Exclusive interview with "Dr. Nicole Tetreault"
Neuroscientist Dr. Nicole Tetreault on Her Book Insight Into a Bright Mind, Neurodiversity, Imposter Syndrome, and More
Dr. Nicole Tetreault expressed an interest in science from a very young age. Several personal experiences throughout life, including her mother’s diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease, would push her to harness her passion for science, culminating in a successful career as a neuroscientist, writer, meditation teacher, and speaker. We discussed the moments in Dr. Tetreault’s career that built the foundation of Insight Into a Bright Mind, in addition to the misconceptions about neurodivergent individuals that she hopes to dispel, her writing on imposter syndrome, her program Beyond the Cell, and much more.
Can you tell us about your background in Neuroscience?
As a little girl, I loved to analyze things, to break things apart and put them back together again. Science and creativity were woven into my experience and daily life. I loved following the moon phases, watching the cycles of the moon, and making connections about the magnetic pull and its effects on Earth. I would play in my room for hours writing and documenting the things I saw in the yard, the flowers, birds, and imagining all the different interactions and outcomes. Early on, I was hypothesis testing. It takes quite a great amount of creativity to explore all the various possible outcomes. My mother loved to watch people and reflect on their behaviors. She had such compassion, empathy, and pure adoration for people. She could see all the complexities and find goodness. Sometimes we would sit on a park bench and watch people and take them in. As we did that, I discovered in each moment, each person, each experience I could learn from them.
Inquiry and creativity were nurtured by both my parents and are woven into my being. I could talk for hours about imaginary universes with my mother, and later on, when I had my own son, Spence, he too was bright with a beaming imagination and communicated eloquently. There was never a moment dull moment parenting him. Spence talked and talked and talked with me like I did with my mother. In our case, the apple does not fall far from the tree – or perhaps even the roots are intertwined with companion trees. My mother would tease me and say now, it’s your turn to listen.
Neuroscience was a calling for me as my mother was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease when I was 18. I searched for ways for her to live a good life with a neurodegenerative disorder. This propelled me to study and research PD, launching my lifelong dedication to broad scientific training in neuroscience, physiology, and behavior at UC Davis, UCLA, and Caltech. I received my Ph.D. from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in biology specializing in neurodevelopment and neurodegenerative disorders.
Through my research and studies, I have authored numerous academic papers on intelligence, autism, brain evolution, neuroanatomy, neuroinflammation, brain development, and behavior in journals such as Trends in Cognitive Neuroscience, Annals in New York Academy of Sciences, European Journal of Neuroscience, and Intelligence. My popular science writings can be found in 2e Newsletter, Variations Magazine, GHF Dialogue, SENG Newsletter, Gifted Unlimited, and Great Potential Press.
As I saw my mother live with a progressive illness, I realized my passion for life translated and communicated the most beneficial and positive life practices in neuroscience and positive psychology. To do that, I founded Awesome Neuroscience, where I communicate the most promising neuroscience and positive psychology for people to live their best life.
As I began to communicate neuroscience, I discovered my son was gifted and I knew he navigated differently in the world and different from me. I wanted to best support him with compassion and understanding. I quickly began to study giftedness and twice-exceptionality (2e), where an individual is both gifted and has a learning difference. I wanted to lead people that are gifted and 2e to a better self-concept. I deeply researched neurodiversity including autism, giftedness, and 2e for over two decades in relation to the brain and body and I am passionate about sharing my knowledge and approach to neurodiversity. Being 2e myself, both gifted and having dyslexia, I understand the 2e experience with an embodied awareness.
I researched extensively, reading over 1000 papers, and I began speaking at conferences about giftedness to share my findings. Then, I was approached by Great Potential Press to write a book on giftedness and neurodiversity. I began to write Insight into a Bright Mind. My book explores groundbreaking research examining the experiences of unique, creative, and intense brains through interviews, storytelling, and literary science while advocating for new directions of human diversity and neurodiversity. A book was born and I feel that we are at the beginning of the neurodiversity movement centered on engendering greater awareness of diversity and providing greater equity and inclusion for all people.
I am a scientist and writer who knows “both sides” of the knowledge I have gained through my research studies; I am both a passionate intellectual and a devoted caregiver looking to help people I love. I firmly believe that a healthy body and healthy mind have to work in unity for each of us to reach our highest potential. My mission is to deliver accurate information so you can choose the best practices to live a happy and healthy life. My intention is to nurture global health and wellness.
