Friday, April 09, 2010

What's in People's Stream of Experience During Philosophy Talks?

As you may know, Russ Hurlburt and I recently published a book centering on a woman's reports about her experience as she went about her normal day wearing a random beeper. When the beep sounded, her job was to try to recall her "last undisturbed moment of inner experience" just before the beep. Russ and I then interviewed her about these experiences, trying to get both at the truth about them and at methodological issues about the value of this sort of approach in studying consciousness.

Russ and I have presented our joint work in a number of venues now (including at an author-meets-critics session at the APA last week), and normally when we do so, we "beep" the audience. That is, we set up a random beeper to sound when Russ or I or a critic is presenting material. When the beep sounds, each audience member is to think about what was going on in her last undisturbed moment of inner experience before the beep. We then use a random number generator to select an audience member to report on her experience. We interview her right there, discussing her experience and the method with the audience and each other. We'll do this maybe three times in a three-hour session.

As a result, we now have a couple dozen samples of reported inner experience during our academic talks, and the most striking thing we've found is that people rarely report thinking about the talk. The most recent six samples are representative (three from a presentation by me at Claremont Wednesday, three from the APA).

(1.) Thinking that he should put his cell phone away (probably not formulated either in words or imagery); visual experience of cell phone and whiteboard.

(2.) Scratching an itch, noticing how it feels; having a visual experience of a book.

(3.) Feeling like he's about to fade into a sweet daydream but no sense of its content yet; "fading" visual experience of the speaker.

(4.) Feeling confused; listening to speaker and reading along on handout, taking in the meaning. [I'm counting this as an instance of thinking about the talk.]

(5.) Visual imagery of the "macaroni orange" of a recently seen flyer; skanky taste of coffee; fantasizing about biting an apple instead of tasting coffee; feeling need to go to bathroom; hearing the speaker's sentence. The macaroni orange was the most prominent part of her experience.

(6.) Reading abstract for next talk; hearing an "echo" of the speaker's last sentence; fighting a feeling of tiredness; maybe feeling tingling on tooth from permanent retainer.

Where is the cooking up of objections, the thinking through of consequences, the feeling of understanding the meaning of what is being said, the finding of connections to other people's work? In only one of these samples was taking in the meaning of the talk the foremost part of the experience.

It could just be that Russ and I and our critics are unusually deadening speakers, but I don't think so. My guess is that most audience members, listening to most academic talks, spend most of their time with some distraction or other at the forefront of their stream of experience. They may not remember this fact because when they think back on their experience of a talk, what is salient to them are those rare occasions when they did make a novel connection or think up an interesting objection. (I think the same is true of sex thoughts. People often say they spend a lot of time thinking about sex, but when you beep them they very rarely report it. It's probably that our sex thoughts, though rare, are much more frequently remembered than other thoughts and so are dramatically overrepresented in retrospective memory.)

Here are two hypotheses about understanding academic talks that harmonize with these observational data:

(1.) Our understanding of academic talks comes mostly from our ability to take them in while other things are at the forefront of consciousness. The information gets in there, despite the near-constant layer of distraction, and that information then shapes skilled regurgitations of the content of the talks.

(2.) Our understanding of academic talks comes mostly from those few salient moments when we are actually not distracted. Maybe this happens three or twelve or thirty times, for very brief stretches, during the course of the talk. The understanding we walk away with at the end is a reconstruction of what must plausibly have been the author's view based on our recollection of those few instances when we were actually paying attention to what she was saying.

Any bets on (1) vs. (2)? Or candidates for a (3)? If (2) is closer to the truth, then it may be possible to discover strategies to get much more out of talks by discovering ways to better focus our attention on the content.


Badda Being said...

Are there plans for a paperback release of your book?

The Uncredible Hallq said...

Another option is that people don't get much out of academic talks. I wonder what would happen if the question people were asked to answer when "beeped" is "did you get anything out of the speakers last couple sentences?"

T. said...

It may be interesting to look how math and physics talks are processed by the listeners. There is a simultanity of listening and writing down condensed and commented notes. In 19th century, some lecturers darkened the lecture hall for easening the buildup of a mental imagery. I find it interesting that one sometimes seems to forget instantly really new and complex ideas, which are mysteriously remembered later with understanding.

Conc. measurements: Devices for measuring attention and the feeling of understanding should exist by now, so it should be possible to measure the rythms of attention in listeners and how one could synchronize them.

Anonymous said...

The first hypothesis seems to fit my personal experiences of academic talks better than the second, though it's a close call.

When I listen to academic talks about society--be it agriculture, economics, or psychology, in the back of my mind, I consider how familiar and logical the information that I hear seems to me, more so in general than particular, unless I have several personal experiences to relate to a specific topic. I tend to get distracted by the public speaking skills of the speaker; his diction, the quality of the organization of thoughts, etc., whether he seems nervous or confident and eager... My attention will only come forth strongly if what I hear surprises me, or if the speaker has quite a stage presence.

