Today’s episode is a rebroadcast of one of our very first episodes with actress Mayim Bialik as my guest. It definitely holds a special place in my heart. When we started this podcast, I knew the easiest path to follow would be for me to have highly academic conversations with highly academic guests. I’ve been having those kinds of conversations for 30 years — that’s easy for me. But what I really wanted was for the show to be highly personal, to feel intimate somehow. But I rightfully didn’t have a lot of confidence I’d be able to pull that off. My conversation with Mayim was the first time I took a chance and I lowered my guard and I showed the regular me rather than the academic me. To my great surprise, we clicked. Mayim actually seemed to like me. I never expected that. It was this episode that convinced me I could just be myself on this podcast and everything would be okay. So if you like People I (Mostly) Admire, you mostly have Mayim to thank for it. And what better time to revisit this episode than with Mayim kicking off her new gig as one of the new hosts of Jeopardy!
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Mayim BIALIK: I struggled all the way through undergrad. And I struggled all the way through grad school as well because I’m not a natural science learner. I’m a person who wants to understand deeply the mysteries of the universe. And even if you’re a stay-at-home mom after that, even if you become an actor on a TV show, the knowledge that I have as a scientist has transformed my understanding of my religious life, my parenting life, and really everything about the world that I live in.
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Steven LEVITT: I am so excited to get to speak with Mayim Bialik today. I’ve never talked to her before, this will be the first time we’ve met. But in a strange way, I kind of feel like I know her, having watched her on Big Bang Theory for so many years.
Welcome to People I (Mostly) Admire with Steve Levitt.
LEVITT: I’ll be totally honest with you, I’m not sure that I have much to talk about with a typical Hollywood star, but I’m hoping that Mayim is going to be different. She’s got a Ph.D. in neuroscience and she really seems to play by her own rules. And I just can’t wait to get to know her a little bit and let’s hope I’m right and she’s interesting. We’ll find out.
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Steve LEVITT: Such a pleasure today to talk with Mayim Bialik, renowned actress, neuroscience Ph.D., a bestselling author, a mother of two teenage boys, a producer, and a director. And all of that’s incredibly impressive. But the real reason that I wanted so badly to talk to you is because it seems like you’ve managed to succeed by breaking all the rules, by being true to yourself, and by being authentic. And I don’t see very many people who have the courage to be him or herself and to make their way in the world. So, I’m just really excited to talk to you today, Mayim.
BIALIK: Thank you. I’m very, very honored to speak with you.
LEVITT: All right. Already, by the time you were, I don’t know, maybe 10 or 11, you were an incredibly successful child actor. You had tons of roles on TV even before you landed the role of Blossom and were on primetime network TV for five years. You were maybe 15-years-old when you started that.
BIALIK: I was 14 to 19, yeah.
LEVITT: 14. How does all that get started?
BIALIK: Let’s see. I actually don’t have a typical child-actor story in that most child actors start when they’re toddlers. That was not my story. I wasn’t raised in the industry. I didn’t have Hollywood parents. My parents are actually first-generation Americans. I did not grow up with money.
So, I went to public school in Los Angeles. And I was part of the busing program of the 1970s and 1980s where kids from not-so-great neighborhoods were put on busses early in the morning and they sent us to neighborhoods with more opportunity. And some of those schools had enrichment programs like drama. And what I found was that I really like being on a stage. So, what I said to my parents is, “I really, really like this. And there’s kids on TV, and why can’t I be that kid?”
And I was cast in a movie called Beaches about a year after I started acting. And I played Bette Midler‘s character as a young girl and got a lot of, I guess, notice for that. It was from that that I was cast in Blossom. And to be perfectly honest, no one looked like me on television. There was something called all-American kid in the 80s; I did not look all-American.
I had the blond hair and I had the blue eyes. But I was a very prominent-featured child. I’m a Polish-Hungarian mix. So, I ended up getting character roles, which is the euphemism for the roles they give to people who don’t look all-American.
LEVITT: You talk about character roles, but you seem to have been working nonstop on TV. That must be rare. There must have been hundreds of kids showing up to each of these auditions. And you just kept on getting the parts.
BIALIK: I mean, I didn’t get more parts than I did. You know, this is part of the reason that my parents really weren’t interested in me going into acting is it’s an industry of rejection. It’s an industry of being told, “You’re too this, you’re too that, you’re not enough that.” I mean, it’s really a ridiculous way for anyone to live — an adult, much less a child.
But I definitely was successful enough that I needed to, at some point, do a homeschooling program starting in high school — starting in 11th grade. But otherwise, honestly, I lived a pretty standard-issue life. I still had to do chores. My parents were very strict. Most people didn’t — I don’t wanna say they didn’t like me, but I was a strange kid. And I was a strange teenager. And I’m a strange adult.
