Super Brain Blog – Season 4 Episode 5

 Football: A Concussion Delivery System with Michael Kaplen

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  •  01:48 – Michael’s first brain injury client
  • 03:30 – The invisibility of brain injury
  •  06:08 – Personality Change
  • 09:12 – Explaining invisible symptoms to jurors
  • 17:58 – Lack of treatment and supports
  • 23:00 – Sport and brain injury
  • 26:45 – Heading the ball
  • 28:18 – Children, a special case
  • 33:29 – The consequences of concussion
  • 36:47 – Brain injury – anytime, any place, anywhere
  • 41:26 – The portrayal of brain injury in movies




Visit Michael’ website for the videos, guides and resources he mentioned in this podcast.

Guest Bio

 Michael V. Kaplen is a senior partner in the New York personal injury law firm, De Caro & Kaplen, LLP. His practice focuses on personal injury and medical malpractice with an emphasis on representing individuals who have sustained a traumatic brain injury and/or other catastrophic injuries. Michael has been selected a New York Super Lawyer for the last 14 years and named as one of the top 100 trial lawyers in New York State by the American Association of Trial Lawyers. Michael has been selected as a Best Lawyer, New York and De Caro & Kaplen has been designated a Best Law Firm by US News & World Report.

Michael is also a Professorial Lecturer in Law at The George Washington University Law School where he teaches the only course in the nation devoted to traumatic brain injury law. He also chairs the New York State Traumatic Brain Injury Services Coordinating Council. Michael was invited by President Obama to be a participant in the 2014, White House Healthy Kids & Safe Sports Concussion Summit and serves as a member of the American Academy of Neurology, Concussion Work Group. His views and opinions are often sought by well-known news sources including, The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, Gannet News Services, the New York Daily News, the National Law Journal, the New York Post, the Huffington Post, ABC News, CBS News, ESPN, Fox Broadcasting, and NBC News.

Over to You

Have you or has anyone close to you experienced ongoing symptoms following a concussion. What do you think about children playing contact sports where there is a risk of concussion. Do you think heading the ball in soccer should be allowed? Balancing out the benefits of playing team sports, including the physical fitness and social benefits what would be the best way to protect players brains from concussion and the associated consequences.

I really would love to hear your thoughts.

Don’t forget to share the episode on your social media.


Dr Sabina Brennan  00:01

Hello, and welcome to Super brain, the podcast for everyone with a brain. My name is Sabina Brennan, and my guest this week is Michael Kaplan, a lawyer, but not just any old lawyer, Michael is quite literally a super lawyer. And that is a fact. He has been selected a New York super lawyer for the last 14 years and named as one of the top 100 trial lawyers in New York State by the American Association of trial lawyers. Michael has been selected as a best lawyer in New York, and De Caro and Kaplan has been designated a best law firm by US News and World Report. To be perfectly honest, folks, I could fill an entire podcast, just listing Michaels accolades and achievements. But I’d rather talk to Michael about his work because it is work that is very close to my own heart. Michael focuses on representing individuals who have sustained a traumatic or acquired brain injury, including concussion because of course, if you have listened to one of my booster episodes, on concussion, you will know that concussion is actually a traumatic brain injury. Michael, you were invited by President Obama to be a participant in the 2014, White House, ‘Healthy kids and safe sports concussion summit. And I want to talk to you about that in this podcast, because children are particularly vulnerable when it comes to concussion, because they have developing brains. And I personally believe we really have a duty of care to protect them. But first, I’d like to learn a little bit about you, Michael Kaplan, the person as opposed to Michael Kaplan, the lawyer, I’m also keen to learn how you came to specialize in representing people with brain injury. But first, tell us a little bit about you.


Michael Kaplen  01:48

So Michael, Kaplan, the person and Michael Kaplan, the lawyer kind of all mixed together, because what I do is really a 24, seven day a week job. And I take great pleasure in representing my clients, many of whom, as you said, who have sustained traumatic brain injury. We have a firm in New York with a nationwide presence as well, we have been involved in representing individuals of brain injury for the last 40 years. And it’s interesting how we got involved in this, it was really, by accident, because one of our clients was in an accident, a car crash. And he sustained many physical injuries as a result of that, and was hospitalised for a good deal of time. But when he got out of the hospital, he made a good recovery from those physical injuries. He went back to work and went back to trying to live his life. And he encountered problems both at home on the personal level and at work, people at work didn’t want too much to do with him. Because his personality had changed. His boss didn’t want to give him new assignments to do, because he just couldn’t handle the work. And he was on the verge of being fired from his job. At home his family commented that he just wasn’t the same person anymore, that he would be forgetful, he would have memory problems. Because he would even walk out of the house in the middle of winter and forget to take his coat. And he was a very, really nice man.


Dr Sabina Brennan  03:25

Can I just ask you there? How many years ago was that?


Michael Kaplen  03:28

This is about going about 25 years ago?


Dr Sabina Brennan  03:30

Yeah, yeah. And I mean, it still happens today. Here. You know, the focus is so much on the physical and physical recovery, forgetting, of course, that the brain is a physical part of your body, but it is so hugely ignored. And I’ve heard so many stories like that, going back where people put it down to almost saying, he turned into a nasty person after that accident, no, his brain is malfunctioning. You know, and by the sounds of that individual, there must have been I would imagine some frontal lobe injuries because he couldn’t access his past behaviors. And actually, to be honest, he sounds like he was very severely debilitated. And the funny thing is, you will get much more support and financial personal and sort of in terms of equipment, etc. If you have a physical injury, which might be far less debilitating,


Michael Kaplen  04:20

you’re absolutely correct, because the brain injury is invisible. You can’t see it and people. The population in general is trained to look at an individual and assess the disability just by looking at visual clues. But a person with a brain injury doesn’t need a wheelchair. They don’t need a walker. They’re not drooling, they look fine, they sound fine, but they have an injury that has affected every aspect of their lives. And this is the most frustrating part of this injury both to my client, who we’re talking about, and to any person with a brain injury because people just don’t understand what is happening to that individual and They’re told, unfortunately, that they’re making this up, get over it get on with your life Come on. And when they say at three o’clock in the afternoon, that their battery has just run out of steam, and they can’t do it anymore. People just don’t understand. And when they’re sitting at the Thanksgiving Day table, and they put their head down, and they say they have to leave the room, because there’s just too much going on at the same time conversations and noise and bright lights, and they just can’t handle it. And they have to walk away, people look at them, like their eyeballs.


Dr Sabina Brennan  05:32



Michael Kaplen  05:32

but they’re not. They’re really, really suffering. And that is really the tragedy of traumatic brain injury. And that’s the greatest problem I think that survivors face when it comes to traumatic brain injury, the fact that nobody understands their problem. Now we’ve created some videos on our website to assist people in understanding this injury and helping them explain it to other people. And I really do suggest that some of your listeners go on our website and look at these videos, to have a better understanding of what it’s like to live with a traumatic brain injury,


Dr Sabina Brennan  06:08



Dr Sabina Brennan  06:08

I will certainly share a link to those videos. I remember speaking to one woman and she was in her 90s caring for her son, who was I think, coming up to 60. Now who had acquired a brain injury in his 20s in a car accident, and she looked after him all her life, her husband had died. And it was getting increasingly difficult. And of course, she was worrying what would happen to him afterwards. And I said, Well, you must get someone in to help you. You know, you can’t be doing all this and looking after and she said, but I’ve tried. But she said ‘I can’t bear it’. She said, ‘I’ve had carers come in and slap him because he’s being rude or telling him to behave himself’. You know, if he has an injury he has no control or the neurons, the connections are broken between certain areas that you and I use to inhibit our behavior or not engage, and I came across another woman. And I don’t know if you’ve come across this in some of your clients, but another woman, her husband had acquired a brain injury. And he became completely disinhibited and disinhibited sexually. Because I think what people don’t realize is we learn those behaviors, we learn what is appropriate. within society, a two and three year old child can strip off their clothes, if they felt like it. They get told Actually, no, you can’t do that. And they’ll reach out and touch things. And they could touch a woman’s breast to see what it feels like. And they learn No, you can’t do that. But if that part of your brain is damaged, you will revert to those disinhibited behaviors. And this woman used to walk around with her husband, and she actually had a card and a sign and said, My husband’s not a pervert, he’s had a brain injury


Dr Sabina Brennan  06:15

Sound likes one of my clients does this,


Dr Sabina Brennan  07:44

it’s very, very difficult. It


Michael Kaplen  07:46

really does sound like a client that I had. Because you know, when you get an injury to the temporal lobe of your brain, you lose your brakes. That’s what it is saying the most inappropriate thing doing the most inappropriate thing. This gentleman would actually touch woman’s breast. Yeah. And he didn’t understand that that was inappropriate, he would go under a table to peek under a woman’s dress. And he would do inappropriate things, unfortunately, in his home with his wife who couldn’t sleep in the same room with him anymore. And it was just an untenable environment. Because he had severe behavioral issues, frontal lobe and temporal lobe problems with great disinhibition and he had no break, you know, the brain is the most complicated computer in the world.


Dr Sabina Brennan  08:32



Michael Kaplen  08:33

And that’s what we’re dealing with, with a brain injury. And as I say, in my class, at George Washington University Law School, to my students who are learning about brain injury, and how to represent individuals with a brain injury, you shake it, you break it. And that’s what happens. But what I also tell them is, remember when you were a child, and your mother asked you to go buy a box of eggs for her, but my mom told me, make sure you open that box and look at the eggs. Because Same thing with the brain that the outside that skull is pretty thick, but it doesn’t prevent an injury to the inside of my brain.


Dr Sabina Brennan  09:12

And I’m kind of hopeful in a way that the brain fog that’s been associated with long COVID is shining a little spotlight on an area that I’ve been working in, that’s been in the dark. And the reason I wrote my most recent book, Beating Brain Fog, was to shine that light. And as it happens, I was actually writing it when COVID began, and straightaway, and it wasn’t any great science to say that people are going to experience brain fog after COVID. Before long COVID became a thing because it happens after any viral illness or after sepsis or whatever your brain has experienced an insult and assault. And I’m sure some of your brain injuries also have come from something during surgery as deprivation of oxygen for a period of time or whatever. But the brain is very vulnerable. And I think what people don’t realize people think when they hear fatigue Which is dreadful, a physical fatigue is really tiring, they think you just need to sleep. But the problem with mental fatigue is, as you described, that individual who is at dinner, his brain cannot cope with the noise, there’s too much sensory information, your brain is just too tired, and it needs to restore its batteries, etc. And it’s those subtle things that can really, really impair the quality of life for someone. And that must be challenging for you in terms of a lawyer and you’re seeking, I presume, compensation or supports or whatever, in a courtroom. How do you go about it? Do you use your videos? Do you just explain what happens I noticed as well with you, you’re a graduate of the Marquette University of neuro anatomical dissection of the human brain and spinal cord. But you know what I mean, I think that has to be critical if you’re going to represent your clients properly, that you actually have an understanding of how the brain works.


Michael Kaplen  10:54

Well, it was a fascinating course that I took at Marquette University. And I was one of the fortunate only lawyers ever to take this course. Because it’s not a course for attorneys. It’s the course for people in the medical field to introduce them to the brain, and all the different functions of the brain, and you actually spend days dissecting the brain. And you realize when you’re doing that this organ that weighs three pounds, controls every aspect of who we are, our emotions, our behavior, our feelings, our actions. It is an amazing organ that we still don’t understand. And I doubt we’ll ever fully understand. Now, how do you go about explaining all of this in a courtroom, to a jury, what happens to a person with a brain injury? Well, it’s very complicated. It takes a lot of effort and a lot of different kinds of witnesses and a lot of different types of exhibits. To explain that, we need to do a show and tell to a jury, we need to show the brain, we need to explain the lobes of the brain, we need to explain through expert witnesses, how their brain functions, and we need to display that as well with visual images. Sometimes we use computer animations to do that, as well, we need the assistance of witnesses who are in a field of neurology and neuro psychology, and neuro radiology at times to objectively show the injury that a person has. But CAT scans, MRI scans are, for the most part, incapable of showing the injury.


Dr Sabina Brennan  12:29

I think that’s it, what struck me there, and my listeners will be used to me saying this, but you said, you know, your brain is involved in pretty much everything that you do, which is very true. But I mean, what I actually say is you are your brain, and that’s it full stop. At the end of the day, you are your brain, it is the sum total of your experiences, your genetics, you know how the brain evolved and adapted. And so the things that we call a personality is actually the data that your brain has collected, and the information that it has learned, translated into how you behave in any given circumstance. And that’s patterns of behavior. And basically what happens and what is disrupted, when someone has the kind of injury where they have behavioral change, and personality changes, that pattern is no longer there, they have no access, or else the pathway to that pattern is gone. And so people see it as a personality change. And because we think we kind of give more power to our sense of self than to our brain, it’s complex thing to talk about. But at the end of the day, your brain creates your sense of self. And so you are your brain, I can imagine it’s hard to explain that kind of thing to a jury, or I don’t know, if there’s juries involved in the kind of cases that you do,


Michael Kaplen  13:44

there are juries involved and you raise some interesting points. So when you say you are your brain, I’m gonna steal that line,


Dr Sabina Brennan  13:53

if you can, if it helps people understand what it is that a brain injury means you fire ahead,


Michael Kaplen  14:01

because we call that legal research. But what I like to say is, this is not something that I’ve come up with this is what professionals neuro psychologist in the field, have told me, it’s really a death case, when a person has a brain injury, they’ve died and they’ve become a new person. And until they can accept this new person that they are, they can’t move on in their lives. In regard to rehabilitation. rehabilitation will never be successful for a person with a brain injury until they can accept the new person that they are. And of course, you raise so many different issues. We could spend days talking about it. Brain fog and COVID-19, which is a really important issue that people have to understand people make a physical recovery from COVID-19 and they now are encountering long term neurological problems as a result of that. And hopefully, while this is not a good thing for anybody, but hopefully it will shed more light on this invisible entry of brain injury and lead our government to devote more resources to this injury and provide more support for people with a brain injury because tragically, the ability of individuals with a brain injury to get proper care and support is lacking. It’s lacking from the time they get a brain injury when we talked about concussions, because of concussion is a brain injury to getting a diagnosis. Because still, there are many people, even in the medical profession who don’t understand that concussion is a brain injury. Understand it, you can’t let a child return to play before that brain injury, he knows they need help in school, if they’re going back to the classroom, it’s just not a sports issue. It’s a classroom issue as well. It’s a knife issue, I would say yes, and and if they’re a victim of domestic violence, unfortunately, and get a brain injury, and we know that 90% of victims of intimate and domestic violence, According to the Centers for Disease Control, will have a brain injury. And nobody understands that injury and nobody diagnosis that injury in these women and that screen for that injury. So they don’t get proper treatment for that injury. And we have cases of people leaving the hospital and the doctor will hug them and they’ll kiss the doctor for saving their child’s life. And they don’t know what they’re in for. Because nobody tells them what’s going to happen after they leave that hospital. And if they try to find a rehabilitation center for the level one their child, their husband, their wife, they’ll find that these centers really are lacking in proper facilities. They don’t exist all over the country, it’s difficult for people to get there, when they need help. They’re very expensive, and our government doesn’t pay for it. Insurance companies are fighting about that. They’ll say, Well, you could go to a rehab center for three weeks, and they say it’s like a broken bone. And after three weeks, while they haven’t made any recovery, they’re the same place. So go here, because this is the brain doesn’t take three weeks. Yeah, yeah. So we have all these fights that we have and legal issues that we’re fighting about with with a brain injury, you say, Well, how do you go about proving that in quit? And my answer is the best test for brain injury is life. I bring people in to court who know my clients before the injury, and know my client now to look at the jury to explain to the jury the differences that they perceive in my client, which is the best way to explain it, how my client is going about their daily life in the problems that they’re having. Because that’s the effect of the brain injury. It’s not the injury itself. It’s how it affects the person. That’s important to me, as an attorney representing people with a brain injury,


Dr Sabina Brennan  17:58

I think, you know, you’ve raised all the points, I do want to just track back to one thing that you said, and just to clarify that not all brain injuries will give rise to full personality change, you know, so, so just to clarify that when you said earlier, you know, people need to accept that they’re a new person. But I think another thing that people don’t realize, and it speaks to some of what you said is that the brain is incredibly plastic. And it does have the capacity to adapt to change, and to recruit other areas to compensate for areas that have been damaged. And if you actually have a brain injury, and you are fortunate enough to get rehabilitation, the occupational therapist, you know, because obviously a brain injury can also lead to paralysis, etc, lead to a physical injury in a way you’re almost better off if your brain injury leads to a physical injury, because then it’s diagnosed, that you have a brain injury and your cognitive consequences. I think where we have the real issue is when the brain injury doesn’t affect the motor cortex, or your visual cortex is not affecting your sight or your ability to move or walk. But it is affecting your ability to be human in a sense, because it is our cognitive functions that set us apart from our closest relatives. It is that capacity to make decisions to disinhibit behavior to engage in social behaviors appropriately within context, our memory function, you know, without memory, again, who we are it becomes something different, and our ability to learn and learn new things. But I think one of the issues I don’t know how it is in the US, but certainly our neurological services in Ireland are absolutely appalling. They are understaffed in terms of neurologists with hospital say, having two neurologists, when they work out, they need eight, you know, that kind of level. But on top of that, we have a terrible situation. I don’t know whether you have it in the States. But basically, for example, if you’re in a car accident and you sustain a brain injury, you’re taken to an acute hospital, right? But basically, in our country, that person stays in that hospital once their life supported or their life is saved or whatever, and assuming that they have an injury that requires them to stay in hospital, they stay there until there is a place for them in the National Rehabilitation Hospital. Now that could take six, nine months. And what you have done to that individual and that six to nine months is actually created a lifelong injury that perhaps had they had an immediate brain health plan, you know, a rehab plan put in place immediately with people who understand where the injury is, when rest is needed, when work is needed, that person could have made a much better recovery. So what we’re actually doing is costing insurance companies costing the state much more money by leaving people languishing without treatment, because those people, if they’d had treatment, might be able to reintegrate into the workforce might be able to actually learn new ways to be social, or whatever, depending on their injury, but you leave them languishing and you don’t give them number one, they might be just lucky to get rehab, a lot of people don’t get it at all, and you’re actually making that person’s brain injury worse. It’s no different actually, in a way to my mind. And I don’t mind be controversial, but it’s no different than kicking someone in the head when they’ve already sustained a brain injury. Because that’s what you’re doing.


Michael Kaplen  21:16

You’re right, you raise many, many important issues that tragically are not just in Ireland where you are. But in the United States in Europe throughout the world, people are not getting the treatment that they need for a brain injury, either because they can’t access that treatment. It’s just not available. It’s limited in quantity, and in quality and in duration and these are real problems. You raised another issue when you talk about the brain healing, something called plasticity. Yes, but it’s a very dangerous concept. Because you talked about I know you’re passionate about children with a brain injury. It’s a very interesting concept with children. Because when a child gets a brain injury at a very early age, they need to grow into that brain injury, what the problems are not going to be apparent right away for that child. If you would take a two or three year old child, they haven’t learned how to read, they haven’t learned how to write, they haven’t learned arithmetic, yet. They’re still learning social skills. And they have to grow into all of these things. And you might not realize the problems that they have until they get older. So a child might fall and hit their head and a mother might pick up the child and say oh, you’ll find it’s just a bump on the head of booboo. And later on, unfortunately, that bump on the head could cause all kinds of problems. So it’s very different when it comes to children, then it comes to adults when we’re talking about a brain injury. And children need a lot of different kinds of supports than an adult. And again, unfortunately, that rehabilitation just really doesn’t exist.


Dr Sabina Brennan  23:00

I do want to move on to sport because we have talked about the kind of injuries. And I want to particularly come back to that point that you’ve just made. But the kind of injuries that we’ve been talking about frequently are accidents or the consequence of an act of violence, you know, car accident, or falling or whatever. And what fascinates me and frustrates me is that we have learned from when accidents happen, in that we develop car seatbelts, we introduced laws around wearing seatbelts to prevent these things, wearing helmets, when you’re riding a motorcycle, wearing reflective clothing. In fact, actually my first book was about brain health. And it’s talking about things like sleep and stress. But actually in the very first chapter, I say, Well hold on, here’s practical tips about how you keep your brain healthy, you know, wear a seatbelt drive safely. Don’t drink and drive, don’t text and drive wear properly fitting helmets, be seen when you’re out. Don’t stand on unstable chairs, remove tripping hazards around the home. If you have young kids, make sure windows can’t be opened by curious little hands, and so on and so on. And we have lots of those. We’ve accepted those things in society that we need to take care and precautions to prevent injuries and especially around the head, people are aware of that. However, there seems to be just a, I don’t know a disconnect when it comes to sport. We seem to be much slower to learn from mistakes, to learn from what injuries in sport can give rise to and you have one and I’m going to quote you and I think it’s a fantastic quote. And of course you’re referring to football, we would put in front of that American football and in the UK, they would say football and we would say well they mean soccer and then we have football which is Gaelic football. Anyway, most of them are contact sports, which is the point about things like concussion and brain injury. You don’t have to be hit in the head. You can be you know, a force to the body. But the quote that I love from you is that football is a concussion delivery. system. And that’s exactly what it is. And whatever about an adult making a choice, I think there’s two things, I think plenty of adults make choices that they want to play contact sports, there’s a big difference between making a choice to do that and making an informed choice to do that, that’s one thing. And then there is the other thing that I touched on, which is the duty of care to children who can’t, or uh, you know, don’t have the maturity of understanding to be making an informed choice, and parents making that choice on their behalf to do things like you know, in Europe rugby is what gets the most bad press when it comes to concussion. In the US, I think it’s American football. But actually, soccer is actually much more detrimental. And you’re more likely to sustain a brain injury, you’re actually heading a ball at speed repeatedly and repeatedly doing it over time. And we’ve seen that with a lot of soccer players getting to the age now where there’s an increased incidence of developing dementia,


Michael Kaplen  26:06

we could spend a lot of time talking about soccer and heading a ball, I have a video cast that we tried to do every week, that’s part of our website called the Brain Injury Insider. your viewers could watch that by going to our website, where we’ve discussed some of these issues when it comes to soccer, and heading a ball. In fact, I’m preparing a new one on recent rule changes in the EU, for soccer leagues about heading a ball. And it’s my opinion, and I’m quite honest and upfront about it. Let’s talk about children, children should not be allowed to head a ball, period. End of story


Dr Sabina Brennan  26:44

totally with you.


Michael Kaplen  26:45

As you said, football is a concussion delivery system. It doesn’t matter if it’s American football, or international football, which we call soccer is still a concussion delivery system and heading a ball is something that does repetitive head trauma causes all kinds of problems. It doesn’t have to lead to the level of concussion. And we do kind of stupid things. Let’s put it bluntly, we haven’t, we make rules that make no sense when it comes to that we say in the US now Well, you could only had the ball 20 times I’m making up a number now. And after that, you can’t head it and we come up with this number from the oh children under 14, can’t head a ball but children over 14, can. You think the brain is any different and the head is any different? It’s not. So we make these arbitrary rules about heading a ball, without really coming to grips with the fact that this is not a good idea. This is not safe, this is not good for the brain. You could enjoy soccer and have a great time on the field, with your friends, with your teammates, learn the social skills that are important.


Dr Sabina Brennan  28:00

Yeah, all all important and the physical activity,


Michael Kaplen  28:03

and do everything that you can without heading the damn ball. Yeah, it’s not necessary to have a good time to head the ball. Children in the US, it’s not necessary to engage in tackle football to have a good time to play tag football.


Dr Sabina Brennan  28:18

And tag rugby, I think is another thing you just say, hold that thought. But the reason why children’s brains are so vulnerable, and adult brain is vulnerable to but that’s entirely different. But and also, that’s something I want to push out is. So the child’s brain is developing. And as you said it’s learning skills and depending on where an injury is, but also so you’re thinking 14 arbitrary, you know, oh, yeah, well, first of all, not all kids are the same size. And this is a size issue. The neck muscles are not fully developed in children. Similarly in females, females are much more susceptible, because they don’t have the same strong neck muscles that men do. Because with brain injury, it’s not just about the force of the injury, it is about the shock to the brain within the brain. So it’s like a reverberation. If you think someone kind of inside a washing machine, it’s a bit kind of like that, but the damage can kind of come from that. But the thing is, when you hit puberty, the human brain goes through a really, really important period of development. And that period of development, that whole brain is transforming. There’s two periods of growth that are really critical. One is just in infancy and then the other is from puberty, which what surprises a lot of people up until about the age 24/25. So legally, we would see people as adults, I don’t know at 18 or whatever. But actually when it comes to the brain, you don’t have an adult brain until you’re 25 and you also don’t have when it comes to frontal lobe function. Basically the brain restructures itself from the back to the front, from puberty to the age of 24/25. The last part to be restructured is your frontal lobes as a young person without a brain injury, you do not have the capacity to assess risk, because that part of your brain isn’t fully developed. So once legally, we say someone has the capacity to assess risk and make decisions, actually, organically, you don’t fully have that capacity. And that will differ across people. One of the things that I do want to say is about children and adolescents being at risk. And when it comes to sport, and ‘if in doubt, sit it out’ all those things, you know, we have these things, I think parents and coaches have to assume a greater responsibility here that their child’s brain is much more important than winning any game. But that when kids recover in a lot of injuries, there isn’t actually loss of consciousness, you can still have a bad concussion, even without being unconscious. There’s kind of no real relationship there. But I think in terms of the consequences of a concussion, or multiple concussions, people often don’t make this connection, a child can sustain a concussion or whatever, get over to whatever, and then suddenly starts getting into trouble in school, you know, has problems with attention, lack of concentration, planning, organizing, solving problems, that can come across as a child acting out, or a child has been difficult, or a child being bold, because you didn’t used to be like that. So now you’re just being ‘bold’, in inverted commas. But actually, these are the consequences of a concussion. And I think a lot of people don’t realize that. And these are huge consequences, because they affect learning. And they’ll affect the person’s progression through school, they may even have a language impairment or have difficulty understanding things, as well as then impacting on their mood in the sense of they can become depressed, they can have affective disorders, depressed or more anxiety, or manage stress inappropriately. And these are huge things that have long term effects for the rest of their lives. And I feel very strongly I would be a, I suppose you’d call me a brain health advocate. But we’ve looked after physical health for years. And there’s been a whole movement in recent decades about mental health. And that’s great, but actually fundamental, you know, the primary health we should be looking after his brain health, because if you live a brain healthy lifestyle, if you consider your brain health, and you look after that, your mental health and your physical health actually automatically follow because you’re getting enough sleep, you’re getting enough exercise, you’re engaging socially, all those kinds of things. And I don’t know what we need to do to, you know, someone said to me, once I was talking about what I wanted to do, and they said, Sabina, you’re not an entrepreneur, you’re an evangelist. But that’s kind of a bit what I feel is like that we have to get this message out there. And for me, that’s why I was drawn to you for for an interview, in that you’re someone who’s advocating on behalf of people who have these utterly life changing injuries and experiences and not to the extent I think people are aware that you can have a brain injury and we all know of that child who had a brain injury, who ends up living in a home or an adult where they can no longer function, and they’re in a chair and a wheelchair and all that. And you know, everybody knows that extent. But I think the problem is that actually, some of the other injuries are incredibly debilitating. And that’s the issue.


Michael Kaplen  33:29

So I think this would be a good time to just discuss with your listeners, all different types of injuries that can happen. The consequences of a concussion. There are physical consequences, sleep disorders, sensitivity to light and sound, headaches, dizziness, vestibular problems that can develop cognitive problems that can develop memory problems, concentration problems, multitasking, doing more than one thing. At the same time. There are behavioral issues that we’ve talked about, disinhibition doing the most inappropriate thing or saying the most inappropriate thing or acting out inappropriately. And there there are these emotional issues that you’ve also touched upon depression and anxiety that are hallmarks of concussion or brain injury. And a person doesn’t have to have every one of these injuries. Everybody’s brain will be affected differently by a concussion or any other type of brain injury. And as the medical profession likes to say, when you see one brain injury, you’ve seen one brain injury, exactly. Everybody’s brain injury is different.


