THE PLASTIC MIND

Here’s why Elizabeth Koch, the daughter of a GOP megadonor, chose science over politics

Elizabeth Koch has been renovating her brain.
Elizabeth Koch has been renovating her brain.
Image: Unlikely Collaborators
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Elizabeth Koch is obsessed with the self—not just hers, but yours and mine, too.

She’s the founder of a neuroscience nonprofit called the Tiny Blue Dot Foundation, which aims “to understand the nature of consciousness and its place in nature.” There, researchers are working on figuring out the physical processes underlying the mental experience of existence. They’re trying to uncover the mechanics of mind and matter, asking how the two work together to produce a sense of self.

Notably, Koch is the daughter of industrialist Charles Koch, the eighth-richest man in the world and half of the GOP mega-donor duo known as “the Koch brothers.” And her interest in how we construct the self is partly rooted in her unusual experience of being born into an enormous fortune, yet raised by a father who warned her of the perils of wealth.

Sure, she knows you’re probably rolling your eyes at the idea that an heiress from Wichita, Kansas, with every advantage, struggles with existence. But if you met Koch, as I just did at Unlikely Collaborators—her annual conference about the brain and personal transformation—you might feel some relief that your family doesn’t represent wealth itself, and that your name isn’t synonymous with American privilege and influence.

Growing up Koch

The gathering of neuroscientists and about 100 invitees Koch’s team deems to be leaders in various fields—from peace activists to sleep researchers—is held in Ojai, California. Think of it like a weekend of Ted Talks and psychological and social exercises, punctuated with presentations from Koch about her own life, in a beautiful setting surrounded by mountains.

Most of Koch’s immediate family is in attendance. Her mother, Liz, and brother Chase, who works in the family business. Charles, her father, is not physically there. But he is present. He looms large despite his absence. He is “an influential man,” as the younger Koch puts it, and his influence is inescapable.

We hear a lot about dad, beginning with the first presentation. Koch is wearing skinny olive green leather pants and a matching wool blazer with flower embroidery, a beige lace blouse. She’s thin with a long blondish bob pulled back in a ponytail. After welcoming us, our host tells a story.

As a teenager, Koch enjoyed slamming against people in mosh pits at punk shows. At one of these concerts, she met a brooding young fellow who was waifish and morose, aspired to be a vampire and, somehow, managed to read during the revelries. “So just my type,” Koch jokes. After they hung out for a while, Koch invited her boyfriend home, but when he met her father, the teen literally fled in terror.

The tale is meant to illustrate the perceived distances between people. Koch’s boyfriend and father seemed to be from two different worlds and though the twain did meet briefly, the space between them could not be breached. She’d like for people to not flee each other in fear; to see that we can meet, whoever we are, wherever we come from, whatever our experiences, and find a way to relate.

To that end, the following morning—after breakfast and optional YaYa practice, a mix of African dance and meditation—we attend lectures on the brain and engage in exercises meant to cultivate empathy and understanding of our identities, and to uncover our limiting beliefs. We gather in a tent on the lawn, lined with wooden tables facing a small stage.

As I settle in, Koch, who’s been chatting with her husband and organizers, comes over and introduces herself. She’s warm, disarmingly friendly, and charming in jeans and a cool little navy leather jacket with a high-necked flowered blouse. Straight off, she thanks me for coming and praises my writing. Koch has an MFA in fiction from Syracuse University, and has written for the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Columbia Journalism Review, the New York Observer, and other outlets. In 2015, she also launched the publishing house Catapult. As a literary type herself, she surely know this praise is the way to any scribbler’s heart.

Soon, I will discover that making people like her has been a lifetime preoccupation.

The morning begins with another story. When Koch was very young and wondering what life was all about, her father instructed her to find and follow her north star, a guiding principle that would direct her to purposeful work. It so happens that dad was also intent on making his daughter aware of the fact that her wealth, while providing opportunities, had drawbacks. In an effort to ensure that she didn’t become “a monster”—as she puts it—he warned that she’d have to work extra hard for respect because she was rich.    

