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Fighters Guide to: Brain Myths, and Misconceptions Part 3

Lecture 13
Can Brain Games Make You Smarter?

MYTH
Playing games will make
you smarter.
TRUTH
Brain-training games
might make you better at
playing games, but the
evidence that any effect
is transferred to activities
of daily living or general
intelligence is sparse.
 
THE NUN STUDY
>
There are times in your life when your brain is more plastic than
others—in the first few years of life when all of those neurons are
finding their connections. But what happens as we get older?
>
For a long time, we thought that age went hand in hand with
senility—that some people managed to stay cognitively sharp until
old age but they were the exception. Most people were doomed to
a long, slow decline, and there wasn’t much we could do about it.
>
Then, scientists stumbled on a perfect subject group, living in a
setting for decades that was as close to a laboratory as one could
imagine yet still “in the wild”: nuns. In 1986, psychologists began a
longitudinal study of cognitive function in a group of 678 Catholic
nuns to find out if they could see early signs of Alzheimer’s disease
and predict who might contract the disease in old age.
 
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Lecture 13 • CAN BRAIN GAMES MAkE YOU SMARTER?
>
The nuns were relatively similar along a number of important
variables that can affect one’s risk of developing dementia: their
home environment, no history of drug abuse, little or no alcohol,
no pregnancies, and so on. And they were willing participants in all
kinds of cognitive and physical tests, year after year.
>
The nun study spearheaded the idea that we can stave off the
symptoms of dementia, to a certain extent, by using our brains
wisely. The more cognitive resources we have—which we build
up over a lifetime of habits, not just from our genes or early
experiences—the more protected
we are from the consequences
of neurodegenerative diseases.
>
In addition to donating their time
and bodies, the nuns also gave
the scientists permission to
analyze the mini-autobiographies
they had to write in their 20s to
get into the convent. The more
ideas and positive emotions
that the nuns packed into their
sentences, the more likely they
were to live to a ripe old age. In
some cases, it seemed as though an active brain and a happy
disposition at age 20 could tack on an extra 10 years at the other
end of the lifespan.
BRAIN-TRAINING TOOLS
>
It’s one thing to note that people who age well and live long, productive
lives share certain traits. But if those traits don’t come naturally to you,
can you adopt them and still enjoy the same benefits?
>
Even more simply, can we improve our brain function, rather than
simply stave off decline? The data answering this question are
more mixed.
 
 
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>
Companies such as Lumosity, Cogmed, Posit Science, and others
are selling brain-training tools designed to make you smarter,
in many ways. The brain-training tools developed by these
companies are video games that supposedly target cognitive skills
such as working memory and executive function.
>
People can pay a lot of money for these games and spend a lot
of precious time playing them. But are they better for overall brain
health than other ways of passing time, such as physical exercise
or learning a new language?
>
The companies and the scientists behind them will say yes. They
argue that, just like building up specific muscle groups in your body,
your brain needs specific types of exercises to show specific results.
>
To assess the effectiveness of brain-training games, we need to
think about the task in front of these companies: How can they
develop games that are fun to play but that hone skills that their
clients can transfer to the real world?
>
Transfer comes in different forms, but where brain-training games
are concerned, we want to know about near and far transfer.
There’s no doubt that by playing a video game for hours, you’ll get
better at playing that game, no matter how old you are, especially
if the company selling the game programs it in such a way that
you’re always challenged, even as you get better at it.
>
But will playing these games make you more likely to remember
your entire grocery list, where you parked your car, or any other of
the myriad tasks that aging seems to make more difficult?
>
Here, we are talking about the difference between near transfer
and far transfer. Near transfer refers to benefits that you might see
in tasks that are very similar to the video game that you’ve been
training on. Far transfer is the holy grail: Can playing a set of video
games make you smarter in many different ways?
 
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Lecture 13 • CAN BRAIN GAMES MAkE YOU SMARTER?
>
In 2014, a group of 70 cognitive scientists and neuroscientists
signed a white paper based out of Stanford University that came
to the following conclusion: Many of the claims used to sell brain-
training tools are exaggerated and misleading.
>
Certainly, practicing a skill—whether it’s playing the piano,
speaking French, or training on a working-memory game—results
in significant improvements on the practiced task. And sometimes,
this improvement can spread to other similar skills.
>
Some studies report enduring or lasting changes in these near-
transfer effects, while others show that any gains dissipate over
time. But the problem is that we haven’t seen evidence of lasting
or significant changes in a person’s general cognitive function in
daily life even with extensive brain training. In other words, we
lack evidence that brain-training games produce any far-transfer
benefits, including preventing dementia.
>
What is exciting, though, is that we now have a significant body of
evidence that even elderly individuals have the potential to learn
new skills. We just don’t see proof that learning these skills has
a measurable impact on broader abilities that are relevant in the
real world or that brain training promotes brain health in general.
But there might be benefits in people who are at risk, for whom an
active mental life can stave off signs of decline.
BRAIN-TRAINING STUDIES
>
There are plenty of studies and companies that show positive
effects of training on some measures of cognitive function. Their
effect sizes are generally small to moderate, and there is still
ongoing debate among neuroscientists about what these effects
mean and whether they represent real evidence of change as a
direct result
of training.
 
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>
To evaluate whether the training itself built up cognitive resources
or if there is another explanation, the way that the experiment is
designed is of key importance.
>
Scientists who conduct studies on brain-training games that
contain a no-training control and a control group trained on a task
that isn’t thought to benefit the skill in question find a big difference
between the training group and the no-training control and a
somewhat smaller difference between the training group and the
group that played a game that’s not designed to, for example,
improve attention or working memory or whatever they are testing.
>
But if it’s at all obvious to the participants that the games were
supposed to make them focus better and the test is of how well
INVESTING IN BRAIN-TRAINING GAMES
Here are a few things to remember when deciding whether to invest
time and money in a brain-training product:
1.
Are you going to be devoting time to the training that you’d
otherwise spend engaged in other activities that have
been shown to have a positive benefit, such as socializing
or learning something new? Or would you just be doing
something passive, such as watching television, during that
time anyway?
2.
Are you basing your choice of training on the results of a
single study with a fairly small sample size? If so, you might
not see any far-transfer effects. But you might have a good
time and feel better about yourself.
3.
If you are at risk of developing a neurodegenerative disease
such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, brain training is in no
way a substitute for conventional medical treatments. No
brain training has been shown to prevent these diseases or
even slow their progression.
4.
Like exercise, you can’t just do 6 weeks of brain training and
expect long-term benefits. You need to keep working out to
see any positive and lasting effects.
 
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Lecture 13 • CAN BRAIN GAMES MAkE YOU SMARTER?
they can focus, you might still see a difference in motivation, which
might account at least for part of the effect. And there’s some
effect of motivation because the group playing a different game
generally fares better than the no-training control group.
>
You might also see a difference in strategy: Maybe the attention-
training group learned not how to focus attention but how to “beat
the test.” Maybe this group is using a totally different strategy to
complete the attention task. And this strategy change, in addition
to the motivational factors, might explain the entire effect.
>
The problem is that this strategy might be specific only to the type of
attentional skill that is tested by the cognitive tests. It likely doesn’t
lead to a general improvement in attention or solve the problems
that the person needs solved in terms of real-world applications.
>
In neuroscience, we have to design tasks that are proxies for the
real-world cognitive skills that we’re interested in. But that doesn’t
mean that improvement on a single task will be a good proxy for
general improvement in cognitive function. That’s why we often
use a battery of different tests when we are looking to assess
general functioning, or even a specific ability.
>
But brain-training companies don’t have the same mandate: If
they can sell a game on the basis of showing improvement on
one cognitive test, they will do that. As consumers who will have
to part with both time and money, you need to be more savvy
and demand evidence that the changes they promise extend to
situations in your life that you are seeking to improve.
>
As brain-training games get more attention from the gaming
industry and neuroscientists, they get better—and more fun. So,
it’s generally not a bad thing to spend some time playing them if
you’re enjoying yourself.
>
You just need to evaluate the opportunity costs. Are you spending
time on games that you would otherwise spend interacting with
 
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others, learning a new language or musical instrument, or getting
physical exercise? If so, that might not be the best decision if your
general cognitive functioning is what you’re worried about.
>
There are many studies showing that people with strong social
support networks, who are active learners, and who exercise fare
better in terms of cognition than those who spend most of their
time alone or doing passive activities or who are largely sedentary.
>
Older adults who play brain-training games often report that they
feel better about their minds and that they enjoy the games—
which is great. A positive outlook can go a long way when it comes
to longevity and healthy aging.
>
But by some measures, self-reported improvements in cognitive
function may be more akin to a placebo effect. Perhaps it doesn’t
matter so much exactly what kind of training you do, but the feeling
that you’re exerting some control over your cognitive functioning is
what’s really beneficial. The placebo effect isn’t a bad thing, but
it can be harmful if you are spending all your time in front of a
computer instead of living your life to the fullest.
>
And it can be even more pernicious if you become convinced that
brain training can prevent neurodegenerative diseases such as
Alzheimer’s. There is no credible evidence that brain games of
any kind can prevent or reverse the course of Alzheimer’s.
EXERCISE
>
Regular cardiovascular exercise can improve blood flow
throughout your body, including your brain, which requires a lot
of nutrients and oxygen. Exercise programs have been shown to
significantly improve performance on tasks measuring attention,
decision making, and some aspects of memory. They’ve also been
shown to attenuate loss of cognitive function in people at risk for
neurodegenerative diseases.
 
