huberman maya shankar

Dr. Maya Shankar

Dr. Maya Shankar is a distinguished cognitive scientist and expert in the field of behavioral economics. She earned her Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience from Oxford University, where she studied as a Rhodes Scholar, and later completed postdoctoral research at Stanford University. Dr. Shankar's career is marked by her unique blend of academic excellence and public service. She served as a Senior Advisor in the Obama White House, where she founded and led the White House's Social and Behavioral Sciences Team. This team applied behavioral science insights to improve federal programs and policies. In academia, Dr. Shankar's research focused on how people think, learn, and make decisions. Her work has significant implications for understanding human behavior and designing better public policies. She is also known for her commitment to public outreach, often speaking about the intersection of science, policy, and society. Dr. Shankar's contributions have been recognized with numerous awards and accolades in both the academic and policy spheres.

Exploring Identity and Change with Dr. Maya Shankar on the Huberman Lab Podcast

The Huberman Lab Podcast, hosted by Andrew Huberman, a professor of Neurobiology and Ophthalmology at Stanford School of Medicine, offers insights into science and practical tools for daily life. In a recent episode, Dr. Maya Shankar, a cognitive scientist with an impressive background, joined as a guest. Her journey from a Juilliard-trained violinist to a senior advisor at the White House and her own podcast host is nothing short of remarkable. This article delves into the first part of their discussion, focusing on identity, change, and the interplay between our goals and our sense of self.

Dr. Maya Shankar’s Journey and the Concept of Identity

Dr. Shankar’s story is a testament to resilience and adaptability. Initially a promising violinist at the Juilliard Conservatory of Music, her career path took a dramatic turn due to a hand injury. This pivotal moment forced her to reassess her identity and life goals, leading her into the field of cognitive science.

The Impact of Early Environment on Identity

Dr. Shankar and Huberman discuss how our early environments significantly shape our identities. A concept called “identity foreclosure” suggests that the expectations and roles imposed on us in our youth can limit our potential and self-perception. Dr. Shankar emphasizes the importance of understanding and reassessing these imposed identities, especially in times of change.

Reframing Identity: From ‘What’ to ‘Why’

A crucial takeaway from Dr. Shankar’s experience is the shift from defining identity based on ‘what we do’ to ‘why we do it’. She shares how, after losing her ability to play violin, she found that her true passion lay in the emotional connections music allowed her to create. This realization helped her navigate through different career paths while staying true to her core motivation – understanding and connecting with others.

The Science of Feelings and Decisions

Huberman and Dr. Shankar explore the role of feelings in decision-making. They discuss the limitations of feelings as a compass and the importance of aligning them with deeper goals and identities. This segment offers valuable insights into making informed decisions that are in harmony with one’s true self.

The Role of Awe and Delight in Defining Identity

An intriguing part of the conversation revolves around the experiences of awe and delight. Dr. Shankar describes how awe-inspiring experiences, like listening to a Beethoven concerto, can transcend our usual understanding of the world, pushing us to find new facets of our identity. Huberman adds that these experiences can transform our nervous system, providing new abilities and perspectives.

Dr. Maya Shankar on Embracing Change and Curiosity

Dr. Maya Shankar, in her conversation with Andrew Huberman, delves into the complex process of embracing change, particularly when it involves shifting one’s identity from a past passion to new endeavors. Shankar, once a violin prodigy, found herself drawn to cognitive science following an injury that ended her music career. She underscores the significance of being curious and open to new experiences rather than seeking the exact sensory experiences from past passions. Shankar’s shift from the deep, visceral connection with violin to the intellectual stimulation of cognitive science highlights the diverse expressions of passion.

Curiosity as a Catalyst for Growth

Shankar emphasizes the role of curiosity in personal growth. She illustrates this with her own experience, where her curiosity about cognitive science led her to explore and eventually major in it, despite initial doubts and impostor syndrome. This narrative demonstrates the importance of nurturing curiosity, even in the smallest measure, as it can lead to substantial personal and professional development.

The Power of Uncertainty and Cognitive Closure

Discussing human attitudes toward change, Shankar explains how uncertainty often triggers more stress than certainty, even if the certain outcome is negative. She introduces the concept of cognitive closure, which is the need for definite answers and clarity. Reducing the need for cognitive closure and embracing uncertainty can lead to enhanced well-being and resilience in the face of change.

