Welcome to the Huberman Lab Podcast,
where we discuss science
and science-based tools for everyday life.
I’m Andrew Huberman,
and I’m a professor of neurobiology and ophthalmology
at Stanford School of Medicine.
Today, my guest is Dr. Emily Balcedis.
Dr. Balcedis is a professor of psychology
at New York University.
Her laboratory studies motivation, goal setting,
and tools for successful goal completion.
I learned about Dr. Balcedis’ work some years ago
because I’m a vision scientist.
That is, I study the visual system.
And I heard about this incredible psychologist
at New York University who was studying how vision,
that is, how we visualize problems,
can predict whether or not
we will successfully overcome challenges
and how we strategize in order to set and meet goals.
And in 2020, I learned of Dr. Balcedis’ book,
which was written for the general public,
entitled, Clearer, Closer, Better,
How Successful People See the World.
And I read both the hard copy of the book
and listened to the audio book.
And I absolutely loved the material.
As you’ll learn directly from Dr. Balcedis today,
how people visualize a problem,
that is, whether or not they think of a goal or a problem
as residing at the top of a very steep hill
or on the top of a shallower hill,
or whether or not they visualize a goal or a problem
as far off in the distance
or closer to them in the distance,
visually, in their mind,
strongly dictates whether or not they will arrive
at the challenge of meeting a goal
or overcoming a problem with more energy or less energy.
Indeed, it dictates whether or not
they can push to immediate milestones
or whether or not they will think they have to overcome
the entire task all at once.
Basically, Dr. Balcedis’ work has discovered
that how we visualize a problem or a goal in our mind
has everything to do with how we lean into that goal,
whether or not we think of it as overwhelming or tractable,
whether or not we think that we can overcome that goal
and then it will lead to yet more possible rewards and goals
or whether or not we feel
that we’re going to arrive at the finish line
and then just be overwhelmed with fatigue.
In other words, how you visualize things in your mind,
and when I say visualize,
I mean literally how you visualize them as a visual problem
or a visual goal,
has everything to do with whether or not
you will be able to meet those goals
and whether or not they will lead to still greater goals
that you will be able to achieve.
Today’s episode is an especially important one, I believe,
because you’re going to learn
about quality peer-reviewed science
from the expert in this field
of goal-setting motivation and pursuit.
And you’re also going to learn an immense number
of practical tools that you can apply
toward your educational goals, your career goals,
relationship goals, goals of any sort.
By the end of today’s episode,
you will be better equipped to set and achieve your goals.
Dr. Balcedas also shares with us her own experiences
of how to set, visualize, and achieve goals.
And she does that within the context of her role as a parent
as somebody navigating relationships of various kinds
and a demanding career.
So again, I think that you’ll find the information today
to be both extremely academically grounded
in terms of research,
extremely practical, and realistic
in terms of how you might apply it in your own life.
Before we begin, I’d like to emphasize
that this podcast is separate from my teaching
and research roles at Stanford.
It is, however, part of my desire and effort
to bring zero cost to consumer information about science
and science-related tools to the general public.
In keeping with that theme,
I’d like to thank the sponsors of today’s podcast.
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And now for my discussion with Dr. Emily Balcedas.
Well, thanks for being here.
It’s my pleasure.
Yeah, I’ve been looking forward to this for a long time
because as a vision scientist
who is also very interested in real life tools
and goal setting and motivation,
your work lands squarely in the middle of those interests.
So just to kick things off,
you could tell us just a little bit
about the relationship between perception
and in particular how we see the world
and goal setting and goal retrieval.
It’s a vast landscape, but you’re the expert.
So I’ll turn that over to you.
And then as time goes on,
I may have some additional questions
as it relates to different kinds of vision.
But what’s the deal with vision and motivation?
How do those two things link up?
When psychologists ask people,
like, what are you doing to help make progress on your goals?
They say all kinds of things.
A couple of things always pop to the top,
which is, you know,
try to shock myself in encouraging ways,
you know, self-pep talks,
or I remind myself of how important it is to do this job,
or, you know, I’ll put up Post-it notes around
to like constantly be nagging me about what I need to do.
So those are common tactics that people use.
And what we’ll notice is that those are really effortful,
having to constantly remind yourself,
having to constantly talk to yourself,
having to create those Post-it notes,
remember to look at them.
All of that takes a lot of time and effort and commitment.
And so what a surprise that people burn out, right?
It’s exciting to work on a goal.
When you first set it,
you might make some initial progress,
but then eventually we get, you know,
not even to the halfway point,
but before things get real,
things are challenging and we fall by the wayside.
And that’s, I think,
because those tactics that are our go-to strategies
are themselves a goal to maintain.
So it’s like, you know, double-sided.
We’re putting so much on ourselves
to try to advance the thing
that we originally set out to accomplish.
So then I, you know, with my team,
I was trying to think of like,
well, what are strategies that don’t require as much effort
that we can automate,
that we can take advantage of what’s already happening
within ourselves, within our body, within our mind
that might overcome one of those challenges
that’ll be easier, more automated.
And that’s when we started to land on the idea of vision.
We look at the world without even thinking of it
for those of us that are sighted.
And we thought, you know what?
There are strategies that we can use
to look at the world in a different way
and that we can automate
that might help us to overcome some obstacles,
to make progress on our goals,
to maybe literally see opportunities
that we hadn’t been able to see before.
So we started playing around
with the idea of visual illusions to see,
like, do people even know
that there’s other ways of seeing things around them?
Can we tweak that?
Or is there room for intervention?
Can we encourage people to take a new way of looking
to see things that they hadn’t seen before?
And that’s what really opened us up
to trying to look at that intersection
between vision science and motivation science.
And I always say in here,
I’m strongly biased as a vision scientist
that vision is the dominant sense
by which we navigate the world and survive.
I love this idea of real world, real time access to vision.
And I’m certainly familiar with how goal setting
or post-its and magnets on refrigerators
can have an immediate impact,
but then over time they become
so part of the visual landscape that you overlook them.
And we know as vision scientists,
if something is stably in your environment,
eventually you’re blind to it.
So that makes good sense.
So you’ve published a number of studies in this area,
but maybe you could highlight some of the more,
what you would consider important findings
in the area of how people can adjust their vision
in order to meet goals more quickly and more efficiently.
And perhaps also how we all arrive at goals
with different visual perceptions
and that in some way may divide us
into highly motivated and less motivated people.
In other words, what’s the link
between vision and motivation
and how can we leverage that
in order to better reach our goals?
So, we started thinking about
what are the goals that are most important to people
that they struggle with the most?
So we asked hundreds, thousands of people
what their new year’s resolutions are.
We looked to all the other polls
that do the same kind of work.
And regardless of where you look or who you ask
or when you ask it,
people’s number one goal
is something related to their health, right?
To lose weight, to exercise more,
to get out, get more steps for mental wellbeing,
And that’s like the number one goal every January 1st.
So if we were able to accomplish that goal,
we think it would drop a little bit in the rankings,
but it doesn’t because it’s really hard.
So we thought, I wonder if there’s a way for us
to make some progress on that,
on helping people to exercise better, more often,
stick to it longer and make some progress there.
We know diets don’t work.
Why don’t diets work?
For the same reason that that self-talk doesn’t work
is that we go in it full bore, hardcore,
and it requires a major commitment
and effort to a lifestyle change.
So again, we were looking for something
that might be easier than that,
that could produce big, big payoff, right?
That’s the golden ticket,
something that requires less effort for a bigger payoff.
So one of the first things that I did
was go over to Brooklyn to this old armory building.
It used to be a military armory space.
Yeah, I know that building.
It’s a beautiful building now
that houses a lot of businesses, right?
With plants on the walls.
Is that the one?
Yeah, there’s businesses.
There’s a couple of armories all around the boroughs here,
around New York City.
And the one in Brooklyn in particular is now YMCA, right?
So it’s a family YMCA
that’s within this beautiful old red brick building
that used to be a military establishment long, long ago.
And what’s really cool is that one winter afternoon,
somebody had invited me, a physical therapist,
said, hey, you should come out
and check out what’s happening here
with your interest in exercise
and trying to find new ways of helping people,
new tactics that they can add to their tool belt.
I think you’re gonna find some interesting people
that are working out there.
So I showed up, I look around,
there’s families, there’s new moms,
there’s kids that are,
mom’s trying to get kids to burn off
some winter energy that they have.
There’s people that look like they’re just there
for their, every couple of days going out for a run.
There’s some people that look like
they’re training with a team.
And that’s who this physical therapist introduced me to
is that it was the coach of this team.
There’s a bunch of people that were sitting down
on the ground and I would be hard pressed to know
who’s the high school student that’s in this group
and then who, as it turns out,
are some of the fastest runners in the world.
Like one of the people that was in the last Olympics
before I showed up won the gold medal for the 400 meter.
And from the looks of them,
I mean of course their bodies are in better shape than mine,
but there’s nothing so pretentious,
of course they’re not wearing their medals,
there’s nothing pretentious about how they’re walking around
or anything like that that would lead me to know
this person’s amazing.
And they probably have some insight that I don’t have.
So once I got introduced to them
and knew who are these people that were part of this,
pretty elite training team that happened to work out
at this family gym, I had the chance to talk with them
about what strategies do you use.
Now I am not an elite runner and having recently had a baby,
I’m not really a runner right now at all,
but I thought when these people are running,
I bet they are like hyper aware of everything
that’s going on in their surroundings.
Where are they relative to the competition?
What’s happening in their peripheral vision?