 

………………………………

Lecture 14
Does Your Brain Shut Down during Sleep?

MYTH
When you sleep,
your brain rests.
TRUTH
Your brain is very
active during sleep—
but in a very different
way than it is when
you’re awake.
 
WHAT IS SLEEP?
>
In the 1950s, the idea that sleep puts the brain to rest was blown
away by the discovery of just how active our brains are when we’re
deep in sleep. We don’t just go into a hibernating state and shut
down our brains; instead, during sleep, our brain activity follows a
cyclical pattern, alternating between different brain states, each a
unique stage of sleep, likely having a specific set of functions.
>
We can roughly divide sleep into 3 major categories: falling
asleep and being lightly asleep (stages 1 and 2); deep sleep,
characterized by slow brain waves (stages 3 and 4); and rapid eye
movement (REM) sleep, during which our brain activity looks a lot
more like it does when we’re awake, with some critical differences,
and our eyes dart around under our eyelids.
>
Each stage can be distinguished from the others by way of muscle
and brain activity, and even in terms of the effects on us if we’re
deprived of one stage or another.
 
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>
The relative proportion of time that you spend in non-REM and
REM sleep changes throughout the night. At first, we spend more
time deep in non-REM sleep, and as the night wears on, our cycles
include more time in REM and lighter stages of non-REM sleep.
>
REM sleep has been observed in every terrestrial mammal whose
sleep we’ve studied, and every one of these mammals alternates
during sleep between periods of REM and non-REM behavior.
>
In terms of brain activity, what seems to be very different between
awake and asleep states is the degree to which neural activity,
the firing of individual neurons, is in sync. Most of the time, when
we’re awake and using our brains, our neurons send signals to
each other but act relatively independently.
>
When you’re engaged in non-REM sleep, your brain is idling like a
car in the sense that the neurons, which were working hard during
the day to get things done, now fall into a cyclical synchronous
pattern of firing.
>
When we measure this activity,
we can get bigger signals during
sleep than during awake states,
but that’s because there are more
cells working together when we’re
sleeping, not because the cells
themselves are more active.
>
In fact, most of the cells are less
active in non-REM sleep. This is
especially true of the cells in the
brainstem, the part of the brain that is responsible for keeping you
alive by monitoring your basic functions. In the cortex, where much
of your higher-order thinking happens, the cells are less active,
too, but only slightly less so.
 
 
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Lecture 14 • DOES YOUR BRAIN ShUT
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>
But there are cells whose bursts of firing signal the beginning of
deep, or slow-wave, sleep. And there are cells that, in contrast
to virtually all other brain cells, are more active during sleep than
during waking. These cells are tasked with the responsibility of
putting you and keeping you in a sleep state.
>
The patterns of brain activity during REM sleep, however, are more
like waking than non-REM sleep. Cells take on their individuality
once again, and there is less synchrony between ensembles of
neurons in terms of their firing patterns. And our brains use just as
much fuel during REM sleep as they do when we’re awake.
>
Although there is an increase in activity in some regions of the
cortex compared with non-REM sleep, there are a few key regions
in REM sleep where activity is significantly attenuated, even
compared with waking.
 
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>
One of these regions is the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the part
of our brain that is responsible for keeping our social behavior
in check and making thoughtful, rational decisions, among other
things. Along with other regions involved in self-monitoring and
attentional focus, this part of the brain practically shuts down
during REM.
>
Just like cells that change their firing patterns to put us into deep
sleep, there are cells whose job it is to turn on REM sleep. Vivid
dreams are most often reported when we wake people up out
of REM sleep, though dreaming is not exclusive to REM, as is
often thought. We do dream during non-REM sleep, but overall,
it seems as though we remember our REM dreams more strongly
than non-REM dreaming.
>
The parts of the brain that control and activate our muscles and
joints are engaged during REM sleep. But luckily the brain has
adapted ways of ensuring that we don’t act out our dreams, for the
most part.
SLEEP DEPRIVATION
>
The answer to the question of why we sleep remains one of the
great scientific mysteries. But we’ve got a few good hunches and
some evidence to support each one. We sleep for many reasons,
with benefits to many different aspects of our bodies and minds.
But we can draw some general principles from the research that
has thus far been undertaken.
>
We have to decide how we want to approach the problem: Do we
want to infer the purpose of sleep from what happens when we
don’t get enough of it, or do we want to compare our sleep patterns
with other animals to see if we can find meaningful differences?
Each of these approaches yields slightly different answers, but
there are places where the theories of why we sleep converge.
 
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Lecture 14 • DOES YOUR BRAIN ShUT
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>
First, what happens when we don’t get enough sleep? It’s not
a pretty picture. In fact, extreme sleep deprivation can kill you.
Sufferers of a rare genetic condition called fatal familial insomnia
die within months of symptom onset.
>
Sleep deprivation is so aversive that it is used as an interrogation
technique and might be considered torture. Even seemingly
innocuous sleep deprivation can have profound effects on our
bodies.
>
As we get older, our brains have a harder time putting us to sleep
and keeping us asleep, and some people think that they just need
less sleep as they get older—because they sleep less anyway. But
the truth is that it’s almost more important to get adequate sleep in
our twilight years, because that’s when sleep deprivation can have
truly devastating consequences, including increasing the risk that
a person develops Alzheimer’s disease.
>
Attention is affected even with minimal disruptions of sleep. Some
people argue that this is one way your brain can get you to make
up your sleep debt; if you can’t focus on anything else and there’s
a strong drive to sleep, then maybe you’ll decide to curl up and
take a nap to put your brain back into working order.
>
We also see impairments in decision making and tend to have less
willpower without sleep. We’re more likely to make the impulsive
choice that gives us an immediate reward rather than thinking
about how our actions will affect us in the long term.
>
It can be harder for us to recognize emotions in other people,
and we respond more readily to negative stimuli. Some people
become more anxious.
>
All of these different effects of sleep deprivation tell us that there
may be many different reasons why we sleep: metabolic, cognitive,
emotional, and so on.
 
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>
But paradoxically, sleep deprivation can also lift your mood,
causing a temporary mild euphoria. It’s even used to treat some
people with depression. And this might be related to the major
changes in the types of neurotransmitters that are released during
sleep versus wakefulness.
>
The long-term effects of sleep deprivation are by no means
desirable, particularly when it comes to memory, which can be
roughly divided into short-term, or working, memory and long-term
memory, if we’re thinking about how long we want to hold onto the
information that we’re learning.
>
Long-term memory can then be divided into 2 major categories:
declarative memory for learning new facts and remembering
experiences consciously, and non-declarative memory, which
doesn’t involve consciousness in the same way, such as skill and
habit learning, conditioning, and making implicit associations.
>
When it comes to sleep, different stages of sleep seem to have
different effects on these different memory types. At the outset, we
need sleep to clear our minds and prepare us for the next day’s
learning. We need to be able to pay attention to the right things,
and we need to have our hippocampus and prefrontal cortex in
particular firing on all cylinders, not sluggish and less active, as we
see when we’re sleep deprived.
>
After learning, sleep plays another set of roles, depending on the
stage of sleep and the type of memory that we’re laying down.
>
When it comes to our declarative memory, it seems that both REM
and slow-wave, or non-REM, sleep play important roles. In many
studies, scientists have observed that the neural firing patterns
present during the learning phase are replayed during sleep,
strengthening the connections between the neurons that represent
these newly formed memories.
 