LEVITT: What was strange about you as a kid?
BIALIK: I mean, I was bookish. I’m a rule-follower. I wrote with a glass pen and an ink well. And I read Dostoyevsky and Sartre at 15. I was a very tortured soul. And also, I had a very strong and terrifying sense of mortality. Since I was 10-years-old, I’ve cried on every birthday.
I grew up in a home, to be quite honest, riddled with the shadows of the Holocaust. There’s mental illness on both sides of my family. I had O.C.D. as a child and also probably a very high level of anxiety. I had a lot of psychiatric challenges really all through my teen years and into my 20s. And it’s something I live with all the time
LEVITT: It’s amazing that you felt at home in front of the camera, because I think many people who would share some of the challenges you just talked about are absolutely terrified of public speaking.
BIALIK: So, I actually am a very nervous public speaker. I’m also a very nervous performer. My therapist has many opinions about why I like to be — we like to say, “You can hide on a stage.” And I also wasn’t the kind of kid who liked acting because I liked the applause. I really liked getting it right.
LEVITT: It’s interesting you say that about hiding on stage because I was the exact opposite kid. I was terrified of speaking in public. So, for instance, in college, I did not raise my hand once in four years. I didn’t volunteer to talk. But then after I had some success in academics, people wanted me to speak. And I learned how to — I created a persona that I would go into that I would be onstage and present.
And then, one day something happened that was very eye-opening for me. I didn’t fully understand this whole persona thing until I was going to give a TED talk. And as I was waiting to go onstage, the person who introduced me introduced me by saying that, among other things, I was the father of a child who had died. And my son had died at the age of one maybe a year earlier.
And I had gotten very good at putting on my public speaking persona. And when she made that comment, I was shocked back into my regular, I’m-Steve-Levitt persona. And if you watch that TED talk, you can see for the first like 30 seconds, I, literally, don’t know where I am or what I’m doing because I’m struggling to try to get out of my own body and into this fake persona that I live in.
BIALIK: First of all, I’m very sorry for your loss. You touch on a very significant aspect, not just of an actor’s life, but it really is true. We wear masks and we’re sort of acting all the time. I think some people do it more seamlessly than others, but that notion of having to find yourself in yourself again is terrifying. And it is something that performers do under exceptional circumstances as our job.
LEVITT: So I’ve watched a lot of the videos you’ve put up on your YouTube channel where you talk about things happening in your life, whether it’s the decision to homeschool your children or growing older, and it seems to me that you’ve made a choice over time to reveal a lot of yourself to the public.
But not in a senseless way like reality TV, but in a very thoughtful way where in measured doses you really open yourself up for people to see. For instance some of your videos after the Covid lockdown, when you’re clearly in the Covid doldrums. Or when you decided to talk many years later for the first time about being divorced. How do you approach your relationship with the public?
BIALIK: Well, I’d like to thank you for making a distinction between sharing willy-nilly and what I consider to be mindful meaning even if my audience doesn’t always agree, the decisions behind the scenes are often heart wrenching and complicated. But what I have tried to do is really highlight, in a lot of cases, mental health, and also a perspective of someone who really exists because of the resources I’ve been able to have access to to support my growth as a human being, and not just a human doing, as we say.
One of the things that I’ve decided to gear my life towards right now, definitely motivated by being at home and seeing how we’re all being impacted, but I’ve decided to start a podcast. And we’re calling it, Mayim Bialik’s Breakdown, both because it’s just going to be fun to say, “I’m Mayim Bialik and welcome to my breakdown,” but the notion being that I’d like to break down a lot of our preconceived notions and misperceptions about mental health.
And the idea is to present a topic, a specific topic, around mental health and have either an expert or someone who’s an expert because they are living it, to understand where mindfulness plays into these things. What are the holistic things that many people dismiss as hippie-dippy? What’s the science behind them? What are the things that we can actually do to have a better understanding of our mental health so that we literally can live without breaking down? I’m a person who feels very, very deeply all the time. It’s a superpower and it’s also a curse.
LEVITT: My wife has a term. She uses the word “sensitive” to refer to people like you as you’ve described yourself and her. I don’t know if it’s a clinical term or not, but there’s some people that are very empathetic to the suffering of others.
BIALIK: Yeah. They call us highly sensitive people, H.S.P.s. In children, they’re often called “indigo children.” I actually wasn’t so much like this as a child. I was very analytical. I was a problem-solver. But as an adult, I’m one of those people who — and I don’t think there’s necessarily anything mystical to it. There are people who have said to me, “Wow, you have a lot of information about people from knowing very little.” It is a strange superpower. My younger son seems to have inherited it. It can feel very burdensome, I’ll be honest. And, also, beautiful.