Dr Sabina Brennan  34:47

That’s the thing. Broadly speaking, our brains are similar, but because your brain is constantly changing, and is shaped by your life experiences, no two brains are the same. Every single person’s brain is unique. That’s why it’s important to live a brain healthy life is that you can build resilience. And that resilience can actually really help you were you to sustain an injury, you may do better, because we know two people could sustain identical injuries, and one will have severe cognitive issues or other impairments. And the other might have minimal impairment. And that’s because their brain actually is in a, you know, it’s like you have a better prognosis, if you’ve been healthy before you go into surgery than if you’re overweight and a smoker, etc. It’s the same, but in a healthy brain, at the core of that resilience is this thing neuroplasticity. And it’s an inherent property of the brain, but you need to support it to be able for your brain to do it. And learning is the key and challenging yourself and engaging in new activities. And so if you’ve been doing that all your life, you’re pushing yourself, you’re pushing your brain beyond its capacity at any point. And so then your brain can, it recruits other areas of the brain to help in the activity you’re engaging in. And that’s to, you know, get to the next level of your console game or study for an exam that you’re pushing yourself, whatever. So then if you sustain a brain injury, and you’ve been doing that, your brain already knows how to recruit other areas to compensate. Whereas an individual who hasn’t been doing that, when they if they’re fortunate enough to get rehab, what the people engaging in rehab will be doing is to try and train a new area of the brain to compensate for the permanently damaged part of the brain. But you have to work up to that, whereas a healthy brain will already kind of be engaging in that. And that’s why none of us ever know that’s why I feel strongly about this. None of us ever know when we might sustain a brain injury.


Michael Kaplen  36:47

That’s true. And I want to give a shout out to the Brain Injury Association of America. My partner is the chairman, woman of the board of directors of the Brain Injury Association of America, shout out to Carol, and the Brain Injury Association of America has a slogan that they use brain injury anytime, anywhere, any place.


Dr Sabina Brennan  37:10

That was the martini ad was  Martini anytime, anyplace anywhere. Yeah.


Michael Kaplen  37:15

Which is very true. Yeah, of course, a brain injury can happen to anyone. No one is immune from a brain injury. And it could happen in all different aspects of one’s life from a fall, which is a large cause of brain injuries in children and adults. It could happen from vehicle accidents, it could happen from an object falling on you. It could happen from pedestrians being struck by a car, it could happen as a result of violence, domestic violence, or other type of violence can happen from toxic substances. And it could happen unfortunately for medical neglect as well. Brain injuries can happen anytime, anywhere, any place. And it’s important that people get the support and assistance that they need. They could go to my website, They could go to the website of the Brain Injury Association of America to get information about brain injury, I’m sure. In Ireland, you have other groups like headway?


Dr Sabina Brennan  38:14

Yes, absolutely. We have Headway and we have the Neurological Alliance of Ireland and we have various different organisations. But yeah, I think it’s hard for people, it’s hard for families. Brain Injury doesn’t just affect one brain. It affects many brains and the relationships because as you described, our husbands can become something different. Likewise, wives, children, all the rest. I wanted to ask you again, just coming to that children. So 2014, you were part of the Obama initiative around sports injury concussion. We’re now 2021. We’ve had a different president in between I will reserve comment, but you’ll know. He’s not a president that I have respect for


Michael Kaplen  38:56

I have not reserved comments if you’ll see about one of our former presidents and the shocking things that he has said about brain injuries and particularly servicemembers who have brain injuries it Pooh poohing the headaches that they sustained. And the other emotional trauma that they sustained as a result of sustaining a concussion on the battlefield. It’s disgraceful.


Dr Sabina Brennan  39:20

Oh, it is appalling. But what can you expect from a man who mocks people who are disabled. What you just said about people who have sustained concussions, brain injuries as a consequence of war, the headache issue alone to just have a headache, I wrote about it in my recent book, because if you have a headache, if you have a migraine, if you have a severe brain pain, you know, your brain can’t function, the focus is on your headache. So it’s much more than a headache when it’s those kinds of severe headaches. But those people are also dealing for the most part with post traumatic stress disorder, with stress as a consequence of being in combat and stress impairs your brain function. as well, so there’s so many like it’s a complex issue and those complex issues should be in the realm of people who understand those advising, which is I assume what Obama had been doing when he called that group together.


Michael Kaplen  40:17

I think the purpose of that summit was to raise attention about the dangers of concussion and brain injury in sports, that create awareness of that, on the part of parents on the part of the military, on the part of the medical profession itself. Because we have faced an epidemic of concussions in the United States, there were 3.5 million individuals each year, who seek some type of emergency department treatment for concussions and other types of brain injury. And that doesn’t count all the people who never get to the emergency department, who might go to a family physician where it’s not recorded, or go to no one will go to no one will go to an urgent care facility, or in the armed forces, because these concussions are not recorded. The problem is far greater than that. And it’s a problem that deserves the attention of governments, public health officials, and all of us to understand and tackle this health crisis and epidemic. So


Dr Sabina Brennan  41:26

There seems to be, certainly to me, you know, over the years, there does seem to be an increased awareness. I like I do think people are talking and there’s a greater awareness and things like movies, you know, I mean, when these things start to seep into entertainment, and that kind of thing. That’s good. That’s positive, because


Michael Kaplen  41:45

it’s good, but it’s bad. And I’ll tell you why. Okay, good. Yeah. Because we learn from watching movies and television. And unfortunately, many times the way a brain injury or a head injury is depicted in these movies, creates the wrong impression of what’s happening. And I go back to my childhood, we’re watching The Three Stooges, Moe, Larry and curly, they used to get hit in the head over time, and they nothing happened. And you watch cartoons, like the Road Runner, who runs into things all the time without problems, and you watch other popular movies. And part of what I do in my class in law school is we show some of these clips of what the public is exposed to about brain injury. And it’s amazing. The misinformation that’s conveyed to people about brain injury, that it’s no big deal. There’s a movie that we talked about called Regarding Henry, it’s about that movie it’s with,


Dr Sabina Brennan  42:49

was it Harrison Ford?


Michael Kaplen  42:50

Yes, Harrison Ford,


Dr Sabina Brennan  42:51

I don’t know where that came from, isn’t the brain brilliant.


Michael Kaplen  42:54

And Harrison Ford, unfortunately, gets shot in the head in a grocery store. And now his wife is sitting in the doctor’s office. And the doctor, the neurosurgeon is explaining the injury to her. And the doctor says, In the movie, your husband was very lucky. The bullet only affected his temporal lobe only only affected is tempora lobe – of give me a break. You know. So getting a bullet in the brain, it only affects your temporal lobe is no big deal. That’s the impression that walk away from that? Well, that’s anything but true. So when we talk about movies depicting brain injuries, it’s a good thing. And it’s a bad thing, if it’s not depicted properly.


Dr Sabina Brennan  43:43

Okay, I agree with you totally on that. What I was referring to though, was movies like Concussion, movies that are actually aiming,


Michael Kaplen  43:50

But the movie Concussion, the name of the movie has nothing to do with the facts in the movie, they’re not talking about a Concussion. About is an injury called CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy)


Dr Sabina Brennan  44:03

Oh, yes, yes, yes. Yeah, that is different. It is related to multiple concussions and associated then with dementia.


Michael Kaplen  44:11

Right? So the name of the movie and what you’re seeing the right is not accurate, though. I think every one of your listeners should watch the movie, because they could take away a lot of useful and important informations about the dangers of repetitive trauma in sports and why this has to be taken seriously by everybody.


Dr Sabina Brennan  44:29

Yeah, but I take your point. You watch people in movies, you know, and they get punched and hit on the head and all the rest and they come back in the sequel and they’re still perfect and so perfect. Yeah, there is that but I’ve often thought that in terms of we need to raise awareness, and we need to put responsibility on parents and coaches etc. Sorry, we have a duty of care. You don’t bring kids into the world without actually realizing that you have a duty of care to them. And I think schools Hold a huge responsibility. I don’t know what the culture is like with you. But school rugby in Ireland, you know like it’s Oh, this school against this school and there’s much more a stake than just a game. And people are tempted to put kids back on when they shouldn’t or kids pretending they’re fine when they’re not and all the rest. We need something in place to ensure that people have the best interests of the Children at Play. I think when it comes to sport, certainly team sport, I do want to point out that it’s not always team sports as well. A lot of brain injuries come from trampolining. But when it comes to team sports, and a lot of this comes down to money, I think in that these teams sports this huge amounts of money, billions being made out of them. And number one, there’s the issue of people don’t want games toned down, you know, by removing heading the ball or removing scrums or whatever the case would be in American football. But at the end of the day, these are human lives, I often think about it myself. So you were mentioning movies. So if we talk movie language, you know, another great movie was Gladiator, with Russell Crowe, an incredible movie and incredibly sad movie. And we think that we have progressed in time over these Romans that used to go to an arena to watch people fight a lion or gladiators fight each other to the death. But it’s no different. It’s just slower. You’re just paying someone a lot of money to sustain what could be life changing injuries. I mean, I’m very proud, we just got a gold medal. young female boxer just won a gold medal. But like, at the end of the day, when you’re sustaining repeated trauma to a head, you don’t get away scot free, you just don’t


Michael Kaplen  46:48

No. And when the goal in boxing is to knock someone out, knock them unconscious, you have to wonder whether or not this is really a sport, or it is what you call it being in an arena and watching gladiators kill him. It is no different.


Dr Sabina Brennan  47:04

It’s no different, we would stop and obviously Unfortunately, some boxers have died. They put in safety issues, and no there’s a count and whatever. But the person is still sustained brain injury. In fact, I would love for the word concussion to be removed from the lexicon altogether. And just call it what it is, which is a mild traumatic brain injury or just a traumatic because mild is a misnomer as well.


Michael Kaplen  47:28

Yeah, no, I was just gonna say Sabina, there’s nothing mild about a mild brain injury. It’s a terrible, terrible word, or description to use about brain injury. It’s only mild if it’s someone else’s brain. And


Dr Sabina Brennan  47:42

that’s a really, really good point. I think we need more research as well. I think we need more education, not just about brain injury, but just about how the brain itself just works just for people to kind of understand that. I’m very excited that you actually have these videos on your website, do check out my website, On the bottom of it, I have tons of resources, I use animation as a means to explain how the brain works, you are more than welcome to use if there are of any value to you, and you can link them on your website, I’ll certainly check yours. There’s only so much you can do and only so much I can do as individuals, you can only reach certain amount of audiences. When you have a tool like that, like an animation or a little video, hundreds of 1000s of people can see them. And clearly we’ve been talking about these kinds of ways because what you want to do is to help people to survive a brain injury with the resources necessary to do so. But I like to ask my guests for their personal tip about surviving and or thriving in life. Would you have anything that you would like to share?


Michael Kaplen  48:46

Well, since we’re talking about a brain injury today, let’s stay on that topic. And shed this remind that the best cure for brain injury is prevention. Absolutely.


Dr Sabina Brennan  48:59

Absolutely. My name is Sabina Brennan, and you have been listening to Super brain the podcast for everyone with a brain. Super brain is a labor of love born of a desire to empower people to use their brain to thrive in life and attain their true potential. You can now go ad free on forward slash superbrain. For the price of a coffee. Please help me reach as many people as possible by sharing this episode. Imagine if we could get to a million downloads by word of mouth alone. I believe it is possible. I believe that great things happen when lots of people do little things. Visit Sabina for the Super brain blog with full transcripts, links and the like. Follow me on Instagram at Sabina Brennan and on Twitter at Sabina underscore brand and tune in on Thursday for another booster shot from me and on Monday for another fascinating interview with an inspiring guest. Thank you for listening

#braininjury, #brain, #people, #concussion, #injury, #problems, #head

Super Brain Blog – Season 4 Episode 4

 Selfie-taking and self-esteem with Dr Mary McGill

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  •  01:01 – Dehumanisation and the darker side of humanity
  • 03:52  – Social media exposes our biases
  • 07:07 – Social media is designed to distort
  • 10:31 – The Kardashian Industrial Complex
  • 16:53 – The Instagram Look
  • 20:29 – Selfie-taking, self-esteem, mood and body shame
  • 24:00 – The girlfriend gaze
  • 27:02 – Censoring the female form
  • 33:37 – Cancel Culture
  • 38:11 – Stoicism



The Visibility Trap by Dr Mary McGill

Guest Bio


Dr Mary McGill is a media studies lecturer and journalist based in Ireland. Described by the Sunday Business Post as “essential reading”, her first book, The Visibility Trap: Sexism, Surveillance and Social Media, was published by New Island Books in July 2021. Her research explores the complex ways young women engage with selfie-practices and how the rise of social media is changing the way we see ourselves online and beyond. She is a former Hardiman Scholar at the National University of Ireland, Galway, and a regular contributor and writer in the Irish media.




Over to You

Do you admire the Kardashians? Were you aware that social media knowingly gives more visibility to thin white female forms? Would you like to see more diverse body types on social media.

What do you think of cancel culture? Do you think we could create more balanced, more empathetic platforms for social interaction with opportunities for more social integration across cultures and with holders of opposing opinions.

I really would love to hear your thoughts.

Don’t forget to share the episode on your social media.


Sabina Brennan  00:01

Hello, and welcome to Super brain the podcast for everyone with a brain. My name is Sabina Brennan. And thank you so much for tuning in to part two of my conversation with Dr. Mary McGill. If you haven’t yet listened to last week’s episode, I suggest you press pause, go back, have a listen. And then come back and listen to this part two of my conversation with my fascinating guest, Dr. Mary McGill, author of The Visibility Trap – sexism, surveillance and social media.


Sabina Brennan  00:36

I had another guest on in season one. And she was publicly shamed in social media A journalist because she wrote a piece about ‘how do we find the balance between fat shaming and encouraging people to lose weight for health benefits and whatever?’. But before she knew it, she was vilified globally, lost a job, all the rest. And you have plenty of stories in the book about those things.


Mary McGill  01:01

One thing I always try on an individual level, knowing how these technologies operate. I mean, I think what you’re describing there is various processes of dehumanisation, Dehumanisation, not just directed at other people, but dehumanisation of yourself. Because when you fail to recognise somebody else’s humanity, you’re actually diminishing your own. And I think very often, we’re not encouraged to have humility in these spaces, we’re encouraged to go out all guns blazing. And I think that doesn’t leave room for reflection that doesn’t leave room for nuances. And sometimes I’ll be honest with you, it kind of scares me because if history tells us anything, it is that people can do terrible things when they believe that they are right. You know, how do you know that what you’re saying is correct. If you can’t, even on a very basic level, even privately, engage honestly, with counter opinions, and look it, if those counter opinions are abhorrent that’s gonna be pretty obvious. But the counter opinions are, of course, that I’m talking about are the ones that actually will give you pause for thought. Or God, dare I say it make you change your mind?


Sabina Brennan  02:06



Mary McGill  02:07

So I think that that space for reflection and thought and dialogue, in theory, these should be flourishing like never before


Mary McGill  02:17

But that is not what that what happened and whatever our perspectives that value that principle, we all should be concerned about that, right? Because we know human history tells us that that shutting down and that bad faith, and that, you know, kind of binary thinking with other human beings is profoundly dangerous. And when I’m thinking about the darker side of all of this, I mean, that is what I’m very, very worried about, but it is stirring up forces that never quite go away. And that by the way, can I just say are not about ‘us and them’, every human being has darkness in them. And we don’t like talking about that, right? Because otherwise, how could horrible things have happened are happening now and happen throughout time, you know, the human mind and the human heart are complicated things. And of course, these technologies understand that, but again, and to go back to what I said earlier on, very often, instead of operating from a place that would temper down on those instincts and boost better instincts, they seem to trade on whatever instinct is going because all attention is engagement, engagement can be created, converted into a metric, which in turn, can be converted into cash. So it doesn’t matter if that engagement or attention is destroying someone’s life or destroying democracy, it’s all the same, because it all goes into the same cash pile. I think that is, if you want to call it an experiment, shall we say, I think we’re beginning to see now that we need to take the temperature down and to rethink. And I think that, of course, involves governments and laws, but it also involves us as individuals and how we approach these spaces.


Sabina Brennan  02:17



Sabina Brennan  03:52

And I think, you know, as I’m thinking and talking through this, which is really what I love about the podcast medium is that I can read this book, and I have questions and things that I want to talk to you about and ask you questions. But what I’m loving particularly about this chat is I’m getting ideas from talking to you. This is what social media should have been and was intended for and was for a while, you know, collaboration ideas, exploring thoughts, thinking through Why is that happening? And I do particularly like podcasting for that because it’s a longer duration, you actually get to engage with people and explore and get to know people and get to discuss and you know, back and forth. You don’t always have to agree with each other but you can kind of explore, we have multiple biases, okay. Basically, when we talk about bias, people tend to think about racism and sexism, etc. Look, we have biases about ourselves, we have biases about absolutely every single thing. Essentially, all they are are the brain’s heuristics. So they’re just shortcuts. So the thinking brain uses the most energy so your brain is constantly trying to find ways to limit the use in a way…. to maximise the efficiency. So anything that we can give to the unconscious brain to do is helpful. It frees up the conscious brain for actually doing the things that allowed us evolve, inventing stuff, and engaging with people writing books, making art, literature, all those fabulous things that make us human. It’s like the reverse of evolution, that’s kind of what we’re at risk of happening here is because the social media and again, I’m thinking this off the cuff sort of thing, that social media is bypassing our rational thinking brain and operating on that. So it’s exposing our biases, our heuristics. And whilst they’re always there, in another situation, you have a chance to slow down and think rationally, because that keyboard is at the tip of your finger, you can go straight from that thought to that and expose those biases without realising that they are just heuristics and that your brain can be wrong, your brain does not see a reality, what you interpret as the reality is just that. It is your brain’s interpretation based on the data it has available. Now we all know that social media actually manipulates the data that is available to you. So you get biased data. So biased incoming data on top of internal biases means that you’re going to see a completely different reality to somebody else.So your and my reality and view of the world when it comes to gender or sexism is going to be entirely different to someone who is a sexist, or a racist or whatever. And they are going to believe that they are just as right and accurate, in the same way that we believe that we’re right and accurate. I think perhaps that’s why maybe social media has changed so rapidly recently, is that you used to be able to see everything and that’s access to data. But then social media decided it better and decided to feed us stuff it knows we like so then all you’re doing is creating bigots, racists, sexists.


Mary McGill  07:07

Yeah, I think what social media does, is distort. And I think that that distortion is often something that we’re not particularly aware of, because these are technologies that are frictionless to us. And they feel quite organic in our hands, right? I mean, I’m sure you’ve seen toddlers with iPods. And it almost seems kind of intuitive, right? I think on our behalf, there’s kind of an almost unthinking presumption that what manifests on our screen simply is right, we’re not encouraged to look.


Sabina Brennan  07:41

To think critically


Mary McGill  07:44

Yeah, And to consider what is going on, what are all the calculations that lead to you seeing your version of quote, unquote, online reality, or me seeing my version, quote, unquote, of online reality. And of course, that can be used in lots of ways, some people will become visible because of it, a lot of lot more people will be denied visibility online because of it. It’s also a convenient way for material that you would find annoying somehow making its way into your timeline. And of course, our minds are primed for negativity and will be drawn to the annoying thing, you know, and will dwell on that probably more than the most positive thing. But surely, that’s not a good… I mean, if if something’s been placed there just to get your attention, because attention is the most important thing, but it’s actually annoying you and just generally, you know, not really what you want to see, but it’s capturing your attention, nonetheless. Why do that? Well, because it creates attention, right, and the more attention is good attention is the metric that matters, right? So I think these technologies are designed to distort they are designed to amplify and amplify is another type of distortion. So it can feel like we’ll say, if you look, for example, at one of the studies that looked at the way ads on Facebook were used during the 2016 presidential election, what they found in one case was that the ad spend on this particular I think was pro Trump ads was about $100,000. Actually, not that much really in the grand scale of things, this misleading information, but that material had been shared over 100 million times on Facebook. That this is the issue, right? This is the amplification feeding into distortion, right? So you don’t actually need that many bad actors for them to have an outsized effect in these spaces, You know. And the vast majority of social media content quite often is produced by people. A small group of people in comparison to actually the amount of people who have an account, but the small group of people are just heavily online. So they’re the ones producing the vast majority of the content. But if you go to these platforms, and you assume that by logging on, you are getting some unfiltered version of reality or what people are thinking and feeling. I mean, you’re getting a slice of It, maybe something but you’re not getting the whole picture. And I think now more than ever, we need a broader sense of what people are thinking or feeling. And we need to be very careful about kind of falling into the distortions that Social Media presents. Because you know, when you’re in that space, the world has been distorted, you’re being distorted. You know, you just need to just be careful with it.


Sabina Brennan  10:26

There’s so many interesting chapters, there’s another one on influence, which just has incredible stuff in it.


Mary McGill  10:31

So what I write about in the book is something I call the Kardashian Industrial Complex. And it looks at the way the Kardashians have kind of… the surveillance that was inherent with a reality TV where they first made their splash in terms of the entertainment industry, but of course is inbuilt in social media. They understood and were very good at being responsive to that change. This notion of celebrity is ‘access all areas’, which happened there to a degree in programming from the 90s with the advent of reality television. But of course, it has kicked up a number of gears now with social media, and they embrace the surveillance, right, they commodify every aspect of their lives. They let cameras in,you know, everywhere, they were prophetic, and their ability to spot the earning power of something like Instagram, I mean, Instagram, when it started, I was purely, you know, photographs. And we didn’t have the notion of influencers as selling things to Instagram. You know, the Kardashians are one of the people who really understood the economic power of these platforms. They’ve also devised lifestyles and products, where the products are, you know, help to kind of deal with the spotlight of social media. So the makeup stuff and the underwear stuff, and the detoxes. And all of these things. You know, this is about achieving a certain look in this hyper visual culture where women are expected to want to be seen and to want to showcase their lives on these platforms. The Kardashian Industrial Complex, there’s not really much dissent involved, like the assumption is that this is what smart 21st century  women do. They reproduce themselves in this way, they’re glossy, they’re in control. their femininity is something that they almost approach as like a brand. It’s something they do for themselves, or they do for their friends, almost as part of their career, their whole outlook. And when you talk to some young women about the Kardashians, they find them hugely inspiring for that reason, the fact that they are entrepreneurs, and they have managed to create this empire. And in the book, I’m really careful not to, although I’m very critical of them, I do take them seriously.


Sabina Brennan  12:30

No, absolutely.


Mary McGill  12:31

I think there’s a real snobbery, particularly when it comes perhaps to things that are seen as feminine, even though things like the fashion and beauty industry are worth billions upon billions, just the sport is but sports, you know…. we just get these double standards everywhere. Yeah. So the Kardashian phenomenon, it’s interesting in terms of how the media has changed over the last 20 years, it’s fascinating in terms of how consumption has changed over the last 20 years, it’s fascinating in terms of how celebrity has changed over the last 20 years, they have taken the visibility that is inherent to the media landscape. And they have built a brand around embracing that visibility, and this idea that you can take it and you can meet it and you can make yourself wealthy from it and make yourself desirable from it. And that you can be in control. And of course, that word quote unquote, empowered. And indeed for people at the very top of the food chain like the Kardashians, and you know, there are lots of other very, very successful influencer of that mould. Even though there are lots of different types of different ways of being an influencer. I’m talking about a very specific type of influencer in this respect. And they do of course, they’ve done incredibly well, from this new marketplace.


Sabina Brennan  13:42

If you measure that success by how much money they’ve made. I do think that is another cultural thing is that success does appear to be measured by how much money you have, so that you can purchase the lifestyle that they have. But in between all of that when you look at it, relationships aren’t working out. You know, for them, they still make money if they go for a divorce, you know, because that’s even more money coming in. But at the end of the day, I think what gets forgotten as well is aspiring to be like the Kardashians. Do you really want you know, in a way, it must be exhausting doing what they’re doing. They’re ‘on’ all the time.


Mary McGill  14:18

Well, I think they’re very savvy with like, everything that happens, the heartbreak, the divorces, everything else, everything gets absorbed into the brand and makes them even more relatable.


Sabina Brennan  14:26



Mary McGill  14:27

and this is no mean feat because these people are multimillionaires. So the idea of being relatable is that they do manage to a certain degree make that appeal to the very many people who follow them. My real sympathy lies with the people who don’t have anything like those resources, who are believing in this notion of this new economy that does work out for some people, just as it always has worked out for some people, but those people are generally you know, the one in the million, but you have, you know, people who desire to be content creators or influencers without that notoriety to back them up for those kinds of resources. They are working so hard. One young woman I interviewed for the book she said, you know, you’re your own everything your your writer, your manager, editor, everything. And I think again in being snooty and making assumptions about influencers and content creators and so on, completely ignores the reality of the work often work that is done by women because it tends to be in female dominated space. This is a new marketplace that has evolved, it has none of the security, none of the benefits of previous types of employment. And the vast majority people who are trying to make their way in it are not the Kardashians. So when the Kardashians are held up as this kind of visibility that these are what influencers are, you’re like, no, that’s a particular type. Yeah. But there’s a whole other world and worlds out there of people who are working so hard with very little support in a role that’s misunderstood a lot of the time. And it’s not easy.


Sabina Brennan  15:56

I would identify hugely with it I wouldn’t see myself as an influencer. But I am working in that gig economy. And in that way, and I suppose Yes, in some ways, I’m trying to have influence in a very different way, I’m not trying to influence you to buy makeup, I’m trying to influence you to take good care of your brain health and learn how to understand your brain health. And then of course, there are ways you know, I need to eat and make a living as well. But I understand you are everything. The thing and I think you pointed out in a way. And while they have done incredible things, they have not done these things alone, and they did not start from a baseline that you and I are at. They started from incredibly rich and public families. So you know, they will have teams of people posting this stuff and suggesting what needs to be done. And that’s kind of a deception. That’s dangerous. I think there’s a few things as well like that you touch on I think also in that chapter. And I do think that the Kardashian KIC.


Mary McGill  16:50

Yeah, Kardashian Industrial Complex. Yeah.


Sabina Brennan  16:53

But you talk about face tune, and all these various devices that people now have access to to create their public filtered image, which then actually results in, as you said, the Instagram look. So essentially, you’re making yourself more like others more the same. This uniformed vision, but that has huge knock on effects. In terms of like imposter syndrome, you know, you’re not really the person you’re presenting, wishing that You looked like you know…. Going to get plastic surgery to look like your face-tuned image of yourself, your self esteem, your depression, your not wanting to go online, unless you look your best, all those things that all of us experience, but they are very real detrimental effects. But the whole point is that the solutions that are being provided, are for, as you point out, problems that have been created by the solution providers. And so essentially, there’s just this roundabout that you’re on that actually, if we could just all step off it they go out of business. Like we are feeding the monster, and then giving the monster our money. That’s what I like about books like this. And I know people hate that word empowerment, but I don’t know of a good replacement. But knowledge is power. And if you understand these things, and I really do urge people to get the book, it really makes you think about how implicitly complicit you are in this terrible cycle


Mary McGill  18:18

that is really not good for women. When you begin to look at the literature, and you know, yourself this literature, hey, there’s still so much we don’t know, right? We’re still kind of digging through this material. But what’s really striking when it comes to comparison, culture, and fragmentation, and all of these things, is I suppose, perhaps, specificity. And what I mean by that is how we use these technologies matters. And what we bring to them matters. Because not everybody is going to feel the need for validation through something like a selfie. So why are some people more prone to needing that validation? Or perhaps in certain times, perhaps when they’re a bit younger, perhaps when they’re, you know, things are being tough, or whatever the case may be, I know that people can kind of take it or leave it. And I have seen this myself, just in research. And we’ll say talking with young women, that some people seem to have a kind of a natural ability to…, not that they’re not affected, but they’re better at realising it. Or been like ‘that made me feel bad. So I’m not going to do any more’  or ‘that made me feel bad. o I’m not going to use this platform’. But I like this platform. And I use it this way. So that’s what I’m going to do. For some people it seems to be that made me feel bad, but it also made me feel good. So I’m just going to keep doing it in the hope that it’s going to make me feel because the feeling good is worth about even though the bad is really bad. And I actually don’t like it at all.


Sabina Brennan  19:45

But that’s exactly how abusive relationships work,


Mary McGill  19:49

right? Yes, yes, yeah.


Sabina Brennan  19:51

If you’re in an abusive relationship, if that abuser is constantly bad to you, you may actually have a chance of surviving However, it’s the occasional good that they do to you, I’m so sorry …it’s only, cause I love you. And here’s this, this, this and this. And it’s that good moment that keeps the female, usually the female trapped in that abusive relationship. And now Yeah, that, again, is just understanding how human behaviour works and how human behaviour is reinforced. It’s intermittent reinforcement, and is one of the most difficult types of behaviour to disrupt.


