Alan Castel

Alan Castel

University of California, Los Angeles

What does your research focus on?

I study memory, metacognition and cognitive aging. I am interested in age-related differences in memory and cognition and how people make judgments and predictions about memory performance. Specifically, I am very interested in how people remember important information, and if older adults learn to remember important things at the expense of less important information. If you know you can’t remember everything, how do you prioritize what is important to remember? Does this same ability to focus on important information also make one a good student? Do we really understand how our own memory works?

What drew you to this line of research? Why is it exciting to you?

When I was 10 years old, I forgot some of my lines in the play The Wizard of Oz, yet I memorized the periodic table as a teenager even though I didn’t have a deep understanding of chemistry. When I took Intro Psych in my first year of university, I realized people actually studied these sorts of things, and I was captivated. I also spent a lot of time in Florida as a child, surrounded by animated senior citizens, and was interested in their stories and wisdom and their discussions about their own memory. It is exciting to see how students learn to use memory in the classroom and while studying, how older adults view their memory ability, and the various ways we can study the fascinating and mysterious aspects of memory.

Who were/are your mentors or psychological influences?

I have so many! My family is both proud and mildly amused that I am a psychologist. I was encouraged to find out what I wanted to do with my life, without much pressure. I had very good mentors as a graduate student at Toronto, who gave me guidance, freedom, encouragement (often to learn by my own mistakes), and lots of great opportunities. As a post-doc at Washington University in St. Louis, I was able to collaborate with people who enriched my research perspectives and who were also good friends. At UCLA, I work with interesting and supportive colleagues and many interested and motivated graduate students. I would consider many of the older adults I interact with to be mentors in various capacities. I was very fortunate to interview John Wooden and Bob Newhart about memory and successful aging, which was very exciting.

To what do you attribute your success in the science?

Whatever success I have had can likely be attributed to hard work, good luck, perseverance, and patience, and the fortunate opportunity to pursue questions that I find important and interesting. I have also certainly benefited by working with many talented people. I believe that genuine enthusiasm and positivity play an essential role.

What’s your future research agenda?

In many ways it is nice to be recognized as a rising star at the “young” age of 35! In my other dream job (playing professional basketball), I would likely be near the end of a mediocre career. As for future research, I would like to better understand how memory and wisdom interact in old age and how children learn about their own memory. Why does my daughter remember lyrics to a song better than I do, and does she know why I don’t know them? Why can an older adult remember a specific grocery price but forget a recently used phone number, while a 97-year-old can recite a poem her or she learned as a child? I am also very interested in curiosity, expertise, poetry, humor, and music, and although I find those areas to be very challenging to research in the context of memory, they are all fascinating areas that can influence memory. I have also always been interested in how we process and remember numerical information (phone numbers, prices, baseball statistics, etc.) and would like to pursue this in greater detail. Serendipitous findings or observations sometimes lead to exciting new directions as well, so I always try to keep an open mind about future directions.

Any advice for even younger psychological scientists? What would you tell someone just now entering graduate school or getting their PhD?

If you can find something you are interested in, then go for it! I think it is important to read broadly and to ask good questions. I found Richard Feynman’s book The Pleasure of Finding Things Out very illuminating, as there really is a pleasure  associated with almost any type of scientific discovery. In fact, I still get excited about replicating a classic experiment and watching students learn about things like serial position effects! As for the entire graduate school process, I think it is important to know there will be many highs and lows, so be prepared for this and don’t be discouraged, because if you really enjoy what you do it doesn’t really feel like work anymore. It is also good to learn about what you don’t like or don’t want to pursue; I learned quite early on that I wasn’t well-suited to be a clinical psychologist. Also, there might also be times where you look back fondly on these exploratory years!

What publication you are most proud of or feel has been most important to your career?

Rhodes, M.G., & Castel, A.D. (2008). Memory predictions are influenced by perceptual information: Evidence for metacognitive illusions. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 137, 615–625.

I have been very fortunate to have excellent collaborators, and I have learned that I enjoy collaborating with people who ask interesting questions. The few papers on which I am the only author perhaps represent some independent ideas, but I have realized it is often more stimulating to work with insightful collaborators. In this study, we found that people’s predictions about how well they will remember something are often based on perceptual information that is in fact not diagnostic of later memory performance. Thus, people think that if a word is in BIG font size, it is more memorable (perhaps somewhat surprisingly, it isn’t). We had fun running many experiments to examine this in greater detail, and we are still continuing this line of research. This paper represents an exciting and productive collaboration with a good friend, and a surprising finding, which always keeps you thinking: What else don’t we know (but think we do)? It is also a finding that seems easy to communicate, has some interesting implications, and has also lead to other exciting studies.

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