Shane O'Mara is a Professor of Experimental Brain Research in Trinity College Dublin, and am a Principal Investigator in, and currently the Director of, the Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience and a member of the academic staff of the School of Psychology.
I had the please of discussing with him, his latest book titled: Talking Heads: The New Science of How Conversation Shapes Our Worlds
Some of the topics discussed includes:
The Book and Audiobook: Talking Heads: The New Science of How Conversation Shapes Our Worlds is out now.
You can also find out more about Shane via his instagram https://www.instagram.com/shanewriter
or his substack https://brainpizza.substack.com/
First and foremost Shane, thank you for coming on the podcast.
Shane O'Mara (00:04.861)
And thanks for inviting me, I'm delighted to be here.
very welcome. So the first thing I want to ask you is that in the book, you discussed the relationship between memory and conversation. How do our conversations influence our memories? And how do memories in turn shape our conversations and shared social worlds?
Shane O'Mara (00:25.537)
Wow, that's a big, big question. And I guess that's why I wrote the book. I think what I would emphasize first is this kind of idea that without having a well-stocked memory, conversation as we normally understand it is extremely difficult. So if you take the example of somebody who has amnesia because they've got brain damage of some description, they can talk to you about what's going on.
Shane O'Mara (00:51.709)
in the here and now, what they're experiencing now, whether they like the cup of coffee they're drinking, whether they like the room they're in, or all those kinds of details. But filling out what they did last week since you met them the last time is impossible. And imagining in conversation together what you'll be doing next week is impossible. So you have this kind of really weird phenomenon where we don't appreciate the extent to which
our memory systems infuse conversation. But without them infusing conversation, our conversations will be kind of around the present moment and nothing else. The past would be gone, the future would not exist. Only the here and now is available to us. So that's kind of like what memory gives to conversation. The other side of it is what conversation gives to memory. And what conversation gives to memory,
Again, imagine having a conversation with somebody with amnesia. They're not able to update. They can't remember what you told them the last time you met them. You're telling them something now and they won't remember it the next time that you go to meet them. So conversation updates our memory all the time. You tell me how you're feeling. I tell you how I'm feeling. I describe what I did the other day. I describe what I'm going to be doing next week. And we update ourselves all the time. And that's how these two systems mesh together.
in this really beautiful inside out kind of way where you bring your memories to bear on conversation and then conversations in turn come in and affect memory. So for the next time, you've got something new to say.
And you explore the concept of spending most of our thinking lives in a brief present moment. How does this influence our perception of time and our sense of self?
Shane O'Mara (02:47.797)
Oh, that's a really interesting one. So I don't deal with the perception of time in great detail in the book, by any means. What I really do is focus on this idea of thinking about the moment that we find ourselves in and how we engage in, quote, mental time travel. Now, our perception of time changes depending on a whole variety of other things. You know, the kind of.
perception that we have in a sense is kind of relative and we live in a bubble that's a couple of seconds duration but we can step outside that bubble in the sense that we can think about what we might do next week and we might also think about what we were doing last week so we can slide along but this kind of mental timeline into the past and forward into the future
And in terms of our sense of self, sorry, I was nearly not going to answer that question. In terms of our sense of self, this is one of the things that I think you were just starting to get a handle on in the last while. People have this kind of idea that present moment, you are what you are and you've changed lots in the past and you're not going to change very much in the future. And this is called the end of history illusion.
It turns out actually this is not true. People are capable of change and indeed do change. And if you track people's, for example, factors of personality over time, like over a period of decades, what you see is that there are shifts in people's sense of themselves, in their sense of what's important to them, what they think of as vital life experiences. And it's not surprising really, if you think back to yourself as a...
five-year-old or a six-year-old going into school was a really big deal you know but by the age of 16 going into school that first couple of days in school it's kind of gone yeah you might say you remember it maybe you do maybe you don't but what's important to you at particular times changes and that happens through the course of our lives of course like you know when you're 65 and your spouse dies or something like this you know these terrible life events can have a
Shane O'Mara (05:08.925)
a really profound effect on how you see yourself in your relation to the world.
