Riskgaming

Perhaps our greatest achievement is not being present

Description

We live in a time of tremendous focus on … focus and productivity. Scan the shelves of any self-help section in a bookstore and you’ll find copious volumes on how to focus better, deeper, and longer along with a litany of productivity hacks and habits to efficiently glean. What you will often struggle to find however are books advocating doing nothing. But when it comes to creativity and making deep connections, it’s precisely when we are wandering that we are most focused on invention.

To talk more about cognitive science and psychology, I brought local New York City professor Anna-Lisa Cohen on “Securities” to talk about her research into mind wandering and how we balance present actions with future intentions. Her work became a viral hit during the pandemic after a Washington Post op-ed she penned on “mental time travel” struck a nerve (yes, that’s a cognitive sciences pun) for many suffering during the isolation at the heights of Covid-19.

We talk about our brain’s default mode network, why mind wandering shouldn’t get a bad rap, peak performance and generating novel concepts, what it means to focus on not focusing, carrying out future intentions and prospective memory, the psychology of film and particularly a look at Alfred Hitchcock’s “Bang! You’re Dead”, cognitive closure and its effect of information seeking, and finally, future simulations.

Transcript

This is a human-generated transcript, however, it has not been verified for accuracy.

Danny Crichton:
We've got three backups. If you could just say stuff into the microphone.

Anna-Lisa Cohen:
Sure.

Danny Crichton:
Test, one, two, three.

Anna-Lisa Cohen:
Test, one, two, three.

Danny Crichton:
Chris, you ready to go?

Chris Gates:
I'm ready to go. You want me to count you in?

Danny Crichton:
Sure.

Chris Gates:
Three, two, one.

Danny Crichton:
Hello and welcome to Securities, a podcast and newsletter devoted to science, technology, finance, and the human condition. I'm your host, Danny Crichton, and today we're talking about psychology. I'm joined here today by Anna Lisa Cohen, a professor of psychology here in New York City, who is focused on how we make decisions, creativity, and particularly looking at how we maintain our mind in the present tense by also thinking about intentions of how we carry out future actions. Part of our research focuses on the default mode network, which is active in our brains when we are not focused, but yet still in a waking state, think daydreaming or mind wandering. She had a very famous piece during the pandemic, the Washington Post on mental time travel, which was sort of one of those exciting topics that I think really hit the nerve for a lot of folks at coming out of the COVID pandemic era as we continue to go forward. So Anna-Lisa, thank you so much for joining the podcast.

Anna-Lisa Cohen:
Great to be here.

Danny Crichton:
So let's just talk a little bit about your work. I'd love to hear what you've been researching, what you work on.

Anna-Lisa Cohen:
Yeah. For sure. So I think we're all pretty familiar with the popular messaging be present, live in the moment, mindfulness, and however, cognitive psychologists would agree that probably the greatest achievement of the human mind is our ability to be the opposite, to not be present. And what do I mean by that? Well, when you travel to the past, when you travel to the future, for example, you might relive an argument you had with your spouse, scene by scene and try to make sense of it. Or you might project yourself to the future because you have an upcoming job interview and you're going to imagine what the room looks like. You're going to simulate how it feels when someone asks you a question. What will you say in response? What will you be wearing? And you might simulate that future event in great detail. And that bestows a lot of advantages.

Danny Crichton:
I'm thinking of a lot of books written in the tech industry in the last couple years, such as How To Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, and literally dozens of others that have been, we're always distracted. We need to bring things back to the present. You need to sort of meditate, you need to walk and see forests and trees and sort of naturalism. But what you're sort of saying is something different, which is to say maybe there's too much emphasis on just being present in that quick moment. And instead the imagination, the creativity that comes from that is really actually even more important in terms of projecting forward and understanding what's going on.

Anna-Lisa Cohen:
Right. So mind wandering gets a very negative wrap. We all believe it's the symptoms of a lazy mind. Researchers have in the last couple decades have really turned their attention towards mind wandering. And believe it or not, 50% of the day we're mind wandering. We're not focused on the present moment. And you might be sitting at your computer staring at the keyboard, but your mind has left the building. You're far off. You're far away thinking about something else. We've realized through recent research that mind wandering is functional. It's almost like it's your internal to-do list, because a lot of our mind wandering is future oriented as well as goal oriented. It's like our unconscious is kind of pushing us, nudging us in the direction, don't forget that goal, turn your attention to that goal. And that's really fascinating and something that I think people are unaware of.

