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‘The Mind is Not a Mystical Entity That We Can Only Discuss in Theoretical Terms’

‘The Mind is Not a Mystical Entity That We Can Only Discuss in Theoretical Terms’

Melanie Sheldon, an instructor at the University of Missouri – Columbia, recently offered a lecture course at the HSE Winter School 2015 on the psychology of motivation, which was organized by the International Laboratory of Positive Psychology of Personality and Motivation, headed by Dmitry Leontiev. She also offered an open lecture on 'Sex and Evolutionary Psychology' at HSE. Melanie recently spoke with the HSE news service about her experience taking part in the HSE Winter School.

— You have been researching quite a few new areas on the importance of the evolutionary theory for psychology and how to apply evolutionary theory to psychology.  Why is evolutionary theory so important?

— Psychology is a science – in contrast to a philosophy or an art - because the human mind is an adaptation that evolved via natural selection – the mind is not a mystical entity that we can only discuss in theoretical terms. Understanding how natural selection shapes species and adaptations allows a deeper understanding of how the mind works.   If you start with this premise, it follows that all of psychology must make sense from an evolutionary perspective. 

— How do you encourage students to study a new complicated theme? How would you evaluate the interaction and reaction of HSE students?  

— I enjoyed interacting with the faculty and students at HSE.  I think Evolutionary Psychology draws students in the same way Mainstream Psychology draws students – because we are curious to understand how our minds work.

 Everyone we worked with was kind, skilled, and enthusiastic, so we had a wonderful time working with them

— Your open lecture was called 'Sex and Evolutionary Psychology'. Could you please share its main idea with us?

— My lecture began with a brief history of the Evolutionary perspective in Psychology, and then covered the fundamentals of natural selection and the evolution of sexual reproduction. I then used the exemplar of romantic attraction to demonstrate how the evolutionary perspective can explain why one person finds another person attractive (or not) more successfully than mainstream psychology has been able to explain romantic or physical attraction. 

I ended with a survey of research that explored the ‘sexual nature’ of humans.  I reached an overall conclusion that human mating is extremely flexible because it evolved to be shaped by situation and culture.

— What are your impressions of visiting Moscow and working at HSE?

— Moscow is an exciting international city, even in mid-winter.  I have the impression that HSE has brilliant faculty and hard-working students, but the structure of Russian higher education does not seem overly supportive of efforts to contribute to the international exchange of ideas – embodied as publishing in Western journals.  Although HSE faculty seem fully capable of contributing to the global exchange of ideas, they juggle far too many responsibilities beyond their research programmes compared to Western scholars.  But everyone we worked with was kind, skilled, and enthusiastic, so we had a wonderful time working with them.

Anna Chernyakhovskaya. Specially for HSE News Service

See also:

‘Pay Attention to Reality’

On the eve of the new year we spoke to the head of the International Laboratory of Positive Psychology of Personality and Motivation, Dmitry Leontiev about why positive psychology does not solve problems but keeps them at bay, is uncertainty dangerous and why shouldn’t we battle with anxiety about the future.