Side Note: Australia and New Zealand Highlights


Really good decisions tend to “good” because they are the summative outcome of multiple determining factors. Hence when considering what to do for a sabbatical project, I tried to craft something that would incorporate multiple interests and that weigh the real and probabilistic consequences of those choices to determine the best approach.

Having said that, the cognitive psychologist in me knows that there are a vast number of subconscious factors affecting my decisions of which I do not control. Maybe noted neuroscientist Ben Libet is accurate and my decisions have all occurred prior to the engagement of my free will. Maybe all I am ever doing is self-justifying my behaviors when I believe I’ve made a choice. Certainly, the case studies beautifully documented by Drs. Mike Corballis, Max Coltheart, Gordon Bower, and so many others over the years, would seem to suggest our incredible capacity both for unawareness of our personal influences, and for fabricating reasonable stories to justify our own actions/decisions. Companies would not spend billions of dollars a year to advertise if those ads were not successful in influencing people’s choices and “free” will. All that aside, I maintain now (as I have done for many years since getting interested in consciousness) that I must continue to act as if I am the master of my decisions and to endeavor to make the best ones I can. Even if that belief is false.

Sometimes embracing the best illusion is the most realistic option.

That is a very long preamble to clarify that doing this sabbatical project has been a kind of fantasy for many years and one that was predicted on many different interests. On its surface, this project afforded an opportunity to do something that I think we’ve not done enough of: to chronicle the history of Psychology using the stories of those who have created it. I love to hear the lore of people’s labs, to hear the stories of what makes good research run, of the nuance in how people come to determine the right stimuli, the right sample, the best manipulation. That’s an interest  but it is hardly the only interest to do a project like this. In addition, doing this project afforded me a chance to converse with brilliant people and engage with them about our shared interests in Psychology! As I’ve  commented on  time and time again, I am often inspired by the people I’ve spoken with and will be returning with ideas and motivations for my own life and career. Doing this project also afforded an opportunity to travel broadly and freely this year — something that continues to fascinate and thrill me and my family. Many of my colleagues have taken sabbaticals, most do very good work while staying essentially in their office and at their current home  but with increased  production. My family? We sought novelty,  adventure, and experience — even at the cost of some productivity and stability that might have been possible.  As part of that yearn to travel, project specifically afforded an opportunity to see Australia and New Zealand during their summer (while escaping the increasingly brutal freezing temps that are the norm on the east coast of the United States over the winter). Rarely would we have a period in January and February to really travel, and it has been amazing!

Traveling to Australia and New Zealand, getting to spend some weeks here over the summer, has been a deeply fulfilling experience. As I look back on the past 6 weeks of travel in these two countries here are some of our highlights:

Favorite museum/cultural centre? On any given day I’d probably give you a different answer. The one freshest and most fulfilling in my mind is one we visited yesterday: ACMI (Australia’s Centre for the Moving Image). The trippy film images, the science and art behind creating video games, the exhibit explicating how sound editing and its 50% contribution of the film experience (for me its a bit more than 50%, but everyone has their sensitivities), the virtual-reality game-playing demo, so many fun and fascinating aspects! We loved visiting the National Gallery of Victoria, the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, the Museum of New Zealand, the Glow Worm Caves, the Dolphin and Whale watching off Kaikoura, the pop-up Globe Theatre in Aukland, driving the Great Ocean Road to the see the Koalas at Kennett River— all well worth a mention. Still, ACMI was special, if only because of all the places we visited, this was the only one that my son never had an urge to leave before we’d seen it all.

Greatest spectacle? We stayed in Sydney on the days leading up to and over the change to the New Year. Wow. The city was dynamic with fireworks and activities. Apparently they have fireworks every week over the central harbor during the summer and they punch that up fantastically to celebrate the New Year!  This city makes New Years huge and it is spectacular.

Favorite place to stay? The kindest, most thoughtful AirBNB host we had was in Sydney. This host thought of everything from spare toiletries, to detailed instructions on how to access public transportation, to tasteful artwork adorning the space. Still, the best apartment was a 2BD/2BA downtown place, with an 11th story balcony overlooking the great city of Melbourne. Nothing like an apartment that is downtown and easy walking distance to Melbourne’s partially free public transportation, and with two large spas, a pool, exercise space, WiFi that works all the time, and with a real working desk to, you know, work!

Cutest moment? On our way to see Koalas at Kennett River, we came across vivid and active parrots at the opening of the trail. Clearly these parrots have been accustomed to people as they comfortably flew down from tree branches to perch on peoples arms, heads, and shoulders! Then we hiked up the trail to see a half dozen tiny little Koalas, cuddled up in the branches of Eucalyptus trees.  Mostly they slept– Koalas  often sleep about 20 hours a day. We saw one Koala who woke up for a stretch and little scratch. As he finished all this activity, I waved to him just as his eyes came to rest on me. Damnedest thing, this Koala waved back!

My favorite city during this visit? Wellington, NZ. During our visit it was temperate during this hot summer due to high winds and the cooling ocean effects. Visiting the free and incredible museums, visiting Weta and doing a special FX workshop with a staff member (and so many stories from beloved movies on which they worked), the outdoor music, art, and cultural vivaciousness — awesome. And so many little social exchanges: e.g., just before Weta we wandered across the street to grab a cup of coffee. There was a fairly busy brew pub, filled with a lunch crowd. The server told me I was the first person who had asked for coffee at that place! He brewed up a good cup and then refused to charge me for it because…why charge for coffee? It’s not even beer? From the gorgeous coastline, to the relaxed but delicious approach to food, to the free music being played in the park. What can I say, I dug it!

Anyway, those are some of the memories I’ll be carrying forward from our travels down under. I’m really glad to be doing this project and this work for my field. The side benefit of seeing these places and doing the activities available here have been truly life fulfilling. I’m not sure why exactly I chose this path for the journey, but I am certainly glad that I did!

(Pictured above is the Koala of Kennett River who waved at me! Credit photo to Alexis Yael)

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