You are not just thinking with your brain.
This has been a golden age for brain research. We now have amazing brain scans that show which networks in the brain ramp up during different activities. But this emphasis on the brain has subtly fed the illusion that thinking happens only from the neck up. It’s fed the illusion that the advanced parts of our thinking are the “rational” parts up top that try to control the more “primitive” parts down below.
So it’s interesting how many scientists are now focusing on the thinking that happens not in your brain but in your gut. You have neurons spread through your innards, and there’s increasing attention on the vagus nerve, which emerges from the brain stem and wanders across the heart, lungs, kidney and gut.
The vagus nerve is one of the pathways through which the body and brain talk to each other in an unconscious conversation. Much of this conversation is about how we are relating to others. Human thinking is not primarily about individual calculation, but about social engagement and cooperation.
One of the leaders in this field is Stephen W. Porges of Indiana University. When you enter a new situation, Porges argues, your body reacts. Your heart rate may go up. Your blood pressure may change. Signals go up to the brain, which records the “autonomic state” you are in.
Maybe you walk into a social situation that feels welcoming. Green light. Your brain and body get prepared for a friendly conversation. But maybe the person in front of you feels threatening. Yellow light. You go into fight-or-flight mode. Your body instantly changes. Your ear, for example, adjusts to hear high and low frequencies — a scream or a growl — rather than midrange frequencies, human speech. Or maybe the threat feels like a matter of life and death. Red light. Your brain and body begin to shut down.
According to Porges’s “Polyvagal Theory,” the concept of safety is fundamental to our mental state. People who have experienced trauma have bodies that are highly reactive to perceived threat. They don’t like public places with loud noises. They live in fight-or-flight mode, stressed and anxious. Or, if they feel trapped and constrained, they go numb. Their voice and tone go flat. Physical reactions shape our way of seeing and being.
“You might think that in everyday life, the things you see and hear influence what you feel, but it’s mostly the other way around: What you feel alters your sight and hearing,” Barrett writes in “How Emotions Are Made.”
When we’re really young we know few emotion concepts. Young children say, “Mommy, I hate you!” when they mean “I don’t like this” because they haven’t learned their culture’s concepts for hatred vs. badness. But as we get older we learn more emotional granularity. The emotionally wise person can create distinct experiences of disappointment, anger, spite, resentment, grouchiness and aggravation, whereas for a less emotionally wise person those are all synonyms for “I feel bad.”
A wise person may know the foreign words that express emotions we can’t name in English: tocka (Russian, roughly, for spiritual anguish) or litost (Czech, roughly, for misery combined with the hunger for revenge). People with high emotional granularity respond flexibly to life, have better mental health outcomes and drink less.
If bodily reactions can drive people apart they can also heal. Martha G. Welch of Columbia University points to the importance of loving physical touch, especially in the first 1,000 minutes of life, to lay down markers of emotional stability.
Under the old brain-only paradigm, Welch argues, we told people to self-regulate their emotions through conscious self-talk. But real emotional help comes through co-regulation. When a mother and a child physically hold each other, their bodily autonomic states harmonize, connecting on a metabolic level. Together they move from separate distress to mutual calm.
Welch has created something called the Welch Emotional Connection Screen, which measures the emotional connection between mothers and pre-term babies. By encouraging this kind of deep visceral connection through 18 months, her therapy can mitigate the effects of autism.
When you step back and see the brain and body thinking together, the old distinction between reason and emotion doesn’t seem to make sense. Your very perception of the world is shaped by the predictions your brain is making about your physical autonomic states.
You also see how important it is to teach emotional granularity, something our culture pays almost no attention to.
You also see that we’re not separate brains, coolly observing each other. We’re physical viscera, deeply interacting with each other. The important communication is happening at a much deeper level.
Klopp has been a forcefully endearing figure since long before he landed in Liverpool. As a player at Mainz in the second tier of German soccer, he described himself as having fourth-division skills but a first-division brain. Those skills still made him one of the club’s all-time leading scorers, even as a defender, since he would routinely shift into attack when Mainz badly needed a goal, which was often.