Mary McGill  20:29

Yes, and that does not surprise me, that does not surprise me, at least, because when you go to the literature that we have on we’ll say, ‘selfie taking’ on body shame, and low self esteem and things like that, very often, the researchers will make a point of saying, you know, we find this, but one factor would be that people who present with these tendencies, they are more prone to compare themselves with others, right? So that the technology then is tapping into that vulnerability, you get this kind of, I suppose, feedback or loop effect, right? So when the technology might not necessarily have caused that vulnerability, it is certainly exploiting that vulnerability.


Sabina Brennan  21:09

Yes. And that’s awful.


Mary McGill  21:11

It’s awful. It is. Often when people when you work in this area, they’re like, does it cause is it caused? And you’re like, you know, maybe we’re too fixated on cause right?


Sabina Brennan  21:19

Oh, yeah, yeah,


Mary McGill  21:20

maybe what we need to be asking … I mean that that’s such a, you know, oh, it makes this happen. And you’re like, oh I dunno…. to say that conclusively about anything? It’s a big question to ask.


Sabina Brennan  21:31

Yeah, you really can’t, when it comes to the human condition, and the human brain and behaviour, singular causes really aren’t at play. They just aren’t, it is multiple causes, but also multiple contexts. So in one context, something happened might lead to something detrimental in another context, it won’t, even as a female, you know, we have to acknowledge the role that our brain and our body plays in terms of our behaviour and our vulnerabilities. Knowledge is power. It really is.


Mary McGill  22:02

Yeah, absolutely. And that’s one of the things I wanted to do with the brook and say in reference to, you know, research on the selfie, just having that self awareness to catch yourself, you know, there’s interesting research on the impacts of mood, depending on the type of selfie practice that you engage in. So if you’re taking selfies that are light hearted, that involve food, or you know, nice, sunsets or humorous, and if those are the type of selfies that you’re consuming as well, they’re probably not going to have a negative impact on your mood or your self-esteem. However, if you are taking the type of selfies and oriented around beauty practices, where there’s a high degree of self surveillance, and there’s a high degree of you know, judgment and being critical of other people selfies as well, and you are someone who was prone to comparison, then that is probably not going to do you a whole lot of good. But if you know that, and if you know, you can be like oh, you know, and you have the self awareness to catch yourself in the mood where you’re reaching for that… you’re looking at. And if that’s all it takes, to make you put your phone down or get a bit of distance. So that’s just not so much in your head. That I mean, I would be delighted with that. Because these technologies have overtaken our ability to build the kind of shorthand or common sense around them when it comes to use a lot of the time, unless you have the good fortune to be, you know, in academia or in research or wherever the case may be a lot of these ideas, they need to be hitting the people who they’re researching.


Sabina Brennan  23:30

They really do. Oh, yeah. And that’s one of the reasons I do what I do is that academia encourages publication in academic journals. And that’s why I love that you published your PhD, but then you publish this book for everyone else. And I almost feel that that actually should be almost a requirement in a way. I do feel it should be a requirement that research is made accessible, watching yourself watching other people trying to figure out how should I be How should I look? And actually, you have some line and I can’t remember where you actually evoke The Handmaiden.


Mary McGill  24:00

Oh, yeah, no, that’s a British researcher Alison Winch. Yeah, she talks about the girlfriend gaze being this kind of very female, very critical gaze. Being that the male gaze is Handmaiden.


Sabina Brennan  24:11

Yes, yes.


Mary McGill  24:12

And it is certainly in certain respects online in these very female spaces. Which Instagram can tend to be It is more grounded as a female gaze


Sabina Brennan  24:20

it’s other female. Yeah, yeah. And I have to say, like my experience across my life, and these are some of the things that I would feel uncomfortable saying, and but at least I can kind of qualify myself if we do it here that, in my experience, females are the ones who appear more critical of other females. Or it can feel like that whether it’s true or not, but it can certainly feel like that. Certainly, as a schoolgirl, and you do…. and I think that’s very relevant. You do speak of social media as being the schoolgirl. That place where you are trying to discover who you are, and you’re looking at other people and going Oh, do I want to be like her? Oh, actually, everybody seems to really like her but okay. I’ll kind of ignore the fact that she’s bitchy. But I’d like to look like her, you know. And it is that space where you are kind of vulnerable. And when it comes to perfect bodies, I don’t think that men, I think a new generation may be different those who’ve grown up with the Internet, and they’re subjected to porn and just all these perfect bodies, but certainly in my generation, and before that, men are less critical of the female form and are excited by or aroused by the female form. Even if it has cellulite, or an extra few pounds, it’s much more organic than the eight pack and the looking perfect. That’s certainly what it was. When I was there. I don’t know whether it’s actually changed, it could change. That’s where I get fearful. But I definitely assume it impacts on women and how they feel and how they would feel undressing in front of people and all the rest. Anyway, tell us a little bit about the Bodies chapter and what the social media actually does.


Mary McGill  26:01

Yes, one of the things that is a big selling point for something like Instagram, if you go to its about page is it’ll tell you that, you know, you can create yourself on your self expression, values, be seen all this good stuff that really appeals to us as human beings, because we’re like, oh, yeah, I like the idea of being seen. And like the idea of creating myself, This all sounds like a lot of fun. We love to look as human beings, we’re very visually driven. We love images. And so you know, that’s all to the good. And in practice, though, not everybody gets to be seen in the same way. And that’s what the bodies chapter looks at, you know, so the likes of the Kardashians will get a high degree of visibility always, even when they come very, very close to breaking the terms of service. For people who don’t have that kind of following or for people who were challenging, we’ll say, traditional understandings of the female body just as an example, they will find themselves quite often censored, they may have their account taken away from them, they may have their images taken down.


Sabina Brennan  27:02

There’s two fantastic examples. If you can explain the image that you’re referring to with Kim Kardashian, what she was attempting to emulate. Yeah, and then there are a couple of them that come to mind. So there’s the woman with the bikini.


Mary McGill  27:13

Yeah, yeah.


Sabina Brennan  27:14

And then also, there’s one about… and this is where moderators come in, they’re really striking stories.


Mary McGill  27:21

They really are. As soon as last summer Noam, I hope I’m pronouncing her name correctly, she’s a very high profile and black British body positivity activist, caught up a series of images very beautiful images of herself on Instagram, and she was holding her chest with her arms, but there was no sign of the dreaded female nipple, which is not permitted on Instagram. Just so you know, for anybody who’s thinking about getting their nips out on Instagram. If you’re a woman,


Sabina Brennan  27:48

if you’re a woman, if you’re a man, you can have your nipples.


Mary McGill  27:51

Yeah, exactly. So this was an image I think I described in the book is kind of one of quite self acceptance and contemplation. It was very nicely done. aesthetically very beautiful. But it was taken down. It was taken down repeatedly over and over again. And both the blogger and the photographer who took it were just aghast, as were the people who were following what was happening online. Because highly sexual images of slim, Caucasian women are all over Instagram, and they are not removed and


Sabina Brennan  28:21

I get them.


Mary McGill  28:23

I know, yeah, we all get them and you kind of like us.  So around the same time that this was playing out, Kylie Jenner had put up an image of herself and were also topless, whether I’m across her chest, it was deliberately provocative. You know, it was a very sexualised image.


Sabina Brennan  28:37

Yeah. Whereas the other one was a celebration just of, you know,


Mary McGill  28:41

body confidence


Sabina Brennan  28:42

no innuendo nothing. It’s just, you know, I’m sitting here and this is how I look, this is me and I’m okay. Yeah,


Mary McGill  28:50

this is me. And, you know, an important image because we’re not used to seeing women, particularly not used to seeing women outside this stifling normal, skinny whiteness embracing themselves like that. So Kylie Jenner was not even a thing, you know, everything else. But because this blogger had such a following, she was able to kind of draw attention to the fact that she had been… her  images had been taken down and it became a thing and the newspapers in the UK picked it up, it became an international news story. And eventually, I think Instagram, the images were reinstated, they then changed their moderation policy to kind of add a bit of nuance around the fact that just because a woman is holding a breast does not necessarily mean that it’s sexual, right.


Sabina Brennan  29:30

I think what it was was that, for some people who aren’t aware, and that’s a whole other podcast, talk about it, as well as there are people who moderate content and you know, they can be moderating violent content, obscene content, etc. Not a very nice job, but they have rules and guidelines. So the rule in this instance, the reason hers was taken down was that apparently, you can embrace your breasts to hide them and to be you could describe it in so many different ways. Sexual, provocative, coquettish, or actually just playing Yeah, abiding by the rules, I can’t show my nipples on Instagram. The reason hers was taken down was apparently, if you move your arms to hold your breasts in a way that looks like you’re squeezing them, that is considered sexual. And of course, if this woman actually is different to, like, it’s an awful lot harder to wrap your arms around the size 42 bust or a 40 bust, than it is around the 32 bust without squeezing or whatever. But that was the judgment. And they changed that. And I think as you pointed to there, that woman had a big enough following and profile to highlight that issue. But most of us are unaware that we are being fed just one body type, and it is white


Mary McGill  30:42

 and also just as well, just to say, yeah, and also the strength of character and the bravery. Because Yeah, not everybody has that energy within them to fight that was taking energy out of her career, you know, that was taking energy out of her, you know, day to day to live her life. And she did get support. And she had … she had, you know, a sizeable platform, and she did make change and all the rest of us. But throughout the book, you’re constantly meeting people who have had to fight because they have found themselves at the sharp end of these technologies. That’s not a situation ideally, women should be finding themselves in, but they are.


Sabina Brennan  31:16

But I think it shows us it’s back to gosh, you know, in some ways, even across my lifespan, things have changed and moved on. And you know, you didn’t used to be able to talk publicly about your periods or anything like that. And things have moved on. But then in other ways, they’ve moved backwards or done full circles, but basically as Lisa McInerney said, different perfumes, same shit. Basically, it is that there is one acceptable type of female body. And there’s one story in there where that really made a jump out to me. And that was someone showed a photograph of herself in her bikini with some of her pubes escaping out


Mary McGill  31:55

Ah yes


Sabina Brennan  31:56

  and it was taken down.


Mary McGill  31:59

Petra Collins.  it was just a picture. I’m I say if it’s her


Sabina Brennan  32:03

horrific reasons behind it


Mary McGill  32:03

 When I say it was a picture of her crotch, I don’t mean that in any sexual way whatsoever. It was just, she’s an artist, you know, she was. So it was it was a picture of her in actually very sensible blue knickers that has to be said there was nothing remotely sexual about it. But it showed just along the trim of her knickers, it showed pubic hair,


Sabina Brennan  32:22

which is where pubic hair resides.


Mary McGill  32:25

I mean, shock and horror. There you go. And it caused… you know, again, was taken down, her account was closed. And yet these images of bodies that are far more sexualised, with far less clothing  are allowed to circulate and are given such a high degree of visibility. And it’s like, what is so shocking about pubic hair? And specifically pubic hair that’s on a woman’s body? Right? You know, there’s almost like, these technologies are so progressive, or that’s what they sell themselves as, but the cultural ideas that inform them


Sabina Brennan  32:57

Oh Yeah,


Mary McGill  32:58

still have this Puritanism in them.


Sabina Brennan  33:00

Yeah, absolutely.


Mary McGill  33:01

Like, you’re free to represent yourself. But actually, you’re only free to represent yourself within quite defined parameters that can be very tricky to interpret. There’s not a whole lot of transparency until you find yourself up against them. Again, and again, in the Bodies chapter you hear from women who were like, and then you know, this was said to them you know…  So this idea, again, to go back to that notion of control, they have control, the platform’s have control, absolutely, they will give you a degree of control, but your control will never ever, ever supersede theirs, they have the ultimate say,


Sabina Brennan  33:37

I think in one way it can. And that is you have control to step back and walk away from it. And that’s very hard to do. And it’s something that I’m going to kind of wrestle with, I suppose I have been doing it in more recent years in that I tend to limit my interaction on social media, actually, to my work or stuff that’s relevant, and then maybe my dogs. So it’s kind of pretty innocuous, because I’ve realised that actually, it’s not the right place or forum for the kind of nuanced, intelligent conversation. And I have to say, so we’ve been talking here about how, in a way, women are impacted by social media, but I think also and it’s a trend that I don’t like either, is that then it’s not just men who engage in the nasty, unfiltered behaviour. And I think this is problematic because I think it puts the cause of women backwards, is women behaving in that cancel culture that refusing to have a conversation, refusing to try and find some way forwards just the finger point, they are witch hunts, and I think what has made them even worse is they’re witch hunts of women, by women. And that seems like a particularly nasty form of witch hunting, But I do believe they are our modern day witch hunts. We have not not changed and it’s now become that place where There was the public stocks for the public shaming, etc. That’s it. But at least back then, if you were publicly shamed, you could leave and go to another village, this is global, there is nowhere to go and hide from these kinds of public shaming. It’s pretty horrific. And such a shame, because it could be this incredible tool. And it is an incredible tool. And I’ve had lots of very positive things come out of my use of social media. I think a lot of people are aware, because it’s very obvious that they are being listened to and watched by the technology itself, I keep getting a picture of actually this chair that I’m sitting on. I googled something and saw oh look that chair, my chair back again, and every time I log on, now, I’m just getting that chair, and it comes up because I clicked it. And obviously didn’t say no cookies, or whatever. So we know that our behaviour is being monitored in that way. But I don’t believe that. And I think people understand that opinions and certain posts are being filtered. But I don’t believe that women understand that the type of women that you see, in terms of body type and visual and ethnicity. I don’t believe that people realise that that is being manipulated. And I think that was one of the kind of big scary bits from the book. It’s not a horror story. It’s a very empowering book to use that phrase again. But if you can think of another way to say that I’m all ears. It’s fantastic. Thank you so much. Thank you, Sabina, anyone listening, get the book. It’s full of this fascinating stuff It’s called The Visibility Trap, sexism, surveillance and social media. And it’s by Mary McGill. And she just says Mary McGill, as opposed to Dr. Mary McGill. Or Mary McGill. PhD. The way I look at those letters that I have after my name is they’re just and I think, that’s all they really mean is they point to the fact that actually, you know, you have studied this, you’re just not randomly. And I think that’s another knock on effect. It has bled into publishing, influencers are being asked to write books, because of their following because it means sales. But that’s another form of filtering. That doesn’t happen that should happen is that when you filter through, anybody is allowed to give advice or say stuff. And often that involves the purchase of, for example, in my case, I’m looking at people advising people to buy supplements that are great for memory, or there’s no scientific research to say that, and yet they’re allowed kind of put that there anyway, you see, we could talk forever, because there’s just so many things and so much there. Do you have plans to write another book?


Mary McGill  37:41

I would like to you


Sabina Brennan  37:42

I know you’ve only just done this. Yeah, yeah. But you’d like the process?


Mary McGill  37:46

Yes. Yes, I do. I would like to Yeah, definitely. Yeah, I


Sabina Brennan  37:49

think even with this, even some of the topics within this could be expanded. But I also think there’s going to be more and more and I’m sure there was more bits that you would have liked to put in, you couldn’t put it in in terms of, you know, page numbers, etc. So I like to finish by asking my guests to offer a tip on surviving and are thriving in life.


Mary McGill  38:11

Oh, gosh, tip for surviving and are thriving in life. I have found myself over the last while ehh returning to a lot of very old things. And by old I mean, in terms of human history of human civilisation. I’m very interested in the stoic, stoic philosophy. And I would recommend anybody if they I think we live in a highly emotional age. And there’s nothing wrong with emotion. And but how you deal with it is really important. And I think the stoics offer some really interesting ways of thinking about the role of emotion in our lives. And I think over the last year, a way of thinking and a book that I have found a lot of wisdom and confidence in is a book from 1945 by a man called Albert Camus  It’s called The Plague. And bear with me. The plague is set  in Algiers in a town where there is an outbreak of the bubonic plague. And it follows a doctor who remains in the town to treat patients. So it works really powerfully as a narrative. But Camus also developed the notion of the plague as part of his philosophy, which is called absurdism, right, that the absurdity of life, which sounds nihilistic, but it’s not at all. And Camus says about The Plague, is that plagues force us to see the fragility of life, but fragility is all around us all the time. We’re just really good at distracting ourselves from that and thinking that we’re the ones in control, when the reality is that life can end or be turned upside down at any point and that is the metaphor of The plague. And at one stage, one of the doctors assisting him asked him, you know, how do you cope with that? Like, how do you cope with all this suffering and you know, and he just says, “You know, I do my work. And we go through it.” And I think that’s what we do with human beings, there is no way but through that you just kind of have to accept the plague as a condition of our existence, and go through,


Sabina Brennan  40:26

I totally hear what you’re saying, and obviously it will resonate for people because we’re living through it another plague. But it’s interesting what you say about the stoics and emotions, you know, I think it’s probably that the pendulum has swung too far. One way, so there’s this stoic, putting on the brave face thing. And you know, for years, we’ve heard about, oh, you, you’re not in touch with your emotions, get in touch with your emotions. But now, I think it’s probably swung too far the other way. And it’s not always good to let your emotions rule your behaviour. In fact, you know, in a way, emotions are the results of your thinking as well. And I suppose really, in a sense, what you’re saying is just do it, just live it, you have much more control and much less control than you think. So the big stuff, an awful lot of it, we have no control over it. So you just have to live through it but actually how you live through it, and how you respond to it. And what you do on a day to day level, you have huge amounts of control, huge amounts of control. And that’s how you think how you behave. And even how you feel you have much more control, those things don’t just happen, your brain and you and your behaviour are making things happen. And so you know, if they’re not working, you can switch them up and change. That’s fascinating. I may have a little look at that book. It’s always nice to get those kinds of tips, but the main book to consider folks is The Visibility Trap. It’s a fantastic read. My name is Sabina Brennan, and you’ve been listening to Super Brain the podcast for everyone with a brain. Super brain is a labor of love born of a desire to empower people to use their brain to thrive in life and attain their true potential. Please help me to reach as many people as possible by sharing this episode, or by simply liking or rating the show. Imagine if we could get to a million downloads by word of mouth alone. I believe it’s possible. I believe that great things happen when lots of people do little things. So you really can help to achieve this ambitious dream to get a million downloads. Oh, and don’t forget to subscribe to Super Brain that helps too. Visit for additional content, including images and videos related to this episode and a transcript of the show. Follow me on Instagram @SabinaBrennan and on Twitter at @Sabina_brennan. I am grateful as always, to my exceptional editor Emily Burke, to my fascinating guests and to my listeners. Thank you for tuning in.


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Super Brain Blog – Season 4 Episode 3

The Visibility Trap with Dr Mary McGill

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  •  00:23 – Mary talks about how she came to write The Visibility Trap
  • 02:30 – Gender-based abuse online
  • 07:24 – Frankenstein – the need for moral and ethical checks
  • 13:44 – Surveillance and self-monitoring 
  • 27:12 – Visibility and exposure
  • 33:04 – The female form 
  • 36:00 – Plundering life in search of novelty
  • 37:35 – Judgement is a spectacle on social media
  • 39:38 – Filters



The Visibility Trap by Dr Mary McGill

Guest Bio


Dr Mary McGill is a media studies lecturer and journalist based in Ireland. Described by the Sunday Business Post as “essential reading”, her first book, The Visibility Trap: Sexism, Surveillance and Social Media, was published by New Island Books in July 2021. Her research explores the complex ways young women engage with selfie-practices and how the rise of social media is changing the way we see ourselves online and beyond. She is a former Hardiman Scholar at the National University of Ireland, Galway, and a regular contributor and writer in the Irish media.




Over to You

What kind of selfies do you take? Do you feel judged on social media or do you find yourself judging others? Do you self-censor on social media or do you go live and unfiltered

Tune into Thursday’s booster episode where I’ll be taking a look at lockdown weight gain.

Don’t forget to share the episode on your social media.


Sabina Brennan  00:01

Hello, and welcome to Super brain, the podcast for everyone with a brain. My name is Sabina Brennan. And my guest this week is Dr. Mary McGill, a digital culture researcher, journalist and author of The Visibility Trap, a feminist guide to navigating self representation on social media. So you are Dr. Mary?


Mary McGill  00:23

Yeah, yes, I am. And again, oh Sabina, it was so funny. It’s been such a mad year. So basically, I had my Viva on March 4 2020. Viva, for people who don’t know is where you defend your PhD. And it’s pretty hair raising. Thankfully, mine went well. So I became a doctor. And but literally a week later, we went into lockdown. So it’s been, I don’t know how it feels for you. But for me, it’s felt like this constant sense of suspended animation, like you’re working, and you’re doing things, a lot of which you would normally do, but the circumstances are completely changed. And then you know, you write a book and it comes out. And it’s all I’m a doctor


Sabina Brennan  01:00



Mary McGill  01:01

Virtual, yeah I’m a doctor and I have a book and kind of none of it feels real.


Sabina Brennan  01:05



Mary McGill  01:05

So yeah, it’s been kind of wild. But I love doing events like this, because it helps make it feel that much more tangible. So yes, I am a doctor, doctor Mary McGill.


Sabina Brennan  01:14

Like, it is amazing that you literally did your Viva and published a book, which means then you were also writing the book, while you were doing your PhD. I mean, your PhD feeds into this book,


Mary McGill  01:25

It does, as you know, yourself a PhD is a very specific piece of work is for a very specific audience, which is the academia, has to meet various standards, all of which I love, because I’m a big nerd. And I really thrive in that environment. But when you’re kind of working in an area, like Media Studies, or indeed psychology, you know, you’re very often dealing with phenomena that are so current. And so in the process of researching my PhD, I was constantly coming across stuff that wasn’t quite right for that particular project, but certainly spoke to wider issues in the culture that I was observing, you know, through my work. And as a journalist as well, the obvious thing to do was to be like, Let’s keep this material when you have some breathing space –  hello, lockdown – And let’s put it all together and see what we get, ironically enough, sadly enough, that big shift to digital that was already well underway over the last 10 to 15 years.


Sabina Brennan  02:17



Mary McGill  02:17

But yeah, really accelerated from March 2020. And a lot of ways intensified the things that I wanted to write in the book, but then those things just took on a further life of their own once we entered this world,


Sabina Brennan  02:30

and one thing really jumps out to me that you said, and I will talk in more detail, but you had some facts somewhere in this amazing book, which is called The Visibility Trap, sexism, surveillance, and social media. And it is an absolute must read for anyone who’s on social media, but particularly women on social media. And I think men also to understand how differently social media impacts on women compared to men. But you did have one, and I’m sure you remember it, and I may state it slightly inaccurately. But that really surprised me. That was during the COVID-induced lockdown, incidences of online image-based sexual abuse of women increased in Europe.


Mary McGill  03:10

Oh, yeah.


Sabina Brennan  03:11

That’s incredible.


Mary McGill  03:13

Yeah, it is incredible. And you can extrapolate from that as well. Because that trend, image-based sexual abuse is obviously a part of it.  But If we just say, gender-based abuse, that takes place online or digital gender-based abuse, I mean, that across the globe, you know, this is not confined to any particular country or culture. This is a result of the shift to online living that happened from March 2020. And when it comes to image-based abuse, what’s particularly heinous about that is that even the threat of it can be absolutely devastating. So no images even need to be shared, necessarily. It’s just the fact that somebody has them and they have that control over you.


Sabina Brennan  03:51

So we’re talking about really sharing images that are meant for private consumption, Or, in fact, images that have been taken without the consent of the individual, or whatever, various forms, but they are images that are being shared without the person’s consent. But then also there is the issue of whether people then share their own images, and then someone reuses it. But anyway, it’s a very scary phenomenon. And as you just said there, the threat of that, because people do, particularly when it comes to romantic relationships, and I have done a podcast episode on Love, sex and the brain, you know, and essentially, when you’re in the throes of lust and love the very early stages, the brain switches off your frontal lobe. So you don’t think rationally, your ability to assess risk is reduced. Your decision making is compromised. I mean, love really is blind, and you are viewing that person through rose tinted glasses. They’re not just psychological phenomenon. They’re actually physiological, neurological changes that take place in your brain. And so you very easily, could feel that it’s very appropriate in that private context that the person is someone that you may be going to spend a long time with, and you’re madly in love with and you share images that are meant for that individual’s total and sole consumption, and then things change. And then actually, your frontal lobe may kick in, and you kind of go, Oh, this guy really isn’t for me. And oh, my God, he now has those images. And then there’s also the fear, then, you know, it’s like another form of emotional blackmail, in terms of ending relationships. Now, people actually have… people might in the past have made empty threats, of  “I’ll ruined your life” – ” you’ll never work here again”, or whatever. But actually, now I have images that could completely destroy your life. So it’s very, very scary.


Mary McGill  05:39

It is


Sabina Brennan  05:40

And would you agree, just when you were talking there about, you said, it transcends culture and country and borders and boundaries. And I mean, really, literally, we’re just kind of came to my mind is, the internet is another country that we all belong to, and it has its own culture, but culture that has evolved without any checks and balances in place, I feel very strongly that we need ethics, we need an ethical monitoring of the internet and new technology in a broader sense. Because for me, the internet and I use this word purposely, the internet exploded into our world, whatever, 31 years ago, or 32 years ago, and even the individual who invented it, would see that it is being used in ways that was not intended and has actually called for…., and acknowledged that it impacts more negatively on women and disempowers them and he wants it to be a space that’s free and available for all.  Then we have this culture within people who can develop these programs and softwares and have all those tools did stuff just because they could and I’m all for it, just do it. But without thinking about unintended consequences, as well as having dubious intended consequences. And I liken it to and that’s why I use the term explosion. It’s like the person who split the atom, nobody thought that the atom bomb was going to come from it and cause the devastation that it has and world changing effects. And I feel the same as here and I feel more of us need to speak up and say no, there has to be ethics, independent bodies put in and it’s not about censorship, it’s about actually exploring intended and unintended consequences and seeing how they could impact on the users.


Mary McGill  07:24

Yeah, at the end of the book, I write about a very old book called Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, which is a fantastic read on many levels. But when we talk about technologies  it’s kind of a shorthand, people often reach for it. And there’s varying interpretations of what Shelley was trying to say in that book. For me, the big takeaway is you have, you know, Victor Frankenstein, who creates the so called monster who wasn’t a monster to begin with, you know, he’s ultimately rejected by his father and, and leads a lonely existence and ends up doing all kinds of horrible things, particularly when it comes to Victor and Victor ends up destroying his own life through his own creation. And the challenge, I think, in that what Shelley was getting at, and don’t forget, she was alive, you know, in the 1800s, during the time in history, when the kind of modern world as we experienced it today was was basically the seeds for that were being sown right through technology and advancements and science and so on. But, you know, this is kind of a moral question there. But the responsibility of creation, like what are we going to create, how are we going to respond to that. Our ability to create is a magnificent thing. But it is bound to, you know, society, to the individual to our responsibility to each other, and of course, to the planet. And that raises all kinds of moral and ethical questions because if Victor Frankenstein had actually, while he was following his ego to create this being, he did this entirely on his own and, and with all this passion, and and he was working through grief and lots of difficult emotions as well. If he’d other people around him, who maybe would have said, “Is this the best idea, Victor?, if he’d had those conversationswith other people if he’d maybe thought ahead and tried to project? What it would be like for this being in the world or what his relationship would have been to this being and so on, perhaps we wouldn’t have had the tragic tale. Probably not as good as story, mind you, but we would have had the tragic tale that it ended up being. And I think those questions about the responsibility of creation, you know, not going blindly into it, having the humility to ask, What am I creating? What are the possible outcomes? Should I get somebody else’s advice about this, you know, and so on into the kind of questions really, the philosophers ask and ethicists asked, and if I could click my fingers in the morning, you know, and go back 10 or 15 years, I would love to have seen a situation where long before these products ever got into our hands or got into our phones. They were trialed at the design stage, not just by engineers, who, mean wellare just designing products.


Sabina Brennan  09:50

Yeah, but they’re just looking at whether it does what it’s meant to do, as opposed to the impact that it can have on human beings who are going to use it.