LEVITT: I actually have the opposite gift, if you want to call it a gift, of being a little bit on the spectrum. So, I have a hard time actually remembering that other people are alive and are not merely created on the planet to entertain me and my existence. And so, that also is both a superpower and a curse. But it seems to be, if you’re sensitive, being an actor is a crazy choice. Isn’t it?
BIALIK: Yeah. I mean, honestly, I left the industry for 12 years to get a doctorate in neuroscience, partly for this reason, less so that it was necessarily triggering and more that I’m a person who really wants to be appreciated for what’s inside. And the industry does not really highlight that. It’s not made to. It’s not supposed to.
I don’t mean to sound pretentious about it. I’m an artist. I’m a person who feels a strong need to create, to write, to perform, to emote, to make you feel something. That is really where I tend to thrive. It’s where people seem to want to employ me. And it is all the other parts of the industry that are the most trying for me: the publicity, the demands on women, the obsession with appearance and youth. And I’ll be perfectly honest, I am grateful for my job beyond explanation.
But for someone with social anxiety, I absolutely live in a career that does not match my personality. And I do not feel filled up from being around people and talking about myself. I do not get filled up from being complimented, from getting dressed up, leaving my house. These are all things that have really nothing to do with the fact that I can play dress up really well. Right? I can pretend to be someone I’m not in a way that makes you believe it and feel something. To me, that’s my job.
LEVITT: It’s interesting you call it a job because you did say earlier in the conversation how when you were acting in school plays, it was really fun. Did it transform from being really fun to being a job?
BIALIK: Absolutely. Because when you are a child actor — and this is the reason I am not a huge fan, honestly, of people getting their children into acting — you are not allowed to have a bad day. You’re not allowed to be grumpy. You are really responsible for managing your emotions in a way that makes other people happy. And that’s actually exactly what we want to teach our children not to do as humans. And it’s precisely what you’re being taught to do as an actor.
And thinking from a strictly, consumer, capitalist perspective, it’s absolutely necessary. If you want to stare meaningfully into a cow’s eyes before you slaughter it, you’re not going to slaughter many cows in a day. The way we get things done is to essentially depersonalize them. I mean, Marx and Engels figured that out a long time ago.
So, you essentially become part of a system that is an industry. And on any given day, if you’re sad, if you’re— I mean, my first TV acting job was the day that my grandfather was buried. My grandfather died the night before my first TV acting job.
BIALIK: And, you don’t get a hiatus for that. It’s a job.
LEVITT: Yeah. Usually, if you ask people who’ve succeeded at something, they always will say, “Oh, yeah. Follow your dream.” And they’ve been the winners in this big lottery. But it sounds like with you, you are almost saying, even if you win “the lottery,” it’s not as pure of a victory as people might perceive.
BIALIK: I mean, correct. And I happen to be a person of faith. And what I have found that my tradition teaches is that there is not an amount of money in the world that makes you not want more. There is not an amount of possessions in the world that makes you feel done consuming. And at the end of the day, and when you are buried, your gravestone will not tell any of those things.We live in a hyphen. We live in the hyphen between the year that we were born and the year we died. And that’s — I once heard a rabbi say, “What will you do with your hyphen?”
That’s the purpose of my being on this planet is to figure that out, not to make money, and not to make you happy, and not to win an award. There are things that we do in life that we hopefully will find pleasure and joy from. But we’re one of the first generations to actually have that luxury. Also, falling in love with someone? Also, pretty recent in human history. So, when my older son says, “I really think I am really into Shakespeare,” I said, “Great, when you can drive yourself to auditions, you’re welcome to go and pursue that. But what’s your other skillset that you’re going to do in the meantime?”
Because I don’t mean to sound like a terrible mom, but I’m not really into, “follow your passion.” It’s like we all need to get things done on this planet. And the life of a struggling actor is a life of having another job and living off wages that are often not sustainable. It means putting off having children if you’re a woman because that completely curtails your hireability. What kind of life do you want?
LEVITT: So, you’ve written that as a young teen, you believed science and math were for boys. And actually, I suspect that has to do with you being this highly sensitive type, that you picked up on subtle cues that society were giving off that I think I would have been too tone deaf to have heard. But then something happened, obviously, that shifted you out of that mindset. Do you want to explain what that was?
BIALIK: Yeah. I mean, part of it absolutely was this cultural notion. And boys in the 80s and 90s would say to your face, “Girls are stupid. Girls can’t do math and science.” We didn’t know about girl power back then. So, there was definitely a lot of that.
Also, I didn’t have any real role models. I didn’t see any women who were scientists. That’s not how our culture represented it. I will also say that everyone learns differently. And the way that math and science were being taught to me was not working for my brain. Do I think that the way it was being taught doesn’t work for a lot of girl brains?
I’m going to go ahead and say yes, because I think that we need to have a different way to approach how we teach. Because contrary to a lot of current belief, male and female brains are different. We do have different skills. And while those aren’t absolute, there’s absolutely different ways to teach that can please more male and female brains.
