Embodied Cognition

Embodied Cognition

I really enjoy science podcasts, science writing, and trying to think rationally and scientifically when I observe and consider the world. Within science, when we approach the world to better understand the connections that take place, we try to isolate the variables acting on our observations or experiments. We try to separate ourselves from the world so that we can make an objective and independent observation of reality, free from our own interference and influence. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that we are part of the world, and that we do have an influence on it. No matter how independent and rational we want to be, we are still part of the world and interact with it, even if we are just thinking and observing.

 

Daniel Kahneman demonstrates how our thoughts and observations can lead us to have unintended physical manifestations in the world in his book Thinking Fast and Slow. He presents the reader with two words that normally don’t go together (I won’t reveal his experiment for the reader here). What he shows with his word association experiment is that simple thoughts, just hearing or reading a word, can influence how we experience and behave in the physical world. Anyone who has started sweating during a poker game and anyone who has shuttered just from reading the words nails on a chalkboard knows that this is true. We are physical systems, and simple thoughts, memories, and words are enough to trigger physical responses in our bodies. While we like to think of ourselves as being independent and separate from the world, we never really are.

 

Kahneman explains this by writing, “As cognitive scientists have emphasized in recent years, cognition is embodied; you think with your body, not only with your brain.” Our brains take in electrical information from stimuli in the world. Chemicals bind to receptors in our noses or on our tongues, and nerves transmit electrical information to the brain to tell it what chemicals are present. Light interacts with receptors in our eyes, and nerves from our eyes again travel directly into our brains. Thinking is a direct result of physical sensory input, and while we can’t physically touch a thought, our body does react to the thinking and experiencing taking place.

 

No matter how much we want to believe that we can be objective and separated from the physical reality of the world around us, we cannot be 100% isolated. We experience the world physically, and we can try to think of the world independently, but our senses and experiences are directly connected to that physical world. Our responses in turn are also physical, even if we don’t perceive them. We have to accept, no matter how scientific and objective we want to be, that we are part of the system we are evaluating. There is no independent God’s eye view, our cognition is embodied, and we are within the system we observe.
Rich Representations of Things

Making Connections From Rich Representations of Things

On August 12th, Tyler Cowen released a podcast interview with Stanford Economics Professor Nicholas Bloom on his podcast Conversations with Tyler. In response to a question from Cowen about making adjustments in his life, Bloom said the following:

 

“For me, I really like to read broadly rather than deeply — sounds an odd thing to say. Every Monday, for example, or Sunday night, the National Bureau of Economic Research has this vast email of all the recent papers. I tend to try and scan every title and abstract. I read the papers. I like the Economist magazine. It’s good. It’s often been a source of ideas, actually.
We were talking before the call — I listen to your podcast. I actually listen to a lot of podcasts because I try and go out for a walk or a run for about an hour every day. I mostly listen to podcasts. [laughs] If I’m getting too tired, I have to switch to music. For me, that’s been helpful for coming up with new research ideas.” 

 

The quote from Bloom came back to mind this morning as I looked over a quote I highlighted in Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow. Kahneman’s quote is about connections in the mind, and how having a rich set of connections can help us have better representations of the world. When people are asked questions about Michigan, research in Kahneman’s book shows, they have different responses depending on whether they remember that Detroit is in Michigan. People with more knowledge of the state think differently of it compared to people with minimal knowledge of Michigan. Kahneman writes,

 

“More intelligent individuals are more likely than others to have rich representations of most things. Intelligence is not only the ability to reason; it is also the ability to find relevant material in memory and to deploy attention when needed.” 

 

This idea relates to what Bloom said in the interview with Cowen. Bloom was asked about his productivity, and how he is able to keep up a high level of publications with co-authors across a wide range of academic institutions, geographic locations, and subjects. Bloom responded that he is developing rich representations of most things through broad, but not necessarily deep, investigations of a wide range of topics.