As a global health expert, I am dedicated to enhancing lives through holistic practices that develop positive thought processes, cultivation of self-compassion, and nurturing one’s insight into their self-actualization.
What inspired you to write Inside into a Bright Mind?
My passion for storytelling and communicating science about the complexities of individual intelligence and sparked me to tell personal stories with science that are woven in Insight into a Bright Mind. I wanted to teach people about our neuro-uniqueness woven with our genetics, experiences, and the way we nurture ourselves. Often, we misunderstand bright people because they think, communicate and act differently than the norm. I wanted to demystify many of the misconceptions about the brain and create a more inclusive awareness of the complexities of the mind and bring forward the richness in the diversity highlighting the positive aspects of thinking and being different. I wanted to bring neurodiversity into a bright light. So many people are fed the message they don’t fit in, or they are not worthy, and I wanted to bring forward ways to feed the minds of diverse people with affirming brain messages. The brain is nurtured by the kind of thoughts we feed ourselves with. We can feed our minds with junk food or with highly nutrient-rich food. I wanted to feed people messages of the positive aspects of neurodiversity the good food of positive thoughts like blueberries rich with antioxidants and nutrients to support optimal health.
For example, someone on the autism spectrum has a different communication style. As a society, we need to be more flexible and open to different ways of communicating. We need to see beyond labels – instead, we need to “see” and appreciate the incredible human right in front of us. I also feel that with greater awareness there is a natural level of compassion for diversity across the human spectrum. And when we can “see” the beauty in the uniqueness there is greater inclusion and harmony in society.
There are 7.8 billion people on the planet, each with its very own unique brain print. Of that, one in five people is neurodiverse, experiencing the world uniquely. Bright and twice-exceptional (2e) people often have enhanced emotional, sensory, motor, imaginational, and intellectual processing due to their brain wiring. In our society, there are many misunderstood aspects of the bright people filled with misidentifications, misinformation, and myths.
I wanted to communicate that the differences in neurodiverse people are grounded in having a differently wired brain and physiological responses that feed into their behaviors and actions that tend to be different than the norm. Neurodiversity is a part of the spectrum of the human experience. As a society, we must come together to open our minds to human diversity, including the uniqueness of brain, body, and mind connections, and create greater awareness and inclusion in our society.
I wanted to build a bridge and open dialogue in our society to rethink neurodiversity and revolutionize our thinking about intelligence as a whole. That there is so much going on in the mind of each individual and our external measures can entirely miss the complexities of a brilliantly differently wired mind.
Also, it is imperative that we see the strengths in these different brain types in neurodiverse people. We must nurture the strengths and the entire being. When we build from the strengths no one is left behind. Neurodivergent people can be seen for their unique qualities and are better to share their natural gifts with the world. In fact, people with ASD, ADHD, dyslexia, sensory sensitivity, and emotional intensities bring great value to society as a whole!
My main message is: you are okay exactly as you are. There is nothing about you that needs fixing or improvement. You are uniquely beautiful. The more we can see people as they are, the more we see the uniqueness they bring.
What is one major misconception about neurodivergent individuals that you would like to correct?
That neurodivergent people need to be fixed or changed. Neurodivergent people get the message from society that they are outsiders and they need to conform to living in a box of “normal.” That something is wrong with them.
I want people to know that neurodivergent stems from different brain wiring. There is a lot of creativity and brilliance in neurodivergent people – we can learn from unique thinkers! The truth is when we actually research the complexities of intelligence, neurodivergent people are highly intelligent, highly creative. And their uniqueness and biodiversity in society is necessary for our advancement and development. And when we focus on the positive strengths of each individual they can express amazing things. Through positive self-view, an individual can share their natural gifts which betters society as a whole.
The second half is that due to different brain wiring neurodivergent people may need special supports in place to help them be successful. Like a child that has sensory sensitivity may need all the tags cut off their clothes and may need to work in solitude and complete silence as noises can interrupt their concentration. Once the proper supports are in place a neurodivergent individual can thrive.
