Russ Costa is an Associate Professor of Honors & Neuroscience at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, Utah, where he teaches interdisciplinary courses about minds, brains, behavior, data, and science. He studies attention and perception in the cognitive neuroscience laboratory using electroencephalographic (EEG) techniques, and decision-making and risk-taking outside of it using a set of mixed and ever-evolving approaches. He regularly presents to professional and public audiences in the mountain communities of western North America about decision-making in high-risk environments, including in snow and avalanche terrain. He holds a B.A. from Middlebury College in Vermont and an M.S. and Ph.D. from the University of Utah.
Can you describe something that has recently amazed you? How did it make you feel?
“Amaze” is an interesting verb. I’m amazed by things I see almost every week in the mountains. Both by the mountainous landscape itself – its geology, its weather, its flora and fauna, its beauty – and by human behavior (including my own) in this environment, where decision-making can get highly consequential, sometimes very quickly and unexpectedly. Feeling “amazed” to me involves both feelings of astonishment, inspiration, and awe as well as wonder, surprise, and some fear. It’s akin to, I think, the notion of the “beautiful and the sublime” that was bubbling in the European consciousness throughout Romantic era, which included the “Golden Age” of alpinism. It involves perception, beauty and awe as well as feelings of wonder and danger. Peaks, precipices, clouds, cornices, and crevasses all trigger this amazement regularly when I’m in the mountains. But the “Golden Age of alpinism” ends with Whymper’s historic first ascent of the Matterhorn, literally terminating with the deaths of four of his partners on their descent. Risk is part of why mountains amaze. I think many explorers, adventurers, and scientists are drawn to the mountains to explore and experience not just the geographic territory, but also the psychological territory that they provide and produce. And I’m constantly amazed, and often scared, by both the physical and behavioral phenomena I see out/up there.
Can you tell me what areas of perception you are particularly interested in?
As a cognitive scientist I’m interested in perception not just as a sensory input process of environmental information into the brain and mind, but also as an output process as well. How do we use our perceptions to guide our behavior? What sensory and perceptual information do we pay attention to and what information do we ignore? Which “inputs” influence our behavior the most? How is this torrent of information sorted and weighted in real-time decision-making processes? Lately I’ve been studying how perception differs between experts and novices in particular environments. How are danger signals perceived and why are some missed? I’m also interested in polysensory or multisensory processes and how the mind and brain synthesizes information from different sensory channels. Flavor is a good example. How are the sight, smell, and texture of food, and perhaps previous memories of it, synthesized to create a unitary perception of flavor in a complex sauce or wine? Likewise, in the mountains, how are the sound and the feel of the snow integrated with its visual appearance to create psychological judgements of hazard, risk and safety? When and how do sensory inputs add up to signal ‘DANGER!’?
Is there a particular bias, heuristic or effect that is a constant source of marvel for you?
I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking and writing about confirmation bias recently. It affects everything we do and from a very early stage of processing. We seek out information that confirms our hypotheses, emotions, desires, or beliefs. And in complex environments, you can always find at least a sliver of information that does that. This bias changes what information we perceive and attend to in the world. We spend more time thinking about perceptions that we believe to be or want to be true. We seek this information out in the environment, and are biased to ignore disconfirming information. And then our worldview changes. I think about this a lot in how we perceive stability in the snowpack or the sky, somehow “seeing” stability in the avalanche conditions or weather patterns when we want the travel conditions to be safe. Complex environments allow us to play tricks on ourselves. And I won’t even get into how this plays out with news in our complex, socially-mediated world.
Your research interests aren’t limited to university labs, you take them out into some extreme environments. Can you tell me more and also, how did this come about? Were you into outdoor sports and exploring before?
I became interested in outdoor sports and adventure during my years of undergraduate study in Vermont, around the same time I became interested in “experimental” research psychology. I’ve pursued both of those lines of play and work with vigour since the late 1990’s. For many years, however, I kept those two streams separate in my life and work, finding such separation to be in the best interests of both my early career and my mental health, where the mountains provided a restorative escape from the anxieties of the valley and the lab. But I always approached my mountain behavior from the perspective of a psychologist. Why did we make this or that decision? Was I (or were we) perceiving signals differently in that environment? During, and after, my first trip to Denali in 2004 it became clear that mastering the “human factor” in the mountains would be the key to a long life and career doing what I wanted to do. And now, after a quarter-century of exploration of both external and internal psychological spaces in mountain environments, I’ve come to realize that I’ve learned the most important lessons about human minds and behavior on trails, ridges and peaks, even without the expensive equipment or the experimental controls afforded by laboratory spaces.
