Build Yourself a Smarter Meeting

Teamwork is at the very heart of our idea of modern life. From sports to business, it’s thought to be the bedrock of success. (Ask any motivational poster.)

While we may pay homage to the legend of the lone genius, the concept of the sum being greater than its parts still holds a special sway. This assumption is pretty obvious: just count the number of meeting requests on your calendar.

If it’s all about collaboration, why do so many meetings seem to curse you to a Sisyphean struggle, perpetually weighed down by brain-deadening hours trapped at conference tables, cursing your very existence?

Or, put more constructively, if you were going to break out of the mold and build your “dream team” business meeting, what types of people should you look for? Would you be on the hunt for introverts or extroverts, analytical folks or people of exceptional IQ? Does gender matter?

In a New York Times piece called “Why Some Teams are Smarter Than Others”, the authors cite the work of Alex Pentland and Nada Hashmi of M.I.T. In 2010, the researchers conducted numerous experiments on a total of 697 people. What they discovered may surprise you.

When it comes to effectiveness in groups, the number of introverts or extroverts had little sway on results.

What made the difference? Theory of mind.

Theory of mind is the ability to intuit what another person might be thinking or feeling. For instance, better communicators, and according to Pentland and Hashmi, better team members, tend to be pros at interpreting body language.

What about conducting business online? Surprisingly, theory of mind made a difference here, too. It’s more than being able to tell a fake smile from a real one; it’s the ability to pick up on a host of subtle cues (word choice, response time, applied understanding of human nature) to simulate for yourself the experience of being another person.

You might think brainpower would be the X factor. But the smartest teams were not necessarily the ones with the highest combined IQs. Instead, the best work was done by groups that stressed equal participation, and didn’t let one or two people dominate the discussion.

As far as gender went, teams with more women outperformed teams with more men. Generally speaking, the greater the number of women, the better the output.

Why? Evidence suggests women may tend to be more versed in theory of mind. In some studies, women score better on reading facial cues, possibly conditioned by years of encouragement to be “nice”, i.e. prioritizing the feelings of others over personal needs or glories.

So the next time you’re putting your dream team together, remember to load up with women who are willing to share the limelight, and consider that being exceptionally smart doesn’t make you a superstar in the board room.

When it comes to an effective meeting, the alpha dog might just find himself running in the back of the pack.

The Immortality Atlas: Mapping the Human Connectome

The Italian explorer and cartographer Amerigo Vespucci guaranteed his immortality when he literally put his name the map—at least, if the map you’re looking at includes the Americas. (16th century European explorers were not renowned for their shyness, humility, or general reluctance to slap their monikers on anything that would stand still long enough.)

Neuroscientist and former PhD physicist Sebastian Seung hopes to achieve a little immortality of his own by mapping the human connectome.

If you’ve never heard of it before, the connectome is understood as the basic wiring diagram of the brain. It would chart out all of the main neural pathways and connections.

Using standard mapping techniques, the project would have an estimated timeline of something like a trillion years. Seung is hoping to considerably shorten the schedule, aided by Google maps-style technology, crowdsourcing, artificial intelligence, and a unique form of online gaming.

So why map the brain? In Gareth Cook’s New York Times article “Sebastian Seung’s Quest to Map the Human Brain”, Seung uses the Colorado River as an analogy.

Imagine the Colorado River sloshing about. This river is like your thoughts, providing you with sensory and emotional real-time experiences.  As the water rolls through the riverbed, it carves a pattern, shaping the landscape and leaving behind a geographical record: the Grand Canyon. Similarly, your neural connections provide you with both your moment-by-moment perceptions, and the results: the material of your memories.

So every thought you have—your last email, how to ride a bike, your second grade birthday party, the taste of lemon in the tea you’re currently sipping—are represented by and quite literally embodied by the same machinery. Your neural pathways are both river and riverbed.

Seung believes that a mapping of those pathways would “capture a person’s very essence: every memory, every skill, every passion.” If human connectomes could be captured and understood, distant technology might allow for the “reanimation of a human consciousness.”

This means that when someone like an Albert Einstein or a Rosalind Franklin dies, we could have a method of cataloguing and preserving those ingeniously wired minds.

Critics suggest that even complete connectome mapping will fail to capture every nuance of a system that’s had millions of years to evolve. In the end, they say, it might be interesting but of very little practical value—more science fair project than game-changing breakthrough.

Seung remains undeterred, suggesting that the first step of discovering what is and isn’t possible is to go ahead and start mapping.

Will we all one day be living in the land of Seung?  Only time will tell.

The Peak-End Rule, or, The Secret to a Winning Colonoscopy

When we consider ourselves as individuals, we tend to think in terms of a single entity with agency. In essence, I take on information through my five senses and then use my memories to inform, guide and, perhaps most importantly, predict what will happen next—or, more accurately, what might happen next.

So those recollections, the stories we tell ourselves to record those experiences, are what fundamentally help us both understand ourselves and the world around us.

This all makes perfect sense, except for one problem: that’s not actually how it works, according to Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Prize-winning economist.

Kahneman says the two systems—experiencing and remembering—are not in sync. In a series of experiments, he and his team proved that your experiencing self perceives the world moment by moment, but your remembering self follows a strange phenomena that Kahneman refers to as the “peak end rule.”

Here’s how it works: our remembering selves tend to recall the extremes of a given experience without accurately recording how long it took, or how it generally felt while it was happening.

