[00:00:06.4] ANNOUNCER: Welcome to The Science of Success with your host, Matt Bodnar.
[00:00:12.4] MB: Welcome to The Science of Success. I’m your host, Matt Bodnar. I’m an entrepreneur and investor in Nashville, Tennessee and I’m obsessed with the mindset of success and the psychology of performance. I’ve read hundreds of books, conducted countless hours of research and study and I am going to take you on a journey into the human mind and what makes peak performance tick, with the focus on always having our discussion rooted in psychological research and scientific fact, not opinion.
In this episode, we discuss whether time speeds up as we get older. Why your life story only makes sense looking in reverse. Whether or not brain games actually work. The importance of proactive learning instead of passive learning. Why psychology confirms all your worst fears about studying and getting smarter, and much more with a special two guest interview featuring Dr. Art Markman and Dr. Bob Duke.
The Science of Success continues to grow with more than 700,000 downloads, listeners in over a hundred countries, hitting number one in New Noteworthy, and more. A lot of our listeners are curious about how to organize and remember all this information. I get tons of listener emails and comments asking me how I keep track of all the incredible knowledge I get from reading hundreds of books, interviewing amazing experts, listening to podcast and much more.
Because of that, we created an awesome resource for you and you can get it completely free by texting the word “smarter” to the number 44222. It’s a guide we created called How to Organize and Remember Everything. Again, to get it, just text the word “smarter” to the number 44222 or go to scienceofsuccess.co and put in your email.
In our previous episode, we discuss the daily practice that works to develop self-love, how fear is often the signpost for what we most need to do next, the lessons from a 550 mile pilgrimage through Spain, how seeking too much knowledge can be often counterproductive and much more with our guest Kamal Ravikant. If you want to be inspired starting out this new year, listen to that episode.
[0:02:07.2] MB: Today, on The Science of Success, we have a special episode. Two guests at once. We have Dr. Bob Duke who is a professor and the head of music in human learning at the University of Texas in Austin. He also directs the psychology of learning program at the Colburn conservatory of music in Los Angeles.
We also have Dr. Art Markman who is a professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Texas and the founding director of the program in the human dimensions of organizations. Together, they cohost the NPR radio show, Two Guys On Your Head and recently coauthored the book Brain Briefs. Gentlement, welcome to The Science of Success.
[0:02:39.2] AM: Thanks a lot for having us.
[0:02:40.3] MB: Well we’re very excited to have both of you guys on here. For our guests who may not be familiar, can you each kind of introduce yourselves and say hi and tell us a little bit about yourself?
[0:02:49.1] AM: Sure, I’ll go first. Yeah, I’m Art Markman, I am a professor of psychology, I study the way people think so I’m interested in reasoning and decision making and motivation and for me, in addition to writing lots of papers that get read by 30 of my closest colleagues, it occurred to me not so long ago that almost everybody I know has a mind, almost nobody knows how that mind works.
I try to spend a lot of my time, in addition to doing research, to bringing insights from the field of cognitive science outward to other people in the hope that they might use that information to live their lives differently and probably better.
[0:03:25.3] BD: I’m Bob Duke and as you said, Matt, I’m a professor of music and human learning here at the University of Texas. Throughout my career, I’ve been studying learning and memory, not only in the context of music making but in other context as well. It’s always been of interest of mine because I work with a lot of people who are preparing to be teachers, what are the mechanisms by which people develop skills for memories, refine your skills over time.
Art and I had had several informal interactions over the years before we actually got started doing the radio show and it’s been now I guess going on four years now, right Art? It’s been a wonderful collaboration that it’s been a great deal of fun to be a part of.
[0:04:03.4] MB: Well, you guys have so many fascinating topics that you’ve written about and talked about. I’d love to start out you know, the way that the book, Brain Briefs, is kind of structured, you have all this amazing questions and you kind of go into answering a bunch of them. I’d love to start out and kind of go through a few of this questions that I found really interesting and kind of get your take on it and share some of those insights with our audience. One of the first that I found really fascinating was, does time speed up as we get older?
[0:04:30.5] AM: The older you get, the more that you begin to worry about that. But since Bob’s the older one, I’ll let him share his experience on this first.
[0:04:37.6] BD: Well the short answer is, yes. Of course what we mean by that, it doesn’t actually speed up but certainly our perceptions of the passes of time change as we age and there are a couple of explanations for that that I’ll let Art tell you about. But one of the things that’s sort of interesting about that is that when you look back into your past right?
Our perceptions of what we recall, what we remember change over time for reasons that have to do not only with an aging brain but also with just the proportion of experiences that we’ve accumulated over the course of many years of a lifetime.
[0:05:09.6] AM: Obviously one thing that makes time feel like it’s sped up is that the older you get, the more experiences you’ve already had relative to what you’re going through right now. A year of your life when you’re six years old is an enormous proportion of your life, whereas a year of your life when you say 50 is a much smaller proportion compared to what you’ve experienced. But in addition to that, as you get older, your life tends to become more routine. You tend to rely on things that you’ve done before and as a result, you don’t lay down lots of new landmarks in your life the way you do when you’re younger.
When you’re younger you have your first time on a bicycle, your first time going to school, your first time getting in a fight on a schoolyard, or whatever it is. When you get older, you tend to do the same stuff over and over again and then when you look back on it, it’s hard to separate out all of the events, which does have the happy fact that if you continue to create lots of new experiences for yourself, like say by starting to do a radio show or something like that, then you have the opportunity to slow time down a little bit.
