After an interesting Part One speaking about neuroscience, we return to the scientist to talk about his youth, Australia and mental modes in the brain.
In Part One, Professor James Danckert talked us through how boredom and how it can badly affect your health. In this part, he talks us through mental models and how growing up influenced his work.
What are mental models?
Mental models are condensed representations of the rules and regularities that govern how the world functions.
Our brains have limited information processing capacity. We can’t possibly process and represent everything that is out there.
To compound things, information is constantly changing. So to cope with this we build these condensed representations – mental models – to allow us to predict and anticipate the consequences of our intended actions.
If we choose option A we predict the world will respond in a particular way – option B will lead to different outcomes.
How does the brain update?
The models we build are explicitly predictive. We then execute our action choices and get feedback on what actually happened.
We can then compare the actual outcomes with our predictions generated by the model. If they are similar, everything is fine.
If not, we generate a prediction error – how far off were my model’s estimates of outcomes?
We can use that error to then update our model so that next time we make more accurate predictions.
There are lots of other things we need to do – determine when surprising information is actually model relevant vs noise for instance.
Please tell us about your growing up years.
I grew up in Australia the youngest of three boys. We were all close in age (18 months separated each of us) so we were pretty tight growing up.
My adolescence was mostly about music and girls. The music was 80s hair bands (David Lee Roth, Guns n’ Roses) before moving to punk (the Descendents, The Ramones) and harder stuff (Helmet, Ministry).
Now I listen to blues and folk.
We spent most of our summers by the beach caravanning in Torquay (this is where Quiksilver and Billabong clothing companies first started).
I never really surfed (body surfed a lot) but I love the ocean and miss it dearly now. I studied at Melbourne University for undergrad and La Trobe for graduate work and moved to Canada to do my postdoctoral fellowship in 1999.
I met my wife in 2000 and have stayed in Canada ever since. We have two boys – 16 and 13 years old (that’s beyond my “growing up years” now isn’t it?).
Outside of Work
What are your interests outside of work?
I’ve played guitar since I was 12 and write my own songs. I don’t perform anywhere but I enjoy playing them nonetheless.
I like to draw but I don’t spend enough time doing it. And I still write fiction on the very odd occasion.
In the summers my wife and I like to sail – small 16-foot boats in the Laser class, but we also have an 18-foot catamaran which is fun. I love to read – fiction (Tom Robbins at the moment, but Salman Rushdie, Umberto Eco, Thomas King, Margaret Atwood are some of my favourites) and non-fiction.
If I read non-fiction it tends to be something outside of my expertise – always looking for chances to learn (about to start Katie Mack’s book The End of Everything).
This might be a little too personal but you look more like a star and in appearance are far from the notion of ‘a professorial look’. Please explain the long hair and the general looks. Also how do your counterparts from other universities react during seminars etc.
Goes back to the hair bands I guess. I grew my hair out as a teenager and then cut it very short when I was training to be a Clinical Neuropsychologist (around 1995) as I thought my long hair would not be seen as professional.
I regretted cutting my hair but only started growing it out again when I was several years into my current job (and I think I had tenure by then).
My colleagues don’t say anything directly to me about my “look”. In general, I think academia is a pretty accepting place.
And I think you should be comfortable with who you are. One of my former students – Andriy Struk – first came to me in his second year of undergrad with various facial rings and long hair.
And I remember thinking, “Is this guy serious about wanting to do this?” It was for me the facial jewellery and not the hair that gave me pause. It was wrong to think that way.
We should all be wary of times when our biases might get in the way of just accepting people for who they are and what they have to offer.
In addition to self motivation, who were the ones that inspired you on your way and who are those you find inspirational today?
I have had fantastic mentors – but the names (aside from one) might not mean much to your readers. My graduate supervisor Paul Maruff was a sensational supervisor – he pushed me to always improve but also made the whole process of doing science fun.
My postdoctoral supervisor (Mel Goodale – that’s the name that might get recognition) always had my best interests at heart. Both of them were just obviously curious about understanding the human brain and their enthusiasm and curiosity was infectious.
I spent four months working in France in Lyon with Yves Rossetti and he too was a wonderful influence. Great humour, exceedingly caring and encouraging. So I have those three to thank for getting me where I am today.
As for others I find inspirational I tend not to look to big names in my field. I find the women who work in academia inspirational – it’s still true that they face challenges that men don’t and that even in households like mine where my wife and I did a pretty even share of early life child rearing activities, she still took on more.
She gave birth to our first son shortly before defending her MA and to our second before she had finished her PhD. She doesn’t work in academia now – but while she did she faced a system that seemed incapable of comprehending that she was doing two full time jobs.
I find my kids inspiring too – I don’t always get along with them – they’re teenagers after all – but they are pretty awesome people.
Is there hope for reading fiction written by you in the foreseeable future?
Maybe – I have lots of ideas, it’s just about making the time to do the work – and that’s one thing about creative endeavours.
I think lots of people imagine that it ought to come easily – or naturally. But it requires work and that requires time. So I hope I will make that time in the near future – stay tuned!
Our readers are mostly the youth in different parts of the world who look up to achievers such as yourself. A word of advice for them?
Follow your passions. Say yes to every opportunity you can and see failure as part of the process. Life isn’t good despite the shit, but because of it.
Remember that and try to keep your head up when you get knocked down, which is inevitable.
Professor James Danckert is a Cognitive Neuroscientist at the University of Waterloo where he studies boredom, attention, mental models, and the consequences of stroke.
James Danckert presently has two research programs in his lab: boredom and mental model updating. He became interested in boredom when working with people who had suffered traumatic brain injuries – more so from car crashes.
Want to read more from Professor James Danckert? Here is Part One:
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