What’s going on on the side?
Who’s behind them?
Who’s in front of them?
They probably have this like master sense,
this master visual plan at any point in time
and that’s what probably makes them elite.
So when I started asking them, is that the case?
Do you really pay attention to what’s in your surroundings?
What’s behind you?
What’s on the side?
They said no, like all of them said no.
And sometimes when I do do that, it’s a mistake.
It doesn’t work for me.
So that was surprising.
It totally went against my intuition about what they do
that likely contributes to their success.
What they said instead was that they are hyper focused.
They assume this narrowed focus of attention,
almost like a spotlight is shining on a target.
Now, when they’re running a short distance,
that target might literally be the finish line,
the line that they’re trying to cross.
If it’s a longer distance, they set sub goals,
like the person, the shorts on the person up ahead
that they’re trying to beat,
or they choose some sort of stable landmark,
like a sign that they would pass by.
And like a spotlight is shining just on that,
or like they have blinders on the sides of their face.
That’s all they’re paying attention to.
It’s really narrowed scope of attention.
And that was a strategy that all of these elite athletes
said that they used, and those that were better
rather than slower were ones that used it more.
And I thought, oh, that’s something we can play with.
They are elite and they are accomplished,
but that visual strategy isn’t necessarily something
that you have to be in the perfect physical condition
to be able to adopt.
And so I wonder, can that help the rest of us
who aren’t competing for an Olympic gold
and who have no chance of ever getting one,
but who want to exercise better,
have a better time doing it and maintain a commitment
to that exercise goal that they might have
that they might otherwise, by February or March,
be giving up on if they had said it
at the beginning of January.
So that’s really where the work started
was what you might call focus groups
or case studies of these incredible athletes.
And then we did other studies looking at people
who aren’t Olympic athletes, but who are competitive
New York road runners, and how are they running in races?
And what we found is that those people
who have better pace, faster pace, better time,
they use that narrowed strategy more often
than this more expansive or open scope of attention.
And there seemed to be a correlation
between that better performance among a wider swath
of hundreds of runners who are doing it competitively,
but still could be like the person
that you’re sitting next to in the office or yourself, right?
And the more often that they did it,
and the more consistently they had adopted that,
that technique of the narrowed focus of attention,
it seemed that they were doing better in their runs.
So then we started thinking like,
okay, what about people who aren’t competitive runners?
What about like my mom?
Can she do that?
Or me when I’m trying to get back on the bandwagon
and exercise more?
Is this a tactic we can teach people?
The answer is yes.
You can tell people about what these Olympic athletes
You can tell them about what the New York Road Runners
And just using the same language
that I just used with you, right?
Imagine that there’s a spotlight shining just on a target.
Choose something up ahead,
the stop sign two blocks up that you can just see.
And imagine that you have blinders on
so that you’re not really paying attention
to the people that are passing by
or the buildings or the garbage cans
or the trucks that are on the road.
Tune those out and focus in on that target
until you hit it and then choose another one, right?
Sort of recalibrate, choose the next goal.
And so we would test like, can people do that?
I mean, if you’re listening right now,
you probably are imagining that experience too.
And the answer is yes.
Like I can imagine that.
I know what those words mean and I can do that.
And our work found that too, that people can do that.
We have them say out loud,
what is it that’s captured your attention?
And of course, sometimes something in the periphery
like movement captures our gaze
and we’re pulled there for an instant,
but then we can refocus up again
and adopt that narrowed attention.
Now, one of the first studies that we did
was teach that strategy and juxtapose or compare it
against a group that we said, just look around naturally.
You might see that finish line up ahead
and there’s things on the periphery.
Whatever your eyes want to do,
whatever you think is gonna work best,
feel free to do that and tell us what you’re looking at.
Then we gave them a finish line.
We created sort of an exercise
that’s moderately challenging, but possible.
We put ankle weights on that accounted
for about 15% of their body weight,
told them to lift their knees up,
sort of high stepping to a finish line.
So this would be challenging for them to do,
but we said it’s an indicator of overall health and fitness.
Some of these people had narrowed their focus of attention
and some were just looking more expansively or naturally.
And what we found is that those people that we trained,
just everyday normal people
doing this moderately challenging exercise,
they were able to move 27% faster.
They could do the exercise more quickly
and they said it hurt 17% less.
The exercise was exactly the same for all the people.
We set the weight and we set the distance.
It was in our lab space,
so it was a constrained environment.
Everybody was in the same sort of circumstance,
but yet their experience was really different.
We helped them to move faster,
burn calories at a higher rate, right?
Exercise more efficiently.
The amount of time they put in
is gonna produce a better physical outcome.
And it also, it didn’t hurt them, right?
They’re saying it doesn’t hurt as much.
So we were really excited about that, right?
Because it meant that this strategy,
we could use it on people who are not elite athletes.
It could be easily adopted.
A quick training session can teach people
to look at the world in a different way.
Again, this narrowed attention was different
than whatever they do naturally, the comparison group,
but it had a big outcome.
It had a big difference on the way
that they were engaged in the exercise.
It was like some of the first work that we did
and then since then we’ve done, I don’t know,
dozens more studies to look at, well, what happens with that
and what else can we do with playing around with this?
Yeah, those are impressive differences
as a consequence of narrowing visual attention.
Couple of questions about the actual practice
of narrowing attention.
Is there any indication of whether or not
subjects are constantly updating their visual attention?
So for instance, if let’s say the goal line is in view,
literally from the beginning,
I could imagine just holding visual attention
on the goal line, but if it’s a oval track
or it’s a trajectory along a trail or through a city,
how often do you think they are updating
their visual aperture and setting a visual goal?
And I could imagine that there’s some energetic expense
to that, meaning you wouldn’t wanna do every crack
on the sidewalk unless those cracks on the sidewalk
were very far apart because I think at some point
that itself would be exhausting.
So is there an optimal strategy or a semi-optimal strategy?
Yeah, so those Olympic athletes that we started
by interviewing, they tended to be sprinters.
They were more often sprinters, short distance sprinters.
So when they said like, yes, I narrow in
more than I assume an expansive focus,
that’s because they’re not going that far, right?
They have to do it as fast as humanly possible,
but they’re not going that far.
And so we started asking that question too
about like, well, wouldn’t that be tiring?
And the answer is yes.
So when we start to look at, well, people
who aren’t sprinters, who are accomplished,
but who are more long distance runners,
that’s what we find that they do is that they’re using
that narrowed attention strategy strategically
and it increases in use.
They use it more often as the race progresses.
And they really start to do this major switch
about the halfway point of say like a 10 kilometer run.
So people who are seasoned runners,
they really start making a switch
with what they’re looking at about halfway through.
And that’s where they more often, more frequently
and are more intentionally adopting
a narrowed focus of attention
when they’re in the last couple miles of a run,
when maybe their resources are starting to get more thin,
maybe their motivation is starting to fade.
That tipping point in the middle is with any kind of goal
where people struggle the most.
And that’s when they’re like doubling down
on a strategy that they know to be effective.
So, at first, longer distance runners
are not using that narrowed strategy.
They’re looking more expansively
because I think that, well, first of all,
distraction is a thing, it’s useful.
Not necessarily that they’re distracting themselves
because people are still trying to hold pace
and jostle among probably a more concentrated
group of runners.
But it is a strategy that they use
and then sort of wean off of as the race goes through.
And it’s particularly effective
when we’re looking for that last push, right?
The last push to get over the finish line
when like you might be literally neck and neck
with somebody that you’re trying to just beat out
or when you’re most tired, but you know,
like that last push, you don’t wanna drop off.
And when you wanna push through hard
through that finish line,
that’s when people are using it
at its peak level of intensity.
Yeah, to me, this makes total sense why it would work
without going down the rabbit hole of visual neuroscience
of something for another time,
that when we do these virgin sign movements,
when we bring our eyes to a visual target,
it’s clear that some of the brainstem circuitry
for alertness gets engaged to a greater degree.
The other thing is that we know that when we focus
on an object that the optics of the eye change
and narrow the visual field.
So that brings about, this is a very detailed question,
but I’m sure the audience is wondering,
let’s say I’m focused on a goal line or an intermediate goal
are they focusing on a specific point
or is it kind of the entire horizon of that goal?
Because the finish line is indeed a line.
So, and of course this is, it’s impossible to know
what someone is actually doing in their mind’s eye,
but how do people report this?
Do they see it literally as a spotlight?
And if so, how broad is that spot?
Yeah, so, you know, what is the length of their aperture
rather than the, maybe the diameter or the sphere,
the sphere size of it?
You know, in our interviews with people,
our sort of focus group studies,
it seems like it’s more like a circular point.
And that’s in fact what we’re teaching people,
what we’re training them to do.
So rather than going broadly looking across a line
from left to right, we are encouraging them
to like imagine a circle of light
that’s shining on some target.
Now, of course the finish line is a line,
but if they’re staying in their lane,
if they’re on a track, right,
you can imagine that there is a circle shining
just on where in their lane they’ll cross that finish line.
Or if it’s a stop sign,
you could imagine a circle of light illuminating that.
So that’s what we’re teaching people to use.
And that’s what seems to be effective
to maintain that focus rather than sort of being pulled
to engage with peripheral vision.
And there’s some amazing people,
some runners in history like Joan Benoit Samuelson.
She’s one of the first female marathon competitors
who has won multiple marathons.
I think she’s won, feel free to correct me,
like 10 marathons in her life.
And she talks about sort of not assuming this wide,
but narrow, wide, but not deep or tall attentional focus.