[0:06:13.3] BD: Yeah and I think one of the things that’s embedded in what Art’s talking about is how much our brains in their efficiencies pay less and less attention to things that don’t change. One of the ways that that routine issue that Art was talking about affects what happens to our memories is that our brain recognizes that there’s no real reason to keep reforming this memory because it’s just like the memory that’s already in there.
I think all of us have probably experienced driving to work or driving home from the office and, you know, having many things on our mind and getting home and not remembering the trip. Well, that’s an example of how our minds can be other places when things become highly routinized.
[0:06:54.2] AM: Which, by the way, isn’t a terrible thing since the last thing you’d want to do is to clutter your mind with all the details of your daily commute. But it does make the time seem a little bit shorter when you look back on it.
[0:07:04.6] MB: I find it so fascinating and I think the idea that it’s sort of a proportion of your life right? Like you said, if you’re a six year old, on year is a massive portion of your life, whereas the older you get, a year is sort of incrementally less and less of your total life experience.
[0:07:19.0] BD: Thanks for the reminder.
[0:07:23.7] MB: You know, one of the things that you said I found really fascinating is the idea of landmarks, and how our memories are formed by unique new experiences. I once heard an example of a dinner party and someone was saying, “How can you make a dinner party more memorable?” And they said, “Instead of having everybody sit in the same room and listen to the same music for four hours, change the room you’re in and change the vibe, change the music every hour.” So Instead of having kind of one memory that your brain lumps together, you suddenly have four distinct memories that feel longer even though it’s the same amount of time.
[0:07:53.3] AM: Yeah, that sort of thing is great and I think, by extension, I think people should be a little bit mindful of trying on some new experiences, trying out some new things in order to create those landmarks in your daily life so that it’s not just remembering the dinner party, it’s also remembering October.
[0:08:13.7] MB: That touches on something, this is not a question from Brain Briefs but something I know you’ve talked about, which is kind of the importance of openness to new experiences. I’d love to hear a little bit about that and why it’s so relevant.
[0:08:24.0] BD: Yeah. Well, you know, I mean. In most of our lives, this is a good thing to follow up on, what you just asked about the passage of time. Our brains make memories when there are things to pay attention to that we need to pay attention to. The more predictable our lives are from day to day, the less our brains need to pay attention because we know what’s going to happen and it pretty much happens the way we expected it to.
There’s not much to really think about or to lay down memories for. When you create new experiences for yourself, and Art mentioned this a couple of minutes ago about aging. When you create new experiences as you age, you’re creating more memories that make your life seem more full and more interesting and more engaging.
I think often, we underestimate how much new experiences actually can do for us for our mood or sense of wellbeing and everything, but we have to acknowledge the fact that many people are not so open to new experiences. They like routines and they like to know what’s coming up. In everybody’s life, the challenge is to find a balance, a personal balance for you about how much newness, how many new experiences do you want in a given span of time, and how much do you want to rely on the predictable things that you know are going to happen every day?
I think if anybody examines our own life, I mean, certainly for me, there are routines that I have in my day that I like very much, the fact that those are routines. But having the job that I have and the job that Art has, we get to experience a lot of new things in any given week and that also makes our lives seem that much more energized and vital.
[0:09:55.1] AM: The thing is, you have to remember that, as Bob likes to say, brains are efficient and he usually follows that up by pointing out that efficient is another word for lazy, which means that brains really want to keep doing what they did last time. So one of the reasons why they’re such a strong driver to keep doing the comfortable and familiar thing is because it actually feels good in the moment to do that.
You know it’s going to happen, you know how it works and so you settle into this routine and as a result, you’re often a little bit hesitant to engage in some new thing because it seems like an awful lot of work and so we often don’t do those things. We actually do in the book, talk a little bit about openness in the first chapter because, you know, Bob and I as he said are privileged to be in careers where we have the opportunity to do all sorts of new and interest sting things.
Nonetheless, when our producer Rebecca Macenroy asked us, “Hey, would you guys like a show on the radio?” Which is something we had never really considered before. We sort of stared at each other at first. I think our initial reaction was, “What? That seems a lot of work.” But then our openness to experience kicked in and we thought, “Yeah, sure, why not?” We ended up doing this brand new thing that neither of us had ever envisioned for ourselves and it’s turned out to be a wonderful part of our lives.
I think that that first hesitant reaction is one we often give in to. But by not giving in to that and trying that new thing, we create all sorts of opportunities that we didn’t envision in advance.
[0:11:26.0] MB: In a previous talk that you guys have given, I think you shared an example of Dyson vacuums.
[0:11:32.1] AM: Yeah.
[0:11:32.8] MB: I’d like to hear that story.
[0:11:33.1] AM: Sure. So James Dyson, he was an interesting guy and one of the things about him that was so interesting was that he just learned a lot of stuff about a lot of stuff without regard for why it might be valuable later. One of the things he learned about was sawmills, which most of us don’t have much experience with saw mills.
My personal experiences usually in cartoons, right? Saw blade, log, body on the log. A real sawmill has no bodies on the log in general but definitely logs in saw blades and a lot of saw dust. What he learned about them was that the way they get rid of all that sawdust is by sucking it out of the air and then using a giant contraption called an industrial cyclone to pull the sawdust out of the air.