“I was watching, but not specifically him,” said Andi Herzog, a former Austrian star now managing the Israeli national team. “Nobody knew that he would be the best coach in the world.”
Klopp was so popular at Mainz that the club made him its manager immediately after he quit playing in 2001. Over the next 14 years, first at Mainz and then at Borussia Dortmund, he refined his coaching style. Klopp called it “heavy-metal football.”
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His personal style is more dad rock. While the top European managers wear tailored designer suits, Klopp dresses like he’s taking his kids to kindergarten in Brooklyn. His take on sideline couture includes tracksuits, baseball caps and running shoes, all topped off with a thick beard and hipster glasses.
“Everybody’s gotta have their statement thing,” said Florida football coach Dan Mullen, a Liverpool die-hard and Klopp admirer. “I wear my visor. He’s got his little beard-glasses look.”
But the way Klopp handles himself—not how he looks—is the reason he’s adored. Mullen gushes about how he adapts his system to his players. Claude Le Roy, the French manager of Togo’s national soccer team, envies his ability to sidestep the shenanigans of many other coaches in the game. “He’s a natural leader,” said Le Roy, who has never met him. “He proves that you don’t have to insult people, that you don’t have to cheat, that you don’t have to constantly repeat, ‘I’m the boss.’”
Gregg Berhalter, the head coach of the U.S. men’s national team, played in the German second division when Klopp was starting out, but he could already tell that the intense, sometimes maniacal young coach on the sideline had a special quality. “He gives a sense of being a real person,” Berhalter said. “People relate to that.”
Klopp is the latest in a series of highly successful coaches over the last decade—Pete Carroll, Joe Maddon, Kerr himself—who have reimagined their position of authority for the 21st century. They are highly respected but not tyrannical. They have a metronomic pulse of their locker rooms. They’re not necessarily strategic geniuses, but they have an unmatched ability to unlock talent, and they maintain their own power by empowering their players.
“You can sometimes feel a coach’s influence,” Kerr said. “When a team takes on the personality of a coach, you feel this connectedness and this collective will, and then magic happens.”
Klopp’s players feel it more than most. As they come off the field, their 6-foot-3 boss doesn’t bother with a formal handshake. He wraps them in bear hugs.
A touchy, feely cheerleader is not what you would expect from a manager in the most cutthroat league on earth—let alone a German one. But even Germany can’t get enough of Klopp’s schtick. At a time when the nation’s economy is screeching to a halt, he is seen as a model of modern management: Klopp recently posed for a national magazine called Manager under the headline “Der Feelgood-Boss.”
Alexander Stöckl, Der Feelgood-Boss of Norway’s powerhouse ski-jumping team that dominated the last Olympics, is not a soccer fan so much as he’s a Klopp fan. “He has an aura that fascinates many,” Stöckl said. “It seems to me has a fantastic philosophy of coaching.”
That philosophy demands total commitment from his players. While soccer’s attacking ideal in the late 2000s became the intricate passing play of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, Klopp was developing a violently athletic approach based on fast breaks and high pressure. The battle between the two styles is now playing out in the Premier League, where Klopp’s Liverpool and Guardiola’s Manchester City are battling for the title for a second straight year—they’ll meet for the first time this season at Anfield on Sunday.
And there will be at least one coach of a championship team watching from eight time zones away. Kerr, whose sister lives in England and whose nephews are Arsenal supporters, had always enjoyed English soccer even if he didn’t know much about it. But he knew enough to know that he needed to adopt a team for himself. He’d been captivated by Egyptian star Mo Salah in the World Cup. Salah played for Liverpool. Kerr was suddenly a Liverpool fan.
“I randomly (or not-so-randomly) picked them because of one player,” Kerr said. “But it was, like, oh my god, there’s all this other stuff that’s so awesome to follow.”