 

By taking in a wide range of information, Bloom is able to pick out the important connections between disparate topics. This gives him an ability to deploy attention where there is a lack of study on certain topics. By reading across many fields, he is able to look at current developments in economics, news, and society to find relevant material that can generate useful knowledge for the world of economics.

 

Not all of us are ever going to be economists, and not all of us will be in a place where we can publish academic articles on lots of topics. But all of us are asked by social media every day to offer our opinion on something. If we have a narrow and limited knowledge base, then our opinions and ideas are going to also be narrow and limited. If, however, we can work to broaden our horizons and work to focus our memory and attention on relevant material, then we can start to offer better opinions about the world, and we can start to move discussions forward in a better direction.
Accepting Unsound Arguments

Accepting Unsound Arguments

Motivated reasoning is a major problem for those of us who want to have beliefs that accurately reflect the world. To live is to have preferences about how the world operates and relates to our lives. We would prefer not to endure suffering and pain, and would rather have comfort, companionship, and prosperity. We would prefer the world to provide for us, and we would prefer to not be too heavily strained. From pure physical needs and preferences all the way through social and emotional needs and preferences, our experiences of the world are shaped by what we want and what we would like. This is why we cannot get away from our own opinions and individual preferences in life, and part of why motivated reasoning becomes the problem that it is.

 

In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman writes about how motivated reasoning works in our minds, in terms of the arguments we make to support the conclusions we believe in, or would like to believe in. He writes, “When people believe a conclusion is true, they are also very likely to believe arguments that appear to support it, even when these arguments are unsound.”

 

We justify conclusions we would like to believe with any argument that seems plausible and fits the conclusion we would like to believe. Our preference for one conclusion leads us to bend the arguments in favor of that conclusion. Rather than truly analyzing the arguments, we discount factors that don’t support what we want to believe, and we disregard arguments that come from people who are reaching an alternative conclusion. Our preferences take over, and the things we want become more important than reality. Motivated reasoning gives us a way to support what we want to believe by twisting the value we assign to different facts.

 

Even in our own mind, demonstrating that an argument in favor of our preferred conclusion is flawed is unlikely to make much of a difference. We will continue to hold on to our flawed argument, choosing to believe that there is something true about it, even if we know it is flawed or contradicts other disagreeable facts that must also be true if we are to support our preferred conclusion.

 

This doesn’t make us humans look very good. We can’t reason our way to new beliefs and we can’t rely on facts and data to change minds. In the end, if we want to change our thoughts and behavior as well as those of others, we have to shape people’s preferences. Motivated reasoning can support conclusions that do not accurately reflect the world around us, so for those of us who care about reality, we have to heighten the salience of believing and trusting science and expertise before we can get people to adopt our arguments in favor of rational evidence. If we don’t think about how preference and motivated reasoning lead people to believe inaccurate claims, we will fail to address the preferences that support problematic policies, and we won’t be able to guide our world in a direction based on reason and sound conclusions.
Overconfidence

Overconfidence

How much should you trust your intuitions? The answer to the question depends on your level of expertise with the area in which you have intuitions. If you cook with a certain pan on a stove every day, then you are probably pretty good with trusting your intuition for where the temperature should be set, how long the thing you are cooking will need, and where the hottest spots on the pan will be. If you are generally unfamiliar with cars, then you probably shouldn’t trust your intuition about whether or not a certain used car is the right car to purchase. In other words, you should trust your instincts in things you are deeply familiar with and in areas where you are an expert. In areas where you are not an expert and where you only have a handful of experiences, you should consider yourself to be overconfident if you think you have strong intuitions about the situation.

 

Daniel Kahneman demonstrates this with an example of a math problem in his book Thinking Fast and  Slow. Most of us don’t solve a lot of written math problems in our head on a daily basis. As a result, we shouldn’t trust the first intuitive answer that comes to mind when we see one. This is the case with the problem that Kahneman uses in his book. It is deliberately designed to have an intuitive easy answer that is incorrect. It helps us see how our overconfidence can feel justified, but still lead us astray.