What are the sources of poor decisions and risk taking that occur in these environments?
It depends on who you are. Novices miss signals that, with years of training, experts develop an intuitive sense for. And positive feedback loops from months, or even years, of successful trips build confidence quickly, leading to an over-estimation of ability. Experts still make errors too, of course. But they also spend a lot more time in high-risk environments; their expertise is acquired by spending tens of thousands of hours in those environments. Expert errors occur more frequently in unusual environments – ones that do not match the environment the expert learned in. This concerns me as the climate changes and environments become more unpredictable. As a friend and mentor once told me: “I’m glad I’m retired from the wildfire game now. The way things were is not how they’re going to be, experiences won’t be something to count on for future decisions.”
As you know I’m a magician, are they’re things in common between a magician and mountain in how they fool the senses and brain?
I use ventriloquism often as an example in class. Magic tricks often use sleight of hand or other techniques that distract the mind or cause the audience to “miss” something. Ventriloquism relies on the mind and brain altering perceptual information by linking the visual sense of a puppet’s mouth moving with the auditory sense of hearing spoken language. This makes sense. Some of the earliest perceptual learning moments for children would be linking the sound of words with moving human mouths. And sound source localization is an indirect process, unlike pitch or volume detection, which have more direct neural correlates. With so much of our brain devoted to visual processing, it is no wonder that able-sighted individuals use visual information to assist, and probably actually dominate, the process of determining where sounds are coming from. I’m fascinated by all sorts of illusions, not just as tricks we can play on the mind, but as educational windows into how our minds and brains work.
What should we really be looking for in these risky environments? Is it possible to be trained to be better?
The training question is an interesting one, and a source of much debate, and sometimes consternation, for researchers who study and teach about safety in mountain environments. From the perspective of an educator, we can teach about these human factors better — and I think we are — compared to a decade or two ago. In part, it’s because of the excellent work of cognitive scientists since the mid-twentieth century, and the communication and popularization of it through the turn of the century. But I wonder what workshop and classroom lessons transfer for actual real-world practice. One thing I teach, for example, is to search for evidence that counters your expectations in the environment. In part, to avoid confirmation bias. I teach my students and audiences to use their direct senses more, and their expectations less, of what the environment is like. They nod. But do they actually do that? It’s difficult to counteract our nature.
What ingredients go into making a good adventure?
Good partners. “Good” adventures are safe ones, and good partners go a long way toward that. But “good” adventures are also, importantly, fun ones. At this stage of my life and career, I’m looking to smile and laugh a lot in the mountains.
Why do you feel that humans are often compelled to put themselves in these high risk situations?
“Why do we climb?” is a fascinating question. I’m still composing that answer as I walk uphill, so for now I just defer to Art Davidson’s answer to it: “To eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in peace.” That peace is so important and the risk involved, along with the endurance demands, keep that peace in the mountains. I find myself opting for more remote mountains these days, shying away from those with groomed runs, ski lifts, or other infrastructure as best I can in this small mountain range. More remote places necessarily come with more risk, but the trade-off is usually worth it because of that peace. At the conclusion of Minus 148, Davidson’s account of his first winter ascent of Denali, he quotes Saint Exupery to answer the “why do we climb” question: to realize “that new vision of the world won through hardship.” And man did that winter expedition endure hardship! Hardship and risk are necessary to reach that new vision, which is more than just a great summit view. It’s a new vision of yourself and your place in the world we inhabit. Risking literally everything to attain it probably doesn’t make sense from a rationality perspective, but rationality is a small, perhaps very small, portion of our mind and brain.
Why do you think they’re often a great source of life changing moments?
Ski mountaineering is an unusual sport in that most of the time in the Wasatch our primary goal is to to go out and do something very difficult, in terms of both skill and effort, and to arrive back at the same place (trailhead, etc.) in the same physical state (i.e., avoiding injury) as we started. On a deeper level though, we’re not at all looking to come back the same. We come back changed, and – when done well – bettered, through our experiences in the mountains. Sometimes it’s just the restoration and wellness that comes from a quick morning hike or ride. Other times it’s that “new vision of the world won through hardship” that we acquire through pushing physical and psychological boundaries.
Have you got any memorable mountain moments?
Denali had a huge influence on me as young ski mountaineer. I went into that trip naive in so many ways as to the risk involved, and many other things. And I learned so much. About glacier travel, group dynamics, leadership, risk, suffering, freeze dried mashed potatoes (“it’s pretty good if it’s all you got.”), and other things, including that “new vision of the world.” But I came out of that whole ordeal, I think, over-confident in my abilities and my status as an expert. We’re always re-calibrating our approach in the mountains and in life.
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