An interview with Dr. Karl Szpunar

Karl Szpunar has been an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago since 2015, and will be joining the Department of Psychology at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada in 2019.
An interview with Dr. Karl Szpunar

Please tell us about your research interests.

The human brain is always predicting. It makes predictions about how much force needs to be exerted when lifting a bottle of water; whether or not to accelerate through a yellow light at a busy intersection; whether there will be enough time in one evening to help make dinner, spend time with family, and revise a manuscript; and whether or not moving to a new city will be a good decision. These are just a few examples of the myriad instances in which the brain engages in prediction. Sometimes these predictions are made spontaneously and do not require much conscious effort, and other times the act of engaging in prediction can be effortful and time consuming. My research focuses on the role of memory in enabling the capacity to imagine and make predictions about the future.


What has your journey been to this point?

As an undergraduate at the University of Toronto at Mississauga, I fully intended on pursuing a career in psychiatry. That all changed in my junior year. I began working as a research assistant in the Music and Cognition Laboratory headed by Dr. Glenn Schellenberg. The experience was transformational. I quickly developed a strong interest in experimental research. My undergraduate thesis focused on the impact of repeated exposure on preferences and memory for music. It was during this time that my interests in human memory began to take root.

From Toronto, I moved onto Washington University in St. Louis (WashU) to work with Dr. Kathleen McDermott. Kathleen was, and continues to be, a wonderful mentor who patiently allowed me to come into my own as a researcher. When I first arrived at WashU the new game in town was applying principles of cognitive psychology to education, particularly in the context of the testing effect—the finding that retrieving information from memory can support long-term retention. Much of my early work focused on this topic, and to this day my laboratory carries out research that aims to improve attention and learning in everyday settings.

While we were in the midst of carrying out our research on learning and memory, Kathleen and I started working on a side project that ended up shaping much of my future. Two decades earlier, Endel Tulving had reported a peculiar case study of an individual with amnesia who was not only incapable of remembering their personal past but also unable to imagine their personal future. Our goal was to directly assess how personal memories and future thoughts were related to one another in the brains of neurotypical individuals. We discovered that personal memory and future thinking similarly engaged regions of the brain traditionally associated with memory retrieval. While this pattern of data has since been replicated across more than a dozen neuroimaging studies, it was rather striking at the time. Evidence was beginning to mount supporting the claim that memory enables the capacity to imagine the future.

At the same time that Kathleen and I were beginning to inquire into the relation between memory and future thinking, there were a number of research groups around the world doing just the same. Dan Schacter was leading the charge at Harvard University. After completing my graduate studies, I was fortunate to join Dan’s lab as a postdoctoral researcher. During my time in Dan’s lab, there were always three or four other postdoctoral researchers and two or three graduate students who were all thinking about the relations between memory, future thinking, and the brain, and each from their own unique perspective. It was like a think tank for those interested in memory and future thinking. I never had to look far for thought provoking conversation and inspiration, and the end result was some of the most productive years of my young academic career.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the influence of Endel Tulving on my intellectual development. At every stage of my career, as an undergraduate, graduate, and postdoc, I was fortunate to spend extended periods of time conversing with Endel about memory and its role in defining the human experience. I benefited greatly from these interactions, and I hope that one day my work lives up to the impact that he has had on my thinking.

Most recently, I was Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). I was fortunate to have met many wonderful friends, colleagues, and students during this time. My four talented graduate students made my time at UIC especially memorable. Together we have begun to carve out new and exciting directions for future thinking research. More than ever, I am excited about continuing to contribute to this quickly expanding field.

While in Chicago, my wife and I also welcomed our daughter into the world. This event was especially significant because it led us to more seriously consider our long-term plans. Over time we realized that raising our daughter close to family was an important part of our shared vision of the future. This summer, we are moving back to Toronto and I will begin a new chapter of my academic journey in the Department of Psychology at Ryerson University. Academia is a rather transient profession. It can be both exciting and challenging to move around so much, and also to watch those around you come and go. That being said, I am extremely excited to be joining an exceptional group of people and researchers at Ryerson, and eager to see how my thinking and interests develop as a result.


Can you speak to any challenges that you had to overcome?

I love my job. There is nothing else that I would rather do. I’ve learned that the secret to being a good researcher, much like the secret to being a good basketball player, actor, electrician, or any other profession is that you have to devote a lot of time to your craft. I think that the same goes for being a spouse, parent, friend, and any other role we play in society. Time is finite and so juggling these roles can be a challenge. My wife and I are constantly working on striking the right balance between finding fulfillment in our work, while making sure we devote as much time as possible to raising our daughter.


What advice would you give your younger self?

One of the easiest ways to disappoint someone is to give away what happens in a book, movie, or sporting event before they have had a chance to find out for themselves. That is not the advice. The point is that people derive less enjoyment from experience when they already know the outcome. You never know where your aspirations and relationships will take you. Embrace the uncertainty and enjoy the experience.


What are your predictions for your field in the near future?

Advances in neuroimaging, optogenetics, and various other emerging technologies will doubtlessly lead to a more refined understanding of how the human brain creates and uses memory. This work will have important implications for possibly remediating deficits of memory. It is truly an exciting time for memory research. At the same time, I am not sure that this valuable work will get us any closer to understanding why the brain creates and uses memory. In the long run, I suspect that why will end up being a more important question than how.

Photo credit: Jenny Fontaine

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