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A Neuroscientist Explores The Illogical Behaviors Of The Mind In 'Idiot Brain'

Dean Burnett says the human brain is like a computer that files information in a way that defies logic. According to Burnett, brains can alter memory, cause motion sickness and affect intelligence.


Other segments from the episode on August 2, 2016

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 2, 2016: Interview with Dean Burnett; Interview with Ali Wong



This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. People often think of the brain as being like a computer. But according to my guest, neuroscientist Dean Burnett, that's only true if you imagine a computer that decided some information in its memory was more important than other information for reasons that were never made clear or a computer that filed information in a manner that didn't make any logical sense or a computer that kept opening your more personal and embarrassing files without being asked.

Burnett is the author of the new book "Idiot Brain: What Your Head Is Really Up To." It focuses on some of the more illogical behaviors the brain produces. He lives in Wales, where he's based at Cardiff University's Center for Medical Education and teaches in the psychiatry department. He writes the science blog "Brain Flapping" for the British newspaper The Guardian. Dean Burnett, welcome to FRESH AIR.

DEAN BURNETT: Thank you for having me.

GROSS: So in that analogy that you make between the brain and a computer, you say your brain would be like a computer that decided it didn't really like the information you'd stored. So the computer altered it for you - to suit your purposes, to suit your preferences. And you say your memory is egotistical - that the brain tweaks and adjusts the information it stores to make you look better. What's an example of what you mean there?

BURNETT: Well, I think the classic example is like someone claiming they caught a fish this big, holding their arms out. And oh, the obvious joke is that they didn't really. That's actually just exaggeration. But all of you will think that's just someone lying to try and look better.

But a lot of research suggests that we actually - whenever we remember something, we will tend to embellish if we're telling someone about it. We'll embellish it slightly to make us look a bit better. Or we'll make it a bit more impressive as a story. But every time you do that, the memory itself - it's got a good chance of itself being edited. It's being adjusted.

So the actual underlying memory is replaced by this updated version that you have created to convey something which makes you look better. And that seems to be happening constantly - that we think back on things and we sort of interpret them in different ways to make us feel better about ourselves - make us feel more accomplished, more involved, more capable and more important than we actually were. Because our memory is the only record of it, that often goes unnoticed.

GROSS: In writing about memory, you write about the difference between short-term memory and long-term memory. And short-term memory really doesn't hold very much. I mean, from how you describe it, it holds less than I even thought.

BURNETT: Yeah. That's sort of one of those mainstream ideas of how memory is structured and works, which is not quite correct - in that short-term memory - you see a lot of films and, like, TV shows. They sort of portray short-term memory as something from an hour ago or, like, that same day. Where it's actually - short-term memory is 30 seconds to a minute. Anything longer than that tends to actually now be officially a long-term memory 'cause it takes the brain...

GROSS: Whoa whoa whoa. Anything longer than a minute is officially long-term memory?

BURNETT: Essentially, yes.

GROSS: That means my long-term memory is worse than I thought (laughter).

BURNETT: Yeah. It's a strange - 'cause short-term memory is essentially patterns of activity in places like the frontal cortex. It's like a firework display. Or, like, I liken it to writing - like writing a shopping list in the foam on your coffee. You can sort of do it. And it's something that'll stay legible for a minute.

But generally, quickly, it'll fade away, whereas a long-term memory actually is, like, the neurons and the brain cells connecting together to form a new memory. But that takes time. That takes like 30 seconds to a minute for that to actually be achieved and the stories to actually happen.

So in the interim, we have this short-term memory, which is sort of holding the pattern just in place, waiting for the memory to be formed or for the information to be replaced. And that you can - you obviously know that happens a lot because when you sort of get up to go to the kitchen to get something, and then when you get there, you think, why am I in here now? - and then you have no - you can't remember why you came in there in the first place.

All you know is that you're there now. And that's, like, an example of a short-term memory being sort of lost rather than - it's stored - despite the fact that you actually have acted on it already.

GROSS: So I found this very interesting. You say in your book that there's evidence to suggest that nearly everything we experience is stored in long-term memory in some form. And here's why I find that interesting. This is the kind of thing that happens to me a lot. Like, one of our producers will come up to me and say, do you know that blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah? And then I'll say, in all honesty, that sounds familiar. I don't know if I know that.



GROSS: And as my producer starts explaining, I slowly start to remember that yeah, I did know that. And I realize that I once knew this thing. Then I'd forgotten it. But there's still some kind of vague imprint of that memory in my mind. And the more I hear about it, the more the memory starts to resurface. Is that what you're talking about?

BURNETT: Yeah, that's quite a lot of evidence to suggest that there is different types of memory - something called familiarity and the difference between that and recall - 'cause with familiarity, it's like you say you know you know something. But you don't have any more information than that. All you know is that this has been encountered previously.

