Dr. Morgan Barense is a professor at U of T, where she teaches psychology and neuroscience. She received her BA from Harvard University and her PhD from the University of Cambridge. Barense has been awarded a Canada Research Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience and the James S. McDonnell Foundation Scholar Award.
She is the principal investigator at the Memory & Perception Lab, which focuses on how the brain supports memory and how memory is affected by brain damage or disease. The lab is currently developing the Hippocamera app, a memory rehabilitation tool that helps individuals who are showing signs of memory decline. The Varsity sat down with Barnese to chat about her undergraduate experience, her personal life, and her work at the lab.
The Varsity: Did you ever drive important lessons from difficult or stressful experiences? Can you give some examples?
Morgan Barense: The most stressful experience I’ve had was when I felt trapped because I felt there was only one outcome that could lead to success. When you’re in that kind of situation, failure feels like it’s not an option.
One example was when I was an undergraduate and thought that I was going to go to medical school. I was so focused on that outcome that I never stopped to focus on whether I wanted to go in the first place. I got to my last year, had my applications completed, and looked up from the computer and said, “I don’t want to go.”
It would have been a lot less stressful had I granted myself the fact that there was more than one way to live and be successful. Except for rare circumstances, there is never only one answer for success and happiness. Never if you told me in my twenties that I would be a professor at U of T would I have believed you.
TV: What do you think you now know about living a happy and successful life that you didn’t know when you were 20?
MB: I wish I’d known it was possible to have a family and be a scientist. The message that you are not a serious academic if you are also a mother is false. This is especially hard for young women, who maybe don’t have many female role models. I got to the end of my undergraduate career at Harvard and realized that I had only one female professor — it’s hard to be what you can’t see.
I know more about impostor syndrome, which was something I had. It’s a phenomenon whereby you internalize and own your failures and externalize your successes. I wish I had labelled it sooner and identified that kind of toxic mindset. It can’t be that all the things that I had achieved were due to luck and all the times that I didn’t succeed were due to my own inadequacies.
TV: What are some principles and habits you live your life by?
MB: It sounds cliché, but the starting point is knowing the things which are the most important to you and ensuring that I’ve structured my life in a way that all those elements are protected. A huge part of who I am is my identity as a professional and scientist. I run a lab and, being a teacher, it is very important to me that I meet my obligations to my trainees, that we do rigorous science and make contributions to knowledge about how the brain works.
At home, my family is incredibly important, as well as my personal identity. I was a competitive swimmer and it’s important that I get to go to the pool a couple of times a week. It’s about recognizing these pillars which are equally important and putting strong boundaries between them to ensure that they do not interfere with each other. It’s really important to know when it’s enough, that’s where perfectionism can be a death knell for happiness.
TV: What are you currently working on?
MB: I run the Memory & Perception Lab, a cognitive neuroscience lab. Among other research, we are developing the Hippocamera app. We are trying to externally mimic the hippocampus in the app as much as we can in order to rehabilitate people starting to show signs of memory decline. The field has come so far, I’m happy we’ve been able to translate some of these advances into practical solutions for those with memory impairments.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.