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Spanish Surrealist Salvador Dalí spent much of the 1940s in the U.S., avoiding World War II and its aftermath. He was a well-known fixture on the art scene in Monterey, Calif. — and that's where the largest collection of Dalí's work on the West Coast is now open to the public.

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The middle of summer is when the surprises in publishing turn up. I'm talking about those quietly commanding books that publishers tend to put out now, because fall and winter are focused on big books by established authors. Which brings us to The Dream Life of Astronauts, by Patrick Ryan, a very funny and touching collection of nine short stories that take place in the 1960s and '70s around Cape Canaveral, Fla.

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This is the first in a series of essays concerning our collective future. The goal is to bring forth some of the main issues humanity faces today, as we move forward to uncertain times. In an effort to be as thorough as possible, we will consider two kinds of threats: those due to natural disasters and those that are man-made. The idea is to expose some of the dangers and possible mechanisms that have been proposed to deal with these issues. My intention is not to offer a detailed analysis for each threat — but to invite reflection and, hopefully, action.


Of Rats And Men: Edward C. Tolman

Feb 11, 2013

You've probably never heard of Edward C. Tolman, unless you're an experimental psychologist. If you're a Berkeley alumnus, you might be familiar with Tolman Hall, home to my office and lab. It's an unappealing and outdated homage to a man who was neither.

In classic experiments, Tolman convincingly demonstrated that you need some notion of mental representation — like a mental map — to explain rat behavior. This idea challenged behaviorist dogma and paved the way for cognitive science.

In my favorite experiment, rats were placed in a maze like that below (left), and had to make their way from point A to point G, where they found a treat.

After four nights of practice, the familiar maze was replaced with a new one (right). The rats typically tried the top path first, generalizing what they'd learned from the initial maze. But this familiar path was blocked. The question was: which path would they choose to pursue instead?

If the rats had formed only associations about which behaviors were or weren't reinforced, they wouldn't have a spatial map to guide them. Instead, they would likely choose the path most similar to the one that had originally lead to food and take path 9 or 10.

In contrast, if the rats had formed something like a mental map of the original maze, they'd know that the food was ahead and to the right, and should choose a path like 6, which pointed in that direction. And that's exactly what they did. Clever, no?

But what I admire most about Tolman isn't clever experiments with rats — it's that he didn't stop with experiments or with rats. In a paper that summarizes the study just described, "Cognitive maps in rats and men" (1948), Tolman concludes with an argument that he calls "cavalier and dogmatic," proposing that humans have cognitive maps that not only situate them in space, but within a broader network of causal, social and emotional relationships. A narrow map can lead one to discount outsiders; a broader map to understanding and empathy. Tolman wrote:

Over and over again men are blinded by too violent motivations and too intense frustrations into blind and unintelligent and in the end desperately dangerous hates of outsiders. And the expression of these their displaced hates ranges all the way from discrimination against minorities to world conflagrations.

What in the name of Heaven and Psychology can we do about it? My only answer is to preach again the virtues of reason—of, that is, broad cognitive maps.

Tolman took this attitude beyond the pages of scholarly journals. In the 1950s he lead opposition to a loyalty oath at Berkeley requiring faculty to state that they were not members of the communist party. He was fired for failing to sign the oath (Tolman was reinstated two years later).

Perhaps if more of us shared Tolman's broad thinking and social engagement, we'd be in a better position to navigate what he called "that great God-given maze which is our human world."

You can keep up with more of what Tania Lombrozo is thinking on Twitter: @TaniaLombrozo

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