Danny Crichton:
So it has this negative reputation for mind wandering. But when I think about, well, mind wandering, it happens when I'm tired, I had too much to drink last night, so now I'm a little hungover and I'm kind of just dazing daydreaming outside and looking at the sky or whatever the case may be. Why do we use our executive function to sort of suppress that? 'Cause at least in my mental model of what's happening in my head when I'm awake and have awareness, I'm sort of suppressing that desire to stay focused on work. But you're saying that there's actually a lot of value to it. So it's actually the days in which I'm least paying attention and sort of most tired in which I'm most future oriented.

Anna-Lisa Cohen:
Right. I mean, of course there's a lot of pressures in jobs and at school to be focused on the moment. And I'm not saying mind wandering is always a good thing. If you're a air traffic controller, you don't want to mind wander, turn your job, or a brain surgeon. There's moments when we should be in the present and focused, but at the same time, when we're in that mind wandering state, if you think about what's happening, we're generating internal content. Things are coming to mind. And what happens when we're at the pinnacle of creativity, we're generating internal content. We're putting together unexpected associations, novel concepts that wouldn't necessarily go together. And some research shows that when we're in that sort of creative peak performance, it is very similar to mind wandering. And I can tell you kind of a fun study by Benjamin Baird and his colleagues 2012. So he had study participants do a task that encouraged mind wandering and they measured through self-report how much mind wandering the participants were doing. Then he gave them this task that measures divergent thinking or creativity. If I was to say a brick, a really common object, how many unusual uses can you come up with for that brick? Just give me one or two.

Danny Crichton:
You can turn it into gold, and build a path. That wasn't that unusual. I was transforming it.

Anna-Lisa Cohen:
Yes.

Danny Crichton:
You could throw it through a window.

Anna-Lisa Cohen:
Yeah, exactly. If you locked your keys in. Okay.

Danny Crichton:
Right.

Anna-Lisa Cohen:
It would serve that tool. And a typical answer is paperweight a doorstop. But a more creative answer would be a mock coffin for a Barbie doll. Right. That's kind of unusual. So performance on this test is measured in terms of the number of options you come up with and the originality. So the mock coffin would get higher points. And what they found was when they looked at the degree to which people mind wandered those, that mind wandered the most, tended to have the best creative answers. And so there is this connection, and I mean, this sounds kind of correlational, but there's other studies that are even more convincing.

So this is researched by someone named Lou, I think it's also 2012, and they took freestyle rappers, and sure your audience knows, but this is, you put novel lyrics together on the spot, and it's considered the pinnacle of creativity really. You're coming up with a song on the spot. There were in two conditions. One, they did rehearsed lyrics to a musical score and the other condition, they came up with lyrics on the spot. They freestyle wrapped, their brains were scanned in a functional MRI scanner in both conditions. And what they found was whenever we're in that disconnected state, the default mode network is activated. And it's kind of in direct contrast to when you're present, which is the central executive network when you're really focused and present. So what they found was in the condition in which they were freestyle rapping, the default mode was activated. The central executive being present mode was deactivated.

Danny Crichton:
So let me ask you, I mean, obviously there's been a ton of books over the last, I mean probably centuries, but particularly in the last decade of trying to cultivate creativity, increased creativity, tools, techniques, mental models. How much of this is accurate? How much of it is valuable? And is there a way to cultivate mind wandering in that sort of, we need to make everything as productive as possible, so we're going to use our executive function to focus on not focusing?

Anna-Lisa Cohen:
Yeah, I know, right? It sounds kind of weird, like I'm prescribing mind wandering. Most of us think creativity, the best creative solutions and ideas come through laser focus and structured concentration. And of course, you're not going to come up with something in your field unless you're knowledgeable about it. Of course, we all know that and we do that work. But for that moment where insight occurs, I mean, we all know that old adage, your best thinking takes place in the shower.

Andrew Hodges wrote this biography of Alan Turing and Turing came up with the Turing machine famously, and it was the precursor of the computer, and apparently he was an avid runner, and he was running through a field. He'd finished, he flopped down on his back. And that apparently is when the idea for the Turing machine came to him. And it seems kind of magical, mysterious, why, when we're not focused on something, does the solution come to us? But it's like you've unplugged from maybe not successful strategies and you've set the bar low because you're in this kind of mind wandering state. And ideas that might have been nestled in your unconscious suddenly have the opportunity to rise. And it was there. You just had to set the stage for it to come to mind. There's ways to do this, which is don't be afraid of mind wandering. When you're sitting on the train instead of sending emails and trying to be productive, put your phone down, look up and see where your thoughts take you.