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Lecture 14 • DOES YOUR BRAIN ShUT
DOwN DURING SLEEP?
>
The more of this replay scientists have observed, particularly
during slow-wave sleep, the better the performance of the subjects
on tests of the memory the following day. And, after a good night’s
sleep, these nascent memories are less affected by interference
than they were on the previous day.
>
When it comes to skills and habits, though, it seems that a
different pattern of brain activity during sleep is the key. Early in
the night, when we’re spending more time in slow-wave sleep, our
declarative memories are being pruned and strengthened, leaving
us with stronger memory traces for the things that we really want
to remember and not the irrelevant items.
>
Then, there seems to be a shift in the type of memory that is
enhanced with sleep later in the night, when we spend more time
in shallower non-REM sleep and in REM sleep. It seems that the
type of neural firing pattern that is present during this part of the
night is particularly effective at strengthening connections between
neurons in the parts of the brain that are involved in skill and habit
learning, called procedural memory.
COMPARATIVE BIOLOGY
>
We can also use comparative biology to make inferences about
the purpose of sleep because different animal species have vastly
different sleep patterns. Some animals spend most of their time
asleep; others barely sleep at all. What predicts the amount and
type of sleep that a species engages in?
>
In this case, it seems as though size matters. In general, the larger
the animal, the less sleep it seems to need. To explain this, there
seems to be a correlation between metabolism and sleep needs.
The faster a species burns through energy stores, the more sleep
it needs to restore a balance.
 
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>
Diet matters, too: Carnivores sleep longer than omnivores, who in
turn sleep longer than herbivores, who need to eat more frequently
to keep up their fuel stores. The reactions needed for metabolism
create by-products, some of which can be toxic. One thing that
happens during sleep is an increase in cerebrospinal fluid, the
protective liquid that our brains float in.
>
Perhaps this increase acts like a waste management system,
washing away toxic by-products of metabolism and sprucing up
the brain for the next day’s work. More metabolism during the day
means more work for the waste disposal team at night.
>
And there’s some solid evidence for this function of sleep. We
used to think that brain cells got rid of their garbage by recycling
it, and when cells became less efficient at recycling, certain by-
products of chemical reactions began to build up in the brain. One
of these by-products is beta-amyloid, the buildup of which seems
to lead to the development of Alzheimer’s disease.
>
But not everyone bought into the recycling idea. In particular,
Maiken Nedergaard, a scientist at the University of Rochester,
discovered that sleep plays a critical role in cleaning up the brain’s
undesirables.
>
Perhaps when we don’t give our brains enough time to dispose
of the unnecessary waste, the buildup of nasty proteins that are
associated with neurodegenerative diseases becomes a real
problem. There is a strong relationship between disordered sleep
and neurodegenerative diseases; we just don’t know which is the
cause and which is the effect. If we can enhance the sanitation
engineering in a brain at risk for neurodegeneration, perhaps we
can reverse the course of the disease—or even prevent it from
developing altogether.
 
Brain Myths Exploded:
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SUGGESTED READING
Goldstein and Walker, “The Role of Sleep in Emotional Brain Function.”
Siegel, “Why We Sleep.”
Walker, “A Refined Model of Sleep and the Time Course of Memory Formation.”
 
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER
1.
Sleep is not only important for consolidating the previous day’s
information but also preparing your brain for the next day. How does
sleep deprivation affect your cognitive function?
2.
Why, in terms of what’s happening in your brain, do you think the
advice “go sleep on it” is helpful?
 
 

………………………….

Lecture 15
Are Your Decisions Rational?

MYTH
You make rational
decisions.
TRUTH
Most of our thoughts are
dominated by self-talk,
and our conscious mind
is not privy to many of
the processes that lead
to our decisions.
 
RATIONALITY
>
Standard economic theory is based on the assumption that human
beings are guided by rationality: If there’s a big demand for a
scarce resource, people will pay a higher price for it than if there
is no demand or if the resource is plentiful. If we need to make a
change—whether with respect to a job, a house, or a partner—we
will make a mental list of pros and cons and add them together,
and the result of that computation will guide our decision making.
>
If we screw up and do something irrational, such as pay too high
a price for something easily acquirable, we’ll figure that out fairly
quickly, and the market overall, made up of millions or billions of
rational beings, will correct the mistake.
>
But standard economic theory fails to explain what marketing
experts take for granted: We are often swayed in our decision
making by things that any truly rational being would ignore.
 
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Lecture 15 • ARE YOUR DECISIONS RATIONAL?
>
Williams-Sonoma mastered a strategy called the decoy effect
ever since they first started selling bread makers that no one
knew they wanted. At first, with only one option on the floor,
sales were dismal. But by adding a premium version, sporting a
bigger size and price tag to match, the original bread maker sold
like gangbusters.
>
The decoy effect flies in the face of rational models of decision
making. Why should the introduction of a higher-priced option
lead us to choose a product that we might otherwise pass on?
Shouldn’t our decision be based on an assessment of what we
really need? And wouldn’t we reasonably choose the item that
meets that need for the lowest price?
>
Contrary to what might be expected, the decoy effect is just as
powerful in real estate and dating markets as it is in the small
kitchen appliances market.
>
The first principle of our predictably irrational decision making
is that everything is relative and influenced by context. When
choosing from alternatives, we can’t help but make comparisons
between options that are put in front of us—often to our detriment.
>
This tendency is not just a guiding force in how we make choices;
it’s a guiding principle of brain function. Our brains are primed to
look for change—for differences—and for patterns. Context affects
both our attention and our perceptions.
>
Think about being the lowest paid employee in the office. That
can leave you dissatisfied. But transfer that exact same job and
salary to a company in which you’re the highest paid and you’ll
experience an instant boost in happiness.
>
So, like it or not, our brains are wired to make highly contextualized
comparisons. Even our senses habituate to what stays the same
but make note of what changes. This impulse to make comparisons
 
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can lead us down the wrong path time and time again with respect
to how we make decisions.
>
Just as our senses can’t register
every aspect of the environment,
our decisions are guided only
by the information we can hold
in mind—which is limited. When
we can organize and categorize
information easily, by comparing
similar features, for example, we
feel as though we can then make
a good decision.
>
The relativity principle explains
why we don’t hesitate to pay an
extra few thousand dollars for a new paint job when we’re in the
midst of purchasing a house but balk at the expense once the
purchase is in the distant past. After all, what’s an extra $3000
when we’re thinking about $300,000?
>
This principle also explains why we’ll drive across town to save a
few cents on gas, knowing that it’s cheaper over there, but spend
$4 on a latte close to home without blinking.
TYPES OF THINKING
>
The principle of relativity also shows us that we can categorize
many things that our brains do into 2 types: fast and slow. Nobel
Prize winner Daniel Kahneman calls these 2 types of thinking
system 1 and system 2.
>
Our fast-thinking brain influences our behavior in many ways: It
searches for patterns, looks for confirming evidence, and fills
in perceptual details when they are missing. It’s effortless and
automatic, and it’s swayed by emotions. For many people, the
fast-thinking brain is a stranger, whereas the slow, deliberate,
 
 
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Lecture 15 • ARE YOUR DECISIONS RATIONAL?
thoughtful brain is an old friend. That’s what we think is our
logical side.
>
But, as Kahneman notes, what we are conscious of is the end
product of thinking, not the thinking itself. That’s even true when
it comes to system 2, or our slow-thinking brain, though in that
case, we might be able to control some aspects of it. The truth
is that our slow thinker is heavily influenced by its fast-thinking
counterpart, often without our knowledge, as the decoy effect
clearly demonstrates.
>
As Daniel Kahneman describes these 2 modes of thinking, the fast
mode is subconscious and therefore effortless, feels automatic
because we don’t have a sense of control over it, is the major
driver of our behavior, and is predictable. It also underlies a
number of our cognitive quirks, such as stereotyping.
>
The slow mode is less frequently used because it demands
attention and effort. It’s relatively logical and calculating, and it’s
conscious. But it’s also lazy. Rather, our brains are lazy, often
favoring the easy solution in favor of deliberate thoughtfulness.
>
Your slow-thinking mode does the minimum required work to come
to a plausible solution. And it’s not just lazy thinkers in general
that fall prey to the temptation. Most people are overconfident in
their thinking. That’s a thematic principle of our brain function that
returns time and time again.
>
We can’t really control how much mental energy we put into
different types of tasks; some tasks will draw more of our available
attention and others will draw less. The amount of attention they
draw depends on how skilled we are in the task.
>
At first, driving demands all of our available mental effort—system
2 taxed to the max. Over time, we become more practiced at it,
and many of its actions become automatized. Now they can be
accomplished without much conscious thought, having become
 
