Big Think Interview With Sheena Iyengar
Question: How did you come to study choice?
Sheena Iyengar: I think I was always informally thinking about choice from when I was a very young child because I was born to Sikh immigrant parents, so I was constantly going back and forth between a Sikh household and an American outside world, so I was going back and forth between a very traditional Sikh home in which you had to follow the Five K’s. You know never cut your hair, always carry around a comb, never take off your underwear other than… I mean never take off your underwear even if it was in the shower, dress very conservatively and so I was living, growing up in a very traditional household and yet at the same time I was going to school in the United States where I was taught the importance of personal preference, so at home it was all about learning your duties and responsibilities whereas in school it was all about well you get to decide what you want you want to eat. You get to decide how you’re going to look and what you’re going to be when you grow up and when people learned that my parents actually had an arranged marriage people thought that was the most horrific thing on earth. I mean how could anybody allow their marriage of all things to be prescribed by somebody else? And you know I went home and they seemed… my parents seemed normal. They didn’t seem to feel like somehow they had been victims of some Nazi camp or something. So it was constantly going back and forth between these two cultures that kept raising the question, well, how important is personal freedom? And I think that has always been of interest to me.
Then, the other thing that affected my interest in choices growing up was the fact that I was going blind and that meant that there were lots of questions that constantly kept arising about how much choices I actually could have. So on the one hand in school you’re teachers are constantly telling you that you can be whatever it is you want to be as long as you put your mind and heart to it, and yet at the same time I was also getting the clear message of, well, what can you do really? I mean can you walk to school on your own? Can you study science? Can you study math? Can you go to a normal school? Do you need to go to a special school? What is going to become of you when you grow up? Are you going to have to live on social security and SSI? Are you going to be able to shave your legs? Are you going to be able to get married? So it was constantly thinking about both choice in terms of possibilities–I mean because choice is the thing that is supposed to enable you to be whatever it is you want to be–and yet, at the same time you have to think about choice in terms of its limitations. And I think that too ended up affecting a lot of the different research questions that I later asked was really was about well to what extent… How do we balance choice as possibility and choice as limitations?
Question: Do you approach choice differently from people who have sight?
Sheena Iyengar: I don’t know if I approach choice any differently than the sighted people do, but what I am very cognizant of is that choice does have limits and because of that I really try to take advantage of the domains in which I do have choice. And when I do have choice I try to be very picky about... or shall I say choosey about when I choose. I don’t automatically decide that I must be the one to choose or that it’s important for me to make every choice in my life. I pick what are my priorities and I limit those priorities to less than five in my life and really in those particular areas put in the energy to try to make good choices. I think of choosing as a… both a fun and an effortful activity and I think of choice as something that in order for you to really get what you want out of it you have to put a lot into it and so I’m only willing to do that for a few different things and for the rest I really just try to either satisfy, come up with a simple rule or let somebody else make the choice.
Question: How did you conduct your first study on choice?
Sheena Iyengar: So when I was a PhD student at Stanford University I used to frequent this grocery store called Draeger’s and you know it was… It’s always a thrilling experience to go into a place that offers you a lot of choice. You know it’s like it reminds you of when you’re a kid and you go to the amusement park and whether it be Disneyworld or Six Flags you know that thrilling moment when you first enter and you know you’ve got all these possibilities for the day and it’s really a… it’s a wonderful feeling. So I used to go to this store called Draeger’s and you had a little bit of that same feeling because this was a store that offered you so many varieties, things you’d never contemplated before, you know like 250 mustards and vinegars and over 500 different kinds of fruits and vegetables, or over 2 dozen different types of water and this is at a time when you know most of us drank tap water, so I used to go to this store and examine all the varieties and we used to marvel at all the choices out there, but I found that I rarely bought anything and I kind of thought that was kind of curious. I mean, they had things that the other grocery stores didn’t have and yet I never bought anything. And so one day I went to the manager and I asked him whether his model was working and he said, “Well, haven’t you seen how many customers we have in this store?” And yes indeed I had. I mean it was definitely attracting a lot of customers, even attracting tourist buses that would land up at this store and people would go through the store and marvel at all the options, even sometimes take photographs of the various aisles. So the manager agreed to let me do a little experiment where we put out a little tasting booth next to the entry. We either put out 6 different flavors of jam or 24 different flavors of jam and we looked at 2 things. First, in what case were people more likely to buy a jar of jam? The first thing we looked at, in what case