Let's Run a Small Experiment on Cognition

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Sunday, July 5, 2020


Paul McKinley

This week’s post will be a bit less focused on work, and a bit more focused on a small (relatively menial) experiment I’m running this week on human behavior, namely my own. I’ve added a few short updates on the internship at the end, so if that is of more interest by all means skip the rest -- I won’t be offended (because I don’t know you’re reading this). 

So, this week’s experiment: becoming a morning person. This pursuit seems somewhat common, and I’d venture to guess the number of folks declaring themselves as soon-to-be morning people is highest right around New Year’s. There are all sorts of reasons to get up early that are likely better than mine, but doing so voluntarily always seems to be a habit that’s hard to start and even harder to sustain. So for this experiment, I want to go beneath the surface, and look at this from a neurobiological perspective. (Apologies in advance to those who actually understand neurobiology for any botching of terms and definitions)

Here are the parameters of this experiment: 1) I like to go running outside most days of the week. 2) The current forecast for this week puts the temperature for every day in the nineties. Couple that with Michigan July humidity and it’s not exactly an endorphins buffet on those 5 pm runs after work. 3) I’m reading a book on neurobiology (not exactly a plot twist there).

I’ll first make a shameless plug for this book, as someone who hasn’t really done a lot of non-required pleasure reading since high school. Behave by Robert Sapolsky is a book about explaining humanity’s best, and worst behaviors from a neurobiological and evolutionary perspective. It reads more like a story than a textbook and is pretty accessible and often funny.  It was recommended by one of my physics professors in an elective course on climate and energy, and I think that its applications extend far and wide, especially in our current circumstances. 

So here’s the goal: get up every morning this week to exercise before 7 am (I first thought about saying 6 am and realized I was too close to scrapping this blog post idea as a result). From a neurobiological standpoint, this will be a test primarily for the frontal cortex. Sapolsky describes the frontal cortex as the closest thing we have to a super-ego. To bypass all of the jargon that I admittedly don’t understand, the frontal cortex makes us do the harder thing, when it’s the right thing to do. In other words, it’s the little voice in our head that urges us to endure some current discomfort for a longer-term reward, i.e. “get up to go run now even though the bed is comfortable so you don’t melt this afternoon.” The other interesting thing about the frontal cortex is that those “tough” decisions tend to leave our decision-making capacity a bit exhausted immediately after, but over time the behavior becomes more automatic and could eventually become a habit (I’m guessing that’s not news to anyone). 

So we’ll see how this week goes. Beyond this little experiment, I’ll add that the metacognition involved with reading a book on neurobiology is somewhat fascinating. I think the motivation is similar to my interest in physics in that it serves as a means to understand the rules that govern complex systems. Except instead of physical rules governing the Universe, we’re talking about rules governing neurons and synapse firing in our own head. I also think that the bit about the frontal cortex is broadly applicable, especially now. Doing “the harder thing, when it’s the right thing” is something I think we all struggle with. It’s the internal battle we have to endure when we want to go out and socialize but know that the associated risks may not be worth it, or know that we should wear a mask even when it’s hot and uncomfortable. The potential examples are endless, so I’ll let readers fill in the blank. 

This post is pretty long now, but for the TL;DR folks, this upcoming week is a busy one. I have multiple “virtual coffees” set up with some of the staff on the Energy and Environment subcommittees which I’m looking forward to, and I have multiple concurrent staff assignments coming up. We also have our upcoming virtual picnic with a talk by John Mather (founder of the ‘Mather’ policy internship), and we’ll have a day where all of the SPS interns will come do a mixing Q&A session with the House Science, Space and Technology Committee staff. Worlds colliding. 

I’m sure I’ll have more to write on this once all of that stuff has happened, but until then, stay safe, stay empathetic, and when you are faced with a tough choice, trust your frontal cortex.


Paul McKinley