The two disparate pieces of advice fused into a single lesson for the young girl. Koch decided her north star was to try to be liked, or more simply, “to not be hated.” She grew determined to make friends with people whose circumstances were very different from hers and get close, have genuine moments of exchange. And it worked. She learned to listen and share and to bond sometimes.

But being liked wasn’t really a purpose in life, she learned. So, she eventually decided to become a writer, hoping her stories would somehow help people. That soon raised a new question that plagues every writer at some point: Who am I to write anything?  

In Koch’s case, the query led her to another passion. In an effort to understand herself, she became interested in neuroscience that attempts to explain the most perplexing puzzles of all—what is consciousness, and who is this self, this individual we each feel ourselves to be?

Perception questions

“The self is a neuronal fantasy that guides our behavior,” Anil Seth tells us. A professor of cognitive and computational neuroscience at the University of Sussex in England, Seth’s 2017 TED Talk—entitled “Your brain hallucinates your conscious reality”—has been viewed more than 6.5 million times. He’s a rock star in consciousness circles, though up close, he looks more like a graduate student of poetry.

Seth stands before us in a crumpled blue linen blazer, a pale button down shirt, and jeans, slight and serious. He explains that the self, your feeling that you’re you, is a controlled hallucination designed by evolution to keep you alive. This sense of individuality that each of us possesses is merely a survival mechanism.

Though that sounds far out, scientific studies on the use of psilocybin have also shown that people under the influence of hallucinogens can lose their sense of self, feeling connected with everything and everyone else. This indicates that your “you-ness” is manufactured by regions of the brain that can be activated or deactivated.

As Seth notes, meditative traditions have also long taught students that the perception of self, while necessary in many contexts, is a construct.

According to the professor, the brain is a prediction machine. It anticipates what will happen and formulates reactions based on past experiences. Emotions, moods, thoughts, these are all the brain’s best guesses about the meaning of signals it’s receiving from the body and the world. They are all perceptions, just like your sense of self.

To the extent that we act in ways that are harmful to ourselves and others, it’s the result of maladaptive predictions—perceptions the brain generates based on past information that fails to serve.

Though there is a “reality” that exists, it’s not fixed, says Seth. If we change the perceptions that our brain generates, we can transform not only ourselves, but the world that we experience. According to the neuroscientist, “We generate the world as much as we receive it.”

All this sounds rather abstract—and Seth admits that his knowledge hasn’t prevented him from getting depressed at times. But this understanding of the brain has practical applications. It could transform mental health care. If we come to understand the systems that generate the predictions we experience as reality, treatment for depression, anxiety, and other maladies can begin to actually fix the mechanisms generating these perceptions instead of just suppressing the symptoms. We could all start to predict and perceive constructively, rather than destructively.   

Limiting beliefs

For many years, Koch’s brain supplied a recurring prediction—telling people who she really was would only lead to trouble. In some liberal circles, after all, mere mention of “the Koch brothers” serves as shorthand for loathsome conservative programs; she is well aware of how poorly her name can be received. So, whenever possible, she did not mention the association. When she was an MFA student at Syracuse University, for example, she never admitted that she was one of those Kochs. And she grew very close to her fellow writers.

The program felt like home, the other students true friends, similarly preoccupied with literature and language and the quest to tell fictional tales that are more like the truth. But one day someone did ask if she was any relation to the famed Koch brothers and she denied it. She flat-out lied, saying her name was pronounced “Kotch” not “Koke.” And when a local paper ran a story that showed otherwise, she was caught in the lie and her best friend accused her of betrayal.

It became apparent to Koch that something about her approach to the world wasn’t working. She longed to change. In a 2012 article in the LA Review of Books, she writes about the beginning of her official obsession with neuroplasticity:

[T]he brain seems to be an ever-changing, inter-connected globe of synergistic activity and fluctuating communities, with neurons swapping roles and taking on new tasks depending on what the structure as a whole requires. Neurogenisis, it’s called. Creative destruction in the brain. The key to change is the quality of your attention… For plastic changes to occur, you have to really care.