Mary McGill  09:59

Exactly. And so what you want ideally, is if these technologies have enough good stuff in them that we want to keep them around, and not forgetting, you know that, it feels like they’ve been here quite a long time and the grand scale of things they really haven’t, you need to get to a place where you have. long before that they are unleashed, you have people in that system that can temperate it,  that bring a range of perspectives, everything from you know, as he said, ethics, psychology, media policy, all of these things. Of course, in children’s welfare, all of these things, so that when these products finally get into the marketplace, they’re built in such a way that the potential harms are…., you can never completely remove risk, and they’ll always be an element of personal responsibility, but the capacity for harm is greatly reduced. And along with that, then you need a kind of a change in cultural approach to how we understand the role of these technologies,


Sabina Brennan  10:58

Essentially, you know, how our brain has evolved over millions of years is what has given us this advantage and the ability to produce things like the internet. But throughout that evolutionary history, the tools that we have created, shape our brains, so always everything that we do, and that’s what I’m passionate about sort of explaining to people. Your brain is the master controller in the sense of your behavior. So is your behavior, your behavior shapes your brain, so it’s a bi directional relationship. So for me, I mean, I’m a massive user of the internet. And I cannot imagine writing books without being able to access journal articles online. And there’s incredible benefits to it. But it is the unintended consequences, and the failure to acknowledge that this tool, this internet, that social media is changing human beings, not just I mean, I know we’re aware of things like the psychological impact, and people actually being driven to suicide, Caroline Flack, in a way comes to mind, you know, obviously, she had other issues kind of going on. But you know, these things contribute in terrible ways and destroy people’s lives in very real ways. So what is it doing to us as a species? How is that kind of changing? That that kind of stuff has to be considered. And, like, I think it’s kind of crazy that it’s not, we do not allow medication to be produced without it going through so many clinical trials. And yes, and I do think this comes from the failure to understand actually how the human brain is influenced by behavior, and how the human brain functions. And you do touch on various amounts of these things in terms of our need for social approval, you know, to be part of a group, like, as you said, the internet’s only around for maybe whatever, it is not even a second in the history of humanity, and our brain has evolved to need social contact to need social approval, we must make sure that we abide by the social rules within our group or environment, because if we don’t, we risk being ostracized, and humans do not do well, in isolation, And again, being isolated changes how your brain functions, etc. So our ancient brain is operating and following those instincts of “I must be part of this group”. But these aren’t groups, you’re actually really part of, they don’t exist. However, the impact of them could ostracize you in a way that is much bigger than being ostracized from the actual group within which you live physically, it actually has these tentacles that can reach in and cause you to lose your job and lose your mental health and well being in so many ways. It’s phenomenal.


Sabina Brennan  13:44

Sexism, surveillance, and social media is that tagline to the visibility trap. So I would love to talk to you, first of all, the title of the book, and then to actually talk about surveillance. I mean, surveillance is a concept that prior to my going to university, I only thought of it in terms of security and surveillance cameras. Then when you study psychology, you understand surveillance in a very different way. And it can include self monitoring, and all those kinds of things. So I’d like us to sort of talk about that in very real and concrete terms. And the book does that guy’s like, it’s grounded in very solid research and science that crosses multiple disciplines. That’s what’s very nice,


Sabina Brennan  14:19

you don’t just sort of stay within your own discipline, the research is from multiple disciplines, but it’s told in a very accessible way and very real way in that you will be able to relate it to what you’re actually doing on social media. And while you’re doing it. So I want to start at the outset of the book you do invoke philosopher Michel Foucault, the French philosopher who actually really in a way said that visibility is a trap. Would you explain because you do it very well in the book, historian and where it comes from prison, and that observation, and another lovely new word panopticism. Mary is going to tell us


Mary McGill  14:19



Mary McGill  14:57

Yes, I’m going to go for it and Sabina for being so enthusiastic, it’s just so lovely. So panopticism, yes, Foucault was taking an idea that had been developed by the Victorian social reformer Jeremy Bentham, essentially a design for an ideal prison. And what made this prison ideal was how effective it was in terms of surveillance. So at it’s center, you had a tower, where the guards could look into the cells, which circled the tower. And from the tower, they could see directly into any cell at any given time. And what this, in theory, would produce in the prisoners is a sense that, because they were never sure if and when they were being watched, they behaved at all times as if they were being watched at all times. I think Foucault writes that it’s like being in a cage, that is its own kind of like theater stage that has great visuals in that particular chapter, the chapter is called Panopticism, you don’t have to make a massive leap from those ideas to the nature of platform capitalism. And the way that social media works. We are part of the allure of these platforms is that we get to be visible, right, we get to be seen by other people far outside our normal network of people. And we in turn, get to see things we wouldn’t otherwise see. We get to share ideas, we get to talk and we get to watch as well, which is a big appeal. But the problem is that all of this visibility, up until this point has been sold to us very much as a net good. As something that we can use to thrive, the positives are always weigh out the negatives. So we’ve got to a point now in a culture where we are beginning to reassess those assumptions. And when you think about surveillance, as you said, quite rightly, we normally associated with George Orwell, the notion of Big Brother, it’s usually the state, or companies, corporations, or the police that are involved in surveillance. But there’s another type of surveillance now that has arisen because of the way that we use technology, and particularly social media, usually referred to as social surveillance. So people look at each other in life all the time. And there may be, you know, a degree of surveillance involved in that. But this kind of mainstreaming of surveillance is with precendent. I mean, we are watching and being watched as individuals in ways that used to be reserved, really for the most visible people in the culture. Soreally politicians and celebrities. Now everybody who has a social media platform is engaging to a greater or lesser extent, in some form of image management, you know, for want of a better word, we’re pre empting how other people see us, we’re taking those ideas that the platform’s put forward of what a popular person is, or a good person is, and we’re tailoring our self representations, so as to benefit from this visibility out, of course, at all times to avoid the trap. Because this is very on certain terrain, Sabina, as much as we can enjoy visibility, it can also be a very difficult thing to navigate, particularly when you’re trying to reproduce yourself and represent yourself in a way that meets the criteria for whatever platform or culture you’re involved in, or want to appeal to, or maybe doesn’t feel representative of who you are. And yet these representations are taken increasingly, as who we are, right, your LinkedIn is who you are, your Twitter profile is who you are. And I know as a psychologist, you’re going ‘Of course it isn’t’. And I’ve been as a media theorist and cultural scholar, I’m going ‘Of course it isn’t’. However, we have grown up in a world where most people don’t have access to the education that enables them to navigate these spaces with the awareness that a representation is a representation. It’s always qualified, it’s always constructive. It’s always in negotiation, it is not the real thing. And even when people and a lot of people who spend a lot of time online and I kept myself one of them, and I have the benefit of research and education in this area, even when you know, there’s a difference between intellectually knowing and emotionally knowing. And these technologies engage our emotion in ways that…. people don’t passively consume media. And people think, oh, you just sit down, you watch the television, and there’s nothing going on there. When you actually talk to people about the way we consume media in general, you know, it can be quite more complicated than assumptions would lead you to believe. But this is a whole other world, right? So you can know that you’re navigating a space that is ‘a hall of mirrors and is not real’, quote unquote. But on an emotional level, it can still take a significant toll because it taps into something I think you know, what you were saying earlier on about wanting to connect and wanting to be seen. I mean, I always talk about earliest ancestors painted their hands on the walls of caves and we can still see I was, you know, and I always think of technology as any tool that allows human beings to kind of master their environment. And I think there’s something profound and beautiful in our long standing desire to want to represent ourselves and leave a mark and say ‘I was here,’ I think that’s a beautiful thing. But I think we’ve entered a space now where we’re so used to seeing representations. And at the same time, not being equipped to be like, we’ve entered this world of images, but we need to remain rooted in something more solid, and more secure than that.


Sabina Brennan  20:35

There’s so many things come to mind when I listen to you speak. And while I was reading the book, and I think it’s one of those books that people can kind of come back to again, and again.  And there’s a couple of things. So our desire to be seen, just in terms of an individual, like anybody who’s had a mother, you know, look at me, Mommy, look at me, Mommy, look at me, Mommy, lookwhat I’m doing your mommy, look at me mommy,


Sabina Brennan  20:54

You know, I’m a firm believer that all of these things have, they’ve survived because they serve a purpose. So it is very important for an infant to remind their mother that they’re there. Because they need to be fed, they need constant interaction for their brain to develop, because those early years are hugely important, like babies have more brain cells than adults. But in order for the really well working, healthy brain to develop, they have to have the interaction and learn how to be human. So that’s one thing that kind of jumps to mind. And then another thing that comes to mind from childhood, the equivalent having grown up without any of these things, was that sense. And I have a real strong memory of this being in one of the cubicle toilets in primary school. And we must have just had a catechism lesson. So for anyone listening, who’s not in Ireland, in holy Catholic Ireland, when I grew up catechism, which is the study of Catholicism, you had a class of it every single morning from primary school to –  talk about brainwashing. That’s a whole other area. –  But we obviously just had a lessons about that God can always see what you’re doing. So for me, that was probably my first experience of surveillance. And I remember sitting there and going, Oh, is Holy God, watching me now? Is Holy God watching me now, That’s a terrible thing to do to children. I mean, certainly growing up in a strongly Catholic family, it was a case of Oh is Holy God watching me now. And I think that’s what really comes through from evoking the panoptimism, that prison analogy, it’s really true, because what we have done is created a prison. And people talk about saying, Well, I’m going to go offline for a while or online. But even when you’re not online, your brain is thinking, like, you go for a walk, and you go, that would make a fabulous photo for social media. It’s there. It’s everywhere. Oh, I’d love to take a selfie now, but I can’t I see it, I’ve put my hands up here, I will see it here. Like I’ve been talking to a social media person, I’m now working the gig economy, the university, my research can no longer take place. As you know, as a researcher, you get funding to do X amount of research. And my latest project was for four years, and it can’t happen. And so I am fully now working in the gig economy. And so I need to find ways to earn a living to keep a roof over my head as everyone does. And so you kind of go, Okay, I need to really build my social media presence, but at least I’m very focused to know Okay, well, I want to get more corporate wellness talks. I want to get more people to buy my books, more people to listen to my podcast. So I kind of know, right, I have to have a focus. But like, one of the things and I talking to someone is that they say, Oh, you need more visibility. And I said, Well, no, I share my this and I put quotes up and I do that. No, you your face needs more visibility they need whoever they are, need to see you regularly need to put up three reels a week of you sharing your brain health tips. Now, for me, that’s fine. I could do 100 reels a week on that, or I could write up so many things to say, but I haven’t been doing it. And I’ll tell you why. And I’m being very honest here is because I would have to put my face on. And I feel I would have to put my best face forward, I’ve gained a bit of weight because of COVID. I don’t particularly want to have that out there that every time I look at it, I go Oh god, look, that’s where I had the extra six kilos. And I’m not yet in that space where I feel I can go and do it bare faced Having said that, I had just re read one of your chapters this morning. And I said okay, I won’t put the full makeup. I put a little bit of tinted moisturizer and some lipstick and a little bit of eye makeup and kind of left it at that. You see the problem is with now you see you’re seeing yourself all the time on social media. So yeah, we have this tendency to judge. So even as you said, even though I know these things, and I know these traps, the way I put it is I am a human being first and foremost before I am any of those other things a psychologist or a neuroscientist and while you made that distinction between the emotions and sort of our thinking and the brain evolved, we really kind of have three interlinked brains. So the oldest from an evolutionary perspective is the reptilian brain that keeps us alive, breathing, digesting stuff you don’t have to think about the next to evolve is the limbic system, which is often referred to as the emotional brain, because that’s where it handles our emotions. But it is unconscious. That’s the key, it evolved to manage fight or flight. That’s one of its primary things, but also learning and memory occurs there in a very unconscious way. Then we have our thinking brain, which is the brain that a lot of us think about as being our brain. And that’s where things and misnomers that we decide to do things, we don’t always decide to do them sometimes that decision making is retrospective, we are already, if you look at neurons firing, we’re already moving to do something before the message reaches our conscious brain where you say, Oh, I’m going to do this, your brain has access to billions of bits of data, it processes millions of bits of data every second, but you only consciously process by 30 or 40 bits. So that unconscious brain, it’s not just emotional, I think that’s the distinction I would make. Because learning and memory happens in there too. So you learning about how the world works. But it is unconscious behavior, that you do have the capacity to override. That’s really what’s important. But it is shaping an awful lot of our behaviors. And the thing is where I feel the biggest inequity comes is that the people who have developed social media, and the internet and all those things, they understand how that part of your brain works. And they manipulate us very well. That’s when the inequity occurs, because most people do not understand that. And that, for me is one of my passions is to help people understand that. So that you realize actually, okay, and also just because I’m doing that unconsciously, doesn’t mean I have no choice I do. But I need to understand what and why and why factors are influencing why I’m doing that. And if you understand that, then you might actually realize, Oh, actually, I don’t need social media to do that. Actually, social media is what’s making me feel anxious and depressed.


Mary McGill  27:12

It’s interesting isn’t that you know, when you’re when you’re talking about the advice that you received to make yourself visible. And I think what gets lost in well meant advice like that is something that is inherent to visibility is exposure. And exposure can be a very ambivalent experience, something else that’s critical to surveillance and why surveillance is useful, and compelling, and sometimes very dangerous is the issue of control. Right? So those prisoners, the guard wasn’t inside their door, right? He wasn’t there with the baton and getting ready to give them a whack. But nevertheless, they felt his presence, whether or not it was there. So this was a very…. This is what for Foucault was arguing about in relation to the way that citizens and other institutions were beginning to control their citizens. So away from the guillotine away from the Stocks, to a type of control where the citizen actually enacts it on themselves, in anticipation of getting in trouble.


Sabina Brennan  28:14

Yeah, yeah.


Mary McGill  28:14

And so on social media, this notion of visibility, you cannot make yourself visible without some degree of vulnerability, and judgment, because these places are absolutely riven with invitations to judge both yourself and other people, and often in a way that is very reactive, and not at all kind of, you know, reflective or thoughtful or anything like that. But what you get with control is and control is very closely tied to visibility, certain narratives of control, we’re told that these technologies give us more control over our image than ever before. And in certain respects, that is true, they do. But they also remove control in ways that are absolutely terrifying. Because while you watch the television, the television wasn’t watching, you. And it didn’t have the capacity to turn around and input or take what you had inputted into it, and distributed across the world in seconds. Yeah. And that’s the reality of what social media and the internet today can do. And so you get this real, kind of, I suppose, push pull effect, we’re on the one hand, yes, visibility, if you’re a self employed person, I’m a journalist, and of course, you’re going to share your work, you’re going to share things that you’re interested in, that makes total sense. But in amongst all that sharing are, you know, significant elements that you cannot control, that are kind of unknowable. And that may come back at you and this notion of the trap again, in ways that you could never have anticipated. And when they do, and the book has so many examples of this. We have allowed these technologies to get so far ahead of us that when these downsides happen, and they happen to women in very specific ways. There’s often nowhere to turn. Yeah. And the culture has not advanced to the point where instead of having sympathy for people who find themselves in these horrendous situations, the enticement, the the the expectation is still that you would judge.


Sabina Brennan  30:04



Mary McGill  30:05

Rather than be like, how have we let this happen that I mean, we must be better than this.


Sabina Brennan  30:09

I think the control thing and the prison thing, you use a quote, I think it’s from Lisa McInerney, when she’s talking about I think it’s the incident in Slane which was, for listeners, which was at a concert where somebody filmed a girl engaging in a sexual act with a male, and it was all over social media, etc. And she was judged. And then there was this panic when it was discovered, she was actually under 18. And, you know, sort of pulled back and all the rest, but the immediate thing was blaming the female. And anyway, aside from everything that’s wrong about that, there is the judgment, and people making judgments. And I think that’s important to understand that, like, our brain constantly makes judgments, you know, it is making patterns. It’s constantly figuring out where does that belong? How do I feel about that? What if? and those stories and those judgments an awful lot of them are embedded from our childhood. So I mean, I remember writing before about a piece that actually Rosin Ingle had written in the paper, and it was during the abortion referendum, and I was trying to get across a message. And I think sometimes actually, what I said was misunderstood, as can easily happen. But the point I was making was, I supported the campaign I supported RosIn’s article that she had written about But one line in her article, she had said she was divorced, okay, now, I think divorce is fabulous, and should be allowed. However, I was brought up in a Catholic family, where divorce had negative connotations. And while I had self awareness when I was reading that article, that when I read that I went, ‘Oh, she was a divorcee’ like that, that had something that I had been brainwashed in right back. And the letter that I’d written to the newspaper was, we need to be careful of our implicit biases that we’re not aware of. Now, I think some people took it up that I was judging her because she was divorced or whatever. The truth of the matter was, I had an implicit bias, but at least I was able to recognize that and override it and the reason I wrote the letter was to say beware of your implicit biases. There’s so many of them that we don’t realize that we have the Lisa McInerney, in response to that lovely line, she said, ‘different perfumes, same shit’. And she was bringing the analogy to social media, compared to religious control of women. And the thing is, women have been controlled for millennia, using various means. And I see religion as a way to do that. It’s that self control you self-monitor what you should be allowed to do what you shouldn’t be allowed do. And I do think your chapter in particular around the surveillance is very interesting. We watch ourselves, we watch others, while technology watches all of us and the internet never forgets. And it is the thought that was just you know, your writing is fabulous. And saying those sorts of things really kind of strikes home. And there’s a good few stories in the book. For example, those that one Miranda, is it the school teacher,


Mary McGill  33:03

Lauren Miranda


Sabina Brennan  33:04

yeah, did a selfie of herself topless, sunbathing, very innocuous one or whatever. And some pupil in the school found it parents got wind of it –  long story short, she was sacked and lost her job, because she took a photo years ago of herself with consent. And there’s that whole thing as you said, nipples aren’t allowed. And I think that’s the problem, in that nobody wants a conversation anymore. People just want to cancel other people and virtue signaling. But I just believe that this is how we affect change. And we moved from black and white to nuance. But since then we have moved to a bifurcation to just black and white, you’re either with us or against us. And if it’s on one single opinion, that means you as a person as an individual ceases to exist, because you have one opinion that differs from another person. And that has impacted on my behavior, in that I feel very passionate about a lot of things. I no longer engage on Twitter about things that are controversial, that I feel strongly about, because I know that you can’t get that subtlety that is so important for change to happen. That does not come across on Twitter, even if you do people will just pick out the first phrase without the a qualifying phrase or something like that. And so I have stopped which means then that you have this not only do you have an echo chamber, but you have a chamber that is missing some very important strong views that people have self-censored. I’ve never felt more censored in my life. Since I’ve had the freedom to reach millions of people online. There’s a wonderful piece in the book where it’s the body positive movement and you’re talking about the body positivity movement and fat excess And basically, that took off. And the people who sort of instigated that movement feel that what it’s seen as now has nothing to do with the reason that they set the movement up. So most people think that body positivity and fat acceptance is about, you know, be comfortable in who you are, love who you are, accept yourself. But actually, it was about highlighting the barriers that exist to people of different shapes, and sizes, which has a purpose, to affect change. But now it’s been diluted into this thing that actually won’t affect change and can actually be detrimental to some people, you have a fantastic way to really illustrate some of these very important factors that I think are lost. There’s a lot of people think they’re doing good. And they’re repeating these really nice phrases and saying, but they’re not living it or even actually understanding it,


Mary McGill  36:00

it has to do, a lot of the time, with the nature of the platform’s themselves, because we don’t think of them when we’re using them as businesses, but they are a business. This is fundamentally what they do. And capitalism has a long history, because it relies on novelty for growth, it’s always looking for something new. So we’ll take things that people are interested in. And people are very interested in social movements. And it will take elements of them. And it will repackage them usually by removing the politics and making them far more palatable for a general audience or consumer. And that will then come to stand for whatever had been this probably quite radical movement. So you get this really watered down version in the mainstream, and social media plays into and intensifies those trends. Because, it, probably more than any other form of media before is so reliant on novelty, because it relies on content, it never closes, it needs new stuff all the time. So it’s constantly plundering all kinds of areas of life in order to drum up something that’s new, something that captures human attention, for however long it manages to do that. And so these platforms as well, you know, in how they kind of neuter, social movements sometimes, because there is space there, I think, definitely to do good work. But they’re also you know, you were talking about judgment earlier on. I lots of time prior to social media, people judge, as they say, all the time. But there was often a kind of an unspoken process or an internal process of a very virtual process, and may be quite intimate process only known to the individual or people close,


Sabina Brennan  37:35



Mary McGill  37:35

whatever. Now, judgment is a spectacle. He is hardwired into platforms themselves in terms of what you like, or share, or of course don’t like it, or don’t share this example. People are talking about their opinions all the time, the endless discourse that occurred, I mean, for me, now, I’m like, what…  there’s the event, or the product, whether it’s a film or television show, or whatever the case may be, and then there is the endless discourse that just goes on and on, about or, or about events, or news or so on. Judgment is something that is the type of content itself. So yes, it’s encouraged, because we judgie and judgie and judgie and, but the thing is, we enter into these spaces, we’re both judging and being judged. And that can be light and superficial and fun. But it can also be absolutely terrifying, and confusing, and stressful, really stressful. And also judgmental behavior is often critical behavior. And it’s not particularly kind behavior. And it’s the type of behavior that actually isolates people rather than building communities or Coalition’s or a sense of reciprocity, even with people who you disagree with. And so by fostering our natural inclination to judge and in some cases, not just fostering it, like, literally shovelling coal into the fire, when you think of outrage and everything else, these platforms, they might not cause these impulses, but they certainly exacerbate them. I always think that rather than appealing to the angels of our better nature, they appeal to the angels of our worse. Now, what would it look like if we had a technology or different types of technologies that tried to do the opposite? You know, I mean, you know, I’m not for censorship or anything like that, but just technologies that had developed with an awareness…. that aren’t reliant on exploiting the worst parts of humanity in order to make a profit.


Sabina Brennan  39:28

But here’s the really interesting thing. This just occurred me so forgive me as I’m just articulating this straight away. So our brain has evolved. It is an information processing machine. That is what it does, it requires data. Your brain has evolved the frontal lobes here, which are a filter system, okay. And I think it’s so funny, and this literally has just occurred to me. So social media, Instagram in particular, we have this whole issue of creating an approved version of ourselves. And I say approved rather than An improved version of ourselves using filters. But what then the likes of Twitter do is actually remove the filters that our brain has evolved to preserve us, right, we have those filters, so that you don’t turn around and tell your best friend, God, you look really fat and ugly at the moment, or your hair is terrible, or whatever. And forgive my you know, if that’s sort of an Non-PC comment, but that actually is the point of your filtering system, you will have those thoughts and make those judgments. But your frontal lobe says, Don’t say that, that will ruin your relationship or find another way to say it, if you’re concerned about somebody’s health, or find a different way to deal with it, maybe suggest hair colors or…, you know, in a very different way. And so we have this amazing system that preserves our relationships, and generally serves us very well. And the filter is gone. And it’s like, we go straight from the thoughts onto the keyboard. And we bypass our rational thinking brain, and that’s not good, you’re actually sort of regressing to a previous form of being human that we evolved out of. Sorry, that just kind of came to me, but it is true. We’re unfiltered in our responses. And we need to filter again and start thinking about other people, because empathy and those things are just out the window. People say such nasty stuff. But I guess where my fear is going to now is that people, certainly when there are groups, I don’t think it happens when there’s individuals. But now when there are groups who go from online to offline, they, in the comfort of the group feel comfortable, engaging in hate speech, or whatever. And I think that’s where we’re in trouble. And that’s what we saw with the storming of the White House and horrible actions. That’s what scares me is that that online…, that is changing human behavior, human behavior that has served as well. So engaging in unfiltered behavior. And it’s very easy to turn around and say to people, oh, they’re uneducated, or they’re this or that. And we do know that there’s certain correlations in terms of who will believe in fake news and who will be victims of conspiracy theory, believing them, etc. But putting all that down to lack of education or lack of intelligence is incorrect, I believe anyway, a lot of it is permissiveness. And the switching off of those filters, because those people did have filters in past because they kind of behaved as humans. So it’s very scary. I want to move on. But there’s just so much to talk about this book that I think we actually need two episodes so I’m going to leave you lovely listeners to get your head around what we’ve spoken about so far, on social media. Are you shocked? Surprised? Maybe you knew it all already? Whatever. I’d really love to hear your thoughts. And do Tune in next week and listen to myself and Mary continue our conversation about social media, including discussing its puritanical attitude to the female body in some, but not other circumstances. My name is Sabina Brennan, and you’ve been listening to Super brain the podcast for everyone with a brain.


Sabina Brennan  43:13

Super brain is a labor of love born of a desire to empower people to use their brain to thrive in life and attain their true potential. Please help me to reach as many people as possible by sharing this episode, or by simply liking or rating the show. Imagine if we could get to a million downloads by word of mouth alone. I believe it’s possible. I believe that great things happen when lots of people do little things. So you really can help to achieve this ambitious dream to get a million downloads. Oh, and don’t forget to subscribe to Super Brain that helps too Visit for additional content, including images and videos related to this episode and a transcript of the show. Follow me on Instagram @SabinaBrennan and on Twitter at @Sabina_Brennan. I am grateful as always, to my exceptional editor Emily Burke, to my fascinating guests and to my listeners. Thank you for tuning in.


#people #brain #socialmedia #visibility #surveillance #book #technologies #images #love #working #evolved #filters #culture  #judge #world #social #thinking #platform

Super Brain Blog – Season 4 Episode 2

Happy Mum, Happy Baby with Melissa Hogenboom

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  •  01:14 – Identity
  • 04:59 – How pregnancy changes people’s perception of you
  • 08:01 – Workplace discrimination in pregnancy
  • 14:40 – Parenting comes from doing not gender
  • 18:17 – The construct of mothering across cultures and time
  • 20:55 – We are spending more time parenting than previous generations
  • 21:37 – Why Melissa wrote The Motherhood Complex
  • 27:13 – David Attenborough and pregnancy
  • 29:52 – Pregnancy, pressure and perfectionism
  • 32:48 – Impact of chronic stress on foetus and baby
  • 35:21 – Neuroplasticity, brain fog and pregnancy
  • 40:58 – The pill changes everything including your brain
  • 44:31 – Holland and Happy children
  • 50:00 – White noise
  • 52:10 – When your parenting is parroted
  • 54:48 – Melissa’s tip for thriving and surviving as a parent



Melissa’s Book


Guest Bio

Melissa Hogenboom is an award-winning science journalist and editor at the BBC with a track record of finding original, interesting stories that appeal to a mass audience. Currently she is the editor of the video documentary site BBC Reel, which she launched in 2018.

In over 10 years at the BBC she has written hundreds of articles and produced and reported for television and radio. She is passionate about telling evidence-based stories for a general audience. She reports and commissions exclusive and often experimental stories, from going troll hunting in Iceland, to searching for her cosmic twin in a parallel Universe, to tracing the footsteps of the world’s last Neanderthals.

Melissa is interested in telling stories that reflect how and why we change. This approach has led her to look at how music is helping her father’s dementia and how it may be key to understanding the brain, to investigating the subtle biases that exist in our education system, to understanding whether or not we are in truly in control of our own decisions.

Her journalism has been recognised by multiple awards, including the Webbys, the Kavli AAAS Science awards, the Telly Awards, The Lovie Awards, the Drum Awards and the British Association of Science Journalism awards. She is also a New America/Jacob’s foundation fellow of the Learning Science Exchange, a first-of-its-kind prestigious fellowship launched to spark new ideas and breakthrough approaches for communicating the insights of early learning.

During this episode Melissa spoke about this career-defining interview with Sir David Attenborough, recalling how she felt as a colleague told Sir David that she was pregnant

This photo was taken during that BBC’s Earth Live interview





Over to You

I’d love to chat with you about the episode, please do share your thoughts, insights or questions in the comments below. 

Tune into Thursday’s Super Brain Booster Shot

Don’t forget to share this episode on your social media.


Sabina Brennan  00:01

Hello, and welcome to the Super Brain podcast. My guest this week is Melissa Hogenboom. She’s an award winning science journalist, filmmaker, and editor at the BBC. She makes and commissions films and writes articles as well as reporting and producing for television and radio on a range of topics, including human evolution, psychology and neuroscience. Her journalism has been recognised by multiple awards, including The Webbys, the Drum Awards, Kavli, AAA Science Awards, the Telly Awards, and the British Association of Science Journalism Awards. She is also a new America Learning Science Exchange Fellow. The Motherhood Complex is her very first book,

Melissa Hogenboom  00:45

indeed it is,

Sabina Brennan  00:47

I have read that from the inside cover of your book from the bio of your book, and congratulations on your many achievements, particularly writing your first book, that’s a big undertaking. But since your book is about identity, about how our sense of self changes, particularly through motherhood, I want to begin by asking you, who is Melissa Hogenboom?

Melissa Hogenboom  01:14

Well, when I set out to write the book, I think that was a question on the forefront of my mind too. And when I became a mother, I suddenly turned into Melissa Hogenboom journalist, the BBC journalist who was, you know, ambitious, career-orientated, work was my primary identity, I’d say I was always, you know, keen to get ahead. When you’re a journalist or a content creator, as you know, you live and breathe, the topics you write or report about. But then when I became a mother, that identity overtook whether I wanted it to, or not for various reasons that I explore in the book. So I’d say, now, four years into motherhood, I am much more comfortable being Melissa, the journalist and mother, whereas when I first became a mother, I felt this clash of identities. So I felt like one was overtaking the other. So that was when I had this kind of existential questioning of who I was, I guess, if you want to put it on grand terms.