GROSS: Yes (laughter).

BURNETT: Yeah. So again, like, using the computer analogy - if you do a Google search, and then some things pop up and some of them are, like, already purple, it's - oh, I've been to that site before. You don't know what that site has on it. You don't know what it was for. It could be something dodgy. Maybe you were drunk at the time. I don't know. But you just know that you've been there before.

But it's when you actually open, like, the file or open the store that you actually understand what's going on in there. So it's the same - like the name thing again - or, like, when you meet someone and they have a very familiar face. You think, I know this person. I know - why do I know them?

And then they'll tell you some details and then fill in, say a few more things. And they'll say something. And you go, oh, yes. That's why - because at that point, there's enough familiarities occurred to sort of reach the threshold - the recall threshold - where it's not just knowing you have the memory. Now the memory itself is actually activated. And it all comes flooding back.

It's a very strange sensation of, like - oh, yes. And I remember all that. And they all - the actual memory itself is triggered 'cause enough familiarity happened. So the activity leading to that memory has gone past a certain point. And the whole thing is set off. And we have, like, the vivid experiences coming back to you. Oh, yes. I met him here. And then we did that. And that was 10 years ago - and so on, so on, so on.

So there are lots of - the brain has a good sort of rule of thumb for new and old. Like, that's a new thing. That's an old thing. That's a new thing. That's an old thing - because when you actually need the detail information itself, that's when you need to trigger the recall threshold, for want of a better description.

GROSS: OK. So the downside for me is I have a lot of memories that I will only remember if somebody tells me that information again. And then it'll start to surface. So on the downside, I've forgotten that memory. But on the positive side, once I hear it the second time, I think I'm more likely to remember it and keep it as a more permanent memory. Am I deluding myself or is that neurologically probable?

BURNETT: No. That makes perfect sense because we remember certain things and not other things. And that's sort of a constant problem because we'd like to remember the things - like if you're revising for a test or an exam. That's the stuff you want to remember.

But abstract information, which is just like intangible data - that isn't something the brain has really evolved to process. It can do it. But it's not its preferred form of information. It's more about experiences and things with a strong emotional attachment - any emotionally vivid memories like your first bike, you know, your first date with your partner, your wedding day. These are all things which have strong emotional resonance.

So they have a lot more attachments in the brain. Like, every single memory has lots of different links to it. So there are lots of different ways to trigger it. So if you have, like, an old memory which you don't actually - haven't really thought about. That's fair enough. So it's got a limited amount of connections to make it accessible. But then when you - no - are reminded of it by talking to a person, you go, oh, yes. So then it all comes flooding back.

That's a new sensation. That's - now you associate that memory with this experience of not being able to remember something and then remembering the person, then being happy that you remembered them. So, you know, you're forming lots of new connections to it. So that actually does make perfect sense in that the act of having a sudden, vivid recollection would, in fact, increase the likelihood that the memory will be more a bit more resilient from then on.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is neurologist Dean Burnett. He's the author of the new book "Idiot Brain: What Your Head Is Really Up To." Let's take a short break. And then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is neurologist Dean Burnett, author of the new book "Idiot Brain." He's based at the University of Cardiff Centre for Medical Education, and he's a lecturer in psychiatry and writes a blog for The Guardian called "Brain Flapping."

So it's summertime, which means a lot of people are going on vacation, and a lot of those vacationers are going to be driving, many of them with children in the car. And I think children are especially prone to motion sickness. You have a very interesting explanation for why we can get motion sickness in a moving vehicle.

BURNETT: Yes. It's one of those things which people - it's such a common thing, I think a lot of people don't give it much thought. But when you think about it, moving shouldn't make us sick. We move around all the time. We're a very mobile species. So why - you know, why would moving suddenly make us want to throw up? And one theory is - and that's the most salient theory at the moment - is that it's caused by a sensory confusion in the brain and that when you're walking - you know, like us humans tend to do a lot - there's a lot of distinct signals being relayed to the brain that can - like the thalamus, where all the sensory information is put together and sort of, you know, fed to the other parts of the brain. So when you're walking, you've got this, oh, the left, right, up, down sort of sensation.

You've got the muscular system doing its thing and relaying all the signals to the brain. And you've also got the balance sensors in your ears, like, little tiny little tubes full of fluid. And the motion of that fluid tells us where we're going. So, like, if we're upside down, we can tell. And if we're going fast, we can tell because this fluid just obeys the laws of physics. And also, you've got your eyes, and the world's going past at a certain rate. All these things are sensory information which is fed into the, like, the thalamus area, which integrates all the sensory information together to give us an opinion or give us a view of what's happening in the world around us. So we think, oh, well I moving. This is good. That's what I should be doing. Excellent, all is well.

