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Finding Fido

by Deane Morrison

Chad Marsolek

Chad Marsolek
Photo by Bridget Brown

Chad Marsolek

Associate professor, psychology

Education

B.A. summa cum laude, University of Minnesota

A.M., Ph.D. cognitive psychology, Harvard University

Historical person he'd most like to meet

Bishop George Berkeley, a philosopher who wrote, “No object exists apart from the mind; mind is therefore the deepest reality….”

Recent book

Rethinking Implicit Memory, Oxford University Press, 2003

What students might say

“He gestures too much.”

How he came to be who he is:

Born in Minneapolis; the only scientist to emerge from a family that lived in several places around the U.S.

Studied psychology as an undergrad at the U of M, where he nursed his interest in the science of the mind. During grad school at Harvard, worked with researchers to study the relationship of conscious and unconscious thought processes to the brain's electrical and chemical activity.

Loves…

Live music.

If not a psychology professor, he'd be…

A philosophy professor, because “what I love doing is philosophy plus the experimental tests.”

Colleagues say…

“Chad is incredibly smart—someone who thinks really well on his feet. He has an extensive knowledge of … cognitive psychology that he can bring to bear to solve problems.”

—Christopher Patrick, professor of psychology

Loves working with students because…

“Students really bring life to a project. They not only gain experience in making studies happen in the lab, but they bring fresh perspectives and interesting new ideas to the table. Often, they become true collaborators.”

On the value of undergraduate research partnerships:

“[Students on this project] learned the background literature, how to set up and conduct a new study, and how to analyze and interpret the results. They learned what they needed to about the field and themselves, to the point where they will be stars in graduate school.”

Chad Marsolek studies brains to discover how we recognize our pets, infer gender stereotypes, and interpret political speech.

It never ceases to amaze Chad Marsolek when undergraduate psychology majors shun cognitive psychology because it's “too scientific." It's the science that he finds so fascinating.

“I think of the mind as what the brain does,” says Marsolek, an associate professor of psychology. “Our minds probably will not be truly understood without direct reference to the structure and activity of the brain.”

Learning how our brains think gives Marsolek a fascinating glimpse into the murky unconscious that rules our lives more than most of us would like to believe. Marsolek and his colleagues found that when we see unfamiliar faces, for example, our brains unconsciously infer stereotypes—a discovery that, while perhaps unsettling, adds a new dimension to the tale of how the world's greatest thinking machine survived and evolved.

Whose dog is that, anyway?

Consider how you recognize your family dog. Marsolek has shown that as you look at Fido, the left half of your cerebrum considers the visual clues and concludes, “It's a dog"—that is, it categorizes what you see.

Meanwhile, the right half of your cerebrum, which deals in specifics, decides you're seeing Fido, not another dog. So sharp is the division of labor that a stroke in the right hemisphere may leave a patient able to recognize that it's a dog, but unable to tell that it is Fido.

“Research in my lab indicates it's not an accident for the brain to do this—it's more efficient,” says Marsolek. “A system that categorizes things very well isn't good at recognizing individuals. But we have to do both all the time.”

In other words, our brain's ability to categorize and simultaneously recognize individuals is adaptive. It also helps us make good decisions. Recognizing the generic dog allows us to prepare for the possibility of danger. Recognizing Fido allows us to relax and extend a hand to the creature bounding toward us. Both are accomplished more effectively by separate processors than they would be by a unified processor.

Suppose, however, the object isn't a dog, but an unfamiliar person. At a glance, we can recognize the sex, age, race, and perhaps even social status of the person. Following this perceptual categorization, we may draw inferences based on unconscious stereotypes gleaned from previous experiences. Recognizing that the person is a woman, for example, we might infer that she is more likely to be an English major than an engineering student. But what if that person does not fit the stereotype?

Boys will be boys?

In experiments with social psychologist colleague Alex Rothman, Marsolek found that the left and right hemispheres of our brains can simultaneously stereotype people according to sex (left brain) and anti-stereotype them (right brain). In other words, one part of our brain can infer certain stereotypical ("masculine" or “feminine") characteristics, while another part can suppress such a stereotype.

“Stereotyping is a mental process that, while we recognize it's wrong, is part and parcel of how our brains have evolved,” Marsolek says. “Categorizing is informative, because we can activate information associated with a category that's not explicit in the input.

“When we stereotype male versus female, it's because stereotypical information has gotten into our heads. We can also anti-stereotype by sex, by recognizing that the individual is new and may be distinctive.”

The brain also can be tricked by its ability to fill in gaps. Consider these sentences: “Kate left early to go to the birthday party. She spent an hour shopping at the mall." In experiments, Marsolek and colleague Christopher Patrick found that most people inferred that Kate had shopped for a birthday gift, and many even remembered (incorrectly) the word “gift" in the text.

Our inferential abilities often help us understand messages, but they also can trip us up. A shrewd politician can deliberately mislead by relying on our penchant for drawing inferences.

“If a politician puts statements together that invite a certain inference, lots of people will make that inference and remember it as part of the passage, yet the politician can claim that he or she never explicitly stated it,” says Marsolek.

What makes inferences so fascinating to Marsolek is their connection to memory. Every time somebody draws an inference, that person's memory is at work, he says. And it can be devilishly difficult to counteract memories that feed the habit of unfairly stereotyping people. That's especially true when the media and society in general collude with memories in reinforcing stereotypes.

“No matter what exercises you give a kid in school, they're also being influenced by what they experience at home and in society,” says Marsolek.

One stereotype that Marsolek is working to counterbalance is the stereotype of psychologist as psychotherapist.

“I think the stereotype the lay person has is that we're all about counseling and treating disorders,” he says. “Lots of great and important work is being done in those areas in this department. But there's also the basic science. The best work in each field informs the other.”

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