Huberman Lab - Dr. Emily Balcetis: Tools for Setting & Achieving Goals

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.

Our first sponsor is Element.

Element is an electrolyte drink

with everything you need and nothing you don’t.

That means plenty of salt, magnesium, and potassium,

the so-called electrolytes, and no sugar.

Now, salt, magnesium, and potassium are critical

to the function of all the cells in your body,

in particular to the function of your nerve cells,

also called neurons.

In fact, in order for your neurons to function properly,

all three electrolytes need to be present

in the proper ratios.

And we now know that even slight reductions

in electrolyte concentrations or dehydration of the body

can lead to deficits in cognitive and physical performance.

Element contains a science-backed electrolyte ratio

of 1,000 milligrams, that’s one gram, of sodium,

200 milligrams of potassium,

and 60 milligrams of magnesium.

I typically drink Element first thing in the morning

when I wake up in order to hydrate my body

and make sure I have enough electrolytes.

And while I do any kind of physical training

and after physical training as well,

especially if I’ve been sweating a lot,

if you’d like to try Element, you can go to drinkelement,

that’s slash Huberman,

to claim a free Element sample pack with your purchase.

Again, that’s drinkelement, slash Huberman.

Today’s episode is also brought to us by Thesis.

Thesis makes what are called nootropics,

which means smart drugs.

Now, to be honest, I am not a fan of the term nootropics.

I don’t believe in smart drugs in the sense that

I don’t believe that there’s any one substance

or collection of substances that can make us smarter.

I do believe based on science, however,

that there are particular neural circuits

and brain functions that allow us to be more focused,

more alert, access creativity, be more motivated, et cetera.

That’s just the way that the brain works,

different neural circuits for different brain states.

Thesis understands this.

And as far as I know, they’re the first nootropics company

to create targeted nootropics for specific outcomes.

I’ve been using Thesis for more than six months now,

and I can confidently say that their nootropics

have been a total game changer.

My go-to formula is the clarity formula,

or sometimes I’ll use their energy formula before training.

To get your own personalized nootropic starter kit,

go online to slash Huberman,

take a three-minute quiz,

and Thesis will send you four different formulas

to try in your first month.

That’s slash Huberman,

and use the code Huberman at checkout

for 10% off your first order.

I’m pleased to announce that the Huberman Lab Podcast

is now partnered with Momentus Supplements.

We partnered with Momentus for several important reasons.

First of all, they ship internationally

because we know that many of you are located

outside of the United States.

Second of all, and perhaps most important,

the quality of their supplements is second to none,

both in terms of purity and precision

of the amounts of the ingredients.

Third, we’ve really emphasized supplements

that are single ingredient supplements

and that are supplied in dosages

that allow you to build a supplementation protocol

that’s optimized for cost,

that’s optimized for effectiveness,

and that you can add things and remove things

from your protocol in a way

that’s really systematic and scientific.

If you’d like to see the supplements

that we partner with Momentus on,

you can go to slash Huberman.

There you’ll see those supplements,

and just keep in mind that we are constantly expanding

the library of supplements available through Momentus

on a regular basis.

Again, that’s slash Huberman.

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.

It’s great.

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,

physical 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

are doing.

You can tell them about what the New York Road Runners

are doing.

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.

I see.

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.

She’s Canadian.

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,

but fascinating.

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,

walking faster,

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.

I’d like to take a quick break

and acknowledge one of our sponsors, Athletic Greens.

Athletic Greens, now called AG1,

is a vitamin mineral probiotic drink

that covers all of your foundational nutritional needs.

I’ve been taking Athletic Greens since 2012,

so I’m delighted that they’re sponsoring the podcast.

The reason I started taking Athletic Greens

and the reason I still take Athletic Greens

once or usually twice a day

is that it gets me the probiotics that I need for gut health.

Our gut is very important.

It’s populated by gut microbiota

that communicate with the brain, the immune system,

and basically all the biological systems of our body

to strongly impact our immediate and long-term health.

And those probiotics in Athletic Greens

are optimal and vital for microbiotic health.

In addition, Athletic Greens contains a number of adaptogens,

vitamins, and minerals that make sure

that all of my foundational nutritional needs are met,

and it tastes great.

If you’d like to try Athletic Greens,

you can go to slash Huberman,

and they’ll give you five free travel packs

that make it really easy to mix up Athletic Greens

while you’re on the road, in the car, on the plane, et cetera,

and they’ll give you a year’s supply of vitamin D3K2.

Again, that’s slash Huberman

to get the five free travel packs

and the year’s supply of vitamin D3K2.

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.

Yeah, totally.

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.

Nightmare board.

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.

Every time.

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.


It’s amazing.

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

or self-congratulations,

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.

Okay, great.

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.

Sorry Kool-Aid.

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.

Yeah. Yeah.

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.

So, yeah.

And clearly better than I do too.

Thank you.

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.

One second?

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,

awful experience.

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.


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.

If you’re learning from and are enjoying this podcast,

please subscribe to our YouTube channel.

That’s a terrific zero-cost way to support us.

In addition, please subscribe to the podcast

on Apple and Spotify.

And on both Apple and Spotify,

you can leave us up to a five-star review.

Please leave us any comments or suggestions

or ideas for future guests

or questions about particulars of any podcast episode

in the comment section on YouTube.

We do read all the comments.

Please also check out the sponsors

mentioned at the beginning of today’s episode

and check out Athletic Greens.

That’s the best way to support this podcast.

In addition, please check out our Neural Network Newsletter.

That is a zero-cost newsletter available to anyone.

You just provide an email

and we do not share your email with anybody.

You simply go to

You go to the menu.

You look for the Neural Network Newsletter.

And by signing up for the newsletter,

you can get summaries of podcast episodes,

detailed lists of protocols related to podcast episodes.

Again, all zero cost.

We don’t share your information.

And if you’d like to see examples of previous newsletters,

they’re also available on our website,

If you’re not already following us on social media,

we are Huberman Lab on both Twitter and Instagram.

There, I cover science and science-related tools,

some of which overlap with the contents

of the Huberman Lab podcast,

but much of which is distinct from the information

on the Huberman Lab podcast.

Again, it’s Huberman Lab on Instagram

and Huberman Lab on Twitter.

And as mentioned at the beginning of today’s episode,

we are now partnered with Momentous Supplements

because they make single ingredient formulations

that are of the absolute highest quality

and they ship international.

If you go to slash Huberman,

you will find many of the supplements

that have been discussed on various episodes

of the Huberman Lab podcast,

and you will find various protocols

related to those supplements.

So thank you once again for joining us today

for our discussion about the science

and science-related tools of motivation,

goal-seeking, and pursuit.

And last, but certainly not least,

thank you for your interest in science.

Thank you.

comments powered by Disqus