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Dr. Daniel M. Bernstein works as the Tier 2 Canada Research Chair in Lifespan Cognition for the Psychology department of Kwantlen Polytechnic University. He is the principal investigator for the Lifespan Cognition Lab. Dr. Bernstein earned his Bachelor of Arts at the University of California, Berkeley, Master’s at Brock University, PhD at Simon Fraser University, and did Post-Doctoral work at the University of Washington. His research interests lie in “belief and memory; developmental metacognition; hindsight bias; mild head injury; sleep and dreams.” Dr. Daniel Bernstein is the primary investigator in the Tier 2 Canada Research Chair Lifespan Cognition Lab. Here we talk about a variety of educational, research, and psychology oriented topics. He’s been a boss, mentor, and eventually a good friend. Here is part 1.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What positions have you held at Kwantlen? What work have you performed here?
Dr. Daniel M. Bernstein: I have been an instructor of Psychology since 2005, when I began working at Kwantlen. In addition, I have sat on various departmental and university-wide committees while at Kwantlen.
Jacobsen: Where have you worked prior to Kwantlen?
Bernstein: After I graduated from Simon Fraser University with my Ph.D., I was a Postdoc from 2001 to 2004 at the University of Washington. I started working at Kwantlen in 2005, and for the first year at Kwantlen, I was a visiting assistant professor at the University of Washington,
Jacobsen: How did you gain interest in Psychology? Where did you acquire your education?
Bernstein: I was always interested in Psychology. I was the go-to person when I was young for friends’ troubles. I was always the mediator for relationships going askew because I never managed to have lasting romantic relationships of my own. When I was young, I took a real interest in the Clinical aspects of Psychology, the areas that tend to be of most interest to people. Later, I started taking an interest in the non-Clinical aspects of Psychology.
My undergraduate degree was from the University of California Berkeley. Following this, I did a Master’s degree at Brock University in Ontario. Then, I did my PhD at Simon Fraser University, and finished a Postdoc at the University of Washington. That is all of my Post-Secondary education.
Jacobsen: What kinds of research have you conducted up to the present? If you currently conduct research, what form does it take?
Bernstein: That would take a long time to answer. I will give you very broad-brush strokes. I started doing work in sleep and dreams as an undergraduate student. I continued that work as a Masters student. I did my undergraduate and master’s work on sleep and dreams. While a Masters Student, I became interested in the cognitive effects of mild traumatic head injury. I continued that work when I started my Ph.D., but that was not the subject matter of my PhD. My Ph.D. work was on memory. More specifically, I studied how people make mistakes when thinking about the past. During my post-doc, I studied cognitive biases – or how people err in their cognition. I continue to pursue this work now.
Jacobsen: Other institutions in Canada host more research-activities. Where would you like to see research move forward in Kwantlen?
Bernstein: I would like to see Kwantlen embrace a research culture without being bogged down with the treadmill mentality of chasing publications for tenure, and that is a fine balance to strike because it is hard to get people interested in research if that is not part of their job. I would like to see Kwantlen develop more of a research culture by offering and attending research talks and colloquia. Exposure to research will stimulate discussion about research. Currently, most conversations at Kwantlen center on teaching. This makes sense, after all, because Kwantlen is primarily a teaching institution.
Jacobsen: Since you began studying Psychology, what controversial topics seem pertinent to you? How do you examine the controversial topics?
Bernstein: I think the first controversial topic that I really sank my teeth into was mild traumatic brain injury, which came from my own experience of skiing into a tree while a senior in High School. I had other head knocks growing up playing sports. I was just very interested in how these experiences affect someone’s cognition over the long term. The prevailing wisdom in 1993 was that people recover almost entirely from these head knocks within a short period, typically within 3 months. I did not believe that. I also did not believe that researchers were using the right tasks to elicit long-term cognitive deficits associated with mild head injury. Therefore, I took a controversial stance and argued, along with others, that these injuries possibly never resolved completely. I thought that if you smack your head hard enough that you have to stop what you are doing because you are dizzy, disoriented, or unconscious, you will have subtle residual deficits for the rest of your life. It does not mean everybody will have these deficits after a mild head injury. Instead, it means that when compared to individuals who have not bonked their heads, those who have sustained mild head injuries, will perform worse on highly demanding cognitive tasks years after the injuries. I think the tide is changing, and more people are open to this possibility.
When I was an undergraduate student, I studied dreams too, which was controversial by its very nature. While working on my post-doc much later, I got interested in False Memory. A highly controversial topic. I worked on this topic with Elizabeth Loftus, who served as a kind of lightning rod in this controversy. Beth showed me how to navigate controversy. In addition, while doing my Postdoc, I got interested in doing Hindsight Bias and Theory of Mind. Theory of Mind is the understanding that other minds are different from one’s. The prevailing wisdom in the developmental psychological field is that by the age of four and a half or five, children develop a theory of mind. It is as if a ‘light bulb’ goes on inside the child’s head. You not only understand that other minds are different from your own but that other people can hold mistaken beliefs about the world. Once you have this mature theory of mind, it is not something that extinguishes. But the acquisition of theory of mind is regarded by many as all or none – you have it or you do not. Very few things in psychology or in the world at large are all or none. With the exception of neurons, which either fire or do not fire, I can’t think of other examples of all-or-none constructs. I remember that in graduate school I was taking a seminar course on neuroscience. One of my colleagues in the program was doing his presentation on gender differences in the brain. He had racked his own brain for hours in preparation for his presentation and he had come into the presentation without any sleep. He came to class dishevelled the morning of his presentation. He said something to the following effect: “It occurred to me a few hours ago. The problem with this field is that gender is not discrete. It is continuous. It is not a categorical variable. Moreover, the reason that this field is so fucked up is that people refuse to appreciate the nuances of continuity. In
stead, they want to slot you into this gender or that gender. Then, they look for differences in the brain. Well guess what folks, these differences are very difficult to detect on a consistent basis.” This was a deep insight. As I said, with respect to Theory of Mind, most people believe that it is categorical, you have it or you don’t. I am trying to show that it is not categorical. This is a controversial topic in a controversial field.
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