He quickly learned about the show tune fans sing before kickoff whose refrain has become Liverpool’s mantra. ”YOU’LL NEVER WALK ALONE!!!!!!!!!!!” Kerr tweeted after the victory over Barcelona. And he immediately gravitated toward the one aspect of the sport that he did know something about.
“I started to notice Jürgen Klopp,” Kerr said. “You could just see what a bright guy he was, his emotional intelligence and his love for his players without sacrificing that competitive fire—in fact actually fueling it.”
Kerr is still waiting to meet Klopp. Which makes him like pretty much every member of Klopp’s fan club. But until they can meet him, they have to settle for pretending to be him.
Liverpool’s wild 4-0 win to erase a 3-0 deficit in their Champions League semifinal against Barça happened on May 7. The Warriors, without Kevin Durant, came from behind to beat the Rockets on May 8—one of the most satisfying wins in Kerr’s coaching career.
Kerr decided this was the perfect time to channel his inner Klopp. Klopp had given himself permission to swear after determining that children were probably asleep by then. Kerr made sure he apologized to his mother before calling his players bleeping giants.
Three weeks later, Kerr was coaching in the NBA Finals once again, and Klopp was dealing with some business of his own: Liverpool was busy winning the Champions League.
You’ve been interviewing people for more than 40 years. What do you think that’s taught you about yourself?
That’s hard. I’m not exactly sure I can enumerate what I’ve learned. It’s like you’re slowly being changed every day by doing this job. I have learned, though, that everybody is insecure and everybody is troubled. Even incredibly talented people have deep insecurities. Maybe this is perverse, but I find that idea comforting. It helps me cope with my own stuff.
.. I’m probably just revealing my own neuroses here, but it sure seems that when people are presented with two pieces of information — one negative and one positive — the negative one almost always gets a lot more attention.
That’s exactly my problem.
So if somebody said to you, “Fresh Air is my favorite thing to listen to,” and then said, “Well, yesterday’s show wasn’t the best.”
Stop right there. I would totally dismiss the “favorite thing to listen to” part. I’d think that was just their way of cushioning the blow that yesterday’s show was terrible. They’d just come up with a false opening to be nice about how bad yesterday’s show was.
.. Do you have to be weird to be the kind of interviewer you are?
You don’t have to be weird. I think what you have to do is really believe, as I do, that the interview serves a function.
.. What’s the function?
.. John Updike on this. In his memoir, Self-Consciousness, which I really love, he said he wanted to use his life as “a specimen life, representative in its odd uniqueness of all the oddly unique lives in this world.” That’s kind of how I see interviews. When you’re talking to an artist, you can get insight into the sensibility that created his or her art and into the life that shaped that sensibility. I love making those connections. I think we all feel very alone. I don’t mean that we don’t have friends or lovers but that deep at our core we all have loneliness.
.. And want connection.
Yeah, we want connection and sometimes when you’re talking to an interviewer who you trust, you can speak in a way that’s different than the way you talk to friends. You can reveal more. Not always, but sometimes.
.. But if I am aware of allegations, I can’t not ask about them. And in that circumstance, the guest is unlikely to tell me the truth and we’re all likely to be very uncomfortable and feel as if something is going unsaid. So rather than create that situation, I’d prefer to just not do the interview.
.. Along those lines, did you have any qualms about interviewing Woody Allen?
That interview was before the allegations that he’d abused his daughter. But I did ask him about Soon-Yi. .. I didn’t want to just say, “So, you married your daughter?” I kind of asked around it. I knew that he doesn’t talk about it or at least he didn’t at the time, so I just did this question about if he thinks it’s fair to judge somebody’s work based on their life. Needless to say, he didn’t think it was.
.. People think when you interview that you talk a lot. Actually, I listen a lot. I talk very little. Listening sounds like it should be easy, but it’s not, because while I’m listening, I’m also thinking ahead. I’m thinking, Is this an interesting answer? If I was editing this answer what would I be editing out and what would I be keeping in? Because if I’m going to ask a follow-up question, I need to know if the listeners have heard what I’m following up on. So I’m thinking all that, and I’m also thinking, Is this interesting enough to follow up? If so, what is the follow-up? Or is this something I should just say, “Time to move onto another subject.” I’m also thinking, What’s that word on the tip of my tongue? And then I’m thinking, Oh, my producer laughed. That’s good. Or, My producer looks bored, that’s not good.
