Ep 181: How to Use Mystery to Motivate Teens

Episode Summary

Jonah Lehrer, author of Mystery, explains why the unknown is so tantalizing, we just can’t seem to resist. Turns out, we all could use a bit more uncertainty in our data-driven world, because curiosity is a powerful driving force in our lives.

Show NotesParenting ScriptsInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

As parents and people, we tend to seek out certainty. We keep our kids in the same schools so they can have consistent friends. We cook the same group of recipes, so we’re sure to have something ready for dinner without too much stress. And we encourage our kids to study hard so they’ll be sure to get good grades, get into a good college, and get a good job. We feel that if things are certain, we can live comfortably without worrying about our teens too much…even if it can get a little boring!

But what about mystery? Could adding a little bit of unpredictability into our lives make us happier? Might it prepare our teens better for the complicated world ahead? The truth is that uncertainty can be good for us…even if we try our best to make our lives predictable! Our guest this week champions uncertainty…in fact, he believes we should all encourage ourselves and our teens to incorporate a little mystery into our lives.

This week, we’re sitting down with Jonah Lehrer, author of Mystery: A Seduction, A Strategy, A Solution. Jonah is a neuroscientist who’s written multiple bestselling books, as well as contributed to The New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and more! After discovering his son’s fascination with mystery, Jonah dove into research about the effects of unpredictability on the adolescent mind. Now, he’s here to talk about just how powerful uncertainty can be!

In our interview, Jonah explains why curiosity is an essential component of effective teen learning, and we discuss the importance of experiencing awe for both adolescents and adults. Plus, Jonah emphasizes the significance of living with uncertainty instead of searching for finite answers.

Curiosity is Critical

If we really want kids to be engaged in their education, Jonah believes curiosity is key. Kids who are interested in the mysterious and unknown are much more likely to find a  connection to learning! Research shows that curiosity is the number one indicator of a strong school performance–even beyond a teen’s ability to focus. And curiosity isn’t just something kids are born with. It can be fostered, says Jonah. 

In fact, the ability to foster curiosity is one of the reasons why the wealth gap is so prevalent in our education system, he explains. Parents with more disposable income have the cash to take kids to the aquarium for the weekend, or buy kids books. However, this can change if we encourage curiosity in schools, says Jonah. The problem, he explains, is that we don’t! Our current school system tends to push memorization instead of critical thinking, avoiding mystery in favor of certainty. This limits kids to only understanding certain aspects of the subject at hand, Jonah says. 

In our interview, we discuss The Noble Academy, a system of charter schools in Chicago that places curiosity at the forefront of it’s curriculum. Kids are provided with complex problems and asked to solve them with groups of their peers. This method encourages teens to take intellectual risks and embrace the unknown, leaving the memorization behind. And the result? These students outperform the others on state standardized tests. In the episode, Jonah and I talk further about how curiosity has the power to transform education. 

When we engage in curiosity, we often find ourselves with a sense of awe. This awe can have incredible implications in the lives of both parents and teens, says Jonah.

Why We Need a Sense of Wonder

What is awe, exactly? Jonah explains that it’s different for every person. For teens taking their first steps into maturity, awe might come from their first time driving or their first kiss. But it could also be a vacation, a beautiful sunset, or anything that pushes them out of their bubble and into a new experience! Jonah explains that awe can be a really powerful way of gaining perspective, and pushing our kids towards awe-inspiring environments can help them prosper as they grow into adults.

Awe can help teens become kinder people, says Jonah, as they learn to enjoy the unfamiliar. It can make them more accepting of the inevitable unpredictability that comes with life. Finding healthy ways of experiencing awe can also help teens from seeking out thrills in risky behavior. Teens are drawn to exploring higher emotions and big ideas, says Jonah, and a trip to the Grand Canyon is a much safer way of experiencing wonder than drug use, Jonah explains.

For parents, awe can often be hard to achieve! We’ve seen and done so much–what possible unknown could shake us to our core? In the episode, Jonah and I talk about mastery, and how becoming skilled and efficient at whatever it is we do can make our lives feel pretty stale. He encourages parents to try doing something they’ve never done before, something mysterious that makes learning fun. In doing so, we can connect the awe of our inner child, says Jonah.