were people more likely to be attracted to the jar or jam, so in which case are people more likely to stop when they saw the display of jams and what we found was that more people stopped when there were 24 jams. About 60% of the people stopped when we had 24 jams on display and then at the times when we had 6 different flavors of jam out on display only 40% of the people actually stopped, so more people were clearly attracted to the larger varieties of options, but then when it came down to buying, so the second thing we looked at is in what case were people more likely to buy a jar of jam. What we found was that of the people who stopped when there were 24 different flavors of jam out on display only 3% of them actually bought a jar of jam whereas of the people who stopped when there were 6 different flavors of jam 30% of them actually bought a jar of jam. So, if you do the math, people were actually 6 times more likely to buy a jar of jam if they had encountered 6 than if they encountered 24, so what we learned from this study was that while people were more attracted to having more options, that’s what sort of got them in the door or got them to think about jam, when it came to choosing time they were actually less likely to make a choice if they had more to choose from than if they had fewer to choose from. And that really ended up starting an entire area of research where we began to look at "Why is that?" And a large part of that has to do with the fact that when people have a lot of options to choose from they don’t know how to tell them apart. They don’t know how to keep track of them. They start asking themselves "Well which one is the best? Which one would be good for me?" And all those questions are much easier to ask if you’re choosing from six than when you’re choosing from 24 and if you look at the marketplace today most often we have a lot more than 24 of things to choose from. In fact, even in that store Draeger’s they had 348 different kinds of jam actually in the jam aisle. And what we found over about, say, 10 years of research is that as the number of choices actually increase people are less likely to make a choice and sometimes they do this even when it’s really bad for them. Like, people are less likely to invest in their retirement when they have more options in their 401K plans than when they have fewer. People are, even when they do make a choice, they’re more likely to chooses things that are not as good for them. You know, like, they’ll make worse financial decisions for them if they’re choosing from a lot of options than if they’re choosing from a few options. If they have more options they’re more likely to avoid stocks and put all their money in money market accounts, which doesn’t even grow at the rate of inflation. Also if they choose from more options than fewer options they’re less satisfied with what they choose and that is true whether they’re choosing chocolates or which job offer to accept.
Question: Are all animals capable of making choices, or just those with a higher cognitive ability?
Sheena Iyengar: What we share with animals is a desire for choice. It’s a desire to have control over our life and a desire to live and use choice as a way in which we can facilitate our ability to live and that is something we really were born with. You know, whether it be humans or animals. So even humans–before we can speak or we can understand a baby’s cognition–they’re already showing us signs that they want choice. You know, you take a little infant and you turn on the music mobile on their crib and you find that if you give them a music mobile which turns on automatically versus a music mobile in which–if by chance their little legs or their little hands accidentally touches it–turns on they’re so much more excited if by chance it turns on because they touched it, so that desire for control over their environment is… really appears from very early on and if you look at children’s first words, “no, yes.” My child’s first word was "more," but and it’s all about, “I want.” “I’m going to tell you what I want and what I don’t want.” It’s about my desire to express my preferences. And that is really innate. Now to what…? How we teach people to make choices and the things they’re going to make choices over–that is culturally learned.
Question: Americans today have an abundance of choices. Is that a good thing?
Sheena Iyengar: Well certainly not having any choice–having your entire life dictated by others... You know, like, none of us would choose–no matter where we are in the world–would choose to you know become a member of Orwell’s "Nineteen Eighty-Four" world, but how much choice is really the question. I mean we know that some choice makes you better off than no choice. Now do we get better off if we go from a lot of choice versus a few choices? And there I think the answer is much, much, much more complicated. If you truly have expertise–and expertise can be say a chess master who has really mastered something or an artist or a musician of some sort you know if you give a jazz musician... Once the jazz musician learns all the fundamentals they can keep track of a lot of choices in an instant. A chess master can keep track of more choices than the number of stars in the galaxy within an instant, but these are people that have truly learned and mastered the choices that they have and how to deal with those choices over a very, very long period of training, so essentially what they’re really doing is ruling out all the irrelevant choices and only zeroing in on the most relevant, useful choices at the moment. So most of the time when we are confronted by more, rather than a few, choices we’re often novices and so we don’t really know how to differentiate these various options. We also don’t always know what we want. And in those cases it can actually make us worse off because it’s actually easier to figure out what you want and to figure out how the options differ if you have about a handful of them than if you have a hundred of them.
