninteresting. We just take for granted that the people who think differently from us are incomprehensible. They are only like that for the purpose of annoying us. Typically that cannot be. The personality book, Quirk, was me really trying to understand why every population of animals has individuals who are super obnoxious. Evolution demands that every personality type be functional, be useful, otherwise it would evolve away. We would not have those types. The fact is in mice, and starfish and humans there are obnoxious individuals. They are biologically obnoxious. Why? The book grew out of that question. Looking for comfort really in my discomfort around obnoxious people, what’s the explanation for this. How can I stop just being mad and reactive when people are obnoxious, and how can I understand them and accept them and appreciate what they bring? It really helps to bring mice into the picture, because how can you hate an obnoxious mouse. They’re all cute.

Dr. Belisle :                            Yes, if you like rodents that is very much the case. One of the things that you talk about it in your book is, and that I found so interesting, because you talked about mice that were more and less fearful and more or less open and different other personality traits, but you also started pretty early on by saying about 50% of our personality is genetically determined. How did you come to grips with the fact that the other 50% of the obnoxious person is not genetic, and possibly they have some way of impacting that?

Hannah:                                  That’s kind of a trick answer. Scientists used to feel that when you look at nature versus nurture it was about half and half. That nature determined about 50% of your personality and that nurture shaped the other half. What research is finding now is that it’s much more interesting than that. It’s that your genes, your nature determines who you seek out to hang out with in the world, and it is those relationships that provide your nurture. Your genes are actually seeking out an environment that is suitable to your personality to maximizing your personality potential whether that’s obnoxiousness, or friendliness or helpfulness. The genes that you’re born with cause you to find an environment that’s comfortable for your head.

Dr. Belisle :                            All these self-help books that are out there that are telling us that we can change our lives, we can but we have a lot of the deck stacked against us.

Hannah:                                  Yeah, you can change your behavior. It takes a much, much, much longer time to change your actual brain. You can change your brain, the way your pathways fire through long and serious practice. We can see them with meditation that you can actually change your brain patterns, despite the genetic programming that created those patterns, and child abuse and things like that. You can see how those ramify in the actual structure of the brain. Certain events can cause changes in the infrastructure. What is easier to do is put a transmission between the brain and your behavior so that when your brain is saying, “Somebody cut me off in traffic and I’m going to ram them in the bumper, ” you can put a transmission in there that it shifts down your behavior from your impulse. While your personality is to ram people, your behavior that comes out is to take a deep breath, remember that all humans are human and go on with your day. You’re not changing your personality per se, you’re changing the behavior that flows forth from your natural personality.

Dr. Belisle :                            One of the things that I found interesting was that you actually use your own self as a subject in this book, that you used yourself, and actually your husband, and I think a friend of yours or maybe a couple of different friends as examples of different sorts of personalities. That’s interesting to me because you end up getting sort of science and not science. You’re observing your own self from within yourself. You talked about the neurotic type of inclination, I guess, versus the non-neurotic inclination, and how this had really impacted you, and how it had been both a good and a bad thing for yourself and evolutionarily as a human. Talk to me a little bit about that.

Hannah:                                  In science writing, in particular, it’s really, really a struggle to find ways to make these chemical and mechanical concepts relatable. Science writing; there’s always that struggle to demonstrate how the science connects to daily experience for humans. The only way I can think of to do this, to make personality science personal to people, was to use real people and to help the reader to care about people, even when the traits those people might be displaying aren’t naturally lovable. By becoming exhibit A in that book I’m able to sort of model that not only the way humans spin off some coo-coo behaviors, but also how it’s just fine. It’s all just fine. No matter how coo-coo you may be, or you may think you are, we’re all just fine, we’re all as nature intended, we’re all serving a purpose here. For me to walk myself through the process makes it easier for the reader to understand that whatever she brings to this book in terms of obnoxiousness or natural terror of the world it’s fine.