In our discussion about awe, Jonah and I are talking about games! But not just Monopoly or Go Fish…we’re discussing the difference between finite and infinite games, and how infinite games can change our lives.

How We Can Embrace Ambiguity

When we play video games, board games, or even sports, we are mostly intrigued by the possibility of winning. In the majority of games, there is a finite ending–Mario saves Peach, someone takes the king on the chessboard, one team scores the most goals. But what about games that are infinite? What if you played baseball without keeping score? Jonah explains that if there’s no specified goal, the game can be played just for the sake of playing–and learning.

Jonah explains that these kinds of games don’t just have to be a conventional “game” like Uno or hockey. They are found in everyday life, in things like kids building legos or reading a sophisticated novel. There isn’t a way to win, only ways to explore. In our interview, Jonah and I talk about how social media has the potential to be an infinite game, by giving people the ability to interact and share with millions of other people…but ends up being finite because of “likes” and “followers”.

Parents often want teens to have finite ideas about where they’re going to college, what they want to study, and who they want to be. But Jonah recommends that instead of pushing teens to have all the answers, we should be encouraging them to embrace the unknown. Life is going to throw them plenty of curveballs! The more we can help them learn to roll with the unpredictability, the more they’ll be able to thrive when they step out into adulthood.

In the Episode…

There’s so much we can learn from Jonah’s understanding of the mind. On top of the topics discussed above, we also talk about:

  • What slot machines can teach us about our brains
  • Why personalities are more fluid than we think
  • What Steve Jobs and a piñata have in common
  • How sports rules create fairness of play

If you enjoyed this week’s episode, check out more of Jonah’s work at jonahlehrer.com. Don’t forget to share and subscribe, and we’ll see you next week!


Parenting Scripts

Word-for-word examples of what to say to your teen

1. Elucidate why videogames are so addictive:

“Part of the allure of video games, like slot machines, is they’re really good at taking advantage of the near miss effect. They are really good at using all these psychological tricks.”

-Jonah Lehrer

You’ve reached member-only content. To access this episode ahead of release, log-in or become a member.

2. If your teen is frustrated with someone acting “out of character”:

(Members Only)

3. Suggest to your teen we live in a world averse to not-knowing:

(Members Only)

4. When your teen is upset about not mastering something yet: (1 of 2)

(Members Only)

5. When your teen is upset about not mastering something yet: (2 of 2)

(Members Only)

Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: You have a book on mystery, which I just finished reading. And I’m super curious, how you decided to write about this topic?

Jonah: My inspiration is a slightly embarrassing confession. It’s again with my then, three year old toddler son, who was hooked on YouTube Kids. It’s a very addictive app, it’s a great babysitter. And in particular, I noticed as the years go, he was obsessed with a specific genre of YouTube Kids video, called The Surprise Egg. Yeah, so essentially, it’s parents make these giant paper mache eggs, fill them with toys. And then, the little kid punches a hole in the egg and takes out the toys one by one. And this is a dominant trope on YouTube Kids. So, I noticed he’d watch these videos over and over again. And I was astonished, because these videos would have a billion views.

Jonah: The original Ryan’s Toy Review, Ryan’s Toy Review for those who don’t know, he’s now this massive brand in Walmart and Target, he makes, $30 million a year. So, 6 billion views plus. But, he took off after he made The Surprise Egg video.

Jonah: And then, it’s been copied a million times over. And it got me thinking about, what is it about The Surprise Egg trope that makes it so compelling for toddlers? Why is it such a compelling narrative device for little kids? And I started thinking about how, on the one hand, when it’s a paper mache, egg filled with toys, we make fun of it, it seems so silly. But, surprise eggs are also just a narrative trick. For a screenwriter, you call it a mystery box.