She talks about like finding the shorts on somebody
ahead of me and focusing on those shorts
until she passes them and then resetting that goal.
So in her interviews that she’s done with runners magazines,
she talks about it in terms of this circle of attention.
I think I’ve experienced this a little bit
because we’re visiting New York now to do this interview
and runners here seem more competitive.
Recreational runners here seem more competitive.
People walking on the street seem competitive.
You’re walking at near pace to somebody,
they’ll quickly speed up.
If you speed up, they’ll speed up.
I think there’ve been some studies about walking speed
in different cities and New York ranks
among the fastest walkers around.
I won’t mention the slowest walking cities
because we don’t want to cast any judgments,
And again, makes total sense based on the way
the visual system measures both space and time,
something maybe we’ll get into a little bit later.
But I’m curious whether or not this,
the whole thing works in reverse as well.
Meaning, do people who are very motivated to exercise,
do they think this way naturally?
People who are averse to exercise
or who find it hard to get motivated to exercise,
do they view the world differently, literally?
Yeah, I have so much that I can say about this.
So if you’ll humor me,
I’ll give you a couple different stories
about how we can answer that.
So you don’t have to do a deep dive into vision science,
which of course you are capable of doing.
But what I can share with you is some like animal studies
where this work kind of first started.
This is in the 1940s, 1950s, rat labs, mice labs.
And they were looking,
those were the first models of human behavior
that people were trying to understand motivation,
motivation science within.
So they would deprive these poor rats and mice
of food or water so that they were motivated to get it.
They were hungry and they were thirsty
and they had practice running a maze
so they knew where they could find that food or water,
whatever that they were looking for.
And what these researchers were studying
was the pace of movement through the maze.
So as the rats were like going through the maze,
they found that even though these rats were hungry
and they’re having to expend limited caloric energy
to make it to the finish line,
they actually ran faster the closer they got
to that finish line.
So once that finish line became nearer to them,
they actually used their resources probably suboptimally
to make sure that they crossed the finish line
and got their reward.
So that was like some of the first early work
that was showing that proximity to a goal
increases the investment in resources
that animals use to meet that goal,
even when they don’t have that much to spare.
And with the mice, the same kind of thing,
they actually had these little harnesses on them.
They were looking at how hard do the mice pull
to try to make it to the food or the water
that they were trying to get.
And same deal, the closer they got to getting their reward,
the harder they were pulling,
even though they didn’t have that much energy to spare
and they had already used some up
getting to that finish line.
So that was that early animal research
from the 1940s, 1950s,
then spurred a whole wave of work in humans.
Do humans do the same thing?
Even when they’re tired,
but they can see or they can feel that their goal is close,
do they double down and work even harder
to cross that finish line?
Either like a literal finish line
if we’re talking about exercise
or a metaphorical finish line
if we’re talking about any other kind of goal
that people might have.
And the answer is yes.
They called that the goal gradient hypothesis.
The closer you get to the goal,
generally the harder people and animals work
to finish that goal.
That’s what led us then to think,
okay, those rats, those mice,
those people are seeing a finish line, right?
And it’s when they’re maybe seeing that finish line,
seeing that reward,
seeing the goal they’re hoping to accomplish,
that is what’s leading them to try harder,
to invest more so that they can finish it off.
What if we induce that illusion of proximity?
What if we can induce a visual illusion,
a visual experience that approximates
what the real rats and mice were actually experiencing
as they got closer?
So that is what is happening.
That’s what’s happening visually
when we create that narrowed focus of attention.
When we tell people,
imagine there’s a spotlight
on the shorts of the person up ahead
or the stop sign that you’re seeing,
it induces an illusion of proximity
that then is responsible for people trying harder,
feeling that it defied their expectations
and that it wasn’t as bad as they thought it would be.
So we do things like measure,
like measure their visual experience.
How far away is that finish line?
Of course, we can ask them to report in feet.
How many feet is it?
Oh, but that’s challenging, right?
Like nobody really knows what three feet
versus four feet really looks like, but they do.
So we can ask them how many feet it is.
We also use these other measures
of visual matching measures
to know like that distance of the finish line
looks about as far away as this other target.
They’re matching up their visual experiences.
So what we know is that
inducing that narrowed focus of attention
is creating an illusion of proximity.
That goal looks closer to them.
And then there’s all kinds of downstream
motivational, psychological effects that happen
from feeling like you’re closer.
By visually misperceiving that space,
it can have a really positive consequence.
So your first question was,
which way does it go?
Does it go both ways?
That people who are better runners
like happen to do this thing?
Some of our research shows that,
that if they, you know, for whatever reason
happened upon this strategy and continue to practice it,
they tend to be the better runners.
But we also know from our experiments in the lab
where we take people who don’t know about these strategies
and by a flip of the coin,
we randomly assign them to either learn the strategy
and use it or do whatever comes naturally to them.
We can create that illusion of proximity
that has a direct and causal impact
on improving the performance when they’re exercising.
So yes, it goes both ways,
but you can also teach yourself
that you don’t have to just rely on luck,
luck of the draw for being a person
who happens to be better at exercising
or whose eyes happen to do this on their own.
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The most pressing question I have in my mind is,
can we, I, all of us, use this strategy
to make the starting line a goal point?
Because for a lot of people,
it’s not about going from start to finish.
It’s about getting to start.
And I would say, here I’m estimating,
but 15% of the content on social media is about motivation
and how to get motivated to do things.
Neurochemicals like dopamine, of course,
being at the heart of motivation,
in my mind, I’m making strong links
between some of these visual aperture effects
and goal lines and dopamine that we could also dive into.
But the simple question is,
can I use this finish line strategy
to make the start line a goal
and get my system more engaged or motivated?
And is there any physiology or physiological changes,
I should say, to reflect the idea
that maybe just visually focusing on the start line
would actually get me more excited
as opposed to make me less excited to engage in effort?
There’s certainly vision science that’s tied up
in that very first stage of goal setting,
like identifying what that goal is in the first place
and taking those first steps.
A lot of people’s go-to strategies
that involve vision are vision boards or dream boards
or Post-it notes, right?
They’re creating some sort of visual representation
of what it is that they want to accomplish.
Where is it that I want to be in five years,
10 days, 10 years, whatever that timeline is
that they’re working under.
The idea of vision boards or dream boards
is that you, almost like a scrapbook,
collect visual icons that reflect where you want to be
to motivate yourself.
It’s a really common tactic that people use.
And it’s not bad to do that, right?
For some people, just even knowing what they want in life
is a major accomplishment.
Defining the goal can be really challenging for people.
And that’s a strategy that works
and involves our visual experience, right?
It’s not just, people aren’t saying like,
why don’t you just sit around and imagine
what you want your life to be like in 10 years?
The strategy that people are suggesting is like,
no, cut out the pictures, put it on a board
and stick it by your bathroom mirror
so you see it every day, right?
Or make a list.
Or make a list, yeah.
People are big on these lists.
I have a lot of friends who are like,
have you made your list?
The list of things that you insist on having
in the context of fitness, relationship, job,
et cetera, et cetera.
This seems more and more common now.
And the idea, like write it down, right?
They’re telling you, write it down.
Or create a visual manifestation of it.
And so, yeah, that’s effective
for identifying what you want.
But it may not actually be effective
for helping you to meet the goal, to get the job done.
So colleagues of mine at New York University
have probed, well, why?
Why is that?
Why is just thinking about what you want in your life
and sort of putting yourself vicariously into those shoes,
imagining what my life will be like
if I can accomplish everything on this list?
Why doesn’t that work?
Well, first of all, does it work?
The answer is no.
And why does it not work?
Because what happens, these colleagues,
Gabrielle Oettingen and her research team have found,
is that going through and dreaming about
or visualizing how great my life will be
when I get X, Y, and Z done,
that is like a goal satisfied.
I have identified what it is that I want.
I have experienced it, even if just in an imaginary way.
I’ve had that positive experience of thinking about
how great my life is gonna be when I get this thing done.
And they start to sort of rest on their laurels.
She’s actually measured systolic blood pressure
and heart rate.
And they found that people who do that,
who go through that experience of visualizing
how great my life will be when I get X, Y, and Z done,
their systolic blood pressure,
the bottom number on your blood pressure reading, decreases.
Okay, now I’m all about finding ways to relax,
especially in New York, right?
You’re constantly living at a high level of stimulation.
And so like, cool, great.
So maybe I should just like think about
how awesome my life will be when I get my bucket list done.
But motivation scientists know that systolic blood pressure
is actually an indicator of our body’s readiness
to get up and act, to do something.
Now that can be the going out for a walk,
going out for a run, hitting the gym.
It can also be things like doing math problems, right?
Even if it’s something that’s just mental,
systolic blood pressure actually goes up
in anticipation of your body or your mind
needing to do something, taking the first steps on a goal.
So then it helps us to understand of like,
okay, if I’ve just created this dream board,
this vision board, and put myself psychologically
in that space of a goal satisfied,
why is it bad that blood pressure goes down?
Because it means your body is chilling out.
It’s like, all right, cool.
I just accomplished something pretty major.
I actually now don’t have the physiological resources
at the ready to take the first step right now
to do something about that.
So that was a pretty monumental finding
for motivation scientists to understand
that creating these dream boards, these vision boards,
or to-do lists might actually backfire
because in and of itself is the creation of a goal
and the satisfaction of the goal.
And then people understandably give themselves some time
to just enjoy that positive experience.
And I think that’s so much for the secret.