 

Kahneman writes, “an observation that will be a recurrent theme of this book: many people are overconfident, prone to place too much faith in their intuitions. They apparently find cognitive effort at least mildly unpleasant and avoid it as much as possible.” Intuitions are easy. They come to mind quickly, and following them doesn’t take much conscious effort or thought. The problem, however, is that our intuitions can be wildly wrong. Sometimes they may help us reach an answer quickly, and if we are an expert they can even be life saving, but in many cases our intuitions can be problematic.  If we don’t ever think through our intuitions, we won’t actually realize how often we act on them, and how our overconfidence can lead to poor outcomes.

 

This doesn’t mean that we have to pull out a note pad and calculator every time we make a decision. Instead, it means we should pause momentarily to ask ourselves if our immediate intuition is justified. If we are driving down a freeway that we take every day, and our intuition says change lanes, we can pause for a beat and consider that we drive this way every day, and know that one lane or the other generally slows down a lot and that we will be better off in a different lane. If we have an intuition instead about a complex public policy, we can take a minute to consider whether we truly know anything about the public policy area, and whether we should be more critical of our intuitions. Jumping to conclusions in public policy based solely on intuition can be dangerous. It doesn’t take too much effort or time to think about whether our intuition can be trusted or whether we are overconfident, but it can have a big impact for how we relate to the world and whether we trust the voice in our own head, or the voice of experts.
Self-Control Depletion, Continued

Self-Control Depletion, Continued

“The evidence is persuasive,” writes Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow, “activities that impose high demands on System 2 require self-control, and the exertion of self-control is depleting and unpleasant. Unlike cognitive load, ego depletion is at least in part a loss of motivation.”

 

Yesterday I wrote about our misconceptions regarding individual self-control. I wrote about how important it is to structure our environment accordingly for productivity and self-restraint. We are influenced by far more factors in our environment than we like to admit, and we don’t have as much self-control over our behaviors as we believe we do. Being intentional with our environment, shaping the systems, structures, and institutions around us, will enable us to move through life without needing unreasonable (or unattainable) self-control and motivation.

 

Today’s quote from Kahneman gets more detailed with self-control, ego depletion, and our experience of focus, attention, and mental effort. Cognitive load, as mentioned in the quote, is the effort put on our thinking processes. Remembering a 7 digit number is a light cognitive load, while holding 7 digits in your mind and adding one digit to each number to get a new number is a higher cognitive load. At a certain point under cognitive load, our mind simply can’t hold any more information and can’t continue to accurately do more mental weight-lifting. This is the point where ego depletion sets in if we continue to try to push through and maintain the hard work.

 

The more we engage System 2, the part of our brain needed for focus activities and complex problem solving, the quicker we lose motivation for mentally taxing activities. This is the ego depletion that Kahneman writes about. Our brains in theory can keep going, we could keep reading, writing, plugging away at a spreadsheet, but our brains start to get tired, and our motivation to focus and push through with continued mental effort fades. If we continue to exercise self-control, preventing ourselves from a diversion, such as playing a video game, then we are slowly going to wear ourselves out, and we will be more likely to get a cookie, have a drink, or binge watch a whole TV series once we do stop.

 

Just as our brains are not able to continually hold more and more information without making mistakes, our brains are not able to continually do more and more deep work without reaching a breaking point. As Cal Newport writes in his book Deep Work, for most people who are serious about doing their best work, the limit is roughly 4 hours of intense deep work per day. The mind, even a well trained mind, will get tired and lose the motivation to keep pushing through more deep work without making dangerous mistakes and becoming less productive in the long run. We have to keep in mind the twin forces of cognitive load and ego depletion, and focus on doing the right work at the right time, before our cognitive load is overwhelming and before our self-control has been depleted. We can do great work, but we have to be intentional about how we do our deep work, and we have to set up our environment to minimize the pull of distractions and the need for self-control.
Depleting Self-Control

Depleting Self-Control

A theme that runs through a lot of the writing that I do, influenced by Stoic thinkers such as Marcus Aurelius and modern academics and productivity experts like Cal Newport, is that we don’t have as much control over our lives as we generally believe. Writings from Aurelius show us how much happens beyond our control, and how important it is to be measured and moderate in our reactions to the world. Newport’s work shows how easily our brains can become distracted and how limited they are at sustaining long-term focus. Fitting in with both lines of thoughts is research from Daniel Kahneman, particularly an idea he presents in his book Thinking Fast and Slow about our depleting self-control. His work as a whole shows us just how much of our world we misunderstand and how important structures, systems, and institutions in our lives can be.