LEVITT: How would you teach differently? How should we be teaching STEM stuff differently?
BIALIK: Well, so it actually leads into how I got interested in science. I had a female tutor when I was 15-years-old on the set of Blossom. She was at that time 19. She was a dental undergrad at U.C.L.A. and she came from a prominent Persian-Jewish immigrant family. And she came from a family of girls where they were all encouraged to do science or math or be doctors or be dentists. And this was the first time that I heard a person, and a woman yet, talk about science as if it were poetry.
No one had ever said to me, “The world is this unbelievable place. And look at the details that we can understand as humans.” The only place I had gotten that was in my religious and spiritual upbringing. The world is this unbelievable place. The reason it’s unbelievable is because of science. Right? That’s its own divinity, is what I learned as a teenager. So, one of the things I think about teaching STEM is I think we need both male and female voices in the mix. I think that a lot of people think that a career in science and math is an isolated kind of lifestyle. The kind of lone scientist in a laboratory is what many of us are taught.
And I think that for girls who tend to be more social, meaning more engaged in social interactions and more verbal, that doesn’t sound interesting, to sit alone in a laboratory. But if, as a young girl, I had been told, “Oh, you love animals? Listen to the dozen careers in math and science regarding working with animals. Oh, you’re interested in saving the planet? Look what it’s like to be an environmental biologist. Wouldn’t it be cool to get to take samples from ponds and animals?”
You have to present the full variety of the possibility of STEM in order for us even to see where men and women want to fall in terms of their interest. And those are things that I was absolutely missing. And I was so grateful to meet this woman — Fariza was her name — because no one had ever also taken the time to teach me the way I needed to learn. And I was getting lost in those big classes in my highly-gifted magnet. I was getting lost in those classes where the boys were finishing their math requirements in eighth grade because they were so accelerated and so fancy. I couldn’t even get the basics.
And no one took the time to say, “We’re leaving all these kids behind. And most of them are the girls.” So, having a one-on-one tutor and having someone say to me, “You get to learn about the cell; we’re going to draw it; we’re going to model it” — I still remember the parts of the cell from the lessons when I was 15-years-old. I can learn it. I needed to be told how to. And in the 70s and 80s, also, we knew nothing about different styles of learning, at least not in public schools that I went to. We knew nothing about learning disabilities, that people learn differently. This is one of the greatest revolutions in the educational awareness we have. Not everyone learns the same.
LEVITT: What did Fariza end up doing? Did she become an incredible dentist, or did she go on to do something else?
BIALIK: She did. She became a dental surgeon. She has four children. We’re still in touch. And she changed my life. That was it. That woman changed my life. And just for me to have, again, a female role model, a woman who was accessible to me. She was young. I mean, she was as hip as I was, which was to say that I was nerdy and started crying when I realized how beautiful the universe is. That’s who I needed to hear it from. And she not only gave me the skillset to become a scientist. She gave me the confidence that even if it’s hard for me, I still deserve to have a shot.
LEVITT: I think we’re still so terrible today at communicating the value or what you can do with a STEM career. Why do you think it’s so hard for us as a society to bring that message to people?
BIALIK: I think that — I mean you might have a better answer than I do. I’m assuming you would. But I think that a lot of people do see STEM careers as laborious or expensive to excel in. And I also think that we have a huge component of this country that is lacking access to the education required to pursue those jobs. And that’s where we’re getting this disproportionate representation of individuals in the STEM fields.
I mean, honestly, for me, a lot of it does go back to: what does our society value? And the fact is, we value a very shiny productivity. I think that especially now, I think there’s a lot of drive to make a lot of our lives very sexy and successful in ways that I don’t think are always smooth paths.
LEVITT: I have come to believe that the way that we teach what an economist would call a production function of teaching is archaic. Another way of organizing education would be to use technology and essentially to do away with the traditional role of the teacher. So, it seems to me that there are people like you who are thoughtful and who are brilliant communicators and who are respected for other things they’ve done in their lives.
And imagine if you could be teaching 11th graders neuroscience. Not in one classroom, but literally the entire country. If we had a system set up where there were 100 or 200 amazing teachers whose words were broadcast to every student.
My own personal view is, number one, that would be transformative because I know other people can teach economics far better than I could ever do it. It’s wasteful both of my time and of the student’s time to suffer with me when there are others who could do it better. But also, I think it gets at the point you made about access and how that could really level the playing field for — people who are not as privileged as you and I have been.
BIALIK: First of all, I think we should talk about this off the air, because I think it’s an amazing idea. And it’s like — I’m sure you didn’t want a global pandemic where we have all been stuck in our homes and our children are needing to learn through technology. But I actually have taught a bit online during this pandemic. And I did teach neuroscience. I did two separate sessions.