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integrated into system 1, and therefore we need less attention to
accomplish the same thing.
>
This is where things become dangerous, as we sometimes
overestimate how little attention we need to pay to the road and
indulge in the temptation to distract our minds while driving.
>
Mental effort is expensive, so our tendency is to minimize it. As
Kahneman puts it, laziness is built deep into our nature.
>
Dan Ariely is no stranger to the social costs of this laziness. Many
of his studies have shown that when our minds are preoccupied,
or our mental capacity is altered by our emotional state or another
physiological state (sexual arousal or hunger, for example),
we’re less likely to take the moral high road. We’re more likely
to succumb to discriminatory behaviors, to make superficial
 
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judgments, and to behave primitively rather than as the civilized
beings that we think we are.
>
Decisions that we think we make rationally are influenced by
our emotional and physiological states. We think that system
2 is in charge most of the time, but what we don’t realize is that
system 1 is always taking over when we’re not paying close
attention. System 1 might even drive system 2 outside of our
conscious awareness.
>
Our 2 modes of thinking leave us with 2 different selves: the self
that is experiencing the world in the moment and the self that
can reflect on the past. For most people, these 2 selves are so
intertwined that they don’t even know that both exist.
>
But a set of studies by Kahneman and his colleagues have
demonstrated this profound and enigmatic feature of human
nature and that this feature can affect our decision making in wide-
reaching and surprising ways.
>
Think about a time when you were thoroughly enjoying an
activity—for example, a night at the opera or an intense sports
match—only to have the experience ruined by a bad ending.
Maybe the soprano missed her high note or your team lost the
game thanks to an inappropriate call by the referee.
>
So often we get much more upset when such a thing happens
at the end rather than sometime in the middle of the experience.
And even though we spent the vast majority of the time enjoying
ourselves, that last bad taste lingers on with us and tarnishes the
whole memory of the event.
>
But of course it didn’t—that’s completely irrational. It was just
those last few moments that were ruined, not the rest of the time.
But because we tend to remember endings more strongly than
other parts of the experience, our remembering self ruminates and
 
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categorizes the event as negative overall, neglecting the fact that
our experiencing self was having a blast for the most part.
>
There are now several studies showing that our ratings of
enjoyment of an activity reflect a weighted average of the most
intense moment during the event and of the end of the experience.
It’s called the peak/end rule, and it applies both to positive and
negative experiences. And it influences the decisions we make
about how we want to have those experiences in the future.
>
Could the peak/end rule offer a solution to the age-old problem:
should we rip off that band aid, causing a short but intense bit of
pain or peel it away slowing, prolonging the suffering but limiting
its intensity.
>
The remembering self is illogical and misguided, but for the
vast majority of people, it influences the decisions they make
about how to spend their time and money much more than their
experiencing self.
>
Our remembering self is largely built over time by system 2, or our
slow-thinking mode—the one that we think is responsible for our
decisions, the big ones at least. But our fast mode influences this
construction every step of the way, from choosing what we focus
on to providing shortcuts in the form of heuristics and biases. So,
we can’t discount its influence on the ultimate choice.
>
Duration gets compacted because what captures our attention
and therefore is stored in memory are moments of change—the
peaks and the ends (and, to some extent, the beginnings, too).
But what happens in the middle is largely forgotten.
>
Just like our senses, habituating to what’s constant in the
environment, our thinking systems are influenced by change. We
make comparisons between things presented at the same time
because that’s about all that system 2 can handle. It’s lazy, and
 
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it’s easier to compare 2 similar things and figure out which one is
better than compare 2 dissimilar things.
SUGGESTED READING
Ariely and Wertenbroch, “Procrastination, Deadlines, and Performance.”
Gino, Ayal, and Ariely, “Contagion and Differentiation in Unethical Behavior.”
Lee, Frederick, and Ariely, “Try It, You’ll Like It.”
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER
1.
If we’re all prone to comparisons, which option is better: buying the
best house in a not-so-great neighborhood or the smallest house in the
posh community? What would you do?
2.
Now that you know how your brain can be both fast, automatic, and
intuitive; and slow, deliberate, and lazy, how should you approach
major life decisions?

…………………………………………….

Lecture 16
Are You Always Conscious while Awake?

MYTH
Consciousness comes
in 2 states: Either we
are conscious or not.
TRUTH
Consciousness is a
continuum with many
levels that we can alter
in many different ways,
and animals can also be
conscious in ways that
might surprise you.
 
CONSCIOUSNESS AND OUR BRAIN
>
We experience our consciousness as a unitary experience, and
we often think about it in terms of black and white—on or off,
awake or asleep. But the truth is that we can be conscious at
different levels; it’s a continuum rather than a discrete condition.
>
We know this because we can manipulate consciousness with
psychoactive drugs and anesthesia. We might not know how
consciousness works from the perspective of the brain, but we can
alter it in fairly specific ways.
>
We can, for example, inject drugs into our brains that hyperpolarize
our neurons—change their electrical potential in such a way that it’s
much more difficult for them to fire in response to stimulation. Many
of these drugs induce electrical activity that looks like what we see
during non-REM sleep, so we might say that this anesthetic drug
has brought about a less conscious or even unconscious state.
 
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>
But how do we know that a person injected with anesthesia is
indeed unconscious? When anesthetics were first introduced,
more than a century and a half ago, unconsciousness was
defined behaviorally: If a patient is unresponsive, he or she is
unconscious. But we now know that a person can be completely
paralyzed and unable to respond but still remain conscious, called
locked-in syndrome.
>
Unresponsiveness is not sufficient to demonstrate
unconsciousness. There are documented cases of patients
responding to commands during surgery but waking up with no
recollection of having been conscious. So, memory isn’t good
enough, either.
 
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>
Is there any particular brain region that resembles a switch?
Probably the closest thing we have to a switch—when it’s active,
we’re conscious, and when it’s deactivated, we’re not—is the
thalamus, a relay center in the middle of the brain through which
all sensory information travels (except smell) and that connects to
many other regions of the brain, including our memory centers and
frontal lobes.
>
Damage to this part of the brain can cause a patient to enter a
vegetative state. Recovery from such a state happens when the
connections between the thalamus and parts of the frontal cortex
are restored.
>
When the thalamus stops working, loss of consciousness is
not immediate. And while we see immediate changes in the
electroencephalogram (EEG) signal when a patient becomes
unconscious, the signal change in the thalamus can lag up to 10
minutes behind.
>
Maybe, then, the thalamus is more like a central train station than
an on-off switch: When the station is closed, information can’t get
through, but closing the station doesn’t immediately stop the city
from functioning.
>
While the thalamus might play a central role in mediating conscious
states, there are other regions, lower down the brain stem, that are
also important and perhaps even more vital for cortical arousal.
THEORIES OF CONSCIOUSNESS
>
There is a growing body of evidence suggesting that cortical
arousal and consciousness are not the same thing. You can
imagine an animal that is fully awake yet not necessarily
conscious—simply reactive, in a reflexive way—and that the
integrative functions of central regions such as the thalamus are
necessary for consciousness.
 
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AkE?
>
Indeed, in one of the main theories of consciousness, information
integration plays a key role. Inspired by work on anesthetized
patients, neuroscientist Giulio Tononi has proposed that we think
about consciousness as having 2 main qualities: It contains
information about an experience (you see a red car), and that
experience is integrated (you can’t not see that the car is both a car
and red at the same time). Tononi suggests that this integration is a
key part of consciousness; it’s a part of the subjective experience.
>
With this type of definition, then, a brain must have functional
connections between key brain regions to be conscious. Indeed,
when we see brain activation in a person that looks like a series of
isolated islands rather than a connected network, consciousness
has been disrupted.
>
How do we experience our consciousness as integrated when
different parts of our brains process different aspects of our
experiences? Is our consciousness really integrated? Can we
have multiple consciousnesses? Some neuroscientists think
that we can, and they point to patients who experience multiple
personalities as clinching evidence.
>
Perhaps the most compelling philosophical theory of
consciousness proposes that there isn’t a single conscious entity
in our minds but an endless stream of drafts. According to this
view, different networks and pathways within the body and brain
are constantly providing simultaneous but distinct information
streams concerning the world.
>
Each of these streams is like a separate draft of reality. And
consciousness is not some single authoritative region in the brain
that pulls all these drafts together into a unitary, authoritative, “true”
experience. Rather, consciousness is precisely the multiple drafts
themselves—all those separate streams of information happening
at the same time.
 