Now, he learned about this without any real sense of “wow, this is going to be important to me later”. Until one day he was contemplating how to make vacuum cleaners work more effectively and in particular, how to keep the bag of a vacuum from filling up and getting its pores clogged in ways that lessen its efficiency and he realized that you could take the industrial cyclone that a sawmill uses and build a small home version of it and put it into a vacuum cleaner and that that would actually change the need for a bag in a vacuum.
I think what’s most important about that is we live in an era, educationally, in which we are told what to learn in our education system and then we’re told, “Learn this stuff in particular because it’s going to be on the exam,” which leads to my least favorite question as a professor, which is when students come up to me and say, “Will this be on the exam?”
After years of struggling with that question, it occurred to me that the proper answer to students is when they say, “Will this be on the exam?” I say, “Yes but it might not be my exam,” because you never know when that piece of information you learn is going to turn out to be valuable.
[0:13:24.4] BD: That really speaks to, I think the way many people think about planning out their lives and what’s going to happen and I think there’s become an unfortunate trend in certainly achievement oriented people in American culture that the thing to do is to plan out this linear trend, “I’m going to get this degree and I’m going to do this internship and then I’m going to go to graduate school and then I’m going to get this job.”
All of those plans are built around the idea that “I know now, exactly what I’m going to need to do and need to learn and need to be able to do 10 years from now”. That is a fiction, right? Everyone we know and I do mean everyone who is really successful at what they do knows a lot, as Art said, about a lot of things that when they learn them, really, there was no indication that that would be one of the central things that would allow them to be successful.
So the questions that people think about whether they’re college students or even younger students or young adults who are just starting out in their life and thinking, well what kind of things do I need to know to be able to be successful in this thing. Well there’s certainly is a package of stuff that’s important for you to be able to function. But beyond that, the people who really excel, the people who have all the features that employers and admirers claim to want — they’re creative, they’re insightful, they’re good problem solvers — didn’t get there through a linear path of activities and learning experiences.
They got their through some circuitous path going through some things that seem to be pointless at the time, other things that didn’t seem to be particularly interesting, other things that were fascinating but maybe weren’t going to be useful and then ended up being useful. I think the openness to experience idea really is about that issue, about exploring things that you might be curious about that might be interesting to you. That might be enlightening in some way even without the guarantee that in the long run it’s going to be useful.
[0:15:17.0] AM: Just to follow up on Bob’s point for a second. One of the things that’s really important is, I think a lot of people tend to edit their life story in the forward direction. Meaning, they have this idea of what their life is going to be like and then they seek experiences that are consistent with that idea of where their life is going and they avoid experiences that don’t seem to fit the narrative that they’re creating.
The problem is that when you look at the life stories of successful people, that life story generally only makes sense when you look back on it. In the forward direction, it’s pretty chaotic. They tried all sorts of things, some of which worked out, some of which didn’t, some of which turned out to be important, some of which didn’t and in the moment, it was often very difficult to determine what the pivotal pieces of learning were, what the pivotal experiences were. Yet they were just open to trying those things, knowing that some number of us were going to turn out to be valuable in the future.
[0:16:10.8] MB: I think that’s such a powerful insight and something that I think you guys did such a good job explaining and really impacting for the listeners. In the vein of something you touched on a little bit earlier, the idea of the brains kind of efficiency or laziness, another question that you asked in the book is, “Is our memory doomed to fail?” And I’m really curious what you think about that.
[0:16:30.8] AM: Bob, do you remember when we wrote about that?
[0:16:32.3] BD: I can’t remember a thing. I don’t know. I mean, the short answer to this, this is how you turn something, little ideas into a book, you have a short answer and then you talk about it for the next six pages. But I mean, the short answer is, well, our memories are doomed to decline in terms of the retrievability of things in our memory.
My favorite thing in art says, I see we’re both saying each other’s lines on this podcast is that you know what? By the time you reach your new 20’s, your brain starts the long and slow decline, that’s the bad news. The good news is that the decline is long and slow. Even though there are certain diseases and injuries and other kinds of things that lead to rapid declines in memory and cognitive function.
For a typical human being who is relatively healthy, that decline is so slow that it’s mostly imperceptible even though, as we get older because we’re attuned to the idea that our memories are likely to fail, we are on heightened alert to notice every instance when we can’t find our keys or I can’t remember somebody’s name or whatever happens to be when in fact, those are things that are probably have been a part of our lives for many years it’s just as we’re getting older, they seem to loom larger in our perception.
[0:17:46.4] BD: yeah, the fact is, we’ve been forgetting things our entire lives and we don’t start worrying about that forgetting until we get older because we believe that that is now a sign of an impending cognitive apocalypse and I always like to point out, I have three kids and when they were younger, they would constantly forget stuff, they’d forget to do homework, they’d forget to take out the trash, they would forget all sorts of stuff and I like to say that at no point did any one of them ever say, “Wow, I just had a senior and high school moment.”
Then you get older, you turned 50 or whatever age it turns out to be for you and you forget something and now you think well it’s over. It turns out that one of the worst things you can do for your memory as you get older is to worry about your memory. What the studies show is that older adults who are worried that their memory is getting worse perform worse on memory tests than people who are getting older and don’t worry about their memory getting worse.
