The Polythematic Approach of Dr. Max Coltheart

pic_coltheart_headDr. Max Coltheart has drawn together people and ideas to form an understanding of  thought and belief systems. He has done so with studies of visual perception, speech and language processes, computational modeling, clinical patients and their delusions, and a range of other fascinating phenomena. While Dr. Coltheart is Australian, his career has taken him around the world! He’s had notable appointments in Canada (University of Waterloo) and the U.K. (University of Reading and Birkbeck College, University of London) prior to his current appointment at Macquarie University in Sydney and with the Macquarie Centre for Cognitive Science, where he served as the founding director.

Dr. Coltheart introduces himself in this first excerpt:

In his childhood, young  Max and his family spent their lives in small, country towns around Australia in accompaniment to the jobs of his father.  Max’s father was a wireless technician in the Royal Australian Navy who later used that skill set to become a lighthouse operator to the shores of southeastern Australia.

Dr. Coltheart recalls his parents and some of his early education in this next excerpt:

There are a few ideas I think it important to emphasize from his recollections. Neither of Max’s parents completed high school and yet both Max and his sister went on to become professors — earning their doctorates in Psychology and History, respectively. Why this career path? Why risk being a “tall poppy” from a rural community and to contradict some of the social context in which most young people would opt to stay in their respective communities and not go off to different towns for higher education? As Dr. Coltheart put it to me, often the students he encounters at Macquarie University have  grown up in North Ryde (the suburb immediately surrounding Macquarie). Rarely would students deem it appropriate to  venture across the bay from the other side of Sydney to attend a university — much less to travel to university from other cities and towns.  There is a strong social tradition of staying local, and living with one’s family while at Uni.

Dr. Coltheart identified a few things that may have enabled his choice to attend the University of Sydney, and to leave the small community that was home to his family: the excellent financial support he gained from a scholarship, his strong motivation to become a writer, and a somewhat iconoclastic yearning to find his independence. He also notes, that while being an intellectual may have been unusual for the blue collar Bega High School families (in the tiny, rural town of Bega, New South Wales, Australia), going to Uni was the social norm at his previous high school in Canberra. I also have a suspicion that the moniker he was bestowed from his high school mates, “Professor,” primed him to consider this possible future.  In any case, young Max had dreams of being the great Australian novelist and spending his days writing in the south of France. For this goal he needed to attend university and he struck out somewhat independently to do his undergraduate degree at the University of Sydney.

There is another interesting aside from Max’s years as a university student. From 1951 until 1959 Australian men who came of age were conscripted and required to report for military training followed by some years of reserve duty. Max was born in 1939 and turned 18 in 1958. One year prior to the end of this requirement. After his first year at University of Sydney, Max was conscripted and had to train for the Australian Defense Force and report thereafter as a reservist.

Dr. Coltheart discusses his military service in this excerpt:

So there it was: Max served his country, met a future notable Australian (writer, broadcaster, and media personality Clive James), and, just as quickly, ended that chapter in his life. He returned to his work as a student and completed a double major in Psychology and Philosophy from the University of Sydney. Now, as so clearly demonstrated then, Dr. Coltheart’s penchant for iconoclasm seems to have persisted even if the beard discussed in the excerpt above has not.  In his final year as an undergrad his scholarship had lapsed (another interesting side story for another time) and Max supported himself by working as a computer programmer for his university in the early 1960’s. That experience with computing and machine language coding proved somewhat fortuitous as the knowledge from that would facilitate his future involvement with Psychology’s hey-day of cognitive computationalism during the late 1980’s-early 1990’s.

Max continued in his education and successfully applied for a graduate school scholarship to study Psychology at the University of Sydney. He describes his experience as a graduate student, and some of his early research, in the following excerpt:

I’ve spoken with a few Aussies who have described this approach to graduate education and its reliance on self-motivation, direct lab involvement, and minimal coursework. For Max, at least initially, that freedom to apply himself, or not, largely defaulted to the latter. There was a chance to play tournaments of contract bridge, to spend time with new friends, and abundant interesting things to do without meeting up with his mentor and pursuing those experiments that might have formed his thesis. Nonetheless, as the end of his scholarship neared, Max was gifted two important opportunities: a chance to teach and engage deeply with Psychology on the job as an instructor, and a chance to do visual psychophyics research with Prof. Ross Henry Day. It may also be notable that Max had taken psychophysical courses as an undergrad. He had already been involved in some labs and now had an invitation to pursue this particular research more directly. After three years on scholarship and with minimal  advancement on his PhD, but now with a new lectureship and much less time, Max threw himself into the work. He devoted intensive hours to teaching courses in the day and to running his experiments at night.