Imagine watching your favorite team play a near perfect game, relishing every second, and then in the last five minutes, the opposition mounts an incredible come-from-behind charge that knocks your team out of contention.

If your experiencing self and remembering self worked the same way, you’d average out your second-by-second feelings—the 98% of the game you were happy and the 2% of the game you were disappointed—and record the whole affair as having been 98% a good time.

But any sports fan knows that’s not how it works. The final moments of the game carry a disproportionate power, like a shadow that blots out all of your team’s great efforts over the preceding hours of play.

And it’s not just sports; Kahneman reports that in experiments involving colonoscopies, the final moments will totally color your notion of the entire procedure. If it’s by and large painful, but the pain decreases at the end, you’ll report it wasn’t so bad. Conversely, if it didn’t hurt that much until the final few minutes, you’re more likely to consider it an exceptionally bad experience.

Our brains are wired not to give equal weight to every detail but instead to record those moments that stand out for us. Our remembering selves are therefore in the business of altering reality by way of a neat and tidy editing job.

And the end result is a kind of highlight film bringing you “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.” From your brain’s point of view, that’s the best game in town.

How Your Chair is Literally Killing You

Granted, when you think about all the things that are slowly killing you, things like second-hand smoke, the chemicals in your food, and the guy in the cubicle next to you with the annoying laugh probably come to mind before your office chair or the sofa in your living room.

Think again says, James Levine, an endocrinologist at Mayo clinic and author of the article “Killer Chairs” in November’s issue of Scientific American.

Levine cites the results of 18 studies over a period of 16 years involving 800,000 people. Among other things, they found that the average person spends 13 hours a day seated. That means in a normal 16 hours of wakefulness, we are only physically mobile about 3 of those hours (similar to the brown bat).

With the advent of personal pedometers like the FitBit or Nike’s Fuel, more and more of us have discovered what Levine is talking about. Someone with an office job finds it pretty tough to get in the recommended 10,000 steps (roughly 5 miles a day) without purposely adjusting their habits.

Relying on a car as a primary form of transportation robs you of thousands of potential steps. It means you probably get only 1 to 2 miles in.

Levine says that the human body was not designed for this sedentary life and, as a result, our internal systems suffer. People who sit for 8 hours a day double their chances of cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

“Overall, when you combine all causes of death and compare any group of sitters with those who are more active, sitters have a 50% greater likelihood of dying,” says Levine.

The lack of movement slows your metabolism, which predisposes your system towards fat storage.

But lean people are also adversely affected. Sitting immediately after a meal leads to high level blood sugar spikes. The good news is that taking a simple walk instead cuts those spikes in half.

This is a big deal to your pancreas. Throw it too many highs and lows and you can permanently wear the organ out. Bam, no more insulin regulation. Statistically, 1 in 4 adults are either diabetic or on their way to diabetes. We are fast becoming a nation of broken pancreases.

The next time your Barcalounger beckons, remember it’s no different than a wisp of cigarette smoke or a Twinkie: just another killer in disguise. Your chair might not be the devil, but it certainly isn’t your friend.

In the end, as pedestrian as walking is, those 10,000 steps a day might be the new behavior that saves your life.

What Dreams are Made of (Or at Least, the Why)

Whatever happened to Sigmund Freud? Of course, the answer is that he died, but not before taking modern science down a fifty-year rabbit hole.

Freud came of age in the early 1900’s, a time when science was first beginning to wrap its mind around brain function, including dreaming. The big question in 1895: what is the essence of dreams? Freud thought he had the answer. To him, it was all about wish fulfillment of repressed feelings. He saw dreaming as the “royal road to the unconscious.”

Saul Mcleod of simplypsychology.org explains that Freud distinguished between the manifest content of a dream—the actual story—versus its latent content, the symbolism.

Through the process of condensation, you transform a wish, perhaps strangling your sister-in-law, into a dream about strangling a small dog. In this way, you lessen your own guilt regarding deeply held negative feelings about your sister-in-law. (Freud’s example, not mine.)

Secondary elaboration occurs when the dreamer’s subconscious takes a series of wishes and builds them out in a logical order, both making the dream believable and obscuring the its true significance.

Freud even postulated that there were universal latent symbols that reoccurred in our dreams. Some of these manifestations are sexual in nature and, to nobody’s surprise, have made their way into our cultural vernacular, thus keeping Freud’s dream theory alive.

One problem with Freud’s theory: it’s basically impossible to test. Nevertheless, for some fifty years, the focus for sleep research was on trying to establish the meaning of our dreams.

It wasn’t until the early 50‘s that Eugene Aserinsky, doing research at the University of Chicago, discovered the five stages of slumber, and as a result, ushered in modern day sleep analysis.

With Aserinsky’s discovery, dream research began to turn away from the business of interpreting symbolism to understanding sleep as a biological process for memory pruning, information acquisition, storage, and pattern association.

Unfortunately, this neuroscience-based idea of dreaming is not as sexy. So even today, Freud’s concepts get plenty of traction. The cloak and dagger intrigue of the subconscious brain acting out fantasies holds a lot more cache than dreams as your brain’s janitorial service at work.

Still, modern dream research argues that after a party, somebody’s got to take out the trash and tidy up a bit. It may not be very glamorous, but the service is essential to both your living room at home, and the one above your neck.