You can even induce that in a study, you can induce that worry about your memory and see that effect. What this means is, relax. The fact is yeah, look, studies show that if you want to know where somebody’s cognitive peak is, that long, slow cognitive decline means that in your 20’s, you process information fastest and you remember new things the quickest. In terms of what makes you really smart, because that has to do with what you know, you’ve accumulated lots of knowledge over the course of your life.
So the people who are actually acting most intelligently, tend to be people in their 60’s and 70’s because they have a huge base of experience and knowledge that they can draw from. Yeah, there might be a couple of things here and there that they have forgotten but that huge store of knowledge actually gives them an advantage over younger people. In many ways, younger people need to be faster because they don’t know as much.
[0:19:33.1] MB: The processing power itself kind of slows down a little bit but the benefits of the accumulated wisdom and knowledge, essentially outweigh that slowdown for a number of years?
[0:19:43.0] BD: Particularly for people who remain mentally active, right? We know very clearly that the more new things you continue to learn throughout your life and the more new things you experience, the longer the deficits in memory that begin the accrue are held at bay. They don’t become noticeable to you because the way we retrieve memories from our memory store is by ways of all of the things that each memory is connected to, right?
So the more interconnections you have among the things in your head, the easier it is to retrieve them. If you’re experiencing new things, one of the things that that’s prompting your brain to do is to create new connections among things that may be related in ways that when you learn them 10 years ago, you didn’t really recognize that relationship and now you do.
As Art was saying, the advantage of older adults, and being one I’m happy to claim this advantage is that not only do I have a lot of stuff in my memory but that stuff is organized in a way that lets me access it in ways that are very advantageous. We talk often about why would you have people memorize a lot of things when you’ve got an encyclopedia, a map of the earth in your pocket, in your phone? You can retrieve all kinds of information from the phone.
But the issue with that is, you can only work with so many things at a time in your so called working memory, your processing part of your memory. The more time it takes you to get the stuff, you’re going to stick in your working memory, the slower you are. If you’ve already memorized some things and you’re pulling out information that’s already in your memory, I’m sure it’s clearer how much more efficient that would be then have to start typing on a keyboard or on a phone to go and find something out.
[0:21:24.1] AM: The other thing is, the brain has so many great ways of accessing that information based on the similarity between the situation you’re in right now and stuff that you’ve learned before. Whereas if you’re trying to find that information on the computer, you have to find the right question to ask. Had Google existed in the late 1970’s when Dyson was thinking about trying to remove the bag from the vacuum, if he had been able to Google “how do you get rid of the bag in a vacuum cleaner”, he would have gotten a whole bunch of websites and probably educational videos about how to change the bag in your vacuum.
But at no point would any of those sites have said, “Oh and by the way, consider replacing that bag with an industrial cyclone.” You got to have that knowledge in your head if you’re going to do really interesting stuff.
[0:22:10.9] MB: One of the things, I’m a huge fan of Charlie Monger and we talk about him a lot on the podcast, and he talks about the idea of kind of mental models and organizing your memories and your knowledge in a kind of a coherent lattice work that this easily accessible. I think that’s such a great point.
[0:22:27.2] AM: Yeah.
[0:22:27.5] BD: Yeah.
[0:22:28.3] MB: On the ideas of sort of remaining mentally active, one of the questions that you guys touched on, it’s something I’m really curious about is do brain games work?
[0:22:37.0] AM: Shortest chapter in the book.
[0:22:40.2] BD: Well if work means, do they help you learn to play brain games? Absolutely they work. Whether they do anything beyond that, there’s not a lot of evidence that that’s the case.
[0:22:52.7] AM: It turns out that brain games tend to focus on very specific tasks and well intentioned at first, right? I think the idea was that we know for example that this concept that Bob was talking about a working memory, the amount of stuff you can hold in mind, is related to performance on all kinds of tests of intelligence and things like that.
There was a real interesting question of, if we could expand your working memory capacity, would that in fact make you smarter? But it turns out that there isn’t really a compelling way of changing the brain’s architecture in a way that increases that working memory capacity in a way that creates general intelligence.
As Bob was saying, what you learn when you play these brain games is how to play the game. But you may as well, if you’re going to practice something, you may as well practice something that you may actually encounter again later outside of the context of sitting on your phone or your computer.
[0:23:49.5] BD: Yeah. You know, for anybody who enjoys brain games just for the fun of the game, well then great. They should play whatever things they want to download. I’m an Angry Birds fan but nobody claimed that that was a brain game, right? If you think about what really engages the mind in a way that develops thinking, it’s not just responding to other things, but it’s creating new things on your own.
People who read have a different experience than people who write because writing requires a different set of activities in your brain than reading, watching a good video, whatever it happens to be, which mostly receptive kinds of responses were. We know that brains are trying to figure out what they need to do. If you’re engaged in something where you’re receiving input from somewhere else, it really doesn’t matter what you do, this stream of input keeps coming and whatever, well then, there’s not really a lot for your brain to be engaged in.
But if you happen to generate something on your own, it engages not only the parts of your brain that have to control whatever motor activity or whatever has to do the stuff but it also requires you to draw from different parts of your memory. That might not even have been connected before because of the nature of the task you’re trying to accomplish.
