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Ep. 94: Christopher Chabris, Ph.D. - The Clash of the Titans

November 07, 2019 Sucheta Kamath Season 1 Episode 94
Full PreFrontal
Ep. 94: Christopher Chabris, Ph.D. - The Clash of the Titans
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Full PreFrontal
Ep. 94: Christopher Chabris, Ph.D. - The Clash of the Titans
Nov 07, 2019 Season 1 Episode 94
Sucheta Kamath

Ancient wisdom has rightfully identified problems with the human mind which is ill-fitted to deal with the perceptual ambiguity that includes frequent gaps between one’s perceptions and reality. This creates a tussle between the intuitive system of the brain versus the reflective one, which often results in a “self-blind” mind that doesn’t know itself. As a result, the human mind and brain ends up spending a lifetime untangling the clash of the titans, or the intuitive and reflective systems.

On today’s podcast our guest, Christopher Chabris, Ph. D., a cognitive psychologist, an author, an Ig Nobel prize winner and a Professor at Geisinger, an integrated healthcare system, will discuss what cognitive psychology has discovered about mental illusions and it’s effect which leads us to harbor mistaken judgments about our true limitations. Because by design the brain doesn’t know how it operates and those interested in Executive Function, self-awareness, and self-regulation need to reconsider methods of coaching, training, or educating others.

About Christopher Chabris, Ph.D.
Christopher Chabris is a Professor at Geisinger, an integrated healthcare system in Pennsylvania. His research focuses on attention, intelligence (individual, collective, and social), behavior genetics, and decision-making. He received his Ph.D. in psychology and A.B. in computer science from Harvard University. In 2019 he was selected as a Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science. Chris is the co-author of the New York Times bestseller The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us, which has been published in 20 languages to date. He shared the 2004 Ig Nobel Prize in Psychology (awarded for “achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think”), given for the scientific experiment that inspired the book. Chris has spoken to audiences at major conferences and businesses, including PopTech, Google, Credit Suisse, and Procter & Gamble, and his work has been published in leading journals including Science, Nature, Psychological Science, Perception, and Cognitive Science. He is a chess master, poker amateur, and games enthusiast; for three years he wrote the monthly “Game On” column in The Wall Street Journal. He also contributes to The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Slate, and other publications.

Websites:

Books

Show Notes Transcript

Ancient wisdom has rightfully identified problems with the human mind which is ill-fitted to deal with the perceptual ambiguity that includes frequent gaps between one’s perceptions and reality. This creates a tussle between the intuitive system of the brain versus the reflective one, which often results in a “self-blind” mind that doesn’t know itself. As a result, the human mind and brain ends up spending a lifetime untangling the clash of the titans, or the intuitive and reflective systems.

On today’s podcast our guest, Christopher Chabris, Ph. D., a cognitive psychologist, an author, an Ig Nobel prize winner and a Professor at Geisinger, an integrated healthcare system, will discuss what cognitive psychology has discovered about mental illusions and it’s effect which leads us to harbor mistaken judgments about our true limitations. Because by design the brain doesn’t know how it operates and those interested in Executive Function, self-awareness, and self-regulation need to reconsider methods of coaching, training, or educating others.

About Christopher Chabris, Ph.D.
Christopher Chabris is a Professor at Geisinger, an integrated healthcare system in Pennsylvania. His research focuses on attention, intelligence (individual, collective, and social), behavior genetics, and decision-making. He received his Ph.D. in psychology and A.B. in computer science from Harvard University. In 2019 he was selected as a Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science. Chris is the co-author of the New York Times bestseller The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us, which has been published in 20 languages to date. He shared the 2004 Ig Nobel Prize in Psychology (awarded for “achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think”), given for the scientific experiment that inspired the book. Chris has spoken to audiences at major conferences and businesses, including PopTech, Google, Credit Suisse, and Procter & Gamble, and his work has been published in leading journals including Science, Nature, Psychological Science, Perception, and Cognitive Science. He is a chess master, poker amateur, and games enthusiast; for three years he wrote the monthly “Game On” column in The Wall Street Journal. He also contributes to The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Slate, and other publications.

Websites:

Books

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Producer: And, welcome back to Full PreFrontal where we are exposing the mysteries of executive function. As always, I’m here with our host Sucheta Kamath. Good morning, my friend, good to be with you. We have been trying to get this gentleman on our show for several months, so I’m very much looking forward to it.

Sucheta Kamath: Yes, everybody is in for a treat, and brace yourselves, people, because if you claim you know yourselves, you probably don’t.

