Dr. Daniel Bernstein: Psychology Instructor, Kwantlen Polytechnic University
Interviewer: Scott Douglas Jacobsen
Numbering: Issue 1.A, Subject: Psychology
Place of Publication: Langley, British Columbia, Canada
Title: In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Undergraduate Journal
Web Domain: http://www.in-sightjournal.com
Individual Publication Date: November 10, 2012
Issue Publication Date: May 1, 2013
Name of Publisher: In-Sight Publishing
Frequency: Three Times Per Year
Issue 1.A, Subject: Psychology
1. What positions have you held at Kwantlen? What work have you performed here?
I have been an instructor of Psychology since 2005, when I began working at Kwantlen. In addition, I have sat on various departmental and university-wide committees while at Kwantlen.
2. Where have you worked prior to Kwantlen?
After I graduated from Simon Fraser University with my Ph.D., I was a Postdoc from 2001 to 2004 at the University of Washington. I started working at Kwantlen in 2005, and for the first year at Kwantlen, I was a visiting assistant professor at the University of Washington,
3. How did you gain interest in Psychology? Where did you acquire your education?
I was always interested in Psychology. I was the go-to person when I was young for friends’ troubles. I was always the mediator for relationships going askew because I never managed to have lasting romantic relationships of my own. When I was young, I took a real interest in the Clinical aspects of Psychology, the areas that tend to be of most interest to people. Later, I started taking an interest in the non-Clinical aspects of Psychology.
My undergraduate degree was from the University of California Berkeley. Following this, I did a Master’s degree at Brock University in Ontario. Then, I did my PhD at Simon Fraser University, and finished a Postdoc at the University of Washington. That is all of my Post-Secondary education.
4. What kinds of research have you conducted up to the present? If you currently conduct research, what form does it take?
That would take a long time to answer. I will give you very broad-brush strokes. I started doing work in sleep and dreams as an undergraduate student. I continued that work as a Masters student. I did my undergraduate and master’s work on sleep and dreams. While a Masters Student, I became interested in the cognitive effects of mild traumatic head injury. I continued that work when I started my Ph.D., but that was not the subject matter of my PhD. My Ph.D. work was on memory. More specifically, I studied how people make mistakes when thinking about the past. During my post-doc, I studied cognitive biases – or how people err in their cognition. I continue to pursue this work now.
5. Other institutions in Canada host more research-activities. Where would you like to see research move forward in Kwantlen?
I would like to see Kwantlen embrace a research culture without being bogged down with the treadmill mentality of chasing publications for tenure, and that is a fine balance to strike because it is hard to get people interested in research if that is not part of their job. I would like to see Kwantlen develop more of a research culture by offering and attending research talks and colloquia. Exposure to research will stimulate discussion about research. Currently, most conversations at Kwantlen center on teaching. This makes sense, after all, because Kwantlen is primarily a teaching institution.
6. Since you began studying Psychology, what controversial topics seem pertinent to you? How do you examine the controversial topics?
I think the first controversial topic that I really sank my teeth into was mild traumatic brain injury, which came from my own experience of skiing into a tree while a senior in High School. I had other head knocks growing up playing sports. I was just very interested in how these experiences affect someone’s cognition over the long term. The prevailing wisdom in 1993 was that people recover almost entirely from these head knocks within a short period, typically within 3 months. I did not believe that. I also did not believe that researchers were using the right tasks to elicit long-term cognitive deficits associated with mild head injury. Therefore, I took a controversial stance and argued, along with others, that these injuries possibly never resolved completely. I thought that if you smack your head hard enough that you have to stop what you are doing because you are dizzy, disoriented, or unconscious, you will have subtle residual deficits for the rest of your life. It does not mean everybody will have these deficits after a mild head injury. Instead, it means that when compared to individuals who have not bonked their heads, those who have sustained mild head injuries, will perform worse on highly demanding cognitive tasks years after the injuries. I think the tide is changing, and more people are open to this possibility.
When I was an undergraduate student, I studied dreams too, which was controversial by its very nature. While working on my post-doc much later, I got interested in False Memory. A highly controversial topic. I worked on this topic with Elizabeth Loftus, who served as a kind of lightning rod in this controversy. Beth showed me how to navigate controversy. In addition, while doing my Postdoc, I got interested in doing Hindsight Bias and Theory of Mind. Theory of Mind is the understanding that other minds are different from one’s. The prevailing wisdom in the developmental psychological field is that by the age of four and a half or five, children develop a theory of mind. It is as if a ‘light bulb’ goes on inside the child’s head. You not only understand that other minds are different from your own but that other people can hold mistaken beliefs about the world. Once you have this mature theory of mind, it is not something that extinguishes. But the acquisition of theory of mind is regarded by many as all or none – you have it or you do not. Very few things in psychology or in the world at large are all or none. With the exception of neurons, which either fire or do not fire, I can’t think of other examples of all-or-none constructs. I remember that in graduate school I was taking a seminar course on neuroscience. One of my colleagues in the program was doing his presentation on gender differences in the brain. He had racked his own brain for hours in preparation for his presentation and he had come into the presentation without any sleep. He came to class dishevelled the morning of his presentation. He said something to the following effect: “It occurred to me a few hours ago. The problem with this field is that gender is not discrete. It is continuous. It is not a categorical variable. Moreover, the reason that this field is so fucked up is that people refuse to appreciate the nuances of continuity. Instead, they want to slot you into this gender or that gender. Then, they look for differences in the brain. Well guess what folks, these differences are very difficult to detect on a consistent basis.” This was a deep insight. As I said, with respect to Theory of Mind, most people believe that it is categorical, you have it or you don’t. I am trying to show that it is not categorical. This is a controversial topic in a controversial field.
