Berit "Brit" Brogaard is a professor of philosophy and Director of the Brogaard Lab for Multisensory Research at the University of Miami. She is also a professor of philosophy at the University of Oslo, Norway and a faculty member at the Network for Sensory Research, University of Toronto. In this interview, Brit talks about reading adult literature as a kid, publishing poetry, a children's book, and a young adult novel about a prostitute as as teen, being drawn to the neurobiology of mood, removing the organs from live pigs, the Naming and Necessity litmus test, Lesniewski's logic, enduring sexual harassment, teaching and exposure therapy, how her philosophical views have influenced her views on love and monogamy, dualism and David Chalmers, editing the Gourmet Report, the goal of philosophy, experimenting with mind altering substances, graphic novels, her cats, The Ring, and her favorite curse word...
Where did you grow up and, as a kid, what were you into? Science? Religion? Art? Sports?
I grew up in Copenhagen. First we lived at the very center of the city (Vesterbro) and then we moved to a house 10 km outside of the center. I was terrible at sports, except skiing, horseback riding and swimming. As a child, I was a non-stop reader. My mom claims I read every book in the local library, including the books in the adult section (this was long before libraries had Fifty-Shades-of-Gray-style books). When I was 10 I started writing novels that were never read by anyone. And then when I was about 17 I decided I wanted to be an author. I wrote and published three collections of poetry, one children's book on Charles Darwin and a young adult novel that took place in Brazil.
Who were your favorite authors as a kid? Just out of curiosity, what was the plot of the young adult novel? Why do you think you wanted to be a writer? Did you continue to write fiction?
One of my favorite authors was Agatha Christie. I read all of her novels. It probably wasn't a coincidence that my first novel (which no one ever read) was about a girl traveling on a train only to realize that someone accidentally had taken her suit case instead of their own. When she opens it, it's full of money. My young adult novel, which I published as a teen, was about a young boy Marco, who lives in a small trailer in a garbage dump in Sao Paulo. When his mom gets run over by a garbage truck and dies, he has to fend for himself. Eventually, a police officer, who arrests him for drug use and prostitution, decides to bring him into his family as a foster child. I am not sure why I wanted to be a writer. I was just immediately drawn to reading and writing.
What drew you to biology? Where did you go to school?
I realized that even when books sell well in a country with 5 million people, you are not going be able to make a living from being a writer. Or at least it's exceedingly hard. So, I decided to go to college. When I entered college at University of Copenhagen I wanted to major in either biology, psychology or political science. Biology won out because I was interested in how the brain works and was able to specialize in the function of mood- and insulin-resistance-related neurotransmitters, something that I was really interested in at the time. I still am.
Given your interest in biology and the brain, who or what drew you to philosophy?
Long after completing my course work I got hijacked into philosophy. I got fed up with in vitro testing of neurotransmitters in test tubes after slaughtering pigs. Since my empirical work in neuroscience was in vitro, we needed to isolate receptors from pig livers and pig brains. They were good models of the particular human receptors we were interested in. The pigs had to be anesthetized but alive when we took out the liver and brain, so strictly speaking I didn't do the slaughtering. I simply had to cut out the organs. The technicians then euthanized the pig. The procedure involved blending the organs in something that resembled a kitchen blender in the same room where the pig was still lying on the table, bloody and cut open. Needless to say, it was a quite traumatic experience for me. At some point during my studies in Copenhagen, I met Len Talmy, a cognitive linguist from University at Buffalo. He told me to come and work with him. So, that's what I did. It wasn't too drastic of a change as cognitive linguistics involves a lot of empirical work, and I prefer working with human subjects to slaughtering pigs.
How did you adjust to life in the states? Did you enjoy Buffalo? At what point did you realize you wanted to do science and philosophy instead of just science? What were you reading? Who were you talking to? What were you thinking about?
It was a bit of a culture shock to end up in Buffalo, which I hardly even knew the location of prior to my arrival. But I adjusted. I lived in a house with 4 other linguistics graduate students (two women and two men). We shared everything, including shopping, cleaning and cooking. That was a lot of fun. At some point I thought philosophy might be fun. I was exposed to philosophers (though not philosophy) every single day, because philosophy and linguistics were housed on the same floor in the same building. I am sure that has something to do with my switch. But prior to switching I received an important piece of advice. "Go read Kripke's Naming and Necessity. If you hate it, stay in linguistics. If you love it, switch." That's what I did, and I loved the book. So, I switched. My return to neuroscience happened a bit later in the game.
Who suggested the Kripke litmus test? Given your situation, that seemed like a great bit of advice. What did you love about N&N?
The Kripke litmus test was suggested to me by one of my undergraduate advisors, Per Aage Brandt; then located in Copenhagen; now the U.S. I loved the argumentative style of N&N. That was new to me. I was used to empirical data, statistical analysis and then a discussion of the results. But this type of ferocious debating and argumentation strongly appealed to me. I almost felt high, realizing that this was something you could do for a living.
