I have mentioned a few times that I listen to various podcasts as I go about my daily chores. While many of them tend to be literary/bookish ones, there are a few, like this one, that are, well, different. Over the coming months, I hope to share more of these with you all.

[Note: I am not connected with the podcast or its creator in any way. Just a grateful fan spreading the word.]

Let me start with a bit of an introduction that I think necessary for those entirely new to the field of cognitive science — the science of how we think — which is what this podcast is all about. Stay with me, though, as I promise it will get more interesting.

For the most part, what people call their “gut/intuition” is really, to me = [limited experience + irrational fears + fluctuating emotions]. In evolutionary terms, these three elements are part of the paleomammalian complex of our brains — the limbic system — which, among other structures, includes the hippocampus (memory-maker) and amygdala (emotion-stirrer; driven by fear for survival). In simple terms, this is the part of the brain we had when we lived in forests and were hunter-gatherers and, as we evolved, though it grew smaller, it did not entirely disappear. Part of our evolution, though, did help to create what is known as the neomammalian complex of our brains — the neocortex system — which allows us higher functions like sensory perception, generation of motor commands, spatial reasoning, conscious and rational thought, and language.

Despite our brain’s evolution, when we come across something outside of our normal scope of experience, we tend to rely on this limbic system, or gut/intuition, more than anything else to figure out how best to respond. And, in addition to making us prone to fear, impatience, hate, anger, lying, and other such survival-driven behaviors, this gut/intuition response also causes us to react with more pronounced cognitive biases and logical fallacies.

Also, it has been my personal experience that people who have not had the opportunity to broaden their life experiences or their perspectives through reading/education tend to have a greater reliance on this gut/intuition or limbic system response. And, now, more than ever, when our world is increasingly complex, it is just not enough. We need to be able to engage the rational mind (pre-frontal cortex) more often and more quickly to make decisions and respond appropriately when faced with new situations of which we may have no/limited experience.

There are many books out there that dive into this vast topic. My favorite one is Daniel Kahneman’s ‘Thinking Fast and Slow‘. But, if you’re looking to ease in with less jargon and less prose density, I highly recommend this particular podcast series called ‘You Are Not So Smart’. Run by David McRaney, these brisk <1-hour episodes look at our lifelong practice of self-delusion. And, without dumbing it down or talking down to us, they give us practical nuggets of wisdom that we can start applying right away in our daily lives.

Here’s how it all started, in his own words:

You Are Not So Smart is a blog I started to explore self delusion. Like lots of people, I used to forward sensational news stories without skepticism and think I was a smarty pants just because I did a little internet research. I didn’t know about confirmation bias and self-enhancing fallacies, and once I did, I felt very, very stupid. I still feel that way, but now I can make you feel that way too.

The central theme of You Are Not So Smart is that you are unaware of how unaware you are. There is an old-and-still-growing body of research across several disciplines with findings that suggest you have little idea why you act or think the way you do. Despite this, you continue to create narratives to explain your own feelings, thoughts, and behaviors, and these narratives – no matter how inaccurate – become the story of your life.

There are many excellent episodes. You can catch them on iTunes or on the website. He has also written a couple of books based on his episode themes/topics. I have yet to look into them, but they are on that website too. One caveat: there are brief ads at the start, middle, and end of each episode. But, come on, the guy’s got to make a living and  it is clear that a lot of time and effort goes into putting this podcast together. We can handle <2-minutes overall of ads, OK?

At the time of writing this post, there is an ongoing series on logical fallacies, which I wish would be made a mandatory part of our high school, college, and university education. [For a quick overview of logical fallacies, see the chart at the bottom.]

Here’s why I am really enjoying these particular episodes:

1. McRaney has some very smart researchers and experts on each episode for lively debate/discussion. (Aside: there are as many smart women as men, which I like very much.)

2. He has a systematic, easy-to-follow approach — first, they introduce and define the particular kind of fallacy being discussed; then, they give a few more examples from research, studies, culture; then, they explain how to “spot it in the wild” — meaning, how do you know someone (including yourself) is committing this fallacy; then, they advise on how to avoid committing such a fallacy yourself; and, finally, they suggest how you might respond tactfully to someone who is committing the fallacy.

3. All of this is done in simple, everyday language with plenty of humor and humility.

4. There are transcripts and additional reading resources listed on the website so you can follow on once you’ve got your bearings.

5. And, finally, there’s a terrific cookie recipe at the very end — sent in by a listener.

Here’s an example introduction to the “special pleading” fallacy:

Without realizing it, you sometimes apply a double standard to the things you love, believe, and consider crucial to your identity. If you do this while arguing, it is sometimes called special pleading. You search for exemptions and excuses for why a rule or a description or a definition does not apply to something that you hold dear while still applying those standards to everything else.

Isn’t that the description of most petty arguments we might have with our loved ones? Say, when you get mad and yell at another person, and you justify it to yourself saying that you were provoked, dammit. But, if the other person so much as shows frustration in their voice, you stomp all over them for not being calm/polite. Sound familiar?

We live in a world where our familiar coordinates are constantly shifting so that our limited experiences are not enough to help us make rational, informed decisions. Even if we tend to be fact-oriented, analytical individuals, the deluge of 24/7 information is often too overwhelming to sift through in a timely manner to make those decisions. So, more and more, we tend to revert to this so-called gut/intuition. And, as a result, we commit many fallacies through our responses and behaviors. Being able to recognize when we are guilty of doing so is a critical first step. Knowing how to get past it is another. This podcast is definitely helpful in both.


[Note: I am not connected with the podcast or its creator in any way. Just a grateful fan spreading the word.]


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