Friday, October 9, 2009

Part 1: Interview Series with Aaron Blaisdell of UCLA

Part I

My bright brother, Kai Pottenger, a graduate from UCLA with a degree in Neuroscience and an interest in financial decision-making under uncertainty from a cognitive psychology perspective (think heuristics and biases of the Kahneman type), recently interviewed Aaron Blaisdell, a Professor of Psychology at UCLA and an ardent Ancestral Fitness practitioner.

Dr. Blaisdell can be spotted on campus proudly sporting his Vibram Five Fingers shoes or doing primal sprints in Wilson Plaza. Every day, he puts 'Theory to Practice' as as an active epistemocratic academic--a scientist and a professor--at one of the top research universities in the world.

I invite you to learn more about his lab and research here: Blaisdell Lab.

During this series, please leave questions for Aaron in the comments section, and I am sure Aaron will respond promptly and insightfully.

KP = Kai Pottenger
AB = Aaron Blaisdell

KP: Briefly share your research interests and one or two projects you are currently working on.

AB: Well, I am basically interested in animals. I want to know what makes them, including us, tick. The framework I take is a cognitive framework, and I think it's a really great heuristic by which to ask questions: what are animals doing and what do they think about the world? So, kind of early on in my studies, I came along the idea of representation, like cognitive maps and evidence that animals can hold cognitive maps of their environments. That was the beginning of what sparked my interest. I have always loved animals. It was natural for me to start looking at them from that cognitive perspective, and it has carried through to my research to this day. I got trained in the mechanistic level of Pavlovian conditioning. Those are really great tools to probe the mind of the animal and the human. So, I use Pavlovian conditioning techniques to ask how animals, specifically pigeons and rats, represent the world. What kinds of representations do they show evidence of acquiring and using--of course, their world in my laboratory is a little bit more minimal.

I always liken it to the chemistry approach, where instead of studying chemical reactions in the world where things are very messy, I bring it into the lab where I can isolate a lot of factors, hold them constant, and really manipulate much more cleanly those particular variables that I am interested in to see what that tells me about the underlying processes. Presumably, that would scale back into the more ethologically relevant context. That's always a question. Even though I don't do ethological research myself, I think it is very important to bring these questions into the real world. I have talked to ethologists and such and there are definitely people who do the in-between work--they go between lab and real world. But I use the lab as a chemistry approach to looking at representations.

Actually, I study cognitive maps. Do pigeons acquire spatial recognition of the world, and if they do, how do they and how do they use it? Some of my evidence from pigeons is that they do seem to acquire spatial representations of the world, like something out there is related to something else out there--that's a spatial relationship. I have some evidence that some of the simpler mechanisms like Pavlovian conditioning is one of the mechanisms used to bind together the spatial representations. So, there is kind of an interface between or building on top of level, which is very interesting. A lot of cognitive scientists think this way too. There are simpler levels that have been built in from evolution, like simple learning processes, and then those can be the foundation upon which cognition works. That's kind of the approach I am taking, the interplay between lower and higher cognitive levels.

KP: In what ways does your research inform your personal health mythology or strategy?

AB: There are specific questions that I ask. There is another line of work that maybe has been more influential in those terms--my work on causal reasoning. I had a paper come out in Science in 2006, and it showed evidence that rats display a certain type of causal reasoning. That's something people thought rats couldn't do. I'll give you an example of a basic way humans reason this way and the paradigm example, and then I will work my way back to the rats. So, we understand how barometers work. A barometer's reading goes up or down, and it's very closely correlated with the weather. When the pressure increases, we expect that the weather will get nicer, sunnier ... whereas, if we see a sudden drop in the barometer level, we anticipate an impending storm coming through. Those two events are correlated, but they share a common cause. They are both effects of a common cause. We can use one to guess about the other because they are very tightly correlated. And this is what David Hume said is how we learn about cause-and-effect relationships: we see "constant conjunction" (his words) of events. We associate things that go together--that change together--and this associative learning process allows us to infer cause-and-effect relationships. But there are situations where that inferential approach breaks down; exactly in the case where two things are correlated, related not because one is the cause of the other, but because they are both effects of another common cause. So, before we had the ability to come up with ideas about air pressure and before we had the ability to invent barometers to detect it, we didn't realize that there was this cause-and-effect relationship.

Stay tuned, my friends, there are more gems to come ...

Thanks again to Kai and to Aaron for connecting for this interview.

Comments and questions welcomed.

To good health,