What's a nice cognitive neuroscientist doing in a field like child poverty? Why would anybody work with ill-defined concepts such as socioeconomic status (SES) when they could be manipulating binocular cues to depth perception with precision? Allow me to explain, by way of presenting my current work and how I came to it.
The first decades of my career were spent working to understand the neural bases of vision and visual cognition, using behavioral research methods with normal participants and brain-damaged patients, as well as by using event-related potentials (ERPs) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study normal brain function more directly. The 1980s and 1990s were rewarding times to be involved in such research, as neuroscience first grappled with fundamental questions about how humans perceive the world.
Being a cognitive neuroscientist in the early days of the field satisfied many of my intellectual needs and wants. I could engage with age-old questions of mind and brain in a productive new way, asking how we come to know the visual world and how our brains implement or enable our minds. Of course, the deepest philosophical readings of these questions will never be settled with experiments, but to me it was nevertheless exciting to work on various empirical issues concerning mind–brain relations.
Perverse as it may sound, I also enjoyed the conceptual messiness of early cognitive neuroscience. In a mature science, there is a theoretical framework that guides us to the next questions to ask and provides models of the kinds of explanations that could count as answers. There is also a stable of methods recognized as able to deliver relevant evidence. With a framework, questions, and methods in place, the path of scientific progress is relatively clear. But, at the risk of sounding flippant, where's the fun in that? The cognitive neuroscience of the 1980s offered few of the conveniences of a mature science, but plenty of messy intellectual fun. Coming up with questions, deciding what kinds of data were relevant to answering them, parsing the array of possible answers, and examining the theoretical assumptions that underlay these decisions – these were necessary everyday thought processes for us.
But, for all the intellectual joy of grappling with issues of mind and brain in a developing science, I did feel that one thing was missing from my work life: social relevance.