 

Regarding our ability for self-control, Kahneman writes, “an effort of will or self-control is tiring; if you have had to force yourself to do something, you are less willing or less able to exert self-control when the next challenge comes around. The phenomenon has been named ego depletion.”

 

Self-control is overrated. We think of ourselves and others as having far more self-control than is really possible. We are quick to judge others for failing to exercise self-control, and we can beat ourselves up mentally when we don’t seem to be able to muster the self-control needed to achieve our goals, stick to a diet, or hold to a resolution. But the work of Roy Baumeister that Kahneman’s quote describes shows us that self-control is limited, and that we can run out of self-control when we are overly taxed. Self-control is not an unlimited characteristic that reveals a deep truth about our personality.

 

It is easy to think up situations where you might have to restrain yourself from behaving rudely, indulging in vices, or shirking away from hard work. What is harder to immediately think of is how your initial act of self-control will influence the following situations that you might find yourself in. If you spend all day trying hard not to open Twitter while working, then you might give in to a post-work cookie. If you sat through an uncomfortable family dinner and restrained yourself from yelling at your relatives, then you might find it hard to hold back from speeding down the freeway on the drive home. We don’t like to think of ourselves as being so easily influenced by things that happened in the past, but we are unable to truly separate ourselves from things that happen around us. As we exert effort via self-control in one situation, we lose some degree of our ability to exert self-control in other situations.

 

It is important that we keep Kahneman and Baumeister’s research in mind and think about how we set up our environment so that we are not fighting a self-control battle all day long. There are tools that will stop you from being able to open certain websites while you are supposed to be working, you might have to decide that you just won’t buy any cookies so that they are not in the house at 2 in the afternoon when your sweet tooth acts up, and you may need to just Uber to and from those tense family dinners. If we put it all on ourselves to have self-control, then we will probably fail, but if we set up our environment properly, and give up some of the idea of self-control, then we will probably be more successful in the long run.
Thinking Fast and Evolution

Thinking Fast and Evolution

I have written in the past about how I think I probably put too much emphasis on evolutionary biology, especially considering brains, going all the way back to when our human ancestors liven in small tribes as hunter-gatherers. Perhaps it is because I look for it more than others, but I feel as though characteristics and traits that served us well during that time, still influence much of how we behave and respond to the world today. Sometimes the effects are insignificant, but sometimes I believe they do matter, and sometimes I believe they drive negative outcomes or behaviors that are maladapted to today’s world.

 

As I have begun writing about Daniel Kahneman’s research as presented in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, I have generally given System 1, or what Kahneman describes as our quick, automatic, and reactive part of our brain, a bad rep. But the reality is that it serves an important purpose, and likely served an especially important role over the course of human evolution, getting us to the place we are at today. Knowing that I tend to weigh our evolutionary past heavily (and perhaps too heavily), it is not surprising to me that I view System 1 as an important piece of how we got to where we are, even if System 1 is easy to pick on in our current world.

 

In his book, Kahneman writes, “Any task that requires you to keep several ideas in mind at the same time has the same hurried character. Unless you have the good fortune of a capacious working memory, you may be forced to work uncomfortably hard. The most effortful forms of slow thinking are those that require you to think fast.”

 

Anyone who has had to remember a couple of phone numbers without the benefit of being able to write them down or save them immediately, and anyone who has had to remember more words than Person, Woman, Man, Camera, TV, knows that we feel super rushed when we are suddenly given something important to hold in our working memory. We try to do what we can as quickly as possible to get the information out of our head, stored someplace other than our working memory. We feel rushed to complete the task to ease our cognitive load. Why would our brains work this way? Why would it be that we become so rushed when we have something meaningful that we need to hold in our mind?

