Introducing: Meaning Lab
A cognitive science perspective on the pursuit of meaning in work, life, and relationships.
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. Last month, 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.
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.
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 kinds of arguments and ideas I want to explore on this Substack. Eventually, I’ll really be trying to do this blog/podcast as a premium product. Looking forward, I think at some point I’ll do most of my posts paywalled, with the podcasts (or at least, like, the first 60 minutes of them) free. So, in the future I will be asking you to shell out some dough to support my work. For now, I want to focus on making sure the work is as high-quality as possible, as well as growing my free subscriber base before dialing in the paid content. That said, if you do want to support up front, I’d really appreciate it! This is the move I’m trying to make post-PhD, so your contribution will help me be able to solidify doing this kind of thing full-time. Even signing up for a month of paid, then cancelling makes a big difference! There’s a button below, which I believe says “subscribe now” for non-subscribers and “upgrade to paid” for free subscribers—so please do feel free to use such a button however you see fit, including leaving it completely untouched.
At any rate, I’m glad to have you here. I think it’s gonna be a lot of fun. I’m excited. New episodes of the Meaning Lab podcast will begin next week.
Congrats on graduating! As someone who's just starting to set foot into Cognitive Science myself, I really loved the Cognitive Revolution episodes, as you interviewed many of my idols, and hearing their stories was very insightful. I'm looking forward to your future podcast episodes and writing!