So, I wanted to start off with this amazing thing that happened to me recently. Every Monday, I have a pilates session with a friend of mine, Catherine, and she and I kind of hang out together with our instructor who is just fabulous, but on that particular Monday, it took us by surprise because our instructor told us that she has opened a brand-new office in the Roswell area which is just a few miles north and that she opened it last week, and we both, laying flat on our backs, we were a little surprised and taken aback, and the reason was because this instructor is kind of a storyteller; she freely shares many parts of her life with us and we spend a substantial amount of time with her, and so it was surprising to us that she never mentioned about her move or the new office, so she was puzzled by our own response and she said, and she said it out of great surprise and she said, “Haven’t you noticed the missing core line equipment?” and we both looked at each other, Catherine and I, and said, “Core line equipment?” and we turned to our right and yes, their three giant machines that’s called core line equipment, those who know pilates know that, and two of them were missing, but of course, we did not notice it because we’re not looking for it, and so this got me thinking about our speaker today because he says that we believe that we should be noticing everything and paying attention to much of the world around us as it exactly presents itself and that is an illusion and it’s an illusion of attention, and then he talks about a lot of other illusions that we suffer from, so I’m very keen because many people that I work with — almost all people that I work with in my practice are those I know who are tryingt to educate our children are unable to pay attention.

So, what does really paying attention mean and what is this illusion of attention, then how does that interfere with one’s ability to learn and manage their learning because it requires a decent amount of awareness and redirection when you are not paying attention? So, our guest today is Dr. Christopher Chabris. He’s a professor at Geisinger, an integrated health care system in Pennsylvania. His research focuses on attention, intelligence, individual, collective, and social intelligence, behavior, genetics, and decision making. What a fantastic cognitive neuroscientist to have here.

In 2019, he was selected as a fellow of the Association of Psychological Science. Chris is a co-author of the New York Times Bestseller The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us which has been published in 20 languages to date. I wonder if one of the languages is an Indian language — I’ll ask him about that. He shared the 2004 Ig Nobel Prize in Psychology which is awarded for achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think. I love this category, and to me, he’s already a Nobel Prize winner, and Chris has spoken to audiences at major conferences, businesses including PopTech, Google, Credit Suisse, I guess, and many, many places. He is a chess master and he makes many references to that in this book which is phenomenal, and a poker amateur and a game enthusiast, which I am a game enthusiast — poker and I don’t meet anywhere. It requires too much working memory which I don’t have, and he also contributes to the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Slate, and other publications.

So, it’s a great pleasure to have you. Welcome to the podcast.

Chris Chabris: Well, thanks for having me and thanks for that generous introduction.

Sucheta: Yes, so this podcast is about executive function. We talk a lot about self-regulation through self-awareness, how best to become intentional while focusing, assessing goals and outcomes, and above all, adapt flexibly to all circumstances, and particularly, kind of detect irregularities in the environment and in one’s self.

So, before I start asking you questions about your own research, do you mind sharing with us regarding your own observations about your personal executive function skills, how were you as a learner and thinker at a young age?

Chris: Wow, at a young age, I don’t remember back that far, but certainly, it feels at the age I’m at now that there are more opportunities and causes for distraction around us at all times: phones, all the browser tabs we have open and the apps we have open in our computers at the same time, things that are competing for our attention, and I’m not going to pretend that I have any solutions, but I discovered any personal solutions for that problem. I think it’s a problem of the environment we live in which has many benefits for us but also poses some challenges. Maybe I should be listening to your show more regularly to get some tips on improving my own executive function because I don’t think I am as good as I used to be at sort of solving and working on one thing for five or six hours, or something like that, but it that’s also partly because just at the age and the point in my career where I am, I rarely have that long a block of time when I don’t have something else scheduled or a series of meetings to go to, or have to drive somewhere, or whatever. So, sometimes, people make the fallacious argument that because they are having more trouble concentrating or focusing or they find themselves more easily distracted, that must be the fault of technology or social media, or whatever. I think often, it’s the fault of being older than we used to be, and as we know, our executive function sort of tends to decline with age just from sort of a cognitive neuroscience point of view, I’m really hesitant to sort of generalize from my own experience but I’m not going to be here and tell you that I’m a champion of being able to focus for long periods of time.

One interesting thing you mentioned in going over my biography was the chess part and I have been trying to play more chess and get more into chess recently, and one reason I like that experience is that when you play a serious game of chess, you actually sort of – you have to focus on one thing for an hour or two hours, even five or six hours if it’s a really long game, and that’s somewhat of a unique experience in the world today, is being able to focus just on one thing and having a motivation to not be distracted. It’s not just a motivation sort of for your own productivity, but you have something which is claiming your continuous attention for a long period of time, and it’s another different experience nowadays that it used to be and I kind of enjoy it.

Sucheta: It’s so interesting that you mentioned that, so about age, I think with age, what area executive function improves is your notion of goals, your personal goals – you have much more clarity regarding purpose and goal, and there is a kind of path to future self is much more clear. It’s in focus, and as you mentioned, the speed of processing and the high susceptibility to distraction really, really is the Achilles’ heel for older people, but some of the practices that we read in your bio and that you described is really, you already have trained your mind to hold information and work through a very problematic scenario – I mean, the fact that you mentioned hours, nobody, nobody is working right now that long on anything unless their work requires it, so you have done a lot of work for your executive function already.

So, I have one more question regarding your practice, so you investigate the idea of everyday illusions. What have you learned about yourself in that respect before we jump into the actual topic of all types of illusions?