We had thousands and thousands of people. It’s a beautiful, beautiful and also very, very doable thing. I think that you know best what the limitation is going to be. How do you pay for this and who pays for this? We’re still really creating a class system and a prison of our class system. And that’s something I would love to see remedied. You’re absolutely right.
LEVITT: I also think what we teach should be up for reconsideration. And I think we teach a lot of the topics we teach because it’s what we taught in the early 1900s. But like you said, we’ve learned an enormous amount about the mind and about what makes people content and maybe even about the soul. And I think that curriculum has not kept up with that. And if I were to redo curriculum, I think I would radically change away from learning facts towards maybe self-understanding as the goal of a high school degree.
BIALIK: Well, my children happen to be homeschooled. Which is unusual from two graduate people who are raising them. My now ex-husband has a master’s in political theory. But one of the reasons that we did homeschool our children — well, the first reason was that we couldn’t afford private school. I was in grad school when I had my first son.
And the public schools in Los Angeles are very, very different than they were when I was a kid. And we had two very atypical developing children. And we knew that if we put them into any sort of standardized school, they’d be forced to do therapies, which we did not believe were necessary because we wanted them to progress in their own way and their own pace.
That being said, one of the other reasons that we homeschool is that we want to raise thinkers and not regurgitators. And while there are places in the country where you can have that experience, the city that we live in really does not have the ability to do that. But what I’m interested in also is what I’m interested in other people being able to have access to, which means not raising children who essentially are soldiers — soldiers of education.
LEVITT: I was about as good a student as a person could be through high school and college. But it wasn’t until my first day in the real world on the job in management consulting, where my boss— actually, he gave me a stack of documents that had some numbers about F.D.A. submissions, new drug applications to the F.D.A. And he said, “So, by the end of the week, I want you to tell me how our client can get their drugs approved faster.”
And I said, “But I don’t know anything about the F.D.A. and how do you want me to do it?” And he looked at me and he said — it shows how old I am. He looks at me and says, “Look, we’re not paying you $32,000 a year to tell you the answers.” And I remember I broke out in a cold sweat. And it was the first time, really, that anyone had asked me to think rather than to regurgitate.
But what I realized is that I love to think. And I had never taken the luxury of thinking because it didn’t serve me, because thinking wasn’t helpful for getting an A. Regurgitation is what you needed to do. So I couldn’t agree more about the regurgitation versus thinking.
BIALIK: Steve, we just became best friends. Look at that.
LEVITT: Well, that’s an accomplishment because when a highly sensitive person and an autistic person can be friends, it’s like the possibilities are really infinite.
You’re listening to People I (Mostly) Admire with Steve Levitt and his conversation with actor and neuroscientist Mayim Bialik. They’ll return after this short break.
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LEVITT: So Morgan, what kind of gem do we have from the listeners today?
LEVEY: Hey Steve. So we had a listener named Sean R. write in, and he thinks a lot of the advice given on our show, People I (Mostly) Admire, is for young and mid-career people. But he is on the edge of retirement — so he asks: “How do you engage the vast retirees to feel part of the future and to participate? How should we keep them engaged, hopeful, and used in a changing world?”
LEVITT: So let me just start by saying it is so true. I do very much always try to elicit advice from my guests about young people or mid-career people. And honestly, I think it’s because I didn’t think old people wanted advice or were willing to take it. Okay. So let me stand corrected. Maybe there are older people like Sean who are looking for advice. But on top of that, I think Sean’s exactly right. In the modern world, in developed countries, we retire so early and so healthy relative to our overall lifespan, it really is an unparalleled opportunity for people to rewrite who they are. And I direct all this advice to young people, but the problem with young people, they don’t know very much about how the world works. They don’t have much experience, so it’s not clear even if they follow it that they can do much with it. But I think people like Sean, who have a lifetime of lived experiences, they’re in a position to really do great things. So look, I would just say, Sean, I don’t know exactly what kind of advice we should be giving you, but I would be a hundred percent, a thousand percent encouraging for people who are retiring to go out and try to think big and to take what you know, and with the chance to start completely fresh to not feel limited at all. The worst thing that can happen is you completely and totally fail. Not a big deal. Then you try the next thing.
LEVEY: Steve, do you think you’ll ever retire?
LEVITT: Well, I kind of am retired if you think about it. I really just do my hobbies now. I was an academic, I was a hardcore academic and I worked so hard on research and I stopped doing research. So now I do this podcast, this kind of hobby, it’s my retirement. I run the R.I.S.C. center at the U of C, look, that’s for fun. Not for money at all. So I am retired. I’m doing exactly what Sean is talking about. I did my career, I got tired of it and I said, I’m still young enough to start over. So I’m living my retirement.