He described that early research in the excerpt above and I need to draw attention to its novelty even now.  Psychophysics is most often attributed to the founding work of Hermann Helmholtz who studied the limits and capacities of our visual  and auditory systems in the late 19th century.  What Dr. Coltheart did was to use psychophysical paradigms (testing the thresholds and sensory apprehension of vision) and distort those tests with a change in a participant’s perspective and knowledge. The visual task was held constant, but what the person was told about the object or what he physically held in his hands to represent the object would vary. That knowledge — from a description, from a sense of touch — was integrated with the visual sensation and changed that person’s phenomenology. The disk would appear larger or smaller because of this information. It’s a small effect, but it says a lot. I love effects like these because it demonstrates that even something as seemingly simple and obvious as the perception of an object’s size, can be fluid and reconstructed under certain circumstances. It shows that what we see isn’t just in our eyes, but also in our hands and bodies. It shows how even simple visual images can change based on what we believe to be true (even if that information is inaccurate). And, as a critical take-away from this conversation, it show’s Dr. Coltheart’s early interest in the integration of cognitive systems. Not just what each subsystem could do, but how systems work together, why they work together, and what all that integration means for thought and behavior.

Moreover, these doctoral studies with Prof. Day led the newly bestowed Dr. Coltheart to his second professional academic job as a lecturer (and soon a senior lecturer) at Monash University (Melbourne, Australia) from 1967-69.

Melbourne is beautiful, but the world beckoned. The teen who imagined his life as a novelist living in the south of France was ready to venture out and sought new opportunities in Europe and North America. In 1969 Dr. Coltheart accepted a new position and moved to the University of Waterloo, about 100 km west of Toronto, Canada. The new position put him in contact with new colleagues and new paradigms. Dr.  Coltheart moved from studying low-level psychophysics and basic judgments of size and distance to visual letter recognition and the building blocks of reading. He enjoyed that position, but still, Europe called to him. In 1972 Dr. Coltheart accepted a new position at the University of Reading, west of London, and a train ride from Oxford and Cambridge. Three years later, he moved to Birkbeck College at the University of London, where he was a Professor of Psychology until 1987, and at the heart of a dynamic academically-imbued city. In this position Dr. Coltheart was able to teach his classes in the evening and, during the day, catch lectures from the many rising cognitive scientists, psycholinguists, and related related clinicians at the esteemed universities and institutions in London and Cambridge.

In this excerpt, Dr. Coltheart describes some of his experience and the new research he became involved with during that time:

Acquired dyslexia refers specifically to when some sort of neural injury produces a deficit in reading. Over more than a dozen years with the Universities of London and Reading, Dr. Coltheart worked with cases of acquired dyslexia, children with developmental dyslexia, and pored over cases reviewing the patterns and specific impacts of dyslexia. He deeply engaged with colleagues in intellectual intercourse about the meaning of these cases and the development of theory to understand them. During this time Dr. Coltheart and colleagues worked with patients and each other to determine the functions of the language  system and how they might be better understood through the lens of reading disorders.

To illustrate this idea, here is an amazing story of one patient:

Shot in the head. Left for days in the heat. Patient recovers to eventually regain verbal abilities and is capable of having a normal conversation. He can’t identify even a single letter seeing it on the page, BUT he can repeat a word if spoken and he can determine if that letter is oriented correctly. Weird. And critical for our understanding of what the mind is doing in the processing of language.

In the career of Dr. Coltheart, the atypical and very odd started to become a central avenue of study. He returned to Sydney in 1987 and joined the Psychology department at Macquarie University. There is a lot to his career at Macquarie where he chaired the department and later founded the Centre for Cognitive Science. There are some important aspects of Dr. Coltheart’s life in those changes, but in terms of ideas and theory building an important connection was formed with a (then) student at Macquarie: Robyn Langdon. Now Dr. Langdon.

Dr. Langdon was interested in studying patients with schizophrenia for which Dr. Coltheart had zero background. But there were interesting cases and things to be learned from schizophrenia’s affects on cognition. So they struck a deal: Langdon would teach Coltheart about schizophrenia and he would teach her cognition, cognitive neuropsychology, and mentor her thesis. Working with Dr. Langdon and the delusions systemically experienced by many suffering from schizophrenia got Dr. Coltheart to consider what all this might mean for belief and higher level cognitive systems?

