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A Professor of Psychology: Artist, Biker, Relic Collector

The first thing that strikes you when you meet Professor Frederick Coolidge is that he could make himself inconspicuous in any setting. Not because he is ordinary in any way, but because he wants to be the one who is watching and sizing you up. Welcome to the mind of a Psychologist.
BY Rajyasri Rao |   08-02-2013

When you speak to him (or listen), you know in an instant that Professor Frederick Coolidge is not just anybody. He is more like an artist or seer who goes along with arrangements for your sake while waiting for the opportunity to offer his perspective on a topic which doesn’t necessarily fit in with what you or anyone else expects to hear; and that he is gifted with an ability to be both wide-eyed and formidable about his insights into human behaviour. 

Coolidge teaches Introduction to Psychological Statistics in the Department of Psychology at the University of Colorado. “I so look forward to it,” he exclaims, speaking to braingainmag.com at Salwan Media’s One Globe 2013 Conference: Uniting Knowledge Communities. “After 68 straight semesters, 34 years teaching the subject, I just walk into that room and can’t wait to start.”

And yet that is not all that he is, or all that he does.

He is also a musician, a cross-country biker, a collector of mammoth remains - and a veteran when it comes to India.

Coolidge has played with several bands, including one called ‘Pink Freud’, for ten years.

He has made a habit of going off on biking expeditions since 2008 – when, upon turning 60, he managed to reunite three of his former college mates to cover the 1200 miles from Arkansas to Florida where they had earned their PhDs years ago, by bike.

He also has a rather unusual affection for mammoths – no matter that the species died out about 10,000 years ago  - he’s still managed to become a proud owner of some of their relics including tusk hair, teeth and bones.

 

And Coolidge has deliberately chosen India as his country of destination – upon being awarded the Fulbright Fellowship -  to fulfil, in part, a childhood fascination with this land of “elephants, camels and monkeys and jungles with lost cities,” as he describes it. Again, no matter that his adventures in India have actually only entailed rescuing a village woman’s bag of rice from a wild monkey, and being told by a local before leaving a mountain cabin in the Nilgiri hills to run downhill if confronted by wild elephants because elephants are much more tenuous going downhill.

Professor Coolidge’s daring spirit and openness to new experiences has fuelled his choice of research interests as well - “I stumbled upon what has become my favourite sub-field, cognitive archaeology, by chance,” he says. “So there I was 54 years old, 13 years ago, everything going hunky dory as a Psychology Prof, getting ready to leave for India and BAM! I read an article in an Anthropology magazine that made me stop in my tracks – it suggested that the Neanderthals died out 30,000 years ago because they lacked language.”

Coolidge says he knew that was wrong, and a driving passion for his field encouraged him to get a move on with proving the claim wrong. “By some stroke of luck, I had just published a study on executive functions in the frontal lobes – which gives us the ability to strategise - to organise,” he says. “When people get damaged in the frontal lobes, they retain language but lose their spontaneity and self direction.”  

Coolidge says his hunch was that the Neanderthals were a bit like these people with damaged frontal lobes ‘who were known to go on doing the same thing even when it didn’t work’ and that humans outfought and outlived them because they ‘inherited superior executive functions which helped them think, plan and organise their way out of tight spots.’

He demonstrates with great theatricality the difference between the two: jutting out his elbows, strutting up and down pretending to be a ‘big, thick Neanderthal’ and heaving an imaginary spear into the side of a rhino while gruffly chanting, “let’s pierce the big guy”. 

And then in soft voice and gestures he shows how humans behave when confronted with a rhino, “alright chaps, now, let’s think, hmm? How shall we trick the big beast? Okay so then YOU guys go there and HEY you guys come here, hmm, right? Yeah? Okay, okay, perfect,” He says, imitating a potential meeting between the two.

With an archaeologist friend, Thomas Wynn, Coolidge published their cognitive archaelogical findings in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal in 2000, and have since set up a centre for Cognitive Archaeology at the University of Colorado, which is the only one of its kind in the world.

Another sub-discipline equally close to Coolidge’s heart is Lifespan Personality Assessment.“There is a group of disorders – not the psychoses, not the classical neuroses, called personality disorders or character disorders. Histrionic Personality Disorders is one of them,” he says. 

“You know it’s those people who are overly dramatic who come up to you, and greet you even if they have just seen you saying, ‘OH HELLO! How ARE you??’ And then look around quickly to see how many people they may have succeeded in attracting attention from!”

Such people are born to be dramatic and make great actors and actresses ‘but can be a pain in other social settings’, he says. But the important thing is to know how to channel such people into social situations that bring out the best in them, he says. “A person with Histrionic Personality Disorder would do great at the front desk, for instance, ushering in people and making guests believe they are entering the best hotel in the whole world!” 

And this, is why we’d love to take a class with Professor Coolidge. 

Rajyasri Rao has worked as a journalist with the BBC and the UNICEF in India and as a communications consultant for Ericsson in Sweden. She holds an M.Phil. in Sociology, from the Delhi School of Economics.
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