Chris: One thing that we – and the kind of illusions that we are talking about, just I guess as a little bit of a preview, are not digital illusions or that kind of thing. They are sort of mistaken beliefs or mistaken intuitive concepts that we tend to have about our own cognitive powers and how our own minds work, and I think no one is immune to those. Those are just features of the human cognitive architecture and the kind of people we are. So, I’m not immune to those at all, but I do find that the more that I talk and write about this, sort of starting with one – we started to work on the book which was quite a while ago, over 10 years ago now, and on thinking about these kinds of issues since then, I do think I’m getting better and better at recognizing in myself when I might be falling prey one of the solutions which we are going to go into in more depth, so I think it is possible to sort of learn to recognize these things in your own behavior and in the behavior of other people, and then take some intentional actions to reduce their likelihood of affecting you or to basically come to not rely on your own cognitive powers as much as you might otherwise. It’s sort of ironic that the goal of understanding the mind should be to trust yourself less, but that is one of the – I think that is one of the [09:38], suppress your perceptions and your memories and your believes less than you do.

Sucheta: That was the most profound insight, and thank God you wrote this book 10 years ago, and I read it because coming from a cognitive retraining point of view, I was so blinded by this idea that you can, and so you must, and let’s teach it kind of thing, and what you really, really — your work, your writing really taught us, just this idea of don’t trust that — yeah, it’s best just to work on your self-awareness, an awareness that you would never have full access to your inner workings. So, that’s really profound.

So, let’s jump onto the real meat of this topic. So, when I read your work, one of the things that really caught me by surprise and got me concerned was that my mind, the mind that out of our hand, in fact, how my perceptions can be deceived, how susceptible my mind is to my own misguided thoughts and beliefs, and how easily it can mislead or lead me on a path that will not yield me success. So, for starters, can you explain to our listeners what human perception is and what do we mean when we talk about the mind? Is it too broad-minded?

Chris: Those are questions?

Sucheta: Yes.

Chris: Well, I mean, when we teach introductory psychology, we usually talk about the distinction between sensation and perception, and sensation is just the processing of sensory inputs that reach the body. So, when light rays strike the retina in the back of our eyes and they cause cells in the retina to fire and send signals back to the rest of the brain, and so on, there is sort of a process of sensation which is just sort of receiving some kind of input from the environment, and then perception could be thought of as the process of making sense of that and translating that into some kind of information about what is actually out there, and traditional visual illusions happen when the perception we have is not the same as what’s actually out there because something is going on in the brain and because the collaborative designer of the visual illusion has sort of created a stimulus or a picture which causes us to interpret it incorrectly, and it’s rare to have — you often want to interpret a human being as a building or a dog is a tree or something like that, but even maybe in tougher situations, you could, but the more you see the shapes and the colors and emotions of things, as different as they are, and you can get to very striking visual illusions like that, so that is sort of perception.

Now, what’s the mind? I mean, again, another deep question, [12:12] answer in cognitive neuroscience or at least the one that I kind of grew up with that came from my graduate mentor Steve [12:19] at Harvard was the mind is what the brain does, so the brain is a physical organ and the mind can be thought of as sort of the collection of phenomena that are created by the operation of the brain, and so perception is in a sense a mental function, and I would add one other concept to these two which is attention.

So, start with sensation, and then you get to perception, attention is the selective aspect of perception. So, you could imagine sort of perceiving that is interpreting and understanding, like all the sensory stimuli that are coming to you at all times, but what attention does is it sort of selects out or amplifies some subset of that, and it brings that to greater awareness or enables you to sort of do deeper processing with it. So, there are sort of things you could do when you pay attention that you simply can’t do when you’re not paying attention, and that is in a way sort of one of the mismatches, that is one of the mismatches we have when we think about how our minds work, as we don’t realize how much difference there is between what we can do with a stimulus or a task when we pay attention and how little we can do when we don’t pay attention, right? So, when people multitask and when my students back when I was a college professor, when my students would watch Netflix and post on Instagram, and say they are studying at the same time, the thing is they sort of don’t realize how by not paying continuous attention to the studying, they are doing it much worse than they would be if they really did. The awareness is part of the value of attention is lower than it should be.

Sucheta: Wow, thank you so much for doing that. I think spoken like a true cognitive neuroscientist because this kind of lays the structure of what we are about to talk about which are these everyday solutions. So, in your book, you’re not just focusing on illusions of attention but you have six everyday illusions which is the illusion of attention, illusion of memory, illusion of confidence, illusion of knowledge, illusion of causes, and illusion of potential.

So, for starters, these are distorted beliefs we hold close to our heart about how the mind works. As you mentioned, and they, of course, seep into our consciousness and sometimes, they might turn into not just wrong, but wrong and in a dangerous way, so can you start with the illusion of attention? How would you describe it and how would you warn the listener to understand its impact?

