Justin is assistant professor of psychology at Bard College in the US. Here, he explores his research into memory and forgetfulness, how this field of research is progressing and what its impact on society is now and might be in the future.
Hello Justin! What first attracted you to psychology?
Honestly, questions like that! Attempting to understand what drives individuals to do what they want to do and think what they think is more than an interesting diversion — it’s critical to navigating daily life and the relationships that help make it meaningful.
Coming to a definitive answer to these questions, however, is not at all easy. There are the explanatory stories that I tell myself and present to others — but, although grounded in truth, these are also shaped and coloured by a wide array of underlying motivations and processes that may not be consciously accessible.
For example, Sharon Thompson-Schill, the incredible professor who introduced me to the field of cognitive neuroscience when I was an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, is one answer as to why I became interested in this field. Yet there are countless other experiences, large and small, that, together with my basic disposition and a random set of circumstances, led me to become an experimental psychologist.
I think it’s also fair to say that I’d love to understand what my cats are thinking when they’re staring off into nothingness.
How did your studies influence your interests?
I actually started my PhD in the States and followed my supervisor, Mike Anderson, through two institutional moves — first to Scotland and then to Cambridge. While there are plenty of great things each university offered, one of the most extraordinary aspects of Cambridge was its college system and, in particular, St John’s. Coming back to the SBR or dining in hall regularly seated me next to incredible personalities and thinkers from a wide range of disciplines. Talking to them gave me new perspectives on how my memory research connects to other fields, such as how societal norms and historical policies can drive forgetting.
Are you still in touch with friends from university?
Having moved across the Atlantic with a couple of fellow graduate students, we grew to rely on each other in ways that none of us could have predicted. Those bonds are hard to break. While they’re now back on the West Coast of the US and I’m in New York, we still keep in touch over email. Similarly, Facebook and other digital platforms, such as JohnianHub, have helped me keep in touch with many of the amazing people I met during my time as President of the SBR and working at the Cambridge MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit. It’s fabulous to see their many successes, even from afar. Fortunately, I was able to make a recent visit back to Cambridge and had a chance to catch up with some of the people who continue to call it home.
What’s the best part of being an experimental psychologist?
I really cherish the time spent working with undergraduates in my research laboratory — especially over the summers when we can devote more focused attention to the endeavour. As a liberal arts institution, Bard has allowed me to work alongside students from (just to name a few disciplines) political science, computer science, biology, philosophy and, of course, psychology. Their perspectives and energy add richness to the work and allow me to realize a true meeting of teaching and research.
Briefly describe your research.
Failing to remember — forgetting an acquaintance’s name or an appointment time — can lead to embarrassment, missed opportunities or worse. But forgetting is not necessarily bad. Oftentimes, we must forget the irrelevant in order to remember the relevant (e.g. when an acquaintance changes their name or an appointment is rescheduled). Forgetting is not simply the opposite of remembering; it can promote learning, wellbeing and focus.
The Memory Dynamics Lab, where I work, aims to harness the mechanisms responsible for adaptively retrieving, consolidating and forgetting memories through cognitive neuroscience (including the study of human brainwaves and behaviour while awake and asleep). In doing so, we aim to distill and disseminate strategies designed to help learners capitalize on these mental operations, allowing them to better remember when/what they want to remember and forget when/what they want to forget.
How do you carry out the research?
While our experiments come in many different forms, we generally invite participants into the laboratory where they are asked to study and retrieve information under different conditions. Through careful analysis of participants’ behavior (e.g. recall accuracy or speed of identification) and physiology (e.g. brain activity, respiration, eye movement or sweating), we hope to identify more strategies for controlling the processes that aid adaptive memory dynamics.
Who do you work with?
Most of our participants are college students — what is known as a convenience sample. Since our experiments sometimes involve taking naps between the time they study and are tested on information, we don’t really get complaints. After all, our participants get paid to sleep (and get a snack, to boot)! Our focus on healthy, college-age participants who are practiced in the ability to study still leaves plenty of space for looking at how memory dynamics change over the course of a lifespan.
What impact does your research have?
I hope my work helps to shine a light on the value of forgetting in certain circumstances. Sure, forgetting can be terribly frustrating or embarrassing, but sometimes it’s better (or even healthier) to forget certain memories in the moment, such as when information is found to be incorrect, outdated or problematic to one’s everyday functioning.
What do you do to relax or have fun outside of work?
Life on the tenure track hasn’t given me much time outside of work. However, when I do get the chance I like to draw inspiration from my two cats, Mandy and Jerri. They are able to catch a nap seemingly anywhere, at any time. Having studied the interplay between sleep and memory, I’m a big proponent of naps. My cats might just be the best spokesmodels for them.
One thing few people know about you?
I can dislocate my right shoulder at will. It’s a good party trick, if somewhat painful.
If you could live somewhere else, where would it be?
I did love my time in Cambridge. Short of that, though, Philadelphia has always been close to my heart (especially since I grew up just outside of the city).
Your favourite TV series?
I regularly watch PBS NewsHour over dinner each night, which helps keep me informed without it devolving into a shouting match that’s apt to give me a heart attack. It’s the closest thing to BBC News I can find.
A final thought for fellow Johnians?
It can really pay to take a nap.