Neurodivergence is a spectrum and we can benefit from learning and understanding the way that different people navigate in the world. Neuroscience studies are expanding our understanding daily, shaping our ideas as a society, and we are only scratching the surface. My hopeful message for each reader is this: you will be inspired to embrace your diversity, speak your voice, and embody being in your essence. Once we fully embrace our essence, we are open to the infinite and the collective as we live the life we imagine.
What is the most surprising thing you learned while writing your book?
That I am a writer. I learned through the process of writing I have been a writer my entire life and I communicate in words. I am highly verbal and I love language and expression. Writing about science through personal stories, interviews, metaphors, and poetry, I found my voice. I write literary science. I have journaled all my life, collecting moments, collecting people’s stories, collecting sunsets and landscapes, and that all of that writing prepared me in that very moment to write this book. That every moment in my life is part of the collection process to bring me here – right now – to this very moment, and the next and the next. That when I think about writing as a process it’s not intimidating and I let go of the doubt. That is the process, being a work in progress, it is always a moment of becoming and rebirthing. Through my mistakes and imperfection, stories and a writer are born.
You've written about 'imposter syndrome' in the past - can you define the phrase and discuss your findings?
Imposter syndrome is that gnawing voice inside of you telling you that you are a fraud, that your success is just a fluke, and that you are just lucky. Do identify with this? Perhaps sometimes, most of the time, occasionally? Imposter syndrome can show up out of the blue. You may have done something a hundred times and the hundred and first time, you tell yourself you are a fraud and fall into a pit of self-doubt. My goal in writing and speaking about imposter syndrome is to help you understand how and why it shows up for you.
Imposter syndrome is found in 70% of the population. People experience imposter syndrome in varying degrees, and the experience can be transient so that a person can feel like an imposter at any time, depending on the circumstances.
Also, imposter syndrome is found in a broad demographic range and it is found across all races, genders, and... so, basically everyone.
Frequent feelings of imposter syndrome are fear, anxiety, guilt, and shame, all of which can lead to low self-esteem, anxiety, and even depression.
Often, a person struggling with imposter syndrome has vast amounts of self-doubt, so they lack the foundation to develop and nurture their self-trust. A person is missing the neural patterning, thinking, emotional regulation, and behavioral responses that one has for self-confidence and self-esteem.
Dr. Valerie Young, in her workshops, classified five archetypes of imposters and how these different archetypes manifest.
There is the perfectionist, where imposter syndrome and perfectionism go hand-in-hand. Perfectionists have exceedingly high standards and experience excessive concern when they feel they are not measuring up to their expectations. The truth, minor flaws, and mistakes are a part of life. And the sooner a perfectionist can accept this, the less they feel like an imposter.
The “expert” centers their attention on “how much” and “what” they know. Experts never feel as if they will know everything and constantly doubt themselves, feeling that they do not know enough. The truth, no matter what there is always something to learn so the expert sees it as an opportunity to build your knowledge. As Einstein said, “Creativity is intelligence having fun.”
The “natural genius,” has many natural gifts so often things come to them easily. The natural genius needs to come to terms with the fact that not everything comes easily. Actually, the effort is woven with natural intelligence and competence. The effort reflects the ability to use your natural gifts.
The “soloist,” feels they must do everything alone and cannot depend on others for their support or help. They tend to overwork and internalize anxiety struggling in isolation. For the soloist, open to the idea that when you receive support that you are more capable of doing things at a higher level. Be comfortable with being vulnerable and accept support.
The “superhuman” feel they must excel across all areas and domains in their life. They are often workaholics and need a great deal of validation and approval. Superhumans need to remove themselves from their need for external validation and come to terms with feeling good about themselves from within.
Identifying the type of imposter syndrome you fall into is helpful in managing your experiences with it. After you map out the common experiences, emotions, and behaviors this way, you can better tackle the imposter phenomena when it arises and remove your imposter mask.
Knowing this you can begin to identify where imposter syndrome shows up for you. Is it at home, work, in a current relationship?
Developing support and guidance for yourself when you are dealing with imposter syndrome is huge. Talk to people about feeling like an imposter so that you are not suffering in silence and you can gain insights into others’ experience with the imposter monster. Is there someone that you trust that you can talk about your feelings of an imposter?
You are an advocate for meditation. Can you describe the positive benefits of practicing meditation?
I am intense. Anyone who has met me knows this. On the outside, I may seem as if I have everything managed … and most of the time I do. But underneath it all, I have lived with various versions of anxiety throughout my life. Maybe that’s why I write about it and dissect it as much as I do.
