The College Magazine - Summer 2001

Meet Joe Steinmetz

by Craig Owens

If you associate psychology with a tweedy therapist with half-articulated theories and jargon-filled "diagnoses," in a dimly lit room complete with fringed floor lamp, chaise lounge, and wing-back chair, silently brooding over the endless, free-associative droning of a troubled middle-aged client, then you will be as surprised as I was to meet Professor Joseph Steinmetz.

Joe Steinmetz

Professor Steinmetz, the Eleanor Cox Riggs Professor of Psychology, managed to undermine the stereotype so beloved of Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and pulp fiction. Instead, he offered a glimpse of psychology as he studies it at Indiana University: a rigorously scientific undertaking that investigates not parental relationships, Oedipus complexes, and hysteria, but rather the discreet chemical pathways along which our identities are constructed. For Steinmetz and the rest of the department he chairs, psychology is a cutting-edge study whose ramifications are felt as much in the clinic, in the news, and in the classroom as in the laboratory and library.

Steinmetz is a gregarious man, willing to hold forth on a variety of topics. He is easy to talk to, easy to listen to, and supremely at ease with his own expertise in a field of immense complexity. No doubt this combination of personal ease and professional expertise, not to mention his unrelenting excellence in research, teaching, and administration, helped earn him the College's Distinguished Faculty Award this year.

Steinmetz himself sees the delicate balancing of these many demands as a key to his winning the award. He acknowledges that his efforts take him beyond the call of everyday faculty duties. "Perhaps what I do differently from most faculty is that I combine three roles," he explains. "First, I am involved with undergraduate and graduate teaching. Second, I have administrative duties -

Mental capacity and behavior are largely generated by the biological system" - which is not to say that we are the sum of our genetic codes, as popular conceptions of biological science would have us believe.

I've chaired this department since 1995. Third, I've maintained an active lab in spite of my administrative duties."

Indeed, maintaining such an array of undertakings seems particularly demanding, since the psychology department is among the largest in the university. As department chair, Steinmetz must administer or oversee the activity of 40 faculty, 950 undergraduates, and more than 100 graduate students. Despite this, his research into brain chemistry and physiology has increased.

That research falls into the department's general mission, which Steinmetz describes as "discovering how the brain, as an organ, generates what we might call the 'mind' and our behavior. Mental capacity and behavior are largely generated by the biological systems, we've found." Which is not to say, he adds, that we are the sum of our genetic codes, as popular conceptions of biological science would have us believe.

As Steinmetz translates his understanding into layman's terms, I find my eyes irresistibly drawn to the screensaver behind him. On his monitor, computer-generated pyramids rise up from a pixilated plane, only to dissolve back into an undifferentiated field of pixels. The images turn through three dimensions, showing the various planes and edges of the virtual architecture. I can't take my eyes off its hypnotically rhythmic constructions and deconstructions. I'm thinking how apt it is that this screensaver should occupy this man's computer, that he should choose such a visual metaphor for mental activity.

Perhaps he senses my fascination, because he sets me straight on the usefulness of likening the computer to a brain, a metaphor much bandied about in the popular-science approach to psychology. He unreservedly proclaims that "the common analogy of the brain to a computer is just awful. The brain is orders and orders of magnitude better, more complex. We understand how computers work, of course, and they can do simple calculations much faster than we can. But they can't do the wide variety of higher-order processes of which we are capable." Those higher-order processes include making moral and ethical judgments, constructing value-systems, and engaging in interpersonal relationships.

Joe Steinmetz It's just such faith in the human brain that distinguishes Steinmetz from the stereotype of the obsessed, power-crazed scientist at work in his perverse laboratory - you know the type: Dr. Frankenstein, Dr. Evil, and the whole tradition of "007" villains. Steinmetz is profoundly humanist in his perspective, reveling in the brain's potential, in its achievements, and in the horizons of new understanding.

Photo: Swamy presents Joe with the College's Distinguished Faculty Award in October 2000.


And those horizons are vast, despite the headway Steinmetz and his colleagues have made in thinking about thinking. "Currently, I'm researching simple Pavlovian learning," he tells me, "the kind of conditioning Pavlov described over a hundred years ago." He goes on to explain that this kind of conditioning is the most basic form of learning, that it represents only a tiny fraction of what is still to be understood about brain science, that there's little chance of psychologists putting themselves out of business with their research.

But I'm stuck on the word "simple," as in "simple Pavlovian learning." For, what Steinmetz calls "simple" would be mind-boggling to the rest of us. Pavlovian conditioning may be the most basic form of learning in animals and humans - the kind of learning that makes us associate a single stimulus with an almost immediate physical response - but it forms the foundation of learning throughout the brain's development. Moreover, though basic, such research as Steinmetz's defines the cutting-edge of psychological sciences.

Recently, the effects of that work have made a big splash in the popular media. As he points out, "The whole field of psychiatry, which now treats mental disorders with a variety of medications, depends on the work we do because it's deeply rooted in psychological science and neuroscience." That means recent debates over Ritalin, Prozac, and a host of other psychological drugs, owe their saliency to research done by Steinmetz and his colleagues.

Steinmetz does not take an alarmist view of the current situation. For him, pharmaceutical treatment of brain disorders represents a step forward in our understanding of what makes a person tick - or at least what makes a person's tics. "For example," he elaborates, "an encounter with environmental stimuli that cause anxiety can lead to physical symptoms, like stomach aches, headaches, nervousness, and so on." The good news is not that we are robots preprogrammed by our body chemistry, but that by understanding body chemistry, science can - in some cases, at least - counteract the negative effects of environment.

This research, however, does not trickle down only into clinics, pharmacies, and drug laboratories. It makes itself felt in the classroom. Steinmetz emphasizes the fundamental integration of teaching with research. "Perhaps the thing we do best in this department is translating our work from the laboratory to the classroom. When students pick up a textbook, they read about data and ideas that appear there. We show them how that information gets discovered, and in fact they often see that the information has been discovered by the people standing in front of them."

Students even get opportunities to see that discovery process firsthand. "We have many, many students at all levels working in laboratories one-on-one with professors," Steinmetz points out. "Those kinds of experiences allow them to make connections between research and the classroom more easily."

Perhaps what is most impressive about Steinmetz, despite his administrative capabilities, his research agenda, and his pedagogical interests, is his generosity of spirit. When I ask him to tell me about receiving the Distinguished Faculty Award, what it says about him, he tells me instead what it says about the department, about his colleagues, and about the students they teach. He is unwilling to see his work as the work of an isolated scientist, a creative mind generating ideas on its own. Rather, he insists on the collaborative nature of his research and teaching. He is careful to point out that professors James Craig and Robert Nosofsky of the psychology department had already received the award by the time he was nominated, and he likes to see his work as forming part of a larger scientific undertaking in which scientists, therapists, and researchers all take part.

Similarly, he refuses to lay claim to an understanding of the grand scheme, the answers to the big questions, the cosmic itches mankind has for so long tried to scratch. "We believe that we can work from the bottom up," he says. "If we can begin to understand the basics, we'll eventually put these bigger solutions together." His optimism and willingness to work little by little toward "bigger solutions" perhaps best illustrate his modesty. For, while he asserts that "the brain-mind relationship is the next frontier of science," he looks forward not to privilege or fame, but to the prospect of "plenty of work for us to do."

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