Laird Edman

Northwestern’s a No-Brainer


A member of the psychology faculty since 2003, Dr. Laird Edman has received student-selected teaching awards from NWC, Iowa State University and Waldorf College. During his sabbatical this past year, he continued his research on how the cognitive science of religion can inform the way we live out our faith.

You have graduate degrees in both psychology and literature. How do those fit together in your scholarship and teaching?
The very foundation of an integrated liberal arts education is that disciplinary boundaries are useful but arbitrary. I don’t know how to teach without constantly talking about literature, history, theology, physics, biology and whatever else I might know something about. We can’t understand psychology—or be thoughtful scientists—without knowing something about other disciplines and learning, because it’s all connected.

What fascinates you most about the human mind?
What doesn’t? The brain is the most complex object we know of in the material universe, and our knowledge of how the brain functions is exploding. We have learned more about it in the last 15 years than in the previous 5,000. And yet we still have only some fairly speculative theories as to how three pounds of neurons can generate a self-aware consciousness. What isn’t cool about that?

Your wife, Sally, is a clinical psychologist and director of Northwestern’s counseling services. What’s the conversation like around your supper table?
We discuss the data, current research and ways of thinking about whatever is on our minds—marriage, relationships, current events, a TV show or movie, or sermons. Our children want college credit for having to sit through all those dinner conversations.

You play guitar and sing. What are some of your favorite bands?
My music tastes are very eclectic. I think I have over 1,000 albums on my iPod. Lately I’ve been listening to Joe Bonamassa, Jonny Lang and Black Keys. I love listening to the bands of my youth—Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan. I also enjoy jazz and often listen to baroque music when I’m working. But my all-time favorite band is U2. I once drove all day to Chicago, picked up my daughter, took her to a U2 concert and drove through the night to get back in time to teach my morning classes.

Do you have any favorite sci-fi stories that involve the brain?
I really enjoy Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead. One of the main characters is a machine named Jane who is super intelligent but socially needy. Everyone in our family names all of our GPS and iPhone voices “Jane” in her honor.

What’s one way you like to unwind?
Smoking a premium, hand-rolled cigar is one of the great simple pleasures of life. Doing so while mowing the lawn takes an odious task and turns it into something very pleasurable. Plus it weirds out the neighbors. But by orders of my cardiologist—and more importantly, my wife—I’ve had to give that up.

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