Dr. Morton Ann Gernsbacher MacGyver’s her Way


Dr. Morton Ann Gernsbacher met with me at the airport on a Saturday evening. She was just returning from a visit to one university and looking at a heavy week of activities in the week to come. Despite the hectic schedule and the constant demands on her time, she wanted to be a part of this project because she really, really appreciates the basic humanity of people. In the weeks leading up to our meeting, she lavished in the opportunity for a better understanding of the amazing people with whom she has collaborated, and was gracious in offering the same from her own life.  She wants to better know these wonderful people in Psychology (and outside of Psychology, of course), and is genuinely committed to being candid and earnest in her own expressions — just read her presidential letters in APS!

In this conversation, in her publications, and in her talks, Dr. Gernsbacher is kind of MacGyver-ish. For the unfamiliar, MacGyver is a TV show in which a resourceful guy (MacGyver) regularly seems to finds himself in a tough situation and with limited resources. Using an encyclopedic knowledge of everything from engineering to behavioral science (in one episode he jury-rigged a lie detector), relying on the people around him, using his wits, and with a whole lot of grit and spit, the episodes are resolved when MacGyver hacks together a solution. Most of the time that solution averts a crisis and leaves all of the survivors feeling a sense of community and gratitude for having successfully overcome said crisis. Gernsbacher is MacGyver. She tackles big questions and directly faces off against challenging issues. She persists, hacks, and generally MacGyver’s her way to successful resolutions! Over and over when I asked about how she did this study, or how she successfully led that program, she’d MacGyver’ed the solution.

Dr. Gernsbacher has been a dynamic and powerful voice in Psychology and it is a pleasure to get to share some of her stories and thoughts with you. Whatever I share with you in this brief format, know that there is a lot more to come: she had so many engaging stories!

Because we met at an airport somewhere near her home and position with the University of Wisconsin – Madison, I’ll beg your patience regarding the added background noise in these recordings. Or if you like muzak, perhaps you’ll find the background audio more lively!

Here, Dr. Gernsbacher introduces herself:

Her research is designed to understand broad range of issues in language and learning. She has supported the neurodiversity community with her research and leadership. She has committed herself to mentoring and supporting women in science. She has been majorly involved in serving and leading a gamut of organizations in Psychology from national committees with APA, to federal granting agencies, to serving as the APS president. Dr. Gernsbacher has been at the forefront leading Psychology in every aspect of her career: high-powered researcher, notable and intensive service contributor, and dedicated teacher, from classroom to theories of pedagogical practice.

This whole Macgyvering her way through life started early. Dr. Gernsbacher’s father was a somewhat cantankerous, brilliant, and respected architect in the DFW (i.e., greater area of Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas). He built some spectacular homes that remain prized in the Dallas! This wasn’t easy: he did so after earning his architect’s license with no college education. He committed himself to building creative and interesting homes, which meant that he did not have an interest in the kinds of ticky-tacky, pre-fab housing developments that were booming around the DFW in the 1960’s until… (did that ever stop?). That also means, the Gernsbacher’s often had to struggle to make ends meet. Young Morton and her siblings were blessed with loving parents who valued education, and who committed to keeping their children in the top school districts in Dallas, but they did so without having the expansive piggy bank to make that easy.  As a child Morton adjusted, she found a way. She MacGyvered.

Here are two excerpts from Dr. Gernsbacher. In this first one, she describes some of that early financial struggle.

In this second one, she describes that critical capacity to find a great solution through…sewing!

She made all of her own clothes! This wasn’t Laura Ingalls Wilder out on the rural prairie, this was Morton Ann Gernsbacher in urban Dallas during the 1970’s and ’80’s.   Her neighbors taught her to sew and (if we keep rolling with fun media references) like Molly Ringwald’s character Andie in Pretty in Pink, she made her own clothes! Actually it goes way beyond that film.  Morton was making almost everything she wore back then, not just some gorgeous prom dress for an emotional highlight near the end of high school. Moreover, the process of patterning, building, stitching, and problem-solving as a seamstress, translated directly to her success as a cognitive scientist.  In her not-quite-a-John-Hughes-film life, Morton had the personality orientation to envision and make clothes so that she might fit in with the wealthier kids at school — often working tirelessly through late nights to create them.  She later applied that approach to designing and building experiments. She needed to tinker tirelessly with the creation of appropriate computer programs. These skills and her work programming were critical for collecting, collating, and analyzing data in her emerging science career. She built, and MacGyvered, and hacked , and sewed up computer code and used that to forge success on the ever-expanding landscape of scientific tools.

