An Interview with Steven Pinker: Unraveling the Greatest Mysteries of the Mind

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Why did you choose to enter the field of psychology and cognitive science?

What could be more interesting than how the mind works? It’s a question that everyone is curious about. It sits at the heart of many other questions about human life, such as why do we appreciate beauty? How do we get along? Should our political systems assume that we are all naturally cooperative and generous, or should they assume that we all have selfish and destructive motives? Why do we fall in love? How do we see the world? These are, I think, questions any intellectually curious person thinks about sooner or later. And when I discovered there was a field that studied it, particularly cognitive psychology, which was relatively new when I was a student, it promised to take some of these ancient cosmic deep questions and open them up to study in the lab with data, with experiments. And so that was an irresistible combination to me.

Who were your greatest mentors?

A number along the way. When I grew up in Montreal, I went to the educational system that had a two year junior college before three years of university. And the chair of the psychology department was a woman named Kathy Fitchton, who I think convinced me that psychology wasn’t the same as Freudian psychoanalysis – that it was an empirical science where ideas had to be testable with data. So, she was certainly influential when I was in McGill University where I got my degree. I had a number of influential professors, such as Albert Bregman, who was my undergraduate project advisor. He did a fascinating research program on how we understand the auditory world and how we analyze the mix of sounds coming into our ears so that we can follow a voice or a melody but more generally, he was interested in some of the deepest and most profound issues in cognitive science. How do we make sense of the meanings of sentences, the meanings of stories, the meanings of scenes. He has a combination of deep interest in fundamental questions and a laboratory that studied concrete questions, things that, to this very day, I teach my undergraduates. I talk about the work that I did in his lab going back almost 50 years. And so, he would certainly count as a major influence when I was an undergraduate.

Where do you see the use of AI in psychology research? 

Well, AI in psychology, especially cognitive psychology, are almost sister disciplines. They both originated at the same time in the mid-1950s, thanks to some of the same practitioners and theorists, Herbert Simon and Alan Newell, and Marvin Minsky and George Miller. And because the question of “how does the human mind work” raises the more general question of “how can any mind flesh or silicon work”? What is a mind. What is intelligence? What kind of physical systems can accomplish it? And for a long time, there was a lot of back and forth between cognitive psychology and artificial intelligence. A lot of the models of human memory, language,understanding, and human visual perception came from or contributed to models of computer language processing or computer vision or computer question answering. It was really only when some of the companies became more proprietary and they didn’t want their researchers’ spilling secrets to the public domain that they started to develop on separate tracks.
And sadly, there is a period in which there’s much less interchange between artificial intelligence and cognitive psychology. I suspect there’ll be more, because once again, the questions of what makes a machine smart and what makes a brain smart overlap, and the fact that in the last six or seven years, there’s been the awakening of AI after being kind of a fairly sleepy field. Suddenly we’ve had a number of them in translation, in face recognition, now in conversation. Those ideas in AI grew out of models of cognition from cognitive psychology, neural network models, and especially multi-layer pattern associators trained by error back propagation learning. That was an idea from cognitive psychology in the 1980s that then was adopted big time in the AI of the last six or seven years. Conversely, some of the limitations of those models such as their tendency to make stuff up their tendency to give wildly inappropriate answers to some questions remind us that there may be some features of the human brain that these systems are not implementing, and that maybe the AI people should go back to psychology and ask how what we understand about the human mind can inform AI and ensure that artificial minds that are less prone to these errors.


Within this field, what is still remaining to be explored, and how can we go about doing so?

Well there’s lots that we don’t understand and we always wanna learn more about why moral systems across the world differ and what they have in common. Why is it in some cultures considered okay to murder your sister if she’s had sex with a man other than the one that your father has chosen as her husband, but in other cultures that’s considered abhorrent? Conversely, why is it okay to bear flesh in our culture that would be considered highly immoral in some Middle Eastern cultures? And that’s just the tip of an iceberg of moral differences. What are some of the moral differences that animate people on the political left versus the political right? How do we understand the relationship between our moral sense and what feels icky to us? and What are  our best arguments as to what really is right and wrong?

We know that they can differ because sometimes in places there were perfectly natural institutions like slavery at the time, which we now realize to be monstrous. Conversely, there were acts that were considered to be immoral, like homosexual relations between consenting adults that now we consider to be no one else’s business. So why do our moral intuitions often lead us astray, and might they be leading us astray? Now, when people have resistance to perhaps things like choosing the traits of your offspring or a marketplace for donated organs. We often have a repugnance, are those products of mental quirks that we will overcome the same way we overcame our resistance to homosexuality? Or are they cases where they really are immoral, and our moral sense is tipping us off as to something that’s really out there.

Also, what leads to moral change? and why does it take longer in some cultures than others? Most people today have for many years thought that wars of conquest are not glorious and heroic, but rather stupid and cruel and abominable. But clearly Vladimir Putin does not agree with that. Why is it that at the given time you could have such clashing moral intuitions, and how does the world eventually come along with a particular view and become univocal in opposing it, slavery being an example, it used to be that some countries had abolished slavery, others thought it was fine. Now slavery doesn’t exist anywhere. Could that happen to institutions such as war and what’s taking it so long and how can we hasten it along?



What inspired you to begin writing books on psychology?