What was the topic of your dissertation? Compared to the physical sciences, philosophy of language, metaphysics, epistemology, seem like extremely abstract topics.
My dissertation was on the Polish logician Stanislas Lesniewski's logic. I hadn't really taken any philosophy, so I needed to do something I already knew how to do: logic or semantics or neuroscience. But x-phi wasn't even coined as a term back then. So, that left me with two choices. One person asked me: "Do you want to be finished or famous?" I chose "finished." So, Lesniewski's logic became the topic of my dissertation. I remember doing an independent study with a logician John Kearns. He had me read Lesniewski in Polish. But it didn't really matter, as everything was in the same logical notation--even the set-up before the proofs of the theorems.
What was the market like when you applied? Were you confident that you were going to get a job? Did you have a back up plan?
The job market in 2000 was considered extremely tough. Little did we know that it would only get worse. Most people got no Eastern APA interviews. And those who did usually got no fly-outs. I was confident that I would make it. I was probably way too optimistic but it worked out. I had about 8 Eastern APA interviews and four fly-outs. I got two job offers, not super-great jobs but TT positions with decent teaching loads.
As an undergrad or in grad school, did you encounter discrimination? What were the biggest challenges for you? How do you think we can deal with this type of thing as a profession?
I have encountered discrimination throughout my career. It never stops. Although psychology is way ahead of philosophy, cognitive neuroscience is not. My only advantage (at least when I was junior) is that both my real name "Berit" and my nick name "Brit" are male-sounding. There is lots of discrimination in philosophy. I can only imagine how bad it must be for other minority groups. But as a woman I've had to deal with a lot: Male professors looking at and talking exclusively to your male philosophy partner or friend while you are standing next to them being completely ignored, or if their eyes rest on your for a few seconds, it's a "neck-down" type of glance. Literally being used on short-lists simply to avoid any potential equal-opportunity or affirmative action issues during job searches. Annual conference invitations or agreements to co-author stopping after having been put in the uncomfortable position of having to accept a romantic liaison or reject (with both choices having just about the same career-damaging result). Male professors sending me short stories about my breasts (named in the stories). This is literally disgusting. But this is what you have to deal with as a woman in philosophy. You'd better be thick-skinned if you choose this profession because I doubt it will end any time soon. I think the only way to deal with these issues is to move in the direction of psychology as a whole. Hire more women in philosophy. Make philosophy departments about 50-50, or better yet: more women than men. I have heard people argue that if there are more women than men in philosophy departments, our pay will go down. I highly doubt that'd be the case. Surely people in psychology are not paid less than people in philosophy on average.
Sometimes when people deal with this type of behavior, they choose to ignore it, and sometimes they report it, and sometimes they want to report it, but there is nobody to report it to. How did you handle this type of thing, for instance, the agreement to co-author or the short stories? Do you ignore it? Report it? Do you confront the person?
In the past I have told close friends about these cases but not reported them, as I didn't have the guts to do so. It takes a lot of courage, a lot of energy and potentially a lot of money to do anything about discrimination as an individual. What we need is a complete overhaul of the profession as a whole.
Why did you decide to leave the position at Southern Illinois?
The job I moved to had a 2/2 teaching load as opposed to a 3/3 (two preps) and a better salary. Plus, I didn't have to move anywhere; I was already living in St. Louis. When I moved jobs, I didn't move house; I just moved my office. It was a no-brainer.
Did you feel prepared to teach right out of grad school? Did you like teaching?
I felt fairly prepared to teach right out of grad school as I had taught a couple of courses at local colleges during grad school. But I was still nervous as hell whenever a new semester was about to start. Facing those students (which back then sometimes were my age or older) for the first time was a daunting task. All staring at me, judging me. That's how it felt -- at least the first couple of weeks. Then you got used to it. And then the semester would end, and you'd have to start from scratch again. But you grow with the task over the years. It's kind of a gradual exposure therapy thing. You fear those eyes staring at you but eventually your amygdala gets sick of firing and retires and your anxiety goes away. Plus, you get older. I think women are more prone to this type of teaching anxiety than men. But I know plenty of men who have felt (or feel) the same way at the beginning of their teaching careers. I must admit that I really hated teaching for many years. Now I kind of enjoy it. It's short-term closure. With research there is no short-term closure. When you teach, you (eventually) get the benefits right away. On a good day you walk out of class thinking "that was one hell of a job you did in there." Of course, there are bad days, too. But over the years there are more good days than bad days. And that's when it can feel rewarding to teach. That's where I find myself right now.
How did your research interests evolve?
My research interests kind of went in a circle. I started out in neuroscience, cognitive science, cognitive linguistics. Then I did a bunch of semantics and logic-y things. Then a Post Doc at the Centre for Consciousness at Australian National University with David Chalmers. That lead me right back into phil mind (empirical/empirically-inspired). Circle completed.
That Post Doc sounds amazing. What's Chalmers like? I feel like Joe McCarthy asking this, but: Are you now or have you ever been a dualist?