Dr. Belisle :                            As a doctor, I really liked the part that you described about serotonin and how the serotonin impacted the way that you observe the world and maneuver the world, because for a long time we’ve been prescribing these serotonin reuptake inhibitors, so that increases the serotonin levels in the brain, but you brought up the fact that you know what if we don’t have enough that’s one thing, but if we have too much that can also be a problem as well. I’ve seen this in patients; they get medications that bring their serotonin levels and all of a sudden, instead of not being depressed, they get very anxious and very upset, but it’s something that we don’t always consider when we’re kind of tinkering with neurochemical transmitters, or hormones or other things within the body.

Hannah:                                  There’s so much of this that we don’t understand very well. Most of the psychiatric drugs that we use, anti-depressants and whatnot, were developed using mice and very, very primitive experiments that measure a drug’s effect on the personality behavior of a mouse. If you give a mouse Prozac and then hang him by his tail, he will actually struggle harder and longer to climb up the rope that’s suspending him, then he will without Prozac. That’s the acid test as to whether we have a good drug for human beings or not. It’s really poor. It’s really terrible. A lot of times they don’t translate at all and a drug just stops dead after the mouse studies. You can see how it’s easy to go far, far astray with a psychiatric drug if that’s where you start. Does this chemical cause a mouse to struggle longer when suspended by his tail? Okay, well maybe it’ll make people happy.

That’s a huge leap, and there are a million ways for it to go wrong, not least of which that no 2 human brains are like. We all have different sensitivities to each chemical we put into our brains. The best we can do with some of these anti-depressants and stuff is maybe a 50% effectiveness rate. Only 50% of the people you put this drug into will respond to it. The other 50% are so different in the brain, that’s just a non-issue, it’s a non-starter. Give me something else. Let’s try the next thing. We’re very much going by Braille when it comes to trying to alter the way our brain receptors work in order to elevate our mood just to the right spot without pushing it into the crazy zone or causing mood swings and whatnot. It’s amazing that we can do what we can, but it is still very much a primitive science.

Dr. Belisle :                            When you’re describing hanging a mouse by its tail and its struggle to climb back up its own tail, there was another experiment that you described where they would put a mouse in water, and mice can swim. Some mice would keep swimming as if they had some sort of hope for the future, and other mice would just sort of … They would float there with their little noses above water as if they had less hope for the future, but they could still biologically exist. The struggling mouse that climbs up its tail is similar to the struggling mouse in the water. These are the mice that theoretically have some greater resilience, so this is what we’re trying to model as human beings.

Hannah:                                  Exactly. Obviously, to some extent it works because that’s what Prozac came from, is from the observation that a mouse will swim for longer in a test tube if he has been taking his Prozac. If you take away his Prozac he will just collapse in lethargy. We can’t interpret anything about the mouse’s feelings. Perhaps the mouse is going into a Zen state of total universal acceptance and happiness, but we do the best we can from the behavior. They don’t call it depressive behavior in mice. They always say depression-like behavior or behavior that indicates depression. They never attribute an emotional state to the behavior. They only talk about the behavior itself.

Dr. Belisle :                            That’s another interesting thing as I was reading along, that ends up being in some interesting way almost a value judgment that is assigned to many of these personality traits. For a long time extroversion was considered this thing to be aspired to, and lately introverts have gotten their greater voice and so now more and more people are recognizing it’s really okay to be an introvert versus an extrovert. Even some of the things you were describing in the book, even the idea that some people are more neurotic or some people are more fearful as opposed to seeing this as a evolutionary advantageous it still has a value judgment associated like maybe this is a negative thing. Whereas if you’re more fearless like this is the great American hero. How did you feel as you were going through writing about this and seeing this?