Jonah: So, you look at the script for Star Wars. You go from one mystery box, to the next. Who is Luke Skywalker? What is the force? Who are the Jedis? Who is Obi-Wan Kenobi? The story lurches from one unknown to the next surprise egg. Or, you look at the original Steve Jobs iPhone introduction, there’s this amazing moment where he outlines the value proposition for this new gadget. And you’re so excited. And then, he pulls out just the very top of it from his jeans pocket. And you can almost see it, and then pushes it back in and says, “We’re not going to show it to you yet.” And I realize, that’s the ultimate consumer surprise egg. It’s just in Steve Jobs’ pocket, instead of a paper mache egg.

Andy: Yeah.

Jonah: You look at Jaws, we don’t see Jaws for the first 70 minutes plus in the movie, that’s a surprise egg. So, there’s something I started seeing that, it wasn’t just about kids YouTube, but it was this general narrative trick of hiding the information we’re most interested in. And it’s not just used by Ryan’s Toy Review. It’s used by George Lucas and Steve Jobs and Steven Spielberg and Agatha Christie and Conan Doyle and all the rest. So, that was the initial inspiration for the book. But, it really did begin in my kitchen, making pancakes, listening to my son and Surprise Egg video.

Andy: There’s something strangely compelling about those videos, man. I don’t know.

Jonah: No, I mean, it’s more of a story about, we’re drawn to the unknown.

Jonah: And I think that’s the big idea in the book, that we live in this age of personalized news feeds, where they’re always feeding us more of what we already believe, confirming our beliefs. But, when you step back and you look at the art that lasts and what we’re really most interested in, it’s not mere confirmation. It’s, we’re drawn to the unknown. We’re fascinated by things we can’t quite understand, things we can’t predict.

Jonah: And I think we often overlook that in the 21st century. But, I think it’s a general rule of sticky and addictive and compelling culture.

Andy: And it actually conveys benefits. You point out in here, you talk about some research in here, research showing that interest in the unknown, strongly predicts academic performance, even after controlling for other psychological variables, such as the ability to focus in class. Wow.

Jonah: I mean, this is where an interestingly unknown connects to curiosity.

Jonah: So, if you look at, there’s a long-standing income education gap, so kids from lower income households tend to do worse in school. And what you find, is that if you correct for curiosity. So, if you’re able to build up curiosity in these lower income kids, that you actually erase the income education gaps. And now, these kids from low income households are performing just as well as kids from higher income households. And I mean, one of the theories behind that, is one of the main advantages of having more money, is you can encourage curiosity, right? Your kids enjoy some dinosaurs, so you can buy a membership at the next history museum. They’re interested in making movies, so you buy them a GoPro, on down the line. But, if you can build up curiosity in other ways in the classroom, then you can help to mitigate some of the disadvantages of having less money. So, curiosity does seem to be, I think, a really crucial and often overlooked component of education, right? It’s learning how to-

Andy: Yeah. But, so it’s not just that some people are just inherently more curious than others, but that there’s maybe ways to facilitate curiosity, or encourage it.

Jonah: Yeah. My guess is it’s both. I mean, like most interesting human traits, there’s individual variation, but, that said, it’s a crucial advantage. And I think our schools and all of us should do a better job of encouraging curiosity in our kids. I think, it’s particularly important in adolescence as well.

Jonah: I mean, one of my chapters, I devoted an entire chapter to the noble academy. It’s a charter school in Chicago. Which, I was fascinated by, because it’s a non-selective charter school. And they now outperform just about any other public school in the state of Illinois and their method is all about encouraging curiosity. It’s all about giving kids complex, ambiguous prompts.

Jonah: So, if you think about the way the typical classroom works And this is especially for teenagers, right? It’s the opposite of giving them questions. It’s the opposite of encouraging them with mystery. It’s, “Here are a set of answers, memorize them for the test, and then you can forget them.”

Andy: Right.

Jonah: And there is no element of curiosity. There’s no element of mystery. We’re not using any of these tried and tested narrative tricks. It’s just, “Here are answers, memorize them.”

