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David Meyer — this year’s Henry Russel lecturer as presented by University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel — dissected the process of thinking and discussed the importance of idea creation during his lecture at Rackham Amphitheatre on Monday.

Meyer, professor of mathematical psychology and cognitive science at the University, focused particularly on what makes an idea influential in society.

“One of our major missions is to have big ideas,” Meyer said.

Each year, a Henry Russel lecturer is chosen based on a person’s achievements in research, scholarship and/or creative endeavors, according to the Rackham website. Nominees are also supposed to display an outstanding record of teaching, mentoring and service to both the University and communities outside the University. The winner receives an award of $10,000. 

Meyer emphasized common questions in explaining ideas as a concept, such as what an idea actually is and how big ideas should be. In his lecture, titled “Toward the Biggest Idea of Them All: 50 Years of Advances in Mathematical Psychology and Cognitive Science,” Meyer specifically emphasized “big ideas,” which he said lead to dramatic change in psychology fields. 

“Universities should be idea factories,” he said. 

Another key to understanding and generating ideas is practicing unique thinking, as each individual has a unique perspective on how to approach challenging subjects, Meyer said. He cited chemist Marie Curie as an example, who he said thought differently from astrophycisist Neil deGrasse Tyson, though both were able to make successful contributions in physics. Physical and mental diversity within a population is responsible for such a diverse range of successful ideas, he added.

“No one format is always best for representing various ideas,” Meyer noted. “Instead, the best format depends on the person and the context.”

Ideas come in many forms, Meyer said, and three factors — connectionism, computation and control — are key to big ideas. Ultimately, Meyer said combining the big ideas of connectionism, computation and control resolve the challenge of interrelating science and the humanities, called consilience.

Schlissel presented Meyer with the Henry Russel Award at Monday’s event.

Through models, theories and experiments, Schlissel emphasized that Meyer has enhanced knowledge in the fields of cognition and mathematical psychology.

“His work spans the boundaries of psychology, mathematics, linguistics and computer science,” Schlissel said.

Four faculty members also received the 2016 Henry Russel award and were honored at the event. Awardees include Julia Adler-Milstein, assistant professor of Information, Clare Croft, assistant professor of Dance, Christopher Friese, assistant professor of Nursing and Jeremy Bassis, associate professor of atmospheric, oceanic and space sciences in the College of Engineering. The award is conferred to dinstinguished faculty who have demonstrated extraordinary accomplishments in their fields. 

Provost Martha Pollack presented these winners with their awards, highlighting their professional dedication and successes in research.

Following the lecture, LSA Dean Andrew Martin said among the things most important about it was celebrating the University’s faculty and their accomplishments.

“It’s also important to have talks like this that are really aspirational where our students can learn what our most distinguished faculty think are the horizons of knowledge going forward,” Martin said.

Martin said he was interested in many of the topics Meyer touched on throughout the lecture, particularly Meyer’s emphasis on the intersection between natural and social sciences and the humanities.

“(This) is something that many of us in LSA think about and need to continue thinking about going forward,” Martin said.

Neuroscience graduate student Sharena Rice said she is interested in many of the topics that Meyer planned on speaking about and was excited to hear his lecture.

“I’m interested in computational neuroscience and this is extremely relevant,” Rice said. “It’s cognition and cognitive neuroscience and math and being able to put this all together and having things at this intersection is really great for expanding one’s mind in terms of thinking about the mind. I want to learn more about the methods behind this and what kinds of things have arose over the last 50 years. Sometimes the history isn’t discussed in class.”


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