Herbranson Walter “Wally” Herbranson rock climbs, hikes, jogs and “creatively manages my schedule around a chronic baseball addiction.”

Walter Herbranson
Herbert and Pearl Ladley Endowed Chair of Cognitive Science

Ten years ago, in your field, what was cutting edge or most newsworthy or most controversial or …?

One of the nice things about recent decades has been the emergence of technologies that can allow us to scientifically investigate the deep philosophical questions that people have been asking for centuries. One example is our ability to sequence the genomes of various species, including humans. In my academic world, the hope is to understand what those genes contribute specifically to behavior and mental life. A second example is the development of tools that allow us to see brains at work in real time, such as Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) and Magnetoencephalography (MEG). As a result, we can now do more than merely speculate about how the biological world and the mental world come together.

At the end of 1999, on the brink of a new century, what do you remember thinking, hoping, would happen in your field in the years to come?

I remember looking forward to a continued understanding of mental life in an evolutionary context. Evolutionary psychology has long been a tough sell, because it threatens our human desire to see ourselves as unique and special. Perhaps I’m overly optimistic, but I do think it’s a perspective that’s been catching on. The press generated from Darwin’s recent 200th birthday has helped bring evolutionary thinking to a wide audience. A satisfying academic example of progress is a recent, radical reconceptualization of avian functional neuroanatomy. For decades, there was an assumption that the vast majority of a bird’s brain was devoted to low-level, instinctive behaviors (think of the traditional playground insult, “bird brain”). That view just no longer fit the behavioral data, which were revealing more cognitive complexity and mental continuity with other species. As a result, in 2002 the scientific community revised the standard nomenclature for reference to the regions of birds’ brains and their functions. It’s a small change, but it’s one that acknowledges the value of cross-species comparisons. At this point, it appears that the cognitive abilities of birds may not be quite so different from our own, and the new terminology appropriately reflects that. There are obviously still differences, but they’re apparently not so vast as was previously assumed.

In the next decade: What is emerging as the next breakthrough?

I can only assume that it will involve billions of dollars in funding, and immeasurable prestige for comparative psychologists.

“In some ways, I consider cognitive science the ultimate liberal arts field, in that it necessarily relies on intellectual breadth.”
– Walter Herbranson

If you were given absolutely unlimited resources to create your dream department, your dream research project, your dream teaching opportunities and additional opportunities for students, what would your academic world look like in 2020?

In cognitive science, a single department probably wouldn’t work: it is an inherently cross-disciplinary undertaking. The goal is to utilize the diverse methods of many of the contributing disciplines – psychology, biology, mathematics, philosophy, economics, linguistics, and others.

In some ways, I consider cognitive science the ultimate liberal arts field, in that it necessarily relies on intellectual breadth. At a liberal arts college like Whitman, you’re constantly challenged to venture outside of your comfort zone and take classes outside of your major. Cognitive science forces you to face the same kind of challenge. You have to stretch your mode of thinking to include new methods and concepts: methods you aren’t as familiar with, and concepts from fields that may not have initially seemed relevant. It makes for hard work, but the spirit of collaboration and constant discovery is exciting.

The Herbert and Pearl Ladley Chair of Cognitive Science was established in 2004 by Frankie Ladley Wakefield ’27 in memory of her parents, who made it possible for her to pursue a liberal arts education at Whitman College. The endowment funds a position in the interdisciplinary field combining psychology and biology.