“I’m a big fan of what’s called solution-driven science.”
An interview with Michael Lee, PhD (Professor of Cognitive Sciences, University of California Irvine)
By: Laura Zaneski (4/15/22)
Have you always been interested in studying the mind?
Yes, I think so. When I went to college, my parents’ advice was to do anything that you think you’re interested in and that you think you might be good at. And so, I did a really broad range of subjects that interested me. I was probably the only person doing psychology, math and accounting. Out of this strange collection of subjects, I found that psychology and math were the two that I was most interested in and that I thought I might be good at. And so, I ended up as a mathematical psychologist, at least at the beginning of my career.
Do you find it difficult being in an interdisciplinary research field?
I’ve never heard an academic who believes their field isn’t interdisciplinary. Maybe it’s true that all of them are, or should be in their best form which I think it’s inherently a good thing. The idea of studying one tiny thing for 50 or 60 years is not something that should keep anybody fresh and creative. I think science at its best is inherently creative. And so, interdisciplinarity can only help broaden things, which has to be good.
What questions are really exciting you right now?
There’s sort of three or four areas in which I work, and I’ve chosen to work in them because I find them exciting. If I didn’t, I should go and work on something I did find exciting. The one I’m going to be talking about here is about human memory. In particular, what happens to our memory as we age, and the impairments that occur. Also, the developmental changes that occur to memory over the lifespan. I think that’s an important problem for society and has the potential to tell us something deeper about how the human mind works, how our memories work, how we respond or change the way we make decisions, and how we change the way we behave as our memory changes underneath us.
The other thing is called “wisdom of the crowd.” This is the idea that if you take decisions from many people, there’s ways of combining those decisions to pool all of the knowledge that different people together. When doing that, it improves the way collections of people, societies or aggregates in some sense make decisions. I find this really exciting cause it involves multiple aspects such as individual differences, and how people decide and judge things. It also has all of these applications and impacts in society towards making better collective decisions as a community, a society, or a group.
If you look around the world, you can find all sorts of times where organizations want to make good decisions. So, for example, when major sports teams go into the draft, they’ve had large numbers of scouts go out and look at players and have various opinions on them. They want to put that into one master list to decide who their highest priority is, who their second highest priority is, etc. We have a notion that different people have different perspectives or different parts of an answer and the challenge is how you put them together into an answer that’s [going to] work well overall. So those were all fairly long-term ones but of course you could have short-term ones. You could imagine [a scenario such as] a search and rescue where you might have to make a very quick decision about where do we land the helicopter as the best place to put down the people who are going to search. You would have a whole lot of people with different levels of expertise – some chopper pilots, some experts in terrain, some experts in medical evacuation constraints – deciding this region or this region or this region and then in 30 seconds you might have to put all of that together to decide where to land the helicopter.
What kind of impact do you hope your research will have?
I’m a big fan of what’s called solution-driven science. This is the idea that basic research is when you study things as a scientist because it’s hard, because it’s not understood and your job is to advance things; it’s the job scientists have always had. Applied research is when you look for things that scientists already know well and you try and find some application for that in the real world. Solution-driven has the best elements of both because you find the problem in the real world in the first place but then you have to take it back into the lab. It’s not solved; it needs basic science and you have this iterative process where you try and solve hard scientific problems that originated in real world problems. I try as best I can to work in that mode because then I feel like at its best, I’m making scientific progress, which is my key job, but you don’t have to look for an application. The application was why you worked on the problem in the first place. So, I’d love to be able to improve things like our understanding of memory impairment and what we could do about that. Or how we could measure whether drugs or treatments are improving memory impairment. Or how people collectively make decisions so that they land the helicopter in the right place and the person does get rescued and so on.