Elizabeth Koch Knows What You’re Thinking

In 2009, Charles Koch was in the hospital. He was getting a shoulder replaced, and his daughter was at his bedside. She had become interested in neuroplasticity — the brain’s ability to change and reorganize thought patterns — and wanted to discuss her early findings.

“Are you sure you’re busy enough?” he said.

People who prattle on about “wellness” and self-investigation can be exhausting: Oh no, not another trendy product or program or yoga class or brain exercise or therapy or gauzy self-help book. McKinsey & Company estimates that wellness is a $1.5 trillion global industry, with annual growth of up to 10 percent. Sleep consultants. Ketamine clinics. Cleanses, detoxes, neutraceuticals. Meditation apps. Wellness tourism. Instagram influencers peddling holistic everything.

Perception Box?

“Some of what I hear about in the wellness space makes my eyes roll,” said Lisa Feldman Barrett, a neuroscientist and professor of psychology at Northeastern University. “But I think that Elizabeth is doing very, very admirable work — to get people to be more empathic toward one another and to help people realize the ways in which their own past experience influences who they are in the present. Your brain is making predictions about what’s going to happen next, what you will do next, what you will see next, what you will feel next. And those predictions come from your past experience.”

Ms. Barrett added, “I think Perception Box is a good metaphor.”

The women got to know each other in 2018, when Ms. Koch invited Ms. Barrett to attend an Unlikely Collaborators retreat. Ms. Barrett had just written the book “How Emotions Are Made,” and Ms. Koch was formulating her Perception Box ideas, in part by funding research into emotions and consciousness. In 2014, Ms. Koch started Tiny Blue Dot, a research foundation, and hired Christof Koch (no relation) to run it; he is also a former president of the Allen Institute for Brain Science, where he continues to serve as a chief scientist, in Seattle.

“As far as I can tell, Elizabeth is trying really hard to make sure everything she does is consistent with our best available guess of what’s going on scientifically,” Ms. Barrett said. “She actually can read a science paper. Like, for real. As well as one of my better-trained graduate students.”