Sabina Brennan  02:10

So why do you think it is that motherhood impacts so heavily on our identity or our sense of identity,


Melissa Hogenboom  02:14

Motherhood impacts us in such a momentous way, because overnight, everything changes, like obviously, you have nine months of pregnancy to get used to the idea. And there’s already significant biological change and physical change that really starts to feel…. some people take to it, some people find it quite intrusive to have this kind of embodied new bump, which can shows their impending changes, especially if how they change doesn’t live up to the socially constructed ideal. But I think one of the main reasons it feels so stark is because there’s so many expectations that come with motherhood. And so you’re going into a situation where you have your own idea of, you might have your own idea, some, some people like, if you’re anything like me, you come home from the hospital, you think what am I doing next with this tiny baby. But  alongside of that, there’s all these ideas of what to do, how to feed your child, what kind of childcare to send them to, how much to work, whether to work, and a lot of these ideals and expectations clash with your own ones. And it’s really hard to constantly feel that tug of judgement, expectation and then internalised guilt, at the same time as just getting on with the job of being a parent. So I think that’s one of the key reasons. It’s lots of interlinked reasons that so heavily impacts upon our sense of self.


Sabina Brennan  03:41

Yeah. And it’s interesting for me when you answered first, who you were, you know, and you describe who you are, who you were, when you were writing the book, and you gave that in a singular, you know, in a sense that I’m the science journalist, or whatever, that was kind of your defining identity, and then motherhood kind of encroaches on that. And of course, you do acknowledge that by the time we become mothers, we have multiple identities. You know, we’re sisters and friends, and we’re someone who wears x type of clothing, or, you know, we have so many identities that sort of blend together. But I think probably what you’re saying and what I certainly, having become a mother myself also, that this is the biggie, you know, this is a kind of a big defining one, I have to say, now, I don’t know whether you were married at the time or whatever. But I find that one a big one, too, I found going from being single to being married. Different. And I certainly found that and probably from the sense of, I felt less seen, I felt I became somewhat invisible. I felt at that point that people looked at me differently. And I think from reading you in that sense, you were saying, you know that becoming pregnant. I know that I wrote right up to where you said something about being frail and pregnant or pregnant as a human being viewed as frail and I kind of wrote “why not strong?”


Melissa Hogenboom  04:59

So I felt like I had to constantly not let pregnancy change me. So very early on, I made the decision not to tell work until I was, I think, 18 weeks. It wasn’t showing. So I was able to do that. And I was kind of in the, had, this defiant attitude of, I’m not going to let this change me, I’m still able to do my work as well as anyone else. And I didn’t want anyone to think of me differently. And I didn’t realise that at the time because I hadn’t read the literature. But once you start reading the sociological literature on this, you see that as soon as you become pregnant, you’re seen differently in the workplace. And obviously, this is a generalisation. It doesn’t necessarily apply to every single workplace. But you’re seen as suddenly less committed, less ambitious, that you have other things you’re going to put first that you’re suddenly more family orientated. One sociologist literally said that you are seen as leaky and vulnerable.


Sabina Brennan  05:54



Melissa Hogenboom  05:55

oh, we do – leaky –  physically, later on, we do become vulnerable. And that we’re,  one researcher said women are open, vulnerable and leaky. So we’re, we feel sick, later you know, our breasts might start leaking the waters eventually,


Sabina Brennan  06:10



Melissa Hogenboom  06:10

you’re kind of showcasing  your vulnerability by this physical presence.


Sabina Brennan  06:15

It’s horrible description.


Melissa Hogenboom  06:17

It’s a horrible description. But it kind of, they tie it back to the idea that women are working in a workplace designed by men for men. And so often in the workplace, women will act more typically male, I say that in quote marks, for those listening, to get ahead, because the traits we associate with masculinity are seen as the ones that lead you to ambitious or powerful leadership careers. So there’s, there’s even studies that show that when women become pregnant, they emphasise these kind of more stereotypically masculine traits, so that they don’t give in to this feminine identity. And it’s because of these assumptions. And it’s also why women often hide their pregnancy for quite a long time, because they intrinsically know that they’re going to be seen slightly differently. When a journalist friend who understands all these processes at play literally said, I’m going to wait as long as possible, because I might not get assigned the same stories once they realise I’m pregnant. And I’m like, That’s shocking. She’s like, Yeah, but it just is how it is. That’s just how it is. And it shouldn’t be like that. And so I didn’t want those processes to affect me. And then as soon as I did say, I was pregnant, my colleagues, rightly so I would say, you know, told me to rest when I needed to, and take it easy, but I didn’t want to take it easy. But looking back, I was tired, I was able to function as well as I was before, but it was exhausting. And I’d come home feeling literally jetlag at some of the time.


Sabina Brennan  07:37

Nothing left.


Melissa Hogenboom  07:38

Exactly. So I think it is okay to understand that, you know, there’s these momentous physical changes happening that make you exhausted, you’re literally producing food for something growing inside of you. So it’s okay to get into that and understand that you can still function and still have the same commitments and ambitions and still be the same, albeit slightly physically altered version of the


Sabina Brennan  08:01

Yeah, you know, it’s fascinating for me reading the book, as I’m kind of at the other end, mine have grown and flown the nest, but reading the book brought back so many things for when I was at your stage, and when I you know, I was pregnant and, and having babies. So like that, like you I didn’t tell people until I was 18 weeks pregnant. I was very proud that I didn’t show that I had a flat tummy I continued playing, I played soccer was my sport, you continued running, I actually played in a soccer final when I was four and a half months pregnant. You know, I was while I checked with my doctor, and you know, you’ve always been doing it, keep on doing it, it’s okay. But it’s just occurred to me, as you were just saying that you may be treated differently in terms of the assignments you might be given as a journalist. And these are biases. And whilst we’ve moved on, in terms of political correctness, and in terms of trying to ensure gender equality in the workplace, when we had a grade system, and I worked in a life insurance company at the time, and we had a grade system when I was grade four, and then grade five as the highest. And then you became a head of department. And I was next up pretty much to get the grade five, you had to do interviews, but you were still kind of in the running unless you were a poor at your job. Do you know what I mean? You were kind of well, it should be you or so and so that will get it. And I actually remember going for that job interview. And I had already said that I was pregnant, didn’t know this job was going to be coming up and I went for that job interview. And while I was in the interview, they more or less said you’re the perfect candidate for the job. But unfortunately, we need someone to start immediately. And there’s a backlog already and we just couldn’t deal with you being on maternity leave for this position. Now that would be unheard of now,


Melissa Hogenboom  09:41

It definitely is illegal now, but it happens. There’s an organisation that outlines just how many discrimination cases there are. And often they’re subtle, because like if on paper, you’re a perfect candidate, but so is someone else. Who are they going to pick? Not the pregnant person, quite likely and they’ve even done those kind of CV studies where fictional job applicants applied for real jobs, and the callback rates, if you indicated you were a parent were significantly lower for mothers, not for fathers. And the only thing that was listed on the CV was that the parent was a member of a PTA, so parent teacher organisation, so it was a really subtle thing


Melissa Hogenboom  10:21

, and also mothers, if they were offered, interview or then job were given lower pay as well. So it just shows that it’s not an overt bias, necessarily, sometimes it is. But even when it’s not, there’s these subtle kind of ideas about what mothers do. And it ties in to these socially constructed ideal worker norms is what sociologists call it, the fact that we’re expected to put work first rather than our family. And if your work expects overtime every single night, the carer cannot do that. And if the carer is most likely to be the mother, the main carer which it often is the case, then it’s the mothers who have to leave work early and sacrifice their career.


Sabina Brennan  10:42



Sabina Brennan  11:01

Yeah, I think overtly, things have changed in that people know what they’re not allowed to say and do but covertly it still happens in much more subtle ways. You know, it beggars belief. I don’t know if you saw that on I think it was on the BBC, the two women who developed the AstraZeneca vaccine were asked how they balanced their career and their home life


Melissa Hogenboom  11:20

Exactly, You’d never ask a man you’ve never ask a man that


Sabina Brennan  11:20



Melissa Hogenboom  11:22



Sabina Brennan  11:25

Oh, yeah,


Melissa Hogenboom  11:26

also you’d call a mother, a working mother, but you wouldn’t say working father, a worker?  it just shows the contradiction.


Sabina Brennan  11:34

Yeah, yeah. But just going back to my instinctive, you know, reading that where it says frailty, and you’re viewed as frail and less able. But actually, in fact, being pregnant is a sign of strength. The baby book that I bought, at the time, it was about what’s happening, this baby inside me and I do remember around tiredness, because until you become pregnant, you have no idea, the tiredness that you do feel in those first few months. And I had always thought pre pregnancy that you feel tired, because of the bump as you get further along. But it’s actually the earlier stages where the real fatigue kicks in. And I remembe that book described it as it’s okay to feel tired, you are doing the equivalent every day of climbing a mountain in growing and creating this baby. And I know that certainly allowed me feel it, which is terrible ‘allowed me feel okay’ about being tired,


Melissa Hogenboom  11:37



Sabina Brennan  12:10

But what I just don’t understand is that having children is an essential part of being human, of our species. And like, why do we not account for that in how workplaces are set up having say, worked in science myself, where you get funding to do a research project, and you have funding specifically for just the team members that you have. And there’s a push to have, you know, gender equality, and a push to have more women, particularly, you know, in science, and then having a situation where that’s the only money you have, and then one of the team goes on maternity leave. Now, at least when it was my time back then when I didn’t get the job, we only had 12 weeks maternity leave, we could be gone for a matter of weeks. But now it’s kind of up to a year or whatever. So that can completely destroy or derail a project and you’ve no way out of it. And so having been in that situation. I understand that from the people working on the team perspective and for small companies. But, rather than that being an issue you have to deal with, that then goes against women, why can we not factor these things in? In terms of there has to be funding, there has to be cover, there has to be allowance or it just beggars belief to me, you know, and the same with childcare, it should be available And I think if you’re in a workplace having childcare within the workplace, is a fantastic option. It means that if a child is unwell, a parent can go over for a few minutes, and then come back to work. If that’s all it takes.


Melissa Hogenboom  14:10

depends which parent’s work place to the child goes to you, right?


Sabina Brennan  14:13

That’s true.


Melissa Hogenboom  14:14

Yeah, yeah, these are really important points you bring up and it again, ties back to, like, who designed the workplace? Who puts the policies in place? Why is there such a low take up of shared parental leave? There’s lots of reasons why that happens. I mean, in the UK, it was like it’s hovering at the one or 2%, maybe a little bit more in recent times. And of course, if the higher earner isn’t going to have a salary as high as they would if they were working and the higher earner usually it’s the man for lots of reasons. Of course, they’re not going to take time off. And then add in the fact that men who have who have taken time off have reported feeling judged by it and I’m like, Okay, well just leave it all to the woman then. So it’s constantly reinforced from all levels that childcare is a mother’s domain, even though we know that there’s huge benefits when both couples whatever shape the family is, that it helps for them and the child, in turn, even like from basic biological functions, like the more present you are, the more lived experience you have with your child, the more beneficial hormones your brain is creating, as you’ll know, as a neuroscientist


Sabina Brennan  15:20

yeah, you’ll get more oxytocin. You know, I love that study, I’ve quoted that study myself, where it’s same sex couples, parenting, you know, and your brain adapts from doing, you know, your behaviour shapes your brain. And you know, that applies across the board, you learn how to be a carer. And I mean, really, it is only in more recent times that this sole responsibility of parenting falls on the mother. Because if you go back in time, you couldn’t afford to have a fit strong young woman sitting at home minding babies, when she could be out hunting or gathering or doing whatever. And I do think part of it as well is interesting. It’s something that I’ve said and this is kind of slightly a sidetrack, but it’s still around societal and the influences of society is that I often think that we sort of took a wrong turning somewhere that we’ve taken many wrong turnings as a species, but one particular one jumps out of me. And that’s that we measure in Western society anyway, we measure success by how big a box we can isolate ourselves in. But we’re social creatures. And we don’t do well in isolation, actually, and being a mother in isolation is very challenging. I mean, I was a mother at home alone in a time before there was mobile phones or internet. And my first baby was a really challenging baby, cried all the time and just never slept. And I would have moments where I had to kind of put him in the middle of the bed and go “please stop crying, please stop crying’ Because I was afraid that I might go somewhere, thankfully, I never did. But I mean, I remember on occasion, having to pick up the landline and ring, my husband who wasn’t really allowed take phone calls in work like this is a whole different [time], and say, I can’t, you know, you talk about your stress texts. But that, for me, I was, you know, ‘I cant’, you’re going to have to come home, I can’t cope today with the crying.’ Now, if you go back to how our societies used to be set up, where we lived in a communal basis, that saying, you know, it takes a village to raise a child, but it absolutely does. And the thing is that if you live in a group setting and children are raised, that cuts out loads of problematic issues, where if one mother is actually not very well or can’t cope, or whatever, the child still gets parented, that still happens in some cultures. And I remember speaking to somebody, I gave a talk, I think down in Cork about brain health, and then was talking to the organisers, and they had helped set up an agricultural college way out in Brazil. So were way out from major cities or whatever. But he said, everybody had babies with them. So if teenage boys went to play soccer with their friends, they would carry the baby down, and that baby would be with them or the granny or whatever. Yeah, I do think part of that is, and certainly when you’re talking about this identity of motherhood, I do think it’s it quite? Well, we know it’s influenced by society and culture. It’s relatively modern, in the evolution of our species.


Melissa Hogenboom  18:17

Yeah, absolutely. Like we’ve gone from these nuclear family norms now where we are conditioned to believe that we have to do everything and we, it means both parents obviously, but then this falls more to the one who is at home or who works less. And the one who takes parental leave or maternity leave. So that’s usually the woman and all these behaviours are subtly reinforced over time. And it’s why women take on most of the mental load. So this is the thinking and the organising, and the planning and anticipating the needs, which is all mental work, and it’s invisible. And there’s lots of evidence to show women do most of it. We’ve lost our village, there’s no easy solution to that, because a lot of us live further away from our family. Some have argued that childcare is the new village. So you’ve got these additional parents or figures who are raising your children in childcare and which is great for the well being for the parents and for the child to get something slightly different. And if when you look at research done on traditional societies, or hunter gatherer tribes, you can see very different ways of parenting. So there’s one that I really loved reading about the Aqua tribe. So the hunter gatherers in the Central African Republic, they looked at the split of child caring, and the men were doing just as much if not more than the woman, the woman would take the babies on hunts, or would just leave them behind with a man it was the men that would get up in the night and rock the babies to sleep. And this was a real you know, status symbol. Men would even occasionally give their baby a nipple to suckle on, just for a comforting thing. And it just shows that the ideal mother, perfectionist ways of child rearing is a Western construct that sets us up for more stress.


Sabina Brennan  19:58

Oh, absolutely.


Melissa Hogenboom  19:59

More failure. And of course, mothers are more stressed and stretched than they’ve ever been before. And it makes us less happy.


Sabina Brennan  20:05

Yeah. And it’s, it’s a form of oppression really. And I’m sure that’s not a popular thing to say, you know, because we’ve revered motherhood, I do think some of that comes from religious contexts, which I find rather interesting. Actually, always, when I’m preparing and researching to talk to a guest, I always kind of, I don’t know, it’s probably an instinctive thing, I always look for commonalities, you know, things that we share in common, or whatever. And I was really quite surprised to discover that your family, your parents come from a Catholic village in the Netherlands. And so very, very similar to the kind of Catholic Ireland that I would have grown up in.


Melissa Hogenboom  20:42

But it was literally a village in my dad’s age, you know, they slept to two a bed in this tiny house, and there was 11 kids with the oldest ones watching the youngest ones. And because mum didn’t have much time to like, mother,


Sabina Brennan  20:54



Melissa Hogenboom  20:55

I mean, of course, that was mothering, then it was just a different, like, we think of motherhood now as something all encompassing, and we’re doing everything all the time and sending our kids to extracurricular activities, or constantly playing with them and enriching them. Whereas, you know, my father would say there just literally wasn’t the time. And so it’s no surprise that when you look at like data for how much time parents spend with their children, a generation ago, parents spent less time with their children than they do now. Even though there was more children.


Sabina Brennan  21:23

I just want to ask you, you know, writing a book is a very, very big undertaking, had you always wanted to write a book? And was it just that this became the now I have the thing I want to write about? Or had you other ideas? And


Melissa Hogenboom  21:37

Yeah it was a strange evolution. So I’ve always wanted to write a book, I had an agent for a few years, we were brainstorming book ideas. And when I had my first, I was like, we agreed on an idea. And I’m… because I’ve covered sciences, like write one or more, write something scientific, but I just never felt passionate enough. And the first the first time, actually, I just had my first baby. I was like, can’t possibly write a book, when I’ve got a new baby. And then when I had my second, two years later, it was one moment in a horrible sing and rhyme time session at the library. I literally went to it because anything was better than staying at home and trying to deal with the two screaming at the same time, because you know, literally makes your brain go into fight or flight response, as you said, So I was like right, what can I go to I went to one of his library sessions that I managed to avoid the first time around because they’re awful. But I went because it would entertain my toddler. And then I met another mum there who had the same age gap and the new baby and a toddler, the same age, so a two year old and newborn. And I was like, oh, how are you finding? And she’s like, great, you know, it’s much easier this time around, because I know I’m doing Yeah, it’s really nice. And then she goes, how are you finding? And I’m like, it’s absolutely terrible. It’s awful. And I said it quite like matter of fact, like, I wasn’t struggling with any mental health issues, but I was very stressed. And I did not enjoy the time because it was constantly like running around, trying to prevent them hurting each other, or the toddler hurting the baby anyway. And she looked at me like I was like, how can you say that? How can you be experiencing that? And I was like, Why is no one writing about this?


Sabina Brennan  22:42



Melissa Hogenboom  22:43

Why is noone talking about how it affects you not just like, there’s a lot written about mental health. And there’s a lot written about child rearing and tips and tricks. And I was like, I need to write about this because I didn’t read those prescriptive advice books precisely because they’re full of conflicting advice. So when I decided to write about it, and I was like, I need to explore if there’s any science to back up this identity change I’m feeling I found out there was. I felt very conflicted to be writing about the identity that I didn’t want to consume me. So that was a bit of a strange reckoning. And I almost felt like when I explained what I was writing about, I was like, I’m writing about the science of identity change, I’d almost hid the fact that I was writing about motherhood. Because motherhood is a topic that isn’t necessarily seen as serious It’s seen as a feminine, girly womanly thing. But it’s absolutely serious. And it’s seen as like an everyday ordinary event. But I tried to argue in the book that it’s extraordinary, the changes we go through, so we need to write about it and validate how we’re experiencing. So actually, writing the book has definitely empowered me to feel like I’m now writing a monthly parenting column for my team at the BBC, I love to talk about it. Now I want to you know, write a follow up book. And so I feel having written it, it’s kind of taken me on this journey, where it’s helped me mould my identities together, which has actually been really cathartic. So now I absolutely realise I can be both career driven, ambitious women, and I can be a mother and the two don’t always have to align, and that’s fine. And sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. But by understanding why and how I changed, it actually really empowered me to kind of appreciate the struggle and the joy at the same time.


Sabina Brennan  24:53

It’s a very empowering book. I think, number one, the first thing you said that, you know, for anyone listening, if you do want to write a book, it is really, really important that you write about something that you’re passionate about, it’s a tough process and being passionate about something. And something that you’re naturally curious about if it’s a nonfiction book, you know, because there’s really exciting and really insightful information in this book. And whilst it’s the motherhood complex, I mean, I think it’s a book that any woman should read. I mean, men should read too, but you know, I’m not sure they’re going to pick it up and read it. Maybe they will to try and understand what’s going through.


Melissa Hogenboom  25:25

Quite a few men have read it, actually.


Sabina Brennan  25:27

Yeah, yeah. I will put my hands up there that I was probably making a very gendered statement.


Melissa Hogenboom  25:33

I assumed the same Honestly, I thought the same. But then yeah, I think having… writing about an experience I was living in certainly made it easier to do, because I was living, what I was finding out, I was like literally uncovering what was going on. At the time, it was happening


Sabina Brennan  25:49

Yeah. And I think that will be very exciting for readers, whether you’ve never had a baby, whether you’re wondering whether you should have a baby, whether you’re going through motherhood, whether, like me, you’ve been through it, and it’s a long time ago, I firmly believe and it’s what I do is, you know, I explain how the brain works to help people understand themselves better. And I just think that’s empowering. If I understand why I’m feeling something, or why this is happening to me, I then feel okay, I can either accept that, okay, or I actually have a route to change it or to do whatever. And I think it’s really important as well, you know, I mean, it does cover a huge amount around societal expectation, and those kinds of things. And I think that’s important for people to realise that, you know, these are just new constructs. These are just new notions. These haven’t been around forever more, which, certainly, in my younger days, I would have thought that that’s always the way it has been. So it’s fascinating from that perspective, what I wanted to talk to you about as well, and I won’t miss this. There’s one lovely anecdote in your book, you said, you know, just even in pregnancy, are you worried about being taken less seriously in your job, and you eventually said that you had become pregnant and on the day that you announced that you had this mega interview with Sir David Attenborough, who sounded like he was the most wonderful individual in the circumstances.


Melissa Hogenboom  27:13

Amazingly, you bring this up because I sent him a copy of my book, The week before it was out. And three days later, in the post, I got a handwritten note from him saying thank you for my book, congrats, and all the best luck, wonderful. So it’s because I wrote him a little note saying you’re featured in chapter one. The reason why that was the day I told my team was because my team was split between Bristol and London, and I was like, it’d be nice to tell them in person. Because otherwise it’d just be over the phone. This was pre the days when zoom was, you know, normal. So we had this big session, and I was like, okay, it’s 18 weeks by now, I’m, I’m probably going to start showing soon. I’ve got all these doctor’s appointments it’d be nice to tell them in person. And everyone was very congratulatory, you know, parents on my team, nobody batted an eyelid really. So this internal struggle I was having with telling was definitely, partly in my own head, partly because of some of the reasons we discussed regarding how you’re then seen. And my colleague at the time, I guess, he was perhaps a bit nervous and wasn’t sure what to say to Sir David, I don’t know what was going on in his mind. But one of the first things he told him was Oh, and she’s pregnant, by the way. So David was like, Oh, well, well don’t lose her. You know, she’s really good. And he probably knew I was nervous and was being very complimentary. And that way that he just is super charming. But um, it just sat very uncomfortably with me. So I enjoyed the compliment. But I didn’t want the fact that I was pregnant suddenly, to be a talking point. And I was there to interview a national hero. And I was super nervous. It was live, there was no pre recording


Sabina Brennan  28:40

Oh really,


Melissa Hogenboom  28:41

it was live for our social media audience. So we had like a super small crew, he was… allowed us to do it in his home, because we didn’t have a big camera crew. And so it was, you know, a career defining moment. And so it was like this perfectly symbolic of one of the reasons I wrote the book, because was that personal identity intruding on huge career, proud moment for me. And so that was a nice way to write it. And if my colleague listens to this, or reads it, you know, it was absolutely nothing that he did wrong. He was just sharing some really nice news. But it was that internal


Sabina Brennan  29:14

it would have been just at the forefront of his mind,


Melissa Hogenboom  29:16



Sabina Brennan  29:16

because he basically has been told, you know,


Melissa Hogenboom  29:18



Melissa Hogenboom  29:19

he was excited. He was excited for me. He’s recently become a parent. He was excited for me and was happy to share it. And I was happy to share it. And so but because it was that specific moment, it felt quite jarring.


Sabina Brennan  29:30

yeah I think we have this sense in our head. And it comes from well, gosh, everything that we have in our head, everything that we think is subject to multiple influences, our own experiences, whatever but we do have this thing that there’s somehow an either or, or that like what goes through my head when you say, you know, this career defining moment, and it’s almost you can hear people saying, …


Melissa Hogenboom  29:30



Sabina Brennan  29:52

you know, oh, she’s brilliant. She’s doing so well. She’s at the peak, and then she went and got pregnant. You know, it’s like almost you’ve put a spanner in the works you were doing so well. And that’s terrible. And that’s awful then I think at a time, as you said earlier, and you alluded to earlier, and you talk about in the book, at a time when you actually do need to rest, for your own health and for the health of your baby. And at a time, when you may also be dealing with things like nausea and other various things. You call it mum brain, brain fog. And I’ll talk to you a bit more about that later on. Because obviously, I’ve written a book called Beating Brain Fog, so and that is of interest to me. But at that point, many of us feel compelled to work even harder, and to show that this is not having any impact. Whereas actually, we should be empowered to say, I’m really good. In order for me to continue to be as excellent as I am, I need to sleep a little longer than I used to. And I need to do x y, z. And actually, to be honest, now that I know things that I know from neuroscience, actually, if we didn’t take those risks, and if we did listen to our body, we would be able to work in the same way, I think we actually try and push ourselves to do more, you know, that ‘proving’ and I think time and again, what comes up in your book is around the issue around perfectionism. And I was certainly brought up to think that perfectionism was a good thing. And it is definitely not a good thing from any perspective. It’s not good for your mental health. It’s also not good for your efficiency and your effectiveness in whatever role or job you play. But I think when it comes down to those particularly early stages of motherhood, I mean, I remember, I can’t even remember why I was at the doctor. But I remember the doctor saying to me, you know, Sabina, your house doesn’t have to be spotless. You’re raising a baby sort of thing, but it is that sort of, I don’t know what everything to be, you know?


Sabina Brennan  31:47

there’s definitely that Super Mom thing and I think when you’re pregnant, I think it’s being pregnant is so all consuming, because there’s so much going on in your body, and you’re kind of getting your head around this. But then trying to balance that with your identity, because your thoughts and your feelings are overtaken by that. There’s one other thing around that. And I think it was in that chapter around pregnancy. And it’s a very, very important point that you brought up. And I just want to say it aloud for the readers that all this stress that we put ourselves through when we’re pregnant, or even in the early stages of motherhood is not good for your baby. And you write about it in the book, the impact of stress on the unborn child is quite substantial.


Melissa Hogenboom  32:30

We’re talking about prolonged stress. If someone’s a little bit stressed, that’s part of everyday life, but definitely prolonged stress.


Sabina Brennan  32:37

Yes. And I say that time and again, you know, in my podcast, and in my books, there’s nothing wrong with stress, we need stress, it’s the thing that motivates us to achieve our goals, etc. But poorly managed chronic stress.


Melissa Hogenboom  32:48

Exactly. We’re talking Yeah, there’s links between if there’s prolonged stress, or depression in the mother, it’s more likely to result in infants that have mental health issues and stress as well. If mothers are really stressed, and if that results in postnatal depression, they actually respond differently to their infants cries, their brain is activated in different ways to a way that they’re not quite as in tune with their infants, and then the infant’s pick up on that. So there’s all these kind of links that the mother and the baby’s brain are meant to work in tandem, together, they listen to each other, the mother’s brain during pregnancy changes significantly and in a lasting way, in a way that helps her bond with her baby. And then hormones give her a good kickstart. And then exposure and experience kicks in, which is when you know, all partners biological or otherwise can experience beneficial brain changes. So obviously, if there’s a process at play that’s affecting that, it’s going to affect the brain in a time for the infant when it’s literally moulding itself to the environment. So it’s also important to note, as you probably mention, all the time, the brain is plastic, the brain can constantly change. So it’s recognising that that’s really important. And then this kind of comes back down to what you were saying about the village. If you have support, if the mother or isn’t doing well mentally, and the father steps in, that can actually mitigate some of these negative effects. So having that support is not only important for the mother’s well being and happiness, and obviously the whoever she’s living with or her partner, but also for the child in a lasting way. So it just goes to show once again that reaching out for support and help is so important. If you feel you need it. I think it’s critical.


Sabina Brennan  34:29

Yeah, it is critical and


Sabina Brennan  34:30

 it isn’t. It’s not about failure. It’s about understanding that you need support to do whatever, or to get over a particular period. And anyway, I don’t believe that parenting is a singular job. You know, it’s a 24 hour a day sort of thing really in the initial stages. So it’s something that requires more than one person so you’re not incapable if you are alone and you’re struggling. No, it just means you really need more people to help.


Melissa Hogenboom  34:31



Sabina Brennan  34:46

It’s more fun with paper.