Hannah:                                  It was really interesting to consider the role that culture plays in judging which personality types are the best. Definitely American culture thinks that extroverts are awesome, impulsiveness, venture capitalist types, that’s the American myth, that’s the person who’s conquering the world. Different cultures feel quite differently. That same personality in Japan, which values more reserved, perhaps dignified personality or behavior type, that person is not going to be encouraged to express their full extroversion and impulsiveness. They’re going to be discouraged. That’s the 50% nurture stuff. They will do what they can to make their personality comfortable in the environment, but they will always get messages back, “Tone it down, buddy, just keep a lid on it.”

Dr. Belisle :                            As you were writing this book one of the things you had to do was convince some of the researchers that you were not a member of an animal rights group, that you were not a member of PETA. It was actually really hard to get your foot in the door because in trying to do this research on rodents they get a lot of negative feedback. That must’ve been a little strange as a science writer to be given the cold shoulder.

Hannah:                                  It was very funny. It was frustrating. Really frustrating, actually. I had to go to Germany to get into a mouse research lab. I couldn’t get into a single mouse research lab in the U.S. Funny as well just in terms of personality to be writing about personality trying to work with these scientists and meeting such neurotic fear based behavior, and I get it. Some of these people are really persecuted for the work that they do in trying to help us all have better mental health. If there’s a better way I don’t know what it is. Nobody loves to torture mice or monkeys, but also nobody like depressed people leaping off the bridge. It was very interesting to observe these people, from both the science writer perspective and then from a personality perspective, how suspicious and fearful a number of them were, which made for fun writing because I totally, totally made fun of them.

Dr. Belisle :                            You did it in a very gentle way.

Hannah:                                  I hope so.

Dr. Belisle :                            It really didn’t come across as if you were judging them at all. It just was, I just wanted to talk to you about mice and personalities and why is this so hard, and yet at the same time understanding why this is so hard.

Hannah:                                  There was this guy who was so, so suspicious at Duke, and in the middle of his fear that I was PETA … He was really open about his fear, but at the same time his wife was from Nova Scotia, I think, and when I came to his lab he wanted me to bring her some Maine lobsters. I was like, “Do you really think someone from PETA is going to bring you living animals with the full knowledge that you’re plunge them into boiling water….” It doesn’t make sense. That’s what fear will do to you.

Dr. Belisle :                            Right, you had said, “I’d like to come visit you,” and he said, “Okay, you can visit but bring lobsters.” Then even when you showed up with the lobsters that you’re going to give to him so he could eat them, he still was concerned that you were from an animal rights group.

Hannah:                                  Yeah.

Dr. Belisle :                            That’s very interesting.

Hannah:                                  Very funny.

Dr. Belisle :                            Tell me about the red brain, blue brain thing that you discussed in the Ted Talk. I hope I’m getting this right. I thought it was very interesting because it really did speak to just what it means evolutionarily that you have one type of brain versus another.

Hannah:                                  Scientists are starting to pay a lot more attention to the subject of why some people turn out blue brained and why some turn out red brained. Again, using genetic research you can determine that it’s about 50% genetic and then about 50% environmental again, with the caveat that the genes of your personality will steer you towards an environment that feels right for you. If you start from the premise that this diversity in the way we view society is evolved and genetic, then you must accept that it is important to have that diversity, otherwise it would not have happened. If evolution allows a diversity to exist you must accept that diversity has a purpose. When I was looking at what that purpose might be, I was pulling together a lot of different studies people have started to do around the country and around the world, what makes these two types so different. It was really fun to look at the various ways people have tried to tease out the differences and then to try to find my own explanation as to why this serves us as a species.

Dr. Belisle :                            People who have a red brain they tend to be more, and you can describe this better than I probably, but they tend to be more on alert, they’re more territorial, they’re more likely to keep the invaders out and protect those that are within their tribe or their camp, which is great because they will always have the resources that they have. On the other hand, the people with more of a blue mind tend to be more open and welcoming and let the invaders in, which is great because they can procreate and they’ll keep propagating the species, but on the other hand, sometimes they’ll let in the invaders that might actually kill them. That’s what you’re talking about with red and blue.