I’ll let Art talk about this too, but one that springs to mind is that Art as an adult had always wanted to play the saxophone and rather than waiting until his family was surrounding him on his death bed, saying whispering, “I wished I played, I always wanted to play the saxophone.” He actually went out and learned to play the saxophone.
I’ll let him talk about that experience a little bit.
[0:25:24.5] AM: Yeah, I think that’s absolutely right, you know? As Bob points out, it’s really important to engage in activity. In fact, B.F. Skinner who is one of the grand daddies of behavior of psychology kind of gets a bad rap in modern times because there were limitations to behaviorism. But one of his fundamental insights was that in order for the brain to learn something, you don’t just expose yourself to information, you also engage in activity.
Activity was a fundamental part of the learning process that he was working on and I think that that’s something that’s actually gotten lost a little bit. As Bob was saying, I think it is really important for us to continue to do that throughout our lives and so when I was in my mid-30’s and was thinking about stuff I would have always liked to do and I had read some research on regret, actually. The research on regret shows that if you ask a bunch of college sophomores, what they regret, it’s almost exclusively dumb stuff they did like getting drunk at a party. But if you ask older adults, people in their 70’s, 80’s and 90’s what they regret, it’s almost exclusively stuff they didn’t do.
One of the reasons that that data point is so important is because we all have a remarkable mental capacity for time travel where we can project ourselves to the end of our lives and then look back and ask, “Is there something I would regret not having done?” For me, one of those things was I had never learned to play the saxophone and so in my mid 30’s, I got up one day and said, “All right,” I went out and found a teacher and bought a saxophone and said the fairly realistic goal that in 10 years I wouldn’t suck. That’s worked out okay. I’m in Austin and I’m in a band, which almost obligatory if you live in Texas.
[0:27:03.5] MB: As a corollary to kind of thinking about brain games and by the way, actually before I say this, I love the point that you guys made about the critical importance of active learning and not just sitting there passively. Whether it’s watching YouTube or reading or whatever it might be but really, engaging your brain in the learning process.
I’m curious, writing as you guys touched on is obviously kind of one potential way to do that. But for somebody that’s maybe outside of school that’s graduated, that’s in the working world, what are some ways that we can kind of actively learn and really engage with information instead of just being passive consumers of it?
[0:27:38.0] AM: I think, if you’re in a community that’s large enough, that there are various clubs and where people who share a given interest can go and engage together in something. It doesn’t have to be necessarily an intellectual only task or even a musical task. There are many community choirs that people can sing in, if music is what you’re in to and what you’d like to do. Some people take up a new sport. They learn, if they never played handball they learn to play handball or they learn some other skill that requires some effort and one of the things that Art and I talk about a lot is that learning is effortful if it works.
If you don’t feel like you are putting much effort into something, you’re probably not learning much as you might think you are or as much as you are intending to. I think if you are engaging in something that makes you happy like for Art playing the saxophone, well then the effort is well-spent because you feel like, “My God an hour ago I couldn’t do this and I’ve been practicing for an hour and now I can do this. That’s a pretty cool thing and it’s enjoyable because I like music and I like playing the saxophone,” and when you contrast that to a brain game as you say, “God my score an hour ago was X and my score now is X plus whatever value. Okay and what?”
[0:28:55.6] AM: “I’m going to call mom!”
[0:28:58.9] BD: Yeah, right.
[0:28:59.8] AM: I think that is absolutely right and the fact is that technology provides all sorts of opportunities for people to be more active in a way that they learn. So 25 years ago if you wanted to practice your writing you might keep a journal but for many people just keeping a journal or writing something that you kept to yourself wouldn’t necessarily feel that rewarding. Now you can go in the internet and have a Google blogger’s site set up in eight minutes.
And then you can start writing and putting it out there for people to see and so there are all of these opportunities to engage with material that you think is important and interesting to write about it and while you may have the opportunity to educate or influence others with that, you are also solidifying your own knowledge by engaging with it in that active way. So I think there’s just more avenues for doing that that don’t require just sitting and playing little games.
[0:29:54.9] MB: So changing directions a little bit, I’m curious, one of the other topics that you guys talk about is the idea that we “only use 10% of our brains”. I’d love to hear your insights on that.
[0:30:06.4] AM: Yeah, well that is one of the great myths that’s out there and as a cognitive psychologist, probably the question I get asked most frequently in some form or another and so one of the things we wanted to do is to understand where that sentiment came from because of course the brain, we actually use all of our brain all of the time. It’s an extraordinarily energy hungry organ. It’s about 3% of the human body weight, it uses 20 to 25% of someone’s daily energy supply. And that’s really the amount of energy that’s required just to keep the lights on.
The physiological processes that are required to keep the brain active are very expensive from an energy standpoint which is why most beings in the planet don’t have large brains relative to their body size. So where does this myth come from? And it may come from one of two places. One is that early neuroscientist when they were exploring the brain found that only a small mass of the cells in the brain are neurons.
The ones that actively carry signals and most of them are support staff, glial cells and other things like that support what the brain is doing. And so you could argue well only about 10% of the cells in the brain are the ones that are actively engaged in the thinking process and a lot of the rest of it is cells that are working behind the scenes, but another issue has to do with brain capacity.
One of the amazing things about the human brain is that we’re continually able to learn stuff and the brain doesn’t get full. There isn’t some day at which you try to learn some new thing and your brain says, “Sorry can’t do that, can’t learn anything else,” and so a number of writers, from William James on forward, have made the point that we may very well only use a small fraction of our capacity for thinking and so that 10% number may reflect that also.