Jonah: What The Noble does, is flip that on its head. It says, “Here are really difficult questions. Here’s a really difficult text. Work together with your friends.” So, it also leverages teenage interest in working with your peers, the social effects. “Work together, to solve these difficult problems.” And it’s a pedagogy that goes way back. It’s typically, associated with very fancy private schools, but, for them it works incredibly well. So, you have these 16 year olds in inner city, Chicago from all walks of life, dissecting Hamlet and talking about line by line interpretations, wrestling with these very difficult problems. And they find it far, far more engaging, far more interesting than just memorizing answers written up on a chalkboard.

Andy: And this, you say, this is related to something called the Harkness Method?

Jonah: Yeah. So, that’s the name of this particular pedagogy. So, the Harkness Method and it was deployed first at Exeter. And again, we’ve often seen this education as, it’s reserved for fancy, expensive private schools where they can afford to have one teacher for 12 kids.

Jonah: But, what is so intriguing about The Noble Academy, Chicago, is they’re doing this in much bigger classrooms and not just with kids from wealthy households, not just with kids of elite academic status, but kids at a non-selected public school in the center of Chicago and it’s working incredibly well. Now, the knock against this pedagogy has always been, “Well, then the kids won’t perform as well in standardized tests.” Right? Because, we’re not teaching for the test.

Jonah: But, when you look at–when you look at The Noble Academy, the opposite is true. These kids outperform, they do the best by a large margin on standardized tests. So, even though you’re not teaching to the test, they do incredibly well. And when you ask the teachers and this was the particular paradox, I kept trying to wrap my head around. And the teachers kept saying, “Well, it’s because we’d teach them how to deal with hard problems.”

Andy: Ah, yup.

Jonah: So, if you just teach a kid how to regurgitate information, they get to a problem they’ve never seen before in the SAT and they freeze They don’t know how to do it. But, if you teach them to enjoy hard problems, you teach them to enjoy taking intellectual risks, they get to this hard problem and they try to solve it. They feel confident, because they know how to deal with it. So, it’s the sense of self-efficacy as well.

Andy: Yeah. Then, by exposing them to lots of those difficult problems, then they’re gaining the ability, putting in the reps of, what happens when you get stuck? And how do you then find different ways in? And look at it in different ways.

Andy: You talk about something called, the self-explanation effect, in this chapter also. What is that?

Jonah: So, this again gets back to the limitations of just giving kids answers. So, again, this is the typical chalk and talk method where you write up the answers on a board. And the kids are expected to plug and chug, expected to remember it, and then regurgitate it. The self-explanation pedagogy strategy for teaching, is all about not giving kids the answers, giving them some tools to solve them, but then letting the kids work it out on their own. And turns out they learn much more. What’s interesting, is the kid’s self-assessment of learning is less, right? If you just give a kid an answer, they think they understand the topic really well, but they often don’t. Often very superficial.

Andy: Right.

Jonah: But, when you make them solve it on their own, they realize all that they don’t know. So, they’re less confident, but they actually do much better. They actually perform much better on ensuing tests. And they actually understand the material at a much deeper level.

Jonah: So, it’s this general trade-off of making things easy, just giving kids the answers, you get less engagement, less true understanding. But, it’s the way we do things. And hopefully, I think by leveraging mystery, we can invent a better classroom. We can take advantage of the fact that teenagers are really interested in questions, in complexities, in the unknown. And they really wake up. That’s what wakes them up in the classroom, when they can work on hard problems with their friends.

Andy: I definitely resonate with that. I always felt like you’re watching a professor explain something on the board in class. You’re like, “Yeah, that totally makes sense. I’m with you. I understand that.” And then, you get home and try to work out a similar problem on your own. You’re like, “Wait, sorry. Wait a minute, what? How did they get from here to here? And, oh man, I’m lost.”

Jonah: Yeah. And it’s also, I mean, I think the other lesson that I took away from The Noble Academy is that, teenagers learn really well from other teenagers. So, by having them work together, you really leverage that peer effect. I mean, my own experience of being a teenager is like, “Who wants to listen to a grownup? Especially, when they pretend to have all the answers.” So, instead you say, “I don’t know this, this is a mystery to me too. Work with your friends and try to solve this together.” And that’s really, what wakes them up and brings the classroom to life.