Question: Is choice cultural?
Sheena Iyengar: Well, you find that in certain cultures we… they don’t put as much of an emphasis in expanding their choices, so that, you know, one of the things that I learned when I was in Japan way back in the 1990’s and there were all these quarrels happening between the U.S. and Japan about allowing more American products into the Japanese market. I would go to these Japanese stores and you’d see, like, two kinds of toothpaste or five different kinds of potato chips. You know, or three kinds of ice cream bars and you’d see this and like this… okay they could clearly benefit from some more choices and I remember having these discussions with the Japanese because they you know they often like to go to Hawaii for vacation because it was definitely much cheaper for them and I would ask them, “So when you go to Hawaii, you know do eat all these other things?” And it turned out when they went to Hawaii they would go straight and buy the same thing that they would buy in Japan. They just got it cheaper, which they liked. And so they would still eat the red bean ice cream or the green tea ice cream, but they didn’t really take advantage of the variety and it wasn’t clear that they cared. I mean it wasn’t that they sat around thinking oh gosh I needed more choices in my grocery stores the way I had come to think about it as an American growing up. So I do think that there are cultural differences in the extent to which we value having more and more choice.
To give you another example, when I was recently in Russia I found that I thought I was going to give these people that I was interviewing a whole bunch of choice in terms of what they could drink while we were chatting. And I put out a good 10 different types of drinks for them and they just said, “Oh, okay, so it’s just one choice.” One choice? I gave you Coke, Pepsi, Ginger Ale, Sprite. They saw that as one choice. Now why was that one choice? Because they felt, well, it was just all soda. I didn’t really give them anymore than one choice, soda or no soda. They didn’t… whereas we put a lot of stock in the differences between soda… I mean we might even go to war as to whether we love Coke or Pepsi and our whole identity is wrapped up in that choice. You know, for the Russians they felt that these minor differences between these various sodas was just hyped up and irrelevant. You know give me choices that are truly different from one another, otherwise they don’t regard them as meaningful choices. There is a different attitude about, you know, how much differentiation there needs to be between our options and how many choices do I need to have in order to make a choice.
Question: Is it better to make decisions rationally or go with your gut?
Sheena Iyengar: We are often in society told to make decisions in one of two ways. We’re either told "Use your gut, just go with how you feel about it and let that guide you," or we’re told to use reason–some very deliberative methodical process of pros and cons and really thinking it through. Most of the time you should use reason, there is no doubt about that because gut often makes us susceptible to lots of different biases, particularly if what you’re deciding is something that you really, that expertise can be brought to bear on it, there is a way in which you can align the odds, so then you should really use reason. About the only time our gut can truly outperform our reason is if we truly have developed a kind of informed intuition. So that means the chess master or someone who has really thought about it and given themselves feedback on a particular activity for at least 10,000 hours or more. About the only question that we would say and this is a big one in our lives that we would say you don’t just use pure reason to decide the answer to is anything that affects your happiness, because then gut and reason answer very different questions. So gut tells you "How do I feel about this right now?" It doesn’t tell me how I feel about it tomorrow or even a few minutes from now. It just tells me how I’m feeling right now. Reason tells me, when I do the pros and cons analysis, how I should feel about it right now and how I should feel about it in 10 years from now and so that the only… So for decisions about happiness you essentially need at least both and probably even more than that, you probably also need to do analysis that doesn’t involve yourself to get at the answer of what will make you happy in 10 years.
Question: Is it better to have more choices when it comes to love?
