Lisa Raskin, John William Ward Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience

Human behavior

Lisa Raskin

When she was hired at Amherst in 1979, Lisa Raskin was just 25—one of the youngest faculty members in the college’s history. She started her career teaching neuroscience lab courses, then served as dean of the faculty from 1995 to 2003. Now she teaches courses in such areas as psychopathology and the psychology of aging, as well as a course in the graduate program in clinical psychology at UMass. Raskin also chairs the board of the Austen Riggs Center, a nonprofit residential psychiatric hospital for treatment-resistant patients in Stockbridge, Mass. She is married to David Sofield, the Samuel Williston Professor of English at Amherst.

Interview by Katherine Duke ’05

On what her high school friends stayed up late to talk about

I was brought up in New York City. My mother was a musician [an opera singer]. My father is a Freudian psychoanalyst and was a training analyst at Columbia. The family talked a lot, around the dinner table, about motivations, how groups act, how people behave. I went to a very progressive high school, New Lincoln School, and a lot of people who were thinking outside the box—quirky, interesting minds—were teaching there. I started reading the philosophy of psychology in, I would say, the eighth grade. You know how high school kids sit up and talk to their friends until the wee hours of the morning? We would be talking about Abraham Maslow and Ernest Schachtel.

On lab rats and semi-vegetarianism

I was looking for a job the summer of my freshman year in college, and in the animal lab, they were hiring. That’s how I became interested in the neural correlates of behavior. I worked with gerbils and hamsters and rats. Obviously, you’re not going to model human behavior with a rat, but you can model some aspect of human behavior, and I was interested in attachment, hormones and behavior, sexual behavior, maternal behavior and sensory systems. When I was in graduate school, my quid pro quo was that I believed in experimenting on animals for science, but I didn’t believe that I had to necessarily eat them. I made a decision: I will not eat mammals. And I haven’t eaten a mammal in 31 or 32 years. That [time in the lab] was before, really, the field of neuroscience developed. It was called “psychobiology.” When I went to the first neuroscience conference, I think it had 5,000 people, and now there are hundreds of thousands of people. It’s just mushroomed astonishingly.

Raskin when she was Dean of the Faculty
On reading the names at Commencement

[The Dean of the Faculty’s Office] sends out a letter, and graduating seniors have to [call a hotline and] say their name, and then say it slowly, and then say it again. I would listen to it over and over, and then I would break it down phonetically. I followed Ron Rosbottom [as dean of the faculty], and he’s a Romance language expert and was fabulous with pronunciation. So I said, “I’m not getting one name wrong.” And I don’t think I did, in eight years. I had the most amazing one: a student named Jason Stearns [’01]. He was Hawaiian, and his middle name—Kauahooululaunaheleonakuahiwi—was 18 syllables. It means “the rain that makes the mountain greenery grow.” He said, “It would really mean a lot to me if you could learn how to say that.” He also got an award at Senior Assembly, so I had to say it twice.

On closing her lab

You get a broad education as a student in a liberal arts college, but then as a Ph.D. student, you get very, very narrow. But then you come here, and you’re asked to be broad again. While I was dean, I decided that I would actually close my lab. I began to want to put psychology in the context of the history of science, the history of medicine, the history of philosophy over the centuries. [In 2003-04, after stepping down as dean], I traveled to Berlin and Eastern Europe, and I interviewed psychiatrists there. I developed a course on the history of psychiatry.

On bringing psychotherapy back to psychiatry

There have been two biological revolutions in psychiatry. One was in the 19th century, when, in Berlin, there were a lot of neurologists who were becoming interested in behavior, with the idea of genetics being so prominent. They tended to be neuroanatomists, and they were interested in understanding the brain correlates of behavior. They did not do talk therapy. Then, with Freud, Jung and that whole psychodynamic era, it became more about “the talking cure” (even though Freud was a neurologist). Now they’ve become more biological [again]: psychiatry has moved into a medical model, and psychiatrists typically don’t get any education in how to do psychotherapy. But there’s a group of psychiatrists in the American Psychiatric Association who want to bring psychotherapy back into psychiatry, so I believe it is starting to swing back. To my mind the only profitable way to look at human behavior is to integrate the biological perspective with psychosocial context.

On teaching the youthful what it’s like to grow old

One course I teach, which I love, is on the psychology of aging, from middle adulthood until death. My students have worked with the Amherst Senior Center and the elders in town since I came here in 1979, and they love that part of it. The head of this program at the Senior Center comes to talk to my class, and the students tell her their characteristics, so that she can match them with somebody—an émigré from Japan who wants to be matched with a student who is Japanese, or somebody who plays chess who wants to be matched with a student who plays chess. Each student becomes a “friendly visitor.”

It’s kind of an interdisciplinary course, because we read novels and plays about the aging experience: May Sarton’s As We Are Now, about a woman who is put in a nursing home for all the wrong reasons; The Professor’s House, by Willa Cather; Barbara Pym’s Quartet in Autumn; I Never Sang for My Father, by Robert Anderson; Sue Miller’s The Story of My Father. We go through issues in older adults’ lives, like widowhood and what happens when you’re an adult child taking care of your aging parents. Then we talk about psychology studies, looking at how cognition, intelligence, learning and memory all change with age.

As a friend of mine said, I’m not going to be able to teach this course for very much longer, because it’s becoming too autobiographical.

On aging as a teacher

I surprise myself by how much my love for teaching has changed with age. I always knew that I loved to teach, but there’s something about being older that allows me to care less about myself and my own career and more about my students and their lives. I’m amazed at how important that’s become to me.

On how Kindle makes her competitive

I’ll read any novel about anything, as long as it’s good writing. I tend to read contemporary women writers: Lorrie Moore, Rebecca Goldstein, Elinor Lipman. I read everything Nicholson Baker writes. I got a Kindle, and I just love it—I’m just, like, tearing through books. Kindle puts in the corner the percentage of the book that you’ve read. It makes me competitive with myself.

[My husband], the poet, reads poems, not novels. This man reads five or six hours a day. We get all the news­papers, all the journals, books about theory, about poetry. Although he teaches the course “Novels, Plays, Poems,” if I say about a novel, “Honey, this is fabulous! You’ve got to read it!,” and  put it on his desk,  he doesn’t read a word.

Top photo by Samuel Masinter '04

Bottom photo by Frank Ward

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