“The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge.” —Bertrand Russell
Hi, I’m Cody. Welcome to Meaning Lab.
I’m a cognitive scientist by trade. I’ve trained in cogsci labs at UCLA, Harvard, and most recently for my PhD at Oxford. This Substack is my space for going deeper into understanding how our minds create meaning from the world around us. In Meaning Lab, I’ll take a cognitive science perspective on the pursuit of meaning in work, life, and relationships.
Each week, I’ll publish a podcast interview with an author, scientist, or academic about how their work has uncovered some interesting or unexpected aspect of meaning—where it comes from, how it works, what exactly it means to find more of it in one’s daily activities.
I’ll also publish a weekly piece from my own perspective delving into what psychological research tells us about the mechanisms underlying how we make sense of the world and our place in it.
Why Meaning? Why a Lab?
There are, above all, two reasons I want to talk about meaning.
First, I just think it’s the coolest concept in all of cognitive science. The enterprise of meaning-making is the single most interesting thing that minds can do. To take one example, we humans can take arbitrary sequences of squiggles and lines and dots and use those to represent our entire experience of the world. Human language is amazing. It’s something I’ve been interested in for a long time (for instance, my undergrad thesis was on “Computational models of jazz improvisation inspired by language”). But another example of meaning is how we reflect on our own experiences to create stories about what we’ve done, who we’ve done it with, and why it was worth doing. And meaning isn’t just important for esoteric things, like the study of linguistic semantics, or more practical things, like what research says about how to get more fulfillment out of your work—but the full range of human experience, from music, to art, to ideas, to the basic infrastructure of cognition, to what brings us all together in organized society. In a very real sense, our minds are designed for meaning-making.
The second reason is that I think the idea of meaning is able to give us a more nuanced vocabulary for talking about our experience of the world. This, in my estimation, is something we really need. I’m skeptical of the way we normally talk about some of the routine psychological concepts of work and life.
For instance, happiness. The concept just seems very flimsy to me. As if the best of all possible lives is one in which you attain a permanent state of placid appeasement. Ice cream for every meal. It’s a one-dimensional definition of what it means to be human. Feelings like heartache and profound sadness may not be especially gratifying in the moment. But they’re at least as important in giving texture to the experience of a human life. The concept that reflects that much more directly, in my opinion, is not “happiness,” but meaning.
Which leads me to another of the usual constructs that I think we’ve misunderstood: habit. So much of our discourse about work, and how to be better at it, has to do with developing an optimal habitual routine. The reason for this is that the promise of good habits is frictionless productivity. In the best case scenario, we’d be able to do the right thing without ever having to think about what exactly it is. The problem is that reliance on habit puts us on autopilot. That might be fine when you’re flying a simple route. But when life requires flexibility, contemplation, or creativity, our habits—good or bad—work against us rather than for us.
These are the kind of arguments I want to make in this Substack, and I want to make with the support of the best available scientific data. Here’s an example:
Why I Started This Blog/Podcast
In a way, coming to the end of one’s PhD almost feels inappropriate. The pursuit of this degree gives a kind of structure to adult life—my life, anyway—as something on the horizon to aim for but never actually reach. I’ve always known that getting this degree is not the final goal, just one milestone of many. But nevertheless finishing it doesn’t feel like something I’m supposed to do. It is, for me, an unprecedented situation.
But nonetheless here we are. In November 2022, I defended my dissertation.
And so now I’m in the somewhat startling position of having done what I set out to do. I find myself faced with a familiar question, but one whose answer feels a lot less straightforward than it used to be.
The month before I began my PhD, in October 2019, I sat down with an idea. The concept was to reach out to people I admired—mostly academics and authors—and ask them about the decisions they made when they were in my position. What did they do when they were grad students that set them up for success later on? Sure, I wanted to know about their success, in some sort of career-prestige sense. But I also wanted to understand how they thought about what it means to make a substantive contribution to their field, whatever that may have looked like to them. I envisioned it as a podcast, which I called Cognitive Revolution.
People, I was surprised to learn, were incredibly generous with their time. The project didn’t always go as well as I hoped. There’s a lot that I could’ve done better, and the pandemic actually stifled my show when it seemed to bolster this kind of project for so many others. But I got to talk to many of my heroes, a lot of whom were the ones who inspired me to pursue cognitive science and social psychology in the first place.
I started the project with the vague idea that it would be a useful exercise in “audience building.” It seemed like the kind of thing that was done by other authors who had taken a path like the one I envisioned for myself. It was clear to me since I was an undergrad that I cared at least as much about telling stories about research findings than actually doing the research itself. And I’ve always known that I wanted to write non-fiction pop-psych books as a part of my career. But I also knew that going directly into writing wasn’t the right move, either. I wanted to have something to say. And I felt that developing actual expertise in a field I cared about would give me that.
The Cognitive Revolution podcast allowed me the opportunity to explore the different versions of what that can look like, and how different people have constructed something resembling a coherent career from the disparate pieces of whatever they’ve found, in retrospect, that they’d managed to accomplish. What I thought was going to a means of building an audience was more like adding a second major to my degree. I got a lot out of it. But it was only incidental whether anyone else did as well.
Somewhere along the line, though, I began to feel I was reaching a point of diminishing returns on that project. It’s not that there was nothing left for me to learn. But it seemed like I had gotten all the information that I was going to get out of asking people how they went about doing whatever it was they did. I still am drawn to people’s personal stories, absolutely. But the original concept of Cognitive Revolution no longer represents the dimension of growth that I see myself moving along. It’s time to do something else.
And so I’m starting a new project. It’s a podcast; it’s a blog. It’s the Substack you’re reading now. I call it Meaning Lab. Thank you for subscribing!
I’m trying to make a living doing this (writing, podcasting, etc), and this Substack is one income stream I’m trying to support that career. Buying a paid subscription—even for a single month—helps a lot!
Right now, I’m trying to build up a catalogue of high-quality content. I want it to be freely available, to build my list of free subscribers. That said, in early 2023, I’ll be transitioning to releasing most of my posts for premium subscribers (while podcasts, or at least 60 of each episode) will remain free. So here’s the deal. If you sign up for a paid subscription now, I’ll give you 50%—so it’s just $3 a month. And you’ll get that price for a full year (even if you pay month-to-month). So if you find that you enjoy this content, I’d really appreciate you throwing your financial support behind it as well! And if you want to wait until the paywall goes up, that’s fine, too. It’s just that the price is probably going to go up as well. By the way, you’ll also get access to the full season of my travel podcast, Notes from the Field, which is one of my favorite projects to date!
Either way, your subscription—paid or free—means a ton, and I’m glad to have you here!