Yeah, exactly, exactly.
I guess now the secret folks will come after me
with pitchforks, but-
I try to never say the name, right?
Well, I’m not afraid to say the name.
I mean, I imagine that certain strategies
might work for other people,
but everything you’re saying, again,
is consistent what we know about the physiology
of dopamine circuits for motivation.
I have a good friend who perhaps incidentally,
perhaps not, is a cardiologist at a major university,
said that one of the major errors
that people make with book writing and completion
is they will tell people they’re going to write a book
and people will say,
oh, you definitely should write a book.
Everyone’s going to love your book.
And they never ended up writing it.
And his theory is that they get so much dopamine reward
from that immediate feedback
with all the protection of never having the book criticized
that they never write the book.
I’m sure there are exceptions to this,
but I guess it raises the question,
what’s the better strategy?
Yeah, so I’m not saying that people
who enjoy a dream board creation
should stop what they’re doing.
That’s not the take home message here.
Oh, definitely not that, no.
There’s enough anxiety and fear in the world.
We don’t need to encourage more of it.
But the process of goal setting shouldn’t stop
with articulating what the goal is.
So at that same point that we’re trying to figure out
what do we want to do?
What is my vision for the future?
In those planning sessions,
we need to simultaneously think about a couple other things.
One is how are we going to get there?
So take it out of the abstract,
take it out of this idyllic visual iconography
and start thinking about the practical day-to-day.
We need to break it down into more manageable goals,
not just my 10-year plan for myself, but my two-week plan.
What can I accomplish in the next two weeks
and the two weeks after?
That’s going to set me on the right trajectory.
That’s probably not surprising to anybody
who’s been thinking about how do I set goals better?
Plan big picture, think big picture abstractly,
but then also break it down more concretely.
That’s probably not surprising,
but it’s an important aspect of the goal-setting process.
Then again, Gabrielle Otenjin in my department
has identified a third often overlooked
or underappreciated stage that has to happen
in the goal-setting process.
And that’s thinking about the obstacles
that stand in your way of success.
And that will actually help improve motivation
in the long run.
And sometimes people think that that is counterintuitive.
If I want to increase my motivation,
have more motivation than I need to think about
how hard it’s going to be,
all the ways that I’m going to fail,
how is that going to jazz me up?
How is that going to help me get through
when things get hard?
But it does because it’s like coming up with a plan B,
a plan C, plan D in advance of actually experiencing that.
If you were on a boat and the boat started to sink,
that’s not the time you want to start
looking for life jackets.
You already want to know where one is
so you can go to it right away.
And it’s the same thing with goal-setting
is that you want to know what am I working towards?
How am I going to get there?
And if I experience this obstacle,
here’s what I’m going to do about it.
You may never experience that obstacle,
but if you do, you’re probably going to be shy on time,
thin on resources, maybe experiencing an anxiety
that hijacks your brain so you’re not functioning
at that optimal level of judgment and decision-making.
You want to already have like the snap next step in place
so you can just hop to it, right?
We’re not going to do our best thinking
when we’re in crisis mode,
but we don’t have to if we have used,
if we have already used our resources in advance
to come up with that plan B or that plan C.
Michael Phelps, like incredible athlete, right?
This is something that he and his coach
have routinely incorporated into their training.
So I love this story that like back in 2008,
he was hot for the first time on the international stage.
It was the Beijing Olympics.
Michael Phelps was on the brink of doing something
that no one else in the history of the Olympic games
has ever done, which is win eight gold medals
in a single Olympiad.
At the time of this story, he had already won seven
and he had just the 200 fly in front of him
before he could do what no one else has ever done,
win the eighth gold medal.
And like the fly is his thing, right?
This should have been easy, like a no brainer.
He’s going to win this.
He’s going to break Olympic history.
As soon as he dove into the pool,
his goggles started to leak.
And by the time he had done three lengths of the pool,
he just had to flip around and come back
to the starting line slash finish line, back to the edge.
By the time that happened,
his goggles were completely filled with water
and he was swimming blind.
I would have panicked.
I would have sunk to the bottom of the pool.
I wouldn’t have even been in the pool, to be honest.
Like I’m not a swimmer.
Definitely not going to be in the Olympics,
but for him, he didn’t.
It wasn’t a moment of panic.
Like it probably would have been for nearly
every other person in that situation
because he had foreshadowed that kind of possible failure.
He had imagined that obstacle hitting him in advance
and not even just imagined it, but practiced it.
What will we do?
He routinely practiced swimming with his goggles,
not fully secured on his face.
His coach notoriously would rip the goggles off of his head,
smash them on the ground
for maybe dramatic effect or something
so that he didn’t even have any goggles possible
to grab as he’s in practice.
So because he had foreshadowed that possibility
and the solution, if my goggles start to leak,
then I will do, in his case, start counting my strokes,
then I’ll make it through.
He knew exactly how many strokes it would take
from him to get from one end of the pool to the other.
He started counting his strokes.
He won that race, the 200 fly.
He won his eighth gold medal
and he’d go on to win 15 more in his career.
So we might not all be swimmers.
We might not all aspire to Olympic level performance,
but I love that example because I think it helps
sort of demystify or give us an alternative perspective
on the importance and the motivational reasons why,
thinking about obstacles in advance,
thinking about the ways, the two, three, four ways
that your plan might go awry is actually effective
at helping us to overcome the obstacle
that might otherwise lead us to throw in the towel.
That’s a beautiful example.
I’m going to springboard off that example
to ask a question that has also been on my mind,
which is, is there really anything special about vision?
Because in the example you just gave,
it was indeed vision that Michael Phelps was deprived of
and it was counting strokes.
Counting is another form of incremental measurement
in the nervous system, obviously.
There are others.
They could be the sensation of the hands smacking the water
or breaking the surface of the water.
So there are any number of different variables
or metrics that one could use.
I could imagine that setting out on a,
let’s say a three-mile run,
which for me is a decent distance run.
It’s one I do a few times a week.
I’m also not a runner,
but I try and complete some runs a few times a week
at very slow pace just for my health.
I could count every step.
That would be kind of exhausting.
But if I knew that three miles was,
I’m going to estimate here, I don’t know,
a couple thousand steps, I could count backward.
I could count forward.
I count every 10.
I confess I spend every morning trying to find sunlight
to get sun in my eyes to set my circadian rhythm
and I do a hundred jumping jacks.
So I’m the guy that people are looking at strange
on the street, but sometimes I count every 10.
Sometimes I count backward.
Sometimes I count forward.
Is there any indication that it matters
or is it simply that we attach some sort of meaning
to that increment and the mode of reaching that increment?
Because it does seem like there’s something special
about vision and we could maybe dive into a little bit more
of why that is, but at a very basic level,
how broadly or finely should one set the increments?
And does it matter if you’re counting steps
or counting strokes, if you’re,
maybe it’s every other song,
you’re going to listen to an entire album.
That’s something that I don’t know if people do anymore,
or you’re going to listen to a whole playlist
and then listen to it again.
And you’re going to run as long
as the playlist is completed twice.
You can obviously see what I’m getting at,
but I know people are going to want to implement these tools
and I have to guess that the nervous system
is somewhat indiscriminate when it comes to these things,
but that there might also be some specificity.
I think vision is special and I think you do too.
So for a variety of reasons, when you start,
you can really nerd out on how cool the brain is
and how cool vision is within the brain.
And when you do, then you start to find some things
that make vision unique, right?
More real estate, more neurological cortex,
real estate is taken up by the visual sense
than any other sense, more than taste, touch, smell, right?
Vision gets more real estate,
gets more neurological processing space
than any other sense.
Why is that?
Well, because evolution has led us
to prioritize that visual, the visual experience.
There’s some cool illusions
where like maybe somebody’s mouth
is doing something different than what you’re hearing.
When people sort of create these like, you know,
weird tricks that might go on YouTube and go viral.
And people are trying to figure out what did I hear?
What did I see his mouth doing?
And what comes up is that people prioritize what they see
over what they’re hearing,
when the two are incompatible or kind of like out of sync.
Yeah, every time, right?
If you had to bet on it,
bet on what it is that you’re looking at
rather than what you’re seeing.
And why is that?
Well, I guess a couple other things too, right?
Like we can see super far.
You can see like a flickering candle on a horizon
if it was a totally, you know, clear sky.
Several miles away,
you can see the International Space Station
floating up in the night sky, right?
Like hundreds of miles away.
Our eyes are amazing.
And we prioritize what we see that.
And I think that’s because we never,
we rarely get the experience
of having our visual experience second guessed.
You know, oftentimes we’re having a conversation
maybe in a loud restaurant
and we know that we didn’t hear the person right.
And so we say like, oh, did you say that?
Or like, oh, I thought you said this.
And they’re like, no, I didn’t say that, right?
So people will correct us when our ears get it wrong.
Or we’re tasting something amazing
and we can’t quite figure out what spices were in here.
And so we know that our tongue
isn’t quite picking up the taste the right way.
And that’s why we read the menu
to see what are the ingredients.
Or we ask the chef, like, what did you put in this?
It tastes amazing.
So we know that our tongue is getting it wrong.
Or you might be touching something
and you look at the tag to see what sort of textile
was used in this really amazing piece of clothing
that you’re looking to buy.
So we know that our sense of touch
isn’t quite getting it right.
But rarely do we have that experience
of having our eyes get updated.
Where we’re looking at something,
oh, I think I’m looking at my mom.
Oh, no, actually, it was actually my husband.
Like, okay, like that never happens, right?