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>
This multiple drafts model is
the brainchild of American
philosopher Daniel Dennett.
According to this model, when
we’re not actually contemplating
our own consciousness, we don’t
know if we are conscious and in
what ways.
>
Dennett argues that when we ask
ourselves if we are conscious,
our minds build up a stream of
consciousness that gives us just
that experience. The illusion of a
unified consciousness is created.
As soon as we think about something else, the experience of
having a unified self fades into the background and our brain can
get back to the important job of experiencing life.
BRAIN DAMAGE
>
People with profound amnesia can’t create the illusion of a
coherent, continuous self because they have no memories to draw
upon. But would we call them unconscious? What about patients
whose memories are intact but whose attention is fragmented?
>
Perhaps our consciousness is just a neural afterthought, as many
neuroscientists suggest. Perhaps it is just one draft that our minds
create and discard as another set of drafts are written in parallel.
When lower-level perceptual processes go awry—when we have
something in our eyes or can’t hear quite well—the upstream
cognitive processes notice, and we become conscious of the lack
of information. But when the upstream processes go awry, we
remain unaware of what we can’t do.
>
The paradoxical disconnect between what we can actually
experience and what we are conscious of experiencing is present
 
 
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in patients who have blindsight, a condition in which a patient has
a lesion in the visual cortex and cannot perceive one part of his
or her visual field. The damage isn’t in the retina, so the brain has
access to the primary sensory input, but visual processing breaks
down later in the stream between sensation and perception.
>
There are also documented cases of deaf hearing, blind smell,
and numbsense, in which patients report no conscious experience
of a certain sense but behave as though they can hear, smell, or
feel just fine.
>
These types of patients seem like the ideal candidates to solve the
problem of consciousness—because they have vision, hearing,
smell, or touch without the accompanying qualia or subjective
experience of consciousness. This suggests that the subjective
experience is real (because we can observe the lack of it) and
that it has a neural basis (whatever part of the brain is damaged in
the patients).
>
But patients with these conditions still have other conscious
experiences. They still feel as though they are conscious and that
their inner selves are unitary. And their ability to perceive the world
through their damaged sense is nowhere near “normal.”
>
In their daily activities, they don’t use their “blind” sense. They
generally can’t recognize familiar objects without prompting,
for example. And they are not completely blind in terms of their
conscious experience of seeing: They can sometimes consciously
see high-contrast moving objects, for example.
>
One patient, for instance, would report seeing fast moving objects
but not slowly moving ones. What does his damage tell us about
the conscious experience of seeing? Are fast and slowly moving
objects consciously recognized in different parts of the brain?
What happens when we compare these patients to patients who
can’t see motion at all?
 
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>
We still come back to the problem of finding a neural correlate for
the subjective experience. We know that vision is modular—that
we process different aspects of the visual world in different brain
regions but our experience is coherent. Does that mean that the
neural basis of consciousness might also be modular, but still give
us the illusion of coherence? Once again, Dennett’s multiple drafts
model seems best suited to fit the data.
>
For many people, even though the theory of multiple drafts
accounts for much of the evidence, it still doesn’t seem to
characterize our experience. It doesn’t seem to capture what many
people feel is the core, essence, and true power of consciousness:
to bind together our experiences into one self.
>
Even Kahneman’s distinction between our 2 selves—the one
that experiences the world and the one that remembers it—
doesn’t shatter this illusion completely. We can still accept that
our remembering self might not be an accurate record of our
experiencing self without throwing away the notion of the self
altogether, as Dennett seems to ask us to do.
>
And this illusion of the unified self is so strong that for many people,
the idea that our consciousness can supersede our biology—that
some aspect of our minds persists even as our bodies die—
is a given.
NEAR-DEATH AND OUT-OF-BODY EXPERIENCES
>
Near-death experiences are often hailed as evidence for the idea
that consciousness is distinct from the physical processes of brain
and body. The related out-of-body experience, in which the person
feels as though he or she had left his or her body and is observing
it from a different point of view, can be so compelling to the person
undergoing it that there is almost nothing that can convince him or
her that it was just a figment of his or her physical brain.
 
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AkE?
>
Skeptics and believers alike point to the uniformity of a near-death
experience as supportive of the notion either that there is life after
death or that the experience is simply the product of disordered
brain function.
>
Feeling as though you are dead is not limited to near-death
experiences. There is a strange delusion called Cotard’s
syndrome in which the sufferer believes that he or she is dead.
These patients will repeatedly insist that they are dead, and in
heaven or purgatory, and will tell you the manner of their death.
Causes of the delusion vary from typhoid to multiple sclerosis and
with damage located in the parietal and prefrontal cortices.
>
Out-of-body experiences are also called autoscopic because the
illusion involves the sensation that you are floating outside of your
body and that you can see your body from above.
>
Out-of-body experiences are also not limited to near-death
experiences as people report having them just before they fall
asleep or when they have sleep paralysis—when their conscious
mind wakes up before the body has had a chance to clear the
nervous system of the neurotransmitters that inhibit muscle activity
during REM sleep.
>
In one study, out-of-body experiences were induced by stimulating
a specific part of the brain called the temporoparietal junction.
>
The experience of moving down a tunnel can also be induced
in other ways. Most neuroscientists agree that tunnel vision can
occur when the eyes aren’t receiving enough oxygen from the
bloodstream, a condition known as anoxia. Anoxia is a common
feature of many situations in which near-death experiences occur.
>
When it comes to the types of people and scenes patients encounter
on their trips to death’s door, there is a strong correlation between
their cultural or religious beliefs and what they report seeing.
 
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>
The feeling of being in the presence of someone else can also be
induced with electrical stimulation to a part of the brain called the
angular gyrus, as has been noted in patients with epilepsy who are
undergoing surgical treatments. When the surgeons stimulated
this region, the patient reported feeling someone else in the room.
>
While we haven’t yet discovered a pattern of brain activity that is
common across all near-death experiences, each of the separate
features can be explained by neurophysiological changes.
SUGGESTED READING
Alkire, Hudetz, and Tononi, “Consciousness and Anesthesia.”
Mobbs and Watt, “There Is Nothing Paranormal about Near-Death
Experiences.”
Tononi and Koch, “Consciousness.”
 

……………………………

Lecture 17
Are Other Animals Conscious?

MYTH
Animals aren’t conscious.
TRUTH
The brains of animals are
remarkably complicated,
and they are much more
similar to our brains than
many people think.
 
VIOLENCE
>
Primatologist and neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky divides human
traits or behaviors into 3 categories: behaviors shared by other
species, behaviors for which we have the same tools as other
species but use them in a novel way, and behaviors that have
yet to be found in other creatures. The last category is in many
ways the most difficult to be sure of because so often what
seems to be unique to humans gets discovered, through careful
experimentation, in other animals. But that’s the beauty of science:
When we ask the right questions, we learn more than we set
out to.
>
Take the issue of violent behavior, for example. Nature can
be mercilessly mean. But science has helped illuminate the
 
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Lecture 17 • ARE OThER ANIMALS CONSCIOUS?
continuities between some of the less savory aspects of human
and animal behavior.
>
Human beings can be incredibly cruel to one another, let alone to
other creatures with whom we share the earth. But there are other
species who practice genocide, infanticide, siblicide, and other
forms of intentional killing. Eagles throw mountain goats off of cliffs
to kill them. Many large predators begin eating their prey before
they have had time to die.
>
You might argue that these incidents involve animals killing for
food—simply survival of the fittest, rather than actual senseless
cruelty, designed only to cause suffering. But lions will kill cheetah
cubs or other rival predators with whom they are unrelated and not
eat them afterward. There are other species who cause suffering
to members of their own groups, such as ants who will kill another
colony.
>
Most if not all examples of violence in the animal world have been
explained in terms of a fight over scarce resources. Infanticide,
for example, seems to be about access to females, who, newly
without offspring, are more likely to mate and breed with the victor.
>
Most people can stomach violence between members of other
species, even primates, because we imagine that the animals can’t
empathize with their enemies and don’t understand that another
being might suffer. They don’t feel compassion, we might say.
EMPATHY AND COMPASSION
>
Is it true that compassion is uniquely human? Is psychological
suffering unique to us, too? In other words, do other animals feel
social pain the way we do when we see a beloved friend or family
member suffer and die?
 