Sheena Iyengar: What's interesting is that the way we go about finding our marriage partners today is quite different from the way it used to be in this culture. When you look at… I’ve done a number of studies with speed dating and Match.com and what's interesting is that you know we still walk into a speed dating event, you know, thinking about what it is we’re looking for in a mate and so you ask people, like women will say "I’m looking for somebody who is really kind and sincere and smart and funny." And guys will say looks matter, but they’ll also say things like "Well, she should be smart and kind." And you know those are... so the typical responses and if you give them just a few options, like five or six, then they will rate them on the very characteristics that they said were really important to them. You know if they said kindness or funniness was really most important to them then they will be more likely to say yes to the person that they thought was kind and funny. Now if you expand their choice set. Say you give them 20 different speed dates, everything goes out the window. Everybody starts choosing in accordance with looks because that becomes the easiest criteria by which to weed out all the options and decide "So who am I going to say yes to?"
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Information may not seem like something physical, yet it has become a central concern for physicists. A wonderful new book explores the importance of the "dataome" for the physical, biological, and human worlds.
- The most important current topic in physics relates to a subject that hardly seems physical at all — information, which is central to thermodynamics and perhaps the universe itself.
- The "dataome" is the way human beings have been externalizing information about ourselves and the world since we first began making paintings on cave walls.
- The dataome is vast and growing everyday, sucking up an ever increasing share of the energy humans produce.
Physics is a field that is supposed to study real stuff. By real, I mean things like matter and energy. Matter is, of course, the kind of stuff you can hold in your hand. Energy may seem a little more abstract, but its reality is pretty apparent, appearing in the form of motion or gravity or electromagnetic fields.
What has become apparent recently, however, is the importance to physics of something that seems somewhat less real: information. From black holes to quantum mechanics to understanding the physics of life, information has risen to become a principal concern of many physicists in many domains. This new centrality of information is why you really need to read astrophysicist Caleb Scharf's new book The Ascent of Information: Books, Bits, Machines, and Life's Unending Algorithms.
Scharf is currently the director of the Astrobiology Program at Columbia University. He is also the author of four other books as well as a regular contributor to Scientific American.
(Full disclosure: Scharf and I have been collaborators on a scientific project involving the Fermi Paradox, so I was a big fan before I read this new book. Of course, the reason why I collaborated with him is because I really like the way he thinks, and his creativity in tackling tough problems is on full display in The Ascent of Information.)
What is the dataome?
In his new book, Scharf is seeking a deeper understanding of what he calls the "dataome." This is the way human beings have been externalizing information about ourselves and the world since we first began making paintings on cave walls. The book opens with a compelling exploration of how Shakespeare's works, which began as scribbles on a page, have gone on to have lives of their own in the dataome. Through reprintings in different languages, recordings of performances, movie adaptations, comic books, and so on, Shakespeare's works are now a permanent part of the vast swirling ensemble of information that constitutes the human dataome.
I found gems in these parts of the book that forced me to put the volume down and stare into space for a time to deal with their impact.
But the dataome does not just live in our heads. Scharf takes us on a proper physicist's journey through the dataome, showing us how information can never be divorced from energy. Your brain needs the chemical energy from food you ate this morning to read, process, and interpret these words. One of the most engaging parts of the book is when Scharf details just how much energy and real physical space our data-hungry world consumes as it adds to the dataome. For example, the Hohhot Data Center in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region of China is made of vast "farms" of data processing servers covering 245 acres of real estate. A single application like Bitcoin, Scharf tells us, consumes 7.7 gigawatts per year, equivalent to the output of half a dozen nuclear reactors!
Information is everywhere
But the dataome is not just about energy. Entropy is central to the story as well. Scharf takes the reader through a beautifully crafted discussion of information and the science of thermodynamics. This is where the links between energy, entropy, the limits of useful work, and probability all become profoundly connected to the definition of information.
The second law of thermodynamics tells us that you cannot use all of a given amount of energy to do useful work. Some of that energy must be wasted by getting turned into heat. Entropy is the physicist's way of measuring that waste (which can also be thought of as disorder). Scharf takes the reader through the basic relations of thermodynamics and then shows how entropy became intimately linked with information. It was Claude Shannon's brilliant work in the 1940s that showed how information — bits — could be defined for communication and computation as an entropy associated with the redundancy of strings of symbols. That was the link tying the physical world of physics explicitly to the informational and computational world of the dataome.
The best parts of the book are where Scharf unpacks how information makes its appearance in biology. From the data storage and processing that occurs with every strand of DNA, to the tangled pathways that define evolutionary dynamics, Scharf demonstrates how life is what happens to physics and chemistry when information matters. I found gems in these parts of the book that forced me to put the volume down and stare into space for a time to deal with their impact.
