The Science Behind Desire: Understanding Health Motivations With Kiosh Iselin
People say that having the desire to do something is half the battle already. But how exactly do we tap into that in order to achieve goals that benefit us positively? Kiosh Iselin, the founder of The Desire Clinic, is on a mission to understand humans and reconnect desire, pleasure, and health to motivate lifestyle changes. With a Master’s Degree in Physical Therapy, Kiosh elaborates on the science behind reward systems and shares techniques on how we can tweak them to align with our health goals. Learn how to trick your mind and train yourself to want the best for you.
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The Science Behind Desire: Understanding Health Motivations With Kiosh Iselin
It is my honor to introduce you to my guest, Kiosh Iselin. Kiosh is the Founder of The Desire Clinic. His mission is to reconnect desire, pleasure and health. The Desire Clinic was born out of a passion to further understand how we work as humans. It turns out our desire system, scientifically known as the dopaminergic reward system, has a large impact on our actions. Kiosh is a Mayo Clinic-trained Wellness Coach. He has a Master’s of Science in Physical Therapy and a Master’s of Arts in Political Science. He lives in Alberta, Canada. He loves to swing dance, go on outdoor adventures and eat delicious food. I want to welcome you to the show.
I know the dopaminergic reward system is a big fancy word. It's about how we behave as humans. That's all it's about.
I'm thrilled to have you on the show. I love what you are up to in the world. I love your energy and your attitude towards life. It's such a great refreshing way to show up. I'm thrilled to dig into your story and see how you have gotten to what you are doing now in this world.
I'm looking forward to it as well.
For your sake and the sake of the readers, I want to share how we do this. The way we share your story is we share through what's called flashpoints. These are points in your story that revealed your gifts into the world. There might be one or many. As you are telling your story through these flashpoints, let's stop along the way and see what's showing up. With that, why don't you take it away?
What started my story into The Desire Clinic? The first story that comes to mind was, I was working in a palliative care ward as a Physical Therapist. My role there was to get people up and moving because even if you are towards the end of your life, being up and moving, doing your exercises has all kinds of benefits. It has mental health benefits. I was going into these patients' rooms and they were in a ton of pain. A lot of these patients were dying of cancer, which is a painful process. I was getting to them and I’m like, “You should exercise. You should do all of these things. This is good for you in these ways.” It was tough to motivate them. Meanwhile, in the same palliative care ward, there was a group of patients that were way more motivated than anyone else. Can you guess who those patients were?
I'm inclined to say that it's the people who were eating well, the people who were taking care of themselves.
You would think that it’s those people. The people who got out of bed were smokers. The reason for that was because smoking tapped into their desire system in a way that I couldn't do so with physical therapy and exercise. Everyone else was getting everything they needed in bed. They were lying in bed all day long. Here are this group of smokers at the end of life and somehow they can motivate themselves to exercise more so than anyone else in the ward. I was like, “I need to figure out what desire is about. Why is smoking so much more motivating than exercise? How can we tap into that to achieve the things that we want to achieve in life?”
People think of pleasure as a luxury, but it is not a luxury. It's the foundation of behavior change.
The reality is that the thing that is killing people is the thing that's getting people out of bed and getting them to want to move.
It all has to do with how the system works. Smoking releases nicotine, which releases dopamine, which focuses your attention. Pain releases dopamine as well, which focuses your attention on the pain. To the people who are in bed, they were completely focused on their pain and going through all of those things. The people who were smokers were focused on how to get outside. What they were thinking about was completely different.
You’ve got this data point and you are like, “How do we change the system around that?” It sounds like this is where we are headed.
There are a lot of steps in that process because it's thinking about exercise and how we approach health in general. It has been very much from a should perspective as opposed to from a desired perspective. Frankly, shoulds account for a small minority of our actions. Desire accounts for a large majority of our actions. Why don't we try and understand the stuff that matters? That was an eye-opening moment being in that palliative care ward and realizing that cigarettes were more powerful than six years of education.
Not just the palliative ward but what brought you into the medical field in general?
My dad is a spiritual teacher. My mom followed spiritual teachers. I wanted to do practical stuff in the world. I thought that becoming a psychologist was like, “It’s too airy-fairy. I don't want to deal with people's minds. I want to be practical. I want to get people up and moving. That's all I want to do.” I was in this palliative care ward and I was like, “The mind is the most important part. I can't deny it.” Telling people to exercise doesn't work. I wanted to be super evidence-based and find practical ways of improving people's lives. It started with physiotherapy and now it’s The Desire Clinic.
