Academic journal article American Journal of Play

A Polymath at Play: An Interview with Margaret Boden

Academic journal article American Journal of Play

A Polymath at Play: An Interview with Margaret Boden

Article excerpt

Margaret Boden is Research Professor of Cognitive Science at the University of Sussex, where she was the founding dean of the university's School of Cognitive and Computing Sciences. Trained originally at the University of Cambridge and at Harvard University in medicine and the history of philosophy, she has since pursued and published in related fields such as psychology, social psychology, linguistics, neuroscience, cybernetics, control engineering, computer science, and artificial intelligence. A frequent interviewee on television and radio in the United Kingdom, she lectures widely in Europe, North and South America, and Asia. Boden is known best for two widely translated books, The Creative Mind: Myths and Mechanisms, where she draws on computational ideas to explore human intuition, and the two-volume history of cognitive science, Mind as Machine: A History of Cognitive Science, in which she investigates in a computational frame the range and latitude of consciousness itself. In this interview, Boden reflects on her diverse interests with special reference to the relationship of combinatory play to creativity and invention in science and technology, art and architecture, mathematics, philosophy, and literature. Key words: artificial intelligence; combinatory play; creativity; interdisciplinarity; invention; neuroaesthetics

American Journal of Play: How did you come by such far-flung interests-in medicine, psychology, philosophy, neuroscience, and artificial intelligence?

Margaret Boden: When I was still at school, even before the sixth form, I was fascinated by the human mind and how it worked, what happened when it went wrong in mental illness, and how it related to the brain and evo- lution. Because of those early interests, later on, when I decided to study medicine, I was going to focus on psychiatry. Of course I knew about philosophy, because I had discovered Bertrand Russell as a teenager and found myself so absorbed in his fascinating writings. I remember when I went up to Cambridge for my interview at Newnham College and saw all the noticeboards. One read "moral sciences," and I said to someone, "What are moral sciences?" And they replied, "Oh, that's philosophy." "You mean you can study philosophy at university?" I said.

I did the medical exams in two years instead of three, and I decided, just temporarily, and against everybody's advice, to study philosophy for my final year in Cambridge. I enjoyed it so much that I decided to stay for a fourth year to pursue it further. And I convinced Tommy's [St. Thomas's Hospital], which had offered me a clinical scholarship, to put it back for a year.

AJP: What happened to psychiatry?

Boden: When I first went up to Cambridge, I had intended to do psychology after medicine, but when I arrived and gate crashed some of the lectures, I found the course of study very, very rat oriented, which was not my interest at all. They had only a single course of lectures in clinical psychology, all of which I attended, but they clearly were not that interested in it. They were doing wonderful work on perception and vision, but it was very optics based and, again, that was of no particular interest to me. At that time, Cambridge was probably the best place in the world to do neurophysiology, which I found absolutely fascinating. But doing it for the whole of my third year would have meant sticking adrenaline into a moribund cat from nine to five, two days a week, and I did not want to do that.

That is why I decided to stick with philosophy and carry on with medi- cine and psychiatry later. But just a few weeks before I was due to take my philosophy finals and then move to Tommy's to do my clinical, I received a telegram on a Friday afternoon from my professor of philosophy saying, "Come to see me immediately." I went to see him, he offered me snuff, and I said, "No, thank you." Then he offered me sherry. I said, "Yes, please," and he said they were interviewing for an assistant lectureship in philosophy at the University of Birmingham on Tuesday and would I be interested. …

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