Chris: So, the illusion of attention, the way Dan Simons and I defined it in our book is the mistaken belief that we pay attention and notice more what is going on in the world around us than we really do. So, the idea that perception is processing more stuff in the environment than it really is, the idea that you would notice important stuff it if it were out there is in many ways a mistaken belief because when your attention is devoted to one thing — as it often is, we are sort of rarely in an attention-free state, right? As far as I understand, some of the goals of meditation and so on our sort of to reach a maybe stage where there’s not so much selective attention going on, but usually, we are paying attention to something or at least more attention to some things and less attention to others, and the illusion of attention is sort of the belief that nonetheless, we are going to notice anything important that happens, we are going to be able to attend all the critical things even if we are not, and the danger here is if we think we are going to notice anything important and we are wrong about that, then important things can go unnoticed and that can be sort of catastrophic in situations like driving or even walking, or any time when you’re in an environment where things can happen to you that happen so quickly that if you don’t notice them coming, you are in big trouble.

Sucheta: You have given such amazing examples in the book, and this particularly becomes an issue of contention when something like law and order is involved, like the police officer that you mentioned that did not notice — when the actual police officer was perceived to be a perpetrator and was attacked, and so how, as you mentioned that we harbor this — I mean, how do we get through life? I’m so concerned that if there’s so many things we don’t notice things that we are not looking for and we kind of just look at the big picture and say okay, I know where this is, this looks like a mall. I’m only looking for blue jeans, so let me head towards the Gap store, and I’m ignoring the rest of the things that are in my vicinity because I know that I’m not going to be quizzed or there’s no test, or there is no recall attached to my perception. So, can you give our listeners some more examples as to why this becomes a costly affair as you mentioned?

Chris: Sure, and I guess the first thing to say is that it’s not as though we don’t notice anything, but what we are paying attention to, so the brain has the mechanisms for making sure that we notice some things or at least making it much more likely that we notice something, so in our visual field, when something gets larger and larger, that’s usually a sign that it is getting closer to us. If an object starts taking up more and more of our visual field, it’s probably something coming towards us, and we can sort of measure how fast that’s happening, right? So this is how we can sort of duck out of the way of things, even maybe we weren’t paying attention to it first and how we can notice, let’s say, people running towards us, and so on. So, it’s not a total disaster. We do have a lot of mechanisms for noticing things, but the problem is that we sort of overestimate our likelihood of doing this, and also, as you kind of alluded to, we overestimate our memories as well, so we think we are going to remember more details more accurately and for longer, and be able to access them at any time in the future. All of that, we tend to think it’s going to work better than memory really does. So, when you go to the mall and you walk through, you are momentarily perceiving all kinds of things, all kinds of people, stores, signs, and so on that you are never going to remember later on. You might remember some bits and pieces of it but you won’t remember nearly as much detail as you perceive, and that’s okay, right? There are probably good reasons for that. The brain is an organ of limited size and power and doesn’t want to waste effort and resources storing up all kinds of irrelevant information. So, that is fine.

Where you get in trouble sometimes is one of my favorite stories, is when people pay attention to their GPS recommendations, Google Maps, GPS, whatever — it used to be GPS. Now, it’s Google Maps and Waze, and they wind up driving down absurd roads, like my favorite one is when trucks would be directed to go down certain roads and eventually, Google Maps doesn’t know how big your vehicle is —  at least I don’t think it does, so it would tell a truck driver to go down a road where the road was not wide enough and if it’s sort of like an old road in Europe, it might be so narrow that the truck gets stuck between the two buildings, literally wedged between two walls, and there, you say, if only they had been paying attention to what the road actually looked like in front of them, or a recent story about how 100 drivers were told to take a detour from an airport and they wound up —

Sucheta: I remember that.

Chris: Into a farm and they were surrounded by cows or something like that, and 100 different drivers in something like that, so these are kind of extreme examples, but you can find plenty of fun videos of people looking at their cell phones and falling into holes in the sidewalk or falling into fountains in the mall, getting back to the mall again, but then you get really, really bad situations where you are talking on the phone or you are texting, or whatever while you are driving and literally crash right into something killing yourself or killing someone else. Many very sad examples of that, and then they all relate to the mistaken belief — [20:04] individual tragedies but they all relate to the mistaken belief that if anything important happens out there, it will grab your attention. That’s the fundamental flaw. You notice a lot of stuff but not everything, and when you are paying attention to one thing, it subtracts a surprising amount of ability to notice other things.

Sucheta: In your research, you haven’t talked a lot about problematic attention for those who suffer from something like ADHD or people who have concussions and brain injuries, or neurological disorders. Can we generalize these kinds of illusion of attention impacting that population even more or it doesn’t really matter? It’s blind to it?

Chris: Well, I think the solution is a general phenomenon. There are really two separate components to this solution. One of them is our ability to miss things when we are paying attention to something else. That’s a limitation on attention called inattention or blindness, so when we are paying attention to one thing, we can completely essentially blind or miss other [21:02] things, and then there’s the illusion of attention which we don’t realize that inattention or blindness exists, and I think inattention or blindness is a phenomenon that can affect anyone. I think ADHD, traumatic brain injury, whatever, this is just a structural fact about the way attention works. Attention is like a zero-sum game. The more attention you pay to one task or stimulus, or a part of your visual field, the less you will have left over for anything else because your attentional capacity is reduced for some other reason, like a brain injury or something like that. I mean, maybe that can be even more severe although I don’t think there’s been really very much good research done on brain injuries or conditions like ADHD and inattention or blindness.