The physics of information
There are a lot of popular physics books out there about black holes and exoplanets and other cool stuff. But right now, I feel like the most important topic in physics relates to a subject that hardly seems physical at all. Information is a relatively new addition to the physics bestiary, making it even more compelling. If you are looking for a good introduction to how that is so, The Ascent of Information is a good place to start.
A new study tested to what extent dogs can sense human deception.
Is humanity's best friend catching on to our shenanigans? Researchers at the University of Vienna discovered that dogs can in certain cases know when people are lying.
The scientists carried out a study with hundreds of dogs to determine to what extent dogs could spot deception. The team's new paper, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, outlined experiments that tested whether dogs, like humans, have some inner sense of how to assess truthfulness.
As the researchers wrote in their paper, "Among non-primates, dogs (Canis familiaris) constitute a particularly interesting case, as their social environment has been shared with humans for at least 14,000 years. For this reason, dogs have been considered as a model species for the comparative investigation of socio-cognitive abilities." The investigation focused specifically on understanding if dogs were "sensitive to some mental or psychological states of humans."
The experiments involved 260 dogs, which were made to listen to advice from a human "communicator" whom they did not know. The human told them which one of two bowls had a treat hidden inside by touching it and saying, "Look, this is very good!" If the dogs took the person's advice, they would get the treat.
Once they established the trust of the dogs, the researchers then complicated the experience by letting dogs watch another human that they did not know transfer the treat from one bowl to another. In some cases, the original communicator would also be present to watch but not always.
The findings revealed that half of the dogs did not follow the advice of the communicator if that person was not present when the food was switched to a different bowl. The dogs had a sense that this human could not have known the true location of the treat. Furthermore, two-thirds of the dogs ignored the human's suggestion if she did see the food switch but pointed to the wrong bowl. The dogs figured out the human was lying to them.
Photos of experiments showing the dog, human communicator, and person hiding the treat. Credit: Lucrezia Lonardo et al / Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
"We thought dogs would behave like children under age five and apes, but now we speculate that perhaps dogs can understand when someone is being deceitful," co-author Ludwig Huber from the University of Vienna told New Scientist. "Maybe they think, 'This person has the same knowledge as me, and is nevertheless giving me the wrong [information].' It's possible they could see that as intentionally misleading, which is lying."
This is not the first time such experiments have been carried out. Previously, children under age five, macaques, and chimps were tested in a similar way. It turned out that children and other animals were more likely than dogs to listen to the advice of the liars. Notably, among the dogs, terriers were found to be more like children and apes, more eagerly following false suggestions.
Evolution proves to be just about as ingenious as Nikola Tesla
- For the first time, scientists developed 3D scans of shark intestines to learn how they digest what they eat.
- The scans reveal an intestinal structure that looks awfully familiar — it looks like a Tesla valve.
- The structure may allow sharks to better survive long breaks between feasts.
Considering how much sharks are feared by humans, it is a bit of a surprise that scientists don't know much about the predators. For example, until recently, sharks were thought to be solitary creatures searching the seas for food on their own. Now it appears that some sharks are quite social.
Another mystery is how these prehistoric swimming and eating machines digest food. Although scientists have made 2D sketches of captured sharks' digestive systems based on dissections, there is a limit to what can be learned in this way. Professor Adam Summers at University of Washington's Friday Harbor Labs says:
"Intestines are so complex, with so many overlapping layers, that dissection destroys the context and connectivity of the tissue. It would be like trying to understand what was reported in a newspaper by taking scissors to a rolled-up copy. The story just won't hang together."
Summers is co-author of a new study that has produced the first 3D scans of a shark's intestines, which turns out to have a strange, corkscrew structure. What's even more bizarre is that it resembles the amazing one-way valve designed by inventor Nikola Tesla in 1920. The research is published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
What a 3D model reveals
Video: Pacific spiny dogfish intestine youtu.be
According to the study's lead author Samantha Leigh, "It's high time that some modern technology was used to look at these really amazing spiral intestines of sharks. We developed a new method to digitally scan these tissues and now can look at the soft tissues in such great detail without having to slice into them."
