This edition of Who Makes Millersville Special features Shaun Cook, assistant professor of psychology.
Q: What is your educational background?
A: A bachelor’s degree in psychology and biology from Bridgewater State University, with a Spanish minor; master’s degree in perception and psychophysics from Brandeis University; and Ph.D. in cognition and neural systems from the University of Arizona.
Q: How long have you been at Millersville University?
A: Since the fall semester of 2008.
Q: What is your favorite thing about Millersville?
A: First, the people; the students. I attended an undergraduate institution much like Millersville, so I feel as though I can relate. I am continually impressed with the students’ drive and enthusiasm. Second, the faculty; I am honored to be part of such a dedicated and effective group of professionals.
Q: What influenced you to study psychology?
A: I have always been interested in helping people. After my freshman year in high school, I transferred. My second school would not allow me to play sports because I had played varsity as a freshman. So, I joined the peer leadership group that included trainings by psychologists. That pretty much hooked me.
Q: Who inspired you to become a professor?
A: My undergraduate biology advisor, Dr. Walter Morin.
Q: Can you tell us about your work with the Strategic Planning Committee?
A: It has been a rewarding and learning experience. I have never served on any committee like this one. It is intense and meaningful with amazing contributions from really great minds. I really like the transparency that the committee has achieved, and I am pleased with the progress.
Q: Why do you have such an interest in the idea of memory?
A: Daniel Schacter stated “Memory is life.” By that he meant that all we are is from our memories. This is particularly evident when you meet someone with amnesia. It is difficult to imagine losing significant chunks of your past (called retrograde amnesia), but it unfortunately happens. For instance, I have tested an individual who, at age 37, lost his memory for everything that happened after the age of 30. So, he can correctly tell you that he is married, but not to whom because he divorced and remarried after the age of 30. He also cannot understand why his daughter looks so old. These human experiences fascinate me, and I hope that, through my research, I can add something helpful.
Q: What research or studies have you done on dreaming and brain waves?
A: I have looked at dreaming really in the context of memory consolidation. Memory consolidation is the process of memories being edited and packaged into a form that can be stored long term (i.e., for a lifetime). Dreaming is the psychological correlate of memory consolidation.
My work with brain waves was mostly done at Carnegie Mellon University, where we looked at the brain wave signatures related to recognizing faces in different (i.e., familiar and unfamiliar) contexts.
Q: You refer to yourself as a “cognitive neuropsychologist,” what exactly does that mean?
A: Neuropsychology is a misunderstood term. It technically refers to understanding the mind and behavior through investigations that involve brain damage. So, neuropsychologists work with people who suffer from some kind of brain damage. There are two types of neuropsychology: cognitive neuropsychology and clinical neuropsychology. Clinical neuropsychology focuses on assessment and treatments for those who suffer from brain damage. Cognitive neuropsychologists also assess, but do not administer treatments, although they can develop treatment plans. Cognitive neuropsychology also focuses on understanding cognition (i.e., mental/brain functioning) with neuropsychological methods.
Q: Are you currently involved in any studies/projects in the world of psychology?
A: Yes, I am currently active in a number of them, some with students here at Millersville and some with researchers at other institutions. For instance, I am working with a graduate student, Clair Sube, on a project investigating whether people with synesthesia process meaning as effectively as people without synesthesia. Incidentally, synesthesia is a condition where one experiences a perceptual blending of the senses. For example, a synesthete might taste shapes or see music.
Q: Do you have any controversial opinions in the field of psychology that you believe to be true?
A: I try to let the data shape my opinions, so I am not sure I have many controversial opinions. However, there are some. One that likely qualifies is my opinion is that we should not be using the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” (DSM). I think we need an empirically-validated set of criteria for diagnosing purposes. Another controversial one is that dissociative identity disorder (or what used to be called multiple personality disorder) is not real.
Q: If you could give one piece of advice to those seeking a career in psychology, what would it be?
A: If you are planning on a career (not a job), then plan on graduate school and become friendly with statistics.
Q: What are your hobbies?
A: Spending time with family/friends, reading, traveling and chess.
Q: What is something that people would be surprised to learn about you?
A: My sister and I dated the same woman (not simultaneously).
Q: As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
A: I wanted to be a teacher and a lawyer.
Q: What accomplishment(s) are you most proud of?
A: Professionally, my position at Millersville, earning my Ph.D. and my publications.
Q: If you were offered a one month paid vacation, how would you spend it?
A: Bouncing around Italy, France and Greece.
Q: Is there anything else about you or your job that you would like people to know?
A: If I weren’t a cognitive neuropsychologist, I would likely be a physicist examining the nature of time.