 

The answer, as I view it, might go back to our hunter-gatherer ancestors. They mostly needed System 1. They had to react quickly to a noise that could be a dangerous predator. They had to move fast and on instinct to successfully take down dinner. There were not as many things that required deep focus, and the things that required deep focus were not dense academic journal articles, or spreadsheets, or PowerPoints, or a guy with a clip-board asking you to count backward from 200 by 13. You don’t have to worry about pop-ups or advertisements when you are skinning an animal, grinding seeds, or doing some type of work with your hands in a non-digital world. You didn’t have phone numbers to remember and you were not heading into a business meeting with four people you just met, whose names you needed to memorize as quick and fluidly as possible.

 

Slow thinking developed for people who had time for slow thinking. Fast thinking developed when survival was on the line. Today, the slow thinking might be more likely to help us survive than our fast thinking, presuming we don’t have dangerous drives to work each day and are eating safely prepared foods. Slow thinking is a greater advantage for us today, but we also live in a world where slow thinking is still difficult because we have packed more distractions into our environments. We have literally moved ourselves out of environments for which our brains are optimized by evolution, and this has created the challenges and conflicts we face with System 1 and System 2 in our daily lives and in the work we do.
Limited Effort for Focus and Deep Work

Limited Effort

A little while back I wrote a blog post centered around a quote from Cal Newport, “You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it.”

 

The idea is that our brains get tired, and as they get tired, they become worse at practicing self control. When you are exhausted, when you have had to concentrate really hard on school work, a business presentation, or on paperwork to ensure your child’s medical care is covered, your mind’s ability to focus becomes deminished. You have trouble staying away from that piece of cake in the fridge, from scrolling through Facebook, and you have trouble being patient with a child or spouse when they try to talk to you.

 

In his book Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman writes something very similar to the quote from Newport, “self-control and deliberate thought apparently draw on the same limited budget of effort.” 

 

Our brains only have so much ability to do heavy duty thinking. It is as if there is a set account for deep thinking, and as we think critically we slowly make deductions from the account until our brains are in the red. Using our brain for serious thoughts and calculations requires focus and self-control. However, our willpower is depleted as we use it, so as we focus for longer periods of time, our brains become worse at ensuring that we stay focused.

 

Kahneman suggests that this is part of why we spend most of our life operating on System 1, the automatic, quick, and lightweight thinking process of our lives. System 2 is the deliberate thought process that we engage to do math, to study a map to make sure we know where we are driving, and to listen seriously to a spouse or child and provide them with support. System 2 takes a lot of energy, and has a limited budget. System 1 runs on low-power mode, and that is why it is our default. It makes mistakes, is subject to biases, and doesn’t always answer the right questions, but at least it saves us energy and allows us to reserve the effort of attention for the most important tasks.

 

Kahneman and Newport would likely both agree that we should use our budget for System 2. We should maximize the time we spend in deep work, and set ourselves up to do our best System 2 work when we need to. We can save System 1 for unimportant moments and tasks, and work with our brains so that we don’t force too much System 2 work into the times when our effort budget has been depleted.
Detecting Simple Relationships

Detecting Simple Relationships

System 1, in Daniel Kahneman’s picture of the mind, is the part of our brain that is always on. It is the automatic part of our brain that detects simple relationships in the world, makes quick assumptions and associations, and reacts to the world before we are even consciously aware of anything. It is contrasted against System 2, which is more methodical, can hold complex and competing information, and can draw rational conclusions from detailed information through energy intensive thought processes.

 

According to Kahneman, we only engage System 2 when we really need to. Most of the time, System 1 does just fine and saves us a lot of energy. We don’t need to have to think critically about what we need to do when the stoplight changes from green to yellow to red. Our System 1 can develop an automatic response so that we let off the gas and come to a stop without having to consciously think about every action involved in slowing down at an intersection. However, System 1 has some very serious limitations.

