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The Making of a Scientist - In Conversation with Cognitive Psychologist Gary Marcus

The Secret Life of Scientists and EngineersThe Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers

What are babies thinking? How do they develop the ability to speak? How do nature and nurture interact as the mind develops?

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Gary Marcus is an experimental psychologist whose research pokes and prods at some of life’s biggest questions. As Director of the NYU Center for Language and Music , Marcus studies how language and music serve as windows into the inner-workings of the human mind, helping us to answer questions about what skills we are born with, what we must learn, and how we learn to do new things.

Occasionally, Marcus becomes his own subject. In his most recent book, the bestselling

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Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning , Marcus explores the science of learning and music while attempting to master the guitar – despite having zero musical talent and a congenital arrhythmia (no rhythm). His latest research focuses on the future of artificial intelligence, a subject he frequently blogs about for the The New Yorker .

In the first installment of our “In Conversation” series, we spoke with Dr. Marcus about words, music, robots, and what makes a scientist a scientist. Once again, Dr. Marcus is willing to use himself as a subject, sharing his own story as a launching point towards a discussion about the innate instincts of scientists, how to cultivate curiosity, and what he hopes his work will do for the world.

The Making of a Scientist

Let’s start with you. As a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

First, a garbage collector because those were the first professionals I saw in my neighborhood, from outside the home. Then for a long time I wanted to be an astronaut. I was pretty serious about that. The garbage thing was a brief avocation.

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A young Gary Marcus, already tinkering.

But there was a long time I wanted to be an astronaut. Not quite putting together that I have weird inner ear things that give me motion sickness. That might not be the best profession for me.

I considered computer programming for a little while. And then for a very long time since I was a young teenager I wanted to be a cognitive psychologist. Now, I feel like I finally am.

What got you interested in psychology as a teenager?

It grew out of a love of computers. I learned a program when I was eight on a paper computer, a kind of simulated computer. Then I started programming real computers, and I got interested in how to program them to do things that people did. I wanted to program a natural language interface to a database, for example. I went to college early and the main reason they accepted me was because I had written a computer program that would translate Latin into English, written in the language LOGO. By the time I had done that, I was 15-ish. I was very interested in the relationship between people and machines, and why people were still smarter than machines.

Tell us about your mentorship experience with Steven Pinker . How did that shape you as a scientist?

I interviewed with a bunch of possible mentors, and Steve was just the most exciting person. I wasn’t intrinsically interested in language acquisition more than other things. But Steve was doing things about cognitive architecture, about how the brain is put together to do the things that the mind does. I could tell that he was not just good at a narrow corner of psychology, but really interested in the deep questions about how the mind works (he wrote a book with that title).

It was because he was working on language that I got sucked into it. I knew I wanted to study something about the mind, and Pinker pointed out directly and indirectly why language is such a good window into the human mind.

I felt like I was looking over the shoulder of an absolute genius. It was just amazing to take a particular question – we were looking at how children acquired the past tense of English – and go into real depth with him. Before the rest of the world knew how smart he was, I knew how smart he was.

[Editor’s Note: Revisit our profile of Steven Pinker here .]

Your work explores the idea that language may be a built-in mechanism of the mind. Could there be a built-in mechanism for science? A “science instinct?”

I think that humans are innately curious. I have a 13-month-old, and there’s no doubt that he was born curious and that he’s an incredibly curious being. He wants to know how everything works. That’s core to being a scientist. To see the world and not just take it as it is, but to want to understand why is it the way it is. Why is the sky blue? Why does water feel wet? How is it that we learn language?

The less curious person just takes things for granted. The scientist wants to understand why is it this way, why isn’t it some other way. That is probably innate. It’s probably stronger in some people than others. But then you do have to cultivate it with hard work. You can have an innate love for music, but that doesn’t mean you’re gonna be a great musician. You have to put the time in. Same thing, to be a scientist, you have to put the time in.

In some ways, we’re not innately good at science. Some of it has to be taught. One of the things that’s not innate is the kind of tendency to question ourselves. I don’t think that we have much of that intrinsically. I think we have to learn to be skeptical of our own beliefs. Scientists, like anybody else, tend to be overcommitted to what we think is true. Our innate tendency is to notice evidence that confirms our theory, to not look for data that runs against our theory. What you’re always looking for is the unique piece of evidence that only supports your theory. It takes a while, it takes forever, to become as critical of your own theory as others.

Suppose a young person doesn’t have this innate curiosity. How does one cultivate it?

Read the history of science. Pay attention to the mistakes people made, not just the heroic victories. Work in a lab or work in several labs better yet. Volunteer. Try to get a first hand sense of what scientists and their postdocs and graduate students do.

There was a great book a long time ago called the Encyclopedia of Ignorance . In school, we often just get a recital of facts. This happened on this date. These people invaded this country on such and such date. Science is sometimes taught as a series of facts. There are plenty of facts in science, but cutting edge science is about living with ambiguity and trying to resolve that ambiguity. It’s about the things that we don’t yet know for a fact. There’s no need to be a scientist to figure out the things that people figured out a hundred years ago. Where we need scientists are in the things we don’t understand. You have to cultivate a kind of comfort with realizing that there are different data that are in conflict with one another and that the job of the scientist is to try to find a way forward where we’re probably stuck.

What is the real world impact of your work as a scientist?

The music side, I hope, will inspire people to try to realize their dreams. To try to take on something that they have never tried before, that they truly love, and that they think they couldn’t do. And to enjoy the journey towards acquiring something new. The other side is about artificial intelligence, and I hope that what I’m doing there will help all of us prepare for a future that’s going to be very different from the present.

Next: In Conversation with Gary Marcus: Language and Music, Windows into the Mind

Original funding for "The Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers" was provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.