Third Culture
Edge 103

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There is a gigantic project yet to be done that will have the effect of rooting psychology in natural science. Once this is accomplished, you'll be able to go from phenomenology. . . to information processing. . . to the brain. . . down through the workings of the neurons, including the biochemistry, all the way to the biophysics and the way that genes are up-regulated and down-regulated.

This is going to happen; I have no doubt at all. When it does we’re going to have a much better understanding of human nature than is otherwise going to be possible.



When Stephen Kosslyn received tenure at Harvard, none of his colleagues in the Psychology Department had scholarly interests that overlapped with his, since most people were doing mathematical psychology. Prior to Harvard, during his time at Johns Hopkins, Kosslyn had become very interested in the brain and computation, which was the beginning of cognitive neuroscience. There weren't too many people thinking about such matters at that point.

Over time, many of his senior colleagues in the Psychology Department at Harvard retired or left, so he found myself in the position of being chair of several search committees, where he could nudge the program in a direction that, he believes, turned out to be a very good idea. Kosslyn chaired the committee that hired Dan Schachter, Patrick Cavanaugh, Ken Nakayama, and Alfonso Caramazza. "I tried to get Pinker, but failed on that one… for now," he says. "Most recently I chaired the committee that brought in Susan Carey and Liz Spelke. The department's gotten strong now. It's got a cohesive, underlying theme, which means that there is the potential for interaction."

The Department is currently oriented towards cognitive neuroscience. "Right now," according to Kosslyn, "it’s not very computational, which is a weakness. Computation is the language of information processing, not English, French, or any other natural language because there’s no reason to expect the kinds of concepts and distinctions captured in natural language to be appropriate for characterizing what's going on in the brain. It's different than the objects we encounter in our daily lives. Although we don't have the right version of a computational language yet—one that’s tailored for this particular machine rather than a Von Neumann machine—computation is clearly going to be the language."


STEPHEN M. KOSSLYN, a Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, has published over 200 papers on the nature of visual mental imagery. He has received numerous honors, including the National Academy of Sciences Initiatives in Research Award and the Prix Jean-Louis Signoret, and was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Society of Experimental Psychologists. His books include Image and Mind; Ghosts in the Mind's Machine; Elements of Graph Design; Wet Mind: The New Cognitive Neuroscience; Image and Brain: The Resolution of the Imagery Debate; and Psychology: The Brain, the Person, the World.

Kosslyn is a Fellow of the American Psychological Association, the American Psychological Society, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and has served on several National Research Council committees to advise the government on new technologies. He is also co-founder of the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience.

Stephen M. Kosslyn's Edge Bio Page

Beyond Edge: Kosslyn Laboratory - Stephen M. Kosslyn's home page

THE REALITY CLUB: Zenon Pylyshyn responds. [click here]