I love the fact that you bring the science element into play. It’s simplicity that you are also showing up with, which is awesome. We all need that. If you want to change a habit, you also have to think about it from a perspective of like, “How can I make it as easy as possible but starting with this science-based understanding of how this all comes together?”
The beautiful thing about habits is that they are incredibly easy because they are engaged with the desired system. We think of a habit as something we do automatically but what a habit is, is us chasing pleasure. If someone has a healthy eating habit, what they are doing is they are chasing the pleasure of eating healthy food. If someone has a smoking habit, what they are doing is chasing the pleasure of smoking. This habit and how this pleasure ties into the desired loop, how it all ties into the science, I find it fascinating.
Tell me what happened when you started to find this information out. What led you to think beyond that role of being in the palliative care area? I assume The Desire Clinic was something that evolved out of that a-ha moment.
There were many steps along the way. At first, I was focusing on exercise and how to engage the desired system with exercise. I then started to realize that this story is way bigger than exercise. Desire is responsible for a large majority of our actions. When it comes to food, exercise and everything that touches health, the desired system is involved. At first, I was trying to apply it within physiotherapy. It became an awkward fit because I wanted to talk about more than what my physiotherapy license allowed me to talk about.
Frankly, I didn't want to talk about exercise anymore. I was done talking about exercise. One of the decisions that I have had to make is to say, “I've got this career that would be solid and easy, physiotherapy. I’ve got this idea that lights me up that is a way more competitive field but let's give it a shot.” I had to leave physiotherapy behind and start to dive into this from a pure curiosity perspective and not from, “I'm an expert in a certain field perspective.”
There's something about that and I wanted to recognize it. It’s humbling because you are going in with a lot of like, “We will see what happens. We will see how we can navigate this new world that we are heading into.” There are a lot of risks involved. There's also an element of you are coming off of the foundation of strong knowledge that you have built off of, which is great. You are leaving the comfort of that knowledge. You are including it but you are transcending it, which is a powerful thing. You can leave that comfort but know that it's always there and you can leverage it to move into that new world you are heading into. It's almost like the Hero's Journey. You are leaving the comfort of your known world and you go into the unknown but it doesn't leave you entirely. It's still there.
Master’s of Science in Physiotherapy taught me how to read science. Master's in Political Science taught me how to write. I never thought I was going to tie the two together. Those are the foundations of everything I'm doing now.
As risky as it is, it's also nice to be able to free yourself from that box of saying, “I don't have to define me based on any one thing. I can see what happens. What's the worst that could happen?”
I love getting the authority of what I say from the accuracy of what I say as opposed to my title. If you have a title, then people assume that what you say is true. That's, A) It’s not the case and B) It’s not how I want to interact with people. I want to interact with people as this curious person that is discovering as well. I have some knowledge that I have acquired over the years but it’s a discovery process.
Tell me more about this next part of the journey, which is taking this leap into the next step of discovering your business.
We need to figure out what desire is about and how we can tap into that to achieve the things that we want in life.
It's a tough world out there. I'm sure you know that as a health coach as well. Everyone thinks they have answers for everything. There are a lot of inaccurate claims out there. Trying to compete against people who are making wild, inaccurate claims, “If you do my thing, you are going to lose 300 pounds.” Whatever the claim is, “You need to do this. You need to do that.” Trying to get into that field and approach it with accuracy, information, kindness and without making any fake promises, it's a tough way of going into it but I do suspect that it will stand out. It does stand out. If you stick to accuracy, it has some long-term rewards.
There's something about that clarity of your message that cuts through the noise when you can say, “This is who I am. This is what I stand for. I'm not here to sell you snake oil. If you want a quick fix, go see somebody else. If you want to hear this message, I will help you from a place of honest and science-backed ways of helping you.” That's what stands out, it's not coming from a quick fix.
Desire learns a little bit slower. It's not a quick fix but it also doesn't need to be because you are engaging in pleasure the entire time. If it takes time, the journey is part of the whole process. There's a way that people are attracted to what I have to offer, not because of the solutions that I provide but because of the way that I can guide people on the journey that leads to nice places.
People mustn’t see this as like, “The destination, I want to be there. The destination is what's on my mind.” It's about enjoying that journey and seeing that this reprogramming process is what's important. It’s seeing that you start to enjoy yourself in the process of switching that switch in your head, the desire for a healthier habit is what I want to have.