That we have gotten vision as wrong
as we might get any other thing
that we’re experiencing through any other sense.
We trust our visual experience.
We have a sort of a naive realism
that what we see reflects the world the way it actually is.
Because it’s never really fully tested.
We never get the input or the feedback
that you’ve seen something wrong
until a visual illusion pops up on social media, right?
Like the dress example, or the last week or so
there’s been that horse seal line drawing
that’s been all over social media too.
What do you see?
I see a horse.
Someone says, I see a seal.
And then like, you know, chaos erupts.
Or I thought the dress was blue.
I don’t know why I thought it was gold.
I don’t remember.
The options, because I see it as blue, so, right?
And it’s like dividing up families and friendships
because you’ve like seen something
that the other person just literally cannot see.
And that’s why we love those examples
when they pop up in social media when they do.
Is because it defies all of our previous expectations.
There’s a really amazing, if this interests you,
there’s a really amazing visual artist, Anish Kapoor,
who plays with these ideas too.
And his installations are just fascinating.
I saw one at a museum once where, you know,
I walked down this long hall
and it’s just a big black rectangle
that’s painted on the wall.
And I was like, this guy’s super famous.
What the hell?
It’s just a big black rectangle painted on the wall.
What is this about?
Like, what hoax?
You know, this museum paid how much, what, whatever.
But then as you get closer, you get closer
and your eyes start to settle in
and they adapt to the different visual lighting.
You realize it’s not a black square painted on the wall.
It’s a huge hole he’s carved into the wall.
And there is a whole other world that’s back behind there
that you can’t see right away
until your eyes adapt to the different lighting conditions.
As a vision scientist, I have to see,
where is this exhibit?
It’s not up right now.
I’ve seen, there was a retrospective several years ago
that was done in Sydney,
but his work is all over the place.
So Anish Kapoor, definitely worth looking up
because like the dress example
or the horse seal line drawing
or artists like Anish Kapoor’s work,
that is a moment that gives us a different,
unexpected insight about the world,
that it challenges us to see something
that we hadn’t seen before,
or it induces or tricks us into seeing something
that we wouldn’t have otherwise have seen.
And so it’s those rare moments
that I think are actually really important
for understanding what do our eyes normally do
because we wouldn’t find these examples so surprising,
so engaging, so shocking
if we had routinely gotten the experience
of realizing we’re not seeing the world the way that it is.
So that is why I think vision is special
and why it can be thought of as a tool
that we can add to our toolkit
for how to better accomplish our goals.
I’m not saying that we should just only focus
on imagining the world through an attentional spotlight,
but maybe that’s something that we can employ strategically
on occasion when we think it’s gonna best help us,
when we need an extra little push
to cross that literal or metaphorical finish line,
but it doesn’t have to be the only tactic that we use.
Just like it’s not bad to use vision boards,
but let’s use something else also.
It’s not bad to talk to ourselves in encouraging ways,
but let’s try adding another tool to our tool belt
in case that’s not enough to get the job done.
So I do think that there’s great power
in thinking about our visual experience
alongside other tactics that we might use
for meeting our goals.
And another one of those tactics
might be like the numerics that you’re talking about.
Do I think about my jumping jacks in terms of groups of 10
or as a set of 100?
You do it routinely.
So you might be able to set a goal of 100
and have that sustain you through number 60, number 70,
when maybe it’s starting to get harder.
But for somebody who’s just starting out
and wants to be able to make it to 100,
that’s probably not gonna work.
That’s gonna be maybe really,
that could be quite challenging for them
if it’s the first time that they’re trying it.
And so instead, setting those micro goals of groups of 10
is gonna be useful
because as we start to get to number eight or nine
or number 88 or 89, and it’s really getting hard,
we need that extra little hedonic hit
of pleasure, of accomplishment,
the micro dopamine rush that you might get
by hitting another 10, another decade milestone,
another group of 10 milestone.
And once we get that little hit of pleasure, excitement
that might be enough to sustain us
through the next challenging physical obstacle,
the next group of 10 that we might experience.
So there isn’t any like prescription that I would give
and say, every person should decide
that 25 jumping jacks is the goal.
No, we have to be idiosyncratic and introspect
about where are we at with this goal,
this thing that I’m trying to accomplish
and set those goals realistically,
but inspirationally as well.
We wanna set a goal that will challenge us,
but isn’t impossible.
We don’t wanna set goals that are too easy
because we’re not gonna trick ourselves
into like feeling so great about doing one jumping jack.
Like I’m pretty sure most people,
if that’s a goal, they can do one.
So are you gonna feel so great when you hit that goal?
No, because it was too easy.
You didn’t have any doubt that you could do that one,
but what about 25?
Okay, yeah, I might feel pretty good about that.
Well, what about the next group of 25?
And now I’m at 50.
Those are goals that might seem just beyond the brink
of what’s possible, but I will feel good when I hit that.
And that’s gonna give me the next sort of boost of energy
that I’m gonna need to go a little bit further,
either that time or the next time.
Yeah, I think vision is special.
Again, I’m strongly biased here.
The reason I initially learned about your work was,
well, now you have this amazing book,
but at the time there wasn’t the book.
There were just the scientific papers.
And of course, upon which the book rests
and those papers are really important,
but was the relationship between vision
and obviously is our sense of space,
but how the sense of space and time are related.
And to make the idea quite simple for those listening,
when you narrow your visual window,
you’re measuring the time bin also gets smaller, right?
Which makes sense when you hear it.
Whereas if you take on a huge visual landscape,
you’re actually carving up time differently.
It’s sort of like moving from a slow frame rate
to a fine frame rate.
Slow motion camera is actually taking
a lot more snapshots, right?
So you’re measuring distance over time more finely.
And so whereas strobe would be the other example,
which is strobe is very low frequency.
So you’re going here, here, here,
as opposed to slow motion, right?
Strobe gives a coarse view into the time domain
and high speed photography gives a fine view
in the time domain.
So I’m almost certain without any knowledge
of underlying data, but knowledge of the mechanism,
I’m almost certain if not certain
that by placing a narrow visual aperture,
we change the way we perceive time.
Now, I have a question and to be honest,
I know the answer in advance,
but I’d love for you to tell us a bit
about how some of this works still further in reverse,
meaning how unfit people view the world
versus how fit people view the world
or how unmotivated people visually see the world
as opposed to highly motivated people.
You talked about these elite runners,
you give them Michael Phelps’s example,
but maybe you could describe that study.
I think it’s a particularly important one,
mostly because yes, it identifies perhaps a physiological
or psychological differences between motivated
and unmotivated or fit and unfit people,
but it also provides a path to remedy that.
Yeah, so there’s out of my lab,
but also out of several other labs,
there’s been work looking at that relation
between states of the body and visual experiences.
They haven’t necessarily tried
to integrate the motivation science element to it,
but they were looking to see the visual experiences change
as a function of different states of our body.
So they’ve looked at people who experienced chronic fatigue,
elderly, people who are overweight,
those that are wearing heavy backpacks
and so who are sort of put into that experience
of being overweight,
what happens to their perceptions of the environment?
Well, what they find is that distances look further
to those that are overweight, chronically tired,
older rather than younger, weighted down with extra baggage.
Distances look farther and hills look steeper.
We’ve done some of those studies too,
where we try to like give people more energy
or deprive them of energy
and see does that change their perception of space.
And we did that by sort of a classic technique
of a double blind study
where the participant doesn’t really know
what they’re experiencing.
I thought you were gonna say a double espresso.
Oh, that is also a good psychological experience
to give people.
Yeah, so a double blind experiment
where the participant doesn’t really know
the full extent of what they’re doing
or what they’re experiencing.
And the researcher who’s interacting with them also doesn’t.
They do this a lot in medical studies.
You give somebody a drug
and you give somebody a placebo, a sugar pill.
And then importantly, nobody really knows who’s got what
until you’ve analyzed all the data
and the results are revealed
that these are the people that had the drug,
the active agent.
Same idea in the psychological research.
In this case, what we did was give people Kool-Aid to drink.
And for some people that Kool-Aid was sweetened with sugar,
an actual caloric entity.
It could give them energy.
Other people drank Kool-Aid sweetened with Splenda.
So yeah, it’s sweet,
but it actually doesn’t have any caloric value.
You’re not giving people energy.
You’re just giving them that experience of sweetness.
Now, some people of course are really good at identifying
like what’s real sugar and what’s Splenda.
But when you put it in a Kool-Aid, a pretty noxious powder,
it actually masked it for everybody
and nobody had any idea.
Because it tastes like garbage to everybody.
It tastes like garbage.
I mean, I’m sure there are many people that love Kool-Aid.
I guess the sales of Kool-Aid will reveal the data.
Yeah, I grew up in Nebraska actually where Kool-Aid is from.
It originated in Nebraska.
So I do feel like I’m betraying my roots slightly
by casting some shade on Kool-Aid.
But that’s how it worked is that,
we asked them to guess what they got.
We tested them afterwards and they were wrong.
So nobody is able to guess with accuracy
what was your drink sweetened with.
Which is important because they were blind.
The way that scientists use it.
They didn’t know what it was that they were drinking.
We give it, you know, we give them about 10 to 15 minutes
for that sugar to metabolize.
And we measured their circulating blood glucose levels
to make sure that we had in fact given their body
a circulating glucose energy
that they might use in the next activity.
And the researcher again didn’t know
whether they had just served sugar or Splenda.
Then we asked people to estimate distance.