Another question I wanted to ask you Shane is, so what happens when our mind wanders?
Shane O'Mara (05:22.089)
Ah, mind wandering. I think mind wandering is one of the great gifts that we have. And I think I had the experience in school and I'm sure you had it, too, where you were looking out the window and you're not present. You're somewhere else. And your teacher gives you what for doing that. But actually, consider what you're doing. It's a really amazing phenomenon. You you were not trapped in the here and now.
You've gone on this amazing journey of the imagination. You're thinking about what you might do next week. You're thinking about what you might do or might have done last week. You're thinking about your friends. You're thinking about your family. You're thinking about other people. You're doing all sorts of things. So you're, as I say in the book, you're behaviorally quiescent. You're sitting there and you're actually doing nothing. But the reality is mentally you're engaged in really, really furious activity. And if we pop you in a brain scanner,
and look at your brain when you're doing mind wandering, as opposed to focusing on the task the teacher wants you to do, what you see is mind wandering occupies a vast proportion of the brain. Really an amazing amount of brain is involved when you're engaged in mind wandering. And if we track you during the course of the day, so ping you on a mobile phone randomly, and just say, what are you doing? What are you thinking about?
What you find is about 40% of what you do is thinking about stuff other than what you're doing at this moment. In other words, you are mind wandering. So this is something that we humans are very, very good at doing and it allows us to imagine the world in new ways. And there's a lot of data to suggest that mind wandering is at the core of creativity.
Because when you're mind wandering, what you're doing is you're zooming out from the details. You're looking at the big picture, you're looking at all sorts of things, and then you're focusing back in again. And being able to see the big picture and the details at the same time allows you to think about where you are in relation to things, what problems you have to solve, all that kind of stuff.
I feel as though there has been like a misconception of mind-ordering as if it's like a pointless exercise, but really it sounds as though it's a moment where one can reflect, where new ideas are created, or so many things are happening, you know, as opposed to just looking at the window as one might think is.
Shane O'Mara (08:00.041)
Yeah, I think we have this kind of idea, which is, to my mind, again, it's kind of a modern idea, which is really, really bad. That if you're not engaged in furious productivity at the moment where you're task focused and you're burning, you know, the candle at both ends and all of that kind of thing, you're actually wasting your time. But actually, that turns out not to be true. Our brains oscillate between different states. And there's one state we all forget where
mind wandering happens in an amazing kind of way, which is sleep and dreaming. Where you engage in all sorts of mad and bizarre dreams and encounter realities that aren't possible in our physical world. But during the day, we oscillate between these states. It's not possible for us to be always on. And a good way of thinking about this is to think about athletes. Think about the great football players or think about the great runners.
or great tennis players or whatever it happens to be, they don't spend eight hours a day training. Not at all. They'll spend two or three hours a day training and they'll spend the rest of the day resting. Because rest is a really important part of productive life.
Absolutely, it's very true. Thanks, Shane. So another question I wanted to ask you is that you touch on the connection between conversation and the sense of self-solidifying with age. Can you explain why age plays a role in this process, even as our memories arguably becomes more elusive?
Shane O'Mara (09:35.197)
Yes, so that's one of these kind of problems that we're not really able to give a very, very good answer to yet. And this is because aging is such a variable phenomenon. So a kind of a general answer is difficult. So if you focus on what happens, for example, to memory when people age, what you'll see is that a fraction of the population are so-called super agers.
They have memory and cognitive performance at the age of 70 or 80, which is the equivalent of people in their 20s. Absolutely astonishing. And then you've another group of people that fall off a cliff. They age really, really badly. They show slowing as they get older. They get frail, all sorts of problems. And in between those two extremes, you could find every other kind of variation in humanity.
