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An Interview with Professor Jonathan Schooler (Part One)


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2017/06/01


An interview with Professor Jonathan Schooler. He discusses: family background; influence on development; family involvement in psychology; interests and in particular brain science; and the University of California, Santa Barbara and tasks and responsibilities.

Keywords: brain science, Jonathan Schooler, mindfulness, psychology.

An Interview with Professor Jonathan Schooler: Professor, Psychological and Brain Sciences, University of California, Santa Barbara; Director, The Center for Mindfulness and Human Potential (Part One)[1],[2]

*Footnotes in & after the interview, & citation style listing after the interview.*

*This interview has been edited for clarity and readability.*

1. Scott Douglas Jacobsen: To preface the conversation, you authored over 200 academic papers. Too much to cover here. Nonetheless, the conversation can develop with the central aspects of the theses. In terms of geography, culture, and language, where does your family background reside?

Professor Jonathan Schooler: My family background is Eastern European, Jewish. My mother’s family is from Poland. My father’s family is from Ukraine. My parents grew up in New York city. I grew up in Washington, D.C.

2. Jacobsen: Following from that, naturally, how did this influence development?

Schooler: Another important thing I should mention. [Laughing] Almost everyone in my family for generations are psychologists. From my grandmother’s perspective, she wasn’t a psychologist, but she was a special education teacher. She had two brothers. One of whom became a psychologist and was a professor at NYU. Then she had two children. Both became psychologists. My father married Nina Schooler. She is also a psychologist. They had two kids, myself and my brother. He was a psychologist.

I am a psychologist. Myriam, my father’s sister, married Ivan, also a psychologist. They had two children. One of whom became a psychologist. The great uncle had a grandson, who got his PhD at the University at Pittsburgh – and I served on his committee – and is also a psychologist. My oldest son is a graduate student at UC Santa Cruz. He also is a psychologist. My daughter is still in college. She is trying to fight her fate, but time will tell. There must be something in the culture that I grew up influenced my career choice. [Laughing]

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Schooler: Genetics probably as well.

3. Jacobsen: I am stunned by that. That’s great. Leading into your own life with that broad background, with psychology behind and ahead of you, what about pivotal moments and major influences in major points of life up to and including undergraduate studies? 

Schooler: That’s a challenging question. I would say that one of the most important things is a certain kind of attitude that my parents always had with me. It was one of being on an equal playing field in some really fundamental way. It is interesting. I called my parents by their first names rather than mom and dad. In fact, I have my kids call me mom and dad. So, I’m not sure I would necessarily advocate it. It would influence me. That is, we are all on the same playing field and to appreciate that everyone is really there. I think that influenced me in the way that, I hope, I interact with people and ideas.

In the sense of giving them a chance and expecting possibilities from them, and so I feel like that is a big influence on the way that I approach things, it has carried on to this day in the way that I try to respect the differences of perspective that show up in the fields that I am involved in, time and time again. It doesn’t mean that they aren’t reasonable if you don’t see the topic the same way. I have managed to find a middle ground and have discussions with people on both sides of the debate, who often had hard times talking with one another.

So, it came from an experience of respect within my family, also with my kids. Other important things are my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. K. She talked, not like a lot of adults at you, with me. It is the same thing of acknowledging and respecting that someone is there like you on the other side. Then in 6th grade, I had a teacher named Mrs. Gibson who asked us to think about utopia and ask what we wanted in a country to create a country. It showed things in a more abstract way than I thought before.

In senior year, I took a course by a professor named Michael Kersberg at Georgetown University. It was on power. We read all of these books on power and how power influenced them. Another thing that was absolutely one of the most pivotal things, I’d say, is when I was 14 my father gave me a copy of the book by Alan Watts in which he introduced Hindu and Buddhist thought, with the idea that the university is playing hide-and-seek with itself. That there was a certain playfulness to the world, and the yin and yang to the world. A bunch of different perspectives on reality.

Also, Deb Herman, my mentor got me thinking about memory and how memory fits into our everyday experiences, and reflecting on phenomenal experiences and, of course, my graduate mentor, Elizabeth Loftus, who taught me how to challenge and take on the establishment if you have disagreement with it. That is, courage is an important part of science, and then the elegance with which she carried out her research and breaking her problems down into answerable questions. Now, that brings to me to my professional career.

