One on one... with Michael J. Proulx

Senior Lecturer in Psychology, University of Bath

One moment that changed the course of your career
Stepping into a psychology research lab for the first time as a research assistant and realising THIS was psychology. I was hooked. Even though I found every area of the field fascinating, it was work in cognition that I wanted to read and think about the most, so I chose that specialisation for my postgraduate work in Psychological and Brain Sciences at Johns Hopkins.

One challenge you think psychology faces

Psychology needs to get beyond the fascination with images of ‘brain activity’ (from fMRI studies, for example) and bring behaviour back to the forefront of the science. The misuse of brain images and terminology are referred to as ‘brain porn’ and ‘neurobabble’ by Chris Chabris and Dan Simons in their book The Invisible Gorilla, and those terms nicely sum up the problem that seeing brain images and reading neuroscience explanations tend to be
more convincing to readers.

One cultural recommendation
Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman. The book is a thoughtful reflection on the psychology of time (couched in the physics of it), and fun to read. Whenever I read about new findings in physics, I am reminded of this book. All of the excitement surrounding the Higgs boson really comes down to psychology, doesn’t it? Human cognition and perception is at the basis of all the hard sciences, whether in the observations we make, or the models we devise. What could be harder than that?

One alternative career path you may have chosen

When I was a kid, I really wanted to be an astronaut. That desire faded in my teens, but I am still fascinated by space exploration. At the end of my first degree, my university introduced a degree in astrobiology. If that had been introduced a few years earlier, then today I might be an astrobiologist searching for extra-terrestrial life and studying the stars instead of a cognitive psychologist searching for consciousness and studying neurons.

One thing that organised psychology could do better

Psychology, like other areas of science, is an international field now. Ideas, funding, and researchers are crossing borders all the time. Psychology organisations like the BPS and APA need to find ways to adapt and somehow maintain a national identity while also being internationally inclusive.

One hope for the future of psychology
Gain full recognition as the hub and root of all STEM disciplines, and medical and social sciences. What could be harder or more fulfilling and important than decoding the mysteries of the mind?

One proud moment

Taking my daughters to see my wife after she successfully defended her PhD (she is an expert in evolutionary neuroscience).

One thing we can learn from research on other primates, zebrafish and bees
I have great collaborations with biologists and a biological anthropologist on perception in non-human animals. Clearly, humans are not as unique as we might think – our close primate relatives and even distantly related species with far fewer neurons are able to carry out complex cognitive tasks, often in similar ways to us.

One final thought
I never knew it was possible to have a career in curiosity. As a first generation university graduate I had never seriously considered becoming a scientist, but in just four years given extensive research opportunities and incredible friends, I went from pursuing a degree in ‘undecided’ to choosing to become a psychological scientist led
by my own curiosity.

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