Alright, so Dr. Gernsbacher had the mettle and the capacity to MacGyver her way to success, but why Psychology? Well, that’s complicated. If only there were some awesome training montage music to gloss over a million small, but critical, influences along the way.  Her family was committed to education, her high school was committed to education, and Morton dove into college where she excelled at…English and Spanish. Great topics, but not Psychology. She was a first generation college student, making her own clothes, and preparing for a career in education/high school teaching because, well, I’ll let her tell you.

And she becomes a teacher. A high school teacher in English and Spanish, serving the DFW, doing the very challenging, and very critical work that teachers must do. During this time she is working with students from freshman to seniors and is intrigued with the amount of change. Okay, our teacher, Miss Gernsbacher, is curious and decides to try something:

Not psychology, but Human Development. That was her educational goal and it happened to be taught by Dr. Jim Bartlett, who happened to teach this one and only night class, just this one semester, because he happened to want to impress the dean before going up for tenure, and he happened to run a research lab, and now <cue montage musicMorton becomes teacher by day, researcher by night, and begins her descent into the depths of experimental psychology.

With Dr. Bartlett’s encouragement at her back, Morton successfully applies and sets off into a doctoral program. I’ll gloss over some whacky bit of happenstance that veered her from working issues on adult development and aging to working on psycholinguistics with Dr. Donald Foss, but set off working with Dr. Foss she does.

She describes how she got started in that doctoral research:

How cool is that!!!??! She replicates this recent work from Dr. Foss and pushes it into mind-expanding new areas of cognitive processing! As psychology heads into the second wave of its major replication-focused movement (i.e., Replication Science Part II: The Replicationing — okay no one calls it that yet but me. But please use this #TheReplicationing, let’s make it a thing!). While Dr. Gernsbacher is active in the replication movement today, she started her career by directly experiencing the value of replication. Not just to redo something, but to re-envision the science and to use that vision to drive our understanding forward! That collaboration with Dr. Foss at the start of her research career was a beautiful vehicle to learn the practices of science. But it was an even more beautiful moment scientifically: to evaluate what was really there (cognitively speaking) and to understand how the new data could make the previous research better. It’s kind of what this is all about, right? Science that builds on itself and helps the field to meaningfully progress? #TheReplicationing

As I mentioned early, there is so much to tell. There is a fantastic, just unbelievable, story from Dr. Gernsbacher about how she got her first job at the University of Oregon in 1983. There are fun and quirky tidbits from the early development of her career. And the Sylvia Beach research conference that she MacGyvered together to introduce wide flung aspects of psycholinguistics to each other — quite literally make strange bedfellows of those subdisciplines against the dramatic Oregon coastline.  But, because I really want to give you insight into her research,  I need share with you the following excerpt pertaining to that. Dr. Gernsbacher has had a kind of creative knack throughout her career of drawing on the available resources, the community of colleagues, her wit, and MacGyvering together a successful resolution. She did that with phoneme monitoring at the start of her career, later with discourse processes and how people structure together concepts in extended sets of sentences and pictures. Later in her career, starting in the early 1990’s, she started on a few line of research looking at the perception and processing of the emotional states of characters within discourse.

In this excerpt, Dr. Gernsbacher describes the origins and early development of her research with the character’s emotional states in  discourse:

I love her description in this excerpt for a lot of reasons! It’s got the excitement of a new line of research. The specific and very difficult challenges of trying to bring neuroimaging to bear on cognitive research. That challenge is a bit technical: trial order, counterbalancing, sample size, etc. Moreover, it is the challenge of someone with a strong methodological background in Psychology trying to work with new colleagues, and totally different backgrounds, to find common ground in creating effective science. It is a struggle of resources relative to aims. It is how science happens and how Dr. Gernsbacher finds a way. She MacGyvers.