We have thought of pleasure as a luxury but it is not a luxury. It's the foundation of behavior change. The reason for that is it has to do with neuroscience. When you experience pleasure, dopamine gets released and you start to pay attention to everything that caused that pleasure and you start to desire it. That's what engages the desired system. The pleasure along the journey isn't because we are being airy-fairy, “Everything has to be great.” The pleasure along the journey is because we are retraining the brain. Dopamine is the same thing that caused those palliative care ward patients to get up and go outside. If you can get dopamine from things in your life that is pleasurable and healthy, living a healthy lifestyle becomes as easy as doing exactly what you want to do, which is instead of going from, “Living a healthy lifestyle is hard. I need to do this.” It's like, “There are so many good things in the world.”
I love that you are saying this because this is exactly the thing that people challenge with, this element of connecting with the process that they have to go through to create the life that they want. It's engaging with the little steps that lead to the big results. If they think the result at the end is going to give them that reward, you have to get the reward by the little steps along the way. It sounds like that's exactly what you are connecting with. That's a beautiful way to change that habit.
As far as I'm aware, it's also the most scientifically evidence-based way that if you want to change human behavior, you can't ignore pleasure, desire and all these things that make us human. You have to engage with that stuff. The more you understand it, the more ways you can engage with it too. Especially medical professionals, there's a way that we think abstractly that prevents us from understanding our patient's full intelligence and engaging with their full intelligence. We are always engaging with this intellectual part of, “You should be doing this for these reasons. You should stop smoking for these reasons.” What we need to engage with is the much more primal part that drives human behavior.
Keep it simple. Get to that raw piece of what it is and not the follow-on effects. It's more of what is it at the core and what's causing it.
How do we learn? How do we learn to eat a certain food? Is it because of the USDA food guide or whatever the latest recommendation is? Is it because we have eaten a meal that a friend cooked that happens to be delicious that is healthy? Which way do we learn to desire healthy food? My guess is it's not the USDA food guide. My guess is it's experiencing it in the world.
When you open yourself up to new experiences and take new risks like starting a new business and it working out, then it's reinforcing that habit. It's saying like, “I can do new things. When I do those new things, I like that. More of that, please.”
You hit the nail on the head where you have to engage in the process with the new business. If I think of it big picture and all of the things that have to happen, I can get overwhelmed, lose my motivation, all of those things. If I engage in the process and get pleasure in every little step along the way, that's where the motivation gets fueled and I get to apply that in my own life, which is what I like to do.
Were there any naysayers or had there been any naysayers along your path that say what you are speaking to doesn't resonate or, “I don't believe it?” Are there people who have pushed back and give you resistance?
There have been people that pushed back, especially when operating within the conventional framework. As a physiotherapist, your responsibility is to prescribe a certain amount of exercises and all of those things. If you don't do those things, you are not viewed as a competent physiotherapist. Whereas my view at the time is that telling someone to do exercises and they don't do it, serves no one. If you are coming from a traditional model, this idea of fully empowering people, it's scary because what if the patient does crazy stuff? I have encountered the naysayers along the way but I have also encountered a ton of enthusiasm. It's both.
When I think about the naysayers, I want to go back and ask them, “How is that current model serving you or the patients?” You start questioning, maybe it's time for some new thinking and some new ways to approach it because it's not working across the board. We need some new thinking. We need to disrupt the current thinking.
The pattern of failure is the same everywhere. There's a common pattern of behavior that you see often. It’s people trying to make a behavior change, they stick to it for a short amount of time, anywhere from a couple of hours to 6 to 12 months. The reason you see that pattern is because of the battle between willpower and desire. Science has been clear on this. Willpower is a limited resource. It gets exhausting, especially if you are facing complex environments. Over time, that willpower gets worn down. If you approach health by fighting desire, you are setting yourself up for repeated failure over and over again. If you approach health by how do we engage desire, how do we talk about deliciousness, how do we engage the system, all these things, you are setting yourself up for small successes that lead to long-term rewards.
There's something about the way that desire shows up. It's almost like changing the way that you talk about it, too. You have to want it. Desire comes from a want, a desire to do something. If you are telling yourself the words like, “I need to do this. I have to do this.” Those words are disempowering.
If you approach health by fighting desire, you're setting yourself up for repeated failure.
They are harmful. As a physiotherapist, I began to worry that I was harming my patients’ lives, “These are the things you are supposed to be doing and you are not doing them so you are a failure.” I hated it. Instead of, “Here's how smart you are. Here's how you can engage with your systems that desire a whole bunch of things. How do we unleash your intelligence as opposed to me telling you what to do?” The shoulds are not just neutral, they are actively harmful as far as I can tell.