4. Jacobsen: There’s two questions associated a tiny bit before that. You mentioned the family involvement in psychology, one after the other, and the K through college influences, also the particular moments of interest in psychology. What brain science in particular? When did brain science become a specialty interest?

Schooler: I would say that that has been an ever-increasing appreciation, but I didn’t come into it from a brain science perspective. I really came in from a psychology perspective, and what has become increasingly career is looking at the brain can help to inform my interest in any of the basic psychological questions. But I must say, though I have done quite a bit of it myself, it is more challenging than is reported – to extract meaningful, deep, new understandings about psychological processes from brain processes.

There are definitely people who do that, who accomplish that, but when you really look closely at a lot of research. It is not obvious how it actually informs our basic understanding. If informs our understanding of where the basic understanding of the brain, but doesn’t necessarily inform our understanding of the process. I am more interested in the process.

5. Jacobsen: You are a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. You teach courses in mindfulness, cognitive psychology, memory, and consciousness. As a primer for all of that, what tasks and responsibilities come with this position?

Schooler: [Laughing] A great many, the most important ones are the hardest to put into words. Obviously, there are a lot of basic responsibilities to do with teaching, supervising students and participating in committees, travel, meeting people, having endless, endless meetings. I have collaborators all over the world. So, I am constantly meeting with people and corresponding with these people and trying to keep track of all of the projects. That does take a large portion of every day, but, really, it is the generation of the ideas and the pursuit of the bigger vision that is a major challenge of my career.

What I try to do as best I can is to delegate and empower and help, and it is really great when it works, with the generation of ideas and the discussion of their execution, and to help others to carry it out, and to be there on the other side of the write-up and the spin, my students ask for Schooler’s spin. My students and postdocs refer to “Schooler’s spin.” many of the titles of my papers, if you peruse them, have a quality to them, and that is not by accident.

6. Jacobsen: In brief, what do the top topics include for students, whether mindfulness, cognitive psychology, or consciousness?

Schooler: Consciousness is one of my favourite themes. It is covered in one of the many classes that I teach. Typically, from a combination of cognitive and social influence, there is a peculiar pecking order in psychology, where fields attend to their higher level. The level that is higher in the hierarchy rather than the lower ones, the ones lower in the pecking order. For example, cognitive psychologists have been paying very close attention to neuroscience. Neuroscientists look at the chemistry, chemists look at physics. I guess, we tend to look less at the field below them.

Neuroscientists tend not to look at the cognitive psychologists. They do now, some, but it doesn’t do the cross-talk as much. In social psychology, in social cognition, they pay a lot of attention to cognitive psychology, but cognitive psychology tended to not pay as much attention to social psychology. I have gained from that. I think there are some low-hanging fruit, where there are some amazing insights in social psychology.

Although, I characterize it as a hierarchy. I think many of the greatest ideas from the mind have come from that field. So, with respect to mindfulness, that has been great fun for me because it allows you to integrate ideas, the really fundamental ideas from different fields such as contemplative studies, and social psychology, cognitive psychology, and neuroscience. All of this contribute to the idea that when people deliberately tend to their experience in a non-judgmental way and make a practice of honing their attention, and sharpening it in the present, that that has really remarkable repercussions throughout their lives in many ways.

That’s an exciting topic. It is very timely. There is an increasing amount of research. it is exciting because it ties together ancient traditions and modern science. it shows there’s great value to perennial wisdom. With respect to cognitive science, I am interested in how we construct reality, our memories, our perceptual systems, all conspire to produce a construction, which corresponds in some general to physical reality – but is a projection of it in our own minds.

I try to illustrate this throughout. We are dealing with projections of reality rather than real reality. With memory, it is very much the same idea. It is the constructive nature of reality. This is really what we are really doing We are creating meaning and narratives from everything around it. Again, it has a correspondence to what happened in the real world. It is dynamic, selective, and hold on to some facts that serve it. It is motivated. We remember things to suit our agendas in some fundamental ways.

Appendix I: Footnotes

[1] Professor, Psychological and Brain Sciences, University of California, Santa Barbara; Director, The Center for Mindfulness and Human Potential.

[2] Individual Publication Date: June 1, 2017 at; Full Issue Publication Date: September 1, 2017 at


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


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