When you're in a vehicle - and vehicles aren't something we've really evolved to deal with because, obviously, they're a very, very recent addition to the world, and evolution takes a long time to catch up with anything. So when we're in a vehicle like a car or a train or a ship especially, you're not actually physically moving. Your body is still. You're sat down. Like, say you've got no signals from the muscles saying we are moving right now. Your muscles are saying we are stationary. And also your eyes - if you are sitting in a ship, like, you're looking at a static environment, so there's no information for the eyes to say we are moving. It's just, oh, everything is still.

But the fluids in your ears, they obey the laws of physics. And they are sort of rocking and around and sloshing because you are actually moving. So what's happening there is the brain's getting mixed messages. It's getting signals from the muscles and the eyes saying we are still and signals from the balance sensors saying we're in motion. Both of these cannot be correct. There's a sensory mismatch there. And in evolutionary terms, the only thing that can cause a sensory mismatch like that is a neurotoxin or poison. So the brain thinks, essentially, it's been being poisoned. When it's been poisoned, the first thing it does is get rid of the poison, aka throwing up.

And as a result - so, like, as soon as the brain gets confused by anything like that, it says, oh, I don't know what to do, so just be sick, just in case. And as a result, we get motion sickness because of the brain's constantly worried about being poisoned.

GROSS: Oh, and it is so incredibly not helpful - not your explanation, but...


GROSS: ...The sickness.

BURNETT: No, it's...

GROSS: So....

BURNETT: ...Inconvenient to say the least.

GROSS: So I think it's true that you're more likely to get motion sickness if you're reading in a moving vehicle, not an airplane? This is what I found to be true, just that queasy feeling. I know - like, when I was growing up, I could not read in a car. I could not read in a bus. But I could read in a train, and I could read in a plane.

BURNETT: Is that a Dr. Seuss book?

GROSS: (Laughter) Yes, yes it is.

BURNETT: (Laughter) Could you, could you, on a plane? Could you, could you in a train?

GROSS: (Laughter) So is there any - I'm assuming that this is a common experience, and it's not just me. But perhaps it's just me.

BURNETT: Well, it makes - again, given the explanation I provide, that does make perfect sense because you are - it's not just you're in the vehicle now. When you're reading a book, you are staring at something right in front of you, so you're shutting out a lot of external visual information. Now when you're in a car - a lot of people don't get motion sickness because the brain can effectively intuit this, though some people just are prone to it. It's just a quirk of development.

But you - when you're in a car, you can look out the window. You can see things going by. You can see the passage and movement itself, so that sort of balances the system. The brain's going, oh, look, things moving - I must be moving - and then sort of calms down the sickness response.

But when you're reading, you're looking at sort of a small, static square. And, you know, the external information which would say you're moving, that's shut out even more than it would otherwise be. And you're focusing straight ahead, and your vision's directed elsewhere. So it sort of increases the sensory mismatch, which is causing the sickness in the first place because you are sort of dead - you're looking at a fixed point. And you've got no visual information to try and help, you know, allay the brain's concerns. So yeah, that would make perfect sense.

GROSS: So I think a lot of people outgrow motion sickness. And is that because your brain, over time, adjusts to the mixed message that it's getting when the vehicle is moving, but your body is staying still?

BURNETT: That's probably what's happening, yeah? It's - children are - generally tend to be more prone to things like - which are involve, technically, the brain getting things wrong, things like sleepwalking. Children are far more prone to sleepwalking and things like that and motion sickness. That's because their brains are still developing. They're still being shored up. They're still being refined. They're still forming all the connections they will need for the rest of their lives.

And - this means their systems aren't so efficient yet. So gradually and over time, they will sort of lose the excessive part. They'll refine the more useful components. And as a result, like, the more - the less helpful things the brain does will sort of be slowly fading away because the brain becomes a bit more focused and a bit more refined and efficient over time as we age.

GROSS: So how much is intelligence based on having a good memory? Like, if you have a hard time remembering things you've learned, then you can't build on those things. You can't use those things to synthesize, you know, an analysis of, you know, a text or politics or whatever. So are memory and intelligence intertwined and dependent on each other?

BURNETT: Yes, to a certain extent. A lot of psychologists differentiate between two types of intelligence. There's crystallized intelligence, which is like things you remember, things you've learned and the information you have access to. So someone on a quiz show, for example, would be - you know, someone who's a champion of a quiz show, they would have very high crystallized intelligence because they can just remember all this information, all these facts and recall them at a moment's notice as and when they need to. So that's a very high crystallized intelligence.

But that's not the only element of intelligence. There's also something we call fluid intelligence. And that's the ability to apply the information, the ability to work with it, the ability to process it. So let's say Sherlock Holmes - like, he's presented with three different things. And he can go ah - put these things together. They show that the killer was there at midnight, and he had a brown dog.

