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  • Print publication year: 2016
  • Online publication date: August 2016

20 - Just Turn It Over in Your Mind

from Section A - Attention and Perception


An Atypical Background for a Psychologist

As a child I was, like my engineer father, fascinated by mechanical devices. I would happily spend hours alone building elaborate Tinkertoy structures. I would take apart discarded clocks and other gadgets, to study their mechanical works. Later, I went on to build various electro-mechanical devices: one would electrically transmit the motions of a pen at one location, causing a pen at a distant location to duplicate in ink what was being hand-written at the first location; another was a robot, animated by motors and mechanical parts, built from abandoned appliances in my grandparent's barn. I also constructed a variety of three-dimensional regular polyhedra by gluing together carefully cut and folded pieces of cardboard. But, while pursuing these solitary extracurricular projects, I neglected many homework assignments. I was far more interested in books I found in the public library, on technology, astrophysics, relativity, and cosmology.

As an undergraduate at Stanford, I had difficulty choosing a major. I feared that I lacked sufficient mathematical training for a career in engineering or physics. Moreover, the likelihood of my making an outstanding contribution to such already highly developed fields seemed negligibly small. Then, having reluctantly signed up for an introductory course in philosophy (to satisfy an annoying distribution requirement), I was surprised to find the subject so intriguing that I began taking all the philosophy courses available to me. But the young assistant professor who had first sparked my interest in philosophy was now telling me of his own discouragement with the field. His academic appointment was not renewed, and I was subsequently saddened to learn that he had committed suicide.

What had most enthralled me about theoretical physics was how laws statable in beautifully succinct mathematical formulas (as in Newton's laws of gravitation and motion, Maxwell's laws of electromagnetism, and Einstein's laws of special and general relativity) govern physical phenomena throughout the universe. But these elegant, far-reaching physical laws did not address issues of an entirely different class of phenomena that also fascinated me – namely, the mental phenomena of imagery, dreams, and thought experiments. And yet, these more subjective phenomena may have played a significant role in the discoveries of the very laws of physics I so admired.

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Shepard, R. N., & Cooper, L. A. (1982). Mental images and their transformations. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.