And obviously what we would like to do is super age as we get older and keep the period of decline to a smallest sliver of life as is possible. So giving a kind of a good general answer to this is hard. But there are some things that we can point at. One of the things is that people, as they get older, tend to become better at dealing with extremes of emotion.
and they tend to focus on positive emotions rather than negative emotions. And they engage in what's sometimes called rosy retrospection, which is where you look back on life. You don't recall the bad stuff. You let the bad stuff go. And you think about positive life events, you know, who you're with, your family, your friends, your children, things that you've achieved, things that you've done for other people, all the good stuff. You forget the arguments. You forget the guy who cut you up.
when you were driving down by the roundabout or whatever it happens to be. And you let a lot of that stuff go. So we tend as we get older, on average. This is on average to take a kind of a more positive view of our lives. And we tend to focus on the more positive emotions rather than on the kind of more negative emotions. And we tend to in terms of how we conceive of ourselves, to think of ourselves more.
Shane O'Mara (11:55.153)
in that kind of way as we get older. Now, that's on average. There are people, of course, who focus on the bad stuff and do that. They have what's sometimes referred to as a negative disposition or a negative disposition of personality. But by and large, this kind of portrait of cranky old people is actually an unfair one. And if you survey people as the age.
Shane O'Mara (12:24.425)
their mood tends to be much less labile, they tend to be much calmer and they tend to be, because they've seen it all before, you know, and they know stuff passes. So things change as you get older and the changes can be very positive and we should emphasize that much more than we do.
Absolutely. Just when you were talking earlier about how you get people within the population who as they get older, their brain is still as if they were in their 20s and have people on the other side of the spectrum as well. Is there anything in terms of like what they do in life to prevent any of those things? I just wanted to ask that from a personal point of view because that was very interesting when you mentioned that.
Shane O'Mara (13:07.305)
Yeah, no, so actually the great news is we know lots about this, but only in that there's lots of data been gathered on this in the last, let's say decade or decade and a half. And what we know is that about 40% of cases of dementia, for example, can be prevented by lifestyle changes. So we need to focus much more on the things that people are doing to enhance the quality of life.
enhance their abilities as they get older. So the recipe is very simple. Be physically active. Being fit is a really, really good thing. Being aerobically fit, excuse me, is very, very important. But also doing regular strength training turns out to be very important, particularly for the prevention of frailty and falls as people get older. So.
being physically active, being physically engaged, that's really, really important. Being socially engaged turns out to be really important. Loneliness is really bad for you. We humans are social animals. We love being around other people. We get a boost from it and an enduring boost, excuse me. And that turns out to be physically and psychologically really, really important.
So physical activity, being socially engaged. The next thing is being intellectually engaged. So not sitting down on the couch, guzzling beer, and watching telly as your sole intellectual output. You need to do cognitive things. You need to read, play bridge, have conversations. There's a whole gamut of things that people can do that are very good for you.
And then one that people don't know about, and it's a really, really important one, is midlife, 40s, 50s, that kind of age, attention to hearing. About nine or 10% of cases of dementia are associated with hearing loss. And making sure that you look after your ears and get your hearing tested regularly is really important. And if you're showing
Shane O'Mara (15:31.733)
marked hearing loss as you get older, getting that corrected. And there are lots of unobtrusive devices now to help people's hearing. Turns out actually, maybe I won't say counter-intuitively, but it's just one of those things that people don't know a lot about. And then there are other factors that are important. Don't smoke. Smoking is really, really bad for you. It closes all the small blood vessels all over the body and all over the brain. So that's really not a good thing.
Eat a good diet, it's really important. Lots of olive oil, all of that kind of stuff. Don't drink heavily. That's really, I think, a bit of a no-brainer as well. So, you know, all the usual stuff that the public health messaging tells you, that all turns out to be true as well.
It's funny you mentioned being social as well because one of the questions I wanted to ask you is what is the importance of group conversations Shane?
