About me: Long biography
I am a professor of cognitive psychology, science writer and journalist, novelist, speaker, weather observer and writer, and occasional standup comic. I want to understand why we are as we are, and why we behave as we do. I have carried out research in many areas including language production, ageing, mental illness, how the weather affects us, and how we should cope with technological change. I have suffered from severe mental illness for many years.
I was born in those western fringes of London quickly destroyed by the Martians in H.G.Wells’ The War of the Worlds, although we moved to Southampton when I was four. I grew up mostly in a council house in the country on the edge of town, and went to Price's Grammar School in Fareham, Hampshire. All the schools I went to and all the houses I lived in as a child were demolished soon after I left them. I was the first member of my family to go to university, and went to the University of Cambridge. I attended St John's College and took the Natural Sciences Tripos, originally planning to study geology or chemistry. I was soon attracted to psychology, thinking it would be all about Freud, sex, and violence, but I discovered that it was in fact even more interesting, being the science of how the mind works. I then carried out my PhD research in Experimental Psychology at Cambridge under the supervision of Professor Brian Butterworth. My PhD research was on how we produce speech, and in particular I collected a corpus of several thousand slips of the tongue. For example, we might intend to say "Pass the pepper", but instead say "Pass the salt". My motivation came from what motivates many students to study psychology: my own problems. I have some difficulty speaking fluently, and make more of these speech errors than most people. As a child I required speech therapy to be able to talk clearly enough for other people to be able understand me; the words "Czechoslovakia" and "Yugoslavia" troubled me in particular, with other children always asking me to say them. I still suffer from a slight speech impediment, and a difficulty in hearing speech sounds properly.
My early research suggested that speech production is an interactive process, by which I mean that later levels of process can influence earlier ones; in particular, the sound of the words we say affects the retrieval of words with particular meanings. My PhD research was mostly published in a well-cited paper in the journal Cognitive Science in 1984. So my journey is a fairly typical scientific one from an interest in a general problem relevant to ourselves to a specific and well-defined question that can be answered in one PhD thesis and one journal article.
I became a lecturer in the Department of Psychology at the University of Warwick, and in 1996 I moved as Senior Lecturer to the University of Dundee. In 2003 I was awarded a Personal Chair in Cognitive Psychology, and at the same time became Head of Department. Following a University reorganisation I became Dean of the School of Psychology in 2006. I was on the 2014 Psychology REF Panel as an Output Assessor, and was made a Fellow of the British Psychological Society. I served for many years on the Executive Committee of the Association of Heads of Psychology Departments and the British Psychology Society Research Board.
I have taught many courses over the year, mostly in language, cognitive psychology, neuroscience, and consciousness. In the mid 90s I expanded my language course into a book, and was lucky enough to have it published by what was then Erlbaum in 1995. I was pleased that the book was successful enough to merit subsequent editions, the most recent being the fourth in 2014. I am currently working on the fifth edition.
In 2016 I decided it was time for a change, and in particular to focus on writing, and, to a lesser extent, speaking. I am now Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the University of Dundee and a full-time science writer and journalist. At the moment I am mainly preoccupied with writing my book on consciousness.
My research combines naturalistic data collection, experiments, computational modelling, and neuropsychology. I moved from speech errors to how we plan speech, and in particular how we retrieve words. I believe much modern psychology suffers from an over-use of words, making it difficult or impossible to test them. Computer models have the great advantage of having to be explicit. Wherever possible I tried to construct computational models. My research falls in the general remit of meta-cognition: what we know about our own cognitive skills. What do we know about ourselves? Can we make ourselves better? Can we slow down or even prevent the cognitive effects of ageing? Does self-improvement work? How best should we learn and practise? How can we achieve our maximum potential?
