CNS recently had the chance to catch up with Steven Pinker, Harvard College Professor and Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University, who was a keynote speaker at the first CNS annual meeting in San Francisco. In that 1994 talk, he gave an overview of the science of language from a cognitive and evolutionary perspective, based on his book The Language Instinct. With the 20th anniversary meeting fast approaching, we wanted to get his perspectives of how the field has changed over the past two decades and learn about what he is working on now.
CNS: What do you see as the most important changes in the field of cognitive neuroscience in the past 20 years?
1. The expansion to more emotionally charged realms of cognition, such as morality and revenge.
2. A reintegration with computational process models in cognitive psychology, as opposed to mere blobology.
CNS: Would you explain what you mean by “mere blobology”?
Pinker: I got the word from Ned Sahin. It refers to identifying blobs on the surface of the brain that are associated with some kind of cognitive process and leaving it at that.
CNS:What do you think computational process models can reveal that cannot be studied through more traditional fMRI or other techniques?
Pinker: They are necessary to explain the mechanistic processes that actually give rise to intelligent functioning.
CNS: Your work encompasses several interdisciplinary fields. Are you working on anything now that relates to cognitive neuroscience?
Pinker: Several things. I just finished a book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, which tries to explain the historical decline of violence (yes, it really has gone down over time) in terms of an interplay between the neural systems that can cause various forms of violence (such as those behind dominance, revenge, predation, sadism, and toxic ideologies) and the neural systems that can inhibit it (such those behind empathy, reason, fairness, and self-control).
In collaboration with Ned Sahin and Eric Halgren, I’m looking at synchrony of neural activity during psycholinguistic processing, recording from electrodes implanted in the brains of epilepsy patients. I suspect phase-locking and other aspects of synchrony may be an important mechanism in neural information processing, because they may help represent structured relationships – a key to intelligence and a challenge for neural modeling.
And for something completely different, my next book project will be a style manual for the 21st century, using findings from cognitive science and psycholinguistics to offer advice on how to write clearly and stylishly.
CNS: Why did you choose epilepsy patients for your research on psycholinguistic processing?
Pinker: They already have electrodes implanted in their brains to identify the focus of their seizures. While they are lying around waiting to have seizures, we can give them language tasks such as repeating or conjugating verbs, and use the same electrodes to study what happens in the brain as it processes language.
CNS: Can you give an example of a tip for writing clearly or stylishly that springs from cognitive science research?
Pinker: No, I’m going to save that for the book.
CNS: Which 2 or 3 topics, in your view, deserve greater emphasis within the field of cognitive neuroscience?
1. How the brain processes syntactically structured information: the difference between Dog bites man and Man bites dog, or the distinction between fooling some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time.
2. How different areas of the cortex, and the connections between them, are genetically organized to optimize them to acquire different kinds of cognitive processing.
More information about the upcoming 20th anniversary meeting in San Francisco is available online.
Media contact: Lisa M.P. Munoz, CNS Public Information Officer,