Shane O'Mara (16:27.241)
Yes, so group conversations are a really remarkable phenomenon. So we humans can have conversations in all sorts of ways. So we're having a one on one here. But we, you know, a group of us could sit together in the pub and have a chat. That's a really common human thing to do. Or we can go and have a sit in a coffee house or we can do it while we're going out for a walk or whatever it happens to be. And it turns out remarkably that your memory in a group conversation
is updated by the consensus of the group. So very simple way of thinking about this is, if you imagine you and your friends were at a football match, and there's an intense conversation about something that happened in the match that you didn't notice, maybe somebody kicked the ball, or I don't know, whatever it happens to be, somebody intercepted somebody, or there was a foul down at the back of the pitch.
over a few iterations of that conversation, you will come to believe that you saw that and you will come to believe that you remember it. And maybe six months or a year after that particular match, your belief about what happened, your memory about what happened will match the group consensus about what happened. And this is because when you look at an individual human, what we can know about the world is actually quite limited. You know, we...
We can't know everything. We rely on others and we rely on the consensus of our social groups an awful lot to tell us what's right, what's wrong, what happened, what didn't happen, what's dangerous, what's not dangerous, what's safe, all of those kinds of things. If 10 people tell you, don't go down to X, that shop is selling dodgy goods, what's gonna happen? You're gonna stop going there. You're gonna remember when you pass it that you don't go in because the meat they're selling is...
recycled dog or horse meat or something. I don't know, we can make up any example you want. But the point is that this is what happens to us all the time, that we listen in to others, others assure us of something. And if a couple of other people say, yeah, that happened to me, you're gonna believe them and you're gonna behave likewise.
Thanks Shane. So another question I wanted to ask you is you also discuss the role of conversations in shaping societies and you make the claim in the book that nations began as conversations. Do you mind elaborating on how so?
Shane O'Mara (18:59.797)
Yeah, so that's a big claim, but I think it's the only possible way that a nation ever began. Somebody with money and power and soldiers said, we have this bit of land, we're taking that bit of land, and you sit down with your advisors and they say to you, well, actually, we've got this number of soldiers. They've got that number of soldiers. If we do a sneak attack, we can take it and it's ours. And that land is now ours. That's the only way this can ever have happened. And
If we come back to the idea of nations for a moment, I live here in Ireland, you live in the UK. We were formerly the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. A hundred years ago that stopped. Ireland became an independent nation. How did that happen? It happened because a group of revolutionaries sat around a table and said, we've got to get these guys out. And in 1916, they went out and they fought.
Shane O'Mara (19:58.649)
Six years of civil war ensued and we ended up with two nations where there had been a single United Kingdom. And this happens time and time again throughout history, where nations either come together. And you can see this, you know, if you look, for example, I haven't read many of them, but some of them, the Federalist Papers, which predated the creation of the United States, what you see is a group of revolutionaries.
talking through what a nation could be. And they say, well, what constitution should we have? How do we not have a king? How do we ensure that the president isn't a king but is accountable to the law? Obviously they're having that conversation again at the moment in the US, but that's what those documents are about. And a new nation was called into being under force of arms, of course, because 1776.
brought the American war of independence. And since 1990, we've had the situation where I think 30 odd countries have come into being. So in Europe, Czechoslovakia doesn't exist anymore. What we now have is Czechia and Slovakia, two countries that were one are now two. So we have this idea, I think habit of thought of the countries are kind of enduring, they're always ever present.
but they're not necessarily countries come and go. And what looks absolutely permanent at a particular point in time, when you look back over history, or the lesson of history is that they may disappear actually quite quickly and nobody would have predicted it at the time. Now, when we think about nations for a moment, what you have to think about is what binds people together.
To me, it comes back to this issue of imagination. We have to imagine what the country can be. We have to enter into kind of a shared relationship with all of those people that we say that are within the nation. And that's not given to people who are outside the nation because our border stops here, your border starts there. And borders have two sides. They don't have one side, they always have two sides. And we can decide that borders can move.