.. I started doing interviews because I had initially wanted to be a writer and by the time I was in college, I gave up on that. Then there was this kind of creative void that I had no idea how to fill.
.. But as somebody who’s shy, radio gave me an opportunity to engage with people in a forthright way without it being about me. Once I had a microphone, “Why would you talk to me?” became “Now I have a reason to talk to you and you have a reason to talk to me. So let’s talk.”
.. maybe people who knew me could trust me to keep a confidence. And I do think people thought of me as somebody who played fair. The other thing that prepared me to be an interviewer was being an English major. When you’re reading fiction, you’re becoming the narrator of the story.
.. It’s an act of empathy.
Yeah, you’re imagining living that person’s life and that’s part of what you do when you interview somebody. Part of the preparation is thinking, What’s it like to be this person? And then when you’re talking to the person it’s like, Wow, that person lived through that? Let me make some calculations about what that could be like, and ask them questions based off of how I’d feel if that happened to me.
.. I think what changed their minds about my job — and made them realize it was an actual thing — was when I was still in Buffalo at WBFOIn the early ’70s, after a mercifully short stint as a public school teacher in Buffalo, Gross was able to land a job at the city’s WBFO station, where she produced programs on public and women’s affairs, as well as the arts. Chief among them was a three-hour daily magazine program, This Is Radio, and the feminist-focused Womanpower.. [NPR’s] All Things Considered .. was a new show back then, and it went on the road to develop stories that had a local angle — I did one of those stories when it came to Buffalo. Having a story that aired on a national show and that my parents could hear — that made them think, Oh, her work exists!
.. Once they realized I hosted a show and earned a genuine salary, they were thrilled but in terms of answering your question — I committed, you know? I wanted it so badly that I just devoted myself to it.
.. And you were determined to hold on to it.
You could criticize me, you could insult me, you could mock me — it was all right, just let me keep doing the job. Because I was an English major, I loved to read and dissect what was being said and why it was being said and think about the language being used. Interviewing fit so many of my needs.
.. when you interviewed Quentin Tarantino around the time of Django Unchained.
I really wanted to know his position on cinematic violence! When that movie came out, the Sandy Hook shooting had just happened, and Django Unchained was this incredibly violent movie — Quentin Tarantino’s stylized kind of violence .. It’s kind of glorying in the violence. And I wanted to know if that violence read differently after all those children were killed by a gun. [Tarantino] interpreted that, I think, as meaning, “It’s your fault, Quentin Tarantino.” Which I didn’t mean at all. It disappointed me that he got testy about it and took it as moral judgment of his movie, as opposed to an opportunity to reflect on an issue that was staring us in the face.
.. People are always projecting things. They’re hearing things that weren’t said or projecting meaning that was not intended and, perhaps, not even implied. I’ve gotten both insults and compliments for interviews I’ve never done. What can you do? There’s no way of controlling what people think. I do have a bullshit detector and it’s something I’ll use, but I do think I try and be empathetic to everyone I interview regardless of their politics.
.. Can empathy be learned?
I’m not so sure. I think you can learn to be a better listener and to focus better, but some people are just naturally not attuned to others. Even if they’re listening, they’re not picking up on the emotional meanings. I don’t know that you can teach emotional understanding.
.. I wish I could’ve asked my parents more about how they felt about dying. It’s the kind of question I ask guests, but my parents would wave me away if I tried to talk about that subject with them. I think they were trying to spare me, but also that maybe they didn’t have the language to talk about death. I don’t know. They were children of Eastern European immigrants who grew up without the language of psychology and philosophy. My father, I’m not sure he ever read a novel. There’s a certain kind of introspective language he might not have had access to.
.. How do you feel about dying?
