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Speakers to explore the magic of the mind at UMD

Jonah Lehrer found himself trapped in a grocery store, unable to decide what variety of Cheerios to purchase. That experience led him to write a book about decision-making.

Martin Shapiro was at Oxford when he was invited to visit a group trying to figure out why bomb-sniffing dogs slacked off in the field. It led him to write two academic reports.

The two California men, one a writer, the other an academic — both fascinated by how the brain works — will meet for the first time next week for the revival of a conference on creativity at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

Los Angeles-based writer Lehrer “manages to make neuroscience accessible through his writing,” said William Payne, the dean of the School of Fine Arts at UMD, who is coordinating the conference.  

Shapiro, a neuroscientist in the Psychology Department at Cal State-Fresno, is a colleague of Payne’s. For about eight years, they’ve been part of an interdisciplinary group of academics trying to “incorporate big global trends into curriculum,” in Shapiro’s words.

The two men discovered they were both movie buffs, and they will head off to the cinema together after attending an academic meeting, Shapiro said in a telephone interview.

“I knew that (Shapiro) would be a great complement as a scientist to Jonah’s focus as a writer,” Payne said in an interview this week.

The two will be on the UMD campus on Tuesday and Wednesday for the Sieur Du Luht Creativity Conference, starring in a panel discussion for the campus community and meeting with various classes. On Wednesday evening, the public is invited for presentations by the two speakers followed by a discussion moderated by Karen Sunderman of PBS 8/WDSE.

The conference isn’t new but has been dormant for several years, Payne said. A previous iteration featured architects who designed some of UMD’s buildings. It’s funded by UMD alum Richard Paul Teske, whose ideas helped shape this year’s event, Payne added.

Lehrer is comfortable in front of a broad audience, having appeared on such venues as National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air” and “The Colbert Report.” But in an email interview, he confided nervousness in such situations.

“Although I’ve written about how to perform under pressure, there is a huge gap between knowing how you’re supposed to think and actually thinking that way,” Lehrer wrote.

For his part, Shapiro claims never to have spoken in front of a general audience.

“I hope I’m the opening act, because I think Jonah’s talk is going to be very polished,” Shapiro said.

Judging from his students’ comments, Shapiro doesn’t take a back seat when it comes to presenting a topic. In the “Rate My Professors” website, they consistently say he’s funny and a great teacher, but that his classes are hard. He also rates a red pepper for being “hot.”

“I think my wife did that,” Shapiro said.

On Wednesday, Shapiro plans to use excerpts from movies such as “Total Recall” to show how some fictional concepts are working out in real life.

His research on the bomb-sniffing dogs started with his hypothesis that the dogs do well in training because they actually find bombs there, but they get disillusioned in the field when they don’t find bombs.

Experiments followed, and “it turned that out we were right,” Shapiro said.

“Dogs in the field, they don’t find anything; they stop looking. And when you suddenly put a bomb out there, they don’t find it,” he said.

Lehrer’s current project is a book about love, expected to be published in 2015. It started, he wrote, with his curiosity about why most pleasures quickly fade, but some don’t.

“What interests me about love, and it doesn’t matter if we’re in love with a spouse or a child or an idea or a god, is that the pleasure doesn’t get old,” he said. “I’m interested in how that happens, because I think life would be insufferable without it.”

His Cheerios quandary at the grocery store led to an earlier book, “How We Decide.”

But he has discovered his own way to decide on the Cheerios question, he wrote in the email.

“(I) let my 3-year-old daughter pick our breakfast cereal,” Lehrer wrote. “She usually goes for the Chocolate Cheerios, which is fine by me.”

If you go

“Creativity and New Brain Science,” featuring Jonah Lehrer and Martin Shapiro, will take place at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Marshall Performing Arts Center on the University of Minnesota Duluth campus. The event, moderated by Karen Sunderman of PBS 8/WDSE, is free and open to the public.


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