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>
What kind of consciousness would be necessary to feel social
pain? First, one would have to have developed a sense of self—
some sort of coherent identity that is separable from others.
>
In human infants, this sense seems to develop sometime in the
second year of life, when toddlers begin to understand that what
goes on inside their heads
isn’t obvious to those around
them. Until they gain this
understanding, we think that
they operate with the belief that
consciousness is collective—
that we all share one mind.
>
Developmental psychologists
have used a number of clever
ways to assess the emergence
of self-identity. They observe
that toddlers begin to use the pronouns “I” and “you” around this
time. Then, they begin to recognize themselves in mirrors.
>
In fact, the mirror test, which involves whether an animal can
tell that its own image is being reflected back to it or whether it
treats the animal in the mirror as another, is the classic test of self-
recognition in other species.
>
Gordon Gallup is credited with having devised a version of
the mirror test that has now become famous. He gave young
chimpanzees a mirror to play with and noticed that they began to
use it as an instrument to gaze at parts of their bodies that they
could not otherwise see, such as the inside of their mouths.
>
But he wasn’t sure that the animals could tell that the chimp in
the mirror was itself, so he anesthetized them and then drew red
marks on their faces. When they woke up, they immediately tried
to rub off the mark from their own faces, and not the image in the
 
 
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Lecture 17 • ARE OThER ANIMALS CONSCIOUS?
mirror, demonstrating that they understood that the mirror was a
reflection of themselves.
>
Since then, this test has been used to evaluate self-recognition
in many other species, including toddlers, who generally fail
until sometime around 18 months. Orangutans, bonobos, and
chimpanzees for the most part pass the test. Some elephants,
dolphins, killer whales, and even possibly magpies have passed
the mirror test.
>
Although dogs and cats fail the test, it’s possible that they fail not
because they don’t have a sense of self, but because they don’t
use their senses the way that we do. Dogs, for example, can’t see
very well, so perhaps they would recognize themselves via smell,
rather than sight.
>
While we can’t use the mirror test conclusively to rule out self-
recognition in some species, there is enough compelling evidence
Orangutans, bonobos, and chimpanzees for
the most part pass the test of self-recognition.
 
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to conclude that we’re not the only ones with a sense of self,
although some psychologists reject this evidence and claim that
self awareness remains unique to humans.
>
The next step in developing empathy is to recognize that your own
thoughts, feelings, and beliefs might differ from those around you.
Psychologists call this ability having a theory of mind: developing
an understanding that other people also have a sense of self with
hopes, fears, and wants.
>
Deception is one way in which psychologists can assess the
development of theory of mind in both children and other species.
Many insects can camouflage themselves or have evolved
patterns of markings to deceive their prey. Other insects can
fake an injury to distract their predators. But these examples are
written in their DNA and are expressed without the animal’s intent
to deceive.
>
Monkeys will refrain from announcing that they have discovered
a food source if the food is particularly tasty. They will wait until
their peers are distracted before engaging in some kind of taboo
behavior, knowing that were they to be observed there might be
social consequences.
>
There are many studies demonstrating repeated failures of many
animal species to demonstrate theory of mind. When we test
animals through our human lens, assuming that they see the world
much as we do, we are easily convinced that they are cognitively
simpler than we are.
>
Many experimental designs fail to capture the fact that we might
not be able to look inside the minds of other animals as effectively
as members of the same species.
>
Evaluating empathy even in our own species is a major challenge.
A behavioral test of empathy that doesn’t rely on self-report does
not seem to exist yet. In addition, even demonstrating empathy—
 
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Lecture 17 • ARE OThER ANIMALS CONSCIOUS?
the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, to feel what
he or she feels—might not be enough to capture what is one of
humanity’s greatest virtues: compassion.
>
Psychologists define empathy as the ability to understand or
feel what another person is experiencing, by taking the other
person’s perspective. Compassion takes empathy a step further,
by awakening a desire to reduce suffering in the person whose
perspective is being taken.
>
With empathy, but without compassion, we can be disturbingly
cruel. And maybe compassion represents a type of consciousness
that really is unique to our species.
>
Compassion requires not only the ability to understand what
another person is going through and to suffer with that person,
to essentially recreate their subjective experience in our own
minds but also to feel an urge to minimize their suffering. Maybe
compassion belongs in Sapolsky’s second category, a thing for
which we share tools with other species, who might show evidence
of empathy, but which we’ve put to a novel use—to induce a
feeling of wanting to help.
>
Are there other examples of species who show behaviors in line
with compassion? In one study, chimpanzees chose to give gifts
to their peers even if their generous acts didn’t seem to bring them
any benefit themselves. This study shows that, at least when it
doesn’t cost them much, chimpanzees can consider the feelings
and desires of their fellow monkeys.
COMPLEX BEHAVIORS
>
Because we share so much DNA, and therefore behaviors, with
other primates, it’s not surprising that primitive elements of our own
complex thoughts and feelings can be observed in these species.
 
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>
But we can see complex humanlike behaviors even in animals
whose nervous systems are so different that they almost defy
comparison. Take the octopus, for example. More than half of
an octopus’s neurons aren’t in a centralized brain; they are in its
tentacles. And each tentacle seems to have a mind of its own: If
you sever it from the rest of the animal’s body, it will not only crawl
away, but if it encounters some food, it will take the food and try to
put it where the mouth should be, were the arm still attached.
>
Octopi in captivity have been shown to play with bottles like toys;
play is a behavior that most people would agree is reserved for
fairly intelligent animals. Aquarists will even tell you that these
animals must have opportunities for play to stay healthy.
>
The eyes of an octopus are very similar to ours, with transparent
corneas, irises that regulate how much light comes into the eye,
and a ring of muscles that focuses the lens. Yet with brains that
are so structurally and functionally different, their experience of
the world is surely vastly different from ours.
Octopi in captivity have been
shown to play with bottles
like toys; play is a behavior
that is reserved for fairly
intelligent animals.

…………………………………………..

Lecture 18
Can You Multitask Efficiently?
……………………………………………

MYTH
When you’re multitasking,
you’re doing more than one
thing at once.
TRUTH
When you think you’re
multitasking, you’re actually
switching quickly between
tasks, and each switch
comes at a cost.
 
MULTITASKING
>
We are often impressed by how much busy people can accomplish.
And for many people, the ability to squeeze more tasks into a day
by doubling up on them is a source of pride rather than shame.
But studies have shown that people who multitask more often,
who consider themselves particularly good at it, are actually worse
at it than the rest of us.
>
What we don’t know yet is whether this impairment is the chicken
or the egg: Does multitasking lead to a greater susceptibility to
distraction and a decrease in the ability to control your attention,
or are people who are more distractible more likely to spend time
trying to do 2 things at once?
>
People who report multitasking often and who think they are
particularly adept at it are also more likely to be impulsive and
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Lecture 18 • CAN YOU MULTITASk EFFICIENTLY?
to be labeled as sensation seekers: people who take more
risks to get novel and intense experiences. So, it might be
true that people who have shorter attention spans gravitate
toward multitasking.
>
But regardless of which way the arrow points, the increasing
availability of multiple media at our fingertips is only going to make
this problem worse. The more people succumb to the growing
temptations to multitask, the more likely we’re going to see
adverse effects on their ability to focus on challenging tasks.
>
For many people, the bigger issue is not just that we find it difficult
to resist the temptation to entertain ourselves while we are at a
stoplight or walking along the street. The problem is that the
demands placed on us to be always available and to fit a busy
work schedule and time for family and friends into a short day
leaves us with few opportunities to spend a significant amount of
time doing only one focused thing.
 
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>
Multitasking, in the real world, isn’t just about listening to music
while we work on a project; instead, it’s what society demands of
us, now that we are so easily contacted and connected. So, we
can’t just avoid it altogether. But too often we let all these demands
distract us from important activities that require a maximum of
focus, leaving a trail of unfinished projects and unfulfilled dreams
in our wake.
OUR BRAINS AND MULTITASKING
>
Our brains are creatures of habits: If you do the same thing over
and over, the networks of neurons that are involved in that task get
strengthened and fire more efficiently. That means that the next
time you do that thing, your brain’s activity will be slightly more
fine-tuned. But it’s also more difficult to then take a different path.
>
When you multitask, your brain doesn’t necessarily know which
task is the important one. And the brain is metaphorically lazy; it
will gravitate toward the easy, more sculpted track. So, if you’re
doing 2 tasks, one of which is more ingrained, you’ll find your mind
drifting back to that one rather than paving a new track.
>
If you’re multitasking while you’re also attempting to learn
something new, you’re creating a specific context, which your brain
is making note of. It doesn’t know that the background activity is
not an important part of the foreground one.
>
For example, if you’re listening to music while studying, your
brain is making associations between the music and what you’re
working on. When it comes time for you to retrieve the information
you’ve been trying to learn, however, without the music, it might
be more difficult for you to get your brain in the right gear. But
play the music again, and you might find that it triggers some
remembering—which is probably not what you intended in the
first place.
 