David Chalmers was a terrific postdoctoral supervisor. He gave me tons of feedback on my talks and papers and was not afraid of telling you when a talk or a paper sucked. I greatly improved as a philosopher during my time there. And as everyone knows, David is super-high-powered, as was the RSSS Philosophy Program there, with several talks every week. I think I met most of the philosophers I know in Oz, when they were passing through. I am not a dualist. But I have inclinations in that direction. At the very least I don't think the first-person aspect of conscious experience can be satisfactorily explained in terms of physical theories, depending on how we define "physical theories."
You've been extremely productive...what's your secret?
My secret to productivity ... hmmm, not sure there is one. But I don't have any hobbies beyond philosophy and science, and I don't have a significant other that I need to attend to. Another thing is that I probably sleep less than most people, and I work in weird places (e.g., when I ride with Uber).
Why'd you decide to move to Miami?
I decided to take the job in Miami, because it's an awesome city and a terrific department, and it's a private university, which means we have a lot of money and a lot of really good undergraduate students, which definitely makes your life easier.
How'd you end up helming the Philosophical Gourmet Report? Were you wary of taking on the position of co-editor? What do you make of the criticisms of the report itself? Are there any that you find particularly perplexing?
Brian Leiter and I had been friends for a while when he decided to bring a co-editor onboard. I was already a member of the Advisory Board. He asked me, and I said "yes," not knowing the enormous amount of work involved in doing it. But it was worth it. Yes, there has been a lot of criticism of the PGR. Some are legit but unavoidable. E.g., people have implicit biases, and the halo effect will no doubt infiltrate even the most objective measures of departments. This means that some schools will be overrated, whereas others will be underrated. But I don't know how to avoid it. That said, there are improvements that can be made. That will always be the case. Some of the criticisms of the PGR were idiotic. E.g., a reputation survey will primarily be a measure of reputation. That is a trivial fact but something people often criticize. I am certainly not against other supplementary measures of departments. But I don't have the time to take on any further evaluative reports, for obvious reasons.
How have your philosophical interests affected your personal life, for instance, your views on love?
My philosophical views on love have made me see love in a more nuanced light. But I have also become more skeptical with respect to committed monogamous romantic relationships. I certainly don't want to be in one. I realized that my prior beliefs about relationships were largely influenced by society and conventions and not by what I wanted. Personal autonomy is very important to me. I literally get anxious when people restrict my individual freedom. I think my research made me more aware of how committed monogamous romantic relationships can seriously limit your personal autonomy.
Do you have any long term research plans?
I have various projects I want to finish. One is a book on parenting and the loss of autonomy. Getting more grants and completing more empirical projects are always on the agenda.
From what I understand, recently, you've tried to get permission to use hallucinogens in synesthesia experiments. Do you have any first or second hand experience with hallucinogens? If so, explain.
I certainly have second-hand experience with hallucinogens, as I helped out with some studies previously. Whether or not I have first-hand experience with any Schedule 1 substances is probably not something I should comment on in public. I do intend to pilot test the drugs prior to giving them to research participants, although I may not be among the pilot test subjects.
What do you think the goal of philosophy is or should be? How do you see the future of philosophy? Do you find any trends disconcerting?
I think the goal of philosophy should be what it always has been: to shed light on topics that cannot be fully empirically explored yet. I don't think philosophers need to be concerned with how the heart is capable of pumping blood, because we have good scientific theories about that, theories that have been explored and tested. But there are many other problems that science has not yet been able to revolve fully, e.g. various normative issues and elusive scientific topics, such as consciousness. I don't find any trends in philosophy disconcerting. I love variety.
What, if anything, would make you stop doing philosophy? What are your hobbies nowadays?
Nothing could ever make me stop loving philosophy. It's my job and my hobby. I am still writing poetry, and I just wrote the script for a graphic novel. The graphic novel is about Freud. It's semi-biographic. It's just the script. My illustrator will have to do the illustrations on the side, and those can take a long time (a day per panel), so this book is not going to be finished anytime soon. But I am very excited about the script. My favorite graphic novel of all times is Logicomix, and our book is not unlike it.
If you could go back in time and give yourself advice when you were at the University of Copenhagen, what would it be?
If I could travel back in time and give myself advice back in Copenhagen, I'd say "You are on a fun journey. Follow your silly inclinations and spontaneous decisions. It will all work out in the end."
Who are your favorite philosophers?
I have many, so let me just mention the ones I named my cats after: "David Lewis," "Bertrand Russell," and "Roderick Chisholm."
Any favorite movies or TV shows?
One of my favorite movies is The Ring (the American version). It's amazing how horrific it is without showing much at all. I also really love the Danish television shows Borgen and Forbrydelsen (both have been produced in English at this point, I believe).
What's your favorite curse word?
My favorite curse word is the F-word but also some vintage ones like "Jeez oh man," "yikes," and "holy cow."
A kale salad.