So we gave some people more energy
or we kept others sort of at
like whatever their normal level was.
And what we found is that those people
who didn’t even know it,
but who had been given more energy
by drinking Kool-Aid sweetened with sugar,
perceived their space as more constricted.
That visual illusion of proximity was induced.
They felt that their finish line,
again in the context of an exercise task,
was closer to them.
So in just the same way that these other physiology labs,
vision science physiology labs,
found that people who are chronically tired,
who don’t feel like they have as much energy,
or those that are physically weighted down
and for whom, you know,
moving within an environment is more costly,
we could create that experience for people.
We did an experimental version of that,
that if you have more energy, the world looks easier.
The distances to a finish line don’t look as far.
So that was some of the experimental evidence that we had
to show that people’s states of their body
do impact their visual experience.
Now, I’m a motivation researcher.
So for me, the big question is,
well, what’s the point of that study then,
besides just showing this connection
between the body and the eyes and the visual experience?
We think that that’s fundamental
to one of the reasons that people experience difficulty
when they’re exercising.
When it’s really harder for your body
because of its physical state to move within a space,
you might say like, well, why don’t they just go exercise?
Because the world looks harder to them.
Because that distance that they’re supposed to walk
because a doctor tells them to,
or that a partner encourages them to,
or a hill that they should hike up
because someone told them
that would be good for their health,
it looks more challenging to them
than it does to somebody who is in better physical health.
Now, if it looks that way, if it looks harder,
if it feels like it might be harder,
then psychologically we know that it is.
When you have set yourself up psychologically, mentally,
for that kind of failure experience,
like, I don’t know that I have the resources
to get this job done, this looks really hard,
you’re already motivationally in a place
for this task to be closer to impossible for you.
So to put it all together then,
what we know is that people whose bodies
might make it more challenging for them to exercise
are seeing the world in a more challenging way,
and that is having these downstream motivational
and psychological effects that makes it less likely
for them to try to take on the task in the first place
or to experience it as harder
than other people would or do.
Is the solution the same, however?
Meaning if these people are taught
to adjust their visual goal line
or to set a visual spotlight on an intermediate goal,
can they overcome some of this challenge
that they face simply by virtue of their skewed perception?
So in all of the studies that we have done,
looking at that connection
between this narrowed focus of attention
and improvements in exercise,
we do not find that it only works
for the people who are in shape
or that it backfires for people who are out of shape.
It works for everybody.
This is a strategy that everybody can adopt
because it’s just simply about like,
what do you allocate attentional resources to?
What do you sort of ignore and what do you focus on?
And that visually induces the same kind of illusion
for everybody, regardless of whether you’re overweight
or you’re at your target weight,
or if you’re struggling to get there
or you’ve already accomplished where you wanna be.
That visual illusion can be induced for everybody
and it has the same kinds of consequences.
Earlier, I made a joke about double espresso,
but now I’ll make a serious statement about double espresso
which is that it contains caffeine
and caffeine as a stimulant, like all other stimulants,
cause a change in our visual world.
The most salient one is the one
that police officers look for,
or parents suspecting that their kids
have ingested substances of any kind look for,
which is if somebody’s pupils are unusually large
for a given visual environment,
that is an indication of high levels of autonomic arousal.
In the street drug translation of this,
people who take amphetamine or cocaine
will have very big pupils.
People who are very relaxed have small pupils.
However, everyone should know that pupil size
also is dynamically regulated
by how bright a visual environment.
So there are multiple things controlling pupil size.
However, we know that when we are very stressed
or very aroused in any way, positive or negative,
the pupils get big, but within the visual system,
what that equates to is a narrowing of the visual aperture.
So rather than ingesting sugar,
which I’m guessing most of the world,
certainly the US needs to ingest less sugar,
at least that’s what we’re hearing.
I’m sure there are a few sugar,
you know, sucranistas out there, sucrosanistas,
who will also come after me with pitchforks,
but let’s face it, most people will probably be better off
ingesting less simple sugar.
But caffeine is a great motivator
because of the internal sense of arousal,
but it also narrows our visual window.
I could imagine using healthy amounts of caffeine
combined with maybe even blinders
of the sort that horses wear,
maybe like a hoodie and a hat,
maybe even blinders in order to get over
some of those more challenging milestones.
Is there any evidence that people are doing this
without, well, obviously people are doing it
without knowledge of how it works,
but are there any studies looking at how adrenaline
or epinephrine or any other stimulants impact motivation?
I don’t know, honestly, yeah.
I mean, energy drinks are a big thing now.
Yeah, yeah, for sure they are.
And you know, if you actually are
more physiologically aroused or jazzed or whatever,
you know, amped up, or you just think you are,
in our studies, we have found that they work
in the same way, that it can produce
the same kinds of consequences.
So, and I like that because it tells us
like you can actually change the state of your body
to induce these kinds of experiences,
or you can try to, you can just think that,
you can trick yourself, you can placebo effect yourself out
and produce the same kinds of effects.
I had to give up coffee like 12 years ago,
not because, not for any-
I’m so sorry.
I love the taste, and so decaf is my jam,
but I can’t drink the caffeine
because it didn’t actually do the thing
that it does for so many other people,
like make me feel more energized and more awake.
I just got sweaty and jittery and anxious
and I couldn’t focus.
Yeah, some people who already have
a fairly high baseline level of attention and motivation,
they find that it puts the autonomic seesaw too far
in the sympathetic tone.
And I happen to marry the same kind of person.
He also can’t drink caffeine, but loves the taste of coffee.
The interesting thing is that we both have to have coffee
in the morning to feel like we’re ready to go for the day.
So it’s just part of our routine or whatever
to have that taste and have that sensation
to feel like I’m ready to take on the day,
even though, I mean, yeah,
decaf still has some caffeine in it,
but we’re not drinking that much of it
to probably actually create a caffeinated experience
in our body, but we’re tricking ourselves psychologically
into doing that thing that in years past
used to work for us both.
So I think that’s something to keep in mind.
Like, you might have a hoodie that you can wear
to induce that visual illusion,
or you can take advantage of the power of your mind.
At the end of the day, I’m a psychologist
and I believe that we have some non-zero power
over what our mind is doing, what we’re thinking about,
what we allocate our attention to,
that can do the same kind of thing that a hoodie might do
or that a cup of caffeine might do.
I completely agree.
The visual aperture is under our conscious control.
That’s an amazing feature of our visual system.
We can narrow or expand it.
It takes a little bit of practice, I think,
for people to learn how to do this
without moving their head around
to expand their visual aperture and how to narrow it.
But what I always tell people is just imagine
a really troubling text message
or a really exciting text message coming in.
All of a sudden, you forget about the world around you.
So it can be triggered by these outside events
and we can learn how to anchor our visual attention.
I’d love to ask about other kinds of goals,
meaning non-physical goals,
because many people are trying to read more, I would hope,
or learn music or a language
or things that really involve cognitive goal lines
or internal goal lines.
Reading one chapter out of a book each night
is a tangible goal.
The other that I’ve often wondered about
are these systems that allow you to highlight
individual lines or even words on a page.
That’s very visual, obviously,
and everything else is ruled out except that word.
I’ve always wished for books
that would naturally highlight each page.
And as I say this, someone will put in the comments,
this probably existed for 10 years
and I’m just showing how, what a Luddite I am.
But is there any example or tactic
that people could use to better approach cognitive goals,
school, work, recreational too,
but that don’t exist in the kind of fitness
and sports domain?
Yeah, so just a shout out to my brother-in-law
who has done some of that research
where it does highlight different parts of words
in paragraphs and he’s found it to be an effective way
for English as a second language learners to pick it up,
that tying that vision to the process
of learning language is effective.
And so there’s a whole cool body of work
and researchers looking at that.
So you’re right about that.
If you want to mention what he does,
is there a place that people can learn more about that?
We can provide links.
Yeah, let me.
Okay, we will provide links to those resources
because I want those resources.
I’ve been trying to learn a second language for a long time.
I speak Spanish pretty weakly,
but I would love to get better at it.
Okay, I’ll approach you later.
My five-year-old son speaks Spanish
better than I do at this point.
And clearly better than I do too.
Yeah, so, you know, I was thinking that too,
you know, we started this work
within the context of exercise,
but of course that’s not people’s only goal
that they have in life.
And it isn’t mine either, you know,
I have interests outside of improving my exercise game.
A couple of years ago when I was writing the book,
I also had a child, the same month
that I had the opportunity to like pull
all this research together,
is the same month that my son came to be.
And I started to realize like,
I became a lot less interesting once he was around.
He was fascinating, but I was changing diapers
and feeding him and like, that was it.
People would come over, like, what’s up?
Where have you been?
Like, tell me something that’s going on in your life.
And like, all I had to talk about was this,
what was boring.
And I just felt like I’ve lost myself.
I used to pride myself on like crazy adventures
and problems I would get myself in.
And I was a great storyteller.
And that all of a sudden disappeared
as soon as he came into the world
because he became my world.
So then I started thinking like,
I need to pull back some coolness
and if I ever had it in the first place,
but I need to be a cooler person
than I’m coming across right now.
So I decided I wanna learn to play drums.
And I wanna be like a one hit wonder
as a rockstar drummer.
I only want one song
because I know I’m not gonna be able to do more than that.
I’m not coordinated at all, you know,
like from the beginning of time in fifth grade,
I have this really vivid like flashbulb memory
of playing basketball for the very first time.
I lost my footing.
I knocked into my own teammate,
pushed her out of bounds while she had the ball.