I thought that there was fascinating material that we had no right to keep hidden in journals and academic conferences and that we ought to share with the world. In the same way in which I enjoyed reading about evolutionary biology or paleontology or cosmology or medicine from popular writers, I thought that people should have access to some of the exciting ideas coming out of cognitive science. And there had not been professional scientists who had crossed over to try to explain these works to a broader public. And I confirmed that just from my conversations with people. People would say sometimes, sitting next to them on a plane or in a bar, what do you do for a living? Oh, I’m a cognitive psychologist I study language, or I study how people think, and they’d always say, “oh, that’s really interesting.” And so, I realized that there was a market I had in my own academic writing, and an editor at a university press that I’d worked with said, “for an academic, your writing doesn’t suck, but have you ever thought of trying for a broader audience?” And so that kind of lit a spark or planted a seed that grew into my book of the language instinct. I also got advice from another university press editor, Susan Milmow, who at the time was an editor at Cambridge University Press, and she gave me a bit of advice that I’ve remembered ever since. She said that a lot of academics, when they cross over to writing for a broader audience, they get it all wrong. They think that you’ve got to write in baby talk and bother ease. They think you’ve got to talk down to your audience or that you’re writing for people who aren’t very bright, that mindset never works. People don’t like to be talked down to, and there’s no need, because when you write a book for  a wider audience, you’re writing it for people who are intellectually curious and well-read and smart. They didn’t happen to go into the field that you went into, but it doesn’t mean that they’re not intellectually curious. It just means that they don’t know stuff that you know. And so she said, treat your reader with respect.

Treat them as a peer. Just take the attitude that they’re like a college roommate who just majored in something else and don’t know what you have learned all these years. That was great advice. I repeated it in my own book and realized  that the starting point is to treat your reader as a conversational partner, as an equal, someone who has not seen something that you have seen. You’re trying to orient them so that they can see it with their own eyes.

What is your favorite book that you have written so far?

Perhaps The Better Angels of Our Nature. It was a book that combined psychology and neuroscience with history and some philosophy and had brought together a lot of what I believe, a lot of what I was surprised to discover, a lot of what I learned about the mind and the brain. And it did get a lot of attention. It changed a lot of people’s minds, and it reoriented them, I hope, in a constructive direction that we can actively bring about a better world, a more peaceful world, not out of romanticism or some utopian hope, but out of understanding cold hard data that in the past when people tried to bring down rates of violence.

What do you think that being a scientist has taught you?

It’s taught me to look beneath the surface for deeper explanations. Well, weird stuff happens, and it just happens, and there’s no rhyme or reason to it. And God works in mysterious ways. We’ll never understand the world. It ignited a kind of curiosity about underlying causes, but also a humility that our own intuitions can be misleading. Our own desire to be right can be misleading. We’re not omniscient, we’re not infallible. The world will often deliver rude insults to what you thought was your understanding. 

What advice do you have for scientists who are just starting their career in science? And in particular, what advice do you have for cognitive scientists?

One is to not be imprisoned by disciplinary silos. That’s the way academia is set up for bureaucratic reasons. You can’t have everyone in the same department, so you divide them into psychologists and linguists and neuroscientists and artificial intelligence researchers and philosophers of mind and cognitive anthropologists. But we’re all studying the same thing from different angles. And so, whatever you’re studying, know what other disciplines have said about it. If you’re studying language, you should know some linguistics, you should know some natural language processing from computer science, you should know some philosophy of language. If you’re interested in the psychology of art, you should understand the visual system, and understand the history of art and understand computer vision systems. That would be one piece of advice. Another is that there’s a constant and often agonizing trade-off between depth and breadth. You can’t know everything about everything. To be constructively employed, you have to pursue at least one thing in depth so that you can make contributions. So you have no choice but to do that. And often in a career that has to come first. For example, for some academics, you got to get a PhD, then  you got to get a job, and then you got to get tenure. And from that secure foundation, it’s easier to branch out, to re-expand your interests and take in larger sets of ideas from the secureness of knowing one thing very competently.

I’ll give one other piece of advice, and that is, even though I emphasized the necessity of studying things from an interdisciplinary vantage point, the whole point is that there isn’t one vantage point. You still have to major in something, you’ve still got to, for better or worse, hang out a shingle that says I’m a computer scientist, I’m a linguist, I’m a cognitive psychologist, I’m a neuroscientist, I’m a philosopher. How do you make that choice? If you’re interested in something like say, language or vision that spans many disciplines, you got to think about what you have to do day to day in each of these fields. How do you get your hands dirty? What actually takes up your time? What do you do when you check into work every morning? And since your success in the field is gonna depend on that nitty gritty, day-to-day, hands-on work, decide what you enjoy doing. Do you enjoy coding? Do you enjoy analyzing the structure of sentences and words and collecting examples? Do you enjoy dealing with kids or with live human subjects? Do you enjoy library research? Are you okay with data? Are you okay with instrumentation and equipment? Are you okay drilling holes into the skulls of animals? And depending, not on your intellectual interests, but on your practical tastes and interests, that’s how you should pick a field.

In my case, I knew I was not gonna become a neuroscientist as an undergraduate. When I helped a friend in a lab who was studying memory in rats and doing recordings from the hippocampus and I was helping him, the researcher drilled  a hole in the skull of a rat and planted an electrode onto a lead. And I’m not very dextrous when it comes to fine motor coordination. And I realized I should not pick a career that depends on my manual dexterity.. When it comes to programming a computer to flash sentences on a screen and have humans read those sentences, that I can do, because if I miss something or if I’m a little physically clumsy or sloppy, it won’t affect the software. But anything that’s too analog and too physical, I have realized that’s not the field for me.

See the full interview with Dr. Pinker here:

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