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The Varsity

The University of Toronto's
Student Newspaper Since 1880

Keith Oatley in the spotlight

U of T psychology professor discusses the interdisciplinary nature of cognitive science.

By Karen Kyung Fuhrmann
Published: 10:19 pm, 18 November 2012
Vol CXXXIII, No. 09 under

Keith Oatley is a novelist and professor emeritus at U of T’s Faculty of Education, OISE. For more than 25 years, he taught, researched, and published in the field of psychology. In addition to his academic background in science, his research interests have extended into the humanities, combining literary theories with cognitive science. In this Professor Spotlight, The Varsity sits down with Oatley to discuss his background and influences, how he got to U of T, the intersection of science and humanities in the field of psychology, and his advice for undergraduate students.

The Varsity

Tell us a little about your past. What did you teach and what do you specialize in?

Keith Oatley

I was born in London, England, and did my undergraduate degree at the University of Cambridge in natural sciences. I finished my PhD in psychology at University College London, and then completed my post-doctoral studies in engineering in medicine at Imperial College.  I was a lecturer at the University of Sussex, then a professor at the University of Glasgow, where I taught cognitive psychology. I immigrated to Canada in 1990.

I am now a professor emeritus here at the University of Toronto. I used to teach courses on the psychology of emotions, and cognitive science. I ran the Cognitive Science program at University College, but the program has now been moved to the philosophy department. It is still an interdisciplinary program though. I am also a former president of the International Society for Research on Emotions, a fellow of the British Psychological Society, and a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.

The Varsity 

Why did you choose to specialize in cognitive science? When and where did this interest take off?

Keith Oatley

When I was in England, at the University of Sussex, I was introduced to a new movement called cognitive science. That movement was heavily influenced by Artificial Intelligence. The idea was, and is, that if you want to understand perception, or conversation, [you need to] try to program computers to perceive and converse. A whole new way of thinking opened up, which has enabled us to move forward in very interesting and radical directions

The Varsity 

Before working at U of T, what else did you accomplish?

Keith Oatley

Well, I have been an academic most of my life. After completing my post-doctoral year at Imperial College in London, I worked at the UK National Physical Laboratory’s Autonomics Division for a while. I also trained as a psychotherapist. I think it’s important for psychology to be applied and to develop ways of helping people. I also have experience as a journalist and novelist.

The Varsity 

You’ve written a number of books dealing with emotions. Which one is your favorite and why?

Keith Oatley

My favorite, I think, is Best Laid Schemes: The Psychology of Emotions (1992). It’s my favorite because it analyzes emotions in three different fields: science, social science, and literary theory — it’s written in an interdisciplinary way. I don’t think it’s very good just to get stuck on a particular problem in a particular discipline.

The Varsity 

If you had a choice, what would you want to improve about the sciences at U of T?

Keith Oatley

I wish scientists and people in the professional disciplines would pay more attention to the humanities. If there were more interdisciplinary contact, I think everyone would benefit. U of T invests a lot in professional programs, such as business, medicine, and law. Also, science is always well funded. I would like to see more resources put into the humanities.

The Varsity 

What advice do you have for undergraduates in science?

Keith Oatley

Spend as much time talking to colleagues as you can! That means other undergraduates, but also talk to professors and teaching assistants. You may not have such good opportunities for this when you go out into the world of work, where it can become more difficult to develop and maintain your intellectual life. Appreciate the time you have at U of T.