And that's more like fluid intelligence because taking abstract information and processing it and working with it and applying it to the situation in front of you - so crystallized intelligence is, like, the information you have. Fluid intelligence would be your ability to use that information and extrapolate from it and to apply it in real world situations.

So the two are quite different in many ways. Like, fluid intelligence, a lot of research suggests, that declines as we get older just because our brains just age and become slightly less efficient over time with just general wear and tear, whereas crystallized intelligence doesn't seem to have any ceiling on it. It just keeps expanding as we get older, assuming, of course, our brains still keep working as they should and no new degeneration occurs.

GROSS: I thought it was the other way around - that your ability to synthesize things does not decrease with age, but your ability to just kind of, like, memorize things and retrieve facts does.

BURNETT: Well, a lot of people sort of claim that, yes. But a lot of the research suggests that it's actually the other way around in that you can - I think it's more a case of you can't stop remembering things. Like, you don't reach the age 65 and suddenly don't remember anything from that point on because, obviously, that's not what happens, unless you have some sort of serious disorder, of course.

But, anyway, you can carry on building up information over time. When you're 80 years old, you remember what happened yesterday or the day before. And you remember way to go, and you remember your appointments. So you can still build on the crystallized intelligence. It's just that the parts which process information tend to get a bit rusty. So that - according to the science, that's one argument anyway. But as I say in the book a lot, with most neuroscience claims and studies, you'll find another one which says the opposite pretty easily because it's a very confusing organ.

GROSS: Do you think of yourself as having a good memory?

BURNETT: I think I would say that I do have a good memory, but not for everything because, like, the brain does seem to have a tendency to specialize or to have preferences for the things it likes to remember in its process. Some people are better at maths. Some people are better at music and things, whereas I, too, I guess, tend to have a good memory for episodes of "The Simpsons" or jokes I've heard or people I've met recently and, like, anecdotes. But things like household organization and bills to pay, I tend to have a rather poor memory for these things as my wife will constantly tell me. So yeah, I have good memory in some ways and not in others.

GROSS: So you write a blog for The Guardian called "Brain Flapping."


GROSS: What's the most commented on post that you've written?

BURNETT: This - it came as a surprise the first time, but it shouldn't have in hindsight. I've written about a lot of things like trying to deal with some controversial subjects like transgender issues - that was quite a hot-button one and immigration, whether it's good or bad; and same-sex marriage got a lot of responses. But the most controversial post I did in terms of the most angry comments I got was whether or not you should put milk in your tea before the water or after.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BURNETT: That is such - it was the most British thing you'll ever hear, I know. But that is like - that was the most - even my parents got involved in that one, which they never normally do.

GROSS: Wait. So what was your argument?

BURNETT: Well, there's a study which says you should put milk in first, but that actually only applies to if you use it from a teapot in a sort of bone china cup because, obviously, it takes the heat off the tea so the cup doesn't fracture. But if you use a mug, then it's a different process, and it went down into the chemistry of it. And it came down to the fact that you should put it first or last, depends on how you like it because it's all about taste perception and the ritual and the psychology behind it.

But that diplomatic copout wasn't enough for some people. They decided that I should hear, in no uncertain terms, how wrong I was.

GROSS: So which do you do?

BURNETT: Me, I put milk in second actually. But I might actually be kicked out of the country for this, but I can't tell either way. And that's not something a British person wants to hear. But yes, I'm not actually fussed either way. I can take it both ways.

GROSS: Nice to know that tea is click bait in England.

BURNETT: (Laughter) Very much so.

GROSS: Dean Burnett, thank you so much for talking with us.

BURNETT: No problem at all. Thank you very much for having me, Terry.

GROSS: Dean Burnett is the author of the book "Idiot Brain: What Your Head Is Really Up To." He writes the science blog "Brain Flapping" for the British newspaper The Guardian. After we take a short break, we'll hear from comic Ali Wong whose comedy special is frank and funny on subjects ranging from being Asian-American to her sex life and being pregnant. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our guest comedian Ali Wong released her first comedy special in May on Netflix. Marc Maron called it, quote, "the most honest, rawest, funniest special I've seen in years," unquote. In Wong's special titled "Baby Cobra," she talks about being Asian-American, stereotypes, interracial dating and prejudice within the Asian-American community. She's also very frank and funny when talking about her sex life, what it was like to have her body transformed by pregnancy and having had a miscarriage.

When she recorded her comedy special, she was seven and a half months pregnant. She's since had her daughter and is trying to make the demands of motherhood and standup comedy compatible. She'll perform as part of the Funny Or Die Oddball Comedy Festival later this summer. She spoke with FRESH AIR producer Ann Marie Baldonado. They started with a clip from "Baby Cobra."