Danny Crichton:
And then when we talk about present and future, at the same time, some of your researchers looked at how people balance between being present. So say having a phone conversation with someone live in which they don't necessarily know what they're about to say, but it's not completely mindless, but also a little bit engaging while they're also planning the future. So maybe you're hearing this and you're thinking, "God, I need to get to that dinner at a certain period of time." You're sort of balancing these two different kind of time modalities at the same time. What did you discover in your own research and how do humans handle those situations?

Anna-Lisa Cohen:
So I mean, a lot of my research has to do with carrying out our future intentions. And there's one school of thought in my field, it's prospective memory is what it's called. Future oriented memory. One set of researchers that believe every time you have a future intention that you haven't completed yet, it takes up cognitive resources. It requires some mental effort. So when you are in that present moment, if you're kind of thinking, "Oh, I really need to send that email." Perhaps your attention won't be completely focused on the present moment. But it really depends. I mean, there's some things that we hold in mind, I have to write that email and you forget it. Well, we're conversing in the present. It doesn't take any away, any resources. And then at a future moment, it's like, oh, spontaneously comes to mind. And oh, I have to remember to send that email.

Danny Crichton:
You've also done a lot with the psychology of film.

Anna-Lisa Cohen:
Yes.

Danny Crichton:
And specifically, you had a research article, the Power of the Picture, which was picked up by the Atlantic. What got you interested in the film side of psychology and what were some of the lessons there?

Anna-Lisa Cohen:
I mean, I've always been sort of a film nerd, and perhaps in another life I would've gone into the field. When I started looking into the psychology of film, there's not that much done with psychologists. There's lots of film theory. People have studied film for many decades. But in psychology, we didn't really understand what happens to us. I mean, it's bizarre when you think about it. I'm watching a film, I know it's fictional. I know I'm in the room. I know I'm not in that film, but I cry and I'm invested in what has happened. So that experience is called narrative transportation, because we've been transported into the narrative, and it doesn't always happen. It has to be a story that you feel, you identify with the characters, you feel empathy for them and some suspense that kind of draws you in.

And so of course, the master of that, Alfred Hitchcock. So, Yuri Hassen Princeton, he put people in scanners and he scanned their brains as they watch different films. One of them was this Hitchcock film, Bang, You're Dead. 1961, I believe. I was interested, what happens in that moment when you're watching a film? Are you right away captured by it? Does it take some time? Is there a pivotal event that happens that suddenly you're like gone? So we had research subjects in one condition. They watched the film in its intended chronological order. In another condition, they watched the film with the scenes just slightly out of order. We gave both groups a very simple goal. So we said, "All you have to do, every time you hear the word gun spoken during the film, I just want you to remember to lift your index finger. We're not going to remind you again." That's it.

Let me just tell you the plot of the film. It's extremely suspenseful. And this five-year-old boy, Jackie, he's really into playing cops and robbers with his friends. They all have toy guns, and they make fun of him and say, "Oh, you have a baby gun. Your gun is not good." So then cut to the mother's brother, comes back from a trip and he says to Jackie, "Oh, I have it present for you. I'll give it to you later." So Jackie sneaks into his room, opens a suitcase and finds a gun, and it's a real gun, and it has one bullet in it. So he takes it, and then for the rest of the film, he's going around his small town pointing the gun at various people and pulling the trigger. And of course, he thinks it's a toy gun. And so the film just builds an unbearable level of suspense and stress really for the viewer.

And what we found was people that watched it in the intended chronological order, the suspense built in this intended way by Hitchcock and by the third or fourth occurrence of the word gun, they completely forgot what they were doing. And they abandoned their goal because their goal had been taken up by the protagonist goal, which is to prevent a death. In the other condition, they remembered. They kept living, lifting their index finger, and they did much better. And so it sort of shows suspense. Other researchers have shown, this is one of the variables that is extremely successful in drawing people into a narrative, because you feel empathy. You don't want to witness a death, even though it's fictional. And people believe that film serves a purpose. It helps us exercise the empathy muscle. We also are exposed to viewpoints and mindsets that differ from our own. So it allows us to be maybe more flexible in that setting where the stakes aren't very high. So film serves a lot of purposes in that respect. And when you get lost in a film, when you become immersed in a literary fiction, whatever you're reading, it activates the default mode network.

