Have you ever wondered why dogs steal in the dark? Dr. Stanley Coren did and addressed the psychology of this in his article “Dogs Steal in the Dark,” an insightful piece on the neuropsychology underlying both our and dogs’ cognition and sensory processes. I was extremely intrigued by the idea of theory of mind, which Dr. Coren describes as “the ability to understand that another individual might have a different amount of information, see the world in a different way, or even have different desires and motives then another individual.” I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Coren, and below he has shared his experience in neuropsychology and his insight into a lifelong pursuit of the interesting and important. Keep reading to hear Dr. Coren’s experience of seeking out rewarding experiences and bridging interests together, and check out his website to learn more!
Dr. Coren, how did you get into the field of psychology and why did you choose to study in particular sensory processes, neuropsychology, and cognition?
I actually thought that I was going to become a physicist because I was interested in light. However, when I took my first physics courses I found out that what I was really interested in was not the phenomena of light but rather how people see the light. To find out more about visual perception I took a course in psychology and ultimately I was hooked. The study of vision in humans became a passion, particularly questions concerning situations where our perception differs from the reality as in visual illusions or subjective contours. I blundered into the issues associated with neuropsychology when I was doing research on how we maintain single vision despite the fact that we have two eyes, which ultimately led me to look at eye dominance. At that time people thought that there was a relationship between the dominant eye in the dominant hand and so I began to look into handedness and began to include measures of it in my ongoing experimentation. When I found out that handedness was linked to many other interesting phenomena, such as birth stress, cognitive styles, intellectual ability, and ultimately to life span, I felt that I had to continue research in that area because of its potential importance. Other areas of study, such as cognition, sleep, and dog behavior, all evolved out of my interests in specific findings at various times. I have always let my own interests determine my research topics rather than current trends and “hot issues” and that has served me well since other people have found the topics that I did research on to be interesting.
What has a career in academia been like? Besides your books for the public on dogs and psychology issues, you’ve published over 400 scientific reports and books for students and professionals.
I like to write, and have tried to write something every single day. This is a practice that I’ve continue even though I have been retired from the University since 2007. However, I am not a fiction writer, so I view scientific investigation as a means of providing “plot materials” and “storylines” for my writing. The trick in doing my research was to find topics which would generate interesting material to write about. I was also lucky in that I had a number of research collaborators from different universities who were very stimulating and kept my mental juices flowing at various times during my career.
I also like to teach, and find teaching large classes to be invigorating. When my students have one of those “aha…” experiences, and suddenly have an insight into a topic, or an understanding into why particular questions are important, I find that very rewarding.
What I dislike about the Academy is the burden of administrative work, endless meetings, continuous scrounging for grant funds, and the burden of an ever-increasing number of rules and regulations which require numerous report writing, conferences, and other things which take away from intellectual and academic work.
Your best-selling books have won you multiple awards. How did you transition from, or rather pursue simultaneously, an academic career to one in writing for the general audience?
You make time to do what you think is important. I simply adopted a lifestyle where I was working or writing for 80 or 90 hours a week, and I did not take off for weekends and holidays very often. Since the writing was rewarding I didn’t find that to be much of a burden, however it had its costs. Among those costs was my first marriage. I later learned to reserve a little bit of time for my personal life and my competitive involvement with dogs. Still, everyone in my life knows that I am apt to pick myself up and wander off to my office at all sorts of odd hours.
What do you consider your greatest achievement so far in your career?
That is difficult for me to assess and should probably be left to others. Nevertheless, I am quite proud of our findings that left-handedness is associated with reduced life span. I am also fond of the fact that I introduced the English-speaking world to the perceptual phenomenon known as subjective contours. However, I suppose that I feel most warmly about the fact that I was able to ignite interest in studying the behavior of dogs with my publication of “The Intelligence of Dogs” which contained a ranking of canine intelligence by breed. The concept that the mental abilities of dogs are roughly equivalent to those of a human two or three-year-old child, and that we can use tests which have been designed for testing human children to test dogs, will probably be one of my more lasting contributions.
How did you become so interested in the psychology of dogs? You clearly are well-versed in anything about them, and after reading your article I’ve learned the psychology behind their minds is quite interesting.
I have always had dogs, and always wondered about what they were thinking. When I was in University I had an interest in the human-canine bond and so, although most psychologists are trained either in human behavior or animal behavior I decided to make sure that I was dual trained since there were different creatures at each end of the leash. That meant that I took a lot of extra courses as an undergraduate and later in graduate school. Unfortunately, when I finished my degree I found that there was no funding available for research in the human-canine bond so I went on to study my other loves, such as sensory processing. In the 1980s, when research by Alan Beck and Aron Katcher showed that simply petting a familiar and friendly dog had physiological effects on humans and reduce their stress levels it became more acceptable to study the relationship between dogs and people, and by the 1990s I had begun to shift my research and writing efforts in that direction.
How can dogs have a theory of mind akin to that of a young child? The idea that dogs have similar capabilities to those of young children is quite interesting.
It is not surprising that dogs have a theory of mind since the average dog has the mental capacities of a human 2 to 2 1/2 child, and the super dogs (those in the top 20% of canine intelligence) have a mind equivalent to a human 2 1/2 to 3-year-old. Theory of mind begins to emerge at around two years of age, so it is reasonable to expect it in dogs. Thinking about dogs as if they were human toddlers with limited language ability provides a useful handhold and a mnemonic when we are thinking about the cognitive abilities of dogs.
If you could give one piece of advice to Millennials and future generations, what would it be?
It is okay to discuss your problems with your dog. He may not have the answers, but he won’t give you bad advice.
Thank you Dr. Coren for sharing your experience and insight!
Dr. Coren is a Psychology Professor at the University of British Columbia. He is a best-selling author and an award-winning researcher. Be sure to check out his article, website, and blog for more interesting reads!