The illusion of attention is sort of the metacognitive belief. It’s a belief about how our minds work, and perhaps people with ADHD or with brain injuries may come to some realization about their limitations or patterns and how they pay attention, and be able to adjust just like anybody else can, I think. We are not doomed to sort of constantly be talking on our phones while we are driving. We can learn to control that behavior, we can put the phone in the backseat or something like that. We are not sort of doomed to keep on making these mistakes.

Sucheta: Yeah, and there’s actually a lot of research in the rehab arena or even educational arena that talk specifically about this part that we can actually learn to control the way we pay attention, and that stems from if you inform the person you’re not paying attention and you don’t know it, that can be a good start to begin with.

So, I’m not going to hit all the illusions that you mentioned in the book, but I thought for our purposes with the context of executive function, we will talk about two more illusions. One is the illusion of confidence. Can you explain to us what that is and how that interferes with our ability to successfully manage our life?

Chris: Yeah, that’s a really good one. That’s one of my favorites actually in an area that sort of we continue to do more research on. There’s two components to this. One is having too much confidence in our own skills and abilities, so that is sort of what’s often called overconfidence. So, any time that we express too much certainty in the quality of our memories or we estimate our skill at something to be greater than it actually is, we think we are one of the top 10% in the world of something when in fact, we are only average or something like that, that’s that first kind of overconfidence that we put under the illusion of confidence, a mistaken belief that our skills and abilities are better than they actually are. Then, there is the other part which is that we tend to interpret someone else’s confidence as a more honest signal of that person’s abilities and skills, and so on that it actually is, so if an eyewitness says, “I’m 100% certain that that is the person who attacked me, that that’s the person that I saw running out of the store with a gun,” or something like that, we tend to believe them more than we should. There have been a lot of research on this. Basically, it’s sort of looking at the correlation between the confidence that a witness expresses and the likelihood that they are actually correct in controlled conditions, and lots of research looking at other people when they estimate their own abilities are estimating accurately or tend to overestimate.

Now, not everybody overestimates, of course. There are some circumstances where people might underestimate or might be more realistic, but sort of the overall tendency to overestimate ourselves and to take other people too seriously when they estimate themselves.

Sucheta: And what are the shortcomings in the way we collaborate or kind of navigate the world? Like, for example, from the educational point of view, is the student watching somebody else — I mean, I’m imagining somebody being in a study group and you have a person who has great communication skills speaking confidently but does not have the best knowledge or has not studied, but you can take the description of the topic at face value and trust it to be the truth and kind of go write in a paper and answer the question in the test and really getting yourself in a jam. Does that sound like that would happen to the illusion of confidence?

Chris: Sure, that’s I think a pretty common problem where if we don’t have everybody’s resume and we don’t know exactly who the biggest expert on a particular topic is but we will work with a bunch of people, generally, we will pay more attention and be more deferential to the people who have more confidence, and the problem there, of course, is the confidence comes somewhat from your own skill, right? Like, if you have never heard of differential calculus in your life, you’re probably not going to claim to be an expert on it, but among the people who have heard of differential calculus, the people who claim to be the best at it may not necessarily be the best yet they will get the most attention paid to them and the most trust for their judgments, so there are a bunch of experiments like this that we have not done but other collaborative researchers have where they have people form groups and work together in solving math problems and often, it’s not the person who is the best at math who has the most influence. It’s the person who speaks first or who takes more of a leadership role, and so on. Those traits could have nothing to do with their ability of the underlying task, those are other traits. Some people are just more confident across-the-board. There’s sort of just a general trait of confidence, right, that it may make sense. Generally, just act and speak more confidently, and therefore, get other people to pay more attention to them. That’s that second part of illusion of confidence, paying attention to the confidence of people.

It’s not that there’s no relationship between confidence and skill. It’s just that we think there is more than there really is.

Sucheta: And you know, another thing that I noticed is the gender-specific demonstration of confidence. If you have a room full of — I mean, again, I’m using an educational context where it’s not limited to that, but boys who are outspoken and they are participating in a class and answering questions often and the girls are taking time to think or are not that sure if they are right to be bamboozled by this kind of quality in terms of the confident person getting more opportunities to participate in leadership positions, so that boost their self-confidence.