Danny Crichton:
Well, I think I seem to recall reading articles about research in our brains, we actually light up if we actually have that empathy connection with a character in a novel in a film. In many ways, the emotions of that character are also reflected in our own brains. We're actually feeling the same sadness, the same emotions, which I think is super interesting. When we're talking about narrative transportation. Where else does it apply to? Is it only content as in if I'm reading or writing, but does it work in if I'm seeing someone on the streets and I'm feeling what they're feeling, I can see their face or something like that. Would you call that narrative transportation? Or is that sort of a totally different realm?

Anna-Lisa Cohen:
I mean, I think that's just empathizing that we all fortunately do feel, we hope, right? But narratives, we're feeling empathy for a make believe character, which in of itself is very strange because there's nothing to be gained, really. It's just like we can't help but exercise it. And what's really fascinating, recent research shows that literary fiction has all sorts of benefits. I mean, if you look at the list of books to read that Warren Buffet would suggest, or Bill Gates, it's probably mostly nonfiction books. And nothing against nonfiction books, they're wonderful for acquisition of knowledge, but they're not conferring the same benefits as literary fiction. And so literary fiction, I mean, this isn't your beach read that is formulaic. And you kind of know what's going to happen. This is stuff that challenges you. And what research is showing is that it makes us better decision makers. It makes us more creative. And that's because we're forced to take the perspective of characters maybe that we don't like, but we just, through the story, we kind of see their perspective. So that makes us more open-minded. And it's also, I guess it lowers the need for simplicity. We are able to follow along a more complex story with multiple levels, and it improves our ability to just engage more complexly with problem solving.

Danny Crichton:
I think one of the funny things is I feel like if you're a venture capitalist and you're constantly reading the decks over and over and over again, one pitch after another, ironically, they're all narratives, but they don't have that complexity. So I feel like in some ways you're getting stupider and stupider over time. And it triggers, 'cause I was just reading Maryanne Wolf's book Reader Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World. And what she does there, she's a researcher at UCLA. She summarizes a lot of the emerging psychology research, particularly children's psychology, that they're now doing longitudinal studies of showing, what are the effects of the iPhone, the iPad on cognitive development. And what she shows is that empathy is the skill that's sort of going away, that people are not able to build mostly from literary fiction, they're not reading these kind of complex pieces of work. They're playing games, they're watching YouTube clips, whatever the case may be. Now, TikTok. They're basically have no ability. We're not building kind of the deeper brain structures to be able to handle complex thinking, be able to retain multiple thoughts at the same time, connect different disparate facts together into a narrative and weave it into a complex scenario.

And so she obviously argues very militant that this is a terrible situation. The research is really starting to build up. Obviously we're in 2022, so we're just hitting that 10 year line for a lot of these studies to come out and more are coming. Well, when you were talking there, I was just thinking about, I read a lot of fiction. We actually cover a lot of fiction in the newsletter and occasionally on the podcast we had Elliot Pepper on, I guess a couple of months ago, a novelist in the speculative fiction world, which actually random thought, but is sort of an interesting intersection of your interests, where for a lot of the speculative fiction writers in our world, their goal is to transport readers both to a new set of characters, but also a new future. A future that we haven't seen before and get you out of that sort of day-to-day, right, Codian life.

Anna-Lisa Cohen:
Yeah, and I bet it's more effective. Right?

Danny Crichton:
Certainly. It's interesting because it's easier to get into, I think for a lot of folks in the tech world because you're going into a tech sort of focused plot and narrative that allows you to sort of say, okay, this is believable. And that kind of enthralls you and get you into the plot.

Anna-Lisa Cohen:
Right. I mean, fiction is very convincing because our psychological barriers are lowered, and we're going to be more open to suggestions, maybe changing our cognitive beliefs in that sort of narrative structure. And there's an interesting study that shows all of us could be measured on the trait of cognitive closure, need for closure. Have you heard of that?

Danny Crichton:
I have not. No.

Anna-Lisa Cohen:
Yeah. So need for closure is if you're trying to make a decision, you're going to sift through information that's going to help you to make that decision. And people that have a high need for closure, they want to make that decision quickly. If they find the third bit of information is convincing, they're going to be like, "Okay, I've made my decision. I don't need to look any further." And what we find is if you have a lower need for that, you're going to sift through more information. You're going to contemplate other alternate viewpoints perspectives and bring all that information together and make probably a more well-informed decision. And reading literary fiction improves that the more people read, the less need for closure that they have. So perhaps when you're going to hire someone, ask them what's on their reading list. I mean, right.