LEVEY: Hope that answers your question, Sean. Thanks for writing in. If you have a question for us, our email is firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s P-I-M-A@freakonomics.com. It’s the acronym of our show. Steve and I both read every email that’s sent and we discuss them all. So we look forward to reading yours. Thanks for writing.
LEVITT: So, whenever young people ask my advice about getting a Ph.D. in economics, I almost always try to talk them out of it. Getting a Ph.D. sounds fun and romantic.
BIALIK: It’s not fun.
LEVITT: It seems like it will open all sorts of doors. But the truth is, really, it’s brutal. And it’s hard. It destroys many people’s self-confidence and sense of self-worth. And people who love a topic as an undergrad often end up unloving it by the time they finish their Ph.D. And in the end, six or seven years later, your job prospects aren’t even very good. So, does that describe your Ph.D. experience at all?
BIALIK: Yes, it literally — I mean, it near broke my spirit. And imagine also giving birth to a human in that time. Literally, near broke my spirit.
LEVITT: Do you remember what drove you into a Ph.D. program? You’ve already said that you weren’t that great a student at U.C.L.A. in science. What kind of a person subjects herself to the punishment that comes with doing a Ph.D. in a subject where you weren’t even that good as an undergrad?
BIALIK: Well, what I said was that things didn’t come as easily to me as other students. So, I didn’t party. I studied all the time. I went to every office hour. I was a very diligent student. But organic chemistry was the death of me. And I will say, though, I excelled in physics. I excelled in calculus. I did great in biochemistry, not a very precise lab technician, but I really, really loved, loved what I studied. It just took a lot of extra effort.
I think that your assessment of me, Steve, is absolutely correct. I don’t do things the way you’re “supposed” to do. And I would be hard pressed to find any region of my life that feels in any way typical. I was born different. I was born butt-first. My mother will tell you I was backwards from the beginning.
And I missed being creative, but still did a lot of creative things. I led a Jewish a cappella group at U.C.L.A. at our Hillel for years and I composed music for that group. I still did a lot of fun, creative things. But what I ultimately realized is that the level of understanding that I wanted to have of the universe was the level of the electrophysiology of the neuron. That is where I put my life, really.
LEVITT: So, you wrote about Prader-Willi syndrome. Can you explain what that is and how you got interested in the topic?
BIALIK: Yeah. So, I studied secretions from the hypothalamus, which is a structure about the size of four peas, right in the middle of your brain. And the hypothalamus connects to the pituitary gland, which a lot of people have heard about. And that region of the brain has been implicated in obsessive-compulsive disorder, specifically for oxytocin and vasopressin secretions. And those might sound familiar because oxytocin is the feel-good hormone. It’s the one that happens when you have an orgasm. It is also what is necessary for the milk ejection reflex, for labor, and for human bonding. So, it’s a very, very important hormone.
And individuals with Prader-Willi syndrome have very high rates of obsessive-compulsive disorder. And Prader-Willi syndrome is about one in 10,000. It’s a spontaneous mutation on chromosome 15. It was the first evidence of genomic imprinting, which means if you’re missing this region from your father, you get one disease. And if you’re missing this region from your mother, you get a different disease. So, it’s a very special syndrome.
And individuals with Prader-Willi syndrome have puberty problems, sleep problems. They often have skeletal issues because they are lacking growth hormone, cardiovascular issues, and also a bunch of psychiatric features that occur with that. It’s a fascinating population. They tend to be very, very combative. They will do anything to obtain food because they specifically do not know when they’re full. And their drive to pursue food will lead them to all sorts of very, very aggressive and often very violent behaviors.
But their obsessive-compulsive disorder is separate from their desire to pursue food. And that was the population that I worked in. And I did what’s called a pilot study where you’re taking a pretty small number of people — I think we had 26 in mine — to see if we can make correlations between their behavior and the amounts of oxytocin and vasopressin in their saliva and in their blood.
LEVITT: This sounds highly empirical. It sounds like you went out and found the folks with Prader-Willi syndrome. How did that work?
BIALIK: Yeah. So, the reason that I studied Prader-Willi syndrome is I’m a vegan person. And there are not many neuroscience departments that do not involve working with animals. So, the kind of choices for those of us who want to work with humans is often the field of mental retardation. And that is how I found my advisor, is that she studied all sorts of different syndromes of mental retardation. And when I read about Prader-Willi syndrome, I thought, “Well, that needs not just a geneticist, but a neuroscientist.” So, that’s how I picked it.
And part of learning to work in these kinds of fields is getting connected with the organizations that want to be helpful in essentially providing data. So, I worked with the Prader-Willi Syndrome Association of the United States. That’s P.W.S.A. And essentially, we would recruit. I would go to fundraiser walks, and I would take a phlebotomist with me, and we would collect samples. And then, we would also have them do behavioral tests. And I would do the testing for that. There’s a scale of obsessions and compulsions and they would do a variety of tests.