Sabina Brennan  34:56



Melissa Hogenboom  34:57

like I have so much more fun if I’ve got friends around in the afternoon. Even If my kids are acting up and shouting or screaming, it’s like, it’s easier to deal with it, you have this extra buffer and it ties into a lot of research, we know about what makes you happy social connections are literally how we evolved and are so important for our well being. And it’s the same when we’re parenting if we have supportive friends, family, people around us, that buffers us from this stress, it’s hugely beneficial.


Sabina Brennan  35:21

Absolutely. And you know, the thing is, you mentioned that the brain is plastic. So that  neuroplasticity just describes the brain’s ability to change with learning. And those beneficial changes around bonding, etc, that you talked about releases of oxytocin that help you to be a better parents, you know, that’s your brain adapting to the new situation and to learning. And also I think prioritising the bonding over some other functions, which I’ve come back to talk about in terms of the brain fog. But I think it’s also important to remember that as much as the brain can be adaptive, it can also be maladaptive. So this is, I think, where things like when chronic stress gets out of control, basically, what can happen is that a developing child or developing infant actually learns maladaptive ways to respond to stress, their stress response kicks off sooner than it should, or even doesn’t kick off when it should. So that’s as important, to kind of watch, out for and I think that’s where those things kick in. And obviously, if a pregnant woman is chronically stressed, and there’s cortisol and adrenaline circulating, they are going to impact on the baby. So talking again about what you refer to as mum brain and in fact, you actually say the myth of mum brain. And this is the one point I would argue if and I would say that it’s not a myth, brain fog very, definitely exists. I think that possibly, we hear it spoken about in a sort of a derogatory way, in a sense, and we do that ourselves, Oh, God, I’ve pregnancy brain or I’ve, you know, and this happens in other periods of life as well, not just that, but I think that perhaps, it’s talked about without actually acknowledging the other changes that happen


Melissa Hogenboom  37:04

Yeah, that’s exactly uh,


Sabina Brennan  37:05

You know, that the brain actually is focusing in another area. I think that and you do, of course, allude to this, you sort of point to all the various factors that contribute to brain fog, of course, so many of those are associated with pregnancy. So the disrupted sleep, the stress, in addition, you could have an iron deficiency, perhaps you’re not eating properly because or regularly, because of the infant, perhaps you’re not getting out to get the exercise that you used to get. Furthermore, you’re not actually most probably. And I think that’s the hardest thing about being at home minding children, in a way is that you’re not getting the adult mental stimulation. Now, every one of those factors that I have listed, all contribute to brain fog. So they are kind of come together really around motherhood. But then on top of that, you do have the hormonal changes. And we tend to think of oestrogen and testosterone as our sex hormones. But they’re involved in very many other of our activities. And you actually have a lot of oestrogen receptors, in the hippocampus, which is involved in learning and memory. So I think on top of that, and that the combination of those things can give rise to brain fog. So if you’re actually getting your sleep and eating healthily and exercising, you may have minimal impact from the hormonal issue. But however, unfortunately, we tend to have a a  chaotic kind of life and time. And we see that also like in PMT, you know, before you have your period, we often see signs of brain fog. But for me, certainly, that would manifest in my spatial navigation. So I would become more clumsy. And you know, and that’s a symptom of brain fog. But a lot of people won’t link to it. But I kind of write all about that, you know, in my book, and around pregnancy, as well as a whole chapter kind of on the influence of hormones on it.


Melissa Hogenboom  38:52

I think it’s more that the mom brain is used in a derogatory way. So obviously, there’s studies that show cognitive decline. But the cognitive decline that it’s being measured is not necessarily the brain regions that you’re using during motherhood. And so there’s other research that shows these these optimised areas in terms of empathy and emotional regulation. And so I think it’s not helpful that it’s, of course, it’s it’s important to understand that there’s times that, you know, memory might be a bit more vulnerable, but putting it as a light way of poking fun at pregnant women and mothers that they’ve become stupider. And that’s what my issue is with the term of mum brain


Sabina Brennan  39:32

Yeah, I use an umbrella term and I just referto brain fog because it affects so much more. And but actually, if you were to use a clinical term, you would use cognitive dysfunction. And I would use that rather than cognitive decline because the inference from cognitive decline we use that term with ageing, because it’s as if it’s progressive. However, with brain fog and with cognitive dysfunction, it is most generally temporary, and there’s lots of other factors that would feed into it, you know, it’s associated with various autoimmune disease, also associated with depression and anxiety, you know, so you kind of have multiple factors. And in addition, as you said, a lot of women take on the mental tasks, the planning the organisation, they’re all executive function skills, and they can really be disrupted. And that can add to a mental fatigue. And fatigue is very different to physical fatigue. And when you are mentally fatigued, you actually have a distorted perception of your own endurance levels. So you think you are less capable of doing some things. So I just think it helps people, if you can understand those things, you say, Oh, that’s what’s going on. Okay, right. I really do prioritise my sleep, I really do need to kind of eat regularly, you also speak about the pill. And I’d love you to kind of talk about that. I think a lot of people listening may be unaware that the pill has an impact on brain function,


Melissa Hogenboom  40:58

yeah, the pill changes many things in the brain. And it’s very subtle. And I’ve talked to friends who are on the pill, who understand this. And it’s important to know that, you know, for whatever reason, you’re on the pill, some people go on it, because it helps regulate their mood, according to a friend of mine. And so it’s a personal decision, right. But there’s studies to show that you’re attracted to different people, when you’re on the pill versus off the pill, the way you process emotions, and certain tasks are different for pill users and non pill users. And if you’re ovulating, you have as you alluded to fluctuations in your cycle times when you’re processing, is slightly different. And you describe slight brain fog before your menstrual cycle, when you’re in the pill, all those hormonal changes are evened out, they’re gone, you don’t get those natural fluctuations. And so you might process emotions differently, you might process certain stories differently. So it’s really important to understand that there are different processes that your brain goes through naturally. And when you’re on the pill, those are gone. And I thought it was interesting as when I was learning all about the pill in my undergraduate degree. But shortly after that, I went off the pill because it scared me.


Sabina Brennan  42:06



Melissa Hogenboom  42:07

And about half year later, I met my husband. And I like to think if I’d been on the pill would I have been as attracted to him. I mean, the results are small, they’re really, really small. But you know, even the way we smell our partners is affected when we’re on the pill versus off it.


Sabina Brennan  42:19

See, the thing is, I think people don’t really realise the influence that hormones have. So basically, your brain controls pretty much everything, it’s bi directional, your behaviour influences your brain and the chemical messages of your brain are neurotransmitters, a lot of people will have heard of things like dopamine and serotonin and all that. But then your hormones are the other chemical messengers. And the thing is, so while neurotransmitters are involved in the immediate actions, that you take hormones, their responsibility… you’ve  hormone receptors for lots of different hormones almost all over your body. And so the responsibility of hormones is to ensure that your entire body is on the same page about whatever it is. And so our hormones play a huge role in absolutely everything that we do. And you were talking about the pill. If you’re naturally cycling, when you ovulate, you find different people attractive than when you’re not ovulating. So your point is there, even as you know yourself as well, though your libido changes across your cycle. And I think sometimes we kind of lost touch with some of those things Whilst the pill and birth control is hugely liberating for women, I think it’s also incredibly important that people actually realise the influence that it is having on your brain and your body. And moving from one pill to another – and I’ve taken a lot of your time, so I’m conscious of it. But you have a chapter called Happy Baby, Happy Mother. When I read that chapter. I said, No, I want to switch that around ‘happy mother, happy baby’. Putting yourself first is not selfish. It’s sensible. It really is. And so flipping that around, but your book for people listening, it’s a combination. So there’s lots of science in it, but it’s told in a really, really accessible way, but also you tell your own story throughout it. So it’s a really enjoyable read, just in case people think because we’re just talking the science part. You know, this is interesting. It’s a really enjoyable read. But you actually talk about your own childhood in this chapter. And I think you said that your brother if I’m right, said he wished there was a pill that you could take so that you could stay children forever.


Melissa Hogenboom  44:24



Sabina Brennan  44:24

that said to me, I said, Oh, my God, you had must have just had a lovely childhood. I don’t think I could say that about my childhood.


Melissa Hogenboom  44:31

Yeah, we had a quite idyllic upbringing. We were like, We lived on this island called Texel off the north coast of Holland. You could cycle around in a day you were 10 minute walk from the beach. We’d go to the beach every day. And it’s that time where we could play every day and we were playing outside it was pre screen times obviously, often entertain each other. So we were quite content children. It wasn’t, obviously when we were young it was super stressful for our parents as well for similar reasons, but it It led me to think about how different cultural ways of bringing up children is because I grew up in the Netherlands and I know that it’s often been dubbed one of…. the country were the happiest children in the world. It always scores high on happiness, indexes. And so I wanted understand what it is specifically about the way families raised their children, and how that differs. And so I spoke to a few happiness researchers and they said, there’s this key emphasis on not achieving the top. So in the UK, and in the US specifically, it’s quite an individualistic culture, where being the top is the best, you know, parents buy toys that advance their children cognitively, when you know, as a neuroscientist, the whole world activates and stimulates your brain, you don’t need specific toys.


Sabina Brennan  45:47

And that applies to adults too. So buying brain training, brain training games, is really kind of a waste of money, you should just be out experiencing the world.


Melissa Hogenboom  45:56

Absolutely. And because it’s a cultural norm, where being average is accepted and fine. In fact, it’s seen as you know, faux pas to boast or like to talk about the best grades you get in that school, rather than saying, you know, you got an A or B, you say, I passed, and that’s congratulated, you don’t talk about all great, it’s a pass fail culture. Obviously, there are leanings towards a more individualistic style of intensive parenting there. But on the whole, there is less of that kind of competitive nature. And Dutch children sleep more than other children, Dutch parents sleep more,


Sabina Brennan  46:30

yes. And they’re happier than US children, and they’re easier to soothe. They smile more, they laugh more, they cuddle more. That was brand new information for me, you know, I wasn’t kind of aware, you know, and you have another chapter called the secret of success. And really it is that the Dutch have it, they have its sewn up. I mean, I remember when I was studying undergrad psychology and understanding different cultures, you know, and I really feel we really do need to teach anthropology in primary school. And, you know, let kids understand that the ethnocentric perspective that we have and broaden their horizons. But I remember kind of learning about Japanese cultures and their babies were quieter, and kind of cried less, but I hadn’t, I know, wasn’t aware about this thing in the Netherlands. And I love this idea. But given that you grew up in the Netherlands, and there’s this greater focus on average, but certainly reading your book, you would definitely come across as having perfectionist tendencies.


Melissa Hogenboom  47:27

I only lived there till I was six.


Sabina Brennan  47:29

Oh right….Your parents with you


Melissa Hogenboom  47:33

the culture


Sabina Brennan  47:33

Oh the culture changed, of course,


Melissa Hogenboom  47:35

The culture changed


Sabina Brennan  47:37

actually how did that fit and feel, was that very strange?


Melissa Hogenboom  47:40

Well, I was young enough that it was an exciting move. And you know, I learned English within a couple of months because the brain at that age, just absorbs language


Sabina Brennan  47:48

is plastic


Melissa Hogenboom  47:49

exactly. And then I went to quite, lets say a liberal hippyish school of… it’s called a Steiner Waldorf school where the emphasis is on play. And, again, it’s not academic successes isn’t emphasised, but then, you know, I guess I’ve just always had this natural ambition, I don’t know where it came from, could be cultural related, it could just be something myself. And it could also be the job I ended up in, right? I ended up in journalism, where everything is very competitive. And you have to constantly strive for achieving a certain measure of success and success in quote marks. Because otherwise, you might not get ahead. I think that kind of pressure also.


Sabina Brennan  48:29

But I think it’s entirely different, if that matches with inherent, the satisfaction that you feel. So if you have a natural curiosity for something, you know, it enhances learning, but you get intrinsic satisfaction out of it, as well as the external rewards. Does that make sense?


Melissa Hogenboom  48:46

Yeah, and maybe from your schooling where the focus is on play. There’s so many fascinating chapters in this. I mean, I really just touched the tip of the iceberg. You call one of the chapters techno?


Melissa Hogenboom  48:46

I think so. I think I understand the difference between success and happiness and ambition. But I also think like talking about perfectionism, I do have those influences of trying to do the best for my children. But I’ve also constantly got, like, my mother’s voice in my brain, telling me, you know, you don’t need to stimulate your children, they don’t need to stimulate activities, just take them outside, let them play, you don’t need to constantly play with them, you know, they need to learn to play by themselves that will help them and you later on, and it turns out research backs that up, the more you like, get too involved with their play, the more they lose the creative way of doing it themselves, and you’re actually interfering with their imagination in some way. Obviously, there’s a balance as with all these things, so I still think I have when it comes to parenting, I do still have that cultural influence, I’d say from my mother a lot in terms of the fact that I’m okay with essentially letting my children learn things for themselves and not getting too involved and not trying to encourage my daughter to start learning to read before she needs to and those sorts of things are still left over Luckily, from my Dutch upbringing


Melissa Hogenboom  50:00

technoference te


Sabina Brennan  50:02

and I thought there was just one interesting anecdote in terms of the white noise. Yeah. One discovery that you made.


Melissa Hogenboom  50:10

Yeah, I had one of those dream sheep things that pleased the baby’s heartrate. And it’s meant to … plays the baby that womb sound and it’s meant to help the baby sleep. And then we had white noise on our phones that we put beside our baby, our firstborn’s ear when she’d nap, because it instantly helped switch her off. And then I was at this conference, and I was speaking to this quite well known neuroscientist called Nina Krauss. And she studies like auditory processing, and music, music and learning language. I was interviewing her about something slightly unrelated. And she talked about how exhausting noise is in our life and I think a lot of us have recognised that now we’re working from home a lot of the time, we have less interference, like every time there’s noise in the background, right? A part of your brain is processing that noise. And I said, Oh, that makes me a bit concerned. What about white noise made? My first was then nine months old? I think she’s like, Oh, yeah, the white noise is completely terrible, you know, you’re essentially teaching your baby that noise is meaningless, because you’re assigning them this noise in their environment that isn’t giving them any meaning about the world. It’s just blank white noise. And as well as that she says that these apps are often too loud for their fragile ears. And I was like, Oh, no, that’s instantly something to feel guilty. Now.


Sabina Brennan  51:20

I know. I know. And that chapter on guilt guys. Yeah. It’ll resonate with so many people. And when I was reading some of those things, some of my old guilts came back from when mine were kids you know, I have to keep trying to say to myself over and over again, it’s one of those lines I trot out. But guilt serves no purpose. You either learn from the experience, and you don’t do it again. But the actual feelings of guilt, they have no function, but they have impact. And I think kind of letting them go. It’s a learning curve. Look, you know, the thing is, you’re very early in your journey on parenting. I let you know that no matter how perfect you are, and how hard you try, you will still screw your children up in some shape, make or form


Melissa Hogenboom  52:04

Oh great, yay


Sabina Brennan  52:05

But. That’s what creates humans, isn’t it?


Melissa Hogenboom  52:10

Your point is you can’t mould people into how you expect them to be right. I’ll tell you one, anecdote you’ll enjoy. So I was having a particularly stressful afternoon I was I think my husband was working or away for whatever reason I was trying to cook my like then one and a half year old was trying to touch everything, you know, at risk of burning himself. And he was like, he got every chair, comes and stands right next to me. And I was like, I’d shout at him to get away because it was dangerous for him. It was messing myself up and I was just feeling very stressed. Like they were they’re constantly in my ears and shouting. And so my then three and a half year old goes, Mommy, I know that you’re stressed right now, but you have to say sorry, like, parrots cause she knows when you say you scream. You say sorry after you scream or you shout when she was parroting what I told her before. Because when I lose my temper, sometimes I would say I’m really sorry, son. And mommy’s just a little bit stressed right now. Because when you scream, scream, it makes me stressed. So let’s try and not scream. So I try and explain to her what I’m doing. And then to hear that parroted back at me. I was like, oh no, what have I done?


Sabina Brennan  53:10

I know, I know. I know. I remember when we got our youngest. You know, they’re sitting in the chair and you could get this thing that suctioned done in front of them. That was a steering wheel of the car. And it had gears on it had a horn in it, whatever, you know, that you could be, you know, and he was only a tot of the obviously wasn’t even speaking properly. In the car. First journey. We’re both sitting there and vroom… your you know, he’s making the steering wheel noise and then he hits the horn and goes fucky ejit, fucky ejit


Melissa Hogenboom  53:38

Oh no


Sabina Brennan  53:40

Which was clearly what he thought you said when you beep the horn. Yes, they do parrot they learn an awful lot of stuff. You have to be very careful. I remember speaking to a teacher once in primary school, and he they said, Look, there’s no greater entertainment than what four and five year olds tell you about what goes on at home. And you know, they’re kind of full of it. Thank you so much, Melissa, this has just been fascinating talking to you, your book, The Motherhood Complex. The story of our changing lives is a fantastic read, go get yourself a copy. And I think it’s amazing that you’ve written a book, while you do have young children, you know, it’s challenging to kind of get that focus. But I firmly believe if you want something done, ask a busy woman is a phrase I heard years ago. And I think it’s very true


Melissa Hogenboom  54:26

True yeah


Sabina Brennan  54:26

you kind of make the time for it. So I just want to leave with you know, this podcast is about surviving and thriving in life. And this book is definitely going to be sort of very helpful. I mean, it really does kind of touch on surviving and thriving through motherhood. But in any sense, or in any way, is there any tips that you would like to share with the listeners about surviving and or thriving in life?


Melissa Hogenboom  54:48

I think to thrive as a parent, we have to learn to remember to put ourselves first and this is important for our own happiness and that for our children, if we’re neglect ourselves, What message does that give to our children? Right? If we don’t put ourselves first, it will continue the cycle and they will learn that that is what you do as a parent. Whereas, if you’re less happy in the process your children might be too. So put yourself first find what makes you tick and find a way to get some downtime in however way you can.


Sabina Brennan  55:19

I think that’s a fantastic tip. I totally agree with you on that. There’s like I said, Happy Mother’s make happy babies,


Sabina Brennan  55:26

you know, they really do. My name is Sabina Brennan, and you’ve been listening to Super Brain the podcast for everyone with a brain. Super Brain is a labour of love born of a desire to empower people to use their brain to thrive in life and attain their true potential. Please help me to reach as many people as possible by sharing this episode, or by simply liking or rating the show. Imagine if we could get to a million downloads by word of mouth alone. I believe it’s possible. I believe that great things happen when lots of people do little things. So you really can help to achieve this ambitious dream to get a million downloads. Oh, and don’t forget to subscribe to superbrain that helps too.  Visit For additional content, including images and videos related to this episode and a transcript of the show. Follow me on Instagram @sabinabrennan and on Twitter @Sabina_Brennan. I am grateful as always, to my exceptional editor Emily Burke, to my fascinating guests, and to my listeners. Thank you for tuning in.


Melissa Hogenboom  55:26



Super Brain Blog – Season 4 Episode 1

The Brain Detective with Dr Suzanne O’Sullivan

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  •  02:23 – How Dr Suzanne O’Sullivan’s recent book came about
  • 06:30  – Sweden’s Sleeping Beauties, young girls who lay in bed, eyes closed, for months 
  • 11:16 – The unconscious nature of psychosomatic illness
  • 15:21 – The validity of psychological illness
  • 20:13 – Fine line between control and blame
  • 21:06 – Granny in Ghana and cultural subtleties
  • 28:35 – The language of stress
  • 30:57 – Psychosomatic illness is real – it is not malingering
  • 33:35 – The problem of the mind
  • 38:39 – The pros and cons of diagnostic labels
  • 41:39 – Sienna and psychosomatic seizures
  • 49:11 – Pejorative labels reserved for females – the gender divide
  • 58:45 – The problem with research
  • 01:01 – Misleading and elevated claims – supplements and CBD
  • 01:04 – How labels can make you more disabled
  • 01:07 – Teen suicide and distress expression
  • 01:10 – Psychosomatic illness – learning gone wrong
  • 01:13 – Dr Suzanne O’Sullivan’s tip for surviving and thriving in life



Click Image for links to Suzanne’s books


Guest Bio

Born in Dublin Dr Suzanne O’Sullivan qualified in medicine in 1991 from Trinity College Dublin. She trained in both neurology and clinical neurophysiology and currently works at The National Hospital for Neurology and The Epilepsy Society since 2011.

Her specialists interests are in epilepsy and in improving services for people who suffer with functional neurological disorders. Her first book ‘It’s all in your head, true stories of imaginary illness’ won the Wellcome Book Prize in 2016. The book also won the Royal Society of Biology General Book Prize. Her second book ‘Brainstorm, detective stories from the world of neurology’ uses the manifestations of epilepsy to explain the workings of the human brain. 

In her third book, ‘The Sleeping Beauties and other stories of mystery illness’ Suzanne travels the world to visit communities that have been subject to outbreaks of mystery illness that both doctors and scientists have struggled to explain within the boundaries of medical science.

Over to You

Have you every experienced unexplained illness?
How did you feel when you were told that your symptoms are psychosomatic, ‘all in your head’ or ‘just stress’?

I’ve certainly had this experience and I know it’s made me feel like I’m going mad or imagining things. It’s made me very wary of going to the doctor for fear they think I am a hypochondriac. I also feel like I have to say I work for myself so that they know I’m not looking to pull a sickie.

I’d love to chat with you about the episode, please do share your thoughts, insights or questions in the comments below. 

Tune into Thursday’s booster episode where I’ll be taking a deeper dive into psychosomatic illness and functional neurological disorders.

Don’t forget to share the episode on your social media.


Dr Sabina Brennan 0:01
My name is Sabina Brennan, and you are listening to Super Brain the podcast for everyone with a brain. My favourite books, films and TV shows are mysteries, detective stories and psychological thrillers. As a psychologist I’ve learned not let the psychological inaccuracies that sometimes appear in these books spoil my fiction fun. But I had to do no such thing with Susanna Sullivan’s new book the sleeping beauties. Although Suzanne writes nonfiction, her books are equally if not more fascinating and thrilling than any fiction book I’ve ever read. Suzanne is a detective of sorts, who unravels real life mysteries by delving deep into the brain and the human psyche. Suzanne is a neurologist who drew on her 20 year career seeing 1000s of patients to write her first two books. Her first book, It’s all in your Head, won the Wellcome Prize in 2016. Her second book brainstorm explores the intricacies of the human brain through epilepsy and other seizures. Suzanne has a rare gift for insightful storytelling which makes her third book The Sleeping Beauties, a wonderful journey of discovery, both physically and metaphorically, as she explores some incredible, mysterious, psychosomatic illnesses, and mass hysteria, from children in Sweden who fall asleep for years, high school students in New York with contagious seizures, and several embassy officials with headache and memory loss following assault by non existent Sonic weapons. The stories are absolutely fascinating. But what sets this book apart is the ease with which Suzanne lets the reader inside her own brain as she solves these mysteries, and wrestles with her own prejudices, and the failings of her chosen profession.

Dr Sabina Brennan 2:02
So Suzanne O’Sullivan, I am so delighted and excited to have the opportunity to speak with you. Usually, with my guests, when they’ve written a book, I like to leave reading the book as close as possible to the recording so that it’s fresh in my head. The book is called The Sleeping Beauties.

Dr Suzanne O’Sullivan 2:22

Dr Sabina Brennan 2:23
And it’s very aptly named. And it is a fantastic journey, through the telling of various stories of unusual phenomenon that have occurred, it is the story in a way of the human condition of how society influences the human condition and the role in a way that Western medicine and other cultural aspects influence our behaviour in certain times and in certain contexts. I find it absolutely fascinating. But first, what I would really like if you could just tell us a bit about yourself and how you ended up in the career you’re in. And I don’t mean that that sounds like a bad way away ended up in this career, but how you came to be where you are? And actually really what drove you to write this book?

Dr Suzanne O’Sullivan 3:15
Yeah. So just my own background. Well I’m from Dublin, and I studied medicine in Trinity, and I am now a neurologist at the National Hospital of Neurology in the UK. Now, how did I end up there is .. You know, it wasn’t… I think a lot of people like to think that doctors, you know, have a vocation and that they want to save people and things like that. But you know, when you’re 16 and you’re choosing your university course, I think a lot of us don’t know, what we want to do. So I would say it was very much accidental that I ended up being a doctor because I didn’t have a clear vocation. I’m obviously very pleased that that’s how things worked out for me, because I think medicine’s an amazing career, it offer something for everyone. If you like people, if you don’t like people, if you like stories, or, or if you like small scientific things, then you will find a place in it. What I actually always wanted to be when I was in school was a writer actually. But I do recall that my mother told me that, you know, writing was something you did after you had a proper job. You know but that was, after all the 1980s when people worried about paying mortgages and buying houses, which I suppose they do now, but particularly so then. I spent many, many years as a doctor before I revisited my love of writing, and decided it was time to write a book. And being a doctor. I’m hearing stories all the time. So the obvious place to start was to write about my own patients. So a few years ago, I started writing about my experience of being a doctor and the things my patient’s told me and the things I learned from them. And I loved it. It just opened a whole new world up to me. And I’m now on my third book, which is The Sleeping Beauties, which began with a very…. I’m really fascinated by psychosomatic conditions, I’m really fascinated by how we kind of ignore them and dismiss them and make mistakes about them and how misunderstood they are. And I read this amazing story on a BBC website about these children in Sweden who had fallen asleep into this condition called resignation syndrome, where they fell asleep for months, and some of them even for years at a time. And all of their tests were normal. And their brain scan said they’re not asleep, they’re awake. So this was clearly a psychosomatic condition because it couldn’t be explained by disease. And as a story, the more I learned about the story, the more I I just saw examples of what happens to my patients is how hard it is for people to admit that psychological suffering leads to physical suffering. Because as I read about the story, I discovered all these children had tragic backgrounds. They all were from asylum seeking families, what was happening to them a condition called resignation syndrome was intimately linked to the risk of being deported from Sweden where they all lived. And I thought, Well, here we are, again, we’re giving mystery names, and medical names or medicalising social suffering. And I thought, well, that’s something I need to learn more about. And so The Sleeping Beauties was born.

Dr Sabina Brennan 6:13
Yeah, and it’s fantastic. absolutely fascinating. It’s something that interests me too These girls, these young girls in Sweden, they were in that awful position of being threatened with being sent back

Dr Suzanne O’Sullivan 6:26

Dr Sabina Brennan 6:27
to terrible situations.

Dr Suzanne O’Sullivan 6:30
What happens is that, you know, the, the two girls I met, originated from Syria, and were asylum seekers in Sweden. And they lived, they arrived in Sweden when they were sort of four or five years old. So that, you know, they’re the li… when I met them, you know, was five or six years after that, the lives they knew in Sweden were the only lives that they knew. And during the time that they’ve been in Sweden, their families were fighting for the right to stay. And then suddenly, at the age of sort of 10, or 11, they’re faced with the prospect of being deported. And they became overwhelmed by this thing that’s called apathy, where they just gradually withdrew from normal life. You know, started out by not eating that much, not talking so much, not communicating, until they get to the point where they go to bed, lie down, close their eyes, and don’t open them again. So I met these two little girls, one of whom, the 10 year old, was, had been in bed for a year and a half, without moving, talking, interacting. She was kept alive with a feeding tube, her mum did physiotherapy. And her sister who was 11 had been like this for six months. And I suppose, So what shocked me, I went to visit these girls with the expectation of being shocked by how sick they were, by the fact that they were being cared for at home, which speaks to our neglect of psychological conditions and speaks to our neglect of people like who are forced immigrants, or asylum seekers, I don’t think we’d allow our own children to lie at home for a year and a half without active medical care. But actually, when I got to Sweden, something shocked me that I wasn’t expecting, which was that everybody was talking about what brain scans they should do on these children to explain their problem. You know, what they wanted me as a neurologist to advise them on what chemicals in the brain were causing them develop resignation syndrome? And I just felt like, surely everyone can see this as a social problem. You know, why did they want me to do a brain scan? You know, everyone should be arguing about the social circumstances that have come together to create this illness? And that was quite shocking to me, because it reminded me for my own patients, well, why would they express their distress about psychological or social issues, if nobody really cares about that aspect of things, or if they’re less sympathy, so it makes sense to express your distress through physical symptoms, because people have more sympathy for that. That’s what was happening with these children, they could only express their distress in the most effective way, which was through physical symptoms. And even then people want to cure them with brain scans. So that was really where this whole sort of idea of trying to understand the social kind of political cultural things that influence the way we express distress and how we interpret our bodily changes and how they shaped what we call illness and what we don’t call illness came about, I’ve now forgotten what question you asked me because I tend to

Dr Sabina Brennan 9:19
It doesn’t matter because your answer is fascinating really. You know, and I think you articulated so well, that you know, what’s screamingly obvious to you. Because clearly you are a doctor that has the blinkers off and is looking at the whole picture. And I think you’ll agree not all doctors do that. By definition. When you’re trained as a doctor, you’re trained to specialise. And unfortunately that specialisation can make it difficult for you to see the wood for the trees. And so your focus on a symptom, obviously looking for a cause but looking for the type of cause that you’re trained to look for. So they expected appealing to you, you know, our children are behaving “abnormally” and I’m waving those fingers, listeners to indicate I’m saying that in inverted commas. They are behaving abnormally in an…. if everything were normal, you know, if their lives were perfectly normal. But they’re behaving in a context, and it’s the context, that is key. And what I love about the book I’m passionate about, you know, the relationship between the brain and behaviour and the lack of understanding that people have of how the brain works, and how it is a dynamic organ that influences our behaviour, but it’s also influenced by our behaviour. And it is looking for patterns. And it is looking for cause and effect, and it’s looking for solutions. And it does that simply through trial and error. And so if those kids try speaking about their psychological issue, and it gets no response, and as we often do with kids will say, Oh, don’t be silly, don’t worry about that this is an adult thing, then, you know, if they try withdrawing, and saying nothing, perhaps then attention…. actually, people start to pay attention. Of course, this is all unconscious. This is not happening in a conscious way. They’re thinking part of the brain actually, isn’t doing this work. You have two parts of the brain and very important parts of the brain that are unconscious and unthinking. But they are absolutely trying to make sense and respond.