ALI WONG: So I don't know if you guys can tell, but I am seven and a half months pregnant.


WONG: Yeah. It's very rare and unusual to see a female comic perform pregnant because female comics don't get pregnant.


WONG: Just try to think of one. I dare you. There's none of them. Once they do get pregnant, they generally disappear. That's not the case with male comics. Once they have a baby, they'll get up on stage a week afterwards and they'll be like, guys, I just had this [expletive] baby. That baby's a little piece of [expletive]. It's so annoying and boring. And all these other dads in the audience are like, that's hilarious. I identify. And their fame just swells because they've become this relatable family funny man all of a sudden. Meanwhile, the mom is at home chapping her nipples, feeding the [expletive] baby. She's busy.


ANN MARIE BALDONADO, BYLINE: That's a scene from "Baby Cobra." Ali Wong, welcome to FRESH AIR.

WONG: Oh, thanks so much for having me.

BALDONADO: So I find your performance, the physicality of your performance, in this special so empowered. You took this thing, pregnancy, that's usually thought of as making women vulnerable or weak and you turned that idea on its head. It also blows the theory of, you know, are women funny kind of out of the water because, you know, here's a woman being as womanly as she can possibly be. And, you know, this special's so funny. Can you talk about choosing to do the special while seven and a half months pregnant?

WONG: Yeah. I had originally - I've been doing comedy now for, I think, 11 years. And for the past four years, people have come to me and been like, when are you going to do a special? When are you going to do a special? And I wasn't ready yet. I didn't feel like I was ready. And then finally, when I got pregnant the first time around, I was like, OK, I have to do it now because if I don't do it now I'm never going to do it because if I have a kid who knows I'm going to feel with all the hormotions (ph) and everything and I might just stop.

And then I had a miscarriage. And then I was depressed, and I was like, forget it. We're not going to do it. And then I got pregnant again, and I was like, OK, we've got to do it now because I'm never going to do it. And I had that feeling again where I was like - I was panicked and I had all this anxiety about how the baby would change my career. And I wanted, you know, to associate her with changing it for the better, and she absolutely has. So it worked in that sense. But it was more - it was more a personal decision than it was, like, oh, I think this is going to be really funny if people see me pregnant on stage.

BALDONADO: In that clip that we just heard, you sort of bring up the double standard that happens that, you know, male comedians can sort of instantly come back. But for female comedians, it's a different story if you get pregnant or if you have kids. Is that something that you were scared of? Were you scared that it would mean, like in - you say in the clip that you might disappear like other female comedians?

WONG: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I've seen many female comics that a lot of people haven't heard of who are so funny. And I saw them come up and they were working so hard, and then all of a sudden they had a baby and they just got tied up in motherhood. And eventually, they kind of just stopped doing standup and I thought it was such a shame you know?

But, I mean, even now when I go out, people are like, what are you doing here? Didn't you just have a baby? But people never ask, like, a male comic when he's out a week later, like, oh, my God, you are so irresponsible. What are you doing out? Who's taking care of the baby? She's six months old now, but when I first started going out, people couldn't believe that I was out and about already.

The other thing with standup is that it's kind of like keeping in shape, you know, like lifting weights. Like, if you skip a week, you really revert. You get worse. It's an art form where you have to really go up every single night. And it's not very forgiving if you take a break.

So in giving birth, I mean, I knew that I would have to take a break after I had a baby. I just didn't know that it would be, like, six weeks long. And taking a six-week break was a very big deal for me. I have never taken that long of a break from standup other than my honeymoon, which was 14 days long.

BALDONADO: Did you really have - you mentioned this in the special - did you really have friends who told you to not have a kid because it might ruin your career?

WONG: I did, yeah. I did have some female standup friends who - they didn't tell me to not have a kid, but they were asking questions about why and, you know, to think about really what would happen to me as a standup if I had a kid. But I have to say that, you know, what was really encouraging was, you know, I had a talk with Chris Rock about getting married and having kids. And I expressed to him that I was really anxious about it, and I was really worried about how it would affect my career.

And he said to me, you know what Ali? I think that if you do get married and have kids that you will actually have a real shot at being truly famous. And I'm talking about the kind of famous, well, your mother knows who you are, not my own mother, but, like, a mother, you know, like a household name. And he said because most of America is married and has kids. And that really changed my perspective, you know, because then it was kind of the beginning of me thinking about how to use my marriage and my pregnancy as not a source of downfall and weakness but instead as a source of power and relatability.

BALDONADO: Have you found already that your comedy has changed since having a baby?

WONG: Yeah. I mean, I'm much more excited about the material, the stuff I've been doing since the special since the baby was born. I'm so much more excited about that also because, I mean, I'm so sick of all the material that I did in "Baby Cobra." I was so done with it. But, yeah, I mean, it's so crazy to connect to this whole population now of parents and talk about breastfeeding and mommy groups and preschool searches. And, you know, having a take on that I think is - it's been really wonderful.