[0:31:55.8] MB: Another question that I thought was interesting out of the book is, “Does listening to Mozart make us smarter?”
[0:32:02.8] BD: So wouldn’t that be lovely if it did? I’d be so smart, I listen to Mozart all the time. Like many things in the sciences, and Art and I talk about this in many different contexts, somebody publishes an article that is caught by the media and portrayed in a way that it’s not quite as circumspect as it should be. And then it just takes off and in 1997, I think it was this article came out almost 20 years ago now that these psychologist in California had people listen to Mozart and then take a special reasoning test, which is one dimension of IQ. And the people who listen to Mozart got higher scores than people who didn’t, it sort of became the Mozart Effect.
Now the term “Mozart Effect” is copyrighted and people publish things that they sell for babies and all this kind of stuff and actually when you look critically at the data, there’s no evidence that listening to Mozart really does anything that doing a lot of other things would do. There was one study that I don’t think is ever published but this guy put this up online. He had people stare at a moving computer screen saver and their scores went up as much as they did listening to Mozart. So a lot of it has to do with…
[0:33:12.7] AM: The flying coaster effect.
[0:33:14.1] BD: Yeah, right. Exactly. So a lot of this has to do with arousal and attention and what we know basically if you’re going to stimulate somebody such that they might do perform better on some cognitive task, for people who don’t like Mozart, if you make them listen to Mozart they’re not going to perform better. They’ll probably perform worse. So what people actually are responding to are ways to heightened arousal and heightened attention.
You would understand how that would be evolutionarily a smart thing for brains to do, right? When you’re aroused in some way, you’re a little more attentive, you’re thinking a little more faster. I mean all those things that allow us to navigate the world are in play here but like many things that sound too good to be true, this is too good to be true.
[0:33:57.9] AM: And I want to follow up on one thing because if you juxtapose playing brain games and listening to Mozart you also get this other piece, which is a lot of times, we want to find ways of getting something for nothing, right? We all know from school that in order to get a good grade on a test, you have to read the textbook and answer some questions and study and study early off and we know that but what we keep hoping is that there’s an easier way. That if we could only put the book under the pillow or let it play while we’re asleep or listen to Mozart or play this fun video game, then that would obviate the need to do the hard work that’s required to learn stuff.
And what I tell any student that I teach in a cognitive psychology class is that psychology confirms all of your worst fears about studying. You have to do the work and while it may, at the front end, seem unappealing to have to take that big book down and slog through it that is in fact what you have to do in order to learn stuff. You have to actually do the work and face the knowledge, there really isn’t a shortcut but man, wouldn’t it be great if there were? And that’s I think what a lot of people respond to when they see effects like that.
[0:35:10.4] MB: And that’s something we’ve had previous psychologist on the show that have talked about the exact same phenomenon, which is that maybe instead of “get rich quick schemes” people are constantly looking for this kind of “get smart quick schemes” and the reality is the way to become smarter, the way to become a better decision maker is to just put in the work and it’s a long journey. It’s a challenging journey, but at the end of the day it’s one that’s really worthwhile.
[0:35:31.9] BD: I think Matt what leads people to be attracted by the ideas of brain games or whatever other thing that have offers some promise of getting you smarter or more creative or whatever is that when people say this to somebody, we have to put in the work. A lot of people are asking, “What the hell does that mean? Work at what? What do I do?” and I think when you look at people who are generally adept at dealing with the circumstances that they confront in their lives, those people tend to be generally curious people, right?
They wonder about things. They say, “Well, why is that like that and why does that thing take so much more time than this other thing does?” Or whatever happens to be that they are considering at the moment, and that kind of curiosity is enlivening in terms of your memory, in terms of your perception, in terms of your general thinking ability. Because you’re asking a lot of questions and what brains are willing to expand the effort to do is solve a problem and so by creating little problems for yourself, even just asking the question, “Well why is that?” Well now you’ve got a problem to solve and that ongoing problem solving is beneficial to your thinking overtime.
[0:36:37.1] AM: But this actually raises another point that we talk about in the book a little bit but it seems relevant here, which is we have a very strange relationship with errors and failure. We don’t like to not know stuff. We don’t like to not know how to do stuff and if you think about our education system, one of the things that it teaches us is mistake minimization. The way you get good grades in school is by getting stuff right. Not by getting something wrong and then repairing your error, which is actually what makes you smart in the long run.
And so this is a real problem because what it means is that a lot of people are a little bit afraid of really digging into some new thing because they don’t like that feeling of being in this nether region in which they are aware that there’s this thing they don’t know anything about but they don’t know it yet. And I think one of the things you have to do if you’re going to really broaden that base of experience and do the work you need to do to be smarter is to be willing to tolerate both the knowledge that, “Hey, here’s something I know I don’t know and I’m going to work for a long period of time to repair that gap.”
[0:37:43.1] MB: And I am a tremendous fan of Carol Dweck, and the book Mindset and the whole distinction between the fixed and the growth mindset, I think it’s so important to accept and embrace your mistakes and to try to move your ego out of the way whenever you’re thinking about your own mistakes.