Andy: Something I found really interesting in your book, is a concept of near misses. And you talk about some research from Cambridge University showing near misses, activate the same reward circuitry as an actual win.

Jonah: Yeah. So, I talk about it in the book, in the context of slot machines. Here are these devices that take our money, right? It should be nothing fun about them. You’re inserting coins into–

Andy: Literally, you just give away dollars.

Jonah: Exactly. So, why do people find this so compelling? And been compelling for the longest stretch of the time. And I think this is where, the particular programming of slot machines, it’s really, pretty evil genius. So, the way these machines are designed now, and this helps explain why they really took off in the 1980s, is even if they still make that analog rotary sound as if there are wheels inside, they’re all computers at this point. And the computer chips are programmed to create near misses. So, let’s say you need three cherries all across to get the big jackpot. They’ll give you two cherries, and then stop on a reel right next to the third cherry. So, that’s a near miss.

Jonah: And that takes advantage of this ancient learning software in the brain where, let’s say you’re learning how to play basketball. A near miss, is actually encouraging, right? So, the brain is designed to find some reward in near misses. So you keep trying, you keep trying to acquire a skill, so you don’t give up, just because-

Andy: “Oh, hey. I’m getting there. I’m getting closer.”

Jonah: “I’m getting closer, I’m making progress.”

Jonah: So, it’s this important educational cue saying, “You’re making progress, keep at it. Good job. You haven’t sunk that three pointer yet, but you’re getting closer. You’re getting closer.” Slot machines hijack that ancient learning machinery, to keep us addicted to these games where we’re losing money. Of course, there’s no skill in a slot machine. You’re not actually getting better. Your near misses won’t turn into a make, but it’s the illusion of progress. So, it’s an interesting way to try to…I mean, this is a general approach of my writing, is to try to understand the brain by looking at how culture works on the brain and trying to ask, “Why we in the slot machines? It seems crazy and irrational. “What–“

Andy: Doesn’t make sense.

Jonah: “What do slot machines teach us about the brain?”

Andy: But, actually a lot. And it really got me thinking about just, how we master any skill, or how… And especially, when you’re first starting out with something. And I think that’s a lot of what teenagers are doing is, trying something new. And you’re failing a lot as a teenager, you’re not really an expert in anything, but yet there’s such a willingness to continue engaging and to keep trying and to keep beating your head against the wall. And-

Jonah: I mean, I do think teenagers love to acquire skills. I think part of the allure of videogames like slot machines, is, they’re really good at taking advantage of the near miss effect. They are really good at using all these psychological tricks.

Andy: They make it just a little too hard for you.

Jonah: Exactly. Keep going, you’re getting closer, you’re making progress, but you’re not there yet. And finding that sweet spot between difficulty and success. I think that, of course the challenge and the anxiety of every parent is, your 16 year olds learning how to drive. Near misses can be very dangerous.

Andy: That is true.

Jonah: So, on the other hand, teenagers, they’re out in the real world in a very terrifying way, where their near misses have real consequences for the first time.

Andy: So, another interesting thing, in the same vein, of looking at how different aspects of culture affect the brain, is music. And you talk about some research about, what musical passages are most exciting in the brain? And it appears to be music in which composers violate expectations in certain ways. Well, by delaying the predicted outcome.

Jonah: Yeah. I mean, this is something I think about a lot. In terms of my own adolescence. I think, every teenager’s experience where they play music and their parents say, that’s noise, right? It’s a cliché rite of passage we all have to go through.

Jonah: And I think, what that ultimately reflects, is just parents don’t… I mean, we’re close minded, but also our brains haven’t internalized the musical patterns of teenagers, right? So, they’re absorbing new musical patterns. Whether it’s, in my age, I’m dating myself here, it was the rise of Hiphop. So, I love Chipmunk Soul of Kanye. And my parents thought that was just total noise. “What are you doing? There’s not even a melody there. Play some more James Taylor.” But, that’s because to them, their brains couldn’t dissimilate these new musical patterns.

