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Mark E. Faust
Univ. of North Carolina at Charlotte
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University of Missouri
University of Iowa
Members-At-Large of the
David Washburn (08-11)
Jeremy Wolfe (08-11)
Mark Bouton (07-10)
University of Vermont
Nora Newcombe (07-10)
Gil Einstein (06-09)
Karen Hollis (06-09)
Mount Holyoke College
Graduate Student Representative
University of Iowa
Representative to APA Council
Emanuel Donchin (08-10)
University of South Florida
Thomas R. Zentall (07-09)
University of Kentucky
Michael Beran (Awards)
Mike Young (Fellows)
Southern Illinois University
Emily Elliott (Program)
Charles L. Brewer
Early Career Psychologist
California State U. at Fullerton
A Serendipitous Odyssey into Learning, Memory, and Cognition
Ralph Miller, APA Division 3 President-Elect
I was raised in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago in the shadow of the University of Chicago. Local heroes, including the likes of Enrico Fermi, kindled an interest in physics, and Scientific American focused that interest on quantum mechanics and relativity. I was a mediocre student until I accidentally encountered two high school teachers, one in biology and the other in English literature, who showed me that learning could be fun. The ‘disciples’ of these two teachers formed their own social circle of nerds (Nerds of the World, Unite; You have nothing to lose but your social stigma), which provided much intellectual stimulation then and has maintained its connections ever since. We were the chess players and the science fair participants who won city-wide prizes. Competency at these activities was considerable consolation for not being able to throw a 50-yard pass.
I followed up my interest in physics by enrolling at MIT. This was a rude awakening after being a star student at my high school. While a student there, I specialized in high energy physics and did research at the local cyclotron and the MIT reactor. For graduate school I moved on to Rutgers to work with a faculty member who was part of the Columbia-Rutgers High Energy Research Group, which consisted of six faculty, many postdocs, several dozen graduate students, and a bevy of technicians.
Although I earned my masters in high energy physics at Rutgers, I became disillusioned on two counts. First, I found myself programming computers rather than doing real physics. Second, my advisor was an experimentalist who seemed to play the role of a glorified mechanic to the theoreticians. I resolved to find a scientific field where I could avoid computers (you can see how successful I was) and one in which I could be both an experimentalist and a theoretician (here I was more successful). The question was where to turn. At the time I was dating a young lady who was a graduate student in social psychology at Columbia, and I amused myself by reading her text books. The problem was that I had never taken an undergraduate course in psychology. Consequently, on a late August morning I presented myself to the chair of psychology at Rutgers with a plan to spend one year taking a multitude of undergraduate psychology courses to qualify for the graduate psychology program. George Collier just happened to be in the chair’s office when I stopped in. He suggested that I read an Introductory text over the weekend and start graduate courses immediately, which is what I did (which is not to say that I recommend this strategy). Although he was not my advisor, George continued to influence my life and interests. He was the first person to point out to me the degree of genetic baggage that we all carry and the role of the ecological niche in the tuning of an animal’s behavior .
My prior exposure to some social psychology defined my initial direction in psychology. My masters thesis in psychology focused on a means of reducing conflict in a reiterative prisoner’s dilemma game, which I viewed as a model for the armaments race in the cold war. My central hypothesis was that if each player had a third option (in addition to cooperate and compete) which resulted in a payoff of zero for both players, eventually the players would come to cooperate. The data supported the hypothesis and my first publication in psychology appeared in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The rub came in debriefing my subjects (and in that day and age, they were “subjects,” not “participants”). They each had an account for why they did what they did. But their accounts made it clear that they often did not correctly recall the opponent’s plays, and in some cases they misdescribed their own plays... yet, the subjects experienced more cooperative outcomes with the option of a zero/zero payoff and their pattern of successive plays confirmed the hypothesis that they worked their way from competition to no play to cooperation. This sensitized me to the limitations of subject’s verbal accounts of their behaviors and more generally the limitations of introspection.
While still a graduate student, I was offered a fellowship to work in the laboratory of Donald J. Lewis, who was interested in the physiological basis of memory. This introduced me to a whole new world of research with nonhuman subjects (as well as accompanying asthma and allergies). The lab was productive, and I soon had publications in Science and Nature. Our basic insight was that many of the behavioral deficits that were then (and now) being attributed to impaired memory consolidation, were instead due to a failure to retrieve information that had indeed been stored. This sensitized me to the learning-performance distinction, a theme that has repeatedly reappeared in my subsequent research.