156
Lecture 18 • CAN YOU MULTITASk EFFICIENTLY?
>
But even perhaps more nefarious is the illusion that you’re learning
when in fact you’re not. According to the Mozart effect, engaging
in pleasurable activities keeps you feeling good in the moment.
But you likely aren’t doing the hard work of learning by engaging
deeply with the content.
>
Some tasks aren’t always enjoyable, and making them enjoyable
via distraction doesn’t mean you are accomplishing what you set
out to do, even if, by the end of the TV show episode, you’ve made
your way to the end of the textbook chapter.
>
However, a study showed that listening to music heightened
arousal in students and led to better performance on a subset of
cognitive tasks. Eating a chocolate bar or drinking coffee before or
while studying can also help. But arousal only helps if the arousing
task doesn’t interfere with learning—doesn’t involve the same
cognitive processes as what’s being used to keep you entertained.
 
157
Brain Myths Exploded:
Lessons from Neuroscience
>
Multitasking is rewarding because we generally are entertained by
at least one of the tasks, and we minimize the negative aspects
of the other. So, the overall experience is positive. Then, when
faced with just the negative task, we remember the good times of
multitasking and have a more difficult time staying focused.
>
Why can’t we just do those 2 things at once? If we’re using our
conscious effort to accomplish both things, we really can’t do more
than one at a time. Instead of doing 2 things that require conscious
awareness at the same time, we do one and then switch to
the other.
SWITCHING BETWEEN TASKS
>
There are an almost infinite number of different ways that we
can multitask, and each of the subtasks will have a different
neural signature, so putting them together will also show different
patterns of brain activation.
>
Note that we’ve moved away from the view that a task activates
one brain region. Instead, we talk about networks of brain regions,
because this nomenclature more accurately captures what we’ve
observed during neuroimaging studies: Many different regions
interact to accomplish a particular task. What comprises a network
can shift from task to task, as one task might involve language
regions and the visual cortex while another might require visual
processing and motor activity.
>
And the more demanding a task, in general, the greater
the activation we see in that network. Just as with attention
allocation—a more difficult task requires more attention, leaving
less attention available for other tasks—with brain activation, the
greater activation there is during the performance of one task, the
less can be redirected to another.
 
158
Lecture 18 • CAN YOU MULTITASk EFFICIENTLY?
>
The more overlap there is between the 2 activities, in terms of their
neural signature, the more interference we see from one task to
the other, and the poorer the performance on one or both tasks.
>
Even putting aside the decreased resources that we can spend
on each task, every time we switch our attention from one task to
another, we pay a price. Sometimes the price is small and we can
corral our attention back fairly easily. Often, in fact, we’re pretty
quick at making the switch. But sometimes the cost is bigger than
we think: Instead of a switch cost, we pay a price for mixing the 2
cognitive tasks, called a mixing cost.
>
The mixing cost is a measure of the extent to which the previous
task intrudes into the current one: If you are switching between
checking email and preparing a presentation, the mixing cost can
be pretty expensive, as you keep thinking about your emails even
though you should be thinking about your talk. We fall into a trap
of wasting too much time, and then having even less dedicated
time to do the thing that we were supposed to be doing.
>
From studies in which psychologists asked participants to switch
between tasks and measured the amount of interference that one
task had on the other, we can draw 3 broad conclusions:
The more similar 2 tasks are—the more they overlap in terms
of what cognitive processes they engage—the more they
disrupt each other.
Dividing attention between tasks is less effective when one or
both of the tasks are difficult.
Doing 2 things at once is nearly impossible when both tasks
require your conscious attention.
>
We can think about brain activation to give us some clues as
to why this is: Learning a task often recruits a larger network,
and training makes that network more efficient, requiring less
 
159
Brain Myths Exploded:
Lessons from Neuroscience
activation to accomplish the task. So, if you’re learning, you need
to devote more resources to the task—leaving fewer available for
other things.
>
These 3 principles can explain why we seem to be able to do more
than one thing at a time with practice: When a skill is practiced
enough, it no longer requires
conscious thought and it’s
easy, making more cognitive
resources available to you for
other types of thinking.
>
How you mix your tasks is also
a factor. It’s easier to switch
from a task that you’re not very
good at to one that you do well
than the other way around.
>
That’s why so many gurus
advise us to tackle the difficult
tasks first. It’s easier to go from the difficult, less familiar task to
the more familiar ones. But after an hour of checking email, which
we’re all good at by now, it’s much more difficult to then sit down
and compose a brilliant essay.
>
Tasks like checking email, which are really made up of many short
tasks, exhaust our minds more than we think they do. Making
decisions, which emailing really boils down to, is tiring. After
making a bunch of trivial decisions, such as whether to respond
right away or file the email until later, we have fewer cognitive
resources available to weigh the pros and cons of more important
decisions. Psychologists call this decision fatigue.
BENEFITS OF MULTITASKING
>
For a long time, psychologists cautioned parents against teaching
young children more than one language, worrying that the
 
 
160
Lecture 18 • CAN YOU MULTITASk EFFICIENTLY?
children would get confused. And there is evidence that bilingual
children take longer to develop as rich a vocabulary as their
monolingual peers.
>
But an unexpected benefit of bilingualism seems to be an
improvement in the ability to multitask. Because children who grow
up speaking 2 languages have to learn to switch between them
early on, their brains wire differently, and they seem to show better
executive functioning, on average, than monolingual children.
>
It’s possible that having to hold multiple words for the same
concept in mind simultaneously trains working memory functions.
Indeed, we see working memory benefits in bilinguals; they
perform better on tests of verbal and visuospatial working memory.
Bilingual children also have to learn to inhibit the intrusions of
words from the wrong language, so they develop inhibition skills
that are one of the keys to success in task switching.
>
Such benefits are especially pronounced in children coming from
lower socioeconomic households. And many immigrant families
start off poor in a new country. That’s why the myth that children
born into these families should only be taught the language of their
new country needs to be rethought.
>
There’s a wealth of studies of skill learning that show that massing
practice—doing the same thing many times in a block—is not as
effective as spacing your practice sessions across time. Even
in a single practice session, it’s less efficient to play the same
passage over and over again than to interleave practice trials with
each other—practicing the passage once or twice, then practicing
a different passage or a different skill, then coming back to the
original one.
>
Can training improve multitasking ability? The answer is yes,
although just multitasking itself might not do it. You need to have
a strategy of how to get better at it. Usually, the strategy is to
practice each task on its own before putting them together.
 
161
Brain Myths Exploded:
Lessons from Neuroscience
>
Brain imaging studies of this sort of multitask training show that
the networks involved become more efficient, just as we would
expect, rather than seeing a pattern in which new regions are
recruited. We also see an increase in the speed of processing in
the prefrontal cortex, underlining this increase in efficiency.
>
But multitasking the way most people do it—alleviating the boring
nature of one task with a more stimulating bit of entertainment—
reduces our performance and our learning of the difficult task.
SUGGESTED READING
Bowman, Levine, Waite, and Gendron, “Can Students Really Multitask?”
Burgess, Veitch, de Lacy Costello, and Shallice, “The Cognitive and
Neuroanatomical Correlates of Multitasking.”
Pashler, “Dual-Task Interference in Simple Tasks.”
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER
1.
When you switch from one task to another, do you get intrusive
thoughts from the first task? What kinds of tasks are the worst culprits?
2.
Sometimes, though, doing another task concurrently with one that is a
bit boring can give you the energy to complete it. Why? What types of
tasks are most compatible?
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
154
Lecture 18 • CAN YOU MULTI TASK EFFICIENTLY?
to be labeled as sensation seekers: people who take more
risks to get novel and intense experiences. So, it might be
true that people who have shorter attention spans gravitate
toward multitasking.
>
But regardless of which way the arrow points, the increasing
availability of multiple media at our fingertips is only going to make
this problem worse. The more people succumb to the growing
temptations to multitask, the more likely we’re going to see
adverse effects on their ability to focus on challenging tasks.
>
For many people, the bigger issue is not just that we find it difficult
to resist the temptation to entertain ourselves while we are at a
stoplight or walking along the street. The problem is that the
demands placed on us to be always available and to fit a busy
work schedule and time for family and friends into a short day
leaves us with few opportunities to spend a significant amount of
time doing only one focused thing.
 