I’m not afraid of it. What I’m afraid of is pain. I’m really afraid of suffering. I’m afraid of being trapped in a hospital incapacitated.
.. But the prospect of not existing isn’t scary to you.
No, it’s not. I also don’t believe in a literal heaven and hell. I don’t think that there’s going be an accounting and I’m going to be sent to a place where I’m burning in flames.
.. Unless it hurts.
Then I’d be very afraid.
.. one of the things I’ve learned how to do on the air is make people stop talking. Some people can go on for seven minutes without a breath. At some point, you have to interrupt them and explain, “This is radio. We need to take breaks. We have to have, say, two-minute answers, or else we’re only going to be able to ask about three questions.”
.. Are there any similar ways in which your job bleeds into your daily interactions?
Well, it’s made talking to people easier. I used to be really shy and now I feel like I can talk to anybody. I know I can ask questions that will help me find common ground. I can navigate to the place where me and another person can have a real conversation.
.. Sometimes I feel like people want the experience of being interviewed. But off the air, I like to be not the interviewer. I want to engage with the person I’m talking to on an equal level.
.. What I like is to have a genuine back-and-forth: Here’s how you feel, here’s how I feel. Here’s my reaction to you, here’s your reaction to me. That’s as opposed to just “tell me more about you.” In an interview, I like to hang back. It’s not about me. If I made the interviews about me, we’d be talking about the book I read that day, because that’s how I spend all my time — preparing for the show.
.. So I had to buy a car — this was the ’70s and or maybe the early ’80s — and I wanted to hear the car’s radio and make sure the speakers were good. So I was trying out a car and I tuned into WHYY, where Fresh Air was then a local show that I hosted, and the guy who’s selling me the car says, “Oh, I know that station. You know that lady in the afternoon? That really annoying lady?” And I said, “Oh, uh, that’s me.” And he smacked his head and went, “I’m never gonna be able to sell you the car now.”
.. I used to think of myself as nondescript. Outside of being short, I’m not the kind of person who is visually memorable. I don’t mean to disparage myself, but some people are striking because they’re so beautiful or they’re so tall and I’m short — it’s easy to not notice me. To be noticed when you don’t think of yourself as being noticeable is a little spooky.
.. You’ve said before, in various places, that all the prep time your job requires means you’re not the best at cultivating friendships. But I wonder if talking with people every day for Fresh Air satisfies some of the needs you might otherwise have for emotional connection.
.. Have you learned any reliable tricks over the years for how to salvage an interview that’s tanking?
Sometimes if somebody’s like a little too low-key, I find myself maybe talking faster to compensate, Like, Match me up here! Match me louder and faster!
.. Does that actually work?
[Laughs] No, I don’t think so. What I’m really trying to do is find the person’s comfort zone. Some people are great on craft — the process of writing, the process of making the film. Some people are great on anecdote. Some people are great on biography, their personal story. So I’ll just keep looking for that spot.
.. I can’t argue that every interview I do is interesting. Sometimes we don’t run interviews because they’re boring or confusing. You don’t want to hurt the interviewee’s feelings but your first responsibility is to offer something interesting to your audience.
.. my job has had a bad effect on me physically. I’m either reading, screening something, listening to something, or talking to someone. It’s a sedentary life. I’m proof that you can hurt yourself by sitting and reading. I have back issues. Sitting’s also probably not good for your heart. I don’t have heart problems but when people talk about, like, aerobic exercise, I just stare at them blankly: “I’m sorry, what?”
.. I don’t have children. I can’t say that was a sacrifice. I didn’t feel called to have children. I know I’ve missed out on something special but I couldn’t possibly have done my job and be a parent. The show is premised on me preparing at night for the next day’s interview. Doing that with children would’ve made me a terrible mother. When I was growing up it was unheard of to not have children and if you didn’t have children, it meant that there was something physically wrong with you. The women in my neighborhood were full-time mothers and that’s not the life I wanted. So I went completely in the opposite direction and I’m not sorry. I made a choice about what I wanted and I’m glad I did.