Chris: Yeah, that’s an interesting point you made about that. There are some methods of teaching where you basically sort of cold-call randomly students and nobody gets to sit there and say nothing during class. Everybody is equally susceptible to having to participate at any time, which I think are often regarded as sort of aggressive methods or at least unfair to students who are more shy or whatever, but in fact, I think the opposite is probably true because if you just constantly let a few people participate, and I just as guilty of this as anybody else, it’s an easy trap to fall into as an instructor, if you just only let the people participate who want to participate, then gradually over time, you have sort of like a smaller and smaller group of people who participate, and probably, you are right that in many contexts, those are more likely to be men than women or let’s say, older students than younger students, and so on. There are probably a number of factors that go into that. Probably better and not only more fair, but better for all the students to sort of call on everyone and put everyone on the spot but also give them the opportunity to contribute, and there’s lots of other techniques in teaching that you can do to try to get around that, like you can have everybody write down an idea or a question, or something like that, and then share what they have written down, so there’s a little bit less pressure to actually think of something and be articulate right on the spot. You can essentially read a sentence that you had a couple of minutes to prepare for something like that. There are ways to get around that, but it all stems, like the whole issue does stem from this mismatch between the confidence we express and the skills or the knowledge we actually have, and the greater that mismatch, the more likely the conversation is to be dominated by people who just think they are great as opposed to people who actually are great.

Sucheta: Yes, and eventually, again, I think that the impulse control, to even doublecheck what you are going to say and what you are saying makes sense, that activating some of the filter systems that will make you also kind of it maybe being checked with your sense of self or your knowledge, and then actually what you put out, I think it’s just a good habit to practice that.

That brings me to the third illusion that I thought might be very relevant for us to talk about, is this illusion of potential and its relationship to executive function. So, do you mind talking a little bit about what that looks like and what are some of the parts of that illusion, and how particularly it pertains to misreading into it?

Chris: So, the illusion of potential is a concept that Dan and I came up with that refers to the mistaken belief — these are all mistaken beliefs — at least they are mistaken a lot of the time that it is easier to — well, let me put it this way: the mistaken belief that there is sort of a reservoir of untapped potential, mental potential, inside all of us that is easy to unlock and enable, so it’s not an illusion to think that we are more capable of more things than we know how to do, right? We can learn new skills. In fact, we can learn remarkable skills. Now, you can go from knowing nothing about how to play the violin to be able to play beautiful music on the violin, but it is a slow process or it’s a hard process, it requires teaching and lessons, and practice, and maybe money and time, and so on. The illusion of potential is the idea that we can sort of short-circuit the fundamental laws of practice with tricks, like playing video games to make ourselves smarter or to make our brain function better, or listening to Mozart’s music to raise our IQs, or listening to tapes while we are asleep to practice psychotherapy on ourselves or something like that. These are all sort of like shortcuts, right? Like while we are asleep, we are not doing anything anyhow, so we might as well listen to some tapes [30:52] or while we are playing video games, we are doing that to have fun anyhow, so wouldn’t it be great if that also sharpened our brain process somehow? And, we have this tendency to sort of buy into those myths more so than the data justifies. The Mozart effect is a great one. That is my favorite one in a way because that’s what got me interested in this that whole topic in a way, was this idea that just listening to Mozart’s music for 10 minutes made people perform significantly better on IQ test right afterwards, and there are so many reasons why that is a bad idea from the point of view of what IQ means, what intelligence means, how the brain works, with the interaction between different parts of the brain is, and the statistics, the statistics and the details of the study that was run. It is such a bad idea on so many levels, I think, but there’s one study about that that came out. All the record company started selling CDs called —

Sucheta: I know!

Chris: The governor of Georgia started sending home every new member with a Beethoven record that they could play to their babies, then some hospital started actually piping that music into the neonatal ward, and so on. The illusion of potential sort of refers to in a way that — it’s the assumption that makes it so easy to seduce us into believing this stuff is going to work. That is the illusion of potential. It’s the overestimation of how easy it is to get smart quick, to pump up our brains really easily.

Sucheta: I think your book had not come out yet or I was not that familiar with this particular study, but I remember a lot of my friends were pregnant and having babies, and every baby shower, there were at least two packages, gifts, that were the Baby Mozart — do you remember that, those CDs that came out?

Chris: Yeah, it was the Baby Einstein company.

Sucheta: Oh, Baby Einstein company, yeah.

Chris: Yeah, but they had a Baby Mozart product too. Like, I think maybe they even started with Baby Mozart, and then they added Baby Einstein, Baby Bach, and various things like that, but yes, that whole company was based on the idea that if you just stimulate your unborn child or your newborn child, or your toddler or whatever with the right combination of music and sounds, and shapes and things like that, and just watching videos, that would sort of magically pump up their cognitive powers, and there is really no evidence at all in favor of that. It’s a remarkably evidence-free zone when it comes to the understanding of parenting practices and what matters for children’s intelligence and cognitive powers.

Sucheta: So, little bit of a quick detour, so what is the evolutionary purpose of such kind of operating under such illusions when we should really become woke, right? We should come out of it. What benefit does it serve?

Chris: Yeah, so that’s a great question. I’m not sure all of them necessarily do serve their purpose. So, not every way that the mind works is necessarily evolved to be that way. I think there is some logic to the notion that some of the difficulties we run into in modern technological society arise from some kind of mismatch between the conditions under which our brains evolved over millennia and millennia, and millennia, even going back to primates and the whole human lineage. We are in some ways significantly different from nowadays.