Dr Suzanne O’Sullivan 11:16
Yeah, totally. I mean, that’s… it’s always a risk, isn’t it? The minute you start saying, well, this is a more effective way I mean, I said, this is a more effective way of asking for help it sounds to people, as if there’s something deliberate in this but of course, the unconscious part of it is most important. But just going back to a point you made a moment ago about doctors being so specialised Yeah, you know, that’s the problem is I think, general practitioners are actually pretty good at this, I think general practitioners get to know their patients and have more of a sense of the whole picture. But neurologists like myself, you know, someone can come to me with a headache, and I’m well within my rights as a highly specialised doctor, to just prove that they don’t have a brain tumour or a serious brain disease, and then just tell them, well, you don’t have any of the things that I deal with. And now you’re free to go, yeah, it’s very, very easy for us to sort of just focus on one tiny little bit of the body, and rule out our little thing, and then discharge people. And that’s these people fall between stools, because they can’t find anyone who can be responsible for their full care. But then coming to your second point about the sort of unconscious expectations, I mean, what’s very likely happening in these children is that, you know, cultural models of illness, so what we call illness are sort of programmed into our brains from childhood, you know, this happens to your body, it means this, and these sort of things happening to body are acceptable, and these sort of things happening to your body are not acceptable. So some diseases, obviously, you know, objective and nothing to do with anyone’s opinion, if you if you have a particular type of cancer, or diabetes, whether you believe you have it or you don’t, it will make itself known. But there’s also a whole range of illnesses that only exist because we say they’re illnesses. And if we say that a certain level of sadness is depression, that becomes an illness. But another certain level of sadness is not depression, it’s not an illness. And all of that is programmed in our brain. So I grew up with the lexicon of this change in my body is a disease and that change isn’t. And that’s what will have happened to these children. They also have expectations of what happens when you face deportation, you know, and your nervous system overwhelms you, you know, if your belief is that deportation can lead to resignation syndrome, then your body may fulfil that expectation. And it does. So by you know, if you’re in a stressful situation, your physiological changes will occur, your heartbeats faster, your breathing changes, your skin changes, and that happens to all of us. And irrespective of the cause of the stress, we all get those same physical changes. But then what happens is if you happen to be someone who is aware of a condition called resignation syndrome, and you feel those first changes, it’s inevitable that you’ll think oh, well, I think that this first change could be the start of this. And then you start looking for the other symptoms that go with that diagnosis of your expectations. And the more you search for symptoms, and look to see how your body will behave in a certain circumstance, the more that that can actually be played out. And obviously also paying attention to your body will heighten those physiological changes that started the whole thing in the first place. So it’s a sort of a expectation that has inadvertently kind of played out your nervous system is overwhelmed by your expectations. And, you know, that happens to any of us. I mean, we’ve all just had hopefully, vaccinations for COVID. And, you know, the minute you get a vaccination, I always think of it like when I actually although I’m a doctor, and I’m quite happy to inflict pain, I don’t particularly like having inflicted so when I see that needle coming to inject me, I’m already anticipating the pain. Yes, you know, and we’ve all had that. experience where you start feeling the pain before they’ve even put the needle into your arm. You know, there’s so much you mentioned, the sort of unconscious processes, I think we give our brains, we give ourselves too much credit, there’s much more going on at an unconscious level than at a conscious level. And we think we’re completely in control of everything.

Dr Sabina Brennan 15:18

Dr Suzanne O’Sullivan 15:18
we’re not and we need to accept that.

Dr Sabina Brennan 15:21
I say that all the time. And I tried to make it an empowering way. You know, we, we whoever we are, which is really just….. Well I believe we are our brains. It’s just whatever our brain, the information our brain has taken from various sources, some from within some from society, some from culture, some silly things that people said to us donkey’s years ago, and your brain just aggregates all of that information. And that’s who you think you are, you know, that is your concept. And I think that’s empowering, because you can change those bits of information, and you can become something else. But I also think that we consciously as you just said, we give ourselves our sense of self, too much credit and too much work in a way. And I think in there is a solution to some of these issues around stress and coping is that we don’t give our brain the freedom to find the solutions to figure things out to make life easier for us. Because our brain can do that, because it has access to lots of information from our lived life experience, from books, we’ve read from everything your brain has access to that. Your, you know, unconscious parts of your brain or that access can be reached while you’re asleep. And actually, if we leave some of those stresses, and some of those issues with our brain a solution can, you know, emerge. But I think what is really interesting is, what your book really illustrates very, very well, is that there’s a value system, certainly in Western society that suggests that physical illnesses are somehow more valid than and I’m loathe to use the word psychological illnesses, because I don’t believe that any illnesses is one thing. It’s the result of a confluence of multiple factors and effects. You know, I mean, we have evolutionary processes, we have genetic influences on genetics aren’t determined, and you know, because genes can be switched on and switched off by certain environmental factors, we have our upbringing, we have, you know, our sense of who we are, we have so many factors come into every equation in terms of how we might interpret a signal from our body, there’s regular signals that a lot of people have forgotten to listen to, I frequently talk about loneliness as a signal, just the same as hunger is a signal to eat, loneliness is a signal to get connected, because we need connection as social creatures, but for some reason, we’ve placed a value judgement on loneliness, and said, Oh, that’s not something that people actually should experience. But it is something that we just experience, I mean, every single emotion we experience is valid, you know, you have a thinking brain then to establish whether in this situation, this emotion is appropriate or not. And that appropriateness is determined by lots of factors, social factors, cultural factors, etc. but certain societies, and I can speak mainly about Western society, we have decided that some emotions are bad, and some are good, and some feelings are bad, and some are good. So loneliness is somehow a bad negative feeling. Anger is a bad feeling, no it’s not anger is a feeling that can motivate you to action, if something needs to be changed, if it’s not dealt with, it may come out in appropriately. And that’s where it becomes problematic. But there’s nothing wrong with that feeling. In and of itself,

Dr Suzanne O’Sullivan 18:35
I feel a lot of people like to pathologize those things as well. So just you know, that being a certain amount of anger or sadness has to be an illness or a disease that needs to be treated by a doctor. And but actually other cultures, I think Western medicine has quite a feeling of superiority on this kind of subject. We think we write great journal pieces, and we do brain scans on people and therefore our way is more scientific. And but actually, you know, other cultures often conceptualise disorders, like the problems you’re talking about, like anger, or loneliness, or sadness, as situational rather than being about a personal psychological thing. And you know, that may very well be a much more realistic or a more better way regarding it, it’s less personal, and it gives you an opportunity for change. Whereas I feel that, you know, I hear people now saying to me, oh, you know, my serotonin levels are low or you know, so it’s all got to be located in something that’s nothing to do with you or your life or your decisions or the pressure you put on yourself. it’s to do with your neurotransmitters and your hormones.

Dr Sabina Brennan 19:38
But I think that approach though, shows a lack of understanding of the brain so people get a little bit of knowledge. I’m all for it. You know, My dad always said a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing. I’m all for having lots of knowledge. And that’s where the danger comes when people talk about serotonin levels, and they’re absolutely right. They influence mood, but they’re not something that happen in a vacuum of your brain. As you know, it doesn’t just happen that your serotonin levels are low or your serotonin levels are high, you have control over that you can go take a run, and it will boost your serotonin levels, you can smile and it can boost your serotonin levels.

Dr Suzanne O’Sullivan 20:13
People sort of like to talk, you know, there’s a bit of a problem between the idea of having kind of control and being blamed. Yes, if you talk too much about a person’s life or their life choices, as a doctor to a patient that can be perceived as blaming someone’s life choices for the situation in which they find themselves. Whereas I personally find those conversations useful because if my life choices are responsible for how I’m feeling, then I can change.

Dr Sabina Brennan 20:41
Yes, like, Yes,

Dr Suzanne O’Sullivan 20:42
I think it’s about control. But I understand that some people think it’s about blaming, but you know, you’ve got certain things you can change in your life. And, you know, it’s, it’s helpful if rather than focusing on neurotransmitters, you focus on the things that you actually have within your grasp to change.

Dr Sabina Brennan 20:58
I just want to jump into one of the stories. And I, you know, it’d be nice to share a couple of the other stories. The one that I want to touch on is the girls in the boarding school.

Dr Suzanne O’Sullivan 21:06
Yeah, so this is an incredible story that was told to me by an anthropologist so this anthropologist went to work in Ghana, where they had set up a boarding school system for children who lived in really remote areas. So there are some places in Ghana where it’s just so remote, that they can’t really educate everyone equally. So for a long time, girls weren’t getting the same level of education as boys. So they set up boarding schools, so the girls could stay until school until the end, which obviously is nothing but a positive change on the surface. And the anthropologist went to study the effect of the educational system on the community. But she hadn’t been in the school very long, when children, girls in particular started disappearing from her class. Now the first time it happened, she was told by the classmates, that granny had come for the girl. And she didn’t really sort of understand what was happening, but was told by teachers if the girl had fallen ill and family had come and taken her back to their village. That was all fine when it was one girl but then girl after girl started disappearing from the class. And this sort of “granny took her” started taking on a kind of an ominous quality because it was repeatedly said, the anthropologist thought in the first instance, that this was going to be something like malaria or a tropical illness. But as the community got to know her a little bit better, they revealed that these girls were having seizures. And what was happening at nighttime in the dormitories is that one girl would have a seizure, and then the seizures would spread through the dormitory really quickly. And that the community attributed this illness to a spirit called Granny. Granny was not a kind of kindly old matriarch of the family, granny was a spirit that the community believed lived in the mountains that came to infect the girls causing them to have seizures. And the only way that they could be cured would be if they were taken back to their villages to be removed from the influence of granny. And that was the cure. Now I think most of us sort of if you live in Ireland, if you live in England, you hear a story about spirits coming down from mountains to, you know, all sounds like very full of superstition. And it all sounds like something which is actually very unlike anything that happened to us, I would have to say that I see young women in particular, but young people in general with seizures like this all the time, seizures that have a psychological cause. We just don’t employ a sort of explanations like Granny, we employ explanations like viruses and toxins, we have our own set of explanations. Now, when I encountered that story, first I had all the things that are prejudices that all Western medical people had. And in fact, the townspeople who were sort of torn between traditional forms of medicine, and Western medicine had gone through the full range of medical tests that we would go through. And in fact, the community had even called in a psychologist to diagnose what was happening to the girls, and she diagnosed mass hysteria. And that really caused absolute ructions in the town. Because as you can imagine, that’s perceived to be a pejorative diagnosis. And it really just alienated the young women from the psychologist and the medical community, and really just reinforced the sickness rather than helping. But what I learned when I then listened to the anthropologist story more was how pejorative the whole reduction of this disorder to being one of ‘the girls didn’t want to be in school, they were stressed, they had seizures, so they should go home’. And that was the cause of the mass hysteria. And that was a formulation that we use to explain that disorder. But actually, when you listen to the story, much more completely, it was a much more subtle thing going on. And that’s why listening to patients and understanding the subtleties is so important. Because if you just say, you’re stressed, that’s why this happening to you. People don’t relate to that explanation. So first of all, these young women came from a very different social structure to ours. So traditionally, in their communities, women stay at home. They don’t learn the way we learn. So we learn By reading books and going to classes and hearing lectures, they learn by embodied learning. So they learn by proximity. So to give an example, if you’re learning to cook through embodied learning, you’re not given a recipe, and you’re not given instructions of how much of stuff to put in, you basically share the space with somebody, and you learn by participating and being with somebody. Traditionally, within these families, men went away, and were the community’s sort of link to the outside world. Women stayed within the village, looked after the village learned through embodied learning. And that was their sort of traditional role. By taking these young women and putting them into the boarding school and expecting them to learn in this type of didactic way, they have been removed from everything that was normal to them. Family connections were made through proximity, not through blood. So the person you live with is your family, not the person who’s your kin by blood. So their family structure had been broken up, their systems of learning had been broken up, their social structure had been broken up, and they were being subjected to learning which neither suited their type of learning, nor would ever be of any use to them in the future. What’s more, they had a much more sort of holistic view of health, they don’t believe that illness is something that kind of comes from within, they think it comes from the outside. So be it from a spirit causing you to get sick or something in the environment causing you to get sick. So it was very natural for them not to look for psychological causes, but to look for things outside themselves that would explain what was happening to them. So really, what this sort of the sickness caused by granny was, it was a way of solving a social problem that made sense to that community. So that when the psychologist came in and just said, well, they’re stressed, it’s hysterical. And you know, this is a psychological problem, it made no sense to this community at all because they did not think about health in that way. And it didn’t take into account in any way, their traditional ways of living their lives. And I realised that for my patients, you know, because this is a doctor’s training, I would often reduce things to psychological or stress, you know, and when you lose the nuance in a story, of course, you will end up with a lot of patients who think you’re not listening to them, because you haven’t understood what they’re trying to tell you. Of course, as a psychologist, you know, you get more of a chance to hear the full range of a person’s story. But as a medical doctor, you tend to hear symptoms, and you lose all of the rest of the story. But it was lovely for me to go around lots of different communities, and understand how much these sort of intricacies of their lives and the nuance in their stories mattered to what was happening to them.

Dr Sabina Brennan 27:38
Yeah, and essentially, it’s that thing as well, that, and I hear it a lot from people, when we’re talking about brain fog, you know, those kinds of symptoms, and they go to the doctor, and they’re concerned, because it’s functional, and it’s actually preventing them from carrying out their jobs, and it’s interfering with their relationships, etc. And they feel that they’re not heard by the doctor, or, and then not being heard. Maybe that, you know, they say, look, it’s likely to be stress. Now, actually, the doctor could be right. You know, it could be stress, but when it’s that general term, and people again tend to think of stress as this sort of ephemeral thing, or, you know, and also something external, but you know, psychological stress, will, I feel I almost want to apologise for saying psychological stress, because people then some, I think that that’s not real, but it’s very real.

Dr Suzanne O’Sullivan 28:24
It is a lot to do with language.

Dr Sabina Brennan 28:25
Oh, a huge

Dr Suzanne O’Sullivan 28:27
Yeah, I mean, stress isn’t wrong in these instances. But it just what people understand by stress is just so kind of singular and so simple.

Dr Sabina Brennan 28:35
Yeah, I think the problem is, again, it’s language because stress, unfortunately, is used to describe the thing that stresses us, it’s used to describe the physiological response to that threat. So I tend to try and, you know, say maybe that’s the stressor or the threat, if your physiological response, but you also have your psychological stress response, which kicks off the physiological one, whether there is an objective stressor or not. And that’s irrelevant. The fact of the matter is the physiological response is kicked off. And that can have a cascade of events that actually can ultimately manifest physical symptoms. Because if your immune system is lowered by chronic stress, you’re going to catch every bug that’s going or whatever. That’s another thing that your book really touches on, is the language of particular disciplines, medicine, etc. They’re often taken to be real. And essentially, really, they’re just set up as means to efficiently and effectively communicate a set of symptoms or something like that, so that medical professionals can talk to each other in a form of shorthand, but it doesn’t mean that there’s something concrete there, and I think that’s problematic.

Dr Suzanne O’Sullivan 29:40
I see people who have seizures caused by dissociation, and it all sounds very sort of something that happens to other people and, but all of these sort of things are just the normal. And I think it’s helpful to say this to patients since you know, you said that sometimes it’s all too much to cope with. And yes, I get that and we all dissociate. We all have moments when the mind just kind of wanders off, you can take in a bit of information. So in a funny way, these are our protective mechanisms that basically have gone awry. And they’re all physiological things that happened to all of us. But I wish we didn’t have to, you’ve apologised for the word psychological about three times during this conversation

Dr Sabina Brennan 30:17
Well I didn’t apologise. I said, I feel like I know that I will never apologise. But it’s just, I suppose, because in the context of what we’re discussing, that’s what we talk about over and over again, in the book

Dr Suzanne O’Sullivan 30:28

Dr Sabina Brennan 30:28
it’s that sometimes it’s like, you know, it comes from the doctors, too, that somehow psychosomatic is made up. And you’ve said that repeatedly over the various different groups of people who experienced these phenomenon, where when they were told it was psychosomatic, They said, “I couldn’t act, that”… “why would they act that?”…” Why would they act being asleep for a year and a half?” No, they’re not acting. This is not conscious behaviour, but it’s psychological behaviour. Soma – influencing the body.

Dr Suzanne O’Sullivan 30:57
Yeah, I mean, that’s the thing, you know, we really aren’t. Yeah, we haven’t touched the surface – there are interested positions. But then there’s a whole bunch of other people who the minute you say psychosomatic, they just Yes, they equated with malingering.

Dr Sabina Brennan 31:11

Dr Suzanne O’Sullivan 31:11
they’ll really struggling to understand the difference between malingering, they also struggle to understand the sort of…. these things feel impossible to people. And it feels impossible that something, you know, that’s purely part of your cognitive psychological mechanisms could stop you walking. But I just say to people, well, you know, you imagine, if I asked you to walk a straight line on the ground, you would have no difficulty doing it, if I asked you to walk exactly the same straight line on top of a very high wall, the entire automatic nature of walking would be disrupted. And all I did was, you know, change your position. So it’s, you really have to just think differently about your body for a moment, and it changes what you do. And any, anyone who plays sports has said this, you know, you try to change something about the way you kick a ball or kick something or hit something with a racket, and the entire automatic motor system becomes an automatic, and you can lose the ability to do something used to be able to do very easily. So I don’t know why people find it so hard to believe these things are possible, because I find that the tiniest change in something I do will have big physical effects, and people just need to recognise it in themselves to appreciate how real it is

Dr Sabina Brennan 32:22
Well, I do think it’s fundamentally I say this over and over again. But like, I mean, you know, people are not educated about how their brain works, they just aren’t people don’t know how their brain works. And because your brain is generally so brilliant, you don’t need to think about it. And it’s only when it begins to malfunction for various reasons. And lots of those reasons that cause malfunctioning of a brain are not sinister, you know, a couple of nights without sleep, will cause malfunction, you know, chronic stress, a poor diet, or lack of, you know, even omega three in your diet, or a B 12 deficiency, you know, so many things will actually cause your brain to malfunction in a way that can be quite scary. And I really think we do need sort of, to, I suppose that’s what I’m passionate about. We need to educate people about the brain. And you refer on and off in the book about the mind. And I suppose in a way, you’re saying similar to me, you know, that how unhelpful it can be. I find it so unhelpful, that I just don’t use it at all. Because I think it’s at the root of the problem, because somehow it’s ephemeral. Whereas I kind of feel if you just talk about the brain and behaviour, we can link them, and you have control with that. But we have centuries of language and you talk about the dualism that occurs,

Dr Suzanne O’Sullivan 33:35
the conversation is always so problematic, isn’t it? Because the minute you talk about the mind, yeah, you are into Descartes. And so yeah, a spiritual mind flitting away from body and things like that. Language is just so limiting for this subject. And it’s quite hard to be understood. I think that I have a slight problem with in neurology, we’re really moving towards talking about everything terms of brains and connections between different parts of your brains and neurotransmitters and scan results. And I know that that sort of moves you away from what you’re expressing concern about, which is Yeah, this sort of what what is the mind is weird, sort of hard to define thing. But I worry that neurology in particular is desperate to cleanse itself of all things psychological. So it’s talking about psychological things, but only in terms of which brain bits activation, which brain bits light up on a scan, when you feel a certain emotion or which neurotransmitter creates certain emotion. And, you know, that’s great in one way because it sort of allows people to understand this is a real biological thing that’s happening. You know, there’s a real biological thing happening in your brain. Every single time you feel something or something happens to your or you’re thinking about chocolate, it doesn’t matter what, but I worry that we are cleansing the humanity out of the discussion that were by always talking about focusing on the brain and trying to sort of avoid talking about the psychosocial aspect of But I think it can go too far. And that’s back to what I was saying earlier, which is then you end up everything being an independent thing happening inside your head that’s outside of your control, whereas the psychosocial aspect of things potentially are within your control. So I like to keep this sort of concept of the mind in the discussion, but it’s very hard to talk about because you’re constantly have to qualify and explain what you mean.

Dr Sabina Brennan 35:25
So I don’t, I’m fascinated by the brain, but I don’t put a full stop there, you see, I’m fascinated by the relationship between the brain and behaviour. So I will always have brain and behaviour and behaviour occurs in a social cultural context. And it is influenced both ways. So for me when I talk about brain and behaviour, actually, if you understand that, you know, obviously eating is a behaviour, walking is a behaviour, everything that we do is a behaviour including thinking, then I think, if you refer to thinking as a behaviour, then that actually makes it easier not to have to invoke the concept of the mind, I think it’s that people forget that thinking is a behaviour and it’s a behaviour that can be changed. And it’s a behaviour that sometimes it’s unconscious, you know, things come in, but you have conscious control over it. So you can change that behaviour, just the same as you can unconsciously pick up something to eat. But actually, you can say, Well, actually, no, that’s not good for me to eat, I can change and work on changing that behaviour. So I think that kind of helps. But it’s interesting. And it’s fascinating. And I think another thing that’s really important and really emerges, I’m also jealous of all the travelling you did,

Dr Suzanne O’Sullivan 36:37
I want to do another book that involves travelling

Dr Suzanne O’Sullivan 36:40
Can I come with you? can we do we do a neurologist and a psychologist?

Dr Suzanne O’Sullivan 36:45
I highly recommend going to Kazachstan, or I mean, because I got to travel to places with an interpreter,

Dr Sabina Brennan 36:51

Dr Suzanne O’Sullivan 36:51
who was a local person. So you can imagine the view of place you got, which is so wildly different than you’d ever get as a tourist. Yeah.

Dr Sabina Brennan 36:57
And you know, that’s what I want to say to people about reading this book. It is like life, it is enjoyable from multiple levels. And that’s why this book, I really, highly recommend it because it has that you know, you’re going on a cultural journey, and you’re travelling with you, you’re learning with you, you’re you’re writing you really, really, really do have a real talent for writing because you know, you don’t get in the way of yourself, you take us there with you, which is really nice. And on top of that, then you have that metacognition, I suppose, where you’re analysing not only the situation that you’re observing, you’re analysing it with the knowledge of a neurologist who’s stepping back and actually being critical of your own discipline and observing it from multiple angles. And then you’re actually analysing your own behaviour and saying, oh, gosh, well, I thought this first and that. So it’s an incredibly enjoyable read, I certainly could talk to you for multiple episodes, but so many things. And I’m trying to kind of hop on and touch on a few bits of the things that really it raises, because I think the book raises very important issues. And I really think it should be recommended reading for doctors. And for medical students. I really do, too. So what you touch on you talk about the diagnostic manual, which has gone through multiple iterations and additions. And you know, folks, this is what psychiatrists and psychologists kind of refer to, and you know, it has the criteria for when you might be diagnosed with depression or diagnosed with, you know, it will be the thing that says….. must be existence for at least six months, or whatever. It’s very categorically based. And we all know that most certainly when it comes to mental health issues are dimensional, and context dependent, it’s very appropriate to feel depressed if you become unemployed. But that doesn’t mean you have to be depressed across your entire life, you can be depressed about that bit and still find joy. But because it’s categorical, what can happen is it can force people to believe that they must act depressed across all of their life and actually perpetuate symptoms.

Dr Suzanne O’Sullivan 38:59
The minute you’re labelled with something, I mean, obviously there you know, it’s important that people understand that, you know, there are types of depression, the features of which you know, severe depression are quite stable and are less necessarily sort of, you know, when I talk about the variability of different presentations of depression, it’s usually around the milder groups.

Dr Sabina Brennan 39:18

Dr Suzanne O’Sullivan 39:18
where are the controversy lies, but the minute your sadness is labelled as mild depression has that effect that you say, which is you start kind of acting out your expectations of what it means to be depressed, unconsciously,

Dr Sabina Brennan 39:30
Unconsciously, its really important to say that it is unconsciously perhaps if we say, and this is where language I suppose is important. Perhaps if we say you begin behaving in a more depressed fashion,

Dr Suzanne O’Sullivan 39:44
you look out for the things that are associated, you know, like we all did it during the worst parts of the COVID pandemic. You know, if we got a slight feeling woke up in the morning feeling tired. Now I wake up in the morning feeling tired regularly, but for the first month of the first wave of the pandemic, When I woke up feeling tired, I examined myself for the sore throat, cough and fever. And, you know, so that once you have an expectation of illness, then you will start examining yourself and looking for other features of that disorder. It will also affect how other people treat you and how other people respond to you. I have an issue with labels, as they create chronic illness, once you’re a person who suffers with depression, again, I’m doing that (inverted commas”) so people can’t see me but the. So once you’re said to suffer with depression, it can be quite a hard label to get rid of, it’s always you are a person who has depression. And I’m not sure it’s great to conceptualise it that way. But on the other hand, the way you get help, you can’t go to your doctor unless you’ve got an illness. Yeah, but we need the labels in order to access help and support or to get permission to take time off from work. The labels are kind of useful, then and therefore we take them on willingly. But then once we’ve taken them on, I worry about the long term effects of them. So we should have a system where a person can ask for help, without having to take on a diagnostic label of a psycho.

Dr Sabina Brennan 41:07
And I think they should be also or we should also be allowed to ask for answers without that answer having to be a diagnostic label. I mean, my most recent book is called Beating Brain Fog. And I make it very, very clear. I think it’s one of the first things I say in the book is that brain fog is not a disease. It’s not a diagnosis. It’s not a disorder, but it is a signal that something’s amiss. And actually, your patient, Celia was, uh

Dr Suzanne O’Sullivan 41:32

Dr Sabina Brennan 41:32
, she had problems where she thought she was having epilepsy. But she thought she was having Petit mal What was her name

Dr Suzanne O’Sullivan 41:39

Dr Sabina Brennan 41:39
Sienna, but Sienna to put this in short Sienna, you know, was a teenager, and she had accumulated a couple of diagnosis, POTS being postural orthostatic. Yes, yes. Basically, where if you stand up, it’s like most of us will have experienced at some point, you stand up to suddenly and feel dizzy, but this is in a much more severe fashion. But anyway, she was having these, I would call them attention lapses. And herself, and her mom had definitely decided that they were Petit Mal. And I suppose this was coming from having maybe read about absences as a form of epilepsy. And they’d been told, no, it wasn’t, and they came to you, and you did an awful lot of tests, etc. But for me as I was listening to that, I was kind of going well, she’s just describing, having difficulty focusing and struggling with kind of keeping up. And so she said she had a sleep disorder. And I’m saying, Well, if she’s not getting enough sleep, that’s going to lead to that during the daytime, if she’s stressed, that’s going to lead to that. And and I think you touched on something very important there, although I don’t think that you particularly used the word stress, that perhaps she had chosen a subject in her university degree that actually, her mother, which I thought was very telling, had described her as this brilliant girl student who was great at everything, and then she’s in university, and she’s struggling to cope. Now. She’s definitely having problems. And they’re very real. This is the whole point. If you lose focus and attention, that’s very real. If you can’t remember things that’s very real, and it’s very debilitating. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s something sinister like epilepsy, it can be very much lifestyle induced, because you need to have good sleep. You said she had limited her diet because she had irritable bowel syndrome. You know, maybe she wasn’t getting enough. I’m going to look at it from that psychological perspective. You were looking at it from a neurological

Dr Suzanne O’Sullivan 43:34
No I mean, I wouldn’t look at it from a neurological perspective, I would think of it the way you think of it.