Hannah:                                  If you start from the premise, for most of our history as a creature like every other creature we’ve been territorial animals, and in our case, probably, in little villages or groups of perhaps 200 people. We had no antibiotics, no vaccines, we were extremely vulnerable to every stranger we encountered. The natural response was suspicion. To be a successful territorial animal you have to defend your access to food and water in your territory and also to what I use, a shorthand is uteruses. They’re hard to come by. There just are never enough uteruses. A good territory contains uteruses, water, and food and some place to sleep. You have to work to defend that, otherwise, every passing stranger is going to take all your stuff and the same goes for the neighboring groups.

There’s this natural animosity between territorial groups. On the other hand, if you never let anybody in you’re going to inbreed, eat all your food, someone’s going to die in the pond and foul the water and then you’re all going to die. End of story, end of evolution, you lose. Somebody has to be the one who’s looking outside the territory, looking across the boundary, looking for other opportunities to expand the resource space, weather that’s looking for fresh sources of food, looking for interesting new uteruses, looking for clean water. Nature is chaotic and unpredictable, and when it wipes out something in your territory you better have a plan B. That plan B is often to go into someone else’s territory. That’s a lot easier if you already have good relationships with them.

What it looks like is the blue brain specializes in maintaining those networks outside the territory. The red brain specializes in defending what has already been accumulated in the territory and making sure that we have reliable access to that stuff. The red brain is awesome at quick response to danger and you can measure this stuff in human brains how quickly they react to a danger stimulus. Red brains are quick on the draw, they prefer extremely good organization, so that we can all respond as a group, they make awesome armies essentially. The blue brain is better at looking for opportunity, at seeing a stranger as something to be exploited as opposed to something to be stabbed, they’re interested in new experiences, so they have a natural curiosity that pulls them away from the known and into the unknown.

Dr. Belisle :                            What I love about all of this is that you also, over the course of all this time, all the writing that you’ve done, all the research that you’ve done, you’ve come to a place where you know what I’d really like to do, I’d like to sell houses. 3 years ago you decided you were going to sell houses and you actually are using the knowledge that you gained of personalities, and of people and of observations to help you do this and it’s something that you really enjoy.

Hannah:                                  I’m really surprised how good of a fit this has been. All my journalistic work has translated so powerfully into helping people with their territorial issues. Not just in terms of ensuring that the territory is a good one, which is sort of the fundamental job of a real estate agent, but also helping them navigate their own emotional response which can be extreme. It can be extremely uncomfortable. It really is true that moving is the 3rd most stressful life event after death in the family and divorce. Moving, it is horrible for you. Even if it’s exciting and fun it’s extremely stressful. It brings out the absolute worst in people.

It’s wonderful to be able to prepare them for that, and to help them understand what they’re responding to. They’re not being crazy. Their territory is being ripped out from under them or they’re walking into a brand-new territory with no idea what the future holds on a biological level. Intellectually they understand it. They feel like they should be happy and everything’s beautiful, but emotionally for an animal to leave its territory, oh my God, that’s life-and-death stuff. That is how our brain responds to it. It’s a pressure cooker for an animal’s emotional response to change territories.

Dr. Belisle :                            I, for one, appreciate all the time that you have spent observing those of us around you who are inhabiting your world with you. If you’re listening, and you’d like more information about Hannah Holmes the real estate agent, you can go to Are there other places people should be looking to learn more about the work that you’re doing Hannah?

Hannah:                                  My current blog, I call it, Geek Realty, and it’s a blending of science and human behavior around our houses and also sustainability issues, which have always interested me. The website for that is kludgy and unattractive, but I do repeat it on Facebook. If you can find me on Facebook, you can find Geek Realty.

Dr. Belisle :                            We’ve been speaking with Hannah Holmes, who is an American writer, journalist, essayist and science commentator who lives in Portland, Maine. Thank you so much for the interesting things that you’ve brought to our conversation today and brought into the world at large.

Hannah:                                  Thanks, Lisa.