Self-Auditing and Understanding Personal Change

Shankar highlights the importance of self-auditing to understand how one changes over time. Recognizing that change is not confined to a specific area of life, but has spillover effects into other areas, can help in better understanding and adapting to these changes. This insight encourages continuous self-reflection and adaptation, fostering personal growth.

Empathy, Feedback, and Self-Perception

Further, Shankar discusses the role of empathy and feedback in understanding oneself and others. She stresses the importance of seeking connections in uncomfortable spaces to gain a more complete self-awareness. This approach can challenge and refine one’s beliefs and perceptions, contributing to personal development.

Cognitive Science and Human Empathy

Shankar’s conversation with Huberman culminates in a discussion on cognitive science’s contribution to understanding human nature and empathy. She underscores how cognitive science can drive human empathy, providing insights into decision-making, attitudes, and personal development. Shankar advocates for using this understanding to bridge empathy gaps and improve interpersonal relationships.

Humility in Leadership and Personal Relationships

Dr. Maya Shankar highlights the importance of humility in both professional and personal arenas. As a leader, she values the ability to adapt her opinions and strategies based on new information, prioritizing a flexible mindset over stubbornness. This approach extends to her personal life, notably in her marriage, where both she and her husband prioritize acknowledging when they are wrong and changing their minds when presented with new perspectives. Shankar emphasizes that traditionally, leadership has been associated with unwavering convictions, but she believes that being open to change is a more virtuous quality.

The Role of Critical Feedback and Self-reflection

Shankar discusses the significance of being receptive to critical feedback, although not all feedback is equally meaningful. She stresses that her pride stems not from being right, but from her willingness to maintain a dynamic mindset about various issues. This approach is akin to a scientific mindset, where one must be ready to update beliefs in light of new information.

Seeking Honest Assessments and Managing Mental Chatter

Andrew Huberman speaks about the value of seeking brutally honest assessments from friends to gain insight into one’s behavior. He shares personal experiences where such feedback, although sometimes harsh, was instrumental in personal growth. Additionally, Shankar introduces the concept of taming mental chatter, as explored by Ethan Cross. She suggests adopting a third-person perspective when dealing with problems, which can foster objectivity and emotional distance, aiding in clearer decision-making.

The Pitfalls of Venting and the Role of a Cognitive Advisor

Shankar explains that while venting about problems is common, it can be counterproductive. Often, people engaged in a venting session tend to offer emotional support rather than challenging the narrative or helping reframe the situation. She suggests adopting the role of a ‘cognitive advisor’ who actively questions and reframes the narrative to provide more constructive feedback.

Behavioral Science Insights on Goal Setting and Motivation

Shankar delves into the nuances of goal setting and motivation. She distinguishes between ‘approach orientation’ and ‘avoidance orientation’ in framing goals, noting that approach-oriented goals (e.g., eating healthier foods) are generally more motivating and lead to feelings of pride and accomplishment, whereas avoidance-oriented goals (e.g., avoiding unhealthy foods) often result in relief upon success but are less motivating. She also discusses the importance of how goals are defined and pursued, stressing that subtle shifts in framing can significantly impact behavior.

Leveraging Behavioral Science in Public Policy

Drawing from her experience in government, Shankar shares an example where a minor change in wording in an email significantly increased veterans’ participation in a benefits program. This change was based on the psychological principle of the endowment effect, demonstrating how small tweaks in communication can lead to substantial behavioral changes.

Enhancing Motivation and Sustaining Behavior Change

Shankar offers practical strategies for sustaining motivation in goal pursuit. She emphasizes the importance of shortening goal durations to manage the ‘middle problem’ — the natural dip in motivation that occurs midway through any long-term endeavor. She also suggests ‘temptation bundling,’ where an unpleasant task is paired with an enjoyable activity, making the task more appealing.

Empathy and Its Role in Understanding Others

Shankar elaborates on different types of empathy — emotional empathy, cognitive empathy, and empathic concern — and how understanding these can lead to greater human empathy and better relationships. She notes that people often have varying levels of these types of empathy, which affects how they respond to others’ needs.

The Impact of Empathy on Burnout and Self-Perception

She also discusses how different types of empathy can affect one’s susceptibility to burnout, with emotional empathy often leading to higher burnout rates. By focusing on cognitive empathy and empathic concern, one can protect against burnout while still being empathetic.