155
Brain Myths Exploded:
Lessons from Neuroscience
>
Multitasking, in the real world, isn’t just about listening to music
while we work on a project; instead, it’s what society demands of
us, now that we are so easily contacted and connected. So, we
can’t just avoid it altogether. But too often we let all these demands
distract us from important activities that require a maximum of
focus, leaving a trail of unfinished projects and unfulfilled dreams
in our wake.
OUR BRAINS AND MULTITASKING
>
Our brains are creatures of habits: If you do the same thing over
and over, the networks of neurons that are involved in that task get
strengthened and fire more efficiently. That means that the next
time you do that thing, your brain’s activity will be slightly more
fine-tuned. But it’s also more difficult to then take a different path.
>
When you multitask, your brain doesn’t necessarily know which
task is the important one. And the brain is metaphorically lazy; it
will gravitate toward the easy, more sculpted track. So, if you’re
doing 2 tasks, one of which is more ingrained, you’ll find your mind
drifting back to that one rather than paving a new track.
>
If you’re multitasking while you’re also attempting to learn
something new, you’re creating a specific context, which your brain
is making note of. It doesn’t know that the background activity is
not an important part of the foreground one.
>
For example, if you’re listening to music while studying, your
brain is making associations between the music and what you’re
working on. When it comes time for you to retrieve the information
you’ve been trying to learn, however, without the music, it might
be more difficult for you to get your brain in the right gear. But
play the music again, and you might find that it triggers some
remembering—which is probably not what you intended in the
first place.
 
156
Lecture 18 • CAN YOU MULTITASk EFFICIENTLY?
>
But even perhaps more nefarious is the illusion that you’re learning
when in fact you’re not. According to the Mozart effect, engaging
in pleasurable activities keeps you feeling good in the moment.
But you likely aren’t doing the hard work of learning by engaging
deeply with the content.
>
Some tasks aren’t always enjoyable, and making them enjoyable
via distraction doesn’t mean you are accomplishing what you set
out to do, even if, by the end of the TV show episode, you’ve made
your way to the end of the textbook chapter.
>
However, a study showed that listening to music heightened
arousal in students and led to better performance on a subset of
cognitive tasks. Eating a chocolate bar or drinking coffee before or
while studying can also help. But arousal only helps if the arousing
task doesn’t interfere with learning—doesn’t involve the same
cognitive processes as what’s being used to keep you entertained.
 
157
Brain Myths Exploded:
Lessons from Neuroscience
>
Multitasking is rewarding because we generally are entertained by
at least one of the tasks, and we minimize the negative aspects
of the other. So, the overall experience is positive. Then, when
faced with just the negative task, we remember the good times of
multitasking and have a more difficult time staying focused.
>
Why can’t we just do those 2 things at once? If we’re using our
conscious effort to accomplish both things, we really can’t do more
than one at a time. Instead of doing 2 things that require conscious
awareness at the same time, we do one and then switch to
the other.
SWITCHING BETWEEN TASKS
>
There are an almost infinite number of different ways that we
can multitask, and each of the subtasks will have a different
neural signature, so putting them together will also show different
patterns of brain activation.
>
Note that we’ve moved away from the view that a task activates
one brain region. Instead, we talk about networks of brain regions,
because this nomenclature more accurately captures what we’ve
observed during neuroimaging studies: Many different regions
interact to accomplish a particular task. What comprises a network
can shift from task to task, as one task might involve language
regions and the visual cortex while another might require visual
processing and motor activity.
>
And the more demanding a task, in general, the greater
the activation we see in that network. Just as with attention
allocation—a more difficult task requires more attention, leaving
less attention available for other tasks—with brain activation, the
greater activation there is during the performance of one task, the
less can be redirected to another.
 
158
Lecture 18 • CAN YOU MULTITASk EFFICIENTLY?
>
The more overlap there is between the 2 activities, in terms of their
neural signature, the more interference we see from one task to
the other, and the poorer the performance on one or both tasks.
>
Even putting aside the decreased resources that we can spend
on each task, every time we switch our attention from one task to
another, we pay a price. Sometimes the price is small and we can
corral our attention back fairly easily. Often, in fact, we’re pretty
quick at making the switch. But sometimes the cost is bigger than
we think: Instead of a switch cost, we pay a price for mixing the 2
cognitive tasks, called a mixing cost.
>
The mixing cost is a measure of the extent to which the previous
task intrudes into the current one: If you are switching between
checking email and preparing a presentation, the mixing cost can
be pretty expensive, as you keep thinking about your emails even
though you should be thinking about your talk. We fall into a trap
of wasting too much time, and then having even less dedicated
time to do the thing that we were supposed to be doing.
>
From studies in which psychologists asked participants to switch
between tasks and measured the amount of interference that one
task had on the other, we can draw 3 broad conclusions:
The more similar 2 tasks are—the more they overlap in terms
of what cognitive processes they engage—the more they
disrupt each other.
Dividing attention between tasks is less effective when one or
both of the tasks are difficult.
Doing 2 things at once is nearly impossible when both tasks
require your conscious attention.
>
We can think about brain activation to give us some clues as
to why this is: Learning a task often recruits a larger network,
and training makes that network more efficient, requiring less
 
159
Brain Myths Exploded:
Lessons from Neuroscience
activation to accomplish the task. So, if you’re learning, you need
to devote more resources to the task—leaving fewer available for
other things.
>
These 3 principles can explain why we seem to be able to do more
than one thing at a time with practice: When a skill is practiced
enough, it no longer requires
conscious thought and it’s
easy, making more cognitive
resources available to you for
other types of thinking.
>
How you mix your tasks is also
a factor. It’s easier to switch
from a task that you’re not very
good at to one that you do well
than the other way around.
>
That’s why so many gurus
advise us to tackle the difficult
tasks first. It’s easier to go from the difficult, less familiar task to
the more familiar ones. But after an hour of checking email, which
we’re all good at by now, it’s much more difficult to then sit down
and compose a brilliant essay.
>
Tasks like checking email, which are really made up of many short
tasks, exhaust our minds more than we think they do. Making
decisions, which emailing really boils down to, is tiring. After
making a bunch of trivial decisions, such as whether to respond
right away or file the email until later, we have fewer cognitive
resources available to weigh the pros and cons of more important
decisions. Psychologists call this decision fatigue.
BENEFITS OF MULTITASKING
>
For a long time, psychologists cautioned parents against teaching
young children more than one language, worrying that the
MYTH
When you’re multitasking,
you’re doing more than one
thing at once.
TRUTH
When you think you’re
multitasking, you’re actually
switching quickly between
tasks, and each switch
comes at a cost.
 
160
Lecture 18 • CAN YOU MULTITASk EFFICIENTLY?
children would get confused. And there is evidence that bilingual
children take longer to develop as rich a vocabulary as their
monolingual peers.
>
But an unexpected benefit of bilingualism seems to be an
improvement in the ability to multitask. Because children who grow
up speaking 2 languages have to learn to switch between them
early on, their brains wire differently, and they seem to show better
executive functioning, on average, than monolingual children.
>
It’s possible that having to hold multiple words for the same
concept in mind simultaneously trains working memory functions.
Indeed, we see working memory benefits in bilinguals; they
perform better on tests of verbal and visuospatial working memory.
Bilingual children also have to learn to inhibit the intrusions of
words from the wrong language, so they develop inhibition skills
that are one of the keys to success in task switching.
>
Such benefits are especially pronounced in children coming from
lower socioeconomic households. And many immigrant families
start off poor in a new country. That’s why the myth that children
born into these families should only be taught the language of their
new country needs to be rethought.
>
There’s a wealth of studies of skill learning that show that massing
practice—doing the same thing many times in a block—is not as
effective as spacing your practice sessions across time. Even
in a single practice session, it’s less efficient to play the same
passage over and over again than to interleave practice trials with
each other—practicing the passage once or twice, then practicing
a different passage or a different skill, then coming back to the
original one.
>
Can training improve multitasking ability? The answer is yes,
although just multitasking itself might not do it. You need to have
a strategy of how to get better at it. Usually, the strategy is to
practice each task on its own before putting them together.
 
161
Brain Myths Exploded:
Lessons from Neuroscience
>
Brain imaging studies of this sort of multitask training show that
the networks involved become more efficient, just as we would
expect, rather than seeing a pattern in which new regions are
recruited. We also see an increase in the speed of processing in
the prefrontal cortex, underlining this increase in efficiency.
>
But multitasking the way most people do it—alleviating the boring
nature of one task with a more stimulating bit of entertainment—
reduces our performance and our learning of the difficult task.
SUGGESTED READING
Bowman, Levine, Waite, and Gendron, “Can Students Really Multitask?”
Burgess, Veitch, de Lacy Costello, and Shallice, “The Cognitive and
Neuroanatomical Correlates of Multitasking.”
Pashler, “Dual-Task Interference in Simple Tasks.”
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER
1.
When you switch from one task to another, do you get intrusive
thoughts from the first task? What kinds of tasks are the worst culprits?
2.
Sometimes, though, doing another task concurrently with one that is a
bit boring can give you the energy to complete it. Why? What types of
tasks are most compatible?

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