My research interests have broadened over the years, and now include:
Language. I am still fascinated by language but my interest in it has broadened in recent years to try to contextualise how language works with other cognitive and social processes. Students often find psycholinguistics (the psychology of language) difficult, pointless, and, dare I say it, boring. And having endured countless talks on applying eye movements to the study of the minutiae of syntax I sometimes share their pain! My book Talking the Talk was an attempt to explain why the study of language is important. My forthcoming book The Science of Consciousness continues this line of thought. What role does language play in consciousness and self-consciousness? Is it even essential to being human and being conscious? My writings on language are exemplified by my text, The Psychology of Language, now its fourth edition.
Ageing. In keeping with my tradition of studying what affects me personally, in recent years I have become interested in ageing, how to slow it down, and even how to prevent it. We are not passive in the face of the progress of years. To some extent it's "use it or lose it", but there is much more we can do. I have been particularly interested in executive processes - the cognitive processes that control what we do, and involved in self-awareness - and how they change with normal and pathological ageing. I have studied these processes in the neurodegenerative diseases Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease.
Mental illness. Mental illness is a plague the ruins lives; it ruins mine. With colleagues, I have made a small contribution to our understanding of how and why depression and anxiety affects people, and when sufferers are most likely to commit suicide. My blog on my struggles with anxiety and depression have it seems reached, touched, and even helped many people; I am for ever grateful for the all feedback that makes it worth keeping going. I am writing a book on depression and self-help. This topic is covered in detail in my meaning of life blog.
Self improvement. Most of us strive to be better people, but what does psychology tell us about what works? What are the best techniques for thinking and improving learning and memory? What are the best ways of overcoming writer's block? Where should we find meaning in life - or is there none to be found? Again many of these topics are covered by my meaning of life blog.
Consciousness. Consciousness was what was first interesting to me about psychology, and after many years I have returned to it. We know vastly more about it than we did when I was an undergraduate, when it was almost a taboo subject. I am writing a book called Science and Consciousness, to be published fairly soon by Cambridge University Press.
The weather. If consciousness was what made me interested in psychology, the weather was what made me interested in science as a child. I have kept weather records for over thirty years, and maintain web pages on severe weather events in Britain which have proved very popular. Recently I have combined my loves by researching how weather affects our behaviour, and have published a book called Psychology of Weather (Routledge, 2018).
History. Why are things as they are now? What we see on the small, personal stage is just a reflection of what we see in the grand scope of history, and the principles of chaos and complexity theory apply at both levels. I have written about the role of complexity in the origin of the Great War. Could it have been avoided? If the Archduke Franz Ferdinand hadn't been assassinated in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914, would calamity have been avoided, or would some other trigger have led to conflict?
Futurology. History is the study of the past, and futurology the study of the future. How will technology change us? How will robots and Artificial Intelligence (AI) change the way in which we live, work, and play? Could a computer ever be conscious? (Yes, definitely.) What are the threats associated with new technology - is a Terminator like catastrophe possible or even likely? (Yes, possible.) When new technology takes all our jobs will we face a life of play and perpetual relaxation, or are we likely to be unemployed and live in grinding poverty? (The future is grim.) What should we be doing now? (Much more than politicians are actually doing.)
Public understanding of science. I believe passionately that scientists have a duty to explain what they do to everyone else. Academics take public money, and so it's only fair that they should be publicly accountable, but surely we should be able to convey our joy of trying to understand how the universe works to everyone else?
As can be seen, I study what is most relevant to me, and therefore what I'm most interested in, which is not a bad practical strategy for carrying out research. There is an underlying theme of: why are things as they are? What do we know about ourselves and our abilities? How do we control our own behaviour? How can we improve our lot or our situation?
I talk to as wide an audience as possible, and publicise science through talks, journalism, and media appearances. I think we should also all be actively involved in trying to build a better future, although we need to think about what "better" means - and what could go wrong. I am also an advocate for improving mental health, and removing the stigma surrounding mental illness. Contact me if you wish to find out about my talks.
See here for a sample list of my academic publications.
I have talks available on:
consciousness; psychology and the weather; language and psychology; sleep and dreams; the interpretation of dreams; AI; parapsychology; futorology.