Interview with Prof. Nelson Cowan

Nelson Cowan is a Curators’ Professor of Psychology at the University of Missouri. His research focuses on short-term memory, working memory and selective attention in information processing. Amongst other findings, Cowan is well known for bringing the working memory capacity down from Millers magical 7+/-2 items to a more realistic 3-4 items. cowan_new

What I enjoy most about my job as a researcher … I enjoy the ability to decide what aspect of the human mind to investigate, and how to investigate it. Toward the beginning of my career, my greatest enjoyment was probably coming up with the experimental design myself to address a deep philosophical question about the mind.  Now, I think I take at least equal delight when I have helped guide a student or colleague, inspiring them in a joint insight or a guided version of their own insight that hopefully benefits from my observations and many years of experience in the field.  It is especially enjoyable when I learn something in the process, which happens often. Of course, seeing the final write-up in published form is usually gratifying as well.

The biggest challenge in my career so far was … My biggest challenge was, and is, management of assistants in the laboratory.  I worry about it sometimes.  Each person comes with his or her own aspirations, preconceptions, knowledge base, personality, and so on.  I cannot assume, for example, that what worked for me as a graduate student will work equally well for any graduate student in the laboratory, and I cannot assume that what makes me happy will make someone else happy.  The best I can do is try to inspire others.  I occasionally come to the realization that the fit between a certain person and my laboratory may not be right. It is hard to remember to dedicate enough time to finding out as soon as possible what a potential laboratory member is really like, how they are likely to get along with the rest of the laboratory, whether they are humble enough to consider the ideas of others, and so on.  Management of a laboratory is especially challenging in the face of other pressing deadlines and tasks.

One research project I will never forget is… I probably will never forget my investigation of a philosophy professor with the ability to talk backward rapidly, which he developed in childhood.  When I was still in graduate school in the late 1970s, I was handed this project by a mentor and co-author, Prof. Lewis Leavitt.  We wanted to find out what this philosophy professor’s skill could teach us about the psychology of language and about individual differences in cognitive abilities.  In the process, we helped the professor fulfill his wish to appear on the Johnny Carson show and, as a result of his fame in that regard, he received letters from many other people around the world with a similar skill, whom we were then able to study (often long-distance).  We published several articles on this topic in the 1980s.  From time to time, someone new with a similar skill emerges and the excitement returns.  Someday I would like to use a brain imaging approach to help find out how these unusual people carry out their special skill.

What I look for in a student who wants to work under my supervision … There are certain intellectual abilities that are essential, of course.  Beyond that, I am especially interested in students with enthusiasm for the topic, for an intrinsic reason rather than an extrinsic one.  An extrinsic reason is that they find the field challenging and interesting, though other fields would do just as well.  An intrinsic reason is that they are eager to find out how the human mind works, and are willing to sacrifice conveniences in their life in order to have the privilege of being in the position to continue to do research, to learn, and to find out little by little about the mind.  That takes patience and constancy of purpose, and intrinsic motivation helps more than extrinsic.

Student research could be improved by … There needs to be more emphasis on training experiences that hard-boil students when it comes to some important skills.  A class in which research-based writing is shared among students, focusing on overall organization and communication of ideas, could help.  Critical to good writing is the ability to adopt the likely point of views of the readers and frame the writing with these views in mind.  When you write your first draft it looks to you as if the writing says what you mean.  In reality, it often may be ambiguous and might be interpreted not only in the way you mean, but in other ways you didn’t think of. Also, the writing may impose too much of a burden on the reader’s working memory, which can be remedied by putting first the information that helps the reader organize the rest of the sentence or passage.  Students would also benefit from as much exposure as possible to the process of responding to reviewers.  That process is where a lot of the best learning comes in. (Note one problem though:  it can be an unexpected slap in the face for a very smart student who has received excellent grades all of his or her life, to have to read negative reviews of a manuscript submitted for publication.)  An adequate response to reviewers is one in which the authors have given serious thought to reviews and have improved the manuscript as much as possible without being overly defensive. On the other hand the successful authors don’t allow the reviews to steamroll right over them or to make them overly discouraged.  They stick to their own point of view if it still seems right after giving very serious consideration to the possible alternatives or, if it does not seem right, they modify their views in a principled manner that best accounts for all available evidence.  Students need to learn to be authors who do their best to explain to the editors and reviewers their point of view, to modify that view when warranted, and to persist until a good outcome is obtained. Some of the most innovative papers have gone through that kind of tough process.

Academically, I most admire … There are many people in the field, and outside of it, whom I admire greatly for different qualities.  However, I don’t think it is a good idea to take any one person and put him or her on a pedestal.  I certainly don’t want my students to put me in that position.  We all struggle with ideas that are increasingly complex in the field, multiple topics to master that are related to our own interests, the continuing need for insightful and elegant new research designs, the need to consider difficult ethical issues, the increasing need to work in teams, the need to communicate well in writing and speech, and so on.  No one researcher embodies all of these qualities the best for me and I don’t want to fall into the habit of emulating someone.  It is the academic system with peer review that I admire when it works as it should; it can help bring out the best in all of us.

I wish someone had told me at the beginning of my career … I wish someone had told me how important it is to seek advice, as often as you can, from people who may know something about whatever it is that you want to learn or are planning to do in your career.  For some people this will be a no-brainer, but it was not so for me.  My parents were very busy with a special-needs younger brother of mine (and with two other younger siblings of mine) and it didn’t occur to me that adults who have time can help you think realistically about your options.  It took me about 10 years after high school to understand this and, still, I have to check myself so I don’t make rash decisions without talking them over with experts and smart colleagues first when possible.

The largest changes in psychological science in the next 10 years will be … I don’t know, maybe the gradual replacement of journals with stand-alone electronic articles?  The web should allow more individualized delivery of research, so that each of us can receive a collection of articles in our own fields of most interest rather than seeing, each month, a semi-random collection of articles of interest to diverse people.  Even now, I am not sure how many researchers systematically look through the journal contents as in the old days of paper journals.  Beyond this possibility (and the potential problems that it might pose, such as overspecialization), I have taken a more extensive and light-hearted approach to predicting the future of the field on line in an essay as past president of Division 3 of the American Psychological Association:  Cowan, N. (2009, March). President’s Message: A Brief History of Experimental Psychology, 1850 – 2125. The Experimental Psychology Bulletin, 13, 1. 

Jonas Haslbeck

Jonas Haslbeck

Jonas is a Senior Editor at the Journal of European Psychology Students. He is currently a PhD student in psychological methods at the University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands. For further info see

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