We lost the game and I was not invited back
on the team for the next season.
And so that, you know,
fomented my self-definition of uncoordinated.
I am a musician, but I am not a drummer.
And the idea of coordinating four limbs in real time
was like, if I could do that, I would be so proud.
So that’s a goal that I set for myself
at the same time that my son came into this world
when I was also trying to think about goal setting
and how to improve my ability
and all of our ability to get a job done
when you’re faced with some pretty big obstacles.
So I got to practice all these techniques
that we’re talking about on myself and see for myself.
When I tell people, hey, try this thing,
like narrowed focus of attention,
does that help with something like becoming a better drummer?
And the answer is, yeah, these tactics
at least work for me sometimes under some circumstances
and they do for other people who try them for other goals
that aren’t necessarily about exercise.
You know, one that I found particularly helpful
was overcoming my bad memory.
That everybody’s memories are faulty, right?
Everybody has sort of a warped perception of the past.
It might be skewed more positively than maybe we deserve
or it might be skewed more negatively.
If you feel that, you know,
what looms large in your mind
as you reflect on something from the past
or the mistakes that you’ve made
or the things that the social faux pas that you had
or, you know, challenges that you faced at work
when you got in trouble with a boss or with a colleague,
if that’s what really stands out in your mind
or the good side of all of those possibilities,
we probably aren’t getting the world right.
And that is something that our brain has evolved
to give us a faulty memory to level and sharpen,
to not encode and remember and be able to recall
everything that we’ve experienced
with accuracy and precision.
And that’s a problem
when it comes to assessing our own goal progress,
when we want to be our own accountant
and try to determine how are we doing?
If I want to become a drummer,
am I on track for getting there before X,
before my time runs out?
Am I going to make it or not?
And I think that’s an experience,
whether they want to be a drummer or not,
that a lot of people can resonate with,
of like trying to determine, is this trajectory,
is this rate of progress going to get the job done
by X amount of time?
Will I have my swimsuit body by summer
or will I save enough for retirement
by the time I hit 65?
For these goals where time is involved
and there is a deadline,
we do take moments to assess our trajectory.
And if we just rely on our memory,
we’re probably going to do a bad job
of assessing that trajectory,
of knowing whether we’re on pace to meeting our deadline.
And I found that to be the case as I was thinking about,
am I actually going to be able to learn this song?
I mean, I know that it’s going a lot slower
than it probably would for anybody else,
but to give myself a deadline and a commitment,
I decided I was going to put on a show.
I was going to invite everybody I knew
and also people I didn’t know.
And I was going to play my one song for them.
This is while writing a book and having just had a child.
Yeah, so when you read the book,
you’ll see my story and it’s the real truth of it.
I mean, I did play that show and it was fine.
Because I wrote about it in the book,
then some other opportunities to play it publicly
have come up and it’s like,
all right, I told people I can play drums.
I better show them that I actually still can play this song.
Yeah, so that’s been fun.
I have become a one hit wonder.
If you ask me to play the song again,
like encore, it’s just going to get that same song
a second time, so literally one hit wonder.
So in the process of figuring out,
am I going to be able to play this show?
I sent out invitations, the date is committed.
People are coming to listen to my one song.
God bless them.
How’s it going to go?
And it felt awful.
It just felt like I am not making progress here
because there’s a lot more things
that actually are pressing, right?
Like the kid does need to get fed.
I do have to go to my day job.
The editor is asking for the next draft of this book
and that is going to take precedence
like it does for so many people,
that things command your bandwidth,
even when you have this goal that you’ve committed to
and that you’ve got on the books.
And so I just felt this looming anxiety
about this goal that would require,
didn’t have to be daily practice,
but you can’t cram that kind of a goal.
It does take committed investment
for a sustained period of time.
And so I had this looming anxiety
that I’m not making good enough progress.
But that’s because I was relying on my memory
and my brain to recall,
how many times did you practice?
What was it like the last time you practiced?
What was it like when you tried to play this bit,
or this riff like two weeks ago?
Have you gotten any better since then?
And it just felt like, no, I haven’t practiced enough.
I don’t remember when the last time I played was,
but it definitely doesn’t feel like I’m getting any better.
Then I thought, you know what?
I should stop relying on my brain
to tell me where am I at
and am I on an upward slope here?
I need to look at the data.
I love data, scientists love data.
So I started to collect data on myself.
What I did was download this app
that a friend had told me about called the Reporter app.
There’s lots of these kinds of things out there.
Basically, it just like sets up your phone
to randomly ping you
with whatever questions you want your phone to ask.
It records your answers.
You can download the data.
You can make pretty graphs to see,
am I getting, what’s my change
and how I’ve answered these questions over time.
So I did that for a month.
For a month, I had my phone ask me,
you know, a couple times a day,
oh, maybe twice a day, really.
Did you practice?
Since last time I asked you,
my phone says, did you practice?
If mostly it was no.
And if yes, then it would funnel a couple other questions.
Like, how did you do?
How do you feel?
Check a couple of different emotion words now
about your experience when you played.
So when I, and I did that for a month.
After a month, went into my office,
downloaded the data
and first took stock before I looked at the numbers.
Like, how do I think I did over the last month?
And I thought, same as every other month.
I like, I didn’t really get anywhere.
Yeah, I practiced, but I still feel awful.
And I cried.
I cried having to practice.
I like was upset with myself for setting this goal
and feeling like so anxious about it.
All I remember is that I cried.
Cried too much about this personal conquest
that wouldn’t matter to anybody else.
Honestly, it really doesn’t matter
in the scope of things anyway.
I’m not gonna become a drummer professionally.
So who cares if I embarrass myself publicly?
But what I found from the data
was my memory was totally wrong.
I actually had practiced far more times than I remembered.
When I looked at my emotion words that I used,
it was a clear upward trajectory.
Yeah, I did cry.
That part I hadn’t misremembered or made up.
But by the end of that month,
I had gotten a compliment from my husband
who actually is a drummer
and said like, hey, that wasn’t that bad.
And then there was like one expletive,
you were effing amazing
at that one thing you’ve been practicing at.
But like, okay, fine, he’s my husband, right?
So at the moment, it didn’t really feel that great.
And I downplayed it
and as a result, it didn’t stick in my brain.
I remember how stupid it felt that I cried
because I can’t make progress.
And I downplayed in my mind
the thing that actually should have been
a legitimate indicator that progress is being made.
So all of which is to say,
I needed to collect that data on myself
and to look at it objectively, accurately, and completely
because my brain wasn’t doing that for me.
That visual experience of downloading that data
and looking at like what was my actual experience
gave me a better insight
as I was trying to assess the trajectory of my progress.
I became a more accurate accountant of my own progress,
which is important for setting goals or resetting them
when you need to calibrate in light of what’s left to do
and how much time do you have to do it in.
I love it.
So basically, if I understand correctly,
when the intermediate goals of say daily practice
or twice a day practice or reading or math, et cetera,
are not a visual goal line,
it really does help to visualize some aspect
related to that non-visual goal line.
In this case, the Reporter app was a useful tool.
I’ve never heard of it.
I plan to use it.
I’m sure a number of people will be interested in it.
It sounds like there are others out there,
but that’s the one that you found most useful.
Yeah, there’s another one too
that is even more visual than that, than the Reporter app,
although that has visual components
and is really effective if you like data
and want to collect numbers on yourself or your experience.
There’s another one called the One Second Every Day app.
This is really awesome because the app is a mechanism
to record one second of your life.
The goal, there’s such an awesome community of people
that just live by this and love having these experiences.
And the creator of it, I got a chance to talk with,
and he has done this.
He’s taken a one second video of some aspect of his life
every day for 12 years, 13 years or something.
Yeah, one second.
And then what the app does is smash them together
and give you a chronology of what your year or your month
or your last decade of life has been like
and presents it as a streamlined video for you.
So you just see these flashes of your life
over however long you tell the app
to create a montage for you.
And so when you see these videos that people have made,
especially those that have been doing it
for a really long time, it’s fascinating.
I did that for myself too.
I tried it, one second of today’s drumming performance
and another second, it’s not enough to capture it.
Am I actually doing a good job of drumming
or what’s my trajectory for drumming?
But the guy who made it says one of the most like awesome
one second videos that he ever made is of a brick wall.
I was like, well, you didn’t need a video of that.
Like what’s the wall doing?
It doesn’t, it’s not crumbling.
It’s not like an earthquake land or something like that.
It’s just like, you know, slightly jittery
one second of a brick wall.
And I was like, how is that motivating or exciting to you?
Why is that?
You’ve been doing this for 13 years, every day, one second.
Why is that the one second that matters to you most?
And he says, because when it comes up in my montage,
it reminds me of like a really horrific moment in my family.
That was the first wall that I saw
when I walked out of the room,
having heard that my sister-in-law had this awful,
Her intestines started to twist up on themselves and not up.
And she was on the brink of death.
And we had just found this out.
She had just gotten into the hospital.
They diagnosed this issue that required like immediate surgery
and our family was there to hear about this.
And we were all stunned that she might die, like right now,
she might die.
And that’s the first thing that I saw.
And it reminds me of how precious life is,
how important family is,
and how the rest of whatever we were doing that day
didn’t matter because we all needed
to be here together right now.
And that is like all of this emotion
and like purpose in life is conjured up or reminded
when he looks at one second of a brick wall
as it pops into his video feed.
So if you’re visually oriented
and you do want ways to like remember what was life like,
what has my year in review, what does it look like?
That’s an awesome app, One Second Every Day,
that can help you do that.
