Question: This neuroscientist and SAS Explore host is known for appearing on "Blossom," "The Big Bang Theory" and "Jeopardy."
Answer: Who is Mayim Bialik, Ph.D.?
Today, instead of Bialik quizzing us, I got to be the lucky one to quiz her on some of her favorite topics, like mental health, curiosity and innovation. In this conversation, you’ll learn what Bialik has to say about her popular podcast, her wide-ranging career and her passion for breaking down complex topics. Keep reading for my questions and her answers.
At SAS Explore, you talked about curiosity being the one trait that all explorers have in common. And you acknowledged that your passion for learning and new experiences has fueled your wide-ranging career as an actor, author, neuroscientist and mother.
Where is your curiosity taking you lately? What new topics and ideas are you exploring or reading about?
Mayim Bialik: Wow, this is a great question, and I hope not a controversial answer. I've been interested in a lot of the attention on medical uses of certain drugs that previously have been deemed illegal, dangerous or controversial by the government. And this is not a conversation about, “Here's the drugs I plan to try this weekend.” I'm more interested in the process of how we classify drugs that have been used medicinally for transcendental healing purposes for thousands and thousands of years. I’m learning about the decision making around the designation of those drugs as not to be used for therapeutic and medical treatment.
Separately, I’m doing a deep dive into autoimmune disorders. I’ve had Graves' disease for about 20 years. That's an overactive thyroid. I’ve been learning a tremendous amount about the role of nutrition and the gut, in the epidemic of autoimmune diseases in particular in this country, but all over the world. I recently read Dr. Gabor Maté’s book, The Myth of Normal, which covers all of that and more. So that's really been a big focus for me and Jonathan [Cohen], who I have my podcast with.
When it comes down to it, we're all humans on a planet that is experiencing a lot of shifts in terms of climate, politics, personalities, trends and the economy. So we're all just here trying to do our best. And that's a challenge that I am eager to be a part of as a human.
Nutrition and gut health are so important for true, whole person care, but are often ignored. I also appreciate you sharing those personal details, as it helps make it okay to talk about. I’d venture to say that being willing to share personal challenges like that demonstrates bravery. You mentioned during the event that you love Reshma Sujani’s philosophy about bravery fueling innovation. Tell me more about why this appeals to you.
Especially as someone who is innovating across multiple industries and mediums, I’d love to hear your personal perspective on the importance of bravery.
Bialik: It's funny because I don't really consider myself a brave person, meaning I have a lot of insecurity, I have a lot of fear, as I think a lot of humans do. I have been told that bravery is having fear and doing it anyway, whatever the “it” is. I think that holds for all realms of life, but particularly in the field of innovation, where so much fear and doubt, and often kind of going out on your own, especially with a new idea arises. And that really is, you know, the purpose of bravery is to push you through that.
That’s an excellent sentiment and reminder for all of us to have hope and keep moving forward. Especially around mental health, there is legitimate fear of sharing challenges, yet bravery is needed to allows us to discuss and address it properly.
One of the things I really appreciate about your podcast is that you’re working to make mental health approachable and understandable. And, as you say in the title, you’re breaking down complex topics to make them easier to understand. Why is this important to you? And what is the primary goal you hope to achieve with your podcast?
Bialik: I think that mental health is completely underfunded and under-understood, meaning it’s not understood. And there are so many myths and misperceptions about those who struggle with their mental health or their mental wellness. We love a label in Western countries. We love a specific label and a specific pill. But the reality for me and my own mental health journey is that it's a lot more complicated than a label and a medication.
So, Jonathan, my partner and I, we seek to help people have a vocabulary that they may not have been given or may not have access to. And we have guests on who are either in an interesting part of their own mental wellness journey or have expertise. And our primary goal is literally to help people and to give people more understanding of what they're going through, so when it's time to get help and resources that they can get help. We also want people to feel more empowered about what they're experiencing, that it's not in your head, and there's a lot more complexity to a holistic view of mental wellness.
Sometimes for me, the numbers speak for themselves, but it's important to remember the end goal. We can get very focused on our data set, and all of the interpretations we get to make. But in order to bring that to a larger audience, it does often require being able to pretend you're a naive listener.
