Dr Lasana Harris, social neuroscience researcher
Find out more about his career
Lasana studies the brain processes that underlie how we see and relate to other human beings. Natalie Hunter finds out more about what this involves.
What do you do?
I am a social neuroscientist, which means that I use neuroscience to study social behaviour.
And what does your research involve?
My research involves using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), electroencephalography, electromyography, heart rate, and hormonal and other biological measures to explore people’s psychological processes as they engage in a variety of decision-making, perceptual and social interaction tasks. Specifically, I am interested in social cognition – how we think about the minds of others. I explore when we do this and when we don’t.
Why did you choose to go into psychology?
During my undergraduate degree I majored* in journalism, before deciding that I wanted a change. I explored almost every major possible, but settled on psychology, which happened to be in the same building. I met with the head of the department, who explained to me that psychology was the study of human behaviour and that there were a number of ways to address such a broad topic. He was a developmental psychologist, and showed me pictures of himself from childhood all the way to the present. He said that he was interested in how he could be the same person across all of those images. I found it fascinating. He also explained that psychology was really nothing more than statistical analysis applied to human behaviour. That was really what sold me.
How important is an understanding of biology in your field?
Understanding biology is extremely important to my research, but I was never a biology or science student before beginning my PhD. I was very strong in literature, and I was pigeonholed into the humanities during school. In fact, I had not done a science subject since I was about 14! At undergraduate level, I took a few neuroscience classes, but that was as scientific as I got. I was always strong in mathematics, particularly statistics, which meant that I could analyse the psychological data, regardless of whether it came from brain images or from surveys. This is really the qualification that allowed me to survive in the field. I learned the biology as I went along.
What’s the most interesting thing you’ve ever discovered in your research career?
I discovered that people have the ability to fail to think about the minds of others – to dehumanise them – which can be measured biologically, with brain activity for instance. Given that people spontaneously think about other people’s minds whenever they encounter them, finding cases where this did not occur was significant. I made this discovery during my PhD, and this is really what has brought focus to my career.
Since then, I have discovered that it is possible for any person to dehumanise any other person, and also for people to humanise non-human things. These discoveries have allowed me to work on questions related to economics, law, policy and healthcare. I have also been able to collaborate with philosophers, historians, artists and policy makers among others.
What did you want to be when you were at school?
I wanted to be a writer, to tell stories about human behaviour. To do this, I became a journalist, writing stories for the national newspaper in my home country of Trinidad. However, journalism did not go deep enough for me, and I would often have questions even after conducting an interview. I realised that I was more interested in answering questions about human behaviour rather than just telling stories about it. Now as a scientist, I can do both.
A levels, economics, literature and history (2003).
BSc, psychology, Howard University (2003–06).
MSc, psychology, Princeton University (2006).
PhD, psychology, Princeton University (2007).
Postdoctoral researcher, New York University (2007–10).
Assistant professor, Duke University (2010–14).
Assistant professor, Leiden University (2014–15).
Senior lecturer, University College London (2015–).
Salary guide (2017)
Postdoctoral researcher: £25,000–£35,000 (Prospects).
Essential subjects (2017)
To study neuroscience, you’ll need at least two sciences at A level, probably biology and chemistry (UCAS). To study psychology, you often don’t need any specific subjects, although a science – especially biology – will be useful (Which? University).
*Lasana went to university in the USA, which operates a different university system to the UK. You can go into your first year having not decided which subject you’d like to focus on and take a wide range of classes, eventually deciding to ‘major’ in a specific area and, if you want to, ‘minor’ in a second area. That’s how Lasana was able to switch from journalism to psychology so easily. Find out more about studying in the USA.