"CT scanning is one of the only ways to understand the shape of shark intestines in three dimensions," adds Summers. The researchers scanned the intestines of nearly three dozen different shark species.
It is believed that sharks go for extended periods — days or even weeks — between big meals. The scans reveal that food passes slowly through the intestine, affording sharks' digestive system the time to fully extract its nutrient value. The researchers hypothesize that such a slow digestive process may also require less energy.
It could be that this slow digestion is more susceptible to back flow given that the momentum of digested food through the tract must be minimal. Perhaps that is why sharks evolved something so similar to a Tesla valve.
What is Tesla's valve doing there?
Above, a Tesla valve. Below, a shark intestine.Credit: Samantha Leigh / California State University, Domi
Tesla's "valvular conduit," or what the world now calls a "Tesla valve," is a one-way valve with no moving parts. Its brilliance is based in fluid dynamics and only now coming to be fully appreciated. Essentially, a series of teardrop-shaped loops arranged along the length of the valve allow water to flow easily in one direction but not in the other. Modern tests reveal that at low flow rates, water can travel through the valve either way, but at high flow rates, the design kicks in. According to mathematician Leif Ristroph:
"Crucially, this turn-on comes with the generation of turbulent flows in the reverse direction, which 'plug' the pipe with vortices and disrupting currents. Moreover, the turbulence appears at far lower flow rates than have ever previously been observed for pipes of more standard shapes — up to 20 times lower speed than conventional turbulence in a cylindrical pipe or tube. This shows the power it has to control flows, which could be used in many applications."
A deeper dive
Summers suggests the scans are just the beginning. "The vast majority of shark species, and the majority of their physiology, are completely unknown," says Summers, adding that "every single natural history observation, internal visualization, and anatomical investigation shows us things we could not have guessed at."
To this end, the researchers plan to use 3D printing to produce models through which they can observe the behavior of different substances passing through them — after all, sharks typically eat fish, invertebrates, mammals, and seagrass. They also plan to explore with engineers ways in which the shark intestine design could be used industrially, perhaps for the treatment of wastewater or for filtering microplastics.
It could fairly be said, though, that Nikola Tesla was 100 years ahead of them.
When we rely on the conscious mind alone, we lose; but when we listen to the body, we gain a winning edge.
- Our surroundings contain far more information than our conscious minds can process.
- Our non-conscious minds are constantly gathering information and identifying patterns.
- By being interoceptively attuned — that is, aware of the inner state of the body — we can tap into what our non-conscious mind is trying to tell us.
The following is an adapted excerpt from the book The Extended Mind. It is reprinted with permission of the author.
If you'd like to make smarter choices and sounder decisions — and who doesn't? — you might want to take advantage of a resource you already have close at hand: your interoception. Interoception is, simply stated, an awareness of the inner state of the body. Just as we have sensors that take in information from the outside world (retinas, cochleas, taste buds, olfactory bulbs), we have sensors inside our bodies that send our brains a constant flow of data from within. These sensations are generated in places all over the body — in our internal organs, in our muscles, even in our bones — and then travel via multiple pathways to a structure in the brain called the insula. Such internal reports are merged with several other streams of information — our active thoughts and memories, sensory inputs gathered from the external world — and integrated into a single snapshot of our present condition, a sense of "how I feel" in the moment, as well as a sense of the actions we must take to maintain a state of internal balance.
To understand the role interoception can play in smart decision-making, it's important to know that the world is full of far more information than our conscious minds can process. However, we are also able to collect and store the volumes of information we encounter on a non-conscious basis. As we proceed through each day, we are continuously apprehending and storing regularities in our experience, tagging them for future reference. Through this information-gathering and pattern-identifying process, we come to know things — but we're typically not able to articulate the content of such knowledge or to ascertain just how we came to know it. This trove of data remains mostly under the surface of consciousness, and that's usually a good thing. Its submerged status preserves our limited stores of attention and working memory for other uses.
A study led by cognitive scientist Pawel Lewicki demonstrates this process in microcosm. Participants in Lewicki's experiment were directed to watch a computer screen on which a cross-shaped target would appear, then disappear, then reappear in a new location; periodically they were asked to predict where the target would show up next. Over the course of several hours of exposure to the target's movements, the participants' predictions grew more and more accurate. They had figured out the pattern behind the target's peregrinations. But they could not put this knowledge into words, even when the experimenters offered them money to do so. The subjects were not able to describe "anything even close to the real nature" of the pattern, Lewicki observes. The movements of the target operated according to a pattern too complex for the conscious mind to accommodate — but the capacious realm that lies below consciousness was more than roomy enough to contain it.