Needless to say, her research keeps on keeping on. Gaining steam as influences ranging from the birth of her son (and his own amazing story) to an increasingly public-focused Dr. Gernsbacher takes to being president of APA ‘s Division 3 (Experimental & Cognitive Science) in 2001, to being president of APS in 2005.

Because of her tremendous and continuing devotion to leadership and service in the organizations that currently define and help forge Psychology’s future, I want to leave you with one final excerpt. Here Dr. Gernsbacher discusses why she believes she got so involved in serving the field.

Okay, I said that was the last excerpt, and the description she gives of her mom is so touching from that clip! But here is actually the last one — a final thought from Rod Serling to Morton Ann Gernsbacher to you…

Here are some of the wonderful publications from Dr. Gernsbacher:

Gernsbacher, M. A. (1984). Resolving 20 years of inconsistent interactions between lexical familiarity and orthography, concreteness, and polysemyJournal of experimental psychology: General113(2), 256-281.

Gernsbacher, M. A. (1985). Surface information loss in comprehension. Cognitive Psychology17(3), 324-363.

Gernsbacher, M. A. (1993). Less skilled readers have less efficient suppression mechanismsPsychological Science, 4(5), 294-298.

Gernsbacher, M. A. (1997). Two decades of structure buildingDiscourse Processes23(3), 265-304.

Gernsbacher, M. (2010). Stigma from psychological science: Group differences, not deficits-introduction to stigma special sectionPerspectives on Psychological Science5(6), 687-713.

Gernsbacher, M. A. (2013). Language comprehension as structure building. New York, NY: Psychology Press.

Gernsbacher, M. A., Dawson, M., & Hill Goldsmith, H. (2005). Three reasons not to believe in an autism epidemicCurrent Directions in Psychological Science14(2), 55-58.

Gernsbacher, M. A., & Faust, M. E. (1991). The mechanism of suppression: a component of general comprehension skillJournal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition17(2), 245-262.

Gernsbacher, M. A., Goldsmith, H. H., & Robertson, R. R. (1992). Do readers mentally represent characters’ emotional states?Cognition & Emotion6(2), 89-111.

Gernsbacher, M. A., & Hargreaves, D. J. (1988). Accessing sentence participants: The advantage of first mentionJournal of Memory and Language27(6), 699-717.

Gernsbacher, M. A., Hargreaves, D. J., & Beeman, M. (1989). Building and accessing clausal representations: The advantage of first mention versus the advantage of clause recencyJournal of Memory and Language28(6), 735-755.

Gernsbacher, M. A., & Kaschak, M. P. (2003). Neuroimaging studies of language production and comprehensionAnnual Review of Psychology54(1), 91-114.

Gernsbacher, M. A., Keysar, B., Robertson, R. R., & Werner, N. K. (2001). The role of suppression and enhancement in understanding metaphorsJournal of Memory and Language45(3), 433-450.

Gernsbacher, M. A. E., Pew, R. W., Hough, L. M., & Pomerantz, J. R. (2011). Psychology and the real world: Essays illustrating fundamental contributions to society. New York, NY: Worth Publishers.

Gernsbacher, M. A., & Pripas-Kapit, S. R. (2012). Who’s missing the point? A commentary on claims that autistic persons have a specific deficit in figurative language comprehension. Metaphor and Symbol27(1), 93-105.

Gernsbacher, M. A., Varner, K. R., & Faust, M. E. (1990). Investigating differences in general comprehension skillJournal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition16(3), 430-445.

Dawson, M., Soulières, I., Ann Gernsbacher, M., & Mottron, L. (2007). The level and nature of autistic intelligencePsychological Science18(8), 657-662.


(Note* Dr. Gernsbacher looks on during a classic shot from Rod Serling’s Eye of the Beholder episode of The Twilight Zone).

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