Why staring out the window is good for the brain

Sendhil Mullainathan

Sendhil Mullainathan explains how to ‘think better’ in new Chicago Booth lecture series

When Sendhil Mullainathan was a young man, he would take long bus rides in upstate New York from Ithaca to Rochester to visit a girl. It was winter. Snow covered the ground. And he passed the time staring out the window.

At first, it felt like a romantic adventure, gazing out the window at the frozen fields as the bus rolled along the highway. But, after a few trips, his outlook changed. It was the early 1990s. There were no smart phones or WiFi. Reading on the bus made him nauseous. He started to get bored.

Mullainathan didn’t realize it at the time, but that boredom was feeding his brain.

“What’s funny is that I’m never bored anymore,” said Mullainathan, addressing a UChicago crowd at the inaugural Think Better speaker series hosted by the University of Chicago Booth School of Business’s Center for Decision Research at the Gleacher Center in downtown Chicago. 

“If I had to take a bus ride now, I’d pull out my phone,” he said. “I’d listen to some podcasts. Maybe I’d check out Pinterest. But, is that good? My self-driving mind, even when left a minute by itself, says, ‘hmm, I wonder if I’ve gotten any email. I wonder if there’s anything new on Twitter.’ My mind keeps driving me to these things, so much so that I don’t know that I focus on anything anymore.”


“In the 21st century, we are surrounded by these technologies that are making us dumber and completely oblivious,” said Mullainathan. “We are a nation overwhelmed with an abundance of media, and it’s unhealthy.”


Mullainathan, a behavioral economist, joined Chicago Booth last summer as the Roman Family University Professor of Computation and Behavioral Science. He is one of only nine faculty members across UChicago to currently hold the University Professor title and one of only 22 faculty members to receive the honor.

A former Harvard University professor and recipient of the MacArthur Foundation fellowship, also known as the ‘genius grant,’ Mullainathan uses behavioral economics to help solve social problems and to determine how artificial intelligence and machine learning affect complex human behavior.

In his first appearance at a public event as a Booth professor, in a lecture called “The Self-Driving Mind,” late last year, Mullainathan discussed ways in which the brain shifts into automaticity, or an automatic response to a familiar situation. While some automatic responses can keep people safe—such as slamming on the brakes when they see a red light ahead—many such responses are unhealthy.

In a wide-ranging presentation that covered crime, poverty and scarcity, Mullainathan explained that one significant way that the self-driving mind is hurting the human condition today is by stifling creativity and innovation. The onslaught of emails, texts, Google News, Facebook and Twitter posts and Instagram chats is overwhelming people with digital noise. Quite simply, he said, we refuse to be bored.

“In the 21st century, we are surrounded by these technologies that are making us dumber and completely oblivious,” said Mullainathan. “We are a nation overwhelmed with an abundance of media, and it’s unhealthy.”

Avoiding digital junk food with the help of AI

Today people are consuming media the same way they were consuming food in the 1950s, he said. After World War II, in the U.S. at least, food was plentiful and convenient. You could drive through a burger joint or buy a box of ready-made meals at the corner store and just add hot water. Calories were cheap too, available to everyone.

Now the U.S. is a nation fighting obesity, learning how to diet and manage food consumption.

Consuming media is no different. People are gorging themselves on data in unhealthy ways. But, there is hope, he said.

“I think we are on the verge of a big change,” he said. “Before long, companies are going to start to offer products to help us manage our media intake, just like Weight Watchers or Atkins. And it is artificial intelligence that will help us get there.”

To get started, Mullainathan conducted an experiment on himself. He wanted to identify the biggest trigger in his daily digital life that distracted him from his work. After analyzing the huge data set that made up his browser history, he found the culprit. It was Google News that sent him down the Internet rabbit hole. Now, he is careful not to look at Google News while he is working.

“How many of you have ever looked at your (browser) history file?” asked Mullainathan. “Oh, you have to. Pick a day. Pick a random time. Just start and follow the trail of your mind. It is the ravings of a madman. It’s amazing. Oh, look. He is interested in buying a hot air fryer. Now suddenly he is interested in something else. What is going on? Oh, now he’s back to the hot air fryer. Who is this guy? This guy is me!”


“Before long, companies are going to start to offer products to help us manage our media intake, just like Weight Watchers or Atkins. And it is artificial intelligence that will help us get there.”


An early student of Richard Thaler

Born in a small farming village in India, Mullainathan moved to Los Angeles in 1980 at age 7. He eventually made his way to Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, where in addition to taking courses in computer science and mathematics, he studied under future Nobel Prize winner and Booth Professor Richard Thaler. A Cornell economics professor at the time, Thaler was just beginning to combine psychology and economics into what would become known as the field of behavioral economics.

Mullainathan was hooked. He went on to receive his Ph.D. from Harvard before starting his career in 1998 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a junior faculty member. He moved to Harvard in 2004 where he was an economics professor for more than a decade until joining Booth. Now he is an affiliate at Booth’s Center for Decision Research where his early mentor Thaler is the Charles R. Walgreen Distinguished Service Professor of Behavioral Science and Economics.

Mullainathan helped co-found ideas42, a non-profit that applies behavioral science, and he co-founded the Poverty Action Lab at MIT, which promotes the use of randomized control trials in development. He also received the Infosys Prize for Social Sciences in 2018 for elevating the prestige of scientific research in India and inspiring young Indians to choose a vocation in scientific research.

Introducing the Think Better Series

Think Better with Sendhil Mullainathan

The Think Better series marks the first time the Center for Decision Research has launched a public lecture series. Founded by Hillel Einhorn in 1977, the center helped to pioneer the use of science to explain inconsistencies between actual and theoretically rational human behavior.

Today the Center is at the forefront of the rapidly developing field of behavioral science and is home to researchers who examine the processes by which intuition, reasoning, and social interaction produce beliefs, judgments, and choices.

Think Better lectures explore how insights from behavioral science affect society, shape policy, impact business, and improve individual lives. The topics are relevant to anyone interested in understanding why people think, judge, choose, and act as they do.

“This series is meant to share with the Booth community and beyond how behavioral science is being used to improve people’s lives,” said Nicholas Epley, the John Templeton Keller Professor of Behavioral Sciences and the faculty director of the center. “Our field’s findings are getting lots of attention. Research is exploding and our results need to be shared widely.”

The next Think Better event takes place Feb. 13 when David Yokum, director of the Policy Lab at Brown University, will present “Behavioral Science and Public Policy: Mapping the Next Five Years.” Angela Duckworth, the Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and the founder and CEO of Character Lab, concludes this year’s series on April 17 speaking on “Strategic Self-Control.” All events take place at the Gleacher Center, 450 North Cityfront Plaza and begin at 5:30 PM. The events are free, but registration is required.