Saturday, September 19, 2009

Sometimes, When I'm Alone, I Search Inside Myself (Part I)

(For the story on what motivated us to create Search Inside Yourself, see this post: "Three Easy Steps to World Peace")

Search Inside Yourself (SIY) is Google's homegrown Emotional Intelligence (EI) curriculum.  It was created in Google with the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, and further refined with help from Stanford University.  Dr Daniel Goleman was our advisor.  We intended for it to be an effective EI curriculum for adults (perhaps the first of its kind in the world) that can be applied in the workplace and that is helpful both to increasing businesses profits and to people achieving more success in their careers.

Given that I had a reputation as a supposedly good engineer, I'd love to tell you that we had a strategic, carefully thought-out curriculum design process that decided on design principles first, followed by proper structure and format, and then content creation, eventually resulting in a flawless curriculum the first time it was released.  But no, it didn't happen that way.  We unconsciously followed Google's "launch and iterate" model, which meant first forming a team with the best and most qualified people you know, hammering together things that are most likely to work, launching it as "beta" to a bunch of innocent bystanders, figuring out retroactively what worked and what didn't work, and then rinse and repeat.  This process is especially effective for doing anything cutting-edge where there is no way for you to know in advance what will certainly work and what won't.

Out of this process, 3 "design principles" of SIY emerged retroactively.  Actually, everybody already had these principles in mind right from the beginning, but they were never stated formally until a few iterations later, and the iterative process itself helped us gain clarity and conviction in the principles.

The 3 principles behind SIY are:
1. Emotional skills are trainable
2. EI training starts with attention training
3. Work with emotions in the body

1. Emotional skills are trainable

When people come to a course that advertises itself as an "Emotional Intelligence course", most people expect it to be a behavioral course.  People expect to come to class to be told how to play nice, share the candy and not bite their co-workers.

We decided on an entirely different approach.  We begin with the assumption that Emotional Intelligence is a collection of emotional skills, and like all skills, emotional skills are trainable.  So we set out to create a course to train emotional abilities, and we feel that if we develop abilities, all behavioral issues go away.  For example, if a person can acquire the ability to overcome anger, then all behavioral issues involving anger go away.

Examples of skills we explore in SIY are:
- Responding to triggers.
- Conducting difficult conversations.
- Maintaining confidence during stress.

2. EI training starts with attention training

We began with the assumption that EI is trainable.  But how do we begin training?  We begin by training attention.  This may seem a little counter-intuitive at first.  I mean, what does attention have to do with emotional skills?

The answer is that a strong, stable and perceptive attention that affords you calmness and clarity is the foundation upon which Emotional Intelligence is built.  This quality of attention gives you a strong base for building Self-Awareness and Self-Regulation, the first 2 of the 5 domains of Emotional Intelligence that leads to all other domains of Emotional Intelligence.

An example of how attention relates to Self-Awareness:  Self-Awareness depends on being able to see ourselves objectively, and that requires the ability to examine our thoughts and emotions from a a third-person perspective.  Not getting swept up in the emotion, not identifying with it, but just seeing it clearly and objectively.  And this requires a stable, non-judging attention.

An example of how attention relates to Self-Regulation:  There is an ability called "response flexibility", which is a fancy name for the ability to pause before you act.  You experience a strong emotional stimulus, but instead of reacting immediately as you normally would (like slapping the CEO, for example), you pause for a split-second, and that pause gives you choice in how you want to react in that emotional situation.  That ability depends again on having a quality of attention that is unwavering and unimpeded at the same time.

How do you train this quality of attention?  The training method we use is something known as "Mindfulness Meditation".  "Mindfulness" is defined by Jon Kabat-Zinn as, "paying attention, in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally".  (Thich Nhat Hanh defined Mindfulness very poetically as "keeping one's consciousness alive to the present reality", which we really like, but we found Jon's definition easier to explain to the engineers).  Mindfulness is a quality of mind that we all experience and enjoy from time to time, but it is something that can be greatly strengthened with practice, and once it becomes suffuciently strong, it leads directly to the attentional calmness and clarity that forms the basis of EI development.

(There is strong scientific evidence that meditation changes the emotional brain, including the ability to lower activition in the amygdala in response to a negative stimulus.  A topic for a future blog post).

3. Work with emotions in the body

Once we develop strong, stable and perceptive attention, what do we do with it to develop Emotional Intelligence?  Well, use it on the body, of course.  This again seems a little counter-intuitive.  Why do we want to do that?

