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10 Questions for Cognitive Psychologist Gary Marcus

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

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Gary Marcus is an experimental psychologist and the Director of the NYU Center for Language and Music at NYU, where he studies what babies and toddlers know about language and music, and how they come to know it. His most recent book, Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning was a New York Times bestseller, and he blogs regularly for The New Yorker .

Read our in-depth conversation with Gary Marcus

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1. What is your favorite word?

Wow. [pause] That’s not my answer.

If I had to pick one, which I find extremely difficult, I’ll pick ambiguity. Because I think that we are surrounded by ambiguity and I think that the secret to science is learning to resolve ambiguity, but to treat it delicately.

2. How different is your brain from my brain?

Not that different.

3. How different is your brain from a baby’s brain?

I have a lot more experience. I know a lot more things.

4. How different is your brain from a monkey’s brain?

Very different. There’s something special about the brain of a human being that allows us to learn things in an abstract way where we can build new things out of old things. Monkeys don’t seem to be able to do that.

5. Can you finish this sentence? My brain is a___.

Fancy computer whose design we have not yet figured out.

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Dr. Gary Marcus and his son. Photo Credit: Athena Vouloumanos

6. What is your favorite gibberish word?

My favorite is wug. One of the most important experiments in the history of language development was the wug test. “This is a man who knows how to wug. Everyday he likes to wug. What did he do, he just___?” If you can tell me he just wugged, than you’ve learned one of the most basic rules of English. We’ve proven that you can generalize beyond the things that you’ve seen before.

[Editor’s note: Revisit our profile of the iconic linguist who developed the wug, Jean Berko Gleason.]

7. Is it harder to learn or to unlearn something?

That’s a very good question. I think it’s really hard to unlearn a bad habit that you’ve practiced many times.

8. If someone approached you on the street and asked you for scientific advice on how to learn something, what would you tell them?

Practice. Focus on your weaknesses, don’t just play to your strengths.

9. What is the most unique thing about human thought vs. animal thought?

The flexibility of it. The fact that we can think about just about anything.

10. What is your favorite part of your brain?

The way that the entire ensemble works together in a smooth and integrated fashion so that I can be a flexible creature.