LEVITT: And what did you find? And has it been the basis of a strand of research or not so much?
BIALIK: Well, this is something that in my field is very, very typical. We found enough correlations that would merit further study. And that’s about all you can hope for in a pilot thesis study. So, what we found is that there were some correlations between those hormones. We also looked at cortisol, which is a stress hormone. But essentially, you would need a much larger scale project to be able to have really strength from a larger sample size. So, yeah, I remain a particular kind of expert of a very, very specific thing.
LEVITT: You made this decision not to pursue a postdoc, essentially to get off of the track to have kids.
BIALIK: As a woman at that time, it was extremely unfavorable to choose to have a child. It was like a scarlet letter. And I think it was very, very difficult. But I knew that as a scientist, I knew I wanted to have my first child before 30. That’s just how some of us science geeks who know a lot about statistics and eggs like to do things.
LEVITT: It seems to me another example where, at least in economics, there is enormous social pressure not to do that. Was that difficult?
BIALIK: Very difficult. I mean, I would say it was one of the most difficult decisions of my adult life for sure. I got pregnant with my first son after I finished my course requirements. I wrote my thesis, literally, laying down while nursing. And I got pregnant with my second son the week that I handed in my dissertation. That’s our mazel tov baby. And I took my doctoral hood about seven months pregnant. Yeah.
But this was a case of really listening to my God-given instincts as a primate mama. I really wanted to be with my children. And especially because I trained in the field of psychoneuroendocrinology, I was studying the hormones of attachment and bonding. I wanted to be with my kids. Did I feel like I was an overqualified block stacker? Of course, I did. And I can’t say that my children might not have been better with someone else parenting them. But this is who God gave them. This is who the universe gave them. They gave them me. I’m their mom. And I wanted to be there for those years.
You get one life to live. This is not a dress rehearsal. This is it. And that’s ultimately why I left academia, was to be home with my kids. And I taught Hebrew. I taught piano. I taught neuroscience for five years before running out of health insurance and figuring, “Gosh, if I can just get my Screen Actors Guild insurance, at least we’ll be insured.” I had no idea I was going to be on a TV show again. That was not the plan. This is a crazy life.
LEVITT: Well, I’ll tell you what’s the craziest thing of all, is that someone who’s trained as an academic ends up opting out because acting is the safe choice. I mean, that just turns the whole world upside down.
BIALIK: Well, if you think about scheduling, being an academic means you’re really beholden to a very specific way of life. And what I realized was I was going to be hiring someone essentially to raise my children while I taught other people’s children. And working on a sitcom, I essentially work school hours. And it really did allow me to be with my kids for a tremendous amount of time. So, it was more about scheduling and flexibility.
LEVITT: You starred in The Big Bang Theory as neuroscientist Amy Farrah Fowler for nine years. And I know nothing about how TV gets made. Could you just explain to me what the rhythm, what the weekly life of a sitcom is like?
BIALIK: Yeah, we work usually three weeks on, one week off. And we do that from about August to April. And we have three days of rehearsal and two days of filming. The second filming day begins at noon and we tape in front of a live audience. So, that ends around 10:00 p.m. But the other days of the week — and I don’t mean to make it sound like it’s easy. But let’s be honest, we’re working school hours and only having to really not be in your pajamas two days a week. It’s not that different from being a science graduate student.
LEVITT: Well, I would have thought it was much harder, much more of a grind.
BIALIK: That’s the secret we just revealed. It’s not that hard to be a sitcom actor.
LEVITT: O.K. And do you have much input at all into the script?
BIALIK: No! Whatever you’re about to say, I don’t have much input at all, no.
LEVITT: So, you don’t — do you do a read through and say, “Wait, Amy would never say that,” or that’s just not the way it works?
BIALIK: I mean, technically, our writers know the characters even better than we do because they created them. That’s their baby. Yes. There are times when we have conversations where I say “Oh, can I say this word?” I was consulted for neuroscience-specific things. We had a physics professor from U.C.L.A., Dr. David Saltzberg, and he was our physics consultant. And he and I would work out stuff about neuroscience if Amy had to be in the lab, or sometimes there’d be stage direction of, “Amy’s doing something in her lab.” And I would say, “Well, why don’t we — I’ll be running a PCR,” or whatever it was.
But no, on a show where you’re a hired actor, you are essentially — you’re a tool, you know. I mean, I don’t mean you’re a tool in a bad way. I mean, you’re a tool in a toolbox of people getting things done together. The show that I’m working on next, which is called Call Me Kat, I’m producing that with Jim Parsons from The Big Bang Theory.
And I’m starring in that. I am an executive producer. And that’s a very different level of commitment. That’s like meeting the writers before we hire them, reading the scripts in their first draft, approving outlines. That’s a lot more labor, as it were. But I also have a production company, and it’s Sad Clown Productions.
