#78: Philip Johnson-Laird on How Cognitive Scientists Improvise
Cognitive Revolution | We go into Phil's early career as a jazz pianist, the mentorship of Peter Wason, and the genesis of his mental models framework.
This is Cognitive Revolution, my show about the personal side of the intellectual journey. Each week, I interview an eminent scientist, writer, or academic about the experiences that shaped their ideas. The show is available wherever you listen to podcasts.
Philip Johnson-Laird is professor emeritus at Princeton University. He is one of the most influential cognitive scientists of all time, best known for developing the idea of “mental models.” Though if you really want to get a sense of how eminent he is, you have to look no further than his email address. You can find him at Phil at Princeton. That’s right. He is the Phil at Princeton University. It was a huge honor to talk to him for this conversation, as he’s long been one of my favorite cognitive scientists. My favorite paper of his is a lesser known article from 2002 called How Jazz Musicians Improvise. It’s part of a long-standing interest of his in understanding how our minds create complex, meaningful sequences—in this case, strings of notes—on the go.
Phil didn’t start off planning to become an academic (he left school at age 15), and before he got on the academic track he worked as a jazz pianist. In this conversation we go deep into Phil’s background as a musician, and how that influenced his ideas about the mind. We also talk about his background working miscellaneous jobs for 10 years before starting university, marching in protests led by Bertrand Russell, the mentorship of Peter Wason, Phil’s first encounters with cognitive science, his relationship with the great George A. Miller, the genesis of the idea of mental models, how Phil’s understand of mental models has changed over the past forty years, and what the question of how jazz musicians improvise can tell us about how the mind works.
Phil’s Three Books:
Bertrand Russell’s Problems of Philosophy
Chomsky’s Syntactic Structures
Miller, Galanter, & Pribram’s Plans and the Structure of Behavior
Books we talked about:
George Miller’s Psychology: The Science of Mental Life
Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy
Wason & Johnson-Laird’s Thinking and Reasoning
Papers we talked about:
Phil’s paper on Musical dissonance
Phil’s 1980 paper on Mental Models in Cognitive Science, from the first meeting of the cognitive science society
Phil’s paper on How jazz musicians improvise
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