The game-changer for me in managing my anxiety is meditation. I don’t think I would be where I am without my meditation practice. I first came into meditation after my mother’s passing. I was at an all-time low in my life. I had completed my Ph.D. at Caltech and my mother passed away three months after my thesis defense. Neuroscience was my lifeline. My mother died from Parkinson’s disease, a neurodegenerative disorder. Over my course work, I dreamed there would one day be a cure. Time passed and science is slow, and even though there are many brilliant scientists working on treatments, none were in time for my mother. I was in pain and I was suffering. Layers of loss filled the center of my chest, and a massive black hole emerged. As I floated through the stages of grief, I came across Insight LA and signed up for my first meditation course.
As I practiced meditation, my anxiety, monkey brain, and worried mind calmed. After that class, I was hooked. I’ve since taken numerous trainings, even meditated with monks in Nepal, and continue to take training. Now, I teach meditation. The beautiful thing about meditation, you can always practice with a beginner’s mind because every meditation is something new. Currently, I am training with Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach through the UC Berkeley Greater Good Science and Sounds True in a two-year program to expand my teaching and mediation practice. Sharing the practice with others is a joyous experience as I guide people to sit and be with what arises.
Mindfulness is the practice of becoming presently aware of the current moment and is often an entry point into meditation. Mindfulness meditations are one of the many forms of guided meditation practices. Meditation is a practice that centers the mind and body to shift into greater awareness of oneself and one’s environment. Meditation is not about doing, or getting somewhere; meditation is shifting one’s awareness into the present moment. We live in a world where we have 24/7 access to information, and we are continuously navigating many attentional shifts. Guided meditation provides balance to focus the mind and one’s attention. Through the practice of meditation, the mind builds brain pathways centered on concentration and awareness. This is known as neural plasticity. Guided meditation improves attention, emotional balance, compassion, self-awareness, fear regulation, intuition, body regulation, communication skills, and mental flexibility. Guided meditation creates an overall sense of calm.
A foundational practice of meditation is focusing one’s attention on their breath. The breath is a gateway into the present moment. Connecting to the flow of one’s breath awakens the mind-body connection. I recommend starting small. Begin with a three-minute breath. Significantly, taking three diaphragm-deep breaths centers the nervous system and helps to calm the body and mind by releasing positive neurochemicals. Tuning into one’s breath builds greater awareness and focus on the present moment.
There is a wealth of studies supporting how meditation produces positive neurobiological and neurophysiological effects, including brain expansions, balancing neurotransmitters, and increasing alpha brain waves—all of which correspond with a calmer brain. Studies have shown that meditation practices enhance neurotransmitter balance in the brain in many regions. For example, patients who practice mediation show a decrease in norepinephrine, a hormone that activates sympathetic activation, for the stress response. Meditation has been shown to induce relaxing brain waves—the alpha brain waves—when measured via electroencephalogram. Individuals who meditated had an increase in the alpha brain waves in contrast to participants who did not meditate. The brain is in a more relaxed and calm state when meditating and brain activity drives reactions and behaviors that are more balanced. Neurophysiological changes at the level of neurotransmitters and brain activity ultimately rewire the brain circuitry for neural pathways, constructing a more harmonious brain and way of being. A research team at Harvard showed mindfulness stimulates neural plasticity where the brain rewires circuity by reducing the volume of the stress circuitry and enhancing brain pathways related to better emotional regulation and enhanced thinking. Studies show that a meditation practice focused on loving-kindness develops prosocial behavior by focusing on compassion and cultivating more compassionate behavior. People who engage in daily loving-kindness practice have consistently reported in numerous studies an increase in positive emotions and interpersonal connections. What’s more, these meditators better understood complex thoughts in themselves and others.
It has been eight years since my first meditation class, and I continue to meditate every morning. Some days I meditate throughout the day if I need to calm my mind. Especially if I am stressed or drained, a midday meditation can clear my mind so that I feel restored. And sometimes I even get in a wink of shut-eye during my midday meditation. I’ve learned that not every sit feels completely blissed out, nor do I always have some deep insight, but I have learned to sit. Sometimes I sit in peace, sometimes I sit with anger, sometimes I sit with incessant thoughts, and sometimes I sit with boredom. I sit with the waves as they arise like joy, fear, doubt, and hope. I sit with the human condition. I sit with my vulnerability. And I then awaken.