Shane O'Mara (22:22.449)
Northern Ireland's border might disappear with Ireland in the next 20 or 30 years, and there will be a single national government. I have no idea whether that will happen or not, but these things happen and happen regularly. I think what's unique about humans again is when you think about other species, chimpanzees, for example, are very territorial, but they don't have countries, they don't have border controls,
Shane O'Mara (22:51.681)
passports, you know, and they fight like hell when they meet another chimpanzee troop. Our orangutans are actually animals that are very socially isolated. They don't get together very much. They will do so for reproduction. But really, other than that, they're really astonishingly solitary. Whereas we humans occupy this kind of sweet spot where we are very social.
We are very trusting. You know, I can take a plane to London tomorrow and assuming that air traffic control is working. But most of the time these processes happen, I'll assume that the pilot and the flight attendants have all had the appropriate training, that the runway will be able to bear the weight of the plane when I'm taking off and when I'm landing, and that there will be a train that will take me into the centre of London.
Shane O'Mara (23:48.265)
you know, and there'd be means for me to find out if there's a problem with that, you know, through media. This doesn't happen in any other species. It's really quite remarkable. And it's because of the peculiar ways our brains are built. They're not alone built for us to kind of imagine things for ourselves. They're also built to allow us to imagine things with other people.
Absolutely. Thanks Shane, really appreciate that one. So lastly, what I wanted to ask is that you discuss the potential for conversation to build a better future. Could you touch on how effective conversations can contribute to positive social and well societal change?
Shane O'Mara (24:31.965)
Yeah, so I think one of the great kind of things that has happened over the last few years has been kind of two or three important discoveries. One is this idea of what we might call respectful conversation, where we engage in rapport with each other and we talk to each other as if we care about what the other person thinks. Often people don't do that in conversation, but actually...
giving off the signal that you do actually care about what the other person is saying turns out to be very important in all sorts of ways. And one way that manifests itself is in changing what people think. So there's a phenomenon known as, or a process rather known as deep canvassing, which has been used in the United States. And this is where
properly trained and I emphasize properly trained campaigners talk to people about contentious issues on their doorsteps and they give people a chance to say what it is that they think, what their fears are, what their beliefs are, why they might be right, why they might be wrong and quite a few field trials have shown in the US, I only know of studies in the US,
that actually positive social change is possible when you engage in deep canvassing. It turns out it's a hard thing to do because you have to train people to do it. And I know from my own experience with election workers here that, you know, they hand me a piece of paper and they say, will you vote for us? And then they run away. Because they're, you know, having an argumentative or what might be difficult conversations on the doorsteps is psychologically taxing.
Shane O'Mara (26:26.529)
However, I also know from our experience here, we had two major constitutional votes in the last number of years, one on abortion and one on equal rights to marriage. So the equal right to marriage one happened in 2015, and there had been a campaign, I guess for at least eight or 10 years before to change the constitution to ensure that everybody had a right to marriage, irrespective of...
of your kind of gender preference or whatever. And I know from talking to people who were involved in that campaign that this process of going out and actually discussing things really made a big difference to hearts and minds. And that referendum was voted in kind of on a two to one majority, 67 percent I think voted for it. And where the abortion referendum was concerned we did something really interesting.
We had what were known as citizens' assemblies, where there was a series of meetings held around the country chaired by a neutral chair, where there was lots of discussion about how abortion laws should be changed. And the change happened, or sorry, the assemblies voted, they were streamed, people had access to all the documentation questions could be posed. And that referendum was voted through as well.
Really, again, very decisively, about 67 or 68 percent of the population voted in favour of it. And I think these methods of engaging with the public actually show that in many cases, the vast majority of the public are far ahead of where the politicians are. And what I think happens to politicians is that they hear from extremists, you know, the people who are most animated by a topic are the ones who turn up in their constituency clinic on a Saturday morning,
Shane O'Mara (28:22.073)
bypass is or I hear you have this ultra high emission ultra low emissions on thing in London at the moment. And you know the people who care about that the most are the ones who get most exercised about it. But there are all sorts of ways of ensuring that you can get the public out ahead of the issue and I think deep canvassing is one. Citizens' assemblies turn out to be another. So we can do things better.
and we're slowly getting better at doing things better.
Brilliant. Thank you, Shane.
Shane O'Mara (28:58.817)