From schizophrenia Dr. Coltheart started to evaluate much more rare and unusual monothematic delusions: Capgras syndrome wherein a person believes everyone in their life was replaced by an imposter who looks the same,  acts the same, but is not the same;  Cotard delusion wherein a person believes themself to be dead (albeit persisting); Mirrored self-misidentification wherein a person believes that the reflection in the mirror is actually somebody else — some stranger lingering in the same room; Fregoli delusion wherein a person believes that everyone they meet is, in fact, the same person but wearing different disguises. There are others, but these are some of the monothematic delusions that occur. And what is a monothematic delusion? It is that particular form of delusion wherein a person experiences a single, recurring theme. They may occur following a neural injury, or as a symptom of a disorder like schizophrenia or Alzheimers. Given the infinite possible things that could occur in delusions it is a mystery why these specific ones occur (i.e., these are common delusions among the rare subset of people who suffer monothematic delusions) and why those who suffer these delusions just have this one odd belief but otherwise do not have other delusional beliefs.

In this excerpt Dr. Coltheart discusses his start with monothematic delusional patients:

Paralleling his experience with Dr. Langford, Dr. Coltheart mentored Nora Breen (now Dr. Breen). She would teach him about delusions and he would mentor her and teach her cognitive neuropsychology.  The cases were fascinating and demonstrated critical ideas about belief: why did they form and how were they organized such that these delusions emerged?

In the introduction, Dr. Coltheart clarified his current approach as a theoretician who navigates between challenging high-level delusion cases to more mechanistic approaches to reading disorders. There is much more to Dr. Coltheart, and many more of his stories and reflections to share. I look forward to doing just that when the book comes out!

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

Coltheart, M., Besner, D., Jonasson, J. T., & Davelaar, E. (1979). Phonological encoding in the lexical decision taskThe Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology31(3), 489-507.

Coltheart, M. (1980). Iconic memory and visible persistencePerception & Psychophysics27(3), 183-228.

Coltheart, M. (1981). Disorders of reading and their implications for models of normal readingVisible Language15(3), 245-286.

Coltheart, M. (1981). The MRC psycholinguistic databaseThe Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology33(4), 497-505.

Coltheart, M. (1996). Phonological dyslexia: Past and future issuesCognitive Neuropsychology, 13(6), 749-762.

Coltheart, M. (1999). Modularity and cognition. Trends in Cognitive Sciences3(3), 115-120.

Coltheart, M. (2000). Deep dyslexia is right-hemisphere readingBrain and Language71(2), 299-309.

Coltheart, M. (2004). Brain imaging, connectionism, and cognitive neuropsychologyCognitive Neuropsychology21(1), 21-25.

Coltheart, M. (2004). Are there lexicons?. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology Section A57(7), 1153-1172.

Coltheart, M. (2007). The 33rd Sir Frederick Bartlett lecture cognitive neuropsychiatry and delusional beliefThe Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology60(8), 1041-1062.

Coltheart, M. (2010). The neuropsychology of delusionsAnnals of the New York Academy of Sciences1191(1), 16-26.

Coltheart, M., Curtis, B., Atkins, P., & Haller, M. (1993). Models of reading aloud: Dual-route and parallel-distributed-processing approachesPsychological Review100(4), 589-608.

Coltheart, M., Hull, E., & Slater, D. (1975). Sex differences in imagery and readingNature253(5491), 438-440.

Coltheart, M., & Langdon, R. (1998). Autism, modularity and levels of explanation in cognitive scienceMind & Language13(1), 138-152.

Coltheart, M., Langdon, R., & McKay, R. (2007). Schizophrenia and monothematic delusions. Schizophrenia Bulletin33(3), 642-647.

Coltheart, M., Langdon, R., & McKay, R. (2011). Delusional belief. Annual Review of Psychology62, 271-298.

Coltheart, M., Masterson, J., Byng, S., Prior, M., & Riddoch, J. (1983). Surface dyslexia. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology35(3), 469-495.

Coltheart, M., Menzies, P., & Sutton, J. (2010). Abductive inference and delusional belief. Cognitive Neuropsychiatry15(1-3), 261-287.

Coltheart, M., & Rastle, K. (1994). Serial processing in reading aloud: Evidence for dual-route models of readingJournal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance20(6), 1197-1213.

Coltheart, M., Rastle, K., Perry, C., Langdon, R., & Ziegler, J. (2001). DRC: A dual route cascaded model of visual word recognition and reading aloudPsychological Review108(1), 204-256.

Castles, A., & Coltheart, M. (1993). Varieties of developmental dyslexiaCognition47(2), 149-180.

Langdon, R., & Coltheart, M. (1999). Mentalising, schizotypy, and schizophreniaCognition71(1), 43-71.

Peretz, I., & Coltheart, M. (2003). Modularity of music processingNature Neuroscience6(7), 688-691.

Riddoch, M. J., Humphreys, G. W., Coltheart, M., & Funnell, E. (1988). Semantic systems or system? Neuropsychological evidence re-examinedCognitive Neuropsychology5(1), 3-25.

Turner, M., & Coltheart, M. (2010). Confabulation and delusion: A common monitoring frameworkCognitive Neuropsychiatry15(1-3), 346-376.


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