BALDONADO: Can you give us an example of something you're working on right now that's kind of new in the last six months?

WONG: I could go on and on about breastfeeding.

WONG: I mean, I (laughter), like, it just - I thought it was supposed to be, like, this beautiful bonding ceremony where I would feel like I was sitting on a lily pad in a meadow and bunnies would gather at my feet while the fat-Hawaiian-man version of "Somewhere Over The Rainbow" would play. But really it's like this savage ritual that just reminds you that all of us, we're nothing but mammals.

We ain't special, you know? I mean, when she gets hungry, my baby girl, she yanks my nipple back and forth like that bear F-ing up Leonardo DiCaprio in "The Revenant." It's frightening. I mean, and just, like, the lactation consultant - all of these things surrounding it. I mean, when you become a mother, it's, like, you just seek aid from so many white hippy witches - doulas, lactation consultants, you know, all these placenta encapsulation people, all these white hippie witches who you pay, like, $500, white hippie lady, $500 Mrs. Sorcerer.

Yeah, I mean, I could go on and on about it, some of it funny, some of it extremely tragic and not so funny. Pumping's a whole thing. You have to get naked at work - all that stuff, you know, so...

BALDONADO: Well, I think - and it relates to your other comedy because your other comedy is kind of talking about, like, sex and your body in a way that a lot of people can relate to but people don't talk about that much in public.

WONG: Right.

BALDONADO: So all this breastfeeding stuff, I think, a lot of people who don't have kids yet don't know any of this stuff. And then it's kind of like trial by fire. Like, all of a sudden, you need to know all these things.

WONG: Yeah, and it's raw and it's dirty too. You know, like, one of my managers was, like, not that excited about me talking about motherhood. And he's like, I don't know, Ali, you know, it's not as hardcore as the stuff you used to do. And I was like, well, I think having a baby sliced out of you is pretty hardcore.


BALDONADO: I'm wondering if being pregnant and giving birth has changed your feelings about your body and sex at all. I mean, you talk about - in this special, you talk a lot about it. But it was sort of before you had the baby. Has your thinking about those things changed since having the baby?

WONG: Yeah, I mean, when you give birth to a baby, your body, like, disintegrates. It continues to disintegrate. That's why women need maternity leave. It's not to bond with the baby. You need to, like, heal your body. (Laughter) I mean - so for example, when I was breastfeeding and I got a clogged duct, that's, you know, when you get, like, a kidney stone. That's when you get, like, a traffic jam on the 405 in your breast.

And you have to call a white hippie witch, a lactation consultant to come over to your house. A lactation consultant is a white hippie witch that you pay, like, $200 to behave like the Wolf from "Pulp Fiction." He tells you to gather, like, a bowl of hot water and a towel and, you know, a fresh diaper - telling you to gather all this stuff.

And she had me on my hands and knees dipping my boob in and out of a bowl of hot water and then punching my breast with a fist. And I was like, this is ridiculous. I mean, I can't be doing this at work, you know? And then my body, like, how is my husband supposed to see me as a sexual being anymore when, you know, he sees all this going on?

So, yes, in other words, my perspective has changed about my body and sex a lot. It can't help but change 'cause your body has gone through the most drastic transformation in the world.

BALDONADO: Did that work? (Laughter) Did the dipping in the water and then the punching work?

WONG: Oh, yeah, it worked. Yeah, I mean, I'm, like, an expert now on how to unclog a duct. Now I'm the Wolf from "Pulp Fiction." And now my friends will call me (laughter).

GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR producer Ann Marie Baldonado recorded with comic Ali Wong. Her comedy special "Baby Cobra" is on Netflix. They'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR producer Ann Marie Baldonado recorded with comic Ali Wong. Her comedy special "Baby Cobra" is on Netflix.

BALDONADO: Now, you're married to an Asian-American man. And you talk about dating and the interracial and interethnic politics of who Asian-American women date. You talk about that in your special and in your comedy. I'm going to play a clip from this special. Here you are talking about it, about being married to someone else who is also Asian-American.


WONG: But I think that for marriage, it can be nice to be with somebody of your own race. The advantage is that you get to go home and be racist together.


WONG: You get to say whatever you like. You don't have to explain [expletive]. My husband, half Filipino, half Japanese. I'm half Chinese and half Vietnamese. And we spend 100 percent of our time [expletive] on Korean people. It's amazing.


BALDONADO: That's a clip from "Baby Cobra." I will say, though, first and foremost, your special is just incredibly funny. But, you know, you kind of touch on these larger issues here that aren't always talked about. You know, like, this kind of issue of racism in the Asian-American community. And it's, like, that's the kind of stuff that maybe gets talked about in the community.