7. If you had sufficient funding for any topic, what would you research?
Exactly what I am studying now: Hindsight Bias, Theory of Mind, and False Memories.
8. Many assume scientists and social scientists to have ‘Eureka’ moments, where they discover some fundamental process about nature in an instant. Yet, the truth of research comes from the rarely heard story of the scientist or social scientist assiduously working for years in the laboratory, and finding clues to fundamental processes in nature. How do you conduct research? What do you consider your methodology for coming to new ideas, developing research hypotheses based off them, and designing experiments and requisite materials for said ideas?
I do not know. I do not think that I am very organized about it. I pursue questions that are interesting to me. Sometimes I wonder if I am interested in too many questions. Something will occur to me and I think it is a good question. I talk to colleagues, and they sometimes agree that it is a good question. Sometimes, they disagree and tell me that it is not a good question. If I think that a question is worth pursuing with an experiment or set of experiments, then I will set out to design the simplest experiment(s) to answer that question. Very few questions can be answered with a single experiment. I start with an experiment that can answer part of the question. As I delve more deeply into the question, I realize that I am signing onto years of experiments to answer the question more fully. I speak here only for myself. Many questions I choose to ask will not have ready answers, and I know that they will take years to answer. I probably choose hard questions intentionally. Who wants to answer easy questions? I find that boring. In fact, in research, I do not think I have answered fully any question I have asked. However, I am not alone. I do not think Psychology fully answers the questions it asks. Psychology is too variable. It is too multifaceted, and it is too fraught with interactions. We try to simplify things as much as possible so that we can do our experiments and talk about the nature of behaviour as if we understand it. Moreover, the busiest we ever seem to get in an experiment is a 3-way interaction. Really, folks? We are studying human nature and behaviour after all. Thus, it is unlikely that we will derive a satisfactory explanation from a 2-way interaction or a 3-way interaction. Our answers will probably require a 100-way interaction. We are years away from answering even the most fundamental questions regarding human behaviour precisely because those answers require extremely complex interactions. Perhaps we ask hard questions in Psychology because we do not want to answer those questions quickly. We want a good set of questions that we can pursue long into the future.
9. For students looking for fame, fortune, and/or utility (personal and/or social), what advice do you have for undergraduate and graduate students in Psychology?
As much as possible and widely. Do not be afraid to ask difficult questions. Do not be discouraged by people’s attempts to tell you that you are wrong. In the end, it is not so much about who is right or wrong, but about sticking to your guns and pursuing your questions, being open to criticism and feedback, valuing criticism and feedback, incorporating it into your pursuit, and adjusting your pursuit accordingly. That said, I remember reading an article some years ago in the APA monitor, the magazine of the American Psychological Association. The person who wrote it was a long-time cognitive psychologist. He had supervised some of the most influential cognitive psychologists working today. His advice was that it is just as important to have a good question that you can pursue for a long time, but that it is also important to be able to give up if the question is intractable. If you are pursuing a question that does not seem to be yielding at all, then it is time adjust your question, potentially ditch it and find a new question that does yield.
10. Whom do you consider your biggest intellectual influences? Could you recommend any seminal or important books by them?
Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. I took a course as an undergraduate with George Lakoff, who is a modern Whorfian and a linguist. Lakoff believes that our language and metaphor dictate the way we think rather than vice versa. This idea turns cognition on its head. It is not so much the way we think that dictates the way we speak, but the way we speak that dictates the way we think. The course was on metaphor, and the course was pivotal in shaping my interests. This course taught me to ask big questions, and to embrace controversy. In this class, we read “Metaphors We Live by”, Lakoff and Mark Johnson. Great book. Also as an undergraduate, I read Freud’s Interpretations of Dreams in my second year, when I took a directed study with my undergraduate supervisor Arnie Leiman. More than Freud, Arnie Leiman sparked my intellectual curiosity. Leiman was incredibly well read and once told me that, “When you cease to be well-informed, you become an asshole.” He was describing academia and beyond. If you want to be a responsible academic or world citizen, you should be well informed. This reminds me of Bob Dylan’s great line in a Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall, “I’ll know my song well before I start singing.” Other intellectual influences? During my PhD, I worked with two really smart people: Vito Modigliani and Bruce Whittlesea. During my post-doctoral work, I had the great fortune of working with Elizabeth Loftus, whose “Eyewitness Testimony” profoundly shaped the way we interview witnesses and view their testimony in legal cases. In addition, during my post-doc, I worked with Geoff Loftus and Andy Meltzoff who have both had huge impacts on psychology and my intellectual development. Other great academic works: Vygotsky’s Language and Thought and Mind in Society. Works of Fiction: Brothers Karamazov by Fyodr Dostoevsky. I once read or heard, but have not verified that Freud called Dostoevsky the greatest Psychologist. I think writers of fiction have a finger on the pulse of human nature and human behavior, and psychologists often overlook this fact.
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