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Children, young people and families

One on One… with Annette Karmiloff-Smith

Professorial Research Fellow at Birkbeck College, University of London.

18 March 2008

One person who inspired you
I had thought that psychology was just about psychoanalysis or reaction time and questionnaires, but Piaget taught me that it embraced logic, physics, biology, mathematics, evolution, genetics, anthropology and, above all, development, in the deepest sense of the term.

One moment that changed the course of your career
Discovering that, if they have a strong theory, children (and scientists, for that matter!) ignore counter-evidence which is staring them in the face.

One alternative career path you might have chosen
Novelist. I love writing. Once a reviewer of a paper I sent to Cognition said it read more like a novel than a scientific paper. They meant it as an insult, but I took it as a compliment! My younger daughter, Kyra, is fulfilling that dream for me, and she’s far more talented than I would have been.

One book that you think all psychologists should read
Well, nepotism aside, my husband’s Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience (Mark Johnson: Blackwell, 2005). Even those studying adults should read it; it will make them think more dynamically.

One great thing that psychology has achieved
Developing methods, such as high-density event-related potentials, to chart changing brain activity over time in young infants.

One challenge you think psychology faces
Moving from a focus on static blobs in the brain to really understanding the dynamics of cerebral networks.

One thing that you would change about psychologists
Have them all understand that studying infants and children does not necessarily equate to studying development.

One nugget of advice for aspiring psychologists
Find a deep, burning question that you really want to answer. Some satisfy themselves with a string of atheoretical variations on an experimental theme, something I find very boring.

One cultural recommendation
Passolini’s film, Theorema, which marries Marxism, psychoanalysis, Christianism, etc. Every time I watch it,
I discover something new.

One hero/heroine from psychology past or present
The late Elizabeth Bates.
She was an example to young female academics that one can be an inspiring female, a caring mother and a brilliant scientist, all at the same time.

One thing that ‘organised psychology’ could do better
Increase the number of awards to aspiring psychologists, like the USA does.

One hope for the future
More cross-syndrome, cross-domain studies to understand what is common and what is really specific to each syndrome.

One problem that psychology should deal with
Drop the sterile nature/nurture debate, in favour of gaining a less superficial understanding of the changing relations over time between gene expression and cognitive/behavioural outcomes.

One regret
Not having had hands-on experience with genetics and animal models in far more depth.  

One last opinion
Obligatory retirement is shortsighted. Some cannot wait to retire and they rightly make room for younger scientists, but productive scientists should be allowed
to continue. I don’t intend to stop before I’m 93 years old, as I told one of my seven grandchildren!