The first answer is, "Because we can".  Every emotion has a correlate in the body.  For example, some of us experience anger as a contraction of the chest, or a change in the pattern of breathing, or a tightening of the neck and shoulders and so on.  Every emotional experience is also a physiological experience.  More importantly, we can experience emotions more vividly in the body than in the mind.  Therefore, when we are trying to perceive an emotion, you usually get more bang for the buck if you bring your attention to the body rather than to the mind.

The more important reason to bring the attention to the body is that it affords us a high-resolution awareness of emotions.  What does "high-resolution awareness" mean?  In answering that question, let's ponder on an interesting question, "Are you able to detect anger the moment it is arising?".  This is an important question, because we may not be able to prevent anger from arising, and once it's in full bloom, we are usually unable to turn it off, but we can usually turn it off at its moment of arising, when it's small enough to be managable.  That is our window of opportunity.  Doing that, of course, depends on being able to detect that moment of arising.  That's what I mean by "high-resolution awareness", when your awareness is so sensitive across both time and space that you can watch an emotion as it arises or falls.  Can we do that?

Yes, we can.  And the way to do it is to apply powerful attention onto the body.  Using anger as the example again, you may be able to train yourself to observe your mind all the time and then catch anger as it arises in the mind.  However, in our experience, it is far easier and more effective to do it in the body.  For example, if your bodily correlate to anger is tightening of your chest, shallowing of your breath and tightening of your forehead, then when you're in an awkward social situation, the moment your chest tightens, breath shallows and forehead tenses up, you know you're at the moment of arising of anger, and that knowledge gives you the ability to respond in ways of your own choosing (eg, leaving the room before you do something you know you'll regret, or choosing to allow the anger to bloom if that's the right response for the situation).

Another important reason to work with the body is that it may help the development of empathy.  It is already known that the part of the brain known as the insula is related to the ability to experience and recognize bodily sensations.  People with very active insula, for example, are able to become aware of their own heartbeats.  There is also evidence that people with active insula tend to also have high empathy, which seems to make sense since the neural equipment we use to monitor our own feelings can also be used to monitor other people's feelings.  Finally, there is evidence that people who spend a lot of time paying meditative attention to their own bodies also strengthen their insula.  From our experience, we know that doing a lot of Mindfulness meditation on the body strengthens our ability to recognize bodily sensations.  We now have evidence to believe that it can strengthen empathy.

Last but not least, a good and useful reason to develop a high-resolution awareness of the body is to strengthen our intuition.  A lot of our intuition can come from the body, and learning to listen to it can be very fruitful.  Here's an interesting quote from Malcolm Gladwell's book, Blink (also available at
In front of you, are four decks of cards--two red and two blue.  [....] What you don't know at the beginning, however, is that the red decks are a minefield. [....]  You can really only win by taking cards from the blue decks [....]. The question is: how long will it take you to figure this out?

A group of scientists at the University of Iowa did this experiment a few years ago, and what they found is that after we've turned over about fifty cards, most of us start to develop a hunch about what's going on. We don't know why we prefer the blue decks. But we're pretty sure, at that point, that they are a better bet. After turning over about eighty cards, most of us have figured the game out, and can explain exactly why the first two decks are such a bad idea. This much is straightforward. We have some experiences. We think them through. We develop a theory, and then finally we put two and two together. That's the way learning works. But the Iowa scientists did something else, and this is where the strange part of the experiment begins. They hooked each gambler up to a polygraph--a lie detector machine--that measured the activity of the sweat glands that all of us have below the skin in the palms of our hands. Most sweat glands respond to temperature. But those in our palms open up in response to stress--which is why we get clammy hands when we are nervous. What the Iowa scientists found is that gamblers started generating stress responses to red decks by the tenth card, forty cards before they were able to say that they had a hunch about what was wrong with those two decks. More importantly, right around the time their palms started sweating, their behavior began to change as well. They started favoring the good decks, and taking fewer and fewer cards from A and B. In other words, the gamblers figured the game out before they figured the game out: they began making the necessary adjustments long before they were consciously aware of what adjustments they were supposed to be making.

It is important to note that in developing our Emotional Intelligence, we are not suppressing our emotions.  In a class I taught recently, one woman raised a very important question.  She wanted to confirm that when we talk about "turning off anger", for example, we were not actually talking about suppressing anger.  The analogy she used is a fire alarm.  Anger is like a fire alarm, it is unpleasant, but it yields useful data and suppressing it may create unintended consequences.  I think she is right.  Using her analogy, I would say that SIY is not shutting down the fire alarm.  In fact, in SIY, we actually learn to hear the alarm better, AND at the same time, we develop the ability to not be under its control AND we create the choice to turn off unnecessary alarms (eg, false alarms) anytime we want.  Our emotional development begins with more awareness, not less.

