July 5, 2011 | 4
Welcome to new and old readers alike to The Thoughtful Animal, version 2.0!
I’m extremely thrilled to be one of the inaugural bloggers on the new Scientific American Blogging Network. I remember picking out old issues of Sci Am from deep within the stacks of the school library when I was a kid, writing reports for science classes in elementary and middle school. Sci Am was one of the few magazines I’d pick up and read while sitting in my pediatrician’s waiting room. Sci Am was one of the first (if not the first) magazines I actually bought from a newsstand with my own money. In more recent years, as my own professional interests grew and I was getting more of my science news from academic journals, I relied on the Scientific American website (in addition to my old blog-neighborhood, scienceblogs.com), to keep up with science news more broadly, in an effort to stay informed on areas of science outside my particular areas of expertise.
In March 2010, I was invited to leave behind the relative obscurity of my wordpress blog for the warm community (and increased visibility) of ScienceBlogs. What a tremendous honor and opportunity that was! A little over a year later, when my friend and mentor Bora Zivkovic officially invited me to join the new Scientific American Blog Network, I experienced a different sort of personal pride, because of my long personal history with Scientific American magazine. In that way, my participation in the inauguration of this new blogging network for Scientific American is particularly meaningful.
Who am I?
I’m a doctoral student in Developmental Psychology at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. I was born and grew up in LA (in the valley!). I decided to stay close to home for college, and went to USC where, after (very) brief forays into International Relations and Jewish Studies, found myself in an Introductory Psychology class and got hooked. I started doing research when I was a junior in college, and haven’t stopped yet. I received my my B.A. in Psychology in 2007, and my M.A. in Developmental Psychology in 2009. For those keeping score, next month will begin my fifth year as a graduate student, and my ninth year on the USC campus.
When I was an undergrad, I took a course in functional neuroimaging (fMRI) just as the new fMRI facility was being built on campus, adjacent to the psychology building. Halfway through the semester, I became involved in neuroimaging research of reading and dyslexia. We were investigating the process through which the brain learns to read, and what happens to disrupt or alter that process in developmental dyslexia. I decided to apply for grad school, and ended up staying at USC, working in that same lab.
Broadly, my research interests center on how biology and experience interact to give rise to complex thought and behavior. I began graduate school investigating how reading experience contributes to the structural development of the brain and to reading skill. Reading, after all, is one of the most complex skills that we humans do on a daily basis (I still have that work under review, but once it is in press, you can be sure I’ll be blogging about it).
As they have a tendency to do, my research interests have shifted. I now approach the question of biology and experience in a different way: by studying the evolutionary and developmental building blocks of the mind. In particular, I’m interested in how human minds interact with other human minds. What is the starting-state of social cognition? In other words, to what extent are infants able to reason about social interactions before they’ve had the chance to learn about them? How do learning and experience build upon those initial building blocks to give rise to more complex forms of social cognition and behavior? How did those building blocks evolve in the first place?
I’ve served as TA for Introductory Psychology (twice), Child Development (twice), Behavioral Neuroscience (once), and Origins of the Mind (once). I developed and taught my own 8-week “mini-courses” to undergrad psychology majors on “Television and the Developing Child” and “Canine Cognition.”
I’m developing a new interest in photography, and have recently started some photoblogging. I like to hike. I like to cook. I like the ocean but hate the beach. I read a lot of books, and review some of them. I watch a lot of TV and a lot of movies, and tweet about them. I drink lots (lots!) of coffee. Dogs are awesome, but cats are evil. I want my very own domesticated silver fox; alas, they’re illegal to own in California, and cost $6000.
What is The Thoughtful Animal all about?
According to the tagline of my blog, I write about the evolution and architecture of the mind. What that means, most broadly, is that I write about psychology and neuroscience, about behavior and cognition, about humans and non-human animals. Let me say that again: humans and non-human animals. This may seem like a trivial distinction, but I actually think its an important one, because the phrase non-human animals reminds us that we, too, are animals. We share a common ancestor with every critter out there, whether scaley or furry or feathered. And just as we can learn about human anatomy or physiology by studying non-human animals, we can also learn quite a bit about the human mind by studying the minds of non-human animals. (This is not, of course, to suggest that studying the minds of non-human animals is not interesting and important by itself!)