So, let’s look at the illusion of attention. If you don’t have so many stimuli competing for your attention, it’s not so much of a problem, and if you’re not moving around so quickly, like driving at 70 miles an hour or something like that, or if there are not too many people around all the time, there’s less danger to not noticing things. Nowadays, we have lots of stimuli distracting us, we have lots of things moving around quickly that we need to notice and so o. Likewise memory, the beliefs we have about how our memories are more accurate and objective, and complete and prominent than they really are, are sort of only reveal to us in a way to the extent that we can actually check our memories with other records, and those things, writing and video, and audio and so on, those have only been invented relatively recently in human history, so there were sort of no ability to even check on our faulty intuitions before. There was no pressure in a sense, there was no sort of like evolutionary pressure to know exactly how good your memory was. Now, we have technologies that can tell us about our memories.

Now, let me say one more thing though which is sort of like, it is a good thing, I think, that we have the selective attention because going back to attention for a second, selective attention enables us to process — whatever we are paying attention to enables to us to process it more deeply and more accurately than we could otherwise, and even though we don’t notice some other things while we are focused on one thing, I think evolution has probably made the right judgment in a sense that it’s better to have the capability of selective attention and that buys us more than it costs us in terms of what we missed, or at least it used to in the past. Nowadays, we just have to learn to be aware of that and not put ourselves in situations where our selective attention can get us into trouble.

Sucheta: Wow, my brain is just flooded with so many more questions and I’m trying to stay focused here, and channel my attention. So, I want to come to this idea of the knowledge gap. I’m very interested in how we know about what we actually know, and how do we access this information about our knowledge? And I don’t mean whether I know the capital of India is Delhi, that kind of knowledge, but how much I actually know and then when I’m tested on it, how well would I recall it or how would I be able to bind all that knowledge into something that is reproducible, that I can bank on it, you know? Am I making sense?

So, how does this all tie into metacognition?

Chris: Well, I think an interesting answer to that question relates to this field called the Science of Learning, right? So, one, I think, great achievement of modern psychological sciences that we are getting more and more specific understanding of how to learn most effectively, and just things like how much to space out practice sessions of things and how many times and what patterns to repeat, practicing the same things, what kinds of ways of processing information will lead to better memory for the information, and so on. We have really made quite a lot of progress there and there’s really nice books about that. One reason why those books are necessary and why that scientific progress was necessary is that our intuitions about our knowledge and how to improve our knowledge actually can be pretty weak, so students, for example, will often just read the textbook and sort of assume that they have assimilated it and that they now have the knowledge, the knowledge that was in the book is now inside their heads, and come time for the exam, they will be able to just spit it back out of their heads onto the page in the exam. That is a mistake in intuition. It falls partly under the kinds of things we call the illusion of knowledge in the book, and I think paying attention to the Science of Learning and what is discovered about the optimal ways to study is important. How to be aware of the gaps in your own knowledge, that’s a little bit of a tricky question, I think because in some ways, the more you know, the more you know what you don’t know, right? So, if you never knew there was a continent of Africa, you wouldn’t even know that you could possibly know how many countries there are in Africa and if you didn’t know what the countries were in Africa, you wouldn’t have any way of knowing sort of like what are the political systems of the countries in Africa, and so on. You could be sort of blissfully ignorant in a sense, right, because you don’t know how much there is you don’t know, and you often, like just to go back to chess for an example. Recently, the world champion was interviewed and he said something like, he’s the best player to ever play chess which is a game that’s basically been around for 500 years in its present from and even longer in its more ancient forms which originated in Persia and so on, and he said something like there’s so little we actually know and so much we still have to learn about this game, and he probably knows more about it than anyone else. In a way, it is sort of like you need to know one thing in order to know what the next thing is you don’t know. I wish I had a better way of expressing it or I had some more optimistic message about it, but I guess when in doubt, assume that there’s always more to learn and you don’t really know that much. I guess that’s one way to think about it.

Sucheta: You know, yeah, I have had Matt McDaniel talk about these actual study strategies and also, I have had CLAN talk about this neuroscience of learning how to learn. It’s fascinating. I think a lot of times, I don’t know if you’re familiar with this, but K-12 education, educators don’t necessarily learn series of learning. They are experts in physics or experts in biology, or experts in teaching math, and they may have masters in those and they come into the field — not all of them, but I’m saying like it’s such an important element of learning how to learn and we may not be teaching that, and then students are going rogue, and then all the solutions coming their way, but they might think I think I know how to learn this and I think I’m pretty confident. There’s one research that I came across, I don’t remember the authors, but they asked a group of people regarding their memory, and they rated their memory very high based on their ability to retrieve it on Google.

Chris: Right. Yeah, that’s a really interesting case. I mean, it’s not ridiculous to sort of regard Google as in a sense part of your memory because it is very easy to retrieve a whole bunch of information there, and so it’s not that ridiculous, but knowing what the boundary is between what is actually contained in your head and what you really know how to access elsewhere is I think a little bit unintuitive and I can see where people have problems with that.