These are great recommendations.
And a couple of reflections.
First of all, the brick wall example
is a beautiful way of highlighting this other feature
of the visual system,
which is that the brain largely thinks in symbols.
It’s very efficient.
It batches entire experiences into symbols.
In this case, the brick wall can be attached
to a whole set of experiences
that are very meaningful to this individual
that brick walls don’t mean that
or didn’t mean that to me until hearing this.
So I think that it highlights the fact
that the actual symbol is less relevant
than what we attach to that symbol,
but that symbols are so efficient
that even in a one second view of something
we can attach to it for better or for worse.
The other is that I’m a absolute,
almost rabid proponent of people getting morning sunlight
in their eyes as the fundamental layer
of setting their circadian rhythms
and sleep and health as a zero cost practice
that believe it or not can be done
any time of year anywhere.
But it does take a little bit of effort.
You have to get outside,
you can’t do it through a window or a windshield
for it to be efficient,
but it has huge outsize effects on human health.
This has now been demonstrated again and again and again.
And so I’m gonna just do a sort of call to action
if people aren’t already doing this.
I’m going to start using the One Second app
to record my morning sunlight viewing
and prove that even through cloud cover,
you’re getting more photons than you are indoors
and that it’s worthwhile.
I also would love to do this for my next dog
to go from puppy to a full-sized dog
and maybe even to the end, who knows?
Great, these are wonderful tools.
You’ve given us a huge number of practical tools,
which frankly isn’t always the case on these podcasts.
We always strive to do science and science-based tools
is our kind of mantra,
but you’ve given a rich set of tools here to apply.
I just want to briefly backtrack to something
and then a final question.
Earlier, we were talking about how unfit people
see the world as more challenging,
maybe even hills as steep or distances as further
and how shifting people into a state of energy
either cognitively or through the ingestion
of real glucose to get an energetic lift
or maybe through caffeine if that’s within their practice
and span of healthy behaviors, they could do that.
There’s so many people who are suffering from depression,
which one of the key features of depression
is a lack of energy,
even though there can be anxiety associated with depression.
I have to wonder whether or not some of these tools
are being deployed or will be deployed
in the context of mental health
because depression is this vicious loop, right?
People feel a lack of energy and hopelessness
and then things just look harder
and so then it just verifies their negative worldview
and it’s a downward spiral.
That’s why medication in some cases
and social support, et cetera, can be helpful
because they feel more energized.
The side effects often are a problem, however.
Have there been any efforts to implement
some of these visual tools to create this increase
in systolic blood pressure and a kind of readiness
and willingness to lean into what people perceive
as immense challenge?
And if not, for anyone listening,
I know we have a lot of listeners
in the mental health space
and in the helping space, so to speak.
I can imagine these are zero cost, right?
They, we all provide, people are cited,
have the apparati to do it.
Are you aware of any studies like this
or is your laboratory involved in any studies?
Because I just see an immense value
of implementing the sorts of tools that you’ve developed.
Yeah, we haven’t explored those ideas directly.
So call to all the scientists that are out there.
There’s a great opportunity to start looking at these tools
within the mental health space, you’re right.
Other researchers though have,
not this use of narrowed,
like inducing a narrowed attentional focus
and can they now feel more energized to go for a run,
but they have looked at the relationship
between anxiety, depression and visual experience
and found over decades,
evidence that people with depression or with anxiety,
what their attention is captured by
within the bigger global surrounding world
are those things that are negative
or reinforcing of their worldview.
Now that happens for everybody.
The things that are on our mind tend to like pop out
that if whatever we’re thinking about,
we might start seeing some version of it
showing up in the world around us.
It captures our attention.
That’s an idea called priming.
What we’re thinking about might then lead us
to attend to the world,
to see things in a way that aligns
with what we’re already thinking about.
It’s just that what we’re thinking about
are those depressive, ruminative, anxiety, fearful thoughts.
When that is what is cognitively accessible,
when that’s what’s going through our mind,
then that’s also what captures our visual gaze.
So when we think like the world is hard,
the world is full of sadness
and that’s the thought in our mind
and then we start seeing the people
with frowns on their faces or who are experiencing anxiety
and that’s what captures our attention,
even when there’s other people around
that might not be seeing the world
or experiencing the world that way,
it becomes reinforcing.
When I think that the world is threatening
and then I notice the threats that are around me,
that confirms what I’m thinking,
which heightens my anxiety or my fear
and then it further leads me to narrowly focus
on those elements of the environment
that are aligned with that worldview,
it’s really hard to get out of that.
That’s where the vicious cycle can come from.
So that has been really well established
within the medical community,
this selective attention relating
to states of mental unwellness,
that’s been pretty well established.
And so there’s been some interventions done
with people that have depression or anxiety,
trying, saying like, here’s an array,
a photograph of a bunch of different faces.
Yes, it’s artificial,
it kind of looks like a page from a yearbook,
a high school yearbook,
but look for the faces that are smiling,
look at the faces that are smiling,
try right now, spend 10 minutes having your eyes focus
on those and look at those people,
that it is an effective intervention
at improving people’s sense of self-efficacy
of what can I accomplish next,
they feel a little bit more energized,
it doesn’t cure depression,
it doesn’t cure anxiety.
And these are literal physical afflictions that we have,
so that’s not a quick fix,
but it can produce a temporary change
that might be a way to start getting out of that rut.
Yeah, and I think nowadays there’s an increasing attention
on tools that will help people orient
as they start to veer towards suicidal depression
or veer back into a depressive episode or anxiety episode.
I mean, trying to reverse an entire syndrome
or set of syndromes is far more complicated.
Likewise in the health space,
just trying to get people to deploy real-time tools
to adjust their anxiety or to exercise more often and so on.
As a kind of a final, but also kind of high-level question,
I’m imagining that,
and I plan to use this visual goal setting of spotlighting.
I’ve been using it actually for some time on runs,
it works really well.
Yesterday I took a run near the waterfront here
and the entire, I think I did it somewhat incorrectly,
the entire run I was thinking about getting back
to the statue, which I started,
but I did find that I ran fastest in the final 20 meters,
which I admittedly wasn’t fast at all,
but it was faster than what preceded it.
So it works and it makes perfect sense as to how it works.
You’ve done other studies exploring
some of the other features of vision,
like the luminosity, how bright something is
and how people perceive it.
That was in a completely different context,
but is there a kind of a higher level,
a kind of a black belt version
of what we’re talking about here,
where not only am I focusing on a specific visual location
as an intermediate or a long-term goal,
or I’m using an app to ask me a question
and tap into how I’m feeling,
create a visual representation of my motivational state,
but that I’m also making my phone as bright as possible.
I’m also trying to take that visual window
and actually pay attention to more of the details
at that location, or is it simply a matter of kind of,
in geek speak, visual neuroscience,
we would just call this like low spatial frequency,
just sort of grabbing a black and white snapshot
of something here or there in my mind.
If I attach more detail and effort
to the specific thing that I’m focused on,
is there any evidence that that’s more effective?
It certainly changes what our brains are doing.
So, how do we define effectiveness?
That’s a question for philosophers
and that scientists will always-
Will it keep me running?
Yeah, it will when you use it towards the end of your run,
just like you’ve picked up on.
Yeah, so there’s cool studies that neuroscientists,
not I, not coming from my lab,
that neuroscientists have done looking at,
what is it doing to your brain
when you’ve decided that you’re going to focus
your attention on this element of the world
and not pay attention to something else?
Is that just sort of like tricking your thoughts,
or is it doing something different
to something more basic, more low level?
And the answer is yes.
So, there’s an area of the brain, the fusiform face area.
It’s part of our brain that’s really specialized
for making sense of faces.
It’s important as a social species
to pay attention to other people,
pay attention to their faces,
what they’re trying to communicate through their face.
So, our brain has developed a really specialized
central area for doing that.
So, these neuroscientists will present a face to somebody,
but superimposed over that is a house or something else
that is less special to us as a social human species.
And so, both of those things,
because it’s sort of like both images
are sort of transparent, overlaid over one another,
our eyes are getting both of those images in,
and our brain is getting both of those images in,
but we can will ourselves to focus on the house,
just really pay attention to the features of the house,
even though everything about that face is still there too,
or pay attention to the face.
And just tell me, what is it that you are deciding
that you wanna hold on to,
that you wanna look at right now?
And you can see that the brain is responding to that.
So, when people are saying, I’m really seeing that face,
the details of the face, I’m paying attention to the face,
even though we know their eyes are also looking at,
engaged with the contents of the house,
that’s right there, smacked on top,
the fusiform face area lights up.
And when they’re saying like,
no, I’m really focused on the house now,
we see activation of the fusiform face area decline,
and other areas of the brain’s neurological real estate
start to engage.
So, yeah, I think there’s something to it
that we can, at a high level,
our brains are responding to our psychology as well.
And we have that great power to really,
with intention, with practice,
decide how do I wanna engage with the world?
And can it produce real change in our bodies
and in the way that we experience the world?
The answer is yes.
Well, you’ve given us a ton of mechanistic
and conceptual and practical information.
I’m speaking for a lot of people when I say,
thank you for taking the time out of your schedule
amidst kids and running a lab
and teaching at the university.
And your book, which we will point people to
and provide a link to, is a wonderful resource.
And we hope to have you back again.
Thank you so much.
It was a great conversation.
Thank you for joining me today for our discussion
about motivation, goal-seeking,
and research-supported tools for achieving your goals
with Dr. Emily Balcedas.
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