A curious life: reflecting on a 50-year research career

Max Coltheart_FEATURE

With the New South Wales Seniors Festival encouraging us to ‘Grow Young’ this week, we speak to Emeritus Professor Max Coltheart to find out how he has continued to find inspiration over the course of an incredible 50-year research career.   


How has the research landscape changed over the course of your time at Macquarie?
When I arrived at Macquarie in 1987, the University was not at all noted for research; now it is, I’m glad to say. Within my field, interdisciplinary collaboration is now vastly more common than it was, thanks to the internet: I have published papers with people I have never met, which could not have happened in 1987.

I’ve also found that Macquarie is now especially good at supporting female scientists. Within my centre – the ARC Centre of Excellence in Cognition and its Disorders – about 50 per cent of the scientists are women, and that is true at every level of seniority up to and including Professor.

What have been the most significant developments in cognitive science over the course of your career?
The most powerful development has been the use of brain imaging to study cognitive processes. I’m a sceptic re whether this is a good thing or not.

What has been your greatest professional accomplishment as a researcher at Macquarie?
No question about this – the establishment of the Macquarie Centre for Cognitive Science (MACCS) in 2000, set up by my obtaining a nine-year grant from the Australian Research Council.

In 2010 the ARC announced a round of its Centres of Excellence scheme. By then I had retired, but participated as a Chief Investigator in our successful application for a much larger centre. The ARC Centre is funded to 2017 and has been shortlisted by the ARC for consideration for funding from 2017 to 2023.

How do you maintain a passion for your research after having worked in your field for so many years?
I dabble. Some of these things didn’t turn out to be so interesting, and so I abandoned them. Others turned out to be fascinating and challenging with many unanswered questions so I stuck with them – I’ve kept working on reading for 40 years and on delusional belief for 20.

With the benefit of hindsight, what is your best advice for someone who is just starting their research career?

  • Don’t choose a research question on the sole ground that it is trendy (such topics typically don’t stay trendy).
  • Don’t chose a research topic on the sole ground that it is very easy to work on (such topics won’t be any fun to work on).
  • Don’t choose a research topic on the sole ground that it will have real-world applications. Penicillin, X-rays, superconductivity are all are crucial for medical applications these days, but none were originally studied for that reason. Curiosity-driven research is what always precedes the discovery of such applications.
  • Do try to be wrong. If there’s no way of showing that your theory is wrong, then there’s also no way of showing that it is right.
  • Do find a research position where what research you do is up to you. But make sure it isn’t in a place where you will be intellectually isolated.
  • Do dabble.

What are your plans for the next five years?
In five years’ time I will be 82. In this period I hope to learn some new and interesting things about what causes delusional beliefs, about what the mental processes are that underlie skilled reading ability, and about how children’s difficulties in learning to read can be more effectively treated.  I also hope to begin doing research in some field that I currently know nothing about.

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