Dr Sabina Brennan 43:40

Dr Suzanne O’Sullivan 43:40
The problem is, I’m a neurologist. So people come to me for neurological explanations. But by the time someone comes to me, the GP and possibly a range of other doctors have already said the things that you’re saying,

Dr Suzanne O’Sullivan 43:53

Dr Suzanne O’Sullivan 43:53
and people struggle to accept them. Because I think that we live in a society where, you know, if you’re really clever in school, and you’re told that you should expect to get into university and that you will be just as good in university and you’ll be able to achieve things. And you know what, it just doesn’t always work out that way. Sometimes we choose the wrong things. And we’re not as good at them as we thought we were or perhaps it’s just not suited to us. And I think that we have this sort of keep trying and you will eventually succeed. And anyone who’s ever written a book will have been told about JK Rowling’s multiple rejections before she finally got her book published. So we’re told, even if you’re rejected, just keep trying, keep trying. But you know what, that’s making some people sick. Because, you know, sometimes if the effort that goes into that success is too much, it can start producing physical symptoms like brain fog, or like palpitations or like many other symptoms, and it can be a very difficult thing. If you’ve got a family behind you saying, You’re definitely good enough for this course. It can be very difficult to say to you Know what I don’t think this course is right for me. You know, that can be a hard thing to say. And in that circumstances, the physical symptoms might be unconsciously employed to have that conversation for you.

Dr Sabina Brennan 45:11
Yeah, I think it’s interesting because it’s so many things going around in my head in terms of…. because you raise so many kind of important issues is that, and that the ability, we seem to live in a society where it’s too difficult to say, ‘Maybe I was wrong.’

Dr Suzanne O’Sullivan 45:30

Dr Sabina Brennan 45:31
I don’t know what’s wrong with society. I also think, you know, looking objectively, at her mother, her mother was disempowering her, and struck me very much like an Irish mother in a way. And something that we do with our children, is we tend to ignore our children when they’re behaving very well. And we notice them when they’re misbehaving and give them attention when they’re misbehaving. And so actually, it can be reinforcing, you know, the behaviour, I suppose the point I was making with that girl’s mother was that her mother was doing what a lot of us do when we see our children in distress, whether that’s physical illness, or whatever. We give them, we pour out all the love and attention we have, we make them feel extra special. And in fact, there’s nothing wrong, of course, we should look after our children when they’re unwell. But it shouldn’t become something that makes them feel extra special, they should just feel extra special for being who they are. And being encouraged, you know, extra special isn’t it great you’re, well now, and you’re going to be able to play, this, that and the other. But we do this thing where we train people to feel special when they’re ill. And for some people that can kind of become either not a way of life, but a way that they get the attention or the support that they need. Whereas they should be able to get that attention and support by just saying, you know what, I’m struggling with this or this isn’t working out, or I feel confused. And instead, actually, though, if they’re sick, and her mother had taken to actually feeding her,

Dr Suzanne O’Sullivan 47:02
Yeah, it’s always interesting those relationships, isn’t it? Because it’s likely that there’s both parties are benefiting in some way from that.

Dr Sabina Brennan 47:10
Yeah, like a codependency.

Dr Suzanne O’Sullivan 47:12
Yeah, sure that, you know, the mother was had the opportunity to care for a daughter in a way that you don’t get to care for your adult children. And so yeah, there was a dynamic there that was very unhealthy. But people who would perhaps go to a psychologist would be very different to people who come to a neurologist. When you come to a neurologist with these sort of medical complaints, it’s because you are not necessarily open to the more psychological way of explaining your symptoms, and you specifically are looking for more neurological problem. So I would see, you know, a skewed proportion of the community in which people are sort of really looking for biological ways of explaining rather than by a psychosocial ways of explaining their disorders. But the teen years, those years around sort of GCSEs, A Levels and the early years in university, that’s when the vast majority of my patients who have things like seizures, and paralysis and headaches or that have a kind of psychosocial cause they’re the ages that they come to me. And I think it’s the pressure we put on ourselves to succeed, and the inability to just perhaps sit back and look and say, Is there something in my life that if I changed it, that actually that might be the solution? I think I wrote in the book about hearing a woman on the news, talking about being in a job she really hated and how unhappy she was and what a terrible, difficult life she had. And then she got a diagnosis of autism.

Dr Sabina Brennan 48:32
Yes, yes.

Dr Suzanne O’Sullivan 48:34
And as a result of having got the diagnosis of autism, she realised that digital life she chose for her self was the wrong one. So she ditched whatever job she was in, and she found a job that was more suited to her. And it transformed her life. So it all ended very happily, but I just couldn’t stop myself asking why did she need diagnosis

Dr Sabina Brennan 48:51
Yeah, yeah. And I think that’s where we have to look to society that, you know, arguably, we live in a more permissive society than even when I was born. But we also have some of the social constraints are very damaging, and I couldn’t help but think, first of all, can I ask you are the more of your patients female?

Dr Suzanne O’Sullivan 49:10

Dr Sabina Brennan 49:11
Okay. I also think as well, and obviously we’re talking about things like hysteria, which refers to, you know, the the womb, and there’s all those terrible historic, you know, gosh, frontal lobotomies, all sorts of things done to women, based on them not conforming to what society expects of them. And I think we are very good at learning from experience to certain extent. But we have particularly in Western society, we have a very ethnocentric viewpoint. We think of ourselves as the most advanced group of the species. I would argue that we’ve made an awful lot of mistakes, you know, moving away from community and isolating ourselves in boxes are at the core of many of our mental health issues. We’re social creatures. We need to be in social groups, and we need more of a communal sort of basis, that would help immensely, we’d notice things sooner if people are struggling as well, because you’re seeing people more often, and we can kind of offer help and support each other. I couldn’t help but wonder, when I’m thinking about all the different cases, with the exception of one, most of them were in young children or teens. The one case guys, you have to read the book for this one is set in Havana, and it’s interesting in that it shows how different a response was when this ‘hysteria’ for want of another word, involved, inverted commas, again, intelligent people working in the US embassy in Havana.

Dr Suzanne O’Sullivan 50:43
I mean, basically, it’s an it’s an ongoing story. So if you look in the news now, you will still hear this as ongoing, but it started in the American embassy in Havana, where the embassy had been closed for years. Because of the broken down relationship between the US and Cuba. When the embassy opened up again, there was a lot of suspicion. And a member of the intelligence agency heard a sudden noise one night, and then started getting symptoms like dizziness and sickness. And someone, either him or someone he told this story to. And it might not even be a man because it’s his identity a secret is that this person thought they’ve been attacked by a sonic weapon. And this story of embassy staff being attacked by Sonic weapons spread through the embassy until there was sort of a dozen people who believe they had been attacked by Sonic weapon. Now there’s some very important, you know, medical points to make, which is, sound doesn’t damage the brain. So the other important point to make is no such thing as a sonic weapon has ever existed. And also, there were many, you know, which I won’t go into now, but many, many good reasons why these people were not attacked by a sonic weapon.

Dr Sabina Brennan 51:48
I think he could substitute ‘Sonic weapon for Granny’.

Dr Suzanne O’Sullivan 51:52
Exactly, exactly. But because a reasonable proportion of these were men, but also, as you say, they’re sort of well-off people. They live fortunate lives. They’re educated. People just couldn’t even consider this diagnosis of hysteria for them simply because they were the wrong sort of people. They weren’t young women. It’s really astonishing because I’d seen groups say a school in upstate New York, where there was an outbreak of what they call a mass hysteria, mass psychogenic illness, a school in South America, a school in Ghana. When this problem affects young women, basically, people say things about them like and it’s amazing in the in the 21st century, they say, well, they need a husband. And it’s astonishing. And they

Dr Sabina Brennan 52:36
they’re having too much sex or too little

Dr Suzanne O’Sullivan 52:38
A fight about a boyfriend or they will pick over the lives for little bits of stresses. But when this disorder affects kind of middle class, kind of fortunate men who work in the embassy in Havana, none of those conversations are had. Those questions aren’t even asked, Could these men be stressed? You know, could this be to do with their lives as diplomats? Had they lived in dangerous places? You know, girls were constantly taught, well, the parents are divorced, or they had a fight with their dad, the diplomats, were they divorced? Well, we’ll never know. Because when it came to men, no one even had that discussion. So it’s absolutely true that women are not always treated very well, by society and by medicine, and that, in the case of the young women, and people were very happy to accept the diagnosis, but presented in a really insulting pejorative way. A case of men, they wouldn’t accept the diagnosis purely because it was too pejorative for men.

Dr Sabina Brennan 53:34
Yeah. And they still haven’t accepted that diagnosis. You know,

Dr Suzanne O’Sullivan 53:38
it’s fascinating actually, because recently, they say that two people were attacked in the Marriott Hotel in London, by the sonic weapon, and that there was people attacked in the White House by the sonic weapon, Sonic weapon, then absolutely everyone who knows anything about weapons or nuerology says doesn’t exist, but the story continues to carry on because it was much more acceptable to think that people were being attacked than to think that people are human, and that these things happen. And people in the embassy were told, if you hear an odd noise, hide behind a wall, you know, you’re being attacked by a sonic weapon. People were being asked to come forward for medical examinations, even if they didn’t feel sick. They were actually invited to examine them

Dr Sabina Brennan 54:18
Invited to be ill and as you said, you set up the whole context and you can enjoy reading it in the book really, in a sense, but these people were in a highly stressful situation that had a historical background and as you just said, Go back to march 2020. And we’re seeing Coronavirus everywhere. You know we are under threat and our brain is just trying to protect us like it really is. It’s doing its job perfectly. There is nothing wrong when a new virus that is deadly appears and could be we know very little about it. It makes perfect sense for your brain to wake up and go. Alright, sore throat. Am I okay? Am I feeling a bit too hot? That makes perfect sense because it is a Your brain in survival mode. And so as you said, and I’ve experienced it myself, you know, when you’re ill, or if you’re having pain, you do become heightened to that. I also think it’s possible that some people experience sensations earlier or sooner than other people do. In other words, they’re part of the tails. So you know, if I press on your arm, you shouldn’t experience pain, but actually, some people do

Dr Suzanne O’Sullivan 54:18

Dr Sabina Brennan 55:26
And that doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with them, it just means that they’re on the tail, same as you and I could try and score a goal and never be able to do it. And someone on the tail can just do it every single time doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with them. They’re just on a different spectrum across it. And I know certainly, I can bear a lot of pain. But sometimes I experience pain sooner than other people do. Now I have a story. Your brain wants a story that makes sense for you. That’s how your brain works. It tells itself stories that make sense. And because it’s an information gathering machine, and it is looking for patterns, and looking for how to prevent that bad thing happening again, or how to ensure that happening again, it’s literally just looking for patterns. And part of that process is telling stories. So I have a story that was told to me by a doctor, which works for me, which is that the calcium channels in my brain actually respond sooner than they might in somebody else and so. So I might perceive pain sooner. That works for me, I’m fine with that, it doesn’t always happen. I perfectly understand that if I’m not getting enough sleep, if I’m chronically stressed, that those things are when I will feel pain. And that’s actually in a way for me, I just see that that’s a signal for me to kind of take stock and say, Sabina, you’re falling into your normal tendency. And that’s why these things I think it’s very annoying when people see some of those pain perception things as malingering I’m quite the reverse, I work too much. So for me, it’s a little wake up signal that says, actually, you’ve been letting your sleep suffer, you’re being overstressed. You’re taking on far too much. And your body is saying Hold on a second, I’m struggling here, you know, and you get a signal. So that’s the way I work with that. And I always say I have a diagnosis of when I’m talking about some of the things I have, because I don’t own them. I am not someone living with and some of the diagnosis, I’m not even sure if they’re right, or they’re, they’re accurate, but they allow me a common language to talk to other people who may be suffering or experiencing in that way, to actually give them some tools through lifestyle changes that may actually help them to cope with. And I think something that you really touch on is this. And I suppose it’s where the term hypochondria kind of comes from is that and you talk about a girl who lost the ability to walk and you explain it so well. That how in a psychosomatic illness you can lose the ability to walk, it’s not pretending to be paralysed, it is being unable to walk, and having to relearn how to walk, it’s well worth the read, just to kind of understand how that can happen. I think the issue about women is very, very important. And I think women need to be empowered to say what they’re feeling and look for answers, but not always just from doctors from within themselves within their lifestyle. I think another thing you touch on that’s really important is when I studied psychology, I had to take a couple of other subjects in the first year in case you failed psychology so that you could kind of continue your degree. And I took anthropology and philosophy. And I have to say anthropology probably is one of the most eye opening subjects that anyone can take. And I really believe it should be taught in schools, because it opens up your eyes to how our own culture, our own beliefs are as flawed as those that we look down on. And it offers us a way and a sense of being more empathetic.

Dr Suzanne O’Sullivan 58:45
Yeah, it just allows you to see it from you know, because I talked to a lot of anthropologists and in the writing of this book, because they often had studied some of the phenomenon that I was trying to learn about. And it was just a really great way of learning how to see things from other people’s perspective, because you know, I’ve spent my whole life working in Ireland and the UK and in big Western medical teaching hospitals. And you know what, that doesn’t represent most of the world’s view. I mean, most psychological and psychiatric research is done on Western educated people living in industrialised countries and mostly white people. But we then translate that research and we try and force it on other people,

Dr Sabina Brennan 59:23
which is not valid at all.

Dr Suzanne O’Sullivan 59:24
No, and I’m always seeing medical papers to say things like, you know, African American men don’t think this way about depression. And they should kind of think it’s sort of like they have a different way of viewing. I’ve just randomly chose African American man, I just mean people have on whom this research was not done, are being told that they should be adhering to our way of thinking, but their views were never represented at the start.

Dr Sabina Brennan 59:52
But you see I think you’ve touched on and I did an episode on the podcast about this. You’ve touched on the essential flaw in psychology, all of psychological research that have influenced the majority of the accepted principles were all done on men. All done, on men.

Dr Suzanne O’Sullivan 1:00:11
That’s right,

Dr Sabina Brennan 1:00:12
all done on men and actually, most medical research was done on men and continues to be done on men. And so therefore, from the outset, women are disadvantaged, we are considered ‘less than’, ‘different from’ instead of the norm. So the norm basically is calculated based on what is normal for a white male, and how a white male if you take medicine, how a white male responds to this medication and how it works. So therefore, then women are described usually as and that that applies to us throughout society, oh, she’s a very aggressive woman, or she, you know, whatever. But the point being, you know, if you want to reflect society, the findings of those studies should only be used to find and treat and report about men, the better thing is, you include everybody, you know, males and females. And if they have to be just white Europeans, that’s fine. But then you get your average across males and females, and you look for differences, if there are whatever, but you can only then apply that to white Europeans.

Dr Suzanne O’Sullivan 1:01:13
That group yeah

Dr Sabina Brennan 1:01:14
you can’t apply it elsewhere. And unfortunately, research investment is not invested in other places. And you touch on this again, also in the book, because possibly there isn’t the same amount of money to be made. Because we put so much faith in medications, things that we can take, injectables, we want that quick solution. And that’s why I’m adamant in my book, because there’s a multi billion dollar industry in supplements to boost your brain health, to boost your memory function, there is absolutely no evidence that any of it works and you don’t need any of it. Your brain, if you eat a healthy Mediterranean diet gets all that it needs. But susceptible people are being screwed over.

Dr Suzanne O’Sullivan 1:01:54
But at the same time I kind of on the one hand, think oh, well, you know, there’s that shop that’s selling all that I mean, around where I live now, there’s so many new shops opening up to sell nothing but CBD products. And you know, that’s just a money making industry, you know, and I don’t support it, but then I have to sit back and think, well, if it makes you feel better, then you know, there’s value in anything that makes the person feel better.

Dr Sabina Brennan 1:02:18
But some of these supplements can be harmful.

Dr Suzanne O’Sullivan 1:02:20
Oh well, if anything, or if people are being misled with and I certainly think this happens with things like CBD people are being misled with false kind of elevated claims of what is possible. And someone’s making a lot of money out of misleading people into thinking that something is more medicinal than it is. But I did kind of at the end of this book, start thinking, again, with reference to the lady who with the diagnosis of autism changed her career and was in a much happier place. I kind of started thinking at the end, you know, I started off sort of looking down on the need to medicalize to make changes. But by the end of the book, I was sort of thinking, you know what some problems are very hard to work through. And it may be that we need these processes, and that we need, sort of, either expressing things physically, or medicalizing. Sometimes we need those as a way to help us to make the change, which is otherwise very difficult to make.

Dr Sabina Brennan 1:03:12
Yeah, no, I totally hear you. I think it’s perfectly valid. I think people need to be heard. And I think that’s one thing that’s problematic, particularly for women, an awful lot of women feel medically gaslit, you know, to use that modern term that somehow what they’re going to their doctor with isn’t real, or it doesn’t exist, if people have taken the step to go and see you, there’s something that’s bothering them that much. And, you know, if they’ve nowhere else to go, well, then you can kind of help. Of course, diagnosis help, they help for multiple reasons, you know, an awful lot of us can catastrophize, particularly when it’s related to things like headache and cognitive function and things we don’t understand tremors, all those sorts of things, you know, you’re going to catastrophize and wonder whether there’s something awful, but that should mean that I suppose the problem is, as you touched on earlier, you can say I can find nothing. So then that makes the person feel awful, because Okay, this sounds like that. I’m imagining things – I’m not. And so I think there’s a bridge there that’s needed to say, look, there isn’t anything on our known symptoms. That doesn’t mean what you’re not experiencing is, you know, so it’s hard to find ways to do that.

Dr Suzanne O’Sullivan 1:04:19
I think the important thing for me is, so this is no right or wrong. But what you need to decide is, you know, is this diagnosis of depression? Or is this alternative therapy actually making you better?

Dr Sabina Brennan 1:04:30
Or worse

Dr Suzanne O’Sullivan 1:04:31
I think a label can make you feel better just by having an explanation but make you more disabled. But if you have a label that is giving you strategies to make your life a better life, then keep that label. But yeah, some people like Sienna who we touched on who was the girl who was basically just struggling with dissociation attentional difficulties when her college course was too difficult.

Dr Sabina Brennan 1:04:51

Dr Suzanne O’Sullivan 1:04:52
Her label made her disabled because, it sort of,… she was promoted to chronic illness through the label so you just look at what you’re doing. And if what You’re doing isn’t making your life a better quality life. Stick with it as far as

Dr Sabina Brennan 1:05:04
and I think when it comes to things like depression and anxiety, and I think there’s, it’s great that we’re talking more openly about mental health. But I think there’s also a tendency, a worrying tendency where the label is being worn as a badge of honour, and becoming something to be proud of you, of course, you shouldn’t be ashamed of experience or living with depression or anxiety. But it shouldn’t be something that you necessarily go Oh, well, this is me. Yeah, you know, and also, I think, yes, you can be depressed. And again, we’re talking on the earlier realm, I come from a family and people listening know this, you know, my father took to his bed, he had manic depression, he was suicidal. So I understand those depths, there was no communicating with him. And that continued all his life, and it was very cyclical. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking and you are talking about the earlier realms where we’re possibly medicalizing normal experiences, because we’ve decided, and I think that’s one of the things I wanted to get out was that our culture in some way is making us ill, because it’s telling us, we should be happy all the time, we should all look beautiful, we should all have six packs, we should all be able to achieve everything we want. And you touched on that. And I firmly believe keep trying, keep trying, keep, keep practising, you can achieve what you want. However, it’s also important to recognise that when that door keeps closing, you turn and start looking somewhere else,

Dr Suzanne O’Sullivan 1:06:29
your ambition should not be making you sick. You know, and I mean

Dr Sabina Brennan 1:06:34
it should be bringing you joy and the journey to that success. But I do want to touch on one thing that kept niggling at the back of my head when I was reading this, and it’s that group that are sort of predominantly absent in a way from the book, although there are a few cases. And that’s teenage boys, boys of that same age, and what’s worrying, or what I wondered about and wondered whether you had any thought about, certainly in Western society, we have a huge problem with teen suicide in young boys. And I just wonder whether, you know, for me for a lot of these manifestations, they occurred at time when for the brain or for the mind, or for whatever you want to call it, there seems to be no other option. And there’s almost like a withdrawing from life into this illness, and the parallel for me then in young boys, and withdrawing from life into suicide, because it’s too painful. And again, a cultural and a social issue associated with that, with these issues, these things occurred with girls in groups, girls tend to be more group based in a way where conversations happen, boys may engage in sports, etc. But not in those conversations. I really don’t know what I’m throwing out there. But I’m just wondering whether you kind of thought about those.

Dr Suzanne O’Sullivan 1:07:07
I just, I mean, I’m no expert at all in suicide or those particular issues. But certainly there is a case that men and women express their distress differently. And that psychosomatic disorders are more common in women. And I think it is, in part because of the place women are in society. But also, there’s more accessibility to women expressing their distress in certain ways where, you know, boys are not encouraged or allowed to express their distress in quite such an open way, sometimes as women. And I think that that’s why men and boys are more likely to be involved in violence, they’re more likely to hurt themselves. So it’s really about how we express and deal with the emotional and troubling things in life. And men and women do it differently, and certainly, at the moment very detrimental for young men.

Dr Sabina Brennan 1:08:43
Yeah. Yeah, I think really, for me, the big lesson that comes out from this is that we do need to understand and acknowledge the transitional stage of those teen years when the brain is not fully developed. It’s a very confusing time. Very, very confusing, because, you know, there’s connections that were there yesterday, aren’t there today, things don’t make sense. The word is really strange. You can’t learn from mistakes in the same way that you do as a mature adult. And I think we need to support and acknowledge that more.

Dr Suzanne O’Sullivan 1:09:15
Actually, I had an odd experience when I was sort of going around the world was Yeah, I mean, you and I both agree that you know this, it’s a difficult time for brain development, both socially and biologically.

Dr Suzanne O’Sullivan 1:09:26

Dr Suzanne O’Sullivan 1:09:26
teens are in a difficult situation. But I was travelling around the world places in South America and North America, Kazakhstan, where I several times encountered people who when children were affected by psychosomatic disorders, you know, the parents were the older people in the family would say, but why would a child develop a psychological problem? My children are happy chil… I’m like, that’s the absolute peak time for it. You know that?

Dr Sabina Brennan 1:09:53

Dr Suzanne O’Sullivan 1:09:55
schizophrenia, etc. That’s when they come out during that period.

Dr Sabina Brennan 1:09:59
Oh absolutely. And yes, you know, young children. And I mean, really young children are really vulnerable. And you know, the ages two to seven, there’s an awful lot of brain development going on there that if those kids aren’t being stimulated, if they’re not learning how to respond appropriately to stress, they can have … You see, the brain has this fabulous capacity to adapt neuroplasticity. – But unfortunately, and that’s what sort of struck me as well with Sienna, your individual who now is in her late 20s. And it just continues to collect conditions,

Dr Suzanne O’Sullivan 1:10:29

Dr Sabina Brennan 1:10:29
that when your….. your brain is this incredible capacity to adapt to change, and that is usually really, really positive, you grow new connections and all the rest. But your brain is not infallible. Your brain makes mistakes, it can make mistakes, but what can happen is you can learn a maladaptive response. And so your stress response can be completely maladaptive, unhelpful, and that can then be reinforced. And that just becomes inherent in your behaviour and difficult to eradicate,

Dr Suzanne O’Sullivan 1:10:59
I think it’s useful actually to think about all these kind of psychosomatic conditions and things like that, in terms of learning. Because yes, it’s exactly as you say, it’s like we all accept that, you know, I can read a book, I can learn something, or I can get tennis lessons and learn how to play tennis, or we’re all accepting that our brains are able to gradually accumulate new skills. Why is it so hard for us to believe that actually, learning can go in the wrong direction, too? And yes, when you lose the ability to walk, because for some psychosomatic reason, it’s just the learning has gone the wrong way. And now you just need to retrain your body back into the right way again, and I do think it’s useful to think of it that way because it we get away from that sort of airy fairy idea of stress affecting the brain within some sort of hard to explain way

Dr Sabina Brennan 1:11:44
Yeah, no, so that’s what that’s exactly where I come from is, you know, that’s the fundamental capacity are our brains are highly responsive to experience, you know, neuroplasticity, it’s not unique to humans, it exists in other animals. That’s how animals learn and evolve and develop but the human brain seems to be particularly susceptible to environment and experience. But as you said, it can go wrong. Things can be unlearned and relearned. And I think that’s really, really very empowering. And I think it’s fundamentally down to people just not understanding how humans work. That’s what it comes down to. You’ve been absolutely fascinating to talk to. I’m sure my listeners will absolutely love every minute of it. The book is called The Sleeping Beauties by Susanna O’Sullivan, tell us what the name of your other two books are.

Dr Suzanne O’Sullivan 1:12:34
My first book is called It’s all in your head, which is basically just about my own patients with functional and psychosomatic disorders. And the second book is Brainstorm, which is supposed to teach you about the brain through the stories of people with epilepsy?

Dr Sabina Brennan 1:12:48
Oh, excellent, excellent. I do love that. Because often people say, and I think it’s very funny, that people often say, you know, “they’re made out, it’s all in my head,” and I’m kind of going, but aeverything is in your head.

Dr Suzanne O’Sullivan 1:13:00
I got in trouble for that title. Because the point is, everything is in your head. But still people

Dr Sabina Brennan 1:13:04
That’s the point I get that, I think that’s exactly, you know, validate, continue, please do continue doing what you’re doing.

Dr Suzanne O’Sullivan 1:13:06
Thank you

Dr Sabina Brennan 1:13:10
Because I think, as well as being really interesting to read from all sorts of angles. I think the books are very empowering. And I think that they’ll help a lot of people but any doctors listening, get other doctors to read it, because I think they’re one of the groups of people that actually really, really need to read it.

Dr Sabina Brennan 1:13:27
Based on your writings and your experiences as a neurologist, what tip would you give to people about surviving and thriving in life?

Dr Sabina Brennan 1:13:37
Perhaps if they are experiencing what may be psychosomatic illnesses? What tip would you give them?

Dr Suzanne O’Sullivan 1:13:42
I think it’s a very difficult thing to do. But I think recognise when the life you’ve chosen for yourself isn’t necessarily the right life and be prepared to make changes. We touched on it before but you know, we make decisions about our lives when we’re like 16, 17, 18. And then, you know, 40 years later, we’re still working with those same decisions. So I think you know, be prepared to say you know, is this the right life for me and change it if you think it isn’t.

Dr Sabina Brennan 1:14:10
Such sage advice from Suzanne, you’ve only got one life and it’s silly to waste it pursuing a path that fails to satisfy or even makes you ill? You can change direction, and in doing so may find joy, happiness and reward.

Dr Sabina Brennan 1:14:27
My name is Sabina Brennan, and you’ve been listening to superbrain the podcast for everyone all with a brain. Super brain is a labour of love born of a desire to empower people to use their brain to thrive in life and attain their true potential. Please help me to reach as many people as possible by sharing this episode, or by simply liking or rating the show. Imagine if we could get to a million downloads by word of mouth alone. I believe it’s possible. I believe the great things happen when lots of people do little things. So you really can help to achieve this ambitious dream to get a million downloads. Oh, and don’t forget to subscribe to Super Brain that helps too. Visit Sabina for additional content, including images and videos related to this episode and a transcript of the show. Follow me on Instagram a @sabinabrennan and on Twitter @sabina_brennan. I am grateful as always, to my exceptional editor Emily Burke, to my fascinating guests and to my listeners. Thank you for tuning in.

Transcribed by




Season 4 of Super Brain kicks off Monday September 6th,

I chat to an impressive group of inspiring and fascinating guests this season

This trailer gives you a little taster of whats in store with short clips from:

S4E1 – The Brain Detective with Dr Suzanne O’Sullivan
🕵️‍♂️ 🧠🕵️‍♂️ 🧠🕵️‍♂️ 🧠🕵️‍♂️ 🧠

S4E2 – Happy Mum – Happy Baby with Melissa Hogenboom

S4E3 – The Visibility Trap Dr Mary McGill


#superbrain #brainfog #brainhealth #mentalhealth #wellness #psychosomatic #chronicpain #allinyourhead #psychological #malingering #mum #mothering #parenthood #pregnancy #baby #socialmedia #selfie #cancelculture #sex #surveillance #neurology #neuroscience #Irishpsychologist #irishneurologist

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