 

“System 1 detects simple relations (they are all alike, the son is much taller than the father) and excels at integrating information about one thing, but it does not deal with multiple distinct topics at once, nor is it adept at using purely statistical information.”

 

When relationships start to get complicated, like say the link between human activities and long term climate change, System 1 will let us down. It also fails us when we see someone who looks like they belong to the Hell’s Angels on a father-daughter date at an ice cream shop, when we see someone who looks like an NFL linebacker in a book club, or when we see a little old lady driving a big truck. System 1 makes assumptions about the world based on simple relationships, and is easily surprised. It can’t calculate unique and edge cases, and it can’t hold complicated statistical information about multiple actors and factors that influence the outcome of events.

 

System 1 is our default, and we need to remember where its strengths and where its weaknesses are. It can help us make quick decisions while driving or catching an apple falling off a counter, but it can’t help us determine whether a defendant in a criminal case is guilty. There are times when our intuitive assumptions and reactions are spot on, but there are a lot of times when they can lead us astray, especially in cases that are not simple relationships and violate our expectations.
Skill Versus Effort

Skill Versus Effort

In the world of sports, I have always enjoyed the saying that someone is so good at something they make it look easy. While I usually hear the saying in relation to physical activity, it also extends to other generally challenging activities – Kobe made the fadeaway jumper look easy, Tyler Cowen makes blogging look easy, and Roman Mars has made podcasting look (sound?) easy. But what is really happening when an expert makes something look easy? Daniel Kahneman argues that increased skill makes things look easy because skill decreases the effort needed to do the thing.

 

In Thinking Fast and Slow, Kahneman writes, “As you become skilled in a task, its demand for energy diminishes. Studies of the brain have shown that the pattern of activity associated with an action changes as skill increases, with fewer brain regions involved. Talent has similar effects. Highly intelligent individuals need less effort to solve the same problems, as indicated by both pupil size and brain activity. A general law of least effort applies to cognitive as well as physical exertion.”

 

while I was at a UCLA summer basketball camp years ago, Sean Farnham told me a story about Kobe – he used to work out at the UC Irvine Gym every morning. He drew such a big crowd to the gym that UC Irvine asked him to either stop coming to the gym, or to arrive at a different time. Kobe didn’t stop, he just changed his hours, working out at 4 or 5 a.m., before the gym would be packed. Farnham told me that Kobe had a training entourage with him, so that when he would pass out on the court from physical exhaustion of working so hard, his staff could pull him to the side, get him some fluids, and help him get back out on the court until he would pass out again.

 

Tyler Cowen writes every day. On his podcast and in other interviews, he has explained how writing every single day, even on Christmas and your birthday, is one of the most important things you can do if you want to be a good writer and clear thinker. Much of his writing never gets out into the public, but every day he puts in the effort and practice to build his skill.

 

Roman Mars loves radio, and his hit podcast 99% Invisible is onto episode 410.  In a 2012 interview with Debbie Millman Mars talked about learning to love radio early on and how he developed a passion for audio programming, even if no one was listening.

 

Kobe, Cowen, and Mars all practice a lot, and have developed a lot of skill from their practice. As Kahneman explains, their daily practice doesn’t just allow them to make things look easy. For those who practice as much as these three, things really are easier for them. Kobe’s muscle memory meant that he was more efficient in shooting a fadeaway jump shot, literally needing less energy and less mental focus to pull off a perfect swish. Cowen writes every day and the act of starting a piece of writing for him probably requires less brain power to begin putting thoughts together. Similarly, Mars probably slips into his radio voice effortlessly, without consciously having to think about everything he is about to say, making the words, the voice, and the intonation flow more simply and naturally.

 

Kahneman and the three examples I shared show how important practice is for the things we want to do well. Consistent practice builds skill, and literally alters the brain, the chemical nerve pathways (via myelination), and the physical strength needed to perform a task. With practice, tasks really do become easier and automatic.