If I were to take a step back and look at the frame over everything we have been saying, it’s the power of words and how the shoulds, the needs, the way that those things show up in our world and how they can create so much harm. Tell me more about your journey. What is the thing that has been eye-opening for you as you've gotten into this new world?
The amount of self-blame that people have. They think that the reason they eat unhealthily is that they are a bad person, the reason they smoke is that they don't have willpower, and the reason that it's hard to motivate themselves to exercise is that they are fundamentally flawed as a human being. As far as I can tell, none of that is true. In a first session, seeing people's self-image change from someone who's never doing enough to starting to understand that there are all these things A) That they are already doing and B) Ways that they can further engage in those systems. Lifting some of that self-blame and replacing it with a powerful and accurate view of the world, it’s eye-opening every time it happens.
I feel that when you say there are so many people who do have that wrong narrative that they have created for themselves. Reframing that narrative in a way that positively serves them and a few conversations, before you know it, they are changing the way they carry themselves.
I'm not about the positive talk or anything like that. I'm about accurate talk. If you look at the number of things that you do in a day that is brilliant, it’s so much. The challenges are because when we are following the desired system that’s so easy, we don't even notice it. We only notice when we are making mistakes. Developing a more accurate view of the world allows for a positivity-based inaccuracy as opposed to based on, “I should feel this way. I should feel that way.” It's a whole another level of shoulds that I want nothing to do with.
What have you learned about building a business that has been challenging? I'm sure there has been a lot of surprises for you about the process of, “Before, I was in an industry where I can do this, I can operate within a system,” but now you are in the process of creating a business. That's a completely different animal. What had been the biggest surprises and a-ha moments around that for you?
This is the second business that I have opened. The first one was a painting business as an undergrad. This one does feel different. The biggest thing that has been interesting for me to watch is my emotional swings. They are large. I go from I have this amazing thing to then thinking that I have nothing. It switches back and forth. Both states are intelligent. When I have this amazing thing, it's a great place to create. When I feel like I have nothing, it's a great place to see all the flaws in what I'm doing. I like both states of mind. I sometimes question if the swings are too large and what I can do to help solidify it. Part of that is building in the regular routines so that I have something that I do every week that is the same every week and it allows that success to be more stable. The swings are normal and I'm comfortable with them.
I love that you say this because this is an element of the emotional rollercoaster that being an entrepreneur is. Also, part of the gift that you offer to other people is one that you also have to offer to yourself sometimes and check-in with yourself like, “How am I managing my motivations, my desires and my way of showing up and building effective habits in the way that I'm building my business?”
I wouldn't want to teach anything that I don't do myself. Do you know what I don’t do? Exercise. I dance and I go on adventures but you will not catch me in a gym. It's not where I'm going to be.
It's funny how that is. An interesting insight that I often hear from people is that a lot of the things that they are working through with other people, sometimes they look back and are like, “I’ve got to check in with myself and make sure I'm doing the things that I want to do for myself.”
Do you know why this is particularly emotionally salient for me? I had a spiritual teacher as a dad. I had had followers come up to me and be like, “What's it like to be your dad's son?” I would be like, “First of all, F off.” Second of all, he's a regular dude. It's important to me that what I say is integrated into my own life because if there's a disconnect there, it's not something I'm interested in.
I want to see if you could share maybe 2 to 3 things that have been the lessons you have learned about yourself along this journey that you haven't already mentioned and maybe some insights around things that have shown up about you that you have also shared with other people in the work that you do.
One of the ones is that motivation is not internal. It is driven by the structural environment that surrounds you. One of the things that I had to understand was for me to keep my motivation levels, which thankfully have been high because a lot of what I'm doing is exciting. Sometimes they go down and the reason usually is because I have this big vision but I don't understand the steps along the way. The big vision if you look at it anatomically, it’s in the cerebral cortex. It’s in the smart regions.
The steps along the way are what the desired system is interested in and release dopamine. If I don't have the steps along the way, then it's not going to engage my desire system and the motivation system nearly as much. Trying to break up this large vision into actionable steps that reward me along the process is something that I had to go through where I'm like, “I've got this large vision. What are the actual steps?” Now I can find rewarding the process again.
Coming back to what you said, it's also how the environment shapes you and how you create an environment that supports what you want.
We think of ourselves as these independent little willpower machines. Scientifically speaking, nothing could be further from the truth when we are so shaped by the many structures that shape us.
Motivation is not internal. It is driven by the structural environment that surrounds you.
Is there another insight that you wanted to share?