Care. I’d spent the last ten years of my life training myself not to care.

To change, Koch had to train herself to care again, to pay attention to all that had been causing her pain and that she’d been trying to ignore. She had to learn how to rewire her brain so that it would predict differently and generate healthy emotions. In the process, she became aware of the work of Lisa Feldman Barrett, a neuroscientist and psychology professor at Northeastern University who received a National Institutes of Health Director’s Pioneer Award for her work on emotions and the brain.

In a 2017 Ted Talk with more than 2.5 million views, Feldman Barrett explained her conclusions after 25 years of scientific research: “[Emotions] are guesses that your brain constructs in the moment where billions of brain cells are working together, and you have more control over those guesses than you might imagine that you do.”

In other words, what’s happening when we feel is that we’re unconsciously predicting what might be, based on previous experiences. Just as the brain is anticipating and creating “reality” and “consciousness” using the past, it’s also guessing what the right feeling should be in any given situation based on dated signals. Feldman Barrett insists that we can train ourselves to reinterpret the messages that manifest in negative emotions, and thereby learn to have better control over our moods and ultimately our experience of life itself.  

Live, Feldman Barrett is an amusing speaker who favors salty language. As she explains the science of emotion, she swears liberally and jokes often and you would never guess that, as she confesses, she gets nervous about public speaking. Indeed, she seems to be evidence of her own thesis, which is that—with attention and training—we can reframe our brain’s mood-prediction mechanisms and become, basically, more cheerful and less stressed people. We can stop anticipating anxiously and let situations unfold, spaciously, so that the mind, the tool we use to interpret the world, chooses perceptions that cause us less angst.

One of the ways to engage in this reframing, according to Feldman Barrett, is to cultivate gratitude. “Yes,” she admits, “I used to think this was bullshit.”

But studies on gratitude practice and her personal experience have shown her that when we focus on what is working out, consciously subverting the tendency to worry about what’s not, and we do it enough to create a habit of gratitude, we can actually feel happier. Because the brain is plastic and reality is not fixed, the simple trick of listing good things can rewire our prediction mechanism and generate ever more positive perceptions.

Working on well-being isn’t just positive for each individual personally. When we suffer less, we become more empathetic.    

Machine to be another

Koch can’t know what it’s like to be another person. But at the conference, she explains that she is curious about “the experience of no Elizabeth.” And so, with the help of a virtual reality experiment, she delves into another person’s inner world.

The “machine to be another” is an art project that investigates identity and empathy using storytelling, objects, movement, and immersive virtual reality goggles. A listener and performer each sit in two identical spaces. The listener sees with the VR goggles from the perspective of the performer while also directing the performer’s movements. As the listener interacts with objects—mirrors, a glass of water, flowers—the performer does too, talking about these things through headphones that generate the sense of someone speaking inside the listener’s mind.

Koch is paired with musician, artist, and actor Emmanuel Jal, who was forced to be a child soldier in Sudan, witnessing death firsthand and training to kill himself. He has since transformed himself into a promoter of peace.

She cannot be Jal, obviously, and he cannot be her. But what they both share is an interest in connection, moving beyond the self and personal perception.

During the demonstration, the audience hears nothing and sees only physical motions, the way both participants handle the objects. But when it’s done, Koch is in tears. She has, perhaps, gotten a glimpse of what it is to be Jal.

Still, even without the machine, there are mechanisms to promote this experience of connection and “no self.” Jal and Koch are both meditators. Despite vastly different backgrounds and experiences, they share commonalities. For one, both are human. Also, they have worked on transforming, tinkering with their prediction machines so that the thoughts, feelings, and experiences they generate will cause less harm to themselves and others. He calls her his “sister.” She sees him as an inspiration, proof positive that the past, circumstances, and accidents of birth do not have to dictate destiny.