The Science of Learning stuff is so important. I think the good news is that it is extremely well-summarized for nonexperts by a lot of nice books. So, if people just Google “Science of Learning” or type “Science of Learning” into Amazon.com or whatever place you get books and things like that, you will find a lot of quite good resources. Some of them are for educators, for teachers and so on, really trying to synthesize that stuff and I think generally, they do a pretty good job because the people who write those books are quite — not only are they good researchers in this area but they really conscientiously want to help bring this work to greater use, so it’s not hard to catch up and sort of learn how to apply that stuff in your own teaching practice. I think it would be a lot harder for me to learn physics, I think, than for a physics teacher to learn something about the Science of Learning.

Sucheta: Oh, such a fabulous point! Yeah, such an essential step, and actually, the modern [41:44] that we live, we have Coursera, we have free YouTube, like scientists are giving lectures such as yourself even at a Google Talk, so people can access information so readily now, so that is a treat.

We are coming to the end of our discussion here, but you talk in your book, often refer to Woody Allen’s joke about this takeaway and do you recommend that we reinvent intuition? So, two questions I have, so do we really have an intuition of a gut feeling? Should we trust it? And how do we handle the way our mind works, the way our hidden processes work, we just do not have conscious control over it? So, you have some helpful suggestions for us, so how would you go about telling us that?

Chris: I hope I have some helpful suggestions. I mean, there have been some writers who I think oversold the concept of intuition as sort of a guide to decision-making in life. You will hear stories about business leaders who said they had a gut feeling that this was the right investment and they made the investment, and they made $1 million, $10 million, $1 billion or whatever. You never hear anyone talk about how they had a gut feeling that this was the right investment and they put all their savings into it, and they lost all their savings and went broke, because those people are never being interviewed by the business magazines or by Oprah Winfrey or anything like that, but there are a lot of more of those people than the people who guessed right and attribute their luck, attribute the fruits of what is a large part luck to some kind of internal force, like intuition or something like that.

Now, that said, there is such a thing as expert pattern recognition, so to refer to chess for maybe the last time, the chess grandmaster, the chess master can look at pieces on the board and within a second, like literally a second, have some reasonable idea of who is winning and maybe what the right move is. Now, they are going to be wrong a lot of the time, but they are going to be right a whole lot more often than a weaker player or especially someone who doesn’t even know how to play, so there is a whole lot that the expert can do in a very short period of time based on built-up knowledge and pattern recognition, and so on.

And so, one thing I think that we need to do to sort of try to avoid these everyday solutions is load up our repertoire of patterns of situations that cause those illusions to happen or that bring them out. So, when you are working with other people in our group, try to think about like who are we paying attention to? Why are we paying attention to those people? Like, question some of those patterns and whether they might reflect something other than these are the people who really know what they are doing or these are the people who are the experts, or whatever, or if you’re having an argument with somebody about who remembers something that happened a year ago more accurately, think about like that kind of things over and over and that’s like a pattern you can recognize when an argument becomes over whose memory is more accurate, probably the answer is both of you are wrong and you are wasting your time on this argument, or at least you could try to sort it out with some documentary evidence, right? So, you can sort of develop a pattern recognition for falling into these cognitive illusions. I think that’s probably what I’ve gradually done over all this time and I think people who think about it can do that too.

Sucheta: I have learned from the way you presented this information to kind of adapt some sense of humility, that maybe you don’t know or maybe you are not right, maybe you don’t remember. Like you said, I think sometimes, this feeling of needing to be confident is so strong and feeling that you need to kind of own your intelligence or somehow dominate your own stratosphere by saying, I’m fabulous. Sometimes, people get behind this with such fervor and if you come from a point of view that maybe sometimes, I get these things wrong but that’s just not me, but that’s just the way of being human can kind of help too. Do you agree with that?

Chris: I agree 100%, like we could call it cognitive humility or something like that, right? Maybe the most fabulous person is the person who knows how fabulous they are and who knows has a good appreciation. We could call it calibration, basically, sort of like how well your belief in your own abilities matches the reality. That’s sometimes called calibration, and yeah, I think that’s what we should strive for, like confidence is good and in some cases, even overconfidence can be useful, but that doesn’t mean that most of the time, we are not better off being realistic.

Sucheta: Well, that brings us to the end. Thank you so much for your fantastic conversation here and sharing and bringing so many perspectives. That’s really going to help our listeners understand that we need to take our minds seriously and the fact that we don’t probably know everything about our mind.

So, I really appreciate you being here and I will attach the particularly — we never talked about the gorilla video, so I’ll attach that in our show notes, but thank you for being here, Chris.

Chris: Oh, thanks for having me. It was a pleasure talking with you.

Producer: Alright, that’s all the time we have for today. If you know of someone who might benefit from listening to today’s conversation, we would be grateful if you would kindly forward it to them. So, on behalf of our host Sucheta Kamath, today’s guest Dr. Christopher Chabris and all of us at Cerebral Matters, thanks for listening today and we look forward to seeing you again right here next week on Full PreFrontal.