Unearthing Questions

When we think about our legacy, we usually consider how we, as individuals, will be remembered. How the things that we have made will stand the test of time, and how our name will be passed down through generations. Susan Carey, a Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, feels that our legacy need not be that we are remembered — so few of us are — but that what we do inspires others to do something worthwhile, which in turns inspires another. Our legacy is not discrete, but is part of a chain of legacies, each culminating in something greater than itself.

Carey, who primarily studies how we acquire new concepts, is known for her work on fast mapping — a process whereby new concepts are learned having been exposed to them just once. Here, she discusses the role awe and wonder play within science, mentoring students, and the importance of enjoying the boring work.

I often start these interviews by asking about creativity — within the field of science, however, the creativity takes, perhaps, a different form. Would you say that you’re a creative person?

Yes, but not in the way an artist or a writer is. Science is extremely creative — the whole goal is to create new understanding, to come up with ideas that nobody has had before, to find questions that haven’t been explored. To unearth whole new ways of looking at things — the key to some deep understanding that we’ve never had before. And that, ultimately, is right at the heart of creativity, I think.

And so how was creativity cultivated in your family growing up?

I don’t think that creativity was particularly cultivated within my family, but what was cultivated was problem-solving. My father was a research engineer, and he did projects with me from an early age that taught me to solve problems.

For example, when I was six, he made me a dollhouse. But instead of being interested in decorating or furnishing the dollhouse, we made it a plumbing system and an electrical system. It was totally fascinating to me, and made me comfortable with those technical sides of science.

Problem-solving can be a form of creativity, but I don’t think it’s the deepest form — the form that makes somebody a really great scientist. That form, I think, I learned from my teachers in college.

How did they go about teaching something as fundamental as creativity?

They just exemplified it. I was lucky to apprentice myself to some very creative scientists — among the best psychologists in the last half of the 20th century. I saw how hard they worked at building really original ways of thinking about things, and coming up with lines of investigation that opened up the field in some new way. It was an admiration of those aspects of their work that established within me that sense of deep creativity.

And now you’re a mentor to many others – what sort of impact does that have on you? To what extent are you learning from the people you’re mentoring?

Oh, mentoring graduate students and post-docs is by far the most important — and most fun — aspect of teaching for me. I recently won the American Psychological Association Mentor Award, which, of all the awards I’ve won, is the one that means the most to me.

If it’s done well, mentoring is a truly collaborative relationship, and I learn a tremendous amount from every person that I work with. Everyone brings different interests to the table, and my job, as I see it, is to help them develop an independent research program. I don’t just slot them into what I’m doing anyway, I try to find an area of intersection, between their interests and mine. Each student I work with takes my work in a direction it would not have gone otherwise, so to say I learn from them is an understatement.

Speaking of your interests — you study, primarily, concept acquisition, both within humans and other animals. What was it that brought you to that field of enquiry?

How you find the questions within science you’re going to pursue must have, I think, a great deal of randomness. I didn’t come to university knowing I wanted to do psychology — I started out thinking it was going to be math. I then tried biology in my second year, and as part of the program, apprenticed myself to a post-doc. He — it was always ‘he,’ there were no female professors at Harvard back then — was studying the mechanisms that underlie biological clocks in boxelder bugs.

What he saw was that I was really interested in how they knew they told time at all. He followed that interest, and we spent the year reading the ethology literature — a branch that looks at the aspects of biology that underlie animal behaviour. And at the end of the year, he said to me that I could do this work in biology, but he saw the future of biology as being molecular biology — this was very shortly after DNA had been discovered. He told me that there was this new field called cognitive studies, and that he felt the deeper work on the issues I was interested in would be going on in that field.

Two of the founders of the new field of cognitive studies were then at Harvard, so I took a course with them the next year. And one week, we had a guest lecture from Bärbel Inhelder on non-conservation of amount in children.

She brought along a five-year-old, and put two identical glasses in front of him, along with a bottle of Coke. She told the child to pour out the Coke, such that both of them would have the same amount. When he was done, she asked him if they both had exactly equal amounts of Coke. He said they did. She asked him if that was fair. He said it was. She then took her glass of Coke, and poured it into a very thin glass, so it was this tall column of Coke. The child looked at it and exclaimed “That’s not fair! You have more now!”