Should it make a difference to your hypothesis, I tell you: I am a young college student of twenty years, I and enjoy writing, debate, theater, and philosophy.

delmot said...

I just wonder if the way the question is phrased prejudices the results? If I were asked to report on my last undisturbed moment of inner experience during a talk, then I might consider actually concentrating on the talk to be, in a way, a disturbed outer moment, and instead think back to my last more internal reverie.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, folks!

Badda: MIT Press will be deciding soon whether or not to issue a paper version in 2011. It's not a clear case.

Hallq: Yes! I didn't mean to exclude that possibility. Both (1) and (2) can be given in relatively high or low comprehension versions.

T: Yes, that would be an interesting comparison. I hadn't heard that about 19th century math lectures!

Skip: Thanks for sharing your impression.

Delmot: Hopefully it was clear from the instructions and the interview that that is not what they were to do; but you never know for sure!

Jenifer Halverson said...

To me an undisturbed inner experience could be a mental tangent relating to the talk, but that seem unlikely to be possible during the talk if you are paying attention. Most mental tangents of any depth will override the experience of listening to the talk, which would defeat the purpose.

So maybe the reason most people don't report they were contemplating the contents of the talk is that their focus is entirely on taking in information, which they will process more thoroughly when there is less input.

Maybe you can beep them at random intervals for several hours after the talk to see what pops out.

Anonymous said...

Hi Eric, great post! I organize conferences (both scientific and more business focused).

I think 90% of the audience, even your audience, hasn't got a clue what you are talking about. More nuanced: Option B.

They lack background information, or can't process the information fast enough.

My hypothesis would be that all talks that are more technical and very detailed will not get more than 5% across.

A nice follow up would be to interview the "beepees" to see what they got out of the talk.

Anonymous said...

BTW: you could use the title: "What the Beep do we know?" for another article ;-)

Although I am not sure if you want to associate in this way with What the Bleep!?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Nice ideas. Thanks, Arjan!

Michael said...

It occurs to me that the subjects of the experiment demonstrated by their willingness to take part in the experiment that they weren't all that invested in understanding the talks they were listening to, anyway. After all, if it were really important to me to attend to what is going on in a talk so as to understand its content, I wouldn't agree to be randomly interrupted by a beep and then to turn my attention to writing up my experiences, even for a moment. For the same reason I would turn off my cellphone rather than leaving it on vibrate and allowing that if I felt it go off I would check to see who was calling.

So perhaps that spoils the sample.

(Michael Kremer)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

You have a point, Michael. But the nice thing about these particular talks was that they were about beeping and the stream of experience. So there was no conflict between wanting to be beeped (and thus get first-person insight into the method) and being interested in the topic of the talks.

Kenny said...

I know that in the talks I go to, there are some where I am very strongly engaged, and others where I am only vaguely paying attention. If we assume that everyone is in something like the vaguely-paying-attention state for 1/3 of the talks they go to (department colloquia are often on topics somewhat far from one's interests; conferences are often so densely scheduled that you really can't pay close attention to all of them), and only in the highly attentive state for about 1/3 of the talks they go to, then the small sample size means we don't know much about the inner life of highly attentive people at talks.

Kenny said...

Here's a totally different hypothesis from my last one. The activities you're interested in, "the cooking up of objections, the thinking through of consequences, ... the finding of connections to other people's work" are all hard work. We all know that on the large time scale it's difficult to do hard work for many hours at a time without taking breaks to stretch, get a glass of water, maybe check one's e-mail, every once in a while. Maybe it works the same way on the smaller scale. Cooking up objections, thinking through consequences, and finding connections requires significant mental effort, but might be done very quickly. Maybe we spend 10 seconds of every minute doing these things, and spend the other 50 seconds on more "relaxing" mental activities like seeing what's in front of us, thinking of a visual or tactile sensation, or wondering about something else that is intellectually substantially easier. If this interesting and hard work can be done in occasional short bursts, then you're very unlikely to sample it with the beep. How many times do you go to a talk and come up with ten objections during the talk? There may be many more attempts, but perhaps they don't get noticed when they don't succeed.

I left out from your quote, "the feeling of understanding the meaning of what is being said". Do we have other empirical data of the relevant sort to show that there is some strong phenomenal character to this? If not, then maybe this isn't going to show up. I suppose that's a version of conjecture (1).

Rob said...

Blinking eyes indicate mind wandering

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, Kenny! Those are good points.

About sample size: I only presented six, but my real sample size is more like 24. I think that's a large enough sample to rule out that the pattern is a fluke.

On the phenomenology of understanding: Yeah, I don't know much about that! But it is at least a little superficially in tension with the idea that attention is devoted primarily to the content of the talk when people report that at the center of their experience are things like thinking that they need to put a cellphone away.

I agree that things like cooking up objections or having fresh insights might plausibly be uncommon, short burst affairs. But presumably that would be a small part of attending to a talk. Where is the other evidence of more passive attention? Without it I think we get the choice of (1) or (2).

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Rob: Yes the mind-wandering literature is definitely relevant!