But they aren't talked about much in public. It's, like, dirty laundry airing. Do you think about that before putting it into your standup?

WONG: I mean, at the end of the day, I'm not really trying to make a statement with any of my standup. My goal is really to just make people laugh with integrity, like, with something that I still find funny. So, you know, with that joke, I was surprised that it worked so well because I didn't think that - I just didn't know if other people who weren't Asian-American could maybe identify with.

WONG: So, you know, with that joke, I was surprised that it worked so well because I didn't think that - I just didn't know if other people who weren't Asian-American could maybe identify with. But, like, you know, I mean, Latino people can certainly identify because, you know, Asian-American is this crazy, like, umbrella term that encapsulates, like, so many different cultures, you know, that are so different.

And same thing with Latino - like, that's - everybody in, like, Central America, South America, the Dominican Republic. It's like very - it's extremely diverse. So of course there's going to be, like, interracial, like, racism and stuff. And it's funny, you know? So I wasn't trying to, like, (laughter) bring inter-Asian racism to...

BALDONADO: To the forefront.

WONG: ...Light - to the mainstream. That was not my agenda. It was just like, oh, this is funny. This works.

BALDONADO: Well, soon after this clip that we played - so you say that you're a half-Chinese and half-Vietnamese. And your husband's half-Japanese and half-Filipino. And then can you - do you - could you just say what - your next joke about that, which I think...

WONG: Oh, right. So we're both half-fancy Asian and half-jungle Asian.

BALDONADO: Which to me, as a Filipino-American woman with, you know, a little bit of other stuff in there, too...

WONG: You're party Asian.

BALDONADO: (Laughter).

WONG: Yeah, you're DJ Asian.

BALDONADO: (Laughter). I'm sing and dance Asian.


BALDONADO: But I just laughed and laughed because I hadn't really ever heard of it - heard it put that way.

WONG: Yeah, 'cause there's, like, a real divide. I mean, like, you look at - my husband and I went to Japan for a honeymoon. And you look at, like, the presentation of the food. And it's ridiculous. You know, it looks like a Mondrian painting or something. Like, this - everything looks like a bunch of little Hello Kitty erasers.

When you eat, like, a little bento box in Japan, it's so precise and beautiful and processed and neat. And then, you know, like some of my Japanese-American friends will see me going to town on a bowl of pig's feet. And they'll be like, oh, my God, you jungle Asian (laughter). And it's just, like, we're the same.

Like, I'm not supposed to feel bad about what I'm eating in front of you guys. But I do because it's different, you know? But, like, with my husband, I do really appreciate the fact that even though we're, like, different kinds of Asian, we - there is, like, a cultural shorthand between us. And I don't have to explain anything. You know, I've dated guys before who weren't Asian-American.

And it frustrated me when I would have to defend why beans belong in a dessert. You know, like, they thought it was so weird. Or, like, when I take them out to a meal - like a dim sum or something - and they'd be like, what is that? What is that? Why is that not a sandwich? And I was like, just eat the food. I did not drive, like, an hour to Monterey Park to become a dim sum teacher (laughter).

BALDONADO: Now, another aspect of your special that's getting a lot of coverage is the fact that you tell this joke about having a miscarriage. I think you've said that you try the joke out a bunch of times before figuring out whether or not to include it in the special. Did you have to get to a certain point before joking about it? Did you have to process at first? Or was that something you kind of did right away?

WONG: Before deciding to do it?


WONG: I started talking about my miscarriage right away. Like, I think the day after it happened, I think I got up on stage and started talking about it. And it was not going very well. And it did not go well for a while.

And Laurie Kilmartin, who is also a very funny standup comic, who's a mom, as well - and she writes for Conan - had told me, I think that people need to know that you're OK in order for that joke to work - 'cause she was like, those jokes are really funny. But people, I think, need to just feel like you're OK.

And whether it was, like, my attitude that changed, where maybe I became more at peace and OK with it, or if it was the fact that people could see that I was pregnant, and maybe that's how they defined being OK - pregnant again. But after a while, it did just start to work. But I really kept persisting with it because I did feel, like, really passionate about talking about it.

BALDONADO: Yeah, the thing about miscarriages is they're very common. But you wouldn't know that because people don't often talk about it. I personally - I had a miscarriage. And I felt - you didn't - I didn't know how many people had them until I told people. Then you sort of...

WONG: Right.

BALDONADO: ...People start talking about it. And maybe it's 'cause there's a little bit of guilt involved, even though you don't really do anything to get a miscarriage. But it's - you sort of kind of blame your body for not doing it.

WONG: You feel that.


WONG: Right.

BALDONADO: Is that - did you experience that yourself?