You often talk about using your doctorate, not in direct academia, but through your personal platform to raise awareness and share accurate information about science and the world. These examples you have just shared reinforce that approach. Personally, I moved out of direct clinical work and into the data and analytics field, using my doctorate as an advocacy tool, especially to combat stigma around behavioral health and promote whole-person care.
Where do you see data being helpful in these efforts? Where does it fall on deaf ears?
Bialik: Especially when it comes to mental wellness, a lot of what we know is anecdotal, and often anecdotal information is not the best information to base decisions on. You know, you'll hear someone say, “I'm going to get an x-ray for my teeth, because the doctor ordered it.” And then someone else will say, “Well, once I knew someone who got an x-ray for their teeth, and it led to all these problems.”
The point of data is to bring a scientific method to the way we gather information and the way we interpret that information. Especially in the field of behavioral health and whole person care, data can convey a more holistic approach. It does help also to get more Western doctors, or maybe people who have been trained and ingrained in the Western way of thinking to understand that there is data to support a lot of things that we previously didn't even have data for.
Thank you for emphasizing the value of whole person data to give more accurate information, augmenting anecdotes and facilitating decision-making for policies as well as individual interventions. As a scientist, data is obviously important to you. You’re also extremely talented in the art of storytelling.
What can data scientists, researchers, and other data geeks learn from your energy, enthusiasm, and storytelling to help them convey impactful messages with data?
Bialik: You know, I went to graduate school and I got a doctorate and I had an entire research plan that I had to execute. And I lived in the land of numbers and stats, and it is very challenging to try and bring all of that data to a level where people can understand the larger picture. For those of us who love data, and love numbers, it can be hard. Sometimes for me, the numbers speak for themselves, but it's important to remember the end goal. We can get very focused on our data set, and all of the interpretations we get to make. But in order to bring that to a larger audience, it does often require being able to pretend you're a naive listener.
You’re absolutely right. When we live and breathe a certain discipline, it can be difficult to take on other perspectives. Similarly, workplace wellness can require intentional awareness of ourselves and others. You’ve spoken about how the workplace—television sets in your context—can have a significant impact on mental health and coping. And you’ve talked about the importance of family and social support.
I often get asked about how to improve work and life contexts to support more whole person care. What advice would you give folks?
Bialik: You know, we need a cultural shift to value the human and not the productivity. I don't often quote Marx and Engels, but the notion that the capitalist system is not geared towards whole person care is not news. But I think we're seeing whole person care have a more significant impact for sure. I have had to limit my time watching television, my time even having an active social life, because I have needed more and more time to take care of myself. Especially with work and being a divorced parent of two kids, there are priorities, and I really have had to put my work and my obligations for work as a priority along with me and my kids. And it means that you end up disappointing a lot of people because they want to see you or they want to hang out, or there's many shows and movies I have never seen and probably will never catch up with. And that's a little bit of that trade off.
In addition, you know, the time is now. I say this for myself, as well. We have to stop rolling our eyes at people who try and draw attention to things that sound impossible to change. I've recently undergone a huge dietary change, to try and tackle my autoimmune disease a little bit differently. And I don't know how many times I need it to be verified, but it absolutely matters what we eat and how we eat. And it also matters how we sleep. And it matters what we surround ourselves with. We have more and more data supporting the fact that the notion of energy is not necessarily a mystical concept. If you are around a lot of negativity and a lot of hostility, it will impact you, it will impact your physiology as well as your psychology.
I love that optimistic attitude that things can change and again reinforcing the value of diet. I hear you also inferring the importance of listening to others’ concerns to improve the world. It seems that a key element of your career and advocacy efforts is helping build bridges, across industries, groups of people, media platforms, and other areas – like bridging neuroscience with entertainment and academia with celebrity.
What are the biggest challenges and benefits of this interdisciplinary and more holistic approach?
Bialik: I'm really grateful to be able to try and find a common ground for humanity. On a personal basis, we spend a lot of time thinking about who people vote for and what they support and what they don't support and blah, blah, blah. But when it comes down to it, we're all humans on a planet that is experiencing a lot of shifts in terms of climate, politics, personalities, trends and the economy. So we're all just here trying to do our best. And that's a challenge that I am eager to be a part of as a human.