"Nonconscious information acquisition," as Lewicki calls it, along with the ensuing application of such information, is happening in our lives all the time. As we navigate a new situation, we're scrolling through our mental archive of stored patterns from the past, checking for ones that apply to our current circumstances. We're not aware that these searches are under way; as Lewicki observes, "The human cognitive system is not equipped to handle such tasks on the consciously controlled level." He adds, "Our conscious thinking needs to rely on notes and flowcharts and lists of 'if-then' statements — or on computers — to do the same job which our non-consciously operating processing algorithms can do without external help, and instantly."
But — if our knowledge of these patterns is not conscious, how then can we make use of it? The answer is that, when a potentially relevant pattern is detected, it's our interoceptive faculty that tips us off: with a shiver or a sigh, a quickening of the breath or a tensing of the muscles. The body is rung like a bell to alert us to this useful and otherwise inaccessible information. Though we typically think of the brain as telling the body what to do, just as much does the body guide the brain with an array of subtle nudges and prods. (One psychologist has called this guide our "somatic rudder.") Researchers have even captured the body in mid-nudge, as it alerts its inhabitant to the appearance of a pattern that she may not have known she was looking for.
Such interoceptive prodding was visible during a gambling game that formed the basis of an experiment led by neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, a professor at the University of Southern California. In the game, presented on a computer screen, players were given a starting purse of two thousand "dollars" and were shown four decks of digital cards. Their task, they were told, was to turn the cards in the decks face-up, choosing which decks to draw from such that they would lose the least amount of money and win the most. As they started clicking to turn over cards, players began encountering rewards — bonuses of $50 here, $100 there — and also penalties, in which small or large amounts of money were taken away. What the experimenters had arranged, but the players were not told, was that decks A and B were "bad" — they held lots of large penalties in store — and decks C and D were "good," bestowing more rewards than penalties over time.
How Our Brains Feel Emotion | Antonio Damasio | Big Think www.youtube.com
As they played the game, the participants' state of physiological arousal was monitored via electrodes attached to their fingers; these electrodes kept track of their level of "skin conductance." When our nervous systems are stimulated by an awareness of potential threat, we start to perspire in a barely perceptible way. This slight sheen of sweat momentarily turns our skin into a better conductor of electricity. Researchers can thus use skin conductance as a measure of nervous system arousal. Looking over the data collected by the skin sensors, Damasio and his colleagues noticed something interesting: after the participants had been playing for a short while, their skin conductance began to spike when they contemplated clicking on the bad decks of cards. Even more striking, the players started avoiding the bad decks, gravitating increasingly to the good decks. As in the Lewicki study, subjects got better at the task over time, losing less and winning more.
Yet interviews with the participants showed that they had no awareness of why they had begun choosing some decks over others until late in the game, long after their skin conductance had started flaring. By card 10 (about forty-five seconds into the game), measures of skin conductance showed that their bodies were wise to the way the game was rigged. But even ten turns later — on card 20 — "all indicated that they did not have a clue about what was going on," the researchers noted. It took until card 50 was turned, and several minutes had elapsed, for all the participants to express a conscious hunch that decks A and B were riskier. Their bodies figured it out long before their brains did. Subsequent studies supplied an additional, and crucial, finding: players who were more interoceptively aware were more apt to make smart choices within the game. For them, the body's wise counsel came through loud and clear.
Damasio's fast-paced game shows us something important. The body not only grants us access to information that is more complex than what our conscious minds can accommodate. It also marshals this information at a pace that is far quicker than our conscious minds can handle. The benefits of the body's intervention extend well beyond winning a card game; the real world, after all, is full of dynamic and uncertain situations, in which there is no time to ponder all the pros and cons. When we rely on the conscious mind alone, we lose — but when we listen to the body, we gain a winning edge.
Annie Murphy Paul is a science writer who covers research on learning and cognition. She is the author of The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain, from which this article is adapted.