The spaces where we meet

A couple of days later, after the conference, I’m on my way to meet Koch at a restaurant in Los Angeles when my Uber driver, Rene, makes a point about transformation that would fit right in at Unlikely Collaborators.

Rene tells me that lost his left arm in an industrial accident in Wisconsin. The first few years without his arm—he was a lefty—were excruciatingly difficult and bitter. “I needed help to eat, get dressed, clean myself,” he says. During that time, he mourned the fact that he’d never completely hug his wife again or cradle a baby in his arms, and he harbored revenge fantasies. Everything he did, including taking up studying industrial design, was motivated by rage about the shoddy tool that took his arm.

He completed his degree, but had a profound realization along the way. It was more important for him to transform his anger than to practice any particular profession. “I realized,” Rene says, “that I lost a tool, my arm. But I did not lose my life. And I have other tools, more powerful tools. I have my mind and heart.”

In his view, it’s at least as hard for the man responsible for the accident to live with himself now as it is for Rene to live with a missing limb. Rene became determined to forgive this man and cultivate gratitude for the experience of life he has. “I’m happy now,” he says. “My life is rich.”

It’s impossible not to think, as I approach the meeting with Koch, about relative riches. How can we all live so differently and yet still be so similar? The details of our struggles are wildly distinct, and surely this can’t be called a fair world when some spend childhood at war and some lose limbs and others struggle with abundance. Yet the responses available to all of us—hate or love of self and others—do not differ that much.

Koch meets me wearing grey leggings, thick wool socks, running sneakers, a sweater and athletic vest, hair back in a bun, squarish glasses. She’s just been on a hike in the LA hills with Jal, she explains.

We settle at a table and are already talking animatedly when the waiter arrives. She orders tea. I have coffee. Noting the waiter’s disappointment with our meager order, Koch says, “This conversation is our nourishment.”

Indeed, the exchange is enjoyable. Even if she wasn’t a Koch and this wasn’t my work, I’d still be intrigued by this woman with a literary bent obsessed with questions of identity. But of course she is a Koch and, as she has noted, it’s kind of an inescapable fact of interacting with her. The family is ever-present.

We talk about writing, what a good book can do—move you, change you, make you feel. We discuss Twitter—she was on it briefly, until she realized she was evaluating every experience as a potential tweet. We chat about journalism. Koch covered the Martha Stewart trial for Reason in 2004, and loved the camaraderie amongst reporters in the courtroom. But she later found freelancing excruciating and lonely.

This seems to be her recurring theme. Koch longs to connect to people, deeply. But she has reason to be wary—she knows that on the one hand, some try to curry favor because of the family’s wealth and that, on the other hand, she’s widely despised for politics she’s not much interested in.

Koch, in fact, says she is “apolitical.” I ask if this stance is the only polite option in her family, but she contends it’s not quite that. She professes to be very much her father’s daughter, and says that they share similar scientific and philosophical preoccupations. But business and politics are two topics she can’t get passionate about. “Politics are so divisive,” Koch says exasperatedly. She’s more interested in creative processes and advancing the human agenda, the ways we can get together.

All of Koch’s projects—whether in publishing, neuroscience, or the Unlikely Collaborators conference—are about that idea of gathering and understanding identity. She’d like to emphasize the ways our experiences intersect and cross the chasms that divide us, despite the countless details that make our lives distinct.

Ultimately, she’d like Unlikely Collaborators to grow beyond its current, rather rarified context to reach all kinds of people, all over the place. Koch suggests that perhaps the conference will evolve, with attendees training to bring transformative neuroscience into their own work—whether with former gang members or video game developers.

But when I ask Koch what exactly she wants from her various projects—her writing, the publishing company, the neuroscience endeavors—she’s hesitant to respond. Presumably, she doesn’t need any of these to succeed exactly, at least not to survive. What she does seem to need is to make peace with the fact that in a world full of people born into tragic circumstances, her experience is the happy accident of having it all.

“The truth is,” she admits, after thinking about desire for a bit, “if I’m not responding with my ego and really feeling the answer inside my body, what I want now is to not want anything anymore.”