My eight years of meditation training include a broad spectrum and deep study. I am a new generation of meditation teachers, fusing neuroscience with the ancient Asian art of meditation. My training expands from Bön, Dzogchen, and Insight lineages, studying with Dr. Raven Lee and Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche in Buddhist practices. More recent practices with Vince Horn and the Buddhist Geeks team have focused on social and contemplative meditation. In 2021, I began a two-year program with Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach through the UC Berkeley Greater Good Science and Sounds True to expand my insight into meditation practices and teachings. My grounded understanding of neuroscience allows me to create practices to guide one’s mind to positive mind states and adaptive behaviors while strengthening positive neural plasticity and mental states. I have a passion to bring these practices to the masses and the most in need populations including incarcerated and post-incarcerated women. I believe that through meditation and mindfulness, we can guide the mind to more peaceful states.
Can you talk about Beyond the Cell?
My wildest dreams for 2020 all came true with the launch of the Beyond the Cell program made possible through the Milton Career Exploration Prize from Caltech. As a recipient of the Milton Career Exploration Prize from Caltech, I founded the novel non-profit, Beyond the Cell, a transformative program seeking to rehabilitate incarcerated and post-incarcerated women through guided meditation, neuroscience, literature, and expressive writing. I believe we each have the ability to wire our minds for positive plasticity through compassion and wisdom and live the life we dream. Incarcerated women are invisible victims within our society.
Nearly 79% of incarcerated women have suffered a traumatic brain injury from abuse, resulting in severe physical, mental, and emotional trauma. Inmates suffer social isolation with significant neurological, mental, emotional, and behavioral consequences. Exclusion activates the pain centers in the brain, is a risk factor for mental illness and is a major cause of early death. Inmates can also experience challenges re-integrating into society.
Beyond the Cell offers compassionate education and life skills, involving emotional connection, positive reinforcement, and meaning. Guided meditation develops greater self-awareness, cultivates positive neural patterns, and increases compassion. Neuroscience foundational teachings include neuroanatomy, behavior, and emotional conditioning to assist the participants’ understanding of their personal experiences and reactions. Curated literature focuses on storytelling, empathy, and imagination to enhance positive neural plasticity. Finally, self-expression through therapeutic creative writing offers a path to healing.
Ultimately, participants’ writings will be edited into an anthology, weaving neuroscience research through the participant’s stories. In the future, Beyond the Cell can serve as a model for transformative education to help rehabilitate incarcerated women across the nation. I believe in the mission of Beyond the Cell: “No single moment of tragedy or glory defines a person. We are beings in the making. Beyond the Cell, unlock your inner voice and free your mind.”
Beyond the Cell is an educational program developed to help rehabilitate incarcerated women. The program applies research-backed interventions, including guided meditation to enhance positive neural plasticity, foundational neuroscience to retrain behavioral and emotional conditioning, compelling literature to teach storytelling, and guided writing exercises for self-expression, redemption, and healing.
Beyond the Cell aims to heal the scars of trauma, stigma, bullying, social isolation, and incarceration by employing specific education strategies supported by neuroscience. Participants will connect with themselves – and their community – to build a bridge to greater self-awareness and metacognition. The result: a deeper understanding of themselves and others. Participants will use the insights of meditation, neuroscience, and creative writing to achieve healing, rehabilitation, and redemption.
The motto is, “Transform our pain, transform our minds, transform our experience, transform our lives.”
Are you working on any other projects at the moment?
I am writing a book on creativity and the brain that explores the dimensions of the human mind and the divergence of the creative spirit. The book guides the reader to enhance peak experiences, the creative “aha” moments, and creative flow. I am also working on a study guide for Insight into a Bright Mind that will be out in 2022. Also, I wrote a children's book on neurodiversity to help young readers see the strengths in their very own neuro-uniqueness.
Currently, I am working on my non-profit Beyond the Cell, which centers on a transformative program to rehabilitate incarcerated women through teaching guided meditation, neuroscience, literature, and expressive writing. I would like to bring this program to as many communities to improve integration for post-incarcerated women to develop the skills to manage and reshape positive neural patterns and behaviors to fully integrate into society.
To learn more about Dr. Nicole Tetreault and her book Insight Into a Bright Mind, please visit her website here.