SUBJECT: Dr. Harinder Aujla, Professor of Psychology

What is the focus of your current research, and what are students in your lab doing?

Currently, I’m interested in how associations are made between words and how difference sources of language inform what associations are made. We’re exposed to large numbers of words and even great numbers of combinations of words. The “neighbours” of a word in a sentence and positions of words in sentences both play a role in how we think about a word and how that word relates to other words. Both of my students are using vector-based models of semantics which are models in which words are represented by long series of numbers. Paulina Nedjadrasul is trying to understand why some words come to mind more quickly than others during free association. More specifically, she is attempting to explain why a word like “gurney” might evoke “doctor” quite readily while the reverse is not likely to be the case. Daniel Kesselman is extracting representations of words from corpora that are derived from Reddit communities which differ, presumably, in their views on gender in order understand how these groups may think differently about concepts related, not only, to gender but perhaps to other concepts as well.

How many threads does Pavlov (Dr. Aujla’s computer) have? Why is having so many threads helpful?

Pavlov has 72 threads over 36 Xeon cores. This is helpful because it means that I wait about 1/72 of the time I normally would for a simulation to finish running. A fidgety person like me doesn’t like to wait.

How is meaning constructed from experience according to cognitive psychologists?

I’m not sure that there is a consensus on this question amongst cognitive psychologist. I am sure that I’m probably not qualified to answer this question. That said, association plays an important role in memory and the idea that memories are constructed from associations is something that I am generally predisposed towards. If we take the view that representations are derived from memory, then it stands to reason that meaning is also abstracted from associations in memory.

A recent article on “Politico” suggested that algorithms like the ones you and your students study are “racist” and “sexist”. This doesn’t seem accurate. Isn’t it the human generated reading material that might be “racist” and/or “sexist” and not the algorithm? Care to comment?

Yes, racism/sexism results from the reading material and not the process. Daniel’s project explicitly examines what happens when we select corpora on this basis.

What courses are you teaching next year?

Physiological psychology I (PSYC-2900) and Cognitive Processed (PSYC-3600). The latter will be a new course for me, so students that are thinking about taking this course should consider themselves warned.

At what university did you do receive you PhD and Post-Doctorate, respectively?

I completed my Ph.D. at Queen’s University and I did my post-doctorate work at The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla California. The latter is not a university; it is a private non-profit research institute.

Was there a defining moment during your undergraduate studies when you decided which area of psychology to pursue?

If there was, I don’t remember it. Honestly, I think that it was more of a process of elimination where I became disillusioned with another unnamed area of psychology.

What is your favourite part of being a professor?

I like everything about being a professor apart from some of the administrative paperwork. Being paid to spend time on a hobby is hard to beat. The most surprising part of the job has been my experience with teaching. It’s not something that I looked forward to doing when I was a graduate student, but it’s been more enjoyable and rewarding than I had imagined.

What is your favourite food to eat?


How do you manage your stress?

See answer to previous question.

Brain-shaped cake (Photo by Eran Menashri from Pexels)