Tyler Alterman is an artist-turned-cognitive-scientist and the founder of The Think Tank—a mobile cognitive science laboratory geared towards inspiring the next generation of scientists by providing young minds with a firsthand // hands-on look into the scientific process. Tyler’s initiative has already garnered attention from the likes of WIRED and Nature, but what I found most interesting was the path that led him to science, and ultimately towards developing this exciting project.
How exactly did you dream up the idea for a cognitive science lab on wheels?
About six months ago, over the winter, my mother sent me this New York Times article about this artist named Kim Holleman, who created “Trailer Park.” Instead of being a trailer in a park, it was a park in a trailer—this trailer just went around New York City and people could go inside and sit on a bench and listen to the sounds of fauna and indulge in flora. I thought that was pretty cool, but then I thought: “Why can’t cognitive neuroscience have something like that?” So I went to my favorite coffee shop—Café Reggio—where I’m friends with the waitresses, and I told them my idea. They said “Okay… but it needs to have a big glowing brain on top.”
And so The Think Tank was born!
What is the model for The Think Tank project?
It’s partially modeled after the BioBus, which is another mobile lab that’s been running for the last seven years. We want to emulate their approach, which is to bring students aboard the bus and integrate biology lessons with whatever they’re currently learning in the curriculum. So we hope to do a little bit of that, but The Think Tank will mostly be similar to this amazing program called Lotto Lab, which is half an arts studio and half a public science lab. The founder, Beau Lotto, is a hard core perception researcher who’s recently teamed up with classrooms to guide kids through asking original questions in perception science. He then helps them in pursuing original experiments—running them + collecting the data—and finally writing them up in kids-speak with crayon diagrams. He even got one of these published in a serious biology journal—the kid’s work as is! I mean, he worked for a long time to find an outlet, but eventually he found a true, peer-reviewed journal to publish the kid’s work in, because it’s original work and because kids can do original work.
The Think Tank’s mission is to close the gender and race gap in science through experiential learning.” How do you aim to achieve this goal?
I hated science in high school because it wasn’t about asking original questions or exercising creativity. It was about passive intake. And it’s totally insidious because it gives you a picture of the world that is all mapped out—like there’s nothing new. It’s totally defeating the curiosity—this core part of science that’s just totally ignored. I wanted to be a scientist when I was a kid, and I probably would have continued that passion if I understood the way science actually works. But I ended up going into more creative disciplines because those were the ones that created more curiosity and exploration in my mind.
So The Think Tank’s mission is partly about cultivating curiosity. But also, more importantly, it’s about showing kids that they can do science. If you look up who scientists are, you’ll mostly see bearded old men—the data is there. If the brain is indeed a prediction machine and it runs off of expectations, there’s really just no Bayesian prior that I can become a scientist if I’m black or Latino or a woman. So what chances do you think you have of being a scientist unless you know you can actually do science?
But in low resource settings you’re not going to have neuroscience and psychology built into your curriculum. And it’s sad because these are the two subjects that everybody’s interested in. Everyone is fascinated by humans and it’s this ideal sort of gateway drug into the rest of science. But also in low resource settings, they don’t have the proper equipment to be teaching really good science. So the beauty of the truck is that it can go wherever the need is—low resources or high.
So you actually have an arts background, but ended up moving towards the sciences later in life despite your dissatisfaction with them in high school. What exactly sparked this transition?
I used to be a graphics and communications designer. But in class, my professors would say things like: “Use red if you want to attract attention” or “Use an edge near a point if you want to add tension.” They would prescribe all these arbitrary sounding rules that ended up just being true—or at least most of them. But then I would ask: “Why should it be that red is something that attracts attention or the edge near the point adds tension?” And they never really had answers.
So that’s when I started turning to the psychology literature to tell me why certain things influence humans more than other things. I started listening to RadioLab and became totally obsessed. And I would take these long walks through Central Park listening to social psychology lectures through UCLA on iTunesU—I listened to two entire classes over the course of one week… I know Central Park super well now!
It was then I realized that I had stopped picking up the book about typography, and instead was picking up the book about unconscious influences on human behavior. I knew then that there was no other route—I was hooked!