Which is the most thoughtful animal? If you are not yet convinced, I hope to convince you in the coming weeks and months that the correct answer is not “humans.” Nor are the correct answers “chimpanzees,” “dolphins,” or “dogs.” Indeed, these are often the species that people tend to think of when they think of animal intelligence. If you stick with me, you’ll get plenty of posts about those species, to be sure. But I also make it a priority to write about the behavior and cognition of the animals that you wouldn’t normally think about when you think about thoughtful animals. Did you know, for example, that desert ants use a form of natural trigonometry to find their way home after foraging for food, by counting the amount of steps they’ve taken, by tracking the changing position of the sun in the sky, and by using a mental clock? Or that sea lions can remember the arbitrary association between two stimuli in a laboratory task, with no practicing, after ten years?
To be honest, I don’t think the question – which is the most thoughtful animal? – is a fair one. Fish minds are good at solving fish problems. Tortoise minds are uniquely suited to tortoise environments. Wolves and dogs are both, by all accounts, extremely “intelligent” animals – they just simply pay attention to and notice different things in the environment, allowing each species to outperform the other depending on the given situation. By studying any non-human animal, we can learn something about the evolution of the human mind, the development of the human mind from birth to maturity, and the way that the human mind is organized. The question is: what sorts of questions can we ask from a given species? For example, dogs serve as a really good model species for learning about social cognition. As a result of thousands of years of domestication, dogs have become highly sensitive to human social cues. By understanding how dogs interact with humans, we might understand more about how we relate to each other. And sometimes, we study non-human animals because the experiments we want to do are impossible to conduct in humans, practically or ethically.
That leads me to the final major theme of my blog: I write about the relationship between humans and non-human animals. I think humans can be a bit confused about our relationship with non-human animals. Some non-human animals we actively try to keep out of our homes. Others we readily invite inside, and treat them as if they were a part of the family. Some non-human animals are delicious, while the mere thought of eating others is disgusting to us. We find it ethically permissible to conduct biomedical research with some species, but not with others. Some people think that humans are in a category of their own, separate from all other non-human animal species, while other people see no moral distinction between harming a human and harming a fruit fly. I try not to provide answers – that is not my aim – but rather, I try to pose the questions and explore some of the contradictions with respect to the way we relate to non-human animals.
This is meant to be a conversation. I like it when you comment! My blog is often read and used by kids, though. This is a family program, so please keep that in mind when you writing your comments. If they can say it on network television, you can say it here (think: 7pm on NBC, not 11pm on HBO).
The conversation doesn’t only happen in the comments, though. Follow me on twitter: @jgold85. I’m also playing with Tumblr. You can encircle me on Google+, if that’s your thing. I read lots of blogs, and I share things in Google Reader. You can keep up with my shared items here.
My email is thoughtfulanimal[at]gmail[dot]com. I try to respond to all emails within a day or two. You can always find my contact info by clicking the contact button up at the top, in the blog banner.
My beautiful blog banner, featuring a bonobo, a common dolphin, and a scrub jay, was designed by the extremely talented Carl Buell.
To get a better sense of the kinds of things I write about, I welcome you to explore the archives of this blog, at ScienceBlogs. Here, too, are a handful of what I consider to be my best posts.
I’ve written a few posts for the Scientific American Guest Blog in the past year: Man’s new best friend? A forgotten Russian experiment in fox domestication, Turkey talk: The social cognition of your Thanksgiving dinner, Impact of the Japan earthquake and tsunami on animals and environment and Digitizing Jane Goodall’s legacy at Duke.
You can see more of my other writing by checking out my homepage: www.jasonggoldman.com
Please remember to add or change the link to my blog in your blogrolls. The new URL is:
If you use an RSS reader, such as Google Reader, the new feed is: http://rss.sciam.com/thoughtful-animal/feed
And, whether you are a new or returning reader, please introduce (or re-introduce) yourself in the comments. Who are you? What’s your (scientific/professional/personal) background? What kinds of things would you like to see here?
Now, go check out the rest of the network!