Journey2Psychology, A Project by: Dr. MIchael Gordon
Mike Gordon is travelling across the world to converse with influential Psychologists and discover the stories behind their work.
This journey will form the basis of a book from political animal press
follow Dr. Gordon’s travels in full at Journey2Psychology
Over a career of more than 50 years Dr. Mike Posner of the University of Oregon has been a defining figure in Psychology — most notably for his efforts shepherding in the age of neuroscience for Psychology. In studies on attention, visual orienting, and a host of related cognitive processes, Dr. Posner and his colleagues have illustrated where and how neural circuits operate in the brain.
If I can wax poetically for a moment, one might recollect the parable of the blind men and elephant. Each one of the blind men reached out to touch the elephant and to describe their experience and each felt something different across the features of this large animal. One patted a solid mid-section, rough skinned body and declared the object to be a wall, one felt a whip-like tail with a frayed end and shouted that the object was a broom, one grasped the thick, long trunk and exclaimed that it was a snake, and still another touched the fan-like ears and informed his peers that it was a peacock, I mean a fan. That last blind man seemed to often confuse fans and peacocks, much to the chagrin of his wife and the bewilderment of the other blindmen. In any case, each found something important and exclaimed his excitement about this find to his colleagues! They debated and argued over their experiences. They accused each other of falsehoods and of misinterpretations — how could it be a snake when it was a broom? How could it be a broom when it was a wall? Eventually, slowly, and with much hand-wringing, they put their experiences together to construct an animal larger than any had originally thought and with more complexity than any had directly experienced.
The process of science is often thought of in this way: with each person exploring one small element of the field and declaring our amazing findings to our peers. We debate where and how each fraction we find might fit with other findings; whether those findings are valid or questionable; and when the scientific process is successful, we eventually endeavor to support a wider understanding of the whole by integrating each of these fractional bits. Only together do they seem to produce something that we hope will approximate the whole. That is most of us working in science: working very, very hard on a little piece of the world and all its phenomena and trying to add to the collective understanding as a result. And then there is Mike Posner. He got a hold of one end of that elephant of science and wouldn’t let go. He clawed his way across systems and through a diverse array of elements and neural processes. While there is much more we seek to understand and a tremendous amount of questions still ahead to be addressed, Dr. Posner didn’t settle for one small part. Over the last several decades he has constructed a lasting model of the divergent pieces and behaviors of the brain. He has tested systems of processes and structure-function relationships that underlie thought, itself.
Because of the research of Dr. Posner and his colleagues, we know that a single idea will likely activate a whole subset of different parts and places in the brain. The mental/psychological experience of looking at something (let’s say an elephant) is unified. We can orient and address our thoughts to seeing and experiencing that elephant. Posner and colleagues have explicated the neural circuitry which makes all that happen: orienting towards the elephant, processing the ears, nose, trunk and redirecting attention towards each of those parts. Among many jaw-dropping ideas to come from this research was the diversity and location of the neural structures involved. The simple idea that many philosophers and early physiologists intuitively shared for about 1000 years is that there is a spot in the brain for one activity and a different spot in the brain for something else. Many hypothesized that neurons that work together will be sitting neatly together in a little group (or maybe even just one neuron, king of the other neurons) directing a specific behavior. That idea was kind of the basis of phrenology and other debunked early theories of how the brain is formed. Clever ideas that are totally wrong. Most neural activities draw on activity in different parts of the brain, and occurring in overlapping intervals. The activity in the brain is, to a casual observer, somewhat chaotic and divergent. It took the decades of research from Dr. Posner and colleagues, to demonstrate where and how these neural circuits are formed, and how they relate to the seemingly effortless ability we possess to pay attention to one thing and then to transfer that attention elsewhere. Most scientists find one part of the big elephant and work on that. Dr. Posner found one part and kept on tracking, piece by piece, filling in a larger chunk of the animal than most of us knew existed.