[0:37:57.7] BD: I absolutely agree with you, Matt. I’m also a Carol Dweck fan but the thing is schools don’t make that easy, right? Because I know of very few instances where not getting things right provides you with opportunities to correct what you’ve done and actually get credit for the correction, you know what I mean? Usually what schools cultivate, as Art was saying a minute ago, is get it right when you get asked or when the paper comes due or whatever happens to be.
I think Art and I have the privilege of working at a major research university and so we get paid our exorbitant salaries to be confused most of the time. I mean we are trying to solve problems that no one has solved before and answer questions that nobody has answered before and it’s confusing and we get a lot of stuff wrong. But without the opportunity to try and fail and then retry and maybe retry many times after that, it’s impossible to make any intellectual progress.
[0:38:51.8] AM: Carol Dweck is great. Carol and I were colleagues together for a while at Columbia before she went off to Stanford and I came down here to Texas and I completely agree that that mindset of being willing to try things that may fail is so important, particularly because when we evaluate the skilled performance of other people, we discount all of the work that they’ve done. So when people hear your podcast or when they read a book that they really enjoy, they are seeing a final product of something.
They are not seeing all of the work that went into creating that. They are not seeing all of the attempts that didn’t go as well. They’re not reading the first drafts of the pros. Bob has the privilege, the way we wrote this book in general is I like to fill blank pages, Bob likes to edit and so it was a match made in heaven. One of the things that that means is that Bob got to read a tremendous amount of half-baked pros that ultimately became what came out in the book but nobody else gets to see that and I think that it’s important for people to realize that almost every bit of skilled performance that you see required a tremendous amount of work and effort and revision and practice to get there and then that is the critical insight underlying the mindset work that Carol Dweck works on.
[0:40:14.9] MB: So I’d love to segue into something that you talked about in the very beginning Bob that relates to this, which is that you said your expertise is helping people develop skills and thinking about how they form memories and how they refine their skills overtime. I’d love to dig into that a little bit and some of the major lessons you’ve learned about how we can become more skilled, how we can really focus in on refining our skills overtime.
[0:40:38.1] BD: Yeah, one of the things that is central to this whole idea of becoming more skillful is you have to become more perceptive about what you were doing. A lot of people who were practicing a skill, whatever the skill happens to be who aren’t noticing the somewhat smaller features of what they’re doing, really has no opportunity to improve and anybody who watches somebody teach a really good lesson or take a really good lesson, what you see is what really excellent teachers do is they help people know what to pay attention to.
And that’s what’s a big part of the teaching is telling them what to do, right? Because when we develop skills, it’s not because someone told us to do something and now we do it. I mean would that it were that easy, right? But the part of our brain where skill memories are activated and where they went off is not something you can tell verbally or consciously to say, “Okay, do this now.” You have to just do it and as we were talking about a few minutes ago, in doing it you’re going to make some errors and you’re going to have to make adjustments. That are even below being able to control consciously.
I mean Art plays the saxophone, the saxophone is one of the most inherently out of tune instruments, in terms of the way it’s built, of the wind family. I mean it is terribly out of tune. So if a saxophonist is going to play a scale in tune and all the notes are going to be in tuned, the saxophonist has to make all kinds of adjustments to the tension in their mouth and the placement of their tongue and the speed of the air and there’s no way to tell somebody, “Now this is where your tongue comes up a little bit, and this is where you squeeze a little bit with your arbiter.”
There’s no way to do that. What you do is you listen to the sounds that you are making and somehow your body figures out through trial and error what kinds of things you need to do to play the scale in tune but that’s not going to happen if somebody doesn’t hear what an in-tuned scale sounds like and recognizes the discrepancies between the scale and playing now and the in tuned scale. So that’s a real challenge.
I think a lot of people who see or if you are a golf fan. I am not a golfer but I bet that if you really love golf and you watch pros or you watch these videos that help you become better, one of the things that really, when you watch a great teacher whether you’re a pitching coach or a gold pro or whatever happens to be and you say, “What are they talking about the most?” They are getting the students to notice more about what they’re doing. Because if you don’t know really clearly what the goal is you’re trying to accomplish and recognize the discrepancies between what you’re doing now and what you’re trying to do. Well then the likelihood of improving at what you’re doing is really, really low.
[0:43:06.5] AM: And what we know from a lot of studies is that the lower your level of performance in an area, the worse you are at judging your own performance. So that the least good performers are the ones who most over-estimate how good they are at whatever it was they just did and one of the things, and Bob talks about this a lot, one of the things that expert performers are really good at is identifying all of the flaws in what they just did so that they can improve them. And I think it’s just that self-monitoring ability is so crucial for improving your skills because you can’t fix and area you are not aware of.
[0:43:44.8] BD: Yeah, exactly.
[0:43:46.8] MB: That phrase, that line, is so important. “You can’t fix an area you are not aware of” and I think many times a lot of it comes from this kind of framework of mistake minimization that people are taught in school and elsewhere. There is such an almost subconscious incentive to bury your mistakes. To hide from your mistakes, to pretend like, “Oh I didn’t make any mistakes.” What are some ways that people can cultivate that self-awareness of their flaws in a way that is non-threatening to them?
[0:44:10.9] BD: One of the most important things to do is to hang out with other people who acknowledge their flaws and you see this in industries. My favorite example is, and I talk about this a lot is the FAA. The airline industry you would think that if ever an industry wanted to hide it’s flaws it would be the aviation industry because if you scared people into thinking that aviation was unsafe then people wouldn’t stick themselves in a metal tube and allow themselves to be hurled through the air at hundreds of miles an hour.