Postdoctoral positions were not yet fashionable in psychology, so I sought a faculty appointment upon receiving my PhD. The job market was not as tight then as it is now. I was offered four different positions, and, perhaps attracted to the lights of the big city, I went to Brooklyn College of CUNY, where I stayed for a productive ten years. But at the end of ten years, I decided that the high teaching load at CUNY was impeding my research. Additionally it dawned on me that New York was a great place to visit but not to live. An offer from SUNY-Binghamton was attractive because of the department’s emphasis on research and because the university’s nature preserve gave me a multitude of trees to hug. Binghamton provided me with many stimulating faculty colleagues, but first and foremost in providing stimulation was a long line of great graduate students, postdocs, and collaborators from diverse lands including France, China, Spain, Japan, Argentina, Canada, and Chile.
Over the decades, service has also become a major component of my activities, from heading my department, to offices in a number of professional societies, to chairing a number of NIH study sections. Additionally, serving as editor of the Psychonomic Society’s journal Animal Learning & Behavior was an eye opening experience as it forced me to read far more widely than I otherwise would have.
In recent years, much of my research has revolved around two sets of principles that we formulated: the comparator hypothesis and the temporal coding hypothesis. In brief, the comparator hypothesis captures the view that subjects do not respond in relation to the absolute strength of a cue-outcome association, but in relation to the difference between the cue-outcome association and the training context-outcome association. That is, subjects are responsive to increases and decreases in the likelihood of an outcome rather than the absolute likelihood of the outcome. The temporal coding hypothesis asserts that learning inevitably encodes not only what events were paired, but when [and where] they were paired. Moreover, just as associations can be chained, separately learned intervals [and distances] can be integrated, provided one of the two anchoring events is in common between the two associations. This integration of separate memories can create spatiotemporal relationships between cues that were never presented near one another.
Another relatively recent twist in my research has been the use of human subjects. Over our 39 years of federal funding, we have repeatedly claimed that our studies with rats spoke to human behavior as well provided we restricted ourselves to simple behavior. But as I have become a gray beard, I felt that we should directly test this premise, which we have done with considerable success. Moreover, given the present academic job market, I think that my students will be more competitive if they have experience with both human and rat experiments. As we see more and more commonalities between human and nonhuman behavior, it certainly gives pause to the view that humans are greatly removed from other species. Either nonhumans are capable of more elaborate thought processes than we previously realized, or humans are more ‘mechanical’ in their thought processes than introspection suggests. Personally, based on currently available evidence, I favor the latter view.
I still read social psychology, but now cast in an evolutionary framework. Evolutionary psychology is fascinating and holds many basic truths, but has also generated vast numbers of Just So stories. The challenge is separating the wheat from the chaff. In recent years, as an avocation I have dabbled in evolutionary psychological research in collaboration with David S. Wilson, the champion of a modern and well reasoned version of multi-level selection (including group selection).
I am now completing my thirtieth year at Binghamton and the trajectory of my research surprises many people, myself included. My doctoral work was in physiological psychology (now called behavioral neuroscience). Whereas many others have gone ever more molecular, I find myself becoming more molar. Rather than focusing on chemical and electrical interventions as I used to do, I now modify my animals’ behavior by altering their experiences. Surely all animals including humans are intricate biological machines and it is essential that we understand the physiological roots of behavior, but I believe that there is also merit in studying the effects of environmental stimuli on behavior. Just as physics did not render chemistry obsolete despite all chemical phenomena ultimately having a explanation with physics, so a physiological account of behavior is not a substitute for a psychological/cognitive account. Reductionism is essential, but often cannot explain things by itself. Reductionism is at risk of losing sight of the forest due to its focus on the trees.
In sum, for 45 years I have been studying the effects of experience on behavior. If there is one thing that I have learned over this period, it is that behavior is not as plastic as I thought 45 years ago. Genes don’t determine any behavior, but they often create strong predispositions. If genes have so much effect, why do I spend my time studying the effects of experience on behavior? The reason is that even if experience explains relatively little of the behavioral differences between people, at the present time it is far easier to manipulate the environment than a person’s genes