Inside a clock tower

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Photography by Matt Banderas '04

Once, Professor of Psychology Matthew Prull dissected electronics to figure out how they worked. Now, he picks apart the workings of the human mind.

Whitman Magazine: You research the psychology of memory and distraction, and we’ve seen some lighthearted photos that relate to that field—including one with you looking at your cellphone while simultaneously catching an arrow. What do they tell us about your work?

MP: Those pictures were completely unrelated—we took them in jest, really! Let me see if I can tie it in though. One thing that we can say as cognitive psychologists is that attention serves as a gateway to consciousness. We try to divide or “timeshare” our attention across various tasks, and, for the most part, although it feels like we may be getting more done when we try to do two things at once, that’s something of an illusion. We often perform less well on the individual tasks trying to do them together than if we were just to do each task singly with our full attention.

WM: And is this kind of split attention a problem for our memories, too?

MP: We see it all the time with memory: if you try to learn something or read something when you’re distracted, what you read or what you learn is going to suffer tremendously. The same goes, to some extent, when you’re trying to retrieve information from memory. When trying to do so in the context of something else, like driving, retrieval can suffer. When I’m looking at the cellphone and catching the arrow, it’s maybe an instance of wishful thinking, not a reflection of reality, where—when we are engaged in our cellphones—we’re really impaired in perceiving other events around us.

WM: Going back to multitasking, is there any demographic information that tells us whether someone is going to perform better at multitasking or not?

MP: There are some individual differences, however, differences don’t seem to be very predictable or to clearly divide by something like sex or culture or things of that sort. One caveat is certainly that, as people get older—when they’re in their 70s or 80s and in good health—dividing attention or task switching can be more challenging, along with a number of other mental abilities.

WM: Aging affects almost everybody’s memory in some way, but do you think there is more awareness of how to combat that now?

MP: I think there are a number of interventions that people are beginning to recognize can improve memory, or at least slow the decline. One is something as simple as aerobic exercise. People are beginning to learn that exercise not only has physical benefits, but also cognitive benefits. When you go out for a run, or even something low impact like swimming classes, yoga, stretching: those are beneficial in more ways than one. Another thing that seems to help our memories is computing. Although it doesn’t help you become a better “rememberer” per se, what it does do is help you offload memories.

WM: In what way “offload?”

MP: We store memories through photos, through writing, through other means on the computer, and we can always turn back to that information later to help cue our own memories. You see that with photos—we take so many more photos than we’ve ever done—and even though taking a photo itself actually doesn’t help your memory, one idea is that, later, when you review those photos, your memory can be cued. And if researchers doctor the photo, the post-event review can elicit a powerful false memory as well.

WM: In class, do you use labs to demonstrate some of the things you’re discussing?

MP: Oh yes, certainly. I have a cognitive psychology course that I teach. There’s a component of the course where students complete various computer labs that demonstrate, using their own behavior, what some cognitive principles look like. We average the class data together, and we see that, sure enough, if you think in this way or that way, then a specific and sometimes subtle pattern of behavior emerges that can be measured. It’s one thing to read about how your mind works, but to actually see in your own behavior how your own mind works is, I think, something very powerful as a learning experience.

WM: Can you give us an example of one of those labs?

MP: One thing that I found surprising relates to a phenomenon known as mental rotation. It’s the idea that, when we create a mental image, we can manipulate it. If we imagine our house, for instance, and we count the number of windows that are in our house, we often do this by creating this mental image, and by manipulating that image: we can walk around our house and change our perspective, and count the number of windows. As an undergraduate, I used to think that studying imagination in a scientific way was simply impossible, because the mental image is such a private and personal thing.

WM: So how do you study it?

MP: Well, this can be done by looking at how fast or how slow you respond to questions that are presumed to evoke mental images. If a mental image requires quite a bit of manipulation, then your response time is pretty long, and if the requirements to manipulate the mental image are rather minor, say, count the number of windows in the front of your house, then your reaction time is quicker. Obviously, we can’t ever see a mental image—we can’t bust open someone’s head and say, hey, here’s that mental image right there—but what we can do is study it indirectly using response times to questions about it.

WM: How did you first get into psychology? Was it always an interest, or did it come to you unexpectedly?

MP: More like the latter. It started in high school. I was a pretty average student, got lots of Bs and Cs and nothing really made an impact on me. No book, no class, no subject. However, I had a lot of very smart friends, and so I was motivated to try to up my academic game and earn the company I was keeping! About this time, I took a psychology class, and it just completely clicked with me. I’m not sure why, but I liked the idea that one could study how the mind works scientifically, and I thought the research and the ideas were very clever. It just clicked with me, like maybe the way a certain song might click with you. I decided then and there that psychology would be my career in some way, shape or form.

WM: Your bio mentions that growing up in San Jose—the town of entrepreneurship—had an impact on you. How so?

MP: In the ’80s, Silicon Valley technology was everywhere. My parents had kind of a mad scientist’s laboratory full of watch parts, circuit boards, oscilloscopes, soldering irons; it was great fun growing up to take anything that was electronic and unscrew it, take it apart, try to figure out how it works. I used to build electronic things, sound modification devices for guitar—basically effect pedals—and I guess that kind of translated well into my interest in psychology. In psychology, at least in the science part of it, we’re trying to figure out how the mind and the brain work, and back then, I was trying to figure out how these complicated, seemingly magical electronic devices worked.

WM: That sounds like fun.

MP: I used to think that every household had a crazy mad scientist lab in one of their bedrooms. I thought that was just the norm, and I was surprised when I’d go to friends’ houses and ask: where’s your mad scientist lab? And they’d say, what are you talking about?