You've got 10 minutes with Einstein. What do you talk about? Black holes? Time travel?

Why not gambling? The Art of War? Contemporary parenting?

Each week, host Jason Gots surprises some of the world's brightest minds with ideas they're not at all prepared to discuss. Join us and special guests Neil Gaiman, Alan Alda, Salman Rushdie, Margaret Atwood, Richard Dawkins, Maria Popova, Mary-Louise Parker, Neil deGrasse Tyson and many more...

Helen Riess, M.D. – Empathy in the brain and the world

Empathy makes us human. Humans make structures that rob us of empathy when we need it most. Helen Riess is trying to reverse that trend.

Think Again Podcasts
  • Heart – mind = emotional quicksand. Mind – heart = greeting card sympathy
  • The doctor burnout epidemic and how to fix it


Empathy is the basic stuff of human connection. It's how we hear and are heard by one another. It's how we deal with one another as people rather than objects. But with massive, relentless trouble in the world, the 24 hour news cycle, the pressure to choose political and social sides, and the struggles of our everyday lives, empathy is sometimes in short supply.

My guest today is the psychiatrist and research scientist Helen Riess. She's an associate clinical professor at Harvard and runs the relational science program at Massachusetts General Hospital as well as the company Empathetics, Inc. Her new book, THE EMPATHY EFFECT: 7 Neuroscience-based keys for transforming the way we live, love, work, and connect across differences, is all about empathy: where it comes from, what its effects are, and how we can develop more of it.

That breathtaking song I mention in the intro: "Compassion" by Lucinda Williams

Surprise conversation starter clips in this episode:

Timothy Snyder on how to get past partisan politics

Leland Melvin on hands on learning

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private hate, public love, and everything in between – with Jeffrey Israel

Picking up the thread of a conversation they started two decades ago in Jerusalem, with some help from Lenny Bruce, philosopher Martha Nussbaum, and other influences along the way, host Jason Gots and Williams College professor Jeffrey Israel go deep on private grievances, public life, and where the two overlap.

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identity, intolerance, and change in the American heartland – with Jeanine and Catherine Butler

The first church to marry gay couples in Oklahoma. The merging of a congregation founded by a white supremacist with the members of a black Pentacostal congregation. The film American Heretics explores the complexities of religious life in the Bible Belt as it intersects with politics and race.

Think Again Podcasts
  • Oklahoma is "either your past or your future…it's a microcosm of America…the issues around racism, politics, the blurring of church and state…"
  • Come for the cultural politics…stick around for the unlikely connections to LSD, mushrooms, and the Salem Witch Trials…

In spite of all the weird ways the word has been abused since the 2016 elections, I think of myself as a liberal. As a basic value, I try to be open-minded. And like many liberals, I live in a big, liberal city where I rarely meet anyone who doesn't share my values, religious outlook, and political beliefs. As a result, like it or not, I'm in a bubble. And when I'm not being careful about it, I'm vulnerable to seeing "the Bible Belt" and the American South as one monolithic, mostly white, evangelical, anti-abortion, Christian Right-leaning mass. As some kind of living history exhibit of a past us New Yorkers have left behind.

And I know lots of people in some of the same bubbles I occupy who are quick to point to religion as the cause of horrors throughout human history. People who see reason and science as progress, religion as unequivocally retrograde, and who point to data showing that people everywhere are getting less religious as a hopeful sign that humanity might be moving in the right direction. But just as it doesn't have a monopoly on morality, religion doesn't have a monopoly on intolerance. And reason alone can't give us values like love and kindness. Religion's one of many ways that people organize their lives and like everything we make, it's subject to both our courage and our cowardice. The best and the worst of us.

A recent Pew survey says that 63% of Americans believe in God. In Bible Belt states like Oklahoma, where that number is much higher, there are fierce political battles going on for control of the Christian narrative—pushback against fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible as aligned with conservative republican values. These battles, invisible to most of us out here on the coasts, are the subject of AMERICAN HERETICS, a powerful new documentary by my guests today, Jeanine and Catherine Butler.

Surprise conversation starters in this episode:

Michael Pollan on the history of LSD and psilocybin mushrooms in America

Elif Shafak - the story no one hears

"We live in an age in which there is too much excessive information, less knowledge, and very, very little wisdom." Elif Shafak has faced trial and investigation in her native Turkey for giving voice to the voiceless in her novels. We talk about her book THREE DAUGHTERS OF EVE and the fight for nuance in a world of binaries.

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  • "To say that there are two stories to the same issue…doesn't mean [they] have the same power. Sometimes one of those stories will be the story that no one hears….that is suppressed and erased and forgotten and pushed to the margins."
  • "I think faith is way too important to leave it to the religious. Just like politics is way too important to leave it to career politicians. And I've started to believe that technology is way too important to leave it to tech companies and monopolies."

After four years and just over 200 conversations for this podcast, I'm feeling the need for a new kind of politics. One that would champion uncertainty, fragility, emotional vulnerability against the tyranny of opinions that push us one way or another. I used to think that art was sufficient for this purpose. After all, it was books like J.D. Salinger's Franny and Zooey or Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, bands like the Smiths and the Velvet Underground that gave a much younger me courage to embrace ambiguity as a great teacher.

Art's an open door, but you have to walk through it. And it's the politics and culture around you that shape your ability to do so. We're hurting and hungry for connection. Sick of misunderstanding and violence. I think this is true all over the world. I think it runs so deep it's like an underground river, one whose presence we can only guess at from the contours of the surface earth.

I'm very happy to be talking today with Turkish-born global citizen, novelist and activist Elif Shafak. She's the author of HONOR, THE FLEA PALACE, and THREE DAUGHTERS OF EVE, among many other books. In her writing and public speaking, she's one of the most eloquent voices I know of this new politics that doesn't fit easily on any flag.

Surprise conversation starters in this episode:

Pete Holmes on #metoo and binary thinking

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