It was very captivating, but I looked at it and thought “Oh, gimme a break.” I figured that the child was just confused about what he was being asked, and that I could clear it up in a second. I said as much to my discussion leader, and he told me that, well, there had been about a hundred thousand studies where people tried to clear it up in a second, and that he was actually doing some work on that phenomenon at the time. He invited me to come along and show them how I could clear it up in a second. And that was it, I was hooked. Entirely accidentally.

Having tried other paths, how did you know that cognitive studies was the one for you?

Part of it is discovering in what field you actually enjoy the shit work. In science, I’ve spent a huge amount of time poring over data and trying to make sense of it — that’s many people’s idea of hell, but I get great satisfaction from seeing what’s going on in my data. There’s also a lot of repetition in experimental science; you need to ask hundreds of children the same questions, for example. Thankfully, I have students who do those repetitive parts now, but I certainly did them for years and years and years, and doing so is essential for gaining insight into the phenomena you are studying.

The nature of science — and particularly, I suppose, the field you’re in — is that much of the work must lead to dead ends. Is that frustrating for you?

When I was first teaching, at MIT, I went to a lot of neuroanatomy thesis defences. Neuroanatomy studies the structure of the brain — looking at this mass of white jelly and figuring out what’s connected to what. Every defence I went to, the student presented some new technique that they had mastered, applied to a tiny part of the nervous system, and discovered more previously-unknown connections. And although the theoretical upshot of this bored me to death, I could see that in that field, at that point, it was impossible to waste your time: whatever you did, you were going to discover something new.

My students, however, were going after these big questions like “How do children learn words?” — questions to which they might not find a satisfactory answer. It’s simply a personal preference, whether or not you’re okay with the possibility that you’re off on a tangent that isn’t leading anywhere. I’m perfectly happy in that quadrant — it’s more amusing for me now.

It is natural, I think, for our identity to change over time. And as it does, we’re able to see the constants within ourselves — the immutable parts of our identity. What are those parts of you?

Well, the analytic intelligence I have was honed by my father in those problem-solving projects we did together as a kid. I think that’s been a constant in my life — this analytic stance I take towards all aspects of my life.

Aside from that, there are very few other constants. Emotional growth never stops, right? You have to keep learning how to be a good friend, or a good lover. It’s constantly ongoing.

Does faith, or religion, or spirituality, play a part in your life?

Awe, wonder and mystery play a big role in my life — when you look at all that scientists have come to understand, it’s absolutely awe-inspiring. But there’s nothing spiritual about it for me — nothing outside of rational understanding. I certainly don’t have faith in any god-like being. It’s just not something that’s important to me — I don’t need it in order to connect with other people, or feel a sense of awe at how complicated our world, our bodies, and our minds are. And that we have gained an understanding of all that just fills me with awe and wonder.

There’s a quote from E.B. White: “If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world.” What do you feel more compelled to do: change the world or enjoy it?

I’m definitely drawn to enjoying it. That said, throughout my career, I’ve always had one enterprise on the go that leverages what I know as a scientist in order to improve the world. For example, all the time I was teaching at MIT, I was spending a quarter of my time at the Harvard Education School, working on science education. We have dreadful science education in this country — on international tests, we score really low. I’ve been trying to influence how science is taught, based on what we’ve learned about how it’s learned. But although changing things is important, enjoyment is the major motivation in my work.

You don’t classify the main scientific work you do as you attempting to improve the world?

No, it’s definitely not. That’s pure pleasure. The issues I study do have implications for teaching and learning, but that’s not my interest in them — I’m simply interested in understanding the amazing organ that is the human mind. There’s nothing else quite like it in the world.

Finally: what kind of legacy do you want to leave behind?

I’m actually quite humble about being remembered. I don’t care whether people know my name in the future — it’s very unlikely that they will. One of the people who taught me when I was a graduate student is somebody who I think to be the most important cognitive psychologist in the second half of the twentieth century, and yet graduate students today don’t even know his name. If you look at the history of science, very few individuals are remembered.

What gives me great pleasure, though, is seeing how the understanding I helped formulate has been adopted in the field — if I have a legacy in science, I want it to be that my work channels some of the energies of the field in a direction that turns out to be worthwhile. And I’m confident that that will be the case, if it isn’t already. That’s what I consider the most important legacy of my work.

Interview date: 22nd March 2016
Images: Jim Harrison, Internet Archive

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