Jonah: Now, once you’ve assimilated those musical patterns, they cease to be interesting. What you want is someone like Kanye. And I do dissect some of his pieces in the book. You want someone who comes along, takes the pattern your brain now knows, whether it’s Hiphop, or Folk, or whatever your genre is and violates it, makes it new, subverts it.

Jonah: This is even true in classical music. So, Leonard Meyer, the musicologist has done some great, note-by-note analyses of everyone from Bach to Mozart. And what he shows, is what makes these composers great, is that they find ways to subvert and undermine our musical expectations. So, we think C majors coming and they give us C minor, instead. They draw us in, but then at the same time, they keep challenging us. They make the music, a mystery. The larger lesson being, if it’s too predictable, if we know what’s going to happen next, if we know what note is coming next, then it’s boring. Then, why should we listen? So, I think that is… If you’ve got a teenager and they’re listening to noise, just remember that it’s not noise to them, it’s noise to you. Because, your brittle brain just hasn’t found a way to assimilate those musical patterns yet.

Andy: Yeah. And also, there’s probably higher novelty preference during adolescence than later in life. So, you’re going to naturally have a number of different factors, coalescing. Your teen’s going to have really different tastes in music than you. And it’s going to sound pretty crazy, but–

Jonah: 100%. Yeah, I’m vaguely familiar with some sociology research that people’s music preferences–right?–they tend to stick with what they are when they’re 18, or 20, or early 20. I mean something depressingly young, is when we basically the acoustic brain turns off.

Andy: “No, nothing new. Can’t handle it.”

Jonah: “I’m done with new stuff.” Yeah.

Andy: Got it. This is, yeah. Right? It’s locked for the rest of my life now.

Jonah: Yes.

Andy: I also found it really interesting. You talk about lyrics and even lyricists like John Lennon and the urge of the listeners to figure out what they’re talking about and walking that line as an artist of creating an art that isn’t so figure out-able.

Jonah: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, in particular, I mean, I brought up the Beatles and have a short digression of the Beatles, in terms of the Paul is dead conspiracy, which is something that’s always fascinated me. I think, we often associate conspiracy theories with the 21st century, but they’ve been part of human nature for as long as we’ve been around.

Jonah: For those who don’t know, the Paul is dead conspiracy, was for about a year and a half. There was a, I mean, disturbingly widespread conspiracy that Paul McCartney had died. He’d been killed in a car crash. And that a Paul McCartney double was pretending to be him in various Beatles, pictures and albums. Of course, not true. But, it was circulated style in all these clippings. People would share them in student newspapers, they made TV specials about it.

Jonah: It was the cover of Life Magazine, stuff like that. And I highlighted it, because people were in part driven to this conclusion that Paul McCartney was dead, by these Beatles lyrics.

Jonah: And I think behind that, if one takes a step back, it really reveals the wrong attitude to bring to art, which is, The Beatles were writing ambiguous lyrics, deliberately ambiguous, deliberately mysterious. And people treated them like a code to be cracked, the idea that there’s only one answer, one right interpretation. And of course, that’s the wrong way to treat complicated art. What makes art last, whether it’s Hamlet, or Harry Potter, or the Beatles, is that there are layers to it. That you don’t read it once and figure it out.

Andy: “Oh, I got it.”

Jonah: You can read up 100 times and come up with 100 different answers, exactly. That’s what makes it, re-readable and rich and rewarding. And I think, ultimately conspiracy theories come from a mindset that the whole world is like those Beatles lyrics, right? That I alone, can connect the dots and solve it. When the reality is, reality is really complicated and pretty indecipherable.


About Jonah Lehrer

Jonah Lehrer is the author of several bestselling books, including Mystery. Lehrer has a degree in neuroscience from Columbia University and formerly wrote for The New Yorker, Wired, Scientific American Mind, The Wall Street Journal and The Boston Globe. 

He lives in Los Angeles, California with his wife and two children.

Want More Mystery?

Find Jonah Lehrer on his website, and Twitter.