Meeting Dr. Bruce Hood

I had the wonderful honour of having an “interview” with Dr. Bruce Hood today, courtesy of Campus Magazine. (It was more of a conversation.)


Bruce is an experimental psychologist who specializes in developmental cognitive neuroscience- which means he does experiments and studies young minds to make sense of hour our minds develop. More importantly, he’s a spectacular guy with a wonderfully curious and articulate mind.

I hadn’t prepared proper, structured questions, and I didn’t really have the means nor energy to keep meticulous track of our meandering conversation, but here’s what I remember.

Exciting to begin to understand congnitive development

The first thing we discussed was how exciting it was to begin to understand cognitive development, and how it aids us in building intelligent machines. Machines were initially engineered top-down, but this often led to problems, because there were unending questions to be asked. The world is full of structure and order, and we can’t tell in advance what’s important.

The best way forward so far, it seems, is to take a leaf from evolution’s book, and emulate the brain- teach the machine to “think for itself”, to figure out the rules as it goes along. We talked about inter-planetary travel, and had fun hypothesizing about how long we would take to leave our solar system, and how long that journey would take, and how feasible that journey would be.

There are three things to ask, Bruce said, about the human brain.

  1. What is its physical nature?
  2. What does it do?
  3. What is it specialized for?

We also discussed the internet and social media, and how there’s the danger of polarization happening, where people form groups and adopt views and perspectives more extreme than they would have had on their own. We discussed the emergence of language- of proto-language. We discussed non-verbal communication and the incidence of culture shock.

I asked about how and why the paranormal is so persistent- not the incidence of it, which we have no proof of, but the perception of it. Bruce responded by discussing Plato (and his grad student, Aristotle) – about ideal forms versus function, natural ways of thinking, sessentialism and hidden dimensions. Bruce described how children naturally learn to classify and derive ideal forms. We discussed relics and how we have a need to go from the mundane to the profound or divine.

I was excited to learn that he wrote a book called The Self Illusion, which made me think of my own favourite non-fiction book of all time- The User Illusion. To my surprise, he had never heard of it! (Bruce, if you find yourself on this page, please do check out this book! It gives an elegant hypothetical alternative to “something out of nothing”, which is “something within nothing.” I think you’ll love it. I also think you’ll love Lives of a Cell, by Lewis Thomas.)

We agreed that the experience of consciousness is real, but the idea of a consistent, permanent self was illusory. We discussed the Ship of Theseus paradox. We talked about cognitive biases- the fundamental attribution error, the Monty Hall problem, the Wason selection task.

We talked about promiscuous teleology (the tendency to attribute causes to things), about the limitations of perception, about how our brains evolved in Newtonian dimensions, and are ill-equipped to conceive of the very large or the very small. We discussed the distinctions between theories and hypotheses- how we extrapolate, and resist counter-examples. We talked about Chomsky’s Universal Grammar, and how we have some in-born elements in our minds that we use in conjunction with our environments.

We discussed the psychological state of flow, Buddhist insights and truths- how we all tend to be overly self-obsessed, and could all do with some transcendence. We discussed savants, memory and how the illusion of the Self fragments and shatters under certain circumstances.

On personal experiences, Bruce shared how writing The Self Illusion impacted him personally while he was writing it- how he himself grappled to accept what he scientifically reasoned to be true, and how he had to think (and rethink) about his own identity.

I’m not really doing our conversation justice- there is much that I have left out, and much that I have mistakenly misrepresented because of my poor note-keeping (I was too busy just trying to keep up with Bruce) and poor memory. I’m just trying to do justice to the spirit of the whole thing.

Dr. Bruce Hood didn’t really tell me anything I’ve never heard or read of, but he helped me put it all together a little better. (Lately, I’ve come to believe that once you get past a significant amount of data-gathering, what matters is compressing that data into succinct, valuable information.)

Bruce was the ‘real deal’- a man who lives and breathes his passion, and communicates it with gusto. I was humbled by how he listened attentively to anything I had to say, and weaved it masterfully into the conversation. It was a total privilege. I could feel his mind whirring behind his eyes as we talked, and it was thrilling. His passion was infectious, and his genuine love and joy for thinking, and his humility- everything was just such a positive influence for me. We only talked for an hour or two, but I immediately felt closer to him than most people.

Here are some soundbites:

“Nature doesn’t select for good ideas.” What matters is that the ideas are implemented. Cognitive development is the development of reasoning, thinking, and acting on ideas.

“The worst thing you can do to someone is to ostracize them.” – when discussing the natural human need for group acceptance.

“I’ve got the best job in the world.” Bruce described how he loved that he had the freedom and opportunity to think about problems- how he didn’t feel that he had any special or extraordinary talent, but merely applied himself to what he was interested in and passionate about- and how lucky he was that he didn’t have to worry about the mundane drudgery that most 9-5 salarymen are afflicted with.

“The audience wants you to do well.” – I asked him about the experience of learning to articulate and communicate your ideas, and to lecture to an audience. As I anticipated, he spoke of the importance of communicating your passion- do that, and everything else falls into place. Our conversation began with him passionately describing intelligent-machine design, so he practices what he preaches! (Obviously.)

“It chose me.” Crystal (another writer from Campus) asked him why he decided to work on the field of developmental cognitive psychology and neuroscience. He described how he was led naturally from one subject to another, beginning with his interest in the paranormal, and subsequently, how adults came to believe in the paranormal, and then turned to children to study the beginnings of such systems. I thought it was a rather poignant statement, which encapsulates his idea of the illusion of the Self.

“Live in the moment. Plan for the future, but enjoy the moment. Enjoy discovery, enjoy science. It’s always changing.”

Thank you, Dr. Bruce! You da man.

3 thoughts on “Meeting Dr. Bruce Hood

  1. Pingback: Most of my thoughts about education, school, university, learning. | visakan veerasamy.

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