In fact, if you are a member of the aviation industry and you make an error, if you report that error through the system the FAA has developed within 24 hours and your error was not the result of breaking the law like coming to work drunk, then that error can’t influence your status with the company you work for. You can’t be fired, you can’t be reprimanded for that error and the reason for that is because the FAA actually takes all of those mistakes and catalogs them and uses that to figure out what changes in procedures, what changes in maintenance schedules are needed to keep aviation safe, which is why airplane flight is as safe as it is.
The reason that this works is because the entire industry has decided that single mistakes are not the problem. The cascade of errors that leads to catastrophic failure is the problem and I think that by extension, whenever you spend time with a community of people who are willing to acknowledge their mistakes, it makes you much more comfortable in doing that yourself and I think that that’s just absolutely crucial for allowing yourself to continue to improve in all of the things you do.
[0:45:52.6] MB: I’d love to segue into a different topic just for a moment. You’ve talked about the importance of sleep. I’d love to hear your thoughts about why it’s critical to sleep and why sometimes doing things like pulling all-nighters is often not the most effective strategy.
[0:46:07.4] AM: So we live in a chronically under-slept society in which people think that sleep is something that they’ll do when they’re dead. And it turns out that you spend about a third of your life asleep which means that it must play some important function and it really does. The brain is actually extraordinary active while you’re sleeping and it’s doing several different things.
One of the things that brain is doing during sleep is actually clearing toxins out of the brain that build up over the course of the day partly just through the things that build up from using energy. And partly from other toxins that may come in through other activities people engage in. But on top of that, the brain is actually actively helping you to remember and to forget while you are asleep. So one of the stages of sleep actually helps with your skill learning. So if you’re learning to play a musical instrument and you practice a scale over and over, you get a little better while you’re practicing and then you get more better when you sleep. It actually smooth’s out the performance, the motor performance.
In addition to that there are other stages of sleep that influence what’s called memory consolidation, that is it actually helps to burn in some of the most important memories. So if you study for a test before you go to sleep then after you wake up you have better memory than if you study for that test and then stay awake for the same amount of time. So sleep ends up having a big influence there as well and not only does it help you to remember, it also helps you to forget some of the less desirable things.
So details of your day that were somewhat mundane tend to be lost while you are asleep and the emotional impact, particularly the negative emotional impact of things that happen to you will fade as you sleep and that’s important. Because we all know, we all have things happen to us where somebody gets really angry at somebody else for something they did and in the moment they’re really angry but overtime and in part because of sleep you begin to disengage your memory for the event from the emotional content of that event. Which is part of what enables you to get on with your life and to do other things with those people who may have done something to bother you.
[0:48:22.9] MB: What is one piece of homework that you would give to people who are listening to this episode?
[0:48:27.6] AM: Bob you got some homework for people?
[0:48:29.1] BD: I do and you know, I think I would spend a few minutes speaking about what are the things that I experienced, I have experienced in the past that bring me joy and I would schedule those into my week. I think a lot of people do a lot of drudgery that they think, “Well I’ll get this over with and then a week from now, a month from now, this summer or whenever they are thinking about it, I’ll schedule in a little happiness here,” and I think it’s important to schedule happiness into every day.
That’s easier for some people than others because some people’s lives are easier than others. They have more privileges, they have more opportunities for choice, those kinds of things. But I think irrespective of your life circumstances, to be able to put yourself in situations where you think, even if it’s for five minutes, “I will have a conversation with a friend that I haven’t spoken to in a while or I’m going to take a walk,” or whatever it is that brings you some feeling of happiness and joy that that should be a part of every day.
[0:49:27.9] AM: Yeah and I’m going to add one thing to that, which is I think that as another piece of homework, find somebody you haven’t talked to in a while and ask them to talk in some amount of detail about what they’re doing and why they’re doing it and learn from the people around you. Learning doesn’t have to be drudgery. It doesn’t have to involve sitting in front of a big book and struggling through it.
We learn a tremendous amount because we’re such social species from the people around us and taking the time to really sit down and have a great conversation with somebody and understand the way they think about things, can be a really valuable learning experience and at the same time also be a joyous one and I think having more of those conversations is a great thing to do.
[0:50:10.6] MB: Where can people find the two of you and the book online?
[0:50:14.9] AM: I’m the designated self-promotion person in this duo. So the podcast we do, the radio show is called Two Guys On Your Head. It can be found wherever podcasts are found, so iTunes, Stitcher. You can go to twoguysonyourhead.org. If you’re on the Austin, Texas area of course we’re on KUT Radio in Austin and you can also find our book Brain Briefs, pretty much wherever books are sold except that our publisher is a division of Barnes & Nobles. So it’s not available as a Kindle book. The hard cover is available on Amazon, but they refused to make a Kindle so the seven nook readers have access to it.
[0:50:53.5] MB: Well Art, Bob, I just want to say thank you so much for being on the show. I’ve really enjoyed this conversation and I know the listeners are going to get a ton out of all the incredible insights that both of you shared.
[0:51:04.5] BD: Well thanks Matt, it’s been a real pleasure. Thanks for inviting us on.
[0:51:07.3] AM: Yeah, this was great. Thank you.
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