LEVITT: It says something about you that you named your production company that.
BIALIK: Well, there’s a joke where a guy is very depressed and he goes to his doctor and he says, “I’m really depressed. I don’t know the purpose of living. I don’t want to do it anymore.” The doctor says, “There’s this circus and there’s this unbelievable clown. And if you go see this clown, he will give you a reason for living.” And the man looks at the doctor, and he says, “I am that clown.”
LEVITT: I love that.
BIALIK: And that is how we got Sad Clown Productions.
LEVITT: So, I know you’re getting into directing and screenwriting. And, again, I don’t know anything about Hollywood. Could you explain what a director does? And then, could you also explain why there are so few female directors? Because it makes zero sense to me.
BIALIK: So, I’ve never written a screenplay before. I’ve written books. I’ve written four books. Two of them are New York Times bestsellers about puberty. And I know how to write. But I’ve never written a screenplay. So, what I did was after my dad died, images started bubbling up, and stories started bubbling up. And I thought, “Is this what it feels like to be a writer? I’m seeing things.” I was seeing images from my childhood and I started to write them.
And I ended up writing a screenplay that I didn’t even show to anyone for quite some time. And I finally showed it to my manager and to my agent. And it’s not an autobiography, but it’s a story based on my life and a lot of people’s lives of growing up in a house with mental illness and what gets left over and what you pick up the pieces of.
And I figured we would find a writer to fix it. And apparently, it’s fine the way it is. And Dustin Hoffman would like to play my father and Candice Bergen would like to play my mother. And Simon Helberg from Big Bang Theory would like to play the brother character. And Olivia Thirlby is going to play the character that would have been, in theory, me.
And I thought, O.K., so now we’ll get a director. But then, I realized, well, I know what happened. I know what these images look like. How am I going to explain that to someone? It’s such a waste of time. And that’s when I was told, “O.K., that means you’re the director.” So, what a director does is a director is in charge of the vision and the tone of a film, whether they write the script or not. And a director oversees the — everything about filming it, from the angles to the crew that is in charge of the lighting. A director also works directly with the actors to help bring out the performances that tell the story best.
I think that there are not a lot of women directors for the same reason that there are not a lot of women a lot of things. This is about our culture’s trajectory of women, where we were expected to be, what skillsets we were expected to need. I’ll be honest, the fact that women’s fertility peaks when their career fertility also peaks is a very, very difficult thing. A lot of careers sound a little bit difficult to women who may want to pursue being a parent, especially a younger one. I believe that we are seeing shifts. I believe that we need more mentorship possibilities for women. I could also have a very similar conversation about people of color.
LEVITT: Yeah. I mean, directing seems especially strange to me to be so male dominated because it’s measurable. In general, I tend to think that this cultural discrimination can survive really well when you can’t really measure whether someone’s good or not. And honestly, I think it’s very hard to measure whether a C.E.O. is good or not because there are so many other variables going on. But with directing, you get to see at the end of the day whether people wanted to go to the movie or not. And I think it really speaks to the powerful cultural factors that are at work.
BIALIK: There is nothing inherently spectacular about being a director that means that white men do it best. I promise. There’s also nothing about white men that makes them better C.E.O.s. We need time and we need to do better to increase the opportunities for people in underrepresented populations. Period.
We don’t need to fight about it. You don’t need to say, “Am I a feminist or not?” We need more opportunities for more people so that we can see more women’s voices, more women’s eyes, more women’s visions. I’m also not a 50/50 person, meaning there may be more men who want to be directors. I don’t know. But right now, we actually don’t know that. So, let’s try and figure it out together.
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People I (Mostly) Admire is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, and is produced by Freakonomics Radio and Stitcher. Matt Hickey and Alison Craiglow produced this episode, with sound design by David Herman; our staff also includes Greg Rippin and Corinne Wallace; our intern is Emma Tyrrell. We had help on this episode from Nellie Osborne. All of the music you heard on this show was composed by Luis Guerra. To listen ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. We can be reached at email@example.com. Thanks for listening.
LEVITT: Would you give almost everything to be anonymous?
BIALIK: Since we’ve become best friends, I can tell you: I look terrible at the supermarket. And, you know, some celebrities, you see them, and you say, like, “Wow, they really look good even without makeup.” I’m not that person. I’ve gained and lost hundreds of pounds, right, over the course of my life nursing children for six years straight, so.
- Mayim Bialik, award-winning actress; best-selling author; neuroscientist; producer; director; and host of Jeopardy!
- Mayim Bialik’s Breakdown.
- Boying Up: How to Be Brave, Bold and Brilliant, by Mayim Bialik (2018).
- Girling Up: How to Be Strong, Smart and Spectacular, by Mayim Bialik (2017).