Danny Crichton:
Well, that's how I judge people. Did they read Kafka recently? And if not.

Anna-Lisa Cohen:
Exactly.

Danny Crichton:
I keep talking about Kafka. I read all of Kafka's works in the last two months, and it's great. I don't know.

Anna-Lisa Cohen:
The Trial.

Danny Crichton:
The Trial's amazing. Trial castle's-

Anna-Lisa Cohen:
Painful.

Danny Crichton:
America. And I also just watched the Orson Wells version of The Trial.

Anna-Lisa Cohen:
Wow.

Danny Crichton:
Which I also have to hearty recommend.

Anna-Lisa Cohen:
Oh, really?

Danny Crichton:
Because you get the psychological dimension with the visual.

Anna-Lisa Cohen:
It's unbearable, I'm sure to watch.

Danny Crichton:
Exactly.

Anna-Lisa Cohen:
It was unbearable to read. So.

Danny Crichton:
Exactly. We've talked about complex thinking. We talked about narrative structures and narrative transportation. But one thing I want to connect on is how do we think and also connect to future goals? Because I think one of the big questions, a lot of folks who are listening to the podcast, they have professional goals, they have goals for nation states, their companies themselves, their families. How do those two interrelate with each other?

Anna-Lisa Cohen:
So earlier in the conversation, we spoke about future simulations of an upcoming expected event, like a job interview. But then there's future simulations of bigger long-term goals. So disconnecting from the present to simulate a future goal, a long-term goal, a goal that perhaps is very lofty and distant from your everyday life. Maybe you want to write a screenplay and submit it to a Hollywood director. Maybe you have this idea for startup that you want to pitch to a group, something that you might be afraid to tell someone 'cause they'd think you're delusional for having a goal that lofty. What's wonderful about future simulations, you can think about that lofty goal. You can spend as much time as you want thinking about that goal. No one has to know, and it serves, you're probably aware of vision boards in pseudos psychology. If you want something in the future, you put pictures up and quotes, and you put it somewhere where you see it, and it's supposed to motivate behavior and make it more likely you'll achieve that goal.

But future simulations is kind of like your internal vision board. And the more you keep that goal active by thinking about it, simulating it, the more likely that you will achieve that goal, or at least make progress towards it. And what's pretty fascinating is, let's say I'm imagining writing this screenplay, or maybe I've written it already and I'm thinking about submitting it to a Hollywood director. The more you simulate that future event, it's activating and strengthening the brain regions that will be responsible for its real life execution. We're training the brain to be ready for that future moment. As well, it turns us kind of into this opportunity detective, we're even unconsciously throughout the day, more sensitive, more open to little opportunities in everyday life that might make us a smidge closer to that goal.

Danny Crichton:
Let me ask the opposite version of that question. So this is an optimistic, I have a goal I want to get to. What about something ominous, like, I don't know, climate change or something that you're dreading going on to the future? Does that sort of omnipresent sense of foreboding affected in the same way?

Anna-Lisa Cohen:
Yeah. I mean, certainly future simulations can be motivating and optimistic and kind of exciting. But of course, future simulations can always also be ruminating and anxiety provoking, worrying about the future. And certainly there's a whole clinical realm to that. And of course, therapists try to help people reframe those thoughts into something less ominous. Thinking about climate change, let's say, one type of self projection mental time travel I didn't really touch on is when we put ourselves in someone else's shoes, when we take another person's perspective, if I'm giving a presentation, I'm going to put myself in the minds of the audience and think, what are they thinking? How are they going to understand what I'm saying? Maybe I'll slightly change this part. So it benefits us in that sense that we are going to relate to other people more effectively in the workplace. If I take the perspective of my colleague, it's going to make a better working relationship, better communication. So has all of these benefits. I think if we take the perspective of our children, perhaps we're going to say, oh, they're going to still be here when I'm long gone. Maybe I need to embrace more sustainable actions in my everyday life, and I can change that for them. So I think it can have that benefit.

Danny Crichton:
Well, I will say our producer, Chris Gates, was looking for a new graphic for this podcast, which currently is a skyline of New York. And his prompt in the AI image generator was a dystopian society with rays of light coming out of it. So when it comes to foreboding, that's sort of the direction we're going, but we've covered so much. And Anna-Lisa, thank you so much for joining us.

Anna-Lisa Cohen:
My pleasure.

continue
listening