In Part II, I will talk about how we actually structure SIY and what we put into it.

(Continued on Part II)


  1. Thanks a lot for sharing this. I'll be looking forward for more.

    By the way, did you know that Matthieu Ricard has been updating a blog for some months now?

    I love this guy :)

  2. I would like to add to your observation of how attention training adds to emotional intelligence,

    To use a technical term, emotional intelligence relies on the relationship between the mirror neurons in the brain and correlates in the body.

    Our capacity for emotional intelligence is based on the quality of the relationship with our caregivers in early childhood and their affirmation and mirroring of internal states with our experience of our own emotional experiences and our interpretation of the emotional states of the care giver. One word the can be used to describe this is "attunement".

    If we get back to the relationship between mirror neurons and their "downward" impact on the emotions we feel in our bodies, the way that we become are of these emotions in our prefrontal cortex relies on an "upward" movement and a corresponding "awareness" of the correlation.

    This internal awareness of our internal emotional states is based on our capacity to be aware of our internal states

  3. Oops - I did a poor copy and paste - here is the post I meant
    I would like to add to your observation of how attention training adds to emotional intelligence, You probably already know this but haven't made it explicit.

    To use a technical term, emotional intelligence relies on the relationship between the mirror neurons in the brain and correlates in the body.

    Our capacity for emotional intelligence is based on the quality of the relationship with our caregivers in early childhood and their affirmation and mirroring of internal states with our experience of our own emotional experiences and our interpretation of the emotional states of the care giver. One word the can be used to describe this is "attunement".

    If we get back to the relationship between mirror neurons and their "downward" impact on the emotions we feel in our bodies, the way that we become are of these emotions in our prefrontal cortex relies on an "upward" movement and a corresponding "awareness" of the correlation.

    Not only is emotional intelligence based on our awareness of this upward flow of energy and information which allows us to be aware of our emotional states but we need to be able to discriminate between our own states and the states we picked up from others via our mirror neurons.

    This leads to the question of how is this possible. The answer is that we have to do training that develops our capacity to discriminate between our own emotional state and that of those of the persons we are relating too. If we don't have these capacities we may confuse our own states with those of others. This confusion is the basis of a concept that results in "projection" where we imagine others are experiencing what we experience.

    Mindfullness training is a potential antidote to projection. Through mindfullness training we become aware of our own internal states and this allows us to discriminate between the emotional states we receive into two streams - our own and others.

    I love the work that you are doing and its potential. I have a couple of questions,

    1. Where can I get the details of your program
    2. How are you training your people in Australia in SYI (and other countries outside of Australia) and are you looking for assistance.

    I am interested and potentially available to help you in your mission.

    My email is

  4. Thanks for the post. I look forward to seeing what the structure of the program is. Especially if you have something spefific to these points.

    conducting difficult situations and
    maintaining confidence during stress

    Also the body awareness thing would be interesting to read about too =)

  5. Congrats to all of yuo guys
    I like this place.
    the topic it fantastical and the best is that they are very few members here.
    i will not only follow the development of the project but olso will try to help with anything i can because this is the future of the humans as guys are inovators on the topic however this type of knowlege has been used for thousands of years. I like the idea that finally company and people like google are involved in that kind of truth.
    my best hope remains that this will spred as fst as it can even thou i susspect that analistics are showing the contrary.
    best wishes .
    i will help

  6. I think this is incredible, but I do have a small semantic problem with the word "attention".

    As an educator, I see the word "attention" used to mean something very different in most schools. It tends to mean doing what you're told and showing respect to figures of authority. The student who "pays attention" just does what she's told, no matter how uninteresting, unimportant, or unhelpful to learning the task may be. It is the opposite of mindfulness, as one must avoid thinking about the nature of the task in order to tolerate it.

    I only mention this because I'm afraid using the word "attention" rather than "mindfulness" may cause some people who don't look closely enough at what you're really doing to point to Google, in order to promote their own "attention training" programs that focus not on building skills such as self-awareness and self-regulation, but rather on culturally imperialistic conformity of behavior.

    One such program that's used in KIPP schools ( and has been praised by many powerful figures outside of education, such as Bill Gates and Barrack Obama, is SLANT, which stands for:

    Sit up straight
    Ask questions
    Track the speaker with your eyes

    From what I've read and heard about what you're doing at Google, you probably don't want to give superficial programs like this more ammunition to promote themselves with.