WONG: Of course. You know, I thought to myself, is it because I did slip and I did eat that piece of raw cucumber? Is it because I did a twist in yoga during the first trimester when I didn't know that I was pregnant? Is it because, you know, I walked by these people who were smoking?

There was all sorts of things. Is it because, you know, of karma? Is it because I was mean to this person in first grade and pushed them when I shouldn't have? I mean, yeah, there's all sorts of blame that I think women put on themselves. It's very easy to do that. But, you know, even now, just hearing you - someone who I'm talking to - had a miscarriage, you know, I feel for you.

And at the same time, I am so grateful that you told me that. And it makes me feel so comforted to know that you had one, too, you know? I mean, it's one thing to hear the statistic and to hear that it's very common. And it's another to put a face and a voice to another person who has had a miscarriage, as well, you know?


WONG: So again, like I said, I don't like to make statements in comedy. That's not what I'm here to do. I'm here to make people laugh. But for that, you know, one, I - yeah. I mean, to - so she had heard, you know, about all the women who had had it growing up. And she has, like, that very healthy attitude of, like - it's very common. And it's not your fault.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR producer Ann Marie Baldonado recorded with comic Ali Wong. Her comedy special "Baby Cobra" is on Netflix. They'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR producer Ann Marie Baldonado recorded with comic Ali Wong. Her comedy special, "Baby Cobra," is on Netflix.

BALDONADO: I want to play another clip from the special. You talk about hoarding and about helping your mom clean out her house.


WONG: I have a hoarding problem, which I'm hoping is the center of all of my other problems. I'm hoping if the hoarding goes away, the HPV will also disappear.


WONG: I have a hoarding problem because my mom is from a Third World country. And she taught me that you can never throw away anything because you never know when a dictator is going to overtake the country and snatch all of your wealth. So you better hold on to that retainer from the third grade because it might come in handy as a shovel when you're busy stuffing gold up your [expletive] and running away from the communists.


BALDONADO: That's a clip from "Baby Cobra." Was that something that you actually had to do? Did you have to go through stuff in your mom's house?

WONG: Yeah. I mean, I think it's tough with immigrant parents because they're from a different time. You know, they were - they were from, like, a time where things were built to last. And, you know, her worst nightmare is having to buy something again or needing something and then having had it and thrown it away and it going to waste.

BALDONADO: Yeah, I read that your dad sort of came from very modest beginnings and sort of had to work his way...

WONG: Yeah, my dad grew up with straight up no running water. He slept in a twin bed with his two sisters and his mom like "Charlie And The Chocolate Factory" style, like feet at the head, feet at the head alternating. And then I think his dad slept on, like, a bed of newspapers on a floor in their apartment. All the investment was in him. My aunts, his two sisters, didn't get to go to college 'cause my grandparents could only afford for one kid to go to college, and that was my dad.

And I'm so amazed still at how he had all that pressure on him and just took it in stride and just, like, killed it, you know? He became a doctor, and I'm so proud of him still for doing that. It's really hard for people to understand, like, what a quirky person my dad was. And also he could have cared less about what other people thought about him. I mean, if he had to fart, he would do it at the library, at the opera, like the quieter the better (laughter).

And it used to embarrass me so much, but it also made me laugh really hard every single time he did it. And so at the same time, he was also, like, very smart. You know, he was, like, really into poetry, and he was an extremely good painter. And so he kind of had, like, this highbrow, lowbrow thing going on that, you know, really influenced me.

BALDONADO: So are you still performing as much standup as you did before having the baby?

WONG: I don't do it as much. Maybe I just do it, like, I would say a fifth less than when she was inside of me (laughter) because it's pretty painful at night sometimes to not put my daughter to bed...


WONG: ...You know, because it's really sweet when they go to bed and you read them the book and they're cooing and they might laugh or something. And it's kind of a bummer to miss them when they're going to bed. But I try to book shows after she falls asleep. What's nice is that because of the special now, because bookers and people who put on shows in LA have known me for a while, I can ask them and I can request to go up later and have that request granted. But I think for people who are starting out, it's much harder to make motherhood and comedy work because those requests might not get granted.

BALDONADO: Well, Ali Wong, thank you so much.

WONG: Thank you so much.

WONG: Ali Wong's standup comedy special "Baby Cobra" is on Netflix. She's performing standup over the summer and in the fall will be part of Funny Or Die's Oddball Comedy Festival.


GROSS: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Jeffrey Toobin who wrote the definitive book about the O.J. Simpson trial. He has a new book about Patricia Hearst, the newspaper heiress who in 1974 was kidnapped by the incoherent armed radical group the SLA, the Symbionese Liberation Army. We'll talk about her kidnapping and trial and where it fit in the culture, politics and media of the '70s. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR'S executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, John Sheehan, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden and Thea Chaloner. I'm Terry Gross.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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