On a day-to-day basis, how paying close attention to pleasure allows for discovery and complexity of reality that far supersedes the intellectual conceptions that we have of it. I can give you an example of the pancakes that I eat for breakfast. At first, you think of a pancake as just flour and all those things. I bought a flour mill because I wanted to get closer to the source, then I bought these ancient grains, and I started to taste the difference between the ancient grain and white flour. I did a wheat tasting where I tasted the various wheat along the way. Wheat is far more complex. There are many steps along the process. All of this is information that I'm getting from my senses. Every meal, I get to discover more of the complexity of reality without the intellectual conceptualizations limiting it but further enhancing the full intelligence that I have as a human being, which isn't just the big brain. It's all of it.
There’s something about what you said that hit a nerve for me because there's an element of being curious about the food. When you said you enjoyed delicious food, there's an element of that but it's a lot more than that. It's about almost being mindful about the food experience and thinking about the sources and getting metaphysical about where it's coming from, how it's made and how to experience it at a deep level.
It's mindful but it's not forced mindfulness. It's mindfulness that comes out of curiosity. This mindfulness game can be like, “I have to sit down and I’ve got to pay attention to my food because that's the new thing.” It’s not about that. It's this curiosity about the complexity of the world that blows my mind daily.
This is exactly where you start to get into a great desire for better food and a more whole type of food like the experience of having a pancake that is more fully thought through than just shoving it in your mouth and be done with it.
White flour is so bland. When I did the wheat tasting, it was interesting. I made these little flatbreads. I had the einkorn one, which is the more complex flour. The flavor was super complex. I went to the white flour one, there's an element of it that's delicious. The first thought I had was like, “I need some jam. I need some flavor. I need something to flavor this up.” All of a sudden, you have gone from this delicious whole food to something where it's calories plus flavor that's less tied to what is the nutrition in the food.
Some experimentation goes along with that but you play with it too.
I hope I haven't gotten too far into the wheat and what I'm saying is interesting. I could talk about wheat for a long time. When I said I was doing a wheat tasting, everyone thought it was a weed tasting. I can be misinterpreted. The same with The Desire Clinic, everyone thinks it's something else. It's all about discovering reality.
We are going to shift gears. We are going to shift to a question around what are some books that have impacted you and why?
The ones that impact me are cold and calculating in how they look at humans. One of them is Behave by Sapolsky. It is a 500-page book on the intricacy of neuroscience. What I love about him is he states things as they are. He doesn't care about the political implication or anything. This is what the research is showing. This is how humans behave. This is humans at their worst and their best. These are the neural mechanisms that allow for both to occur. Not coming at it with an agenda but coming at it with like, “Let's get at this as accurately as possible.” Behave is a fabulous book. The other one that does that well is Sapiens by Harari. It’s like, “This is what humans are.” We sometimes think of ourselves as different or unique. Maybe we are but we are also humans and animals. We all come from this long evolutionary heritage that defines a lot of how we behave in the world. Understanding that accurately allows for all kinds of ways of engaging that.
I think of it as being more observational than being opinionated about the way things are. It’s like looking at the data in a sense and saying, “This is what it is.”
Desire matters. It's not that I want to talk about desire. It’s that, it matters.
This has been an amazing time that we have been spending together. I'm so grateful that you came on the show and share this. I’m leaving with so many new insights about how to look at my world. I know that the readers are doing the same. They are thinking to themselves about how to approach this. I want to make sure that we give them some ways to reach out to you and find you. Where's the best place to find you?
www.TheDesireClinic.com. My contact info is up there. I am deep in the process of throwing a bunch of information on there that's easy to digest. That information will be all available for free. I've also got a newsletter where I send out information about the science behind desire. I’m doing it across the social platforms, all of those things. You can also chat with me one-on-one. It's a new business. I’ve still got time to see people. If you want to take advantage of that, I won't mind.
You have piqued my interest, for sure. I'm going to be talking with you some more. Thank you so much for coming to the show. This has been such an amazing time.
Thank you, Tony. I appreciated it.
Same here. Thank you to the readers for coming on the journey. I hope you enjoyed this. We will see you next time.
About Kiosh Iselin
Kiosh loves to swing dance, eat delicious food, and relax in the great outdoors. His mission is to reconnect desire, pleasure, and health.
Kiosh loves science, and it is important to him that what he states is accurate. The Desire Clinic was born out of a passion to further understand how we as humans work.
Kiosh is a Mayo Clinic Trained Wellness Coach. He has a Masters of Science, and a Masters of Arts. He's constantly experimenting with new ways of unleashing the power of desire in his own life.
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