Fresh Faculty: Michael Cohen
Issue   |   Tue, 02/20/2018 - 18:32

Michael Cohen is an assistant professor of psychology. He holds a B.A. from Tufts University and a Ph.D from Harvard University.

Q: How did you gain interest in psychology?
When I was an undergrad, I was actually a philosophy major. I think I only took one psych class as an undergrad. I was really interested in the philosophy of mind with a lot of big, heavy questions like “What is consciousness?” or “What is the self?” I really enjoyed that, but after a while, I started getting frustrated because there are obviously no answers that you can give that are going to be satisfactory. So I kind of just for fun started reading psych studies, just going into the stacks of the library and picking them off, and I started enjoying those. When it came time to graduate, I talked myself into a lab at Harvard Medical School where I was a research assistant for a few years, and I really liked that. When my contract was coming up, I decided to apply to graduate school, and I got in and here I am.

Q: Can you describe some of the research you have done?
I study the limits of human perception. What that basically means is I’m trying to understand how much of the world you actually see when you look out in the world, how much of the world you actually remember and why you don’t see or remember more of it. A very common thing that happens, for example, when people get into a car wreck is they’ll actually say to a policeman, “I’m sorry officer, I just didn’t see the sign, the pothole, the kid.” They think, “I just didn’t see it,” because they were spacing out or their attention was elsewhere. So that’s an example of the capacities of your visual system, that you weren’t able to process all of the information and sometimes it leads to an accident. What I study is trying to understand why you can’t process all of that information, what causes you to miss certain things and not others, why do certain things reach perceptual awareness and other things not [and] why are some things able to stick around in memory while other things fade away.

Q: What brought you to Amherst?
There’s the generic: I really enjoy the balance of teaching and research, and I heard that Amherst students are great and I wanted to be part of a liberal arts environment. But I feel like that’s not informative, even if it’s not necessarily accurate. The real answer is that I could’ve either gone in the direction of doing research and nothing but research and run a big lab, or I could have gone this direction and do[ne] a lot more teaching. I personally really like teaching and just enjoy it in general. Amherst is a good school, so when they said, “Hey, do you want to be this teacher-person here at this good school?” I said sure.

Q: What drew you away from doing research full-time?
It’s just a personal preference. I have some friends who I have been working with for years and who love research and personally don’t like teaching that much. If you were to ask them what drew them towards big research and not teaching, they’d probably also say it was personal preference.

Q: What do you hope to contribute here?
First of all, what I got hired to do was bring an element of human neuroscience to the college. There’s a bunch of great professors on campus who do studies in neuroscience, but they do it at a much smaller scale. They talk about individual neurons or individual chemicals and so on. My speciality is at the human, macro kind-of level, so I’m hoping to bring that to the college. More broadly, I personally am obsessed with this idea that, going forward in the 21st century, the majority of jobs that Amherst students are going to take are going to have a data component to [them]. If you’re working in a law firm, you have to figure out billing plans. If you’re working in a dental practice, you have to figure out which treatments are effective, and you need to get data on those things and get quantitative assessments of it. One thing I really want to focus on in my classes is even if we’re talking about psychology or neuroscience, we’re also talking about data, numbers in general, how to use numbers to answer questions, how to ask questions you can answer with numbers and how to evaluate the results you get. That’s a skill that I think is going to be super important in the 21st-century economy almost regardless of what your position is.

Q: What classes are you teaching this semester?
I teach Psych 100, which is Introduction to Psychology. The goal of that course, at least for me when I teach, is largely to get people excited about psychological science, to give people a foundation to what psychological science is and to convey to them how psychologists perform experiments. The other class I’m teaching is a seminar called the Conscious Brain. There, what we’re focusing on is conscious experience and how the brain and the neuroscience of the brain lead to conscious experience. We talk about things like the differences in your brain when you’re asleep versus when you’re awake versus when you’re anesthetized. We talk about different types of perceptual illusions and what causes those. We talk about subliminal processing and whether or not your brain can process information unconsciously, which it can. We’re talking about how much can your brain process unconsciously without you even realizing it.

Q: What do you do in your spare time?
I’ll be really honest with you. For most first-year faculty, we don’t have a tremendous amount of free time. What students don’t realize is to come up with an 80-minute lecture takes way more than 80 minutes to prepare. As of yet, free time is not something I have in a major abundance. Beyond that, I’m a pretty boring person. I like superhero movies; I like “Rick and Morty”; I like Netflix and nature documentaries. I actually sometimes get disappointed when I don’t have students ready and eager to talk about those things with me before, after or during class.